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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 19 Oct 2017

Vol. 960 No. 6

National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased, on behalf of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to introduce the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017. The National Archives is one of the State’s most important cultural institutions and plays an essential part in the cultural life of the country by collecting, managing and preserving the public records of Ireland. The records held by the National Archives document the historical evolution of the State and the creation of our national identity. The archives are key to informing Government policy and assisting research into the political, economic and social forces which have shaped the nation. The purpose of the Bill is to reduce the time limit for the deposit of certain departmental records with the National Archives from 30 years to 20. As Members may be aware, the British and Northern Irish archives have moved to a 20-year rule for the transfer of records to the British Archives and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. However, in Ireland the statutory period for transfer of departmental records remains 30 years.

The Government recognises the importance of synchronising the release of certain records between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, particularly those records relating to Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish issues. The proposed legislation will allow for the early release of records if the relevant Minister, that is, Deputy Heather Humphreys, as Minister with responsibility for the National Archives, agrees that the early release of the records in question is warranted by virtue of their historical or public interest value or to facilitate fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions.

The Minister is conscious of the fact that the proposals will have resource implications for Departments and changes will have to be managed within constrained budgetary allocations. For this reason, the changes will be implemented on a phased basis, starting with those Departments which hold significant numbers of Anglo-Irish and North-South records, namely, the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Justice and Equality and the Office of the Attorney General. The intention is to move over time to a full 20-year rule for all Departments, as resources permit. A phased implementation approach will assist in dealing with the inevitable resource implications for Departments, while providing flexibility for the early release of records, where appropriate. To facilitate progress in dealing with this issue, the director of the National Archives is chairing an implementation group which is developing an implementation plan which will be finalised shortly. As part of the process of implementing the 20-year rule, the director of the National Archives will write to all Departments to ascertain the number of files over 30 years old being stored by Departments, offices and the courts and the cost of so doing.

It is clear if the need for off-site storage was reduced, savings could be made across the entire system.

As I stated, the National Archives is one of the State’s most important cultural institutions, housing some of our most important historical State records. The Minister is only too aware of the limited physical capacity that the National Archives has to store our archives. However, there are exciting developments ahead for the National Archives in that regard. The Minister was delighted that as part of the decade of centenary commemorations, the Government provided €8 million in funding to commence the National Archives redevelopment plans. As the centenary of the destruction of the Public Records Office approaches in 2022, the new National Archives building, which will house the State archives, will be an appropriate response to the loss of so much of our cultural heritage in that destructive fire in 1922. The Office of Public Works has appointed a design team and is working with the National Archives to finalise the design plans for the Bishop Street building.

The lack of a records management policy is also an issue when it comes to the accumulation of records in Departments. The Minister is very pleased to have been in a position to provide the National Archives with €150,000 in 2016 and €300,000 in 2017 to assist in the work the office is doing on a public sector records management policy in conjunction with the office of the Government’s chief information officer in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This policy aims to provide universal guidelines for the public sector in the management of records and, in particular, digital material. Crucially, it will also scope out the requirements of the National Archives in starting to accept digital records from Departments and the task of making digital records available to the public.

I will now turn specifically to the Bill and its main provisions. Sections 1 and 2 deal with general provisions such as definitions of words and terms in the Bill.

Section 3 amends the National Archives Act 1986 by inserting a definition for "relevant records", or those records to which the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017 applies in order to provide for early release of a particular class or classes of departmental records.

Section 4 provides the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with the power by order to have records transferred to the National Archives from a Department after 20 years rather than the current 30-year transfer limit. An order will only be made under this section once the Minister has the approval of the Taoiseach, Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and the relevant Minister to whose Department the order will apply. It will also come after consultation with the director of the National Archives.

Section 4 also provides the policy and principles under which the Minister would make such an order. These are if the records concerned are of significant historical or public interest such as to warrant their transfer to the National Archives; the transfer of the records concerned to the National Archives will facilitate the balanced and fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions; and the arrangements for such transfer are adequate.

