PAC Meeting | November 20, 2014
Brendan Ryan [CEO, Courts Service]; Joyce Duffy [Principal Officer, Courts Policy Division] called and examined.
Deputy John Deasy: I have some brief questions, the first of which has to do with Circuit Court sittings leading to civil Circuit Court sittings. I understand in the past 24 hours nominations have been made for seven vacancies on the Circuit Court.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
Deputy John Deasy: If we take my constituency as an example, this month's proposed sitting of the civil Circuit Court was abandoned at the last minute. As far as Waterford generally is concerned, the last civil Circuit Court sitting was in May and the next one will be March. Can Mr. Ryan tell me how many sittings of the civil Circuit Court have been postponed around the country because of the vacancies that have occurred in the past six weeks? I checked with the Garda, and when it comes to criminal Circuit Court sittings, the opinion of one fairly senior garda was that they had not been disrupted, but can Mr. Ryan tell me how many sittings have been disrupted?
Mr. Brendan Ryan: I do not have that information. I know the Waterford position because I got correspondence from one of the legal practitioners in Waterford about it. The Deputy is correct that the eight vacancies in the Circuit Court have had an impact. The president of the court decides on the sittings and who should sit where and the cases.
Deputy John Deasy: I understand that. I am asking about the sittings nationally.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: I will have to get back to the Deputy.
Deputy John Deasy: Mr. Ryan must have some idea. This is what he deals with every day. Were there other sittings-----
Mr. Brendan Ryan: The Deputy can take it that if there are seven vacancies at the moment there could be-----
Deputy John Deasy: There are 40 Circuit Court judges-----
Mr. Brendan Ryan: No. There are 38 Circuit Court judges.
Deputy John Deasy: -----there or thereabouts.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: One of them is on long-term sick leave. We are working off 30 judges at the moment. The president prioritises criminal matters, and after criminal matters it is family law matters.
Deputy John Deasy: I understand all that. I understand the process. Does Mr. Ryan have no idea of the number of sittings that have been postponed because of the vacancies?
Mr. Brendan Ryan: The representations I have got are about Waterford. I have no doubt there have been other cancellations, but I do not have those figures. It depends on the scheduling of cases in any Circuit Court in Ireland. They are scheduled a year in advance. They are scheduled either for criminal court, the civil court or the family court. If most of those scheduled sittings this month were criminal court, the impact on the civil court would be minimal because the judges are still dealing with criminal matters. If the scheduled sittings were for the civil court, as was the case in Waterford, unfortunately, the president has directed that criminal matters have to take priority because, as the Deputy will appreciate, people may be in custody.
Deputy John Deasy: Mr. Ryan cannot answer that question.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: No, unfortunately, but if the Deputy wishes I can come back to him on it.
Deputy John Deasy: No. I believe the issue will be dealt with now that the nominations have been made. I am trying to find out how this occurred procedurally and make the point to the Department that it should not occur again. We are in an unusual situation with the creation of an entirely different court, but at the same time, these things happen on occasion because of retirements, deaths, promotions and elevations of a kind, and always have done. In this particular case, seven vacancies were created as a result of one retirement, one elevation to the Court of Appeal and the elevation to the High Court of five individuals. The Government promoted judges from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and it promoted judges from the Circuit Court to the High Court, but what it did not do was make new appointments to the Circuit Court or the District Court in their places. That occurred in the past 24 hours, but there was a gap.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: There is a gap.
Deputy John Deasy: There is a gap.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: There was a gap, yes. I am not trying to defend the Department of Justice and Equality or the Government, but this was unprecedented. I have worked in the courts since 1981. This was unprecedented.
Deputy John Deasy: That is fine. I know that; I just said that. Even when it comes to civil Circuit Court issues, they are fairly serious.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
Deputy John Deasy: When we talk about criminal Circuit Court issues we are talking about very serious crimes.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
Deputy John Deasy: When we talk about civil Circuit Court sittings, those are serious issues.
Mr. Brendan Ryan: Yes.
"If seven principals of primary schools were being promoted from the ranks there would not be vacancies for the positions they left because teachers would be in place..."
