Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes: Statements
I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. In particular, I would like to update Senators on the commission's fourth interim report and the responses I am progressing to the issues which have emerged from the commission's work to date. As Senators will be aware, the commission submitted a fourth interim report to me in December of last year, which I published after securing Government approval on 22 January. This report is available to view and download on my Department's website.
The commission advised that it would not be able to issue its reports within the previously agreed timeframe and requested an extension of one year to allow it to complete its work in full. Government has agreed to this extension request and the commission is now due to submit its final reports by February 2020.
In making a case for an extension, the commission outlines the sheer scale of the work involved in investigating the matters set out under its terms of reference. This investigation includes multiple lines of inquiry relating to the operation of quite different institutions over a period of more than three quarters of a century. The scope of the terms of reference and timeline for this commission has always been ambitious and we remain ambitious for the outcome of the commission. The public interest, but most importantly the interest of former residents, is best served by facilitating the commission to conduct the comprehensive analysis required to make accurate and robust findings on the extensive range of sensitive issues before it. I know that many former residents have been eagerly awaiting the completion of the commission's work and I understand that many who contributed to the process and shared their information are disappointed and frustrated by this development.
The commission's fourth interim report provides an update on the important work of its engagement with former residents and others connected to these institutions. It has captured the personal experiences of 519 witnesses through the work of its confidential committee and now expects this process to be completed by the end of January. Hearing these stories grounds the work of the commission in the lived experiences of those who spent time in these institutions. The commission is continuing to take evidence about conditions in the institutions from former residents, workers and the authorities that ran the institutions and this work is not yet complete. The commission also stated that its wide terms of reference have necessitated the collection and analysis of a vast range of documentary material relating to the institutions under investigation. While this process is ongoing, I can confirm that my Department has furnished the commission with all relevant records in its possession.
Significantly, however, the commission now plans to deliver a substantial report on the burial arrangements for persons who died while resident in these institutions by 15 March 2019. The report will include extensive technical reports prepared in the course of the commission's work on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway, and the commission's assessment of burial arrangements at other major institutions. I will seek formal Government approval to publish the report as quickly as possible after I have had an opportunity to consider its findings.
On receipt of the report about which we are speaking, I consulted with the commission to explore whether any of its three reports could be completed in advance of February 2020. The commission is strongly of the view that it will not be possible to complete any of its reports in isolation from its companion reports. When I met with Judge Yvonne Murphy, I was reassured by the absolute commitment of the commission to establish the full facts of what happened to women and children in these institutions. I accept that the commission is using its best endeavours to conclude the investigation as quickly as possible. The chair wants to conclude matters and I know Senators want the same thing. It is clear that the commission is seeking to collate and analyse information on these institutions at a level of detail that has never been done before. This will greatly assist public understanding and possibly assist individual citizens in relation to their personal story and experience. I can confirm that the extension of time for the commission will not impact on the planned forensic excavation of the Tuam site. These are separate processes. However, the commission's burials report is expected to assist and inform the ongoing work to advance the legislative and operational arrangements for this priority project. If a decision had been made not to grant the extension sought, the commission would effectively be obliged to submit incomplete reports this month. Clearly, such a scenario would ultimately undermine its findings and the opportunity within this process for Irish society to acknowledge and to start to understand the harrowing manner in which single women and their children were often treated during this period would be placed at risk.
In these circumstances Government's approval of an extension was the only viable option. Government will continue to make available whatever resources and supports are required for the commission to continue its vital work. The commission has confirmed that despite the extension, it expects that the total costs will remain within the initial costing estimate of €21.5 million.
In regard to Tuam, in October 2018, the Government approved the recommendation for the phased forensic excavation of the available site of the former mother and baby home there. As Minister responsible, I was honoured to make a recommendation to colleagues, which was not only supported by the best experts in science and the law, but most importantly was informed by the voices of survivors, their families and loved ones. Implementing this decision will not be straightforward. New legislation is needed to provide specific lawful authority for the proposed course of action. The preparation of legislation is a key priority within my Department and a new dedicated unit has been established for this task, with additional staff from other Departments expected to be assigned to the unit in the coming weeks.The wider interdepartmental group on Tuam, led by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, will continue to assist in terms of strategy and overall approach for the project. Scoping of the required legislation has commenced. There is no precedent for this kind of project in an Irish context, and it is vital that we get it right, in the interests of the survivors, relatives and the dignity of those buried at the site in Tuam. The approach taken will be further informed by the forthcoming report in March by the Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes into burials at these institutions. In parallel to the legislative project, work will be carried out on sourcing appropriate expertise to carry out the works on the site. As Minister, I will continue to examine the ways we can respond to the wider concerns of the advocates, families and survivors.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank her for her reasonable approach. Clearly people are disappointed and upset, but I do not doubt the Minister's commitment and one thing I have learned from my long-term involvement in all of these issues is that it is important that we are honest in our approach. Far too often people have been misled - the victims in institutional care have been led up and down the garden path - when promises were made but not delivered. The deadlines were not met. This is the real challenge. We have to be fair and honest and we have to set out the stall.
