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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jun 2019

Vol. 266 No. 7

Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to be here to introduce the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019. The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions Act 2015.

As Senators will be aware, the 2015 Act was enacted to provide certain health services to be made available without charge to successful applicants under the Magdalen Restorative Justice Ex-Gratia Scheme. It also provides that ex gratia payments made to the women arising from the Magdalen redress scheme will not be included in a financial assessment of means under the fair deal scheme.

The purpose of this amending Bill, which is short and technical in nature, is to apply the same benefits to those women who qualify under the November 2018 addendum to the Magdalen redress scheme.

As Senators will be aware, the Ombudsman made a number of recommendations in November 2017 in relation to the operation of the Magdalen Restorative Justice Ex-Gratia Scheme. The principal recommendation of the Ombudsman was that the scheme should be applied to women who worked in the laundry of one of 12 Magdalen institutions and who were resident in one of 14 adjoining institutions.

Following the report of the Ombudsman in relation to the Magdalen redress scheme, the Government agreed to apply the scheme to women who worked in the institutions covered by the scheme, while residing in certain adjoining institutions. The addendum to the Magdalen redress scheme of November 2018 expended the scope of that scheme to include this new cohort of women.

There are currently 99 applications under the addendum. These consist of 52 cases refused under the original scheme who may now be eligible and 47 new applications. Applications are being processed as quickly as possible. Some 35 applicants have received their ex gratia award and offers have issued to a further 26 applicants. To date, €28.734 million has been paid to 750 women under the ex gratia scheme.

As it is Government policy that benefits should accrue to both cohorts in the same way, the Ombudsman's recommendation also necessitated changes to two primary legislative measures. A specific provision was included in the Finance Act 2018 to provide for tax exemption in respect of awards made. The second relates to the provision of certain health services, which is the subject of the Bill we are debating today. This will ensure that the same health benefits that apply to the women covered by the original 2013 scheme also apply to those women now covered by the addendum.

This amending Bill will also make a technical amendment to the Nursing Home Support Scheme Act 2009, which provides for the fair deal scheme. This amendment is necessary to ensure that any lump sum received through the Magdalen redress scheme by this new cohort of women is not taken into account when assessing them for nursing care under the fair deal scheme.

There were three other recommendations of the Ombudsman at the time. These relate, first, to assistance to applicants who lack capacity to accept an award and, second, to a review of those cases where there is a dispute in respect of length of stay in a Magdalen institution. A senior counsel was appointed to carry out both these tasks. All but one of the capacity cases have now been resolved and the review in relation to length of stay is ongoing.

The third recommendation by the Ombudsman was that guidance should be provided for future redress schemes. A working group, led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, is examining this issue.

Officials in my Department have kept the Ombudsman informed on progress in relation to the implementation of his recommendations and on 13 June, I met the Ombudsman, who acknowledged the progress that has been made in implementing his recommendations.

The Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019 consists of five sections. Section 1 defines the 2015 Act in the Bill. Section 2 amends the definition of the scheme in the 2015 Act and includes a reference to the addendum in the 2015 Act. Section 3 expands the provision of health services without charge to this new cohort of women and section 4 provides that any ex gratia payment made under the scheme will not be included in an assessment for the fair deal scheme, which provides nursing home support.

I appreciate that the relevant Oireachtas committee decided to forgo pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of this Bill and I hope that the Bill can now progress quickly through this House so that these women can avail of these benefits as soon as possible. Accordingly, I am pleased to present this Bill to the House and I very much hope that it can proceed through the appropriate Stages of debate.

Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill and we welcome its progression to this House. It is an important part of the apology that we are making to the women who went through these institutions and who have suffered the horrific legacy of the stigma that was imposed on them by the State. I hope it will go some way to healing the massive wound that is still there for them and their families.

All of us would have received a lengthy email from the Justice for Magdalenes Research group. The group expressed its view that the current scheme is not in compliance with Mr. Justice Quirke's recommendations. I would like the Minister to address this and liaise with this group to address these concerns.

The Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions (Amendment) Bill 2019 seeks to amend the Redress for Women Resident in Certain Institutions, RWRCI, Act 2015 and the nursing home support scheme.

The Magdalen Restorative Justice Ex-Gratia Scheme was established in 2013, as the Minister stated, to provide women who worked and resided in Magdalen institutions with access to both financial and health supports, including lump sum cash payments, pensions and health and community care supports free of charge.

