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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Vol. 285 No. 1

Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022: Second Stage

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

I welcome our guests in the Gallery.

I am pleased to present to the House the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022. The Bill will mark a major change to the law in Ireland. It will provide, for the first time, a clear pathway for access to identity records for adopted people and others. The Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 was published in January and in April the Bill completed its passage through Dáil Éireann. I look forward to working with Senators to discuss the Bill further over the coming weeks and I extend my thanks to those Senators who sit on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and contributed to the pre-legislative scrutiny report.

This landmark legislation will provide a full and clear right of access to birth certificates, and birth and early life information for all persons who were adopted, boarded out, the subject of an illegal birth registration or who otherwise have questions about their origins. The Bill also makes provision for a robust statutory tracing service, a contact preference register and the safeguarding of records. In addition, it contains a range of important, bespoke new measures to address issues arising for people affected by illegal birth registration.

Before I go into discussion of the key sections of this Bill, I want to speak to the issue of illegal birth registrations. Today, as the Birth Information and Tracing Bill proceeds to the next stage of the legislative process, I believe that it is timely to acknowledge the anguish experienced by those who have been affected by illegal birth registration.

In 2018, Tusla discovered documentary evidence of specific cases of illegal birth registration in St. Patrick's Guild, confirming practices that had been long suspected previously. Indeed, Tusla had identified individual cases of illegal birth registration in the past. Since then, a series of related reports have been published, including the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters, the independent review report into incorrect birth registrations and most recently, the independent report by the special rapporteur on child protection on proposals for a State response to illegal birth registrations in Ireland. Collectively, these reports lay bare aspects of our nation's past which were shrouded in shame and secrecy.

As has been said previously on the floor of these Houses, the stigma experienced by unmarried mothers and their children was fundamentally wrong.

The shame was not theirs. It was ours, and it remains our shame.

In the case of children affected by illegal birth registration, what happened was an historic wrong, with deep and enduring impacts. Those who were knowingly involved in the illegal registration of births committed a grave offence that robbed children of their identities and their right to accurate birth registrations. I can only imagine the deep hurt and anguish that people must have experienced on learning of their illegal birth registrations - on learning that the foundations on which their entire identities were built were false. For this, I am truly sorry and I apologise on behalf of the Government. I deeply regret the anguish experienced by those who have been affected by illegal birth registration.

It is well recognised that apologies carry little weight unless backed by practical responses to remedy the rights violation in question. As such, I assure those affected that the State is actively implementing measures aimed at addressing their situation in a comprehensive manner. Specifically, the Birth Information and Tracing Bill addresses the situation of people subject to illegal birth registrations by providing clear and guaranteed access to identity information as well as full information on the circumstances of their illegal birth registrations. It provides a lawful basis for the sharing of information to enable the correction of the birth register, thereby vindicating a person's entitlement to an accurate birth registration. It provides for the identity by which an affected person has lived to be legally recognised by means of a new register, where that is his or her wish. Similarly, it provides an assurance to affected persons that acts undertaken and contracts entered into in good faith will not be undermined because a person was the subject of an illegal birth registration. Importantly, it amends the Succession Act to address inheritance issues arising for affected persons.

In addition, this Bill provides a statutory basis for the counselling supports that are already made available to persons affected by illegal birth registration. It provides for a statutory tracing service through which genealogical expertise will be made available to assist individuals and communication and contact will be facilitated between family members and people affected by illegal birth registrations. Looking to the future, the legislation will provide a mechanism for adoption and other relevant records to be safeguarded and transferred to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI.

During its passage through Dáil Éireann, I tabled amendments to the legislation to provide for a specialised tracing service. This specialist service will undertake a review and a full trace of files flagged by Tusla during the independent review as suspicious, and will provide expedited reviews for persons who hold reasonable suspicions that they may have been the subjects of illegal birth registrations.

Since becoming Minister, I have engaged extensively with people whose births were illegally registered. These measures, while overdue, will make significant progress towards addressing the practical challenges and difficulties arising for affected individuals. However, nothing in these measures can undo the past and fully right the wrongs that these people have experienced. I deeply regret the pain and distress that this has caused and, again, I offer my sincere apology as a Minister of the Government, and on behalf of Government, for this.

The Bill presented before the House today has undergone extensive changes. Building on the pre-legislative scrutiny process and Dáil debates, a number of amendments were made to the published text of the Bill. Many of these arose from concerns raised by stakeholders. Their inclusion was welcomed by Deputies and they have undoubtedly strengthened the Bill. Recognising concerns around the terminology of "incorrect birth registration", we tabled an amendment to the Bill to include the words "false and misleading" to recognise the false and fundamentally wrong nature of what happened when people had their births illegally registered.

Senators will likely be aware of the balancing mechanism – the section 17 information session – in the Bill. I have clarified previously in debates that this is essential to achieving a necessary balancing of EU and constitutional rights. Having listened to views at pre-legislative scrutiny stage, this information session has been modified. It can now be held through a phone call and will no longer be provided by a social worker. Where a parent has registered that he or she does not wish to be contacted, the adopted person will receive a phone call where the privacy wishes of the parent will be relayed to him or her. I listened to concerns that the original text of section 17 was problematic and I improved the language so that a person would simply be told that his or her parent had lodged a no contact preference, which would represent an exercise of the parent's privacy rights. Following this phone call, the full and complete set of records will be given to the adopted person in each and every case. Nothing will be redacted. Nothing will be held back.

As the House will be aware, this Bill and the changes it will bring about have been long awaited. While the Oireachtas has attempted and failed several times to legislate in this area, it is the people affected by this proposed legislation who have been left frustrated, upset and justifiably angry. Through this opening statement, I aim to outline the key parts of the Bill, as passed by Dáil Éireann, and highlight the key amendments that have been made since the Bill was published in January.

Part 1 contains the standard Short Title, commencement and interpretation provisions. Section 2 provides definitions of key terms used in the Bill. A central term is "relevant person", which comprises: an adopted person; a person who is, or reasonably suspects that he or she is, the subject of an illegal birth registration; or a person who has been, or reasonably suspects that he or she has been, the subject of a nursed out arrangement or a boarded out arrangement or resident as a child in an institution specified in the Schedule. Section 5 provides that the Minister may, by order, add to the list of institutions set out in the Schedule. This ensures that anyone who was resident in an institution established or operated for the purpose of providing care to children and who is not already captured by one of the categories within the comprehensive definition of "relevant person" can be included within that definition and thereby avail of the provisions of this Bill.

Another central term is a "relevant body". This is a body to whom an application for records may be made. The Bill currently lists the Adoption Authority of Ireland and Tusla as relevant bodies. The Minister can designate by regulation other persons or organisations as relevant bodies to whom an application for information may be made.

I appreciate the importance of terminology and, in response to stakeholders' submissions during the pre-legislative process, the term "mother" is now used throughout the Bill to signify the person who gave birth.

Some of the definitions in this Part were amended on foot of Deputies' contributions on Committee Stage. For instance, the definition of an adopted person has been amended to ensure absolute clarity that any child born in Ireland and adopted abroad is included in this legislation. While this was always the intention, I understand that, in some cases, private arrangements were made without the involvement of an accredited body or the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The definition now ensures that, in all cases, a child born in Ireland who was sent for adoption abroad is included in the application of this legislation.

Part 2 provides for the release of information, records and provided items to relevant persons on application. A relevant person who has attained the age of 16 years can apply to the General Register Office or a relevant body for his or her birth certificate and it will be provided to him or her. A relevant person aged 18 years and over can apply to a relevant body for his or her birth, early life, care, incorrect birth registration and medical information, as well as any provided item, and it will be provided to him or her. A person's medical records – as held on adoption – and institutional files will be released to him or her without restriction. A relevant person aged 16 or 17 years can apply to the Adoption Authority for his or her birth information, early life, care and medical information held by the authority or the agency and this will be provided to him or her by means of a supportive meeting. This meeting can be conducted by phone or face to face and the young person can be accompanied by a person of his or her choosing, if the young person so wishes.

