Yesterday’s Dail debate on the report by the Comptroller & Auditor General concerning Garda management of the fixed charge notice system…
And the sacking of Irish Independent journalist Gemma O’Doherty.
Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: “Minister, as you know the Comptroller & Auditor General reported on his findings in relation to the fixed charge notice system and the outcome is absolutely shocking. What he has revealed is that because of clearly widespread maladministration and very poor procedures, 1 in 5 motorists facing fixed charge notices are getting off. 1 in 5.
“We’re talking here about 42,000 a year. Half of the summonses that were issued by the Courts in relation to these, half of them were not served. Now this is an absolute crisis. Minister, it’s not good enough to issue circulars, we need to see how the hell this happened.
“And Minister, you know that two Garda whistleblowers brought this wider issue into the public domain last year. You and the Garda Commissioner, I believe sought to undermine their credibility, talked down the numbers that were involved and now we see very clearly that they have been vindicated.
“So Minister, what are you going to do about this? This is a massive crisis of confidence for the public. The 71% of people who pay their fine, who take it on the chin, accept that they did break the speed limits or whatever they had done to break traffic laws. They need to know that the system applies to everybody.
“And Minister, will you now apologise to the two Garda whistleblowers for the attempts by yourself and the Garda Commissioner at that time to discredit them, to undermine the scope of what they were bringing into the public domain and acknowledge that they were right? There was a widespread problem with the system of penalty points in this State and it’s gonna be sorted out.”
Olivia Mitchell: “Deputy Higgins, two minutes.”
Joe Higgins:”Go raibh maith agat, a Cathaoirleach. Minister, the problem is is that there’s a huge contradiction between the report of the Comptroller & Auditor General and the report of the Gardai into the penalty points issue. The Comptroller found 600 repeat offenders with 3 or 4 terminations, the Garda report found a few. The Comptroller found 3,000 statute barred point cases, there was no mention in the Garda report.
“Thousands of fixed penalty notices went missing and were unaccounted for according to the Comptroller, there is no mention in the Garda report.
The Comptroller said that large volumes of notices were terminated by Gardai from outside their areas, the Garda report said three. The Comptroller said the thousands of notices cancelling contravened the rules and regulations and the Garda report said 600. And finally, the Comptroller said €1.2 million lost, the Garda report said a few thousand. Can you explain?
“Isn’t it the case that the whistleblowers are exonerated as truthful and honest in the light of this revelation and another member has left, another subject to sanctions. Will you see that justice now prevails here?
“Finally, another victim of the penalty points debacle, Gemma O’Doherty, a leading investigative journalist with Independent Newspapers was sacked because she uncovered a story that the Garda Commissioner was the beneficiary of cancellation of penalty points and according to the Irish Post, the editor of the Independent who sacked her was also a beneficiary of cancellation. Isn’t that outrageous and doesn’t it smack Minister of a grotesque abuse of power? Will you speak out against this also?”
Olivia Mitchell: “Thanks deputy. The Minister to respond. Four minutes, Minister.”
Minister Alan Shatter: “Let me respond to both deputies but on the last issue that the deputy who spoke raised, the last issue the deputy raised. I’m not privy to the background circumstances to anyone terminating their employment with Independent Newspapers and I’m certainly not going to comment in any way on that.
“I’m glad of the opportunity to comment on the findings of the Comptroller & Auditor General’s report on the Garda fixed charge processing system. I welcome these findings because they confirm what went wrong with the system and what needed to be fixed.
“Broadly speaking, the findings in fact, echo the findings of the examination of the same allegations which was carried out by Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney. I published Assistant Commissioner O’Mahoney’s report and also a related report by the Garda Professional Standards Unit earlier this year and referrred them to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.
“Perhaps the key point is that the O’Mahoney report broadly identified the same key issues of concern relating to the operation of the fixed charge processing system identified with the C&AG namely a failure to follow cancellation procedures in a significant number of cases, a lack of adequate record keeping and inconsistency, and in many cases a laxity in accepting justifications in speeding and other road traffic offences.
“Indeed, I previously have made reference to some of the explanations accepted as exotic. There’s absolutely no doubt the findings of the C&AG reinforce both the concerns identified by the O’Mahoney report about weaknesses in the fixed charge notice system and the case for corrective action and action has been taken. Disciplinary proceedings were taken against a number of members of An Garda Síochána.
