Ceisteanna - Questions

Freedom of Information Data

Joan Burton


1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach to set down the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department to date in 2019; and the number of requests fully and partially refused, respectively. [16349/19]

Mary Lou McDonald


2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach to set down the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department in 2018; and the number of requests granted, partially granted and refused. [17456/19]

Brendan Howlin


3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach to set down the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department in 2018 and to date in 2019. [21784/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

In 2018, my Department received 490 freedom of information, FOI, requests. Of these, 111 were granted, 243 were part granted, 46 were refused and no records were held in respect of 70 of the requests. A total of 20 requests were either transferred, withdrawn or handled outside of the Freedom of Information Act. From January until the end of April this year, my Department received 205 FOI requests. Of these, 36 were granted, 74 were part granted, seven were refused and no records were held in respect of 32 other requests. A further 56 requests are still ongoing or were withdrawn, handled outside the freedom of information framework or transferred to another public sector body.

There has been an increase in the number of FOI requests received in my Department since the new Freedom of Information Act came into operation in 2014. In 2013, my Department received 92 requests. This figure rose to 290 in 2015 and 490 in 2018, which constitutes a fivefold increase in five years and the upward trend is continuing this year.

Records may be part granted or refused. Material is redacted for a variety of reasons, as provided for in the Freedom of Information Act. Examples of grounds commonly used by FOI decision-makers in my Department for withholding material include: where Government records less than five years old are concerned; where the material, if released, could have an adverse impact on the international relations or the economic interests of the State; where commercially sensitive information is involved; or where it is necessary to withhold personal information, such as personal email addresses or mobile telephone numbers.

The majority of requests submitted to my Department are non-personal requests from the media. All requests received in my Department are processed by designated officials in accordance with the Freedom of Information Acts. If a requester is not satisfied with an FOI decision, he or she can seek an internal review, followed by appeal to the Information Commissioner. The freedom of information statutory framework keeps the decision-making process at arm's length from the political head of the Department. I have no role in the decision-making process for requests received in my Department nor do I see copies of decision letters issuing. Notwithstanding this and the fact I am not even asked, I keep reading in the newspapers that I have refused to release X, Y or Z.

Two members of staff work in the Department's freedom of information unit, both of whom perform other duties. Staff from across the Department are also involved in processing requests in addition to their routine duties, for example, in respect of searching and retrieving records and making decisions on requests received. At times, complicated and detailed FOI requests are received that involve significant time and resource implications for the staff involved. Section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act 2014 requires each FOl body to prepare and publish a publication scheme. My Department's scheme is published on the gov.ie website and sets out a range of information about the type of records it holds.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. He will recall that the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act was one of a suite of transparency reform measures introduced, and it is very important. Other measures included the Freedom of Information Act, the Protected Disclosures Act, which was to protect whistleblowers, and the Regulation of Lobbying Act, so that we know who is lobbying the Government or senior public officials and to what end.

It was understood that there would be a significant increase in applications once we made the amendments. They were made to allow for additional freedom of information requests because the Act at that point was so restrictive. Nevertheless, there are some grounds for concern. The Taoiseach has given the figures. There has been a 500% increase in FOI requests in his Department. That would have been expected because we facilitated it and public transparency was the objective of the exercise.

Last year's findings by the Information Commissioner indicated an unacceptably high response time for FOI requests, and that is concerning.

Is the Taoiseach monitoring these issues himself? Does the transparency of Government concern him and is he looking at these issues? I was very anxious to drive the reform agenda as an intrinsic part of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and I presume that is where it still lies.

I refer to perception. Less than two years ago a European Commission report found that 86% of Irish people think corruption is a major problem, which is an extraordinary figure, and more than 30% of Irish companies said they believed they had lost out on a public contract due to corruption. In essence, we need to not only deal with the reality but also deal with the perception, and complete transparency and openness is the way to do that. Does the Taoiseach take a hands-on view of these matters and will he give me an assurance that the reforms that were brought in will be reviewed to see if we need to go further?

