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Giving suffering children the chance to speak out

Child abuse in any form is appalling. However, when the perpetrators are those entrusted by the state and other institutions with the care of the most vulnerable young people, it is imperative that Government takes responsibility to ensure that abuse that stretches back over too many years is investigated thoroughly.

On June 6 of this year, the Assembly's Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, of which I am the chairperson, held its first briefing on the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse Bill, before it was introduced to the Assembly.

Evidence from victims left committee members acutely aware that those most impacted by the abuse have been waiting a long time for this investigation, and now that it was within reach, they feared any delay in progressing the Bill. The committee has borne that imperative in mind during their examination of the Bill, but have been equally focussed on the need to get it right and ensure that the Inquiry meets victims' needs.

Scrutiny of this Bill ended on October 24 when the committee agreed its report. The Bill will now be debated in the Assembly when ministers bring it forward again.

In its original form, the inquiry would have not have included abuse that took place before 1945.

The committee was unanimous in concluding that victims of abuse pre-1945 should not be excluded. After taking written and oral evidence from survivors and their representatives, committee members asked that the scope of the Inquiry be extended to start in 1922, with the formation of the state; this change has been agreed by ministers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the terms of reference for the inquiry have already been amended accordingly.

My committee was also interested in ensuring that, once the inquiry is finished, the report would be published in full. We asked that the inquiry chairperson's power to publish the report be made explicit and welcomed ministers' proposed amendments on these points.

The committee is pleased with these developments and commends the way in which OFMDFM ministers have responded to and accepted committee requests for changes. The resulting Bill is stronger as a result due particularly to the contribution made by the victims and survivors.

Assembly oversight of this important inquiry will not end when the Bill is passed. Ministers have agreed another amendment providing that any further change to the inquiry's terms of reference will require the Assembly's approval. Rules governing the inquiry's procedure are still to be agreed as well as rules relating to witness expenses.

As a committee, we are convinced that the Bill to be brought before the Assembly will help provide the framework in which victims of abuse can tell their stories, and make their case for the sort of redress they seek. We look forward to considering the inquiry's findings in relation to abuse as well as in relation to redress, apologies and an appropriate memorial or tribute to victims and survivors of abuse.

Finally, the committee heard how the scope of this inquiry will exclude a number of victims of abuse that occurred outside an 'institution' such as a children's home. The point is starkly made with reference to a clerical child abuser who might have abused two children on the same day, one in an institution, the other outside it; the first victim can seek comfort from the inquiry, the second victim cannot.

The committee acknowledges that there are victims and survivors of abuse who fall outside the scope of the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse and will engage further with OFMDFM on this issue.