“A number of others were advised of the absolute necessity to follow correct procedures. A new garda directive, cancellation of fixed charge notices was issued to the entire force on the 30th of August 2013 aimed at significantly tightening up on procedures for cancellation.
“The Garda Commissioner has accepted and will implement significant recommendations by the C&AG on improving the fixed charge notice system and how it interacts with the Courts Service and the driver licencing system. In addition as I previously indicate, I refer the two Garda reports to the Independent Garda Inspectorate for its advice on any further measures which may be required and expect to see a report from the Inspectorate in the near future.
“I welcome the action taken by the Commissioner and his committment to implement the further recommendations we’re addressing this evening. The result will be a fixed charge notice system which is more open and transparent and more robustly operated. This is essential in public confidence in the system in enforcement of road traffic laws being maintained.
“The Garda Siochana along with the Road Safety Authority and other stakeholders have done so much in recent years to improve road safety and reduce fatalities. Everything must be done to maintain that progress. The Garda Commissioner has my full support in the strong action he has taken.
“It is only fair to acknowledge that these reports and their findings and recommendations are a response to allegations of improper cancellation of fixed charge notices. Any fair assessment must conclude on the evidence available that a great many of the most serious allegations have been found to have been utterly without basis including allegations of avoidable road fatalities linked to speeding drivers being improperly let off fixed charge notices and allegations of hundreds of PULSE records being destroyed.
“Perhaps most significantly the members of An Garda Siochana making the allegations rejects all of the findings of the O’Mahoney report and continues to claim that there has been widespread corruption and criminality on the part of senior members of the Garda Siochana. These are exceptionally serious allegations which the O’Mahony report found no basis in fact. my department has written to the member concerned, urging him to come forward with any evidence that he may have to justify these allegations.
“And indeed, it’s open to the member concerned to make an appropriate presentation if he chooses to do so before the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee but in fact that has not yet occurred. In conclusion, I welcome the finding of the Comptroller & Auditor General. The findings are in line with the findings of the report by Assistant Commissioner O’Mahoney published earlier this year.
“I fully support the Garda Commissioner and the decisive action he has taken on foot of them and I will do my best to ensure that any further co-ordination required between An Garda Siochana and the Courts Services to ensure the efficient enforcement of summonses in the area of traffic offences does take place and that issues should be promptly addressed when they come before the courts but of course that they become available to them, documentation that they require.
“It of course is not available to me, it would be highly inappropriate of me to in anyway interfere with the independent approach taken by the courts, or by particular District Judges in any individual cases that come before them with regard to any charges brought in relation to road traffic offences.”
Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: “Minister, I’m sure you will accept that the 71% of citizens who accepted the fine and took the penalty points on the chin will be appalled to know that you know that up to one in five managed to get away with this. And that is clearly down to the scale of it ye know you did talk down at one stage. the massive scale of it is clearly maladministration. But there are cases which will cause serious concern.
“There are allegations as ye know about judges repeatedly having points written off, serving Gardai, State Solicitors and recently we’ve been informed that senior journalists have had penalty points written off who work to hold Gardai to account. We have the allegation that the journalist Gemma O’Doherty and it is an allegation that she lost her job because of the work she was doing around all of this area. Are you concerned, Minister?
“Will you investigate the reason why at least two senior journalists in the publication mentioned in The Guardian newspaper, covered in the Irish Post newspaper that senior journalists in that newspaper, INM had penalty points written off, will you investigate those circumstances to see were they genuine and they may well have been genuine reasons but the public have a right to know because in the interests of democracy we need to know the answers.
“I’ll wrap up with this. Thank you, Chairman. Thank you for your appreciation of this. It is critical for public confidence to be restored that overall there was huge maladministration but clearly there were cases that people that were very powerful and connected had points written off because of who they knew, that is totally wrong. And you should undertake to investigate the circumstances where people would not hold Gardai to account by getting points written off. Examine that.”
Olivia Mitchell: “Deputy Higgins, you have a minute.”
Joe Higgins: “Minister, all is that demanded is that any of us who have incurred penalty points are treated in the same way whether you’re a public figure or a private citizen or anybody else. Now Minister you said that the conclusions of the Comptroller are in line with the findings of the report by the Assistant Commissioner O’Mahoney.
