Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill: Consideration Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:15 pm on 21 March 2022.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:15, 21 March 2022

I call Alan Chambers to move the Consideration Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Chambers.]

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for the debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of four amendments which deal with definitions. I remind Members who intend to speak during the debate on the single group of amendments that they should address all the amendments on which they wish to comment. Once the debate is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 (Meaning of “relevant document”)

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 4. Members may wish to note that amendment No 2 is a paving amendment to amendment No 4.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 2, line 9, after “with” insert “a relevant institution or with”.

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 3, page 2, line 24, leave out “, but this is subject to subsection (6)”. — [Mr Chambers.]

No 3: In clause 3, page 3, line 17, leave out “for a period of at least two consecutive months”. — [Mr Chambers.]

No 4: In clause 3, page 3, line 19, leave out subsection (6). — [Mr Chambers.]

Again, I thank the Speaker and the Business Committee for their discretion in facilitating the swift progression and consideration of this important Bill.

I was very much heartened and reassured by the contributions from across the House at last week's Second Stage. The Assembly is at its best when it is considering and scrutinising legislation. Therefore, it is fitting that, despite the obvious problems elsewhere, in the final week of this mandate we are still able to, hopefully, pass hugely important legislation such as the Bill before us.

The rationale of the Bill was well understood and articulated by all last week. During the debate, however, there were a number of important questions asked and points made which it was decided, after further engagement with the Minister and his officials, would be important to address at Consideration Stage. Accordingly, we have four amendments before us today in my name and that of my colleague Robbie Butler. I also thank Linda Dillon for her continuing close interest, as well as her decision to add her name to some of the amendments before us. The cross-party support for the Bill will, I am sure, continue to be welcomed by the victims and survivors, many of whom are closely following its passage.

Amendment No 1 adds to the definition of "relevant document" at clause 2 and leaves no ambiguity as to what exactly will be covered by the duty to preserve and when the offence for non-compliance will apply. The proposed definition now includes documents created by a person in communication with a "relevant institution". As a result, letters between parents, GPs or priests, for instance, will all be captured by the duty to preserve. It was also considered important that the definition of "relevant document" also captured communication with the institution itself, and I am glad that the amendment achieves that.

Amendment No 2 is largely technical, but it is important in the context of what amendment No 4 seeks to do. That amendment addresses a concern raised during the debate last week that clause 3(6), as drafted, excluded any information about accommodation or care provided to the child by a natural parent or relative of the child from the definition of "relevant information".

During that debate, Ms Dillon made the very valid point that in many cases when babies were adopted, they were registered as the natural child of their adoptive parents. The point was also made that the fact that care was provided by a relative does not guarantee that an adopted person knows or knew anything about their birth parent or their time in an institution. Amendment No 4 removes that exclusion.

Finally, amendment No 3 removes from clause 3(5) the words:

"for a period of at least two consecutive months".

The Bill is intended to capture information relating to where children lived and how they were cared for when they were separated, either permanently or for long periods, from their mothers. As a result, it is necessary to provide a definition of "separated" in the Bill. Clause 3(5) is intended to exclude more routine separations between mothers and children, such as when one was ill in hospital or perhaps even staying with another family member over a holiday season.

Following close engagement with the Department of Health over recent days, however, it has been decided that it is still possible, if not probable, that information relating to the care of a child who was born to a resident in a mother-and-baby institution and separated from his or her mother within the first two months of his or her life will be of interest to a future inquiry. On that basis, it is accepted that clause 3(5) should be amended to leave out the words:

"for a period of at least two consecutive months".

That, I hope, avoids any ambiguity surrounding the clause.

I thank the Minister and his officials who worked with me, often well out of hours, to help to bring forward today's amendments. It is clear that they are as committed to the successful passage of the Bill as we, the MLAs, are.

