Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019 [Seanad]: Second and Subsequent Stages

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

I am pleased to present the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019. The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015. The Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme was established in 2013 on foot of the recommendations contained in the Magdalen commission report, otherwise known as the Quirke report. That report was a response to an interdepartmental Government committee report, otherwise known as the McAleese report, set up to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen laundries.

The ex gratia scheme was established for the benefit of women who were admitted to and worked in the ten Magdalen institutions, as well as St. Mary's training centre in Stanhope Street and the House of Mercy domestic training school in Summerhill, Wexford. For the purposes of the ex gratia scheme, these 12 institutions are collectively called the Magdalen institutions. The scheme involves the payment to successful applicants of lump sums, the making of ongoing pension-type payments and the conferring of a range of health benefits including the disregard of these payments for the purposes of the nursing home support scheme.

As Deputies will be aware, the Ombudsman made a number of recommendations in November 2017 on the operation of the Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme. The Ombudsman's principal recommendation was that the scheme should be extended so that it would apply to those women who worked in the laundry of one of 12 Magdalen institutions and who were resident in one of 14 adjoining institutions.

Following the report of the Ombudsman on the redress scheme, the Government agreed to apply the entitlements of the scheme to those eligible women who worked in the institutions covered by the scheme, while residing in certain adjoining institutions. The purpose of this amending Bill, which is short and technical in nature, is to apply these same health benefits to those women who qualify under the November 2018 addendum to the Magdalen redress scheme.

On 29 May 2018, following a report on the scheme by the Ombudsman, the Government agreed to apply the Magdalen redress scheme to women who worked in the institutions covered by the scheme while residing in certain adjoining institutions. The payment of lump sums and pension-type payments to this new cohort of women is being made on an administrative basis. However, conferring the health benefits under the original scope of the scheme required statutory provision, which was made in the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015. The Office of the Attorney General advised that technical amendments to the 2015 Act were required to confer the health benefits on this new cohort of women who worked in the Magdalen institutions but were resident in adjoining institutions.

As I said earlier, the 2015 Act provides that a suite of certain health services is to be made available without charge to successful applicants under the Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme. It also provides that ex gratia payments made to the women arising from this Magdalen redress scheme will be disregarded for the purposes of a financial assessment of means in respect of the fair deal scheme under the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Act 2009.

The addendum to the Magdalen redress scheme was established in November 2018 and expanded the scope of that scheme to include the provision of lump sum payments and pension-type payments to this new cohort of women. There are currently 104 applications under the addendum. These consist of 52 cases refused under the original scheme which may now be eligible and 52 new applications. In this regard 47 applicants have received their ex gratia award and offers have issued to a further 22 applicants. To date, €28.929 million has been paid to 755 women under the Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme. Having regard to the fact that it is Government policy that benefits should accrue to both cohorts in the same way, the Ombudsman's recommendation also necessitated changes to two Acts. A specific provision was included in the Finance Act 2018 to provide for tax exemption in respect of payments awarded to the women. The second relates to the provision of certain health services, the subject of the Bill we are debating this evening, which will ensure that the same health benefits that apply to the women covered by the original 2013 scheme also apply to the new cohort of women covered by the addendum. This amending Bill will also make a technical amendment to the Nursing Home Support Scheme Act 2009, which provides for the fair deal scheme. This amendment is necessary to ensure that any lump-sum payment received through the Magdalen redress scheme by this new cohort of women will not be taken into account when assessing them for nursing home care under the fair deal scheme.

There were three other recommendations of the Ombudsman. These relate, first, to assistance to applicants who lack capacity to accept an award and second, to a review of those cases where there is a dispute in respect of length of stay in a Magdalen institution. A senior counsel was appointed to carry out both these tasks. All but one of the capacity cases have now been resolved and the review in relation to the length of stay issue is ongoing. The third recommendation by the Ombudsman was that guidance should be provided for future redress schemes. A working group led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is examining this issue. Officials in my Department have kept the Ombudsman informed of progress in relation to the implementation of his recommendations and last month I met the Ombudsman, who acknowledged the progress that has been made, to date, in implementing his recommendations.

The Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019 consists of five sections: section 1 provides for a definition of the "Principal Act", as the 2015 Act in the Bill. Section 2 amends the definition of the "scheme" in the 2015 Act to allow the eligibility to receive health benefits provided for in the 2015 Act to be extended to this new cohort of women. This section also provides for an amendment of section 1 of the principal Act, thus expanding the scope of the Act by including an additional definition of "addendum", which relates to the expansion of the Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme in November 2018 to allow for payments to this new cohort of women who worked in the Magdalen laundries but were resident in adjoining institutions. Section 3 expands the scope of Section 2(1)(f) of the 2015 Act so that this counselling service may be made available to the new cohort of women. Section 4 provides for an amendment to the Nursing Home Support Scheme Act 2009 so that any ex gratia payment made under the scheme to the new cohort of women will be disregarded in terms of calculating a means assessment for the fair deal scheme, which provides nursing home support. Section 5 provides for the Short Title and commencement provisions of the Bill.

