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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jun 2002

Vol. 553 No. 3

Ceisteanna – Questions. - Information Society.

Enda Kenny


1 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the arrangements for the implementation of information society policy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13658/02]

David Stanton


2 Mr. Stanton asked the Taoiseach his plans under the national development plan for the further development of the information society; the proposed timescale for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13815/02]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The Minister of State should answer questions about the Seville summit too.

The second Government action plan on the information society, New Connections, was published in April this year. The plan sets out the Government's strategy to ensure Ireland establishes itself as a leading location for e-business and knowledge based economic activity and that our development as an information society is inclusive. The influence of information and communication technologies is transforming the way we interact and do business. We are faced with new challenges and opportunities across all areas of economic and social policy and it is evident that the pace of this change is without precedent. We are experiencing the single most dynamic shift in the public policy environment in the history of the State.

The cross-cutting nature of information society developments is reflected in the range of issues addressed in the action plan. As Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach with special responsibility for information society issues, it is my role to promote implementation of this agenda. In this capacity, I will be responsible for co-ordinating the work of the Cabinet committee on the information society, for ensuring that information society issues are prioritised across all Departments and for monitoring implementation of the action plan. The key structures in place to support the process are an e-strategy group at Secretary General level and an information society implementation group of Assistant Secretaries.

The Government appointed a new Information Society Commission last November. The commission is an independent advisory body to the Government and draws on high-level representation from the business community, the social partners and the Government. It will play a key role in shaping the ongoing development of information society policy. I will be responsible for co-ordinating the work of these bodies, supported by the information society policy unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. A key challenge will be to ensure our approach is characterised by the flexibility necessary to remain responsive to the influence of rapidly evolving technologies and the changes they bring about. It is clear that competitive advantage in the knowledge economy will depend on the capacity to respond quickly to new developments in what has become an environment of ongoing change.

The key provisions in the national development plan to support information society development are in the areas of telecommunications infrastructure, research and development and lifelong learning. The range of initiatives drawing on NDP funding being progressed in these areas is fully reflected in the Government's New Connections action plan. I will liaise closely with the relevant Ministers to support implementation of these initiatives in the context of progressing the overall information society agenda.

As this is the first opportunity I have had, may I congratulate the Ceann Comhairle on his appointment to that position, as well as Deputy Hanafin on her appointment as Minister of State and Government Chief Whip?

Deputy Hanafin has outlined her role as Minister of State with responsibility for the information society, which seems to involve the co-ordination of various elements of it. Does she agree Ireland is falling behind other developed countries in this area, especially as regards broadband technologies? Will she clarify the Government's plans, as outlined in New Connections, to secure the unbundling of the local loop as quickly as possible and to ensure that digital subscriber line technologies are available nationwide as soon as possible? What form of leadership will be provided by the Minister of State in this area? Does she agree it is not enough merely to co-ordinate, as she should be seen to lead? Leadership is badly needed as we are lagging so badly behind. The Minister of State must drive this matter forward. Does she agree it is important that we promote flat-rate dial-up Internet access? In other words, we should facilitate people who wish to log onto the Internet and stay on-line for free. Is this a priority of the Government?

The Deputy may be infringing on the responsibility of another Minister.

As Deputy Stanton stated, the Government's vision that telecommunications services should be high-quality, high-speed, affordable and constantly available to all businesses and citizens as soon as possible is clearly set out in New Connections. The implementation of that vision is a matter for a number of different Departments. The implementation and distribution of broadband telecommunications infrastructure rests with the Department of Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources and the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern. My role is to ensure our commitments under the New Connections action plan are met. Many Departments will have a part in ensuring their elements of the plan are implemented, but my role will be to drive the agenda and to ensure we are all working on the same issues at the same time.

It is crucially important that broadband is made available throughout the country. However, it is not true to say that Ireland lags behind other countries. Reports have shown how far ahead Ireland is. A report being published tomorrow will equally show our success to date in this area. However, to ensure that we remain one of the most globalised countries and remain competitive and, more particularly, to ensure that ordinary people can have access to services in the easiest and cheapest way possible around the clock, we must move forward with this policy.

Straight away there is a difficulty because it appears the Minister of State is not clear what her role is. What exactly is her role? Is she in charge of this area or are other Ministers in charge? Who is answerable to the Dáil in this regard? It is vitally important that we get this right, otherwise we will fall between two stools. Government Ministers will say it is not their responsibility, it is someone else's responsibility. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State and the Taoiseach to ensure there are very clear lines of communication.

I also ask the Minister of State to outline what legal and policy frameworks she plans to put in place to support start-ups that might emerge from academic research? This seems to be a weakness down through the years. What improved supports will be in place for new start-ups, particularly in the area of patenting and copyright?

I think I made it clear in my initial answer that my role is a co-ordinating one. Obviously it would be wrong to take away indi vidual responsibilities from individual Departments. As I said, broadband comes under one Department, e-commerce will come under the Tánaiste's Department and educational elements will come under the Department of Education and Science. However, it is important as part of the overall policy to ensure that agenda is driven, which is my role. In doing so, I am backed not just by those different Departments but by the Cabinet sub-committee. That this role is based in the Department of the Taoiseach shows the priority the Government is giving it. The fact that there is a strategy group of secretaries and assistant secretaries and that there is an information society policy unit based in the Department of the Taoiseach will ensure the policy is driven.

