Thursday, 17 January 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries
The commission of investigation into the 14 mother and baby homes - the term "homes" in that context sticks in my throat - and four county homes was due to report last February. Time was extended on the basis of the workload involved in investigating these institutions. Last year's interim report stated that the issues of living conditions, mortality rates, post-mortem practices, vaccine trials and practices in relation to placement for fostering and adoption involved time-consuming investigation and the Government extended time until February of this year. That had a devastating effect on survivors. Paul Redmond, chairman of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, noted that the survivor community was elderly and dying and that many hundreds had passed away since the Tuam 800 story broke in May 2014. He was scathing about the delay. Last week, the bomb dropped that the commission had requested a further year before publication of its final report.
I ask the Minister to correct me if I am wrong, but my information is that the report was finalised in early December last and had been sent to the Attorney General pending transmission to the Minister and the Cabinet. I have also been informed that more files from the HSE have emerged which is why, potentially, a further delay is being sought by the commission. Survivors have been waiting anxiously for this report, as the Minister knows, and have been physically and emotionally shattered by the announcement in last week's newspaper. It was a cold and calculated way to inform survivors and their families. Some survivors in their 70s and 80s were outside the gates of Leinster House yesterday. They were cold and they were angry. It was a disgraceful way to treat these ageing people. Their rights and justice are being denied. Will the Minister please explain exactly what is happening and set out why there was no early warning of the proposed delay? These people are losing confidence in the Minister and her Government and in the commission.
The request for a second extension from the commission is the last straw for many of us here and certainly for many of the survivors. The request should be refused. I am very curious to hear what the Minister's attitude is and what level of warning she was given by the commission that this bombshell would drop a year almost after the last extension was granted. Many felt it was a step too far even then yet a year on, here we are. It is jaw-dropping to have a scenario in which four years later, we have had three interim reports comprising fewer than 40 pages between them. Of those interim reports, two sought more time while another focused on process. There have been no details and no findings and we must ask what in God's name is going on in this gathering. As Deputy Joan Collins said, a suspicious person might wonder if things were being done in this manner so the community dies off. The fact that they had to hear this as they did via a newspaper leak has caused more insult to them. In many ways, the process is as important as the outcome. The process here has been an abysmal failure and it has retraumatised many of the survivors. I do not necessarily blame the Minister and certainly not before we hear what she has to say. I assume she got the information. It is important for her to tell the House when she got it and whether it was flagged. If it was not flagged to her, why did the commission wait until the 11th hour? If it was flagged and everyone knew, why was it done like this? This is devastating and we need clarity around it. My attitude is that the request should be refused. It is too much.
Has the commission of investigation asked for an extension of time? If so, when was the request made, how was it made and how long has the Minister known? I ask these questions in the knowledge that four and a half years ago, in July 2014, the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, announced that Judge Yvonne Murphy would chair the commission. The terms of reference were set in February 2015 and here we are four years later. There have been three interim reports, the first of which requested a change in the time for the publication of the two reports, namely the confidential committee report and the social history report. From day one, there was confusion and delay. The third report asked for extension of time. While it caused real upset then, people accepted the assurance that the report would be published in February of this year.
I remind the House that this commission has come about on the backs of those who attended mother and baby homes, particularly the home in Tuam, which gave rise to this commission and where the remains of almost 800 babies and infants were found. The struggle of people on the ground, many of whom were outside yesterday, forced us into action. None of this was proactive on the part of the Government. All of this was reactive. Subsequent to what we found out in Patsy McGarry's newspaper report earlier this month, it was claimed on the Department's website that "reports in the media did not come from this Department and the speculation contained in these reports is inaccurate". What specific inaccuracies are there? Has an extension been sought? If so, when and why was it sought? I will await the Minister's answer before I give my opinion.