Section 17 provides for an information session to be held between the relevant person and a designated person where there is an application for a birth certificate or birth information and a parent named within the birth information has recorded a preference for no contact. The information session can be held by means of a short, sensitive phone call or in person, depending on the preference of the applicant.

That conversation will be about the entitlement of the relevant person to his or her birth certificate or birth information and the fact that the parent has registered a preference for no contact and that this constitutes an exercise by the parent of his or her right to privacy. As mentioned earlier, this information session plays an essential role in adequately balancing constitutional and EU rights so as to guarantee the full release of information to the applicant in all cases. Again, nothing will be redacted or held back.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for an application by a person for his or her deceased parent's information and records where that parent was a relevant person. Such persons can apply for their parent's birth certificate, birth information, care information, early life information and incorrect birth registration information and that will be released to them in cases where the parent, who is the relevant person, and grandparents are deceased. They can also apply for their parent's and other genetic relatives' medical information and that will be released to them where it is of substantial benefit to the maintenance or management of the person's health. The development and inclusion of this Part is in response to my consultations with those affected by these issues and also issues raised through the pre-legislative scrutiny process.

Part 4 creates a legislative basis for the provision of birth, early life, care, incorrect birth registration and medical information to the next of kin of a relevant person who died as a child in an institution. This next of kin is defined, in order of hierarchy, as a mother or father, brother or sister, uncle or aunt, nephew or niece. This Part is also a major new addition and I hope that it supports those with questions in relation to a relative who passed away in a mother and baby home or a county home.

Part 5 provides for a tracing service to be delivered by Tusla and the Adoption Authority. Traces will be carried out for the purposes of contact or sharing of information. The tracing service is available to persons aged 18 and over. An application for a tracing service can be made by a relevant person and certain relatives. An adoptive parent of an adopted child can also seek a trace where the adoptive parent is seeking further information in relation to the person. Section 34(6) lists bodies from whom Tusla and the Adoption Authority can request information in order to trace a person and who must provide the requested information. This list includes Departments and religious organisations. These statutory provisions will enable Tusla and the Adoption Authority to deliver an effective and efficient tracing service for persons seeking family information or family contact.

This Part also contains important new provisions for a specialist tracing service for persons whose birth was illegally registered. These respond to the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection in his recent report on this matter. The new provisions provide a statutory basis for the review of files. They also empower a person to request that Tusla or the authority use their tracing powers to ascertain whether the person's birth was illegally registered or not. This will mean that a thorough review and inquiry can happen for those people who have reason to believe that their birth was illegally registered and I hope this will finally provide insight and answers to people.

Part 6 provides for a statutory register called the contact preference register. This register, which is to be established and maintained by the Adoption Authority, allows persons to register their contact and information sharing preferences. Relevant persons and their relatives can also use the register to lodge information and provided items that they wish to be shared with a specified individual. This Part also provides for the full transfer of all information and preferences from the existing non-statutory register established by the authority in 2005 to the new register to be established under this Part.

Part 7 provides that prescribed bodies, termed "information sources", must safeguard any relevant records they hold. An information source other than Tusla can be asked by the Adoption Authority to furnish a statement to the authority which will state the nature, current location and condition of the relevant records held. They can also be required to transfer these records to the Adoption Authority.

Part 8 amends the Succession Act 1965 and expands that law so that persons whose birth is illegally registered will have the same rights of inheritance from the family they grew up in as they have from their birth family. This is required because in the case of an illegal birth registration no adoption order was made and, therefore, the persons always retained their inheritance rights from their birth family. This Part is urgently required to provide certainty to persons impacted, ensuring that they can inherit from their social parents and not be disadvantaged by virtue of their birth being illegally registered.

Part 9 also contains new, specific measures to address issues related to illegal birth registration. It amends the Civil Registration Act 2004 to provide for the General Registrar to receive or request certain information concerning people with an illegal birth registration, to correct an affected person's birth registration and to create a separate registration in a new register that reflects the affected person's social identity. By social identity, I mean the name of the relevant individuals and their social parents as recorded on their incorrect birth registration.

Part 10 deals with other matters, including: the requirement that the Adoption Authority shall undertake a public information campaign; offences for the concealment or destruction of records; provisions clearly setting out any GDPR rights affected; and the provisions on counselling for all relevant persons and parents.

Section 59 in Part 10 also contains another important provision for persons affected by illegal birth registration which I brought as an amendment on Committee Stage. It provides assurances that contracts, legal documents and any acts undertaken in good faith prior to the passing of the legislation and-or before the affected persons discovered that they were incorrectly registered will not be invalidated or that the persons affected will not experience any adverse consequences simply because they were subject of an incorrect birth registration.

I look forward to hearing the views of Members of the Seanad and working with them to bring forward the best possible legislation so that those who need it can access effective information and tracing services. As I have outlined, the Bill addresses many of the issues impacting directly on the lives of people affected by illegal birth registrations, people to whom I have made an apology on behalf of the Government today. This legislation is designed, and has been amended, to specifically include issues raised by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Professor Conor O'Mahony, in terms of addressing the needs of those who know they were the subject of an illegal birth registration but also the many people who suspect that they were the subject of an illegal birth registration. I ask Senators to support the passage of this Bill and I commend it to the House.

I thank the Minister. As a member of a party in government and as the leader of the Green Party in the Seanad, it is appropriate for me to join the Minister in apologising. I would also like to hear apologies from the other parties in government, which I am sure they will join with me in making.

Fundamentally, what lies behind this is a denial of rights that has been going on for decades. The campaign has also been going on for decades and while this is an historic day, it does not change much of the hurt that this illegality has caused. It is not just the hurt of not knowing where one has come from but also the generational impact on all of those who come after a person who is impacted by illegal birth registration. All of the healthcare that people have received over generations has been impacted but now, finally, there will be a vindication of their rights and that is very welcome.

It is important to put on the record my thanks to those who have campaigned for decades to get to this point. I also express my thanks to all of the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, who have done extensive pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. An unprecedented amount of work has gone into this Bill, both by committee members and by stakeholders including the Clann Project and the Adoption Rights Alliance, who appeared before the committee. The fact that 1,200 amendments were submitted on Committee Stage in the Dáil speaks volumes. We will go through our own Committee Stage in the Seanad but given that the average number of amendments submitted per year is 4,500, the figure of 1,200 is significant and shows how much all of us want to get this right. There were 83 recommendations from the Oireachtas committee. The Minister engaged with the committee extensively and in order to avoid any delays, a mere month after the pre-legislative scrutiny concluded, he brought this legislation to the Dáil.

I think that it is important to show how urgent this legislation is but in the past there have been delays. A couple of Ministers had attempted to do something similar, and it is fair to say that was the subject of some of the recommendations made by the committee. One of the recommendations concerned a veto, which was quite a significant issue for those who are adopted, that allows, as had been possibly suggested, for parents to have a veto. I think that this matter has been addressed. We must strike a balance between the right to identity and privacy, which is what the information session is there to do, but there have been many changes by the Minister as he took on board the views of the members of the committee, and the hundreds of the people with whom the Minister has engaged who are impacted by this legislation, in order to arrive at an information session that is appropriate in the circumstances. I will discuss further on Committee Stage.

It has been shown that the legalistic language, which is used in legislation, is quite inappropriate for the legacy issues that we face in this country. It has been shown that it distances people from legislation that has a major impact on their lives. The term "birth mother" was used in the original legislation. There was strong opposition to the term and the Minister responded to this matter. I do not like using the phrase "to commend the Minister" because on a matter like this, it is an absolute duty for the Minister, which I think he recognises.

I will not speak for much longer because it is important that we discuss issues in detail on Committee Stage. I have outlined the most essential issues that have been discussed, having looked through the debates. We will discuss many other smaller pieces, which the Minister has taken on board as he has tabled amendments and engaged on Report Stage.

