The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions has studied its future role and wants to focus on oversight of public service delivery and petitions. eolas considers the proposals.
The Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions is set to be re-named as the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions and to work in three areas: engagement with the Ombudsman and her work; dealing with public petitions; and oversight of public service delivery in a similar manner to the Public Accounts Committee’s oversight of public spending.
Last June the new committee was established by the Oireachtas on foot of Programme for Government commitments for a dedicated Ombudsman committee and one for public petitions. The expectation that it would conduct inquiries and make findings of fact about a person’s conduct was quashed with the result of the referendum on Oireachtas inquiries last October.
Dáil and Seanad committees on procedure and privileges will consider the proposals contained in a report produced by the committee following six months of deliberations on its remit. Both Houses of the Oireachtas will then vote on changing the committee’s standing orders. The proposals are expected to be approved.
The committee’s report states that the new remit will, if implemented, “provide an important role for the committee in enhancing the accountability function of the Houses of the Oireachtas.”
Speaking to eolas after launching the committee’s report, Chairman Peadar Tóibín said: “The most significant element of the new committee and the one of most interest to the average citizen on the street is the petitions element.”
If people are experiencing difficulties due to public policy, they can submit a petition and “we will accept that petition and we will investigate that petition.” It will call witnesses and, in trying to resolve petitions, the Sinn Féin TD says it will formulate “policy which we would hope to see implemented by the Government in the future.”
If implemented, the changes envisaged would herald an Oireachtas petitions system. Defined in the report as a “written request to the Houses of the Oireachtas for action on a matter of general public concern or interest”, the petition would have to relate to a matter on which the Oireachtas can act. The committee would deal with oral submissions from petitioners, oral or written submissions from relevant organisations and invitations to government ministers to answer questions about the petition.
The committee says it will respect the distinctive role and independence of the Ombudsman (and other complaint handling bodies) in its work. In considering petitions it would focus on cases illustrative of “public policy failures or gaps, thereby serving the wider public interest.”
In its report the committee envisages establishing “a formal structured relationship with the Ombudsman, drawing on the model of the relationship between [the] Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General,” by examining the Ombudsman’s reports and holding hearings with relevant ministers, departments and public bodies. The committee would report at the end of such considerations and make recommendations. It would also have a right of initiative in bringing specific matters to the Ombudsman’s attention, and could liaise with other public sector ombudsmen and appeals bodies as appropriate.
Power of public service delivery oversight would, according to the report, “contribute to enhancing and strengthening democratic accountability both for decisions and services by public bodies.” Where shortcomings are identified, it would make recommendations, and it sees itself as contributing to “informing and influencing future policy development.”
Tóibín’s committee wants similar powers of compellability to those of the PAC, to send for persons, papers and records to assist in its work. It intends being a standing, bi-partisan committee with no whip system, chaired by a member of the opposition. While committees defer to PAC when it wants to investigate a particular subject, “in future other committees will defer to ourselves also,” the Chair believes.
On the committee’s limitations, Tóibín says: “We will be able to find against the incorrect delivery of a service but we won’t be able to name individuals in it. We won’t be able to give direct judgments on individuals.” He believes that an indirect reference to a person or individual who was part of a process that created a mistake could be included in the committee’s reports. Tóibín doesn’t foresee any investigation into an individual that would demand legal representation.
During its deliberations the committee consulted with the Minister for Public Service and Expenditure, the Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children and the head of secretariat of the European Parliament Petitions Committee, David Lowe. It visited the Scottish Parliament to see how its Public Petitions Committee operates.
“Some people were saying there needs to be 5,000 signatures on a petition before it was going to be considered,” explains Tóibín, “and the Scottish model clearly showed that that wasn’t necessary, [and] that in fact you could clear vexatious petitions out in other manners.” He says petitions will have to relate to public policy, have state wide relevance and petitioners must have sought redress through existing appeals infrastructure. The committee will be able to refer petitions to other bodies where appropriate.
Tóibín was very impressed at how the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee is “very outgoing in that they will actually visit the areas, they will travel as much as possible to consider petitions.” This is something he hopes the new committee will replicate.
An Oireachtas spokesman said both Houses’ committees on procedure and privileges are likely to consider the proposed standing orders in the next few weeks. Tóibín told the press conference he sees the committee providing the public petition service from the middle of February.
The proposed petitions system
- Petition lodged
- Petition examined for compliance with criteria
- Inadmissable petitions can be appealed for final committee ruling
- Admissable petition considered by the committee or referred to sectoral committee
- Information gathering through oral or written submissions
- Committee deliberation and conclusion
- Response sent to petitioner and relevant bodies, and published on website
- Petition closed
Tags: Public affairs