Pre-legislative Scrutiny of the General Scheme of the Certain Institutional Burials (Authorised Interventions) Bill (Resumed)

We are resuming pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Certain Institutional Burials (Authorised Interventions) Bill with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. The Minister is welcome. He is addressing the committee from a meeting room in Kildare House. I also welcome the official accompanying him today, Ms Dara Breathnach, who is a principal officer in the Department. The purpose of our meeting is to engage with the Department on the pre-legislative scrutiny process on the proposed legislation. I remind members that when putting their questions to the Minister they should adhere to the agenda item scheduled for this meeting.

Before I invite the Minister to deliver his opening statement, I will advise him of the parliamentary privilege situation. He is protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation he makes to the committee. This means that he has an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything he says at the meeting. However, he is expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chair to ensure it is not abused. Therefore, if his statements are potentially defamatory to an identifiable person or entity, he will be directed to discontinue his remarks. It is imperative that he comply with any such direction.

I invite the Minister to deliver his opening statement, which will be followed by a question and answer session with members. Members will be asked to speak in the order they indicate. They might start indicating now.

As the Chair said, I am joined by Ms Dara Breathnach from my Department. I thank the committee for the invitation to speak on the general scheme of the Certain Institutional Burials (Authorised Interventions) Bill. This legislation is vital to allow us to intervene at Tuam, where the remains of children were interred in a deeply shocking manner with no concern for their dignity, or that of their families. I am determined to prioritise this legislation to address this terrible failing.

I am committed to approaching all aspects of the Government’s response to the commission of investigation report into mother and baby homes in a way that is survivor-centred. I have engaged with survivors and their advocates and family members in relation to burials. I have paid close attention to the pre-legislative process that has been under way over the past number of weeks. I have listened carefully to the wide range of views that have been expressed on the incredibly sensitive issue of burials. I will continue to consider the issues we will raise and discuss today, and I look forward to receiving the pre-legislative scrutiny report from this committee.

Today, I would like to take the opportunity to address some issues that have been raised in this process but I want to stress that I continue to consider the legislation. Today's discussion, the committee's pre-legislative scrutiny and my own considerations will all be taken into account in the final draft I hope to bring before the Oireachtas soon. I would like to acknowledge the members of the committee, and the Chair, for the great sensitivity with which they all handled the public sessions the committee held. I thank the committee for allowing survivors’ personal experiences to be heard. I want to thank all those who gave evidence, particularly those survivors and family members. This is an incredibly emotional topic and their input will help strengthen the final draft of this legislation.

A number of the witnesses raised concerns that the Government has too much discretion under the general scheme to decide whether to intervene at a particular site. When survivors and their advocates see a discretionary power in the State’s possession, they feel they can have little cause to trust that such discretion will be exercised in their favour. Given how badly the State failed them in the past, I completely understand that scepticism. I hope I can have the opportunity to explain some of the policy choices that are indicated in this general scheme.

The committee will be aware at this stage in the pre-legislative scrutiny process that there is near consensus that it is vital to intervene at the Tuam site. The nature of these burials present a set of circumstances where almost everyone agrees that humanitarian forensic recovery is the appropriate response. In relation to other known sites, there is a spectrum of sincerely and strongly held views as to whether infants and children should be exhumed, or their resting places marked but otherwise left undisturbed. I have received correspondence ranging from welcoming the proposed new laws to some correspondence expressing deep distress and anxiety that the legislation may lead to what people see as the desecration of the final resting place of their loved ones. This legislation must provide guidance to the Government of the day on the factors that must be considered when deciding on an intervention, and must allow for reasonable discretion based on the circumstances of a given site. This is what the provisions in heads 3 to 7 are designed to achieve. The discretion afforded will be exercised transparently and with the benefit of appropriate independent expertise and stakeholder input.

The issue of compulsory access to dwellings has been raised during the committee’s hearings. Private property and the family home are robustly protected in the Irish Constitution. Any legislation passed must be proportionate and cognisant of those rights in order to be constitutional. The land access regime in the general scheme seeks to balance the public interest in conducting interventions with the rights of those involved. It has been suggested that a blanket ban on conducting interventions at residential sites may have the unintended consequence of sealing off extensive grounds of a single dwelling entirely. I have taken this on board and I am re-examining these provisions in the course of drafting. I hope to bring forward a more nuanced position in due course, balancing the constitutional protection of property rights with the undoubtable significant public interest objective in interventions.

Several witnesses have raised the issue of the specific expertise that will be available to the agency. In particular, some witnesses have criticised what they see as undue weight given to identification using DNA analysis to the exclusion of other relevant professional disciplines. It has always been intended that a multidisciplinary team would be required in order to provide the best possible chance of individualising and identifying remains at Tuam. The proposed legislation will enable an agency to enter into contract and procure expert services for exactly this purpose. It is not necessary to prescribe each professional discipline in legislation; this will ultimately be a matter for procurement and contract documentation. DNA is such a powerful tool in identification and this is why it is treated as sensitive personal information, including for the purposes of the general data protection regulation, GDPR.

The GDPR requires that DNA processing by the State have a specific lawful basis beyond the consent of a person providing a sample. These legislative proposals will create that basis, as well as establishing extensive rules to guarantee the security of information and the privacy of persons who may wish to participate in an identification programme. Similar concerns do not arise with other relevant disciplines, such as osteoarchaeology or forensic anthropology.

Forensic Science Ireland, FSI, are the national experts on DNA technology and, alongside the facilities at the FSI labs, the organisation has a very robust governance structure for the handling of DNA samples and the data generated from them. I can confirm that this legislation will provide the legal basis to test DNA using techniques beyond those currently used in the criminal justice system. The general scheme was drafted with a view to ensuring that advanced techniques, such as using mitochondrial DNA or single nucleotide polymorphism, can and will be used where necessary. Where FSI do not have the resources required, they can be procured or outsourced but, importantly, this will be done under the FSI governance structure. This will ensure best practice in protecting the participants of an identification programme and relevant third parties, and allow the State to meet the relevant obligations.

I have listened closely to concerns about the scope of a DNA testing programme and its restrictions to immediate family members. I have heard concerns that this may be too narrowly constructed and have directed my officials to scope the possibility of broadening participation in an identification programme in this regard, at least to the degree of aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. Nevertheless, while I am minded to extend access, anything possible here will need to be carefully balanced against robustly protected privacy rights.