We are only a few days away from the prospect of securing Final Stage approval, and I hope that today's amendments help to ease a number of the genuine points of concern that were raised in the debate last week.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I acknowledge the proposer, the Department and the Minister and their work. The way in which we have worked together is a testament to the issue. That is really important, and I appreciate that everything that I outlined last week was taken on board. That is a good and positive sign, particularly to the victims and survivors. All those suggestions came from them. It shows that we are very much about the issue in this circumstance and that there is no politicking. No politics are to be made out of the issue or the people. I really appreciate the work that has been done.

Sinn Féin will support amendment No 1 to include engagement with institutions by families, as well as those by women and girls who were interned in the institutions. It is vital that victims and survivors can piece together a wide picture of what happened to them in institutions, why they were there and who knew what was happening.

We tabled amendment No 2, and it had also been tabled by the proposer. That is exactly what happened: the proposer listened to what was said. I appreciate that and thank him for that support. That will tidy up legislation in line with amendment No 4, which will remove subsection 6 of clause 3. I will explain the reason for that when discussing amendment No 4.

Amendment No 3 seeks to remove the provision in clause 3(5) that a child is considered to be separated from its mother only if they were separated for a period of at least two consecutive months. I accept that there was no ill will behind that and that it was well intended. However, I am grateful that the Department accepted that it was unnecessary. Again, I appreciate that and put it on the record.

The time limit did not factor in the reality of the institutions, as children were often fostered out to children's homes for some periods before being returned to the mother-and-baby institution and being adopted. Adoptees deserve to know where they were, with whom and what care they received for any length of time, be it a week, a month or two months. Forced separation of mothers and children has serious impacts on both, and the ongoing denial of that information is a gross violation of their human rights, as recognised by the truth recovery design panel report.

Amendment No 4 seeks to remove clause 3(6) in its entirety. We felt that it was important that the subsection was removed, and I am grateful to the sponsor and the party that co-signed the amendment. The clause states that:

"Information ... is not relevant information if it is information about accommodation or care provided to the child by a natural parent or relative of the child."

Again, that had not factored in the reality of the institutions.

The reality is that, in many cases where babies were adopted, they were registered as the natural child of their adoptive parents. That was, of course, illegal and has made tracing the birth parent or adopted child almost impossible in some circumstances.

The issue was recently covered by an RTÉ Investigates documentary, 'Who Am I? The Story of Ireland's Illegal Adoptions'. The documentary included the story of Mary Dolan, a Belfast schoolteacher who found out, at the age of 54, that her parents — the couple listed on her birth certificate — were not her real parents. Instead, Mary's mother was an unmarried woman who gave birth to her in Dublin. Mary was illegally trafficked to and illegally adopted in the North. Like many others, Mary discovered that the date on which she had been celebrating her birthday for all her life was not her real birthday. Mary still does not know who her real family is. She is one of thousands — most likely tens of thousands — of people who have no idea who they really are. 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 parents or about their time in the institution. Many children were trafficked overseas to America and Australia. Even if they were with a relative, that does not mean that they are aware of their natural parents.

As I outlined, I appreciate the support from the Bill sponsor, the Department and the Minister. It is very fitting that this is one of the final pieces of legislation that will go through the House. I have been the party spokesperson on victims since 2017. Every single MLA and party from right across the Assembly should take credit for the work that they have done; it is just very sad that we had to do it. It is very sad that people's lives had to be devastated and destroyed by the transgenerational trauma that has been caused to them, to their families and to the many generations that might come behind them. I hope that some of the work that we have done in this place will give some closure, although it is not that I believe that many people will be able to get full closure. I hope that we will at least be able to make those people's journey a little bit easier. I really hope that this makes it just a little bit easier for people to get access to records and to find out who they are, where they belong and where they came from.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Can we bring Pam Cameron on to the screens, please?

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Hopefully, this works. I am having a technology malfunction tonight.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at Consideration Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill, introduced by my Committee colleague Mr Alan Chambers. I thank Mr Chambers for proposing his private Member's Bill on this important issue. Although we, as an Assembly, plan to race this legislation through in the final hours of the mandate, this is a good example of the appropriate use of a private Member's Bill to plug a legislative gap that arose as we completed the long-awaited Adoption and Children Bill, for which the amendments in relation to the retention of records were ruled out of scope in recent days. Had the Minister's amendments been within the scope of that Bill, we would not have needed this additional legislation, so it is good that we are looking at these important clauses this evening.

