Thursday, 18 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I am raising this issue on behalf of the survivors of mother and baby homes and county institutions across the country, who are outraged, deeply upset and insulted at the provisions made in the redress scheme that the Minister has published. To be frank, the redress scheme announced this week is an exercise in exclusion rather than compassion. I have been contacted by a number of survivors of Sean Ross Abbey who are more than just furious at the exclusion of infants who spent less than six months in a mother and baby home from accessing redress or an enhanced medical card. They are deeply upset and feel let down yet again. These emotions are being felt right across the country. Every time this Government claims to act compassionately towards the survivors of mother and baby homes it creates controversy, giving survivors more battles they have to fight and compounding the sense of exclusion they have felt for decades. For the life of me I cannot understand why people who, as infants, spent less than six months in mother and baby homes are excluded from accessing redress or an enhanced medical card. This six-month rule is completely arbitrary. I ask the Minister to outline to the survivors how that time period was decided upon and what factors were taken into account that resulted in the conclusion that the six-month exclusion point was appropriate. I would appreciate an answer to that.
Every minute spent in these hellholes was a minute too long. It only took the religious orders a moment to make the decision that would fundamentally affect the entire future of a young child and his or her mother by systematically and forcibly separating them. These children were betrayed from the start of their lives and they have been betrayed again this week. The Minister has said that infants who spent less than six months at one of these institutions would not have recollections of their time there. However, they live with this every day of their lives. To make it worse, they have had to spend much of their lives fighting for their right to be excluded no more. They are well aware of their time in these institutions.
There is no recognition in the redress scheme of the hurt or trauma experienced by children separated at birth from their mothers. That is an unfortunate fact. I was speaking to one such person this week, Teresa Collins. The Minister has spoken to her himself. She is a survivor of Sean Ross Abbey and is excluded from his scheme. This week, she feels abandoned by the State and like she is not being treated like a human being. That is how she described the attitude conveyed through the redress scheme. What does the Minister have to say to her and to the many others in similar situations?
I also ask him to justify his comment that as the commission did not focus on the boarded out phenomenon, as he put it, he was not in a position to compensate those people. Many of these children suffered horribly after being boarded out under the eye of the State. Just because the commission did not focus on it does not mean their experiences do not count. I also refer to the sliding scale of payments. This needs to be reviewed urgently as it creates a hierarchy of suffering, as do the six-month rule, the exclusion of boarded out children and the fact that this scheme is based on a commission report that has been widely rejected by survivors. This scheme is similar to the commission of investigation in that it is unfit to assist the people it impacts. The commission did little but give rise to a scandal and this scheme has a similar future.
Following intense deliberations over the past months, on Tuesday the Government approved an action plan for mother and baby institution survivors and a mother and baby institutions payment scheme. This payments scheme goes significantly beyond both the recommendations of the commission of investigation and those of the interdepartmental group that was established to bring proposals to me. It will provide supports with a value of more than €800 million. It also stands as part of a much broader Government response that seeks to address the priority needs of survivors and former residents.
I have met with many survivors over the past 12 months. Through these meetings, and through the results of the consultation that was undertaken in developing the proposals for the scheme, it is clear that redress comes in many forms for people. While approximately 34,000 survivors will benefit from a payment under this scheme and 19,000 will receive an enhanced medical card, this is just one element of the Government's comprehensive response to the commission’s final report. The diverse needs of those who spent time in a mother and baby or county institution will be addressed across the Government's action plan.
The payments scheme will provide a general payment for time spent in the institutions, recognising the harsh conditions, the trauma and the other forms of mistreatment experienced while resident there. It is designed so that people who spent the longest time in these institutions as mothers or young children, and endured the harshest conditions, will receive the highest level of award. For people who were adopted or otherwise separated from their birth family, the overwhelming priority need that has been expressed to me is access to records. For those children who spent short periods in an institution during their infancy, the Government’s action plan provides a response to their needs in the birth information and tracing Bill. This legislation will provide guaranteed access to an unredacted birth certificate, as well as wider birth and early life information for those who have questions about their origins. I want to advance that legislation as quickly as possible. For children who spent six months or more in an institution, the Government response further acknowledges the harsh institutional conditions endured by those children. In doing so, it has moved beyond the distinction made by the commission between children who were accompanied and those who were unaccompanied.
