I welcome the Minister to the House.
An Garda Síochána: Statements
I thank Senators for the invitation to be here this evening. I welcome this opportunity to address these important and very disturbing issues. I again stress, as I have just done in the Dáil and as the Taoiseach did during Leaders’ Questions this morning, the utmost seriousness with which the Government regards these issues.
It is essential that the Government, the Oireachtas and all our citizens can trust members of An Garda Síochána because the security of our citizens is obviously central and we depend on An Garda Síochána for that. We need to be able to depend on An Garda Síochána carrying out its duties fairly, impartially and fully in accordance with the law.
The public has to be able to believe statistics and all information provided by An Garda Síochána because so much rests on that. Many policy decisions are made on the basis of it and that is why early on when some doubts were cast on the crime investigation statistics, I brought in the CSO for discussion on this. It began a process of verification and has now confirmed that we can rely more and more on those figures. There is a problem internationally with regard to the robustness of crime reporting, but we need to make sure we have the very best systems in place. The CSO is now monitoring that here.
It is essential that we get the answers we need and I am totally committed to ensuring that happens. The issues that have been raised go to the heart of policing in the State. They go to the heart of public confidence in our police force and the area of policing involved, that of roads and traffic, is one that affects every one of our citizens. So many of us have been affected by tragedy on the roads, be it the death of friends, family members or colleagues - everybody has been touched by those accident statistics. We need to know as citizens that those charged with enforcing the laws designed to ensure our safety do so to the highest standards.
I met the Garda Commissioner yesterday and I conveyed the Government’s very deep concern at the revelations of recent days. The facts we now know about how breath tests were being conducted and the operation of the fixed-charge system are completely unacceptable and raise very troubling questions. The scale and detail of these issues became apparent last week at the Garda press conference and I am determined that all the facts will emerge.
Obviously, everybody here has questions as to why this happened. How could it have happened? Who was responsible? Were there people in charge? What was the line of accountability? We are talking about an organisation that has a line of accountability. We have to go in and find out precisely how this could possibly have happened in an organisation such as An Garda Síochána.
An anonymous complaint was made to the Road Safety Authority in 2014, outlining a number of issues which included the operation of mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, checkpoints. This related to checkpoints as opposed to the actual giving of the breath test. The complaint was referred to An Garda Síochána by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. An Garda Síochána indicated in a detailed letter to my Department in May 2014 that it had looked into the claims regarding MAT checkpoints and was satisfied that correct procedures were in place to account for MAT checkpoints that ultimately proceeded. In legislation, the setting up of a MAT checkpoint must be authorised by the local station inspector. Therefore, there is a very clear record of where MAT checkpoints are authorised. That would only change if for some reason the checkpoint was not carried out because gardaí were diverted elsewhere. At that point it said it was satisfied as to the actual number of checkpoints as opposed to breath tests.
In June of last year my Department was made aware that some discrepancies had been identified in respect of mandatory alcohol testing and that the Garda was starting a national audit. It indicated in June 2016 that no issues stemmed from this audit with regard to the performance of MAT checkpoints or prosecutions arising from same. This means that the cases, relating to those people who were above the limit, that needed to go to court went to court and the prosecutions were sound. There is no issue with the prosecutions because those were the cases where the person was clearly above the limit. Of course, the issues that have arisen are about the number of tests carried out, which is different. In June 2016 it indicated it had become aware of some discrepancies, and an IT solution had been developed and would be implemented towards the end of 2016.
After that my departmental officials, who were liaising with the traffic division, sought regular updates from the Garda as to the progress of the audit that was then taking place into the issue. An Garda Síochána indicated in February 2017 that it was anticipated that the national audit would be finalised in the second quarter of 2017. I was expecting that national audit at the end of the second quarter of 2017. Although that audit has not yet been finalised, the Garda announced figures at its press conference relating to the discrepancy between the number of tests conducted at MAT checkpoints as per its own records compared with the records held by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. The Garda first had its own national figures early in March. When it then compared them with the figures from the bureau, it saw this extraordinary discrepancy of 1 million.
There was no indication as to the scale of this when the Garda originally informed me it was looking at this in June 2016. It is clear from what the Commissioner said yesterday and from her public statements, that it was not known at that time to Garda management either.
It was in order to assess the scale of the problem that the national audit of MATs was launched one year ago. I did not become aware of the huge discrepancy in the breath test figures until it was revealed at last week's Garda press conference. I was expecting the report at the end of June but the personnel in the Garda dealing with this - because they were having their press conference - decided, having just found out shortly beforehand what the scale of the discrepancy was, that this material should be in the public arena.
