Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill: Final Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 24th March 2022.

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Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 4:45 pm, 24th March 2022

I beg to move

That the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill [NIA 56/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

It is my great pleasure to move the Final Stage of my private Member's Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill.

Even though the Bill was introduced just over two weeks ago, I feel that the House has given it the priority, scrutiny and attention to detail that it undoubtedly deserves. I will not rehearse the contents of the Bill. What I will do once again, however, is note that its overriding intention is to give effect to part 1 of recommendation 4 in the truth recovery design panel's report, namely:

"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."

So many women, girls and children, who are now adults, were failed in those institutions. Some suffered appalling abuse, gut-wrenching neglect and the cruellest form of shameful coldness imaginable. Those institutions took so much from so many. Children were removed from parents, and some children were robbed of their true identity.

The very least they deserve now is truth, and key to that will be the protection and retention of records, not just for the inquiry and investigation but for all women and children involved, who absolutely deserve the right to know that what information exists will be protected.

I am very pleased that the House has shown such a collective will and a desire to allow this important Bill to pass in the short time available. I thank the House first for granting accelerated passage, and then for the helpful contributions made by all Members across all parties in the Chamber. In particular, I thank Ms Dillon for her constructive engagement at Consideration Stage and Ms Bradshaw for doing so at today's Further Consideration Stage. As I mentioned earlier, I feel that the Bill is all the stronger following the detailed consideration that it has received.

I also take the opportunity to once again thank the Speaker's Office for effectively setting all Standing Order requirements to the side, and I thank the Business Committee and the Whips for allocating the time necessary. I also thank the Minister and his Department, especially the officials Eilís McDaniel and Julie Stephenson. Without them, I simply would not have been able to produce the Bill, so it is important that their huge contribution be placed on the record.

On this, the final item of business before the current Assembly mandate ends, I am absolutely honoured and hugely privileged to move the Final Stage of my private Member's Bill. The Bill belongs to the tens of thousands of victims who want nothing more than the truth. I hope that the Bill helps bring the day of truth closer for those seeking it. Sadly, many have died without learning the truth about their early life. Hopefully, their families will now get the truth that their loved ones were denied, and I hope that they take some comfort from that. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Bill has been of particular interest to the Committee, and I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing the legislation to this point.

It has been a particularly uncertain time for victims and survivors of mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses. A key first step for those who are still experiencing the legacy of those institutions, for the groups that speak for them and for the truth recovery design panel has been the preservation of records. The First Minister and deputy First Minister stated that legislation would be put in place to ensure that records would be protected, then there was no Executive to bring the legislation forward. Imagine the consternation among victims and survivors at the prospect of the legislation waiting for a new mandate. The Committee was contacted by people in despair who were fearful that these important documents would be imperilled. The answer lay in the introduction of this private Member's Bill. I cannot overemphasise the importance to victims and survivors of the Bill's becoming law.

I thank the Members who introduced helpful amendments. The circumstances and legacy of what happened to people in these institutions are broad and far-reaching. While others have been looking at the process by which babies were taken away from their birth mothers and given to others to bring up as their own, the Committee has been looking at what happened to them when they died. It has not been a comfortable journey, but it is one that needs to be embarked upon. The Committee has called for an independent investigation into this aspect of a very, very sorry episode in our history. The preservation of documents to inform such an investigation is essential. We cannot undo what has happened to people and to their loved ones in the past, but we can do our very best to support those who are still with us in any way that we can. Preserving documents to ensure that those who want to know the truth can find it is one part of that support. The Committee for the Executive Office supports the Bill.

I will make a few comments or observations on behalf of the SDLP.

I put on record my thanks to all the victim and survivor groups that have shown exceptional leadership. The Bill will support their fight for truth and justice by protecting documents that will give light and transparency to their identity.

Finally, Mr Speaker, I am glad that you are here to hear me say to you, in person, that you and your office have done tremendous work. Today is testament to that work and to your legacy. As you depart from the House, this evening, let today give you comfort and joy, because you have changed lives. You and your team have worked tremendously to get the private Members' Bills through. They are important to the whole of society. I thank you personally and wish you good health and well-being as you move on to a different part of your life. Thank you, and well done.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member, very much, on a personal basis and for her contribution to this very important issue.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Usually, I am delighted to join meetings via Zoom, but, on this occasion, I would much prefer to be in the Chamber, because this is such an important issue. I am pleased, proud and privileged to speak on the final item of business on the final day of the Assembly mandate, particularly given the item that it is: the preservation of documentation for those who went through the institutions.

