Adjournment Debate. - Medical Bureau of Road Safety.

I am raising a matter which has been described in today's Irish Independent as “the great breathalyser escape”. Under the Road Traffic Act, 1968, amended by the Road Traffic Act, 1978, all samples of blood and urine taken from suspected drunken drivers are sent to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety for analysis. On 23 October a fire destroyed part of the bureau premises. The result is that samples subsequently taken and sent to the bureau have not been analysed.

Despite this, gardaí continue to arrest people, breathalyse them and take blood or urine samples. Samples taken between 23 October and 15 February, when the bureau was brought back into operation will not be analysed at all. As a result, it is estimated that nearly 3,000 persons who had been charged with drunken driving will not be charged.

A number of questions arise from this situation. At this stage, more than six months later, it behoves the Government to give a full explanation to the House of the occurrence. I suggest the Minister for the Environment must give an explanation why alternative arrangements were not made immediately after the problem arose. The obvious alternative was to have the samples analysed elsewhere. The response of the Minister to such a suggestion may be that the 1978 Act requires that such samples shall be sent to the Medical Bureau and analysed by the bureau as soon as practicable. The answer to such a response is that if amending legislation had become necessary the Government should have brought it before the Oireachtas and in that way provide for alternative arrangements.

However, there is a more serious aspect which the Minister will have to deal with. Why was this affair covered up for so long? Failure to make an announcement over a short period until such time as alternative arrangements have been made could be understood, but I suggest that alternative arrangements could have been made and the position remedied by way of amending legislation within a couple of weeks. That was not done.

Then we have to consider what has been happening throughout the last six months. Many gardaí consider they had been made fools of. They continued to operated the Act, to arrest people they suspected of drunken driving, breath-tested them and took samples of blood or urine from them. A special drive was made by the Garda during the Christmas period although, as the Government were aware, the analysing facilities were not available. Indeed the Government were aware that these services were not in operation for a considerable time afterwards.

As Fine Gael spokesman, I have a special responsibility for and interest in the Garda. The non-disclosure by the Government of the situation put many gardaí in an invidious position. Did the Government consider what the reaction of the public would be when people who they knew had been arrested were not prosecuted? Did the Government think of the damage this could do to the good name of the Force?

Consider the position of the people arrested. Under section 22 of the 1978 Act, copies of the certificates of the Medical Bureau should be forwarded to them "as soon as practicable after analysis". Those people were left sweating for months.

I also have to suggest that there was a massive cover-up as far as this House and the general public were concerned. Whatever about the merits of non-publicity prior to February, and the Minister may argue about that, when the system was out of operation, surely a public announcement should have been made immediately thereafter. The whole affair is evidence of Government mismanagement. They were unable to respond to a situation when it arose. They were unwilling to disclose the situation thereafter to this House, to the Garda or to the general public.

As far as I am aware, about 3,200 people would have been involved in this matter and would have been summonsed if things had proceeded normally. The position is that fees would have been paid to doctors for breathalysing those people and for carrying out blood and urine tests. The cost would have been in the region of £45,000 paid by the State in expenses alone which will not be recouped.

There is a feeling of grave injustice by the Garda about what happened. They have been doing their best, especially over the Christmas period. Samples have been taken, people have been arrested and difficult procedures have been followed. All this has been a complete waste of time and the Garda feel very strongly about it. I have spoken to a number of gardaí today who are very upset about it. Under the old section dealing with drunken driving, people could have been arrested and charged. People who were convicted on dates prior to that and who will be convicted on dates since at — October 23 and February 16 — feel they are scapegoats.

It is something the Government should have made known to the public far earlier. Alternative premises should have been provided and, if they were not in a position to do that, the Garda should have been instructed to proceed under section 49. They would have been able to bring cases before the courts and to get convictions. They may not have been able to get borderline convictions but obvious cases could have been dealt with. I am amazed that something has not happened before now. The legislation was commendable and quite successful. It is very serious to see this breakdown now. The Government have been neglectful in this matter in not taking action before now and should make a complete and public apology for their failure in regard to this matter. The whole issue has been badly handled. State money has been wasted, doctors' fees have been paid and Garda time has been wasted. The Minister should apologise to the Garda Síochána who have done so much to try to enforce this commendable legislation which has fallen into disrepute because of the monumental blunder by the Government.

The Medical Bureau of Road Safety was established under the Road Traffic Act, 1968, to carry out analysis of blood and urine specimens for the Garda. These specimens are from persons suspected of offences of driving, or being in charge of a vehicle, with alcohol in their system in excess of a specified level. The bureau after analysis issues a certificate of the results of the analysis in each case for evidence in any prosecution.

The bureau premises, which are located at Earlsfort Terrace, were damaged by an outbreak of fire on the evening of 25 October 1980. No specimens for analysis or analytical records were lost and all specimens received had been analysied up to the date of the fire. The temporary use of other laboratories by the bureau was considered but was found to be altogether impracticable. Delicate and complex laboratory equipment of the kind used and suitable accommodation for it obviously cannot be replaced overnight. All efforts were directed, therefore, towards the restoration of the laboratory and office facilities in the old premises. The bureau resumed analysis on 23 February 1981 and all specimens received by them on or after 16 February 1981 have been analysed in their turn. The issue of a certificate following the analysis normally takes place a week or so after receipt of a specimen. Specimens received during the period 25 October 1980 to 15 February 1981 have not been analysed because of scientific and forensic considerations. I am sure the Deputies will appreciate that the idea of any makeshift arrangement to deal with blood samples would have been completely out of the question in view of the legal implications.

I should also point out to the Deputies that, apart from the power to prosecute based on measured blood alcohol, there is power to prosecute under sections 49 and 50 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, on the basis of clinical examination or other evidence, for driving or being in charge of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. It would be a matter for the appropriate authorities to decide whether prosecutions should or could be taken on that basis in any of the cases where the bureau was unable to analyse.

I am satisfied that everything possible was done to overcome the difficulties which stemmed from the fire and, in view of the foregoing, I would not accept that there was anything more than a temporary and unavoidable interruption of the bureau's analytical functions. There was no question of a cover-up. All interests concerned knew the facts, including the Garda authorities. In retrospect I have no doubt, and I understand from the authorities in the Department of Justice that they have no doubt, that the decision to continue the breathalyser procedure after 25 October was correct and totally sustainable. The breathalyser is, possibly, the greatest preventative agent in road accidents, a feature of this being the reduction by 53 of the number of road deaths in 1980 over the previous year.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 9 April 1981.