Concerns have been raised that the general scheme seeks to seal records. This concern is understandable given the importance of records access to so many people affected by mother and baby institution issues. I assure the committee and anyone concerned that this is not the case. The principle underpinning any agency is that it will be transparent in its operation, information will be given in annual reports and the agency will also be answerable to the relevant Oireachtas committees. The regime that will apply to the records of an agency is very different from that applying to a commission of investigation. No restriction is proposed to the operation of the data protection or freedom of information regimes. The only way in which I intend that information will be restricted is that personal information submitted as part of participation in an identification programme will be afforded the normal legal protections that safeguard access to anyone's personal information. These protections will continue to receive close attention in drafting to ensure that no unintended consequences arise.

I am aware that concerns have been raised regarding the role of the coroner. I have listened to commentary raising particular concerns regarding investigative obligations under various human rights instruments and the information that will be available to family members during an intervention under the proposed legislation. This is a very important issue and I welcome the opportunity to clarify this part of the general scheme. The policy intention of the general scheme is to suspend coronial jurisdiction as it relates to exhumation and identification but only for so long as the intervention lasts. This is to avoid having concurrent jurisdictions between different State bodies and is considered good administrative law in that regard. For similar reasons, the jurisdiction of a local authority in respect of exhumation is also suspended.

The proposed Bill will place legal authority for excavation works and attempts to identify remains in the hands of the agency to be created so that there will be a clear line of legal responsibility and the bespoke resourcing that will be required for interventions under the Bill can be provided in the form of a dedicated, driven and transparent State service, sensitive to the particular context of institutional burials. Careful attention is being paid in drafting to the specific relationship between the coroner and the agency to ensure that investigative obligations that currently lie with the coronial service will not be undermined. The position is that nothing in the legislation should preclude further investigation if that is warranted. I will continue to consider this element of the legislation to ensure no element could be construed as providing a barrier to any investigation.

I am also conscious of the emphasis, placed in some of the submissions, on the importance of the agency operating within a rights-centred framework. Issues related to the provision of information to relatives, the treatment of remains and their return to relatives must all be undertaken by the agency. I will examine how greater reassurance can be provided that the manner in which these obligations will be undertaken by the agency will be done in a rights-compatible way.

I thank the committee for its dedicated and constructive engagement with the proposed Bill. I have taken this opportunity to set out my thinking on some of the issues that have arisen during the pre-legislative process. I ask the committee to bear in mind that I continue to examine the draft heads and the submissions made during pre-legislative scrutiny, and will thoroughly review the committee's report when I receive it. I thank all those who have made submissions to the committee and who have so helpfully and informatively engaged with the pre-legislative process. In particular, I thank those survivors and family members who have appeared before the committee and given testimony with such honesty and power as part of the process.

I thank the Minister.

I thank the Minister. I confirm for the committee that I am located on the precincts of Leinster House. I would like to stay to hear all the questions and answers but I will have to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice. I may return before the end of this meeting but, if not, I will watch a recording of it.

I understand we have been asking the same questions and going over similar ground. The Minister touched on the following in his contribution but it is nonetheless important to ask about it in isolation in order to be clear. He mentioned rights and my question relates to that. According to the proposed Bill, the level of intervention on a site will consider the economic impact of the intervention and the impact on residents who live beside or on a site. Given that many of the sites are located beside residents' homes, this will be a problematic restriction when investigations are being carried out at certain sites. These restrictions are likely to hinder robust investigations. In the Minister's opinion, how can we reconcile this with our duties under international law, including Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to respect for private and family life, to ensure transitional justice?

I invite the Minister to respond to that question before I follow up. He might keep in mind that my allocated time is limited.

As the Senator noted, we are balancing a range of rights in our interventions here. Rights in regard to property are a set of rights as well. The extent to which we value them is questionable but they are protected and have to be assessed in a decision on any intervention. The clear tenet of this legislation is such that where we have identified a burial site that meets a manifestly inappropriate standard, we wish to address that. When a law is passed, it has to have a balancing mechanism built in. If we did not have some element of balancing, there is a risk that it would be constitutionally challenged. Having that balancing mechanism built in and listing the considerations certainly does not mean that this Government or future governments applying them would give undue weight to private property where there has been a manifestly inappropriate burial, whether in Tuam or at other sites.

Perhaps I misunderstand the balancing of the rights, but if the economic impact of an intervention is one of the ways in which an investigation can be stopped, how does that feed in to the balancing of rights? I may not be framing the question correctly. How can the economic impact of an intervention be balanced against the rights to investigation and justice?

Inherently, that balancing approach is being undertaken by the Minister, in the first instance, and then the Government in determining whether an intervention is made.

It is important that that is there as it ensures there is a set of criteria in the Bill, so if the Bill was ever challenged in court the Government or Attorney General could point out that a balancing test is provided for. As regards the Government making a decision on a situation like Tuam, where there is such an incredibly inappropriate burial arrangement, the economic argument against intervention would have to be absolutely massive in order to rebalance that need to intervene.

Under the criteria for intervention, head 5 of the Bill outlines the withholding of consent to an investigation by a landowner. That withholding is only deemed unreasonable if the owner was also the owner of the land when inappropriate burials took place or if they acquired the site on or after the date of the publication of the general scheme of the Bill. The Bill does not address the withholding of consent by landowners who acquired the land in the period succeeding the burials and preceding that publication. I ask the Minister to comment on that. What plans are there to rectify that issue?

I understand that this issue was referenced in both the oral and written submissions during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. That provision is in place to recognise a situation where the land has transferred ownership subsequent to the burials. I am happy to continue to examine those criteria in the course of my own determinations.

The Minister is very welcome to the committee today and I thank him for his engagement. He mentioned in his speech that the discretion afforded for interventions will be exercised transparently. Will there be a detailed process for that transparency? Will people know what that process will be, for the benefit of all sides, including the Government, victims and survivors?

I am concerned about the unidentified remains. Unfortunately, we have decades upon decades of burials in this country and not all remains will be identified. I fear there is not enough emphasis on looking after them, respecting them and giving them the burial they need. What will happen then with the DNA database or whatever the case may be? The Minister said the agency will not be barred from passing on its evidence to the coroner. That makes sense. He spoke about an administrative process but what are the barriers or limits to that? We will, unfortunately, have a lot of remains. What are the circumstances in question? Will it be up to the agency to create the circumstances for passing on those investigations or details to the coroner? Where do those lines fall?

Regarding the balancing of rights, the Minister mentioned the constitutional protections relating to residential property. Would there be a case for using compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, for land under reasonable circumstances?

On the CPO point, the idea is to allow the State to intervene on a temporary basis. There is provision in the Bill to intervene and take possession of land on a short-term basis and, if seen as necessary, potentially pay compensation. Again, because of the constitutional protection of property rights we have to have these processes in place but they are temporary rather than permanent.