On the question of the fixed charge notices, I was informed in June 2016 of an error in regard to summons having been incorrectly issued to persons who should have received a fixed charge notice for the offence of not having a valid NCT certificate, which became a fixed charge offence in December 2014. An Garda Síochána indicated that following on from those initial findings, further inquiries were being carried out in relation to all summons issued in relation to other fixed charge offences. In a press statement issued on the same date - this was in the public area as they had put out a press statement in June last - An Garda Siochána confirmed that it had commenced a review of prosecutions in relation to all fixed charge offences. That letter set out the remedial actions it was already taking, which included withdrawing prosecutions in any affected cases - there would have been cases from that period to this that were withdrawn - and putting in place an IT solution. Up that point the PULSE system had not identified that it was a charge of not having a valid NCT certificate on its own and a summons should not be issued. It is now developing a longer-term IT solution to that.
My Department sought regular updates as to the progress of the review taking place into the fixed charge processing system issues covering the period from 2014 to 2016. The results of that review for the two-year period were communicated to my Department on 14 March 2017. That letter indicated that a total of 1,781 cases had been identified where persons had been convicted in situations where they had been incorrectly summonsed to court, either without first having been issued a fixed charge notice or having been issued and paid a fixed charge notice. Of all the cases that have subsequently emerged, there were various charges against many of those who were brought to court, for example, more serious charges of driving without insurance or speeding, but there were 5,800 cases of not having a valid NCT certificate alone and they should not have been in court. In the other cases, it was a combination of offences. Clearly, the offence that should not have been bundled in with the others was the fixed charge notice for not having a valid NCT certificate, and all of them will have to go back. The Director of Public Prosecutions has been consulted. She indicated the review should be extended to include cases pre-2014. The letter I got more recently stated that consultations remained ongoing with the DPP and the Courts Service in regard to commencing the process of setting aside the convictions in the courts. The DPP states, as I have said, the review should be extended back, and the audit is still ongoing.
I became aware of the figure of some 4,700 cases where a conviction took place after an incorrect procedure when the Garda Síochána made that information public last week. It had finally pulled all of the audit together in the weeks since it had first indicated to me the 1,781 cases. It is a matter of great regret to me and I am sure everybody here that any citizen was summonsed to court who should not have been and had to deal with that, with all of the consequences that follow for individuals. We will not know the consequences until each of those cases goes back into court and is examined individually. They will have to go back to the District Court first and then be referred on to the Circuit Court. It is critical for all of those persons and for the justice system that these mistakes are resolved and the necessary remedial actions put in place, which, of course, could include compensation. There have been situations where - we do not know the numbers - there would have been consequences. If, for example, drivers went over the 12 penalty points threshold, they could have lost their licence and there could have been consequences. There is a series of issues. We do not know the detail and we have to await the cases going back before we will be able to see precisely what the outcomes in court will be.
On the question of FCPN, at my meeting with her yesterday, the Commissioner assured me that arrangements are being put in place for the persons affected. All of these cases will be appealed by An Garda Síochána in order to ensure, as I have said, that the courts set aside these convictions, all fines will be reimbursed and penalties removed, and all of those affected will be contacted directly and individually by letter. Letters will begin issuing to all of these individuals on 3 April. I made it clear that I want this process to be as speedy as possible so that these wrongs can be righted in the speediest possible way.
There are IT and operational solutions in place now to ensure that these practices have now ceased. There is a permanent and comprehensive IT solution now in place. The PULSE system was not picking this up. It was not geared to do so but it should have been. Clearly, the practice issues were also failing where individual gardaí were not ensuring that these cases did not go to court. I imagine that in quite a number of cases solicitors will probably have picked this up for their clients and there may have been cases that were dealt with in the appropriate way but still should not have gone to court. There is a continuum of how they have been dealt with. The focus now has to be on what is being done to get to the full truth of what transpired and the accountability that must be brought to bear.
In the case of mandatory alcohol tests, first, there was a paper based system and a verification processes. In November 2016, a new IT upgrade was installed on the Garda PULSE system. The net effect of the new IT upgrade was that personnel now have to record the serial number of the device plus the meter reading before and after the checkpoint is concluded. This was not part of the procedure previously. If that was being done a much more robust system would have been in place. I met the professor with responsibility for this in the medical bureau, Professor Cusack, yesterday at the committee. The Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Justice and Equality hold a number of meetings per year and we happened to have one yesterday. He confirmed that the new machines will have GPS and there is the ability for what is on them to be recorded automatically and go straight in to the medical bureau's system. That is a total change from the system that has been operating over the years and it will change the situation. It would mean that this type of thing could not happen again.
As I say, the focus now has to be on what is being done to get to the full truth of what transpired and the accountability that must be brought to bear. We must have accountability in this. In the Garda, there is a line of accountability. As for how this could have happened, we need to have an investigation that holds persons responsible at all levels of the Garda organisation who allowed such large discrepancies in the breath testing figures to arise. The Commissioner announced such an investigation yesterday. It was to be an internal investigation but, following our discussion at Government today and my one view that there should be an independent investigation, we will hold discussions with the Policing Authority to work out how to best achieve that.
