"Why has it taken so long for Government to deal with this issue? Why was it a case of pushing the problem from desk to desk and passing the buck? We have ten reports. Why are elements of government in turmoil over something that should have been nipped in the bud...?"
PAC Meeting | March 13, 2014
Justice and Equality / State Pathology Building Project
Mr Brian Purcell, Secretary General Department of Justice, called and examined.
Deputy John Deasy: We have been here for a long time so I will be as brief as possible. I apologise if this has come up previously, but I have a question about the company car and penalty points issue. The Comptroller and Auditor General examined this issue and his investigation found that the State was losing approximately €1.12 million every year because drivers using company cars were evading their penalties. The report showed that one company alone had more than 200 unresolved cases. Many companies responded to the effect that they did not know who was driving the car at the time of the offence. Almost one quarter of road traffic offences involving a company car during 2011 and 2012 were quashed and almost half were not pursued. I raised this issue with the Garda Commissioner when he came before this committee recently and asked him why, after ten years, it has still not been resolved. The problem was first noted in 2002 or 2003 and it has still not been resolved.
I understand that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is obviously key in this matter. I heard a report on radio yesterday which was based on what the Garda inspectorate had reported. What kind of input does the Department of Justice an Equality have in this situation, where a problem has gone on for so long? When I asked the question of the Garda Commissioner I found his answer to be unsatisfactory. I asked him if the legislation that was passed in 2003 was ineffective and if new legislation was needed. I now understand that further legislation was passed but was not acted upon. The relevant elements within the legislation have not been dealt with by the responsible Departments. What role does the Department of Justice and Equality have in this? Whose has the lead responsibility for this within Government? In my opinion, there has been a real dearth of leadership on what is a very simple issue. A problem has been identified, legislated for but not resolved. We are talking about sizeable amounts of money and I want to know why somebody has not taken this by the scruff of the neck and dealt with it, once and for all. What role does the Department of Justice and Equality have here? What does the Department intend to do about it?
Brian Purcell: It certainly is a very valid criticism of the system that is in place at the moment. To answer the final question first, one of the recommendations in the report of the Garda inspectorate is that the Minister would immediately task the Department with chairing a group of the relevant stakeholders in all of this ---
John Deasy: I am going to stop Mr. Purcell there. Why did it take the Garda inspectorate issuing a recommendation for that to happen? This has been obvious for ten years. It has been legislated for twice. Why does the Department need the Garda inspectorate to tell it something that is already evident? It is evident to anyone who has looked at it.
Brian Purcell: Deputy Deasy is right; it has been going on for a considerable period of time. Legislation is in place, namely, the 2010 Road Traffic Act, a section of which would address this problem but that section is in Part 3 of the Act which is awaiting commencement. One of the issues that has held up the commencement of the Act is what is called the "third payment option". It is our intention, in the context of the new group that has been set up and which is having its first meeting this afternoon, to recommend that the legislation is amended in such a way as to allow for the commencement of the provision that relates to the company car issue, separately from the rest of Part 3, so that it can proceed without being held up, pending the introduction of the third payment option.
John Deasy: The legislation is deficient as is and needs to be amended. Is that correct?
Brian Purcell: To be fair, the legislation itself is not deficient. In order for the relevant section that applies to the company car issue to proceed, the Act would have to be amended to enable that element to proceed, separate from the other elements in that particular part of the legislation. I think that is how we will proceed but I do not want to pre-empt the group's discussions. The group will be jointly chaired by my Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and I think that the best and quickest way of enabling us to deal with this problem would be to go down that route. Maybe when the group meets I will be told that there are other options but I believe that this is the way we will move it on. I can assure Deputy Deasy that the Minister, my Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are committed to resolving the outstanding issues as quickly as possible.
John Deasy: That is fair enough, but a punter might ask Mr. Purcell why it is taking so long to deal with this. The Comptroller and Auditor General has conducted his investigation and found that very significant amounts of money are being lost to the Exchequer. Why does it take so long for two Departments and An Garda Síochána to get around a table? Why does it take a Garda inspectorate report to precipitate that? That question must be asked. The Public Accounts Committee has to ask that question. We are now potentially talking about a third tranche of legislation, assuming we amend the 2010 Act, to get this right. The question must be asked as to how efficient problem solving within our Departments really is, in the face of the company car issue. Mr. Purcell has answered my question - he has a road map and the group is meeting. However, even a cursory look at the history of the company car issue would lead one to assert that the Government has failed dismally to deal with it in a reasonable time period. I do not know if the Comptroller and Auditor General has anything to say on the issue, given that he is the person who came up with these recommendations.
Seamus McCarthy (Comptroller and Auditor General): It is disappointing that something which was first raised in 2003 and presented in a relatively straightforward way as an obvious problem has not been resolved ten years on. While there have been attempts to solve the problem and there seems to be a way to do so, the lack of a resolution thus far is disappointing.
Brian Purcell: I would not disagree with Deputy Deasy or the Comptroller and Auditor General on that. It should have been moved on before now. It was dependent on dealing with the third payment option which is something that is complicated and will be quite costly to implement, particularly in terms of the investment in IT that will be required. The solution to move this along as quickly as possible is the one I have indicated and I will certainly be pressing ---
John Deasy: Is the Department of Justice and Equality taking the lead on this or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport?
Brian Purcell: The group is jointly chaired by ourselves and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. An amendment to the Road Traffic Act is required. I must point out, by the way, that I am not blaming the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport but---Exactly. The Commission said that he was not blaming the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
Brian Purcell: We must ensure that both Departments push this measure through. The group has not been set up to deal with this issue solely, but with a range of issues that have been covered in previous reports in addition to the latest report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and by the inspectors' report. The issues range across the core services in the Garda Síochána and other related agencies. We have been given clear instructions by the Government and the Minister that problems areas must be progressed as expeditiously as they can. That is the direction in which we are going.
