The full extent of the trauma endured by victims of Northern Ireland's mother and baby home scandal may never become clear, it has been warned.
Judith Gillespie, who heads up a working group examining the scandal, has told the Stormont health committee that the powers associated with a public inquiry would be "very, very helpful to get answers to as many people as possible".
But she said the quality of records available mean that "there may still be some questions that remain forever unanswered" before adding that such an outcome will be "desperately sad".
She explained that "names were changed, or girls and women were not encouraged to talk about their experience with other women in the institution. It was all very much 'no questions asked', very scant records were kept and therefore that makes tracing archive records very challenging. So, in answer to your question, is a public inquiry the only way? I would say even with a public inquiry, even with full access to archive records, even with the statutory powers to compel witnesses, there may still be some questions that remain forever unanswered and that's desperately sad. But certainly powers to compel, powers to require records, would be very very helpful to get answers to as many people as possible."
The committee was also told Health Minister Robin Swann wrote to all the institutions and the Health and Social Care Board and health trusts in December last year to ask them to make sure all available records are stored safely so they can be used to assist with any future investigation.
Eilis McDaniel from the Department of Health said: "The Minister has no powers to require those organisations to provide the records to the Department of Health, but they have been strongly advised by way of the correspondence to take reasonable steps to preserve the documents that they have in their control in the knowledge they may be relevant to any future investigation.
"In addition, they have been advised to ensure the immediate suspension of any routine or procedures where deleting or destroying any of the documents in their archives, also asked to notify staff and former staff of the ongoing need to preserve documents and then finally to take reasonable steps to ensure that any agents or third parties don't delete or destroy potentially relevant documents."
However, solicitor Claire McKeegan from Phoenix Law, which represents Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice, said: "What has been said reinforces the need for immediate implementation of a full statutory inquiry with powers of compulsion. Every day that passes is diminishing their prospects of uncovering the full truth of these cruel institutions run by church and state where wholesale criminality was perpetrated on women and their babies.
"It is not enough to seek assurances from organisations who are well renowned globally for refusing to cooperate with disclosure obligations and are all to prone to fires and asbestos problems.
"Our clients are justifiably fearful that these institutions could have already begun to dispose of documents which would harm their reputations at an inquiry."