I met the chair of the Policing Authority, Ms Josephine Feehily, yesterday and informed her that I was formally referring both of these matters to that body under the Garda Síochána Act. At that meeting, Ms Feehily informed me that the authority will have an independent professional audit undertaken of the steps taken to resolve these issues. That is an essential part of providing the necessary public reassurance. The Government is now saying it should be completely independent. Under the legislation I brought in establishing the Policing Authority, there is a mechanism for myself and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to authorise such an investigation and to make the funding available for it.
Following the briefings I gave to Government today, the clear view that emerged is that these issues have given rise to the most serious concerns, not only among public representatives but also the wider public. No doubt confidence in An Garda Síochána has been dealt a serious blow in the past week and we must rebuild that confidence in a variety of ways, but we must get explanations as well. We will use all the legal mechanisms that are in place in regard to the Policing Authority, or if necessary, the Inspectorate, to establish the full facts. There has to be accountability. It is essential that the process of reform is rigorously implemented in An Garda Síochána and it has to be seen to be implemented.
The close oversight of the Policing Authority is one of the key ways of doing that.
As the Taoiseach stated, the Government believes that the level of public concern regarding some issues affecting the Garda is now so profound that it is time to conduct a thorough, comprehensive and independent root and branch review of the Garda. This proposal will require further detailed consideration by the Government. I would like to believe that such a proposal would have the support of the House and that we would have the opportunity to get input from Senators as to how the review should be conducted, its terms of reference and the issues that it should examine. For many years, people have discussed how, for example, the policing service also provides security. Points have been made about its management systems and questions raised about whether they are fit for purpose. Given all of these issues, the time is right to establish this kind of commission.
The Government accepts that change is required. As the Minister for Justice and Equality, I have introduced some of the most significant reforms in policing since the foundation of the State, including the establishment of the Policing Authority, additional powers for GSOC and greater civilianisation. The Government has shown significant support for the Garda through the investment of €200 million plus in upgrading ICT. There are considerable data-related issues in the Garda. If the ICT infrastructure is not there, categories of offences are not captured properly. There are serious issues as to how this happened. Was it a casual approach? Was it exaggeration? Was it an ethical issue? Was it deceit? Was there collusion? We must get to the bottom of how a discrepancy of 1 million tests across all districts could happen. It is a serious matter and conflicts with internal audits.
I hope that Opposition Senators and Deputies will accept the offer to work with the Government on our intended examination. In the meantime, the various bodies that we have established should proceed with their work. We want the Policing Authority to continue supervising the ongoing reforms. I have referred the Garda Inspectorate's reports to the Policing Authority. Senators will be aware that the first report has returned in terms of the implementation of the reform programme. That relates to the oversight of the Policing Authority, but there are more than 1,000 recommendations from the Garda Inspectorate and they will not be implemented overnight. It is important that their implementation is being monitored on a continuous and transparent basis. We continually need to empower the Policing Authority to do that.
On a point of order, it was agreed this morning that there would be one speaker per group. Unfortunately, it is not always possible for Senators to be in the House for the Order of Business when these decisions are taken. This is probably one of the most serious issues that the Tánaiste has faced. She is doing an excellent job. Instead of extending time this evening, could we be allowed to share time so that everyone who is present is allowed to speak? This is an important issue and lies at the heart of our democracy.
The Senator has made his point. The difficulty is that this arrangement was agreed today by the Leader. The Acting Leader cannot change what the House agreed. Three times this morning, I asked about the times allowed and so on. One could also argue about how the Tánaiste only has five minutes to respond, which might seem like a short time, but my hands are tied and the Leader is not present to amend the arrangement. I cannot change it and, unfortunately, the Tánaiste has no discretion. When the House agreed this, no one said that people should have more or less time. When the Leader first spoke, he said that people would have eight minutes, but then that was reduced to six. No one said anything about it and Senators were quite happy to have the debate with one speaker from each group. I am sorry, Senator Craughwell.
It is unfortunate that the Tánaiste is again in the House to explain yet another scandal or crisis concerning her Department. I have lost count of the number of times she has appeared before us since our formation last June to explain what is happening in the Department. I am sorry to say that her speech was full of fluffiness and platitudes. The public is shocked, as are most Senators, by the latest scandal to hit her Department, this time concerning almost 15,000 sanctions and convictions over fixed notice charges and the 1 million breath tests that were recorded in error.
The Tánaiste stated that the scale of the problem had only been spotted recently. That is unbelievable. If it was only recent, when did the Garda Commissioner say that she became aware of the scale of the issue? Is it good enough that the Tánaiste was only informed of the scale of the issue during the course of a press conference last Thursday?
The integrity of the Garda is in tatters as a result of this situation. As the Tánaiste mentioned, data inform policy. How can we have an effective policy on drink driving, which is a serious issue that has resulted in many lives, families and communities being shattered, and say that we as a nation are on top of it? There have always been claims that drink driving legislation has not been enforced properly. Is this falsification of drink driving tests the result of calls for greater enforcement? Was it a means of providing promotional opportunities for various gardaí? I am concerned about the language that has been used in recent days. It seems that there is an attempt to shift blame onto the ordinary rank and file gardaí away from management and the culture at the top. I am not happy about that. The situation needs to be clarified from the top and there has to be a culture of change. Were unrealistic targets set by management and ordinary rank and file gardaí had no other option but to do this? If so, that is a serious matter.
