I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I commend to the House the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Bill, 2000, which pro vides for the establishment, on a statutory basis, of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.
This Bill will enable the Oireachtas to put in place one of the key measures relating to abuse of children in institutions announced last May by the Taoiseach. Through the Commission individual victims will be given an opportunity to overcome the lasting effects of abuse. The past failures of our society in allowing child abuse in institutions will be acknowledged. The facts of abuse, however unpalatable, will be brought into the open so that we can confront the truth, and the lessons taught by past failures will be well learned to protect the children of the future.
Our desire that the truth of past child abuse be clearly established is a primary motivating factor for this Bill. Nevertheless, we should avoid a witch hunt. Our objective is to establish all of the circumstances, the good and the bad, relating to the operation, management and regulation of institutions which cared for children. The Commission, therefore, will also give an opportunity for the many people who devoted their lives and their energies to the protection and welfare of children in institutions to have their say so that their contribution can be acknowledged and distinguished from the abuse committed by others. It is important that the commission be in a position to reflect this reality of the institutions also in the interests of establishing a full and balanced picture of what occurred.
The scourge of child abuse is an international phenomenon. Of those countries with which we share a common basis for our legal system, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand all have had a similar experience to ours, as have many of our EU partners. If we, as a society differ from other societies, it is in the fact that we appear to have reacted more slowly in addressing the issue of abuse which occurred in the past. The time for action is long overdue.
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, chaired by the Hon. Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, was established by the Government on an administrative basis last May. This was part of a range of measures to address the effect of abuse in childhood on the victims. The first objective set for the commission was to consider the broad terms of reference then provided to it, determine if these needed refining and recommend to Government the powers and protections it would need to do its work effectively. The commission reported to the Government in September and October. Its recommendations have been accepted without reservation by the Government and this Bill follows closely the recommendations in the reports.
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, now to be established under law, will have three primary functions. First, to listen to victims of childhood abuse who want to recount their experiences to a sympathetic forum; second, to investigate all allegations of abuse made to it, except where the victim does not wish for an investigation and third, to publish a report on its findings to the general public.
A forum where they can recount their experiences has long been a demand of those who were residents of industrial schools, reformatory schools, orphanages and similar places. For many of those who suffered abuse in those institutions and in other places, the need to tell about it and to be listened to in a sympathetic and open minded way is an urgent one and is the beginning for them of recovery. Up to the very recent past, victims of abuse have been largely dismissed or ignored by Irish society, its institutions and its representatives. However, ignoring this issue is not an option the Government is prepared to take and hence the provisions of this Bill. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse to be established under this Bill will, as its core function, provide those who have been silenced for so long with an opportunity to give their account to an experienced and sympathetic forum. This telling and listening function, which can be called the therapeutic function of the commission or the healing forum, is the function to which everything else should be subordinate.
For some people, this therapeutic role will be all they require of the commission. Others will also seek that their allegations be inquired into and perpetrators of abuse, where uncovered, be brought to justice. In this case the therapeutic role will have grafted onto it an investigative role in the interests of establishing the truth and giving persons against whom allegations are made an opportunity to defend themselves. To ensure that the two strands can be accommodated, the Bill provides for two committees, the confidential commttee and the investigation committee. This will ensure, on the one hand, the right to confidentiality for those who want only to access the therapeutic role of the commission and, on the other, rights to natural justice of persons accused of abuse.
Through the confidential committee, the commission will provide a forum for victims of abuse to recount their experience on an entirely confidential basis. The purpose of this commitee is overwhelmingly therapeutic. It is intended that it will meet the needs of those victims who want to speak of their experiences but who do not wish to become involved in an investigative procedure. Because of this limited though vitally important remit, this committee will also be limited in the extent to which it can draw conclusions from the evidence it receives. This committee will provide the commission with a report on its proceedings. This report, however, will confine itself to findings of a general nature on the issues encountered in its work.
The investigation committee will also provide an opportunity for victims to tell of the abuse they suffered as one of its core functions but it will go much further than that. The committee will be specifically mandated to carry out a thorough and comprehensive inquiry into allegations and establish responsibility at the level of the individual abuser, the institution and the manage ment and regulatory authorities. It is the Government's intention that the committee will have available to it the resources and all the legal powers and protections it needs to do this. In particular, the committee will have the kind of powers and protections which a court would have, including privilege for witnesses, compellability of witnesses, discovery of documents, taking evidence on oath and offences for failure to co-operate or for obstruction. This committee will also report to the commission.