The Senator asked about situations where there has been an intervention by this agency and not all of the bodies exhumed have been identified. The agency has a specific mandate to make provision for the dignified reburial of those remains. That is very important, particularly in places with high numbers of burials such as Tuam. We are going to make every effort to identify remains but where that is not possible it is important that we make provision for respectful reburial. That is key to what we are seeking to achieve here.

As regards the coroner, we will be very clear that we do not want anything in this legislation that will be seen as a barrier to the conducting of the coronial process. The power of a coroner to conduct an inquest is granted in section 17 of the Coroners Act 1962. There is nothing in these heads that in any way limits that section. The two limitations mentioned are specific roles the agency will have. First, it has a role to exhume. We have to make sure that when an agency is appointed it has the sole power of exhumation. Second, it has the sole power of identification because we are giving this agency the power to undertake a very significant DNA-based identification process.

Regarding the transparency of the decision-making process, the key area where transparency will be needed is in the Government's accountability to the Oireachtas when making a decision on whether to intervene. That relates to the Minister of the day's accountability to the Dáil and the Taoiseach's accountability to the Dáil. Where the Government of the day considers an intervention and decides not to intervene, it is going to have to explain that and explain very clearly why the particular circumstances of a site did not warrant an intervention.

I am a bit confused about where we are starting off with this Bill. It is glaringly obvious that coroners' inquests are required at all sites. I will give three brief reasons for that. First, it is the law. The Minister just referred to the Coroners Act, which goes so far as to specify that if someone dies in State care or custody, the coroner is obliged to act. Second, there is a lack of information on the causes of death. The abnormally high death rate in mother and baby institutions clearly demonstrates a high likelihood of negligence. There is also a lack of information on location of burials. All of these highlight the absolute necessity of the coroner being integrally involved. Third, all the experts who came before the committee outlined the need for the coroner to be involved. Yet, this Bill suspends coronial jurisdiction and disapplies the coroner. The Minister said that the Bill will not interfere with the coroner acting but is the plan for the new agency to exhume, identify and re-inter remains and then for the coroner to go and do the same again? What is the purpose of disapplying the coroner from this Bill? I have yet to understand what that purpose is.

In his statement the Minister said that it is vital to intervene at Tuam but that other known sites will be left to the discretion of the Government. That is a complete abdication of responsibility. In essence, the Minister is saying that we have to do something at Tuam but we will decide on the rest depending on public pressure. There are already laws in place relating to the Coroners Act. Why are these decisions being left to the discretion of the Minister at the time?

Basically, the Minister is saying it is vital to intervene at Tuam and it is not vital at every other site and he is legislating to remove laws which will ensure that this will happen. One would have to forgive people for wondering if it is by design that it is another attempt to do the bare minimum, wait and see what the pressure is, and only deal with Tuam. Why not bring the coroner's powers into this agency? That is the key question. Why do it separately and say that this will not disapply the coroner when it states in the Bill that it suspends coronial jurisdiction? I do not understand.

On the specific point of the two references to the disapplication of coronial jurisdiction, what we are looking to address there is a situation where we want this agency to be able to intervene and exhume. From a legal point of view, it is regarded as inappropriate that at the same time the coroner would have also jurisdiction and the local authority would have jurisdiction. In terms of exhumation, we are not only disapplying coronial jurisdiction to exhume. We are also disapplying the local authority jurisdiction to exhume.

In terms of identification, this agency will have very significant powers based on legislation to undertake a DNA-based identification programme and that programme is not one that would traditionally be open to the coroner. The identification powers that the coroner has under the existing Act would be disapplied and there would not be concurrent jurisdiction. In terms of any other powers the coroner has under the consolidated Coroners Acts, those are not being impacted by what is proposed within the draft heads of this legislation.

On a decision to intervene, it cannot be a matter of merely leaving it up to public pressure. I do not agree with that interpretation of what has been done here. What we are seeking to achieve is to set out clear criteria within the legislation which will guide the Government, or future Governments, in a decision as to whether to intervene in a particular site or not. We all accept that those criteria have been reached in Tuam. We do not know whether they will be reached in other sites but it is important to say that is why this Bill was not designed as a Tuam-specific piece of legislation. It was designed in a way to be cognisant of the fact that there may be future sites where there is a need to intervene. We need to be conscious that whereas in Tuam there is that almost unanimous agreement, particularly among relatives of survivors, about the need to intervene, that same degree of agreement among relatives is not necessarily currently in existence for all other sites and that is why those various criteria need to be there and need to be considered.

Ultimately, what does the Minister classify as vital in this situation? It is vital in Tuam. Is the classification for vital not the fact that we know there is very likely death due to negligence? Is the Minister saying we know that people want to find out the fate of their disappeared relatives and in some instances, it might not be vital but it is in Tuam?

No. What I am saying is that the-----

It is vital in every scenario.

Sorry, I spoke over the Deputy there. Would the Deputy mind repeating the last part of her question?

I am wondering if the Minister thinks it is vital to find the fate of the disappeared in each site in the country or does he just think it is vital for Tuam?

What we are seeking to do in Tuam is to look at the manifestly inappropriate nature of the burials of these babies and children at the site. That is what this legislation is designed to address, namely situations where the burials of children and babies who were in mother and baby institutions or county institutions are in a manifestly inappropriate manner. That is fundamentally what this legislation seeks to achieve. As I say, there is general agreement that that manifestly inappropriate standard is clearly evident in Tuam but this legislation allows for the fact that a similar situation may be revealed elsewhere and will allow a future Government to intervene elsewhere.

Given the time, I must move on. There might be time to come back with a second round for members. I must move on to Deputy Ward. Can the Deputy confirm his location?

Thanks, Chair. I am in Leinster House.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to meet the committee here this morning. I welcome the chance for this engagement.

I want to follow up on what Deputy Cairns was talking about. We know that the DNA will provide who the people were and, hopefully, survivors or families will get answers on that. Many of the families and survivors who were in contact with me in relation to "the how". In one of the committee meetings, I asked Dr. Niamh McCullagh and she stated that the technology that will be used could provide the how. At that stage, what is the role of the coroner once that technology is there that can show how people's loved ones died?

The Minister said in his opening statement that the "legislation will provide the legal basis to test DNA using techniques beyond those currently used in the criminal justice system." That is a strong and welcome statement. Does the Minister believe that this technology will be robust enough to trigger criminal investigations down the line? Does he believe that survivors and family members will get to know how their loved one died? At what point does the coroner get involved in the process once the how is decided, as it relates to criminal investigations in the future? Where does the coroner fit into that process? I am a little confused on that. Many of the family members and survivors who were speaking to me want to hold somebody to account for the loss of their loved ones. Whether it is malnutrition, neglect or something more sinister, they want to get answers on that. Basically, that is the question I have.