In 2017, the Office of the Ombudsman published a report following an investigation of the administration of the Magdalen restorative justice scheme. The report made a number of recommendations, including the expansion of the terms of the scheme to include women who worked in Magdalen laundries but resided elsewhere. On foot of these recommendations, the Department of Justice and Equality announced in May 2018 an addendum to the scheme, which commenced in November 2018. The addendum extends the terms of the scheme to women residing in institutions adjoining Magdalen laundries. These developments are positive and welcome.

However, stakeholders such as the Justice for Magdalenes Research, JFMR, group which had previously called for an extension of the terms of the scheme, have concerns that the Bill under consideration this evening will, in fact, ensure that health and social care recommended by Mr. Justice Quirke in 2013 is actually provided to all survivors under the Magdalen ex gratia scheme. That is the point that Senator Clifford-Lee raised.

The Government simply seeks to add women who worked as children in Magdalen laundries while registered on the rolls of adjacent institutions to the existing health and social care aspects of the Magdalen ex gratia scheme. The Justice for Magdalenes Research group has repeatedly pointed out that the care services currently provided under the RWRCI Act 2015 are not compliant with Mr. Justice Quirke's recommendations.

The problem of healthcare provision to Magdalen survivors has been raised on numerous occasions since the RWRCI Act was enacted.

Justice for Magdalenes Research wrote in February 2016 to the national director of primary care at the HSE to ask for clarification on all the ways in which Magdalen survivors’ entitlements under the Act differ from those already available under the standard medical card. No substantive response has been received to date. It is essential to note that survivors of Magdalen laundries signed away all rights of action against the State in good faith, expecting that they would receive all elements of Mr. Justice Quirke's promised scheme. The failure to provide them with the same suite of health and social care services as provided to cardholders in the Health (Amendment) Act seems to be a gross breach of trust and further abuse of a small group of older women who were very wronged and who experienced great human rights violations in the past. I ask the Minister to comment on that.

By background to Mr. Justice Quirke's recommendations, he delivered a report with a full list of the health and social care supports published in appendix G. The survivors who signed away their rights are entitled to them and expected to have full access to them. The Justice for Magdalenes Research group states that the group of women is not getting access to the full list of benefits. The access by Magdalen women to health and social care appears to fall very short in terms of dental, ophthalmic and oral services such as access to psychotherapy for survivors and complementary therapies, including counselling. As far as I am aware the Department of Justice and Equality has not yet established a fund for Magdalen laundry survivors to obtain complementary therapies, as was promised. Magdalen women's access to home care falls short. We do not want to put such women back in institutions. There is a nationwide crisis in home care. Could the Minister comment on the extent of requests by Magdalen laundry survivors for home care? There are also shortfalls in respect of health and community care for survivors abroad.

In the context of the Bill, will the Minister commence a review of the entitlement to services of relevant participants under the headings I have outlined? Will he also assess any differences in entitlements to services in the context of the first recommendation of the 2013 Magdalen commission report, and make a report to both Houses of the Oireachtas of the findings of the review and the conclusions drawn from its findings? Will the Minister first produce a report on the case for including other forms of related institutions in the redress scheme, including psychiatric institutions which had a formalised relationship with the mother and baby homes? Second, will he report on the inclusion of the Bethany Home in the redress scheme? Third, will he report on the steps that would be required in order to complete a project of forensic accounting for the institutions covered by the redress scheme for the period of time under which women were held? The Magdalen women to whom this Bill relates have suffered more than we can ever imagine, through no fault of their own, and those women have been very wronged. As legislators, we must not add insult to injury by poor design of the redress scheme, myopia and amnesia, or even miserliness. I hope the Minister will take on board the points I have raised. I look forward to his response.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and thank him yet again for another piece of positive and progressive legislation in terms of redress. As Senator Kelleher said, all of us as legislators have only one obligation, which is to ensure that the women receive redress. I know the Minister has been very much to the fore in finding a pathway forward.

Tonight's debate is again an indication of where we have come from and a sign of the unfortunate way in which this country has struggled for decades to deal with our dark past. While we recognise that we cannot undo what happened and we cannot airbrush it or forget it, it is important that those who suffered in many institutions are remembered and get support and that it is done in a way that is compassionate and humane. It is also important that the Government strives to ensure that those who suffered receive the justice and support they require. That must be done in all cases.

