Abuse inquiry could cost £19m

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Costs for an inquiry into historical institutional child abuse in Northern Ireland could reach £19 million, the Assembly has heard.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt, who chairs Stormont’s OFMDFM committee, said MLAs had been informed, in September, that predicted costs had doubled from initial estimates.

Speaking on Tuesday the Strangford MLA added: “On the estimated costs of the inquiry the committee sought clarification from the department whether the figures in the financial and explanatory memorandum of between £7.5 million and £9 million remained accurate.

“Officials advised the committee that the estimated costs had been revised upwards - doubled in fact to £15-£19 million to take into account the complexities of the inquiry and the associated legal costs.”

Mr Nesbitt said he was assured the necessary funds would be made available from the OFMDFM budget.

Last September the Executive announced there would be an investigation and inquiry into historical institutional abuse.

Former High Court Judge Sir Anthony Hart was appointed to head the panel to examine whether there were systemic failings by care homes, children’s homes, borstals or the state in their duties towards children.

Initially, the inquiry was to look at cases between 1945 and 1995 but MLAs have since agreed to extend it back to 1922.

The probe comes after the Ryan Report uncovered decades of endemic abuse in some religious institutions in the Republic of Ireland.

Details of the Historical Institutional Abuse Bill - the legislation which determines the remit of the inquiry - were debated in the Assembly this afternoon.

The Bill passed the third ‘Consideration Stage’ after a lengthy discussion on amendments to the 23 clauses.

Junior Minister Jonathan Bell described the Bill as one of the most significant pieces of legislation to pass through the Assembly.

He added: “Child abuse is child abuse. The point that must not be missed is that these children had nowhere else to go. This was their home. They did not have a mum or dad to go back to. They did not have anybody outside to go and say what was happening to me is wrong. They were abused in what was their own home and they had nobody else.

“That is why I believe the integrity of this Bill and the work that has gone into it is so important. I want to salute the victims for their courage and integrity over very many years. For some the abuse was more than they could bear and people hurt themselves or took their own lives. Many people are dead without seeing the outcome of this work.”

It was also revealed that victims could give evidence to the inquiry from anywhere in the world using a live television link.

MLAs were told the facility enabled the elderly, infirm or witnesses now living abroad to take part in the investigation without the added stress of having to travel to the hearing.

And people taking part in the Acknowledgement Forum process to detail the extent of their abuse will also be given anonymity to protect their identity.

Sinn Fein’s Bronwyn McGahan said: “The inquiry will hear evidence from every living victim and will hopefully bring comfort to those who were originally excluded. The inquiry is concerned with events which occurred many years ago. Some victims who will be required to speak to the inquiry will be old or infirm. These victims may be located throughout the world.

“It is critical that this legislation delivers for the victims and that it is independent, fair and transparent. I am satisfied that the Bill is meeting these requirements and I and my party colleagues support the Bill.”

The inquiry will make findings and recommendations on an apology; an appropriate memorial or tribute to those who suffered abuse; and the requirement or desirability for redress to be provided by the institutions and/or the Executive to meet the particular needs of victims.

It is expected to last two-and-a-half years but could be extended if chairman Sir Anthony Hart deems it necessary.

Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle said: “We have worked together to move the legislative process in a decisive manner to deliver a long overdue inquiry process for victims and survivors of institutional child abuse.”

Earlier North Antrim MLA Jim Allister described a decision not to widen the scope of the investigation to include the victims of clerical abuse as a missed opportunity.