Like the Deputy and many others, I am not a scientific expert in this field by any means. My understanding is that the wide range of techniques that the legislation makes provision for, both DNA and other types of identification process, are primarily about who these individuals are and that is what the legislation is designed to achieve.

In terms of the information that this agency gathers, I would certainly be happy to put in a provision that that information is fully available to all other State bodies for their use for any functions they have, be that the Garda or the coroner. Within provisions as regards GDPR, etc., I am certainly happy for any information that the agency gathers to be freely available.

In terms of the role of the coroner, other than the points I have made in terms of exhumation and identification, I am not looking for this legislation in any way to interfere with the role of the coroner or the existing legislative powers that coroners have. It is important to state we are not looking to interfere with the role of the coroner beyond not having the coroner, this agency and a local authority all having jurisdiction in terms of exhumation at the same time. Such simultaneous jurisdiction is legally confusing and we do not want to have that.

I have a supplementary question, if that is okay. It will be a quick one.

I welcome that the Minister mentioned that provision will be made but I want to know who is responsible for notifying the Garda or the coroner of potential criminal activity in the past where a loved one died.

Is it the agency or the Department? Who picks up the phone to the coroner or the Garda and says there is a potential that criminal activity happened in mother and baby homes in the past? Who makes that phone call?

My understanding is that anyone who has information about potential criminal activity has an obligation to engage with the relevant State authorities. The Garda recently set up special lines and an email address, and called on anyone who knows about criminal activity in mother and baby homes to contact it. We all welcome that. The obligation exists for anyone and everyone, including the agency we are talking about, if it is established.

I am present in the Convention Centre Dublin. I am in one of the booths so it is a little dark. I will try to improve the lighting. I thank the Minister. One of the things that has come through in the testimony to the committees and the public debate on this issue is a breakdown of trust, a lack of trust among survivors and their families that the right thing will be done. In his statement, the Minister talked about how the legislation will enable a wide range of disciplines and a multidisciplinary assessment of sites. It enables it but it does not necessarily require it. We have seen from the evidence so far that things such as forensic anthropology, osteoarchaeology and forensic DNA are very important in assessing any particular site. They are important for understanding fully what happened at a site. It is important for those disciplines to become requirements of the legislation to ensure that these things are at least considered. Perhaps there should be an assumption that these things will be used that must be rebutted by the agency. Perhaps there should be a requirement for an assessment of the site and which disciplines will be needed. That way, decisions as to what disciplines and expertise will be used are taken in a transparent way. As the Minister said, if the agency decides not to exhume or investigate a site, it must make clear why it has made that decision. For the same reason, it is important for the agency, should it choose at a particular site, for example, not to use forensic anthropology, to justify that decision. Putting that requirement or assumption into the Bill is an exercise in building trust and transparency. I appreciate that the legislation does not preclude these things and they can happen. However, putting them into the legislation as a positive requirement shows that we are at least thinking about these matters and acknowledging they are important. It is an aspect of helping to rebuild trust.

The Minister said that he wants to make the information freely available to others and that is positive. However, we must have information that we can make available and we get that information by making sure that experts are involved. In turn, we make sure those experts are involved by making an assumption that they will be involved and showing that we are trying to achieve those things with this legislation, instead of the legislation simply being an enabling piece. I appreciate, as I said, that those measures are not precluded but they should be baked in from the very beginning. I would love to hear the Minister's thoughts on the difference I am highlighting.

My understanding, having spoken to officials and listened to experts, is that the appropriateness of the particular techniques very much depend on the particular site. It depends on the condition of the site and the condition of the remains at the site. The Deputy is right when he says that it is absolutely correct that this agency applies the right techniques to the particular site. However, I am not sure whether that requires the listing of every single technique that could possibly be used in this legislation. There might, of course, be particular techniques that are wrong for a particular site. An obligation to use what is necessary for that particular site is how I would understand this agency will work. In terms of accountability, the director of the agency is accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts and other relevant committees, including, I presume, this committee. If a situation arises whereby a director is refusing to use a technique that would seem obvious, that director will be called in front of a committee and held accountable for that decision.

I take on board what the Deputy is saying in respect of the breakdown of trust and it is something I acknowledged in my earlier contribution, as I have in all my contributions on the issue of mother and baby homes. We will certainly look to see how the legislation can clearly indicate that the agency will use those techniques that are most appropriate to the particular site.

My point is about an assumption that these techniques will be used. A justification should be required if they are not being used. While I appreciate the head of the agency could be called up by any committee, the chances are that will be a delayed process. We do not want a situation where an exhumation or investigation has begun on the wrong terms and when the head of the agency gets to the committee, he or she holds his or her hands up and states that the work has already started and cannot be changed. It is about assuming a maximised starting position where we make the assumption that we will do as much as possible and then justify each step backwards. The legislation tends to take the opposite approach. It enables us to do a lot but it does not necessarily make that assumption and, therefore, the transparency in the decision-making process is not there. The legislation would be stronger and people would have more faith in it if it took the assumption that these things would happen instead of the opposite.

I will ask the Minister to come back to that at the end because I need to move on to our next speaker, Senator Seery Kearney. I ask her to confirm her location.

I am in Leinster House. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive submission to the committee. I wish to be clear about a couple of things. As recently as last night, there was reference to Tuam on the RTÉ series about former State Pathologist, Dr. Marie Cassidy. She discussed the mammoth task it will be to identify the remains in Tuam. I am ever mindful, as we talk here about processes, that we may not overcome the very first hurdle, which is identification. Not all of the remains will have a DNA contact or a manner of identification. I always feel concerned and a responsibility for the expectation of relatives when considering what may be achievable. Dr. Cassidy talked about how complex identification will be. She said it may result in DNA and other testing being required on every item of remains. Forgive me the bluntness of my words.

The issue comes back to our original plan. This is about ensuring dignity and respect in death and a proper reinterment, or a proper interment because remains were not properly interred in the first place. We must now move to a proper and respectful interment. I hope, insofar as it is possible, that there will be a restoration of remains to the families and loved ones concerned.

There may be instances where that will not be able to be the case, however. I know the Minister and his officials have discussed these sorts of things. What are the plans in those instances?

The next outcry is about their cause of death and whether criminal procedures should follow from that. I hear what the Minister said about there being no intention here to corral or limit coronial power. There is merely a legal conflict about who holds jurisdiction whereby only one party can hold jurisdiction at any one time, and that is what is set into the Bill.

