Friday, 19 February 2021
Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation: Statements (Resumed)
I thank the Acting Chairperson for his kind words. I have appreciated the opportunity to come into this House on three occasions to hear at length and in depth from Senators from around the country. They have had engagements, experiences and conversations with people in their own areas who have been impacted by this situation and-or seen the impact of local mother and baby home institutions in those areas. It has been a valuable experience for me as I work on the Government's response.
A number of Senators raised the issue of the deletion of audio files by the commission, and I want to address this first. I can understand the real anger felt by the 550 survivors who attended before the confidential committee when they learned of this. I have been working to find a solution to ensure that their voices are heard and protected. When I spoke to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on Tuesday, I stated that the commission had written to me to say that it believed that the tape recordings were not retrievable. I said then that I would continue to engage with the commission and I have done so.
The commission informed me yesterday that it had become aware of backup tapes held off-site, which may - and I must stress the word "may" - contain the audio files of the personal accounts given to the confidential committee. This followed my earlier request to the commission to exhaust all possibilities to retrieve data from the interviews, if those data still existed. I responded immediately to the commission to arrange for these tapes and their content to be made available urgently to my Department as part of the transfer of the archive that is beginning to happen. I am expecting a response from the commission to that request later today. I stress that I do not want to raise unduly expectations about these tapes. I very much hope they will contain the audio recordings of the 549 people who consented to be recorded but it will not be until the tapes have been retrieved, reconnected to the parent IT system and transferred to my Department that my Department will be able to ascertain this for a fact. We are all aware that sometimes technology can let us down. These tapes are backups in the form of disaster recovery tapes and that is their function. If the recordings are on those tapes, I will then have to decide, in light of the legal advice provided to me by the Attorney General, to what extent the material on those tapes can be made lawfully available. This is new information that I am giving to the House, and as soon as I get more information, I will continue to update Members of both Houses. I assure everyone that I am giving this situation my utmost attention to try to give voice to survivors.
A number of Senators have also raised the issue of the extension of the lifespan of the commission. I said previously, and again at the meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee this week, that I am engaging with the Attorney General regarding this issue in respect of the legalities around that and the difficulties presented in that regard by the manner in which the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters) Records, and Another Matter, Act 2020 is structured. I refer to the difficulties in changing the terms of reference, particularly after a report has been provided, but I continue to engage with the Attorney General on this point.
I have also raised another question that is a concern for me. Last October, the Attorney General made the important decision that the GDPR applies to the archive of the commission investigation. That decision means that when that archive transfers to my Department, we will then be in a position to answer SARs for not only the 550 survivors who gave testimony before the confidential committee but all survivors of mother and baby institutions and county institutions. Since that determination was made by the Attorney General, my Department has put in place a unit solely dedicated to the management of these SARs because we are very conscious of our responsibilities under the GDPR and of the need and the desire for survivors to obtain vital personal information about themselves.We are preparing for that, and when the commission's archive fully transfers to us by the end of this month, we are in the position to start answering those subject access requests.
If the commission continues in existence, and if it is subject to investigations, it is going to need its archive, the entirety of its documents, to be able to answer those investigations. It cannot be investigated if it does not have the material to respond to any queries that come in. If the commission has the entire bundle of data, of files, that it has been using, we know that the commission has not been responding to subject access requests. If our goal is to get access to information for survivors, my belief is that that goal is best served by the commission archive moving to my Department and allowing subject access requests to be made and to be answered in the way that my Department has prepared for. That is a consideration but it is one of a number of considerations.
I want to talk about the report itself. Whenever I have spoken in this House, I have recognised that the language in the report is cold and legalistic, particularly in the executive summary chapter. I have also recognised that conclusions like those about the quality of the consent that mothers gave to adoption are incredibly hard to justify when one reads what is contained in the confidential committee's report and when one reads those personal testimonies, and they are incredibly difficult to reconcile with the lived experience of survivors whom I have spoken to, and whom I know many Senators have spoken to as well, and with what happened to them, especially mothers. What I have always said throughout all of this is that I believe the survivors, and I believe the Government believes the survivors. We believe their testimony and that testimony is stated clearly in the confidential committee chapter.