In regard to the legal and regulatory environment, it is necessary that businesses, consumers and so on have the necessary confidence in the whole system. Part of the priority will be new legislation in the whole area of telecommunications regulation in regard to data protection, intellectual property rights and e-government. In regard to research and development, the Deputy will be aware that €2.5 billion has been allocated for that under the technology foresight fund of the national development plan. It is all happening at different levels under various Departments. When it comes to individual questions about individual issues, those Ministers are accountable and responsible and will answer in the Dáil. However, on the issue of e-government and driving the whole agenda, that is my responsibility.

What State agencies are under the Minister of State's remit or under the remit of the Department of the Taoiseach in the area of the information society? What is her relationship with REACH, OASIS, Revenue-on-line and so on? Will she be a glorified messenger boy – I do not mean that in a derogatory fashion – or will she have a real say in what happens in this area? We need to know who is in charge and who is responsible for the whole area, not just who will co-ordinate matters.

I do not think anyone would ever accuse me of being a messenger boy or a messenger girl. I know Deputy Stanton was not doing that and it certainly is not my role, nor will it be. My role of co-ordination and implementation is a key role, not just a messenger boy role. I was the Minister who attended the British-Irish Council summit meeting in Jersey last Friday with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the agenda is being driven at that level. That indicates the commitment in the Department of the Taoiseach to drive the issue at this level.

On State agencies, there are no State agencies within my remit. However, officials from the information society policy unit within the Department of the Taoiseach are on some of the boards mentioned to ensure that agenda is driven. I have met the Information Society Commission which is the body set up to advise and help in the implementation of this policy.

Has the Minister of State's office been in touch with the Central Statistics Office in regard to the question in the recent census on the number of households that have Internet access and home computers and whether that information will be supplied on a small area statistic basis to identify particular geographical areas that have good, average or poor take-up of information technology? In terms of liaising with the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, what efforts will the Minister's office make to tackle the problem whereby both Internet access and on-line charges in Ireland are among the highest in Europe and are one of the debilitating factors in ensuring Irish people and Irish households have full access to information technology?

My responsibilities include Chief Whip, the Information Society, Minister of State at the Department of Defence and the Central Statistics Office. Therefore, it will be easy for me to keep in contact with them and get the information. The information gained from the census will be very valuable, particularly in attracting private investment to that area. Once the level of use in a geographical area is known, it will assist us to back up our own investment on a private public partnership basis so that we can do exactly what Deputy Boyle has said to ensure broadband is more readily and cheaply accessible throughout the day.

I agree with Deputy Stanton that the role of the co-ordinator is crucial to the development of this service throughout the country. The Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, has ambitious plans to extend broadband and new technology to peripheral and Gaeltacht areas and the islands. We applaud him for that and hope it will be successful. Has the Minister of State had meetings with her colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, in regard to extending this service to peripheral areas of the west and the islands or does she intend holding meetings with the Minister to co-ordinate their plans?

It is my intention to meet each of the Ministers with responsibility in this area, particularly in the context of ensuring that each of them progresses his or her responsibilities in the new connections agenda.

On the Minister of State's liaison with the Minister for Education and Science, is there a clear Government policy to increase investment in information technology in schools? I understand a number of projects have been initiated by the Department of Education and Science such as award for learning. To my know ledge this has received a mixed response because it seems like the imposition of a US style system into an Irish system of education. Are there plans to ensure every primary school in the country will have IT literate students by the time they leave sixth class?

The Deputy will be aware that during the lifetime of the last Government there was major progress on the IT for schools scheme whereby every school has Internet access. That decision was taken by the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin. This is the best way to ensure all children, irrespective of their background, have access to the Internet. That was widely hailed in Europe at the time as being very farsighted and, listening to my colleagues from other countries on Friday, it appears that we are well ahead of other states in this regard. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is also committed to ensuring that it is expanded.

Does the Government have a time-scale to secure the unbundling of the local loop and to enable always-on dial-up Internet access? Is there a target date against which to measure the ambitious plans the Minister has outlined?

A number of the targets for new connections are based on a three-year plan. By 2005 we should have the main elements in place, which will also include the access to public services and to e-government. The new connection plan is a three year one.

Does that include flat-rate dial-up Internet access nationally?

That question would be best addressed to the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern.

Ironically, I was going to ask about the Internet flat rate. Is it the Minister's intention to ensure that Irish businesses are not at a disadvantage in relation to the cost of Internet access? At present they are at a disadvantage compared to our neighbours in the UK and Europe, particularly in relation to flat-rate access for businesses that happen to be on the Internet all day, most days. Is it the intention of the Government to ensure in a reasonable time frame that we are at least on a par with the UK and the rest of Europe regarding cost of Internet usage?

As I said at the outset, the Government wants to see the availability of affordable, open access, always-on broadband infrastructure. The word "affordable" is crucial to the progress of the information society and that will be addressed over the next few years.

The question I was going to ask has been partly addressed by Deputy Coveney. What is the position with regard to the Border region? There is a major delay in getting high-quality contract broadband into the region and I would like to know if consultation is taking place with our colleagues across the Border, or, if not, whether the Minister intends to enter into that to ensure that the Border area will not be disadvantaged any further.

I will allow the Minister to answer a question if the question is a general one to her in her capacity as Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach. More detailed questions might more appropriately be addressed to the Minister responsible.

Can the Minister of State outline Government policy with regard to public private partnerships in terms of the information society?

The money that was allocated in the national development plan takes into account the BMW region in particular. Money was allocated by the previous Minister with responsibility for this area, which will be rolled out over the next few years. As I already indicated, on Friday there was a great deal of communication among all the members of the British-Irish Council, which includes colleagues from Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Next week at one of the North-South meetings this matter will also be on the agenda and the Deputy can rest assured that all possible co-operation will take place. Deputy Stanton's question might better be addressed to the individual Ministers who will be responsible for financing.