Austerity cannot be blamed for inequality, Ombudsman says
Largest number of complaints to O’Reilly’s office concerned Dept of Social Protection
Outgoing ombudsman Emily O’Reilly pictured as she published her final report before taking up the role of European Ombudsman at the European Parliment in Strasbourg. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times
Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has accused some Government departments of hiding behind her office to justify cutbacks.
Launching her last annual report before taking up a new role in Europe, Ms O’Reilly said austerity could not be blamed for inequality and denial of rights.
On two occasions last year, in relation to the mobility allowance and children with autism or ADHD, entitlements were curtailed after she had highlighted problems with the relevant scheme.
The Department of Health’s decision to scrap the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant “out of the blue” was quite shocking, she said, and underlined “moral dilemmas” facing watchdogs during times of austerity. “If they highlight illegality and inequitable treatment of citizens, they risk public services taking the easy option and abolishing the entire scheme, grant, etc for everyone,” said Ms O’Reilly.
“Twice in the last year I have faced this dilemma, and on both occasions my worst fears were proven correct.”
Ms O’Reilly said she hoped the Department of Health would soon resolve the situation regarding the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant scheme. She claimed there was a culture in the Department to “reach for the nearest lawyer” when trouble was looming.
The Ombudsman’s office was seen by some bodies as an “ivory tower”, she acknowledged, but the reason the Celtic Tiger fled was because some regulatory bodies were doing “what it says on the tin”.
Government had an absolute right to govern, and if it wanted to get rid of schemes that was its right. “But what is not right is if they are not clear and open and honest in relation to what they are doing.”
Ms O’Reilly said light-touch regulation had failed and there was a need for a strong Ombudsman’s office to provide an alternative voice when “group-think” was taking hold.
The Ombudsman dealt with 3,412 complaints last year, a fall of over 5 per cent from the 3,602 recorded in 2011. The largest number of complaints related to the Department of Social Protection, while just under one-third were against local authorities and a fifth were about the Health Service Executive (HSE).
After 10 years, Ms O’Reilly’s last day in office is tomorrow and she takes up the position of European Ombudsman next month. A successor will be appointed by Government next week.