Mr Petri Jääskeläinen, Parliamentary Ombudsman, presented the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s annual report for 2017 to Ms Paula Risikko, Speaker of the Parliament, on 15 June 2018.
The year under review was again a record-breaking year at the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Office, as the number of both complaints and measures taken increased significantly.
The annual report reflects the new emphasis on the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s role reporting on special duties based on international conventions and agreements. This role includes the oversight of the rights of persons with disabilities and persons deprived of their liberty. The annual report also includes general comments by Ombudsman Jääskeläinen and Deputy-Ombudsmen Maija Sakslin and Pasi Pölönen.
Problems in practising the principle of openness
Reconciling the principle of openness and various secrecy requirements is not always easy, states Ombudsman Jääskeläinen in his comment. As the aim is to ensure the openness of government activities while protecting the various needs for secrecy of individuals, corporations, and authorities, regulations will inevitably be complex. Observing the Openness Act has, as a result, proved challenging for the authorities, which are not always aware of or do not always comply with procedural regulations.
In some cases, the regulations on documents to be kept secret under the Openness Act are too restrictive. This leads to a situation in which an authority is unable to communicate to the public on matters that would be of major public interest. Openness may also be difficult to realise by means of anonymisation, as the possibility of identification cannot be completely eliminated based on the information available.
Since many types of information must be kept secret, and since access must be granted to public sections of documents that must otherwise be kept secret, honouring requests for access to documents has proven a major challenge for many authorities. In extreme cases, honouring a request for access to a document may be impossible, particularly within the time limits allowed by law.
The Ministry of Justice is planning to launch an evaluation of the review of the Openness Act. Such a review is undoubtedly called for. The introduction of the GDPR will focus the attention of the authorities even more closely on protecting personal privacy. This should not distract our attention from the principle of openness, which is one of the cornerstones of democratic society.
On the oversight of supervision
Deputy-Ombudsman Maija Sakslin discusses in her comment the Ombudsman’s role as the overseer of authorities who themselves have supervisory roles.
The promotion of people’s rights, assisting individual complainants, and securing their access to their rights are among the Ombudsman’s central duties. The special duties of the Ombudsman based on international agreements are also aimed at protecting the rights of persons in a vulnerable position and monitoring their treatment.
The purpose of the supreme oversight of legality is also to control the security arrangements of primary overseers of legality, in other words, to supervise the supervisors. The Ombudsman may also utilise the specialist expertise of the special ombudsmen and other supervisory authorities by forwarding matters to them or requesting their opinion.
It is essential that, alongside the restructuring of government and oversight, the roles of special authorities with a sufficient mandate to oversee legality are maintained and created. Changes in EU legislation should be made while keeping in mind the role of the oversight of legality as a constitutional duty, as well as its special characteristics.
The Ombudsman’s proposals on regulatory development
Deputy-Ombudsman Pasi Pölönen describes in his comment the unique perspective the Ombudsman institution has on judicial matters, owing to the extensive scope of its mandate. Furthermore, the Ombudsman’s approach to the various sectors within its mandate is necessarily overarching from the judicial standpoint. This is reflected in the legislative proposals issued by the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman receives more information on administrative practices and questions on the interpretation of the law than perhaps any other individual authority in Finland.
This makes the oversight of legality one of the Ombudsman’s most far-reaching tasks. The Ombudsman’s regulatory proposals complement the regular preliminary supervision system of laws.
The Ombudsman’s proposals are not judicially binding. Instead, they are a form of policy discourse, the impact of which culminates in the quality of the rationale for a legislative proposal. The overseer of legality does not comment on the relevance of the proposal as such and limits its opinions strictly to judicial considerations. Usually, the Ombudsman’s proposals are positively received.
A busy year
The number of complaints received in 2017 was 6256. This is around 1300 (27%) more than in 2016 (4922). Complaints about the Social Insurance Institution KELA regarding social assistance increased by approximately 700 compared to 2016.
In 2017, 6094 complaints were resolved. Decisions on complaints and investigations at the Ombudsman’s own initiative that led to measures totalled 1141 in 2017, which represented nearly 18% of all decisions.
Approximately 36% of complaints and investigations at the Ombudsman’s own initiative were subject to a full investigation; in other words, at least one report and/or statement was obtained. Of these, 36% led to a measure being taken.
At the end of the year, none of the pending complaints dated back more than a year. This target was reached for the fifth year running.
A total of 121 inspections were carried out during 2017. Of these, 52 were made unannounced.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Annual Report was published in Finnish and Swedish on 15 June 2018 on the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman website.
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