The Tánaiste stated that she was informed in June 2016 but only became aware of the scale of the problem last Thursday. What was she informed of last June? What scale did she believe would be found by the audit? In 2014, Gay Byrne informed the then transport Minister, Deputy Varadkar, of this matter. Was any action taken then? Why did the Commissioner not inform the Policing Authority that a national audit was taking place? There were six meetings between the two. Surely something as serious as this should have been raised at those. Why did the Tánaiste not inform the Oireachtas last June? Even had the scale been much less than what it has turned out to be, it was still a serious issue. How on Earth can the Tánaiste now express confidence in the Commissioner? My confidence and that of my party is gone.
The timing of last Thursday's press release was cynical, in that it coincided with the burial of Martin McGuinness. That needs to be explained. If the briefing had only been planned for a short time, when was it planned? Perhaps something better could have been done in PR terms.
There has been a failure to explain the discrepancies around who has responsibility. The Government seems satisfied when the rest of the country is completely dissatisfied. That shows a lack of connection with the country.
The Tánaiste referred to the cost of the fixed notice errors. It is not acceptable that there is no estimation of the cost to the State of the fines, legal charges and compensation due to the people affected. These fixed notice charges ended up in court and took up precious court time when many serious issues had to be put on the back burner and were not dealt with effectively, never mind the stress and upset caused to people when presented with court dates.
The Tánaiste referred to lines of accountability. From what I can see, however, none appears to exist in the Garda. This is unsatisfactory. The integrity of the Garda is in tatters. I would like an explanation.
I thank the Tánaiste for coming to the House today. I watched her speak in the Dáil for the past couple of hours and I appreciate her taking the time to come here. This cannot be an easy time for her. The last paragraph of her speech says a lot about her time in office. She referred to the various organisation that she set up to oversee the running of the Garda Síochána, and I compliment her on doing so.
I put on record this evening my deep respect for and express my gratitude to the ordinary gardaí who are on the streets tonight risking their lives for the Tánaiste, me and everybody else. What has happened in this country over the past couple of days must be soul destroying for these people. The Tánaiste and I know that many gardaí remain on duty after their shift has ended, etc., and to think that 1 million breath tests never happened, we are facing 14,700 reviews of court proceedings, some of which may finish up in the High Court, and that people may have lost their jobs as a result of penalty points given to them by the courts. This entire scenario is totally unacceptable. I have put on record my desire for the Garda Commissioner to step aside. I asked her to step aside when the McCabe tribunal started and she should definitely step aside now. The current issue does not lie just at her feet, however. There is a layer of people below the Tánaiste who have operational control of An Garda Síochána and they have not done their jobs. That layer has been negligent somewhere along the line.
How have we reached this situation? I have heard people today shout for the Tánaiste's head to roll, with which I disagree because she does not have operational control of the Garda Síochána and cannot be there morning, noon and night. There are people charged with responsibility in every Garda station in this country. This issue goes to the root of the organisation.
I believe that austerity measures might have hurt the force and that it might have tried to keep records going just because it did not have the personnel. I have no doubt that austerity measures have in some way impinged on what has happened. The public will take time to recover from this saga but the morale of An Garda Síochána must be restored now. Morale cannot be restored by those who are already in charge because they have made a total mess of the job that they were entrusted to do by the Tánaiste in her capacity as Minister for Justice and Equality. They have failed the country, they have failed their superior officer who is the Garda Commissioner and they have failed the Minister. The blame does not just lie with the Garda Commissioner. I do not believe that any of these people should be in their jobs today. They should all be sent on gardening leave until we get to the bottom of what happened. Those who have turned a blind eye need to have their contracts revoked and to be sent on permanent leave. We do not need those sort of people in the country.
I received an e-mail today from a woman who outlined that her son finished up in court because he got into a small fracas after a few drinks. Last night, we learned that a woman from Dublin was escorted by two gardaí to Limerick jail because she did not pay a fine of €350. Where does that behaviour fit into fraudulent breath tests, which is what happened? For the past few days the Tánaiste must have been devastated by what has been done. As Minister, she trusts people to do their jobs, but these people have let her down badly. She has found herself in here and in the Dáil having to stand in front of a line of opponents demanding answers to questions that she could not possibly answer. She probably does not even know the number of questions that remain to be asked. Once we pull back the curtain on this dirty little secret, it will become more apparent. The Garda Commissioner said the other day that as we start to move to reform the Garda, there will be other stories and disasters. I do not know what the Tánaiste can do about this matter. I do not believe that she can handle the problem by continuing to work with people in whom she has now lost faith. She must have lost her faith in them. I do not believe that she can trust them to bring about the reforms that she has tried to make. The Minister has put agencies and the Policing Authority in place. I hope that the Policing Authority will say to her in the next few days that it does not have confidence in the senior management of An Garda Síochána and ask her to appoint a caretaker to look after the organisation until it solves the problem.
