Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As I was coming up the steps earlier, it struck me that I was going into the place that most people probably consider to be the most powerful place in the country to talk about the most powerless people who have been in Ireland for a long time. I was thinking of the documentary that was done many years ago about Christine Buckley and what happened at the orphanage in Goldenbridge. I was reminded of her sense of powerlessness as a child and that of the others around her at that time.

During the 2016 election campaign, I was canvassing in a housing estate, as most of us do, when I was told that a woman in a house wanted to meet me. I went in for about 20 minutes, and after the election I went back and spoke to the lady at length. She told me that her earliest memories are of crying with hunger as a child in the orphanage in Tuam, with all of the other small children crying around her. There was a green scum growing on the walls, probably from dampness and mildew, and the children used to scrape it off with their fingernails and eat it. She grew up with little children around her who were her friends and later on she would remember them and wonder where they went. They went missing and others would say they were sick. There was nothing more about them. She told me that as she got older - when she was eight, nine or ten - she watched some of the smaller children being beaten, abused and treated horribly by the staff there, some of whom were members of religious orders who betrayed what they had set out to do from the religious life side of things by doing the direct opposite.

In the conversations I had with this lady, she spoke about the children she missed. She grew up with them, but now they are gone and no one knows where they went. She told me about the children she knew of, many of whom ended up in mental institutions and had the most terrible and awful lives. She said she had engaged with every one of the tribunals and inquiries, and everything that had happened since all of this process started around the time of the revelations of what was going on at the Goldenbridge orphanage, and all of the various revelations since. She engaged and told all of her stories. She said she was not telling them for herself but for all the others she grew up with. She knew they could not talk or tell their stories because they are dead or do not have the capacity to speak out because of the terrible lives they have lived. Most of us are very fortunate to have options in life. Those people did not have options. The Ireland they grew up in was a cold, dark, horrible place and we have to do right by them. That brings me to the legislation that is being considered here and the sense of hiding it all away.

She talked about the way it was all hidden away and said that people knew but they hid it even in their own minds. They did not talk about it. It was to be pushed away.

I have heard other contributors say that they trust what the Minister is trying to do and that there is no intention to do the wrong thing here, but if the possibility of hiding it away is even thought about, the Minister is doing the wrong thing. These people need us, as legislators in this House, to do the right thing by them now. The Minister has a choice that these women never had to do something right. I believe the right thing for him to do is listen to all the Members of this House. Even Members on the Government benches have expressed an agonising sentiment of unsureness about where all this is heading. The Minister needs to listen to all of that, pull back this legislation and do the right thing for everyone. He needs to provide a bit of space to get it right, because if he does not get it right, it might not matter to us here but it will matter to the woman I met and the children she grew up with. The Minister has to do the right thing for them and by them.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this deeply sensitive topic. The mother and baby homes commission of investigation was a welcome announcement in 2015. The work of the commission to examine many aspects of the procedures in these homes and how they operated was needed, and it was imperative that its work proceeded without interference. However, almost six years on from the initial announcement, we are finally nearing the end of the commission and getting closer to the final draft of its report, but here we are with this issue on our hands.

The attempt by the Minister and this Government to seal parts of these records for 30 years is outrageous, underhanded and downright unacceptable. These women opened up about their trauma, gave heartbreaking accounts, and courageously told their truth, but what did that mean? Has the Minister ever truly considered that compassionately? It means that these women had to relive painful, harrowing and inhumane experiences like never before. It means that all that pain was brought to the fore and they had to unravel whatever coping mechanism they had developed from keeping such experiences to themselves for such a long time. It means that they have also been left in that space with their pain since they told their stories. I want the Minister to know that this has caused them undue and unnecessary hurt. How could anyone tell these women, our women of this island, that their truth needs to be locked away for 30 years? I believe that is a violation of their human rights and I know that is how it has felt for these women.

Many of these women are, in their own words, still broken today and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, the fear of not being believed, and suffering through memories, images, raw pain and emotional damage, to name but a few. What these women did in giving their accounts to the commission was monumental, and I thank each and every one of them for going through that pain once more. I am truly sorry that they are going through this today. I also acknowledge that some of these women are no longer with us. That is heartbreaking.