Section 4 also provides that the Minister may make an order where he or she is satisfied the arrangements for the transfer of all departmental records more than 20 years old to the National Archives are adequate. This will remove the need for further legislation in the event that the Government decides to move to a 20-year rule for all Departments at some point in the future. Section 4 also provides that if a Department had already transferred records between 20 and 30 years of age to the National Archives, it will not be required to do so again.

Sections 4 and 5 also provide for the amendment of section 8 of the National Archives Act 1986 to insert the term "relevant records" where necessary. Section 5 also provides for the deletion of section 10(6) of the National Archives Act 1986 as this section is no longer necessary.

Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 11 of the National Archives Act 1986 to insert the term "relevant records" where necessary. Section 7 provides for the Short Title and commencement of the Bill.

Given our shared history with the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, the Minister believes it is important that the synchronised release of official records should, to the greatest extent possible, be restored where appropriate. The Minister is satisfied the Bill provides the flexibility to do so when a record set is of sufficient historical or public interest value. I am pleased to bring the Bill before the Dáil and I look forward to hearing the contributions from Deputies throughout Second Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

We will, of course, support the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017 and it is good to see it on Second Stage. The National Archives is very important for the heritage and history of this country. Our heritage officers on councils play a pivotal role in the protection and promotion of what we have to offer in this country, with our national institutions such as the National Library of Ireland, the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland which have so many fantastic displays. We are delighted to see so many developments in these national institutions.

Heritage officers play a major role within local authorities in the protection of our culture and heritage, as well as the archives within our local libraries and authorities. They do this from an education perspective and programmes are run in collaboration with other sectors in local authorities, including libraries and arts offices. The "Golden Mile" is a particular scheme being rolled out by heritage officers and I have observed it as being very successful across the country in promoting and protecting our natural and architectural heritage. In the past we may have been less aware of this so it is very important that it is promoted within our schools and at a local and national level. That is happening now with heritage officers doing terrific work during heritage week, which will see major promotion of those historical ventures around the country. We are happy to the support the Bill.

Transparency and accountability are fundamental to the functioning of a democracy and the release of state papers is a valuable mechanism whereby we can scrutinise decisions made behind closed doors. They offer a valuable insight into the shaping of the State's predominant political narrative. The importance of transparency came to light a number of weeks ago when 14 years of footage of Oireachtas debates up to 2014 were removed from the Oireachtas website. I am thankful that footage has been restored to the web after public outcry. This demonstrates the importance of the public having access to these records.

I welcome the move to reduce the period after which these documents can be released from 30 years to 20. I have a few misgivings which I will outline, but this is a progressive act that will see the eventual alignment of the release of Irish State papers with those of Britain. The British Government began its move towards releasing records after 20 years in 2013, and it will release records in batches covering two years each year until 2022, when the gap will be narrowed from 30 years to 20. The Bill intends to operate broadly along the same lines but it will have to catch up on five years in order to attain parity in the release dates. Currently, the difference between the two countries is problematic, particularly in the area of Anglo-Irish relations. With the earlier release of British state papers, we will only get one side of the story and a distorted view of history. In the next five years, for example, documents pertaining to the Good Friday Agreement will be released in Britain, but they will not be released here for another ten years. Naturally, Sinn Féin is supportive of the need to speed up the release of documents from the Irish Government so as to add a full and more balanced outcome. However, the delay in releasing our documents will be a problem.

In future debates on the Bill I would like the Minister to elaborate on what is deemed to be a "relevant record". There seems to be much additional power given to the Minister in the Bill as to determine what is of significant historical and public interest. Could this ever be ascertained in an objective manner? I fear political motives could obscure the truth in this regard and items of major historical importance could be simply locked away in order to save the blushes, or worse, of a former political colleague, for example. There are other details within the Bill about which I have reservations, and these will be scrutinised in further detail on Committee Stage. I will summarise them.

The Taoiseach will have the power to amend or revoke an order designating records to be "relevant records". What are the criteria in making this decision? As the Bill does not refer to the existing scheduled bodies, will they now be beyond the scope of the legislation? What will happen to these records?