People said to me last night that ordinary gardaí were happy enough to have the breath tests fiddled with, but the problem does not lie with the ordinary gardaí on our streets because they do their jobs. If numbers have been played with, it was not by them. If the PULSE system is wrong, somebody somewhere should have reported it to the Minister months, years or decades ago because the PULSE system has been in place a long time.
The bottom line is that we need action so people must step aside from their roles right now and allow the Minister to appoint people to check the system who are impartial and independent of the Garda. I hope a firm of accountants will be appointed tomorrow morning to carry out a root and branch review. I listened to "Morning Ireland" this morning and heard that An Garda Síochána was informed that there was a problem with breath tests on 7 July 2014. The force kept that information from the Minister, me and everybody else for three years.
I appreciate the latitude shown by the Cathaoirleach. I am confident that the Tánaiste will fix this problem but I do not have confidence in those in whom she has placed her trust.
I have got a sense from the people who have spoken in this House so far that they support what the Minister is doing to reform An Garda Síochána, which is right. Since the Tánaiste took over as Minister for Justice and Equality in 2014, it is clearly and plainly obvious to anybody that she put structures in place to ensure that we will have a fit for purpose, proper, transparent, open and accountable Garda Síochána. The Policing Authority is an exceptionally important element of that reform. People give lip service to the notion of depoliticising An Garda Síochána but that is what the Policing Authority is there to do. The Policing Authority is the most appropriate authority to recommend whether a Garda Commissioner should be removed, not members of the Opposition, backbenchers or members of the public. The Policing Authority is the competent authority with the expertise and oversight that can make a recommendation to the Government that it feels a Garda Commissioner should be removed. People should stand back from this issue for a minute and consider the prospect. On the one hand, people have talked about depoliticising An Garda Síochána and, on the other, people have called for the Garda Commissioner to be removed or sacked. What is the point in having a Policing Authority if we do not let it do its job? Are people saying that the Policing Authority has not done its job?
Let us consider the reforms that have been made. On 8 March, Mr. Michael Donnellan, director general of the Irish Prison Service, attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. On that occasion he pointed out that there is no overcrowding in the prison services for the first time in years and it is primarily due to legislation on fines. Also, slopping out has been eliminated in prisons because they now have the resources to start a pathway to provide dignity in the prison services. These improvements are due to legislation that we all introduced in these Houses in the past couple of years. It was ridiculous that people went to jail for not paying for a television licence. At least this problem has been addressed.
Do not get me wrong - what has happened in An Garda Síochána is an outrage. Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan is the head of the organisation but there are many more people at senior management level in An Garda Síochána. Many questions remain to be answered. Frankly, it was not good enough for the Garda Commissioner to announce that an internal investigation would take place. The Tánaiste was correct to recommend to Government today that the investigation should be conducted by an external organisation because none of us would have been confident that an internal one would achieve transparency, which is what we want.
We have GSOC, the Policing Authority and a raft of legislation to improve An Garda Síochána.
We came from a position where the Garda Síochána was one of the worst hit organisations as a result of the recession. The Garda Training College, Templemore, was closed. The ICT facilities throughout the Garda force were not fit for purpose. PULSE had not been updated in years. There was a lack of investment in Garda vehicles. It is easy to see how these situations can develop and how bad practice can develop when there is no investment.
That situation has been rectified during the past three to four years. The college in Templemore has been opened and I do not think a Government will ever close it again. At least I sincerely hope it does not. We will have a professional Garda service.
Members have stood up in this House and the Lower House complaining about the closure of Garda stations that were not being used. I believe it was appropriate to close Garda stations that were not being used and invest that money in properly resourcing the Garda with computers and vehicles, so that the Garda is a modern force. We cannot have Ballymagash type politics, where people ask for their Garda station not to be closed, even though it might be used only three times in a week. At the same time, there is no investment in ICT or Garda vehicles, or upgrading, training and so on.
Give up while you are ahead.
We are leaving the college in Templemore here. What does Senator Craughwell mean by that comment?
Through the Chair, please.
You know that Deputy Shane Ross loves Garda stations.
There is absolutely no way that I will be bullied or shouted down by the Senator over something that I feel strongly about.
I think Senator Craughwell is suggesting that the Senator is deviating from the specifics of the motion.
I am not, but I am sick and tired of listening to Members who on the one hand look for one thing and on the other hand look for something else, when the appropriate and correct thing to do was at that time to close certain Garda stations and invest in upgrading ICT and Garda vehicles
There were 1 million false breath tests.
