Less than two weeks ago, we sat here in the middle of an incredibly difficult week for survivors of mother and baby homes. Based on the advice of survivors and human rights lawyers, I and other Deputies opposed aspects of the Bill and proposed changes to help those affected access their personal information. I welcome the change in approach taken but it is unfortunate that this did not happen at the outset. The delay caused immeasurable unnecessary distress for so many.
Three main things, among others, were being sought - first, that the Minister retained a copy of the mother and baby homes commission archive, to which he agreed; second, that an explicit guarantee that GDPR requests would be permitted, and the Minister has in essence confirmed this since the Bill was passed; and, third, the publication of an extensive index to the archive as this finding aid is necessary for people to access their personal information.
The Minister has yet to confirm the latter part, however. The Minister still has questions to answer on this. I had requested time to discuss this in the Dáil this week but, unfortunately, instead we had to spend hours talking about the Tánaiste’s misunderstanding of what the word “confidential” means. The day after the Dáil passed this Bill, we learned that the Government went against the advice of the Data Protection Commission’s assessment. Yesterday, we learned that the Minister was depending on legal advice from Department officials and not the Attorney General until the week of the Bill. These are serious questions that remain unanswered. I am asking for time to be secured in next week’s schedule to address these matters. It is the least people deserve and the Attorney General needs to meet with the collaborative forum to advise it as to how this happened.
Nonetheless, in response to incredible public pressure and the #RepealTheSeal campaign, there has finally been acknowledgement of the right of survivors to access their information under GDPR, which I very welcome. I also welcome the Taoiseach’s confirmation to me earlier today that all survivors of institutional abuse will be able to access their personal data, not just relating to the mother and baby homes commission but also the Ryan report and the McAleese archives.
However, I think I am justified in treating these announcements with a degree of caution. The Government’s record on dealing with this over the past few weeks and, indeed, decades has been incredibly damaging. People will understandably find it hard to trust that these promises will be kept. Even with the Minister’s recent announcements, people are already worried about what information will be redacted from documents and other bureaucratic barriers.
It is absolutely essential that the Minister ensures the proactive and full compliance with GDPR for survivors and all relevant persons. This process has to be underpinned by person-centred legislation and a nuanced understanding of the legitimate rights of so-called “third parties”. The Minister must define this in terms of duties of proactive disclosure and protection of identity rights.
Last week, the Minister promised extra resources to ensure GDPR is implemented, for which we are all grateful. It is crucial he engages experienced data protection law experts, preferably, including international expertise, to assist his Department and the Government in giving people their information.
The Department needs to be prepared to provide individuals with access to its copy of the commission's archive, assist Tusla in remediating its practice, and instruct all other holders of historical abuse information. It is urgent that the Minister brings in independent experts because trust in the Department's legal knowledge in this field is understandably very low. These experts would be able to work with the Minister and the Data Protection Commission to create the necessary systems.
The Minister has promised extra resources to ensure the general data protection regulation, GDPR, is implemented. Will he outline what steps he has taken or will take to recruit independent expert advisers on data protection law to deal with personal data access requests?