I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I think we have a right to decide whether the Bill is moved and read a Second Time. I want to object to it being read and moved a Second Time. This is being rushed through. It is indecent haste. We know from the public reaction that a significant number of people do not want this to happen here. I am objecting to it and I want to call a vote on it.
Deputy Bríd Smith is not agreeing to the Bill being read a Second Time.
We are going to have to check the procedure for that.
That is fair enough. I will wait.
It will be some minutes while we check the procedure because it is unusual at this point. Please bear with us for a few moments.
The Minister has moved that the Bill be read a Second Time, Deputy Bríd Smith objected to that and I took a few minutes to reflect on and check it. The Deputy raised an interesting point but there is no provision for her objection. There were two votes last night. I was in the Chair when we took the votes on the motion on sitting arrangements. That was when the business was set out and that decided how we would take it today. I am afraid that is all I can do.
I understand this is unusual. Deputies who have been here far longer than I say they have never seen this before. However, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle said we agreed that the Bill be read a Second Time and I did not agree. I object to it being read a Second Time and to the way in which the Bill is being pushed through. When I do not agree with something and I want to find out how other Deputies feel, I believe I have a right to put it to a vote. If I do not and if procedures and Standing Orders say I do not, then I will have to accept that from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle but I believe I do.
I hear what the Deputy is saying and she is making a good argument. However, the motion on how we proceed today was put last night and it was passed by a majority of the House. Under Standing Order 176(1) on the Second Reading of a Bill:
The debate on the motion, that the Bill be now read a second time, shall be confined to the general principle of the Bill.
It goes on to say what can be said. That motion determines how Second Stage is read and we copper-fastened that last night with two motions. I am not going to allow further debate on it. I will allow the Deputy to make another contribution but that is my understanding of it and I have taken the time to look at and reflect on it. There will be a chance to vote on Second Stage later on, as there is with the Second Stage of all Bills. There will be votes on various Stages, presuming they are called.
I understand that. I have not been here that long but I have been here long enough to know that we can vote on whether it moves past Second Stage and that we can vote on the amendments tomorrow. etc. However, the question that was put was that the Bill be read a Second Time and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle asked if that was agreed. I said "No" and that I was objecting to that. I believe that has some standing in the machinations of democracy in this House. If Standing Orders are telling me it does not, then I have no choice but to accept that because I will not kick up a big fuss and start throwing furniture around the place, much and all as I would like to. The point is that I have to accept it. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle may be wrong and the people who advised her may be wrong. We will find out afterwards but it is interesting that when one is asked if the question is agreed and one says "No", that one is not allowed to bring that to the next point, namely whether others agree on that opposition to the question. That is what I am trying to establish.
I understand where the Deputy is coming from. I am sorry but I will not allow a debate on it. At this point I have to make a ruling on it. I perfectly understand what the Deputy is saying. It is part of the system that I read out that the Bill will now be read a Second Time and nobody can object to that at this point. In my limited experience and understanding of the system, it is not possible at this point to call a vote. I may be wrong but that is the ruling I am making.
Ireland's recent history is sadly littered with a legacy of failings related to the care of our citizens in institutional settings. This is no less true for the mother and baby homes and county homes that operated in this country throughout much of the previous century. Our most fundamental duty today is to acknowledge the profound failures and mistreatment of Irish women and their children. They were cruelly deprived of their choice and agency and in so many cases were coerced into institutional settings that were designed to reinforce in brutal terms that their power to exercise a free choice about their own lives would not be tolerated in the society in which they lived. Over the past two decades, as a country we have been working to confront this terrible legacy. The names of the various investigations and institutions are known to us all, and we feel a collective sense of outrage and of sorrow when the truth is finally revealed. Even over the past two weeks, people have spoken about their experiences, the experiences of family members and the hurt and pain that was caused and that was silently carried for far too long.
I want to acknowledge all who have written, emailed, and called Deputies, Senators and my office about this Bill. It speaks to the genuine and profound depth of feeling, and sense of both solidarity and empathy that Ireland has for those who suffered institutional abuse at the hands of State and religious institutions. I have read the letters and emails received, and listened as survivors and their family members spoke about their experiences and the anxiety that much of the reporting around this legislation has created. I know that this debate will be watched closely, and I am acutely aware of the responsibility that I have, as Minister, to do the right thing by the survivors of mother and baby homes, as well as their families. This is not ancient history. This is real and live trauma for a great number of people in this country.
It is important to state clearly that this Bill does not seal the mother and baby homes archive for 30 years. The legislation has one objective: to stop invaluable information from a database tracing the entry and exit of women and children from the mother and baby homes from being put beyond reach. In doing so, the Bill aims to try to address some of the core concerns of those who were so badly let down in our recent past; those who were robbed of their identities and of their capacity to navigate the course of their lives by virtue of being placed in a mother and baby home. Nothing in this Bill will seal important records, or put invaluable information beyond reach. In fact, we are trying to do the opposite.
In 2015, the then Government established the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters to comprehensively examine the experiences of mothers and children who were resident in mother and baby homes and related county homes over a period of 75 years in the 20th century. I am informed by the commission that this has been an exhaustive and rigorous investigation that will result in a substantial report exceeding 4,000 pages. The investigation will shine a light on the pain and anguish experienced by women who found themselves in these institutions, and on the children who began their lives behind those institutions' walls. Women were hidden away in these places because of the stigma associated with being an unmarried mother at that time in our history.
The commission's report will finally allow us to share and acknowledge the lived experiences of these women and children during a period of our history defined by silence and shame.
The Commission is charged with investigating specific sensitive issues with the practices and procedures in respect of the care, welfare, entry arrangements and exit pathways for women and children who were residents in these institutions. It is also tasked with completing an academic social history spanning a period of 75 years. This will chart the journey of many of those who passed through these places and the lifelong trauma they unjustly experienced as a result. The commission's report will put these experiences into the context of the society in which they occurred.
As Deputies will know, the commission established a confidential committee to enable former residents to provide an account of their experiences in private. These accounts will be captured in the final report, thereby giving explicit voice to the mothers and their children. The hidden secrets of life in these establishments, as told by survivors, will finally be reported and, most importantly, their brave contributions will assist the commission to ground its findings in lived experiences.
I understand the anxiety felt by those who have associations with the mother and baby homes in waiting for this much-anticipated report. The commission of investigation is due to submit its final report to me by 30 October 2020. As prescribed by the Commission of Investigation Act 2004, on submission of its final report the commission will stand dissolved and, prior to its dissolution, must deposit all commission records with me as the prescribed Minister. The 2004 Act provides for the publication of the final report of a commission by the prescribed Minister and further provides that the archive of records will remain sealed tor a period of 30 years, after which time its availability for public inspection is governed in accordance with the National Archives Act 1986.
It is essential to recognise that when we talk about a commission's records we are taking about the evidence established by a statutory inquiry using the significant statutory powers provided to it by the Oireachtas. The use of such powers, which include extensive powers to question witnesses and direct the production of records, must be balanced with proportionate safeguards to protect the constitutional and legal rights of all parties. The 2004 Act is a legal framework specifically designed to achieve this careful balance and it is not credible to suggest we can now rapidly alter the basis on which the entirety of this evidence was compiled without due regard for the legal consequences of doing so.
However, although much of the debate has conflated the genuine aims of this Bill with the pre-existing legal requirements in place in respect of the sealing of the commission's records for 30 years, it is impossible to ignore the volume of correspondence I have received expressing very legitimate and grave concerns that some important commission records - essential validating personal information for survivors - would be put beyond reach for 30 years. I understand the anguish this legal requirement may cause, especially where people may have been only learning of this rule for the first time. It has become very apparent to me this week that although I believe it is absolutely vital for survivors and their families that we enact this legislation to allow the database to be preserved, the Bill has nevertheless brought into sharp focus other very real and grave concerns which absolutely must be listened to. These concerns are centred on how the 30-year archiving of records, as required of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes, impacts the legitimate expectations of survivors and relatives to access important personal information related to the circumstances of their time in these institutions. It is clear that a re-examination of the current approach on how access is provided to the archives of the commission for certain validating personal information for survivors is needed. In so doing, it is my view that there exists an obligation to survivors and their relatives that goes beyond purely legal questions. To begin this process, I am today committing to two actions.
First, I have requested - this has been agreed - a detailed engagement with the Attorney General's Office on the issue of personal data access in the commission's archives, which is so vitally important to so many former residents.
Second, I intend to request the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration to lead on this re-examination in a format that would allow for survivors and their representatives, expert legal opinion and other leading academics to explore thoroughly the major principles underlying the debate on access to personal information in the commission's archive and to make a set of recommendations aiming to resolve the very real difficulties which the passage of this legislation has highlighted. As part of this, I am committed to working closely with the committee towards finding a way forward.
It remains my intention to pass the Bill through the Oireachtas in order to safeguard the database. I believe, however, that by giving time, space and substantive consideration to the complex issues raised, we can and will do right by all those who passed through the mother and baby homes. In the meantime, I must stress that although it is the commission records that are required to be sealed, there will nevertheless be a very significant quantity of information available. The commission's final report is vast and comprehensive. It will include survivors' personal stories in anonymised format, accessible to all those who told their own stories. Many of the records of the commission are copies of originals held by other institutions, such as the HSE, the Department of Health and so on. The originals remain available for access under the relevant law. As part of the final report, the commission will publish an 80-page index listing the information it accessed in compiling its report. This index will be available to survivors and researchers freely.
The Bill I am putting before the House deals with serious legal and practical issues raised by the commission of investigation regarding the finalisation of its records. It aims to safeguard records gathered by the commission over the course of its five-year investigation in order that they be preserved intact and available into the future. The Bill does not put information beyond reach; the intent is quite the opposite.
The commission has compiled digital databases, with details of the mothers and children who were resident in 15 of the main mother and baby homes under investigation, from the records available to it. These databases have been painstakingly developed over a long number of years and at considerable cost. The commission believes that these databases and related source records would be of great assistance to those involved in providing information and tracing services. It believes, however, that as the records compiled contain sensitive personal information, it is obliged to redact the names and other identifying information about the residents of these homes from its archive, including its databases and related records, prior to transfer. Notably, the commission believes that legislation is required in order to address these matters.
It is important to consider in the discussion of records, archives and databases what exactly is at stake here. This database contains the names and personal details of young women, babies and children who passed through these homes. It will be a lifeline for many vulnerable people to establish their full identities or shine a light on that part of their past that has been hidden. This could help heal the wounds that this system of institutional abuse created. It is effectively irreplaceable.
Having examined the issue, the Government concluded that there is a strong rationale for legislation to be passed in order to protect the complete records of the commission and to provide specifically for the transfer of the valuable databases and related records from the commission to Tusla in order that they can support information and tracing services for former residents. This is the essence of the bespoke legislation before us today. It is about preserving a priceless and unique source of information.
The Bill ensures that the records of the mother and baby homes commission of investigation are deposited without redaction. While the main archive will be deposited with the Minister in line with the provisions of the 2004 Act, significantly, the Bill also provides for the transfer of the databases and related records directly to Tusla. This ensures that this unique and invaluable resource is preserved and maintained and remains available, albeit on a limited basis in the first instance. This limitation is reflected in the restrictions set out in the Bill. These provide that the processing of records or data is limited to the purposes authorised by the data protection regulation, the Data Protection Acts 1988 to 2018 or any other enactment. However, nothing in the Bill prevents Tusla from processing information from a related record given to the commission by Tusla itself.
The Bill also enables appropriate access for the essential maintenance of the digital databases and related records. The Bill provides no new entitlement to access information.
By legislating for the urgent protection of these databases now, my intention is to provide an important foundation on which we can build. In the future I plan to advance comprehensive information and tracing legislation which will expand access to the entire suite of information now being transferred to Tusla. As Deputies will appreciate, however, this is a complex challenge which requires the balancing of constitutional rights and is not one which can be progressed in the present urgent legislation.
The Bill also includes a number of technical amendments to the Judicial Council Act 2019 as proposed by my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality.
Given the timeframe for the finalisation and submission of records, there is an urgent need for this Bill to be passed and signed into law prior to the dissolution of the commission on 30 October. It is imperative that the valuable information compiled and developed by the commission, that is, the database, is preserved for posterity by passing this legislation before that date.
I will outline the key provisions of the Bill as initiated and I propose to bring forward a number of amendments in response to some of the concerns that were raised in the Seanad debate.
Section 1 is a standard provision, which provides definitions of key terms used in the Bill. The term "database" specifically includes all the databases developed by the commission with regard to the former residents of the institutions being examined. The definition of "related record" refers to the source material from which information was obtained for the purposes of creating the databases. In practical terms, these sources are institutional and public source records that were obtained by the commission in the course of its work.
Section 2 provides for the commission to deposit the database and all related records with Tusla as soon as possible following enactment. Section 2(2) confirms that the material shall be transferred without redaction. It is declaratory of the current position under section 43(2) of the 2004 Act and has been included in the Bill purely for the avoidance of doubt. My understanding is that these records do not contain any witness testimony.
Section 3 deals with restrictions on processing of the database and records received by Tusla. It stipulates that Tusla may not process records or information provided to the commission except where authorised or required by or under the general data protection regulation, GDPR, the Data Protection Acts, 1988 to 2018, or any other enactment, or for legitimate purposes related to maintenance. The section expressly states that nothing in the Bill or the Act of 2004 shall prevent the processing of information that originated from any record given to the commission by Tusla itself. The Bill does not provide any new entitlement to access to information in the possession of Tusla, or to the archive, which transfers to the Minister in accordance with section 43(2) of the 2004 Act. This would have to be addressed by separate legislation in the future.
Section 4 deals with the application of section 45 of the 2004 Act in respect of evidence and documents to be available to tribunals. This section ensures consistency with the 2004 Act insofar as the evidence and records to be deposited with the agency can be made available to a tribunal of inquiry in the event of the future establishment of such a body.
Section 5 provides that, for the avoidance of doubt, the obligation to deposit records with the Minister, in accordance with section 43(2) of the 2004 Act, is an obligation to deposit such evidence and documents without redaction thereof. The section is declaratory of the current position under section 43(2) and has been included in the Bill purely for the avoidance of doubt.
Section 6 amends the Judicial Council Act 2019. That Act provides for the establishment of various committees of the Judicial Council, including the personal injuries guidelines committee. It provides that the committee shall submit the first draft of personal injuries guidelines to the board of the council within a defined period and also provides that the draft guidelines will be considered and adopted by the council itself as soon as practicable and in any event not later than 12 months after their submission. It is these provisions which are the subject of the amendments in the Bill.
Section 6 substitutes a new paragraph for section 7(2) of the Judicial Council Act 2019 and amends section 18(4) of the Act to allow the personal injuries guidelines committee to complete its work within a new, extended, statutory deadline of 9 December 2020, and for the council to adopt the personal injuries guidelines by 31 July 2021 at the latest.
Section 7 is a standard provision enabling expenses incurred in the administration of the Act, other than section 6, to be paid by moneys coming from my Department.
Section 8 is a standard provision to provide for the Short Title of the Bill. The Act may be cited as the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Act 2020.
I propose to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to respond to a number of concerns that have been raised.
First, it has become clear that an expectation of privacy was given to persons who attended the confidential committee. Those who voluntarily came forward to tell their story believed they would remain fully anonymous. However, I know some people who told their story may wish for their names to remain attached to their story for posterity. For these reasons, I propose that the legislation should respect the agency of each person to decide on whether their story, as contained within the archive, is anonymous or bears their name. Accordingly, I will table an amendment that can address both viewpoints. The amendment will facilitate the commission to remain in being after it reports on 30 October for the purpose of engaging with each person to determine their preference with regard to anonymisation. The commission will take account of these preferences when finalising its archive of records.
Second, I want to ensure that a copy of the database and related records are deposited with my Department as part of that archive. This will deliver a complete sealed archive while still ensuring the database and related records can also transfer to Tusla and remain available for use in accordance with existing and future statute. On both these issues, I have listened to the concerns raised and I have acted to address them.
Due to the urgent need to pass this legislation before the commission is dissolved, the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny was waived by the Business Committee at my request. I appreciate that this urgency is unfortunate as is the time limit available to review the proposals. I hope, however, that the briefings I have provided, as well as the information outlined today, has been helpful.
Ireland has come a long way from the Ireland of the 1920s. We are, I hope, a more progressive, tolerant and equal society. As a society, our commitment to acknowledging, remembering and learning from our past must be absolute. The forthcoming report of the commission is a crucial element of that national process of learning, understanding and acknowledgement. This legislation is crucial to ensure that records of the commission are preserved and the opportunity presented by this valuable database in laying the path towards fuller access to early life information is not overlooked.
I believe we have a duty to the former residents and survivors of these institutions to pass this legislation and I would welcome the support of Members.
Before I begin to outline why my colleagues in Sinn Féin and I believe strongly in the serious concerns we have with this legislation, I wish to pay tribute to the courage and resilience of the women and children who suffered so horrifically in mother and baby institutions and who continue to suffer, unfortunately, at the hands of the State as they try to secure their records. I had the pleasure of meeting some people in my constituency and, recently, some people in Tuam. Their courage and resilience astounds me.
As my colleague, Senator McCallion, stated on Friday in the Seanad debate, these were not homes; they were detention centres. That was an excellent point. Innocent women were subjected to cruel practices. A home is supposed to where someone feels safe, loved and protected, not a place where someone is tortured, imprisoned and forced to give birth in the most appalling conditions, often without medical support or even basic pain relief.
