I am delighted to commence the debate in this House on the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Amendment) Bill 2005. The Bill amends the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act 2000 and the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002 and establishes a statutory body to administer a €12.7 million education fund for former residents of institutions and their families.
Before outlining the purpose of the Bill to the House today, it is important to draw attention to the general background to the Bill which has been passed by the Lower House. The Members are no doubt aware of the progress made in this area since the Taoiseach's apology of 11 May 1999, when he announced a series of Government measures for the redress of abuse. These measures included the establishment of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, amendments to the Statute of Limitations and the establishment of a national counselling service.
The Government subsequently announced the setting up of a financial redress scheme for victims of abuse and the establishment of a statutory redress board to administer such a scheme. Following the resignation of Ms Justice Mary Laffoy as chairperson of the commission, on 26 September 2003 the Government appointed Mr. Justice Sean Ryan, then senior counsel, as chairperson-designate of the commission.
The Government requested Mr. Justice Ryan to undertake immediately his own independent review of the working of the commission. Mr. Justice Ryan's report was published on 15 January 2004, together with the review completed by the Office of the Attorney General. The Government accepted the recommendations contained in Mr. Justice Ryan's report. Following the publication of this report, the investigation committee held consultation meetings with all interested parties and representative groups to facilitate them in expressing their views regarding the content of both reports and to enable them to make suggestions in respect of the future operation of the investigation committee. A formal hearing of the investigation committee took place on 24 May 2004 to receive submissions on identifying institutions and persons under the Act. Representative groups were also given an opportunity to express their views on the matter. On 16 June 2004, Mr. Justice Ryan publicly stated that the commission had decided to proceed in accordance with the position paper published on 7 May 2004.
The confidential committee of the commission continues to operate as normal and by 17 June 2005, it had heard evidence from 1,082 witnesses. The confidential committee will continue to hear evidence in the coming months from the remaining witnesses after which it will prepare its report and present it to the commission.
The investigation committee has held a series of hearings into the emergence of child abuse. The Taoiseach, former Ministers for Education and Science, Deputies Martin and Woods, officials of my Department as well as other Departments, the congregations and survivor group leaders have all given evidence to the committee regarding the background to the establishment of the commission. The aim of these public hearings was to establish how child abuse as an issue emerged in the State on an historical basis.
In addition to the public hearings noted earlier, the investigation committee has commenced hearings into specific institutions commencing with St. Joseph's, Clonmel, in September 2004. Hearings on St. Patrick's industrial school, Upton, took place in October 2004; on Our Lady of Succour industrial school, Newtownforbes, in January 2005; on St. Patrick's, Kilkenny, in February 2005; on St. Vincent's, Goldenbridge, in March 2005; on St. Conleth's reformatory school, Daingean, County Offaly, in May 2005; and those on St. Joseph's, Letterfrack, commenced on 16 June 2005.
In his programme of work for 2005, Mr. Justice Ryan has outlined that the investigation committee will interview all of the approximately 1,300 people who decided to continue to participate in the inquiry by the investigation committee. This process has already commenced and is being conducted by members of the commission's legal team. The information obtained in these interviews will be collected and produced in a report which will then be distributed as appropriate to relevant bodies for comment and discussion. If there are material areas of dispute, the committee will arrange for further investigation, including full hearings if appropriate. In the interview process, witnesses whose experience must be investigated further by the committee will be chosen for later appearance before the committee in full session with cross-examination taking place.
In order to do this, the investigation committee must first establish how many individuals are willing to give evidence and whether that evidence is necessary in order to cover the full range of complaints before it. The basis of choosing witnesses is to give as full a picture as possible of life in the relevant institution, covering the range of complaints and experiences over the period under investigation.
If the investigation committee does not get enough information from the witnesses that have been chosen to give evidence in respect of any institution, it will call more witnesses until the point of sufficiency has been reached. In other words, the process is not mechanical, whereby a certain percentage or proportion of complainants is called to give evidence before the investigation committee. Flexibility must be maintained and the essential point is that the inquiry must acquire sufficient information to enable it to reach conclusions and furnish a report.
