Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman has told the Seanad that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has found "back-up tapes" held off-site, which may contain audio files of interviews given to the confidential committee.

He told senators that he was made aware of this information yesterday, but cautioned that it is not yet clear if audio can be retrieved from these "disaster recovery tapes".

"I don't want to raise undue expectations of these tapes", he told the Upper House of the Oireachtas. 

He has asked the commission to make these tapes available to his department immediately. 

The minister explained that the tapes must first be retrieved, reconnected to the parent IT system and then transferred to his department before it can be ascertained as to whether the audio of the 549 witness statements are there. 

Mr O'Gorman told the Seanad that if audio is found on the "disaster recovery tapes" found by the commission, he will have to engage with the Attorney General to decide "to what extent the material on those tapes can be made lawfully available".

"I know this is new information to the house. As soon as I get more information, I will continue to update members of this house and the other house, but I can assure you that I'm giving this my upmost attention in order to give voice to survivors," he said.

Regarding the extension of the commission, which many TDs and senators have requested, Minister O'Gorman said that he is engaging with the Attorney General regarding the legalities around that.

He said that one issue they are looking at is whether it is possible to change the terms of reference of the report, when the report has already been published. 

Mr O'Gorman said his department is preparing to facilitate Subject Access Requests (SAR) for survivors of mother-and-baby homes and county homes, which will allow people to request access to their information. 

However, the minister said that it is possible that if the commission was extended, it could delay the transfer of the archive to his department and therefore delay survivors' ability to lodge their own SAR.

More on Mother-and-Baby Homes

Earlier, the minister said he was "not accepting" the statement by the commission that they do not believe deleted audio testimonies from survivors are retrievable.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Philip Boucher Hayes, Minister O'Gorman said he will continue to engage with the commission on this issue.

He said: "It responded to me on Tuesday saying they believe the audio files weren't retrievable. I'm not accepting it. We all know how difficult it is to permanently destroy electronic information.

"So I'm going to be continuing to engage with the commission on that to see if there is any technical solution available to the retrieval of those files." 

He said the commission has "indicated openness" looking at this issue but he said he is seeking an independent expert to examine the servers and storage to see if there is a way of retrieving the files. 

Minister O'Gorman said events of the last few months have revealed that a commission of investigation was probably not the suitable process for the inquiry. 

He said: "The last number of months have revealed that the overall approach of a commission of investigation to examining matters as serious and as sensitive as what happened in mother-and-baby homes was probably not the suitable mechanism to go by." 

He said legislation should be considered to provide a more "survivor centered" approach to similar investigation. 

"On the one hand, [the Commission] was trying to undertake a legal and judicial investigation of what happened. But on the other hand, you're trying to allow for a truth telling exercise - a place where survivors actually can give their account in a safe space.

"Both routes were tried with this commission of investigation, and that hasn't worked.

"I think we have to look very closely at that legislation and consider something much more targeted and much more survivor centered should be introduced for similar investigations," he said.

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

The inquiry said that witnesses were told in advance that audio files of their testimonies would be deleted after being used as an "aide memoire" for the report.

In a letter sent to the committee earlier this month, Mr O'Gorman said the commission asked for witnesses' permission to record their testimonies on the clear understanding that they would only be used as an aide memoire for compiling the report and would then be destroyed.

Mr O'Gorman said at that time that while he did not speak for the commission, this approach was taken in order to protect people who wanted to engage confidentially with the inquiry.

Five-hundred-and-fifty people provided personal accounts to the confidential committee module of the commission's work consisting of the "lived experiences" of survivors.

This was separate to the inquisitorial part of the commission consisting of sworn evidence.

Additional reporting: Tommy Meskill