Friday, 16 October 2020
Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages
Roderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
I thank the Senators for their contributions and their continued engagement on this legislation over the last weeks. When we last spoke in the House, earlier in the week, I noted that this is technical legislation. As was said by speakers earlier, I acknowledge that while the legislation we are looking at is technical, it reflects a long, grim period in our country's history. This legislation touches on one of a range of legacy issues that our country is still struggling to address. Many fall within my Department and I reiterate my commitment to spend my time as Minister addressing those legacy issues and working with Members. I know many Senators are particularly passionate about those issues. I acknowledge what Senator Bacik said about the haste with which this Bill is progressing. I acknowledge that. It is not my desire to act in this way. The haste is motivated solely by the need to pass this legislation by 30 October, which is the deadline for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to complete its final report, at which stage it will stand dissolved at law.
I will respond directly to Senator Higgins's points about passing the database to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, instead of Tusla. While I appreciate the intent in doing that, it is important to reiterate that the majority of the original records are currently held by Tusla and, in practical terms, this Bill cannot alter existing arrangements in that regard. All institutional records held by the commission are copies of original documents supplied by the various bodies to the commission. The Bill does not introduce restrictions in any way to access to those original documents. A transfer to any statutory body such as the AAI would mean that two different statutory bodies would hold the same records, with Tusla holding the originals and the AAI holding the database and the associated copies. Since it would not hold the original records, the AAI would be more restricted in accessing the database. By contrast, the digitised and indexed records could be a notable enabler of Tusla's current services in this area, notwithstanding that no new right of access to information is being created by the proposed legislation. It is the view of the Department and my view that the duplication that would be created by transferring the database to the authority would be inefficient, it would lead to confusion and it would not serve any immediate benefit.
I am not in a position to accept the group of amendments relating to the AAI. I believe that rather than supporting a move towards consolidating records in a single repository, these amendments would cause further and unnecessary fragmentation in the State's approach to the safekeeping of these records. The appropriate body to retain such records in the long term will be the subject of future consideration in the course of bringing forward new legislative proposals for enhanced information and tracing services.I have committed to advancing that legislation separately. I will speak more about that matter in a moment. In the interim, Tusla will be fulfilling an important public service in safeguarding this database in the immediate term. I emphasise that no decision has been taken about the long-term repository for this database or, indeed, the wider suite of records from various sources that we address in these legacy issues. I know there are proposals about wider repositories coming in through some of the amendments that will be proposed later, but no decision has been made at this point.
From a practical point of view, it is worth noting the organisational capacity, as referred to by Senator Higgins. Tusla currently has significant resources available to undertake its existing functions under information and tracing. It has dedicated approximately 60 hours of whole-time equivalent social work solely for the maintenance of its information and tracing services. The Adoption Authority of Ireland has 29 employees in total. That is the full complement of staff of the authority. Tusla has the capacity to make use of this particular database for its existing statutory functions. It is the best place to get value from this database while we look at the options for a longer-term repository.
Senator Bacik asked about the rationale for why this particular piece of legislation is necessary. Under the 2004 Act, once the commission its final report and stands dissolved in law, its archives are sealed for 30 years. That is not provided for in this legislation, and that is important. The 30-year rule is not coming from this legislation. It comes from the original 2004 Act under which the commission was established in 2015. Decisions made by previous configurations of the Houses of the Oireachtas brought us to the situation with which I am now dealing.
If this legislation is not passed, the valuable database that the commission has created will be part of that archive and will be sealed within it for a 30-year period. However, if we pass this legislation, we maintain this database outside the sealed archive and giving it to Tusla will allow it to be used by the agency for its current functions, provided for under legislation, and it will be available to create improved information and tracing legislation in the future, as we have all said is necessary in this country.
I accept Senator Bacik's point that the previous Oireachtas was not able to deliver on information and tracing but I think we must take the opportunity now to protect the database. It would be a mistake not to undertake what we are trying to do, to protect the database and not have it left in the sealed archive on the basis that we have not done information and tracing yet. We cannot give up on getting good information and tracing legislation. As I said, I am committed to working hard with everybody to deliver that.
I spoke to the former Minister, Katherine Zappone, shortly after I took up this role. She said that one of her biggest regrets was not getting legislation on information and tracing passed because it is important for many people. It is my commitment to get that legislation passed and I believe that having the database available will be of significant benefit in that context.