Wednesday, 27 June 2018
National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:" 'Information Commissioner' means the Office of the Information Commissioner as outlined in section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act 2014;".
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am sorry I could not be here for the Second Stage debate. I commend the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017 and the objectives of the Minister in this regard. Along with my Sinn Féin colleagues, I am somewhat concerned that there could be political influence over what State records are deemed to be relevant records. Our concern is that the Minister will have an effective veto on such records. As far as I can see, no level of transparency around decision-making is evident in this Bill. When I read the transcripts of previous debates on this Bill, I noted the Minister's remark that she does not consider the Information Commissioner to be the most appropriate person for dealing with these matters. While I accept that opinion, I ask the Minister to indicate the official whom she would deem to be the most appropriate person to provide the independent oversight that is needed in this area. I intend to withdraw this amendment, while reserving the right to return to it on Report Stage.It would be helpful if the Minister were to propose independent oversight. Amendment No. 2 is in the same vein.
Before we continue, I welcome back to the House former Cathaoirleach, Mr. Pat Moylan. I know Senators Buttimer and Ned O'Sullivan would also like to welcome Mr. Moylan back to the Chamber. He sat in this chair, albeit not in this Chamber, for many hours over many years. He is very welcome and it is good to see him looking so well.
As Leader of the House, it is my pleasure to welcome back my former colleague and friend, the former Cathaoirleach and Senator, Mr. Pat Moylan, with whom I had the pleasure of serving. He was one of the fairest and most impartial Cathaoirligh and I know I tested his patience on many occasions. His many years of refereeing were put to good use. He is looking great and it is good to see him back here. I wish him well.
I thank the Acting Chairman for offering me this opportunity to welcome back a great friend and colleague, former Senator Pat Moylan who was Cathaoirleach from 2007 until 2011. Mr. Moylan was an excellent Cathaoirleach who was very popular and well respected in the House, as all our Cathaoirligh have been. We have been very fortunate. It is good to see him looking so well.
I thank Senator Warfield for agreeing to withdraw his amendments. I will clarify for the Senator what a relevant record is. It is a record that is more than 30 years old, has historical or public interest significance and its transfer would facilitate balanced reporting between jurisdictions, especially the United Kingdom. I do not believe I need to comment further since the amendments are being withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, line 18, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
This amendment is in the same vein as the previous amendment as it removes a discrepancy with respect to what may or may not be released by the Minister. No Minister who holds political office should have the powers provided for in this section as they are adverse to transparency. Independent oversight should be provided. I will withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to return to it on Report Stage. I encourage the Minister to add an oversight element to the legislation. I disagree with her interpretation of what are appropriate checks and balances. I believe she and I want to achieve the same thing. As such, I hope she appreciates the sentiment in this amendment.
I will give the Senator the ruling on the amendment for the record. It is a note for the information of the Chair regarding an amendment that has been ruled out of order. Amendment No. 4 in the name of Senators Warfield, Conway-Walsh, Devine, Gavan, Mac Lochlainn and Ó Donnghaile seeks to amend section 35 of the Statistics Act 1993 so as to allow the 1926 census of the population data to be made available in advance of the standard 100 years, that is, ahead of the scheduled 2026 date. The proposal has the potential to impose a charge on the Revenue and, therefore, the amendment has been ruled out of order in accordance with Standing Order 41. That is the information I have been given. I am not allowed to permit the Senator to speak to the amendment. Senator O'Donnell may contribute in a moment.
On a point of clarification, while I am aware that this is extremely important legislation, I am struck by the need to further amend the National Archives Act 1986. I have reasons for making that statement. Should I explain them now?
I wish to make a general point. The Minister may be aware of this. We need to provide access to the records of institutional abuse held by the religious orders, private agencies and dioceses throughout the country. We need some truth-telling in that regard. Every day, the House hears about mother and baby homes, adoption agencies, Magdalen laundries and those who were incarcerated in industrial schools. The persons concerned want access to their records and they have a right to access them. Telling the truth is part of atonement. Apologies lose their power and meaning if they are not part of an effort by the State to hold to account the private institutions involved in these abuses and the State itself. Providing this information is the most important way of ensuring we have accountability.
I would like the National Archives Act 1986 to be further amended to bring within the remit of the National Archives the records of historical institutional abuse which are currently held by non-State entities. Religious orders, dioceses and other private entities hold information that is of great value. While I was not a member of what became known as the McAleese committee, I was a Senator at the time. When the committee interacted with the Magdalen laundries, the religious orders co-operated extremely well and provided access to their records and archives. However, the committee was required to send all of the records back at the end of its investigation and it did not keep copies. The Commission of Investigation into mother and baby homes is gathering records from all institutions and individuals that have information of value to the investigation. The records should be brought within the control of experienced teams at the National Archives - that is my essential point - in order that access can be provided to sensitive information, as it has been for decades in the National Archives. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is proposing, in the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, to bring records previously held by adoption agencies within State control. This can be done, therefore, and I would like it to be done.
The Dean's lecture at the National University of Ireland Maynooth was given by the brilliant Dr. Catríona Crowe, who was the head of all special projects at the National Archives. Dr. Crowe called for the religious archives to be opened up to survivors of institutional abuse and scholars. I ask that amendments to this effect be brought forward.We should take up the challenge to finally provide accountability to people who have been gravely wronged and hurt. The records of those people should be part of the remit of the National Archives. I do not know whether this is the right time or place to make that point but------
I have said it. There are not many Senators present. It is a very good and tremendously important Bill. However, it is very important that those records come under the remit of the National Archives such that people have a right to that information, given its sensitive experiential aspect. It must not be held in institutions which are not prepared to open it up to inspection.
To allay the fears of Senator Warfield that there could be political influence over the early release of documents, I draw his attention to section 8(4) of the principal Act, which prevents the making available to the public of records which "would or might cause distress or danger to living persons on the ground that they contain information about individuals, or would or might be likely to lead to an action for damages for defamation". That might be of interest to the Senator.
I thank Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell for her comments. I appreciate her concerns and the very important issues she raised. However, those issues are within the remit of the Department of Education and Skills, which is working towards dealing with them. It is not a matter to be dealt with in the Bill.
I appreciate the Minister's response but it is extremely important to have this on the record because, although I know that it cannot be inserted into the Bill, the records must come under the remit of the National Archives. It must be thought of in that way. There is an urgent need to bring it forward under the National Archives Act. I know it cannot be inserted into the Bill but I wished to put on record that there is an urgent need for this to be dealt with and that I will be raising the matter again. I will take the Minister's advice in regard to the Department of Education and Skills but I also think it could be amended within the Bill.