"I put questions to the Commissioner and frankly I could not believe some of the responses because they were so scant. That is the reason I raised the company car issue. As I have said, I have come to the conclusion after drilling into the figures that issues, which are simple to explain, are put on the long finger, when there is no need to do that."
John Deasy: Fair enough. On foot of Mr. Purcell's response to the question, I must address the issue of penalty points in the broad sense. I have reflected on what has happened in the past couple of years and the processes that have evolved as the penalty points became an issue in the media, the Oireachtas, the Garda Síochána, the Department and among the public. Let me list the reports: we now have a Garda inspectorate's report; we are looking forward to a Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission report; Assistant Commissioner O'Mahoney's report; countless reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General; and other reviews. Why has nobody in the Department taken a leadership role and with PULSE technology dealt with infractions that were easy to identify? The Garda inspectorate has obviously done this. Why has it taken so long for Government to deal with this issue? Why was it a case of pushing the problem from desk to desk and passing the buck? We have ten reports. The question I pose may not be for the Secretary General directly or the Department of Justice and Equality, but they are involved, but what is the reason for the myriad of reports on an issue that should be reasonably simple to address? Should there not have been an easier way to deal with this issue? Why are elements of government in turmoil over something that should have been nipped in the bud if problems, such as those identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General years ago, were addressed? Why are we now waiting for another report from the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission? Does the Secretary General have a response?
Brian Purcell: It depends on which aspect of the problem is under focus. The fixed charge processing system has worked by and large in a particular way. In broad terms in a three-year period one will have 1.5 million fixed charge process tickets issued. In the context of the complaints made about PULSE, which Assistant Commissioner John O'Mahoney investigated, he examined the 1.46 million fixed charged notices issued, of which 66,000 were cancelled. Of the 66,000 cancelled fixed charged notices, some 37,000 were discretionary cancellations. Over a period of three and a half years that worked out at 10,000 a year, which was two per Garda district per week. On average, there are five Garda stations in a district, so that in every Garda station one ticket was cancelled every two and a half weeks. The vast majority of fixed charge notice fines are paid. The Comptroller and Auditor General has identified issues with summonses but in terms of the overall numbers, the system works reasonably well. The Garda inspectorate's report highlights particular issues. Given the commentary on the issue, may I point out the Minister for Justice and Equality referred the two Garda reports to the independent Garda inspectorate who provided an independent report, which has been accepted.
The issues that the Comptroller and Auditor General has rightly pointed out as needing to be addressed, such as the issue of summons, has been a problem for some time. There are difficulties with summons, such as the operational difficulty of serving summons. The changing nature of how we live, with the significant increase in the numbers living in apartments, complicates the serving of summonses. We need to take a very close look at this, but it will not necessarily be that easy to deal with. This is a problem that has bedevilled the system down through the years. We will have to come up with some sort of solution that works better than the current system. The working group will have to make progress on this.
John Deasy: I know the Minister referred the issue to the Garda inspectorate, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and so on, but having looked at it, I see a common thread. We are not dealing with issues as quickly as we should be, issues are put on the long finger and in some cases this may be up to ten years. I would add the penalty point saga to that. I do not think it is necessary for the Minister and the Department of Justice and Equality to refer it to somebody else, I think the Department should deal with it. In some cases, officials may think that is impossible and the matter should be referred to an independent arbitrator, but the leadership in the Department should deal with issues that the Comptroller and Auditor General has flagged.
I put questions to the Commissioner and frankly I could not believe some of the responses because they were so scant. That is the reason I raised the company car issue. As I have said, I have come to the conclusion after drilling into the figures that issues, which are simple to explain, are put on the long finger, when there is no need to do that.
The Secretary General has answered the question. In respect of penalty points, company cars and statute barred summonses, there is a distinct lack of action, whether that is the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality or of collective Departments. I think the group should focus on how to respond quickly to issues as they arise and deal with them collectively.
Brian Purcell: Deputy Deasy has made a valid point. The problem was first identified in the Comptroller and Auditor General's 2003 report. While things have moved on, in particular in respect of fixed charge processing system, some of the core difficulties still exist, in spite of efforts over a long period. There may have been some improvements but we still have not managed to deal with them effectively. It is correct to say that some of the recommendations from the action plan have already been acted upon but the key issues will be dealt with.
I give an assurance to the Chairman and members of the committee that we will ensure this is driven forward from now on, regardless of what may have occurred and whatever failings there may have been in dealing with some of these issues in the past. I have been given very clear instructions by the Minister that we have to ensure this group deals with these problems quickly. If there are resource issues involved, we have to deal with that element. As I stated, however, I assure the Chairman, members of the committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General that they can expect to see progress being made quickly in this area. I take the Deputy's point which is a valid one.
John Deasy: Mr. Purcell will see that there is a significant danger that members of the public will decide that the Department and the criminal justice system are inherently inefficient if these issues are not addressed within a reasonable timeframe. They look at the entire penalty points saga and ask what is going on and why people cannot simply step in and deal with it. While Mr. Purcell is correct that the system as a whole works well, it was known for years that the use of discretion was a major factor in the penalty points system, yet the issue was not dealt with appropriately and was left hanging. We now have four or five reports which clearly point out that the problem with the system has been known about for a long time. Members of the public believe the matter should have been addressed a long time ago.