Cabinet blocks Irish Water complaints probe by Ombudsman

The Ombudsman has questioned why the Government declined to allow his office investigate complaints against Irish Water and says the move has left the utility’s customers without any independent grievance mechanism.

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall, who examines complaints about public bodies, claims Irish Water was needlessly removed from his remit when the company took over water supply and sewerage services from local councils over which he does have jurisdiction.

He says the excuse that Irish Water is a now standalone company does not wash with him, as ombudsmen in other countries have retained powers to investigate water services, even when the ownership or management structure changed.

And he says the decision is particularly hard to stand over considering that Irish Water remains on the State’s books.

Mr Tyndall says the Commission for Energy Regulation, which has regulatory control over Irish Water, cannot properly investigate the company.

“People who had complaints about Irish Water, just at the point when complaints were starting to grow, had nowhere to go,” he said.

“They can go to the regulator but best practice is that complaints should sit with an independent body, not with the regulator, because some of the things that people are complaining about are what the regulator is telling Irish Water to do.

“So the notion of it being independent just doesn’t work.”

Mr Tyndall also questioned the Government’s continued failure to allow asylum seekers in direct provision to seek help from his office, despite the recommendations of both a government working group and an Oireachtas committee.

Cabinet blocks Irish Water complaints probe by Ombudsman

“We’ve been talking about people in direct provision for a while now, and there were two reports this year calling for that to happen,” said Mr Tyndall. “There’s nothing needs doing in terms of legislation. It could be done tomorrow just by saying it’s done.”

He also said his office should be allowed handle complaints by prisoners about aspects of their detention. The Irish Human Rights Commission has said the lack of an independent investigation mechanism represents a serious gap in oversight. He said he was disappointed his proposal to take on consumer complaints was not accepted, particularly as a new EU directive aims to get businesses to employ alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to avoid litigation in complaints about services and transactions.

He said he offered his office to act as a central ADR provider but instead the Government had simply appointed the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, which cannot probe individual complaints as the registrar for private ADR providers.

“I wasn’t successful in arguing the point. The Government took a different view,” he said. “I think we’ve missed a big opportunity. We’ve done something absolutely minimalist to comply with the EU legislation. Other countries have been more visionary. They’ve seen it as an opportunity to improve things for consumers.

“There’s next to nothing in Ireland that gives you a truly independent look at your complaint if you aren’t able to resolve it with the provider.”

The ombudsman took on some 3,200 new complaints in 2015, but had to reject a further 500 that did not come under the office’s remit.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said no role was envisaged for the ombudsman in investigating Irish Water because the regulator performed that function. It said the recommendations in relation to direct provision were under consideration by the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy.

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