Deputy John Deasy: If seven principals of primary schools were being promoted from the ranks there would not be vacancies for the positions they left because teachers would be in place. Yet when it comes to this area, it appears to be acceptable. It is a political process. I know it should not be, and it is something this Government probably has fallen down on when it comes to judicial appointments. In our programme for Government we promised that we would look at this, and I believe it is a failing. People such as Mrs. Justice Susan Denham have commented that it is a miracle our Judiciary has maintained its independence so well considering it is so political.
That aside, what we can do at the very least - I understand this is not Mr. Ryan's role - is to have a reasonable transition when something like this occurs to ensure there are no gaps and that sittings are not postponed.
I know Ms Duffy does not set policy, but she deals with it within the Department of Justice and Equality. I can raise this with the Minister, but it is a simple question. The suggestion I am making and that I will make to the Minister - I am raising it with Mr. Ryan now because he is the person dealing with policy in the Department when it comes to the courts - is that when this occurs, the appointments to the Circuit Court and the District Court should happen at the same time. They should happen in tandem or, at the very least, within a specified period. That is a simple suggestion.
Mr. Ryan makes a good case about the Courts Service's efficiency and talked about a 16% reduction in its staff. Some would state it is too efficient, while plenty of communities nationwide would suggest it has stripped down courthouses and so on. The service has done a good job in cutting costs and, at the very least, it is possible to have sittings take place. While one part of the Government system may be working well, another is not and has failed in providing judges to preside over sittings in the Circuit Court.
This is something that could be rectified easily. I do not know whether the witnesses have a comment to make on this. I again acknowledge to Ms Duffy that I am aware departmental officials do not set policy. I do not know whether this issue has been raised in the past, but it appears to be a reasonable suggestion that when something like this occurs - retirements and deaths take place all the time - this could happen in tandem.
Ms Joyce Duffy: I am certainly happy to take back the Deputy's comments to the Minister who probably will make the point that she has moved speedily to appoint judges and assist in the process of appointing them. In the past four to six weeks she has brought a series of memorandums to the Government on appointing ten judges to the Court of Appeal, the subsequent replacements to the High Court and, this week, on appointments to the Circuit Court. As Mr. Ryan stated, this has been unprecedented.
This is the first new court jurisdiction established since 1961. It has been a long time since we went through such a major change to the system. As for the nominations to the Circuit Court announced by the Government yesterday, the process was completed in as speedy a manner as possible. As the Deputy is aware, names are submitted via the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board which conducts its process. The Government then has its part to play in evaluating the names and considering serving judges for the position. However, I appreciate that there has been a consequence, of which the Minister will certainly be made aware.
Deputy John Deasy: I take Ms Duffy's point. The situation was unusual. I received a reply to a parliamentary question on this matter a few days ago and what has happened in the past couple of days is miraculous, considering that the last line of the reply indicated that the Government would be dealing with the matter in the coming weeks.
What role does Mr. Ryan play when something like this occurs? Obviously, the presidents of the different courts have a major role to play in this regard, but as far as rostering is concerned, the issue about court sittings taking place on Monday afternoons or Fridays has come up repeatedly. Is this something in which the Courts Service gets involved in any way, shape or form?
Mr. Brendan Ryan: No, it is entirely a matter for the presidents of the courts. The Deputy will appreciate that we support sittings as they occur.
Deputy John Deasy: It may be an old jurisprudential cliche, but justice delayed is justice denied. Perhaps Ms Duffy might take the suggestion back to the Minister. While I can raise it directly with her, it is reasonable to avoid such delays because, as Mr. Ryan is aware, practitioners could not believe people had not thought about the gaps that there would be as a result of these appointments or elevations.
Ms Joyce Duffy: Absolutely.
PAC Meeting | Sept 18, 2014
Business of the Committee [Extract]
Deputy John Deasy: Comments were made about the committee's role with regard to penalty points. What is our plan? Are we waiting for the Garda to finish its audit? Will we then invite the acting Garda Commissioner back before the committee? Have we been in contact with the Garda on this? What are we proposing?
Chairman (Deputy John McGuinness): An investigation is ongoing and we are to get a copy of the report. That is the up-to-date position, as I understand it. We can arrange a meeting with the acting Garda Commissioner to go through the latest information when we have the report.