Over the past number of months there have been two landmark cases concerning the Freedom of Information Act in the Court of Appeal and the High Court. Those cases, one involving UCC and the other involving Enet, fundamentally undermine the principles of the Act, and have far-reaching consequences when it comes to freedom of information, FOI. Freedom of information is crucial for any functioning democracy, and the information obtained through FOI requests has served the public interest in shining a light on serious social and political issues in recent years. The starting point should always be a presumption in favour of disclosure and that amending legislation should be introduced if necessary. Without the circulation of information regarding public bodies, good and transparent governance is impossible. Does the Taoiseach believe the Information Commissioner should appeal these judgments to the Supreme Court? Will he support, if necessary, the introduction of legislation to deal with issues that have arisen in these cases to get us back to a position where proper disclosure is a priority?

Since the FOI legislation was introduced in 1997, it has had a positive impact in providing the public with an opportunity to see behind the Government. The great benefit of it is that it ensures the public can see the reality of what is occurring as opposed to what the Government wants to present itself as dealing with. It has been beneficial legislation. I acknowledge it makes life uncomfortable for civil servants and in many respects, civil servants may have changed their methods of doing work as a result of the Freedom of Information Act. Nonetheless, it is useful legislation.

I am conscious of the recent decision by the courts, mentioned by Deputy Quinlivan. They are significant decisions, but I do not know whether the Taoiseach will be able to answer as to whether they should be appealed. We need to ensure that we do not allow the rights available to both citizens and journalists under the Act to be eroded. I am also conscious, however, that the Government should try to disclose to the public the actuality of what is happening in government as opposed to waiting for journalists or members of the public to come along and make FOI requests. It is hard to ignore the fact that in recent days there has been a blizzard of announcements from Departments. A cynic might suggest that this is to do with the forthcoming local elections, but I am sure the Taoiseach will disabuse me of that notion. We should be able to get the papers out as to why all of these announcements were made in the run-up to the local elections. We also had the unusual announcement from the European Commission recently about some funding for Irish farmers. It, again, seems unusual that such an announcement would be made in the run-up to the EU elections, but I am sure the Taoiseach will disabuse me of those concerns. If we got the papers out, there would be no difficulty in establishing what the truth is.

Deputy Howlin gave examples of some progressive legislation introduced by the previous Government - often by himself as Minister - relating to FOI, protected disclosures and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. In time, people will see how progressive that legislation was, and many people now look to us as an example or world leader when it comes to some of that legislation, particularly around lobbying. It is not perfect, but no legislation ever is, and we will need to amend it as we go along. Other example of reforms put in place by the previous Government that are worthy of mention are further restrictions on political and corporate donations, and spending limits on local elections, which had not existed previously.

Stamping out corruption and the perception of corruption is something in which I take a personal interest. We produced a white-collar crime and anti-corruption package approximately two years ago, and we review its implementation on an ongoing basis. Some of it is legislative, involving legislation on money laundering and corruption. We are also transforming the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, into a much stronger body. Rather than being an office of the Department, it will be a stand-alone agency in its own right and will be a much tougher, much better resourced body, which will be able to pursue and prosecute white-collar crime. On foot of the planning tribunals, we will also bring in an independent planning regulator.

My general approach is to be transparent with requests as much as I can. If something is published on a Department's website, there is no need for an FOI request, and no need for anyone to claim it is some sort of big reveal when they are issued with a rather mundane document. That is why information on expenses, Government jet use and so on are regularly issued, rather than needing to be subject to an FOI request.

I was asked my opinion on a few judgments, but I have not read them so it is probably better that I do not express an opinion on them. It is, of course, up to the Information Commissioner to take an appeal should he choose to do so.

Regarding the procedures to deal with FOI request used by my Department, we follow the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's code of practice in dealing with FOI requests, and I am satisfied that the Department is following the code. It is a long-standing practice that successive taoisigh, including myself, as political heads of the Department, have no role whatsoever in processing FOI requests. When one reads in the papers that I refused to release something or tried to block its release, that is always untrue. Every request received under FOI is assigned to the FOI unit and the decision-maker in the relevant section of the Department. The functions of general examination and primary decision-making have been delegated to assistant principal officers, and a few administrative officers, AOs, or higher executive officers, HEOs, in specialist areas who do this in addition to their normal duties. The function of internal review has been delegated to officials of not below principal officer grade, and all requests are monitored by the Department's liaison officer.