One survivor vividly recalled that no doctor was present when she gave birth, only nuns, and there was no formal medical care or any kind of pain relief. Another woman retold the story of her birth and said: "When her mother cried out in pain during labour, she was told by one of these nuns that she should not be surprised as my mother was paying for her sins." I again pay tribute to these women and their families and the dedicated campaigners who have persevered for years in such a dignified manner.
A part of me cannot believe that in 2020 we are here discussing the rights and wrongs of what should happen to records and whether records should be sealed. I acknowledge the point the Minister is making and that he firmly believes that, although I disagree. Now is the opportunity, however, to deal with the sealing of the records and to bring forward any amendments to any legislation that are needed to do so.
Following all the testimonials and all the State-backed investigations and inquiries into State-sanctioned abuse, we are here again witnessing another injustice against these women and their stolen children. I am not sure if the Minister has had the opportunity to read any of the experts from the Clann project. Witness testimonies and stories of obstruction and indifference by religious institutions and State authorities are harrowing and disappointing, but tragically, they are not surprising.
Regarding tracking records, one survivor said:
I have found it incredibly difficult to access information about my childhood, my mother and my siblings. Whenever I attempted to obtain information I was made to feel that I was a nuisance. I got the impression that the authorities close ranks on you when you try to obtain information. I have been told countless times by various institutions that my records have been lost in a fire, a flood, or that the nuns are very old now and they wouldn’t remember.
Another describes how:
The information I was given was deliberately inaccurate, or misleading. I felt that some of the details I was provided were given in order to lead me down a garden path. This experience has made me very angry and I feel like I have been lied too. I do not know what to believe.
Child survivors tell story after story of hitting brick walls, many tragically missing the opportunity to reunite with their mothers before they passed away.
Some tell stories of reuniting with their mothers only months before their passed. One survivor detailed that:
When the social workers finally took me to my birth mother’s ward, I walked into the room and kissed her on the forehead. I told her who I was and she replied by saying ‘I knew you would find me some day’.
She passed away a month later. That women probably hung on until her child found her. Anyone who has listened to these stories, who has spoken to survivors – and every Deputy in and Minister in this House was contacted by survivors and their supporters as their stories flooded into our inboxes last week - cannot but be moved to do whatever it takes, within our power as elected representatives and legislators, to ensure justice for abuse survivors. It is painfully clear to all that rushing this legislation and not giving these important issues the time, debate, and dialogue they deserve is another injustice altogether.
I would like to make several points about this unfairly rushed legislation. The first relates to how little consultation with survivors there has been. There are several survivor groups throughout the country and many dedicated advocates who are unanimous in their condemnation of the Government on this point. They have a very valid point. Survivors have two key asks: that their records do not go to Tusla and that their records are not sealed for the next 30 years. Is that too much to ask for these women and children, whom we have totally failed? While the Minister’s amendments attempt to speak to the alarming issue that has emerged with keeping the records in one whole archive, they will still go to Tusla and this goes completely against the direct wishes of survivors. Many survivors tell of their experiences with Tusla and their stories are not altogether complimentary. One survivor tells of how they have not “been entitled to review anything on my file held by the Child and Family Agency. They have been obstructive from the start and I have been refused access to a large amount of information". Tusla is simply not the appropriate body to retain these records. It operates legally troubling and discriminatory practices, including defining adopted people’s birth name as third-party data, and undertakes risk assessments of all adopted people who request their records. Can the Minister appreciate why there is such apprehension about these records resting with Tusla and why there is such anger? Several other organisations have the skills and expertise to properly collate and archive this extremely sensitive material. Why is it that only Tusla has been considered?
My next concern is that neither the Minister or the commission have provided a rationale as to why section 43 of the 2004 Act is not sufficient for providing a legal basis for the transfer of the personal data. We have only been told that the commission feels it does not have a legal basis to transfer these records in their entirety to the Minister. The most emotive issue to emerge over the past week is the development of the sealing of the records. I acknowledge the Minister's point but I believe, as I said earlier, that now is the time to deal with this. For many, the answers and any type of closure regarding babies who died, lie within these records. One mother tragically and so poignantly recounts how her "son was kept in a closed off area called the dying room. I begged the nuns to take my son to a hospital but they only did so after two weeks had passed". He died in hospital. Another mother does not even know "whether he was buried in a coffin ... there was never even a kind or sympathetic word spoken" to her. I tell these stories because it is important that they are read into the Official Report. It is the least we owe people. How can we stand here and tell these woman and children, survivors of State-sanctioned abuse, that there is a possibility these records are going to be locked away or destroyed?
If this legislation passes through the House, every Member who votes in favour of the Government's amended Bill has essentially held the key and locked the personal records about these people's treatment in these cruel institutions away in a vault for the next 30 years. We need to ensure that this is not rushed. We need to give it the time it deserves. We cannot allow this legislation to pass in its current form. I appeal to all Members, particularly those in Government parties, to please stand up for these woman and children and to do the right thing. We must be mindful that this law is going to have real consequences for people. We each have an equal mandate in this Chamber and each an equal responsibility to ensure that justice is delivered for these women and children.
What happened behind the high walls of the mother and baby homes casts a long and very dark shadow over our country. The women and children, many of whom were placed in these institutions by the State, were abused and exploited. They were stigmatised, vilified, and considered outcasts from society. The awful abuse of single mothers, the forced separation of families and the horrors of what happened in places such as Tuam are still so very hard to comprehend. Perhaps, as a society, we will never fully understand or be reconciled with the brutal way these women are treated, or how that awful treatment impacted on their lives and walked every step of the way with them. We will perhaps never know fully or grasp the full extent of the abuse that they suffered, the horror and the pain. There are depths to the trauma perpetrated in these mother and baby homes that we can never hope to understand but we can know and we can learn. Survivors can uncover more about who they are and they expect, as a minimum, the veil of secrecy to be cast aside for good. I appreciate absolutely that this archive must be protected intact; there is no dispute on that matter. However, the wretched cry of every child who was wrenched from their mother's arms has to echo today as a cry and a demand for what is right. The evidence must be preserved and protected and those whose story it tells - the most intimate and painful details of their lives - must have access to it.
I find the Minister’s position this evening contradictory. He told us on the one hand that his Bill will not have the effect of sealing the archive for 30 years and then he went on to reiterate the position of the 2004 legislation in which he stated categorically that the records will remain sealed for a period of 30 years. Consequently, whatever the Minister’s intent, the net effect of his course of action is that these archives will be sealed for 30 years. He said that the entire process and those who came forward to tell stories and with information had a guarantee of privacy, and so they did, but nobody was guaranteed secrecy and he should not uphold that approach. The Minister said that victims, survivors and their families have what he called a legitimate expectation of access to important personal information. I put it to him that they have a legal entitlement to their personal information. I further put it to him that that entitlement is clearly and cogently set out in European law, which has primacy in these matters. He has not addressed that matter. I take particular issue with him saying that many of the records of the commission are copies of originals held by other institutions. Oh by God they are, and if the Minister only knew the hardship, the frustration and the heartache experienced not by a minority but by the vast majority of survivors as they seek those records. I assure him that if he really understood that he would not have presented legislation this evening.
It seems to me that the Minister has advanced with this legislation without proper thought and certainly without proper consultation. He told us that Ireland has come a long way from the 1920s. I must tell him that when I was brought home to my house as a baby, we passed the Bethany Home. I was not born in the 1920s. Our last Magdalen laundry closed in the 1990s, so not alone is this not ancient history, this is very real, very recent history. This is the story of people's lives and the Minister has no right, and should not have the authority of this Oireachtas, to lock those files for the next 30 years. The legislation he needs to bring to us, which we will all welcome, is legislation that ensures privacy rights for sure and absolutely proper procedures but, above all else, the right and entitlement of those survivors to the records, the storybooks of their lives.
A total of 798 babies and small children died at the Tuam mother and baby home in my home county of Galway. Many of the babies died because of malnutrition and neglect. They were buried in unmarked graves.
The horror of this reality, that 798 small children died in this way and that they were not given the dignity of a marked grave, is something that we, as a State, must recognise, and we must never let this happen again.
For those women who took part in the commission the objective was to be fully transparent. They laid their souls on the table in the hope they would finally get truth and justice. They have told us just how painful and traumatic it was to submit their evidence and tell their story. For many it was a reliving of the trauma they had endured in the mother and baby homes. Some have told me that their very personal stories were so horrendous they did not think they would be believed.
The mental and physical distress they are going through now, with the potential sealing of their testimonies for 30 years, the fact that once again the State is taking an attitude of locking away their realities, and their truths and lived experiences are being brushed under the carpet, is causing them huge pain. The reason these women took part in the commission was so that truth would finally be out. I want to quote some of these women that their experiences will be on the Dáil record.
Daily life was so bad that I attempted to run away twice with two other girls but they always found us and brought us back. On the second occasion we were caught by the police who returned us to the Convent.
I was in terrible pain and was afraid but when I screamed or called for help I was abused.
Three weeks ago, one woman said it was her dying wish to see justice. She was buried on the day this was being discussed in the Seanad. Sadly, the State failed her once more but it must not fail other women.
The Minister can change this and I urge him to be the Minister who finally recognises that what happened to these women was wrong and to be part of a Government that stands with these women. We must no longer hide from these horrors. The State must face the faults of the past and do better for victims of State-sponsored abuse. This can be done and the Minister can stand on the right side of history and on the side of these women.
This is not historical, unfortunately. I have friends and neighbours who were in mother and baby homes. It is an issue of which I am keenly aware and I know they are watching. One survivor speaking to the Clann project about conditions in the mother and baby homes stated:
My birth mother was allowed to see me just once a day for an hour each day after my birth when the babies were brought in to be fed. The mothers were actively prevented from bonding with their babies.
On infant deaths, a survivor stated: "I do not even know whether he was buried in a coffin. There was never even a kind or sympathetic word spoken to me". I quote these testimonies as a reminder to us all of the dark days in the State's past when not all of the children were cherished. I read out these testimonies because they should be heard and not locked away.
I am conscious this is a very emotive topic and that many of those watching today will have been directly or indirectly affected by the State-sanctioned abhorrent treatment of women and children by religious orders in these institutions. For those who provided testimony to the commission I am sure it was a very personal and difficult process for them and their families. I thank them for undertaking this important and, I am sure, painful task. They have performed a service for all of our citizens, young and old. Their personal stories are part of our history and we must embrace and learn from our history, and the good, bad and appalling aspects of it.
A constituent in Limerick with whom I spoke today described the ordeal she faced during her year in one of the institutions. She was sent to the Sean Ross Abbey institution in Tipperary. On arrival she was given a false name. She knew no one. She was worked and punished and had her baby taken from her. She was forced to work in the laundry while heavily pregnant. At the birth, her family was telegraphed to say she was dying. When she had the temerity to ask what she had done to deserve this, the answer she received was that she had committed a sin. In their eyes she was a sinner. Is she not entitled to her records?
Another woman I spoke to, my former neighbour in Ballynanty where I grew up, Ann O'Gorman, and I use her name because she asked me to, spent time in Bessborough. Ann gave birth in the summer of 1971 at Bessborough. She heard her baby cry but she passed out and when she awoke three days later she was told the infant had died. She asked whether she could see where her daughter was buried but she was refused. There are three things she would like me to raise with the Minister. She does not want the history of Bessborough to be forgotten; she wants the site to be preserved and not built upon; and she wants the unmarked graves to be recognised even if it is by a simple bench.
Another woman to whom I spoke recently, and who has become a very good friend of mine, is Teresa Collins. She was in Sean Ross Abbey and she has also asked me to use her name. When Teresa was returned to her grandparents they paid £100 to get her back. She also has a number of questions that she would like answered. Why separate the files when they should all be kept in a single archive? Obviously, those who wish to keep their files private should have the right to do so.
In an investigation by the order of nuns it was claimed there were 296 dead children at the Sean Ross Abbey but through a freedom of information request by a journalist, 1,024 birth certificates were discovered. Where did all these children go? Where is the paper trail for the moneys that passed through Sean Ross Abbey? Where did the money go? These are the questions these people want answered.
We have an opportunity, even at this late hour, to correct a further wrong before it is committed. The Minister is trying to ram through the Bill with the most spurious of explanations. He said the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny was waived by the Business Committee of the House at his request. I am sure it was the Government's request. The Minister maintains that sealing the records is necessary on technical data protection and legal grounds. The Minister is entitled under GDPR and the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 to take custody of all of these records. This and the Data Protection Act provide that archiving purposes in the public interest is a lawful ground for processing personal data. It looks as though perhaps the Minister is being thrown under the bus. Is that by his partners in government or the Attorney General? I plead with him, even at this very late stage, to do the right thing and withdraw the Bill.
Nothing speaks to the harshness and horror of the Irish experience in the almost 100-year history of our State than the experiences of those who had to endure and survive, and in some cases the experiences of those who did not survive, our State-sponsored institutions, such as mother and baby homes. Quite frankly, it is shocking, disheartening and totally avoidable that the Government is ramming through this legislation without pre-legislative scrutiny or consultation. It was rammed through the Seanad last week and there is an attempt to ram it through the Dáil this week. The 76 years of experience in these homes are being rammed through the Houses in fewer than eight days.
I am very privileged, along with many people in the Chamber, to have grown up at a time in this country when we did not have to experience the horrors of these institutions but they were being reported to us and information on them was coming out in dribs and drabs through the bravery of survivors and the work of brave journalists. In some cases, those on the fringes of politics and public representatives on the outside acted as amplifying voices for these victims. Finally, the State began to listen in a substantive way, or at least the survivors thought so.
When it comes to what we are facing this week, survivors are again feeling totally let down. This is completely avoidable. We could be ramming through legislation to amend the 2004 Act and push it back a couple of months to allow us the time to discuss this without a guillotine or contrived urgency, because that is what it is. It is a contrived urgency. It does not have to be this urgent. This requires and deserves as much time as is needed. We should not be having this discussion under the yoke of a guillotined Bill.
I know the Minister, and I worked with him in local government. He is of the same generation as me. I know he cannot be happy to stand over what is happening at this time with the Bill. We all received what has been described as an avalanche of emails. In my ten years working in politics as staff or a public representative, I have never seen such a wave of correspondence on an issue. I cannot profess to have read them all, and no one in the Chamber will have been able to have read them all, but I read as many as I could. I am viewing this as a legislator and not as the citizen I was, who was shocked by all of the stories in the news.
I looked at it through the lens of a legislator and through the responsibility we all share in this House to ensure that we deal with the Bill with much more sensitivity and a greater sense of justice than we do with any other legislation that comes before the House. That is our responsibility but it is being lost in how the Bill is being rammed through. The Minister stated that the Business Committee agreed to waive pre-legislative scrutiny but the committee does not agree to such matters; the Government does that. Members of the Business Committee, such as my party colleagues and I, have dissented as a matter of principle in the waiving of pre-legislative scrutiny in respect of a number of Bills, but none more so than the Bill before us because of the reasons I outlined. I will accept that since the Bill was debated in the Seanad a number of days ago, there has been an inching on the part of the Minister, with the tabling of a couple of amendments. It is just an inching, however, and it does not come anywhere near where we need to be to feel confident that the treatment of these very sensitive and important archives will be to the standard the survivors deserve.
The Government is introducing amendments to ensure that the Minister will receive a full copy of the commission's entire archive, including a copy of the part being sent to Tusla, which is okay. Those amendments further seek, however, to allow the commission to continue to operate until February 2021, although it will still have to deliver its final report by 30 October 2020, so that it can contact all those who gave evidence to the confidential committee to ask whether they would like the commission to redact their personal data from its archive prior to the commission depositing the archive with the Minister. While the commission and the Government should give those affected by the abuses under investigation a choice as to whether they wish to be identified in the transcript of their evidence in the commission's archive, the amendment in question is not the way to do that. The commission and the Government should apply the framework of the GDPR, which gives individuals many rights in respect of their personal data, including the right to be informed, the right of access, the right to rectification, the right to erasure and the right to object to data processing. It makes no sense to single out one of these rights and omit the rest, including the immediate right of the subject to access personal data held by the commission.
One of the arguments the Minister made is that as part of its work, the commission has created a database of every person to have passed through the main mother and baby homes, that the legislation needs to pass by 30 October or the database will be destroyed, and that the Government cannot allow this important information to be lost, which is why this is being done urgently. We do not know why exactly the commission believes it will have to destroy the database of mothers and children that it created from the records it received if the legislation is not passed by 30 October. It has not been explained why that is the case.
From what we can tell, the commission has self-imposed this deadline of 30 October to give its final report to the Minister. The current legislation, the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, states that on delivery of its final report, the commission will be dissolved. This means the archive has to be sent to the Minister along with the final report under section 43 of the 2004 Act. The commission appears to believe it cannot deliver personal data to the Minister, despite section 43 of the 2004 Act explicitly stating that every commission of investigation has to give every document or item of evidence gathered or created by it to the relevant Minister on concluding its work. The GDPR was introduced in 2018 but poses no barrier to the transfer of these data to the Minister. Archiving in the public interest is a legitimate ground for data processing under the GDPR. Furthermore, if the commission were to destroy personal data, it would be a highly questionable form of data processing because the commission has no legislative basis on which to do that.
This debate on the Bill, and the anger associated with it, is predicated on the belief, which the Minister has not dissuaded us from, that these records could be sealed for 30 years. I ask him please, in the short time we have, to bring forward amendments that will put this right or, better still, withdraw the Bill and change the self-imposed deadline.