Deputy John Deasy: Will the meeting be in public session here?
Chairman: We can do that, yes. We can include the latest information in our concluding report.
Deputy John Deasy: That relates to my second question. How close are we to concluding our end of things?
Clerk to the Committee: I had a draft report prepared based on the hearings we had up to the summer, including the road safety elements that we covered with the Road Safety Authority. This report can be deferred easily until the latest issue involving Sergeant McCabe's allegations has been dealt with, if the committee so wishes. I was going to circulate the draft report tomorrow.
Deputy John Deasy: Through the years the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General has compiled four or five reports on this issue. Is it being actively considered at the moment or is everything finalised on this matter?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy: We have finalised and presented our report. In fairness to the Garda Síochána, a period of time should be allowed for new arrangements to bed in. After this period we will consider re-examining the controls, but we are not doing anything at the moment.
Deputy John Deasy: We are waiting for the Garda to finish its audit and at that point we will incorporate what we need to into our report. At the same time we will invite the acting Garda Commissioner to come before the committee. That is fine.
Chairman: I do not think we can conclude our report without consideration of that. We can only consider the concluded report when the Garda investigation is completed. This is very different from how we started - we started with a private hearing involving Sergeant McCabe and we were unsure. Then we received the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and got full information. This is new information and we will see what emerges from the Garda report.
Deputy John Deasy: Do we have any idea of the timeline for the finalisation of the Garda audit?
Chairman: I understand the Garda is dealing with this as an urgent matter.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy: A public report within three weeks has been mentioned. I can verify that.
Clerk to the Committee: I can get in touch with the Garda.
PAC Meeting | Thursday, 10 July 2014
An Garda Síochána: Road Traffic
Deputy John Deasy: I welcome the acting Garda Commissioner. My first question relates to notices issued for speeding offences which arrive in the post. In many of the cases that come before the courts, the reason for the summons is that no payment was received for the fine. In many cases, however, people state that they have not received the notice. Would it not be better for everyone involved if notices were sent by registered post, given that people take notice of registered post? This is a common sense measure which would save court time and has been suggested to me by serving gardaí several times in the past year.
Acting Garda Commissioner, Noirín O'Sullivan: This is one of the areas we are very conscious of. We mentioned it earlier when talking about the non-delivery of fixed charge notices. The criminal justice working group has been established to look at the recommendations from the fixed charge processing system inspectorate report, and that is a matter that has been prioritised by the working group in terms of the registered delivery of fixed charge notices. The change would be the introduction of a presumption of delivery via enactment of Part 3 of the 2010 Act. This would help address the issue and enable a speedier service.
John Deasy: Ms O'Sullivan expects that people will receive notices by registered post in the medium term.
Noirín O'Sullivan: Yes, I think so. Mr. O'Sullivan from the Department of Justice and Equality co-chairs the working group, so he could update the Deputy on the position in that regard.
Doncha O'Sullivan: The working group is looking at a provision in the 2010 Road Traffic Act which changes the presumption with regard to delivery. This would mean that if there was a certificate of delivery, the presumption in court would be that a person received it. He or she would then have to be able to provide active, positive evidence that he or she did not get it. The context is that at the moment the Garda must essentially prove that a person received the notice, which is impossible.
John Deasy: The working group is changing the burden of proof.
Doncha O'Sullivan: Yes; essentially, we are changing the burden of proof. The road tax office tells us that very few people contact it to say they did not receive a road tax disc in the post. It uses the same address that is used for serving fixed charge notices. The hope is that the burden will shift. The working group is looking at other reforms aimed at trying to address and improve this matter. The registered post issue can be considered in that context, but it is one of a number of issues that are being looked at.
John Deasy: What is the timeline for making this change?
Doncha O'Sullivan: The main timeline is linked to the introduction of what is known as the third payment option, an issue that will also be helped here. We hope we will be able to agree a plan to roll out the information technology required to implement the third payment option. While we might reach agreement on that this year - I hope it will be soon - there is a long lead time to deliver this IT plan. It would take at least a year to do that.
John Deasy: My next question relates to the number of road deaths, which are the main reason the witnesses are before the committee. The number of road deaths has increased in the past couple of years.