Replies are sometimes issued outside of the normal four-week deadline, and this can happen for a variety of reasons. Some involve a large number of records, and third parties are sometimes involved who have to be consulted. In many instances ,the deadline is extended by modest periods by agreement with the requesters, for example, when the decision-maker is busy attending other duties, or for pressure of work reasons. My Department is committed to meeting its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, including responding to FOI requests within the specified time frames, and it makes every effort to ensure that the volume of late replies is kept to a minimum.

Church-State Relations

Eamon Ryan


4. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new covenant between church and State. [16388/19]

Mary Lou McDonald


5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new covenant between church and State. [18732/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new relationship between church and State. [20546/19]

Brendan Howlin


7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new covenant between church and State. [21783/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.

As I mentioned during the papal visit last year, I feel it is now time for us to build a new relationship between church and State in Ireland, one in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society but in which it can still play an important part.

However, while I say things need to change, I would not like to see a separation of church and State that is so strict and rigid that all the good work done by faith-based bodies, charities, and churches is lost. I am open to suggestions as to how a new covenant or relationship might work.

In terms of the progress being made on structured dialogue between church and faith bodies and the State, in July I will hold a plenary meeting with representatives of churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations in Ireland.

The plenary will serve as a platform to discuss issues of importance to the participants and the communities they represent. Planning is under way for this to be held on Thursday, 4 July in Dublin Castle. Invitations are being issued to a wide range of churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations in Ireland. We are aiming to be as inclusive as possible in terms of representation by religious communities at the event. I will chair the meeting, but Ministers will also attend to respond to any issues arising in policy areas under their remits. Once invites have issued, we will request Ministers to hold the date in their diaries, and we will confirm which Ministers are attending at a later date. Discussions at the meeting will draw from the questions submitted in advance by the participants.

I welcome the broad approach the Taoiseach seems to be taking to this. It is important that we give it time and get it right. It is not just important for religious communities, which are in a state of real change at the moment. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin asked the right question at the time of the Pope's visit last year, that is, "Where are our young people and where are they going?" They are not going to church, by and large, but they are finding their own way and we need to give them space for that. We need to help our institutions and the Catholic Church in their evolution. It is also important that the political system is not seen as completely disinterested in, or dismissive of, those communities as they are an important part of the overall community. We have seen what can happen in other countries when one creates a sense in certain communities being ignored or left behind. The session being held in July to discuss a new covenant is a good idea, for the political system as well as members of faith communities and, indeed, people who are not members of any faith.

There was a book on this subject entitled, A Dialogue of Hope, by a collection of authors including Gerry O'Hanlon SJ, David Begg, Dermot McCarthy, Dermot A. Lane and Iseult Honohan, who all have experience of community life and public service. Their contribution frames the broad outline of what is happening in the State and suggests where a dialogue with faith communities might fit in. I suggest some of these authors, who are not from any one community but who have been thinking about this matter, be included at the event the Taoiseach is holding in July. We should all support a dialogue so that the divestment of our education patronage can proceed and so that we can have diversity in our hospitals and care systems, while not dismissing or undervaluing the benefits that come from faith communities and other communities.

The Taoiseach repeated the comments he made at the time of Pope Francis's visit that he believed the time had come for us to build a new relationship between church and State in Ireland and a new covenant for the 21st century. That could be a good idea if it is done in the right way and involves all faith communities and religious in a dialogue that lays out the clear division between church and State, which is required in most areas. We should also acknowledge what the religious and faith communities have to offer the State in other areas. Speaking a few weeks ago, however, the Archbishop of Dublin said no progress had been made by the Government in this regard. What exactly does the Taoiseach mean by a new covenant between church and State? He said he hoped discussions would take place in July. Can he confirm that he will be there in person?