We have all received long lists of correspondence. One item stood out to me and what got to me was the first line of the email, which was from a woman called Anne. She wrote that as far as she knows, she was born in Dublin to an unmarried mother on 7 March 1952. I expect that all of us in the House have seen our birth certificates. We probably have photos and stories and everything has been passed down to us. Those privileges have been afforded to us by the luck of the draw of where we were born. The email broke my heart. Anne went on to detail her fight for information throughout the 68 years she has spent on this Earth, seeking basic information on who her mother and father were, where she was born and what happened to her. She has no one left in this world apart from her sister. This is just one of many stories. They are stories that have so much horror to them, some of which have been outlined by other Deputies, and there are thousands more such stories out there.
That is why the Bill demanded a sensitivity beyond that of any other legislation but that has been lost. It is being rammed through and is another Bill being put through on the guillotine list. It did not have to be like this and it still does not have to be like this. There is still time and I ask the Minister please to reflect on it. There is sound legal advice from the Justice for Magdalenes group and political will on this side of the House to do this in a different way. We will support it but we cannot do it in this way. This is not doing justice to the survivors.
It is very difficult to countenance supporting the Government on the Bill in its current form. I would characterise its passage as one of sowing additional confusion and obfuscation and having the effect of traumatising further the many women who look to the House and expect us to legislate on the basis of reason. The manner in which the Bill was brought before the Seanad and now this House leaves one utterly disappointed because the subject matter is so sensitive that the least we would have expected, and that the women would have expected, is that we would give it proper and due consideration and time to reflect on all the issues in order that we could all move with one voice.
The effect of the Government's stance, position and approach to the Bill will be to divide the House. A minority of us will vote against the Bill, as it is currently constituted, while the majority will vote for it. I expect that many on the Government benches will privately agree with the positions we are adopting, because we do so on the basis of reason and, one hopes, intelligence, but will still walk through the lobbies and vote Tá with the Government. I understand that happens even at the best of times, because I followed the Whip many a time when I was in government, but on an issue such as this, there has to be time and consideration. I wrote to the Ceann Comhairle earlier to express my disappointment at the way in which certain Bills are being dealt with and to see whether we could find some mechanism to ensure that a Bill as sensitive as this would find a better way of progressing through both Houses in order that we could interrogate further what the Minister proposes.
The Minister, in his contribution, stuck rigidly to the 30 October deadline.
I have been confused by this and perhaps the Minister will give us the benefit of his wisdom but it is my simple understanding that there is nothing injurious to the Constitution such that the Minister could not provide for an extension of time for the passage of this legislation or even an extension of time for the commission. Is it overly simplistic of me to put forward the argument that there is nothing that says we as a legislature could not amend the Commission of Investigation Act 2004 to make provision for the very sensitive issues that are inherent within this Bill and for which the Minister is arguing he cannot move beyond the 30 October deadline? That is the first point I will make and it is one on which I would love to receive an answer when the Minister is responding to this debate.
The second issue is that the Minister sent us a note by his advisor or staff earlier in which he says:
Finally, with regard to the unfortunate urgency of this legislation, the Commission is due to submit its final report and stand dissolved in law by 30th October. At present, that timeframe can only be amended where the Minister receives a request for an extension from the Commission which is grounded in an interim report. This request then has to be considered and approved by Government. To date, no request for an extension has been received. As such, if this legislation is not enacted by 30th October, then we will have failed to preserve the unique database developed by the Commission and provide for its use in line with data protection and other existing law.
Forgive my blinding ignorance and I seek the assistance of the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister on this but I would have thought, having served in government, that there are lines of communication between the commission and the Government such that, if the Minister's argument is that he has not received the request and therefore has to adhere to the law, there is some mechanism that could be found to allow for us to give further consideration to this and some formal or informal line of communication can be established such that the Minister stands up in the House and says he would like more time to deliberate and that he would like an extension beyond 30 October. How can we develop a mechanism or a protocol to be able to do that? I am sure something could be found to do that and to facilitate both Houses of the Oireachtas to be able to give more time to the passage of this legislation. Will the Minister please respond to that question because it is not just about me? More important, it is about the people outside of these walls who are looking to us, who have written to us, who are traumatised and hurt, who want to ensure that whatever happens in here happens in a way that is sensitive to their needs. Right now, the way they feel is that they are being traumatised again and we need to address that as a legislature. If some mechanism can be found to find an extension then it should be found. I think it can be found and that can be done easily.
The third point I will make is in respected of the Minister's speech where he says:
I intend to request the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration to lead on this re-examination in a format that would allow for survivors and their representatives, expert legal opinion and other leading academics to explore thoroughly the major principles underlying the debate on access to personal information in the commission's archive and to make a set of recommendations aiming to resolve the very real difficulties which the passage of this legislation has highlighted.
I am a member of that committee and my interpretation of that statement is that the Minister is asking me, as a member of that committee, to do the work the Minister should be doing as a Minister regarding the process of pre-legislative scrutiny and giving more time to deliberation of these issues such as the balance of rights between seeking information and of personal privacy and the issue of agency. These issues should all be sorted before we come to the House to legislate, not after the fact, because Deputy Funchion, who made an astounding contribution to this debate earlier on, is chair of that committee and there is now an expectation being foisted on the committee that we would deal with and deliberate on these and come up with a set of recommendations. Given the history of that committee under a previous mandate and not under the chairmanship of Deputy Funchion we have made umpteen recommendations through umpteen reports, as have many Oireachtas committees, which are gathering dust on shelves. It insults my intelligence for the Minister to bring that before me as a Member of this Oireachtas when there is a mechanism and that is pre-legislative scrutiny, which was waived in this instance, and proper consideration in committee of all of these issues so that we can legislate properly, there is no request afterwards and we do not legislate in haste such that we are correcting errors after the fact. It has permutations for how we do our business but it is an insult to the people who have been traumatized. It is insulting to them to bring legislation in this way. This should be non-partisan and it should dealt with in a way that ensures it progresses and every Member of this House agrees on it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage debate on the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020. I will deal with the other matter that is dealt with in section 6, which is not connected specifically with the mother and baby home records but it is in this legislation.
At the outset, I welcome the inclusion of section 6 of the Bill that makes amendments to the Judicial Council Act 2019 in respect of amending the timeframe for completion and adoption of personal injury guidelines which are so important. This is an insurance issue in section 6 of this legislation. As the Minister of State in the Department of Finance with responsibility for financial services, credit unions and insurance, I have a particular interest in this section as it has been of particular relevance to the Government's work on insurance reform, which is a key policy priority for the Government and which is reflected in the programme for Government.
In terms of addressing premiums in the small businesses, leisure and community sector, a necessary step is to bring the level of personal injury damages awarded in this country more in line with those awarded in comparable jurisdictions. In this regard, the Personal Injuries Commission conducted a benchmarking of awards between Ireland and other jurisdictions for the first time. This research showed that the award levels for certain injuries in Ireland were substantially higher than in England, Wales and other jurisdictions. This situation may be unsustainable and the establishment of a judicial council last December is very important in addressing this issue. It is hoped the personal injuries guidelines the council is to adopt could play a role in lowering the award levels and lead to a more consistent application of making awards in the courts.
As things currently stand, pursuant to section 18(4) of the Judicial Council Act 2019, the personal injuries guidelines committee has no more than six months from the date of it establishment, 28 April 2020, to prepare and submit to the board for its review the first draft of the personal injuries guidelines, which meant not later than 28 October 2020. However, the chair of this committee has requested a short extension to complete the work on this first draft of the guidelines rather than presenting them in an incomplete state by the current deadline. Given the wider circumstances over the past few months in relation to Covid-19, we were satisfied to accede to this request.
The overall effect of the changes proposed in section 6 addresses the concern expressed by the committee.
To provide more details on this, the proposed amendments to section 18 of the Judicial Council Act 2019 substitutes into section 18(4) the phrase "not later than 9 December 2020" in place of the current phrase "not later than 6 months" which, in effect, was 28 October. This amendment has the effect that the personal injuries guidelines committee must submit draft guidelines by 9 December 2020 to the board of the Judicial Council. I believe this extension is important in order to allow the committee to produce draft guidelines in as complete a manner as possible.
I turn to the proposed amendment of section 7. As matters stand, the Judicial Council is to adopt the draft personal injuries guidelines prepared and submitted by the committee to the board with the modifications, if any, made by the board as soon a practicable and, in any event, not later than 12 months after such submission and to publish the person injuries guidelines as soon as practicable following such adoption. This would have meant that the outer bound for the adoption of the new personal injury guidelines drawn up by the Judicial Council, the new regulations, would have been as late as October 2021. The amendments to section 7 of the Judicial Council Act 2019 will have the effect that the Judicial Council will have to adopt the first personal injury guidelines not later than 31 July 2021 and publish them as soon as is practicable thereafter. It should be noted, however, that where the personal injuries guidelines committee prepares guidelines in future years, the council will have up to 12 months to adopt them but they will, ideally, be adopted as quickly as possible after receipt of submission.
I am of the view that accelerating the adoption of the personal injuries guidelines from a potential date of 28 October, which is imminent, to 31 July shows that the Government is serious about implementing reform in the insurance area as quickly as possible. I reiterate my view that it is key that we reduce some personal injury award levels in this country and that there is consistency in award levels. This would provide stability which would allow for an increase in both insurance availability and affordability.
I acknowledge the role of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman, for facilitating the inclusion of this particular section in this legislation. It is before the House this week due to the urgency of the timeline in dealing with this insurance matter.
I have three and a half minutes to try to explain to the Minister how people have suffered for the past 70-odd years. These survivors have lived hell on earth and I ask the Minister not to condemn them to hell in their death by not doing the right thing. "[My son] was wrenched from my breast by one of the nuns while I was feeding him and taken away for adoption." I know the woman who said that. She is a friend and hero of mine. She was forced to face a wall and they tore that child from her chest. It took 45 years, because of obstruction by Tusla and others, for her to track down her son. Her son does not even have rights today. That is what it is about. It is about doing the right thing in this Chamber.
They say that a bad law is an unjust law. This law is a disgrace, as bad as any holocaust. We must be the laughing stock of the world that we have a Government that wants to bury stuff. Once we had the retention of records for 75 years, now we want them buried for 30 years. As another Deputy said, we are not technically burying this information for 30 years but we are doing a bit of this, and putting that over there. The people outside this Chamber are hurting and we are giving them no clarity as regards when they will get closure. This was an absolutely disgusting, horrible and despicable thing to do to a human being. Someone who treated an animal in that way would be punished hard today.
I met a man called Frank in Bessborough about three or four years ago. He is deceased now. He spoke to a crowd of survivors there. He thought he was the only fellow sent from Ireland for adoption in Canada. He brought back his little pants and jacket. He did not get closure and he is dead now. Another victim said:
My childhood, there was years of intermittent abuse, but severe in many cases. We were deprived of food if we disobeyed the rules. We were beaten, we were abused sexually, emotionally, physically. I bear some physical scars but for many years I bore the mental and emotional scars of my time. It was there that I learned how to begin to resist.
I have noticed that all of the Government's spokespersons for tonight are male. What is wrong with the women coming in here and listening to the stories? I feel it is tough and I am not a mother, although I am a parent. I have spoken to people who have gone through this. I appeal to the Government to do the right thing. This can be changed and the Government must be able to do something. There must be something within the provisions of this Chamber to change things and let it not go down in history that we have failed in 2020, dealing with matters stretching back as far as 1920, because we have not done the right thing.
I say to the Minister again that this is supposed to be in the public interest. These survivors wanted their stories told so that what happened to them will never happen to somebody else. That is what we are debating here and are supposed to get right. Do not condemn the people who lived in hell in this country to live in hell when they die. Many have, and we should be ashamed to have let them down.
I ask the Minister to withdraw whatever we have to, sit down and let us do it right. Everybody should have a choice and that is what it is about. It is about people having choices. We have silenced many people and families for the past 70 or 80 years and it is shameful, disgusting and decrepit, the most vile thing that can be done to a human being. This was supported by the State and the church. The Minister knows as well as I do that somebody made a profit out of it. I am aware of that from information available to me and the Minister is privy to a lot of what has happened with this investigation.
I do not want to silence the Deputy now, but his time is up.
I appeal to the Minister and all Government bodies to change their minds, do the right thing and not to condemn these people to hell.
We move to the Social Democrats. Deputy Whitmore is sharing time with Deputy Gannon.
And Deputy Cairns.
The Minister started by saying that our most fundamental duty today is to acknowledge the profound failures and mistreatment of Irish women and their children who were cruelly deprived of choice and agency, and, in many cases, coerced into unnecessary institutional settings. I absolutely agree. We and the Government need to acknowledge that. We need to acknowledge the bravery and dignity of those women and their children. We also need to make sure we do not repeat those mistakes, that we do not use today, tomorrow and this legislation to silence those women and children again and sweep their stories and history under the carpet. We need to listen to their voices and make sure that as we make our decisions today, we hear those voices when we are doing so. It is important that we do not disenfranchise those people again and use this legislation to do that.
I understand the rationale for this legislation. The Minister does not want the records to be destroyed and because of that, there has been a bit of a rush with the legislation. What he is essentially saying by doing that, and what the Taoiseach was saying yesterday, is that we will get this legislation through and come back later to the other issue. The Minister is asking those women to trust him. They are being asked to put their trust in the Government and in a State and institutions that have repeatedly failed them and let them down. I really think it is a bridge too far, to be honest. The State needs to build up trust and the onus is on it to do that. It is not, and should never be, on the survivors - the women and children. It should not be their responsibility to build that trust with us. The Government needs to build that trust with them.
When we are talking about building trust, it is about listening to voices. I have a major concern about this legislation in that there was no consultation in respect of it. I will talk about consultation with Deputies and about the democratic process later, but there has been no consultation with the survivors. The collaborative forum, established by the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, was to be the new approach in the State's response under the theme "Nothing about us without us". It was to involve the victims in an open and consistent engagement on these matters. That forum was not consulted in the drafting of this legislation, nor were other groups.
This is a complex and emotive issue.
There are so many voices, but those voices need to be heard. This Bill has not done that. If that consultation had happened, we would not be in this position today where so many Deputies will find it impossible to vote in favour of the Bill as it currently stands.
The Minister mentioned in his speech and in the media that the Bill does not seal the mother and baby homes archive for 30 years. With all due respect, that is a cop-out. This legislation triggers the 2004 Act. The Bill could be used for good and to not allow that information to be sealed.
Deputies from across the House have tabled amendments, and many of them are very feasible and valuable. It is really important that the Minister scrutinise them. This Bill could be used to amend the 2004 Act and re-emphasise the legal superiority of the Act giving effect to the GDPR. In doing so, that would ensure that the sealing of documentation does not happen. They are relatively simple amendments that have been put forward to enable and ensure that the sealing of this documentation does not happen and women's histories are not sealed and hidden again for a long time.
I listened to the debate in the Seanad and the debate today and there were so many emotive and upsetting stories. As a mother, I do not understand how someone would get through something like that. Those women did. We cannot forget those stories. The database is spoken of as being a valuable resource. We use very technical terminology to describe all of this. We cannot lose sight of what it will mean for those women and families. We need to acknowledge that.
I am a relatively new Deputy. I have received over 3,500 emails to my office about the Bill. They did not come only from those directly involved in the issue. People from all over the country heard the story and wanted to express how frustrated and worried they were for the survivors and how they felt it was wrong to seal the documentation.
The Government has misread the mood of the nation on this. Perhaps something like this would have gone through ten years ago and we would not have had such an outcry. I do not think the Irish public will allow this to happen. They will not want to see the women further impacted and silenced. It is important that the Minister looks at this with an open heart.
Very good amendments have been put forward by many Deputies across the Chamber. I ask that the Minister consider how he can improve the Bill to make sure the database is not sealed. I understand that in the amendments that have been put forward the dissolution of the commission will be what triggers the transfer or sealing of the information, and that dissolution will not happen until February. Can the Minister confirm that? Does that provide some breathing space to put forward something else in a month or two to make sure the information is not sealed? It is very important that we do not allow this documentation to be sealed, that we listen to the voices of the women and do what is right in this regard.
I am very conscious of how we give other people's histories back to them. With that in mind, I want to acknowledge that there are people listening to this debate who will be impacted by many of the stories and discussions we are having. I want to acknowledge them and try to do justice to the testimony that we will bring forth today.
I want to begin by commenting on one aspect of the Minister's speech. He talked about the Ireland of today being very different to the Ireland of 1920. That is a gross misunderstanding of how pervasive the legacy of institutional abuse and incarceration has been in this country. I promise the Minister that the Ireland of 1920 continued until 1996 when the last Magdalen laundry on Sean MacDermott Street closed. There are people today, young and old, who are still being impacted by discussions we have. The Ireland of 1920 continued long after.
I am always conscious of a human rights lawyer in the United States, Bryan Stevenson, when I think about restorative justice and how we own our own memory. I will paraphrase him badly. He said when one becomes conscious of the injustices contained within one's own nation's past, one starts to see them replicated elsewhere. Bryan Stevenson was talking about the legacy of slavery and how it continued with the incarceration of African-American men in the United States. However, we can apply that concept to the injustices of our nation's past and how we can see them replicated throughout our history should we choose to open our eyes and look.