We understand that, if the Bill is passed, it will introduce a legal requirement for all relevant record holders to preserve and not destroy any information relating to mother-and-baby institutions and Magdalene laundries. The Bill seeks to deliver a critical recommendation of the independent investigation. The legislation will bring about one of the five main recommendations from the truth recovery design panel's report: to legally secure and preserve all relevant information. That is based on recommendation 4 of the truth recovery design panel, which states:

"The Truth Recovery Panel recommends immediate action by the Northern Ireland Executive, supported by the Northern Ireland Assembly, to create a statutory requirement on all relevant records holders to preserve and not destroy any information relating to Mother and Baby Institutions, Magdalene Laundries, Workhouses, adoption-related institutions and 'baby homes', and their policies and practices, including personal records. This requirement should extend to all State and non-State institutions and agencies, officials, representatives and professionals that serviced them".

It is entirely appropriate that we recognise that the passage of time is a risk to the preservation of these records and that there is an urgency to act now to preserve them in order to ensure that they are not damaged, lost or destroyed. We all witnessed the public apology that was made through our Ministers in the Chamber to people who were hurt and harmed by those institutions. Let us now add a little more to that by processing the Bill at pace.

Amendment No 1, in the name of Mr Chambers and Mr Butler, is to clause 2, page 2, line 9:

"After ‘with’ insert ‘a relevant institution or with’".

That change relates to the two conditions that a document must satisfy in order to gain protection under the Bill. Clause 2(3)(c) currently stipulates that a document that is created by or on behalf of someone who has been in contact with a resident of a relevant institution is covered. The amendment extends the scope of clause 2(3)(c) to ensure that anyone who has been in contact with the relevant institution is also covered. That seems appropriate. It provides greater certainty. There may be situations where third parties or other public bodies outside of health or welfare have been in contact with mother-and-baby institutions, and those interactions should be within the Bill's scope.

Amendment Nos 2 and 4 are from the same Members with the support of Ms Dillon. Both relate to clause 3. Amendment No 2 to clause 3, page 2, line 24, is:

"Leave out ‘,but this is subject to subsection (6)’", and amendment No 4 to clause 3, page 3, line 19, is:

"Leave out subsection (6)".

Clause 3(6) states that information is not relevant if care or accommodation was provided to the child by a natural parent or relative of the child. Amendment Nos 2 and 4 remove that exemption. We support the change. The current wording may not reflect that some babies were wrongly registered to adoptive parents as their natural child. It is also not certain that, just because somebody has been living with a birth parent or relative, they have knowledge of their time in an institution or recourse to deal with abuse or treatment in that institution.

Finally, amendment No 3, which is from the UUP and Sinn Féin, seeks to amend clause 3, page 9, line 17:

"Leave out ‘for a period of at least two consecutive months’".

Under clause 3, information is deemed relevant and therefore protected under the Bill if it relates to any period that is subsequent to the mother's stay in an institution where the mother and child were separated. Clause 3(5) defines separation as situations in which:

"the child was provided with care and accommodation by a person other than the mother for a period of at least two consecutive months".

Amendment No 3 removes that minimum period requirement. We recognise that the current proposal has already been reduced from six months in the Adoption and Children Bill, so we want to ensure that we strike the right balance between ensuring that individuals can find out where they were and what care they received and ensuring that well-intentioned care arrangements are not wrongly targeted.

I will finish my contribution to Consideration Stage of this important legislation. After all that the individuals who were involved have suffered, it is vital that we do all that we can to ensure that these documents, which are important not just for legal reasons but for their historical and emotional value, are preserved. My party and I support the Bill and the amendments.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:30, 21 March 2022

I will speak on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. The private Member's Bill that has been introduced by Alan Chambers is absolutely necessary. Its provisions need to be brought into force as soon as possible. The preservation of documents that contain people's histories, lives and experiences must be an imperative for us all. Victims and survivors have told us that they were not believed, people did not understand what had happened to them, their identities had been taken away from them, and their families had been torn apart. These documents are the proof that what they say happened really happened. They are the link to their identity and the evidence of where they come from. Victims and survivors of those institutions have suffered enough. We owe it to them to do all that we can to preserve these documents. The Bill and the amendments have the full support of the Committee.

