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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 2 Feb 2022

Vol. 282 No. 7

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Legislative Reviews

Cuirim fáilte roimh mo chomhghleacaí ó Ghaillimh, an tAire Stáit. This matter relates to the commitment given to tender publicly for what was supposed to be an independent chair for the three-year review of the abortion legislation.

On 8 December, prior to the launch of the three-year review, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, confirmed publicly, as he had on several occasions, that an independent chair would be appointed to lead the review. In an address by the Minister to a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health on 8 December, members were informed that legally the appointment of a chair must go to an e-tender as the cost involved may be up to €100,000. A statutory requirement in respect of appointments costing in excess of €25,000 required the post to be put out to tender, as acknowledged by Ms Geraldine Luddy from the Department. The Minister said that, following advice, he was instructed that, if he were to make an appointment without undertaking an e-tendering process, he would be acting illegally. The Minister also claimed that his Department would issue the tender for the chair on the Government's eTenders website in the coming days, although he later said that he had asked officials to ensure a tender was issued in the next two weeks. He noted that all of this was unfortunate because a number of excellent candidates had been identified and that he "would much rather be announcing a chair today". He later contradicted himself, claiming: "We have also put out the tender for the chair today."

It is interesting that a press release went out that day saying that an e-tender had been put out for the appointment of an independent chair. That was sent to all media but it did not happen. Later that day or, perhaps, later on, another press release was put up on the Department's website, we might say secretly, removing the reference to an independent chair. Of course, that was not circulated to the media.

On that day, Ms Luddy confirmed that the e-tender would go up within a week or so of the date of that meeting of the committee. It was acknowledged by the departmental official that the existing e-tender on the website dealing with the research element was not the tender for a chair. Over the course of December and into January, no e-tender seeking applications for the position of independent chair was posted on the website. An article in The Irish Times on 13 January claimed that "a request for tender for a chair to carry out research into the views of service providers was published last December". That was not the case. The Minister was quoted as expressing his desire that the process to select an independent chair would be got through quickly. He wanted it to be completed by the end of January. However, it was only in response to a parliamentary question on 19 January that the Minister acknowledged that he had, in fact, contacted a small number of candidates and invited them to apply for the position of independent chair. The commitment given and repeated publicly that there would be open recruitment for an independent chair was not fulfilled. It seems it was not intended to fulfil that commitment and nobody was told that was the case.

We now have to say we suspect dishonesty. There is no other word for it. There has been a failure on the part of the Minister and his officials. I have raised this issue several times. People have sought to communicate with the Minister. The Minister of State has very wittily said here previously that she would not be here if there was any good news to give. This is the same thing. The Minister of State and I would both tell our visitors in the Gallery that they are very welcome. If that young man in the Gallery ever goes into politics, I hope he will treat his colleagues better than the Minister for Health is treating us on this issue because this failure to be truthful and upfront is a bad reflection on the Minister and his Department.

A closed number of candidates were contacted. We do not know who they were. Subsequently, it was announced that a person had been appointed as an independent chair. It is vital that an independent chair is somebody who can look at the workings of this abortion legislation from the point of view of those who have concerns. An example of such a concern from a pro-life perspective it that there is not adequate pain relief for late-term abortions. It is appalling to even have to talk about such issues. There are also issues with regard to the rise in the number of abortions. There are also those who favour abortion who would like there to be fewer obstacles to getting abortions. We need someone who does not have skin in the game and yet Ms Luddy said at that meeting of the Joint Committee on Health that it needed to be somebody with a reproductive rights-based approach. All this time, we have had people talking out both sides of their mouths. They have been talking about independence while not acting openly or in a trustworthy way and not communicating that they had changed their mind and were going back on their commitment or that they were never sincere about it in the first place; I do not know which was the case. However, it was done secretly and, in the end, somebody who expressed views in favour of repeal before any of this happened was appointed. It is a shambolic situation and I hope the Minister of State has some answers for us.