What are the Minister's plans? In our earnest desire to bring resolution, we have a huge task but not all of the answers. There will not be closure here for every set of remains. What timeline does the Minister envisage? If we are coming to pre-legislative scrutiny sometime in the autumn, this will be before both Houses of the Oireachtas and will be enacted into law. After that, when do we expect to break ground in Tuam, mindful that a long period has already elapsed? Time is of the essence. We also have the issue of perhaps the implications of further decomposition so I would be interested to hear about a timeline.

I thank the Senator. I believe she is correct; all of us must bear in mind that uncertainty around raising expectations and hope. We are providing for this intervention, and in particular, for DNA identification to enable identification as far as is possible. We cannot be certain what is possible, however. The experts who spoke at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage reminded us of the significant possibility that identification may not be possible in every circumstance. The Senator is correct to remind us of that. We all need to bear that in mind, as difficult as it is for family members to hear.

The agency has a clear role in terms of providing for the dignified reburial of those remains where identification has not been successful. That will obviously be done in the context of the views of the wider survivor group at a particular site as to the appropriate way to ensure dignified reburial of remains that either have not been identified or perhaps are unclaimed by relatives, which in light of the age of some of these remains is a very real possibility.

In terms of the timeline, as soon as this legislation is passed, we will be seeking to provide for the agency to intervene at Tuam. We will seek to get that set up as quickly as possible. These agencies are designed as being of relatively small size. This ensures that the process of establishing an agency is as uncomplicated as possible, although bear in mind, it will have to have expertise across a range of areas with regard to the exhumation but also the identification in terms of actual employees and other skills that can be contracted out.

We are also particularly conscious of time, which is the point the Senator made. Everything in this area is time sensitive, particularly considering the ages of relatives. Provision was made for an administrative collection of DNA. That has been delayed due to Covid-19, which is completely understandable. It is a face-to-face exercise that has to be witnessed, and therefore, involves people in close contact. Certainly, however, as soon as we see wider provision of vaccinations across the community, we will be seeking to run and initiate that administrative scheme as quickly as possible in order that we can gather and bank DNA to permit identification

That is great; I thank the Minister very much. I do not know if I have time for another question.

The Senator may ask something briefly if she wishes.

There are a number of representative groups of the various families and others at Tuam. Is it the Minister's proposal to get into discussions at other sites?

I am coming back to the exercise of discretion as to what is needed at other sites and what intervention by the commission would happen at other sites. Does the Minister propose doing that in collaboration with survivor groups or can it be tailored? Is he mindful of it being tailored to each site? What will be the influencing factors in making decisions?

In terms of this Government or another Government making a decision on a site other than Tuam, obviously, the same set of factors are set out in the legislation. Any Government and any Minister making a decision would obviously be advised to listen to the views of family members, which can be diverse and different, and we must acknowledge that. Certainly, listening to and engaging with stakeholders is absolutely essential.

I thank the Minister very much. He has more than demonstrated that.

I thank Senator Seery Kearney. We will move on to Deputy Sherlock. Will the Deputy confirm his location, please?

I thank the Chairman. I am in Leinster House. I join others in welcoming the Minister to the committee. I will read briefly from the Minister's opening statement:

Careful attention is being paid in drafting to the specific relationship between the coroner and the agency to make sure that investigative obligations which currently lie with the coronial service are not undermined. The position is that nothing in the legislation should preclude further investigation if that is warranted.

The Minister will hear very clearly from members the doubts and worries that are being expressed with regard to the disapplying of the powers of the coroner. We all know that a person of no less standing than Professor Phil Scraton submitted to the committee, which I am sure the Minister heard. When talking about the legislation, Professor Scraton said:

... its enactment would disapply existing powers of the coroner in whatever locations and in respect of all deaths over which a new agency is given jurisdiction. The Bill implies that families of infants and mothers who died in institutional custody will be compelled to make a choice between exhumation and identification of their relative's remains followed by reinterment ... [or] the coroner retaining the power to hold an inquest to confirm the deceased's identity, approximately when ... [they] died, where ... [they] died and, most important, how ... [they] died.

I put it to the Minister that he has not adequately addressed thus far the proposal to disapply the power of the coroner. I remain very doubtful about this piece of legislation at present on the basis that witness after expert witness, from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to Professor Scraton, have all expressed their deep concern about the disapplication of that power. I do not care if this is a misuse of that word. I do not believe the Minister has adequately addressed the elephant in the room today. I would love to hear his view on that first point.

I thank the Deputy. As I said before, the sole disapplication we are seeking to achieve with this legislation is around the actual carrying out of an exhumation, which is one of the powers set out in the Coroner's Act and in the Local Government Act.

We do not believe it is appropriate that three bodies would have jurisdiction over an exhumation.

I do understand this. I apologise for cutting across the Minister but my time is limited. I have noted this and I have internalised what the Minister has said in respect of this point. If he is saying that we cannot have a cross-jurisdictional regime and there has to be consistency in respect of the coronial process, or a system of investigation, I put it to the Minister that the legislation before us still does not robustly instill within it a coronial process akin to the laws of the land and the standards that apply in respect of deaths and the investigative process arising from them. I put it to the Minister that he still has not adequately addressed this issue in the proposal before us today. This is the elephant in the room. I cannot move on with the legislation until we have dealt with this issue sufficiently. The Minister is saying he will consider this element of the legislation to ensure no element could be construed as providing a barrier to any investigation. I am not seeing the evidence of this coming forward in the wording. Forgive me if I have missed this in dispatches.

There is a coronial jurisdiction. It exists and we all know this. It applies in these circumstances. We are seeking to disapply two elements of it that we see as problematic in terms of the two key roles the agency is trying to achieve, which are exhumation and identification. Barring this, nothing in the legislation interferes with existing coronial jurisdiction.

I got the sense the Deputy is looking for the construction of a new jurisdiction but I am not sure whether this is the correct way to go. We are speaking about the laws of the land. The laws of the land exist as does coronial jurisdiction. What I did say earlier was that if clarifications are necessary to ensure this agency is fully working with all State bodies, agencies and processes, including the coronial process, we are happy to look at clarifications in this regard.

I ask the Chair to forgive me if I am over time. I do not know how much latitude I have.

The Deputy can ask an additional question because we are not under too much pressure. I hope that anyone else who wants to make an additional point will get a chance to do so.

What makes me uncomfortable is the issue of what the Minister described as "manifestly inappropriate" and the criteria that are to be set down in the first instance by the agency to determine what is or is not manifestly inappropriate. Even if we take exhumation and investigation, is there a fear that the power of the coroner and the coronial process will be undermined? To refer to what Professor Scraton told the committee, 9,000, or 15%, of infants born in the institutions examined died there, in addition to the deaths of 200 mothers. We know the rates of mortality are extremely high and I would have thought this alone would be sufficient to ensure there is no ambiguity on the issue of the discretion of the Government of the day to put in place, or set up, an agency as it sees fit. If the number of deaths is so high, and if we know from the commission's reports that the mortality rate in institutions was extremely high, this in and of itself surely is worthy of investigation, such that a Minister cannot limit the power to investigate it if the Government of the day decided for economic reasons not to go there and not to open that casket because it could be at it for years and investigations could cost the State millions of euro.

