Thursday, 3 December 2020

Questions (87)

Jennifer Whitmore

Question:

87. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the extent to which he consulted with and sourced international and national independent law and data privacy advisers in advance of the publication of the mother and baby homes report; if not, if he will appoint independent advisers of national and international standing in future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41065/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

The recent debates about the mother and baby homes situation brought into stark reality how important it is to have clarity on data protection, what rules will apply and who will be applying them to ensure we have a data protection system that is fit for purpose and has the needs of the survivors at its heart. To what extent has the Minister sourced and consulted international and national independent law and data privacy advisers in advance of the publication of the mother and baby homes report? If he has not done this, will he appoint independent advisers of national and international standing in future? I ask him to make a statement on the matter.

As I stated in response to the previous question, the commission of investigation delivered its final report to me on 30 October. I had said that there would be a short time interval between its receipt by my Department and its publication. I have now outlined the plans for publication.

One of the matters undertaken was to refer the report of almost 3,000 pages to the Attorney General to ascertain whether there were any legal impediments to publication. The Attorney General is the legal adviser to the Government, and he has not indicated any concerns to me in relation to data privacy or data protection in respect of the publication of the report.

As I have already indicated, I am open to engaging with other experts on the data protection issues relating to matters connected to the report more widely, as my work on dealing with access to records continues. To that end, I have already reached out to a number of experts - national and international - and sought a meeting to hear their considered views on this matter. My officials are engaging with the Office of the Attorney General and I will ensure that any independent views are shared with that office.

As the Deputy will be aware, the commission is independent in the manner in which it chooses to conduct its investigation and the commissioners are the appropriate persons to consider any data privacy or protection issues ahead of submission of the report to me as the prescribed Minister.

The Deputy has asked previously about providing mechanisms for individuals to access personal information contained in the archive of records which is due to be deposited with my Department on 28 February next. My Department is carefully examining the advice of the Attorney General and the views of the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure we can put in place the procedures and practices that will enable relevant persons to access certain personal information in accordance with existing law.

As I said, I have committed to, and begun, the steps of engaging with international experts to obtain their advice and views on the provision of information.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am pleased to hear that he has already made contact with experts. He mentioned that the Attorney General has given advice in regard to data protection. Previously, there was confusion as a result of the advice from different Attorneys General in regard to data protection. It is important to have clarity in this regard.

Survivor groups have expressed concern that there be adequate consultation with the international experts on this matter. My understanding is that the groups offered suggestions in October as to the external experts with whom it would be particularly beneficial for the Minister to engage. They also asked that a dedicated unit be established within the Data Protection Commission, which would have a dedicated advisory committee. Will the Minister commit to setting up such a unit?

Will the Minister also agree to reconvene the collaborative forum for former residents of mother and baby homes? He said he has spoken to the majority of members of the forum, but has he spoken to the forum in its totality? Will he reconvene it and appoint a chairperson and member with data protection expertise?

The next question, submitted by Deputy Pringle, is specifically on the issue of the collaborative forum. If Deputy Whitmore does not mind, I will address her last question in my reply to Deputy Pringle, in which I will set out my past and future engagements with the forum. I have written separately today to all members of the forum indicating my intention to convene a meeting of it once the report of the commission of investigation has been published.

On the wider issue of independent advice, the Adoption Rights Alliance gave me the names of two individuals. I have approached those individuals to obtain advice. The Attorney General is the legal adviser to the Government and I am bound to accept his advice. However, in order to get the widest range of views on how we can deal with this issue properly, I am also engaging with the international experts to whom I referred and the Data Protection Commission. I cannot create a separate unit within the commission. My understanding is that the survivor groups were looking for a separate unit within my Department to deal with these particular queries. We are examining how we can best meet that request.

Everyone wants to see the survivors being central to all the decision-making that happens from now on. Many of them were traumatised by the recent debates. It is really important that survivors do not feel they must fight for access to data concerning their own histories. I ask that the Minister keep that consideration to the fore of all his decisions as he moves forward on this matter.

Absolutely. In respect of today's announcement about the publication date, we put survivors first by notifying them even before we notified the Dáil. That was the appropriate thing to do. When the report is published, it will be presented to the survivor groups and individuals concerned before it goes out to the general public. I have said a number of times that we will provide the full allowable GDPR access, but GDPR is not going to solve all the problems. That is something even the Data Protection Commissioner recognises. The way to resolve the issue of access to information is via information and tracing legislation. It is important that I keep putting that on the record. We are not going to have a panacea when the archive comes to my Department on 28 February. The issue will be solved by information and tracing legislation. I am engaging with the Attorney General in that regard and my Department is working hard on an options paper. I look forward to bringing information and tracing legislation to the Oireachtas next year.