As the Senator will be aware, the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act was signed into law on 20 December 2018 and commenced on 1 January 2019. A review clause was included in the Act to facilitate monitoring of the impact, operation and effectiveness of the legislation in practice, as well as the delivery of services in this area.

The review of the operation of the Act has commenced and will comprise two phases. During the first phase, information and evidence on the effectiveness and operation of the Act will be collected from women who use the service, health professionals who provide the service and from the public. Independent research commissioned to inform the service user and service provider strands will form key elements of the review.

Research to inform the service user strand has been commissioned by the HSE. The large-scale qualitative research will generate an in-depth understanding of the experiences of women who have accessed services since the commencement of the Act. Independent research is also being commissioned on service providers' views on the operation of the legislation. The tender process for the research is in train. A request for tenders was published on the Government's eTenders website in December. The Minister for Health also announced a public consultation to inform the review on 8 December and the consultation will be open until I April. Everyone who would like to express their views on the operation of the Act should participate.

The second phase of the review will be led by an independent chairperson. As the Minister stated during his appearance before the Joint Committee on Health on 8 December, since the costs involved in contracting an independent chairperson to conduct the review were estimated as exceeding €25,000, the advice he received from his officials was that the Department was obliged, under procurement rules, to tender for the appointment. Under that procurement process, given the expertise required for the position, a small number of candidates, identified as having suitable experience, were contacted and invited to submit a tender to take on the role of independent chairperson. I am delighted to confirm that the Minister has appointed the barrister, Ms Marie O'Shea, as the independent chairperson. Ms O'Shea has significant legal expertise, as well as experience in project management and healthcare sector research. As independent chairperson, Ms O'Shea will assess the extent to which the objectives of the Act have been achieved, analysing the findings of the three strands of phase one of the review as part of it. She will also assess the extent to which the Act's objectives have been achieved and make recommendations to address any barriers identified. The chairperson will also draw on the findings of other relevant peer reviewed research and consult further with stakeholders as necessary.

Concerning the press release issued on 8 December, this was reissued to clarify that the tender, which had issued on that date, was for the research component of the review. The Minister is confident that the chairperson, Ms O'Shea, will conduct this important work thoroughly, efficiently and in a fair and transparent manner. The Minister also looks forward to receiving Ms O'Shea's final report in which she will set out her conclusions, and any recommendations, later this year.

I thank the Minister of State for her response but, as predicted, she has been mistreated as well as the rest of us by being given what a rather duplicitous text to read because the import of it is that they acknowledge that they knew they had to tender. I have read the transcript of the health committee meeting and they were committing to openly tendering. Now what they are trying to do is to cover their tracks afterwards by claiming what they meant by tender was this secret process of contacting a small number of suitable candidates. For all we know now they were actually looking for a crony or somebody who actually was, if you like, on the abortion side of the argument because we have had no honesty and no reassurance.

I am sure that the person they have appointed intends well but that person, on several occasions, engaged in a patter of tweeting tending to support the repeal side of the argument. That is why I called in the Seanad last week for her to honourably withdraw. How can the public have confidence in a Minister and a Department who say that they are going to appoint somebody independent and then they appoint somebody who can be proven was supporting abortion at the time of repeal? They say that they were going to tender openly and they do not do it. They tender secretly and they never tell us that they are going to do that. Then they change a press release but they do not alert the media to the fact that they have done so. It is nothing but dishonesty, I am afraid. It is an apology that they owe us, and it is not the Minister of State who should have been asked to come in and answer this today.

I thank the Senator again. All indications are that these services are both operating and available, and they are delivered in hospitals and community settings. The Minister is determined that the review will be undertaken in a fair and transparent manner.

As I outlined in my opening remarks, a three-part approach will be taken to reviewing the operation of the Act with strands focusing on service users, service providers and a public consultation. Independent research is being undertaken to inform the services users and the service provider strands. It is the Minister's hope and, indeed, my own that all those interested will take the time to voice their views as part of the public consultation.

