Members of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee are no shrinking violets when it comes to holding the powers that be answerable for their management of the State’s money.
And so it was no surprise when they made clear yesterday that they would resist demands from the Garda commissioner to hand back a “box of evidence” allegedly showing huge costs to the state through the abuse of the penalty point system.
Instead, they will await their own legal advice on whether the information provided by a whistleblower can be used in their examinations of the issue, arising from a Comptroller and Auditor General report showing that one-in-five motorists caught for fixed charge notices managed to evade fines.
“If there is information there that should be in the public domain, then it should be in the public domain,” the committee’s chairman, John McGuinness, said when members discussed two letters sent to him which were revealed in yesterday’s Irish Examiner.
One was from Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, demanding that the box of evidence provided to the committee be returned to him “forthwith”.
The other was from the Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, saying he supported the Garda chief in his efforts to retrieve the files, claiming the law might have been broken in their release to the committee.
Members are playing it safe legally, while also demonstrating they will not obey any order that might divert them from their duty to do what is best in the public interest.
At the start of the meeting, Fine Gael’s John Deasy indicated he understood the commissioner’s concerns. His understanding was that the files “may have been taken from the Garda Pulse system” and contained personal information.
The Waterford TD said the committee should give assurances that the information had not in any way been compromised.
Committee clerk Ted McEnery confirmed to members that nobody had seen what was in the boxes apart from the Oireachtas legal advisers, who are now seeking independent advice on how they can be used.
“No member has those records and I don’t have them myself,” he said.
Independent TD Shane Ross asked “Why have we not opened the box?”
But Mr McGuinness said this was because “the information needed to be checked legally, so the committee could be protected”.
He also wanted to point out that the committee only wanted to inquire into the loss of money to the State.
“We are not interested in names or places or anything like that,” he said.
Mr Ross said the committee had to be “very careful that we are not allowing information that should be in the public domain, to be kept out. I would certainly be worried about that”.
The chairman said this was “the balance we are trying to strike”, of working in accordance with data protection laws while also “trying to examine the claim of the huge loss to the State. I think we should not be stopped in the context of our examination of the implications relevant to the systems failure and the loss of funds to the State.”
The issue will be dealt with as quickly as possible, he said, “because it is a matter of public interest, it is a matter of concern to the public”.
It is also a matter of concern to the whistleblower himself, he said, “who claims he was within his legal rights to give this to the Oireachtas and in fact said he was encouraged to do so by the minister”.
The information is relevant, the committee heard, because it was not available to the Comptroller and Auditor General, Seamus McCarthy, when he compiled his report on the issue, which the PAC is currently examining.
Mr McCarthy was asked if the legal obstacles could be overcome by the box of evidence being handed to him. But he joked that instead of playing “pass the parcel”, he would wait to see what the lawyers advised the committee.
They said they will provide their legal advice whenever it is ready. Whether the parcel should be opened, and its layers of information revealed to the public, will only be known then.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved