PAC Hearing | 23 Jan 2014
Management of Fixed Charge Notice System
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: This material includes a large number of reports, including four reports from the Comptroller and Auditor General dating back to 2000 and the report from Assistant Commissioner O'Mahoney. The Garda Inspectorate is also looking into these matters as they relate to fixed charge notices and we have a report from the Garda professional standards unit dating from April. When one looks through all this material, it is fair to conclude, as the Commissioner stated, that the system has become better in some ways. That conclusion is proved by the figures. However, the system has also got worse in some areas. There have been marginal negative changes in respect of issues such as serving summons, inputting data, allowing offences or potential offences to become statute-barred and failing to prosecute individuals who are driving company cars. While the data shows there have been improvements, there have also been areas in which no improvements have been made. The Comptroller and Auditor General has made the same recommendations consistently since 2000, yet there has not been any improvement in some categories.
I will start with the positives. With regard to the collection of fines, the position 13 or 14 years ago was that more than half of such offences went unpunished. The rate of collection has improved, with only 20% of fines going uncollected today. The cancellation rate for on-the-spot fines was approximately 8% in 1998, whereas the most recent report cites a rate of 5%, which indicates an improvement.
Deputy John Deasy: When it comes to the serving of summonses, for example, in 2000 there was about 44% non-serving of summonses but it has gone up to 50% on the latest date provided to us by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Will the Commissioner start with that issue? What are the reasons and why has there been a marginal increase in the non-serving of summonses from his perspective?
Mr. Martin Callinan: I suppose there are many reasons people will evade either getting a fine or conforming to whatever the sanction for that fine being imposed on them. It is the case that there is a greater population now, there is a transient community with people from both the North-South and east-west and there are data quality control issues in the context of registered owners of vehicles. The Deputy is right. Summonses are a difficulty and have been a difficulty for us for many years in terms of trying to get them served.
John Deasy: Let me be specific. I am sorry for cutting off the Commissioner. There are some other issues I need to get to. In the 2000 report the Comptroller and Auditor General made a recommendation and he made it again in 2012. The recommendation was very simple, that the Garda and the Courts Service need to work together to deal with the issues of summonses. That has not happened.
Martin Callinan: It is happening and we are engaging with the Courts Service and have been for some time on this issue.
John Deasy: Please continue.
Martin Callinan: I do not have a whole lot more to say to the Deputy. That is the case. We are working on it. I have a designated officer working with the Courts Service with a view to seeing what else we can do to improve. He has a group looking at it to see if there is anything further we can do. All I and my senior officers can do at every available opportunity we have is re-emphasise the need to ensure that summonses are served in a timely fashion. We reiterate that message quite frequently.
John Deasy: Has the Commissioner come across any evidence of deliberate non-serving of summonses by gardaí?
Martin Callinan: No.
John Deasy: Will the Commissioner explain to me how the serving of summonses is tracked right now? How is this monitored?
Mr. Martin Callinan: It is the function of every district superintendent to track the summonses that arrive to him or her for service. That is a function that should be taken very seriously. Primarily, he or she is responsible for doing that.
Deputy John Deasy: Has the Commissioner taken disciplinary action against any garda with regard to the non-serving of summonses?
Martin Callinan: No.
John Deasy: Has the Commissioner ever detected multiple non-serving of summonses by a particular garda?
Martin Callinan: To be fair, no. It is a volume issue. It is a difficult area for us and we accept it is a difficult area for us but we are working to try to reduce the level.
John Deasy: I am going to ask a question because we are going back 12 years. What can we expect with regard to that individual the Commissioner named as working on this with the Courts Service? Are we going to be here in 12 years' time with the same 50% figure? I have to ask that question because it is going on a long time and is getting worse. What can the Commissioner tell the committee to reassure us that figure is going to get better?
Martin Callinan: I think it is very clear that we are very serious about our business in terms of summonses and the courts process and we will continue to reinforce, as best we can, the need on our people to ensure that all of the summonses we get are served. This is not just unique to our own organisation, there are other organisations that suffer the same issues in terms of compliance with matters.
John Deasy: I will move to company cars and return to the recommendation made by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2003. We are still in the same situation. I think the figure is 28%. Let me provide some background. The assurance at the time was that the Garda Síochána would contact the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and deal with the issue. That was ten years ago. Can the Commissioner say why that did not happen with the Department?
Martin Callinan: It did happen and I have already indicated to the committee. In 2004, section 19 of the Road Traffic Act was introduced but, in effect, it was found to be not effective. It is the case that one can register a vehicle in a company name. We are working very closely on the issue. There are a number of people involved in this matter because we view it so seriously. The Road Safety Authority, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Courts Service are all working together to try to address this.