The second phase of the review will be led by the independent chairperson. We have now conducted the procurement process for the position of the chairperson. The Minister is confident that the person appointed, Ms Marie O'Shea, bachelor of law, has the experience necessary to carry this very significant work thoroughly, efficiently and in a balanced and fair manner.

As I have previously clarified, the press release issued on 8 December was reissued to explain that the tender, which had issued on that date, was for the research component of the review. The Minister is confident that the information gathered during the review of the operation of the 2018 Act will provide us with the evidence as to how to proceed in the future. It is essential that we continue to ensure that the services mandated by the people in May 2018 operate effectively.

Disability Services

I thank the Minister of State for coming here to discuss this very important issue. The last time that I raised this question was in 2019 and at that stage, seven children in the mid-west were awaiting permanent long-stay beds.

I am working with a family who have a daughter aged 11 who is non-verbal and bedridden, and they have carers who come to the house. The family cares for their daughter in the best way possible but, unfortunately, as the girl gets older it is getting more difficult to provide care. The parents must now use a hoist and it takes several people to lift the child. These are not ideal circumstances.

I acknowledge that the Minister of State is committed to her children because of all that she has done since taking up office. On her latest visit to Limerick she visited St. Gabriel's and, in fact, that is where she met the child. The family is very much reliant on the wider family. The family provides care 24-7 and the only time they get a break is when they get a night's respite in their house. While they love their child dearly it has come to a stage where the mother is in need of an operation on her back and the parents are physically not able to provide care any more. This is a very serious situation but it is not just this case. A business case has been made to the HSE in CHO 3 regarding the provision of long-stay beds because many children find themselves in a similar situation.

When I raised this issue in 2019 there were seven children on the waiting list and I understand that that number has increased. A solution must be found. Somebody said to the mother that she should leave her daughter at the University Hospital Limerick, UHL, as hospital staff would have to deal with her. Parents love their children so much that they do not want to do that. Instead, they want to do what is right by their child and ensure that their child gets the care and attention that is needed. Unfortunately, no beds have been provided in Limerick that I am aware of since the last time that I raised this matter. The number of children in need of such care are growing and it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

As I have mentioned, recently a case was made to the HSE and the parents had to fill out forms, complete a survey and so on. There still has been no answer and there is no light at the end of the tunnel currently for these families. The issue needs to be addressed and I have every faith that the Minister of State will do her best.

I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and giving me the opportunity to provide an update on the matter. As the Senator knows, this Government is committed to empowering people with a disability to live independent lives and giving them the ability to choose the supports that most meet their needs where possible. This ensures that people with a disability can make a real, tangible difference in their lives.

Reflecting the strength of this Government's commitment in this area, significant additional funding was provided in the 2021 and 2022 budgets for disability developments, which will see the budget for specialist disability services exceeding €2.3 billion. This includes provision of more investment in residential support services and supports, which enable the HSE to increase residential capacity in a planned way; continue providing crisis residential placements; continue the decongregation programme; and provide more intensive support packages to enable those with complex needs to remain at home with their families.

The HSE is currently supporting in the region of 8,100 residential places across the country for people with a disability. Residential services make up the largest part of the disability funding dispersed by the HSE, at more than 60% of the total budget of the €2.2 billion in 2021.

For the House's information, the HSE disability services use a system called the disability support application management tool, DSMAT, which enables the community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas to record and manage requests for support to ensure that the application process is equitable and transparent. It is important to note that the DSMAT is not a chronological waiting list. Rather, it supports and informs the CHO's decision-making process around prioritisation of services within appropriate budgets. The aim is to ensure that services are allocated on the basis of greatest presenting need and associated risk factors.

Specifically relating to the mid-west, or CHO 3 area, I am advised by the HSE that there are two children on the priority waiting list for approval for business cases for residential placements, and that two children have been approved for residential placement and are awaiting placements to commence.