I pay tribute to the women who worked in these Magdalen institutions and salute their courage and dignity in the face of the undeniable hardship they faced in these institutions. Unfortunately, this Bill cannot prevent or undo the events of the past which were visited on these women but this legislation may play a small part in redressing the situation. That is why it is important. I am grateful to the Business Committee for scheduling this before the summer recess. It is my hope that the Bill can now progress through this House so these women can avail of these benefits as soon as possible and I ask Deputies to support its passage this evening. Accordingly, I am pleased to present and commend this Bill to this House and I hope that we can make progress this evening.

I welcome this Bill and Fianna Fáil supports it because it does allow for payments to a cohort of women who worked in the Magdalen laundries but were resident in adjoining institutions. It is important that it will expand the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015 to apply these health benefits to those women who worked in the institutions covered by the Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme while residing in certain adjoining institutions in order that they too can avail of these health benefits.

The survivors' stories of the women who were residents of the Magdalen laundries and similar institutions are a scar on our history. It behoves all of us to ensure that all these women are finally taken care of by this State. We owe it to this group of women that they are financially compensated and provided for with the same health benefits that were awarded. We have always been of the view that we are dealing with a limited number of vulnerable women and that the State has an obligation to honour its commitments and ensure a more generous application of the scheme. Some of the women who worked in the Magdalen laundries were wrongly refused access to the original redress scheme and we have always felt that this was manifestly unfair. It is good that this amendment Bill addresses the needs of this group of women.

It is really important to note that the Bill ensures that awards received are not taken into account when assessments are made for nursing home supports. It is also important to note that it expands counselling services to some women who were not previously covered. This counselling scheme is vital for the healing of survivors, many of whom have repressed the memories of their experiences in the laundries to the detriment of their physical and mental health.

The Ombudsman, in the report entitled Opportunity Lost, criticised the omission of some survivors who were deemed to lack capacity and several women who were forced to work in Magdalen laundries as children, and we welcome the fact that full and careful consideration is now being given to the recommendations of this report. Ireland must never forget these women. Their identities were taken, their hair was cut, their names were taken from them and they were the victims of grave injustices and human rights abuses. Society shunned them, the State abused them and the church exploited them.

It was incredibly moving to witness events last June when Norah Casey and a very dedicated group of volunteers brought these women home to Dublin. It could not be described as a happy, as Norah Casey said at the time, because there was so much sadness but it was important to acknowledge what these women had gone through and to acknowledge their survival. This dark and difficult chapter of our history is the life story of the survivors from those who have sat in the Public Gallery to those who have spoken publicly about their experiences and those who still feel the stigma of having been in these institutions. I do not think that will ever leave them. We are morally obliged to future generations and past ones to remember the successes and the tragic mistakes that have shaped this country.

We will be supporting this legislation although we have some reservations about elements of it. The State has a desperate legacy in respect of the women in the Magdalen laundries. It is not an item that can be considered in isolation. It is part of a wider network and system of institutionalisation that extended to mother and baby homes, county homes and other institutions. It really is a very dark stain on our history. It is welcome that this legislation has been brought forward but to some extent it was prompted by serious criticism from the Ombudsman and court cases.

We are examining the legislation following recent stories in the news such as the recent case taken by Louise O’Keeffe and, similarly, those taken by women who were resident in the Magdalen laundries. The State has in the past adopted a too restrictive approach. We have seen that on numerous occasions and Louise O'Keeffe is just another example of the State and the Department persistently attempting to minimise exposure. Unfortunately, that has led to people being excluded, which is wrong and which has been very hurtful.

The Ombudsman's report on the administration of the Magdalen redress scheme was published approximately 18 months ago. The investigation found serious inconsistencies in the Department's application of the redress scheme eligibility criteria. Women recorded as admitted to a different institution closely associated with another named laundry were refused admission to the scheme. Even after the investigation was complete and the recommendations prepared, it was delayed further. In evidence to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality earlier this year, Mr. Peter Tyndall told members that in his ten years as Ombudsman, he had never reached a point where a Department had, prior to a publication of a report, categorically refused to engage in the process of accepting and implementing the recommendations made. The report stated:

My investigation found a serious inconsistency in the application of the eligibility criteria in that women were admitted to the Scheme who were recorded as admitted to one particular institution closely associated to a named laundry while women who were recorded as admitted to different institution closely associated with another named laundry, were refused admission to the Scheme. This was despite the almost identical profile, characteristics and relationship with the associated laundry both institutions shared.