The commission's scheme has a number of functions. The investigation committee will have the opportunity to gather a body of evidence at first hand from all the people who want to continue with the committee, thus ensuring that every single person has a role in the work of the inquiry. It will enable the committee, through its legal team, to ensure that the witnesses who are put forward for participation in the formal hearing process represent the full range of experiences across time in the particular institution. It will reduce the likelihood of people who are less able for adversarial hearings being subjected to examination and cross-examination before gatherings of lawyers and other interested parties. It will yield information across institutions under investigation. The information will be gathered in a formal process of interview to enable the examination of particular topics and comparisons between institutions will be made easier. It is the commission's intention to complete its report prior to the end of its extended remit of May 2008.
I wish to take this opportunity to outline some of the main features of the Bill in so far as the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is concerned. The Bill will implement the main recommendation of both the Attorney General and Mr. Justice Ryan to remove the obligation on the investigation committee to conduct full hearings into all allegations of abuse made to it.
Instead, the committee will be able to call witnesses to give evidence of abuse suffered by them to the extent that the investigation committee decides is necessary for the purposes of the inquiry. This key amendment is provided for in sections 4 and 7 of the Bill. Persons not called to give evidence to the investigation committee can opt to apply to transfer to the confidential committee of the commission. Sections 4 and 7 of the Bill also extend the remit of the commission and the investigation committee to examine the manner in which children were detained in residential institutions and the circumstances in which they continued to be so detained. This is important from the point of view of gaining a full understanding as to how and why child abuse occurred and the historic and societal context in which it arose.
Sections 5 and 8 of the Bill, respectively, provide that the commission and the investigation committee will only name individual abusers that have a criminal conviction for child abuse or those who have admitted to or pleaded guilty to charges of child abuse.
The primary purpose of the commission of inquiry is to determine the causes, nature, circumstances and extent of child abuse. Given the rights of people to due process, it is necessary to place certain limitations on the naming of individuals alleged to have carried out abuse.
A number of other changes proposed in the Bill are as follows: A provision to allow for joint hearings to take place to allow complainants with a common alleged abuser to have their complaints heard simultaneously, provided for in section 6; a provision also in section 6 for a division of the committee to operate under a single member of the commission; a provision in section 8 that would enable the commission to issue fact finding interim reports; the powers of the commission are to be extended to require persons giving evidence to it to swear the matter in an affidavit and make admissions to and to answer written interrogatories under oath in order that matters can be dealt with more speedily and at less cost, provided for in section 9; and provision under section 14 to allow a complainant to withdraw a complaint being made subject to the consent of the committee.
There are two other main parts of the Bill which I would like to bring to the attention of Senators. The first deals with the establishment of an education finance board to administer an education grant scheme for former residents of institutions and their families. This is provided for in Part 3, sections 22 to 33, and in the Schedule. The second deals with amendments to the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002, which are contained in Part 4 of the Bill.
Under the terms of the indemnity agreement concluded with the religious congregations, €12.7 million is to be used for educational programmes for former residents of institutions and their families. The agreement was concluded in June 2002, that is, after the enactment of the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002 in April 2002. In view of the urgency of making funding available to former residents wishing to undertake further education, a grant scheme funded by the Department of Education and Science was established on an administrative basis in September 2003 pending the introduction of a statutory scheme. This scheme is currently administered by the national office for victims of abuse with the assistance of the City of Dublin VEC and to date €1.7 million has been spent on the scheme.
The purpose of what is proposed in the Bill is twofold. First, it establishes an independent education finance board to administer an educational grant scheme for former residents and their families. Second, the Bill provides a legal basis for the management and investment of the €12.7 million fund provided under the indemnity agreement for this purpose, after taking account of interest accruing on the €12.7 million fund and expenditure incurred to date on the non-statutory scheme.
The principal functions of the board, set out in section 25, are to pay grants to former residents of institutions and their families, to determine and publish the criteria by which it will make decisions on applications for grants and to make available to applicants information in relation to the educational services in respect of which grants are available. Section 29 provides that the board will consist of a chairperson and eight ordinary members. To ensure that survivors' interests are adequately represented, four of the ordinary members will be former residents of institutions.
The proposed amendments to the Residential Institutions Redress Act are mainly of a technical nature and have been requested by the redress board and the review committee in the light of their experience of the redress application process over the past two years. The redress board was established on 16 December 2002 under the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002. Its primary purpose is to make fair and reasonable awards to persons who, as children, were abused while resident in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions that were subject to State regulation or inspection. The redress scheme provides an alternative to survivors having to pursue traumatic civil court cases in order to obtain compensation for their injuries. The redress scheme is designed to address the fact that the State and the institutions concerned failed in some way while they had the responsibility for the care of the child.
