Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill: Second Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 14 March 2022.

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Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 5:00, 14 March 2022

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill [NIA 56/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has indicated that there will be no time limit for this debate. As the Bill is proceeding via accelerated passage, there will be no limits on individual contributions.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I thank the House for allowing the Bill to proceed, and I am very pleased to be able to move it at Second Stage. We have already heard much of the context and rationale for the Bill in the debate that has just concluded, so I do not intend to repeat that. However, I hope to provide an overview of the Bill and explain why it is so important that it delivers the protections that it sets out to provide. As I said earlier, it is imperative that the voices and needs of victims and survivors of the appalling neglect and abuse in these historical institutions are kept to the forefront of what we are all trying, collectively, to achieve with the Bill.

It was abuse that they experienced, and all sorts of appalling abuse. Coming only a few days after the Chamber was home to the delivery of a wide range of apologies for the failings in historical institutions, it is fitting that, so quickly after, the Assembly is debating legislation that serves to enshrine in law the right of victims of historical abuse to access the truth. As we have heard, the joint research from Queen's University and Ulster University was harrowing, but it provided a definitive, evidential basis for what survivors long knew to be the truth. Importantly, the review also included an oral history project that allowed the women, girls and children who experienced the institutions the opportunity to provide their testimony. Thankfully, the Executive agreed to the recommendation of a victim-centred independent investigation, one that, crucially, was co-designed with victims and survivors.

The truth recovery design panel made a number of key recommendations, and, as we know, the Bill seeks to deliver part 1 of recommendation 4. It should be remembered that all the panel's recommendations had the full support of victims and survivors, who worked alongside its members to help formulate them. More than 180 victims and survivors, from as far away as Canada, Australia and the United States of America, worked alongside the panel for six months. Recommendation 4 is their recommendation, and, as a consequence, this Bill is their Bill, because it is intended to give full effect to the first part of recommendation 4.

My Bill has nine clauses. Clause 1 introduces a duty to preserve:

"not alter, destroy or otherwise dispose of" a relevant document and to:

"take appropriate measures to ensure that the document is not stolen, lost, destroyed or otherwise damaged."

Importantly, it intends to prevent the movement of records out of Northern Ireland and to ensure that records, given their significance, are kept in the safest possible conditions.

Clauses 2 and 3 stipulate the conditions that must be satisfied before a document is considered relevant, and they provide a definition of "relevant document" and of "relevant information". Importantly, I draw Members' attention to the fact that being of interest to the inquiry or investigation makes it relevant. It is also important to note that the duty to preserve and not destroy records applies equally to the institutions to which they relate and the statutory organisations involved in the placement of women and girls, and of their children when they were separated from their mothers.

I also want it noted that the Bill includes, as I said earlier, many of the amendments that a number of Sinn Féin MLAs tabled to clauses in the Adoption and Children Bill, on which this Bill is largely based. I am confident that those amendments strengthen my Bill, in particular by widening its definition of "relevant information" and of "relevant institution". Of course, it is not just for legal or investigatory reasons that documents need to be retained. For a great number of children who are now adults, those documents are the first, and often only, official account of their birth and their earliest weeks and months of life. For some, the documents will contain precious details and information never before revealed. For women and girls, the documents will contain crucial, definitive accounts of their journey into, within and out of such institutions.

Clause 4 provides a definition of "relevant institution" as being a workhouse or:

"an institution in which a voluntary organisation provided residential accommodation for women or children, took decisions about the women or children and— (a) provided services to the women or children related to pregnancy or maternity, (b) provided day-to-day care for the women or children, (c) required the women or children to work (whether with or without pay), or (d) provided such other service as may be prescribed."

Importantly, a resident of a "relevant institution" is also defined in the clause as being a person of any age:

"who was provided with residential accommodation in the institution" and includes periods of absence from the institution. That is important, because it captures the periods when, for example, women were in hospital giving birth or when they were visiting a GP. By now, I sincerely hope that all institutions and the bodies responsible for them recognise the importance of properly retaining and maintaining records.

Just to be sure, clause 5 makes it an offence to not comply with the general duty in clause 1.

Finally, the only other clause that I will mention at this stage is clause 8. This clause states that the legislation will commence immediately after it receives Royal Assent. The preservation of documents is hugely important, and it cannot happen a day too soon.

