Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Nov 2021

Vol. 280 No. 10

Mother and Baby Homes Redress Scheme: Statements

I welcome the Minister to the House.

I want to express my appreciation to the Seanad for arranging this debate further to the discussions we had in the Dáil Chamber last Tuesday and Thursday. I reiterate my appreciation of the keen interest many Members of the Oireachtas have shown in this important issue. The matters we are discussing are not easy to discuss but it is imperative we do so because survivors have waited a long time for an adequate response to the pain and suffering they have endured. I know they appreciate the support of Deputies and Senators and their attention to these matters.

As I have previously stated , the Government understands that there is no financial or service provision which could make up for what has been endured by so many people whose lives have been affected by the legacy of these institutions. The shameful way that some of our most vulnerable women and children were treated in mother and baby institutions across the country has rightly caused an outcry. Every day we learn more about the shocking treatment endured and how the effects of it continue to ripple through families today. Every family has been touched in some way. We witness the pain that is felt so deeply by those who have not been able to access information about their own origins, or who have succeeded in doing so but found the toll of the struggle to be substantial.

We recognise the importance of lifting the veil of secrecy and honouring those who suffered because their country cast them aside when they needed help and compassion. The only acceptable response to this legacy has to be holistic and wide-ranging. This is what the Government has committed to in its action plan for survivors and former residents of mother and baby and county home institutions. Following the State apology last January for the profound intergenerational wrong visited upon mothers and their children in these institutions, significant progress has been made on a number of the actions in the action plan. While we know there can never be enough put in place to make up for the decades of failure, the action plan represents the Government's sincere attempt to provide a remedy for the significant grief and anguish that exists.

The plan encompasses 22 actions. I stress that the mother and baby institutions payment scheme, while hugely important and the most significant scheme of its type in the history of the State, is just one element of the plan. Consultation with survivors, including the consultation facilitated by OAK Consulting on developing proposals for the scheme, has consistently shown that all measures included in the plan are vitally important to survivors and their families.

It is important to note that action 2 provided counselling support for all former residents. That has been in place since before the publication of the commission's report. The service has been strengthened with additional investment and an expanded out-of-hours service. Work has also commenced under action 19 on establishing a patient advocacy liaison service for all survivors and I expect that to be in place next year. The Department of Health is working with the Health Research Board, again under action 19, on a research project as part of The Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing, TILDA, to identify the health needs of survivors. This research will inform health policy and service provision.

The Government has published the general scheme of a birth information and tracing Bill, which is currently the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny. The proposed legislation will provide guaranteed access to an unredacted birth certificate and birth information for adopted people, persons whose births were illegally registered and other persons who have questions in relation to their origins. It will also address access to records containing birth and early life information, provide a statutory basis for tracing services and provide for safeguarding of relevant records. Consultation with survivors has shown that access to this information is the overwhelming priority need which has been expressed by people who as children were adopted or otherwise separated from their birth family.

In relation to institutional burials legislation and action 22, the Oireachtas joint committee submitted its report on its pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill in July and my Department is carefully reviewing its recommendations. I hope to advance this legislation as quickly as possible to allow excavation of the site in Tuam to begin in 2022.

Action 18 will see the creation of a children's fund to honour the memory of children who died in mother and baby institutions, through the provision of supports to children who experience disadvantage in the present day. We have also committed to creating a national memorial and records centre and to memorialisation initiatives at local level, as well as the ongoing administration of a commemorative grant scheme in my Department to support survivor-centred advocacy groups in organising commemorative events.

Actions 11 to 14 focus on education and research. A number of education and research initiatives are also in train through the Department of Education, such as the consideration of how best to support schools in enabling students to learn about and understand this important and sensitive aspect of Ireland's recent history. The Government has created a number of postgraduate scholarships in partnership with the Irish Research Council in memory of the children who died in the institutions. These scholarships will cover research in the area of childhood disadvantage. My Department has commissioned a team based in NUI Galway to conduct research on language, terminology and representation, which aims to highlight the stigmatising and labelling language that has been used in the past and to provide guidance on how to do better in future.

Action 5 of the action plan allows for general data protection regulation, GDPR, right of access to commission records. My Department has ensured that resources are in place to deal with subject access requests, SARs, in relation to the commission's archive. We have already replied to over 300 survivor requests for access to this information. I am aware that current constraints on access to health data contained in the commission's archive is causing distress to survivors. I have engaged with the Minister for Health on this issue and he is now progressing new regulations that will allow for full access. In the interim, there is an alternative option to receiving health data under GDPR. My Department is advising applicants of the option to apply under freedom of information, FOI, to seek access to their health data and is providing support to survivors on this ground. This is to ensure that requestors are made aware of all the options to access their health data and to provide data to requestors more quickly.

Action 8 of the action plan contains a commitment to enabling public access to original State files. I have established a dedicated unit within my Department to lead on this work. Through action 10, the Government has provided for the appointment of a dedicated archivist based in my Department to focus on the preservation of and public access to these essential records.