Finally, I say to everyone who is listening to this debate that there is nothing that I can say that will right the wrongs that have been done but I hope that people feel that we have made progress. It is not the end of the line but this legislation will enable people to access records that they never could access before. Gaining access was an unequivocal underlying fundamental job for this legislation and that has been done.

I warmly welcome the people seated in both of the Galleries of this House because this legislation is about them, their families, their past, their lives and their circumstances. We all need and require our identity and it is very important to each one of us.

As I have told this House before, I am one of seven children and I originally come from the lovely Grangecon, County Wicklow and the borders of Athy, County Kildare. Through no circumstance of either of my parents my siblings and I were all brought up in care. I did not know until I was five or seven years of age that I had brothers and sisters. With the will of my parents, who sought to bring their children up as they thought best, they resisted any stress and pressure to allow us to be adopted. Indeed, my name was Kenneth Boyhan but as there was another boy in care called Kenneth I was called Victor. I am glad of that because I feel that I have stepped into the word, "Victor", and I would not want anybody to take it away from me now. I use that example to explain how strange it can be about one's sense of identity. When I became a Senator and applied for a diplomatic passport, an embassy official contacted me to say that was not the name they had. That simple example shows how important our identity is to us.

I cannot say that I had a sad or bad life. I can say that through efforts, not by social services nor the State but by others, my siblings and I maintained contact. Not a week went by that I did not speak to all of my siblings. So history, origin, heritage and identity are really important to people but it takes strong parents or guardians to fight sometimes to retain contact with their children. The lesson to be learned from all that is that it actually works.

To those who are here today and to all of the other people who are listening in here, I am not going to respond to the apology because it is not my place or experience and, therefore, it would not be right for me to respond in any way other than to thank the Minister for making an apology in the House. The apology will take time. The people who heard it today will have heard it for the first time. Indeed, I assure the people outside of this House that I, and I do not think any other Member of this House, were aware of the content of the apology until the Minister put it on the record here today although we were aware that it would happen today. Language and timing is so important when one talks about ourselves. I thank the people who went on this journey with us over the years. The people who shared their experiences with us had to put into the public domain things they did not really want people to hear and had to tell people about their circumstances. Many of us blend into our community. When you think about it, people do not really know that much about any of us but somehow, all of this has been painful.

I wish to state to the Minister that identity is important and the legality of the actions of others is important too. To suggest that the St. Patrick's Guild was the only institution involved in the illegal registration of births would be foolish and wrong. There were many adoptive arrangements within families, as well as inter-family arrangements. There were many different traditions in this country and different religious organisations were involved. Indeed, I grew up with many people who were adopted and still do not know anything about their past. They cannot get anything about their papers or anything. Consequently, it would be foolish to single out one institution in this State and suggest that it was solely, and wholly, the only institution that did this and there are issues in that regard.

I thank the Minister for engaging with Oireachtas Members and thank the committee for all of the work it did on this legislation. Access to a range of information is critically important to us, and it is important to have this feature in the Bill.

Early life information is an issue that the Minister touched on here today. It has been broadly defined in this Bill as being the place where the person resided and the dates of that residency; where applicable, information relating to his or her baptism or any other ceremony of a religious or spiritual nature; information on medical treatments, procedures or vaccinations administered; information on whether a person, being a parent or other genetic relative of him or her, visited or inquired in relation to him or her. That is quite profound because I know of many instances where birth parents went to institutions, which were run, managed and overseen by this State, yet were denied access to their children. They were told that their children had been adopted and not to stand in the way of a better life and better opportunities for their children. Those parents walked away thinking that that was going to happen. There are a lot of issues related to these matters but it is important that we move forward.

The Bill states that the relevant bodies, including the Adoption Authority of Ireland and Tusla "shall, to the extent that it is practicable to do so", provide early life information to relevant persons of age 18 and over. I have something of an issue with that qualification and may table an amendment. The tracing service is important. I believe that the Minister has been honourable in his dealings here. He has been fiercely committed and a wonderful advocate. However, he has had to learn himself. He has gone on this journey over the last two years and come a long way. I do not doubt his commitment to get this legislation right.

On the face of things, and subject to a few possible amendments, I support this Bill because I believe that it is the right thing to do. This week, I will be 61 years of age. As I came in here today I thought about how I never thought that I would be somewhere like here talking about tracing and legislation. I support this Bill because it is the right thing to do. We owe this legislation to people but the process will be difficult and there will be many bridges to cross. There will be many people hurt and disappointed. In some cases they will not be surprised because much of this has been wrapped in denial, but it is a real journey. This is really important legislation in terms of identity.

In conclusion, I thank the people who shared their personal stories and the hundreds of people who have participated on “Prime Time”.

I recognised one lady, from her television appearance more than anything else, and said hello to her. They were brave, courageous people. They had to tell their partners. Sometimes people were married for years and they never talked about their secrets, as they called them. I support the Bill. It is the right thing to do. I acknowledge the importance of the Minister's apology but it is not for any of us to accept that apology. It is for the individuals, and that is going to take time.

I thank Senator Boyhan for his contribution. Coming from where he has come and given what he said of his journey, how he never imagined he would be in here when he was in one of the mother and baby homes and how he has ultimately ended up in Seanad Éireann speaking on legislation that affects so many people, I think it fitting and appropriate he take the Chair for the remainder of the session. I call on him to do so.

I thank colleagues and thank the Cathaoirleach for his words there. I call on Senator McGreehan to speak.

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh Gníomhaigh. The Minister is very welcome to the House. It is a really important day. We all know this Bill is long overdue. I am nervous about this contribution because it is so important. We have really important people with us today and I acknowledge their presence. We do not have enough of them, to be honest. I am distracted by the Minister's apology. I am also distracted by the fact there are very few people in our Visitors Gallery today when it should be overflowing with people who have been affected by illegal birth registrations. They do not want to be here. They have continuously worked hard to try to find resolutions to the situation. While the Minister's apology is offered in such good faith and is genuine, today is not an appropriate day for it. I am sorry to be that dissenting voice but today is about a Bill. It is the Second Stage of a really historic Bill. It is about information and tracing and getting the Bill through this House. I genuinely feel the apology should have been made by itself, to acknowledge the severity and the trauma those illegal birth registrations have caused those people in the Visitors Gallery today. For what it is worth, I am sorry there was not more work done before this apology. I was disappointed there was only 24 hours' notice given. There are many people from all over the country and abroad who were not able to make it here. I will leave it at that because I want to acknowledge the importance of the apology but also the upset and the fact the State is not ready for that apology just yet.

Returning to the legislation, which is all we should be speaking about today, it is landmark and a game-changer for people's identity. It fundamentally addresses the needs of adopted people and people who have questions about their origin of birth. It will achieve this through the guaranteed provision of full and unredacted birth certificates, birth and early care information, the statutory tracing service, the contact preference register and the safeguarding of all the adoption-related records. All this is so good. We have done really well. I commend my fellow Senator, Senator Seery Kearney, who worked tirelessly on this Bill, and all members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Blood, sweat and an awful lot of tears went into this Bill in working with all stakeholders, listening to the heartache and the trauma and people's lived experience of their lives being turned upside down and inside out and having to deliver their most intimate details to us, in public and in private. As such, today is a really important day for this Bill. I am very proud to have played a little part as a cog in bringing change for so many people.

I am not going to speak about the detail of the Bill because we are going to go through it in fine detail on Committee Stage. There is an awful lot of discussion to be had on that Stage. Today I am emotional and I am also distracted by that apology. We should not be distracted by an apology. We should be concentrating on this Bill to apologise for the desperate wrongs that were done. The State knew about them from the 1950s and had evidence of them from the early 1990s but failed to act. I am sorry for that but it is not for me to be sorry. I again acknowledge the faces I have met from the In It Together and Who Am I? groups that are not here today. I hope they are watching because I know the Minister is genuine in his apology, but it was misplaced today.