It acknowledges that because of this some people who were in institutional care have, through much of their lives, carried serious psychological scars. The scheme seeks to provide reasonable financial compensation for that injury. The board commenced operations in December 2002 and according to the latest information available, the redress board has received 6,500 applications to date and has made awards in over 3,400 cases. The average award made by the board is €77,000 and total payments to date amount to €260 million.
The amount of award payable by the board in each case will depend on the severity of the abuse and the severity of physical and psychological injury as well as loss of opportunity resulting from the abuse. The board may grant awards up to €300,000 and in exceptionally severe cases the board may award an amount higher than this. There is also provision to award additional aggravated damages of up to €60,000 in certain specified circumstances.
The proposed amendments to the Residential Institutions Redress Act are contained in section 34 of the Bill and include first, allowing for a two week cooling off period once an applicant has made a request to the review committee for it to review an award offered by the redress board. Survivor groups have requested this change and the chairperson of the review committee is in agreement with it. Second, allowing the Courts Service to administer arrangements for the payment of awards in instalments. The Courts Service has confirmed that it is willing to do so but cannot until a legislative basis is provided. Third, providing that anyone who gives false information to the board may be liable to prosecution for perjury. As it currently stands, only applicants to the board can be so prosecuted.
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Amendment) Bill 2005 was published on 24 March 2005. The Bill proceeded to Second Stage in the Lower House on 21 April 2005 and completed this Stage on 28 April 2005. Before the Bill proceeded to Committee Stage on 17 May 2005, I consulted with a number of survivor support groups to hear their views on the amending legislation. A number of amendments have been considered since the publication of the Bill and I believe it would be helpful to outline to the House these amendments. An amendment was made to the definition of "relative" in the interpretation section of the education (former residents of certain institutions for children) finance board. Following consultations with the survivor groups, I have decided to limit the scheme to those most affected by a family member's residence in an institution. Therefore, for the purpose of the Bill "relative" means spouse, son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, stepson and stepdaughter of a former resident of an institution.
An amendment to section 34(f) will allow the review committee to sit as a committee of two. Also, section 34(h) is being amended to allow for a complaint against a solicitor to be fully investigated. The survivor groups and the Law Society raised a concern regarding section 28 of the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002 which prohibits the disclosure of certain information. The Law Society of Ireland is asked on occasions to investigate complaints against solicitors acting on behalf of applicants to the redress board. An amendment to paragraph 8 of the Schedule to the Bill will provide clear guidelines in the legislation to cover conflict of interest situations for members of the education finance board. A number of the survivor groups raised this issue.
On Report Stage in the Dáil I tabled an amendment to ensure that the Ombudsman has sufficient powers to investigate any complaints made to her office in relation to the education finance board. Following completion of Committee Stage it was brought to my attention that the Bill as drafted could be viewed as limiting the scope of the Ombudsman in relation to her ability to make recommendations. This was not my intention so I brought forward the amendment to remedy the matter.
On Committee Stage, I agreed to consider the inclusion of the education finance board in the Schedule to the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 and have since taken the advice of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. It advises me that the appropriate means of ensuring that the education finance board is included in the Schedule to the Freedom of Information Acts is to request that the Department of Finance provide for its inclusion in the next list of additions to the Schedule by way of statutory instrument rather than by primary legislation. Once the board has been established my Department will request the Department of Finance to arrange for its inclusion.
This amending legislation fulfils three important functions. First, it will greatly assist the commission in completing a comprehensive inquiry into child abuse within a sensible timeframe and at an affordable cost. Second, it sets up an independent statutory scheme of educational support for survivors and their families. Third, it makes a number of legislative amendments to enhance the effective operation of the redress scheme.
Most important, by bringing forward this legislation, we are providing the commission with the framework to move forward with its remit. The commission can continue to move ahead with its hearings and will be in a position to deliver a detailed report on what happened within these institutions and what should be done to ensure it cannot happen again. This will be of benefit to all survivors. They have waited too long already. To ask them to wait for a further ten or 11 years or more while 1,300 individual adversarial hearings or mini-trials took place with little certainty of the outcome would not have been acceptable either to them or to the State. The completion and publication of the commission's report within a reasonable timeframe will hopefully bring at least some form of vindication and healing for these survivors and will allow them to try to move ahead with their lives as best they can. Molaim an Bille don Teach.