I welcome the opportunity to discuss the report of the commission of investigation and the terrible failure it revealed in how women and children were treated in institutions over many decades and to outline the Government's response.
Before I begin, I pay tribute to all of the mothers and children who spent time in these institutions. I thank those who bravely gave their personal accounts to the commission. I know that the publication of this report has resurfaced deep stress and trauma for survivors. Following the publication of the report last week, the Government offered our apology and asked for forgiveness for the failings of the Irish State - failings that repeated over many decades and which had the most horrendous consequences for our most vulnerable citizens.
I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the Taoiseach's apology to mothers and their children on behalf of the State. I, too, am deeply sorry for the hurt that was experienced. We humbly seek the forgiveness of the mothers, their children and their families. A profound wrong has been visited upon the Irish women and their children who were placed in these institutions. I want to restate in the strongest possible terms that they did nothing wrong. The publication of this report is our chance to affirm their stories and their truth and ensure their testimonies are heard, acknowledged and understood. It is there for all to see and preserved for future generations.
I know elements of this report are a disappointment to survivors, for example, sections where a strictly legalistic approach is taken to describing the profoundly personal impacts of what happened within the institutions and where the commission's conclusions that it could not find evidence of what happened could be interpreted as a denial of the experiences of survivors. This is why it is so important that the chapter on the confidential committee stands out as an unambiguous statement of the suffering of mothers and their children, and stands as a testament to the lived truth of what happened in these institutions and as a clear articulation of the repeated failures of church and State. The scale of these failures requires a comprehensive, meaningful and generous response from the State.
For my part as Minister, I am committed to ensuring this Government's response will mark a profound transformation, not only in the State's engagement with survivors but also in its supports for them. The relationship of trust between the State and the former residents of these institutions has been broken. The Government must begin the process of rebuilding that relationship. The Cabinet has approved a whole-of-government response to the commission report. This contains 22 actions based on eight themes, many of which directly address the concerns and needs of survivors today.
We all understand that access to personal information is a key issue for many former residents. Progressing information and tracing legislation is an absolute priority for me, the Taoiseach and the entire Government. I have been engaging intensively with the Attorney General to this end, approaching the issue in a manner grounded in general data protection regulation, GDPR, where the right of an individual to access personal information about himself or herself is central. My Department and the Attorney General's office are working with a view to having heads of Bill for information and tracing legislation ready by the end of March or early April. This can then proceed rapidly to pre-legislative scrutiny. Information and tracing legislation will allow for access to wider early life information. It will also allow the contact preference register to be put on a statutory basis. Our work on this legislation, however, will not delay other efforts to provide early access to personal information.
My Department is working intensively to prepare for the receipt of the commission's archive at the end of February. I wish to ensure that people can access personal information contained within the archive in line with GDPR. We have established a dedicated information management unit, headed by an official with data protection and legal expertise who will be supported by an archivist in advancing many of the important record-related recommendations put forward by the commission. I have also engaged with the data protection commissioner and have met with independent international experts in the area of GDPR, as was suggested to me by Members of this House. This intensive work will continue with a view to having robust policies and procedures in place for managing subject access requests. Following further consultations with the data protection commissioner, I hope to publish our policies and procedures prior to 28 February. My Department will also continue to work to ensure GDPR compliant policies are appropriately applied to all access points for personal information. I have placed particular focus on the point of access to personal information as I know it is a matter of deep interest to many Members.
Moving beyond this, another core commitment in the Government's response is the creation of a restorative recognition scheme to provide financial recognition. I am working with my Department to prioritise the establishment of an interdepartmental group, which will develop such a scheme and bring forward proposals for it by the end of April. While the group will consider the three categories of former residents highlighted by the commission, the Government took the significant decision that its considerations are not restricted to these three groups alone. The interdepartmental group will also assess the provision of a form of enhanced medical card for everyone who spent more than six months in mother and baby homes.
Further health supports will be provided, including access to counselling through the national counselling service, within which former residents of mother and baby homes and county homes are now considered a prioritised group.
Legislation to allow for the dignified exhumation of the site in Tuam and at other sites, if required, and providing for DNA identification will be brought forward for pre-legislative scrutiny soon. I have written to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability and Integration asking for this to be prioritised on its agenda and we discussed it at a meeting earlier today.
We, as a Government, recommit to establishing a national memorial and record centre related to institutional trauma, and that Departments and State bodies will prioritise the transfer of original files to the National Archives so that they can be publicly accessible.
The overarching theme is that this action list will be progressed in a survivor-centred manner. An enhanced model of survivor engagement with former residents, their representative groups, as well as the survivor diaspora, will be established following consultations with the collaborative forum. I have written this week to the collaborative forum seeking two meetings with it next month to progress this agenda.
Other commitments include the incorporation of elements of the report into the second level curriculum; further research on terminology, representation and misrepresentation with the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG; local and national memorialisation and commemoration events; the creation of a specific fund which supports children who experience disadvantage in memory of the children who died in the institutions; and the creation of a number of scholarships researching childhood disadvantage.
The Government is proposing this range of measures to recognise the diverse needs of former residents, both mothers and children. They are the first steps towards trying to rebuild the broken trust between them and the State which failed them over so many years. I know that many former residents are of an age where they need to see immediate action. They deserve to see real change in their lifetimes and we, as a Government, must do all we can to make this happen. They have already waited too long for justice to be done. I have outlined timelines for the progression of some of the key actions I mentioned and I will outline further details in forthcoming weeks.
It is important that I also address the role of the church in this history and how both the church and State are accountable for what happened in these institutions. All of those who were involved in this dark past have an obligation to the women and children who passed through these institutions. As such, I have written letters to religious congregations and charities to seek engagement with them, specifically on the issues of apology, their own contributions to restorative recognition and the provision of institutional records which would be beneficial to survivors. I look forward to progressing discussions with those religious groups in that regard.
After decades of secrecy, shame and stigma, survivors' truth is now heard. It is our responsibility to respond to this truth with empathy, compassion and meaning. The publication of the report in no way represents the end of this story. Restorative justice will require collective action and I look forward to working with both Houses as we make reparations for the wrongs of the past.