Dáil debates

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)


1:10 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance) | Oireachtas source

I am glad that finally we have a Bill before us on birth information and tracing, the stated objective of which is to end the shameful situation where, for decades and decades, people were adopted and their mothers were, in effect, forced to give up their children even if sometimes it was technically consensual. In reality, the stigma that was imposed by church and State on women who had children outside marriage created the general culture that was anti-women. A culture of shame was perpetuated by church and State so that in reality the vast majority of adoptions in that environment were, in effect, forced adoptions and forced separation of mother and child. A Bill that attempts, or sets out as its objective, to end that denial of identity, history and heritage to adoptees is to be welcomed.

Unfortunately, while the stated objective of the Bill is to address the long battle that adoptees and mothers who were forcibly separated from their children have experienced regarding the information they are entitled to about themselves, it does not come up to the mark in terms of achieving that aim.

Before I go into the provisions of the Bill, I wish to state that I met some of the Tuam families yesterday. As well as commenting on the issues addressed in the Bill, they wanted me to impress upon the Minister their continuing anger, which I share, at the insulting form the redress scheme has taken. I refer, for example to the arbitrary six-month date relating to availing of the redress scheme. In other words, people have to have been in an institution for more than six months in order to avail of the scheme, as I have said previously. The league table of financial compensation is, frankly, insulting and dehumanising for the people to whom we are supposed to be providing redress. The use of a league table format to assign a particular monetary value to the trauma, hardship and suffering people went through and arbitrarily exclude many people on the basis of the six-month line simply beggars belief.

Despite the verbal acknowledgements we have had about the wrong that was done to adoptees, mothers and so on in mother and baby homes and other institutions of various sorts, there is a failure to approach the issue from a human point of view when it comes to redress. It is precisely that dehumanisation which lies at the heart of the wrong that was done to children and mothers for decades in this State. I ask the Minister to seriously reconsider the position in respect of all of that.

Another issue the families asked me to raise is the exclusion of many institutions from the redress scheme. It is not acceptable. As the Minister knows, I am an adoptee. Generally speaking, my situation has turned out to be a lucky one in that a wonderful family adopted me . My birth mother, with some considerable difficulty, which I will come to in terms of the provisions in the Bill, was later able to find me. I have had a happy outcome. For many people, however, that is not the case. Some have suffered terribly. They suffered abuse and have never found out the full details of their history. They have not experienced reunification. Their mothers may have died in the interim. Terrible suffering continues to be endured by many people. That is not limited to the institutions that are named in the redress scheme. As far as I know, Temple Hill, which is one of the mother and baby homes I was in, has been excluded from the scheme. Many people went through Temple Hill. That is not a major issue for me, but it is for many others. One such person was outside yesterday with the Tuam families asking why they have been excluded. The person also asked me to impress upon the Minister the urgency of getting the redress scheme right and getting it up and running. Another point the person made was that many of those affected are very elderly and it may be too late for them unless we get this right, establish the scheme and deliver redress as a matter of absolute urgency.

On the Bill, what is required is probably best summed up by the Clann Project when it said, "What we want is the file, the whole file and nothing but the file". The Bill does not achieve that. I will listen. I know the Minister has genuinely engaged on this issue and has put considerable effort into the Bill. As I have said all along, we have to the needs and hopes of survivors, namely, the mothers and children who went through the institutions and suffered forced separation, at the centre of our approach if we want to get this right. The latter was lacking in the context of the mother and baby home commission report. Many feel it is not happening.

When I look at the provisions of the Bill, I can see that it is lacking in many respects. I am not disputing that it is an improvement. As I said, despite the happy outcome I have largely had there are gaps in my history that I would like to fill and information that I still would like to know. I will certainly be making an application for my information to, if nothing, test whether the system works as soon as it is up and running. I will be doing that not only on my own behalf but also as somebody who is a public representative and who wants to see whether the legislation will actually deliver what the Government said it wants to deliver.

