Thursday, 16 September 2021
Adoption (Information) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the highly important issue raised in this Bill and I acknowledge Deputies Connolly, Pringle and Joan Collins for bringing it forward.
Access to birth information has been to the forefront of my agenda since I became a Minister and bringing forward legislation on this and other matters is a priority for me as a Minister and for this Government. We are keenly aware as a Government of the significance and urgency of the issue of birth and identity information.
The Government will not oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, although there are limitations to the particular legislative approach adopted in the Bill. I will deal with why the Government is not opposing this Bill and I will set out for the House the priority of legislation that I expect to advance later this term and how it differs from this Private Members' Bill.
This Bill seeks to amend the Adoption Act 2010 to enable an adopted individual to access information from an index maintained by the General Register Office, GRO. It would allow adopted people to apply to the General Register Office for a copy of their original birth certificate.
The Bill sets aside the restrictions that currently exist in legislation which apply to the index linking the adoption certificate of an individual to his or her original birth certificate. Consideration would be needed on how the Bill would impact upon the range of complex legal issues which have been flagged in the past during previous attempts to legislate for a right of access. Nevertheless, the intention of this Bill is to facilitate an adopted person to identify his or her original birth certificate. This underlying intention is consistent with Government policy to legislate to provide full access by adoptees and others to their birth certificate and this is why the Government is not opposing this Bill.
The Bill aims to facilitate a mechanism to unlock access to one part of birth information for adopted people. While this is of crucial importance and essential to the Government's legislative priorities, having engaged with and listened to stakeholders on this subject I believe we can and must achieve more than what this Bill proposes. Access to birth certificates for adopted people as provided for in this Bill is only part of the necessary approach, albeit a crucial part. The Bill does not incorporate other important elements related to birth, early life and care information for those with questions regarding their origins. This Bill will not help an adopted person seeking his or her father's name if he is not named on the birth certificate. It will not address those whose births were illegally registered or those who were boarded out and whose identities have been obscured. It will not help those who are seeking medical information about their birth families. It does not address the need to provide an effective and robust statutory tracing service for all these categories of people. In addition, it does not contemplate the careful balancing of identity and privacy rights which is constitutionally necessary.
As Minister, I published the heads of the birth information and tracing Bill in May of this year. This proposed Bill is currently progressing through pre-legislative scrutiny with the relevant joint Oireachtas committee. I thank the committee and its Chair for the priority status it has given to the scrutiny of this proposed legislation. Later this month, I will appear before that committee to discuss the progress made to date on drafting the Bill.
The proposed legislation the Government is bringing forward constitutes an integrated set of necessary proposals to provide for access to information. It provides the crucial access to a full and unredacted birth certificate, but it goes beyond this. The Government's proposed Bill will address a set of long-standing legal arguments which have served to prevent a right of access by adoptees in the past. Furthermore, it will provide for a right of access, not only to adopted people but also to boarded out persons and those whose births were illegally registered, and it is vital that these groups are included in any legislation.
Persons whose births were illegally registered need access to information on files rather than on the birth certificate. For illegal birth registrations, the birth certificate is wrong. It does not show their true identity and the only place where the correct information might be is in the relevant file. Having met with people who have been impacted by illegal birth registrations, I am particularly focused on ensuring that they can access their information about their origins. It is shocking to us that the legal landscape at present means that while they know they are not the person they thought they were, in some cases due to existing legal constraints they cannot be told the names of their birth parents. We could all agree that this cannot be allowed to continue and that the legislation needed to unlock this information must be an absolute priority. I am committed to ensuring that these people's identity rights are acknowledge and the Government's proposed Bill does this.
Persons seeking to know origins also want to know their birth father's name. In historic adoptions, it was also often the case that a father was not recorded on the birth certificate. However, the adoption file may note the potential father's name or make a reference to his age or occupation. That would be the only information available regarding the father.
Therefore, access to that type of information is key to identifying the individual concerned. The Government's Bill provides access to this birth information, which would not be accessible from the birth certificate alone.
As the House knows, access to medical information is another key concern. Survivors have told me that not having access to information is not only upsetting, but also limits their ability to make decisions about their healthcare. The Government's Bill addresses this issue within the context of the important GDPR issues that apply. The Government's Bill also provides for a robust and effective tracing service, which will be available to adopted people and individuals who were boarded out or subject to illegal birth registrations. The statutory basis for the current service is restricted and only applies to adopted people. It predates GDPR, which created new legal barriers. There is an urgent need for an explicit legal basis in order for data controllers to share information that allows tracing to take place and people to identify their origins. The best way to provide for the complex interlocking issues of release of the full and unredacted birth certificate, access to birth, early life and medical information, a robust statutory basis for tracing and safeguarding of relevant records is through a single, integrated and comprehensive Bill that enables all of these matters to be dealt with in a way that is compliant with GDPR and the Constitution.
Over the past year since the publication of the final report of the commission of investigation, Deputies have spoken passionately on these matters in the Chamber. It is true to say that there is a significant shared understanding of the urgent need for comprehensive legislation to be enacted. We all know the shame and stigma that the church and State placed on unmarried mothers. We know that women had little choice in the Ireland of the past. We know that one of the legacies of the secrecy that prevailed is the pain that is felt deeply when people cannot access information about their own origins. I have met survivors and heard their deep need for access to information about themselves. I am clear in my mind that the most effective action that the Government can take is to implement comprehensive legislation that provides for a right of access to all the types of information sought and includes all groups of people who have enduring questions about their origins.
I thank the Deputies for introducing this Bill. The Government will not oppose it today, as it seeks to deliver on one aspect of the legislation that the Government is progressing. Our comprehensive Bill, which I published in May, will help to acknowledge the wrongs of the past by vindicating the right to identity in the future. I look forward to it rapidly completing pre-legislative scrutiny, at which stage I will introduce it in Dáil Éireann. I look forward to Deputies' engagement and contributions this evening and when we discuss the Government's Bill.