I welcome the Commissioner and his colleagues. I hope this is the first of a number of meetings with them, as the committee intends to pay a lot of attention to road safety in the coming year.
I start with a question on the difficulty of comparing the figures. The Garda's submission gives figures for the cases taken in 2003 and 2004. Having done some work on this recently, I am confused that the submission gives a figure of 5,600 drink driving convictions in 2003, whereas the Garda's annual report for that year gives a figure of only 3,060. Equally, there is a significant discrepancy in the figures for 2004. Can the Commissioner explain this? Another issue is that the Courts Service figures showing the outcome of all drink driving cases taken in 2005 — these figures are more up to date than those made available by the Garda — indicate the total number of cases as 6,400. How does this tally with the Garda's figures for the previous year, given that the Garda's figure for 2004 was almost 11,000? Why is the Courts Service figure for 2005 nearly half that amount? Will the Commissioner explain this discrepancy, as it is hard to make sense of and compare the figures from the Garda, the Courts Service and the Medical Bureau of Road Safety?
In the figures the Garda has provided for us today, a significant number of cases — some 440 in 2003 and almost 600 in 2004 — come under the heading of non-appearance. What happened to those people who did not appear in court for drink driving cases? Does the Garda have an analysis of the outcome of these cases? Were warrants issued and, if so, were they implemented?
The Commissioner mentioned the difficulties gardaí had in proving they had grounds for forming their opinion. I accept that is a problem in court, but the committee's legal advice suggests the most significant ground on which cases failed was not that problem but inadequate Garda procedures. Does the Commissioner agree with this view which is based on a detailed analysis of drink driving cases from the past two years? Do the majority of cases fail because gardaí have not complied with proper procedures? Can the Commissioner give us a breakdown of the percentage of cases which fail due to inadequate procedures and tell us what percentage fail because of the grounds on which gardaí form their opinion?
I also ask about the helpful advice the Commissioner received from the Attorney General. What was that advice? Was it requested by the Commissioner? Is it the same as that on random breath testing the Minister received recently? The Attorney General seems to have clarified the powers of the Garda under existing laws. His advice appears to indicate that the Garda has substantial scope to clamp down properly on the problem of drink driving and tackle our drink driving culture. However, for some reason these powers are not being used. Why did the Garda not enforce the law adequately prior to receiving the Attorney General's advice? The majority of those who leave large pubs and get into their cars in the pub car park have not been drinking lemonade. As such, one has a target audience. I have often wondered why the Garda does not set up checkpoints close to pubs and nab a significant number of those who break the law weekend after weekend. Why has nothing been done to clamp down on this practice?
The Garda has no difficulty setting up checkpoints to check tax and insurance and we see such checkpoints from time to time. I disagree with Deputy Mitchell in this regard because one rarely sees them on the northside of Dublin. Given that there is no difficulty in randomly setting up this type of checkpoint, I fail to understand how the Commissioner arrived at the view that difficulties would arise if the Garda decided to set up checkpoints near pubs to speak to drivers of cars leaving the premises and ask those who smelled of alcohol, were seen leaving the pub or whose behaviour merited attention to take a breathalyser test. From the clarification provided by the Attorney General, it appears the Garda is perfectly entitled to do this but the Commissioner is free to correct me if I am wrong. Why, in such circumstances, does the Garda not set up checkpoints?
Recently I tabled a parliamentary question requesting information on the number of breathalyser bags used in each Garda station in the past three years. The response indicated that the use of such bags had declined over this period. It is extraordinary that the number of breathalyser bags used in some stations last year could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Given that drink driving is a major factor in our high road fatality statistics, why is the Garda not clamping down on the problem, especially in the light of the clarification that it has the power to do so?
On the question of reasonable suspicion, will the Commissioner clarify whether, in the event of a garda smelling alcohol while questioning a driver at a checkpoint, this is considered a reasonable ground to bag the person concerned? If so, why is this practice not being followed?
The Commissioner suggested the Garda would receive complaints from members of the public if it was to set up a checkpoint near a pub. Who advised the Garda that it could not do so? Was this a semi-political issue in so far as complaints may have been made and checkpoints were not acceptable to local publicans? In the road safety strategy for the period from 1998 to 2004 the Garda Síochána expressed the view that random breath testing would negatively impact on the relationship between gardaí and the community. This concern has been removed from the current strategy. I sometimes wonder about the Garda's commitment to tackling drink driving. Does it come under pressure from politicians or any other interests, specifically vintners, when it actively enforces the law on drink driving?