The transfer of records to the National Archives will be made by ministerial order following consultation with the director of the National Archives. This reduces the power of the director to appraise records and decide whether they should be retained or disposed of. We have concerns about this. The Bill includes a provision to transfer by ministerial order records which are less than 30 years old but more than 20 years old which will then have to be voted on by the Houses of the Oireachtas. This provision has the potential to politicise the designation and transfer of public records. There is no set date in the Bill for the transfer of records. When will this occur and on what basis will it occur? The Bill states the transfer of records will occur when arrangements for the transfer of all departmental records are in place for items that are more than 20 years old and when the National Archives are adequate. What is meant by "adequate" and who will make these decisions? The Bill states a decision to review the status of closed records or records that are not deemed to be relevant, subject to transfer, will be made. Will the Minister state precisely when that might occur? Will there be sanctions against Departments if they do not transfer records?

I am hugely concerned about capacity issues in the transfer of records. They could be a hindrance to the objectives of the Bill. Many Departments are struggling to meet the 30-year rule; therefore, without additional resources the execution of the Bill will be impossible. The Government has implemented devastating cuts to the arts and heritage bill and there was no additional provision in the recent budget for the resourcing of the National Archives, although we are yet to see the Estimates. However, this is an indication that the National Archives are going to be denied the funding required to implement the measures outlined in the Bill.

Even though the Bill seeks to bring about greater transparency, the irony is that it is the concept of Government accountability at its worst. The Minister says the vaults of the National Archives will be opened up in the interests of the people of Ireland, but, in reality, what is actually going to be unleashed is more boxes to understaffed Departments and under-resourced areas. They cannot handle the paperwork they have to do now, yet the Minister wants to double it in the next few years. Unless the Minister and the Minister of State are willing to provide the necessary resources, this is a pointless exercise. It must not amount to the passing of laws which will lead to standards that cannot be maintained. If the Minister was serious about this, she would put money into the National Archives. I appreciate that €8 million is to be put towards the development of a building which will house the archives, but this is a capital investment in necessary infrastructure and is not related to providing the increased manpower necessary to honour the aims of the Bill.

The problems which arise are not just to do with storage. They are also to do with the preservation and documentation of our past. This is done by allowing people to access the documents of the past. The National Archives is open from 9.15 a.m. to 5 p.m. For most people working normal hours, the documents are literally inaccessible to them. Furthermore, few of them are digitised. If people cannot gain access to them, it creates massive problems for local historians and the type of person who undertakes the research that actually shines a light on our past. Access to our history allows us to lift the lid on the secretive, closed culture of the State. We support the passing of legislation that opens the archives, but we entreat the Government to provide the necessary funding to enable people to access them. The National Archives can only function if what is stored therein can be accessed easily. If the files cannot be obtained easily owing to a lack of resources, it is the worst type of gesture politics.

Is gá dúinn agus don Rialtas tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo agus cinntiú go mbeidh acmhainní cuí ag an gCartlann Náisiúnta. Is fiú gealltanas a thabhairt chun go mbeidh na hacmhainní sin aici. Ní fiú é a craobhscaoileadh nuair nach bhfuil an maoiniú ann chun é a chur i gcrích. Tá imní orm nach bhfuil an tAire dairíre faoin Bhille seo a chur i bhfeidhm mar is ceart. Is bunchlocha an daonlathais iad freagracht agus trédhearcacht ach táim buartha go bhfuil an Roinn agus an Rialtas ró-ghafa le cúrsaí polaitíochta agus bolscaireachta, a mbíonn ina dtosaíochtaí dóibh, le beart a dhéanamh de réir briathar ar an ábhar seo.

Decisions we make today can have implications for how our history will be told into the future. How that will manifest itself is unpredictable. Many records are now held digitally and have been for the past 20 years or so. As the formats in which records are held sometimes become obsolete, we are faced with many additional challenges that we have to overcome.