Again, I really commend this Bill to the House. It is a game-changer for people who have been abused and mistreated for generations and decades. The Bill will, I hope, create the framework that will allow people start to trust in our institutions again. The Minister well knows the stories of trauma from people who have had to engage with the Adoption Authority of Ireland and with Tusla. They felt they were asking for a kidney and not just information. They felt like they owed Tusla something to get their information and they begged for that information. Today is the start of that framework. I hope the framework builds that trust so we can stand tall in our systems and show people their legacy and their trauma mean something and that change will come because of that.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. We stand in a quite magnificent room that carries with it a whole heap of history and magnificence. Am I proud and do I think it appropriate our Government would issue an apology in the surroundings of the Seanad, given the honour this noble House has? I so. Do I agree with it? I do not.

The Minister has done an extraordinary amount. He is no small cog. He has been a big cog and that is possibly the only thing I disagree with. From his coming into office, the Minister has driven forward on the mother and baby homes, the Birth Information and Tracing Bill and the institutional burials. I have worked very closely with him. He is a very fine Minister and deserves to issue the apology. However, the people in the Gallery and the people who could not be here because of the short notice deserved that the apology come from the Taoiseach on behalf of the State and be delivered on the floor of the Dáil. In that respect, I disagree with it. I find it very hard to say those words to the Minister because I am conscious of how hard he works and how committed and passionate he is about inclusion. Nevertheless, I disagree with it being done in this House and know of the hurt it has caused. It behoves us to ensure the needs are absolutely met and in that regard, I wish it was the Taoiseach who did so on the floor of the Dáil. That said, this is a forum whereby we can depart from the usual formalities. It is a forum that has hosted many unusual debates and we are surrounded by colleagues who have also shared their personal experience.

I cannot imagine what it must feel like to experience the pain of the consequence of a deliberate illegal act, orchestrated and facilitated by an institution in which people were born, to deny them their identity, nor what it must feel like to hear that information as a grown adult. At times, that information was imparted to people in the most inappropriate of surroundings and in the most inappropriate way. I have heard Mr. Bernard Gloster address that on behalf of Tusla, but mistakes were made along the way that should also be included in an apology for the additional pain and hurt caused to people.

The State has known for certain since 2018 that, at the very least, 151 people had their births illegally registered. The independent reviewer's report, taking just a small sample, leads to believe that the figure is in excess of 20,000. The report in question is that compiled by Professor Conor O'Mahony. Those who have been identified are only the tip of the iceberg of what is yet to come. The Minister quoted Professor O'Mahony's report. In the context of recommending that an apology be given to victims of illegal birth registration, Professor O'Mahony stated that apologies will carry little weight unless they are "backed up by practical measures to remedy the rights violation in question." I agree with the Minister that there are many measures within the Bill, and within the amendments he brought forward in the Dáil, that go further than we had originally imagined. They certainly meet many of the recommendations in the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the children's committee.

Nevertheless, we need to go further. I recognise in the Minister's response to the recommendations scope for further consideration by the Government and I ask that we consider that. Professor O'Mahony's recommendations are very realistic in that we should build on the work of the independent reviewer and follow up on the files marked as suspicious in the course of that review. I acknowledge the Minister will install a specialist tracing team, which very much mirrors the recommendations in the report. Even so, it appears that tracing team, although I am open to correction, will act in response to an individual rather than proactively address what the UN rights bodies have repeatedly recommended, namely, a full investigation into illegal adoptions in Ireland. This concerns not only the people in the Public Gallery and their very identity but also their families, children and descendants and the stories of all their lives, although they are not just stories. They are lived experiences that demand a response and we need to go further. I appreciate the logic of getting the Bill passed and working hard to ensure we get the mechanisms up and running - I completely agree with the Minister in that regard, but we also need scope such that there can be more and there will be more because there is a shamefulness that needs to be exposed, addressed and dealt with comprehensively. The Minister used the word "illegality". Illegality is distinguished from unlawfulness. The latter is a civil act, whereas illegality is equated with criminality, and there have to be appropriate responses.

This brings me to a place of worrying about the statute of limitations and other such matters. Who will we prosecute and how will we prove collusion? Were innocent people unknowingly led along because they believed the religious orders and institutions could not possibly do something so appalling? In that context, I am in favour of the establishment, with some modification, of a truth commission, a proposition put forward by Professor O'Mahony, in order that we will get out the truth without having to worry about the statute of limitations. We need to gather all the existing records of which we are not in control as a State because, fundamentally, I do not trust them being in the hands of anyone other than the State, although I appreciate that Tusla has been in an awkward position over recent years. Since the GDPR was introduced, there should have been a comprehensive response, although I have heard the Minister say that on a number of occasions, which I welcome.

I will fully support the Bill. I am disappointed, and I believe we are storing up trouble for ourselves in this regard, about the recommendation regarding registered letters. If the Minister were to roll his eyes at that, I would empathise with him, but I am disappointed that the information requirement, the balance of constitutional rights and the State vindicating the right to privacy will not be dealt with by a registered letter. The provision for a phone call is problematic. What will happen if people do not accept the call? Will they get a phone call when they are on their own? How will we ensure they have support? At least if it is a large package arriving, which the person will have been expecting and which will come as registered post, that can be opened with the support of someone else. If it will stand for evidence in the High Court, I do not see why it could not have worked. Nevertheless, I understand the Minister is working within the advice of the Attorney General.

We will deal with many other issues on Committee Stage. For today, I join with the apology, as my party’s spokesperson on children and as a Government colleague, and I apologise for the grave hurt these people have been caused, which can never be undone and in respect of which they can never be fully consoled.

I welcome both the Minister and our guests in the Public Gallery. These are their Houses and they are very welcome here. I welcome also those who are watching the debate from elsewhere.

The apology the Minister made on behalf of the State is welcome. I have no doubt it will have been a difficult moment for many people. It has come on the same day we have learned that no agreement has been reached with the religious orders in regard to contributing towards redress for survivors of mother and baby homes. As my party colleague, Deputy Funchion, pointed out, it is deeply worrying that we cannot compel in law religious orders that so willingly took public funds to run these horrendous institutions to contribute towards redress. Having welcomed our guests to the Public Gallery, I commend those who have shared their stories. I also commend my colleague, Senator Boyhan, on his work in this area and on placing his personal experience into the public domain. Many of those who have shared their stories publicly will have watched the Dáil debates and the committee proceedings as Members and colleagues worked through the legislation. The significance of the matter is not lost on any of us in the Houses and we will continue to work to ensure victims and survivors are heard. As the Minister and Senator Seery Kearney noted, it is well recognised that apologies will carry little weight unless they are backed up by practical responses to remedy the rights violation in question. We have to ensure State apologies are backed up by action.

Despite several attempts to address the issue through legislation, we continue to operate a closed and secretive structure when adopted people seek to access their birth and early life information. Currently, all adoptive files are held at various locations, most notably within Tusla, which is extremely problematic for some survivors.

Some are held by the adoption authority, county councils, religious orders, hospitals and various adoption agencies. There is no statutory right for adopted persons to access birth records, adoption files or any records relating to them.

It is important to remember that the right to information and the prospect of a relationship with natural family members are two separate matters. There is no evidence that natural mothers sought privacy from their children. In reality, the opposite is true. However, this myth has permeated adoption services, including State, church and private adoption agencies, with devastating consequences. It is clear there is an urgent need to legislate for the provision of information and tracing in two key areas. All adopted people should have full and unfettered access to their adoption and care arrangement records and any other relevant information. Provision must also be given to the establishment of an independent and central archive or agency to facilitate the efficient and judicious sharing of information. The State has consistently failed adopted people in this country and although the recent mother and baby homes report has brought the matter into sharp focus again, we must remain cognisant that this is a matter affecting all people who have been adopted in this country and any legislation must reflect that.

I commend the members of the children's committee who are here. I served on the committee for four years from 2016. The committee published a comprehensive report in December 2021 in which it made 83 key recommendations on matters such as language and terminology, the mandatory information session and the express need to provide unrestricted access to information and resources, including the creation of a new agency.