The HSE acknowledges that demographic challenges associated with the increase in the number of people living with a disability, the increase in age and life expectancy and the changing needs of people with a disability have all led to the need for increased residential facilities. In this regard, the HSE continues to work with agencies to explore various ways of responding to this need. To the end of November 2021, the HSE delivered 77 emergency residential placements, which is 33 places in excess of the number profiled for the year.

The national service plan, NSP, 2022 will soon be finalised. I would hope, when the HSE service plan is finalised, that those two children, who are at the top of that list, will be supported and the needs of the child and family will be met. I would like to acknowledge the wonderful work of the management team and the staff in St. Gabriel's and the local community in the development of that project.

I was working with the good Senator and other elected representatives in the mid-west and we were able to identify and source the funding to the respite piece of it. On first allocation, it was €5 million over seven years, and now we have gone to €7 million over seven years. That €7 million over seven years will come, hopefully, when the NSP is published. Perhaps that will give the family a little bit extra respite while the house is being sourced and built and while the allied support care for putting in place a residential solution is pursued.

The most important thing is the communication between the HSE and that family; the reassurance that they are one of the two. I think that is what the Senator really wants to know. While we do not talk about individual cases, having had dealings with Maurice Hoare over the past two years, I have no doubt that he will engage with the Senator and the family to ensure there is a pathway to support this young individual and that family to meeting their residential expectations in the area.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her commitment and response. I am not sure if the child is one of the two children. I am glad to hear that it is down to two because it was seven originally, the last time I tabled this question. This child I am referring to is certainly in need of a critical care bed. The family has been told that is what they have been put forward for.

Certainly, it has gone on so long at this stage that I believe that, as the Minister of State said, the family needs reassurance and they need an answer. It would be good even if they knew they will get a bed a year down the road; it is about that reassurance. The only way I can describe it is that they are very worn down.

It is not from lack of care or anything like that. They provide care 24-7 and they do absolutely everything for that child. It is just that they are not physically able anymore. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her commitment.

We all share the same common desire to have the best possible policies and services for people with disability. That is what Covid taught us, when we saw how the Department of Health could work with the local HSE areas that could work with the various providers. However, during all that working arrangement, families had no access to respite. That is why families are coming through that phase at this moment exhausted, tired and needing to know the pathway. They realise that they, perhaps, cannot be able to do this day in, day out, without knowing for how long. That is the concern that families have. We are very fortunate in the mid-west with St. Gabriel's, in that we have that established respite piece. However, respite is only one part of the gamut of suites that is required for people with disability.

We talk about alternative respite care and permanent respite care. We then have to talk about phased residential care, full residential care and how to support the needs of the individual - the person-centred approach - and the families. At the centre of that is good communication. It is no good not knowing if you are one of the two involved. People need to know where they are.

On the other side of it, my job for 2022 is to spend the money wisely with the HSE to ensure we build that capacity, not just in CHO 3, but in every CHO around the country. I look forward to the NSP being announced, because my will, preference and desire is to build that capacity to ensure that we leave no CHO behind and we address the whole suite of measures that families want. This Government has a commitment to funding and it is my job to ensure I see delivery for families on the ground.

I thank the Senator for her question.

Forestry Sector

I welcome Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, to the House.

I warmly welcome Minister of State, Senator Hackett to the House. She is a frequent visitor and will be very much aware of the issue and challenges of the Commencement matter that I have tabled.

I live in a part of west Clare where there is a significant amount of forestry. The west Clare municipal district goes from the Burren down to Kilrush and there is much forestry in that area. There is also much forestry that is ready to be cut over the next couple of years.

The problem is when Coillte, for example, goes in and fells trees, unfortunately the roads, which are largely built on bog, are not able to handle the heavy goods vehicles that are transporting the timber. This has caused a major problem for people who live in the area, such as farmers and families who use the roads and the local authority. The issue is that the local authority could have resurfaced one of these roads. Coillte is then granted a licence to proceed to do its tree felling and to, essentially, wreck the road. There is no comeback for the local authority, whatsoever, in terms of compensation.

