I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the House for facilitating the introduction of this Bill at such short notice. The Bill involves technical amendments to existing legislation to deal with issues related to the endorsement of penalty points on driver licence records and contains a provision to address the implications. In essence, this Bill is about road safety and preserving the integrity of the fixed charge notice and penalty points system.
Deputies will recall that, in the Road Traffic Act 2014, which was passed by the House last year, provision was made for the adjustment of penalty points for certain offences, for the endorsement of penalty points on the record of foreign driver licence holders and for the reduction of the disqualification threshold for learner and novice drivers from 12 penalty points to seven. As is normal with road traffic legislation, sections of the Act were commenced at different times. Among the penalty points adjustments in the 2014 Act were provisions for bringing the offences of using a vehicle without a valid National Car Test, NCT, certificate and parking a vehicle in a dangerous position into the fixed charge notice system, with the consequent endorsement of three penalty points on the person's licence record. I commenced the relevant section of the 2014 Act for these and other adjusted penalty point offences with effect from 8 December 2014. Prior to commencement, these were straight to court offences attracting five penalty points on conviction. In other words, people who committed these offences could not avoid a court appearance by paying a fixed charge.
When preparing the Commencement Order, an oversight in the legislation was detected in my Department. The Road Traffic Act 2002, which first established the fixed charge notice and penalty points system, provided for the endorsement of the relevant number of penalty points on the records of those who made payment on foot of fixed charge notices for offences listed in the Schedule to the Act. It excluded from this provision those offences which were straight to court offences, including using a vehicle without a valid NCT certificate and parking a vehicle in a dangerous position. When the 2014 Act was being drafted, these two offences should have been removed from the exclusions contained in the 2002 Act. Due to an oversight, this did not happen and I am proposing to rectify the position in this Bill. There are no implications from this oversight so long as it is closed by the provisions of this Bill.
The other issue that the Bill addresses also relates to the endorsement of penalty points. Section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 2002 provides the basis on which penalty points can be endorsed on a person's record following the payment of a fixed charge under section 103 of the Road Traffic Act 1961. Section 8 of the 2014 Act amends section 2 of the 2002 Act by substituting a reference to section 37 or 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 for section 103 of the 1961 Act. In other words, with the enactment of the 2014 Act, penalty points would be endorsed on payment of the fixed charge under those sections of the 2010 Act. Section 8 of the 2014 Act was commenced with effect from 1 August 2014. Unfortunately, because sections 37 and 44 of the 2010 Act have not yet been commenced, the commencement of section 8 of the 2014 Act removes the power to endorse points on the licence record. To summarise, when the 2014 Act was brought in the section that referred to the application of penalty points due to the receipt of fixed charge notices made reference to two sections in the 2010 Act that had not been fully enacted. That issue arose and was identified when I was dealing with the first issue.
Section 2 of this Bill seeks to address both of the issues to which I referred. The section also provides clarity on a situation where an offence has been committed but the appropriate penalty points associated with the offence have been increased before the fixed charge is paid. The section reflects the current practice of endorsing the number of penalty points that were applicable on the date the alleged offence took place. The concern that arose when this error was detected was that there might be a question mark over the penalty points endorsed since 1 August following the payment of a fixed charge.
I contacted the Office of the Attorney General on this point and received comprehensive advice which pointed out that the legal vacuum caused by the commencement of section 8 of the 2014 Act could not be said to reflect the intention of the Oireachtas, which can be taken to have been that there would be, at all times, some mechanism for endorsing penalty points on the driving licences of persons choosing to make a fixed charge payment in lieu of a potential prosecution. On the basis of this advice, I am satisfied that it is appropriate to provide that penalty points that have been endorsed following the payment of fixed charges should be retained on licence records. The effect of section 3 is that penalty points endorsed since 1 August following payment of a fixed charge are deemed to have been lawfully endorsed. This is appropriate as the drivers involved will have received a fixed charge notice for the alleged offences and made payment on foot of it. The fixed charge notice will also have advised the person of the number of penalty points to be endorsed on his or her licence following payment. This is a key point in the proposal.
The issue that has arisen relates to a flaw at the end of the process of receiving penalty points, that is, the point at which they are attached to a driver's licence after he or she has accepted responsibility for a road traffic offence. I am not proposing to create a new offence but to deal with the administration of an offence for which responsibility has been accepted. This concern applies only to drivers who have paid the fixed charge. The penalty points applied to drivers convicted by the courts were not affected, as endorsement in these circumstances is provided for in a separate section of the 2002 Act. While the number of penalty points affected by this issue is wide, the legislation does not address penalty point offences adjudicated on in court; it deals only with those applied by means of payment of a fixed charge notice.
When the fault in legislation was detected in the week before last, I instructed my Department immediately to cease issuing advice to drivers who had paid the fixed charge notifications that their licences would be endorsed. With the enactment of this Bill, endorsement of licences will recommence. However, to remove any doubt that the penalty points that were not endorsed in the two and a half week intervening period may be now applied, the Bill provides in section 3(3) for the endorsement of these points.
I introduced a Committee Stage amendment in the Seanad which has become section 3(4) of the Bill. The purpose of this subsection is to make it clear that section 3(1) is not intended to infringe in any way the constitutional rights of individuals. The subsection was inserted following judicial review proceedings taken in the High Court on Monday in which the applicant challenged the endorsement of penalty points on her licence which resulted in her disqualification. The constitutional separation of powers prohibits legislative interference in proceedings in being before the courts. This provision will ensure the section cannot be interpreted in a manner that would interfere or be perceived to interfere with proceedings pending before the courts.
The fixed charge notice and penalty points system has played an important part in enhancing road safety and has been very effective since its introduction in 2002 as part of a suite of measures in addressing safety concerns on the roads. The main objective of the penalty points system is not to penalise but to raise awareness of unsafe practices and, as a result, reduce the number of deaths and injuries on the roads. The system is widely accepted by members of the public, as evidenced by the fact that more than 70% of those served with a fixed charge notice pay the stipulated amount without recourse to the courts.
The Bill provides a means of addressing inadvertent errors that took place in recent months. I am satisfied that its enactment will correct these errors and provide, in accordance with the previously stated will of the Oireachtas, a clear legal basis for the endorsement of penalty points when a fixed charge payment has been made following a road traffic offence. The provisions will also ensure penalty points endorsed following the payment of a fixed charge since 1 August remain on the licence record.
I again thank the House for facilitating the Bill. I am sure Deputies will appreciate the urgency of the matter. The Bill is being introduced to ensure the robustness and integrity of a system that plays a vital role in saving lives and reducing the number of injuries on the roads are maintained. I commend it to the House.