At the same time we have to acknowledge the pain that people feel. What struck me when I listened to many of these people was that they had an opportunity to tell their story. This is where Mrs. Justice Mary Laffoy did so much good work in acknowledging the importance of that opportunity. It is very clear that getting their story out and, more important, not being judged for it and being believed, was cathartic. I have spoken to many people and I have always found that when a person is acknowledged and believed, it gives the person a sense that somebody is listening to his or her story; I include my own experience in this. We all seek validation about the stand we take in life and we like to be believed, whatever about our differences. That is so important.
The Minister has given us an overview and has spoken about the fourth interim report and the reasons for the extension, which are reasonable. This is important in respect of Tuam.
I want to mention one group, the Bethany Home survivors group because they are constantly in touch with Members of the Seanad. Having examined documentation and spoke to a number of lawyers, I am firmly of the view that the State had a definite responsibility for the Bethany Home and the children who were there, neglected or abandoned because of the actions or the inactions of the State. It is not good enough any more for the arms of the State to keep telling this group that they are sorry it will be another year. I am in the Seanad two and a half years and from a group of ten who came to see me, three men are dead - one died from ill-health, another from cancer and the third died of natural causes. They yearned for somebody to listen to them tell their story. They have been on a long journey. The Church of Ireland has not taken responsibility for its involvement. The State had a responsibility to these children and, by its action or inaction, did not do enough for them. The surviving residents have made a strong case. Indeed the Commission has suggested that it sees no reason they were not included in the original redress scheme. The Minister knows and I know that to the initial redress scheme and the schedule of institutions that were attached to that scheme, many more institutions were added subsequently. It happened for some but it did not happen for Bethany Home residents.
We have to talk about apologies but we also have to talk about forgiveness and all that goes with it. In many cases these people have fought for so long, and experienced such pain, agony and hatred, they are embittered and angry and have a certain hatred for the establishment. We need to do something about that. I would like the Minister to deal with these people, particularly those from Bethany Home. What can we do to help them? I would like the Minister to look again at this whole area of therapeutic jurisprudence. This is a school of law that was developed in America in the 1980s and concentrates on the law's impact on a person's emotional and psychological well-being; it regards law as a social force that produces therapeutic and anti-therapeutic consequences. It sees the role of lawyers as capable of expanding to guard the psychological well-being of their clients. I think there is something in that. I will send the Minister the details of a paper that was written on that subject. People want justice and they want to get on with their lives. Some people will never be able to move on. When replying to the debate, could the Minister specifically deal with the people from Bethany Home?
I am hearing from highly placed sources that Cabinet Ministers, whose names I have but will not name, have made it very clear to the Minister and to others that they are not prepared to expose the State to the payment of any additional money under a redress scheme. They will talk about counselling, services, health and housing issues, but they are not prepared to follow the proven established way in respect of redress, which we have adopted and which is very similar to the Canadian scheme. I acknowledge the scheme had its shortcomings and was not the answer for a lot of people, and yes a lot of people got a lot of money but they do not have it now. People were taken advantage of. People turned to other issues and alcoholism and gambling and I would know some of these people. We have to have redress and for anyone who has been in a residential institution, for which the State had responsibility, we must be there to support them.
I acknowledge that the Minister has done the right thing and the honest thing. I would not have expected any less from her. I know it is most difficult. The Minister has told us that it needs another year, and we must stick with that. Perhaps she might look at Bethany Home and any other groups from such establishments wishing to come within the scheme's remit which the Minister, her departmental officials and the Attorney General can be satisfied fall within the remit of the State's responsibility
As we are all aware, and as the Minister has outlined, following the tragic findings of Catherine Corless's research back in 2012, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was established. This commission of investigation was established by an order of the Government. The sole aim of this commission is to provide a forum for persons who were formerly resident in the homes or who worked in these institutions to provide accounts of their experience; as informally as possible in the circumstances and with due empathy and understanding.