With regard to the situation of mothers who spent less than six months in an institution, the Government felt that the pain and trauma that they experienced as a result of being admitted to a mother and baby or county institution should be acknowledged by a financial payment. While I acknowledge that it is not and never will be possible to place a monetary amount on any person's trauma, a financial payment was felt to be an appropriate response in these cases. The graduated payment rates under the scheme will proportionately acknowledge the more prolonged experience of harsh institutional conditions, which were endured by all those who spent longer periods in excess of six months in these institutions.
These decisions were taken with a focus on both the core need of the survivor and the appropriate available response. This was not, and has never been, done with any intention to exclude. Time and again it was made clear to me by survivors that they wanted a scheme that was non-adversarial and easy to access and that would not re-traumatise them. It was concluded that the best way of doing this was through an approach that does not require applicants to bring forward evidence of abuse or harm and does not require them to be cross-examined, thereby risking further re-traumatisation. A scheme based on the level of time spent in an institution, which can be accessed by simple proof of residence across that time, delivers on this key objective.
The Minister and I, and other Members, have met survivors. I assure him that whether they were there for one day, five months and 29 days or six months and two days, all these people were affected exactly the same by being separated from their families and decades of trying to get answers from the governments. This sliding scale effectively tells them that their forced separation and suffering is not worth any compensation.
I mentioned Teresa Collins. This is not about money for her, or for many of the other survivors to whom we all speak; it is about recognition. This redress scheme does not recognise the vast majority of people who have been caught up in this. That is where the problem is for Teresa Collins and those who were in Sean Ross Abbey and other places. The Minister is failing here and he needs to revisit this awful scheme. It is as simple as that. This issue has increased my concerns about what the future holds when it comes to the demands that have been made for scans in Sean Ross Abbey. Is it another case of the Government dragging people along for another while and letting them down again? That is what has happened here with the redress scheme. People have been dragged along, have not been listened to and there is no recognition for them. Suddenly, there is a bombshell that a big cohort of people who were caught up in these institutions are being excluded. As I said, it does not matter whether they were there for one day, five months and 29 days, or six months. It happened. It is time the Government, no matter who is in it, recognised that and gave these people the redress they deserve.
It is disappointing to hear that the Minister recently wrote to the religious orders requesting that they contribute to this scheme. There should not be a question in that regard. This might require legislation but they are responsible, as well as the State, for what these families and children have suffered. It is time to get the finger out. I have always had faith in the Minister and I thought we were moving forward but during the week I started to have my doubts again I think he can do the right thing. It is time he got in touch with these religious institutions and forced them to pay well into this redress scheme.
I absolutely agree with the Deputy that every person who spent any amount of time in these institutions was impacted, although I am not sure I agree that every person was impacted the exact same.
Certainly my engagements with survivors would suggest that people have different responses and reactions to the time spent in the institutions but I agree with Deputy Browne that everyone was impacted. It is the desire and intention of the Government, across the action plan and the 22 actions, to respond as best we can to the needs and desires of each and every individual survivor while also recognising that the needs and priorities of survivors are different across the approximately 58,000 survivors, both mothers and children, who we estimate are still alive today.
In respect of people who were boarded out, I want to make it clear that anybody who spent more than six months in a mother and baby institution and was subsequently boarded out will receive a financial payment and a medical card for the period of time he or she was in the mother and baby home. I want to make that very clear because I know there are thousands of such survivors who were in a mother and baby home for more than six months; often they were in such homes until they were four or five and then they were boarded out. The commission did not examine the process of boarding out in the level of detail that allows us to make broad awards in the way we are making them for those who lived in mother and baby homes. The commission did a detailed piece of work in examining the conditions across the mother and baby homes and county institutions.
In respect of the religious orders, I absolutely agree with the Deputy that it is right that they would make a substantial contribution. I will be meeting them in the next number of weeks to start the process of achieving that. I believed it was important that I get this scheme launched and that I advance both the birth information and tracing Bill and the institutional burials Bill. They were my priorities. I was never designing this scheme solely on the basis of the response of the religious institutions but it is essential, if their apology to survivors is to mean anything, that they contribute substantially. I will speak to Deputy Browne privately about the engagement we had previously on Sean Ross Abbey and those scans.