There are examples in Mayo where Coillte came in to the local council chamber and gave commitments in a specific area. That was because a councillor just kept highlighting the issue. Something similar happened in Kerry. Really and truly, we cannot have ad hoc solutions such as that. We need a proper plan to deal the reconstruction of these roads post-felling.

I am proposing that if and when a licence is being issued to Coillte or any other party to fell trees, there would be a condition built into that licence for a before-and-after road condition survey to be carried out and there would be an agreement beforehand on the condition the road is in before the tree felling starts and on what condition it should be in when it finishes. To ensure that what exists now will exist after felling, there must be a commitment of funding, compensation or whatever word one wishes to use, and that commitment must be there in black and white. Perhaps the compensation could be lodged in an account and if the road is only in need of X amount of the money when the post-felling survey is done, that is all that would be used and the rest would be returned to the forestry operator.

There is an environmental issue here as well. We must ensure there are no difficulties. These State agencies and private companies have to work in tandem. We must ensure that everybody knows what is happening, what the protocols are and what is required of them, so that when Coillte and other operators are budgeting for the felling of trees they know they must build a compensation package into their budgets to restore the roads to the standard that existed before the exercise began. It is a very reasonable proposal. It came from the engineers at municipal district level in Clare County Council. It would solve a lot of problems and would ensure that the local authority funding provided for roads is used for the roads for which it is needed, not roads that are destroyed as a result of tree felling.

I thank Senator Conway for bringing forward this Commencement matter and giving me the opportunity to discuss some of the current arrangements relating to forest licensing and timber transport. Forestry plays a very important role in our rural economy and in climate change mitigation efforts and supports thousands of local rural jobs, directly and indirectly. Following recent improvements made to the forest licensing system, my Department issued 4,050 forestry licences last year, a 56% increase on 2020.

The increased supply of licences to the industry over the past 12 months has allowed processors to rebuild their inventories, putting them in a much better position to respond to fluctuating demand from customers and to build confidence about the future. We have worked hard to enable this. During 2020 and 2021, my Department undertook significant and difficult work to incorporate complex ecological, appropriate assessment and public consultation requirements into the current licensing system. With regard to roads, the Department is not seeking to involve detailed public road management issues within the current felling licensing processes. There are a number of safeguards and measures in place to protect the public road network, and good communications, planning and management are central to implementing these.

Currently, all applications involving clear-fell are referred directly to the relevant local authority for comment. Where felling licences are issued, once a licensee or the licensee's haulier has accessed the public road network, the safe use and prevention of damage to the road are seen as matters exclusively for the local roads authority, the county council, An Garda Síochána, and the licensee or the licensee's haulier. All this is guided by a publication entitled "A Good Practice Guide, Managing Timber Transport" and the road haulage of round timber code of practice 2017. These guides were prepared by the forest industry transport group, which included representatives from the stakeholders in timber transport, including the local authorities. The guides propose a preventative approach to many issues of concern. Adherence to the guides will generate solutions based on good communications, planning and management; optimum vehicle selection and-or procurement; and compliance with legislation and guidelines. My Department supports further practical measures aimed at protecting the public road network, including the provision of support for variable tyre pressure systems on timber transport vehicles and the use of optimal routing technology by operators.

Additional consultation and referrals with local authorities are provided for in the development of new forest roads and entrances. Following the introduction of the Forestry (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, S.I. No. 39 of 2020, my Department now acts as the consent authority for applications for forest road works licences, where the forest road provides access to a public road other than a national road or there is material widening of an existing entrance. These amendment regulations are on foot of the commencement of section 8 of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018. Forest road projects that provide access to a national road still require planning permission from the relevant roads authority. For other road types, a mandatory standardised consultation process with the relevant roads authority is implemented.