If we go down the road in the Bill of being influenced by economic factors and not factors of transitional justice, such as the convention on enforced disappearances, the obligations of investigation and the rights to remedy, then we will come back to this down the line. I am on the side of the Minister but I want to be reassured by what he is telling us about the legislation being robust enough to ensure justice will not be denied in future to people or relatives and to those poor souls who have the right to justice. Forgive me as I do not mean to be rhetorical about this but I want to be sure we get it absolutely right.

I thank the Deputy and I absolutely understand. To clarify, determination on manifest inappropriateness will be made by the Government and not by the agency. Once the agency is established it will do the work so there will be no discretion on the part of the agency. It is a huge thing to exhume a body. In Ireland we have a culture of a resting place being a resting place and it is very significant to intervene to exhume a body. The legislation seeks to give the Government of the day criteria on which to make this significant decision. Where we have a situation with burials that are manifestly inappropriate, and we have all identified Tuam as such, the degree of the appalling nature of the treatment of the remains in this situation warrants this particular intervention.

As I have spoken about previously, and I am sure the Deputy knows, there are other sites where the relatives have diverse views as to whether or not to intervene. If we intervene we do so across an entire site so it is important there is a framework within which a Government can take a decision as to whether the situation of the particular remains on a site warrants the extreme nature of the type of intervention provided for under the Bill. I will continue to look at these criteria and I will take on board the points made by the Deputy. There does have to be a framework within which the decision is made.

I confirm I am in Leinster House. I welcome the Minister and thank him for his ongoing engagement on this important matter. I will touch on the importance of access to records and vital information for the many people affected by the mother and baby institutional issues. In his opening statement, the Minister said he understands the concerns being raised that the general scheme may seek to seal agency records. Will the Minister outline how he intends to safeguard access to personal information and the regime that will apply to records of the agency versus the laws or regulations that apply to the commission of investigation, which caused huge difficulty for many survivor groups?

What restrictions does the Minister intend to apply in certain circumstances within the agency? I know of some survivors who are still having significant difficulties accessing information and who are experiencing huge delays in getting things like medical records from various historic health boards and information from county homes and local authorities. We must ensure that this is managed correctly and effectively within the legislation.

I might speak generally to the issue of records first and then deal specifically with the role of this agency. Access to information is absolutely crucial to survivors and indeed to a wider group of people including adoptees. Last week we brought forward the draft heads of the birth information and tracing legislation which provides the best guarantee of access to all information and I look forward to working with this committee on passing that important legislation.

In terms of the archive of the commission of investigation, as per the 2004 legislation under which the commission was established, there are restrictions on access. However, following the decision of the Attorney General, we were able to clarify that the right under GDPR to access one's personal information did apply to the entire archive and I said I would ensure that right was upheld when the archive transferred to my Department from February. We have just over 150 subject access requests in hand at the moment and are working our way through them. As this is the first time we are applying these subject access requests and this is the first round that we have done, our team, which was built to address the requests for access, is not currently reaching the initial one-month deadline. However, we are confident that we will have full replies to the subject access requests in the near future. A small number have been fully answered already and we are in the process of fully answering the rest.

On the issue of the treatment of records by the agency, the traditional FOI rules will apply to the agency, as will GDPR rights and subject access requests about one's own information. The one area that we have to protect is the data the agency will hold and is designed to bank, namely people's DNA. DNA information is incredibly sensitive and is an incredibly powerful tool and it is very important that there are robust protections in place so that where somebody gives a DNA sample in order to allow for identification, that it is strongly protected. That is what we are seeking to do with this legislation and the protections will be strong and robust. That is why we are legislating for them here but beyond that, we are not seeking to put any special regime of protection around the information and the records of this agency. The same regime that applies to other State agencies, both in terms of protection and access to information, will be provided for.

There is a wider issue, to which the Deputy alluded, regarding access to information beyond the archive of the commission of investigation, in the wide range of State institutions, State bodies and private actors that held information about individual women and children who were in care during the twentieth century. The Government has committed to address that in terms of a records and memorialisation centre. We want to get the information and tracing legislation passed first because that is so vital to allow immediate and full access to birth certificates and other records but it is the Government's intention to provide for the wider element of records and memorialisation as well. I hope that addresses the question.

We have some time left, unusually, so I will allow members to ask more questions or make additional points. Three members are indicating and if anyone else wishes to contribute again, I ask them to indicate. I now invite Senator Seery Kearney to speak, to be followed by Deputies Cairns and Sherlock.

Towards the end of my first slot, we started to talk about the agency and the logistics of that. I ask the Minister to give more detail on how the agency itself will work inside a human rights framework.

In terms of its accountability, the agency will have a director and as I indicated earlier, that director will be accountable to the Oireachtas committees. There will be an obligation to provide an annual report on the activities of the agency as well as its interactions with other State agencies. I am conscious that what this agency will be doing is incredibly sensitive in terms of the exhumation of the remains of infants and children and its role in seeking to link living relatives with those remains. These are some of the incredibly difficult and sensitive tasks with which the agency will be charged. How we design the functioning of the agency in legislation is something I want to consider more, particularly how we design an agency that is doing something incredibly sensitive on one side, but incredibly technical on the other. We have legislated very significantly for the technical element but it is important that we do not omit the requirement for sensitivity. I am conscious of the need to have some element of protection or oversight of the agency's engagements, particularly with families. I have not fully fleshed that out yet and would be interested in what committee members have to say in that regard. In terms of its accountability, if something falls there, I do not think it will be enough that it gets raised at an Oireachtas committee or something like that because it is so central to what we are trying to achieve here that families feel that their needs are being accommodated by the agency. I have not made a final call on that but having looked through the heads of the Bill and listened to the various points made, in as much as it has a technical role, it has a deeply sensitive role as well and we need to make sure that is clear from the initiation of any agency

I think of the words in the preamble to the Constitution about cherishing all of the children. In their time, these children clearly were not cherished and neither were their mothers but we have an opportunity, in what we do now, to restore their dignity, to respect them and to cherish their value to us as a State. I appreciate the Minister's words and thoughts on that.

