Thursday, 20 January 2022
Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)
This legislation is long-awaited and seeks to right significant wrongs. People were let down by people in authority, by religious institutions, by caregivers and, it must be said, by their own family members in some cases. It is to be hoped that this Bill will deliver full access to birth and early life details to people who have been the responsibility of the State in any capacity in order that they can fully understand their origins. This information can be made available to any person aged 16 years or older. We have a wonderful county but, as much as we laud it, we must also recognise that we have a shameful past in respect of how we dealt with mothers and children and how the State victimised some of these people who found themselves faced with unplanned pregnancy, separation, rape or incest. Part of that shame relates to how the State and religious actors colluded to hide pregnancy and how, having hidden pregnancies, some institutions, religious and otherwise, financially profited from forced adoptions and forced labour. In a final ignominy, records detailing family relationships were destroyed or hidden, heaping further distress on many children, who felt abandoned, and on young mothers who were denigrated as fallen women and left with no opportunity to challenge the State or to be involved in their child's upbringing. In some cases, this shameful abuse extended to the under-reporting or failure to report to the deaths of children in institutional homes. This is a significant stain that can never be fully washed away. I know the Minister and the Government have fully committed to addressing these issues as an ongoing priority.
Enactment of this Bill is designed to secure the release of the birth certificates, birth information, early life information and care and medical information of all persons who were adopted, boarded out or subject to an illegal birth registration. They are referred to within the Bill as "relevant persons". There are still concerns regarding the availability of information where parents of adopted people have decided to adopt a position of refusing future contact and how these relevant persons may get access to full information in those cases. I align myself with calls for amendments regarding how that process is to be observed, which have been previously discussed in the House.
I welcome the fact that relevant persons will be able to access their details in the event that parents named on the birth certificate are deceased and, additionally, that information can be released to the next of kin of a relevant person who died as a child in one of the institutions specified in the Bill. The Minister has included in the Bill provision for the setting up of a statutory tracing service for persons wishing to make contact or to share or seek information. Perhaps he can highlight how the development of this statutory body is to come about.
The legislation seeks to bring about a vital development that should allow both parents and their children to gain increased access to their information where it is held by a number of State agencies. It has been known for many years that information was available in religious institutions and State agencies but that it was kept under lock and key, away from those wished to access it. This deprived many parents and their offspring of any opportunity to develop future relationships with their blood relatives. It deprived many of any meaningful redress for what befell them in their early lives and childhood.
The Minister's Bill also provides for a contact preference register, to be established in law, through which people can register their preference in respect of contact from a child or genetic relative. It will also allow personal communications to be lodged. These provisions within the Bill must be lauded. It also provides for protection by statute for the safeguarding of future relevant records. This has been cited previously and is also to be welcomed.
One of the key provisions of the Bill that stands out relates to the information versus privacy debate. Under this Bill if enacted, for the first time, even if biological parents say that they do not wish their children to have access to a birth certificate or related information, such children will still have access. That is a significant step forward.
On the face of it, this Bill appears to pave the way for a greater degree of transparency for those who, up to now, have been largely kept in the dark as to their family origin or what blood relatives they may have. A question still remains as to whether this Bill will deliver totally unrestricted no-holds-barred access to full birth and origin information for relevant persons. There is no doubt that, for some people, the passing of this Bill will create a high degree of discomfort. Some such people are mothers who, for whatever reason, had to give up their children. The wishes of mothers who have expressed a desire to stay anonymous, possibly because the birth in question remains a secret in their present family circumstances, must be balanced against the rights of those who are desperately trying to understand their origins and the details of their birth. This legislation will go a fair way towards that.
The balance here is to be restricted. For some parents and children who are both still living, reconciliation may now be an impossible task, even if desired. A further relationship may not be possible or desirable from the perspective of one or both parties. For some people, the search for their history may be motivated purely by a desire to understand any congenital medical issues they may have concerns about rather than any wish they harbour to pursue a family lineage from which they feel permanently excluded. For many, understanding their origins is at the heart of this question. People are asking who they are and they have been asking for too long.
As I have said, many people who wish to have their true origins or identities revealed to them have suffered at the hands of State-supported actors. For a large number, this has coloured their lives. It has led many to harbour feelings of confusion, doubt and anxiety and to engage in soul-searching. It must also be said that many mothers suffered forced adoption, not knowing where their children were in later life or how they were developing. This has also taken an extreme toll. I align myself with Deputy Boyd Barrett in saying that further information and securities must be provided for mothers who are trying to pursue details of where their children have finished up in the case of forced adoptions.
We can never truly wipe the slate clean with regard to how so many mothers and babies were treated so cruelly and inhumanely in and by our State. It is incumbent on us all, as legislators, to do everything possible to draw a line under our savage contemporary history and to ensure, in this new century, that those who were failed in the past will now be fully supported, that those who were victimised receive recognition and adequate redress and, most of all, that those for whom every day brought feelings of loss and abandonment will now feel found, valued and recognised for what they have endured.