Action 20 of the plan is the mother and baby institutions payment scheme. Through the OAK-Ied consultation process and from my many engagements with survivors, they have made it clear they want a scheme that is non-adversarial, simple and based on trust. The requirement for a low burden of proof was also a key issue raised. This is what the mother and baby institutions payment scheme seeks to deliver in providing a general payment based on time spent in these institutions. The scheme will provide a financial payment to all mothers who spent time in one of the institutions. It will also provide a financial payment to those who were resident as children in one of the institutions for more than six months. The payment is in recognition of the harsh conditions, emotional abuse and other forms of mistreatment, stigma and trauma experienced while resident there. The scheme will provide an enhanced medical card to mothers and children who were in one of the institutions for more than six months. These measures will benefit approximately 34,000 individuals to the value of €800 million. In doing this, the scheme goes beyond both the recommendations of the commission of investigation and the proposals of the interdepartmental group which was established to develop proposals for the scheme. In moving beyond the broad redress measures included in the action plan, the Government has included proposals in the scheme to ensure that women who spent time in these institutions after 1974 are included, that all children who spent more than six months in one of the institutions, regardless of whether they were accompanied or unaccompanied, can gain access to a financial payment and that all women, regardless of the time spent in an institution, will be able to access a financial payment.

While all the work ongoing as part of the action plan is significant, I understand that there is a particular sense of urgency associated with the payment scheme. The Government is committed to delivering the scheme as soon as possible and my Department is preparing a general scheme of a Bill as a matter of urgency. In tandem, work is taking place to make arrangements to establish the executive office within my Department to administer the scheme once the legislation has been passed by the Oireachtas, in order that the scheme can begin accepting applications as soon as possible.

I have committed to prioritising the applications of survivors who are most elderly and other survivors who are particularly vulnerable.

I would like to thank this House for its time this evening to debate this important matter. I hope to have the opportunity to respond to some of the points made by Senators at the end. I want to conclude by reiterating our appreciation to survivors, to their families and to their advocacy groups for their ongoing patience as Government continues to work through addressing these complex issues.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive statement. At the outset, I thank the Cathaoirleach for inviting me to chair this session. It means a lot to me and I am particularly pleased to be in the Chair. Little did I think I would be here at a particularly important juncture like a debate on this topic. I thank the House for the privilege. I call on Senator Murphy from Fianna Fáil. He has five minutes.

I thank the Acting Chairperson. It is nice to see him in the Chair for this debate. I know how passionately he has spoken about this issue since I have come to the Seanad. It is appropriate that he is in the Chair.

I welcome the Minister to the House on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party. We welcome this discussion today. Even though it is just a discussion on the mother and baby institutions, it is so important that we use every opportunity to assure and to reassure the people that we are taking this matter seriously and that we are moving swiftly on it. Sometimes when a Government comes into power, such matters are addressed and it says it is going to do this, that and the other. However, in fairness, there has been swift action on this matter. I am sure that will continue.

Earlier this year the Taoiseach apologised for this terrible episode. He said at that time that the State did not uphold its duty of care and thereby failed these women and children. He acknowledged that an apology alone was not enough but only a first step. The Minister said today, as did the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte earlier this week, that there are no easy answers when it comes to providing a remedy to the significant grief and anguish caused to the women and children who spent time in these institutions. My good colleague, Senator Warfield, and I were just discussing this outside before the debate started. It is heartbreaking for the people who went through all of this.

In many respects, it is not possible to replace what has been lost to survivors. No financial reward or no service provision can take back the hurt, the loss and the distress that were suffered through decades of failure. Nevertheless, the Government is earnest in its wish to provide an enduring response to the priority needed for all concerned.

The Government made a number of commitments in January 2021 to respond to the priority needs and concerns of those who spent time in those institutions. In the 11 months since the report of the commission of investigation was published, we have seen the advanced legislation to allow the exhumation at Tuam. We have seen the draft legislation allowing access to birth and early life information and to open the commission’s archive to more than 300 survivors. As the Minister said, work is under way to establish a national memorial and records centre related to institutional trauma during the 20th century, as well as the creation of a children's fund to honour the memory of the children who died in mother and baby homes by providing supports to children who experience disadvantage in the present day.

On 16 November 2021, the Government approved proposals for the mother and baby institutions payment scheme and published an action plan for survivors and former residents of mother and baby county homes institutions. As said by the Minister, he will provide approximately 34,000 former residents of the institutions with a financial payment and 19,000 with an enhanced medical card. It goes well beyond the recommendation in the final report of the commission of investigation. In terms of estimated beneficiaries it will be the largest scheme ever of this type in the history of the State, valued at €800 million. People might say that there is a lot more to this than the financial aspect of it. However, the financial aspect is truly important as well.

I trust the Government will act swiftly to progress the legislation underpinning the scheme and will design it so that applications from older and vulnerable survivors will be prioritised. Consultations with survivors highlighted that they wanted the scheme, as the Minister said, that is non-adversarial, simple and based on trust. Adopting an approach that does not require applicants to bring forward evidence of abuse or harm suffered was the aim of mitigating to the greatest extent possible the risk that applicants would be retraumatised by engaging with that process. To achieve this goal, the payments will be based on residency, as Members will know.

Significant contributions will be sought from the relevant religious congregations towards the cost of the scheme, and I welcome that as well. This is one element of the overall Government response to the needs of survivors through a variety of commitments, including counselling for all, access to information and records, memoralisation, financial payments, health support and other key initiatives. The Government is committed to advancing those actions in a survivors-centred manner and to ongoing engagement with dialogue with survivors.