I thank my Independent colleagues for raising the fourth interim report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters, which deals with the questions being asked today. The commission was established to investigate the conditions in mother and baby homes and county homes in the period from 1922 to 1998. The scope of the investigation is broad. It was acknowledged at the outset that the timeframe was ambitious. I received the fourth interim report in December 2018. I met the chair of the commission, Judge Yvonne Murphy, last week to discuss the request for the extension of the timeframe for the delivery of the commission's reports and to ensure I had a full understanding of the progress to date and the basis for the additional time being requested. I know it is important for the commission to complete this sensitive and complex work as soon as possible. It is also important not to underestimate its task. Following our meeting, I am confident that the commission is using its best endeavours to conclude the investigation as expeditiously as possible. There can be no shortcut to finding the truth.
The interim report is short. Contrary to what the Deputies have suggested, it is not a proposal. It grounds the request for an extension of the timeframe to deliver the three reports from the commission by one year. As the request constitutes a change in the terms of reference of the commission, it is a matter for the Government to consider the request in reflection of its statutory provisions. Government approval is also required to publish the report. With this in mind, I intend to bring a memorandum to the Cabinet. I have already circulated a draft of the memorandum to Government Departments. I hope to have it on the agenda next week for discussion. Ahead of the Cabinet meeting, it would not be helpful to speculate on what the Government will decide. I am conscious that the commentary on this issue in the media last week has caused distress and anxiety for those involved in this process. The coverage was misleading and did not originate from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, as one of the Deputies mentioned.
I reiterate my commitment to use existing channels to inform stakeholders of any developments in this area in advance of a public notice. I intend to make a public announcement following the Cabinet meeting to clarify the position for them. Deputies may wish to note that the collaborative forum that was established last summer has produced an initial report, which outlines the legislative issues and supports the survivors of these institutions would like the Government to prioritise. I intend to bring this report to the Cabinet shortly. The process of delivering on the Government decision with regard to the mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway, is also under way. This is being progressed separately from the investigation by the commission. I thank the Deputies again for their contributions today. I will engage with stakeholders ahead of any public announcements. I hope to announce the details of the interim report as soon as possible.
I thank the Minister for her reply. However, it has not answered any of our questions fully. The Minister has said that she met Judge Yvonne Murphy last week "to discuss the request for the extension of the timeframe for the delivery of the commission's reports and to ensure [she] had a full understanding of the progress to date and the basis for the additional time being requested." When was that request made? Did the commission submit that request to the Minister at the beginning of December? If so, why were the survivors not given some sort of early warning of this request before they read about it in the newspapers? The Minister has said that contrary to what we have suggested, this "is not a proposal". She also stated the interim report "grounds the request for an extension of the timeframe to deliver the three reports from the commission by one year." Why is that the case?
I will conclude by making a point that the Minister might take on board. Prior to the promised publication date in mid-February, the commission should produce a further interim report to deal specifically and solely with redress matters. An interim report dealing specifically and solely with redress matters should be brought to us by the middle of February. This will enable the Government to act to address these issues. A report dealing with redress matters is the least that should be done at this stage.
The essence of what was in the newspapers is correct. The final report was due in February, which would have been a year later than was originally intended. We are now hearing that it will not be published. I appreciate that this is not the Minister's fault. She has been left to deal the information she has been given by the commission. She needs to step in and call the commission to account. A report outlining exactly what has gone on and what is going on must be published in February. I imagine that this is a very complex area. If workload is an issue, why was this not flagged prior to now? It should have been known that the people who are the victims in this case - they have already been victimised - would be upset about any further delay. None of this information is on the commission's website. People have been left in limbo for the past couple of weeks. They are wondering what is going on. All of that is fuelling a very bad situation. There is a need for an itemised list of what still needs to be done and a timetable of when the work will be done. The monthly progress reports must be transferred. We cannot wait another year, only to find that a request is made for an extension of another year. These delays are utterly devastating for people. The manner in which this matter will be handled from now on presents a significant challenge. The Minister has to run with the substantial burden of work that has now been put back at her door.
