Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Commencement Matters

Adoption Legislation

10:30 am

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Independent)
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At the start of this year, the Seanad passed the Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill proposed by me and seconded by Senator Jillian van Turnhout. The Bill passed the Seanad with unanimous support. It was also supported by groups representing adopted people and natural parents. In July, the Government indicated its intention to move this issue forward by bringing forward its own Bill. I gave that Government announcement a cautious welcome at the time. I said I was glad to see any progress on this issue, but I was concerned that the Government Bill might not be passed before the election.

I also expressed some concerns about aspects of that Bill, as did the Adoption Rights Alliance and the Irish First Mothers group. We were particularly concerned about two issues, namely, the statutory declaration that adopted people would be forced to sign before being given their birth certificates and the inclusion of an information veto provision, allowing that in some circumstances an adopted person could be refused the basic information in his or her birth certificate where so-called "compelling reasons" exist, although the heads of the Bill did not make it clear what exactly those might be.

The committee on health and children also looked at this issue recently. It listened to those concerns. It invited all the different groups in - the various groups representing adopted people and natural parents, Tusla, the Adoption Authority, lawyers like Fergus Ryan, who drafted my own Bill and Conor O'Mahony from University College Cork, who is an expert on this area - and very thoroughly considered all the issues involved. After that, the committee also recommended changes on those two areas I mentioned: the statutory declaration and the compelling reasons for non-release.

It is now the end of December and I am very concerned at this stage that the Government's proposed legislation is unlikely to get through the Oireachtas before the election. This is a source of great concern, not just to myself as a legislator and as an adopted person, but also to tens of thousands of adopted people and natural parents all across the country who were separated through forced adoption. This is the first chance they have had to be given rights by the Irish Government. This issue has never been legislated on before, even though in the UK adopted people have had a right to their birth certificate and birth identity since the 1970s, as has been the case for decades in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. There was great hope. When the Seanad passed my Bill earlier this year, I got letters from all over the country, many of them from elderly natural parents - women who were forced to separate from their children decades ago, who are getting on in years and are concerned that they might never get to meet their son or daughter before they pass away.Such women wrote to me in great hope and expectation saying they were delighted that somebody was finally doing something about this, and they hoped the legislation would be passed without further delay. The reason I have tabled this Commencement matter today is to ask the Minister of State, who is attending on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, if the legislation will be brought forward by the Government before the election. Will it be amended to take account of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Health and Children? I remind the Minister of State of a Bill on the Order Paper, passed by this House and endorsed by the Government representatives in the House who stated at the time that they hoped that Bill would be progressed and that the Government would work with Senator Jillian van Turnout, me and others in getting legislation through, based on that Bill. If the Government Bill is not going to be passed on time, I urge the Minister of State to look again at the Seanad Bill which is halfway through the process in the Oireachtas and could easily be brought through the Dáil before the election.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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As the Senator is aware, the Government approved the publication of the heads and general scheme of the adoption (information and tracing) Bill 2015 last July. The Bill is intended to facilitate access to adoption information and operates on the basis of presumption in favour of disclosing information in so far as is legally and constitutionally possible. The Bill will, for the first time, provide a statutory basis for the provision of information related to both past and future adoptions. It will provide clarity around the information that can be provided and the circumstances in which it can be provided.

Efforts have been ongoing for many years to address the issues related to the provision of a statutory entitlement to identity information, in particular an original birth certificate to adopted persons. The overall policy objective in bringing forward proposed legislation on adoption information and tracing has always been to provide access to as much information as possible to adopted persons.

The adoption (information and tracing) Bill 2015 provides that where an adoption was effected prior to the commencement of this Bill, the information required to apply for a birth certificate will be provided to an adopted person when they have signed a statutory declaration agreeing to respect the privacy of their birth parent and not to contact their birth parent or ask anyone else to make contact on their behalf. There will be no requirement for an adopted person to sign a statutory declaration where birth parents have indicated a preference for contact or have consented to the release of the information or where it is established that the birth parents are deceased. The Bill also provides that where an adoption is effected after the commencement of this Bill, an adopted person will be entitled to their birth certificate once they are aged 18 or over.