Since the publication of the Quirke report six years ago, many of the proposals have been put in place to provide recognition, compassion and support to the women affected by our dark past. The Magdalen restorative justice ex gratia scheme for women has been expanded and today's Bill adds further to what we are doing. It is about providing a range of health services at no charge to the women who stood so valiantly through dark times. In addition, the Bill provides for ex gratia payments to survivors who were not included in any financial assessment of means under the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Act 2009. The provisions have allowed for greater health and financial security for women affected by Magdalen laundries. The reason I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is because to be fair to him, he has been strong in what he is trying to achieve. He is part of a Government that is trying to redress the imbalance and to ensure the supports are put in place. We must remember that the Bill before us today hopes to expand on the support the Government has given to women who have been very wronged by society and the State. I am pleased the Bill will pass Second Stage tonight.

If you do not mind, Acting Chairman, I will digress for a moment. Last Sunday I attended the Bessborough commemoration event on a very wet day in Cork city. It was moved indoors because of the inclement weather. A memorial was created by the artist Jill Dinsdale which was on the grounds of Bessborough last Sunday. It is a wooden sculpture in the form of a circle. Each plank of timber with a scar represents a mother or baby who died in Bessborough. In addition to the story of what happened, the sad part is that many have no idea where the babies are today. I was struck by the beautiful memorial, which needs a permanent home either in the folly in Bessborough which is now closed or somewhere in Cork city. The event was a gathering of women and their families who have suffered and who are looking to have their lives rebuilt or in some cases they are looking for answers. A number of the women were angry and upset. One of the phrases I left with was about us as citizens and legislators trying to restore dignity. That is the reason I attended. Some people might have felt that my presence there as a member of a Government party was perhaps wrong, but I went there in solidarity and support of the Bessborough women, one or two of whom are friends of mine. They came out of Bessborough to tell their story and to help shape society in a better way. For that reason I am very pleased that the Bill has come to the House. I hope that the stories of the 904 babies can be heard and that we can get answers. The whereabouts of only 64 of the babies have been identified in Bessborough. Tonight, the Government is doing a piece of work which adds to what has been done already and I thank the Minister for his work. As Senator Kelleher inferred, we all have a duty and obligation which we are trying to live up to.

I thank the Minister. I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this Bill. I wish to begin by signalling our support for this legislation, but I also state that it does come with a caveat; that is, we wish to see it significantly amended on Committee Stage, and we hope the Government will be open to such amendments given the many criticisms of the scheme as it currently operates.

It is all well and good bringing this legislation forward, and hoping to see it progress speedily, but unless it addresses the deficits within the current scheme it will only compound the hurt of those it claims to benefit. It is also worth pointing out that the Department of Justice and Equality has been less than co-operative in this regard. Without commenting on the High Court case in which the Minister fought for the exclusion of women from this scheme on a technicality, I cannot say that the Department has covered itself in glory in that regard, nor was it in any way considerate or compassionate; in fact, quite the opposite approach has been taken.

Approximately 18 months have passed since the Ombudsman published his report following an investigation by the office into the administration of the Magdalen redress scheme. The Ombudsman's investigation found a serious inconsistency in the Department's application of the redress scheme's eligibility criteria.

Women recorded as admitted to a different institution closely associated with another named laundry were wrongly refused admission to the scheme. Even after the investigation was complete and the recommendations prepared, the first instinct of the Department was to push back.

In evidence to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality earlier this year, Peter Tyndall told members that in his ten years as Ombudsman, he had never reached a point where a Department had, prior to publication of a report, absolutely and categorically refused to engage in the process of accepting and implementing the recommendations made. The report stated:

My investigation found a serious inconsistency in the application of the eligibility criteria in that women were admitted to the Scheme who were recorded as admitted to one particular institution closely associated to a named laundry while women who were recorded as admitted to different institution closely associated with another named laundry, were refused admission to the Scheme. This was despite the almost identical profile, characteristics and relationship with the associated laundry both institutions shared.

On 16 April 2018, the Minister announced that he was bringing proposals to expand the scheme to Cabinet the next day, yet it has taken over a year for the Department to table this legislation. Forgive my cynicism, but it appears delay after delay is not a technical issue, but rather a failure and opposition to making this a political priority, to the point where it was fought in the High Court. I take no satisfaction in kicking the Government on this matter, but its performance to date has been abysmal, and disrespectful to the hurt and pain endured by survivors which was referred to by other colleagues.