I have so many questions, I am not sure where to start. Is the importance for the Minister of this legislation and the exhumation and identification of remains based on families finding out where their disappeared relatives are or is it more to do with the way in which the unmarked graves came about, whether in an unmarked site or a septic tank? What is the most important reason for this Bill? Is it how the unmarked graves came about, literally, in terms of their layout or is it important to the Minister because we can help people to find out where their disappeared relatives are?

What is the thing that makes it more vital?

The reasoning behind this legislation is, ultimately, an understanding that was felt across the entire country and a repugnance that was felt across the entire country when it became clear in 2014 and 2015, following the work of Catherine Corless and others, that the remains of infants and children were treated in such an appalling manner. Not only were they denied, everything about the collective nature and the location of the burials is deeply repugnant to our notions of decency. It was on that basis the legislation is being brought forward. There is the need for the families of those who were born in Tuam to have some reassurance that those remains will be treated in a dignified manner by the State, and to make provision for that.

Does the Minister believe that it is still vital for families to find out where their disappeared relatives are, regardless of the nature of the unmarked graves? Is it equally vital for those people to know?

In the context of the interventions we undertake in Tuam, or in any other sites where a decision is made to intervene, I hope we are in the position to provide information and potentially provide families with the remains of infants and children who died in these institutions, bearing in mind the concerns flagged by Deputies earlier about the potential success or otherwise of DNA and other identification techniques.

I take it that the Minister believes it is just as vital in each site, regardless of the nature of the unmarked grave, as it is in Tuam.

Why is there not a clear right of access to information for relatives in the Bill? Maybe it is not necessary but I am asking why it is not in the Bill.

The Minister spoke about it being inappropriate for three agencies to be involved around the exhumation and identification process. Does this mean that if the coroner does decide to act in relation to any of the sites examined by this agency, the coroner will have to wait until the agency is finished because, as the Minister has said, it is inappropriate to have more than one agency involved at one time? Would this result in remains being exhumed, identified and re-interred, and then that process happening again if the coroner was to get involved? Is the coroner allowed to come in during the process being undertaken by the agency? If that is the case, why is it inappropriate to have more than one agency involved at any one time?

The comment I made about three agencies being involved at any one time is specifically in terms of their exhumation powers. This is what we seek to address in the disapplication of the coroner's exhumation power and the disapplication of the local authority's exhumation power. With regard to the coroner conducting its wider investigatory powers, there is no clash on that and the role of the agency. I do not see a need for the situation as outlined by the Deputy to take place.

So can the two agencies be involved at the same time?

The two bodies are doing two different things. It is not a case of doing the same thing.

Would the Minister consider bringing the powers of the coroner into the agency rather than keeping them separate, if the two are allowed to work together after exhumation?

The understanding is that the powers of the coroner already apply and the jurisdiction or the coroner already exists. I am not sure what the clear benefit would be to repeat those powers within the context of the agency and in the particular circumstances. As I said earlier, if there are concerns around the information the agency discovers in the context of its work, which would not be available to State bodies, we can certainly look at drafting any relevant provisions to ensure there is full co-operation between the agency and all other State bodies.

I will go to Deputy Sherlock now, but will anyone else please indicate in the next few minutes?

Forgive me if I repeat some points that have already been made. If we accept the fact that the powers of the coroner are being disapplied on two out of three sets of criteria, which is what the Minister is saying, but that the power of investigation is not diminished in any way because that is the law of the land, the legitimate question arises about the number of agencies involved. Referring to Tuam specifically - and thank goodness for the work of Catherine Corless and others - we reasonably know where we stand and what is ahead of us in the road ahead as this application applies. If I refresh my memory, we had a presentation from the historical burials legislation unit - the Minister's own colleagues - where they said that the legislation was being applied because existing jurisdiction to authorise exhumations does not readily apply to the particularly unusual circumstances arising at Tuam, and similarly the legislation governing the identification of remains by means of DNA comparison is not suitable for those circumstances. We know why we are legislating.

I have a final request for the Minister. If we accept that the power of the coroner is not diminished in any way will the Minister give this committee some comfort that resources will be made available for the recruitment of an additional number of coroners, or give us an assurance that the coronial process as it applies to the creation of an agency in respect of a specific site or other follow-on sites will not be hampered by the lack of adequate coronial services, such as for the efforts in seeking justice and the efforts in seeking to identify remains, and that these services are not undermined by a lack of resources? That is my question, fundamentally.

I have a second point for the Minister. There is one limited power that individual Members of the Oireachtas have, which is the power to submit the parliamentary question. I hope that something would be built into this legislation on the accountability feature that allows for me, as a Member of the Oireachtas, to make representations on behalf of a person or families who may wish to seek information. I hope that the making of those representations or the advocating for families, which is what we all do as Members, would not be diminished in any way and that some structure could be put in place so Members could assist such persons, and that GDPR and other barriers would not be put up in front of us.

Regarding the role and the position of coronial services around the country, that is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, because coronial jurisdiction falls within that Department. My understanding is that a wider review is being undertaken in that regard, and I am happy to provide input into that review. It is also important to state that there is an independent element to the coronial jurisdiction in respect of decisions taken to undertake specific investigations. I am not in a position to interfere in that process in any way, but obviously we want to support-----

Again, I just want to be very clear. I ask the Minister to forgive me, and I know he is not deliberately misinterpreting what I am saying. I am talking about the resourcing of the coronial service, and that is a matter for the Government. I recognise that silos exist in Departments, but the Minister is the line manager, as it were, for the setting up of this agency. Therefore, if there is to be an extensive coronial investigative process in this regard, I ask that it will not be hampered. That is presumably a whole-of-Government matter and not just for the Minister for Justice. Therefore, I take the point the Minister is making about the review, but I ask him to use his good offices to ensure that when an agency is created that it will not be hampered by the lack of investigative powers due to the unavailability of a coroner or coroners or other such appropriate staff as might be deemed necessary to carry out investigations.

I am happy to engage with the Minister for Justice to ensure that resourcing does not become an issue. Indeed, what we are seeking to do with the creation of this agency is to have resource-intensive elements of this process addressed through this agency. A relevant example would be the significant resources which will be required for an exhumation on the scale and complexity, initially, of the site at Tuam. That will be undertaken by the agency. As I said, we are disapplying the jurisdiction of the coroner in respect of that particular element.

Turning to the point concerning representations to the agency, I am happy to look at that aspect. If the Deputy would like to refer me to an existing model in use by another agency as an example of what he is thinking about in that regard, I would be happy to explore that as well. The Deputy's request to disapply GDPR is difficult, but look-----

Again, I am not asking for the disapplication of the-----

I am going to have to come in on this point-----

I am sorry, I apologise.

-----because we have someone joining the meeting late who has not yet asked a question. Therefore, I will have to wrap this session up very quickly.

