Mother and Baby Homes: Government seeks advice on deletion of witness testimony

Mother and Baby Homes: Government seeks advice on deletion of witness testimony

Plaque remembering the babies, women and girls on the Greenway between Rochestown and Blackrock near the walkwalk over the Southlink motorway at back Bessborough house in Cork

A Government minister has sought legal advice from the Attorney General about the deletion of audio witness testimony at the Mother and Baby Homes Commission.

Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman said he contacted Paul Gallagher some two or three weeks ago about the destruction of the witness material.

The Children's Oireachtas Committee heard that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission had contacted the minister on Tuesday to say it did not believe the tapes were retrievable.

The move has been widely criticised by survivors' groups and across the political spectrum.

Mr O'Gorman said he and the Attorney General were still "going back and forth" on the issue.

Some 550 witnesses gave personal accounts to the confidential committee.

Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore said the Commission report stated that the witnesses were asked for permission to record their evidence, and then all such recordings were destroyed.

"The 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act at Section 43 says all evidence received by, and all documents created by or for the Commission, have to transfer over to the Minister," Ms Whitmore said.

"So Minister we're in a situation where there was evidence recorded, the Commission stated that consent was given. There is no record of that consent and some survivors are saying they did not give that consent.

"So there is no evidence of such consent being given."

She queried whether the Commission was acting within its legal remit.

Mr O'Gorman told the committee: 

"In all their communications with me, the Commission have outlined what they believe their rights and responsibilities are in context of GDPR and in the context of data protection - they say they have acted in good faith in terms of what they did."

The report published last month found the institutions for women who became pregnant outside of wedlock produced high levels of infant mortality, misogyny and stigmatisation of some of society's most vulnerable.

The findings of the report have been widely criticised by survivors and campaign groups.

There have also been calls to extend the the Commission's timeframe to allow for questions from the Children's Minister, the Attorney General, gardaí and the Data Protection Commission.

The Commission on Mother and Baby Homes is due to be dissolved on February 28.

Mr O'Gorman said he became aware of the deleted testimonies tapes when he read the report.

"This was stated in one of the chapters that outlines how the Commission functioned," he added.

"In the report the Commission indicated that it had done this in compliance with what it understood was its obligations under data protection law."

Sinn Fein's Mark Ward asked whether a full transcript of each individual personal testimony was recorded, retained and submitted to his department.

Mr O'Gorman said: "My understanding is that those documents referred to and protected by that piece of legislation, are summaries undertaken by those who were listening to the confidential committee.

"They are summaries of the individual personal accounts given by the 550 people.

"They are not a verbatim text, they are a summary document."

Labour's Sean Sherlock asked the Minister how inaccuracies in personal testimonies will be rectified to ensure the narrative is corrected.

Mr O'Gorman responded: "Any individual who believes their personal information within the archive is entitled to rely on all the rights of GDPR, including the right to rectification, which is that person can then contact the information management unit that my department has set up specifically to deal with the subject access requests."

He added that he understands many survivors have been "disappointed and angered" by the report.

"I recognise that some of the conclusions, grounded in a legal approach and analysis of 1.3 million pages of evidence, can feel removed from the grief, the breach of human rights and the trauma of the lived experience of many former residents," he added.

"I recognise that and am committed to continued engagement with survivors on ways in which we can bear witness to their experience through future research and memorialisation.

"To that end, I am also clear that the report does not represent a conclusion.

"Rather, it represents the backdrop for the State's apology to those who have suffered and also a starting point from which we can move forward.

"It is imperative that we build, without delay, on the spirit in which the apology was made, to take action and make appropriate reparation."

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