There has been continual progress from the previous Government's work. The Government has worked tirelessly on promoting and giving closure to the Mother and Baby Homes scandal. I know the Minister has worked very hard on this issue to try to bring about a resolution, insofar as it is possible in the circumstances.
Following the Commission's fourth interim report request, the Government has indeed agreed, as has been alluded to, to extend the research and investigation for another year to February 2020. This is the third extension that has been granted by the Government and I believe we should give the commission as much time as it needs to facilitate its very detailed and cumbersome work and difficulty in contacting various witnesses, who are in other countries around the world. It is strongly believed that this extension is crucial in the interest of completing and finalising the research on what has been described as a chamber of horrors in Tuam. The Commission's fourth interim report has stated that it has met with 519 former residents or others who have connections to the institutions under investigation. These meetings were held across Ireland and England. As of the end of last month, 26 more individuals have been heard also on the issue. The report states that some of these individuals are resident in the United States and I believe technology such as Skype was used to connect with people for the purpose of getting as much information as possible for the report.Some cross referencing research still has to be completed with regards to registers of entry, exit, birth and death. Considerable work remains to be done in this Department to ensure the account of women and babies is correct.
In the cases where individuals cannot be heard in person, I understand the commission is making arrangements to have affidavits sworn. That process takes considerable time. I know from my work as a solicitor over the years that it is painstaking and detailed work. There are many logistical issues also with that type of work.
The commission's recent report also stated that it has only recently received extensive material from the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs, and more material is on the way. The commission has 100,000 pages of documents that include "some detailed returns made to the department by mother and baby homes and local authorities that were responsible for children in various institutions including mother and baby homes, and for boarded out children". My understanding is that these detailed documents are being analysed meticulously and cross referenced with other data, which is detailed and cumbersome work.
The commission recognises the help that has been provided by the HSE, which has been providing documents. Nevertheless, it has been disconcerted, which is alarming, by the limited data the HSE has given, which seems to be a consequence of a poor archive system in the organisation. That is not good enough. It raises a number of questions as to the reason the executive has provided so little data or why it can only provide so little data. For instance, one of the institutions under investigation by the commission is The Castle, Newtowncunningham, County Donegal, in which the HSE was intensively involved. The executive has been unable to provide any material on its involvement with the institution, which is concerning.
It is essential that the commission be given sufficient time and resources to fully comprehend the extent of this horrific situation in order to properly cross reference all the information and material it has to hand and provide as comprehensive an account as is possible of the pathways of the children concerned.
Moreover, the fourth interim report noted that following the Government's decision to carry out a forensic excavation of the burial ground at the Tuam children's home, the commission has received more information on past burial practices in other institutions under investigation. It will need more time to properly investigate these matters.
As stated in its report, the commission aims to publish an interim report on burials, which the Minister mentioned, in the first half on 2019, which is soon enough. According to the report, that has not been done yet for two reasons. First, some new information has been acquired over the past few months and has not been fully investigated. Second, section 34 of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 requires that the commission send a draft of the relevant part of its report to any person who is identified or identifiable from the draft report. That is, again, detailed and cumbersome work.
Despite how appalling and dreadful the entire investigation is, the commission's reports and the conclusions of this investigation are essential to victims and those concerned by this morbid, gruesome and macabre episode in Irish history. In a sense, as citizens, we are all concerned by this event. That must not be forgotten and buried in the past. If insufficient closure is provided by this investigation, the mother and baby homes’ atrocities will continue to taint the present. To fully provide closure, we must work toward having the full and absolute extent of facts so that we can ensure this deplorable and grim episode of Irish history never happens again. A fully comprehensive and detailed report needs to be finalised. I am supportive of the extension of time for the commission's investigation until it is extensively finished and there are no longer any missing pieces to this horrific scandal. I wish the Minister well with her continued work on that.
When an extension was given by the Government in February 2018, Sinn Féin reluctantly gave its support. We shared the sentiment expressed that it was important that we got this right and that the investigation would be as thorough as possible within the terms of reference. However, my colleague, Deputy Denise Mitchell, noted her concern at the time that the commission seemed to be under-resourced and was sceptical about its ability to deliver within 12 months.