Sinn Féin understands that balancing the identity rights of applicants and the privacy rights of birth and natural parents is difficult. I know this topic has generated the most lengthy discussions in the Dáil and in committee. Sinn Féin has pushed the position that despite the legislation making more advances than has been previously attempted - I commend the Minister on that - more must be done to ensure unfettered access of applicants to birth records, adoption files or any records relating to them.

Mandatory information sessions remain in all but name, but the removal of any requirement for an information session is paramount. The Minister has argued that this element must be included to balance the rights of birth and natural mothers' privacy if a no-contact preference has been recorded. I note that the Oireachtas joint committee in its deliberations proposed an alternative in that a registered letter could be sent to applicants outlining their obligations in the case of a preference for no contact to respect the birth or natural mother's expressed wishes. Sinn Féin still holds the view that this should be the position. We are cognisant that changes have been made by the Minister and the Government has made some key concessions with this legislation. However, this extremely contentious mandatory information session remains.

We are pleased the Minister has amended the question around medical information and the Bill now allows family medical information to be released to adopted people and a person's family without the intervention of a GP. We acknowledge these advances but we cannot support the legislation in its current form. Any alternative proposals to legislate in this area must not leave one adopted person behind. This is a human rights matter. Ireland has been in breach of adopted persons' human rights dating right back to the foundation of the State. The Minister indicated in his closing remarks that he looks forward to working with Senators in bringing forward the best possible legislation. We will do that with him in good faith.

I thank the Acting Chairperson for sharing his own experience and stories so eloquently. I also thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss the Bill with us. I pay tribute to him, and I know it is not something he hears often coming from Opposition politicians, even in the friendlier of the two Houses, namely, the Seanad. It bears saying that the Minister has done important and difficult work in this area and nobody could question his intention around it. It is beyond time to see this matter being progressed.

There is no doubt that the Minister's apology on behalf of the Government is welcome, but we have had apologies before in the Dáil from Governments of the recent past but those apologies should be the beginning and not the end of the work that must be done to compensate for the mistakes made and damage wrought on people's lives. This is not to take away from the Minister's words but it is incumbent on the Taoiseach to offer a full apology and give the opportunity to those directly affected to be in attendance when that happens.

It is only appropriate and right that we would take a moment to thank the people who should never have had to fight as hard and as long as they have, namely, the survivors of the mother and baby homes. I know some of them are here tonight, and I thank them. We stand with them and we will work really hard with the Minister to try to ensure we get this right. I also take a moment to acknowledge and recognise the experience of a former Labour leader and Tánaiste, former Deputy Joan Burton, and her own adoption experience and journey. It took over three decades for Joan to find out her information. She was in her 50s at the time, had graduated, married, given birth and served as a Deputy and Minister before she found the information she sought. She has spoken openly and eloquently many times about her experience, which I recognise today as well.

So much pain and cruelty was visited upon these women, their children and their families, and it was all State-sanctioned. As somebody who was not even born when most of these places were in operation, I feel a deep sadness and, to be very honest, an enormous amount of shame when I stand in a room speaking on this matter. I am aware the decisions made, perhaps in this room or the Lower House, political and governmental decisions, led us to this. It is beholden on all of us as legislators as we go about our work today to consider every decision we make not only within the context of our personal or political beliefs but what our decisions, taken in these rooms, might mean for the lives of every one of our fellow citizens. I doubt many of the Deputies, Senators or decision makers at that time thought that future generations of lawmakers would be here so many decades later unpicking the work they did and trying to provide redress for the pain arising from their role. This Bill is an important reminder that although we cannot future-proof every decision, we must strive to ensure that, in the present, everything we do is grounded in the needs of people, care and compassion for people. Our work must be done in congruence with people's wishes.

I have a couple of questions and observations, although I do not know if the Minister will have the opportunity to respond. Many of us in the Labour Party have spoken with survivors in mother and baby homes and people placed for adoption. A wide spectrum of people have been affected by this. Something that arose was a sense of confusion and sometimes hurt and bewilderment about some of the language used in this Bill. Some people have expressed those feelings about use of terms such as "social parents" and maybe the use of the term "adoptive parent". That is for some people; it is not for everyone. I can only reflect the experience of the people we have spoken with.

There are many questions about the resources that will be given to rolling out the provisions in the Bill, where they will come from and what will be used. The Minister repeatedly referred to the €800 million scheme, but people really want to conceptualise or understand what this will mean for each person. That might be an impossible question to answer but people want to know what it means on an individual basis. The €800 million is a figure and it does not relate to people's lives and experiences. I appreciate the Minister may not be able to give an answer but it is something we must think about. What does this mean and how will this affect people individually? We must highlight that there is a group of older people who have never been able to access any information on their birth.

Following the publication of this Bill, Deputy Bacik, on behalf of the Labour Party, expressed her concerns about some aspects of the legislation. The Minister and the Deputy went through these concerns in the Lower House. Survivors of mother and baby county homes and all adopted persons have been waiting decades for recognition of the right to information on their identity. Campaigners have been crying out for legislation to provide them with access to birth certificates and information about their adoption and origins. This is something many of us in the Labour Party have worked hard to achieve. In early 2021, we published legislation to facilitate information and tracing for adopted persons and challenged the Government to make good on the commitment to make good on the commitment to do the same. I recognise that the Minister has responded positively to those calls.

Deputy Bacik, on behalf of the Labour Party and in conjunction with other Members of the Houses and witnesses, participated extensively in pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislation before us.

The Labour Party will be submitting amendments to this legislation. I look forward to engaging with the Minister in good faith on those. When the Bill was going through the other House there were concerns about retention of the controversial information session for those seeking information about their origins. The joint committee had recommended the deletion of any requirement for a meeting or information session so it is disappointing to see that some form of information provision session has been retained in the revised Bill. I echo Senator Warfield's call that full unfettered information be made available and that there be a central archive. I still have not fully got my head around the idea that there are bits and pieces of information still scattered around the place for something so serious that effects so many lives. It is not good enough that this information is still in so many depositories. A central archive would be crucial.

It is vital to listen to those who will be most directly affected by this legislation and the wishes of survivors and adopted persons must be heard. We have an awful lot left to do and unfortunately, in this area, time is not necessarily on our side. I will conclude with the words of my Labour Party colleague, Joan Burton who said:

I will welcome the public apologies and justifiable redress schemes. I will welcome even more the essential law reforms that must come as the true memorial to Ireland’s banished babies.

Others have spoken of how some feel the apology was too soon as it came without sufficient notice. There is also a strong case that it has also come very late from the State. I do not think that this will be the only apology. We are in a period when there cannot only be indications from the Government, the State and its institutions of a message of apology and regret but also a determination to act and change and that it will act both forwards and backwards in the delivery of justice. An apology is not the same thing as accountability and accountability is still badly needed in this area. It could be the truth commission recommended by Mr. John O'Mahony or the investigation of systemic practices that could be illegal or practices that were criminal, and known to be criminal, at the time.

I say the apology is a little late because it is regrettable that it has been such a battle at every single stage to get every small improvement. I glanced back today at an old headline in a newspaper. It was 2017 or 2018 when myself and Senator Ruane, who was a member of the joint committee on children, were accused of terribly delaying something badly needed because we raised the idea of the veto and the idea of an automatic assumed opt-out on contact. It was an assumption of non-contact, not even a veto, that was stated before. We were told that we were questioning the Attorney General's advice at the time and it was wrong. It was post-GDPR and it was wrong. That is why it is difficult for us. We have been speaking about GDPR and the Minister has probably grappled with it more than most by now. It has been painful to have to push it again and again on each piece and to say "No"; people have rights. Those rights are there in European law. Yes, the State needs to vindicate, support and deliver those rights but it must also ensure that in no way does it ever attempt to dilute, supplant, corral or limit them. The Minister will be aware that there is still considerable concern about those areas. The fact that only certain bodies are being named as having to give subject access requests and are information sources means we must ask where it leaves all the other bodies which have information that individuals may wish to seek an access request and to which they are entitled to access under the GDPR Act under subject access requests. There has to be absolute clarity in the Bill as it leaves this House that there is no question but that this is a cul-de-sacing of people's rights to information into limited areas.