I will reiterate some of the points made by the previous speaker about some aspects of the Bill. In section 2 the term "relevant records" is introduced. "Relevant records" are defined as records more than 20 years old but less than 30 years old where an order has been made. Other than that, it does not give a clear definition of what the records are. That is very important. Section 2 of the 1986 Act states all of the different formats in which departmental records can be kept and that will remain. However, there is no clear direction as to who will decide what is a relevant record, aside from it being 20 years old as opposed to 30. The current legislation is easy to implement as it encompasses all records created, regardless of age. They are transferred to the National Archives when they are 30 years old. Relevant records are a subset of departmental records as defined under 1986 Act.

The Bill does not refer to the existing scheduled bodies. Does this mean that they are outside the scope of the legislation? What will happen to their records? Is the Government relying on the 1986 Act in that regard? Will that Act be superceded?

The transfer of records to the National Archives will be made by ministerial order following consultation with the director of the National Archives. This removes the power of the director to appraise records and decide whether they should be retained or disposed of. There are many records and it is a question of a good archivist being able to decide which ones are relevant. Directors are civil servants and should have no political allegiances or agendas. They should make impartial appraisal decisions based on the evidence provided for them. In making this change we are potentially politicising access to public records which would be contrary to the spirit of openness and transparency. The Minister will now have the power to make an order for transfer if records are of significant historical or public interest to warrant their transfer. Who will decide what records are of significant historical or public interest? Who will advise the Minister in making that decision?

The Government currently does not get involved in the selection or appraisal of records for transfer. That work is carried out by civil servants who carry out their obligations under the 30 year rule as set out in the 1986 Act. There is a danger that selective appraisal will take place based on individual interests or bias. That is quite dangerous. The same clause states: "The transfer of the records concerned to the National Archives will facilitate the balanced and fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions".

That is a clear statement that the 20 year rule is to facilitate the release of records relating to Northern Ireland to balance out the release of information from the United Kingdom. The Bill includes the provision that transfers of records less than 30 years old, but more than 20 years old, by ministerial order will have to be voted on by the Houses of the Oireachtas. This has the potential to politicise the designation and transfer of public records. These are serious issues for the future.

There is no set date in the Bill for the transfer of records. The 30 year rule automatically means all 30 year old records have to be transferred. If records over 20 years old are not put forward for appraisal, when will they be transferred to the National Archives? The Bill states the transfer of records will occur when "arrangements for the transfer of all Departmental records which are more than 20 years old to the National Archives are adequate." There is major work going on in the building. I have looked for that for a long time and welcomed its announcement. I have been there to see how it is proceeding. It is a big warehouse. The last time I asked about cataloguing of records there were approximately 70,000 boxes that were not catalogued. That was a few years ago. There will always be a challenge in that respect. It could mean that older records are put even further back. It is all very well saying we have them but getting them and being able to select the ones we want to look at is very challenging when they are not catalogued. What does the Bill mean by "adequate"? Who makes the assessment and judgment that the situation is "adequate" and the transfer can take place?

The Bill states the decision to review the status of closed records, or records which are not deemed "relevant records" and subject to transfer, will take place but it does not say when. The current legislation states this review will happen every five years.

Section 10(6) of the 1986 Act which allows a Minister to transfer records less than 30 years old is being removed. The existence of this clause would allow a 20 year rule to be implemented without changing the current Act. Is this section being removed so that individual Ministers cannot take decisions which would conflict with those of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht? The Taoiseach will have the power to amend or revoke an order designating records as "relevant records", but no criteria for this decision are given. That needs to happen.

Reading the Bill it appears that there will be no sanctions against Departments if they do not transfer records. While no sanctions are currently imposed on Departments or agencies of State if they have not transferred records more than 30 years old, they are aware that they are in breach of the legislation and can face public criticism for this. There is an expectation that 30 year old records are transferred. We should hear something from the Minister on that issue. We believe the current drafting of the Bill introduces uncertainty into many of the functions carried out by the National Archives at present and leaves open the possibility of the politicisation of decisions in the selection of records for permanent preservation.

If we spend money now, we can save later. If there are enough people in the National Archives who can whittle down the records to the key ones that are appropriate to retain, we would reduce storage costs and the cost of digitisation. It would make a lot of sense to invest in staff for cataloguing. There are probably more than 70,000 boxes that have not been catalogued.