Survivors groups, adoption groups and others have requested that there be a stakeholder group, involving survivors, to oversee the implementation of the Bill and they want it to be allowed to have input into an ongoing review of the legislation in order to improve it, fill in the gaps and make sure it actually delivers for the people it is supposed to deliver for. That request needs to be taken on board. Not having an approach that involves stakeholders, survivors and so at the centre was most egregiously manifested in the failure to attribute the proper weight in the report of the commission to the testimonies of survivors. As a result, the summary and recommendations were, quite frankly, insulting because proper weight was not given to the testimonies of survivors. In a similar manner, the voices that have emanated from survivor groups, groups like the Clann Project and various other campaign groups representing survivors reflected the recommendations of the joint committee to a large extent, but have not found their way into the Bill.

The Bill should be about accessing the file, the whole file and nothing but the file, something that is required under the general data protection regulation, GDPR. People should have access to all information relevant to them, including their history, their heritage, the history of their care and any files, administrative or otherwise.

Some of those rights are subject to the caveat of a requirement to have an information session if the mother expresses a no-contact preference. That is not acceptable. It assumes, as one should not assume, adoptees necessarily want contact; they do not necessarily want contact. The Minister is bringing something into the equation. When people are simply looking for their birth and medical information, and trying to fill the gaps in their history, heritage and identity - things that have been taken from them which they are entitled to under the GDPR and entitled to morally in any event - why would we then import into that the assumption that they need to be lectured to about seeking to contact their birth mother or their birth parents?

Why would we make it in any way conditional on their accessing the file, the whole file and nothing but the file, receiving a lecture or warning about not contacting somebody when a no-contact preference has been expressed. It is wrong, insulting, unnecessary and should be removed from the Bill.

Even though the Bill makes references to the GDPR, it then - some are suggesting this is illegal - inserts the caveats, conditions and obstacles in the way of people having all the information that they are morally, and I would say legally, entitled to. While that is obviously critical, there are other issues.

The question of plain English is also critical. I still have not fully got my head around the Bill. I have more work to do on it before Committee Stage, when we will be tabling amendments. It is complicated and difficult legislation. I know legislation sometimes needs to be, but extra effort needs to be made to help all survivors and anybody who is seeking to get their birth information or to trace their parents and so on. Information on how to do that must be accessible to them. The Bill refers to illegal and unlawful adoptions as incorrect registrations rather than as falsely or incorrectly recorded where we know there was falsification of records. I do not see why the Minister would not concede that point which is very important given that it was a crime to falsify records. It is not just a mistake; it is a crime. That needs to be acknowledged in the legislation as illegal or unlawful adoption.

The other point is about people's right to access all the information from religious organisations or other institutions directly rather than having to go through the gatekeepers of Tusla and the Adoption Authority. That needs to be included. People should have the right to go directly to the religious orders or to the bodies or individuals who were in charge of their adoption, in charge of these institutions, to get all records, information and items that may relate to their adoption and their care.

We need clarity on the training for the people who will be overseeing this in assisting people with tracing and providing people with the information. We need to ensure we have the staff resources and the proper training. That training must include full knowledge of compliance with the GDPR with no caveats, restrictions or obstacles to people's rights under the latter.

I could raise other matters, but I simply refer the Minister to the failure to include many of recommendations of the joint committee. Organisations such as the Clann Project are very concerned and dissatisfied at the failure to put their requests into this legislation.

I will listen intently to the Minister's response to all these things and will do so with an open mind. However, there are major gaps, as has been rehearsed by other speakers. I hope the Minister will respond positively to the calls to amend the legislation to make it better than it is.

One very important issue I forgot to mention is the question of mothers' rights to all the information regarding their children. This relates to the first point about forced separation for most mothers. The Bill does almost nothing to enhance the very limited rights of mothers to access the information about the children they were effectively forced- sometimes actually forced, but more generally culturally forced - and pressured into giving up their children to adoption. The only additional thing the Bill does is to allow them to get that information if their child died in the institution, which is not good enough.

I know this from personal experience and from many stories I have heard. Mothers who were in effect forced to give up their children and the new environment are seeking information, history, etc., on their children have encountered severe difficulties. They have also been wronged and this legislation should remove those obstacles denying them the information about the children they were forced to give up. That also needs to be included in the legislation.

I eagerly await the Minister's response. I look forward to the further discussion and, hopefully, amendment of the Bill on Committee Stage.


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