This is an important debate. It is important that we continue to discuss these things. I welcome the Minister’s statement this evening. As I said earlier, I hope things will move swiftly for the sake of the people who have suffered way too much.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. I thank him for the sensitive approach he has taken to deal with this specific issue. The society I grew up in took young women who became pregnant - and they did not become pregnant on their own - and sent them off to institutions. The society I live in today likes to blame those institutions for the way those women were treated. The first time RTÉ did a documentary on Bessborough House I got a phone call from a woman I knew as a young girl in Galway who, like many young girls in Galway, went away for a holiday. Of course, everybody knew what the holiday was. She rang me to tell me how upset she had been about the documentary the night before. I said, "Instead of being with a family in Cork, you were in Bessborough and how horrible it must have been for you". She said, "No, step back for a moment. Actually I was treated very well there." She said some people were treated terribly, but she was treated very well. She said, "I had my baby and the only regret I ever had was that I had to give my baby up for adoption." She was there for a number of months. She said that some people were very kind to her and some people were very cruel. We must take this on board. This is somebody who was there. We must understand that not everybody who worked in these places was brutal and that not everybody sent there was mistreated or ill-treated. We must look back into ourselves and ask ourselves what sort of society were we that we allowed this to happen. It is right and proper that the State steps forward and takes full responsibility for those who suffered. In terms of the suffering I am talking about, yes, there may have been physical and mental abuse in these institutions, but the greatest suffering of all that they have had to live with all their lives is the loss of the child that they had. We have heard stories of people who got married afterwards and the child they had had been put up for adoption. The couple lost the child. Not only did the child lose their mother and father, he or she lost his or her family as well. That is something we have to take on board.

As we progress through this, there are mothers in Ireland today who are petrified. They have had a secret all of their lives. Many of them are now elderly. They have kept that secret from everybody, including their spouse, their children and their siblings. Nobody ever knew they were pregnant. Nobody ever knew they gave birth. Those women today are faced with and confronted by the rights of the children they delivered. That is something on which I know the Minister has worked very hard to try to reconcile the issues.

I ask that the Minister remembers that the fathers who fathered those children have walked away scot-free. Nobody will ever know who they were. Many of them took up important roles in society. Many of them went on to do great things. The one thing they did, which is unforgivable, is they left the girl they impregnated and left her on her own.

The society we live in today is not much kinder to a single mother than it was then. The only difference now is that we do not chuck them into institutions, and we do not take their children from them.

We have a huge amount to learn with respect to the treatment of mothers and the fathers who desert those mothers. No woman should be left to bring up a child on her own. These fathers who abandoned their girlfriends and sent them off to places and institutions around the country, not one of them will ever be called to account for their actions and for the most part, nobody will know who they were. It is really sad that this has become a gender issue and that the people who will have to pay the price and confront the demons of the past are the women on their own.

The Minister pointed out that many of these women are now elderly and, as such, need to be compensated quickly and with as little pain as possible. No amount of compensation can compensate for the pain of losing one's child so all we are trying to do is show that we care in some small way.

As far as I know there is a group of women who are not covered by the scheme. These were the women who were sent to families and not institutions. However, they suffered the same pain and suffering. They lost their child and they will not see that child again.

Finally, we have stipulated a demarcation line of six months for babies and I really think that needs to be revisited. If you were born into an institution your future was already set in train and you had no choice, so the six-month limit needs to be waived completely.

It is very appropriate that Senator Boyhan is chairing this very sensitive and important discussion.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I acknowledge his sensitivity, kindness, hard work and determination to bring this matter to a conclusion. There will never be a satisfactory conclusion because no matter what money is paid or what compensation is given, it will never make up for the trauma and absolute depravity with which some of these women have been treated. The reality is that this trauma lives with them until the day that they die and that is the case for the vast majority.

I acknowledge what Senator Craughwell said and agree that there are stories where people were treated with kindness. One must be fair and acknowledge that not everybody who worked in these institutions were monsters. Unfortunately, a significant majority of the women who have been in these institutions were abandoned by their families, by society, by their communities and by the State. When these women became pregnant they were shipped off to these institutions where they gave birth. In many cases, the way in which they were treated after giving birth was barbaric. They were forced to breastfeed other children in order that they would not become attached to their own children. They barely saw their children before they were put up for adoption. Many of these women ended up staying for years in these institutions but for the rest of their lives have lived with the scars of how they were treated. Many of these women are elderly and in poor health. Is it possible for the Minister to hurry matters up? The year mentioned is 2023. These things take time but is there any way that the Minister could create an interim arrangement to support those women who are in poor health?

In terms of the medical card, surely we do not want these women to go through the standard primary care reimbursement service, PCRS, system of applying, providing information and possibly being turned down so having to appeal and all of that. Can the Minister put a dedicated team in the PCRS unit to deal with this matter? It is a simple thing that would make a huge difference because these women have suffered enough and we do not need them to suffer any more. I ask the Minister to put in place an interim arrangement for payments and to make it easy to acquire medical cards.

As for the children, Senator Craughwell referred to the threshold of six months and while I do not disagree with his analysis, perhaps there is a rationale for stipulating six months. I ask the Minister to look at the matter again. We are committing €800 million and it may not cost a huge amount more to do the right thing.

I wish to mention the children who were boarded out. These are children who were sent out as child labour - as child slaves if you like - to farms and into businesses. The term used to describe boarded-out children was that they were "in service". Some of them were treated with love and did get care but, unfortunately, they were in the minority. There is a lacuna in the Minister's proposals in terms of how we deal with children who were boarded out after being born and so would not have met the six months criterion. I would like to hear the thoughts of the Minister on how he might sensitively and appropriately address the matter.

The Minister has had held meetings with and engaged with the religious orders. I ask him to update the House on how those engagements went. Just over 20 years ago, there was an arrangement with the religious orders that quite frankly was a disgrace. What they paid in a different context was a tiny fraction of what they should have paid and that cannot happen in this context. The religious orders owe society but the Government owes it to the citizens of this country to make the religious orders step up to the plate and do what they need to do in order to address these matters.

