Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes: Statements
I thank Members for their very helpful and reflective observations and contributions. I have noted all of them and I will try to answer as many as possible in my response. It is clear that in their comments and questions Senators also feel deeply about these issues. They represent very well the people who come to them. In Senator Boyhan's case, he is one of those people. That is very helpful in terms of the work that I am doing. It is also the approach that I have tried to take.
As many speakers said, they share my frustration and the deep disappointment that is felt following the request by the commission of investigation for an extension. That is why I asked to speak at length with Judge Murphy to try to understand more deeply the reasons for the request for this extension. Having had the opportunity to meet her, I asked her whether she is fairly certain at this stage that the commission will conclude on time if is provided with an additional year. She indicated that to the best of her knowledge, she believed it would conclude on time. In effect, she wanted to ask for a full year so that she would not have to come back again. That is the reason I have stated here and also in the Dáil at other times that I believe the commission is making its very best endeavours in terms of the work that it is doing and also in estimating at this stage the timing for delivery of its reports. I also asked whether we could have one of the three reports a little bit earlier, as I had done previously, but the commission is adamant that the best interests of the survivors, their families and the State would be best served if the reports are issued together in the context of the confidential committee and the social history as well as the investigative findings of the report.
Senators are aware that the commission of investigation is independent. As such, the powers that I have are to meet, ask questions and try to understand better and, on that basis, to make a recommendation to the Government on whether to extend the term of the commission on foot of the recent request. I do not have the power to tell the commission it must complete and deliver its report now.
I understand that recognising testimonies as part of the public record and providing witnesses access to testimonies are live issues. These are matters for the commission of investigation because it is an independent body. I have, however, spoken to the commission about these matters.I would like to address the issue of the discovery of records, which the commission referenced in its fourth report as one of the reasons it needed more time. The narrative of the fourth interim report does not, in my view, fully reflect the enormous logistical technical and legal challenges that are being addressed, particularly by my Department and the Department of Health. The time taken is a direct reflection of the scale and complexity of the process. It is evident from the interim reports that these challenges have been experienced by the commission, in terms of the enormity of what it wants to cover, and by the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Health, in the context of accessing and discovering the appropriate records for them to investigate. My Department has co-operated and liaised with the commission in regard to discovery. The discovery of records to the commission commenced in February 2016 - not March 2018 as mentioned in the report - with the production of 208 files.
I will try to provide a sense of the scale of task. It is worth noting that over 340,000 inactive files were examined and categorised for relevance, utilising over 100 search terms. My Department works with the Department of Health on the preparation of the records the commission requested. We retained the services of legal counsel and a team of documentary counsel for the duration of this work. The historical paper files were digitised and indexed prior to delivery to facilitate ease of access. Over 730,000 individual pages were digitised and reviewed for relevance and my Department has delivered over 1,000 digitised files to the commission. Records were typically produced within two to four weeks of receipt of an order for discovery. As I understand it, from the perspective of my Department, there are no outstanding records that have been requested by the commission. It may request more but what it has asked for up to now has been provided. In terms of the Department of Health, there may be a small number of active files still outstanding but they are working on that. On the HSE, we only became of the deficit of documentation when the commission of investigation delivered its fourth interim report. The commission has the power to intervene regarding the provision of this information. It is not appropriate at this stage for me to interfere with the investigative process that is being undertaken by the commission of investigation.
Senator Mullen referred to headlines that sensationalise matters. I agree with him in that regard. The Senator will be aware that I have met many of the resilient survivors and their families on numerous occasions, both in Tuam and in these Houses. I understand the pain in that regard from their perspective. Not all of the journalism relating to this matter has been sensational in nature. The way in which the survivors have engaged with journalists and other members of the media in a responsible fashion has assisted in terms of raising the issues and in the establishment of the commission. It has also given rise to ongoing pressure to bring the process to a conclusion. We must have regard to the way in which the Government needs to respond once the process has been completed.
The Senator also referred to communication with survivors. Earlier in this process, we were sensitive to the need to put in place mechanisms of communication, including providing an information update once a month on our website. We have email addresses for anyone who wants to give us information, including stakeholders who want to be communicated with. We also have telephone numbers for people who do not have access to email. My understanding is that efforts were made to provide for the type of direct communication to which the Senator referred. At this stage, we are doing that very well.
In the context of what was reported in The Irish Times, as stated previously in the Dáil, it did not come from my Department. I do not know how the information relating to the fourth interim report got out. We are aware of the issue and we are trying to respond proactively. For example, in terms of the Government's most recent response to the fourth interim report, this was communicated via email to the stakeholders pretty much as we got the decision from Cabinet.
In the context of the request from Peter Mulryan and others to have their DNA samples taken now as distinct from waiting until we get the law, etc. in place, I telephoned Mr. Mulryan and spoke to him directly. Along with the special rapporteur and officials in my Department, I have put in place a process to identify the ways in which this could be done. I hope the special rapporteur will report on that matter and indicate whether we have a sufficient legislative framework in place to enable us to respond to the request positively. I accept the key issue involved and we are trying to respond more proactively in respect of it.
Senators Boyhan and Higgins raised the issue of redress for the survivors of Bethany Home, which is important. One of the recommendations contained in the second interim report suggested that the Government, subsequent to the Ryan report commissioned by the Department of Education and Skills, reopen the redress scheme for the survivors of Bethany Home. The Government considered the recommendation and ultimately decided not to do so at that time because Bethany Home was being investigated by the commission. Strictly speaking, there are not findings from a commission in regard to that home that would allow for the pursuit of individual redress. That was the rationale. However, that is not to say that the mother and baby homes commission, in making its findings and recommendations, will or will not make recommendations in terms of individual redress. The Government will have to consider all recommendations made. The survivors in terms of Bethany Home are part of that process.