The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters has retrieved backup tapes containing the audio recordings from the Confidential Committee from their off-site storage.

According to a statement from the Department of Children, an IT expert has checked whether the audio recordings are retrievable by testing a random sample and verified that they are accessible and audible.

The Commission has agreed to deposit the audio recordings with the Department.

The Department said this is in keeping with other actions it is taking to transfer the rest of the archive to the Minister who will become data controller next week.

Approximately 80 people have sought for their interview with the Confidential Committee to be redacted according to the Commission. 

It is now considering how this will be done and has reiterated its commitment to maintain the anonymity of these people. 

In the interim, the Department said it is continuing preparations to become data controller of the mother-and-baby homes archive from Feb 28 and is liaising with the Data Protection Commission in this regard.

This means that the Commission will dissolve on that date as planned. 

However, a Private Members motion has been put before the Dáil by the Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore to extend the Commission by one year. 

The statement tonight by the Department adds that in the Commission's recent communications with the Minister, it restated the actions it took to preserve the accounts and experiences of the 550 people who appeared before the Confidential Committee, for future generations. 

It said each interview was attended by two Commission staff and that the interviews were audio recorded "purely as an aide memoire" to ensure that the documented account of the survivor’s experience, which would later inform a published report on their experiences, reflected accurately the personal accounts they shared with the Committee. 

It said that whilst the audio recordings were later deleted, the Commission stated that the process ensured that the personal experience of 550 people was heard, documented in an accurate manner and published by way of a summary report. 

The Minister has said: "The retrieval of audio recordings from the back up tapes and their imminent transfer to my Department now provides another avenue for the people who appeared before the Committee to access their personal data". 

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More on Mother-and-Baby Homes

Earlier, the Government decided not to allow a free vote on tomorrow's Social Democrats' private members' motion that seeks to extend the term of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission.

Ms Whitmore, argued it was time to "do what's right for the victims" and extend the commission so that questions over data can be answered.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said it is "nonsense" for Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman to assert that extending the Mother and Baby Homes Commission could hamper access to information.

As it stands, the commission is due to wind-up by the end of this week.

Ms Cairns, along with Ms Whitmore, were highlighting their private members' motion today calling for such an extension, ahead of a Dáil debate tomorrow.

They want the commission to continue so that questions on the destruction of survivor testimonies can be answered.

Ms Whitmore had called for a free vote on the bill.

She argued that it is time to "do what's right by the survivors" and extend the Commission's term so questions over data can be answered.

If the Government is successful, and has its counter motion is passed, then the Commission will wind-up by the end of the week.

Reacting to the Cabinet plan not to allow a free vote, Ms Cairns said the decision is clearly "not in the interests of survivors".

She said: "This decision will go down on wrong side of history."

Ms Cairns also predicted that some Government TDs may defy a Government whip, or order, to back the counter motion. 

She said: "I wouldn't be surprised if Government TDs break the whip on this. How could they not?"

Speaking on Drivetime, Ms Whitmore said the Commission should be given time to investigate matters fully. 

"What we're forgetting here is that under the 2004 Act, that deletion was not allowed. All the evidence collected by the commission would be returned to the Minister.  There's also GDPR legislation that governs this. So it is not permissible to delete this data," she said.

"The DPC will need time to do those investigations but they're not going to be able to investigate a commission it it is not in existence," she added.

Ms Whitmore said it is a "flaw" in the system that allows for a Commission to be dissolved once it has submitted its final report. 

"The Tánaiste himself agreed that this was a flaw in the system. So the government recognises that. We can actually listen, we can change this and do right by survivors, and the government can extend the commission," she said.

Regarding the extension of the commission, 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.

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.

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 Paul Cunningham