Finally, I pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, on the work that she has done in terms of engaging with mothers and children. Unfortunately, she cannot be here today and I am here to fill in for the Senator. On behalf of the Fine Gael group, I note - as I am sure everyone else in the House would agree - that she has worked extremely hard with the Minister and in this House on this issue. It is a privilege for me to represent her in this very important and sensitive debate.

I welcome Senator Boyhan as the Acting Chairperson for this debate. I acknowledge his work and experience of these issues.

At lunchtime today, I visited the National Gallery of Ireland to see a striking portrait of Catherine Corless, particularly ahead of the statements tonight. Her portrait was painted by Paul MacCormaic as part of the portrait competition that has been mentioned in the press. I want to recognise Catherine Corless, and all of the human rights activists and historians who have been relentless in their search for truth. As I am not sure if I have done so before, I want to take the opportunity to do so tonight.

The RTÉ documentary entitled "The Missing Children" deserves a mention and the stories that it told are heartbreaking. I thank everyone who took part in the documentary whether they did so in order to get justice or to remember and show respect for their loved ones who died or in order for society to grieve and wrap our arms around those who endured these institutions. There have been many moments when people in this country have been brought to tears by the stories of survivors and their families. The documentary is one of those moments where people in their homes across the country would have shed a tear.

I will never forget an episode of "Questions and Answers", which was presented by John Bowman, in 2009 when a former mayor of Clonmel, Mr. Michael O'Brien, spoke about institutional abuse. I do not think that many people in the country will ever forget that moment. I was 17 years of age when I watched the programme and I was greatly moved by the testimony.

I commend the Minister on the education and research initiatives being undertaken through the Department of Education on how best to support schools and enable students to learn about and understand this important and sensitive aspect of Ireland's history. I commend the Minister on these extremely important initiatives.

In these moments, we want to comfort survivors and give them our full attention. These people are not to be messed with. They are our fellow citizens. They may be our neighbours, families or friends and I hope we can do right by them, particularly those who will not be with us for much longer. With that in mind, there are significant issues in respect of the redress scheme as it stands. The first such issue is the exclusion of infants who spent less than six months in a home. The second is the exclusion of women who spent less than three months in a home from accessing the enhanced medical card. The third is the exclusion from the scheme of children who were boarded out. I would welcome a response from the Minister on those issues.

The Minister referred to the debates in the Dáil last week. I do not wish to discuss the other House, but several calls were made for the Government to do a number of things. I will not go through the motion tabled in the Lower House as I do not have time to do so, but several calls were made on the Government last week. As the week has gone on, has there been an update on any of those issues?

I am conscious the Minister has inherited these responsibilities. He is not the person responsible for the commission of investigation. He inherited this work from his predecessors, some of whom failed to deal with these issues, but I know he has the empathy required and would have the support of the Oireachtas in terms of making the necessary changes to the scheme. He would have the full support of Sinn Féin in doing so. I would welcome a response from him regarding any developments that have taken place since the motion in the Dáil last week.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House on this issue. On behalf of the Labour Party grouping, I express my sincere sympathies to all survivors and their families. We have received, as has every Oireachtas Member, an enormous amount of communication on this issue. We have met and spoken to survivors and affected persons and their families. Even when walking through the corridors of Leinster House, I have stopped and spoken to people who have been deeply affected by this issue. I want to put on record my personal thanks to those who have taken the time to speak to me and my colleagues about such a personal issue. I thank them for being so generous to share their personal experiences in order to ensure their voices are heard and there is adequate redress for survivors.

The proposals on the table in respect of redress were made in good faith by the Minister and the Department, and that work should get recognition. I welcome many aspects of the scheme. In particular, I welcome that the scheme will not require evidence of abuse or harm. Instead, it will be a more straightforward and accessible process. I also welcome that it will be a non-adversarial process. It is important there will be no gagging clause. That was a painful aspect for survivors of the residential institutions before the redress board was established.

As all present are aware and as has been highlighted in the House, however, there are outstanding issues. The scheme should be made more inclusive. My Dáil colleague, Deputy Sean Sherlock, proposed an amendment in February which would have given an entitlement to an enhanced medical card to women and children who spent any period in an institution. That entitlement would be without the six-month criterion. I do not really understand why the six-month criterion is an issue. I do not get why it is there. On behalf of the Labour Party grouping, I ask that the Minister brings those who spent less than six months in institutions into the enhanced medical card scheme.

Another issue for us is that of the six-month minimum term being a requirement to access the programme and the exclusion of children who were boarded out. My understanding is that the measures are expected to cost approximately €800 million but, obviously, there has been criticism in respect of the six-month figure being an arbitrary one. Many would agree that it is perpetuating discrimination and excluding 24,000 children. I do not understand why it is being included. The Minister may be able to give more reasoning on that. The six-month deadline is arbitrary. Any person who spent even a day in one of those institutions and who has to carry the trauma, stigma and societally mandated shame that came with being associated with one of them deserves our apologies, but also deserves redress. Although the six-month deadline may be necessary from a budgetary point of view, I do not think it is appropriate in this case.

When we talk about mother and baby homes, we are talking about one of the worst instances of human rights abuse in Irish history. That system was cruel, unusual and torturous for many who survived it. Although there are concerns in respect of the cost of managing a fund that would encompass all persons who were affected by the system, we have to realise that what we are trying to address is far more important than a budgetary item. The deficit of compassion that existed in Ireland at the time of the operation of this system is the gap that we are now trying to fill. It is important that we do so correctly.