There is no doubt about it whatsoever there is a fundamental job of work to be done with the Garda to ensure the public has confidence in the force and to ensure there is appropriate open and transparent methods of auditing. That is where we should focus our attention. I wish the Minister for Justice and Equality well in the work she is doing in that regard.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. In her statement the Minister refers to these as important and disturbing issues. Are these not illegal activities? Yes, they are disturbing, they are even disgusting, but the bottom line is that illegal activities were carried out by those who were supposed to uphold the law. How many times do citizens of this State complete and submit forms, whether they be applications for carer's allowance, farm assist, child benefit or medical cards and in large bold writing at the bottom of the form, it states that submitting inaccurate and untrue information may lead to a custodial sentence. That is what hangs over the heads of people submitting information to this State. I will now ask a very direct question. Does the Minister believe that the falsifying of public records almost 1 million times is illegal? That is the bottom line we are looking at here. We either believe that is illegal or it is not illegal.
Did Deputies Varadkar or Donohoe, who both served as Ministers in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in 2014, not think the issue was serious enough to report to the Minister for Justice and Equality, as the Minister in charge of policing? Obviously the Garda Commissioner was informed of these discrepancies. I hate even calling them discrepancies because I think it somehow lessens the importance of them. Did the Minister for Justice and Equality not ask the Garda Commissioner why it took her more than a year to notify the Minister? Obviously the Minister has regular briefings with the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána. Can she understand why people will find it difficult to believe that not once during a period of 13 months did the Garda Commissioner mention the suspected illegal activities? Does the Minister think that is acceptable? What is it to say that right now there are other discrepancies, activities or whatever one may wish to call them happening in the Garda Síochána that are being kept hidden from the Minister? Is the Minister concerned about this?
How many other disturbing or disgusting incidents are going to happen and how many more times will the Minister have to come to this Chamber to defend the indefensible? When exactly did the Minister notify the Policing Authority of the discrepancies? When exactly did the Minister notify the Taoiseach of the discrepancies? Will the Minister outline the remedial actions she plans to put in place to compensate the 14,700 people who were incorrectly convicted? I appreciate the Minister has outlined some of those in her statement. In the past few days, we have learned of the devastating effects these convictions had on individuals and families? What is the Minister's timeline for righting these wrongs? Should these letters start going out on 3 April 2017?
Senator Conway refers to the Policing Authority and rightly so, and that we should not politicise this issue because we are in new politics. The statement from the Policing Authority states that it has not yet been provided with the full internal reports from An Garda Síochána into the current issues. Despite questioning over several months, the authority has not been provided with the full internal reports or indeed a clear sense of how these matters have been handled in the Garda Síochána or the status and content of the audits which have been undertaken. It is very clear there is still a lack of transparency, that there are still attempts to stop the Policing Authority doing the job it was put there to do, albeit that the Policing Authority was informed very late in the day. We would have to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
We have had to endure scandal after scandal in respect of the Garda Síochána in recent years. The Minister for Justice and Equality congratulates herself and the Fine Gael Party in government for all the progress she has made. That really frightens me because it begs the question of what type of police force did we have under Fianna Fáil in government if the Minister has had to implement all of these measures. Can the Minister now commit to bringing forward emergency legislation to strengthen the power of the Garda Inspectorate, GSOC and the Policing Authority?
It is not only the reputation of An Garda Síochána that has been rocked to the core, but I am afraid the reputation of the Minister has been shattered by this and recent revelations. For the sake of the future of policing and justice is it not time the Minister listened to the people and used her authority to change the leadership of the Garda Síochána? I know with absolute certainty as sure as I am standing here today that the Minister for Justice and Equality will be in this House again before very long and we will be discussing yet another debacle, illegal activity, disgusting and disturbing activity, whatever she wants to call it.
I thank the Minister for joining us in the House. What we have been hearing about in the past few days is either a matter of the most extraordinary inefficiency or a serious malpractice. I believe the scale and the fact that it took place in every district in Ireland seems to point strongly to the latter, and that we are looking at issues of malpractice.
We are looking at potentially not just errors of omission, but errors of the falsification of records in many cases. It has to be treated in a similar way, as my colleague has said, as it is potentially a criminal matter as well. In that sense I was very disappointed to see the Garda Commissioner at a press conference today, accompanied by the deputy commissioner, speaking of an administrative error. We heard one of the deputy superintendents speaking of his administrative error in terms of who he should have informed of the audit. It was unacceptable on two levels. First, because we are hearing the language of administrative error. We need to be very clear, one cannot make 1 million administrative errors. After the use of cut and paste language that we have heard previously, we need to be clear and stop hiding behind such terms. That is not acceptable.
It was also of great concern that the Commissioner was taking no responsibility, accepting no culpability as the head of the force, but instead having her assistants take responsibility for various administrative errors. Aspersions were being cast and the language was that, "We will find who did this." That sends out a message that there are a few rogue police officers who added a couple of hundred thousand extra to the figures. We need to be very clear that the scale of the operation is across the organisation.
The responsibility sits at the top of the organisation.