These women were forced into these homes as if they were criminals. They were forced to work, and we can all agree that they were treated abysmally. We hear stories of how these women had their children taken from them, many never to be seen again. Some of those children never left these homes. Others were illegally put up for adoption without the consent of their mother. How did that happen? I am a mother of five children and I cannot comprehend the enormity of what that did to these women and the profound impact it had on them.

I do not need to tell the Minster about the horrors these human beings faced. I do not need to repeat their stories but I will do so. I want to take this opportunity to read them into the record forever. One woman stated:

We were made to work even if we were very ill, as I was. No excuses were ever accepted.

[My mother] was tied to the bed and when she couldn't push, one of the nuns sat on her chest to make her.

Those are just some of the stories. They are just a minute glimpse or a tip of the iceberg in terms of what was happening in these homes, yet the Minister wants to come into this House and attempt to seal these records and not allow the full stories of these people to be heard. What message does that send? What is being hidden? What is the Minister afraid of and who is he trying to protect? We cannot allow this Bill to be passed in the House. We cannot allow these records to be hidden away. These women have waited long enough for answers and they cannot be forced to wait any longer.

"After being freed from Bessborough, my life was made up of continual suicide attempts ... I could not accept how my baby had been allowed to die without any medical care." Those are the words of a survivor.

Many Irish women were deeply, physically and mentally hurt by the abuse suffered in the mother and baby homes. It is hard to believe that such injustice could ever have been so ingrained in society that it was perpetuated for decades on end. It is a stain on our society and we should use every opportunity to attempt to unwind the legacy. My fear is that the Government has lost sight of the suffering entailed in this episode and our responsibility to redress the pain that was caused in our name.

"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." Those are the words of a survivor.

The State holds ultimate responsibility for what occurred in those homes. The State, in the guise of the current Government, has a responsibility to listen to the survivors of the mother and baby homes. They have told us clearly what they want us to do, and to ignore them is to underscore the injustice that was done. I know the Minister pronounces the legislative necessity of this matter, but to ignore the voices of the survivors is to inflict further hurt on those to whom we should be offering healing.

"I got the impression that the authorities close ranks on you when you try to obtain information." Those are the words of a survivor.

The survivors who gathered at the gates of this House for the past few weeks, often in lashing rain, have told the Minister, and all of us, that this legislation is compounding the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of the State. They have rejected the Government's amendments as insufficient. Has the Minister heard them?

There are ways to deal with the deficiencies of these matters. Deputy Kathleen Funchion and others have put forward amendments to the Bill that would do so. The survivors have begged the Government to accept those amendments. Has the Minister heard them?

"It was taken for granted that my son would be adopted and it never even crossed her mind that there might be another option". Those are the words of a survivor.

This should not be a party political matter. There should be a united determination in this House to right a historical wrong. That is what the survivors are crying out for. Why can the Minister not hear them?

What we have before the Oireachtas is rushed legislation, fast-tracked without adequate scrutiny and against the wishes of those who should matter most in this process, the survivors and those countless thousands of women and babies who were failed by this State over successive generations. These are the women who were locked up for the crime of being pregnant. These are the women whose children were cruelly taken from their embrace, never to be held by their mothers again. These are the women whose children's lifeless forms were thrown like rag dolls into septic tanks. These are the women who fought the combined forces of the State to ensure that their stories were heard. These are the women who were failed time and again. These women are pleading with the Deputies from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party not to fail them again. I ask the Minister, please, to listen to them as those who were previously in his position refused to listen.

"The level of insensitivity we experienced was shocking." Those are the words of a survivor.

The quotes I have referenced tonight are excerpts from the Clann Project witness testimony. The stories are harrowing, sickening and heartbreaking but they are part of a dark episode in our history. We do not like it but it is part of our collective story. It is a shameful part and we now have an obligation to play a role in unravelling the injustice that was perpetrated in our name. We have to amend this Bill in line with the wishes of the women who would not be silenced. I ask the Minister and the Government, please, to hear them.

On 7 March 2017, I was very proud of our former Taoiseach and my fellow countyman, Enda Kenny, when he gave a very emotional speech in the Dáil.

