I welcome the opportunity for statements on the second interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters. I welcome all our guests in the Chamber. Following a short first interim report last July, the commission submitted its second interim report to me in September 2016. This second report focuses on a number of issues which had come to its attention during its analysis of information and evidence collected up to August 2016.
I am conscious that it took some time before I was in a position to publish the latest report. As I outlined when I published the report on 11 April, the commission's recommendations gave rise to a number of very important financial and legal questions which the Government needed to consider prior to publication. This took some time because I wanted to look at every possible option in conjunction with my Government colleagues. I have acknowledged that the process was more complex and took longer than I initially anticipated.
Senators will be aware that the commission was established in 2015 to examine the experiences of vulnerable women and children in mother and baby homes over the period 1922 to 1998. It is due to report in February 2018. We are now more than two years into its three-year programme of work. This work by the commission is a vital step on the path we have commenced to establish the facts of what happened in and around these homes, and to give true meaning to the values we say define us as a people and a country.
The commission continues to make progress and I restate the Government's continued support for this important work. I record my thanks to Judge Yvonne Murphy, Dr. William Duncan and Professor Mary Daly for their valuable contribution and commitment to the public interest in this sensitive work. Furthermore, it is also now over two months since the commission confirmed the discovery of human remains at the site of the former home in Tuam, County Galway. I appreciated the opportunity to speak about that at that time. As this news and the contents of the interim report continue to be absorbed, I am mindful that there are many deeply personal issues which those directly affected by these issues understandably want Government to address.
I have visited the site in Tuam three times and met former residents and their families. I am acutely aware that many people are experiencing a great deal of anxiety and anticipation of what might happen next on these issues. I will first focus on the report itself and then take some time to update Members on a number of developments which I am progressing with Government colleagues to ensure we respond as effectively and as sensitively as possible to these developments.
Much of the focus of the second interim report is on children who were unaccompanied by their mothers in mother and baby homes and county homes. The commission in its report suggests that where children were resident in mother and baby homes and in county homes without their mothers and these children were excluded from the residential institutions redress scheme, established in 2002 and which has since closed, or a similar such scheme, this should be re-examined.
The commission has stated that it is satisfied that the institutions it is investigating are, in the commission's words, "unquestionably" the main such homes that existed during the 20th century and does not currently recommend that other institutions be investigated. It does not recommend any changes to its terms of reference at this time but may recommend further investigations when its current investigation is completed. The commission considers that it would not be in the public interest to conduct further investigations into institutions which have already been the subject of investigation or where a State apology has been given and redress provided. It does not make findings that abuse occurred in these institutions but notes that its investigations are not yet complete.
The commission recognises that people whose births were falsely registered have a need to establish their identity, but it also recognises that the false registration of births is a very difficult issue to investigate because of a lack of accurate records. For this reason, the commission suggests that an amnesty from prosecution may help to encourage those responsible to come forward and correct the record.
The Government carefully examined the commission's recommendation regarding redress and concluded that it was not possible to implement it. In reaching this conclusion the Government was conscious that the commission has made no findings to date regarding abuse or neglect, and the Government also believes it would not be appropriate to deal with the question of redress in advance of any conclusions by the commission.
The challenges for Government in considering the recommendations of the commission at this interim stage of its work were further highlighted by the recently completed special report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the residential institutions redress scheme. Due regard was given to the recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General in finalising the Government's view on the recommendation. I understand the distress that this decision has caused some former residents. The commission's final report is due in February 2018, at which time the State's response to its conclusions on this issue and all matters regarding the treatment of former residents will be studied very carefully.
It must be acknowledged that previous redress schemes have been complex to administer and often difficult for applicants, but the future State response will be a matter for public debate when the commission completes its work. Although former residents have expressed some concerns about the specific amnesty proposal from the commission, I have committed to exploring further the legal and practical implications of such an approach with the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Social Protection.
As I announced when I published the report, my immediate focus is on assisting those who were unaccompanied as children in mother and baby homes and county homes, with a view to offering health and well-being supports and services that will be of genuine and practical value to them now. I am making arrangements for a facilitated consultation process with former residents who were unaccompanied in these institutions regarding the nature and type of services and supports in the area of health and well-being that they consider would be helpful to them at this stage. I want to consult, listen and learn, and I will be making further announcements about this process shortly. I then expect to bring proposals to Government before the summer break in order that we can have appropriate supports in place as quickly as possible.
In responding to the increased demand for access to relevant information, I have asked Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, to enhance its capacity for the provision of information to assist former residents who may wish to establish when they resided in a mother and baby home. My Department is working with Tusla to progress this matter as quickly as possible in tandem with our ongoing legislative reform to facilitate access to adoption records as provided for in the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016, the Second Stage of which we have just completed here this afternoon.
While the report states that the commission is not seeking an extension to its current remit, I have indicated that I want to conduct a scoping review to consider if broader terms of reference would help answer some of the questions which have been raised again in public debate. In this context it is useful to remind ourselves that the commission was established in response to public concerns about a specific type of institution, namely, mother and baby homes. The commission was established to address the specific concerns relating to the welfare of women and children during their time in such institutions and the arrangements for their subsequent exit or placement from homes. Many of the additional issues raised again recently were examined when the commission was being established. While I am open to examining the calls for an extension, it is essential that we do so with a full understanding of the considerable breadth and scope of its current terms of reference. They include mechanisms in order that any additional matters which the commission may deem to warrant investigation can be brought to the attention of Government, its work of listening to victims and survivors in a safe and supported context, as well as the ambitious scale of its fact-finding work.
The commission has significant autonomy to follow where the investigation takes it. This is important as the commission is examining records to which the State, or any other parties, would not have had access to previously. In responding to the call for all adoptions to be investigated, the commission noted that this would represent a vast undertaking and indicated that completing its analysis of adoption practices relating to mother and baby homes may facilitate the making of a recommendation on this question at a later point. In its report the commission commits to including relevant information on other institutions which have come to its attention in its social history report which will form a key part of its final report. At this future point, the report states that it may also be in a position to comment on the need for any further investigations in respect of these institutions.
While the independent statutory investigation progresses its work, I have highlighted the need to look beyond the important legal questions surrounding mother and baby homes by developing complementary holistic approaches to grasp the truth of what happened in our country. I have asked Dr. James Gallen of the school of law and government, Dublin City University, to assist by mapping out a model of transitional justice which can further assist to publicly acknowledge the experiences of former residents and further enhance public awareness and understanding of this part of our history. Dr. Gallen is currently preparing a framework document which will be submitted to my Department in the coming weeks.
Since the commission announced the discovery of human remains at the location at Tuam, I have been working with Government colleagues to establish an inclusive process of engagement with former residents, their families and other stakeholders with a view to building a consensus on how the sensitive issues which arise can be addressed. In particular I want to acknowledge my helpful engagements with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, in this regard.
It is essential that this process respects the memory and the dignity of the deceased children who lived their short lives in this home. Galway County Council is the owner of the site and it will have a central role in progressing matters. I also understand that the council has been liaising directly with the commission and has written to the coroner around these matters. As part of these discussions, I advised the Cabinet yesterday of my intention to secure specialist expertise to provide technical advice and assistance. I believe decisions on the approach to be adopted would benefit greatly from expert technical guidance on international best practices in this highly specialised area.
I am anxious that decisions on the future of the site in Tuam are progressed as a matter of urgency and I hope to revert to the Government very shortly with proposals.
I thank the Seanad for the opportunity today to further address these issues and I look forward to the contribution of Senators.