I want to bring the witnesses back a few weeks to when the Secretary General of the Department of the Transport, Tourism and Sport and representatives of the Road Safety Authority appeared before the committee. Perhaps this a question for the assistant Commissioner Mr. Twomey also. I asked a question about analysing causation and the reasons for road deaths. The example I used was the lowering of the maximum allowed blood alcohol level a couple of years ago in legislation. I was surprised that no analysis had been done by an organisation such as the Road Safety Authority when it comes to road fatalities. In the meantime, the committee has contacted the Road Safety Authority a few times. Given the increased number of checkpoints, more random breathalysing, more GoSafe cameras and the lowering of the blood alcohol limit, it seems obvious that one would analyse these measures and link them with road fatalities so that we can know what works and what does not. I am amazed that an organisation such as the Road Safety Authority does not conduct that kind of analysis on an ongoing basis. We pass legislation all the time, but in some cases I do not believe the evidence is behind it completely. I think the witnesses know where I am coming from. I wonder what kind of analysis the Garda Síochána conducts when it comes to an issue as serious as this.
Noirín O'Sullivan: Absolutely. There are a lot of complexities involved in the whole area of serious or fatal injuries in road collisions. If it would be helpful, I will invite Superintendent Con O'Donohue, who deals with the RSA on a regular basis in respect of this matter, to explain some of the issues I am raising.
Con O'Donohue: From 1 January 2014 we improved the data that is provided to the Road Safety Authority. A number of changes to the data that it had requested were rolled out as part of a project on 1 January 2014. This also means the RSA is getting the data in a more timely fashion than previously. Allied to that, on a regular basis, about every three or four years, the Road Safety Authority and its predecessors have come to look at a sample of Garda files. They get down and dirty in terms of the actual investigation files to see what they can elicit from those files in terms of the causation factors. Recently I met the RSA's research manager. There is a proposal to start another research project within the next couple of months. Our files are open at all times to the Road Safety Authority to come in and analyse them. It will be going to tender, as the RSA does not have the resources to carry out this significant job, which is exactly what the Deputy is saying - getting down and dirty into the files to see exactly what were the causation factors for particular accidents, whether it was a combination of sleep deprivation and alcohol or drugs, speed, or the condition of vehicles. Currently, the RSA gets data from our PULSE system; essentially, the PULSE system records that a collision occurred and gives the headline issues. It always has that.
John Deasy: Let me break it down somewhat. Let us say there were 200 fatalities - I think the number was 190 in 2013. How many of those fatalities related to excessive blood alcohol? Is that information tracked by the organisation? It is fairly basic. I appreciate Mr. O'Donohue's response and what is being done. Of those 190 fatalities, how many of those were related to alcohol?
Con O'Donohue: Off-hand, I cannot tell the Deputy about the alcohol-----
John Deasy: Do you track that?
Con O'Donohue: It is recorded. In regard to seatbelts, I am aware that in 20% of the fatalities people were not wearing seatbelts.
Deputy John Deasy: Does Mr. O'Donohue know where I am coming from with this? This is basic stuff. I have been around here for 12 years, and I always think that some people legislate blindly because they do not have a clue. If the Garda Síochána and the Road Safety Authority do not know, how do legislators know what legislation to pass if it is not evidence-based in terms of what works and what does not work?
Con O'Donohue: I understand.
John Deasy: There is a big gap here.
Con O'Donohue: We certainly-----
John Deasy: It is clear from the number of road deaths ten years ago compared to the number today that there has been a massive drop, so some things definitely work and improvements have been made across the board. I still do not get why more analysis is not done when it comes to causation.
Noirín O'Sullivan: In terms of blood alcohol count, as I said at the outset, sometimes it can be difficult, particularly if people have been fatally injured in road collisions or require medical intervention very early on. That is a priority. Research is done by the Medical Research Bureau, also which has responsibility for analysing the blood alcohol content of samples. As Mr. O'Donohue has said, we see that speed is cause of many fatal road collisions and serious injury collisions; also, non-wearing of seat belts and the use of mobile phones. Coming into the autumn period, there is a lack of awareness by pedestrians in terms of dark clothing and stepping off footpaths. Sometimes cyclists wear earphones and iPods. There are many causation effects other than blood alcohol content, but that is being monitored.
