Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Mother and Baby Institutions: Statements


4:30 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Business Committee for arranging this debate and allowing time for the Dáil to discuss the important work that is ongoing in dealing with Ireland's legacy of mother and baby and county home institutions. The keen interest Members have in these matters is very welcome and it is clear that survivors appreciate the level of support across the House. In speaking with survivors, I have heard countless stories of horrendous suffering. I cannot begin to imagine the bravery it takes to share those accounts. Many Members of this House have also shared survivors' stories, either in the Chamber or on a one-to-one basis with me. Everybody here appreciates the courage and strength of survivors in telling us of these deeply personal experiences.

At the outset, I reiterate that the Government is under no illusion that there is any financial payment or service provision that could make up for the immense pain and suffering endured by so many of our citizens whose lives have been impacted by the shameful legacy of mother and baby institutions. While there is some commonality of experience among survivors, there is also a unique impact on each person and the course of his or her life and those of his or her family members. As much as I know that we all wish it were possible, particularly survivors themselves, we cannot change the course of events that caused the hurt of which they speak. What we can do is offer support to all who need it and ensure that we learn and grow as a nation in order that such tragedies never happen again.

In An Action Plan for Survivors and Former Residents of Mother and Baby and County Home Institutions, the Government is seeking to provide an enduring response to the priority needs of all concerned. The plan covers a wide span of areas and allows for co-ordination to take place across government to drive and support the implementation of everything within it. I want to make clear this evening that the Government is committed to delivering an inclusive response to the extremely complex legacy that surrounds mother and baby institutions. No scheme could possibly account for everyone affected by the litany of shocking failures that have emerged and with which our country continues to grapple.

That is why the action plan has been developed. It is only through a comprehensive response that we can begin our attempt to provide the range of remedies required to properly address the needs of all of those who have been affected. Throughout the past year, during the consultation with survivors and our engagement with stakeholders on a previous redress scheme, it was clear that the response, in particular the payment scheme, had to be non-adversarial and had to encompass the breadth of survivor concerns. This is an action plan that is all-inclusive, not only in terms of survivors and their families but the entire wider community and society. We believe the plan responds to the diverse needs of those affected by the legacy of mother and baby institutions and provides an opportunity for all of us to learn, through the words of survivors, what took place in these institutions.

Survivors have waited for the payment scheme, in particular, and it is important to them as a measure of how the Government intends to provide redress. It is important that we do not look at the payment scheme in isolation because redress is a broad concept. The OAK Consulting report, which contains the finding of the consultation process carried out with survivors in respect of the scheme, shows the broad understanding of redress. It touched on a huge array of matters that are of concern to survivors. The Government has shown its readiness and willingness to keep listening and working on these most difficult issues.

On Tuesday evening, during the discussion on the motion on the mother and baby home payment scheme, I spoke about how the Government is an imperfect vehicle for righting the wrongs of the past. Things move slowly, and this is understandably really frustrating for those who have already waited such a long time for adequate responses. When legislation is moving through the House, either through the legislative process or pre-legislative scrutiny, the effect of the legislation cannot yet be felt and the benefits it confers cannot yet be enjoyed and that can compound the sense of frustration that survivors feel. However, on the issues of records, memorialisation, education and access to information, we have begun to make changes and ensure people can see the tangible results of these changes. I believe in the forthcoming months we will make significantly more changes on these issues.

I want to set out some of the changes that have already been made and where we are in terms of advancing all parts of the Government's action plan. It is clear to me that the State has to be more forthcoming about the information it holds being provided to survivors. They deserve to know about their early lives. In line with the action 8 of the action plan, I have established a dedicated unit in my Department to lead on this work, and a professional archivist has been appointed and is working within that unit to focus on the preservation of and public access to those records.

Action 5 of the action plan ensures general data protection regulation, GDPR, rights of access to the commission's archive. Since the archive was transferred to my Department, we have received 411 subject access requests and have processed 316 of them. I am aware that the current constraints on access to health data, in particular, contained in the commission's archive is causing very real stress to survivors. Their distress is absolutely understandable. We are acting on that. I have engaged with my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on this issue and he is progressing new regulations which will address access to health information and will remove the requirement for consultation with a medical practitioner.

