I begin by thanking all Members of the House for their very thought-through and meaningful contributions this afternoon and last week. It has been an extremely good and considered debate. It is clear that many Senators have taken the time to go through what is a huge report. It took me weeks to get through it all in detail. Many Senators today, such as Senator Ahearn and some Senators from Galway, picked on local homes such as the one in Tuam to focus on local issues, which in the immediate term are most apparent and meaningful to them. Everyone has reflected their gratitude to the Acting Chairperson for his contributions to this debate and the previous debate on the database. I reiterate that from the point of view of his shared experience here, our individual conversations and the kind of guidance he has been able to give me as a new Minister and new Deputy in this role.
I will try to address points made by individual Senators today, as I did last week. Obviously, I will be unable to cover everything in a great deal of detail. Senator Chambers began by saying that redress and apology can never make good all the hurt that has been done to survivors. This is the understanding of the Government. The Government understands that the State failed survivors and allowed that relationship of trust to break. It was the State's fault and now the State offers the suite of measures outlined in the action plan as a step towards rebuilding that relationship. It will take a long time to rebuild that relationship for some survivors. We may never be able to entirely do that but we are setting out a range of actions for us to take. An apology, restorative recognition and legislation are all part of steps to rebuild that relationship. It was important that Senator Chambers mentioned the county homes and that only four county homes were fully investigated in the report as a representative sample. Indeed, the report identified that some of the worst conditions were in the county homes as opposed to necessarily being found in the mother and baby homes.
Senators Chambers, Crowe, Dolan and Kyne all referred to the apology of Galway County Council. We spoke about that briefly last week. I remember Senator Pauline O'Reilly also referred to it last week. That apology was really good and an important first step in rebuilding that local relationship of trust. I hope we see other local authorities take a similar approach.
Senators Chambers, Craughwell, Ardagh and Higgins spoke about the importance of the restorative recognition scheme and how it is so important that we get that right. Senators also said it is important that this is done quickly. There is a balance there. We want to get this right and learn from the mistakes of previous redress schemes. I am very conscious of that and that we need a human rights approach in the drafting of this particular scheme. I am also conscious of the age of many of the survivors. It is important that we make provision for them as quickly as possible.
Senator Conway referred to the responsibility and failure of the State in allowing the cruelties that are exhibited in this report occur to women and children. That, again, is a key emphasis of my response and that of the Government. We acknowledge the fault of the State; the State was at fault here. Irrespective of how certain elements are conveyed by certain parts of the report, this Government recognises the State's fault and we are acting to begin to make good the flaws of previous Governments and local authorities.
Senator Conway noted the importance of acting quickly on all 22 points. That was a theme in many Senators' contributions. I and the Government will be accountable for our success in implementing them and I, as line Minister, will be accountable to both Houses. I have no doubt I will be before the House regularly to discuss the various elements and how we are advancing on them. One of the other key elements is to have information and tracing legislation. We have made a commitment to bring the heads of a Bill at the end of March or in early April. That will give us an opportunity to pass this legislation well before the end of this year. From the point of view of legislation that will be highly technical, that is an ambitious timeframe that we have proposed. It is not a question of dusting down previous legislation. This is new legislation because we are taking an approach that is centred on the general data protection regulation, GDPR.
Senator Sherlock spoke of the need not to significantly limit those to whom redress will be given. Senator Hoey drew on that point as well. The Government took the important decision not to restrict the interdepartmental group which will design the redress scheme. The group can look beyond the three categories set out by the commission. That is important because I, too, would find it difficult to see the justification for taking 1973 and the introduction of the unmarried mother's allowance as an absolute cut-off point.
Senators Crowe and Craughwell both drew attention to the absolutely shocking figure of 9,000 children and babies who died in an institution. That is probably the most powerful and significant piece of knowledge that this report has delivered to us, not just that one raw figure but the numbers who died in individual institutions, including more than 1,000 in the Sean Ross mother and baby home and 900 in Bessborough. That brought home the realities of what happened in these institutions.
Senator Crowe also emphasised the importance of health supports, as did Senators Ó Donnghaile and Joe O'Reilly. Those are important. Counselling services are now in place through the national counselling service. Former residents of these institutions are a prioritised group within that, which means they do not have to go to the back of the queue. They are prioritised in availing of counselling, which is free and can be of a short, medium or long-term nature. A detailed and comprehensive suite of counselling has been put in place for former residents, which is important.