I will briefly address the issue of who will pay. There is no point in beating about the bush on this one. Religious orders and church authorities were highly culpable in the running of these institutions. All present are conscious from the experience with the previous redress scheme that religious authorities have not always paid their fair share. As such, I am glad to hear the Minister is planning to meet or may have already met the religious orders. I may have misheard his remarks in that regard. I hope that engagement was or will be fruitful.

We have the opportunity to show the survivors of these homes the compassion and care that was so cruelly missing for decades. We are a wealthy nation by any standard and have the opportunity to provide compassion. This compassion will never erase the trauma with which many survivors still live but it could go some small way to easing the burden of that trauma. I hope the Minister will be the champion of that compassion in government, at Cabinet and in his Department for those in need of this assistance and those who need someone to advocate for them, listen to them and elevate their voice. That can be and is a role for the Minister. Obviously, he is fit to meet that challenge and he will be bolstered by other sympathetic members of Government and, undoubtedly, unanimous support from the Opposition in both Houses.

I ask the Minister to ensure we do not let this be the conclusion of this proposal,. We must ensure that it includes children who were born in a home and those who were boarded out, that it deals with the medical card issue and that the Minister takes on board the concerns of affected survivors and goes back to Cabinet and the Department to find the means to make this truly an all-encompassing programme. I believe that he wants it to be such a programme, as do all Members of this House and, most importantly, the survivors.

I join other Members in thanking the survivors, the Irish First Mothers group, the adoptees and the human rights activists who have driven and demanded action on this issue. We owe them thanks because they have driven us to try to become a better State. I thank them for that. We owe them the absolute best response but, unfortunately, the scheme as it is set out now is not the absolute best response.

It is very important that we resist the narrative of there having been good actors and bad actors within these institutions and the idea that people may have had a good or a bad experience. The key thing is that this was institutional abuse.

It is not about individuals. It is about the State, the church, religious orders and the pharmaceutical companies and economic actors who took advantage of it. It was systemic and it has to be taken seriously. With all due respect to the experience of individuals in Bessborough, let us bear in mind that in the 1940s Bessborough had a mortality rate of 68% for children. That is what matters.

As regards the redress scheme, the Minister knows that during the heated debate on birth information and tracing I and other Senators made clear that any redress scheme must have no gagging order, no indemnity and no waiver. There is a waiver. That is a problem. The inclusion of a waiver contravenes international human rights, under which there should always be legal recourse in the courts and that should not be precluded. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that compensation must not be seen as a means of buying the silence or acquiescence of survivors. Rather, it should be part of a comprehensive justice policy. It should not be a replacement for justice, but part of a comprehensive justice policy.

The inclusion of waivers is a mistake. All present are aware that in previous schemes, such as that relating to Caranua, for example, a significant amount of money was left unspent because the waiver set the bar too high and operated as a barrier to people. I do not think everyone eligible for the scheme will go for it when there is a waiver because people want their legal rights and their right to justice. I have several specific questions on the waiver. It was stated that there is no gagging order. Can the Minister fully confirm there will be no restriction on anybody who signs a waiver speaking publicly?

The scheme is calculated on the basis of residence in a home rather than abuse. In that regard, I presume the waiver will not in any way preclude somebody from taking legal action relating to abuse, since abuse is not covered and is not part of the calculation. People need to be able to take action on that.

Will the Minister clarify whether signing the waiver will be required to access the medical card? It certainly should not be. This last point is crucial. Will this be a waiver only for the State or for State and non-State actors? If non-State actors are in any way protected by this waiver, that is an indemnity scheme and the whole scheme would just become another one of those. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that. I am hoping it is not the case. As previous speakers have said, the contribution from religious orders and the pharmaceutical companies is outstanding and must be addressed.

These bodies have responsibility. They profited from this period, committed abuse and must be accountable if there is to be any sense that we are moving forward as a State. With respect to the Minister, meeting the religious orders is one thing but other legal measures should be looked at if necessary. Again, those who created shell companies to hide assets, not back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s but in recent years, must be dealt with because that is a continuation of abuse.

I have four other questions. I am concerned about the matter of work. Others have mentioned child labour and the labour of women who were forced to board out. The phrase "work payment" is a dangerous one because it implies the State is paying for work. It is of course not compatible with the working time Act. It should not be a work payment. This is a compensatory payment. In the calculation grids I have seen it should be made explicitly clear this is not considered as appropriate payment for work done. It must be framed as a compensatory payment for the inappropriate forcing of labour.

I refer to the six-month cut-off for children in the redress scheme. Over 30 clinicians have told us that is not how childhood trauma works. It is arbitrary. Ms Samantha Long, who has been an extraordinary spokesperson on this issue, has made clear that a two-tier scheme damages everybody. I mention trauma within the period of two or three months. How does that capture, for example, illegal adoption, separation or the possible death of a sibling?

Another crucial issue is the enhanced medical card scheme. As for cutting women off from that scheme because they spent three or six months in an institution when they went through birth, let us remember the testimony from Bessborough where women were not given an anaesthetic. They were not given painkillers because they were meant to suffer. That happened in the first week or day in these homes. That is within the first three months. Are we saying those women should be separated out and not given a medical card?

I have a number of points but I will suspend them. On information, I ask that the Minister please listen to independent experts. Tusla's measure in bringing in the social statutory instrument from the 1980s sends a regressive message.

It is very fitting that Senator Boyhan is in the Chair given the work he has done on this issue. I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to the House to speak on the mother and baby homes. I also welcome his decision to visit Tuam to meet survivors. He and his team have engaged in in-depth consultation processes with many of the survivors and groups advocating on their behalf.