He stated:

We gave them up because of our perverse, in fact, morbid relationship with what is called respectability. Indeed, for a while it seemed as if in Ireland our women had the amazing capacity to self-impregnate. For their trouble, we took their babies and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them or denied them to the point of their disappearance from our hearts, our sight, our country and, in the case of Tuam and possibly other places, from life itself.

Those words have to mean something. They have to mean something to the women and families who are telling us this is so wrong. I appreciate the difficult job that the Minister is trying to do but this was State-sponsored cruelty, the full breadth and depth of which we do not yet know. Let this, here and now, not be another episode of State-sponsored cruelty.

The commission's remit also covers the investigation into the records of the practices at an additional 13 mother and baby homes and, as a number of my colleagues have pointed out, they mask the same horror. To put it more accurately, the homes were cruel detention centres that held women and children.

The Minister has said the commission's report will give voice to the victims. The victims have their own voices and they have used them to give testimony. They have used their voices to oppose the Government's plans to seal their testimonies. Survivors of the institutions have struggled to get information for decades. As one of the testimonies to the Clann Project described in heartbreaking fashion:

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 someday" ... My mother passed away less than a month later.

The testimony of survivors is paramount. We have a chance here to do the right thing. We cannot tell all these women and families that they are wrong. We just cannot do it. I realise the Minister is trying to fix something here but I beg him not to go ahead with this legislation. He should please listen to the women now. They were not listened to before. If we do not listen to them, we are telling them they are wrong and that the Government is right. We need to tell them that they are right. We need to tell them that we believe them and we need to tell them they count. I plead with the Minister and all his Government colleagues to listen to our former Taoiseach and the voices of these women.

This has already been put far more eloquently than I can put it by some of my colleagues over the past couple of hours. The stories that have been told are absolutely heartbreaking. Mother and baby homes are part of a long history in this State. Not only did we fail women and children but we also set up structures that attacked them, sold them, neglected them, abused them and much more. We owe a debt of gratitude to the women who came forward to the commission as witnesses. The State owes a debt to the women. We need to repay this with justice and compassion. We are talking about a State that put the women and their families through hell. The great and the good, the politicians and all the institutions of the State protected this apparatus. Many have spoken about the absolute powerlessness of the women. The testimonies include the statements: "[W]e were locked in and there was absolutely no way of getting out"; "I was in terrible pain and was afraid but when I screamed or called for help I was abused"; "[F]ollowing some pressure, I ultimately signed the papers"; and "I was not given any other options". Some of these phrases may have been repeated. I heard many others today, and all of them are absolutely heartbreaking and gut-wrenching.

It has been said by many here that the Minister is not responsible for the inbuilt problems associated with the commission, but the fact is that we are dealing with people who have been absolutely failed and traumatised. What we do not need to do is retraumatise them. Therefore, we need to find a solution. We need to find a solution that means we do not seal away the witness statements. I accept that we need solutions on anonymisation. That can be done but what we need to do at this point is put in place a stopgap measure. We need to be able to stall this. We need to legislate to give ourselves time to have an all-party solution and deal with the stakeholders, the heroic women who have led dreadful lives owing to their having been put upon by this State. I cannot state enough that we owe them a debt. We must show compassion and sensitivity and we cannot fail them once again. Rightly or wrongly, they feel they have been failed. They are not happy that Tusla is to be the repository of the witness statements. The rights and wrongs of Tusla do not come into the equation because these women are not happy with this. We need to ensure a solution that offers them justice and gives them the respect they deserve. I am aware the Minister and Members in both the Opposition and Government benches want to do the right thing, so I beseech the Minister to find a way to do the right thing by the women, who have been failed for many years.

I have sat in my office for the past few hours listening very carefully to this debate. I listened to many powerful, moving insights and contributions. I read much of the text of the Seanad debate and the Bill itself. I read the amendments we will be discussing tomorrow. Like everyone else in this House, I have received thousands of heartbreaking and heart-rending emails from Irish men and women.