The injustices of the Irish nation are ones we often ascribed to our struggle against the British empire and our fight for freedom. Far more injustices occurred within these islands long after that freedom was delivered. We never really discussed what that independence meant for the average person on the street who lived in Ireland throughout that period and what became of him or her. The injustices that were inflicted upon our own population are something we have never really opened our eyes to.
The Bill we are discussing deals with 4,000 pages that give life to many of those injustices. It is lamentable in the extreme that the Minister – I do not want to personalise this – is going to wilfully seal those documents from public perusal, discussion and understanding. Contained within them would be a fundamental understanding of who we are as a people and what we have inflicted upon ourselves throughout the course of the State's short history. That is really important and I want to acknowledge that.
Contained in the 4,000 documents we are discussing and struggling over access to is a social, ecclesiastical and feminist history of this country. If we are to have a strong, thorough and real interpretation of who we are as a people, those documents will be essential to that understanding.
There was a contradiction in the Minister's statement, in the sense that he said he is not sealing the records and people will have access to them, but in fact they will be sealed from any sort of discourse and discussion and will not be available for people to explore their full detail. That is really important.
The Minister said he did not know what was in the documents. Is there information on, for example, forced adoptions, the physical abuse perpetrated in these institutions and the medical experimentation that was discovered? This is all absolutely essential information and it will be locked away. We will not have access to it. Is there information on the collusion of the State with church organisations in continuing this practice over decades of our history? That knowledge is what we will lose when the documents are sealed.
The opportunity to understand ourselves will be lost if the Bill passes. Of equal importance is what those 4,000 documents would say about who we are today as a people. Does the Minister not feel that if we are fully aware of the injustices of the past, we would be more conscious of the manner in which we replicate them today? Some of the practices, which I know the Minister would stand against, would be deemed unconscionable.
Does the Minister not see that there is a continuum in terms of the mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries, asylums and industrial schools that leads right up to direct provision centres? There is a continuum that leads up to the fact that the most vulnerable group in our society, even today, are lone parents who are statistically at risk of poverty and the structural violence that goes with that.
If we fully appreciate the horrors of our institutional past, measures such as family hubs where women and children are incarcerated to the profit of other companies would be unconscionable. If we fully understand that past, which is what we are fighting over here, these practices would become grotesque in our mind and unconscionable and perhaps we would not continue them. That is what we are struggling for.
I lament the manner in which the Bill has been dragged to this House at this point. It has been very unfortunate. We received more than 4,000 emails from citizens all over this country which crashed the servers of the Oireachtas last week. I tried my best to get through as many as I could but it was simply impossible. The ones I did get through talked about their personal stories and about how they, their mothers and family members were impacted. Under the cover of a pandemic we are not allowed the opportunity for civil discourse and discussion. I imagine that if we were not in the midst of a pandemic, many of those voices and faces would be outside Leinster House and we would have to look them in the eye and the passing of this Bill would become a lot harder. Rather, it was rammed through the Seanad and we had no opportunity for pre-legislative discussion, it will face a guillotine tonight and under the cloak of a pandemic, it will pass. This is really unfortunate.
I expected to find this Minister a reforming one but the sheer absence of engagement with civic society on this Bill suggests that this may not be the case. There was no substantial engagement with survivors. Human rights lawyers and civic society representatives were offering to meet the Minister and to discuss their genuine concerns about this Bill. These are people who do not come from the oppositional politics sphere, which exists across this Chamber. They have dedicated their lives to standing up for the truth and revealing a broader understanding of who we are and the injustices that were inflicted on people in our country. These people have not been dealt with.
The data protection expert, Simon McGarr, produced a very interesting piece of information in that he felt that this legislation would not be permissible in accordance with EU law and that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and GDPR practices would supersede the 2004 Act, which we seem to be clinging to in this Chamber, and that we will end up in the courts next year. An administrative error and a moral wrong would be upheld in the European court. There was no engagement there.
Who was the Minister talking to? Is it just the same officials who were just telling him what to do? I expected better than that.
The Minister asked for trust in bringing forward new legislation. Speaking to him as a representative of the State, the State has no legitimacy to ask the survivor community for trust. We have failed them at every turn. He should not ask this community to trust us now. We have no grounds for that.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. It is so important during this debate to remember the gravity of it. We are talking about the worst human rights violations imaginable: missing children, enforced disappearance, illegal adoptions, incarceration and so much more horrific systematic institutional abuse. It is so important to remember that this commission was formed in light of the discovery of the remains of 800 babies and young children found in Tuam in unmarked graves and a disused septic tank. This is one of ten Irish institutions run by religious orders, to which approximately 35,000 unmarried pregnant women were sent.
What happened and what was allowed to happen was disgraceful. It is hard to imagine something even more disgraceful than that, but here it is. Instead of talking about what immediate action we can take to provide justice to those affected, we are talking about letting these documents be sealed for 30 years, denying survivors access to their own information.
This is contrary to the wishes of survivors, researchers and human rights lawyers and to recommendations of previous reports on institutional abuse, torture, rape, and forced adoptions. This legislation is also simply incompatible with EU law concerning access to personal information.
Can anyone even imagine any other scenario whereby crucial information about crimes of this magnitude, when no one has been held to account, would be sealed for 30 years? Justice delayed is justice denied. Many affected have already passed away without justice. If those records are locked away for 30 years, many survivors will be denied any opportunity to seek the resolution they deserve.
The State continues to treat this as a scandal to be contained rather than an opportunity to do what is right and to provide dignity and healing for survivors and their families. If what the Minister said is true, and he has no intention of keeping these files sealed then why on earth does he not just legislate for that now? The bare minimum the State can do after all of its failings in respect of institutional abuse is to at least consider what impact legislation such this may have on survivors. The sealing of archives by previous Governments, the gagging order and the hostile treatment of survivors by the State authorities on the whole have compounded the trauma for so many and now it is happening again.
That people deserve more is an understatement. They deserve access to their own information, compensation, justice in every imaginable way. Not only do they deserve it, it is their right. At the very least they deserve respect. To ignore survivors' pleas, regardless of anything else, to amend this legislation and to unnecessarily push it through these Houses without pre-legislative scrutiny disrespects them and is quite frankly disgusting.
I believe Deputy O'Gorman became a Minister to try to do good, I believe he knows that this Bill goes against that intention and I believe him that it is complicated and technical, but he is morally obliged to do everything possible to listen to the survivors. We will all support him in this. We do not want this to be a partisan issue. I ask him to please make the necessary changes and accept the well-researched and survivor-centred amendments to make this a law we can all get behind.
At this point, if the legislation is pushed through in its current form, the only question worth asking is: whose interests is he protecting? It is not those of survivors.
We have a history of staying silent and silencing people on these issues. When we do that, we hurt the thousands of people who have suffered. We live alongside these people every day.
I plead with the Minister to prevent further injustice for people seeking basic dignity and access to their stories. There is no closure without justice and there can be no justice if the State continues to protect everyone’s interests except those of the survivors.
This is a very important Bill. I agree with all of the sentiments expressed in the context of those who have suffered most. To them we owe the most truth and that is the core of what I believe, as does everybody in this House. This is not just about one political party but all of us together, as Irish people and as Oireachtas Members. We all want to vindicate the rights of the people who suffered so greatly and abominably in the mother and baby homes together with the terrible and appalling vista that was visited on those children.
We can all be emotional and I am as emotional as anybody else in the Chamber. I am a parent and a grandparent and I know from my understanding what happened to some of those families, as other people here do. We all want the whole and all the truth. We want, most of all, the report of this commission to be published and to be available. We want in particular for the survivors to be satisfied and fully consulted in what is going to happen following the Second Stage debate. A darkness was at the heart of a great deal of what happened in our country after we achieved our freedom in 1922. There was a heart of darkness there and no soul or light. It was bleak, dark and appalling.
When the Oireachtas passed the legislation to allow this commission to commence operation, it dealt fully and comprehensively with all the issues raised by Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, and that we all raised here. Nobody is hiding from anybody here. I do not believe, in fairness to the Minister, that he is hiding either. The commission was asked to establish the circumstances and arrangements relating to the entry of single women, what happened to their children, to examine mortality among mothers and children, to investigate post mortem practices, to examine arrangements for the entry of children into these institutions, what happened to children who did not remain in the care of their parents, together with the extent of their welfare considerations, and so on. It goes to the heart of the role played by religious orders, civil society, the State, families, and partners’ families in respect of single women and their children, and so on.
Nothing will be hidden in this report. What is most important is that it is published. Putting all the politics aside, the Minister is saying that unless legislation is passed to allow this to happen the commission is legally obliged to redact all and every bit of the data it has, in other words, we will never get to the bottom of this issue. It is not beyond the capacity of this House for the Minister, the Taoiseach and the leaders of all the parties to get together and find a way forward that will allow the report to be published, the data to be protected and to examine the issues that seem to avoid us. I do not believe they divide us at all.
The Leader of Sinn Féin said that she supports privacy as an issue but she does not support secrecy. I absolutely agree with her but when we established the commission we said that it had the power to establish a confidential committee which could provide in its procedures for individuals to have their identity remain confidential during the conduct of the commission and its subsequent reporting. The commitment given legally by us as Members of the Oireachtas at that time was that the privacy of the individual would be respected. That is what we said must happen and that is what I believe is happening. Is that not the kernel of the issue? There should be no secrecy about that fact. Subsection (7) of the statutory instrument establishing the commission states:
In order to assist public understanding the Commission should provide in its reports an outline of the archival and other sources of most relevance to these issues and the nature and extent of the records therein, together with the challenges and opportunities in exploiting these sources for the purpose of further historical research or examination.
It is clear that the intent of the Oireachtas was that this issue would be addressed by the commission and in its report it is asked to report on those issues and how we might deal with them.
I do not believe there is any real issue dividing us. If it requires the Minister meeting all the leaders of the parties, with the Taoiseach and so on, he needs to do that. We need to get this right. The legislation establishing the commission is very clear. If the difference that divides us is about the privacy of the individual who was given a commitment that his or her name will not be used, that does not prevent publication. There is no secrecy about publishing it with the name redacted. That is not unfair or unreasonable.
Nobody in this House has a monopoly on caring. Nobody in this House, in opposition or in government, has the right to stand in the way of the survivors and their right to full transparency about what happened to them but it is in the context of the legislation established. It is not fair to say of the Minister, as some speakers said, that they do not trust him-----
On a point of information-----
I did not interrupt the Deputy.
I did not say that I did not trust the Minister. I said this State has no legitimacy in that regard. The Ceann Comhairle should tell the Deputy to withdraw the comment.
The point is that we have to look at this in a comprehensive way. The Deputy should put aside his political points and look to the goodness and the honour of this society which , at the end of the day, will expose all the wrongdoing, evil and the heart of darkness in the church and other institutions which destroyed those people, body and soul. We want the truth to come out and I suggest to the Minister that that is what we need to do.
The Attorney General has to give legal advice and so on but we can all solve this issue. If the Minister has been advised that 30 October is the deadline, which is irrevocable in terms of the data if the commission does not request an extension, the House has to recognise that. We have to find a way that will satisfy all Members of the House that we can resolve the issue after that date. I believe that is at the heart of this. I will not vote for something that involves hiding records for 30 years, as we have been challenged on here. We are not trying to hide something. We do not want to hide the truth. We want the report published. I want it published. Deputy Gannon wants it published. Let us come to the truth, and the truth will out. The Minister would have my support for that initiative and it must not fail because it is far too important for the families involved.
Ireland has changed but it has not changed enough. The lawyers and others will give us the best advice they can but in our hearts and our souls Members on all sides of the House want the report to be published and the data protected and saved now. If that is the Minister’s advice I am prepared to accept that and vote for it. I will talk to the Minister further about that but he needs to make sure that all other parties in this House will buy into a form of words or amendments that meet everybody’s needs.
The most important people are the survivors. If it is the case that they have not been consulted the Minister must consult with their representative bodies, organisations and associations immediately. Above all, they are entitled to closure. They may never get full closure because their lives have been destroyed but we must stand on their side. We must err on their side, if that is a legal argument. We must give them what they need but we must do it all together.
What is wrong with this State that it wants to put away now the records of the women it put away before? What is wrong with this State that it will add public insult to the personal injury it inflicted on thousands of girls, women and their babies? Its pursuit of decency, morality and respectability resulted in the persecution of the poor, the innocent and their children. What is wrong with this State that to this day, in 2020, it is still suspicious of poor women? It will scrutinise them for a few quid while it gives the bankers who broke us free rein. The Minister said that things have changed. I disagree because while we are debating almost a century of abuse, Aoife Grace Moore is writing about single mothers being intruded upon and pursued by inspectors from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
I will tell the House what is wrong with this State. It is a century of two conservative parties which between them toiled with the plight and the fate of Ireland's women. When the Irish revolution was done and independence was won for the Twenty-six Counties, the counter-revolutionaries of those two conservative parties shunted the women and the girls, the gun runners and the soldiers of Cumann na mBan back to their proper duties in the bedroom and in the kitchen, making the babies and making the dinner. I am talking about poor women especially, the miracle workers who managed to get themselves pregnant all on their own. For decades, these miraculous women were put away. Their children, taken, stolen and trafficked, were buried in septic tanks to ensure that, in the context of power and influence, the governing parties could call themselves the God-fearing Government of respectable mother Ireland; the irony of that.
That is why there was a tsunami of public calls and emails to Deputies and Seanadóirí on this Bill. Given the evidence of a century of women being put into laundries, industrial schools, asylums and mother and baby homes, today's women and feminists do not trust Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to do what is right now and was then, and the Minister should not trust them either. The tsunami brought about amendments from the Green Party Minister but the campaigners are not satisfied with his amendments. First, Tusla should never be given hold of these records. Second, we cannot have a report in November that reflects testimony given up to February. Third, these records must not be sealed because we must be able to examine what happened to these women and their children - our women, our children, each one a missing person, accused by propriety, convicted by the State for their crime of poverty, the worse crime of expressing their sexuality in a way that was beyond the control of church and State or their cheek of being victims of rape, sexual abuse or incest.
This State did it wrong but Sinn Féin and the Opposition, in their policies and amendments, are determined to right that wrong. The story of these missing women and their missing children tells itself in terms of the rubbish choices this State makes. It is our social dysfunction and the sadness that is just beneath the surface. It is a story that needs public examination and not the sealing of records.
I beg the Minister to accept our amendments. I beg the Members, including the women of the governing parties, not to support this Bill. We have had enough darkness from this State and it is time to give the affected people light.
I am sharing time with Deputy Mick Barry.
I congratulate Deputy Cronin on her very insightful summation of the history of the counterrevolution this State conducted nearly 100 years ago, mainly against women but ultimately against women and children.
The commission on mother and baby homes was tasked five years ago with delivering an academic social history report. It interviewed over 500 people who lived or worked in the homes from 1922 to 1998. Over 70,000 women went to these homes. I do not wish to personalise anything but I just want to give a flavour of the extent of this issue. In the party I belong to, People Before Profit, we get a flavour of what went on from our own elected representatives. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett was born in a mother and baby home. Deirdre Wadding, a former councillor of ours in Wexford, had a child in Bessborough in 1981. She states they were not the darkest days but that the darkest moments she remembers were when she had to go into the laundry room, where she felt the shadow of the generations of the women who went before her. Mr. Gino O'Boyle, a councillor for People Before Profit in Sligo, lost his father at the age of 56. His father, Seamie, had been a councillor and had no access to his medical history. He was raised in Nazareth House, which is in the Sligo region. Since he had no access to his medical history, he was not aware that he had a congenital heart disease that would end his life early. Therefore, Mr. O'Boyle believes that, in a roundabout way, the deprivation of access to the records took his father away from him. Although the representatives I have mentioned are happy for their names to go on record, I am really mentioning them as a way of showing this is not a niche subject; it hits and touches to the heart tens of thousands of people. Not alone is the existing generation affected but the generations that follow will also be affected. It is not just the people who gave birth or grew up in a mother and baby home who are affected because their children and the children who come after them will be also. Therefore, this matter is extremely important. I realise that the Minister understands that and is on the right side of this but I want to explore what I cannot understand about what is going on.
My first point is that we keep hearing that if we do not pass this Bill tomorrow night when we vote, the archive assembled by the commission will be destroyed. This idea seems to have entered the Minister's head, and it is deeply embedded in the Taoiseach's head given what he said quite emphatically here yesterday. Is it the case that, as in "Mission Impossible", the archive will self-destruct after midnight on 30 October? How is that going to happen? If we accept it is a fact that the archive will somehow be destroyed after 30 October if we do not pass this Bill and the commission is dissolved, what should we be doing here tonight? What should be the first priority of this House and the Minister? I suggest it would be not to accept it as a fact that the archive must be destroyed. The first thing the Minister should do is introduce an emergency measure, an amendment to the relevant Act, that will ensure the commission's archive will endure and will not be destroyed. It gets ever more curious because, try as we might, we could find no reference in the 2004 Act that confirms that destruction must happen. It states what should happen with the records deposited with the Minister and what is and is not covered by data protection, freedom of information or national archives. Nowhere did we see a reference to the idea that, on the date of the ending of the commission, this State will have a group of civil servants surround a brasier to burn or shred the archive. Could the Minister please tell me where in law it states it must be destroyed at midnight on 30 October? If he can point that out to me, we should set about amending the relevant Act immediately.