This is a shameful part of our history which has left a tragic legacy. As public representatives, it is we who must stand before people, answer for what happened in the past and rectify it. In the report of the confidential committee we read about the lived experiences in the testimonies of the survivors. Those testimonies are our history, which will stand in the time to come, of how women and children were treated in Ireland. We are here now and as I think Senator Hoey said, we are a wealthy country. It is a very different world now. I do not know if we can even imagine the poverty in Ireland in the early years of the State. We should consider the level of emigration in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. That poverty led to the societal attitudes of the time and the State becoming intertwined with the church. It led to a lack of oversight and so many other things. The poverty of that period was shocking but we are fortunate to be in a better place now.

As I pay tribute to those affected, I must mention that people are still suffering in silence and have been able to come forward. There are still very many who have not spoken about this. I highlight for the people who are listening to us that there are helpline numbers and counselling supports available. There are telephone numbers in each county, available through the HSE, and also the Connect Counselling freephone service, which is available on 1800 477 477 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Speaking about all this abuse is bringing many memories to the surface. Many people care coming to us, including from other residential institutions, to speak about the suffering and abuse they endured. Those counselling services are available for everyone who is going through this.

The scheme is an action plan for how we will go forward and a commitment on behalf of the State to an overall scheme of roughly €800 million. The Minister mentioned that an estimated 34,000 people will qualify for financial payments and more than 19,000 will be eligible for an enhanced medical card. As he said, those survivors who are vulnerable and elderly will be prioritised for payment. I welcome that as it is absolutely crucial. People living outside Ireland will be able to access this scheme and survivors will be free to speak about their engagement with it. I welcome these measures.

The Minister mentioned the postgraduate scholarships, in partnership with the Irish Research Council, for research into childhood disadvantage. These will stand to us in the future in how we deal with disadvantage. The Minister also spoke about a programme which will analyse stigma. That stigma is very strong. In the past, the worst thing in the world was to be an unmarried mother. Society shunned unmarried mothers and families abandoned and put them out the door. I sometimes ask where the stigma is today. Who in our society is suffering from that level of stigma because I do not know if stigma totally disappears? That is important.

On the payment scheme, urgent access is indeed required. The Minister mentioned that there will be an annual report to follow progress across eight themes. Of the 22 actions, 13 of them are in progress. Will the Minister speak a little about the patient advocacy liaison service? How will this service support people who use it? He also spoke about Tuam and the memorialisation service. For people in counties Galway and Roscommon, the Tuam home is just tragic. I do not know how to put things into words when I think of that home. I thank the Minister.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I begin by extending my continued solidarity to those who endured these institutions and who continue to campaign for justice, truth, support and redress. I thank Senator Dolan for reading out the relevant numbers because it is important when we are having a discussion such as this that we are conscious of the fact that it can retraumatise. It is important we sit back and listen and also reinforce the message that there is support out there for people.

I agree entirely with the forensic questions posed by Senator Higgins. I share the sentiment she expressed around the institutional nature of what went on in these places. Without wishing to diminish any earlier points made by colleagues about particular individual experiences, there is a bigger issue at hand here and one we need to address from an institutional point of view, where our approach to this issue is concerned.

I will make a couple of points.

This State and successive Governments, going back decades, have failed the women and children who were treated most cruelly and inhumanely in mother and baby homes, county homes and institutions. It is time to respect the survivors and families. It is time to do right by them and ensure the redress scheme meets their needs. Survivors bravely came forward and told their stories because they needed justice and needed to see it done publicly. Many feel betrayed and let down by the appalling way the scheme has been designed. There is no recognition of the hurt and trauma experienced by children separated at birth from their mothers. The payment scheme excludes people who, as infants, spent less than six months in a mother and baby or county institution. I thought Senator Higgins made an interesting and important point about when we define the trauma as happening. If a person was only in an institution for six months, did the trauma occur at the child's removal from his or her mother? Was it on the loss of a sibling or was it during the abuse the child suffered, in whatever form it took? Who came up with that arbitrary timeline of six months? It baffles me.

The scheme has created a hierarchy of suffering. In the North, speaking after the publication of the Truth, Acknowledgement and Accountability report in October, deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill MLA, said:

This is an important day of acknowledgement recognising the suffering inflicted on mothers and children in Mother and Baby institutions, Magdalene Laundries and workhouses.  This was a shameful episode in our history right across the island - women, girls and children were wronged by Church and State.

I know from speaking to survivors that the trauma felt by people within these homes was further exacerbated by the years of denial and silence that they have faced. The Truth, Acknowledgement and Accountability report published today is very clear on what needs to be done to deliver for victims. Our task now is taking these recommendations forward, listening to the victims and ensuring they receive proper support, including redress and a full public inquiry. I will do everything in my power to make sure their voice is heard and that these recommendations are implemented.

In November, the deputy First Minister reiterated her position, stating:

Given the urgent need for a public inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries and workhouses, I have proposed that the Executive Office take responsibility for a public inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes and its findings. Victims and survivors should not have to wait a day longer for the public inquiry and redress. I am calling on the DUP to back this proposal without delay to ensure that victims and survivors are properly supported.

What engagement has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Executive in the North about the redress scheme? The church certainly was not organised or operated on a partitionist basis like the two states. Many women and children were moved north to south and south to north.

In recent days, my colleague in the Assembly, Linda Dillon MLA, has welcomed the move by the health minister in the North to make it illegal for mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries and workhouses to destroy the personal records of women and children who lived in them. The Government here needs to genuinely listen to the survivors and urgently review the redress scheme in terms of the time-based criteria; the exclusion of so-called boarded-out children; access to enhanced medical cards; the proposed payment rates; the proposed time limits; the failure to include all mother and baby and county homes institutions, agencies and individuals involved in forced family separations; and the legal waiver attached to the scheme.