John Deasy: I thank the acting Garda Commissioner for her response. Maybe I could ask Superintendent O'Donohue another obvious question. The number of road deaths increased from 162 in 2012 to 190 in 2013. What is the reason for the increase, given that we have made all these improvements? We are here to discuss the GoSafe system. More checkpoints have been put in place, as mentioned by the Road Safety Authority. What is the reason road deaths have increased by almost 30 in the year?
Con O'Donohue: There are a variety of contributing factors to most collisions, as alluded to by the acting Garda Commissioner. Some of them are very unusual. The Deputy mentioned that legislation was passed. The reduced blood alcohol limits, mandatory alcohol testing, the safety camera project and all the various initiatives taken in recent years have reduced the very high level of road deaths that obtained ten years ago.
John Deasy: I accept that.
Con O'Donohue: We are now at a stage at which the number of fatalities will bottom out. The best countries in the world, unfortunately, still have road fatalities. At some point the number will bottom out.
John Deasy: Fair enough.
Con O'Donohue: There will always be a blip. Sometimes they cannot be explained in terms of an overall trend. We were surprised that in 20% of the fatalities last year people were not wearing seatbelts. That is one that jumped off the page, with everyone asking, in this day and age, why 20% of people were not wearing seatbelts. Speed is still a factor. With the change in the economy, as things start to improve we are getting more vehicles on the road. I spoke to Road Safety Authority about that issue and asked if it is an issue we need to research. Would fuel sales indicate that we are getting more vehicles on the road and more mileage travelled? As a consequence, there is likely to be an increase in the number of deaths and serious injuries. The Road Safety Authority, which has a research function, has not come back to us on that yet, but it will. Certainly, we are working with the Road Safety Authority and the National Roads Authority on the engineering issues. All the time we are sharing and trying to get information. As to 2013, whether it was a blip or whether the number of fatalities is beginning to level out, we still have to keep striving the reduce the number. We are aware of the tragedy for families with one fatality, so we will never be satisfied. At the same time, we all know we will never reach zero, although that should be the ultimate aim.
John Deasy: I thank the superintendent.
The last set of crime figures showed that homicides had risen by 22.5%. The acting Garda Commissioner made a comment at the time in which she said the increase was not attributable to organised crime. Can she explain? To what does she attribute the increase?
Noirín O'Sullivan: Unfortunately, no more than for road deaths, any death is a death too many, no matter how it is caused. The increase in the homicides is not attributable to organised crime.
It is certainly attributable to a greater propensity to violence and "familial" interactions - I do not like using the term "domestic" - as opposed to other types of interactions such as organised crime. There is something to be done here in regard to responsible behaviour and awareness.
While the homicide rate is up this year, there is a detection rate of 67%, which I see as positive. I do not like to talk of homicide in these terms, because even one death is a death too many. We want to prevent deaths rather than detect them.
John Deasy: The acting Commissioner is basically making the case that society is becoming more violent.
Noirín O'Sullivan: Certainly there is more of a rush to violence not just in terms of deaths, but in terms of serious injury and people acting without thinking.
PAC Meeting | June 19, 2014
Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport
Mr. Tom O'Mahony (Secretary General) and Ms Moyagh Murdock, right (CEO, Road Safety Authority) called and examined.
Deputy John Deasy: I have an issue which is not directly related to the discussion but it is pertinent to the Department. A couple of years ago legislation was passed to reduce blood alcohol limits for drivers from 80 mg to 50 mg. Has any analysis been carried out on the effectiveness of that measure? Has anyone in the Department looked at causation or levels of effectiveness in the reduction of blood alcohol limits from 80 mg to 50 mg?
Tom O'Mahony: The RSA carries out the research but it might be a bit soon.
Moyagh Murdock: Is the Deputy is referring to the effectiveness of the ability to drive with a lower alcohol level?
John Deasy: No, I am talking about prevention of death.
Moyagh Murdock: I will need to revert to the Deputy with more specific analysis. Over the past 12 months, mobile checkpoints and detections for breath tests have shown a significant reduction in the level of detections with the new levels in operation. Lowering the levels has raised awareness and there are fewer people taking chances. The figures over the past 12 months have demonstrated a 3% reduction in the number of detections, even though the number of mobile checkpoints has increased.