We are rushing through legislation, as has been done time and again. We rushed through legislation on financial provisions quite recently. The legislation was 300 pages long. Even one of the Ministers speaking on it said he did not fully understand it. We rushed through the bank bailout legislation overnight and we have rushed through legislation on deadlines in law and regulations in a matter of hours without really knowing the implications but we must not do the same thing now. We do not seem to be able to prevent the imposition of a law that seems to be somewhere on the Statute Book that requires the archive to be destroyed. If the Minister can prevent that, he would be doing hundreds of thousands of people and their families, from the past, present and future, a great favour. This is one of the most shameful episodes in our history and the State has to stop the archive from being destroyed.
I believe the Minister is genuine in his statements but I am astonished he believes the narrative. If he is being told by the top echelon of civil servants that the archive must be destroyed if it is not sealed once it becomes his property, he should explain to this House and, more important, the public how that can happen. One would have to have lived on another planet not to understand why the survivors and their families are affected so badly by this and are so angry and outraged over the way in which this has proceeded. Even if we accept that the Minister is genuine in his concern, we are dealing with people who have seen a different side of this State than he has. It is the side of the State that has washed its hands of the responsibility for the safety of children. The individuals affected have seen a state collude in the abuse, rape and torture of the most vulnerable women and their children, and they have seen a state watch over the malnutrition of children. They have seen a state collude in the selling of babies and the absolution of past crimes of religious orders and church authorities for which they should have faced justice. I refer, in particular, to the Woods deal made by Fianna Fáil — the disgraceful redress deal struck with the Catholic Church. Is the Minister surprised by how the affected people and their families react to the news that the archive and documents of history will be sealed for 30 years or face destruction?
There is another question I want answered. I appreciated the Minister's briefing yesterday and that he is tabling some amendments that will go some way towards meeting the concerns of people who did not sign up to privacy, as in the case of former councillor, Deirdre Wadding. Ms Wadding said quite deliberately that she wanted her name on her story, as did many more like her who sat in a hotel with the former Minister, Katherine Zappone, to determine a sort of framework by which the commission would investigate matters. They wanted their names in the public arena but they were handed some silly leaflet — I hand out leaflets all the time, which the Minister will know is what agitators like me do — that has attached to it a great amount of legal importance that I believe it should not have. The Minister needs to answer the question in this regard.
The questions of privacy or secrecy seem to morph into each other. I asked the Minister yesterday what exactly will be sealed. He stated that personal stories, the evidence and a large number of records collected by the commission, many of which he said are already accessible, would be sealed. I then asked him whether they are all accessible and he said he does not know. If he does not, who the hell else will? If he is prepared to seal the records for 30 years without knowing exactly what is in them, it is outrageous. He must not do that. If he is not going to be able to do it, he should please table an amendment to whatever Act states civil servants can stand around a brasier and burn the files at midnight on 30 October. We cannot tolerate it and the Minister has to do something about it.
Let me respond to Deputy O'Dowd, who stated we are all in this together and that we could all sit down and bang our heads together. That is what we do as legislators and that is why we read legislation, come up with amendments, have arguments and try to stop Bills such as this one being rushed, as I and other Deputies did during the week. We are genuinely trying to stop the Minister from rushing this through but the whole apparatus around him seems to be determined to do so. The Taoiseach was adamant today that these records will be destroyed if we do not seal them for 30 years. I remind Deputy O'Dowd that the party he belongs to and the Fianna Fáil Party have overseen the legacy of this State. In the past 100 years, they have dominated the running of this State so they cannot just wash their hands of this matter and say we are all in this together and that we should come up with a universal solution. The universal solution is not to do what is proposed; it is to listen to the survivors.
The Minister is introducing emergency measures to prevent the archive being sealed or destroyed. I do not understand that notion. The Minister needs to come up with an amendment that would be acceptable to us and the survivors. Many of the survivors have died since the report was published. We welcomed the publication of that report. The Minister needs to come up with a means of defending those people by allowing the public to have access to all of the documentation. The Minister himself does not know what documentation will be sealed. That is an outrageous element of this that I cannot accept.
There is something seriously wrong in this. The women who went through the abuse of the mother and baby homes experienced many horrors. The one thing they all had in common was that there were other people telling them what was best for them, what was supposedly in their best interests and making decisions for them. These people might have been the parents who drove or brought the young woman to the mother and baby home and decided that was where she should live for the next number of years, the garda who collected the young woman on the roadside, put her into a car and drove her back to the home from where she was trying to flee or the nuns. The Light in the Window, by June Goulding, who was the midwife at the Bessborough mother and baby home in the 1950s, tells the story of the nun who would march up and down the corridor outside the room where women were giving birth and gleefully deny them painkillers as a punishment for their sins which resulted in them getting pregnant. The nuns, the garda or the parents made the decisions for these women.
In the year 2020, Ireland is now a modern state, a republic. Despite this, thousands of women and people have written to us in the past week or ten days beseeching, begging and appealing to us not to do what the Government wants to do. The Government and the Minister, who has just left the Chamber, say they know best and they will make the decision despite what people want. This might be more modern and sophisticated than what the parents, the garda and the nuns did, but is the attitude in any way fundamentally different? "We know best" says the Government.
There is a saying that is used by groups of people who are oppressed in society when they want to make the point that decisions should be made by them about their lives and not by other people about their lives. That saying is, "Nothing about is without us". People should have a right not just to a say but to decide what is in their best interests. This is being completely pushed aside in this process. The Government and the Minister say they know best. A hard-nosed civil servant would blush at what is going on here. I shake my head at the thought of this being steered through the Dáil by a Green Party Minister. Is this where the Green Party is at these days?
I would like to make a point about Tusla. It is clear from the emails that came into my office, and I thank each and every person who sent me an email, that people do not want Tusla in control of the files. People suggest alternatives. The Adoption Authority of Ireland was mentioned in many of the emails as an alternative. The Minister knows this. He knows, too, that the mother and baby home collaboration forum, the chairperson of which was appointed by the former Minister, Katherine Zappone and comprised 20 members, including advocates, raised specific criticisms of Tusla in regard to this issue and said in its report that there was a practice in Tusla of withholding identity and personal information from applicants detained as children across various institutions. The Government and the Minister know best and they are giving this responsibility to Tusla despite what people want. It is disgraceful.
The sealing of records for 30 years means people will not have access to them for 30 years. Many people, because of their age, will never have access to them. Is this another form of abuse? I believe it is and it should not happen. Points were raised about anonymity and confidentiality. Nobody is minimising the importance of these issues, least of all the campaigners, the advocates and the survivors. They are very aware of these issues and the sensitivities around the information but they rightly point out that many people who gave evidence are not just willing, they are happy to have their names included, as evidenced in the examples given earlier by Deputy Bríd Smith. They want the story to be told and known and for their names to be part of that story. The anonymity, confidentiality and wishes of other people can be protected and respected by way of redactions. This does not require files to be sealed, let alone for a period of 30 years such that people whose lives have been affected so much may never get a chance to see them. This decision should not be rushed. The debate should be extended. Additional time for discussion can be provided by way of emergency legislation. The Government will have the support and co-operation of every party and none in respect of any emergency legislation to provide for an extension to enable this matter receive the time it deserves, thus respecting the wishes of the survivors. The Government needs to learn how to listen on this issue. It is not about what it wants or how it feels. Rather, it is about what is in the interests of the survivors, society and the greater good. I reiterate the phrase I mentioned earlier, "Nothing about us without us". It is a good way of approaching issues like this. These people who were born in the mother and baby homes have been treated badly by society. They should not, and must not, be treated badly again because of a bad decision, a wrong decision, on this issue.
On 19 February 2013, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave a State apology and the Visitors Gallery was full that night of survivors of the Magdalen laundries. It was one of the stand-out nights of my time in this House to meet those women, to see their courage and their strengthen and to hear of their journeys and how they survived them. Those people are still on that journey. I am deeply uneasy at the haste in which this legislation is being brought through given all of the horrible things that were done and the many blockages they faced on that journey. This legislation will proceed through both Houses in less than seven days.
I welcome the Minister's opening statement this evening.
I know he is genuine about trying to address the issues raised. We had a good meeting with him yesterday but there are still questions relating to several issues.
We are being told about the 30 October deadline. Deputy Bríd Smith raised the matter just now. Where is that deadline provided for? Who set it? I too have searched to find out where it is laid out in legislation. Was it imposed by the commission? Initially, we were told that the lifetime of the commission was to finish on 30 October, yet we have an amendment that will extend the lifetime of the commission to do work on access to the database.
I know people want to see the commission's report and the steps that will be taken. They want to see their stories told. However, for the sake of a couple of weeks, the various competing claims around this legislation need to be analysed and fully gone through properly on Committee Stage, not in the convention centre with all its space. In a committee room we get a chance to go through legislation line by line and hear the views of different people. In any event, I recognise the genuineness of the Minister in trying to deal with the issues.
We speak of sealing records for 30 years. The Minister must clarify what exactly he means by sealing and what exactly will be sealed. He referred to information being shared with multiple Departments and organisations. In many ways, that is part of the problem. It is the kernel of the problem. Information was being shared and split and this was used as a block to getting information. People had to go to A, B, C, D and E to get personal information, which added to the time involved and the distress and agony.
I understand the balance that has to be reached. I understand the major complications relating to personal information and permission around personal information. The archive and database contain institutional information, including information on methods and financing relating to the various institutions. If we are proposing to lock away all of that, we will lock away the opportunity to hold these institutions, methods and financing to account. It is wrong to lose that opportunity. It cannot be allowed. None of us wants to do that. Who will account for the institutional stories within the archive if it is to be locked away? I know the Minister will seek to clarify that this evening.
The Minister has given assurances. The briefing we had with him yesterday was useful and I thank his staff. From his speech today, it is clear he is genuine in his assurances. However, these women have been given a lifetime of assurances along many steps of the way. They were told things would be done differently. There was acknowledgement of the pain. They are not listening any more because they have been let down so often. I know this Minister will not do that. I know he will try not to, but the system seems, either deliberately or by accident, to conspire to consistently let them down. We are rushing through this legislation. I know it is not meant personally but inadvertently it tramples on the sensitivity of what we are discussing. It is simply another episode in a catalogue of mistreatment and abuse that the Oireachtas will not give enough scrutiny to every legislative measure around this issue. We need to consider where these people have come from.
The issues raised by the commission around Tusla, the way the agency does its work and engages with survivors and people looking for information need to be dealt with. These people need to be assured that if Tusla is managing and handling this information, it will do so showing the utmost respect and dignity for those whose information they are handling. The commission has flagged this as an issue that needs to be addressed.
This is extraordinarily complex. It is unfortunate that people are trying to score party political points out of it. That is not helpful. Every Deputy and Senator wishes to get this right. If we had more time, we could make a better job of getting it right. Given the Minister's commitment this evening and his sincerity, I am prepared to support him but he cannot become the latest Minister and institution to let these women, these heroes, down. He cannot do that to them or to the Oireachtas.
I am conscious that the Chamber and the Houses of the Oireachtas have approached this legislation and this type of question numerous times in the past. Those most vulnerable and in need of support have often fared poorly.
The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters was never meant to be an end in and of itself. Maybe there are those who hoped it would be. Maybe there are those who wished it never happened. There is no doubt that the commission in its terms of reference was far from complete or comprehensive. For example, in my county of Meath, the Good Shepherd Sisters Ard Mhuire home in Dunboyne was included in the work of the commission but the St. Joseph's and St. Clare's institution in Stamullen was not, despite the fact that we know it was a mother and baby home in every practical meaning of that term. Unmarried mothers were separated from their babies there. Babies died there. Some babies underwent vaccine trials there. Advocates estimate there were over 180 such institutions. Many survivors were excluded from the process.
In the conduct of its business the commission has refused survivors the opportunity to a public hearing. Then it made the case that there was little demand for such public hearings. In this way and in other ways the commission was not what it could be and not what it should have been. Despite that, it has done important work. It has compiled, collated, generated and gathered information. The sum total of its work will be made up of each component part and that is what it will leave. A report of 4,000 pages, or however many pages, based on the commission's distinct perspective and analysis, will not suffice and could never suffice.
In the first instance, the archive and records must be available to survivors. This is their wish and it must be respected. The records must stay intact and must not be sealed. They must not go to Tusla. The Minister has the power to make that happen. He can amend the 2004 legislation if needed, although I am unsure whether that is needed. He can retrospectively prescribe if needed - he is already doing that. The Minister should take this opportunity to put right these wrongs and show survivors that Ireland has changed. We stand ready to support him if that is what he wants to do.
Several of my colleagues have used this opportunity to read the words of survivors into the record of the Dáil. With my last few seconds I will do the same. One survivor who spoke to the Clann project on the subject of coercion and forced adoptions said: "In early February 1968, when my baby boy was six-seven weeks old, he was wrenched from my breast by one of the nuns whilst I was breastfeeding him and taken away for adoption." She made clear that "at no time did I give my consent to my son's adoption." Another said she was not given any other options. A survivor I spoke to said she did nothing wrong and her baby did nothing wrong. They did nothing wrong but they were failed and now is the time to change that.
I had hoped to move a reasoned amendment at this stage to delay the Second Reading of the Bill for 30 days because I believe it is being rushed. It is being rushed because we are being asked to consider legislation without all the relevant information being disclosed to us.
Let us remember that the commission of inquiry was established by the Houses of the Oireachtas and not by the Minister or the Government. The reports should have been published and made available to this House before we considered this legislation. The sixth interim report, which Deputy Connolly will speak about later, specifically raises the issues before us today in terms of the transfer of records to the Minister.
However, we are being asked to consider this legislation without having access to information that was intended to be presented to us. The Minister's predecessor, former Deputy Zappone, said on 16 February last that she intended to publish that interim report as soon as practicable. We are being asked to consider this legislation without that relevant information being provided to us. That is wrong.
I had drafted a considered amendment providing that the legislation be delayed for one month and that the final report of the commission of investigation would not be published until 30 November. I received the support of Deputies Connolly, Berry, Canney, Fitzpatrick, Grealish, Lowry, Verona Murphy, Shanahan, Pringle and Joan Collins on the point that the report would be made available to us before we would consider Committee Stage of the Bill. The reason it is imperative to do that is that the Minister will not answer me as to what records are being held under article 1(V) of the terms of reference of the commission, concerning vaccine trials.
This is an issue I have consistently raised in the House for the past 20 years and I have yet to get clear answers on it. It was referred to the Laffoy commission but because of a legal challenge, the commission did not consider it. In an act of nothing short of criminal negligence, the records collated by the Laffoy commission were handed back to the original sources in 2012. When this legislation establishing the commission of investigation was before us in 2015, I asked if those records could and would be acquired again. The then Minister, former Deputy James Reilly, assured me that could and would happen. Since that date, however, I have received no information, as a Member of this House, as to what records were collated. Now we are being told that even if those records are retrieved from the various orders again, we will not be able to see them for the next 30 years.
The reality is the children in these institutions were used as lab rats. They were the guinea pigs for vaccine trials. It is unbelievable to think that the normal, standard vaccine at the time, the three-in-one whooping cough vaccine, was given to the general population but the trial vaccine was given to the children in the institutions because those involved did not have to worry about the issue of consent. The State provided consent for that because some of these trials were published in scientific papers. There is no way these trials were ethical when all of the guinea pigs were children in the institutions. While some of the trials were supposed to take place for a two-year period starting in 1973 and consent was given by the National Drugs Advisory Board at the time, that particular trial went on into 1976. From digging around, we know there were trials in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Some go back to the 1930s but none of us knows when they finished.
The children involved, who are adults today, have a right to know what concoctions they received and why they were involved in trials. Some of them were involved not in one, two or three trials but in four separate trials. No records are available because they were handed back to the religious orders back in 2012 and we have not heard anything since. Now we are being told that even when those records come back, they will locked in a safe for the next 30 years. Sixty or 70 years after these babies were used as guinea pigs, with some having potentially suffered adverse medical conditions as a result of being used in those trials, there is not much point in these people getting access to those records. Their children and grandchildren can find out why their grandparent had a particular chronic illness because he or she was used as a guinea pig. The State colluded in that. The religious orders were involved in it as well, as was Wellcome. It is a scandal that those particular records were handed back by the State. I argued at the time that they should not be handed back but, sadly, my argument fell on deaf ears.
I have no doubt about the Minister's sincerity or that of Deputy Calleary. I know the Minister wants to do the right thing. These records will not be available for 30 years. The Minister knows that and I know it. The Minister also knows there is a culture of non-disclosure because if there were not such a culture, those records would not have been handed back in 2012 and measures the Minister is now taking would have been taken at that stage. I ask the Government not to rush this legislation but to give us the chance to consider it properly.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this emotive issue. We have been listening all evening to Deputies' contributions. This is an emotional debate. It should be non-political and an issue on which we should all work together. I come from just outside Tuam and I went to school in the town. I know many of the people who live near the Tuam mother and baby home. We have a lot of media attention on Tuam but it is not about Tuam; it is about what happened in a particular institution. Many people who lived in that home suffered greatly. This debate tonight and tomorrow is the time for us to start to do something to put things right.
For these people, it has been a long road and a tough and arduous life. Examples of that have been given here all evening. People were treated terribly by the State. They are the survivors and we have to do right by them. The commission of investigation was set up to carry out an investigation and present a report to this House. The purpose of the Bill is to respond to a number of serious legal and practical issues raised by the commission in relation to finalising its records.
