I would like to say a few words on the Government decision to appoint a statutory commission of investigation into a foster home in the south east. When this Government came to office, we set out to undo the damage and heal some of the hurt inflicted on the most vulnerable in our society. One of those groups was the Magdalene women, the unseen launderers of our country's stains and secrets. We issued a State apology to those women and established a restorative justice scheme in June 2013. When I met them in London, they told me about the difference that apology made to their lives and the changes the restorative aspect is making. There have been 804 applications to the scheme, with €23 million paid out to date.
In 2015, we set up the statutory commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters. We need to know, and will find out, what happened to these women and their babies between 1922 and 1998.
In 2014, the Government established the surgical symphysiotomy payment scheme to provide an alternative, non-adversarial option for the women affected. There were 578 applications resulting in €23 million in allocations at the end of 2015.
If Ireland was declared by Yeats to be "no country for old men", the legacy issues I have just mentioned suggest it was positively treacherous and at times omnipotent when it came to our girls and women. Immediately when we came to office, we began to look at these issues and started by focusing our attention on our children, which coincided with the Cloyne report on sexual violence inflicted on children in the Cloyne diocese. I was anxious that the trauma inflicted on these children would be addressed and that we would make it clear as a country that the Constitution and our code of law were paramount and nothing else. For the first time, we set about creating a full Cabinet ministry for children and youth affairs. We established the Child and Family Agency with a regime of strict governance and stricter accountability for child and family services. Under new national standards for the protection and welfare of children, front line services for children and families became subject to independent HIQA inspection for the first time.
The new Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 includes stronger sanctions aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation, child abuse material and online grooming. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 makes it an offence to withhold information on serious offences committed against a child or against a vulnerable adult and with the Children First Act, the Government gave children their voice. It recognised them as individuals in their own right under the Constitution for the first time and because it did, the best interests of the child now are paramount in every decision taken by a public body in matters related to children. Putting children first was a long time coming but at last it is here. In respect of disability, HIQA has carried out 1,370 inspections of residential settings for adults and children with disabilities since regulations came into effect in 2014.
I believe I can speak for everyone in the House and many outside it when I state words do not exist to describe adequately the depth and volume of revulsion we feel about the allegations of abuse and failures of which we have heard. I believe equally that the agreement in principle of a statutory commission of inquiry is the right way to address the enormity of the depravity that has been uncovered. I acknowledge these are allegations but I believe the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and the Government is the right way to proceed. Grace, because of her condition, was silent but as I stated earlier, by her treatment and her abandonment she was silenced. Those who left her to her fate pressed the mute button on her young life and on an appalling experience. Above all, the mute button was pressed on her dignity, her humanity, her civil and human rights and on her innate worth as an innocent, precious fragile life on this earth.
The question is: in ticking its boxes, was the system blind and deaf? Did the system possess so little awareness and so little accountability that it could become a stone to Grace, a non-verbal person, to her abject experience or to her desperate need? I expect the commission of investigation will answer these questions and will get the answers the people need. It is critical that it should so do in finding and re-establishing our co-ordinates as a people and as a functioning, moral and responsible society. I hope the drafting of the terms of reference for this commission will have a sound basis in the scoping exercise of the senior counsel, Mr. Dignam, that currently is under way and to which the Government has given additional resources and that the two reports, namely, the Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report, also will provide the basis on which an accurate and precise set of terms of reference can be put in place. This should not interfere with the ongoing independent Garda inquiry. The Ryan report into institutional abuse is a precedent in this regard, whereby a commission of investigation can proceed in parallel with a Garda inquiry and it remains for the next Administration to approve these terms of reference, to approve a sole member to deal with the commission of investigation and to proceed.
I am sure the hearts of the many excellent foster parents in Ireland are breaking when they hear all these allegations. They love the children who come to them as though they were their own. I believe there is a resonance here that the current Government should concern itself with these matters as it comes to the close of its term because they are matters of doing not what is correct but of doing, as I stated here on my first day as Taoiseach, what is right. The Government will seek with this commission to do what is right by Grace and all the young people and adults about whom allegations of maltreatment have been levied. I believe it is the best, most powerful and thorough way to treat them with the respect and kindness of which their experience in their lives in care were so devoid. This is a highly sensitive case and many allegations have been made. It is right and proper that a structured, precise and focused commission of investigation should be able to get at the truth for everybody in order that a similar event to this particular issue will not occur in future. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to say these few words.