John Deasy: The number of checkpoints has increased.
Moyagh Murdock: Yes, by 9%.
John Deasy: There has been a 3% reduction. It is not possible to say because the RSA has not done an analysis.
Moyagh Murdock: There has not been any major analysis but I can give the Deputy some of the top line figures for the number of detections and the number of checkpoints-----
John Deasy: No, that is okay.
Moyagh Murdock: There has been an increase of 9% in mobile checkpoints over the 12 months and a reduction of detections on alcohol issues by 3%, so a combination of the two would indicate that there has been a reduction in risk-taking. However, there are still too many getting caught, having taken the chance.
John Deasy: What kind of analysis is carried out by the RSA as a matter of course to determine whether legislation is effective or ineffective? Surely this is pretty landmark legislation when it comes to road safety. An appreciable period of time has passed since the enactment of that legislation. Is there a set period of time for the RSA and the Garda Síochána to determine its effectiveness?
Moyagh Murdock: Over recent months we have been working with the Garda Síochána and interfacing with the PULSE system to collect the statistics. There was much work done and significant investment by the RSA to get that information in order that our own research section can now utilise it. The system is now working. We receive excellent information on a daily basis. It will take some time to build up some statistical analysis but we are happy to come back with information on the effectiveness of the legislation. A raft of new legislation is being rolled out in the coming months and points are being increased from two to three over a number of offences.
John Deasy: In short, Ms Murdock is saying there has been no analysis as such.
Moyagh Murdock: The analysis we have done in the past would be more of a manual analysis. We did not have the capability until more recently to do the type of database interrogation about which the Deputy is talking. There certainly was analysis done in the past, but we will have a much more interrogative analysis in future that will allow us to produce information on a more scientific basis.
John Deasy: When will that analysis be available?
Moyagh Murdock: We are using the information as we go along. It is a question of setting the parameters of the investigation and deciding what information we want to find out. That process is under way and we have the capacity to come back with specific results on specific queries and set out an analysis of them. The Garda Síochána issues monthly statistics on fatalities, collisions, checkpoints, and the number of detections of speeding, driving while intoxicated and other offences under the road traffic legislation. There is a whole raft of queries on which we will be able to work with the Garda.
John Deasy: I have a related question in regard to drug driving. Given that the number of checkpoints is up by 8% or 9%, has there been a corresponding increase in the rate of detection of drug driving?
Moyagh Murdock: I do not have that information to hand. Our research and education section is working very closely with the Garda on this issue.
John Deasy: Does Ms Murdock have any idea of the numbers? This issue has been knocking around for some years now.
Moyagh Murdock: It is a work in progress. I will come back to the Deputy with information.
John Deasy: Does Ms Murdock not have any sense as to the effectiveness of the current regime?
Moyagh Murdock: I do not have that information to hand. We are working with the Garda on the effectiveness of detection and, in particular, the challenges in terms of on-the-spot detection. There is a working group engaging with the Garda on that issue. I will get back to the Deputy with more details.
John Deasy: I am not sure whether the Comptroller and Auditor General's office has done any work on this. I would like some type of analysis to be done with regard to blood alcohol levels, drug driving, increased checkpoints and the effectiveness of measures that are taken legislatively and by the Garda. It is important that such an analysis be done.
Moyagh Murdock: Absolutely.
John Deasy: We are all striving to improve road safety, but if we do not know what is effective, we are shooting in the dark. The weakness in the system for years has been that some of the measures that were taken were introduced by legislators who were not tuned in to what really needs to happen. The only way of finding out what is required is by doing the type of indepth analysis to which I referred. I am surprised it has not been done given the time that has passed since the enactment of the legislation. The issue of drug driving has been spoken about endlessly.
Moyagh Murdock: The technological advances we have implemented, with the PULSE system now interfacing with our own systems, will facilitate what the Deputy is talking about. I agree 100% that we should be able to produce that type of information, not just in regard to drink driving but also drug driving. I am optimistic that we will be able to get information for the Deputy in the near future. That project has just come to fruition. It involved a significant amount of development work and an investment of more than €400,000 in developing the IT interface.