Again, I acknowledge the proactive and detailed support that I received from the Department of Health. In more normal circumstances, the Bill would undoubtedly have been introduced as an Executive Bill. However, by working so closely with officials who were already so well informed on the topic, I have been able to introduce a Bill that I am very confident will deliver what we all hope it will. I thank them again, along with the Minister of Health, and I sincerely hope that, over the next 10 days, the House will be able to secure the legal protection of these crucial documents.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin 5:15, 14 March 2022

Again, I thank the Bill sponsor. First of all, I acknowledge the victims, survivors and those who spoke to the Bill sponsor and me. I am certain that they also spoke to representatives from all the parties, and the Minister also met them. It has very much been a victim-centred process, and that is vital, because, if we did everything like that, we would have much better legislation right across the House and in everything that we do. It is important that we keep that to the fore.

I turn to subsections 3(2) and 3(3). I am grateful that, in drafting the Bill, the Bill sponsor has taken on board our recommendations to provide as comprehensive a Bill as possible. We felt that this provision needed to be as robust as possible and to include the details of medical visits to the institutions and any prescriptions, medical tests and vaccines that were provided. We recognise the need for records of any inspections carried out by the state, time spent in hospital by mothers and babies, a person's foster care arrangements, baptism records, parish registry records and personal communications or letters.

It cannot be overstated how important any information that can be recovered from the institutions is for the survivors. Our amendment was also intended to include information about a person's life as a child at an institution; their adoption; any moneys, fees or donations paid for the stay of each resident; full personal records, including passports and visas; and any information regarding transfers to other institutions, including cross-border transfers.

We felt that perhaps the most important things that needed to be included were death and burial records. Some women and girls were buried in graves that do not have their proper names on the headstone, and many children were buried in locations outside graveyards, as the Church would not bury them on consecrated ground. We know that that has been a horrific experience, and we have all heard from those who are looking for the burial sites of the people whom they loved and still love, yet they are not even able to identify where they have been buried. I express my gratitude to the Bill sponsor for taking account of that and incorporating all of that into the Bill.

Subsection 3(5) provides that:

"For the purposes of subsection (4)(b), a mother and child were separated if the child was provided with care and accommodation by a person other than the mother for a period of at least two consecutive months ... this is subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed."

I suggest that we look at the removal of that subsection, as two months in care is a long time, and individuals deserve to know where they were and what care they received for any length of time. There should not be a time limit. Speaking as a mother, I remember, when my child was young, I went away for two days, and, when I came back, she cried when she saw me coming into the room. She was one. I thought that she was making strange, and my mummy said, "She is punishing you. You left her for two days, and she is letting you know by saying, 'Do not do that on me again'". I was distraught, and that was two days. When it comes to any mother or child being separated, they know, and there is an impact. We should consider that.

Additionally, clause 3(6) states that information is not relevant if the accommodation or care was:

"provided to the child by a natural parent or relative of the child."

I suggest that we consider removing that subsection, as, in many cases, when babies were adopted, they were registered to their adoptive parents as their natural child. That was, of course, illegal, and it made tracing the birth parent or adopted child impossible. Furthermore, the care being provided by a relative of the child should not be grounds for exception, as it does not guarantee that the adopted person knows anything about their birth parent or their time in the institution.

All those practices in the mother-and-baby homes were cruel beyond belief. They have had a long-lasting impact on the mothers — the women and girls — and their children. I thank the Member for introducing the Bill. Its importance can never be overstated. The records need to be preserved and protected. People need to have access to them in order to know who they were. They need the records for a multitude of reasons, not least for their health and medical reasons, but mostly just so that they know who they were. That is a very basic human right. I thank the Member again for introducing the Bill.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important private Member's Bill. Whilst it is a short document, the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill will be of great importance to many people. The Bill is based on proposed departmental amendments to the Adoption and Children Bill that were deemed to be out of scope of that Bill. In its deliberations on the Adoption and Children Bill, the Committee was generally content to support those amendments, and I am glad that, through the private Member's Bill sponsored by Alan Chambers MLA, a mechanism has been found to expedite these important policies.

Just last week, the long-awaited apology to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse was made. The apology rightly stated that victims and survivors had been let down and failed by the state over many years. The apology on its own can never make up for the pain caused, but, at least, it recognises and takes responsibility for that pain.

The purpose and circumstances of the Bill are, of course, motivated by one aspect of the needs of many victims and survivors. The retention of documents has been identified as a significant issue for them in accessing information relating to their lives. The Bill will help to meet the access to records recommendation in the October 2021 report to the Executive by the truth recovery design panel.

Clause 1 introduces a duty to preserve and not to:

"alter, destroy or otherwise dispose of" a relevant document; not to:

"remove or transfer the document to a place outside of Northern Ireland"; and to "take appropriate measures to ensure" that a relevant document is not:

"stolen, lost, destroyed or otherwise damaged."

