By Poly Pantelides
FROM forcing foreign mothers to prove the paternity of their children for citizenship purposes to asking over a decade to process a land registry application, or belittling hospital patients, the Ombudswoman’s annual report has again laid bare the inadequacies of the government.
Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou handed over four separate reports to the President this week, outlining the conclusions of last year’s work of processing complaints made by members of the public against state services or local authorities. In addition to a general report, the anti-discrimination body, the equality authority and the torture prevention authority which fall under the auspices of Savvidou’s office also submitted reports.
A total of 2,776 complaints were submitted to the Ombudswoman’s office in 2012, an increase from 2011 when 2,445 complaints were submitted. The authorities for equality and anti-discrimination got an additional 231 complaints.
Most complaints were against the interior ministry with some 780 focusing on the migration department, the ministry’s management in general, and the land registry and town planning. The labour ministry followed with 437 complaints – mostly to do with benefits’ woes.
“Most complaints were related to the financial crisis, directly or indirectly,” the Ombudswoman said adding that a worrying implication of austerity was state services running the risk of downgrading their services.
“A large number of complaints” had to do with civil servants not picking up the phone. Others related to complaints by members of the public over their treatment in state hospitals and clinics.
Staff were described as rude, condescending or belittling of patients. In the case of foreigners, the abuse often became racist. “The problem is not isolated but is systemic and is part of a certain culture,” the Ombudswoman said.
She said that problems, some related to lack of coordination and organisation, were “repeatedly identified in the past” but appeared to have worsened as more people turn to public health care where staff now needed to do more with less.
People have had to deal with long waiting lists, even if there was strong reason to suspect the patient could have cancer, but the health ministry’s actions sometimes failed to bear in mind individual circumstances.
When a woman was referred by her local health centre to Nicosia General Hospital for an MRI, she was told by a neurosurgeon she did not need a scan. The patient was forced to go to the private sector, paying for an MRI, which spotted a tumour that could have caused paralysis.
But the health ministry refused to pay her operation’s expenses, arguing that the operation could have taken place in state hospital. During a different incident, doctors at Makarios hospital in Nicosia failed to detect a rare and serious condition on a woman’s foetus, and she gave birth to a severely disabled child requiring round-the-clock care.
The Ombudswoman criticised the health ministry – the only authority that can deal with medical negligence claims – for failing to seriously investigate why the doctors failed to make the diagnosis. The ministry’s responses were inadequate and their investigation was superficial, the Ombudswoman said, recommending the appointment of an investigator on the case.
At different land registry offices islandwide, applications took anything from five to 11 years to process. One application in Limassol to map out a plot of land took six years to complete and another to update a document was not looked at between 2005 and 2011, and was only done at the end of 2012.
Land registry officials have told the Ombudswoman they are too busy and short-staffed but in her report she said that addressing weaknesses in their modus operandi has not been a priority until very recently. The Ombudswoman also criticised the migration department’s policy of forcing couples, where the man is Cypriot and the woman is a foreigner, to have their children genetically tested to prove fatherhood.
The practice – often forced on women who want residence permit or citizenship – has no legal foundation, the Ombudswoman said. Elsewhere in her report she criticised the marginalisation of recognised refugees, and the stigmatisation of a school student, a 15-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who was punished for refusing to attend Greek Orthodox religious education class. The Ombudswoman’s suggestions are not normally compulsory but authorities must comply with her requests for information.