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Penalty Points System Offences

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 13 June 2013

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Questions (9)

Barry Cowen


9. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to establish an independent inquiry into the penalty point controversy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28293/13]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Justice)

As the Deputy is aware, I asked the Garda Commissioner to conduct an examination into the allegations surrounding the cancellation of fixed charge notices. I believe it was right to refer the allegations to the Garda Commissioner for a fact-finding investigation in the first instance. The investigation, which was carried out by assistant commissioner John O'Mahoney, was a considerable task that took almost six months to complete. It involved 28 staff, including five chief superintendents and six superintendents. The O'Mahoney report, which constitutes a detailed examination of the allegations, found no evidence to suggest any act of criminality but did identify certain departures from administration procedures. Files in respect of three members of the Garda Síochána have been forwarded to the assistant commissioner in charge of internal affairs for further investigation under the disciplinary regulations. The O'Mahoney report, and a related report by the Garda professional standards unit, recommended a number of changes aimed at ensuring administrative procedures are correctly followed throughout the force in relation to the cancellation of fixed charge notices. I have asked the Garda Síochána Inspectorate to consider these changes prior to implementation to make any necessary supplementary recommendations and to review their implementation after 18 months. With regard to the need for any further examination of this issue, I have referred both reports to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. I look forward to hearing the views of the committee on this issue, particularly on whether any additional procedural or legislative changes are desirable. I understand the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions agreed yesterday to forward the reports to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

Can the Minister tell me why neither he nor the Garda Commissioner involved the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission in this exercise before now? Section 85 of the 2005 Act stipulates that a complaint about the Garda to the Garda has to be notified to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, but I do not think that happened in this instance. Does the Minister think it is right or appropriate to have the Garda investigating the Garda?

As the Deputy knows, the allegations made in this instance came from two members of the Garda Síochána. In those circumstances, it was completely appropriate for the matter to be investigated as it was. At that point in time, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission was not an appropriate body to deal with it. Of course it was open to any individual to refer the matter to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission if he or she deemed it fit, but it was not in the context of the legislation an approach to be taken by two serving members of the force. This matter has been substantially investigated. I recall the Deputy acknowledging during the debate on this issue the good faith of the Garda in the manner in which it does its substantial work.

I was anxious to ensure we had the maximum level of transparency. The report I received was published in that context. A second report was also published. As I have said, the joint committee has an opportunity to bring further daylight to this matter. It is open to the committee to determine how it proceeds. I have no difficulty with its asking those who have complaints to make to do so, asking those who disagree with the report to detail the substantive evidential basis for their disagreement, or asking the Garda Commissioner to address those matters. That would ensure there is the necessary transparency. Of course the other bodies I have mentioned can determine how they wish to approach these matters.

I wonder if the Minister is concerned that the Road Safety Authority is calling for an independent inquiry. I would like to point out once again that there was a lack of natural justice in the report. It offended the rule against bias because the force was investigating itself. It ignored the principle that the other side should be heard, because the whistleblowers were not interviewed. The report found evidence of widespread non-compliance with the rules governing the keeping of records and files. It showed there have been many cases of points being cancelled outside the relevant districts. There was no auditing even though there was supposed to be. The mandatory requirement to fill in a comment box was circumvented by the insertion of blank spaces. The PULSE and fixed charge processing systems were at odds with each other, and both of them were at odds with the 2005 Garda cancellation policy. The legality of the system is being called into question, as the Minister knows. I am surprised he did not seek the opinion of an independent senior counsel.

I reiterate that as a Member of this Parliament, Deputy Wallace will have an opportunity to have any complaints he wishes to make considered and addressed by the joint committee. He can furnish to the committee any evidence he has to indicate that there was some failure in the investigation that was conducted and the report that was published. If he wishes to pursue this matter further, I suggest he will have every opportunity to do so in the manner I have outlined.

Is it not very strange that it took an Oireachtas committee to make the blindingly obvious decision to refer this matter to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission?

How can the Minister make any claims of transparency or stand over the process when he did not do the very thing that was so apparently necessary? The Oireachtas committees themselves have been in correspondence with each other, as I understand it, and the decision was made by them that the ombudsman was appropriate. Indeed, the Minister's own colleague, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is also, along with the Road Safety Authority, of the view that independence of inquiry is necessary in this matter.

I should have added to my response to Deputy Wallace that, in so far as the Road Safety Authority has any evidence to present on this matter to suggest there is anything inaccurate in the report furnished to the joint Oireachtas committee, I would welcome the Road Safety Authority making that submission to the joint committee and, no doubt, the joint committee can call before it members of the Road Safety Authority who have those concerns and let them present their case.

In the context of this matter, transparency has been provided by the publication of the two reports that were published by their furnishing to the joint committee. One cannot have greater transparency than a parliamentary committee being given the opportunity to address issues that may be of concern or conclusions that may be criticised in a report that was published. It, of course, remains for the Garda Inspectorate, or an independent body entirely independent of the Garda Síochána, to address issues in the manner in which they deem appropriate. I have no difficulty with Oireachtas committees deciding how they wish to proceed. It remains to be seen whether the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, if it receives a communication from an Oireachtas committee, determines it an appropriate matter for it to engage in.

My only interest in this is to ensure we have a system that is above reproach and that we still have a system that is humane and ensures individuals are given the benefit of a discretion in circumstances where it is appropriate and where justice is not done, and that there is no question of there being any question mark hanging over the manner in which this particular issue is administered. I would not disagree with Deputy Wallace on one aspect of this. It is quite clear there was serious administrative dysfunction, and I have acknowledged that in regard to the manner in which this was dealt with in some districts. That is why the new recommendations made and the code or protocols proposed to be implemented are of importance.