Next year, we will have legislation in place to finally ensure adopted people can hold in their hands the birth certificates they have so long been denied access to. The legislation will also address access to records containing birth and early life information, and will provide a statutory basis for a tracing service and safeguarding of relevant records.

We will have legislation in place to allow for the excavation, exhumation and identification of the remains at the site in Tuam. No one who has met survivors, their families and their advocates could have anything less than an absolute determination to see remedied the terrible injustice that the site represents.

The Government's action plan is about responding to the place of mother and baby institutions in our history but it also has to be about what they say about our present. It is a testament to the generosity of spirit of survivors that they are so passionate in their advocacy for the protection and well-being of children today. In response to that, action 18 of the action plan involves creating a children's fund to honour the memory of the children who died in mother and baby institutions through the provision of supports to children who experience disadvantage in the present day.

Through our extensive engagement with survivors and former residents, memorialisation has been repeatedly raised as an issue of profound importance. In a further demonstration of the Government's commitment to not just acknowledging the failures of the past, but also learning from them, the Government has committed in action 7 to the creation of a national memorial and record centre. A group chaired by the Secretary to the Government will develop the overarching vision and proposed approach for the creation of this national centre. That will be brought to the Government for approval. Provision has been made in this year's and next year's Estimates for that group to begin scoping work on the creation of a national records and memorial centre.

We are also working to provide memorialisation at a local level. My Department is currently working on this with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, as well as offering a commemorative grant scheme to support survivor-centred advocacy groups in organising commemorative events.

Memorialisation and commemoration is important in recognising the place of mother and baby institutions in our history but we must also inform. In recognising the importance of learning from the traumatic experience of the past generations, action 11 directs the Department of Education to inform future generations about their impact. Through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, we are considering how best to support schools in enabling students to learn about and understand this important and sensitive aspect of Ireland's recent history. The Government has also created a number of postgraduate scholarships, in partnership with the Irish Research Council, in memory of the children who died in the institutions. These scholarships will focus on researching the area of childhood disadvantage.

Action 13 relates to how my Department has commissioned a team based in NUI Galway to conduct research on language, terminology and representation. The aim of the project is to highlight the stigmatising and labelling language that has been used in the past and to provide guidance on how to do better in the future. Those of us who have been present through the pre-legislative scrutiny on information and tracing legislation will know the importance of the language and terminology used. The outcome of the NUI Galway research will underpin and inform future projects. These actions are tangible demonstrations of the determination of the Government not to forget and repeat the past.

As the Government works to response the legacy of the mother and baby institutions, the past 18 months, in particular, have been difficult for survivors. It is important that I emphasise, and Deputies make their constituents aware, that counselling support for all former residents has been in place since the publication of the commission's report. The service has been strengthened with additional investment and an expanded out-of-hours service.

In addition, we are establishing a patient advocacy liaison support service for all survivors. The Department of Health, in partnership with the HSE, is currently working on establishing this service. I expect it to be in place early next year. When up and running, this service will have a dedicated team which can provide bespoke information and support for survivors on a confidential basis to assist them in accessing health services they may need. The Department of Health is also working with the Health Research Board on a research project as part of the TILDA programme to identify the health needs of survivors. This research will further inform health policy and service responses.

Having set out the comprehensive context in which the proposals for the mother and baby institutions payment scheme has been developed, I want to briefly speak about this scheme, which sits as one element of the entire redress package of supports and measures as set out in the action plan. The scheme will provide a financial payment to all mothers who spent time in one of the instructions. It will also provide a financial payment to those who were resident as children one of the institutions for more than six months. The payment is in recognition of the harsh conditions, emotional abuse and other forms of mistreatment, stigma and trauma experienced while resident in these institutions. The scheme will provide an enhanced medical card to mothers and children who were in one of the institutions for more than six months. These measures will benefit approximately 34,000 people at a value of €800 million.

In doing this, the scheme goes well beyond the recommendations of the commission of investigation and goes beyond the recommendations of the interdepartmental group that was established to develop proposals. In moving beyond the broad redress measures included in the action plan, the Government has also included in its proposals for the scheme women who spent time in the institutions after 1974, all children who spent more than six months in the institutions regardless of whether they were accompanied or unaccompanied, and all women regardless of the time they spent in an institution. We have given careful thought to how to balance the multiple competing views and priorities while delivering a scheme that is not over-complex and does not leave a burden again with survivors. Through the OAK-Ied consultation process and from my many engagements with survivors, they have made it clear that they want a scheme that is non-adversarial, simple and based on trust.