Given that recent discoveries have been made and that the interim report did not disclose the extent of the files in November, in terms of the number of pages, as it did in measuring every other discovery, it seems somewhat disingenuous to be so unclear about how long this will take relative to the work carried out.
Additionally, it is clear from the report that the commission is increasingly and frequently frustrated by the HSE. The report goes into the details of the commission's dealings with the HSE and it is clear there is not a strong working relationship in that regard. The reports refer to aspects of this relationship with comments such as:
[However,] it is difficult to understand how relatively recent documentation is not available ... it is clear that the HSE does not have any system ... of storing or archiving material.
The HSE has been unable to provide any documentation on its involvement [in The Castle, Newtowncunningham, Co. Donegal].
If there are issues in the way the commission of investigation and the HSE are interacting, which are contributing to the delays, what action does the Minister commit to take to resolve those? Has she had any interactions with the Minister for Health regarding them?
How did a large number of files in the possession of the Department of Health only come to light last month, a year past the original deadline for the publication of the report and four years on from one Department handing over documents to another Department? What interactions has the Minister had with the Minister for Health on that?
The delays in the publication of this report have had a devastating effect on survivors, particularly elderly survivors, as other Senators have mentioned. The announcement has prolonged fears they may not be alive to see redress put in place. Unfortunately, the State, and the institutions of the State, have a poor track record in this regard. Will the Minister give assurances to those survivors' groups that every effort will be made to ensure truth and justice for elderly survivors?
Survivors' groups also noted this announcement, along with previous announcements relating to the mother and baby homes, was made through the media before survivors were notified. They were informed through news outlets. Given its sensitive nature, I hope the Minister will relay that to departmental staff working on this issue and that whatever breakdown occurred on this issue can be rectified.
I am disappointed that this report has to be delayed by another 12 months, that survivors will have to wait another year and that the dark chapter of this State's history cannot be put to bed. I do not believe anyone involved working with the Department or in government wished for a delay to the report but if operational and resources issues within the commission led to that, new discoveries or consent to release names are not the sole reason for the delay. I hope the Minister and Government will take this on board and work towards the complete report publication in 2020 as survivors do not deserve delays caused by issues that could be overcome with political resolve.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House.While the extension of the investigation can, in some senses, be understood, the Minister will appreciate that it has caused deep disappointment and upset for many. Survivors have been waiting, planning and living their lives in the expectation that a resolution would be arrived at this spring. They were very shocked and disappointed coming into the Christmas period to learn that there would be a further postponement of any form of resolution for them.
I understand that there are two components here. There is the task of unravelling the great architecture of containment, abuse and exploitation that existed within our State and there is the imperative to ensure that those who endured and survived those systems are given resolution and satisfaction. Unfortunately, neither of these goals is being satisfied currently. At the point when it was realised that yet another interim report would be coming rather than a final report, it would have been preferable to have, accompanying the interim report, a list of interim recommendations, findings and actions that would be taken by the State. An interim report from the commission of investigation in May 2017 called for the reopening of the redress scheme or the introduction of a similar scheme. At the time of that call, there was a recognition of those who had been in the Bethany Home and those who had not been given satisfaction and redress. In the context of that interim recommendation, I ask the Minister to explain why we have not seen the reopening of the redress scheme or the introduction of a similar, alternative scheme happening in parallel with the further untangling of this very complex architecture of abuse.
I presume the Minister can confirm that the Government now accepts the fact of abuse and neglect and that what remains to be discovered and investigated is the scale and the many strands of that abuse and neglect. Given that there is that principled recognition and that there have been public apologies, surely we need to move in parallel and open redress schemes. The possibility of introducing a new redress scheme has been talked about and that should be examined further. The indemnity scheme that was originally signed also merits further consideration. We must look at deepening responsibilities and the aforementioned scheme cannot be allowed to stand as is but must be expanded.
The Bethany Home survivors have been mentioned and in the context of the multiple strands, my concern is that it will continue. I have spoken to the Minister previously about women in psychiatric institutions, some of whom have spent their lives there because of postnatal depression. I have also spoken about those who attended day schools and the children who lived in mother and baby homes and who also suffered abuse. These are all of the strands that must be untangled and they will continue. We must, at a certain point, announce the beginning of the next inquiry. That must happen.