“Clearly that is not the case, Minister and that is easily documented. So I invite you to get your department to go through it with a fine toothcomb to revise your view on that.
“You do say it is only fair to acknowledge that these reports and the findings and recommendations are in response to allegations by whistleblowers, my word. Minister, I want you to go the extra mile. Be generous here. Okay, maybe they didn’t get everything absolutely right but the vast substance of what they said has proved to be absolutely honest and true and they have been victimised.
“And you have to stand up and champion the right of people in vulnerable positions to come out for the public good. So I’m asking you to do that today and to apologise for wrong comments you made yourself castigating these people.”
Olivia Mitchell: “Thanks Deputy. Minster to respond.”
Alan Shatter: “Can I firstly say to Deputy Higgins, no one has been victimised, no one has been victimised, Deputy. And there is no basis for alleging that anybody has been victimised. The allegations that were made were taken very seriously.
“The allegations that were made included allegations that a number of road fatalities in which people lost their lives were a consequence of fixed notice charges being cancelled. That was clearly, on a very detailed basis, established to be untrue.
“Such allegations could have caused a great deal of stress to families, already distressed, as a consequence of losing a loved one. Despite the very detailed addressing of those matters, in a report that’s before the Joint Oireachtas Justice committee, that Deputy Mac Lochlainn has access to, and others have access to this information, because I published it.
“Despite that, the individuals who raised these issues are adamantly insisting that they disagree with the contents of that report. The allegations alleged widespread corruption and conspiracy in An Garda Síochána. There’s absolutely no doubt there’s been administrative and bureaucratic failings.
“I’ve also no doubt that there’s been a number of fixed notice charges cancelled which based on the background circumstances, as detailed in the reports, were absolutely justified. And most of us, I think everyone would stand by them. And certainly there were some decisions that I, deliberately, described as exotic, that I would question.
“And indeed that is one of the reasons why the Garda Commissioner has changed the procedures and provided for oversight. And he made an initial statement on this when the original reports were published and a very detailed new guidelines were published which do amend the previous guidelines.
“As people, it was suggested earlier today in this house, that they’re just reproducing the same, the same guidelines all over again. They’re not. They address matters in a way to ensure there’s proper oversight and only decisions are made where appropriate and that there’s transparency and to ensure that everyone is treated equally.
“Because it is my view: It doesn’t matter who you are, you must be treated equally. And, in the context, indeed it could be said that people who are in prominent positions or members of this house, there’s, they’re going to be treated less than equally because there’s an additional level of, of..there’s a particular layer in the new guidelines which ensures that any applications made by them for cancellation are dealt at a higher level with An Garda Síochána. And there’s complete transparency, everything is monitored. And I’m very happy with that.
“So let me just say, that in conclusion, in so far as individuals who raised issues, are alleging that the Garda reports published are untrue, let them bring forward the chapter and verse and proof of that. I’m open to being convinced, but they haven’t done so. Indeed, having engaged with members of this House, and published material, they didn’t cooperate with the Garda investigations that took place.
“Now I don’t know why that is and there’s no question deputy, of anyone, of anyone being victimised. And could I conclude by saying, it is important to keep, and I’m saying this particularly to Deputy Mac Lochlainn, who raised the issue, to keep cancellations in perspective because both the Garda and C&AG reports are consistent in showing the level of cancellation of Fixed Charge Notices to be around 5%, meaning that 95% of Fixed Charge Notices have been processed correctly.
“And, indeed, within that 5%, 50% of those, there was absolutely irrefutable evidence, regarding 50% of those, there were indisputable reasons to cancel them: wrong people received Fixed Charge Notices; the registration number, for example, photographed, turned out to be different to the car owned by an individual.
“So whereas it’s true the C&AG report did identify some weaknesses in the process, particularly in enforcement notices, I’m glad that the Garda Commissioner is taking action in this area.
“And you can assume that I will continue to monitor, to ensure that matters are dealt with appropriately and I have no doubt, and I’m concluding finally Cathaoirleach, and thank you for your patience, I’ve no doubt that the Garda Inspectorate will keep oversight over this area so that everyone in this house is now satisfied the system is fair, is operating efficiently and appropriately.”
Previously: Penalty Points on Broadsheet
Meanwhile, in the Irish Daily Mail: