Thursday, 28 April 2005
Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).
Síle de Valera (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Clare, Fianna Fail)
I thank Deputies for their contributions. This has been a responsible debate, which shows a great understanding of the sensitivity of the issue among Deputies. We will discuss the issues raised by Deputies in much greater detail on Committee Stage.
I wish to touch on the role of the Department of Education and Science as a respondent before the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, and on the main issues that have been raised in the debate. The Department, in its role as a respondent to the commission, has dedicated substantial staffing and administrative resources to ensuring complete and timely compliance with numerous discovery directions as they are received from the commission. To date, a total of €10 million has been expended on the commission's administration costs, and a further €21 million has been provided for administration in the Estimates process for this year and the next two years. The Department has complied with the four general discovery directions and ten institution-specific directions. As has been agreed with the commission this year, discovery directions for a further nine institutions will be delivered on a phased basis by September 2005.
The volume of documentation already submitted indicates the scale of the operation. In response to discovery directions from the commission, the Department has provided the commission with in the region of 150,000 pages of documentation. I assure the House the allocation of resources required to meet those obligations will be sustained into the future as part of the Government's ongoing commitment to meeting the commission's requirements.
A number of Deputies raised the question of transferring sponsorship of the commission to another Department. The Government's position on that was clearly addressed by my colleague Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in February 2004. Sponsorship of the commission by the Department of Education and Science should continue. That arrangement can be equated to the position of other Departments responsible for sponsoring inquiries within their respective remits. For instance, sponsorship of the Mahon tribunal lies with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and sponsorship of the Barr and Morris tribunals lies with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Several Deputies raised the issue of the vaccine trials. It is not intended for the commission to deal further with the vaccine trials. The order mentioned in the debate has been the subject of a court judgment, and it is now a matter primarily for the Tánaiste, in her role as Minister for Health and Children. I understand that procedures have been put in place to revoke the statutory instrument that provided for adding to the commission's task the function of investigating the vaccine trials, in line with the judgment of the courts. Under section 4(4) of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act 2000, consultation between the Government and the commission to inquire into child abuse may take place before any order is amended or revoked. The Department of Health and Children has discussed with the commission and other parties with an interest in, or affected by, the trials. Some of those discussions are ongoing. Until they have been completed, the Government is not in a position to outline the course of action that will be taken.
On section 4 of the Bill, various Deputies raised the question of how the commission will examine the manner in which children were placed in institutions. I refer to Mr. Justice Seán Ryan's statement of 7 May 2004. He stated clearly that, when carrying out an inquiry of this kind, one has to consider how children were placed in institutions and the role of the courts that processed children in the system. He went on to state that various Departments must be asked questions relating to the supervision, direction and management of the children who ended up in the institutions concerned. It is for that reason the provision has been included.
Section 7 has also been mentioned by a number of Deputies. This section, in conjunction with section 4(6), will allow the investigation committee to call before it those persons whose accounts it considers will provide it with the greatest possibility of arriving at the truth about what occurred. It will allow the investigation committee to identify as wide a cross-section of experience as possible for further examination.
In his programme for work for 2005, Mr. Justice Ryan has outlined that the investigation committee will interview every one of the approximately 1,300 people who decided to continue participating in the committee's inquiry. The information obtained in those interviews will be collected and produced in report format. This report will then be distributed as appropriate to relevant bodies for comment and discussion. If there are material areas of dispute, the committee will arrange for further investigation, including full hearings if appropriate. In the interview process, witnesses whose experiences require to be investigated further will be chosen for later appearance before the committee in full session, with cross-examination. If there is an acceptance of the allegations of abuse, it will not be necessary to investigate further.
Since the appointment of Mr. Justice Seán Ryan, the investigation committee has conducted a large number of public hearings on the emergence of child abuse as an issue as well as public hearings in relation to specific institutions. The committee has also conducted private hearings, in which witnesses from five institutions have so far given evidence. The confidential committee commenced its hearings in September 2000. By March 2005, more than 1,060 hearings had been completed by the committee, leaving a remainder of 35 hearings to take place over the coming months. The legislation before us will further enhance the workings of the commission, enabling it to build on the progress it has achieved to date and to bring the inquiry to a satisfactory conclusion for all concerned.
Regarding the proposal to include additional institutions under the remit of the Residential Institutions Redress Board, the Minister for Education and Science made an order in November 2004 providing for the inclusion of an additional 13 eligible institutions under the Schedule to the 2000 Act, and officials from the Department are in consultation with a number of interested parties regarding the inclusion of a small number of other institutions. When that consultation has been completed, the Minister will make a decision on any such inclusion.
Some Deputies raised the possibility of including day schools under the remit of the Residential Institutions Redress Board. The redress board was established as an alternative mechanism to the courts to provide financial redress to former residents of institutions who were abused while they were in those institutions, over which the State had a significant supervisory or regulatory responsibility. There are no plans to extend the remit of the redress board to day schools. The rationale behind the setting up of the Residential Institutions Redress Board was that children in the institutions were separated from their parents and therefore did not have the benefit of the care and protection that children in the care of their families usually enjoy. The institutions concerned controlled all aspects of children's lives, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no reasonable capacity for access to or involvement by parents. The children in the institutions therefore relied to a significant degree on the institutions and public bodies with a statutory duty to protect them. The redress board has made considerable progress in its work and made awards in more than 3,000 cases since commencing operations in December 2002. The average award made by the board is €78,000 and total payments to date amount to some €229 million.
Following publication of this Bill, officials from the Department of Education and Science met a number of representatives of survivor groups. A number of points have been raised by the groups and, together with issues raised during this debate, these will be considered in consultation with the commission and Attorney General.
I thank Members for their contributions. The amending legislation will greatly assist the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in completing its work within a reasonable timescale. Many suggestions have been put forward in the debate and these, which will no doubt arise in amendment form, will be given due thought and consideration by the Minister and the Department.