I would like to say a few words on behalf of my party. We in the SDLP support the Consideration Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill. We support all the amendments. We believe that they provide for a tighter Bill, rule out any ambiguity, tidy the Bill up and create good law. It is vital that we do everything that we can to support victims and survivors in their search for the truth. The documents concerned are vital to give individuals back their identity. The SDLP supports the Bill and will welcome its Final Stage at the end of the week.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I support the Bill and the amendments. It bears emphasising that bodies such as the Youth Justice Agency and Compensation Services have been cooperating fully with the Victims' Payments Board on the provision of records as requested. All Crown Court and custodial records that are in the possession of the Youth Justice Agency are marked for permanent preservation.

Bodies such as the Victims' Payments Board do not fall within any Department, and amendment No 1 helps to re-emphasise that the requirement here goes beyond Departments and the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The question that is almost posed by that amendment is whether it needs to go further with reference to records and documents that are held by what would now be called voluntary adoption agencies and perhaps even by the third sector more generally. I wonder whether we need to do more to define "relevant institution" and not just "relevant document" in clause 2. For example, what do we do if an agency has been reinvented or if it no longer exists? Where are its records and what can be done to ensure their preservation?

Furthermore, there is a hint in all the amendments that the legislation is not as extensive as it could be. For example, children in mother-and-baby homes were often transferred over the border, not least in cases where a diocese extended across the border. However, in all likelihood, there will be ongoing limitations to the reassurance that, under clause 1, relevant documents will be preserved where, for example, a child was no longer resident in Northern Ireland.

There remains a fundamental question about the acquisition and subsequent preservation of records from other jurisdictions, which affects children who were born or later resident in Northern Ireland. I also wonder whether we need to go a little further in order to ensure that the Bill encompasses records that have been kept into this century. Three amendments touch on that point. Amendment No 3 removes the "two consecutive months", as it is recognised that that is inappropriate. Amendment No 4 removes unnecessary specifics, and amendment No 2 is consequential to that. However, have we done enough to amend "the relevant period", which is defined in clause 2(6) and applied in clause 3? To touch on a previous point and to re-emphasise it, I will say that some institutions that accepted children from Northern Ireland were open as recently as 2006.

I want to raise another point that I raised in last week's debate about the establishment of the repository. The Member for North Belfast Carál Ní Chuilín mentioned that there are plans to potentially house that repository in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). Between last week and this week's debate, some of those who were affected by the mother-and-baby homes contacted me because they were concerned about the full independence of such an arrangement, not least because, if the repository were housed in PRONI, it would be subject to limitations in freedom of information requests, and those can be —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Paula, thank you for giving way. To give some reassurance, PRONI is governed by all the ECHR articles, including articles 2 and 8. Once you make a freedom of information request, your file is open for everyone. I introduced a non-FOI route, which is open just to the person making the request, and there is compellability. It is not as though PRONI can decide to withhold documents. If it is going to withhold anything, that would happen only under article 2 redactions. That is all.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I appreciate that being read into the record. There is an unease around government procedures and whether there is full transparency. It is the same with the institutional childhood abuse victims and survivors. A lot of people are watching on with interest to see how we are handling this very sensitive part of their journey.

Questions have been raised about the legislative process. I fully accept that we are a long way from an ideal process. However, we need to be aware that many issues and voices that need to be heard will not be heard as we rush this through over the next week. On balance, the Bill, as it stands, is better than no Bill, but, whether in this or the next mandate, we still have work to do to improve upon it and the other recommendations in the panel's report. We absolutely must not bank this and walk away.