The clause is the crux of the Bill, but it goes hand in hand with clause 5, which creates an offence of not complying with the duties created by clause 1 that can be applied to individuals, partnerships, unincorporated associations and corporate bodies. The clause is vital in holding bodies or individuals to account, should they take any action to hinder access to documents as provided for by the Bill.

I thank the sponsor for bringing the Bill to the Floor this evening. It is important that we get this right for all concerned and that the records are protected in law.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I likewise support the Bill at Second Stage, and I welcome the opportunity to do so. I do not intend to speak for long, because we had substantial discussions on the clauses in the Health Committee, and we all indicated our support at that stage. It was only because they were ruled to be out of scope of the Adoption and Children Bill that those elements had to fall out of it. None of us wanted to see the clauses lost, because we knew exactly how important they were and that we must try to see them across the finish line. I commend Mr Chambers for introducing his private Member's Bill to do that.

The Bill will ensure that records of people and their backgrounds that were held by institutions and others between 1922 and 1995 are maintained. That is only right and proper.

Many people who were adopted or grew up in institutions many years ago have been left with significant blanks in their history. If such documentation is preserved, it could help to fill in those blanks, which is why the Bill is so important.

All of us have a right to know who we are, where we have come from and who our parents were. While we often debate matters of identity in a very limited way in this place, understanding one's identity in history has a much deeper meaning for those who have come through those institutions. The retention of such information will ensure that anyone who wishes to access that information at a point in the future will know that it has been kept and preserved and has not been destroyed or removed.

How frustrating it must be for somebody who tracks down where they were born or from where they were adopted but finds that the paperwork has not been kept, which does not allow them to make the final connection of being able to work out who their parents were and tracing them. Those people must remain at the forefront of our minds, and the Bill does that.

The SDLP supports the Bill and is content that the scrutiny provided via the Adoption and Children Bill, which, at a time, included these clauses, was sufficient to allow the progression of the present Bill.

I support the Bill at Second Stage and look forward to seeing it progress in the next few days.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing forward this private Member's Bill.

Today is another milestone for birth mothers and adoptee children on their journey towards openness, accountability and redress. I am pleased that all the political parties fully support the presentation of the private Member's Bill at this stage in the Assembly's mandate. All in the Chamber and across the Province recognise the magnitude of what the Bill represents.

I first met Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice in late 2016. We had a lengthy and, at times, heartbreaking meeting when its representatives kindly shared with me their personal circumstances, including their deeply frustrating and painful experiences in trying to find out about their pasts.

In preparation for today's debate, I reread the section of the truth recovery design panel's report on access to records, the presentation of which focused heavily — rightly so — on providing direct quotations from people who engaged with the panel. Those quotations provide the reader with complete clarity and rationale as to why the Bill is necessary.

I am concerned about the full intent of the Bill, however. I may be wrong, but the inclusion of conditions in clause 2 indicates that the relevant documents are to be preserved for:

"a person conducting an inquiry or investigation relating to the implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth Recovery Design Panel".

Of course I support a full public inquiry at the earliest opportunity, but does that mean that there is nothing in the Bill that helps those people who desperately want to access the documents now in advance of the inquiry? Does it prevent them from accessing the documents? We know how deeply frustrating it has been over the years, if not decades, in trying to access the documents to date.

It is unfathomable for those of us sitting in the Chamber to know what it must have been like to give birth to a child, only for him or her to be cruelly taken away without explanation, information or comfort. There are some who try to soften that by pointing to societal, religious or cultural norms at the time.

What the birth mothers and adoptee children want is information about the extant policies and procedures at the time. Should we have to wait for a public inquiry? We talk about information in the public domain that is not included in the Bill, but political representatives know what information there is and how to access it. In some ways, we are making judgements or assuming that everybody has the same access to information that we do.

There are questions about how those policies impacted on birth mothers and adoptee children. Why were they adopted by one family and not another? Why did they spend some time in a children's home away from their mothers before adoption? What considerations were taken into account, and, even more crucially for some, was a payment or donation made to the adoption agency? That is why the records must be provided without redaction. I welcome the fact that that is clearly laid out in the Bill. The birth mothers and adoptee children need to be presented with the information in its entirety, even if some of it is painful, distressing and shocking.

It is our role in the Assembly, and notably in the Executive, to ensure that, when it comes to the inquiry and on into the future, there is funding to provide wrap-around emotional support and therapy to people who access their records. We know that some people have been putting off doing that until an elderly loved one passes away, out of respect for their wishes.