Following that, on 16 April 2018, the Minister announced he was bringing proposals to expand the scheme to Cabinet the next day. Nevertheless, it took a year for the matter to be progressed.

The legislation applies the Magdalen redress scheme to women who worked in the institutions covered by the scheme while residing in certain adjoining institutions. It will make the necessary technical amendments to the 2015 Act, expanding to certain women who worked in institutions covered by the scheme while residing in certain adjoining institutions. It should not have taken the Ombudsman's intervention no cases being brought to the High Court. This should have been part of it from the get-go.

I note the outstanding commitment to promised healthcare. The recommendations of the Quirke report in 2013 were accepted in full by the Government but some of them have yet to be fulfilled. Women who were part of the scheme have not yet been afforded a standard of healthcare in line with that provided for through the Health Amendment Act, HAA, card. The card, which gives entitlement to a range of services for the lifetime of the cardholder, is one of the most important cards awarded by the HSE and Mr. Justice Quirke recommended that anyone who qualified for the scheme should be awarded the card. Services such as complementary therapies fall within the remit of the card and are vital to those who seek to avail of the scheme but it does not currently afford them. The benefits of such therapies are well documented, particularly among those who have experienced traumatic events or suffer from anxiety, depression or more complex conditions.

In 2015, several dentists confirmed publicly that instead of receiving HAA standard services, as recommended by Mr. Justice Quirke and agreed by the Government in 2013, Magdalen survivors had been given a card that entitled them only to a limited and incomplete treatment, equivalent to that available to most medical card holders. The dentists called on the council of the Irish Dental Association to disassociate itself publicly from the Government to speak up publicly on behalf of its members who do not accept the injustice we are expected to support. The Government needs to address this. HAA standard services that were promised need to be realised and I hope the Minister will address that.

In the context of the current scheme, there is also the issue of access to healthcare for women abroad. I understand that women in England receive reimbursement of their medical expenses but that is a significant problem because very often such women need the State to pay for their healthcare upfront, given that it is not always possible for them to pay the money out of their own pocket and have it reimbursed.

I hope the Minister will consider and address the policy issues for which the women in question need support. In general, we support the legislation. It is overdue but it should not have taken a court case or the Ombudsman's intervention.

We too support the legislation. With the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's permission, I will read into the record the entirety of correspondence I received last night from the Justice for Magdalenes Research, JFMR, group. The group stated:

We in Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR) are writing to express our concerns about the serious shortcomings in the health and social care provided to Magdalene survivors to date and to suggest that the Dáil use this legislative opportunity to fundamentally amend the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (RWRCI) Act 2015 (in more ways than the Government proposes) so that the health and social care recommended by Judge John Quirke in 2013 is actually provided to all survivors under the Magdalene ex gratia scheme.

The Government's Bill simply seeks to add women who worked as children in Magdalene Laundries while registered on the rolls of adjacent institutions to the existing health and social care aspects of the Magdalene ex gratia scheme. However, we in JFMR have repeatedly pointed out - and we have been joined by healthcare professionals in so doing - that the care services currently provided under the RWRCI Act 2015 are not compliant with Judge John Quirke's recommendations.

We have raised the problem of healthcare provision to Magdalene numerous times since the RWRCI Act 2015 was enacted, including in writing to Ministers for Justice and Department of Justice officials [and the letter goes on to quote various dates in that regard].

On 25th February 2016 JFMR wrote to the National Director of Primary Care at the HSE to ask for written clarification of all ways in which Magdalene survivors' entitlements under the RWRCI Act card differ from those already available under the standard medical card. We received an acknowledgment letter on 15th March 2016 but have no received no substantive response to date.

I echo the points made by Deputy Ó Laoghaire in respect of dental, ophthalmic and aural services, psychotherapy for survivors, access to counselling and psychotherapy for family members, and access to complementary therapies. There are issues in respect of whether services as per the recommendations are to be provided. It is the understanding of JFMR that they are not being provided.

Given that we have just recently read the amendments, I seek clarification from the Minister and his officials on the wording for the provision of dental, ophthalmic and aural services, which will be an addition to section 2, and on referrals made by registered medical practitioners. I also seek clarification in respect of subsection (d) in amendment No. 1, which has just been brought before the House, in respect of the paragraphs relating to complementary therapies and such other services as may be prescribed. I ask that the Minister have regard to the correspondence that we - and, I presume, he and his officials - received last night. Will the concerns outlined in the correspondence be addressed in the context of the amendments the Minister has proposed?

