The business today is pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of a certain institutional burials (authorised interventions) Bill. We are resuming our consideration and members will recall we had several sessions on 14 April. Before I invite the witnesses to address the committee, I wish to put on record that the committee issued an invitation to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance. However, a representative of the group confirmed that they are not in a position to attend the proceedings here today. Witnesses in attendance today in the Dáil Chamber and representing the Collaborative Forum of Former Residents of Mother and Baby Homes and Related Institutions are Ms Alice Coughlan, Ms Amanda Larkin and Mr. Sidney Herdman. Ms Alice McEvoy was also invited to attend on behalf of the forum. However, unfortunately, she advised that she had to withdraw from the proceedings. Witnesses appearing virtually before the committee from a location outside of the Leinster House precinct and representing Aitheantas are Ms. Maree Ryan O’Brien and Mr. Rody Ryan, BL, legal counsel for the group. The witnesses are all very welcome and we are delighted so many could attend our meeting today in regard to the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme. Before we commence the meeting, I want to 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 want to take the opportunity to set out the purpose of the 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 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 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.
I remind members and witnesses that they are expected to strictly adhere to the subject matter scheduled for discussion, and any deviation on these matters will be addressed through the Chair. 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, that determines the witnesses it engages with. This level of engagement will greatly assist the members of the committee in finalising its scrutiny report on the general scheme.
At this point, we always like to highlight the support services available to anyone affected by the matters under discussion today. The HSE has a dedicated counselling service for former residents of mother and baby homes, and the telephone number is 1800 817 517.
The committee wishes to have a productive public engagement. However, I must remind witnesses 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 them identifiable. These are normal parliamentary procedures and exist to ensure that engagements are conducted in a constructive way.
Before I invite the witnesses to deliver their opening statements, I will read out the standard text regarding the provisions of the Defamation Act to remind witnesses of their rights and obligations. For the witnesses present in the Dáil Chamber, the following will apply: they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation 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 that this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation 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 the witnesses appearing virtually, I need to point out that there is uncertainty as to whether parliamentary privilege will apply to their evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House. Therefore, if they are directed by me to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, it is also imperative that they comply with any such direction.
We will move on to the opening statements. I will call on the witnesses in the following order; Ms Alice Coughlan, Mr. Sidney Herdman, and Ms. Maree Ryan-O’Brien. Ms Amanda Larkin and Mr. Rody Ryan are available to answer questions. I invite Ms Coughlan to deliver her opening statement.