Ombudsman issues 150 summonses to ‘errant’ agencies

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Ombudsman Rajmanlal Joseph –

TO try to resolve the complaints of people aggrieved by officialdom, Ombudsman retired justice Rajmanlal Joseph issued 150 summonses to public officials in 2022.

This was revealed in the 45th Report of the Ombudsman (2022) recently laid in the House of Representatives. The ombudsman provides a free, independent and non-partisan probing of people’s complaints of administrative injustice by public bodies in TT. His/her role is set down in the TT Constitution and the Ombudsman Act.

The ombudsman has the powers of the High Court to summon witnesses to appear before him to give evidence on oath and produce relevant documents, under the Constitution (section 97). The ombudsman website says, “The issuance of summons is one of the tools used by the ombudsman as an effective recourse for resolving matters brought against ministries/government departments and state agencies.” In the ombudsman’s message in the 2022 report, Joseph said, “From the previous years’ experience it became pellucidly clear that the issuance of summons to recalcitrant respondents brought about a noteworthy level of resolution to complaints.”

He said due to this past experience, in 2022 his office issued and heard 150 summonses which led to a 75 per cent rate of resolution of the relevant cases.

“Furthermore, the summons mechanism has now become a valuable instrument in the investigatory toolbox of the Office of the Ombudsman, particularly where respondents do not properly respond to our inquiries.”

Joseph said 2022 had been a watershed year in having the most resolved cases in a 12-month period.

Elsewhere, the report said the 150 summonses had led to the resolution of 295 matters/complaints.

These matters included delays in retirement benefits, delays in increment and gratuity payments, help sought to build box drains, and public health issues at municipal level.

The number of summonses in recent years was nine in 2018, four in 2019, one in 2020, 12 in 2021 and 150 in 2022.

More broadly, the report said in 2022 the ombudsman had received 1,098 complaints. Of these 658 were deemed eligible for investigation by the ombudsman.

Of the 658 complaints, 464 remained under probe at year-end 2022, while 194 were variously concluded. The 194 consisted of 152 resolved, 40 discontinued and two withdrawn.

The report listed the number of complaints against The Top Five Defaulters for 2022.

The most complaints were made against the National Insurance Board (NIB) at 177 complaints, a near doubling from the year before.

Other complaints were made against the Ministries of Finance (69 complaints), Education (63), Health (55) and National Security (52).

The report also listed the ombudsman’s three areas of concern, namely the Ministry of Education, Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and National Insurance Board (NIB).

For 2022, the ombudsman received 63 fresh complaints against the Ministry of Education, compared to 30 in 2018, 28 in 2019, 31 in 2020, and 27 in 2021.

Of the 63 new complaints, 13 were resolved, two were discontinued and 48 remained under investigation.

The report complained that “departments within the ministry deflect responsibility for the delays intrinsic to the complainant’s issue onto other departments.”

The ombudsman office also lamented, “substantial difficulty in getting clear responses in the first instances when following up on complaints.

“Often it is when summonses are issued or if the office indicates that a summons is imminent that substantive responses to enquiries are received.”

For 2022, ministry officials received nine summonses to appear before the ombudsman.

The report urged a better synthesis of departments in the ministry, to boost efficiency.

It lamented that “fallout is borne by its stakeholders who are powerless to enforce change at the institution or to seek fulfilment of their needs alternatively.”

The report urged the ministry to improve its service delivery and accountability.

The report said the HDC, under the Ministry of Housing, has been a repeated area of concern for over a decade.

It listed pervasive issue that continue to arise with the HDC as being delay in repairing housing units, wrong calculation of mortgage balance and subsequent delay in refunding overpayments, delay in obtaining deeds after completion of mortgage payments, and delays in responses to queries and complaints.

The ombudsman received 14 new complaints about the HDC in 2022, of which two got resolved. “The HDC’s handling of complaints resulted in the ombudsman having to issue summonses to obtain useful responses to requests for information during the course of investigations.” HDC officials received eight summonses in 2022.

“Overall, the HDC has shown that it is not attuned to the sensitivity of complaints,” the report said, “And it is suggested that their business model should be organised to meet the needs of the public that it serves.” The report urged the HDC to revamp its operations to “eradicate” these problems and to hold departments accountable for their singular functions.

“In the absence of systems of accountability for inordinate delays in even mundane obligations such as feedback in responses to queries, the HDC’s standard of service delivery will continue unabated, much to the distress of its clientèle.”

The ombudsman said the NIB remains “a consistent area of concern”. While appreciating the NIB’s co-operation, the report said the NIB’s issuance of benefits must be improved.

It said the NIB provides protection to registered individuals against a loss of earnings via work-related contingencies such as maternity, ill-health or retirement.

“It is apparent the NIB is not as proactive as it ought to be in treating with the needs of its clients.

“Notably, the excuse which attributes delays to the advent of the covid19 pandemic is no longer applicable.”

Of 177 new complaints made against the NIB in 2022, some 48 were resolved, five were disconnected and 124 remain under investigation.

“This office has observed that it is often when summonses are issued to NIB officials that there is a resolution of those complaints for which officials were scheduled to appear before the ombudsman.” Some 15 summonses were issued to the NIB that year.

The ombudsman reiterated the past recommendations of the 44th report.

“The NIB needs to review its current system for ensuring employers’ registration and compliance, in effecting payment of employees’ national insurance contributions.

“It is therefore quite clear that the NIB’s Compliance Department – which is tasked to handle delinquent employers – is not effective.” The advice was for the NIB to heed the National Insurance Act (section 40) which says an employer who does not pay an employee’s contribution is a liable to a $4,000 fine and six months imprisonment, plus a further fine of $100 per day per employee neglected. The report urged a public education campaign detailing the process of making applications to the NIB and the documents required, noting that at present applicants often must make several visits to the NIB to ensure their applications are properly completed.

Overall, the report listed several issues commonly faced by the ombudsman.

These are institutional unresponsiveness, poor communication, unfair policies and procedures and unreasonable delays.