I take in good faith the Tánaiste's statement that she was not aware of the scale involved, but she indicated that it is clear Garda management was not aware of the scale involved in June 2016. I beg to differ because in August 2015 we already knew, as it had been indicated to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, that there had been 400,000 reports filed with only 200,000 mouthpieces having been used. This is what prompted the audit. When we talk about scale, we should not be disingenuous. They may not have known the full scale involved. However, if they know that there is a 100% error rate, and we are talking about hundreds of thousands, then they know that there was a scale of a problem which I believe in itself was at that point unacceptable and potentially a resigning issue. The scale involved was known to the Garda at that point, although the full scale involved may yet unravel.
Others have spoken to the outrage on the part of the 14,700 people incorrectly convicted. The Tánaiste addressed this point. I urge that not simply employment and economic damage is examined, as there is considerable psychological, emotional and personal damage to people who undergo such a process. It can affect many aspects of their lives and not just employment.
Culture change is key. The Tánaiste stated that it is time now for a root and branch review. I respectfully suggest that it is long past time for a root and branch review. The signals and messaging have been coming forever. The Tánaiste mentioned the Garda Inspectorate report with its thousands of recommendations. These recommendations concern areas which are also of great concern. Along with the over-reporting of road incidents, I am concerned about the under-reporting of racist incidents and domestic violence, for example. Serious concerns have been expressed on their under-reporting, which also form part of the Garda Inspectorate report. The very fact of those recommendations indicates the need for a root and branch review.
It is clear that we cannot have a root and branch review of An Garda Síochána that is headed by the current management. That is unacceptable and will not work. The Tánaiste may speak of it being independent but there is a key concern around transparency of records. I will put a question that was put to the Tánaiste by, I believe, Senator Ó Ríordáin when we discussed the McCabe tribunal in this House. She was asked if she would issue a directive to the Garda Commissioner under section 25 of the Garda Síochána Act 2006 to secure all Garda records and equipment relevant to that inquiry and to safeguard evidence. I was a little shocked and surprised at the time because she said she would not issue such a directive. In respect of the independent inquiry that she is promising and any further root and branch review, will the Tánaiste issue a directive to the Garda Commissioner to secure all records and equipment? It is more pertinent here because this issue relates directly to evidence and the way equipment has been used and records monitored. I urge the Tánaiste to take this seriously.
Lastly, I concur with others that the Commissioner does not have the confidence of the public. Do we have to choose between the confidence of the public in its police force and the confidence of the Government in the Garda Commissioner? It does not seem that the Garda Commissioner has confidence in the body politic because she has indicated that she will not step down even if there is a Dáil vote. This indicates to me that the head of our police force is not confident in us as legislators. This is also a matter of concern.
Lastly, I note the press conference. That the Tánaiste learned information from a press conference is unacceptable and a sign of disrespect on those issues alone.
Lastly, I urge the Tánaiste to ensure that our Garda Síochána restores the-----
This is the fourth "lastly".
My apologies. Members of An Garda Síochána are the guardians of the peace and the public and our serving gardaí need to have peace of mind. I urge the Tánaiste to take serious action to deliver it.
I call Senator Humphreys - lastly.
I thank the Tánaiste for attending. We must stay focused on what is the problem. Senator Conway did not do the House or the debate any service when he started talking about the Garda Training College in Templemore. Of course if was wrong that it was closed but it has been reopened.
I put it in context.
Yes, it was wrong to put people in prison for not paying their television licences.
I have never done any disservice to the House. The Senator should withdraw that remark.
Senator Humphreys listened to Senator Conway without interruption for six minutes. Allow him, please, to make his contribution.
I never suggested he did a disservice to the House as he suggested I did.
The Senator has had his say and the Tánaiste will respond.
It was right that certain Garda stations were closed but that is not the issue today. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, told a public meeting in Stepaside that it is a question of "when" and not "if" Stepaside Garda station will reopen. I am not sure the report has been issued but such a statement undermines the independence of what is going on.
It takes a lot to shock me but I have been shocked over recent days by the report that 14,700 summonses were wrongfully served. Whether it is 14,700 or 1,700, this undermines the Garda Síochána. There were 1 million fake breath tests. If breath tests took just three minutes from the time to roll down the window to blowing into the recorder, this would total 50,000 man hours. No Garda checkpoint has fewer than two gardaí so it would be at least 100,000 man hours. This has been overlooked, which is unbelievable.
There is no doubt but that this is dangerous. I left my home to come back in here this evening while the international match is on at the Aviva Stadium. Many gardaí are out on the streets, protecting citizens, ensuring the traffic moves and providing crowd control. The confidence of the citizen in the Garda Síochána is now undermined, which is dangerous for the ordinary garda on the street and the citizen. It is also dangerous for our democracy because we depend on An Garda Síochána to uphold law and order in the State. It is dangerous if it loses the confidence of the citizens.
These are all management issues. We cannot say that the closure of the Templemore training college introduced a culture. The culture had to have been there already and it had to go to the top. We cannot blame the ordinary garda on the street but we can blame the culture that allowed it. I am already starting to hear horrifying stories of what else went on and it makes me worry that the Garda Commissioner has stated it is inevitable that we will identify more examples of bad practice.