It is important to understand the relationship between the Catholic Church and the State. It is complicated and one probably has to go back to the 16th century Tudor conquest of Ireland to understand its origins, and then to the penal laws and Catholic emancipation. This would partly explain why, when the country gained its independence, there was such a bias in favour of the Catholic Church. Prior to that, there had been significant discrimination against the majority Catholics. Today, however, a significant number of people in the country are not members of the Catholic faith and do not profess any religion but find themselves suffocated by the involvement of religion in their lives. This is sometimes overstated but in the area of education, if a parent is an atheist and does not wish to bring a child up within a religion but the religion is imposed by the only available national school, that is a problem. It is imperative that we seek to recognise a new covenant, which will understand the significant and unique role played by the Catholic Church in education in Ireland. We have to remember that there was a time when no one else in the country provided an education for the majority poor population. In the 21st century, we need to recognise that parents who do not want their children brought up in a faith-based school should be given the opportunity to exercise that wish. Similarly, the significant number of parents who want their children educated in a Catholic school, a Church of Ireland school, a Jewish school or an Islamic school should also be facilitated, as diversity works both ways.

People before Profit believe in the complete separation of church and State, particularly in health and education, and we think the Government has failed, even in its own terms, in the school divestment programme. Despite the rhetorical commitment to divestment, 96% of schools continue to be controlled by religious bodies, particularly the Catholic Church. The Taoiseach is always going on about wanting choice for people, but I will give an example of the failure of the Government to deliver for those who want multidenominational, rather than faith-based, education. Last night, there was a big public meeting in Dún Laoghaire attended by hundreds of parents to discuss the Dún Laoghaire Educate Together school. After a rather convoluted voting process two years ago, in which people had to vote for which school patron they wanted, there was an overwhelming preference for an Educate Together school but the kids whose parents voted this way have been in prefabs ever since. One of the parents said, very emotionally, that she had to take her child out of the school she wanted the child to be in, because the child's needs were incompatible with being in prefabs. The parents asked where the permanent site was, which parliamentary questions had indicated would be provided a year ago. It is not on. This is an aspect of how, even at this level, the choice the Government talks about is not being provided. It is completely unacceptable for kids to still be in prefabs. It has been revealed today that €100 million has been spent over the past six years by the Government to keep children in prefabs rather than permanent school buildings. Can the Taoiseach comment on that? Will he look into the issue a permanent school for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together?

This is an important subject and it is not straightforward. I very much welcome the dialogue promised by the Taoiseach but I am not sure what the new covenant means. It sounds good but I do not know what will come out of it. It is an ambition worth exploring. Most of us who have been in the House a long time will recall the two previous referenda on divorce. If we contrast those with the ongoing referendum on the same matter, we will see how transformed society is but it has been transformed in a complicated way. The latest census revealed that nearly one in ten people registered in Ireland has no religion and that an increasingly large number have a variety of faiths, who all have to be accommodated.

As I have, the Taoiseach has talked to senior Catholic Church figures about divestment and these are important matters. We do not want to build a set of parallel education establishments to create individual silos, which has happened in other countries as they became multicultural. We have siloed populations and that causes a difficulty into the future so we have to give some care and some thought to how we are going to structure the new shape of education in Ireland. People need to have a legitimate choice over whether to have a faith-based education but this should not be done in a way that is separated out from different faiths. The consequences of doing so can be seen in Northern Ireland, where the separation of faith schools has made a contribution to the separation of society. We have to think carefully about the future and I would be interested in a structured dialogue in this House first, so that we can share views and see how we can move forward in building a new education system and a new health provision system that are not replicas of what exists.

I very much agree with Deputy Eamon Ryan's initial sentiments on this issue and I will consider whether we should include other thinkers in the dialogue in the meeting that is going to happen in July and whether we should precede that with some sort of debate here in the House as well.

When I talk about a new covenant, I suppose what I mean is what I said at the time - a relationship in which the church and faith-based organisations are no longer at the centre of Irish life but one in which they still have a place. That is what I would like the main topic and the high-level topic of the discussion in July to be about. It is not for me to determine the outcome of that dialogue but to offer my opinion. It is probably a new relationship that is more about pluralism than about absolute secularism. That means, for example, in education greater choice for parents through the availability of more Educate Together schools, community national schools and Gaelscoileanna, and the divestment of some existing religious schools to the community sector should parents want that, while still having a role for State funding of faith-based charities and voluntary organisations, whether those are our hospices like the St. Francis Hospice and Our Lady's Hospice and Care Services. An absolute secularist approach would see their funding taken away or their being taken over and the voluntarism and ethos that exist there removed. I would not agree with that. We see how many faith-based organisations have made a huge contribution to helping us deal with the housing shortage, whether it be Crosscare or Depaul. If we took an absolute secularist approach, we would either defund them or take them over. I am not sure that would be the right approach. In fact, I am sure it would not be.