To summarise, there is a strong need to ensure that the new requirements for consultation are implemented properly by all parties. Sufficient safeguards and measures exist to protect the public road network, and all stakeholders need to focus on the implementation of these to ensure that timber transport can be conducted sustainably on and off our public roads.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. Frankly, however, I am disappointed that it is not stronger. I believe this is a problem. While proper communication, safeguards and so forth work in many places, there are areas where they do not work. Where is the penalty or the consequences when there is no proper communication? Are there situations where these companies are fined if they do not comply? What are the safeguards? What is the auditing of these organisations? Are they spot-checked? Are the local authorities communicated with post the tree felling to see if they are satisfied with the level of communication? I am told that certainly in parts of Clare the communication is practically non-existent and that the local authority executive and engineers have to chase it. They get word that this is happening and will not be told. There is no commencement date and they are chasing or essentially fire fighting, using money that should be used for local road improvement schemes, other local community roads, improving footpaths, disabled access, improving car parking and so forth. Unfortunately, too often too much money is spent cleaning up after these companies when they have completed their tree felling.

I accept the Senator's concerns. In parts of my constituency, roads are founded on peat as well and it is a problem for any transport, not just timber transport but also agricultural transport and movements. However, the management of public roads is outside the remit of my Department. We try to operate the licence consent and grant schemes and to improve the communication with the public roads networks and the roads authorities. Perhaps there is scope to explore how that communication is working - whether there is feedback, whether the local authorities are responding in an appropriate way and whether there is communication between the hauliers and the local authorities - but they should certainly be trying to adhere to the advice that comes with the code of practice relating to managing and moving timber. To be honest, we are going to have more movement of timber in the next decade and it is something that needs consideration.

It might be necessary to put those guidelines into primary legislation.

Perhaps that is worth considering.

Information and Communications Technology

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to the House.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, for coming before the House to take this matter. He is aware we are in the middle of a period of radical technological transformation, where we are seeing a convergence of a range of new technologies from artificial intelligence to blockchain to 6G and the Internet of things. Today I want to talk about the metaverse, an augmented and virtual reality, and the extent to which the State is prepared to operate in such a sector.

As there always is with new technologies and opportunities, there are disputes about the value of the market and what will happen in that space. Bloomberg, for instance, estimates the market will be worth approximately $800 billion by 2024. Facebook has rebranded as Meta, and it has already committed $10 billion to the project, including the hiring of 10,000 workers for its European operations. Mr. Bill Gates last December predicted most meetings within two to three years will take place in the metaverse. We have gone from Zoom to appreciating a few meetings as we get back but this will be transformational.

To give a picture of what we will see happening, we will have immersive shopping experiences. Rather than Members necessarily having to go to stores on the main street, they may be able to put on augmented and virtual reality devices to carry out shopping. In education, learning will be done in that way so if we want to learn about the events of 1922, we will be able to put on a headset and immerse ourselves in the experience. I even suggest that at some point in the future, we could hear Commencement Matters where my avatar in a virtual parliament could pose questions to the Minister of State's avatar. That might cause a few frights around this House where, during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was an insistence on Members being on the parliamentary campus. I am not sure how such people might react to this.

Some people might think this is far-fetched but much of this is happening. In the gaming world, Minecraft has a 140 million monthly active users. The biggest gig in the world last year, when we were pleading to keep theatre and arts venues open, had 12 million people on Fortnite at the same time. Seoul has already committed as a city government to operate in the metaverse as part of South Korea's digital new deal. In November, it announced that a variety of its public services and cultural events will move to the metaverse. We have seen the rise of crypto assets and non-fungible tokens. The key for Ireland is a need to strategically respond to some of these.

I welcome the Government's digital strategy that was published yesterday, although there is no mention of the metaverse in it and there is no real mention of augmented and virtual reality. There is much positive stuff nonetheless. It is key for us to see a whole-of-government approach in this area. I want to see us exploring how this will happen. The Government's digital strategy talks about nurturing digital start-ups and we need to see how we can support start-ups and existing companies that may want to do business within the metaverse.