The requirement for a low burden of proof was also a key issue raised. This is what the mother and baby institutions payment scheme seeks to deliver. The approach to the payment was a matter of extensive deliberations. It was concluded that providing a general payment based on time spent, with no requirement to bring forward any evidence of abuse or harm, was the best way to ensure that this scheme causes no further trauma. While I appreciate that this approach is not perfect, it is notably less complex, lengthy and traumatising than one requiring an individualised assessment process where it could be very challenging for applicants to meet an evidential threshold to entitle them to an award and to have their evidence tested, for example, through oral hearings. This is particularly the case having regard to those who were young children. All of this creates significantly more uncertainty and unpredictability for applicants.

I was struck by Deputy Bacik's contribution on Tuesday evening when she pointed to her experience as a barrister of the difficulties of applicants to the residential institutions redress scheme in terms of the re-traumatising nature of how that scheme was designed. The simplicity of the approach adopted in this scheme has been acknowledged. It has been designed with a focus on survivors and a genuine intent to make it as easy as possible for them to access it. The approach we are proposing will also allow for the scheme to be established more quickly and it means that the process of assessing applications can be quicker as well. These considerations have also been expressed as vital by survivors. It is important to note that once the scheme is established, it is very much the intention that elderly survivors and potentially other vulnerable people will be prioritised.

As I said earlier, the Government's action plan provides a response to the priority needs of children who spent short periods in the institutions as babies by way of the birth information and tracing Bill and the investment that has been made available to support the implementation of this legislation. This is the overwhelming need which has been expressed by people who as children were adopted or otherwise separated from their birth families. In terms of the situation of boarded-out children, I agree with the sentiments expressed in this House regarding the horrific abuse suffered by those who were boarded out. This scheme has been designed to provide a response to those who were resident in mother and baby and county home institutions. A general payment scheme is, unfortunately, not the appropriate vehicle for responding to the very varied circumstances by which children were boarded out and to their individual experiences. I emphasise that the action plan includes other measures that will provide support and assistance to those who were boarded out as children, including access to birth and early life information as part of the birth information and early life information, inclusion in the memorialisation initiatives and the provision of an ex gratiapayment to anyone who was boarded out and had to pay inheritance tax on land that they inherited from their family. I have also stated that we will be making provision for a dedicated counselling service for individuals who were boarded out and were subject to physical or sexual abuse.

In terms of my engagement with the religious congregations involved in operating the institutions, the Government has heard and fully understands the widespread view that they must provide a significant contribution to the scheme. I will be meeting a number of the congregations in the coming weeks and it is my intention to seek exactly that from them.

On the subject of the waiver that is included in the proposals for the scheme, it is important to stress that the legal waiver would only be signed at the point where the applicant accepts an offer of a financial payment made under the scheme. An applicant will have full understanding of what offer is being made to him or her before signing. Until the point at which an offer is accepted, an applicant has every right to pursue legal action, if that is what the applicant chooses to do. All applicants who decide they want to take the payment and sign the waiver will be entitled to financial support so they can get independent legal advice on the consequences for them of signing that waiver. Importantly, signing a waiver will not mean that survivors cannot discuss their experience of engaging with the scheme or the payment they may have received so, unlike previous schemes, there will be no gagging of survivors.

The path we seek, to try to reconcile with the scale of the terrible wrongs committed in our past, is not an easy one. We owe such an enormous debt to those who were so cruelly let down by the State and the church, into whose care these women and children were left. Those traumas are living memories for many thousands of people. Thousands of others, their families and their friends live with the consequences of those acts. The action plan I have developed, including the payment scheme and access to information, seeks to address the wrongs in as open and far-ranging a manner as we know. It is an ongoing and evolving process and one that I am committed to implementing as Minister for as long as I am in this office.

I conclude by thanking the House for providing this opportunity to discuss the significant work that has taken place in this area. I thank the survivors and all those who support them for sharing their experiences with us, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members.


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