I was not a Member of this House when the commission of inquiry was established but I can safely say that it is unlikely that it was the intent of the Dáil that established it to bring us to the point we are at today. I do not have the legal context of those who sat in this Chamber when the commission was set up nor do I have the experience of some of my colleagues, but having listened to the debate, I can hear there is a genuine dispute over the legal implications of the proposed course of action. To me, it seems the Minister is saying his hands are tied and that he is basically precluded from any action other than what is in the Bill. I am not at all convinced that his hands are tied. Even if they are, he must untie them. He must find a way. Perhaps his colleagues and some of the Members on the Opposition benches to whom he has listened can help him to untie some of the knots.

The Minister must find a way to secure an extension so all of us in this House can in a calm, compassionate, humane and judicious way enact legislation that will fully preserve the database intact, ensure it is not sealed, and that there will be no chance of it being sealed for the next 30 years, and ensure privacy rights are balanced with proper access.

It has been already suggested by many colleagues that the Minister bring all of the party and group spokespersons on board to explore with the Attorney General by what mechanism we can delay the passage of this Bill. I know that the Minister has engaged with people on both sides of this House but that is not what I am asking of him. Rather, I am asking that at this stage he would take the step I have proposed.

The issue of pre-legislative scrutiny was raised which, of course, has not happened in respect of this legislation. As far as I am concerned, this legislation is beyond the Minister and beyond me and everybody in this House, but it is one of the most important items of legislation we will ever pass because of the impact it will have on the lives of so many people. If the Minister will not try to find, or cannot find, a mechanism to delay this Bill, will he accept the amendments that will prevent the possible disastrous outcome arising from the passage of this legislation as it now stands?

Members of this House are used to receiving hundreds or thousands of emails on different subjects but I have never in my time received such a volume of emails or witnessed before the level of anguish and desperation expressed in those emails. One would have to have a heart of stone not to respond and to not try to do everything in one's power to acknowledge the pain that reverberates in every line of those emails and then do something about it.

When the commission of investigation was set up it gave some real hope that this State and its people were finally facing up to the unspeakable horrors endured by so many young women and their children. We cannot snatch this hope from them at the last minute and lock it away with some or all of the information. The Minister is too young to have been part of complicit Ireland. Those of us who are older, including me, did not ask the questions. We accepted what was happening in front of our eyes. Some of the worst of it was hidden but the principles underpinning that system were there for all of us to see. We washed our hands and we walked away. We cannot make the same choices today or tomorrow. Just because something is legally complicated or legally difficult does not mean we can wring our hands and say we tried but there is nothing to be done. As I said, the Minister was not complicit but he is the Minister now. He has an historic opportunity to do what is right. In my opinion, which I know is shared by other colleagues here, the right thing is to engage with the Opposition in real, meaningful consultation to find a solution.

As I said earlier, we have heard some excellent contributions tonight. For example, we had a forensic analysis from Deputy Connolly, who traced this process back to the time when the awful truth began to emerge into the public domain. We have not heard any explanation as to why all the evidence received and all documents drawn up by the commission should not be lodged with the Minister. Why can this not happen? We have been given no clarification as to why the sixth interim report was not published. Furthermore, the Minister has not convinced us that the link to the 2004 Act will not mean for certain that this database is not sealed for 30 years.

I have little knowledge of the workings of Tusla but so many of those who have contacted me do not want it to be the repository for the database. I am sure there are many good people in Tusla, but at the heart of the concern is the institutional mindset of Tusla that has failed so many people. That is the real fear of many survivors. They have fought for their information and we cannot expect them to fight again.

It is my understanding from listening to the Minister that he will introduce further legislation to correct the deficiencies of the Bill we are discussing. I have no doubt that is his intention but, as we all know, unintended consequences can easily flow from legislation that we recognise is flawed or, at least, contains some flaws. I return to the question many people have asked. Why can we not find a mechanism now or in a short timeframe? The Minister stated that he will involve the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration in the process, where citizens and others can give evidence. It is clear that this hurdle should have been well cleared before tonight.

The Minister's situation is a difficult one but whatever he does, he should not retraumatise those who suffered the unspeakable. Perhaps he might consider doing what very few Ministers before him have done and stand back and engage with the relevant people who just might help him to find solutions.