Senator Crowe and a number of other Senators mentioned the importance of ongoing engagement with survivors. I am very conscious of that. I have proposed two dates for meetings in February with the collaborative forum, as the representative body of survivors. We are arranging two meetings because we have an extensive range of issues to discuss. There will also be wider engagement with survivors. I look forward to hearing the views of the collaborative forum to get inspiration and ideas for how we should provide wider ongoing engagement with survivors. That is essential.
Senator Dolan made the very valid point that there is a large cohort of survivors who are not known to us and who suffer in silence having made the decision not to tell any member of their family. I can only imagine how traumatic and difficult the last number of days have been for them. Many survivors have groups around them to whom they can talk and who offer them support. For those who, for their own reasons, have taken the decision not to open up about this, we acknowledge that they are there and that this must be an incredibly hard time for them.
Senator Ó Domhnaill mentioned the Northern report which was published today. As he said, we have had engagement with the Executive. I met Judith Gillespie, who is leading that investigation, and the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, prior to Christmas. Last week, I had a very useful meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister I offered any help that we could give to them in the context of the next steps they are taking. We agreed that there were many issues, in particular the cross-Border trade in children which went from North to South and vice versa and happened in Catholic and Protestant churches. We all agreed that taking a survivor-centred approach was absolutely critical.
Senator Ardagh spoke about the responsibilities of the congregations. As I said, I have begun that engagement with them and have sought a meeting with them to discuss the issue of apology, their contribution to the restorative recognition scheme and access to records. Senator Hoey mentioned the importance of access to church as well as State records.
Senator Martin referred to the importance of engagement with survivors. I mentioned my commitment to engage with the collaborative forum and wider engagement. I am very open to new ways of engaging with survivors and examining the models that have been adopted in other countries, as well as the idea of survivor advocates or something along those lines. I want to engage with the collaborative forum in the first place.
I have spoken with Senator Higgins on an individual basis on my Department's compatibility with GDPR in answering subject access requests. I and my officials will meet the Data Protection Commissioner on Thursday to discuss in detail the application of GDPR to our treatment of the archive. That is particularly important.
I note Senators Higgins and Byrne also mentioned direct provision as a more modern manifestation of State failure and the Government's commitment to end direct provision. I will bring forth a White Paper in February that will outline how we will end direct provision.
Senator O'Reilly placed great importance on the range of information that we need to provide to survivors of these institutions. I have set out the measures involved, including information and tracing, and what my Department can provide when subject access requests come in regarding information contained in the commission archive. That will apply from 28 February.
Senator O'Reilly also spoke very passionately about the issue of compulsion and the compulsion that was placed on women to enter these institutions and give their children up for adoption. Senator Hoey also spoke on that point. When I read the confidential committee chapter and other chapters it is clear to me that these women had absolutely no choice in the decision to enter an institution or give up their children. That is apparent to me and it is on that basis that I go forward.
Senators Byrne and Kyne emphasised the idea of a survivor-centred approach by my Department and other Government bodies, in particular Tusla. Tusla is very eager to act and implement subject access requests in a way that is compatible with GDPR.
Senator Kyne spoke very passionately about the misogyny that is rife across the report and was clearly rife in Irish society for so many decades. One of the key points was the way women were spoken about in institutions, government and local authorities and the contempt with which they were spoken to in many circumstances.
Senator Ahearn outlined the specific elements concerning the Sean Ross home and the very high infant mortality rates there. I remember being particularly taken by what Alice Lister, the Department inspector said. She spoke about the export of children from Sean Ross to the United States and said we were sending away our most beautiful, brightest and best children. She said how important it was for that process to stop.
Senator O'Loughlin recognised how many people we know in our lives who will have been directly impacted by this, in terms of having been in a mother in an institution or having been adopted from one.
Certainly, even in my own life I can think of three people who have been adopted and to whom I have been speaking over recent months about the various issues that spring from this report and getting their sense of how they feel about all that we have learned.
As Senator Craughwell has said, there can be no sense of an apology and moving on from this issue. I can assure him and all of the Senators that there will be no such sense. This is the first step in what will be a long process of the State seeking to rebuild that relationship of trust and to make it right with survivors. We are going to work as fast as we can to deliver the crucial elements, but I would be lying as Minister to say that all of the 22 action points will be done quickly. We will, however, act as fast as possible to deliver key things such as information and tracing and redress, and we have already delivered on comprehensive counselling. I will be accountable to this House and to the Dáil for the ongoing implementation.
In using the words used at the beginning of this session, we believe survivors and we will now act to show, by implementing these actions following on from the State apology, that we believe survivors.