In the five years since I have been in the Dáil, I have never had so many people contact me about an issue. They are exercised about various aspects of this legislation. Three glaring issues come up all the time. The first is the speed of the process by which this Bill is being pushed through these Houses without legal scrutiny. We must bear in mind that the commission has said there are serious legal issues with the records and how they are to be stored. This serious concern has left us without any legal scrutiny to enable Oireachtas Members to make decisions based on what we know to be right or wrong, allowing us to act accordingly. The lack of legal scrutiny is a glaring and serious omission in the legislation.
The second issue that has been brought to my attention is the fact that Tusla is being entrusted with these records. A large number of people have told me that to give the guardianship of these records to Tusla would be wrong. Most of the adoptees, birth parents and survivors do not have confidence in Tusla.
They do not believe Tusla will give them access to their records when they need it, based on their past experiences. This is a serious issue, and if we are to restore faith among the adoptees, birth parents and survivors, we need to listen to them. There is an alternative to this measure, which is to lodge the database with the Adoption Authority of Ireland. This is the preferred way of many of these survivors.
The third issue which has been raised this evening is the sealing of the documents for 30 years. This is perceived, rightly or wrongly, that this is a way of burying all this information for 30 years. It has not been fully explained to the survivors, the adoptees or the people who were affected by all this.
This legislation is very important. It is so important that I believe the first mistake we are making is to push it through in the next two days. We need to take stock of what we are doing, for the right reasons, in order that, first, we achieve political consensus and, second, we do the right thing such that nobody in a year's time says we should have thought of this or thought of that. This is too serious. The question is this: what can we do about it? My colleague, Deputy Denis Naughten, has suggested, and tabled an amendment to this effect, that we should put a stay on this for one month to allow the legal scrutiny to be carried out and allow us, as Oireachtas Members right across the House, a chance to go through all this and explain it to the people who matter.
I know the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, having worked with her in our constituency. I understand that the Minister and the Minister of State want to do the right thing. Everybody does. It is so obvious, however, that many people do not know whether we are doing the right thing because we are doing it too quickly. This is not legislation to fill a gap or emergency legislation relating to Covid-19, whereby there could be anomalies or consequences. This is legislation that would have a profound effect, if it is not got right, on many people who have had such a miserable existence since perhaps the day they were born. We have to think about what this legislation is about, who it will affect and how we might get it right.
I repeat that we need time. We need to make sure we use the next month to do things right. This is above politics and there are no winners here, but we still need to do it right. I therefore urge the Minister and the Minister of State to consider everything that has been said in the House. It is genuine. We need to reach consensus rather than pushing this through, forcing it through, which would be wrong.
Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt ar an ábhar seo. One of the major problems with the Dáil and with Leinster House is that often political parties come to a decision as to how they will vote and proceed on these really important issues before we even have the discussion or the debate. I ask the Minister to make of this an opportunity for the Dáil debate and the information brought to the Chamber to have an impact on the position the Government takes.
Not since the water charges have I seen such a level of outrage from the public over what is happening in Leinster House. The level of correspondence my office has received over recent weeks has been massive. Some Deputies have indicated 5,000 as the number of emails that have come through to their offices, and I believe the Oireachtas server was nearly stuffed with the number of emails. The sentiment in all these emails was the same: do not bury the mother and baby home records. It is as simple as that.
I wish to talk briefly about the process of the debate we are having. The initial deadline for tabling of amendments was to coincide with the debate on the Bill in the Seanad, but then the deadline was extended until Monday. On Tuesday we learned that the Government amendment had come in, after the deadline for amendments, which is incredibly strange.
My office has spoken to a coalition of mother and baby home survivors this afternoon. They are phenomenally upset with the lack of consultation on this debate. Some of them have described the debate in the Seanad, especially the Minister's contribution and engagement, as like watching mice run around a roundabout. One survivor said she could not watch it and had to leave the room. All of them said they were phenomenally disappointed by the Green Party. It is shocking to think that the Bill is being railroaded through here in the absence of consultation with the survivors.
I have tabled a number of amendments to this shocking and strange Bill, and I was happy to work with Deputies Connolly and Canney on this important issue. The proposal to lock up records with Tusla for 30 years is particularly cruel. It is a sad reality that in 30 years' time most of the former residents of the mother and baby homes will be dead. That is the truth of the matter. An interesting view has been put to me - a number of Deputies have echoed it - by so many of the former residents that it is particularly difficult to work with Tusla. For that reason my amendments will propose alternatives to Tusla, specifically the storing of records with the Department or the Adoption Authority of Ireland. What the Government needs to understand is that, in general, people in this position do not have a good relationship with Tusla. Former residents of mother and baby homes and people trying to locate their birth mother or biological relatives have said this over and over again. The majority of people who were born in a mother and baby home are getting on in years. They have said to me that Tusla does not realise the urgency of their locating their families. The Minister can imagine that for someone who is 60 years old and trying to find information on his or her mother, every single hurdle that Tusla puts in that person's path, whether a piece of red tape or a delay in information, makes the chance of reunion with the mother slimmer and slimmer. Given how difficult many in Tusla have been on this front, it is totally inappropriate for the agency to take charge of these records. Nobody should have to resort to a freedom of information request to find out his or her own personal records.
Survivors of institutional abuse have been contacting me and Aontú representatives across the country with their concerns. They have said this Bill, as originally written, has huge flaws. For example, if people just want to access their medical records - perhaps someone had smallpox as a child - my understanding is that that information, if it were unearthed by the commission, would not be given to the individuals themselves. I have also heard that if survivors have testified before the commission, under this Bill they will not even be given access to the transcripts of their own testimonies. How incredible is that?
I know we will have time to discuss this tomorrow and debate the amendments, but I have a simple question for the Minister in the last few seconds I have. The commission was originally due to issue its first report in 2018. An extension was granted until January 2019, then until February 2019, again until February 2020 and then until June 2020. Now we are told it will happen by the end of this month. Can the Minister bring some clarity to the status of the report and simply tell us definitively, when will it be published?
It is only right that I begin my statement by acknowledging the deep hurt and trauma experienced, and still being experienced, by people affected by this issue. I am sure I am not alone in the House in saying that no other issue has seen so many people contact my office, by either phone or email or indeed in person. I have had a number of conversations with survivors about their experience. The period investigated by the mother and baby homes commission is a very dark chapter in the history of this country and one on which we have just begun to shine a light. Much more needs to be done to deal with this awful legacy.
I acknowledge the briefings provided by the Department and conversations I have had with the Minister in person to help me better understand the scope and intention of the Bill.
We need to be clear about what this legislation does and does not do and the consequences of not enacting it. I hear and understand some of the legitimate concerns of the Opposition and, indeed, Deputy Calleary, regarding the speed with which this legislation is passing through the House. We must also be clear, however, on the specific time constraints that make this necessary. Put simply, and as the Minister explained it to me, the Bill allows for the preservation of a database of records that will otherwise be lost on the dissolution of the commission at the end of this month. All the work and effort of compiling these records will be put beyond future use. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The intention here is not to seal records, it is to preserve them. As I understand it, information contained in the database will still be available under current law. I believe we will all acknowledge, however, that said law needs to be revisited. That is a significance and sensitive piece of work and I am aware the Minister will not countenance work of that nature being rushed. In view of the deficiencies of current legislation, I welcome the commitments the Minister has given to engage with the Attorney General's office in order to find a way forward on the issue of personal data access in the commission's archive, which is vitally important for former residents, and to ask the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration to lead on this re-examination.
This issue is so big and runs so deep that everyone in this Chamber will agree that it needs to be given the time and space it deserves. The Oireachtas committee will allow that time and space for survivors and their representatives, legal experts and leading academics to forensically drill down into the issues. They are issues around access to personal information in the commission's archive, the rights to privacy and the real and deeply felt trauma the survivors still experience. The debate on this legislation has highlighted real difficulties and these need to be addressed. I have no doubt that the Minister will work closely with the committee towards finding a way forward for this vital work.
I will conclude as I began, by acknowledging the hurt of those people I have spoken to who are so deeply affected by this issue. These past few weeks in the run up to the debate on this legislation must have been incredibly difficult for them. I cannot begin to fathom how hard this debate has been for them. I am aware, however, that it is not the intention of the Minister or of this Bill to re-traumatise victims or deny their suffering or experience, but to preserve a vital record that would otherwise be lost. I would prefer, as I know the Minister would, to give this issue the time and space it deserves. I am confident that the Minister will make space for it. I do not believe, however, this House can allow these records to be lost to that future conversation. I understand that is the matter addressed in this Bill.
I, too, thank the Minister for the considerable amount of engagement he has had with Members regarding this Bill on this difficult subject matter. I refer, particularly, to the briefing yesterday which clearly outlined the intention behind this Bill we are discussing today and the difficulties with the existing commission legislation.
The legislation being considered today has an objective and that is absolutely not to seal away information. It is, in fact, to stop information from being put beyond reach. This information concerns those who were treated so poorly in our recent past, namely, the mothers who were deprived and denied a normal life and whose futures were denied by being placed and imprisoned and trapped in mother and baby homes. Their stories are horrific. We have heard some of those stories tonight. I have been contacted by those people and had their stories relayed to me. For any parent, mother or child or anybody with any ounce of compassion, what happened to those banished to those homes is painful to listen to and is a most shameful period in our history.
I, too, have received thousands of emails on this matter. There is no other issue in respect of which I have received more emails. I fully understand the concerns expressed by all those who contacted me. I understood them and I understand the fear that this Bill will seek to bury the secrets of the past. That is not the intention behind the Bill. This Bill will not seal those important records or hide the information or put invaluable information beyond reach. From my understanding, what we are trying to do tonight is the very opposite. We are here to protect this record. We need to give back a voice to those who were subjected to the horrors of the mother and baby homes, the lives that were destroyed and the lives of the survivors who were so badly damaged in so many ways that many of us will never be able to understand.
I understand that the commission report is a comprehensive document and comprises the survivors' personal stories which will be accessible to each person who told their story. It will inform us all on how society and religious institutions in the past acted to banish and destroy mothers and their children and how this despicable part of our history ever happened. I understand that many of the records of the commission are, in fact, copies of documents held by other agencies, such as the Department of Health, and that those originals are accessible and available through certain processes.
From my understanding tonight, the Minister has confirmed that he will ask the Oireachtas Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration to lead a re-examination of the access to this personal data in a way that will enable survivors and their representatives and legal experts and academics to thoroughly explore the issues surrounding this debate on access to personal information in the commission's archive, and to issue recommendations which can resolve the real difficulties the passage of this legislation has highlighted. I trust that the Minister is acting sincerely and in the best way possible to protect this data and this Bill will safeguard the database created by Tusla in respect of this matter.
The way this Government has attempted to rush through the Bill is nothing short of disgraceful. Survivors, their families, their legal representatives and their advocates have understandably been deeply distressed by the appalling way in which their wishes have been disregarded. It is not right for their testimonies to be sealed away for 30 years. They have been brave in speaking out and share their stories and we must ensure their stories are heard. Thanks to witness testimonies, their life stories will not be silenced anymore.
I will share some of these horrific and harrowing stories this evening. One survivor spoke about their ordeal in accessing information, saying:
It makes me angry to think that I was pushed as far as becoming an emotional wreck in order to obtain such simple information about myself. Everyone has the right to know their name; the right to know their mother's name.
Another spoke about the conditions her mother endured while giving birth, stating:
My mother was tied to the bed and when she couldn't push, one of the nuns sat on her chest to make her.
On the immoral and evil practice of forced adoption, one person stated:
My son was wrenched from my breast by one of the nuns while I was feeding him and taken away for adoption ... at no time did I give my consent to my son's adoption.
One mother spoke about the death of her child. She said:
I do not even know whether he was buried in a coffin ... there was never even a kind or sympathetic word said to me.
The psychological impact on mothers has been enormous. One person stated:
The nuns at Bessborough made my life hell and changed my life forever. I could not get over what happened to me. I think I am still in shock, still traumatised. My time in Bessborough was a horrible, horrific experience ... I think I will die with the pain and trauma that was caused during this time.
After being adopted, some of the children did not have the best childhoods. One said:
My childhood was not a happy one and I do not view adoption as a guarantee of a 'better life'. My upbringing was dysfunctional primarily involving my adoptive mother's alcoholism and sexual abuse by my brother. As I grew older, I felt a sense of loss within me that I didn't know my true origins, I felt very lonely all my life. I was nothing like my adoptive family.
These stories are horrific. They are harrowing and heartbreaking. I am even trying to keep the emotion in as I recount them. Once again, I urge the Minister to do the right thing and put a stop to this unfair and indefensible Bill. As one survivor said to me outside Leinster House earlier: "l am a Mother and today is my Mother's Day." I ask the Minister not to rip away these mothers' rights the same way their children were ripped away from them.
I appeal to the Minister. I cannot believe what is going on here. The Green Party is in government with the two big parties, which have had a hand in dealing with this matter for a long time now, and it is colluding to keep these records and have them put away out of reach for 30 years.
The records we get from the National Archives are the subject of 20- or 30-year limits. These survivors, Gold help us, have suffered long enough. Some of them have suffered for 40 or 50 years. What is the Government trying to do by adding a further 30 years? The Government has made all sorts of excuses and offered all sorts of platitudes and some of its backbenchers have said that what it is doing is right. I do not know that it is and I do not believe the Government is making a proper effort.
The Minister mentioned a briefing but the Rural Independent Group did not receive any briefing from him and I do not think we were invited to it either. I stand corrected if we were but I did not see anything like that. We would like all groups to be treated equally here. We have all met the survivors and I met them earlier. I met Rosie McKenny and her daughter Mags. Those outside need justice and I thank them and their supporters for the many thousands of emails they have sent us over the last number of weeks and for their dignified manner. One could see the raw emotion, the hardship, the pain and the trauma in their writing, in the phone calls and of those who we engaged with on the street here. This is 2020, in the middle of a so-called pandemic. Hardships have been experienced by many people but this was a hardship that went on supposedly in the murky past. We should be well able to deal with it and to do so sensitively and appropriately now.
I understand why the Minister says he is afraid that the records might be lost if we do not pass this legislation. However, any legislation that is rushed is bad legislation. We all know that and goodness knows we have rushed enough of it here in the past six or seven months and will be rushing more of it tomorrow and on Friday. That legislation is draconian and some of it will actually create a tyranny but the Government has a majority and that is its wont. It is an awful situation for the people of our country to be in. However, we have had experience of this matter. There have been investigations and reports upon reports. I listened with great interest to Deputy Canney and others and look forward to hearing from Deputy Connolly. They are closer to the situation because of where they live, as is Deputy Denis Naughten in County Roscommon. They have a greater understanding of what went on in Tuam.
This is a sad situation and a sad way to go about dealing with it. The Minister is saying that the purpose of this legislation is to project the records but we believe that by passing it, he is putting the records way beyond arm's length, 30 bliain anuas, for 30 more years. The families, children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of survivors and victims will not be able to get their records. These people are entitled to those records. That is the very least they should be entitled to and all of the wrongdoing must be put right. I plead with the Minister but I suppose it will fall on deaf ears.
As a previous speaker indicated, unfortunately, despite all these debates that are very sensitive in nature, or should be in any case, the Government makes up its mind on the basis of advice from the Attorney General, a Cabinet sub-committee or Departments of Health, Children and Youth Affairs or Justice. It makes up its mind and whips everyone into line. That is no way to deal with a sensitive issue like this. Where are the new politics? Where is the new Government? Where is the change? Why must things be adversarial and confrontational in a situation like this when the people out there deserve honesty and for us to put our best foot forward in dealing with their issues sensitively and respectfully and with a sense of decent haste, not the indecent haste we are seeing here. The Government is rushing this Bill through the House and it rushed it through the Seanad last week. I received many complaints about the debate in the Seanad as well. I appeal to the Minister on the basis of the fact the people are entitled to better.
As far as Tusla is concerned, given its record, I am 100% opposed to its involvement. I have little faith in Tusla. There are some good people in Tusla but I have had so many complaints about it, it is unbelievable. I could fill a book with them. What is the agency after all but a big section of the HSE that was hived off into a new body called Tusla, with no proper training, scrutinising or set up and worst than that, no proper accountability. I am dealing with some awful, harrowing cases that are ongoing. Members of the Garda will state that Tusla staff will ring on a Friday evening because they are going off for the weekend and they are getting gardaí to intervene to take families away. These are very sensitive and delicate issues and I am not going to be judgmental about them but I do not have the faith in Tusla to let them have these records. I do not have any faith in Tusla and I appeal to the Minster not to bury the records in the way he is going to. History will not be kind to him if he does.
The Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home operated between 1925 and 1961. It was located in Tuam, County Galway. I say to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and Deputy Canney that this is no reflection on the people of the county. I am very lucky to have my only living aunt, Ms Peggy McEnerney, living in Kinvarra, County Galway. She would not have me say a bad word about the county. The mother and baby homes were used for single mothers who were stigmatised because they were unmarried. The treatment of these women was horrendous. It was claimed that there may have been up to 800 babies interred in Tuam following the closure of the home. Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that the babies of single mothers had been treated like some kind of subspecies. In view of this, is history going to repeat itself? Will this Government prevent the survivors from viewing their files?