I am concerned about the confidential committee and the intersection between it and the investigation. I have raised this concern previously because many of those who took the brave step of testifying and giving their stories to the confidential committee have not been supported with counselling and other supports. This is an issue that has come up again and again. I would be happy to see the budget expanded if the supports given to those engaging were also expanded. Crucially, many of those who testified to the confidential committee believed that they were giving testimony and evidence and yet, the investigation is happening in a separate space. Those who wanted their stories on the record and who believed they have given sworn evidence on what happened to them to the confidential committee have found that much of that personal testimony and experience is not necessarily coming through the evidentiary strand as well as through the committee. That must be addressed. The 519 people who have engaged with the confidential committee should be given the option of having their experiences reflected in testimony and on the record. It is a major step to speak up and the people who have done so should not have their stories disappear. I ask the Minister to outline the supports that will be given to those going through the process. Supports must be provided to these people, many of whom have reduced life expectancy because of their experiences. There is also a need for on the ground supports for those engaging with the system now.
I welcome the Minister's decision in respect of Tuam. The forensic investigation is important but I am glad that she has clarified that it will not delay the final report further. We must look at the Bessborough home again, where there were 472 infant deaths in 19 years. Many of those infants died from malnutrition. Alongside the forensic investigation of burial sites, we must also look at forensic accounting. What will be done on forensic accounting? Very clever company structures are being brought in now to ensure that moneys are moved and resources are not accessible and that we do not have clarity on issues like the exploitation of labour. The accounting is important because it represents a double abuse. People were abused and now very modern accountancy methods are being used to ensure that their records are inaccessible and that they do not get financial redress. That is true for individuals who may take cases, as well as for the wider State.
I ask the Minister to address these concerns and to do something. Let us do something in 2019 for these survivors. I would like the Minister to be the one who has the opportunity to do something but I am concerned that the delays may limit her in that regard.
I will be concise. I wish to echo what Senator Higgins has said. I fully support her call for a preliminary report while we await the final one and for redress to happen in parallel with the ongoing process. When I read the latest interim report, I was startled to discover that the HSE and what was previously the north western health board was intensively involved in the running of an institution under investigation, The Castle in County Donegal, as recently as 2006 but has been unable to provide any documentation. That is a cause for concern on a number of levels, not only for this investigation but for other areas too. The HSE, which is a public body, has said that it is unable to provide information to the investigation. In that context, should we be concerned that other bodies like Tusla, to which the HSE is transferring data, will also be a line in a report to the effect that information requested does not exist or is inaccessible? What is happening with regard to The Castle in Donegal? Does the Government simply accept it when the HSE says that it has no information or does it investigate further to determine why it has no information pertaining to an institution with which it was heavily involved? Either this is a sinister matter and the HSE has refused to supply or has destroyed the information or it was completely incompetent and kept no information up until the early 2000's. I am not talking here about the 1940s, 1950s or even the 1960s. I am talking about the period between 1984 and 2006. I do not understand that line in the interim report and ask the Minister to provide more information on it and to outline what the impact might be in the context of the Information and Tracing Bill 2016.
I come from County Galway and I know many people in Tuam. A friend of mine is a local historian there. People have been following the Tuam story very closely and taking the temperature on the ground. One major issue survivors have is with the fact that despite their pleas to the Minister when she met them in Tuam during the summer, they are still getting news of reports and important decisions being made by the Minister by way of news bulletins or opinion pieces in their local newspaper. The most famous of those reports is the one issued by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation in March 2017 which confirmed the presence of foetal and infant remains on the site in Tuam. That report clarified that the septic tank that was discovered had been decommissioned and filled with rubble and debris. One does not have to be an expert in the laws of physics to extract from that statement that the septic tank did not contain bones or that it may have been filled with other materials. It seems bones were discovered in a separate structure, the purpose of which the commission has "not yet determined". Yet I found myself in recent days hearing Audrey Carville on "Morning Ireland" referring to remains disposed in a septic tank. The thought struck me that sensationalism is not the friend of truth telling. It is not the friend of the cause of survivors to truth or an acknowledgement of their experience. Despite the clear report, the headlines which dominated international newspapers implied that the commission of investigation's report had reported that nuns had mistreated children and disposed of their bodies in a septic tank. That is the story that went around the world. I suppose it was a narrative of cruelty in life followed by disrespect in death.