Catriona Crowe, the former director of the National Archives, is speaking on this issue in Maynooth tonight. She wants to open the administrative records of the mother and baby homes, industrial schools and Magdalen laundries for journalists and scholars. The records can be anonymised when digitised and only people who need to see the individual record or have a personal interest in it can see it. We all know people struggling to find material on themselves. That should be taken on board as a matter of goodwill. The historical adoption records held by Tusla need to be digitised and catalogued as a matter of urgency. They are very personal and it has to be made simpler for people to find records.

I was in the National Archives recently. The work has some way to go to conclude. When we compare them with the new Public Record Office of Northern Ireland or the National Archives in Kew in England, we realise the risk we have taken until now with the records held by the State. That work cannot happen quickly enough because the records are at risk of damage by fire or water. It is important that work is moving towards its conclusion. There should be no spoiling the ship for a ha'pworth of tar. We must make sure the records in the National Archives are protected from fire and water.

I appreciate the work of the National Archives, the military archives and other archives in universities and academic institutions. I welcome the interlinking of databases and the digitisation of the records. As a pastime I spend a great deal of time looking at these archives.

I met a Member of the Welsh Assembly last week and when he told me where his grandfather had come from, I was able to find the 1901 and the 1911 censuses and other items within two minutes. It is very important to protect whatever archives we have, but also to increase our expenditure on the National Library of Ireland and the county libraries which do a fantastic job. Other archives are important such as the records of baptisms in the Catholic Church. My people came from County Kerry and I can get church archives dating back to 1828-29. They are photocopies rather than digital, but it is amazing what one can find out. They are very useful. One of the biggest growth industries in Ireland and the world is

Somebody from my street is married to one of its senior executives, but I will not mention their name and embarrass them. I refer to the reach of the website, the work it has done and how it has reunited people from a nation who have emigrated far and wide but particularly to the United Kingdom and America. The American records are particularly good. In fact, I traced a relation of mine from whom nobody had heard since they emigrated in 1914. We were able to trace them, where they lived, including the different addresses, and what they did. The American archives are really remarkable.

In terms of education, local history topics are hugely important such as the place one lives, as are photographs of one's family, including photographs of one's grandparents and great-grandparents. We all like to look at the Lawrence collection of photographs and other photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am not a researcher in this area but we should encourage more people to upload images of their towns. For instance, there is a Drogheda in the Past group on Facebook. I am sure many people enjoy going on Facebook and looking at images of their own towns. There is a huge respect for, and interest in, the past and how things were and how they never more shall be.

It is good to be able to look back and see the poverty from which we came. We note the way people dressed, their small holdings and perhaps the tenements in which they lived. That is all part of our history. It is not just about the history of lords and ladies, the great and good and the wealthy; it is about the ordinary people and our social history. These are the things that count.

Some years ago when I was a member of a local authority - I think I was first elected in 1974 when few people in the House were born - the local courthouse was being demolished because it was dangerous. Before its demolition, I went into the building to see where, during the 18th and 19th centuries, judges gave rather difficult rulings regarding Australia against those who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Under the dias, the elevated platform where the judges sat, I discovered many old records, including indentures of apprentices going back to 1700. When looking around other parts of the old courthouse, I found records on housing. In the 1920s and 1930s when the county doctor visited a family, he would write about the conditions of the house and the people in it and the illnesses from which they may have suffered. These records were a wonderful historical and social commentary. The individuals named were special and I would not mention them.

Keeping archives is about keeping alive where and what we have all come from. It is about what our ancestors did, how great they were, how poor they were and what little education they had. In the case of my own family, I have found records going back to the 1830s, but I am able to look to the 1901 census, as can everybody in this House. In the 1901 census I can see that my great-great-grandfather was unable to read or write and was unable to speak English. He spoke only Irish, which was also the case with his bean chéile. One can discover so much. I love the work that is being done. This legislation is empowering and improves the keeping and the collection of these records. This is hugely important. This is wealth from our past that we must keep.

