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 | March 13, 2014
Department of Justice
Secretary General, Mr Brian Purcell, called and examined.
Deputy John Deasy: With the indulgence of the Chairman, I will ask a further question on training, education and development programmes for former prisoners and the reintegration of former prisoners in the community. One such programme, U-Casadh, is located in Waterford. How much money is the Probation Service allocating to these organisations? Does the Department intend to increase funding for these groups? Do these programmes work and would it be worthwhile investing more money in them?
Brian Purcell: What is the name of the project in Waterford?
John Deasy: It is called U-Casadh and one of many such programmes aimed at reintegrating former prisoners into the community.
Brian Purcell: There are obviously significant benefits from having schemes that facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community. One can only do so much work in terms of rehabilitation within a prison setting. As I know only too well from my time as head of the Prison Service, when offenders are going back into the community, the early stages after their return are the key period. Whatever progress can be made while they are in custody, it is important that supports are available on the outside. The Probation Service has a budget for these projects and in 2012 expenditure on community based organisations was approximately €10.3 million. The Department intends, in so far as our budgets allow us, to continue to support community based projects for offenders returning to the community.
John Deasy: The focus of the committee is on saving money and obtaining value for money. Does investment in rehabilitation programmes for offenders save money in the long run? The Department obviously has conducted cost-benefit analyses in this area and of some individual projects. What is Mr. Purcell's opinion of the investment it is making in rehabilitation projects? Do they pay dividends and would it be worthwhile investing more money in them? Has the Department carried out an analysis?
Brian Purcell: I believe the projects are paying dividends. To be honest, some of them are better than others and the Probation Service examines, audits and analyses the various projects to find out which ones it considers are delivering the greatest benefits. This will continue to be done on an ongoing basis.
"We have all read reports on the success the Scandinavian countries have achieved in this area."
John Deasy: Does the Probation Service make a case to the Secretary General for additional budgets if it finds they are needed?
Brian Purcell: While the Probation Service would look for extra budgets, obviously the Department's budgets are limited by the amounts allocated to us by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We fund 45 community based organisations that are funded by the Probation Service throughout the country, which represents 28% of the entire Probation Service budget allocation. These organisations provide a range of services, depending on the areas in which they operate. I certainly believe one can obtain a significant benefit from investment in community run and community based programmes for prisoners. One of the measures we have introduced that has been quite successful has been the community return scheme where we have taken suitable prisoners and put them into the community. In other words, the prisoners concerned are able to serve the tail end of their sentences in doing community service. This project has proved to be very successful since it was introduced in late 2011. I see the way forward as continuing to invest as much as possible in those services in which the Probation Service is involved because this investment is showing benefits. For the first time in a long time we have seen a reduction in the number of people coming into custody. The investment we have made in this type of project in the community and through the Probation Service has been instrumental in that regard. I am not saying by any means that it is the only reason, but it is-----
John Deasy: Mr. Purcell has made a significant statement. He has said he believes these schemes are effective and that it is worth investing money in them. I do not know if the Comptroller and Auditor General has ever examined this issue or if his office has a role in analysing the expenditure the Department and the Probation Service allocates to these organisations in terms of its effect and the end result for the Exchequer in reducing the level of reoffending and the recidivism rate among those who enter these programmes compared to that among those who do not do so. Would it be worthwhile examining this issue? Would such an examination be helpful to the Probation Service or the Department?
Seamus McCarthy: We looked at the Probation Service in considerable detail, but, again, it was probably about ten years ago. I think one of the aspects we looked at was how they assessed which programmes worked and perhaps which were less successful. While it is something we could certainly return to at some point, it is not an easy process. One could end up case-making if one wanted to support this approach or one could end up making a case to abolish these organisations if one wanted to do this. There are so many variables in the equation that it is a significant challenge for the Department. However, it is something that needs to be done.
John Deasy: Mr. Purcell has stated these programmes have had a considerable effect on the recidivism rate. Given that a study of the programmes in which we are investing €10.3 million has not been conducted in the past ten years, surely we need to analyse them to ascertain how effective they are? All of these organisations keep track of the people who avail of their programmes and each of them will, therefore, have statistics. We have all read reports on the success the Scandinavian countries have achieved in this area. I do not know if there is anything more scientific that could be done to bolster our belief and faith in investing in this area.
Seamus McCarthy: The point about my office having looked at it about ten years ago is beside the point. The Department would be obliged, in terms of its spending on an ongoing basis, to do that type of evaluative work on a routine basis, not waiting for my office to come and do it.
Brian Purcell: We do that. We have a very close engagement with the Central Statistics Office. We have two members of staff from that office in the Department, one of whom has done a great deal of work with the Probation Service and would focus on the type of thing that works and the type of thing that does not. What I am saying is based on what we have seen ourselves. I would make the point, the Comptroller and Auditor General touched on it, that this is a very broad area and it is not always easy to pinpoint exactly what works and what does not work. In relation to the problem and the individuals one is dealing with, it is not necessarily one particular intervention that delivers the result. It depends on a myriad of different issues, most of which do not fall within the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality, or the Probation Service or the Prison Service. It also depends on a wide range of societal issues but also on a wide range of services provided by a wide range of other agencies.
John Deasy: Sure.
Brian Purcell: We try to evaluate what works best and what does not. That is something we will continue to do although, at the same time, I have to point out that we only have a limited amount of money that we can spend on these projects and we spend whatever we can.
John Deasy: That is what I am getting at. Notwithstanding the intangibles the Comptroller and Auditor General has mentioned - I accept all that and what he has said - I do not know if it is within his remit to take another look at this issue and, perhaps, assist the Department, notwithstanding the work those two individuals do within the Department, to see if this money is being well spent or if more money would result in a lower recidivism rate.