That is fine, but I want to be clear that I am not asking for the disapplication of GDPR.

That is fine, and I am sorry.

GDPR is sometimes put up as a block to Teachtaí in respect of certain agencies which are subsets of Departments. It is sometimes misapplied, and I do not want that to happen in this case. The Minister is again telling us that the coronial process is being disapplied in two out of three criteria, if I understood him correctly. I may be mishearing the Minister, but he appears now to be saying that the coronial process is being completely disapplied. My hearing could be at fault or I might be misinterpreting the Minister. If I am, I will stand corrected. However, there needs to be clarity in this regard, because I am a little more confused after the Minister's last intervention than I was before. I ask the Minister to forgive me if I am wrong.

A member did not have the opportunity to ask a question earlier, so now I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor. The Minister can then deal with all the points made in a closing contribution. Will Deputy Murnane O'Connor confirm her location, please?

I thank the Chair, and I confirm that I am in Leinster House. I apologise for being late. I was on with the IT department for the last half an hour because my computer crashed. I am back up and running now, it was nothing sinister and everything is fine. I do not know what happened, so I apologise for coming in late. The IT staff were very good, they sorted it all out for me.

I do not know if I might be going to repeat what has been said already, because I missed most of the meeting. First, I thank the Minister for his engagement on this Bill and in respect of the mother and baby homes. We all know how sensitive and complex this issue has been for families. It is very important now that we listen to survivors. In October, we protected the records and now it is important that there be access to those records. I refer to proper access, so that people do not encounter barriers when they attempt to access their records. One or two people who have contacted me are coming across such barriers, so I ask the Minister to address that aspect.

We have all seen how much the Minister has done with this legislation, and it is important that we move on this issue without delay, especially concerning the site in Tuam. I state that because we heard from the forensic teams just how fragile the situation is. When is it expected that the legislation will be commenced? From the oral submissions and from reading the written submissions, some issues arose in respect of the coroners. I am aware this topic was just raised, in respect of disapplication. The Minister was paying careful attention to the submissions received. Can he talk us through that aspect? He is assuring us that this initiative will be specific to this Bill. However, was consideration given to reforming the Coroners Acts, as well as the resourcing of the coronial system? I ask the Minister to examine that aspect.

My next question concerns situations where Forensic Science Ireland, FSI, does not have the required facilities. Would it be possible for such capabilities to be procured or outsourced under the FSI governance structure? What engagement has the Department had with the third-level institutions to see what resources we have in Ireland before we consider extending a search for facilities abroad? The Minister might respond to me in respect of that issue. We are only in the process of building a purpose-built FSI laboratory, which we have been planning for almost 20 years. This lab is not expected to be operational until 2022, at the earliest. I am concerned therefore, that from the get-go we will have to go abroad for expertise because we have limited relevant premises here. That FSI lab is much needed, and the Minister understands that point. I wonder if that aspect could be worked on.

I also want to inquire about the collection of DNA samples. Do we have the potential to undertake a process of collecting DNA first? Is the idea of destroying DNA after a short time connected with not having the FSI lab available yet? Regarding collecting DNA, I am concerned that many of the relatives involved in this situation are getting older and are already at an advanced age. However, under the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014 a DNA database was established in Ireland. It is used as an intelligence source for criminal investigations, but also to help find missing people and identify unknown people. Has FSI set up a system for volunteering DNA samples? FSI was hiring forensic scientists grade 3 in the areas of DNA and chemical and physical analysis just last month. What resources are available if we do take on board the suggestions made by survivors to begin the collection of DNA samples now? Some families would be willing volunteers. Did the Minister examine that? I thank the Minister and I again apologise for coming in late.

I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor. We did cover a couple of those points earlier, so I will address some of the points that did not arise previously. The Deputy asked about FSI and its powers. We have set a power for FSI to engage in contracts where it may not have the required facilities. FSI has significant expertise and capabilities, and I acknowledge that at the outset. However, where FSI may not have particular capabilities on site, this legislation will grant it the right to contract out for required skills and capacities in Ireland or abroad. That is appropriate in respect of ensuring we have the widest range of expertise available to us in the DNA identification process.

The Deputy asked some very specific questions, and I do not have all the answers on hand.

Much of that will come about in terms of the administration of the agency, but it will be set up with a view to having the widest possible availability of DNA and other identification techniques. That is the right way to go about it.

We discussed the collection of DNA. There is provision for DNA to be collected prior to the agency being established. That was suspended due to Covid because it is a situation where two people must be present and there is the transfer of a saliva swap as part of that process. As restrictions continue to be reduced and as soon as we can ensure anyone involved will be fully vaccinated I will seek to initiate that process. It is dependent on vaccine roll-out, but I am conscious, particularly as the Deputy said, given the age of the people involved that it is important we start collecting that DNA as quickly as possible.

In terms of the Coroners Act, what we are disapplying is the exhumation and identifications powers of the coroner. Those are the two elements of the coronial Act we are proposing to disapply. We are not proposing to disapply any other elements of the existing coronial legislation.

The Deputy asked when the legislation will be commenced. It depends on when it is passed by the Oireachtas, but I am very eager, as I believe everyone is, to get this agency set up and operating initially on the Tuam site as quickly as possible. There will certainly be no barrier put in place by my Department in achieving that.

On the issue of wider access to information, we touched on that earlier. We have provided GDPR access to the archive of the commission but I always said it was the birth information and tracing legislation that would be the ultimate key to providing access to information. As I said, I look forward to working with the Chairman and all the members of the committee to get that legislation passed as quickly as possible.

Is that okay for the Deputy? Very good. I thank the Minster very much for being with us and for all of the engagement. As I have said a few times regarding this Bill, it just shows the importance of the prelegislative scrutiny process. We have had a great number of hearings and I echo what others have said about the power of the coroner. That point has come through strongly in our discussions.

We hope to have our report completed shortly and we would then appeal to the Minister to examine it and take on board any suggestions and possible amendments from the committee. They will have come forward on the back of expert testimony and the people we have heard from. When we invite groups to appear before the committee it is important we really listen to what they have to say and try to change the legislation in that regard and not have people in merely to tick a box and for nothing to happen with respect to what they have told us. That is really important.

The next process regarding the adoption and tracing information will also involve a great deal of work, but we are all very much looking forward to playing our role in that to ensure, finally, after so many years there will be justice in various forms, hopefully, for survivors of the institutional mother and baby homes.

I thank the Minister again and also Ms Dara Breathnach who is with him today. I thank all the members for their co-operation. I need to get their agreement to publish the Minister's opening statement to the Oireachtas website. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Chairman and look forward to talking to members of the committee about the information and tracing legislation soon.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.14 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 25 May 2021.