Our Facebook today is our archive of tomorrow. What people post on Facebook is there forever in its own way. Perhaps, in many respects, it is the modern archive, which is one reason people must be very careful about what they post on it.

This is hugely important work with great benefits for everybody. We all need to know where we come from, who we are and what we are, and the collection and keeping of the archival material is a wonderful task.

I attended an event in Cooley, timpeall coicís ó shin. Bhí ócáid mhór ann le Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin. Tá cnuasach mór eolais bailithe aici faoin gceol, faoin ngnáthshaol agus, ach go háirithe, faoi na daoine a bhí ag maireachtáil le cúpla céad bliain anuas san áit ar a dtugtar Oriel nó Oirialla. Ar an oíche sin bhí daoine ag seinm ceoil a cumadh 200 bliain ó shin. Bhí fear ann a chas amhrán nár casadh le níos mó ná 200 bliain. Aimsíodh an ceol i seancháipéis a fuair Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin. Canadh an ceol seo den chéad uair le 200 bliain anuas. Ócáid iontach a bhí ann.

The archives which Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin has collected in the area of Oirialla, or Oriel in English, which includes north Louth, south Down and part of Monaghan, records a wonderful, rich, beautiful, fabulous heritage, but it is more than that, it is historic. Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin has put together a magnificent collection without pay or favour from anyone, with some support from the Arts Council. She is dedicated to it. On the night in question, as I said as Gaeilge, we heard the most wonderful, fabulous music which had not been heard in over 200 years. Imagine going into a room where a man stands up and sings a song, a beautiful air that no one has heard in over 200 years. This is the material being collected. The Pádraigín Ní Uallacháins and all those like her up and down the country are fantastic in all the work they do. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an deich nóiméad beagnach caite.

I refer to the wealth, the wonder and the beauty of the fantastic and wonderful traditions that we have in Ireland. It is one thing to collect them and hold them dear in our hearts and minds, but it is another to collect them in order that everybody, no matter where they live not only in Ireland but all over the world, may access them and to make them digitally available in order that they may be kept forever is wonderful work. It holds far greater truth and value to me than many of the speeches people like me make in here all the time. It is our past but it is also our future from which we can all learn. It makes us all humble.

In In Search of Lost Time Proust wrote of the certainty that the past is never over, it is always present; all one needs to do is look for it. If one looks for one's own past, one will live alongside one's ancestors in their times and places. They were no different from us, although their lives may have been shorter and tougher. The collection of this material is wonderful.

I support this legislation. I do not know how much funding is going into the National Archives, but I would like to see it increased by a multitude.

I thank Deputies for their contributions and for their support for the Bill. I have listened with interest to the input of Deputies on all sides of the House. The various issues raised will be considered further by the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys's, Department as the Bill makes its way through the Houses. Issues of relevant costs are being dealt with and have been looked at by the Minister.

Ireland’s unique and varied culture is a source of immense national pride that gives us a common sense of purpose. The Minister and I believe it is crucial that we provide an accurate reflection of our history and our journey to the modern Ireland of today and that the National Archives is one of the State’s most important national cultural institutions. The records held by the archives document the historical evolution of the Irish State and the creation of our national identity. For this reason the Minister firmly believes that, notwithstanding the challenges, it is important to provide the flexibility for records to be released after 20 years if there is a strong case regarding their historical or public interest value.

Our shared history with Great Britain and Northern Ireland cannot be underestimated and the Government is of the strong view that we must provide for the protection of the Irish perspective on that shared history.

The Minister has considered carefully moving to a 20-year rule and is of the opinion that, notwithstanding the significant resourcing issues involved, it is important to provide for the early release of records of significant historical or public interest value. If we do not change the legislation by 2023 Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be releasing records ten years ahead of the Republic of Ireland and that would lead to an incomplete version of our shared history.

We have listened to all the points made and will report back to Deputies. The Minister's officials have taken note of what has been raised and they will examine what has been proposed. I have a word of caution. If Members have any amendments they want to table on Committee Stage, it would be of good value if they consulted the Department before doing so as it would help to speed up the process and make sure we had understanding of the amendments.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.