Again, I thank Alan Chambers, who brought the private Member's Bill forward, and all those who have worked so hard on it, including everyone in the Department who worked with the Minister — as has been said — and, as has been highlighted, your office, Mr Speaker, and the Business Committee. The work that was done there to ensure that the Bill was brought to the House today has been phenomenal. I assure you that, from my point of view and perspective, we offer great thanks for that, because we know what it means to the victims and survivors.

I was messaged about an hour ago by some of the victims and survivors who asked what was happening with the Bill and how it was going. I told them that we were about to agree the Final Stage, that I had no reason to believe that it would not go through and that that would mean that the Bill would become legislation. They were delighted. For those people, we can feel proud that, as an Assembly, all Members across the House worked together to ensure that we got the best Bill possible. When we talk about legislation, we say that there is no such thing as perfect legislation and that it can always be better, but we certainly did our best to make this legislation the best that it could be. We have done good work to deliver that.

As other Members outlined, our thoughts are with all the women and girls, and their children who are now adults, who went through the institutions. Each and every one of them deserves to know everything about their life: about where they came from, who they are, what happened to them and why it happened. Therefore, all the information that is included and all the documents that will be preserved as a result of the Bill are vital elements to each and every one of those individuals.

As the Chair of the Committee for the Executive Office said, one of the difficult elements of this is those who died. That will be a very difficult thing for us to deal with going forward in the inquiry. We will hear details that nobody will want to have to deal with, but I am glad that we are dealing with it. I am glad that we are doing something, today, that may possibly restore some of the faith that, I am sure, has been lost many, many times by those who went through those institutions in the state. I hope that they now have faith that we will do the right thing going forward, that the inquiry will deliver for them and their families and that they will get the proper redress and recognition that they deserve for everything that they went through as children and everything that they continue to go through as adults. Today is about them. I think about all the victims and survivors to whom this piece of legislation means so much.

While it is only one small part of the jigsaw, it is an important part, and it shows, on our behalf, that we really want to do the right thing for every one of them.

I thank Alan Chambers for bringing the Bill to the House, and I thank all those who have supported it. I am delighted that this is the final thing that we will do in the Assembly mandate.

As the previous contributor said, a Cheann Comhairle, I wish you all the very best. Speaking not only as a party colleague but as somebody who has been in the Chamber over the past number of years, I think that you have done your job in a very fair manner, even if that meant telling me when I had said enough or had stepped out of line. That is what being a good Speaker is all about. We could not have asked for any better than you.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 5:30 pm, 24th March 2022

I thank the Member, again on both counts.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Final Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party. I thank my Health Committee colleague Mr Alan Chambers for bringing his private Member's Bill forward. It plugs an important gap in legislation, and we all would have supported its provisions in the Adoption and Children Bill had they been within the scope of that Bill. This is a good use of the private Member's Bill process.

I fully support the Bill as amended at Further Consideration Stage earlier this afternoon. Again, I thank Ms Paula Bradshaw for her work with the officials to ensure that those amendments did not bring about any unintended consequences.

An incredible amount of legislation has been processed in the House over the past two years, and it is good that this is the last Bill to be passed in the mandate. I am pleased to have spoken my final words in the mandate on the Bill, which is important to the many individuals and their families who were so badly treated in the past.

Finally, Mr Speaker, I wish you all the best for the future, whatever it may hold for you.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I am delighted to speak on the Final Stage of the Bill. I congratulate the Bill sponsor on getting it through so quickly. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the staff of the Speaker's Office for facilitating it.

Six years ago, Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice came to my office on University Street, and what they told me that day brought me to tears. I remember the words of Eunan Duffy, whom people will know as a fierce campaigner on the issue. He said to me, "Paula, we have knocked on a lot of doors, and we are now drowning in tea and sympathy". I am so delighted that Department of Health officials have worked with him and others over the years to get to the point at which we commissioned research. I pay tribute to Sean O'Connell from Queen's University for his sterling work, to the truth recovery design panel, which worked with Birth Mothers and to the truth recovery NI group.

This is an important Bill, but it is only the start of the journey towards delivering the recommendations in the truth recovery design panel's report. I look forward to, I hope, getting re-elected, and we can come back on the far side and push for redress, for the apology, for the inquiry and for everything else that is in the panel's report. We owe it to those people, and, as has been said today, many of them have passed away, and we have to get on with the work as soon as possible. It is a great day, and I thank the Minister, his officials and the Bill sponsor.

In closing, Mr Speaker, I wish you well for the future. We met each other years ago when I was a lowly community worker in south Belfast and you were an MLA for my constituency. I have always really enjoyed working with you, not least in recent months on the Business Committee. I wish you and your family all the best for the future.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her kind remarks.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I, too, am immensely grateful to my party colleague Alan Chambers, thanks to whose initiative and commitment the Assembly has been able to conclude the mandate with the passage of such important legislation through his private Member's Bill.

