Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Magdalen Laundries

9:45 am

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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3. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the way she will address the issues and problems which have arisen relating to determining the length of stay for the individuals in the Magdalen laundries. [35439/14]

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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My question relates to the Magdalen laundries and the issue of determining the length of stay and the difficulties arising with that.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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This relates to the scheme that has been put in place by the Government for women who were in the Magdalen laundries. Decisions have been made on 80% of the applications so far. A total of 770 applications have been received and 442 applicants have received their lump sum payment to date, at a cost of €16 million. The sum allocated for the scheme is €34 million. The majority of the applications have been processed to the satisfaction of applicants and there has been no systemic issue or problem particular to determining the length of stay. That is not to say that the issue is straightforward in every case. However, less than 4% of applicants have disputed the assessment to date, so such cases are relatively rare.

Mr. Justice Quirke recommended that a fair and robust eligibility process be put in place. Where there are records available from the relevant religious congregations and the applicant has no issue with them, the process has been very straightforward. Where there is an incomplete or no record or where the applicants disagree with the records, we check out what the applicant says in so far as we can and try to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

We have also advised the applicants to get legal advice. In the vast majority of cases, people have received legal advice before they signed the agreement. A sum of €550, plus VAT, has been made available to the women towards the cost of obtaining legal advice. The vast majority of claimants are being dealt with, so I assume the Deputy is commenting on those cases where there are particular difficulties. There is also an appeals mechanism to the Ombudsman and to a senior official in the first instance.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I acknowledge the progress that has been made since the exchange the Minister and I had in July. At that stage, 357 claimants had received compensation and the figure is now 442. There are outstanding issues and one of them is the need for reputable independent advocates for women who are in nursing homes or other institutions. There is also the issue of the end date. Mr. Justice Quirke recommended that there should not be an end date. As we know, some people missed the residential institutions redress scheme for various reasons.

In addition, a number of women are finding it difficult to prove length of stay. The McAleese report showed that the date of exit was not available for 58% of admissions to the laundries. The burden of proof appears to be on the women, many of whom are in ill health and of advancing years. It is not the fault of the women that the records are incomplete. Justice for Magdalenes raised the dangers of exclusive reliance on the religious orders' records and Mr. Justice Quirke was told that the Department had six different ways of establishing length of stay. Will the Minister verify that all of those avenues are being explored? Will the Department accept sworn affidavits from the ladies or from other women who were in the laundries at the same time and would make a sworn affidavit?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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In the first instance, the processing of all applications starts on the premise that the testimony of the applicant is correct. That is the basic approach. We then try to verify it. I accept the point that it is not the women's fault if the records are incomplete. A variety of other mechanisms are being used. If the applicant disagrees with the officials, a number of inquiries are made. The Department of Social Protection, for example, might be able to indicate various social insurance records from a particular institution, and the Department of Education and Skills has schools records. There are also electoral registers. A variety of other documents are examined to make a determination.

I will consider the matter of a sworn affidavit and whether there is a possibility of using that in some of the disputed cases. I will revert to the Deputy on that.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I stress the urgency of this because many of the ladies are of advancing years and some of them are in extreme ill health. This week, I had the privilege of meeting one of the ladies who lives outside the State. It was most disturbing to listen to her story of being in one of the laundries. I have no doubt that it contributed to the ill health she suffers now. As she said, she was "dumped" in a laundry at 14 years of age.

With regard to health care, I am aware the Government agreed that the Minister's Department would co-ordinate legislation with the Department of Health and that her officials are working with officials in the Department of Health. What is the position on that? There is also the issue of health care for women living outside the State. It would be easier, perhaps, to deal with women living in England, but there are women living in other countries such as the United States and Australia. What input has the Minister's Department had into that issue?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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We have been having detailed discussions with the Department of Health on finalising the legislation, particularly the issue of access to health services for women who are living in the United States, for example. We will have a mechanism to deal with that. It is likely to be through buying an insurance premium for the women, but the final details are being worked out with the Department of Health. The legislation is almost complete. I am awaiting some final decisions from the Department of Health and I expect to have those shortly. The legislation should be introduced in the Dáil within a matter of weeks.