Thursday, 28 April 2005
Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).
Dan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
The substance of this Bill will be readily accepted by all Members of the House and by all members of society. Unfortunately the necessity of introducing this Bill is due to political failure on the part of the Government. The circumstances of the introduction of this Bill have been on foot of the damning resignation of the first Chair of the commission, Ms Justice Laffoy. Her resignation was on the grounds that not only as chair of that commission was she failing to receive political co-operation from the Minister and the Department but in many ways her role as chair was being stymied. All Members of this House should query those grounds and ask the reason the chair of a properly constituted commission undertaking work on behalf of the State should find herself in such a position.
The appointment of Mr. Justice Ryan followed and his recommendations are being largely incorporated into this Bill. There is undoubtedly a need for better administrative procedures and to bring finality to many of the issues involved in the work of the commission but I am disappointed there is such an emphasis on the administrative difficulties. As other speakers observed, the hope in establishing the commission was that it would allow us to hear the stories that must be told. These are the individual stories of people who have lived lives without justice in our society. There is an onus on all of us in official Ireland to ensure those stories are put on record. Every individual story has a value and each story must be heard and a response given.
To argue there are stories similar to each other and stories that can be taken in generality is unacceptable and the provisions in this regard are disappointing. We can never properly deal with the effects of this part of our history without allowing victims the opportunity to come to terms with the pain they suffered in the care of the State. It is unfortunate that the commission will not be given sufficient opportunity in its future operation meet this objective.
Notwithstanding the recommendations of Mr. Justice Ryan, one must question how this prioritisation is likely to operate. To what extent can we put values on different degrees of abuse, whether sexual, physical or psychological? How can one say the abuse experienced by one individual is somehow of a lesser degree than that experienced by another? In this regard, the chair of the commission has given himself an almost impossible role in ensuring the commission can work effectively to produce both its interim and final reports.
On these grounds, it seems this legislation is more concerned with what is administratively convenient rather than what is the morally responsible action to take. That political context has been lacking throughout this debate. It is easy to confuse the work of the commission with the ongoing work of the Residential Institutions Redress Board because there is an obvious crossover and the same issues are highlighted in the work of both bodies. The Committee of Public Accounts, of which I am a member, recently investigated the likely cost to the State of the approach taken to compensate victims of abuse in institutional settings. The committee operates within a strict set of guidelines and is not permitted to make political comment in regard to the policy implications of any issue under its consideration.
However, I am permitted to engage in such commentary as a Member of this House. The report the Committee of Public Accounts produced concentrated on administrative issues such as the failure of the Government to secure sufficient expertise in negotiating with outside bodies and devising legal contracts. There is a political responsibility in terms of how the redress board and the commission were established and who should take responsibility for how public money has been spent and the areas to which it has been directed.
We must consider whether the redress process has proved an effective mechanism for those who have been abused in recognising not only the hurt they have experienced but the difficulties endured by many of them in adjusting to subsequent life. In line with a general political unwillingness to take responsibility in this area, it is disappointing that there is nobody willing to account for the decisions made. Incorrect political decisions were made that were unhelpful in terms of the wider debate on this issue.
One of the major difficulties in regard to how particular complaints of abuse can be put into general categories is that many of those who have experienced such abuse, because of the nature of the abuse itself and the lives they have subsequently led, are the persons in society most affected by issues of literacy and most effected in terms of their ability to be self advocates. They are obliged to justify their stories, their experience of pain and disillusionment and the ongoing effect of this on their lives in a semi-judicial setting. The Bill provides for more informal settings of the committee structure within the commission but the process will still be intolerable for many victims. Rather than being confident their stories will be heard, and gaining some sense that their pain will be assessed and accepted by the State, they are being put into a situation where many may feel they are on trial.
It will be unfortunate if this is the result of the new structures. The previous chair of the commission, Ms Justice Laffoy, went to great lengths to ensure such an environment did not exist and I have no reason to believe the new chair will allow any change in this regard. However, the fear exists that where there is legislation to put structures in place, the emphasis is always placed on administration, costs and structures. What gets left behind in this scenario is the individual. I hope there will be an opportunity on Committee Stage to consider how the legislation might be humanised.
Many of those who suffered abuse were placed in State institutions for the sole reason of family circumstances and their placements were made on the basis of court orders. The existence of these orders, which are historical documents, give the impression to the persons involved and to the community in general that they were criminalised as children and put into custody. This is the scar they have been trying to heal in their subsequent lives. We must do something to rectify this situation whether through amendment of this Bill or through some amendment in criminal justice legislation, as required.
A clear statement must be made in terms of how such people found themselves in institutions. Retrospection is a difficult legal process to undertake but we must retrospectively say that court orders should not have been issued to place these people in institutions. There is no reason they should have been there and no reason they should have been legally defined as a problem for the State. If we can manage this with some type of new legal instrument, we will go some way towards alleviating the continuing pain of those who find themselves in such situations.
The emphasis in this Bill is on public accounting and the need to ensure minimal costs in the entire process. I had hoped, although this is perhaps a wider issue for the Residential Institutions Redress Board, that the focus would be on the ultimate direction of the public money given in compensation to abuse victims. The awards made by the board have been limited and, in recent instances, exceeded in court cases. We must examine the degree to which awards are divided between personal compensation and the legal costs of the individual. It is unacceptable in any compensation process that legal costs should represent such a high proportion of the overall amount awarded to an individual.
I accept this is a political issue of concern to all political parties and there is legislation, some of which has been introduced and some of which is intended to be introduced, which could alleviate the situation in the future. Unfortunately, hundreds if not thousands of people have been given awards on the basis that their pain and suffering has been used to increase the economic benefit of others involved in the process, but who did not undergo that pain and suffering in the first instance. Until we improve the balance in the structures that exist, more pain will be caused in the future.
Many of us hope the Government will be open to accepting the need for amendments on Committee Stage to change the Bill's emphasis which, as I have stated, is too much on the administrative and impersonal side, rather than on the side of the victims of child abuse who we are unfortunately still dealing with. There would be support throughout the House, perhaps even unanimous support, if the Bill's emphasis was watered down and a more human perspective was brought about on Committee Stage and Report Stage. I look forward to the Government taking those views into account.