In terms of school buildings, we have a massive school building programme under way. New schools are being built throughout the country. There are extensions and refurbishments, but there are also a lot of prefabs. They need to be replaced, but as is always the case, we have to prioritise. Due to the demographic bulge that we have had in recent years, we have had to prioritise new schools where there would otherwise have been no school over refurbishments and extensions to remove prefabs. However, as the birth rate falls, and it has been falling for a couple of years, there is an opportunity for us to do more refurbishments and to replace more prefabs in the coming years.

Deputy Boyd Barrett asked specifically about the Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school. This is something that the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, raised with me only today. I am advised that there are multiple school site requirements in the south Dublin city area, including for the Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school. Several viable site options have been identified and are being progressed with relevant stakeholders, including State bodies. Once all the critical information is to hand, a determination regarding the optimal configuration of school sites will be made. Officials are working to advance matters as quickly as possible so that a permanent location for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together can be confirmed by the third quarter of next year.

Is it next year or this year?

Sorry - 2019, this year. Given the number of parties and sites involved, it is not possible at this stage to give a definitive answer on some of the key issues, but the school board of management and the Minister of State have asked to meet the building unit in the next two weeks. The building unit has confirmed that this meeting will take place.

On the issue of divestment, I am advised that, so far, 11 multidenominational schools have opened under the patronage divesting process and a further multidenominational school is due to be established in September.

National Digital Strategy Implementation

Mary Lou McDonald


8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the status of the national digital strategy being led by his Department. [16454/19]

Brendan Howlin


9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of the national digital strategy being led by his Department. [16482/19]

Joan Burton


10. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the status of the national digital strategy being led by his Department. [21730/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.

Ireland and the world are undergoing profound change due to the increasing power and rapid diffusion of digital technologies. All areas of our lives are being transformed as these technologies become embedded in daily life, supporting greater connectivity and more personalised products and services. Technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics are already disrupting entire industries.

Digitalisation also poses major questions as to how governments legislate, regulate and deliver public services. The Government is developing a new national digital strategy to help Ireland maximise the economic and societal benefits from digitalisation and its transformative effects. The strategy is a shared effort by the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. An interdepartmental group, which includes representatives from all Departments, is guiding the formation of the strategy. This approach reflects the broad spread of policy areas impacted by digitalisation.

The strategy is being shaped by insights from Departments and agencies, public consultation, stakeholder engagement and expert consultations with academia and industry. A public consultation to allow citizens and stakeholders to feed in and influence the development of the strategy took place at the end of last year. More than 300 responses were received. In parallel, there were extensive consultations with stakeholders and experts.

The strategy will set out Ireland's vision and ambition across thematic areas, including digital infrastructure and security, trust and well-being, effective use of digital by citizens, communities, enterprise and government, and the digital economy's impact on the labour market. Importantly, it will also position Ireland internationally and within the European Union, where we are active promoters of the digital Single Market. I anticipate that it will emphasise issues such as connectivity, cybersecurity, greater use of open data, proactive regulation, public trust in digital, improved online public services, greater understanding of digital well-being, digital skills, and the digital intensity of SMEs. As committed to in Future Jobs Ireland 2019, the target for delivery of this strategy is the second quarter of 2019.

I wish to ask about the establishment of an office of digital safety commissioner. As the Taoiseach knows, Sinn Féin introduced a Bill that reached Committee Stage in early 2018 and received strong support, including from the committee's Chair, Deputy Naughton. The committee was working on definitions of "harmful communications", which was the main issue that needed to be addressed, when the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, announced his proposals, which are still vague, in March. Why will the Government not work with the Sinn Féin Bill, amend it if necessary and come to a compromise on the issue? It strikes me that this would be the best way forward. My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has requested a meeting with the Minister on the matter, but there has been none yet.