The other aspect of the Bill that I wonder about is why there is no clause on the establishment of the repository. Maybe that could be introduced at Further Consideration Stage.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

It is just that the normal repository for public records is a public records building. One of the reasons why Linda and others tried to table amendments was to ensure that those who are responsible for records under the Public Records Act 1923 put them in the public records building so that families and individuals can access them.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you for that clarification. I just wanted to make sure that the institutions and individuals who have that information at present are almost forced to bring it forward at this stage. I appreciate that clarification.

The other aspect of the Bill relates to "relevant information". The truth recovery design panel's report talks about something that is in clause 3(3)(i) of the Bill. Clause 3(3)(g)refers to:

"the birth, death or burial or the resident".

Clause 3(3)(h) talks about:

"the birth, death or burial of the resident's child".

Clause 3(3)(i) mentions "the resident's parents or relatives". The panel report talks about people wanting access to information about their late brother or sister's adoption file. I wonder whether clause 3(3)(i) covers that, because, for some people, that is just as important as finding out information about their mother.

I do not mean to sound negative; I just think that there may be an opportunity to bolster the Bill so that —

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

On that point, my reading is that that is what is meant by clause 3(3)(i), but I am sure that the Member could table amendments to strengthen that.

On another point that the Member made, which was in relation to the condition in clause 2(4), the Bill says:

"conducting an inquiry or investigation relating to the implementation of the recommendations made by the Truth Recovery Design Panel".

The Member will be aware that the recommendations made by the truth recovery design panel go far beyond just a public inquiry. It is about individuals coming forward to seek their own documentation. It is "an inquiry or investigation", not specifically a public inquiry.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Again, I appreciate the clarification, Minister. You will appreciate that we have just got these documents. I want to make sure that the clauses are as broad as possible.

I was talking about the "resident's parents or relatives". Again, some of the contributors mentioned that their brother or sister was already deceased, so it is about how they would access information about loved ones who are no longer with us.

On that note, I will look at potential amendments as we go forward to the next stage of the Bill, but I certainly do not want to hold the Bill up in this mandate.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Sinead McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Executive Office Committee.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Bill's sponsor, Mr Alan Chambers, for introducing the Bill, which is absolutely necessary. This has to be done now to ensure that victims and survivors of mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries can access the records that relate to their time in institutions that, rather than caring for them as they should have, harmed and abused them.

For some time, the Committee has been engaging with individuals who have experienced mother-and-baby homes or who are the children or family members of young women who were taken to such institutions.

The truth recovery design panel presented its report to the Committee on 17 November last year, noting that the First Minister and deputy First Minister had committed the Executive to the implementation of its recommendations in full. The Committee heard that an imperative first step is the preservation of records. In fact, of all the issues raised by victims and survivors, full access to complete records was a consistent theme. People want to know how and why such things happened to them. They want to know what happened to their loved ones. They want to know who they are and where they come from. The panel concluded that the denial of access to personal and family records had compounded the long-term pain and suffering inflicted on victims and survivors and their families.

The Committee was privileged to hear from victims and survivors on 24 November at what was a particularly poignant and moving session for members and witnesses alike. We heard about the legacy of what was done to them and their loved ones. One of the key issues was access to information, and one of the key asks was for the immediate preservation of those records.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Thank you, Sinead. On the point about accessing information, I am sure that, like the rest of us, you watched the apologies that were made here. A lot of the religious orders are all-island in nature. The Irish Government put a seal on those records: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supported that. I assume that you would support the notion that they need to look at that again. We cannot have families getting access to the records on one part of the island when that access is being refused on another part of it. I just want to get that clarity from you.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her intervention. I totally agree. We have seen failures in the response from the Irish Government. We want to raise all boats and not look to tread that path, because we can tread our own path in a much better and more


way that will respond better to victims and survivors.

On 19 January, departmental officials came before the Committee to update members on the actions to implement the recommendations of the truth recovery design panel's report. The Committee was told that, while most of the actions that required legislation would have to wait for the next mandate, there was an immediate need for legislation on the retention of records. Two weeks later, there was no longer a functioning Executive to approve the introduction of such legislation. I cannot describe the consternation of victims and survivors at the prospect of having no protection for documents. I was resolved that something would have to be done in order to honour the commitment to make the destruction of records illegal.

I have to place on record the Committee's appreciation for the determination and creativity with which the departmental officials have engaged to address that setback. The first attempt, through an amendment to the Adoption and Children Bill, was unsuccessful. This method, through a private Member's Bill, must succeed.