The Government must also seek immediate recourse from religious orders and pharmaceutical companies to the redress scheme. It must ensure that all time limits are reversed and that boarded children are included in the payment scheme. Those boarded children, now adults, must be included in the enhanced medical card. The hurt and trauma for the mothers and children involved in unlawful forced separation must be recognised by the Government and investigators. After decades of abuse inside the mother and baby homes, decades of neglect by the Government and religious orders and those in society entrusted with protecting the most vulnerable, those affected are making the most reasonable and moderate demands. The Government needs to end the drip feed of misery and act decisively and conclusively to ensure the needs of those affected are met to their full satisfaction.

I thank all Senators who have contributed to the debate. Before I call on the Minister to reply, there were several mentions of the name Catherine Corless. That was a common theme. I would like to acknowledge, as I am sure everyone here would like to acknowledge, that, as was covered in the press, Ms Corless received a Red Cross lifetime achievement award two days ago for her work in Tuam and her advocacy around this whole area. We acknowledge that and wish her well.

I thank the Acting Chairperson for his ongoing contributions and his often wise words in this area. I thank all Members of the House for their contributions on this issue. It was valuable of Senator Dolan to call out the numbers for the support schemes. That is important and I echo her reminder that those supports are there for all survivors of institutional abuse. Victims of mother and baby institutions get priority access to counselling. That is free counselling and it is available during the day and out of hours. The Senator called out the number for the out-of-hours services but there are also services available during the day and survivors get priority access. It is important that the scheme is in place and has been since the start of this year.

Senator Dolan noted that back then Ireland had a deep level of poverty, a poverty we will never know. It was not only material poverty. What we are now dealing with was a poverty of kindness that existed in these institutions. I agree with the point Senator Higgins made that irrespective of individual positive stories, of which there are some, we are dealing with mass institutional failings by these institutions, the congregations that operated them and, ultimately, the State that oversaw the situation. That was why the apology by An Taoiseach was made on behalf of the State. The action plan sets out 21 other actions that come in behind that apology to demonstrate that it is not just words but a set of actions in response.

Senators raised issues with elements of the institutional payment schemes, including some of the criteria to be used. That was also the case in the Dáil and some survivors and advocacy groups have also raised issues. I acknowledge that those concerns have been raised. I have received approval from the Government to bring forward legislation on the basis of the scheme I have laid out in this House and the Lower House. There will be a legislative process and an opportunity in both Houses to debate and discuss the various elements of the scheme. I will address where we are coming from on some of those points as I go through it.

I absolutely recognise what a number of Senators have said about the need for speed and the need to ensure that we can start making these payments at the end of next year, in light of the age of a significant number of the survivors and their need to access the wider range of services that the enhanced medical card will provide. That is why it is important for us to implement a single application process for both the medical card and access to the payment scheme, when it is proved that the person concerned spent the requisite six months in an institution. That is the proof required to access the medical card. It will not be the usual process for a medical card. This is a different statutory scheme and I hope that will speed up the process of delivering the medical cards. I know that was an issue raised here.

A significant number of Senators raised the issue of engagement with congregations. At the time the commission report was published, I wrote to all the congregations and informed them I would be seeking to engage with them on an apology, their contribution and the provision of records they may have. We made a determination that the most important issue was to design the scheme and commence the drafting of the legislation. I have subsequently written to the congregations seeking meetings and I will meet all them in the coming weeks. This will be the start of a negotiation, I have no doubt, and I am cautious and will not discuss specific approaches here, as I think everyone will understand. It is essential that the congregations make a substantial contribution to this scheme. In the same way the Taoiseach's apology will not be seen as more than words if it is not followed through with a range of actions the Government will bring forward, the apologies from the congregations, which I acknowledge a number of them have made, will count for little in the eyes of survivors if they are not followed up by a demonstrable contribution to this scheme. It will be on that basis that I will be engaging with them.

Senator Higgins raised some issues about the waiver. I can confirm there will be no gagging order. Survivors will be fully at liberty to disclose the financial payment they receive, should they wish to do so.

Wider questions were also asked about the waiver.

The waiver will be signed at the end of the process, survivors will know what they are being offered, including financial payments and medical cards. They will be able to make a determination if they feel the protection of their legal rights is better achieved through litigation against the State. We will provide them with financial support to access legal advice at that point. They will get legal advice to assist them in making that determination. That is an important element of the design of the waiver scheme.

Senator Ó Donnghaile referred to my engagement with Northern Ireland. I have had a number of engagements with the Executive, including the Minister, Robin Swann, and I met Judith Gillespie late last year. Following the publication of the commission's report, I met the then First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. We discussed the commission of investigation's report. Subsequently, at meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council in its health configuration, which have continued although the other councils have not, this issue has been discussed. The most recent one was about a month ago. We had a substantial discussion about the truth panel that the Senator spoke about. There is continued engagement. We have committed that it will be a specific item at the next health council, to look at opportunities for increased North-South co-operation.