I will ask the Tánaiste to answer just one question, which relates to her earlier remark when she spoke about the statistics relating to the southern region. The early audit report was 17%. In response to a question, she said that she did question the figures and that the lowest figure was 65%. She may remember that remark. She then stated that she cannot rely on the internal audit. Are those on the internal audit committee that is chaired by Michael Howard the only people to be thrown under the bus? Is Garda management moving away from these for another investigation? I am not speaking about the Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, but the Garda management and the culture that has developed there and which has to be dealt with.
I have lost confidence in the Garda management to deal with this situation. This is dangerous for the garda on the beat and our democracy. We need to take action but not in three months' time. An enormous amount of disrespect has been shown to the Tánaiste when she said that the first she heard about the issue with the Garda breath tests was when it was revealed at a press conference. It is unbelievable that they would not ring her private secretary before the press conference and give the Tánaiste that information. This sort of practice cannot be allowed. It is another sign of mismanagement and bad management at the core.
I heard the Assistant Commissioner, Michael Finn, whom the Minister mentioned, say in one interview that if the Commissioner were to ask him to move, he would. Anybody working in the private sector would be asked to move. If I was responsible or had any hand or part to play in the private sector, I would be imagining a knock on the door and being asked to clean out my desk, not move to another area and still keep the same salary and pension rights.
We have to act. The Minister has to act in respect of the culture within management. We have to move to protect our democracy, citizens and the ordinary garda on the beat who actually has to interact with the public and, on some occasions, put his or her life at risk to protect our democracy. We need to act now and not wait for another inquiry or investigation. It is quite clear to anybody who has listened to the debate in the Dáil and the Seanad where responsibility lies. What we need from the Minister is action.
I thank Senators for their contributions to this important debate. I have noted what has been said and how seriously every Senator takes this issue, as I do. I am very aware of the criticisms made about the lack of an explanation of how and why this happened. I am very disappointed that we do not have, at this stage, an absolute explanation of how it happened, who was involved, who is responsible and who is will be held accountable. What we have are the results of the audits carried out.
I would like to make one point on the issue raised by Senator Kevin Humphreys and a number of other Senators about the facts emerging at the press conference. Apparently, Assistant Commissioner Finn who only took over as head of the traffic corps in December was only in a position in recent days, in the last week or the week before to receive the Garda figures and compare them with those from the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. I think I have said already that that is when the huge discrepancy arose and he and others made the decision that they should put the information in the public arena. I make the point that it was An Garda Síochána that, rightly, made the decision that the figures should be in the public arena, but, of course, there should have been more consultation. I believe it is because of the reforms we have brought forward and the oversight of the Policing Authority that this information is emerging.
The Garda Commissioner has made the point that there may be other issues to emerge. I was asked earlier today if there were other issues of which I was aware, or if the Commissioner had mentioned particular issues that would emerge. She said she had made the point in a general way that it was inevitable that, as the process of reform continued, more issues would emerge.
As regards what happened, at this stage there is only speculation. of which there is an awful lot, which I have to accept. Everybody has his or her own point of view. As I have said, whether it was carelessness, exaggeration or deceit, we have to find out what led to it.
I take the point Senator Alice-Mary Higgins made about section 25. I will examine it to see whether it would be appropriate to use it in this case. The tribunal had already moved to make sure evidence would be available in respect of the issue we discussed previously, but I will certainly check it out to see whether there is a need to use the section in the current situation and whether it could or should be used. I will look at that matter immediately.
I agree with what Senators have said about the need to rebuild public confidence. With An Garda Síochána, all of us insofar as we can influence these events - I influence them as Minister for Justice and Equality - have to start to rebuild public confidence. The way to do it is to get to the bottom of what happened in this instance, to be rigorous, open and transparent about it and to have information made available as quickly as possible. Many have spoken about management. Management in An Garda Síochána must be examined in a root and branch review to see how we can make it fit for purpose because clearly there have been serious failings throughout the system.
The Government retains confidence in the Garda Commissioner. It believes she needs to get on with implementing the reforms that are under way. She was given her position following an international competition in which she had come out on top. It was an independent competition in which she emerged as the person best suited to take on the job.
Clearly, there are systemic issues that go back a long way. If we look at them, in one case we are talking about something that happened well over ten years ago. We are probably talking about a practice that has continued for perhaps two decades. Clearly, we need to examine further the question of how and why it happened.
I note what Senators have said about whether I trust the people involved to do their jobs. Senators have said that if members of An Garda Síochána cannot be relied on, it has very serious implications for our democracy. As one Senator said, we expect members of the public to fill in forms legally and correctly. That is only right and what we expect gardaí to do also. This was happening in every division and it was a very serious exaggeration. The minimum figure was about 65% and the maximum, 159% or so. We need to examine the areas where very serious discrepancies emerged during the period and it will involve a lot of people. It will be a very broad investigation, given the scale of the discrepancy across so many divisions. It raises very serious questions about line accountability. We will have to ensure those who were accountable will be brought to book. That is precisely what should happen once we find out what caused this issue to emerge.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.