The Bill also provides that the Adoption Authority of Ireland will be responsible for collecting, restoring, preserving and the safekeeping of adoption records, including information relating to informal adoptions and persons whose birth was incorrectly registered. It will set out the information that must be retained by the authority for future adoptions and, in so far as it is available, for past adoptions, persons whose adoption is registered in the register of inter-country adoptions, informal adoptions and incorrect birth registrations Persons who were the subject of incorrect birth registrations will be given access to service provision.

The Bill was referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for pre-legislative scrutiny and the committee published its report recently. The committee’s key recommendations were that the definition of "compelling reasons" be further clarified and more tightly defined in the Bill. In cases where non-disclosure is sought citing compelling reasons, this should be supported by medical evidence. Consideration should be given to excluding the statutory declaration provision from the Bill. This could possibly be replaced by an alternative provision where the applicant is required, before the birth certificate is released, to attend one preparatory session to discuss and explore the issues concerning privacy and respect. Consideration should be given to reducing the lead-in to a much shorter time period and to holding a shorter, more intense information awareness campaign over a six-month period, to include engagement with social media and a wide range of community groups which can help to raise awareness about the new register. In the case of the illegally adopted, consideration should be given to establishing a dedicated unit to investigate those cases actively and a review of service requirements arising from the Bill should be undertaken.

The Minister, Deputy James Reilly, welcomes the report of Oireachtas committee and believes it is a valuable contribution to the debate on this important Bill. He has examined the recommendations of the committee very carefully and will shortly finalise the Bill in light of the committee’s recommendations. The heads will be submitted to the Office of the ParIiamentary Counsel very shortly with a request to draft the Bill as a matter of urgency. In view of the size and complexity of the Bill, the Minister does not want to offer any guarantees about how quickly it can be finalised. However, he wishes to assure the Senator that he will work closely with the Attorney General to facilitate the Bill's completion as soon as possible.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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An bhfuil ceist ag an tSeanadóir?

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Independent)
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Tá. I appreciate the Minister of State is replying on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I am very disappointed that there is no commitment to passing the Bill before the election. Thousands of people are waiting on this legislation which is very important for many people who are separated through adoption. I appreciate the Minister of State's brief is on equality issues. What equality does one have when one does not even know who one is? For 30 years of my life I did not know my original name. I did not know where I came from. I did not know anything about my parents. I did not know my medical history. I did not know any of that. Thankfully, eventually, I found my mother and I have that information. There are tens of thousands of people throughout the country who do not. There are elderly women across Ireland who were forced to separate from their children decades ago and do not know if they are okay. The Minister has probably seen the movie "Philomena" about her story. I get letters all the time from other women who had the same experience and who have spent decades looking for their lost son or daughter and cannot find them due to resistance on the part of the State.

The reply stated that this is a complicated issue. I do not agree. This system is in place in the UK , Northern Ireland, Wales and elsewhere for decades. We have seen much complex legislation being rushed through the House in recent weeks so I think where there is a will there is a way. We have seen the Legal Services Regulation Bill and the extraordinary process of how it came through this House, with the number of amendments the Government tabled to its own Bill, and to ensure it could pass that legislation before the recess and before the House finishes for the election. I urge the Minister of State to speak to the Minister, Deputy Reilly, about this Bill and remind him again of the Seanad Bill which has passed halfway through the House and is closer to the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Health and Children than is the Government Bill. Many of the issues of which the committee was critical were not in the Bill that Senator Jillian van Turnout and I tabled. I ask the Minister of State to look at this again. I genuinely believe that if the interest is there it can be done. I understand it will require resources on behalf of the draftsman but this is the first time we have ever got a Government this far, almost to legislating for adoption rights. I urge the Minister of State to ensure it goes the full distance. Let us work together to ensure this is done.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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I appreciate the Senator's commitment to this issue and her own personal connection with the issue. I will endeavour to discuss the issue with the Minister, Deputy Reilly. I am sure that whatever progress can be made on this Bill before the ending of the term of parliament will be made.

Sitting suspended at 10.58 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.