Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan has said the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee investigation into the wiping of penalty points has the potential to undermine his authority and the ability of the force to carry out its policing and security roles.
Mr Callinan told the Committee its investigation into the use of Garda discretion in erasing penalty points raised “fundamental issues” relating to the control and direction of the Garda.
Responding to the committee chairman John McGuinness who told him the committee intended to hear evidence form two Garda whistle-blowers, Mr Callinan said the investigation was “grossly unfair” to him as the officer responsible for discipline and control.
He warned he would reserve his position and seek legal advice in relation to the committee’s proposed action.
Mr Callinan warned of the dangers of breaches of the Data Protection Act, but said “in general terms” it was not appropriate for a member of An Garda “to use this committee” to make unsubstantiated allegations “or provide sensitive personal data to a third party committee such as this”.
He said he had not decided on disciplinary procedures against the whistle blowers but “will have to seriously consider my position and their position”.
While he did not want to interfere with the committee’s work, he could not tolerate a situation where any of its 13,000 members could use the committee to make very serious allegations of wrong doing against one another, he said.
Mr Callinan told committee chairman John McGuinness: “I simply and we as an organisation simply couldn’t function either in terms of our policing or or security remit if I wasn’t in a position, and my officers in a position , to exercise that type of control.”
Mr Callinan who has previously written to the committee to say it had no right to files given to it by whistle blowers said he would “protect the force”.
That was he said not to suggest that he was “circling the wagons” but he believed a member of the force using the committee to make allegations against other members of the force was “fundamentally wrong”.
During the hearing he defended the force’s handling of the penalty points controversy, saying it had responded with “swift action” to address public concerns about the use of Garda discretion to cancel motoring fines and penalty points.
While he acknowledged more than 10,000 fixed charge notices are terminated every year, Mr Callinan said the level equated to just two cancellations per week per Garda district, or 2.6 per cent of about 1.46 million notices issued.
Answering questions on the operation of the fixed charge penalty points system at the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee this morning, Mr Mr Callinan said while there were weaknesses in the system, it was not “a weak system”.
He said following controversy in the media and an internal Garda investigation three files had been sent to the director of public prosecutions, relating to the handling of penalty points by individual gardaí.
Mr Callinan said three cases out of 500 officers who were authorised to use discretion in relation to penalty points did not represent a scandal.
He also told the Committee he accepted recommendations from the Comptroller and Auditor General on the need to further tighten the system of Garda discretion with regard to penalty points.
In his third report on the workings of fixed charge penalty system Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy concluded the system and controls by which a Garda could expunge points, had not yet accorded with the Garda’s stated policy.
Mr McCarthy told the Committee some cases were found to be statute bared because information was inputted to the Garda computer too late for a prosecution. He also said there were issues with keeping track of documentation, while figures also showed considerable discrepancies across Garda divisions.
He instanced Birr Co Offaly where points were expunged points in 0.1 percent of cases, as against like Ennis Co Clare, and Sligo, which he said were up to 50 times higher.
He said the C&AG examination had found some 600 instances of repeat situations where penalty points relating to a vehicle were expunged more than three times in two years.
Mr Callinan acknowledged files alleging the improper use of discretion had been sent to the director of public prosecutions, relating to three members of An Garda. But he said this was a small percentage of the 500 members of the force who had authority to expunge points.
Responding to questions from committee members Mr Callinan defended the use of the discretionary powers which he said had served the force well and was “an intrinsic feature of good policing”.
Noting that its systems of "oversight and auditing" had been strengthened since the controversy first broke, he said the Garda Síochána was committed to ensuring the fixed charge notice system operated in an effective and efficient manner , "fairly and consistently" so it had the public's confidence.
Following a report by assistant commissioner John O’Mahoney, the commissioner said “disciplinary action has been taken against a small number of personnel and written advices have been issued to a further number as to the necessity to conduct matters within policies and procedures”.
In addition, he said, “all policies and procedures” associated with the management of the fixed charges penalty notice system have been revised through an updated user manual. “This manual has been forwarded to the Garda Inspectorate and the DPP for their observations.”
A summary of this will be made public, he added.