I am afraid I am not so sympathetic. I am holding the Minister to account because her answer is not acceptable. When and how was she approached by the commission in relation to an extension? Why are the grounds for an extension not set out in the Minister's reply? Why do we not have a copy of the report? The lines that should demarcate who is responsible for what are being blurred. An independent commission of inquiry was set up. It has a duty to report in a way that we can see, read and look at. It is not acceptable that the Minister is not telling us where the report is, why we do not have it and what the grounds for the request are. It is ridiculous and utterly unacceptable that she is telling us there are grounds for the request but not telling us what those grounds are or when they were set out. The Minister referred to a meeting that took place last week. If there is a shortage of staff, as has been mentioned, we should know about that. If there is a reason the work cannot be completed on time, it should be made known to us in an open and accountable manner. That is the least we deserve in this Dáil so we can represent the people outside who have suffered greatly. The Minister knows well that I have attended many of the meetings. The anger on the ground is palpable. There was an absence of trust from day one. I went out on a limb to give the system a chance. Looking back on that, it was rather foolish. Since 2015, we have had nothing but delay, obfuscation and blurring of boundaries. The very least the Minister should do is tell us precisely when the request came and how it came. Regardless of the nature of the report the Minister has, she should publish it.
It is an interim report.
There are procedures in terms of the establishment of the independent commission and the commission has requested an extension for the completion of its work. That request must be presented to Government, which must agree or not to it. Once that has happened, there will be the publishing of the report. That is the process and those are the procedures. I intend to do that at the next Cabinet meeting. When I have provided my Cabinet colleagues with the rationale for this, in addition to advising them of the discussions I had with Judge Murphy, which I sought as soon as I could subsequent to the presentation of that interim report taking account of the Christmas period, I will engage with my Cabinet colleagues and we will make a decision. We will let the survivors and those primary stakeholders know. I will publish the report and we will publish our decision. Those are the proper procedures. The Deputies will know then what is the rationale in that regard. I am happy to come back to the House and discuss those issues with them.
Second, as the Deputies well know, this is an independent commission and therefore there are certain things I can and cannot do. The commission has made this request and laid out its rationale. I am able to talk and have talked to it about that - I have spoken of that - to more deeply understand its rationale in this regard.
Third, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, I know the Deputies - who represent the people concerned very well - would acknowledge I also am aware of how awful and difficult this news is for these people to receive. I understand that. I will be able to provide the Deputies with the rationale with regard to the response, and my own response specifically to what they have said, next week after I have given that to my Cabinet colleagues.
The Deputies also will be aware that in my capacity as Minister, we have done some additional things in parallel to the commission of investigation, particularly because of the ways in which the Deputies have represented the interests of the people concerned and because I have also listened to their concerns. I have received a report from the collaborative forum we established from people who represent and were themselves residents within these institutions, which has met for a number of months. I note they suggest that they be called "institutions", as distinct from homes. The forum prepared a report, which I am considering and which is highly significant. I will bring it to Cabinet, as I said, and we will go through a process of responding to it. That has been happening in parallel to what the commission of investigation has been doing. That is in addition, as the Deputies will be well aware, to the lengthy process we took by way of responding to what has gone on in terms of the findings, in terms the remains of children in Tuam.
These are the matters that are in my domain and for which I have responsibility, and we have acted. Those matters have been happening alongside the work of the commission. I know that does not satisfy and it does not take away from the fact that the extension requested is for a year but in terms of what I am responsible for and what I can do to move in a proactive way, I believe we are progressing. I acknowledge it is because of the extraordinary advocacy of the survivors and their families as well as the Deputies' ability to represent their interests.
The Deputy who tabled the next Topical Issue matter is not present in the House. Something unforeseen may have arisen but we have not been made aware of it. I am sorry the Minister of State had to be here, but I am sure the Deputy will be in touch to advise the reason for her absence.