"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.
PAC Meeting | February 6, 2013 (Prelude)
Re: Correspondence, dated 31 January 2014, from Seán Costello & Co. solicitors regarding their client Sergeant Maurice McCabe.
Clerk to the Committee: My advice is that the publication of the transcript of a meeting is a procedural rather than a legal matter. The appropriate rules which apply, therefore, are the Standing Orders of the Dáil. I have consulted senior colleagues within the office who have informed me that publishing the proceedings of a private meeting would constitute a fundamental change in procedure for Oireachtas committees and that this could have implications for the future not just of the PAC, but also for other committees to which evidence might be given in private session. The advice I received is that in accordance with Standing Order 99, the matter should be reserved to CPP if the PAC decides that it wants to accede to the request of Sergeant McCabe.
Vice Chairman (Kieran O'Donnell): I would like to hear members views on this matter. When issues of this nature arose in the past, we always took advice from Ms Mellissa English, the parliamentary legal adviser. Perhaps we might request that she come before us early next week to outline her views on this matter.
Deputy Shane Ross: I do not agree with the course of action outlined. Sergeant McCabe has made a reasonable request and surely he is entitled to a copy of the transcript. We do not need to procure copious amounts of advice in respect of an issue of this nature. We would not be releasing the transcript to the public, we were requested to release it to Sergeant McCabe. He can then do what he likes with it. I really do not understand why there should be any delay and I am of the view that the transcript should be released to him. Sergeant McCabe made a reasonable request for the transcript of the meeting at which he was the chief witness to be supplied to him. I thought we agreed last week that we would give it to him. However, I do not know what the minutes have to say in that regard. I was of the view that we agreed that if he requested the transcript, we would supply it.
Vice Chairman: What was agreed at last week's meeting was that if the witness wished to seek the transcript he would write to the committee and that the committee would consider his request. The initial feedback we have received is that any such request must be referred to the CPP and that the Editor of Debates will not provide a transcript without a direction from the latter.
Deputy John Deasy: We should make a decision on the matter rather than referring it to the CPP. It was a private meeting and the committee agreed that it would be private. The clerk referred to legal advice received, which stated that publication of the transcript would constitute a fundamental change in the way the Oireachtas and its committees do their business. The reality is that there was not a great deal of substance to what was said at that meeting. In the past five minutes, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. McCarthy, debunked quite an amount of what was said in the context of the number of penalty points that were written off. The theory posited by Sergeant McCabe was that tens of thousands of penalty points were written off. The Comptroller and Auditor General made a definitive case to the effect that only hundreds of penalty points were written off.
Outside of that, the committee did not learn a great deal as a result of what was said at the meeting in question. It might be stated that the latter is a good reason to allow publication but I do not believe that to be the case. I return to the fact that publishing the transcript would give rise to a fundamental change in the way Oireachtas committees operate. If someone were to appear before one of the committees in the future to discuss security or privacy issues, there could be a danger that a transcript of the proceedings could be made public in certain circumstances. That is a step too far for the Oireachtas and its committees. I stated at last week's meeting that the committee had, to an extent, entered "The Twilight Zone". We have crossed over into the realm of the politically paranormal where a private meeting becomes a public meeting. Perhaps we should hold a public meeting and ensure that everyone swears on the Bible that he or she will not repeat what was said. It is just absurd. We must be clear and definitive with regard to how we treat private meetings. We must clarify the position completely. Beyond that, we are entering the arena of the nonsensical.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy: I agree with what Deputy Deasy said. My recollection is that at last week's meeting we agreed that if Sergeant McCabe - for legal reasons - sought a redacted transcript of the proceedings, we would consider his request and make a decision. The first thing to say is that he does not appear to be requesting the transcript for legal reasons.
Vice Chairman: I understand from the clerk that it is not possible to produce redacted transcripts.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy: Then we cannot publish a transcript at all, particularly in view of what transpired at that meeting. The letter received from Sergeant McCabe's lawyers is clearly not a request because the phrase "He has asked that we would write to you" is used. I agree with Deputy Deasy to the effect that we can settle this matter now, we do not need to refer it to CPP and we do not need to publish a transcript.