John Deasy: I am sorry to stop the Commissioner again. In 2004 the legislation passed was not effective. That was ten years ago. The revenue foregone for 2011 and 2012 is more than €1 million. Since 2004, when the Commissioner identified that the legislation was ineffective, what steps did he take with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to rectify that because in those two years the State lost €1 million?
Martin Callinan: We will work with any Department we can in an effort to improve matters but we do not make the law. We implement the law as best we can.
John Deasy: It there a lacuna in the law, the Commissioner identifies that and communicates that to different Departments all the time.
Martin Callinan: With the greatest respect, Deputy, that has been well-flagged in many Departments.
John Deasy: It has been for ten years.
Martin Callinan: It has been well-flagged.
John Deasy: This figure is very low. I will start with that again. I must press the Commissioner on this. This is fairly basic stuff. There are a lot of reports, including Comptroller and Auditor General reports but in some cases there has been no movement whatsoever with regard to changing the law and putting into place the procedures and systems to actually improve the system. In some cases it has improved but in other cases there are serious lapses, organisational lapses, legislative lapses and I do not think it is fair to say it is simply a matter of law enforcement. The Commissioner has a critical role with regard to identifying gaps in the law and communicating them to a Department so it can fix them, whether it is the Department of Justice and Equality or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, but it has not been done.
Martin Callinan: With respect, it has. We are meeting those involved and are indicating the difficulties and the problems we have. On many occasions a discussion has centred around an individual's driving licence particulars being associated with a particular vehicle, for example, and maybe that might help to address the issue. In reality, what does one do with the employee who is employed by a large transport company who is driving a variety of lorries? The bottom line here is that under section 103 of the Road Traffic Act there is an obligation on either the secretary of a company or some company official to indicate who was driving the lorry.
John Deasy: They are not doing that.
Martin Callinan: Correct.
John Deasy: They are not replying-----
Martin Callinan: We have highlighted this issue many times so it is not fair to point the finger at the Garda and say it is not addressing it. We have highlighted these issues time and again and people are aware of the difficulties.
John Deasy: So the Commissioner is saying it is a lapse on the part of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to deal with this.
Martin Callinan: I am not saying it is a lapse on anybody's part. All of these people can speak for themselves. What I am indicating is where problems like this manifest themselves we interact with the various agencies that are involved in the process and we bring it to their attention.
John Deasy: I will move on to statute barred offences and, again, I go back to 2003. At the time 5,500 cases were flagged as being statute barred in a particular period. In 4,561 of these no reason was stated in the computer file. The Accounting Officer at the time told the Comptroller and Auditor General that the reason for the high number of statute barred offences was due to a backlog of offences relating to the introduction of the new penalty points system. The Accounting Officer at the time, not yourself obviously, stated that since the backlog was now clear that - I stress - the situation should not arise again. In the current report the Comptroller and Auditor General examined over 3000 offences detected in 2011 and 2012, yet it is still a problem.
There were 3,000 offences detected in 2011 and 2012. It is still a problem. It results in a huge loss of revenue from the Exchequer. I do not think we can point the finger at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport or any other Department. This is basic in-putting of data. Court proceedings must be initiated within six months of the offence’s being detected. If they are not it will be statute barred. Why is this still a serious problem ten years on while the State is losing huge amounts of revenue because data is not entered?
Martin Callinan: There are a couple of aspects to this. If a member of the Garda Síochána who applies for a summons for a specific offence, whether it is a road traffic or any other matter, does not deal with that within the statutory period of six months it is statute barred. That is one aspect. The other is the notepads that we use. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, and the O’Mahoney report, identified problems for us in that respect. We have implemented a new system whereby all of these pads, which come in batches of 20, are bar-coded and accounted for. An accounting regime has been put in place. I expect to see improvements on that aspect.
John Deasy: It is a question of individuals. Some individuals are not doing this more than others.
Martin Callinan: It is. By the way, the Deputy mentioned in his question that I cannot blame any Department. I am not in the business of blaming any Department or any other agency for sins on my side of the fence. I want to make that clear.
John Deasy: That is fine.
Martin Callinan: I am putting my hand up here about several fault-lines within the system.
John Deasy: Does Mr. Callinan understand that it is reasonable to ask the question when nothing has happened after ten years and when the figures are so bad?
Martin Callinan: That is different. I will certainly answer the question but the Deputy should please not accuse me of laying the blame on-----
John Deasy: I am not.
Martin Callinan: The Deputy mentioned it. That is a point.
John Deasy: Let us be honest about this, someone is falling down in regard to dealing with this.
Martin Callinan: If we allow a situation to occur whereby a summons becomes statute barred then it is clear that we are at fault. That is a given.
We are putting matters in place in respect of the electronic notepad system to repair that. If there are other issues to be addressed we will address them. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report it is 0.4%.
