Before we begin, I remind members who are participating remotely to keep their device on mute until they are invited to speak. When they are speaking I ask that, where possible, they have their camera switched on and be mindful that we are in public session. In addition, I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House or the Convention Centre Dublin or both, in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit members to participate where they are not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be refused.
Our agenda item today is the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of a certain institutional burials (authorised interventions) Bill. I advise members that Ms Mary Lawlor was invited to appear before the committee to represent the Sean Ross Commemorative Committee. However, unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Ms Lawlor is unable to attend today and sends her sincere apologies. I will share Ms Lawlor's speaking time with the other witnesses present.
The witnesses in attendance today in the Dáil Chamber are as follows: Ms Catherine Corless and also Ms Susan Lohan, who is joined by Ms Mary Harney.
The witnesses appearing virtually before the committee from a location outside of the Leinster House precinct are as follows: Professor Phil Scraton, Professor Emeritus, School of Law, Queen's University Belfast and Dr. Maeve O'Rourke, lecturer in human rights, NUI Galway.
All the witnesses are very welcome to our meeting on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme. Before we commence the meeting I take this opportunity to thank them for taking the time to prepare their opening statements and to thank those who provided written submissions. I also take the opportunity to set out the purpose of today's meeting and how proceedings will be conducted to avoid any confusion during the meeting.
While acknowledging the harrowing experiences of survivors during their time in mother and baby homes and county homes, the purpose of our meeting today is to consider the policy provisions of the proposed legislation. A discussion will take place on the provisions of the general scheme as they relate to the statutory basis and framework under which the Government may decide to authorise interventions at certain sites where manifestly inappropriate burials have taken place associated with institutions operated by or on behalf of the State or in respect of which the State had clear regulatory or supervisory responsibilities. There are also provisions for the establishment of an agency to carry out such interventions.
I remind members and witnesses that they are expected to strictly adhere to the subject matter scheduled for discussion today. I also advise witnesses that the opening statements they read into the record here today should be the statement they provided in advance of this meeting. Any deviation on these matters will be addressed through the Chair.
We are all very much aware of the restrictions Covid-19 has brought to all our lives. It has also severely impacted the scheduling of public committee meetings. However, members of the committee felt it important to hear from as many people as possible who may be impacted by or have a professional view on the provisions of the general scheme. It is the responsibility of parliamentary committees to consider and discuss topics in a balanced and fair manner. In achieving this goal, it is the committee, and only the committee, which determines the witnesses it engages with and will do so in an unhindered manner. This level of engagement will greatly assist the members of the committee in finalising its scrutiny report on the general scheme. For this reason, and while strictly adhering to Covid-19 safety requirements, four public meetings of the committee have been scheduled over the course of today. It is also expected that further public meetings will be scheduled in the near future to consider this matter further.
The committee wishes to have a productive public engagement. However, I must remind all present that they should not mention names of individuals or organisations even if that information is already in the public domain, nor should they make charges against anyone by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
These are normal parliamentary procedures that exist to ensure engagements are conducted in a constructive way.
Before I invite people to make their opening statements, I must read out the standard text regarding the provisions of the Defamation Act to remind witnesses of their rights and obligations. I want to take a minute to brief the witnesses on the work of the committee since the publication of the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters and the pre-legislative scrutiny by the committee to date of the general scheme of the proposed Bill. While the committee has been limited in the number of public meetings held due to Covid-19, it afforded priority in its consideration to scrutiny of the proposed Bill, the issues that have arisen following the publication of the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters, and the desire of members of the committee to ensure justice for the survivors of mother and baby homes. These matters have been discussed at eight of our committee meetings. Nine joint meetings have been held this year. The committee has corresponded with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, on five occasions on various matters and it has met the Minister and his officials to discuss these issues wherever possible. The committee has prioritised these issues above other competing demands related to its vast work programme insofar as it reasonably can. It stands ready to help to facilitate delivery on the recommendations and actions contained in the report into mother and baby homes wherever possible and to undertake robust scrutiny of any and all related legislation referred to it, such as the general scheme under discussion here today. We made a public call for submissions on the scheme on 22 January, with a deadline of 19 February. The deadline was later extended until 26 February, and every effort was made to ensure maximum reach and accessibility during this process. In total, the committee received 426 submissions. It has received substantial stand-alone correspondence from the public on these issues and appreciates the engagement and effort the public has made to date on what are very difficult issues.
At this point, I would like to highlight some of the support services. I am aware that today is going to be a long day dealing with some very difficult issues for people. Therefore, the dedicated counselling service for former residents of mother and baby homes is available. Its number is 1800 817 517.
Without further delay, I will move on to our advice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses present in the Dáil Chamber are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations they make to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege, and it is my duty as Chair to ensure it is not abused. Therefore, if the statements of witnesses are potentially defamatory in regard to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
For witnesses appearing virtually, I need to point out that there is uncertainty as to whether parliamentary privilege will apply to evidence given from locations outside the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House. Therefore, if they are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
We will start with Ms Catherine Corless, followed by Ms Susan Lohan and Professor Phil Scraton. We sincerely appreciate their travelling to be here with us today. For many of them, this is a long-standing issue. It was supposed to have been dealt with in early 2020 but that did not happen. Therefore, we really do appreciate the witnesses taking the time to be here. They are very welcome. Without further ado, I ask Ms Catherine Corless to make her presentation. She has between five and seven minutes. I thank her very much.