I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. In particular, I would like to update Deputies on the commission's fourth interim report and what I have been doing to progress issues since the work of the commission began. As Deputies are aware, the commission submitted a fourth interim report to me last December, which I published after securing Government approval on 22 January. The report is available to view and download on the Department's website. The commission advised that it would not be able to issue its reports within the previously agreed timeframe and requested an extension of one year to allow it to complete its work in full. The Government has agreed to this extension request and the commission is now due to submit its final reports by February 2020.
In making a case for an extension, the commission outlined the sheer scale of the work involved in investigating the matters set out under its terms of reference. The investigation includes multiple lines of inquiry relating to the operation of quite different institutions over a period of more than three quarters of a century. The scope of the terms of reference and timeline for this commission has always been ambitious and we remain ambitious for the outcome of the commission. The public interest and, most importantly, the interest of former residents is best served by facilitating the commission to conduct the comprehensive analysis required to make accurate and robust findings on the extensive range of sensitive issues before it. I know that many former residents have been eagerly awaiting the completion of the commission's work and I understand that many who contributed to the process and shared their information are disappointed and frustrated by this development.
The commission's fourth interim report provides an update on its important work engaging with former residents and others connected with these institutions. It has captured the personal experiences of 519 witnesses through the work of its confidential committee, and this process was expected to be completed by the end of January. Hearing these stories grounds the work of the commission in the lived experiences of those who spent time in these institutions. The commission is continuing to take evidence about conditions in the institutions from former residents, workers and the authorities that ran the institutions and this work is not yet complete. The commission also stated that its wide terms of reference have necessitated the collection and analysis of a vast range of documentary material relating to the institutions under investigation. While this process is ongoing, I can confirm that the Department has furnished the commission with all relevant records in its possession.
Significantly, the commission now plans to deliver by 15 March 2019 a substantial report on the burial arrangements for persons who died while resident in these institutions. The report will include extensive technical reports prepared in the course of the commission's work on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway and the commission's assessment of burial arrangements at other major institutions. I will seek formal Government approval to publish the report as quickly as possible after I have had an opportunity to consider its findings.
Upon receipt of the interim report, I consulted with the commission to explore whether any of its three reports could be completed in advance of February 2020. The commission is strongly of the view that it will not be possible to complete any of its reports in isolation from its companion reports. When I met Judge Yvonne Murphy I was reassured by the absolute commitment of the commission to establishing the full facts of what happened to women and children in these institutions. I accept that the commission is using its best endeavours to conclude the investigation as quickly as possible. The chair wants to conclude matters, and I know the Deputies in the House want the same thing. It is clear that the commission is seeking to collate and analyse information on these institutions at a level of detail that has never been done before. This will greatly assist public understanding and possibly assist individual citizens with their personal stories and experiences.
I can confirm that the extension of time for the commission will not impact on the planned forensic excavation of the Tuam site. These are separate processes. However, the commission's burials report is expected to assist and inform the ongoing work to advance the legislative and operational arrangements for this priority project. If a decision had been made not to grant the extension sought, the commission would, effectively, be obliged to submit incomplete reports this month. Clearly, such a scenario would ultimately undermine its findings and impact on the opportunity within this process for Irish society to acknowledge and start to understand the harrowing manner in which single women and their children were often treated during this period. This would be placed at risk. In these circumstances, the Government's approval of an extension was the only viable option. The Government will continue to make available whatever resources and supports are required for the commission to continue its vital work. The commission has confirmed that despite the extension, it expects total costs to remain within the initial costs estimate of €21.5 million.
In October 2018, the Government approved the recommendation for the phased forensic excavation of the available site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway. As the Minister responsible, I was honoured to make a recommendation to colleagues, which was not only supported by the best experts in science and law but, more importantly, was also informed by the voices of survivors, families and loved ones. Implementing this decision will not be straightforward. New legislation is needed to provide specific lawful authority for the proposed course of action.
The preparation of legislation is a key priority in the Department and a new dedicated unit has been established for this task with additional staff from other Departments expected to be assigned to the unit in the coming weeks. The wider interdepartmental group on Tuam, led by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, will continue to assist in terms of strategy and overall approach for the project. Scoping of the required legislation has commenced. There is no precedent for this kind of project in an Irish context and it is vital that we get it right in the interests of the survivors and the relatives and dignity of those buried at the site in Tuam. The approach taken will be further informed by the forthcoming report in March on burials at these institutions. In parallel to the legislative project, work will be carried out on sourcing appropriate expertise to carry out the works. As Minister, I will continue to examine the ways we can respond to the wider concerns of the advocates, families and survivors.
While the commission's work and the work regarding Tuam is ongoing, I am committed to engaging with former residents about their needs. The collaborative forum of former residents, which I established last year, has assisted in constructive engagement with former residents. It was established as a progressive response to the theme of "nothing about us without us", which emerged from facilitated consultations with former residents and their advocates. I recently received the collaborative forum's report, which identifies a number of issues of concern to former residents and includes a series of recommendations on matters of priority to them and their families. I am considering the recommendations made in the report that fall under the Department's remit, which include access to records and concerns about how Tusla deals with requests for information, tracing and access to records. There are arrangements in place with Tusla in regard to these services. I will look at ways in which these services could be improved where possible.
The report also makes recommendations on access to health services. Memorialisation and commemoration are also strong themes in the report, as is the appropriate use of language and terminology. Many of the recommendations do not fall within the remit of the Department. However, I am engaging with my Government colleagues and their respective Departments to discuss and progress these matters further. I propose to bring the report to Cabinet shortly to facilitate its consideration by the Government and I hope to have responses to at least some of the recommendations when I do so.
Picking up on questions and concerns raised by Deputies recently regarding Bethany Home, it might be helpful to set out some of the background on the matter.
As Deputies will be aware, my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, is responsible for the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002 legislation and related arrangements. The redress scheme established under the Act has not been extended to any additional institutions since 2005. When the Ryan report was published in 2009 there were a number of calls for the redress scheme to be extended to include additional institutions, including the Bethany Home. The Bethany Home is one of the 14 named mother and baby homes currently being examined by the current commission.
Mother and baby homes and related institutions have never been the focus of a statutory investigation before. The decision regarding extending the scheme has been reviewed on a number of occasions by this Government and the previous Government. There is no change in the decision not to extend the scheme. In its second interim report, the commission suggested eligibility for the scheme be re-examined. We examined it carefully and concluded it was not possible to implement redress at that time.
In reaching that conclusion the Government was conscious the commission has made no findings to date regarding abuse or neglect, and believes it would not be appropriate to deal with the question of redress in advance of any conclusions by the commission. Deputies may also wish to note that the Bethany Home survivors are represented on the membership of collaborative forum and the report contains powerful contributions from the member representing the Bethany Home and Protestant survivor groups. I met representatives of the forum when it presented me with its initial report in December. I heard from some of the members at first hand and was deeply moved by that testimony from them. Information on the forum can be found on my Department's website.