There is some regret around the Minister's power to designate new relevant bodies under the Act. We know there are a lot of very relevant bodies but at the moment there is a very limited list of relevant bodies and in terms of primary and secondary sources. It is quite a narrow list and there are obvious omissions and entities that clearly should be there. The Minister will understand that while we may have faith in him that he intends to designate all the relevant bodies, as legislators and people who have been waiting a long time, we want to see as much of that as possible in the legislation at the outset, while making it clear that the list is not exclusive or closed.

Others have noted that it is good that it has moved from the very closed system and the assumption of non-contact and the kind of stigma that was in the rationale as was evident even from the officials who spoke on it at the time. It is good that we have progressed beyond that but equally it is still the case that persons who are adopted face a different obstacles to getting their birth certificate than any other person in the State. That remains a concern. The registered letter was put forward but the Bill should really say that everyone should get information. If you are getting a birth certificate, that is a person's information. In a way, it is not related to contact. There is a question about general public information. If a person is seeking contact, there is a register where they can inquire as to whether a relative has requested non-contact but that is a discussion that is relative to the point about contact. There is still an argument as to whether it is relevant at all to someone's personal information.

There are still some gaps and concerns around relevant records definitions that the Minister will be aware of. Take care information, which is very blunt. It is just what the arrangements were. It does not have that texture about what was the care. Were there reports? Were you one of the children who, say, inspectors identified? Were you treated well or badly? Is there a record of concern about your care? It relates to all the texture of that care information. Then there is early life information. I have raised a point with the Minister and I am disappointed to see that it is still in the Bill. I know there is information about medical treatment and so on but I find it extraordinarily cruel that in the "early life information" that the section includes "information on whether any person, being a parent or other genetic relative of him or her, visited or inquired in relation to him or her, which information includes the degree of relationship of the other person to him or her, but does not include the name of the other person". To learn that someone inquired about you at this point and to not know who that person was seems cruel. There is not even the proviso that the person might have put themselves on a register of not wanting contact. That element is unacceptable and goes back to the drip-feeding of tiny clues about people's lives that they have had to struggle with as they get these little scraps of information to try to put together a picture of their early lives and maybe the lives of their parents.

I am concerned about the definitions of qualifying relatives and genetic relatives. There is a definition of genetic relatives in the Bill. However, where a relative wants to access information, they are limited in many cases to accessing information in relation to a relevant person who is deceased. There is a qualification that they be the next of kin. It seems that under the Bill a sibling would not be able to seek information if there was a parent still alive who was not seeking such information.

These are the nuances that matter hugely. It is fundamental that we do not place people into a labyrinth and that we recognise that error. The immunity points are very important. I know that it is immunity going forward, but it must be made very clear that there is no immunity retrospectively. However, I am concerned that relevant bodies which may omit information can claim not to have acted in bad faith, because we know that some of these bodies have systematically hidden and blocked information in the past. I would not want anything to allow them to have a potential immunity in the future if they continue to block access to important information. We must ensure there is no defence for those actions going forward.

I also acknowledge how you spoke, Acting Chair, about your own experience. Hopefully, that will mean an awful lot to people listening today as well.

This is an historic day. The Birth Information and Tracing Bill means that all adopted children can now access records. As the Minister clearly states, in all cases, any child that was born in Ireland that was sent abroad is included under the legislation. That is crucial. The law that we make today is having such an impact on so many people's lives. I acknowledge the people who are with us today in the Visitors Gallery, and in the Houses of the Oireachtas, but also everyone who is watching the proceedings as well.

We are looking at how we can offer justice for the abuse, stigma and shame that has led to the illegal birth registrations. It begins with an apology from the State. However, we need practical help and support and that is what this Bill begins to do, to provide access. This impact is on women and children mainly. It was women, back in the 1940s and 1950s, who had to endure incredible ignominy and shame that led to them living their lives in shame in society, families and in institutions. Following the Minister's apology, we must stand up now and shine a light. That is what has been done. It has been a very difficult process.

The Minister has visited the mother and baby home in Tuam. He has given time to people. It has been an extremely harrowing process for the people and families involved. So many people have come forward and engaged with the process, but my thoughts are with people who have not yet spoken - older men and women that have never spoken about this. I am very conscious that anyone who is listening would be aware that there are supports provided by the HSE and Connect counselling. Counselling is nearly always the first step to how we engage with the issue and this Bill speaks about counselling.

The purpose of the Bill is to correct the birth register and to have an accurate record, so that there is a tracing service delivered by the State and that genealogical expertise will be available. I very much acknowledge the pre-legislative scrutiny by colleagues in the Seanad and in the Dáil as well. The Minister has taken that into account in the amendments he has introduced in terms of the balance that must be struck with the preference of parents. What is crucial about this Bill in a very practical way is the access to medical information for people who have never had that access.

The Minister refers to next of kin in the Bill, many of whom may be deceased at this stage. Brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces are also mentioned. The Bill ensures that Tusla and the Adoption Authority can request information. I note that the Minister underlined the fact that Departments and religious organisations must share information with them. He also mentioned the Succession Act, to balance inheritance rights between the birth family and the adoptive family.

The O'Mahony report referred to a number of illegal birth registrations, which Tusla flagged as suspicious. I presume a specialised team is probably looking at those files, but could the Minister provide any further comment on the issue? It is the case that so many people are old or have passed away. How are we going to guarantee access to the information? Given the acceleration by the Department, the officials and the teams in their engagement and public consultations that have been happening in recent years, I do not underestimate what has been achieved, but we must ensure that we have something available as quickly as possible for people who need the support right now.

I thank the Minister for his apology. Having read the report, the points that stuck with me were the shockingly high rate of infant mortality in the 1940s and 1950s and the fact that no comfort was given in some of these homes. The Minister's role in representing the Government and all of us as public representatives is to give that comfort to families now.

The Minister is welcome to the House. Thank you, Acting Chair, for always being willing to share your story. A high-profile person such as Senator Boyhan sharing his story does so much for those who have no voice. I wish to recognise that today.

I thank the Minister for making an apology on behalf of the Government. I await an apology on behalf of the State. I do not believe the State has made an apology. That needs to come from the Head of the Government, the Taoiseach himself.

I agree very much with what has been said by my colleague Senators this evening. I came here to speak against this Bill. I toyed with the issue all last night. Since I became a Senator in 2014, I have been confronted with legislation that I never wanted to be a part of and yet finished up supporting. I supported the gender recognition Bill. I supported the marriage Bill and referendum. For an auld fella like me, who comes from a conservative background, it takes quite a lot to move there. What has moved me this evening to now wanting to support the Minister is the word "illegal". I grew up in an Ireland that is so different to the Ireland we have today. A girl getting pregnant in my home town disappeared and she returned no longer pregnant, or she never returned. Those who did have children, even though they may have given the child up for adoption, which in most cases they were forced to do, when they came back their reputations were destroyed and not only their reputation, it extended to their family in some cases.

As I think about that this evening, I think about the lies that have been told to those who were adopted, to friends and relations, in order to cover the fact that an illegal registration of birth had taken place, the professional people involved - people that we looked up to. In my young days, people like doctors, priests, nuns and teachers had a position in society which was above the rest of us, and we looked up to them, yet here we had this criminal behaviour going on in institutions around this country.

This Bill is vitally important, but I do have great sympathy for the mothers that are about to be exposed, because a lot of them were children themselves when they were pregnant. Many of them were the direct result of rape or incest and it was all buried under the carpet. In my home town, a few priests were used and when a girl was pregnant, irrespective of how she became pregnant, she was moved on. In the society we live in, even today, girls are expected to be the ones that will say "No, stop, I do not want to do this. I do not want to get pregnant." Where are the fathers in this Bill? Where are the men who brought about or participated in bringing about the pregnancy? We will never know them.