John Deasy: With regard to what I said, it comes down to individuals not in-putting the data in some cases. Does the Garda Síochána have a system to identify those people? There are repeat offenders – offenders is the wrong word - people do this repeatedly or do not do this repeatedly. Is there a way to find those people and deal with that problem? What is the system for weeding this out?
Martin Callinan: In terms of processes, all of these things should manifest themselves in the ordinary management of a district or a division. All of these things should be addressed by line management within those areas.
I hope that the notepad issue I mentioned will take care of itself through the audit trail we now have. The inspector in the district has to make a return on a monthly basis to the fixed charge notice. It is the case, when people are out on mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, checkpoints or other road traffic duties in very inclement weather, that these forms are destroyed and are mislaid. All of the human elements come into play. I am not using this as an excuse but these are issues that arise in the course of ordinary everyday business. It is up to us in management to ensure that there are sufficient checks and balances to ensure that no summons is statute barred.
John Deasy: I have picked out three examples and I will finish on this point. I have to make the observation after going through all of this information dating back to 2000, and the four reports and sets of recommendations that the Comptroller and Auditor General and his office have made over those years, in those three areas I have outlined there has not been much improvement. In some areas there has been. To be fair it has been very positive. The system in many respects is far more rigorous. There are areas where I am to an extent at a loss to figure out why the improvements are not greater. That is merely an observation.
Since the new policy was issued in August, what improvements have been made and can Mr. Callinan give us some detail on the kinds of figures, if they have improved since then, across the board, since the new policy was initiated in August?
Martin Callinan: I have already mentioned the three-tier audit system, the professional standards unit which looks at the decision-making process-----
John Deasy: May I stop Mr. Callinan and ask what they do? Mr. Callinan said that there is a statutory requirement to have that unit. When I look across all these areas I ask myself, while all of this has been going on for the past 13 years what has that unit been doing in these areas? What is its role? How often does it meet? Mr. Callinan said it is a statutory requirement to have it but how effective is that unit?
Martin Callinan: It is a unit of its own right. It is an entity in Garda headquarters. I was statutorily obliged to set it up. As the Deputy can imagine from its title it considers professional standards for the Garda Síochána. It would typically go into a district or a division and examine the processes in operation and bring back recommendations across the whole system, not just penalty points. It makes recommendations and reports to local management.
The Deputy mentioned what has been happening in trying to correct this. Apart from those three tiers, the Assistant Commissioner, the professional standards unit and the internal audit unit, there are several changes in respect of the cancelling authority and redefining its area. In other words, superintendents in the new policy are not now in a position physically to access a machine and cancel it. It has to go to the fixed charge office with the recommendation to cancel or not.
A similar tracking system is in place in respect of the notepads so that a return goes every month to the fixed charge office which is auditing. I mentioned the three units. They are some of the things that have been happening since August under the new policy arrangement. Of course if there are other recommendations from the inspectorate or the Director of Public Prosecutions we will consider them and if we can factor them into the policy we will do so.
John Deasy: On the issue of whistleblowers, Mr. Callinan will not talk about individual cases. He has made that clear and the committee has accepted that. It is fair enough but can Mr. Callinan fill me in? I have a concern about the information that it seems is now frequently given to Members of the Oireachtas and committees. In some cases it might constitute a fragment of the information around one particular case, or an alleged offence. This committee needs to be careful about how it deals with that information because it does not give the full picture. Is that Mr. Callinan’s opinion too?
Martin Callinan: That is absolutely the case. If one considers the allegations that the Assistant Commissioner has examined on behalf of all of us it is very clear that in a substantial portion of the allegations the people who complained about corruption, malpractice, cancellations of all types had very limited access to the decision-making process. They simply did not have access, to put it in a nutshell. They opened a screen in the PULSE system and looked at a snapshot of the actual event but they did not see the complete picture.
John Deasy: Will Mr. Callinan give us an idea of what else there is? What constitutes the full picture beyond the screen?
Martin Callinan: For example, if an allegation is made that a particular superintendent cancelled a particular group of tickets, it would be necessary to go to the district office and examine the audit trail, providing it is there, of course, but this has not always been the case. If the trail exists one would have to examine it to see the circumstances, to see if it has been done correctly and whether the professional judgment exercised was proper and appropriate in the circumstances. That information is not available from these screen shots; one must go behind them.
For example, when dealing with the fixed charge notice system, in some instances the juvenile diversion scheme is at issue. Once a date of birth is recorded for a driver, it will automatically go to the fixed charge office for cancellation under the juvenile diversion scheme. Therefore, there are elements which are not visible when one looks at a screen.
John Deasy: What are the Commissioner's views on how this committee is doing its business? Let us say I agree with the Commissioner and that I have a similar concern. I am not questioning anyone's bona fides – whistleblowers – but I am getting to the nub of the issue. The Commissioner is saying that in his opinion he cannot make a decision or an analysis based on a fragment of information.