There remain in the Bill, even as amended, serious ongoing issues of document preservation. The most fundamental is how we ensure the preservation of relevant documents even if they are not held within this jurisdiction or by a public body. I urge an incoming Executive Office Committee to take that forward as a matter of the highest priority.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I support amendment Nos 1 to 4, tabled by my party colleague Alan Chambers. He has set out their purpose in detail, so I will not rehearse that.

The amendments have come about, as others said, as a result of constructive cross-party input to this important Bill. That serves as further evidence of Members' joint commitment to do everything possible to ensure that the information that would be central and critical to a future inquiry into mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland is preserved. Also, as pointed out by Ms Bradshaw during the Second Stage debate, the information that the Bill intends to protect is a vital part of the life story of victims and survivors of those institutions and their relatives. The Bill will ensure that information is available for them to access, as part of the process of establishing their identity and what occurred at that stage of their lives.

Prompted by the Second Stage debate, amendment No 1 expands the definition of "relevant document" at clause 2. That includes communication between individuals and a relevant institution. That will mean that the duty to preserve documents will apply not only to letters between individuals such as parents, medical professionals or clergy and any relevant institutions but will be in addition to communication between those individuals and residents of the institutions that were already covered by clause 2. It is entirely sensible that such sources of potentially useful information should be protected in law. Therefore, I support that amendment. However, having listened to Ms Bradshaw's concerns that it maybe does not go far enough, I look forward to seeing her amendments to clarify something that she does not think is already covered by this amendment or was already in clause 2 on other institutions.

If you take amendment Nos 2 and 4 together, they widen the application of the duty to preserve documents so that all relevant information — including information about accommodation or care — is:

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

I am grateful to Linda Dillon for her constructive recommendations on that matter, and the examples that she gave at Second Stage of circumstances where it would not be appropriate to exclude from the scope of the legislation information relating to a child's care or accommodation by a parent or relative. That is why I intend to support amendment Nos 2 and 4.

At Second Stage, Ms Dillon raised a further concern that a child must have been provided with care and accommodation by someone other than their mother for at least two consecutive months. That was in order for the mother and child to be deemed to have been separated for the purposes of clause 3(4)(b). I accept that imbalance. It is appropriate that the minimum two-month period should be removed. Therefore, I support amendment No 4, tabled in the Members' names.

Members will not need reminding of the deep significance of the Bill for victims and survivors of the relevant historical institutions and their families. As I said in the Second Stage debate, the swiftest possible action must be taken to secure the truth, to secure accountability and to secure justice — the justice that they deserve. The amendments will further support those goals.

I am grateful for the continued all-party support for the Bill, and the amendments tabled in the names of my party colleague Mr Alan Chambers and Ms Dillon. I wholeheartedly support those amendments.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 6:45, 21 March 2022

I am very pleased to have tabled the amendments this evening to take account of the concerns that were expressed by Ms Dillon last week. I appreciate her articulation of those concerns.

If ever there was a Bill that gave the House a reason to act in common cause and harmony, this is it. The Bill will help to reveal many hitherto untold truths for many individuals who have been denied that truth to date. It will be a wonderful legacy for the House in this mandate to have produced this legislation, which, hopefully, will offer hope and the prospect of peace of mind to all the victims, who deserve no less. It will also facilitate, in any future inquiry, the uncovering of the many examples of abuse and negative and neglectful treatment of victims whilst they were in care. Victims deserve nothing less than the full truth.

I thank Members for their support and their embracing of the private Member's Bill. I am sure that, as I am, all Members are looking forward to Thursday evening, when we can finally say that the Bill has passed.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 (Meaning of “relevant information")

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 2, line 24, leave out “, but this is subject to subsection (6)”. — [Mr Chambers.]

Amendment No 3 made:

In page 3, line 17, leave out “for a period of at least two consecutive months”. — [Mr Chambers.]

Amendment No 4 made:

In page 3, line 19, leave out subsection (6). — [Mr Chambers.]

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. As the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is scheduled for Thursday 24 March, the deadline for amendments is tomorrow, Tuesday 22 March, at 12.30 pm.

Members, please take your ease as we move to the next item of business