I also commend the Members who supported the Bill's progress in such a challenging time frame. In particular, I acknowledge the commitment of Linda Dillon and Paula Bradshaw, who listened to the needs and experiences of victims and survivors of the historical institutions and responded with constructive amendments. Those amendments widen the range of information that is protected by the Bill and that can therefore be made available to a forthcoming inquiry or investigation or to individuals who are seeking information about their or a family member's origins.

I say this to those victims and survivors and their family members: I know that no words can adequately convey the emotional and psychological hurt and distress that you have suffered, not only in the institutions where you or your relatives spent time but in the years since, during which many of you have been seeking the information that you need to understand your origins or the identity of a family member. I can only express the hope that the statutory protection provided by the legislation that we will pass today will offer you and your family some reassurance for the future.

The right to know who you are is a fundamental human right. That means having access to the life details that most of us have always known about ourselves: where and when you were born, who your family are, who cared for you as an infant, what happened to your mother and where you spent your early years. Those are just some of the unanswered questions that victims and survivors have had to live with and that are so important to an individual's sense of identity. The Bill presents an important step towards securing the answers that so many mothers, their sons and daughters and their wider family have been seeking for so many years.

The passage of the Bill, although significant, is just one step in the process. Much remains to be done to achieve the justice, accountability and truth that are so urgently needed. Given the collaboration and commitment shown by Members across the House in progressing the Bill through the Assembly, I am confident that there will be continued cross-party support for achieving that outcome.

It is my hope and expectation that the statutory inquiry recommended by the truth recovery design panel will provide the answers that are so desperately needed. There are also powers in the Adoption and Children Bill, which the Assembly passed recently, to make regulations that will empower the Department of Health to strengthen and clarify provisions governing access to information about adoptions that took place prior to that legislation's commencement. Victims and survivors will play an important role in the process.

I have thanked the Bill sponsor, but I take the opportunity to also thank my Department's officials who engaged in this process with the Bill sponsor and with Members who proposed amendments. It was the same dedicated team of officials as brought forward the Adoption and Children Bill at the same time. I place on record their commitment to getting us to Final Stage today.

Mr Speaker, like others, I thank you for your support. I thank you and your office for facilitating our getting the Bill through so many stages as quickly as we have in the final days and weeks of the mandate. It means a lot to the people who are listening and seeking the surety of the preservation of information held across the institutions. As Ms Bradley said, when it comes to your legacy as Speaker, the Bill stands among the greatest testaments to you: you enabled us to bring the private Member's Bill through, and it was done in such a collaborative way by all parties in the House.

In addition, as Health Minister, I give my personal thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for the support that you have given me in the Chamber. I am probably the Minister who has been in the Chamber the most — possibly nearly as much as you at times. You have managed some challenging debates and legislation, and I thank you for your impartiality and for how you and your team have managed those.

It remains for me to thank once again my Assembly colleague Mr Chambers and other Members for their tenacity in securing this important legislation, to which I give my wholehearted support.

It is a privilege to do that as my final contribution as Health Minister in this Assembly mandate. It is fitting that this Bill is the final piece of business in this mandate, because it will be life-changing and will give that surety. It would have been challenging for many of those listening, to whom Ms Dillon referred, if the legislation had not been delivered and was put off until another mandate or put on the long finger. It is right that we have this private Member's Bill, and it is also right that it was granted accelerated passage, which was supported by you, Mr Speaker, the offices and all parties across the House. I have great pleasure in endorsing the private Member's Bill.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Thanks very much, Minister, for all those comments. I call the Bill sponsor, Alan Chambers, to conclude the debate on the Final Stage.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I feel immensely privileged to have sponsored this private Member's Bill. We all may have made a little bit of history with the speed at which we have reached this point, without losing any degree of scrutiny. My wife, possibly with a little justification, accuses me of leaving a lot of things to the last minute. I think that she will understand, however, why the Bill that I have sponsored had to go to the very wire.

The public would have a better image of the House if they could see the spirit of goodwill that we have seen demonstrated over the last few weeks as we passed a lot of sound and good legislation that will help the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that that spirit of goodwill carries through into the new mandate.

Today is a good day for the Assembly, and it is a very good day for those seeking the truth. This legislation is the least that we, as a collective body, can give them.

On a personal level, Mr Speaker, I thank you for your service and leadership during this mandate. I wish you well going forward. I particularly thank you for all your help and cooperation. I would not be standing here this evening, and this Bill would not be going through, if it were not for your cooperation over the last two weeks. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the sponsor.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill [NIA 56/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Final Stage of the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill has passed. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. Well done to everybody.

[Applause.]