I understand that last week in the Dáil the Minister spoke of the necessity of getting this legislation through. He said it is necessary "to preserve information, including a critically invaluable database for future use to the maximum extent possible" under the law. I take it that what the Minster is saying is correct and that the files will be treated sensitively in order to give the survivors some dignity on the long journey of healing ahead. However, earlier today I spoke to one of the survivors who has been trying to track his mother down for 40 years. He claims he was given false information by Tusla, resulting in upsetting a family in the UK and upsetting his own family. The only way he could locate his family was by doing DNA testing, which resulted in him locating a sister he never knew he had for most of his life and who lived only ten miles away.
I consider myself to be a very lucky person. I had a father, who was born in the early 1900s, and a mother. I have brothers and sisters; 11 of us in total. I have aunts and uncles. I am now a husband and father myself. I have four sons and one grandchild. I appeal to the Minister for these victims. If I thought for one minute that I could not find out anything about my family I could not bear it. I cannot bear to see what these people have gone through, what these mothers have gone through and what their children have gone through. That lady outside the front gate today said that she was here for the people who came out of the homes, for the children who survived the homes and for those who never got out of those homes.
I appeal to the Minister not to lock things away for 30 years. These people need to find the information relating to their families while they themselves still live. Let us not have any more families go through pain or go through all the bureaucratic bull people would have to get through in order to try to get information on their past or their families. The Minister should do the right thing by ensuring that these files are not locked away and that the families can have full access to them at any time they wish.
The failure to record the deaths and burials of so-called illegitimate and abandoned children who died in various institutions during the last century is appalling. Now the Minister wants to bury any actual records that are there for the next 30 years so as not to acknowledge at all the lives of these babies.
The reason archives are important is because they are evidence of events in the past that give us some certainty about what happened, if used intelligently and carefully, in the era of fake news and the supremacy of opinion over fact. Archives are a bulwark against mischievous or uninformed attempts to rewrite history. We need to value, cherish and understand them. Do not suppress the mother and baby home records. Surely we, as a nation, have wronged those who were in these homes enough already. Now is the time for us as a nation to accept that those citizens who were in these homes were dreadfully wronged, and we as a nation owe it to these people to make any relevant records available to them.
Under the Bill, some of the records gathered by the commission, a database and related records of women and children detained in 11 mother and baby homes, will be given to Tusla. The rest of the archive will go to the Minister for sealing. How is it acceptable to release some but not all of the records? These women and babies have the right to their history to be at least acknowledged and the right to access their records. The Minister does not have the right to lock up these records for the next 30 years. The secrecy has gone on for too long. It is enough. Do not let these mothers and babies down again. It is time we as a country did the right thing. It is time the Government decided to think twice before rushing this through. Enough is enough and it is time to side with the survivors.
We should always listen to somebody who has been around politics for longer than we have been, and for many years I have heard Deputy Mattie McGrath say, and correctly so, that rushed legislation and anything that has ever been rushed through the House is not good. We have to give time and consideration. Members have to be deeply involved. This is why I have grave concerns on behalf of the victims.
I am so sorry when I look up at the Public Gallery this evening. I know there are people at home who have been hurt, victimised, terrorised and demonised for doing nothing wrong. They should be here tonight. They should be able to listen. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic they cannot be here in person. I know they are listening and that their agony, anguish and what they have gone through is here with us in this Chamber. It is very important that each one of us realises the onus of responsibility on us as we speak as their voices.
In my humble opinion, one of the most natural, good and great things that could ever happen any human being, and it is all part of the plan, is procreation and the giving of life. In other words, girls becoming pregnant. It is the most natural thing in the world and it should be a happy and joyous occasion for any person to bring another human being into the world. Unfortunately, because of a time in our society when people were looked down upon and treated as if they were evil, criminal or had done something wrong, the beautiful child brought into the world was cast aside, instead of being able to be loved and cared for by the mother and having a proper family structure. They were treated brutally. This is a history of which we all have to be terribly ashamed. It is something of which we should be so horrified that we should never forget it. This is why we have to be mindful of what is being done and what the Government is proposing to do.
I have great reservations and concerns with regard to the locking away of records. I believe in transparency, people having information and people having the right to information. I have been saddened over many years, on listening to people who have come to me to tell me their stories and the horrors that happened to women. Women were locked in mental institutions and were institutionalised for all their lives because they had done one thing, which was to get pregnant. That did not conform with the society we had at the time - the House will excuse me for saying the God-damned society - that looked down upon a human being just because that human being got pregnant. My goodness, what was wrong in society at the time? We cannot turn back the clock but as legislators this is important and each one of us has such a responsibility, because we are now their voices and will try to do right by them in honour of both the mothers and the children. Those children had every bit as much a right to be respected, minded, nurtured and cared for as people born into what we would call, and I question it, a normal situation. I do not say it was normal but it was perceived as normal. It was horrendous.
Many years ago, I wanted to see a certain place that we will call at mental institution and I took it upon myself to do so. It had been shut from many years but I wanted to see it and I got access to it. I was allowed in to see the rooms into which young mothers were put. They were cells. There was a small window and the door was locked. These people were kept inside in those cells and classified as though there was something horrendously wrong with them or that they were a threat to society. They were institutionalised for the rest of their lives, quite simply because they had got pregnant. When I think back on it, it bothers me and upsets me to think that every person only has so long in this world and in many cases, not only were a number of years taken from these women but all of their lives. Their children were ripped away from them and perhaps not treated properly afterwards. Perhaps in some cases they got into good homes and perhaps in more cases they did not. Perhaps they were mistreated or abused. We have heard all of the individual horror stories.
No one in the Chamber has a monopoly of right in this regard. I do not, the Minister does not and neither does anyone else. As I have said many times since I started speaking, we are their voices and we have to be careful about the way we represent them and that we do it properly and in a forceful way whereby the Government makes the right decisions. I have listened very attentively to every speech made during the debate, and all I can say about every speaker, no matter what political background they have, is that they spoke from their hearts, in that they had the genuine interest of the important people, namely, the mothers and the children, at heart.
There is one other aspect of all of this of which we also have to be very careful. I heard this evening, and correctly so, people speaking about horrible things and they mentioned nuns. They spoke about horrible things that were done by certain nuns in certain places at a certain time. I am acutely aware of all of the good that was done by nuns and all the good that was done by priests in our community and our country. The one thing of which we must be mindful and careful is that we do not ever wrong anybody and that we do not every tarnish anybody. There are people who have devoted their lives to God. There are nuns and priests whose only ambition in life was the betterment of other people and they went about that. They dedicated their lives to being good people. Of course there were bad people and there were bad priests and bad nuns but there is badness among all of us. Are there not bad politicians? Are there not bad workers in every walk of life? Thankfully, not everybody is bad and we should never tarnish everybody or any group of people with the one brush. I want to make sure this does not get lost in the debate.
We have been served very well by people of various religious faiths over the years, whether in education, working in our communities or working abroad in the foreign missions. I do not mind telling this story because I have never denied it. I was elected by the people who put me here but the reason I was able to be elected was because of a nun. I could not read or write. I could not read my own name. I was not able to function in that department. The person who put me right and got me going was a nun, Sr. Regina. That lady is alive today and I owe the fact I was able to go out in the world and make a living and be here to represent people to a nun and I do not deny it. I cannot ever disrespect this and I cannot ever not admit it. I have to say it is important to me. I cannot let the situation go by in which, perhaps, nuns would be disrespected or branded with a brush that they were all horrible or bad people.
Today, we are deciding whether people who went through horrors we cannot imagine will be allowed to access information about how their lives were changed forever. That is not right and should never have been necessary because what happened in this country's mother and baby homes should never have happened. It did happen, however, and was allowed to under the eye of successive Governments. It is a stain on this country's conscience and can never be undone. We can never change what went on in these institutions - we cannot change the course of history - but we can change how it is preserved. We can ensure that the records of the past are accessible, not hidden, and that those who were subject to unspeakable injustices can access an account of their history.
I have had the privilege of speaking to survivors of Sean Ross Abbey and working with them in Roscrea, County Tipperary, such as Teresa Collins and others, and I salute each one of them. I also want to recognise those who did not survive. Figures given to Tusla by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 2011 alleged that 269 babies had died in the home. That figure is nowhere near the real number; the State register shows that 1,024 babies died there. This is the value of archived material. It was also revealed that three quarters of the babies and children up to the age of seven who died in Roscrea over a 36-year period died at Sean Ross Abbey. Some 455 children are recorded as having died of heart failure and 128 from malnutrition. The resting place of the others is unknown and more ground scans are needed in that area.
Sean Ross Abbey was a place where children were taken from their mothers, in some cases before the mothers could even hold them. Other mothers were given no choice but to sign away their newborn babies. It was a base for baby trafficking and, as I have described it, human trafficking. Lives were forever changed and, in some cases, destroyed. We cannot cover that up. The Clann Project contains accounts of how forced adoption has impacted so many lives since. One person said that as they grew older, they felt a sense of loss within them in that they did not know their true origins. The person said they felt very lonely and that all their life, they were nothing like their adopted family.
None of this happened in isolation. Light needs to be shone on the role of the State itself. How were the adoption documents allowed to be falsified? Who allowed that and signed off on it? Where did the money that changed hands go? According to former residents I have spoken to, it did not go into Sean Ross Abbey. This all points to how vital it is to enable access to this valuable archive.
I turn to the issue of transferring the records to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. A survivor told the Clann Project that the agency had been obstructive in the past, refusing access to a large volume of information. The person stated that without a birth certificate, they were able to find their mother on their own but that this could have been achieved much more quickly with more efficient assistance. If the records are sealed, we will be depriving people of the truth about themselves. What is the Minister's view on whether the statements of the religious orders will be kept in the same archive or whether they will be separate?
The Bill is flawed. The Minister proposes to extend the commission's work to find out whether witnesses want their records to be kept private. If he can do this, why can he not extend the discussion to allow a robust debate in the House? He is still intent on transferring the records to Tusla, despite the opposition of survivors and campaigners. Sinn Féin's amendments seek to ensure that the database and records will be retained by the Minister. The general data protection regulation, GDPR, does not prevent this. The amendments will also provide that an appropriate and anonymised index of the records be brought to the Oireachtas within four weeks of the commission's report having been presented to the Minister.
I have been told that if the records are put out of reach, the survivors will speak out and tell their stories. I appeal to the Government not to allow the records to be sealed and transferred to Tusla, nor the victims of these institutions to be silenced or abused any longer.
I am sharing time with Deputy Pringle.
I wish I could say I welcome the opportunity to speak to this debate but "welcome" does not come to my mind. I feel nauseated at the language being turned on its head, the same language of "It is for your own good" that was used to put people into these homes and so on. I listened carefully to the language used during the debate and have tried desperately not to be personal, although I do have a personal connection with a home, which I will not go into, and I have acted professionally. I have been part of the operation of the redress scheme that made it an offence for me to disclose, as a former barrister, or for the person to disclose what he or she received under the scheme.
I have read all the reports. I have read the McAleese report and the Ryan report almost in their entirety, which is very difficult. Twenty-one years after the then Taoiseach apologised, it is time for us to grow up and to stop talking about the "vulnerable" women. They were not vulnerable; they were strong, vivacious women who were made vulnerable by the system and demonised by the system. One of the reports I read, which I will return to, is an interdepartmental report that was the basis for the formation of the commission. It referred to the women "hiding away". They did not hide away; they were hidden away by a society that would not deal with sexuality, abuse, rape and many other issues. Let me preface my remarks with that and by saying I will do my best not to be emotional, not because it is wrong to be emotional but because I have the privilege of having a voice, while those I speak for do not. Those who died at the Tuam mother and baby home, some of whom I was related to, did not have that privilege. I have that privilege and will do my best to live up to it.
I have examined the Bill with the help of the staff in my office and pay tribute to them, as I do to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. Having looked at the Bill, I wondered what is its purpose of. When I read it, along with a copy of the Minister's contribution, which I am sure he did not write, and the briefing, they are a perfect example of obfuscation and of a system closing in on itself to protect the system, not the people it is there to serve, and certainly not the survivors. While "survivor" is not a word with which I am comfortable, I will use it because some people are comfortable with it.
The Minister talked about urgency. This is a new version of Grimms' Fairy Tales. On 30 October, the records will suddenly go into a rotten pumpkin or something. Is that correct? I do not know. They are going to turn into something the Minister has not explained. Deputy Bríd Smith referred to this. At no point has the Minister explained to me the urgency of this.
As the Minister will be aware, the commission was established prior to my time as a Deputy, in 2015. Deputies have asked where the date 30 October has come from. It has come from the seventh interim report, a very brief report. It was the Minister's duty, and that of the officials in the Department, to explain all this to us in order that we could grasp and understand it, and see whether we could assist him or table proper amendments. Before I go into the detail, I note it is absolutely appalling that pre-legislative scrutiny has been waived. To say the Business Committee took that decision is nothing short of misleading the House. The Government did that, with its majority on the committee. This is one particular item of legislation where we have been given a golden opportunity to learn from our mistakes and from the fact that the documents from the Ryan investigation were locked away. The McAleese investigation documents were given back, as noted by Deputy Naughten.
The Minister stated people have mixed up two issues, and they have; I will concede that and will return to why. Deputy O'Gorman, however, has led that in his role as Minister. He has led the misinformation and the confusion. Nobody was able to say where the date came from and I did not hear it explained in the Minister's contribution. The seventh interim report was the seventh time the commission of investigation asked for an adjournment or a revised timetable, and it was given until 30 October. The commission requested it and the Government once again gave it. I have been particularly hard on the commission in respect of the delays, but having read all the documents, I apologise. It has had to cope with so much documentation, delay and obfuscation on the part of various bodies that were not giving it material. I apologise to it, therefore, on that account.
As for the sixth report, the Minister has utterly failed to tell us where it is.
Why is that important? It is because that is the one that appears - I say "appears" because I do not know - to deal with the issues we are faced with here with no information. The press release for the sixth interim report from the Minister's predecessor states:
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, has today (14 February 2020) [How ironic is that date of 14 February?] confirmed that she has received a Sixth Interim Report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. Although it is a short report it nonetheless raises complex issues related to the completion of the Commission’s programme of work.
Most significantly, because the Commission is required to transfer its records to the Minister and deal with third party legal costs prior to submitting its final report, the Commission has requested an extension of time[.]
The extension of time requested was given until 26 June. Will the Minister tell me why that report has not been published? Why have we not seen that report on complex issues, most significantly, the transfer of records? Is that not the most minimal piece of information that should be before us if the Minister wants to work cross-party and if we are truly here for the good of the people who survived mother and baby homes?
The other five reports are also interesting because they show the lack of bona fides of all Governments since this was commissioned. The first report was fairly basic and sought an extension of time. The reasons are interesting and have a direct bearing on what we are talking about now. A large volume of new information was coming to light. This was in July 2015. The commission was set up in February 2015 and, a year and a half later, a significant volume of new information was coming to light. Something that really surprises me is that the commission was taken by surprise at the unexpected interest, as if it was not aware that there was a prior redress commission for which 15,000 people came forward.
The second interim report is equally interesting. The commission explains that it needs another extension of time and raises a number of issues. It notes an agreement between an unidentified local authority and a home and it talks about vast quantities of information and the unjust exclusion of unaccompanied babies or children in mother and baby homes from the existing redress at the time. It points out to the Government that this is wrong. It does not use the word "wrong" but it says it cannot justify it. To be precise, I will read a little extract, where it states "The main issues addressed here are: the exclusion of some children's homes from the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme [and the] exclusion of some mother and baby homes from the remit of this Commission". On that specific second issue, the commission considered that it was not logical to include, for example, St. Patrick's and not include the other mother and baby homes. That is in relation to the homes that were excluded. Then it goes on to say that equally, in relation to the children that are excluded, there was no logical reason for excluding children who were unaccompanied from the redress because they were in the exact same position as the children who had attended the industrial schools.
It was brought to the Government's attention. I am not sure if the Minister has had a chance to read it and I feel sorry for him with the volume of stuff he has to read but this was provided on 16 September 2016. The Government chose to ignore that as well but it was on notice that there is a vast volume of material.
The third interim report is interesting because again the commission asked for an extension of time and it goes into the issues. The report states, "While there are detailed death records available, there are significant gaps in the information available about the burial of babies who died in a number of the institutions under investigation." The report mentions the word "gaps" more than once. Then we have this very interesting report, which I will not go into because I have not time, namely, the fifth interim report, which also sought extra time and quite justifiably so. The commission deserved and needed this extra time to do justice to the vast volumes. I will provide a number of quotes. It states, "There can be little doubt that most people will find the arrangements made for anatomical studies prior to the 1970s distasteful at a minimum." That is where bodies were sold to third level establishments. It notes "major issues about burials arise in the cases of Bessborough and Tuam". Private burial grounds were not regulated. It goes on to state "The [most] difficult question to answer is why the children were 'buried' in such an inappropriate manner." In one of those reports, the commission sought to clarify a point because it was said the children and babies were buried in a sewage tank in Tuam. It saw fit to correct that and to tell us that in 17 of the 20 chambers, extensive human remains were found and it could not be ruled out that they were used for sewage treatment at some stage. That information and a draft report was sent to the county council and the Sisters of Bon Secours. On both occasions that the country council got draft reports and a question, it chose not to answer, even though it was the owner of the mother and baby home and the Bon Secours sisters simply operated it. The response of the Sisters of Bon Secours was to commission their own expert to look at the burial chambers, not in situ, but at the report that had been done by the commission in order that they could say that proper consideration had not been given to the possibility that these sewage chambers could have been put up as crypts. Can the Minister imagine that? The commission came back and said that, having looked at them, there was no way that these were burial crypts.
