Wednesday, 24 September 2014
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Garda Inspectorate Reports
I am sure that, like myself and everyone else in opposition, the Minister is extremely concerned with regard to the recent revelations to the effect that Sergeant Maurice McCabe has apparently discovered more anomalies in respect of the way in which penalty points are being cancelled. In that context, my question relates to the Garda Inspectorate report published earlier this year. Are the very solid recommendations contained in the report being implemented in full?
The Garda Inspectorate's report is excellent and it clearly charts the way forward for the short, medium and long term. I am aware of the concerns that were raised recently with regard to the operation of the penalty points system in the context of a protected disclosure made to the acting Garda Commissioner. As the Deputy is aware, such disclosures are the subject of examination by the Garda professional standards and internal audit units, as well as a separate inquiry by GSOC. If there has been any infringement of the relevant policies and procedures by a member of An Garda Síochána, it would be a most serious matter. If there are ways in which we can continue to improve the system, these will be identified. It is important, however, that the actual facts be established before any conclusions are reached. That is what is happening at present. Those facts will be placed in the public domain. Work is ongoing on the inquiries at present in order to establish those facts.
The Garda Inspectorate put forward a number of recommendations in its report. A huge change has come about in terms of the way in which penalty points are being dealt with. For example, it is now the case that only three people can make the relevant decision. A new manual relating to the new methodologies and criteria that apply was developed and made available to all gardaí in June. If issues relating to gardaí and penalty points are raised, these must be dealt with at local level in the first instance before being referred to those responsible for dealing with such matters in Thurles. Particular care is taken to ensure that written records are kept in order that matters might be tracked. There is now a completely different approach being taken and this is in line with what the Garda Inspectorate recommended.
As already stated, we need to wait until all the facts have been established.
In regard to the recent information, let us hear the outcome of the investigation before we jump to any conclusions. If there is any question of continued abuse, it will be dealt with seriously.
I want to focus on whether a number of recommendations are being implemented - the recommendation that the fixed charge processing centre in Thurles be the sole cancellation authority, that whenever someone petitions to have a fixed charge notice or penalty points cancelled, he or she must provide factual evidence from a third party, that if that evidence is not provided, the petition is automatically refused and that these petitions are made through a proper application process. Are these recommendations being implemented?
A criminal justice working group, made up by the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Road Safety Authority, An Garda Síochána and the Courts Service, is supposed to be working on implementing these recommendations on an ongoing basis. Has that group been established and is that work taking place?
The answer to the last question is "Yes". I attended a meeting of that group with the former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, when he was working on these issues. At that meeting, all of the groups mentioned by the Deputy were represented. The meeting was helpful in terms of monitoring the progress of the recommendations and moving forward with them.
In regard to the question relating to Thurles, the answer is "Yes". Three people are now responsible for dealing with all fixed charge and penalty points notices. They are working on the basis of what is outlined in the Garda fixed charge processing system manual. This came into operation on 16 June. There is, obviously, a period of transition, but the procedure is in place. In a case where a garda has been driving, written material must be provided regarding a penalty points question by the local station.
In regard to the cancellation of fixed point penalty notices, we must consider the issue of emergency calls. We could have a situation where a garda on duty was called urgently to an area, perhaps to attend a domestic violence incident or attempted burglary, and the case may relate to that. When the assessment relating to the most recent allegations is complete, all of this information will be in the public domain.
Everybody agrees there will be exceptional circumstances where people should have their penalty points terminated. For example, people could be rushing to a hospital with their child. However, there should be documentary evidence or paper trail that demonstrates that.
The Minister is right to say that we must await the outcome of the current examination by GSOC. However, I am alarmed by the situation. Everybody in the country was focused on the issue of penalty points, but if it emerges that after the investigations of last year by the Committee of Public Accounts, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Garda Inspectorate, there are still some senior gardaí not applying the system appropriately, they should be demoted by a rank or two. Does the Minister agree with my assessment that after everything that has happened, it is unacceptable for a senior member of An Garda Síochána not to have implemented a system that is fair to all, even before the new directive issued in June?
There has been significant public comment and discussion on this issue. The public wants to see a fair and just system enacted with no favouritism or inappropriate behaviour from gardaí. I agree with the Deputy on this. Any fair minded person who is aware of the changes that have taken place will accept the new system is a vast improvement and more robust. If further information on abuse of the system comes in, whether from audits or confidential disclosure, both the acting Garda Commissioner and I will ensure there is a robust examination of the facts and they will be made public. There are new procedures in place and I believe the new system has taken account of the public debate and the need for a fair system that takes account of the kind of situations described by the Deputy where it would seem reasonable to terminate points, but that will not be open to abuse by anyone.