The Minister and I have known each other for some time. I understand the difficult position he is in being a first-time Minister in a new Government and dealing with this situation but it is absolutely critical that this matter is dealt within an appropriate way.

I am from the north inner city. When I was young I would go with my friends to the Sean McDermott Street swimming pool, across the road from which there was an imposing building that we knew nothing about, other than that we brought blankets there every month or so. As children handing in clothes through the hatch we did know who the person was who took in the clothes or the situation of that person. It was only in later life that we realised the horror that took place behind the doors of the Magdalen laundries and other institutions throughout this State. Never in our worst nightmares did we think something like that could happen. The legacy of these institutions is felt across the State and, in my opinion, across the world because so many of our people left this country because they could not live in a society that treated them so badly.

I worked as a family support worker for many years. I came across women who had been in institutions. When they recounted their stories to me about their experiences, I often thought that if I wrote the stories down and put them in a book, it would go into the fiction end because the stories were so horrific that no one would really believe them. Those women suffered long-lasting lifetime trauma from what they experienced in the institutions.

There is something we miss in all of this. It is that this did not happen in isolation. It did not happen because one section of the State or society suddenly decided to do these things. This was institutionalised from the State. This could not have been done without the Garda, the Judiciary or politicians. It could not have been done without all those institutions backing it up every step of the way. There were times when I spoke to those women and they said to me that they felt they had absolutely no one to talk to or trust. They said they believed there was no one who would listen to them. They believed that the entirety of the State was complicit in all of this, and I believe it is the truth.

My wife, Angela, is adopted. She spent 25 years battling the State to try to get information about her birth mother. Every step of the way, every disappointment and blockage, is damaging to the individual involved. The people involved want to know who they are and where they came from. It matters for something as simple as when they have children. They may be asked whether there is anything in their background. I know my background and I can trace it. There was nothing my wife could trace in terms of health implications. Was there something in her line that she did not know about? That is very difficult for a mother to deal with. At every step along the way it was her information. Yet, she felt as if she was getting a state secret from someone else about someone else. That is completely wrong.

When I read the information from the Clann Project it struck me. I could read the stories out but I will not because people have done so already. It is so emotional. I have been watching this for hours. I have been glued to it for hours because it is such an important story in the history of the State. That is why it is so important that we get this right and ensure the voices and experiences of all these women and their children are heard.

It is important that we do not make one mistake. We are at a stage when so many people have stood in the Chamber and spoken. Many more have watched this for hours on end and it does not sit with them. They do not think it is right. If the thousands of people who have emailed us are saying this is simply not right, then it is incumbent on all of us, especially those on the Government side, to sit down and ask whether we should make this mistake. We should ask whether we should go through with a vote and get everyone to trawl through the convention centre tomorrow and vote on this when we could potentially be making a serious mistake.

I am really pleading at this stage. It is really difficult. I can only imagine how the people who are watching this and who have these stories are feeling and the emotions and trauma they are experiencing. I can only ask that those in the Government think about this over the coming hours and look at what people are asking them to do. They are being asked to make a different choice from the one they intend. All I can say from the bottom of my heart is how they read this and make their decisions in the coming hours and days will have such a long-term impact on thousands of people.

This is one of the sad occasions where we have to revisit our history. It is history long past in some cases and fairly recent history in other cases. As a Government party supporter I will vote whatever way the Government wishes to vote. I am aware of all the circumstances, the need and the urgency. I am aware of the need to protect and preserve the records for the future and all of that. However, this is a different issue. This issue affects women and children who were forgotten for years. The women of today and yesteryear are afraid of being forgotten again. They are afraid of the issue being pushed to one side. They are afraid their children and their children's children will have to suffer in silence knowing what they knew and what they experienced and knowing there was no end to it. They were a group at a time in our society when the position of women was not recognised at all. Sadly, they carried a great deal of responsibility. They worked hard to build a nation. They made up more than 50% of the requirement in a household and they were badly treated.

