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.