The Minister has not published the public consultation and has said that he will not despite having committed to doing so. He has refused to commit to a timeline any earlier than the end of this year for publishing the heads of Bills. What is all the foot dragging about and will there be some progress on this situation?

The roll-out of high-speed rural broadband is key to the national digital strategy. The Labour Party and everyone in the House wants to see high-speed rural broadband delivered as soon as possible, but the Labour Party believes that Ireland must maintain public ownership if we are to avoid the disastrous mistakes that followed the Telecom Éireann sell-off.

Last week, the Taoiseach alluded to the fact that the Government had a choice between two models - a gap funding model and a full concession model. The key difference between the two is ownership of the assets at the end of the contract term. In gap funding, the bidder would own the assets outright. If there was a concession agreement, the State would be the ultimate owner.

In July 2016, the then Minister, Deputy Naughten, stated that he was advised that, under a full concession model, the entire cost of the project would be placed on the Government's balance sheet, with serious implications for the available capital funding for other critical expenditure items such as climate change, housing and health, which he said he could not justify. In short, he implied that the gap funding model would not appear on the Government's balance sheet and that that was the reason for it being selected. According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's memo to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in January, however, either option would ensure that all of the assets and their cost would be classified as on-balance sheet. As such, Deputy Naughten and the entire Government made the decision on the basis of a false premise. Does the Taoiseach accept that the rationale that the then Minister publicly gave for choosing the gap funding model was mistaken?

There is no doubt that the world we live in has been transformed fundamentally by digital, social media, communication, Internet technology and so on. There are many advantages to that at many levels in our society, but it has also produced many challenges, of which online bullying is one. There is also arguably a concern about the overuse of digital technology, social media and so on.

It strikes me that as the landscape changes, the companies that are making gargantuan, astronomical and mind-boggling profits from the digital transformation should make a contribution to the society in which they function, and from which they profit, to help us to put in the infrastructure, supports and oversights needed to manage the digital revolution. These precise IT corporations - Google, Facebook, Apple and all the rest of them - pay pitiful percentages in tax. In most cases, they pay less than 1% in tax. As we know, many of them are based here. In light of the challenges for our society that are posed by the IT revolution, some of the impacts of which revolution are adverse, does the Taoiseach not think it would be fair and reasonable for these people to pay a little bit more tax? A digital tax of some kind could be used to funnel money into the infrastructure, services and supports for young people that are needed to ensure the digital revolution benefits society, rather than having an adverse impact on it.

When the Government announced last October that a revised national digital strategy would be prepared, the public was given a one-month window in which to make submissions. For the past six months, there has been near-complete radio silence in respect of that strategy. It appears to have disappeared. Will the Taoiseach tell us what is happening in respect of the strategy that was announced more than six months ago? It is was promised at that time that the public submissions would be published, but they have not yet been published. I would be interested to hear why that is the case. The national digital strategy has probably become entangled with the national broadband plan, the history of which we all know too much about. Is the national digital strategy completely entwined with the broadband plan or is it separate? What is the reason for the delay? It is important to note in the context of what Deputy Boyd Barrett has said that we are having progressively more serious problems with bullying of young people as a result of the online activities of others. The Houses of the Oireachtas will have to deal with this issue at some stage. I agree that the technology companies need to take active steps to deal with bullying. They need to fund sections within their companies to ensure there is an anti-bullying czar. They need to target online bullying actively in the same way that they actively target the receipt of money from advertisers. If they put the same effort into tackling bullying that they put into accumulating profits, I do not think we would have a problem with online bullying. The Government needs to put this issue at the forefront of its response to the national digital strategy.