I know that in previous debates in this House the blame was levelled at the churches. I do not level it at the churches at all. I level it at society. Society, as it was, decided to treat women in a particularly careless, callous and heartless fashion at a time when they needed help and support. When I was a child growing up, I saw all around me the evidence of that particular era. We were only children but we all knew about the mother and baby homes. We were not supposed to know but we knew where the women were gone. They were gone to be forgotten, sadly. I do not blame it on the churches because it was not unique to Ireland. It was right across the globe, including in our neighbouring island. Thomas Hardy wrote about it, as did George Eliot. The sequence never changed. It was always the same. It was always about pushing them to one side to be forgotten and there was no mention of it. It was an unmentionable subject.

Since we are dealing with this kind of situation, like others, I appeal to the Minister to think carefully of how he can bring a personal touch to this and how he can make clear to everyone that this is not a matter of forgetting forever. It is not a matter of putting it behind us and forgetting about it forever again. That is not what we need to do now. What we need to do now is recognise the harm and ill that was done and the difficulties for the women of that era and their families. Our society knew what was happening at the time. Let there be no doubt about that. They knew full well what was happening, but it was not the "in" thing to do and people could not show any compassion.

There was a sense that one should not associate with what was wrong and try to amend it and our society did not do it. Furthermore, society is peculiar and harsh and it has turned its back in many situations over the years and walked away with no responsibility. Then, in the aftermath it says that should not have happened. We know it should not have happened but it did.

I do not want to delay the proceedings of the House but I want to say there is enough tragic history wound up in this particular subject to be able to convince us that in doing whatever we have to do, we must protect the records - that has to be done - we recognise the wrongs that were done, we recognise the failings in our society and we recognise the need to remember the harm and ill that was done to the women and children concerned. That is all I ask.

I thank all the Deputies for their incredibly heartfelt contributions to this debate. The debate starkly demonstrates the sensitivities and complexities around this particular issue. All Deputies have tried to convey the sense they have received from the emails, calls and texts and from the people they know personally. There is a real anxiety around access to information for those who were directly involved in mother and baby homes and in other institutional settings.

The legislation before us tonight is a unique opportunity to protect invaluable information for former residents of mother and baby homes. Without this legislation, that valuable information will be lost when the case of the database will be put beyond our reach and sealed in the archive. This is at the heart of what we are discussing tonight and of what the Government is doing by seeking to pass this legislation. I have listened to all the individual contributions, as I did in the Seanad and I thank the Deputies for highlighting the incredible wrongs that have been done to women and their children in our past. A number of Deputies brought home that this is not just a historical issue but that there is a lived experience that these women and children have that is raw today and every single day. I want to get this right for the people who have survived the mother and baby homes. Collectively, we share that duty and a responsibility to get this issue right. Given our shameful history when it comes to how survivors were treated in the past, I can completely understand the need for clarification and reassurance around this legislation. I wish to emphasise that this legislation is about making information available to people; it is not about sealing information away.

I will take this opportunity to clarify some of the measures proposed within this Bill. The Bill, as presented, seeks to preserve invaluable information now and into the future. It seeks to ensure that information is not destroyed and that relevant information can be made available for information and tracing purposes in line with current and future law. I am on the record of saying this and I will say again that I understand that we do not have sufficient information on tracing legislation in this country and that much of the trauma that has been created by engagement with Tusla has come about because that information and tracing legislation does not exist. The previous Minister, former Deputy Zappone, went a long way towards trying to introduce that information and tracing legislation but it did not get through. I want to do that. I want to finish that work and I want the help of the entire House to do that.

This Bill is necessary to resolve the serious legal and practical issues that were raised by the commission in finalising its records in accordance with the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. The intent of the legislation is to safeguard the records of the intensive five-year investigation process that the commission has undertaken, including the goal to protect and keep that unique database which it has developed. Earlier this year, the commission communicated to my Department that it had created a database, tracking who was in the main mother and baby homes and the related institutions. The commission had copied many records from the mother and baby homes in the context of its investigations. In every one of these cases, the personal details of the women and children who were on those records have been inputted into this database. These details included their entry into the mother and baby homes - as we know sometimes women moved around a number of these homes - as well as the exit of their children from those homes. The commission did not feel it had a legal basis to transfer that system and it felt it would be compelled by law to redact the valuable information we are trying to preserve. This Bill allows the database and the related records to be transferred to Tusla and it prevents that information from being effectively destroyed. It will allow access to the information under the existing information and tracing laws that are in place and which we all accept are inadequate. It will also protect future access to that information when we legislate for better information and tracing services. We have heard the stories of children who have met their mothers days or even hours before death. Having that database there and having it usable will help to make those linkages between parents and their children. It will help those linkages to be made in a much easier way than can currently be done.