I am delighted to be able to speak to the Bill and I welcome the Minister's commitments. The Bill seeks to amend the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015 and the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Act 2009. The Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme was established in 2013 to provide women who worked and resided in Magdalen institutions with access to financial and health supports, including lump sums, cash payments, pensions and health and community care supports free of charge. Payments made as part of the scheme are disregarded as means if the recipient applies for the nursing home support scheme. In 2017, the Office of the Ombudsman published a report following an investigation of the administration of the Magdalen restorative justice scheme.

The report made a number of recommendations, including the expansion of the terms of the scheme to include women who worked in Magdalen laundries but resided elsewhere. On foot of these recommendations, the Department of Justice and Equality announced in May 2018 an addendum to the scheme that commenced in November 2018. The addendum extends the terms of the scheme to women residing in institutions adjoining Magdalen laundries. All payments resulting from successful applications to the newly-extended scheme arising from the addendum will be backdated to 1 August 2013.

The Minister indicated in his speech that the scheme has made payments to 734 women to June 2019, amounting to almost €30 million in payments. There have been 99 applications to the scheme under the terms of the addendum and stakeholders such as Justice for Magdalenes Research had previously called for an extension of the terms of the scheme. I support the legislation on behalf of the Rural Independent Group and we wish it a speedy passage as well.

I acknowledge the support of Members of the House from all sides, particularly Deputies O'Loughlin and Ó Laoghaire, as well as Deputy Sherlock on behalf of the Labour Party and Deputy Mattie McGrath. In giving their support, a number of issues have been raised.

I note that since we last had a debate in the House, Deputy Ó Laoghaire's responsibilities on behalf of his party have changed and he has been appointed spokesperson on education matters. I acknowledge his contribution to justice debates over the past number of years. As an Opposition spokesperson, I found him to be wholly constructive in his contributions and I wish him well under the education banner. I was very pleased, as Minister for Justice and Equality, to be in a position to acknowledge some of his contributions by incorporating his points in amendments to legislation, particularly other items of legislation that are reaching concluding Stages in the House. Those contributions were most positive and I wish him well in that regard.

As for this Bill, I assure Deputies that officials in my Department continue to liaise with the Office of the Ombudsman on the implementation of the recommendations. I met the Ombudsman only last month and he acknowledged the level of progress made. I also acknowledge the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, which agreed that pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill was not required, having regard to its technical nature.

Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Sherlock raised a couple of specific points that we may be able to deal with on Committee Stage but I am very keen to ensure that health and social care services being provided are such to meet the needs of the women involved. It was acknowledged by Mr. Justice Quirke that these targeted health supports are individually focused to meet the health needs of what are in some cases different cohorts of persons. I assure Deputies that Mr. Justice Quirke in his report pointed out that the scheme introduced under the 1996 Act, to which reference was made, was aimed specifically at those who contracted hepatitis C as a result of contaminated blood transfusions. Some of the benefits were not directly applicable and that scheme would require some adaptation. The scheme proposed for the Magdalen women has such adaptation. People suffering from hepatitis C required some products outside the normal range of drugs available but that does not apply in respect of the Magdalen women. To ensure that women who worked in Magdalen institutions get access to best healthcare, provision is being made in this scheme for a number of health services to be provided by referral through a medical practitioner or nurse. I emphasise that this is not intended to in any way restrict services, as the focus must remain firmly on the health needs of the women.

This matter was raised in the Seanad by Senator Ruane in particular. She raised the question of entitlements and access to health and social care services under the 2015 Act and this Bill in comparison with the entitlement to access services for the holders of the Health (Amendment) Act card. The point has been raised quite validly by Deputy Sherlock but in the Seanad, I conveyed to Senator Ruane that I am happy to engage positively with her, insofar as it is possible, to ensure that any outstanding matters can be dealt with to the satisfaction of women who worked in Magdalen laundries. I assure Deputies Sherlock, Ó Laoghaire and others that, as I expressed in the Seanad, I am committed to a further examination of the matter. I must point out that many of the issues raised may not fall within my remit for address but I am satisfied to share any concerns raised with any Minister who may have appropriate or relevant responsibility in the area.

I commend the Bill to the House and I hope we are in a position to move to Committee and Remaining Stages, where I would be happy to deal with any queries that Deputy Mattie McGrath might have.

I may have inadvertently said there were amendments to this Bill before the House this evening but I withdraw that comment. It was a mistake on my part. I accept the Minister's comments and thank him.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.

A message will be sent to the Seanad acquainting it accordingly.