Some of them hold responsible positions in society today and they are delighted that their little misdemeanour, as they would have thought of it, was moved on. Whether we like it or not, institutions in this country sold babies and that is the truth of it. I want to know how we will recover that. How will we make these institutions repatriate to the State the moneys they took for selling citizens of this State? They sold them to America and all over the world and it is disgraceful.

They say in the medical profession, "First, do no harm". My advice to the Minister is not to do any more harm; we need a balance of harms. I was thinking last night of an 82 year-old woman sitting in her sitting room with her husband and children with this dark secret sitting in the background that may be 65 years old, waiting for the knock or the registered letter and waiting for her past to come back and abuse her for a second time. I am not so sure that every mother was happy about the adoptions they were forced into and I am not so sure that those girls have ever forgotten the hurt that was done to them. I lived in those years and I saw what went on. I commend the Minister on bringing this forward and I will work with those who want to bring amendments forward. I will support the Minister and I complement him on what he has done. I hope he does not take any personal insult from me requesting the State to make a proper apology. The Minister has done a great job in bringing this Bill forward and I know how committed he is to this. I complement the Minister on his work but I want the State to step forward.

That last contribution was quite a remarkable one and I relate to it on so many levels because of my age and because I grew up in a similar society to Senator Craughwell. I relate to the things he said. It was a remarkable and profound contribution and I commend it for its considerable reflection on a number of fronts. Having said that, I thank the Minister for this work and I thank the members of the committee who are here. The Minister's apology is appropriate on a number of levels. It is appropriate coming from a man of such patent sincerity and commitment to dealing with this. It is appropriate that it is taking place in the Seanad, which has, to mention recent phraseology, always been the place for minority voices and major change. It is not an inappropriate setting. It is a fulsome and good apology and it is appropriate coming from the Minister. If other apologies follow then well and good but it stands alone and I would say to the people in the Visitors Gallery and to their friends outside that they should value and accept this apology as wholesome, thorough and full.

I want to allude to one aspect of Senator Craughwell's contribution, which I was impressed with, because I grew up in that same world and it is hard for a lot of those here to relate to that, which is understandable and thank God they do not relate to it. The Senator has a point that there will be mothers for whom this will be traumatic. There are people who have lived with a dark secret for years, which they have held from their new children from their new relationships and from their grandchildren. As Senator Craughwell said, this can explode on them now. I know there is a clause on this and I have heard the Minister say that their wish for privacy will be relayed to the victim, which is fair enough. The Minister might return to that fundamental point in his response and it might merit considerable thought on support or counselling and on how we deal with the mothers. That is a relevant point and I do not mind dwelling on it a little. Senator Craughwell brought an interesting dimension to the debate, which is not to in any way detract from all the other things that are correct. It was a horror that people's identities were kept from them, that there were illegal adoptions, that new and false identities were created for people and that they could not access the truth. That was wrong. It is important that full information would be made available now and that there will be a pathway to that information. It is also important that there will be tracing and genealogical services and that there will be counselling and full disclosure. That is all well-spoken of and documented, which is good. The Minister summed it up in a nutshell when he said: "The shame was not theirs. It was ours, and it remains our shame."

It is also so important that children abroad are included and one would not need a degree in science to understand that the medical records are important. Neither would one need a degree in science to understand that the early life care dimension is important. I relate to that as a teacher and a parent and it is important that they would be made aware of that. I commend the Acting Chairman in the way Senator Craughwell did as he displays great courage in the way he speaks to this House. He is giving extraordinary leadership, courage, support and hope to others in that regard. All of those supports are necessary, including early life care, but I want to make the point that the holistic care, as identified by Senator Craughwell, must be understood. While some people might, understandably, be a little impatient for more change, for people like Senator Craughwell and I and for our generation, this is a monumental and momentous evening. This is transformational, progressive, major and wonderful movement. We celebrate, laud and commend it and we are proud to be part of it. People used to say they would love to live to see a united Ireland; well I would say that I am delighted that I lived to see this and that I am part of it.

We all owe an apology to the people in the Visitors Gallery. Whether it was in the attitude of the men, whether it was in the attitude of society or whether it was the fact that we pushed away responsibility, we all owe them an apology on so many fronts. Those of us who lived through that time particularly owe them an apology and those who did not owe them an apology for not getting on to this quicker. They are in our hearts and thoughts and we treasure and respect them but we all owe them that apology. I will leave it at that. It is an important evening and one I probably thought I would never live to see but it is wonderful to see it. It is just as important to see this as it is to see a united Ireland.

I want to thank all Members of the House for the considered contributions they have made in the context of this legislation and in relation to the apology that has been delivered to those who were the subject of illegal birth registrations. I want to thank the Acting Chairman for his insightful contributions, as ever. He focused his contribution on the importance of identity and that is fundamentally what the issues we are seeking to address in this legislation are about. It is the fundamental issue that those who were subject to illegal birth registrations were denied their identities. The depth of the denial of that identity for those subject to illegal birth registrations is particularly acute in light of the way that so many of them found out about their identities.

Not only did they not know their identity, they were led to believe a completely different identity.

I hear and acknowledge what has been said by Senators McGreehan, Seery Kearney, Craughwell and those to whom I have spoken before tonight's meeting, who are in the Public Gallery, in terms of whether this was the best place to make the apology on behalf of the Government. In making the apology here and in doing it this evening, in particular in linking it with Second Stage of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022, I wanted to demonstrate that this apology was being followed by meaningful action. I have always believed that this Bill is a meaningful response to those who have been subject to illegal birth registration. When I met a number of those present on a web meeting last year, I made the commitment that the delays that people had faced in terms of a resolution to the identity issues, but also those very real and practical legal concerns, would come through this legislation. That is why I have linked the apology today with this Bill. I hear what they and Senators have said. As I said, I will engage further with the Taoiseach in terms of ensuring there is full parity of esteem between the group who were subject to illegal birth registration and others who have received a State apology, in particular those who were in Magdalen institutions and those who were in mother and baby institutions.

A range of very important issues have been raised across the House. We will have the opportunity on Committee Stage to address these in more detail, but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss some of the issues at this point. The Acting Chairperson, Senator Boyhan, listed the key types of information to which this legislation will provide access. It is important to remember the breadth of what we are trying to achieve. The Bill provides for access to the birth certificate, the document that for so long has been denied to so many people; and access to birth information, which is information that could be on a birth certificate but on many birth certificates is not present. In that situation, it is usually the name of the father that is not present. That information may be elsewhere in a file of the individual but is not on the birth certificate. That is why we are including birth information as well. The Bill also provides for care information, which is information about the period during which an individual was in care. In response to Senator Higgins, where there is any file that discusses any element of the treatment of the person, that information will be available under care information. The Bill also discusses early life information as another source. Some of these areas cross over. It is a Venn diagram in terms of covering of information. We have put these successive definitions into the Bill to provide the broadest level possible of information. The Bill also provides for medical information, which is absolutely essential. This is an issue of the most urgent concern to many people, particularly people with a hereditary condition. It is important they can get any medical information about themselves. Importantly, this legislation also gives them a legal right to medical information about somebody else. That is something none of us have. We talk about knowing if one's mother had a hereditary condition. I know that information because my mother tells me it, not because I have a legal right to it. It does not happen but were any of our mothers or fathers to decide not to tell us about a medical condition, that would be their legal right. This Bill, for the first time, gives an adopted person a legal right to the medical information of a parent in order that he or she can know if a parent had a hereditary condition.

Incorrect birth registration information is a new category we entered by way of amendment in the Dáil, recognising that there may be information on the file that can tell us about how the incorrect or illegal birth registration came about, if there is any detail about who did it. That is a new category that we brought in which, again, is particularly important in terms of the accountability that a number of Senators talked about. The Bill makes provision for provided items. If a photograph or letter has been left on a file, that information is available as well. We specifically, again by way of amendment, we have set out that the term "provided items" includes photographs.