We also have to recognise, however, that within the 3,000 pages, there are valuable conclusions, valuable pieces of information, and valuable findings that enable the State and provide it with the foundation to move on and address certain issues, for example, the culpability of the State in what happened in these institutions, and the clearly documented failure of Departments and local authorities to respond to the public health reports that people like Alice Litster and others raised time and again and that were ignored time and again about high infant mortality rates or unacceptable physical conditions in specific institutions. We all knew there was a State failure but it is documented now in chapter upon chapter. That allows the Government, in the apology and in our actions subsequently, to say, yes, the State was and is culpable in this and that is why the Taoiseach apologised on behalf of the State.
The finding that so many infants died in these institutions, that the mortality rate was so incredibly high, allows me, as Minister, and allows the Government to engage with the religious congregations and say we have these findings and we are now asking them to step up in terms of an apology, a contribution to the restorative recognition scheme, and providing material such as their records as part of the wider measures they need to take. If we write off the entire report, however, there is nothing for me or any future Minister to engage with these congregations on.The finding of the high infant mortality rate and that it was allowed to happen forms the foundation for those engagements and the information we have about specific mother and baby homes and what happened in the individual institutions. Senator Gavan mentioned Manor House and noted that it was a good analysis of what happened in that institution. I know, having spoken to survivors, that other survivors have highlighted how the institutional chapters have been able to highlight the practices that they were aware of and ensure they are on the record forever.
My view of those criticisms of the commission's text and of some of those conclusions is that the commission report is not the final statement on what happened in mother and baby institutions. The State has set out a 22-action point plan in order not only to address this but also to provide mechanisms whereby we can continue to recognise the lived experience of mothers and children who were in these institutions. A national records and memorial centre, which the Government has committed to delivering, provides an opportunity in whatever way is felt best to express the lived testimony of survivors of these institutions.
As for the set of action points relating to memorialisation, whether it is the need for the institutional burials Bill for sites where we need to make a major intervention, such as in Tuam - that Bill will be before the Oireachtas committee, and I look forward to engaging with Senators and Deputies on the legislation and working to strengthen it; whether it is in the context of smaller interventions in sites where perhaps survivors linked to the site believe it is a more dignified maintenance and delineation of the burial site in that institution; whether it concerns education and ensuring that what happened in these institutions is reflected in the educational curriculum - and I have engaged with the Minister, Deputy Foley, on that point; or whether it is in the context of access to information and the commitment to bring forward access to information and information and tracing legislation, including access to birth certificates, which we all know is so valuable, which is so sought-after by survivors and which is referred to in all the emails Senators have received recently, we have made a commitment that the heads of that Bill will be published by the end of March or in early April. That will then go to pre-legislative scrutiny. It will also go to consultation with wider groups that are interested in this area. I have said very clearly that the approach taken to this will not mirror the approach taken to previous legislation. It will centre on that GDPR right of somebody to access their personal information. That is central to what we are seeking to achieve in the legislation and also in the context of access to the information contained in the archive of the commission, to which I have referred already.
The State has apologised. It has recognised its enormous failures and how the human rights of the women who were sent to these institutions and the children who were born there were breached. I said on the day of the apology, particularly in the context of a redress scheme or restorative recognition, that any scheme of financial redress will never compensate for what happened. The Government does not think, and I do not think, we can ever compensate for what happened. The State broke the trust between it and the women and children who were in these institutions. The State is now putting forward these actions as the first steps towards seeking to rebuild that relationship of trust.There is a lot of work ahead. Some of those actions will take a significant amount of time; others, we hope, can be delivered quickly. I am aware, though, that time is of the essence because so many of the former residents are of an age where they need to be able to avail of access to information and of an enhanced medical card. That is the job of work that is before the Government and before my Department but also before both Houses of the Oireachtas. I know everybody wants to do right by survivors and wants to work together to achieve these actions for survivors. I have committed, and continue to commit, to working with Senator and Deputies across all parties so we can do our very best and make good the failings of the State that have been manifest from this report.