Upon completion of the work of the committees the commission will publish a report. The publication of this report containing the findings and recommendations of the commission is an essential part of the service which the commission can render to victims of abuse and society as a whole. The report will be published directly to the public by the commission. This is an important feature of the independence of the commission. The report of the commission will be based on the reports of the committees and any wider evidence heard by or in submissions to the commission. The Bill provides that in its report the commission may identify institutions in which abuse occurred and the people responsible and make findings in regard to the role and responsibility of management and regulatory authorities. The report, following the recommendation of the commission, will not make findings on any individual case as these are likely to be matters which are or will be the subject of civil or criminal proceedings.
The commission in its report will also make recommendations. The Bill provides that these recommendations may relate to measures to alleviate the effects of abuse on victims. There are no preconditions or limitations on the independence of the commission in this regard. The commission in its recommendations will also look to the future care and welfare of children and will be empowered to make recommendations on how children can best be protected and abuse prevented in institutions.
The commission will be entirely independent in performing its functions, a point specifically provided for in the Bill. Neither the Government nor anyone else will be in a position to influence its procedures or the outcomes of its inquiries. Following on the recommendations in the commission's report on its terms of reference, the Bill provides for some key procedural issues. The Bill specifically requires the commission to bear in mind the difficulties posed for people in telling of abuse in childhood and imposes a duty on the commission to ensure proceedings are conducted as informally as possible and that the atmosphere is sympathetic and understanding. These provisions are entirely consistent with the need to give victims a forum to tell of abuse and in so doing they should not be exposed to the sometimes harsh adversarial environment of a court.
Related in part to this desire to avoid undue formality and an adversarial environment in commission meetings are the provisions in the Bill which provide that the hearings of the confidential committee and the investigation committee relating to allegations of abuse be held in private. This approach was recommended by the commission primarily on the grounds of fairness. Any perceived lack of fairness on the part of persons accused would inevitably involve the commission in legal challenges. The making of specific allegations in a public forum would greatly increase the adversarial elements in the process at the expense of the listening therapeutic elements.
The Government is committed to ensuring a wide cross-section of people come forward to the commission to ensure the final report is as comprehensive as possible. In the case of former residents of institutions in particular, many may have difficulty in covering the costs of coming to the commission. On top of the emotional stress which recounting events of the past might cause, this financial burden could be the last straw which would make them decide not to come to the commission. To help alleviate this burden and encourage as many people as possible to come forward to the commission, the Bill provides for the drawing up of a scheme of expenses for witnesses. My Department is in discussions with the Department of Finance with a view to finalising a draft scheme of expenses for publication prior to Committee Stage.
Under the provisions relating to expenses I will also prepare a scheme relating to the issue of legal expenses. In principle the Government accepts the view expressed in the commission's report on its terms of reference that an administrative scheme for legal expenses should be put in place. This scheme, as a matter of constitutional right, must provide for legal representation of people against whom allegations are made and who cannot afford representation. I am aware that some people who want to bring allegations of abuse before the investigation committee may want to have legal support in so doing. It is my intention that they should. In devising the scheme under which legal expenses are to be paid, it will be necessary to strike a balance between that need for legal support, the therapeutic role of the commission and the objective that the commission hearings be held as informally as possible. As with the scheme relating to general expenses, it is my intention to publish a draft scheme for the payment of legal expenses prior to Committee Stage.
In addition to being offered a hearing by the commission and its committees, victims of abuse will be offered counselling by a dedicated counselling service which has been established by the Minister for Health and Children and is to be provided through the health boards. The Government has provided £4 million and arrangements are well advanced for the service. This has involved recruiting qualified and experienced counsellors to organise the service and provide counselling. It is intended that the service will be operational in all health board areas by the time the commission begins its work. Through this counselling service it is hoped to help those victims of abuse who need professional help and who may not yet have sought or received it. The counselling service will also be open to those who have received or are receiving counselling.
In May last year the Taoiseach, in announcing the measures relating to abuse of people in childhood, took as his starting point an apology to the victims of that abuse for the collective failure of society to intervene, detect the pain of victims and come to their rescue. The measures being put in place are not a break with the past but a facing up to it. We cannot consider ourselves to have matured into a self-confident and inclusive society unless we acknowledge and deal with the more uncomfortable elements of our past. The Bill and the commission it proposes to establish provide us with the best possible opportunity to do so but, while society as a whole can benefit from the work of the commission, let us not forget that this is a commission for the victims of abuse. It is a long delayed opportunity for them to receive the kind of respectful and sympathetic hearing which has long been their due.
I commend the Bill to the House.