That is the background. Why has the sixth report not been published? Why has the Minister come in with a Bill? He has the authority under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. Section 43 of that Act, on the dissolution of commissions, is interesting. It states:
...a commission is dissolved on the submission of its final report to the specified Minister.
(2) Before the dissolution of a commission, the chairperson or, if the commission consists of only one member, the sole member shall deposit with the specified Minister [ that is the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, presumably] all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission.
There is no mention of redaction. All evidence and all documents go to the Minister.
There are many other provisions in respect of privacy, which was copper-fastened in the terms of reference as well. As privacy is looked after in the sense of anonymity, I have no idea why that is an issue. The terms of reference specifically provide for it and so does the grounding legislation.
The final report is to be given on 30 October and the Minister says he cannot ask for that because that is an independent commission and it is up to the commission to make a request. I am not sure about that and, if that is the case, I am not sure what interaction the Minister has had with the independent commission to be able to come before us and allow an extension up to February of a commission that is dissolved on 30 October, when all the documents become pumpkins, and a commission that will stay in being at the same time. Can the Minister imagine how contradictory that sounds? It is in being and it is not in being.
I have no idea why this was necessary, except to give documents to Tusla. In the briefing, I asked the Minister what preparation Tusla has made for the reception of these documents. He said there would be a regulatory impact assessment to be carried out or some type of assessment. Can the Minister imagine it has not been carried out yet, even after all these years? Prior to that, an interdepartmental report was produced. I have read it in detail as well and it highlights the vast volumes of documentation that were extremely important in the context of having an archive.
The Minister has mentioned nothing about the protection of information under GDPR, under the 2018 legislation or under the directive under which that legislation was introduced in Ireland. The Minister cannot hide things away. Finally, the Minister is right that this legislation is not about the 30-year timeframe but he is disingenuous in saying that, because it is totally based on the 2004 Act and the National Archives (Amendment) Act, which are about the 30-year timeframe. I would like to go on but my time is up.
Deputy Joan Collins was unfortunately unable to attend tonight’s debate so I will be taking the five minutes of her time. All of us have received an astounding amount of correspondence on this legislation in recent weeks. I tell the thousands of people who contacted me, and indeed those who are watching closely for the outcome of this debate, that I hear them, I am listening and I respect the agency of every survivor and their right to access their own data, to share their story publicly, anonymously or otherwise, or indeed to not share their story again or at all. I am conscious of the retraumatisation that the media coverage and debates on the matter could have caused over the past number of weeks.
I have been working closely with my colleagues, Deputies Connolly and Joan Collins, Senators Higgins and Ruane, as well as linking with Dr. Maeve O’Rourke of Justice for Magdalenes Research and, of course, considering all correspondence received by my office also from groups such as Aitheantas - Adoptee Identity Rights in developing my amendments submitted for Committee and Report Stages. I thank Noelle Browne for speaking publicly with Tony Groves and Dr. Vicky Conway, also on the Echo Chamber Podcast, for sharing her powerful personal testimony of her perseverance in accessing information about her birth parents and life before adoption.
It is absolutely disgraceful that this legislation is being rushed through both Houses last week and this week when the Government has been on notice since 2016 from the commission of investigation. Indeed, Deputy Naughten, supported by myself and others, tried to submit a motion tonight calling for the publication of the sixth interim report of the commission, which is reported to contain matters around data protection and the general data protection regulation, GDPR. How can the Government rush through this legislation when we have not even had access to the sixth interim report? It is utterly unacceptable that the Government is saying that it cannot do anything about the sealing of records because it is provided for in the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.
The question that most people and survivors are asking is, "Who benefits from the sealing of this archive?" Many of the documents have already surpassed the 30-year rule and should now already be deposited with the National Archives, so why would they be resealed and the 30-year clock restarted? Why would the Minister and the Government deprive survivors, their families and relatives of answers? Survivors, in particular, have a right to access their personal information and relevant data. They have a right to answers about their entry and exit routes as detailed in the commission’s database, as well as information about who was involved in forced family separation, illegal adoptions and all other information about their own lives. If the Minister has not yet read the "Testimony" essay of the Éire-Ireland journal that was shared with us earlier today, I ask him to please do so. It makes for harrowing reading and contains excerpts from an international conference in November 2018.
The rushing through of this flawed legislation is not only cruel but according to data protection experts, it is also completely unnecessary. It is widely accepted, except by the Government it seems, that Articles 15 and 18 of the GDPR regarding rights of access and rights of the data subject supersede the secrecy provisions of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. Ireland is a very changed country since the 2004 legislation was passed and I do not accept the Minister's defence that undoing the provision for sealing the archive for 30 years would undermine the whole work of the commission of investigation.
Have the Minister and his officials reviewed the statement on restrictions on data subject rights in connection with the state of emergency in member states, which was adopted by the European Data Protection Board, EDPB, on 2 June 2020? This statement, of course, followed a Hungarian decree in May 2020 on derogations "from certain data protection and access to information provisions during the state of danger". This state of danger is the Covid-19 pandemic. The EDPB states, "GDPR remains applicable and allows for an efficient response to the pandemic, while at the same time protecting fundamental rights and freedoms." Point 11 in the EDPB statement states, "The mere existence of a pandemic or any other emergency situation alone is not a sufficient reason to provide for any kind of restriction on the rights of data subjects."
Why would the Minister think that Senator McDowell’s flawed 2004 legislation would take precedence over European law? It does not make any sense. Simon McGarr produced a very accessible blog entitled "Mother and Baby Home Commission records: an EU law perspective." His final sentence is, "It would be perverse legacy for the government to legislate to deprive people of data they so sorely wish to access about themselves and open Ireland up to the risk of fines on foot of enforcement by the European Commission in order to do so."
It could be said, of course, that the treatment of these young women and babies by religious orders, the State and the country is already a perverse legacy and this is the exact reason the Minister should now be doing everything in his power to do what is right. Scrap this legislation. Give ministerial direction to the commission that GDPR law supersedes any secrecy issues arising from the 2004 Act and start to make amends to all of the people who were hurt by these institutions and who continue to be hurt by this State.
For the past 20 years, this House and State have been trying to rectify the terrible damage that was done to women, children and babies who were placed in, or born in, institutions that operated on this island in the 20th century. I regret to say, notwithstanding the efforts of this House and previous Governments, we have not succeeded in rectifying the terrible damage that was done to those people.
We need to go back and look at 1999 because it was an important year in the start of the process of our attempted rectification of the damage. The late journalist Mary Raftery produced an outstanding programme in 1999 called "States of Fear". It was broadcast in April and May of that year. Shortly afterwards, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, made an historic statement. He apologised on behalf of the State to children in institutions who had been abused over the years.
Since that time we, as legislators, have tried to introduce legislation to rectify some of the damage. In 2000, we introduced and enacted the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act which resulted in the subsequent production of the Ryan report. That was followed by the enactment of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 which was not for any specific issues related to the abuse of children and women but there was a mechanism by which the State enabled inquiries to take place. Within the rubric of that legislation, we had inquiries into the dioceses of Dublin, which was published in 2009, and of Cloyne, which was published in 2011. Since then, we have started the process of having an inquiry into mother and baby homes on this island. I also recall that we discussed legislation in respect of adoption information and tracing in the previous Dáil.
All of these items of legislation have three issues that are absolutely core to their discussion and development. The first is a public issue but the second and third are private issues that are more important. The public issue that is of importance is that it is to the benefit of this State that we find out and inquire into what happened in these institutions throughout the 20th century. It is our obligation, as a country, to ensure that we do proper historical research and that the Government formulates an inquiry so that we can have an official record of what was a very dark time in our country's history. We have sought to achieve that objective.
We have not yet achieved the second objective, which is to provide a remedy to individuals who were incarcerated in these institutions, born in them, or adopted out of them. A constituent phoned me yesterday. He is a survivor of Goldenbridge and St. Joseph's, Navan Road. He understands he was illegally adopted via the Rotunda Girls Aid Society in St. Patrick's Guild. That man has been trying for 40 years to identify who his parents were and what is his identity in terms of the place from which he came. My belief is that he has an entitlement to find out about his identity.
The third group of individuals whose privacy and lives need to be recognised and respected are the unfortunate women who were placed in these institutions, gave up children in terrible circumstances and, in doing so, wanted to protect their confidentiality and anonymity. There are three groups and issues here to which careful consideration needs to be given when we appraise any legislation. I communicated my view on the matter to the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, when we were discussing the adoption legislation.
My view is that nothing trumps the right of an individual to find out about his or her own identity and background. I do not think any right of confidentiality trumps the right of an individual to find out about his or her identity and background.
In fairness to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, he recognises that. He is going to bring forward legislation that will provide some certainty to people so that they can access information about their provenance. This has gone on for too long. There has been too much legislative inactivity and uncertainty and legal ambiguity about whether these people can be given the very simple information that they seek to obtain. I urge the Minister to ensure the next crucial piece of legislation that comes out of his office is legislation that gives this vulnerable group of people the right to find out about their identity. That is a fundamental right that trumps all of the other rights we are discussing.
The Bill which has been brought before the House today has received considerable appraisal, controversy and recognition. We need to examine how the mother and baby inquiry was established and the legislation under which it was established. As I said earlier, in 2004 the Commissions of Investigation Act was enacted by both Houses of the Oireachtas. It provides that once a commission delivers its final report it is dissolved. If a commission is dissolved, it is the same as when a company has been dissolved. It cannot operate, be sued or take any steps. It is dead and nobody can act on its behalf.
I can understand why there was a concern on the part of the Minister. We also need to recognise that before the dissolution of a commission there is an obligation on the chairperson to deposit with the specified Minister all evidence received by and all documents created by or for the commission. Had the Minister not introduced this Bill, that is what would have occurred.
Section 43 does not just operate on its own. We also have to look to see what is contained in the other relevant provisions in the 2004 Act. In particular, there is a provision in section 41 which states that records of the commission, including documents lodged with the Minister under sections 43(1) and 43(2), will be within the meaning of the National Archives Act and on the expiry of 30 years after the date of the commission's dissolution they will be deemed to be available. No matter what the Minister does, he cannot get around the fact that in section 39 of the 2004 Act, as amended in 2018 by the Data Protection Act, there is a provision regarding restrictions in the 2004 Act. That section now reads:
Article 15 (Right of access) of the Data Protection Regulation is restricted, to the extent necessary and proportionate to safeguard the effective operation of commissions and the future cooperation of witnesses, in so far as it relates to personal data (within the meaning of that Regulation) provided to a commission for as long as the data is in the custody of ... the specified Minister after being deposited with him or her under section 43(2).
My reading of that section is that it provides a mechanism for people to apply to get their records, and if it does not conflict with the provisions set out that I have just read they will be successful in their application for access. I listened to the Minister's speech earlier today. He gave a commitment. He said he will bring forward this legislation to ensure people have access to information that relates to them. Those people do not need legislation from the Minister if it is the case that their personal information is retained and they have an entitlement to access it. In that case, they can seek it. Lest there be any doubt, the Minister has committed that he will bring forward extra legislation to deal with the matter.
In respect of the Bill we are discussing, it would have been more appropriate if we had more time to deal with this issue. The Minister said we are operating under a deadline because of the impending publication of the report. I do not think there is any difficulty in delaying the publication of a report. Nearly every inquiry that has ever been set up in this country has sought an extension of time in order to produce a final report. It may be unusual for a Government to play that card the other way, but we could have asked the commission to hold off on the delivery of its report until such time as the Bill received fuller consideration.
I do not see anything in the Bill we are discussing, which I have looked through with a boring eye, that states the records have to be sealed for 30 years. I can understand the concern that people have because of the 2004 legislation. That is where the problem arises. It is incumbent on the Minister, as he said previously, to ensure he brings forward legislation that, for once and for all, provides people who are adopted and were adopted from mother and baby homes with an avenue to get information and certainty about their identity. Our State owes those people that.
The problem with the experience of abuse from the perspective of those who have been abused is that when it happens - I refer specifically to the experience of the women in the mother and baby homes – it appears that there is a tolerance level for it and that it is tolerated by the institution in which it happens. Clearly, it was tolerated with a few notable, kindly exceptions. That tolerance serves to reinforce its validity and the belief that it is somehow justified, right and correct. That leaves those who have been abused with few options psychologically or emotionally in terms of trying to figure out exactly why it has happened. If it has been validated by the institution and tolerated by wider society, as it was, the victim is left with very few avenues to explore emotionally and psychologically. Among those avenues are the answers that it must be the individual, and that he or she must be bad and have done something wrong or none of these things would have happened to him or her.
When, over time, there is a glimmer of hope or some kindly person starts to shake the tree and some apples of truth begin to fall, and society evolves to a point where it becomes clear that these things are not tolerable in any right-thinking, healthy and modern society, we can imagine the courage it must take for the survivor to retell his or her story, find his or her voice and give expression to the horrors that he or she experienced. Equally, we can imagine how it feels for the survivors when, over time, the perception develops that there is an effort on the part of the State to conceal, make little of or hide away the very essence of the expression that those survivors gave to the reality of their lives and the courage it took to do that. There is the initial trauma, the retraumatisation of having to tell the story and the further trauma which revolves around the fear that somehow one's story might be about to be buried and made secret in some vault for many years to come.
The awful history of mother and baby homes laid bare the attitude of society and the institutions of the day in our State towards so-called fallen women, children, the labour needs of these institutions and many other failings. The narrative exposed the awful hypocrisy of the State and society, particularly with regard to its constitutional obligations towards children and women. It displayed a slavish deference to the needs of religious orders and other institutions on the part of the State and an attitude by the State towards its citizens that treated them as economic and social concessions to powerful third parties. The stories of these homes and the courageous, heroic and diligent people who helped to uncover their secrets are truly shocking and offensive to humanity by any standard. A dark, colourless tapestry of abuse was unfolded layer by layer.
It is a tribute to the modern State that such a tapestry has been revealed and such awful wounds and sores have been exposed. This means that any aspect of the findings or dealings of commissions associated with these homes should be dealt with in the most sensitive manner possible, and should always be mindful of the traumas and sensitivities of those who endured such obscene treatment. Equally, it means that the usual opportunities for exploiting vulnerabilities and manipulating the facts by those minded to do so, for example by stereotyping the responses by contemporary Governments, should be resisted strongly. In fairness to the survivors and those who did not survive, that is the least we can do. No one in this House has a monopoly on the search for the truth and justice for these women. There is not a Member of this House who does not want to see justice done and records handled sensitively with regard to those boys and girls who are now men and women, whose stories have been told in such a raw and awful manner and whose rights deserve to be vindicated.
I thank the Minister for his briefings on this legislation. When I encountered an IT problem early last week and had to contact officials in the IT section of the Houses of the Oireachtas, they informed me that 30,000 emails had passed through the Oireachtas mailing system by 4 p.m. that day. In my time here I have never witnessed such a torrent of emails from concerned citizens whose anxiety revolves around their belief that the stories of survivors will be sealed for 30 years. Clearly, that such an eventuality might be perceived as real has served only to retraumatise, as I mentioned earlier, some of those whose stories are contained in the archives and the works of the commission. There is an idea among survivors that having mustered the courage to reveal the depths of the hurt and injury done to them, and having reopened the gaping emotional and psychological wounds they exposed in the telling of those stories, the State of the 21st century is once again trying to bury the memory and the truth that has so caringly and painstakingly been uncovered and pieced together into a gruesome patchwork of the reality of their lives and the lives of others.
For our young people today, it must be truly shocking to learn of the treatment of women, children, boys, girls and babies by a generation within reach of us historically. That is one of the reasons such records and accounts must be treated with kid gloves and be respected and for which the State must muster all of its combined institutional empathy, if that is not an oxymoron. Our young people must wonder if it could even be true. That is another reason the records must be preserved and treated with the highest respect. The legitimate fear or perception that these records might be sealed would lead to the inevitable conclusion among survivors and their families that Ireland wants to forget this sordid, prolonged episode in its recent history.
At the front of every institution is a face and today, the Minister is the face that people are turning to for hope. As I said earlier, I thank him for his briefing. I share his sentiments that our duty today in this Dáil is to acknowledge again the profound failure and mistreatment of Irish women and their children. Ireland has spent the last two decades coming to terms with, and face to face with, its tawdry past. The Minister was right when he said that this debate would be watched very closely. I believe him when he says that this Bill does not seal the mother and baby homes' archive for 30 years, and I warmly welcome that clarification. I believe him when he says that the objective of the legislation being considered today is to stop invaluable information from being put beyond reach. In doing this, the Bill seeks to address some of the core concerns of those who were so badly let down in the recent past when they were robbed of their identity and their capacity to navigate the course of their own lives by virtue of being placed in a mother and baby home. I welcome the Minister's empathetic response to the anxieties and concerns among the public by clarifying that nothing in this Bill will seal important records or put invaluable information beyond reach. In fact, it is the very opposite that the Minister is trying to do. I also welcome the two measures that the Minister intends to undertake in working with the Office of the Attorney General and the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration on the re-examination of certain matters he referred to today.
I trust the Minister. I trust that his intentions are noble and honourable. Colleagues around this House who have immersed themselves far more deeply in this matter over a number of years have raised issues of concern. I know he will take them on board because they need to be addressed painstakingly. If I may quote Yeats to finish, or roughly paraphrase him, I remind the Minister that the survivors wish for the cloths of heaven and have laid their dreams under his feet, and advise him to tread carefully because he treads on their dreams.