Speech of the Ombudsperson - Tabling of the 2018-2019 Annual Report
(Check against delivery)
Good morning everyone.
Thank you for joining me for the presentation of the 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Québec Ombudsman. Attorney Hélène Vallières, Deputy Ombudsman for Institutional Affairs and Prevention, and Mr. Claude Dussault, Deputy Ombudsman for Citizen and User Services, are here with me.
My first words are for my team of collaborators. I wish to thank them for their particular sensitivity regarding citizens and their rights in their dealings with public services. Every day, this translates into great efficiency and humanity by our employees, and by genuine eagerness to fulfil a demanding mission. Each and every one contributes to making the Québec Ombudsman an independent, unbiased and innovative institution. Heartfelt thanks to the people I work alongside and who allow the Québec Ombudsman to be all it was meant to be.
Our Annual Report describes the problems observed in the course of the investigations we conducted, whether within government departments and agencies, correctional facilities or the health and social services network. Then there are the results of our public integrity investigations. Four mandates of equal importance.
It deserves saying that many of our interventions have shown that Québec public services are quality services. In other cases, corrective measures must be taken to rectify the flaws found. I would therefore like to underscore the cooperation of the various public bodies in correcting situations that affect individuals or groups of individuals. This attests to the desire of these organizations to participate in improving Québec’s public services for the benefit of citizens, and this delights me.
We have a special concern for the neediest citizens—people with personal limitations because of their health, age, social and economic condition, or their isolation. They may feel that public services are inaccessible to them and they would be right! These people often urgently need various kinds of public assistance and support. Through the complaints they send us, they tell us that they feel powerless when faced with administrative red tape that overwhelms them. We also receive complaints from men and women who are not as vulnerable but who also experience many difficulties accessing programs, services or care to which they have a right.
Which brings me to my next point. In 2018-2019, our investigations often showed that in designing or applying certain programs, the authors and implementers do not really take the trouble to walk through the administrative process that citizens have to navigate to get the services offered.
Walking through these processes means making the same complete journey as the person who needs the public service, beginning with the initial request and ending with the outcome, and including all the hoops in between. Here I am thinking of details such as:
- the people to contact;
- the forms to fill out;
- the documents to provide;
- the Web sources to find;
- the decisions to understand;
- the recourse to exercise in case of a refusal by the public service.
Walking through the process might make the persons responsible for the program or service aware that the requirements imposed are unrealistic for the people for whom the program or service is intended or that these requirements are simply unnecessary.
Here are a few examples.
The solidarity tax credit managed by Revenu Québec is meant for people with low incomes. However, every year more than 40,000 recipients who would qualify do not receive it. Why? Because Revenu Québec requires them to file a tax return. For many of these people who are particularly underprivileged, such a requirement is very difficult to meet.
Another example is the Ministère du Travail, de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale’s social solidarity program aimed at granting last-resort benefits to people who are have an illness, a disability or a personal condition that prevents them from working. In the course of our investigations, we have learned that, because of processes that are too complex, recipients may be deprived of amounts that are crucial to them. We handled the case of a person who had a serious illness and who was receiving these benefits. The Department told her that she would have to check with Retraite Québec herself to see whether she qualified for a pension, because if she did, the pension could replace her benefits. Because she was unable to do this due to her illness, her social solidarity benefit was slashed from $1,035 a month to $300 a month. She was evicted from the apartment she had lived in for more than 10 years because she could no longer pay rent. We cannot help but applaud efforts to harmonize public assistance programs and to make them complementary. But the conditions for harmonization must be adapted to real lives and the abilities of the people concerned.
In terms of the health and social services network, putting yourself in citizens’ shoes means understanding the experience of elderly persons who are on a waiting list for months, if not years, for a residential resource consistent with their needs. It also means putting yourself in the shoes of someone who goes to a hospital emergency room and who falls repeatedly because his or her condition was not properly assessed. What is there to say when a family has just lost a loved one and the hospital pressures them to leave and fails to give them the few hours normally allowed at such times? Last example: based on a strictly bottom-line approach, decisions are made to cut the home support hours of people with reduced autonomy even though their condition has not changed.
As the correctional ombudsman, I have seen the same phenomenon in the correctional community. Our investigations show that detainees grapple with an administrative maze to have their solitary confinement reviewed, to receive certain kinds of healthcare or to get their medication when they are transferred to another facility. Same problem getting their personal belongings, including their own clothing.
For other examples, I suggest that you read our Annual Report and visit our website.
These shortcomings are even more glaring and deplorable because they contrast with the practices of other public service sectors where thought is given to the red tape which citizens must untangle. Special care is taken to simplify processes, to earmark resources for assisting the client population, and to achieve results that are generally to service users’ satisfaction. This concern of some public bodies should become the standard.
In other words, public bodies must always take the trouble to go over the sequence of their programs’ conditions and requirements. To do otherwise especially affects society’s most disadvantaged citizens.
Here are the main findings from our investigations stemming from the disclosure of wrongdoings that have been committed or are about to be regarding public bodies. We saw an increase in the number of disclosures handled—158 disclosures in 2018-2019—compared to last year, when there were 120 disclosures. These disclosures gave rise to several audits and investigations, notably concerning serious breaches of ethics and professional conduct, misuse of funds or property belonging to a public body, or gross mismanagement. We also handled complaints from people who felt they had suffered reprisal as the result of the disclosure they made or because they cooperated in an audit or investigation. I would like to point out that in all circumstances, we do our utmost to protect the confidentiality of the information conveyed and the identity of the whistleblower.
In closing, allow me to remind you that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Québec Ombudsman. On May 1, 1969, the institution began ensuring that citizens’ rights are upheld in interacting with public services. Since then, the Québec Ombudsman has handled hundreds of thousands of complaints. But beyond mere figures, I always like to say in particular that each case is unique. I also insist on the fact that we do not let anybody down. Hence my repeating that our services are free of charge, confidential and without complicated red tape.
Thank you for your attention. I’ll take your questions now.