The Action Plan for Online Safety, which was launched in July 2018, contains 25 targeted digital safety actions that will be delivered over 12 to 18 months. It seeks to balance the opportunities and benefits provided by the Internet with the need to ensure people are informed and supported to deal with the risks. The implementation of these actions is under way across relevant Departments and agencies. The key achievements of the action plan to date include the creation of an online safety hub; the establishment of the new National Advisory Council for Online Safety, NACOS, which is advising the Government on Internet safety policy issues; the establishment of a new cybercrime area of responsibility in the Department of Justice and Equality; the development of dedicated advice hubs for young people, parents and teachers; the provision of new digital capacity and resources for primary schools and public libraries; and the roll-out of mental health initiatives, including media campaigns and text line supports. The newly formed NACOS recently issued a progress report on its work, which included proposals for the development of practical guidance for online safety, the adoption of a proposal to conduct a phased research project on online safety during 2019 and the provision of an Irish research base to inform policymaking on further research. The members of NACOS are drawn from a range of stakeholder groups and sectors, including representatives of children's and parents' organisations and major online platforms and experts on online matters.

The Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017, which was introduced by Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has been referred to the relevant Oireachtas committee and is the subject of detailed scrutiny. The Bill presents a number of legal and operational issues, including the absence of a definition of the "harmful content" about which the proposed commissioner would exercise his or her takedown powers. The Action Plan for Online Safety covers a range of activities that are relevant to the proposed office of digital safety commissioner, including education and awareness raising, communicating with the public, and oversight and consultative structures. The action plan contains a commitment that the Government will engage with the issues raised by the Bill and highlight the upcoming transposition of the revised audiovisual media services directive, which requires member states to put in place oversight structures for video sharing platform services. On 4 March last, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment gave a speech in which he outlined new proposals for legislation to tackle the spread of harmful online content. He launched a six-week public consultation on the regulation of harmful content on online platforms and the implementation of the revised audiovisual media services directive to seek views on the shape that the proposed legislation should take. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, plans to bring a draft proposal to the Cabinet for the development of an online safety and media regulation Bill and a regulator, including an online safety commissioner.

As I have mentioned in the Dáil previously, the initial five models were reduced to two - the gap funding model and the concession model. The gap funding model was adopted by the Government on the advice of the then Minister, Deputy Naughten, having been assessed on a number of occasions by the Government and independently. One of the advantages of the gap funding model is that it involves a lower cost for the taxpayer. As we are all aware, some people feel that €3 billion is too much to invest in rural broadband. I do not agree with that. There are many people who feel that €3 billion is too high a cost to connect 1.1 million people to high-speed broadband. It would have cost more - upwards of €3 billion - if we had gone for the concession model. The gap funding model also involves greater risk sharing by the private sector. As people know, under this arrangement the risk for the public sector and for taxpayers is capped, but the risk for the private sector is not. Crucially, this arrangement incentivises the company to continue to upgrade the fibre and the fibre optics, which would not necessarily be the case if it were being handed over to the State at the end of 25 or 30 years. As I have said previously, the real infrastructure, the thousands of poles and ducts throughout the country, is privately owned. It went into private ownership 20 years ago when Telecom Éireann was privatised as Eircom. The only physical asset that could possibly revert to the State would be the fibre running within privately owned ducts. That fibre has to be replaced every 25 or 30 years in any event. This system is cheaper, involves greater risk sharing by the private sector and incentivises the private sector to invest in upgrading that fibre.

We are working on the assumption that all of this will fall on the Government balance sheet. This really arose on foot of EUROSTAT's decision to classify Irish Water and, more recently, some affordable housing bodies in the UK as being on the Government balance sheet. That may yet change. This is a €5 billion to €6 billion project. Less than half of the money is coming from the taxpayers of this State in subsidies.

Why did the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, believe it was off-balance sheet?

We decided, in the interests of caution and prudence, to assume it is all on the balance sheet unless EUROSTAT decides otherwise.

It just gets worse.

That is the reverse of the mistake that was made in the case of Irish Water, when it was assumed that it would be off-balance sheet, but it was not.

The former Minister said it was all off-balance sheet.

I cannot answer questions on behalf of the former Minister, unfortunately. That is the current state of play.

What about Cabinet collectivity?

It is important to point out when we are speaking about the ownership structure that there are termination clauses. If the contractor does not deliver on certain milestones, the contract can be terminated. At that point, the fibre would revert to the State. If, after 25 years, the contractor does not want to continue to provide the service, there is the option to buy. It will be possible in the future for the Government to take an equity stake in the business. That could not really be considered until after the contracts have been signed.

We pay for it and then we buy it back.

We already did that with Enet.