Some Deputies raised concerns that it is proposed to destroy records. References to destruction solely come from the position that the commission would, without this legislation, feel obligated to redact personal information from the database, therefore effectively destroying its usefulness. A database is a list of names and if the commission feels the need to redact those names, as it did, that database is effectively destroyed. The Bill seeks to stop that. It is clearly stated within the legislation I am bringing forward that the database must be unredacted to make sure it is usable. Also, the database will be transferred to Tusla so it does not go into the commission's archive once the commission has brought forward its final report.

When the Government decided to establish the inquiry into mother and baby homes, the model it chose was a commission of investigation under the 2004 Act. That decision, which was endorsed by a previous Oireachtas and Dáil, had indelible consequences for the format of the investigation that was to be conducted for the mode of engagement with the commission by third parties who gave evidence before it and for the rights of those parties. It also had consequences for the commission's report and the archive of same. This Bill has to be read in the context of the restrictions that are placed on a commission of investigation process that stem from the 2004 Act. The effects of the confidentiality provisions woven into the 2004 Act are that the commission's archive of records must be deposited with the Minister in a sealed form and must remain so for a period of 30 years, pending transfer to the National Archives. While the records must transfer in their complete and unredacted form, the anonymity of those who provided testimony is maintained by virtue of this requirement for the records to remain sealed. The commission will, in the normal course, identify individuals and organisations as it deems necessary when reporting its findings. Notably, the Act provides for appropriate due process considerations in respect of those who may be identifiable from the report.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is important to clarify that the commission is not in possession of any original State records and no original records will be sealed by these arrangements.

State records remain in the possession of the relevant statutory bodies, and public access is regulated in accordance with existing laws. Any proposal to change the legislative arrangements under which evidence is provided to the commission must be carefully considered and must address the privacy rights and legitimate expectations of third parties who engage with the commission. That said, I propose, as I outlined in my opening statement, to table a number of amendments which I believe will address some of the concerns raised about the Bill.

As for the issue of the application of the 30-year rule, an application which stems from the 2004 Act, I have heard the real concerns from survivor groups about how this impacts their ability to access large pieces of information on their own history. Today, as I said in my earlier statement, I am committing to examine further this issue, particularly as it relates to access to personal information which, under the existing law, namely, the 2004 Act, will be sealed in that archive. I will engage on this issue with the Attorney General to see whether legislative solutions can be brought forward. I hope to engage also with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, if it is in agreement, and to bring in not only the experts, who I accept have different have views on this, but also survivors so we can understand the real impact the application of the 30-year rule is having on them.

I have heard the criticism of Tusla that Deputies have made, reflecting what they have heard from survivors. The Bill will not expand Tusla's role. Section 3 of the Bill, dealing with Tusla, is declaratory only and allows Tusla to use the database only for its existing information and tracing powers, which we accept are inadequate. In the case of the majority of the records and copies of records being transferred to Tusla, the originals are already in Tusla's possession. The commission went in, copied the Tusla records and used those records as a base for the database. However, the digitised and indexed records will be an enabler for Tusla's current services in this area, even though, as we have acknowledged, no new right of information is provided by this legislation.

I appreciate that a lot of criticisms have been levelled at Tusla and that there is very genuine frustration on the part of children when they look for records relating to their birth parents. I believe a very significant part of this is due to the fact that the law as it stands on information and tracing is simply inadequate. In many cases that brick wall is not put up by any choice on the part of Tusla but through the inadequate legislation that exists at present, legislation that I am committed to dealing with and which, as an Oireachtas, I think everyone here agrees is an issue we need to deal with.