There is a clear need for records to be preserved. There was a promise that legislation would be passed in this mandate to prohibit the destruction of records. The Bill is the vehicle by which that can be accomplished. Let it not be said that the Assembly was found wanting in supporting the needs of victims and survivors of mother-and-baby homes.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

It is with a sense of relief that I express my strong support for the Bill. Its successful passage will serve to honour the Executive's agreement to implement the recommendations of the truth recovery design panel's report on mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland. That includes the recommendation to which the Bill specifically relates.

I will not reiterate the purpose and content of the Bill, which has been set out by my colleague Alan Chambers, because, at the heart of the Bill, are the rights and interests of victims and survivors of a number of historical institutions, many of whom have campaigned tirelessly for years in pursuit of truth, justice and accountability about the operation of those institutions. From reading and hearing their testimonies, we know that the impact of the trauma of their experiences has been a constant throughout their lives and, indeed, the lives of their families. It is, therefore, essential that all possible efforts are made to ensure the preservation of records that contain important information about their own or their family member's birth and early years.

The records that are protected by the Bill would provide a significant source of information and evidence for the statutory public inquiry and independent panel that were recommended by the truth recovery design panel. They would also be critical to the establishment of a permanent, comprehensive and independent repository of historical institutional and adoption records and other records that relate to children in state care. Their preservation is urgent because, theoretically at least, with every day that passes, the risk increases of an important record being destroyed or continuing to be held in less-than-satisfactory environmental conditions.

Members will recall that, originally, the provisions of the Bill were contained in amendments that I tabled for Consideration Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. Unfortunately, those amendments were deemed inadmissible on the grounds that they were outside the scope of that Bill. My Department considered alternative options for addressing the urgency of the truth recovery design panel's recommendation on the preservation of records. One option was that I introduced the legislation as Minister of Health. However, that was not possible due to the absence of a functioning Executive, because Executive approval is required to draft a Bill. Executive approval for the introduction of a Bill and for accelerated passage would have been required. I am, therefore, immensely grateful to my colleague Alan Chambers for taking forward this urgent legislation as a private Member and for the cross-party support that the Bill and he have received. Introducing the Bill in the current mandate will give certainty and reassurance to victims and survivors, who deserve the swiftest possible actions on the issue.

Members should be aware that the recommendation of the truth recovery design panel that the Bill would address has already been endorsed by the Executive. Furthermore, on 22 November 2021, I advised the First Minister and deputy First Minister of my intention to address the recommendation by way of the Adoption and Children Bill. On 21 January 2022, Ministers were advised of the amendments that I proposed to make to that Bill and provided with an explanation of what each amendment intended to achieve. Members should also be aware that amendments to that Bill tabled by Ms Dillon are reflected in the text of this Bill. The Health Committee was given sight of the amendments as part of the process and at Consideration Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. I advised Members that the amendments had been ruled out of scope and sought their support to find another way forward. On that basis, it is right and proper that I give my endorsement to the private Member's Bill.

I will close by remarks by reflecting on the voices of victims and survivors, one of whom told the truth recovery design panel:

"I have lived with this silently all my life and have felt like I have carried a heavy guilty burden."

Another said:

"It is time for truth, and I welcome it."

I am confident that the Bill will play a crucial part in securing that truth, along with the accountability and justice that victims, survivors and their relatives have campaigned for for so many years.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Alan Chambers to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the debate.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I will refer to some points that have been raised during the debate.

I have been given a reassurance by the Department of Health that the Bill will create no barriers to victims having immediate access to the records now. It is the intention of the Bill that victims and survivors will have access to the records at a time of their choosing. We should understand that, if we did not have the Bill and we did not have the compulsion to retain and preserve the documents, there may well be nothing for victims or survivors to access. We must bear that in mind.

When the documents are drawn together, they will eventually be placed in an independent repository. That is the purpose of the Bill. That is the correct way that they should be preserved in the public domain for access by victims and survivors.

Ms Dillon made the important point about death and burial records, which is a touching element of the situation. She will recognise that the private Member's Bill gives protection for that and rightly so. I welcome her making that point.

In terms of separation, the time frame of two months in this private Member's Bill is much reduced from the original timescale that was proposed in the Adoption and Children Bill, which was six months. So, we have closed that to a two-month separation.

Clause 3(5) is intended to define what is meant by "separation". There may be well-intentioned reasons for a child being separated from its mother, so it is important that we do not wrongly capture those well-intentioned arrangements, given the offences that are attached to the Bill.

I have certainly listened to and appreciate all the comments that were made. Hopefully, we can work together to ensure that, by Thursday of next week, victims and survivors will have the Bill that they have been crying out to have to preserve the records for them to access.

I thank Members for their cooperation and their goodwill towards the Bill.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill [NIA 56/17-22] be agreed.

Adjourned at 5.47 pm.