A number of Members spoke about access to information, which is a fundamental issue for many adopted people in this country. Since a judgment in 1998, we as a country have been unable to grapple with it. A pre-legislative scrutiny report on the information and tracing legislation is being negotiated by the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which has done fantastic work. A number of its members are in this House and have committed themselves to this. I believe that this legislation will address the issue of people having a legal right to unredacted copies of their birth certificates, birth information, early life information, medical information and any items that may have been left in an institution for them. That is the element that we have focused on. This mechanism deals with those whose births were illegally registered in St. Patrick's Guild. There will be a clear statutory basis for a tracing service to enable agencies to provide better tracing. It also provides for the protection of records. A significant number of records are still in private hands, which is dealt with in the legislation. This legislation will allow us to finally grasp an issue that has evaded Governments for more than 20 years.

As Senator Conway said, it is right to acknowledge that there were mothers in these institutions who kept that secret. It is not for me or anyone else to speak as to whether that was right or wrong. It was what they felt they needed to do. Some of them are concerned about the prospect of that unredacted information going into the hands of their children who were subsequently adopted. We are looking to get that balance right. We have decided, and I think everyone in this House agrees, that people's right to know their origins is central and it cannot be undone or undermined any more. We have to ensure that the manner in which that information and the legal right to it is provided to those who were adopted, subject to illegal birth registration, or boarded out, is done in a way whereby it provides some recognition of the other set of rights. In situations where a mother does not want her identity to be known, there are two sets of rights, which are the right to identity for adopted people, which has been denied for too long, and the right to privacy for the mother. We are trying to do that in a respectful way in the information and tracing legislation.

A number of Senators spoke about Tuam, about Catherine Corless, and her contribution to revealing what happened in Tuam and, as such, starting this conversation about mother and baby institutions. I know there is real frustration in Tuam that the remains of those infants continue to lie in that tank. I share that frustration. I acknowledge the groups, and Catherine Corless, are frustrated with me as Minister that this has not been addressed yet. We brought forward the draft of the certain institutional burials (authorised interventions) Bill in January of this year. It underwent six months of pre-legislative scrutiny in the Oireachtas joint committee. It was right that a delicate Bill was given real consideration by all members of that committee. It sent a report to my Department at the end of July. It was a challenging report that sought substantial changes. We have engaged with that, with the Attorney General and with other Departments. I hope to be in a position early next year to bring forth the final draft and introduce it into the Houses on Second Stage in order that we can begin the process of passing that legislation.

I believe that we can get the agency that would be created by that legislation established next year and that we can start the excavations at Tuam next year. We all need to understand that the exhumation and identification of the remains will be a lengthy process. We have to be honest about that but I want to see that started next year. There is a provision in the budgetary allocation for my Department for the initial costs of that agency. A number of Senators have been to the site. I have read about it and seen the documentaries. Senators have spoken about how the impact is only felt when people are at the site and realise that the remains of hundreds of children are just under their feet. They were treated in a way that none of us believe is acceptable. Irrespective of whatever our religious or philosophical views are, I do not think that anyone believes that what has happened there is acceptable. We need to move quickly to address that.

A number of Senators raised the issue of people who were boarded out and I will make a number of points in this regard. Any child who was in an institution for more than six months and was subsequently boarded out from that institution will be able to apply under this scheme for the time in that institution. They can apply for the medical finance, medical card and the financial payment. Children who were boarded out are not excluded from this scheme. They get their financial payment and medical card if they were in a mother and baby institution for more than six months.

On the wider issue of those who were boarded out, I have met some individuals who were boarded out. They told me stories of the severe physical and sexual abuse that they suffered. They have publicly stated their disappointment that this scheme does not address the time for which they were boarded out. This scheme is designed around the investigation into mother and baby institutions. That investigation took five years and looked in significant detail at each of the 14 mother and baby homes and four of the county homes, then drew conclusions on the other county homes as a result of that. As part of that investigation, the commission met those who had subsequently been boarded out. Some of them told personal accounts of great brutality. Some had different experiences of being boarded out and were adopted or brought into those families.

Our scheme is designed to deal with the trauma, the harsh institutional conditions and the stigmatisation of mother and baby institutions. If people were in these institutions for a period of time, they get a payment. As I have explained previously, that has been done to make this simple and easy to access. The type of individualised assessment that we would need to do for people who were boarded out and their experience does not meet what we are doing with this scheme. It is my view and that of the Government that the needs, understanding and experiences of those who were boarded out do not match what we are trying to do with this scheme, which is to have it be simple and easy to access for survivors. It does not require proof of abuse, testimony or cross-examination; all the problems that have been raised with previous schemes.

It is for that reason that this scheme does not propose to specifically address the time people spent boarded. As I said before, however, those who were boarded out will be able to qualify if they spent six months or more within one of the institutions.

I have tried to address a number of the issues raised by Senators. I have no doubt that there will be significantly more debates in the context of the ongoing legislative process with the legislation on which this scheme will be based. I look forward to hopefully bringing in other key legislation as well, namely, the birth information and tracing Bill and the institutional burials Bill. I know that there will be great interest in those Bills in this House. I look forward to continuing to advance the other actions proposed. The range of actions is listed on the website and there are copies available so I invite Senators to look at that. If they know survivors or groups in their own areas, they may be able to link them to items that we are advancing as part the wider suite of actions.

I am always happy to come to this House to discuss these issues and update Senators on our progress in respect of this important work. I thank the Senators for their engagement today. I recognise the survivors, their support groups and their families. I acknowledge that the Government still has a very substantial amount of work to do in this field but we are looking to advance each of these issues through the 22 actions. Those actions, combined with the State apology, are important steps towards genuine repentance by the State for what happened to women and children in these institutions.

I thank the Minister for the extensive time he has spent engaging with us. That is the great thing about there not being too many people involved in a debate. We had a great amount of time to discuss the issue with the Minister and we appreciate that.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.42 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 1 December 2021.