What does it say about the governance of this wretched State that Ministers believe they have an inalienable right to thwart the findings – or worse, prevent legitimate inquiry – by independent office-holders into the conduct of public administration?
Perhaps we should not be so surprised; after all, these are the people who did not give so much as a second thought to insulting the intelligence of ordinary people by denying point-blank that they were in discussions on a €85 billion bailout with the EU and IMF when everyone knew they were about to roll-out the red carpet.
The crisis that necessitated the bailout was yet another of the unacceptable situations of which the Minister for Health speaks regularly but incredibly. The emergency department crisis was “unacceptable”; the Leas Cross scandal was “totally unacceptable”; and the fiscal and financial meltdown, which is wholly attributable to the ineptitude, indifference and inactivity of her Government, is “completely unacceptable”.
Minister Harney tells us that the daddy of all crises was due to regulatory ineptitude rather than political failure. This makes one wonder why we have so many well-paid but ultimately well-meaning Ministers if they do not even see a Constitutional duty to act in the public good, rather than for the benefit of sectional interests.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Minister Harney’s response to the Ombudsman’s report into the rights and entitlements of old people to nursing-home care. Once again we see a hapless Minister, a prisoner of her own Department, willingly going out to bat to defend the indefensible and to provide political cover for the failures of elected and appointed officials to properly vindicate the rights of our citizens.
This is a common failure of public administration in Ireland, but it is most especially evident in the Department of Health and Children. In fact, the secretive nature of the way this Department does its business has to be a cause for concern as to what it exists for, whose interests it really serves and whether it is even fit for purpose.
Eventually, we will escape the embrace of the outsiders but in the meantime, since we will have no sovereignty worth talking about, we can at least begin to build a decent society and bring about a long-overdue process of institutional reform.
A useful start could be made by the next Government accepting that State agencies responsible for service provision are obliged to vindicate not obfuscate the rights of citizens; and that independent agencies, like the Office of the Ombudsman, have a right and a responsibility to hold those providers accountable, regardless of how inconvenient it might seem.
Ministers might prefer it if the creatures they create behave like a personal West Wing; the agencies cannot and must not do that. It is simply not good enough that the Department that hatched a heartless strategy to thwart a legitimate claim by the late Bridget McCole would put its own Minister up to saying, “it could not accept that a number of areas of the proposed investigation came within the ambit of the Ombudsman Act”. And it does the Minister no credit that she would allow herself to be led by the nose in saying it.
The Department’s response to the Ombudsman’s investigation into the right to nursing-home care underlines just how rotten the culture at the heart of our public administration has become. The response represents little more than a self-serving safari through the highways of Constitutional law and by-ways of fair procedures. It is a ham-fisted defence couched in detailed legal argument on the part of the Department to deny it ever did anything wrong. It is the Bart Simpson defence.
Specifically, on the matter of the equitable provision of nursing home care, the Department is throwing up a smokescreen of assertion and accusation to the effect that the Ombudsman cannot inquire into significant matters of public interest which go to the heart of the citizen’s contract with the State, and that she has exceeded her legal powers to the extent of being guilty of flagrant breaches of the law.
What is striking about the submission (downloadable by clicking the short link http://bit.ly/9dsmsI) is the sheer scale and scope of the legal argument deployed to deny not only its failures as a Department, but also the Ombudsman’s rights of inquiry. It is particularly disturbing to find the Department salivating in successive sections that it might know more about the Ombudsman Act than the Ombudsman.
The submission, of course, includes the customary master class on the relevant provisions of the Health Acts, as well as an underlying current which seeks to suggest that these have ensured the health services, historically, have been adequately provided, properly managed and well funded. If only that were true.
If the Department put a fraction of the effort into ensuring that the system it oversees provides an equitable, accessible, high-quality service for all citizens, but most especially our most vulnerable folk, as it did into this ham-fisted attempt to demolish the right of the Ombudsman to inquire on behalf of the citizenry, it is unlikely that we would even need an Ombudsman in the first instance.
The fact that we have an independent office to hold the public administration accountable is proof, not just that such an office is needed, but also that it does the job it was intended to do. And the civil and public service may just as well get used to it.
Since the IMF and EU are running the show for the next few years, institutional reform is all the politicians have to worry about. The arrogance and complacency that finds expression in such ‘submissions’ is going to change. It has to change.