Some Deputies have mentioned alternative bodies. In particular, the Adoption Authority of Ireland was mentioned. It is our view in the Department that if we were to transfer this database to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, two separate statutory bodies would hold the same records, with Tusla holding the originals and the AAI holding copies. The resulting duplication and the potential for confusion would not benefit anybody.

A number of Deputies asked about extending the timeframe for the commission. In the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's contribution she set out in detail the timeframe of previous extensions that had been sought by the commission in respect of the interim reports. The current timeframe of 30 October was granted by the Government in the context of the sixth interim report submitted by the commission. Under the 2004 Act the timeframe can only be amended when I as Minister receive a request for an extension from the commission that is grounded in the interim report and when that request is agreed to by Government decision. As I said, in all my engagements with the commission it has at no time indicated that it will seek an extension grounded in an interim report. The commission says it is ready to submit this report on 30 October and it wishes to do so on that date.

I recognise the importance to adopted people and others impacted by birth-family separation of having access to information related to their original identity and their family history, including their medical history. I am committed to bringing forward information tracing legislation which will deal with that issue. At that stage we will have to discuss which is the correct statutory body to undertake the information and tracing process in the long term. I hear the concerns that many Deputies here feel. Speaking for survivors, the Deputies feel Tusla is not the right body to do this. There is no final decision on who will implement the new information and tracing process. There is no final decision on who will be the long-term holder of the database. We are simply giving it to Tusla in the interim to hold at this point.

Turning to the question of access to records which transfer and access to personal information held in these records when the records are transferred to Tusla, the records will continue to be regulated by freedom of information legislation, the GDPR and data protection legislation. That is really important. All those existing statutory provisions will apply to the database when it transfers to Tusla. As for the GDPR and its interaction with the Commissions of Investigation Act, I have been advised that access to the records is expressly restricted by that Act. I have gone back and forth with the Attorney General's office on a number of occasions on this point. I have been advised that the legislation requires that the records be sealed for a 30-year period prior to their transfer to the National Archives, at which time access considerations are governed by the National Archives Act and my Department, when we get the sealed archive, will have no access to the sealed records for that 30-year period. The advice that has been given to me is that the right to access personal data under Article 15 of the GDPR is expressly prohibited by section 39 of the Commissions of Investigation Act. The 2004 Act does so in accordance with Article 24 of the GDPR by expressly stating that the restriction is justified as it is necessary and proportionate to safeguard the effective operation of commissions and the future co-operation of witnesses. That is the advice I have received, but I absolutely accept there are other significant and different interpretations of the interaction with the GDPR. A number of Deputies have brought forward those different interpretations today. Again, I commit that I will engage with the Attorney General and, with the agreement of the committee, I hope, engage with the committee, bring in those experts and see how we might bridge that situation and address the very clear difference in legal opinion in a way that vindicates survivors' rights to their personal information.

Our duty to the women and children who passed through these institutions and to their families is to ensure their lived experiences are shared, acknowledged and understood. The commission is due to submit its final report and stand dissolved in law on 30 October. This Bill needs to be passed and signed into law prior to the commission's dissolution on that date. I do not believe it is feasible to delay or postpone this legislation within the short timeframe available, and it is my absolute belief that failure to act will result in the database being put beyond reach, with the valuable role it can provide in information and tracing being lost. The legislation I am bringing forward seeks to address issues that have emerged in respect of the commission's records. Everything we have provided for in the Bill is there for a reason, and no future opportunity for access to this information will be lost by virtue of the Bill coming into effect by being made law. Its purpose is to preserve information, including the database, for future use and, when we bring in better legislation on information and tracing, enhance its use even further. I therefore ask the House to support the Bill so we can safeguard and protect these records for the real benefits they can provide.

We can then go on to work together to deliver that information and tracing legislation which is absolutely essential. It is a missing piece in our legislative framework and has been identified as such by Deputies. The House has my commitment that I will work and do whatever I can to address the issues about the archive and access to personal information via general data protection regulation, GDPR, by engaging with the Attorney General, survivors, survivors' groups and with those legal academics who have represented their views and an alternative view regarding those issues on access to information. The House has my firm commitment on that point.

Question put and declared carried.