Written Answers. - Confidentiality of Files.

Joan Burton

Question:

224 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Education and Science the arrangements which have been made by his Department for the safekeeping and confidentiality of files relating to former residents of industrial schools and orphanages; if his Department has given these records to third parties; the identity of third parties who have been allowed access to the records; the purposes therefor; the conditions attached; the financial arrangements which were entered into with such third parties; the implications such arrangements have for former residents seeking to access their own records; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3817/03]

My Department currently maintains archive records in relation to approximately 41,000 former residents of the old industrial and reformatory schools system. These former pupils were placed in the schools by way of court orders. These records are maintained in the Department's offices in Athlone and are in paper form with copies in electronic format.

The original paper records are maintained in a secure storeroom in the residential institutions redress unit in my Department's offices in Athlone. Access to these records is only permitted to officials currently employed in that unit. Many of the records concerned date from the late 1800s and the bulk of them cover the period from the 1930s to the 1970s. The majority of the records are in poor condition and would not remain intact if they were subjected to repeated physical handling. In order to avoid any repeated handling of such records and to facilitate ease of search and retrieval of information from the archive, my Department has processed copies of the records in electronic format onto a computer based document management system. Access to the electronic records is limited to those officials working in the residential institutions redress unit and the system is protected by being located on a stand-alone computer server and passwords.
In recent years, copies of and extracts from the archive records have been given by my Department to a number of third parties for a variety of purposes. On occasions the Department has been legally obliged to discover material from the archive to co-defendants in civil actions being taken against the Department and the religious orders that owned and managed the institutions. In addition, in cases where former residents have applied to my Department through their solicitors for access to records under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 the records would issue directly to the nominated solicitor concerned. However, records are only released to the solicitor with the written consent of the former resident in accordance with the terms of the FOI Act.
In order for my Department to meet its legal requirements in relation to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and, so that the Commission can carry out its investigative role, the archive records have also been given to the Commission, mainly in electronic format. My Department has also made extracts from the archive available to the gardaí from time to time to assist them with their investigations of allegations of abuse in some of these schools.
My Department is currently processing requests under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 for access to records by former residents of the old industrial and reformatory schools. However the FOI Act does not address the often sensitive issues arising in these records or matters such as tracing of family members. To this end, and in order to provide a comprehensive, compassionate and supportive service to the former residents of these institutions, my Department has agreed to support the provision of an information and mediation service for those former residents who wish to access their records without the need to make a request under the FOI Act to the Department.
The new service, Origins, will be operated by Barnardos, having regard to their established competence and experience in the release of similar forms of information to persons in similar circumstances. All relevant records held by my Department have been given to Barnardos in electronic format to facilitate the operation of the new service. Access to the records is strictly controlled and restricted to those Barnardos person nel working in the Origins service and then only in circumstances where a former client requests Barnardos to access their personal records. Barnardos will act as agents of my Department and the operation of the service will be governed by a legally binding service agreement. My Department will grant aid the operation of the new service and to date, €200,000 has been paid to Barnardos to establish the service and assist with the recruitment of appropriately trained professional staff. I am satisfied that the new Origins service should provide significantly improved access to personal records to the former residents of the old industrial and reformatory schools.