Senator McGreehan made a really important point about trust in institutions and how trust has broken down. Having spoken to many adopted people, but particularly in the context of those who were subject to illegal birth registrations, that the manner in which that information was conveyed to them was hugely inappropriate in many circumstances and has further eroded trust. We have to try to rebuild that trust as part of this legislation, but the work we are doing goes beyond this legislation. We are working with the agencies involved, namely, Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland. A departmental implementation group works with these agencies in terms of ensuring that the culture in these institutions is a culture of giving rather than of withholding information. The default should not be to not give information; it should be to provide information. We are doing that through an implementation group. My Department, Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland work together on how this legislation will work.

The legislation gives the Minister the power to draft guidelines in regard to how this legislation should be interpreted. There is also the matter of resourcing, which was raised by Senator Hoey. We need to resource these agencies better in order that they can undertake the very significant work that this legislation gives to them. In this year's budget, for example, we have given a significant €4 million additional allocation to Tusla, specifically to resource the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 and an additional €1 million allocation to the Adoption Authority of Ireland specifically to resource the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022. Those two bodies have been hiring relevant staff with that range of competencies and they have been updating their knowledge base to be able to resource and implement this legislation.

Senator Seery Kearney raised the important point with regard to people with suspicions of illegal birth registration. As stated earlier by the Senator, what happened in the St. Patrick's Guild is just the tip of the iceberg. I agree. We made additional changes in this area during Committee Stage in the Dáil. We are resourcing a specialist tracing service. It can work in two ways. First, if an individual comes forward with a strong belief or a piece of information that suggests that he or she was the subject of illegal birth registration, he or she can engage with that specialist tracing team. It has the mission and the legal basis to inquire because other agencies or bodies now have the obligation to work with such a trace. While the GDPR has done many good things, it has been, whether correctly or not - I am sure Senator Higgins would have strong views in that regard - used as a reason for one agency not to share information with another in terms of tracing. This legislation gives that legislative basis. It also gives a legislative basis to Tusla. Where it sees markers or suspicions on a file, Tusla itself can proactively undertake a trace. That is important. It is a new power, one that does not exist at the moment. It is a significant power in terms of recognising that there is a wider body of illegal birth registrations out there and a process to try to reveal that information and give people a right to their identity.

Senator Warfield stated that there is no right to access files in Irish law. That is fundamentally what we are about here, namely, the right to access one's information as an adopted person or someone subject to an illegal birth registration, which does not exist. That is what we are seeking to do. It is important to say that this legislation does not supplant GDPR, which brings me to some of the points made by Senator Higgins. This legislation sits alongside GDPR.

People retain their existing rights to put in subject access requests. This legislation conclusively determines that at the end of a process, everyone will get full access to all of their information. That is not guaranteed under GDPR because there is that balancing mechanism in GDPR where the data controller must make a call each time. There is no call in this. People are entitled to their birth information, their early life information, and all of those categories. They are entitled to them fully and unredacted. That is why we did not just rely on GDPR. We never wanted a situation where someone would be refused their right to this vital information.

I want to talk about the issue of balancing of rights, which has been a key theme in a number of the contributions, and the approach that this legislation takes to the issue of balancing of rights. I agree with Senator Craughwell's point. There is a group, how many we do not know but I believe it is a small number and the size does not matter. This is a group of parents, probably all mothers, who have never discussed with their families what happened to them because of the secrecy and the stigma that Irish society placed on women and girls who got pregnant outside of marriage. Their right to privacy and to keep that secret, and the right of an adopted person - who is their child - to know their identity, are two fundamental rights. Up to this point, Ireland has always prioritised the right of privacy over the right of identity. That changes with this legislation. It entirely flips and we give precedence to the right of identity.

I do not need to tell Senators that any time one balances two sets of constitutional rights and gives precedence to one over the other, the legislation that does this must explain the process and must show to the courts that both sets of rights were considered. This is why we must have a balancing mechanism. I believe there is general agreement that there has to be a balancing mechanism, and the question then becomes what that balancing mechanism will be. We believe in the idea of an information session. I must be clear that such an information session would not happen in every circumstance. It would happen in a small minority of circumstances where a parent has clearly registered a no-contact preference, and this can happen from now on, once this legislation is passed on. This preference will indicate a clear affirmative act demonstrating that they have a concern about their privacy. They cannot keep their identity secret any longer under this legislation but they have the right to register this no-contact preference. The question then becomes how to convey that to their child. The process of an information session was originally to be a physical meeting, under the original draft, but we have changed this to a phone call. Originally, we were going to have a social worker involved. We were coming from a mindset of the adopted person maybe needing support, but we must also recognise that this is the conveying of a piece of information. Many adopted people do not want such support and they do not want to be treated as though they are something delicate. They want to be given the information. This is why we moved away from the idea that the information session would be provided by a social worker. It is the conveyance of two pieces of information, namely, that the birth parent has asked that there would be a no-contact preference, and a recognition that this is an exercise of their privacy rights. Once that phone call has been made, the full suite of information, unredacted, is released. We believe this is the most constitutionally compatible way of balancing those two sets of rights.

We did examine the issue of the registered letter. This was examined but the advice we received was that the information session is the best way. This approach has been proposed in the past, as Members may be aware, with regard to the information session. I have heard the concerns raised by some adopted people about that information session. If it was something easy to change, then I would do that. We are, however, fundamentally balancing two sets of constitutional rights here. We are in a space where we know that issues have previously gone to the courts on the release of adoption information. The I. O'T case, which is the case that has caused so many of the difficulties we are experiencing, was someone objecting to the release of their name and adoption information to the child they gave up for adoption.

In my introduction I did not speak at length on, but I am very conscious of, how many efforts there have been to pass legislation providing for information for adopted people, and how all of those efforts have failed. Senator Higgins referred to what was said to Senator Ruane at a previous point. I will not get into that space but I am very conscious that we need to get this done. Having listened to the advice of the Office of the Attorney General on the terms of the balancing mechanism, I believe we have a balancing mechanism that gets us through constitutional balancing and delivers full access to all information, unredacted, with no more vetoes and no more are being held back, with everyone getting access to their full set of information.

I will make two further brief points on some of the wider issues. Senator Dolan spoke of the mothers who may be afraid. Under this legislation, counselling is provided for everyone who wishes to receive counselling. The person seeking information or the person who has lodged a no-contact preference will be provided with counselling as some element of the supports to them.

On the wider issue of the retention of information and where the information is, this has come up and it was discussed in the Dáil. Senator Warfield has also spoken on this. I was always very clear. Previous legislation had tried to bring everything together. It was to bring everything together and then allow for access to information. We must recognise, however, that this would take a number of years to do. It could be done, and this Bill allows for it to be done, but we want to be able to give people access to information as soon as possible. This is why we put an obligation on Tusla, the Adoption Authority of Ireland, and the various bodies, to provide information under this legislation. We also recognise the need for, and in the response to the commission of investigation we clearly set out the objectives for, a records and memorial centre. The Government recently announced steps it is taking to create a site where people can learn about and understand the tragedy of institutional abuse in Ireland in the 20th century, and be able to access appropriate records. There will be a physical building but we also know this must be available in a wider setting for those people living abroad. This is particularly important. That plan is being advanced. This legislation provides for the protection of all existing records and allows the Adoption Authority of Ireland to request and instruct bodies to provide their records to it as part of the work of collating information. This legislation does advance the achievement of that goal.

I thank Senators for their time today. I thank them for their engagement on this legislation. I look forward to continuing to engage with Senators as the Bill moves through the House. In particular, I thank those who are with us today in the Gallery. I hope the apology I have delivered on behalf on the Government has meaning to you. The Senators are right that this is your apology. How you understand it is not something that I or anybody else can seek to dictate. I hope that in discussing the Bill today, you see the efforts that are being made by the Government to provide you, and others in the same situation as yourselves, with a route to the access to your identity, while at the same time addressing those very real concerns that the fact of your illegal birth registration has created in your lives.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 17 May 2022.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 8.31 p.m. go dtí 10.30 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 11 Bealtaine 2022.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.31 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 11 May 2022.
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