State cuts by ‘stealth’ a major issue for Ombudsman

O’Reilly says well-resourced human rights commission essential

Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly will take up the position of European Ombudsman next month,Photograph: Frank Miller / THE IRISH TIMES

Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly will take up the position of European Ombudsman next month,Photograph: Frank Miller / THE IRISH TIMES

Tue, Sep 24, 2013, 16:05

The Government’s cutting of disability and other schemes by ‘stealth’ has become a ‘major issue’ for the Ombudsman’s Office, Emily O’Reilly has said.

The Government has sought to restrict the availability of benefits and services since the start of the economic downturn five years ago, Ms O’Reilly said today. “For the first five years up until the crash in 2008 I never really had a difficulty in getting recommendations accepted and particularly in cases where there was discretion involved,” she said .

“But then I noticed that this discretion was beginning to be applied in a very restrictive way once the recession took hold and the HSE and local authorities and all public bodies were told that they had fewer resources to work with,” she said.

Ms O’Reilly, who will take up the position of European Ombudsman next month, was addressing an Equality and Rights Alliance seminar in Dublin where she accused the Government of “rationing by stealth”.

The Government “never tells people that the scheme has changed… so typically what might happen is that a department or HSE body or a local authority is still sticking to the letter of the law but that discretionary piece has been junked”.

One of the most “glaring examples” of cutbacks was the scrapping of the mobile disability allowance and the motorised transport grant, she said. When Ms O’Reilly pointed out that the benefits discriminated against recipients on the basis of age and disability respectively, the Government scrapped them, saying it would be too expensive to roll them out to everyone.

Ms O’Reilly said she was worried by “this very sudden cutting and curbing of schemes.” It is “really important to have a really well functioning and well resourced human rights and equality commission in place because if that doesn’t function then the sort of issues that I’m dealing with here in my patch as Ombudsman… will not be resolved,” she said.

A merger process involving the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013.*

*This article was edited on September 25th, 2013, at 1pm