The legislation applies the Magdalen redress scheme to women who worked in the institutions covered by the scheme while residing in certain adjoining institutions. The Bill makes the necessary technical amendments to the 2015 Act to expand it to apply to women who worked in the institutions covered by the scheme while residing in certain adjoining institutions.

Again, while the Bill is welcome, it does not address some of the fundamental flaws experienced within the current scheme, and we will be seeking to take the opportunity to amend it accordingly. I will be moving an amendment to ensure that the promised healthcare, as outlined by Mr. Justice Quirke, is finally provided by the scheme. The Government accepted the recommendations of the Quirke report in full in 2013 but has yet to uphold this particular commitment.

As has been noted extensively, the women who are part of this scheme are not afforded the standard of healthcare in line with that provided for through the Health (Amendment) Act, HAA, card. The card is one of the most important cards awarded by the HSE, as it gives entitlement to a range of services for the lifetime of the cardholder; and Mr. Justice Quirke recommended anyone who qualifies for this scheme be awarded this card.

Such services as complementary therapies fall within the remit of this card and are vital to those who seek to avail of the scheme. The scheme as it currently stands does not afford people within it access to any such therapies. The benefits of alternative and complementary therapies are well documented, particularly among those who have experienced traumatic events, and suffer with anxiety, depression or more complex conditions. I have seen that in practice first-hand, working with survivors and victims of the conflict in the North. These grassroots, complementary and alternative therapies often provide a real lifeline for people who are dealing with bespoke requirements. I cannot stress enough the need for that because I have seen first-hand the benefits it can have, albeit in different circumstances.

In August 2015, several dentists confirmed publicly that, instead of receiving HAA standard services as recommended by Mr. Justice Quirke and agreed by the Government in 2013, Magdalen survivors have been given a card that entitles them only to the "limited and incomplete treatment [...] for most medical card holders." The dentists called on the council of the Irish Dental Association, "to publicly disassociate itself from this act by the Government and to speak out publicly on behalf of its members who do not accept the injustice we are expected to support."

An amendment that ensures HAA standard services are realised as promised is, unfortunately, necessary and I hope to see cross-party support for such calls, given they were promised many years ago.

There is also the issue within the context of the current scheme, that is, access to healthcare for women abroad. I am of the understanding that women in England are receiving reimbursement of their medical expenses, but this is a serious problem as the women need the British state to pay for their healthcare up front. The majority of these people simply do not have the means to pay out of their own pocket and then get reimbursed. There may be other issues that come to the fore which we feel are necessary to address, whether on Committee or Report Stages, and I hope the Minister can work with me and with colleagues to fix the shortfall within the current scheme to ensure these women are able to access the type of healthcare they deserve and which the Government committed initially to providing.

I thank Senators for facilitating this debate and for the responses to the Bill. I restate that the Government is committed to complying with all of the recommendations made by the Ombudsman in November 2017. As I have already stated, officials in my Department continue to liaise on a regular basis on the implementation of these recommendations. I met the Ombudsman two weeks ago and he acknowledged the progress that has been made to date. Women who worked in the institutions covered by the redress scheme while residing in certain adjoining institutions are already making applications and receiving lump sums under the scheme through the November 2018 addendum.

This Bill, short as it is, will expand the scope of the 2015 Act to deal with health benefits for these women. The amending Bill will ensure these women benefit from the same medical benefits as those awarded redress under the original interpretation of the Magdalen redress scheme.

I listened carefully to the points raised by Senator Kelleher, many of which relate to women in these schemes. I would be happy to examine the points as raised. Some of the issues raised do not fall within this legislation, nor within the remit of my Department, but I would be happy to convey the Senator's concerns to my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone.

I acknowledge again that the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality agreed to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. In that regard and in commending the Bill to the House, I ask that appropriate arrangements be made for Committee Stage and I am happy to engage with Senators Ó Donnghaile, Clifford-Lee and any other Senators who may wish to participate in the debate at that point.

The engagement the Minister has offered is important because I know both Senators Clifford-Lee and Ó Donnghaile are genuine in their desire to create a meeting of minds with this Bill. We do not want to divide on this Bill above all Bills. I welcome that engagement and I hope it happens tomorrow so that we can see the passage of this Bill on Thursday.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 27 June 2019.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.27 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 June 2019.