Does the Minister agree that this kind of sensationalism does no good to anybody? It does a disservice to the important process that the commission of investigation has of finding out the truth, and that everybody involved deserves not to have the truth pre-empted. I was listening to another item on Brexit this morning on "Morning Ireland" and I heard a member of the business community in Northern Ireland gently deprecating the over-egging of the pudding by a journalist trying to get the best headline. He did it in a very diplomatic way. It seems to me that this is part of the culture that we have to contend with. I would be grateful if the Minister were to agree with me that that culture does not help anybody.
In the context of what I have been talking about, I spoke to the family of one elderly woman who now resides in the UK. To the best of my knowledge she is probably one of the only surviving mothers of the institution there. The family was very annoyed that she had to be subjected to those kinds of headlines instead of getting a sensitive telephone call to outline the true facts. We have seen headlines to the effect that the Irish State did it to its own children and murdered them by the thousands by neglect and hate. Another article in the Irish news section of the Irish Independent referred to "Banished Babies and the price of life in Ireland's Mother and Baby homes". That article said that babies were allowed to die, were murdered in effect. Kevin Higgins, a lawyer familiar with the issue, says the deaths were "at least manslaughter". One newspaper has called the scandal "our little holocaust". I ask the Minister to agree with me that these headlines are not just inaccurate but extremely unhelpful and prejudicial to the future impact of the truth telling the commission is charged with.
I commend the Minister on setting up at the time a factual information telephone line. As I understand it, when contacted, it contradicted much of what the newspapers were saying. I put on record that we should all be concerned by excessive exaggerated language that is not based on fact. In that context, I ask the Minister to commit that the investigation will identify the causes of death of the infants. Could she put on record that the causes of death will be published? That is the single biggest message about this story so far that went around the world. Somebody once said that a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is getting its boots on. There will have to be honesty about our past and a facing up to its harshness and cruelties. However, using the vacuum of information for propagandistic effect can never be ethical. All sides of the House should be able to agree on that.
I ask the Minister to avoid survivors and others being hurt by untrue headlines in the future. Given the sensitive and personal nature of this topic, it is most desirable to have direct contact in as far as that is possible with those most directly concerned. The Minister could help by putting on the record of the House that in future the Department will contact survivors and survivor groups more directly to furnish them with reports and decisions before RTÉ gets the story or the press conference takes place because we have seen distortion and the consequential upset that causes.
I hear the bell so I will finish by saying that it is most important that the commission of investigation gets this right. It is to be supported in its work. I would rather the work were done right and be slightly late than that it would be rushed, but that is all the more reason to be careful the vacuum does not lead to inaccuracy, sensationalism or polemics. All of that is unhelpful to the important role of careful truth telling so that we can have a better understanding of our past and make our obligations to those who have survived and those who have been most affected. In fairness to them, it is not compensation that is highest on their agenda. Very often, it is contact with a mother or family member. Their concerns should be foremost in all of our deliberations.
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.
I have brought all of those issues to the attention of my colleagues. I am explaining the decision but I am also noting that it is not a matter that is closed forever. I, too, have received a lot of representations from members of that institution, most recently, in the context of the collaborative forum's report. Senators will be aware that I established a collaborative forum to run alongside the commission process to examine, as alluded to by Senator Higgins, what we can do now as distinct from waiting until the commission provides its investigative findings and other reports.The collaborative forum, the members of which are representative stakeholders of the various institutions, provided me with a report just before Christmas which is now being considered by the Government. Discussions are ongoing with some of my colleagues on how we can respond to its recommendations, some of which particularly regard health and well-being supports which were also referred to in the second interim report. I will go to Government as soon as possible in regard to responding as positively as possible to some of the recommendations and, at least, those which can be progressed sooner. Some of the recommendations seek quite substantial change. That is not to say that it cannot be done, but it may take longer to implement some of them. I have a desire to see how my and other Departments that are implicated in the recommendations of the collaborative forum can respond as positively as possible. That is not the case in the context of individual redress because we must await the findings of the mother and baby home commission in order to conclude whether it would be appropriate to make those kinds of decisions.
I have probably addressed most of the questions. I appreciate the deep and careful reflections of Senators on the report and the extension, and the desire of all present to find better ways for the State to allow the process of truth telling to fulfil its potential healing value for survivors, as referred to by Senator Boyhan. That may occur in the privacy of a commission but many survivors and their families want it to take place in public to a greater degree in order to make the country aware of its collective responsibility for what happened, which is a necessary ingredient of preventing it from happening again.