Martin Callinan: Yes.
John Deasy: What are his views on how the committee has been doing its business in that case? Is he saying that it cannot possibly-----
Martin Callinan: In relation to this particular aspect?
John Deasy: -----make a correct analysis if it does not have all the information?
Martin Callinan: I do not believe it is possible; I really do not believe it is possible. Far be it from me to criticise the important work that goes on in this committee, because it is necessary and important that we are called to account, as we should be. As the accounting officer for the Garda Síochána I have a statutory function under section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act to direct and control the force. The only effective way I can do that is to have a proper disciplinary regime in place so that when people step outside I have access to sanctions.
I should preface my remarks by indicating that one of the people who is now engaged in this so-called whistleblowing exercise is a person who is a serving member of An Garda Síochána, as I understand it. If that is the case, then he or she is subject to the disciplinary regulations. It is the case that at any time, at any place, anywhere, a member of An Garda Síochána can step outside the ordinary standards expected of that member. If that is the case then I would have to consider whether I would have access to the disciplinary regulations to deal with that issue. I am not for a moment suggesting that I will go down the road of exercising discipline in this particular case but it is certainly something on which I would have to reserve my position. If I am asked in general terms whether it is appropriate for a member of An Garda Síochána to use this committee as a platform for exercising whatever it is he or she wishes to exercise and make unsubstantiated allegations or provide sensitive personal data to a third party - such as this committee - then I will have to seriously consider my position and their position. I have already indicated to the Chairman that I have very serious concerns about the information, the data, that has been passed on to the committee. I am not aware of what is contained in that data but I can only presume it from the response of the committee. I have no issue with the committee taking legal advice and deciding how best to do its business but it is the case that I have also taken advice and I am told that, as we speak, I am in breach of the Data Protection Act and that it is possible that the person who supplied that information is in breach of the Data Protection Act. This is clearly a matter on which I will need to take action. I will reserve my position with regard to how I will deal with that. If I am asked in a general sense whether I would be in favour of a member of the Garda Síochána coming in here and using this forum, this committee, to expose material in the fashion in which it has been exposed or to make allegations that have not been substantiated, I think that is fundamentally wrong.
John Deasy: The Commissioner is also making the case that it is not possible to make a comprehensive case because not all the information is available. Is that correct?
Martin Callinan: If I may put it this way, I do not know what the committee has at its disposal. Certainly, if it is anything like the level and extent of the knowledge that the Assistant Commissioner had at his disposal about the allegations made, if that mirrors what the Assistant Commissioner was dealing with, clearly it would be impossible to make a judgment. That was part of my concern which I articulated in the letter to the Chairman. For instance, if the information is anonymous and if this committee were to rely on providing statistics in a public forum, then we are in a very rocky place unless these matters can be explored and properly teased out. I have indicated to the committee that there were issues within the system that needed to be corrected, and this has been done. However, I emphasise it is very important that as a disciplined force we do not allow a situation to occur in which 13,000 members of An Garda Síochána start making complaints about one another and investigating one another. We have to exercise some form of control. It is important that as Commissioner I have control and authority over the force. How can I manage the force unless I have access to that type of control? The organisation could not perform its policing or security remits if I and my officers were not in a position to exercise that type of control.
I do not want it to be said that I am considering disciplinary action with regard to these people. I have given it very careful consideration and I will continue to do so. However, there may come a point at which I will have to seriously consider this matter for all the reasons I have indicated. I cannot allow a situation to continue where information is being bandied around. I realise people are relying on a certain section of the law as an authority.
Wrongdoing by any member of An Garda Síochána will not be tolerated by me or by any member of my officer corps. The committee can take that as a given. There is a difference between reporting wrongdoing and consistently putting about large volumes of material. These are the parameters I must consider. When I became aware of it I issued a very clear direction to the two members involved. We had a discussion with Deputy McDonald on the last occasion I was before the committee as to when I became aware of the identities of these people and what they were saying. I have carefully checked my records since then. In December, following on from the information that the retired member of the force and a serving member, a sergeant, were working together to provide information and material for an elected representative, I took advice and I was advised that this was wrong.
In light of that advice, I set about putting in place a direction to both of these individuals that if they had any problem at all or any complaint to make, the first thing they should do is to revert either to the assistant commissioner who deals with very serious allegations or any other member of the Garda Síochána. As I recall, I used the words "without prejudice to the confidential reporting mechanism," because I fully recognise and support the confidential reporting system in An Garda Síochána and elsewhere. Everybody, not just in An Garda Síochána, is entitled to be in a position to confidentially report matters of wrongdoing that come to their attention. At the same time, these individuals have a responsibility as well, and the making of allegations that cannot be substantiated on a regular basis is a particular difficulty that I may have to deal with.
Deputy John Deasy: Thank you, Commissioner.