We must address a series of matters around regulation and these are similar to challenges we are facing in other aspects of technology. These concern questions of privacy and cybercrime, and there has already been a case of sexual harassment in the metaverse. We must look at the potential impact on social engagement as we do not want people behind screens and headsets all the time. We must be able to interact on a one-to-one basis. We will need upskilling and reskilling.

We must be ambitious. Our strategy in dealing with new technologies must be about looking at where we will be in 2030 and 2040. At times I wonder if the Government is underestimating the speed of change we are experiencing in technology and the scale of the challenge and opportunity ahead of us.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this topic today and giving us the opportunity to debate it in the House. He has correctly said that the digital world is growing and is very much a part of our everyday lives. It is important that the Government and all of us as legislators are responsive and, crucially, future-proof our laws, society and economy to keep pace with future developments as they happen.

The metaverse is still a relatively new concept in its early stages of development. The full gamut of opportunities, challenges and risks that it is likely to present are still emerging. We can only begin to identify the range and type of measures and regulations that may be needed at this stage. That said, when it comes to seizing the opportunities of digital developments and the mainstreaming of disruptive technologies, we are working on a number of fronts which I believe will also be relevant to the metaverse.

Our new national digital strategy, alluded to by the Senator, is entitled Harnessing Digital: The Digital Ireland Framework and was published yesterday. It is the Government's vision for Ireland as a digital leader at the heart of European and global digital developments. The strategy recognises the importance of measures such as skills policies and infrastructure. These will be vital if Irish enterprise is to seize the opportunities of digitalisation overall, including any that the metaverse will open.

Another important aspect is likely to be setting standards, both within the EU and for the world, to ensure products made here can compete internationally across all realms as well as the metaverse. When it comes to regulation, many of the rules we are devising now have been shaped with future-proofing in mind. For example, the Digital Markets Act prohibits certain behaviours by large gatekeepers that can be added to or reduced if necessary. Similarly, the Digital Services Act establishes a liability regime for providers of digital services, which has stood the test of time and furthermore obliges very large platforms to identify and mitigate risks. Where new risks are created by the metaverse or other virtual realities, they will still need to comply with those provisions.

Of course, the specifics of the metaverse are likely to raise a variety of other issues. Cryptocurrencies, privacy, safety, competition in the market and content moderation are just some of those. Our approach to any new regulation in those areas will be the same as it has been to other digital laws; we will seek rules that are balanced and proportionate, take an ethical approach, promote fair competition and foster innovation.

I hope that will be the case, although the evidence to date suggests it will not. Yesterday I spoke about the approach of the Central Bank, for example, to fintech and financial services companies. We saw the decision by Revolut to move its operations to Lithuania.

Many fintech companies do not believe that the regulatory sandbox that is required to allow these companies to start is being pursued here. There are many problems with cryptocurrencies but we are moving towards the era of digital currencies. There is a clear decision on the part of the European Central Bank, ECB, that we are moving into a digital euro. I worry that we are not availing of all of the opportunities that are presented. How are we going to ensure that our small enterprises are going to be able to compete in the metaverse? Will we be able to seek those 10,000 jobs for Ireland that Meta or Facebook are going to create? I have a general concern that in many areas of technology we spend our time trying to catch up in the area of regulation, rather than trying to look at what is coming down the line and avail of the opportunities while facing up to the challenges.

Senator Byrne is right when he says it is clear that we need to remain watchful on the regulatory front. The Government is committed to regulation that addresses the issues technology has posed in a coherent way and takes the interests of users and providers into account for a balanced result. Yesterday we published our national digital strategy. We have committed to a digitalisation fund of €75 million to help enterprises. Some enterprises are not even digitally literate at the moment. There is a way to go to bring them to the standard they need to reach in the current market. There are also other enterprises which are much further advanced. It is important that we take guidance and work with those enterprises to ensure that our regulation is responsive to their needs and protects the users. In that context, as part of our artificial intelligence strategy, we have committed to establishing a digital enterprise forum which will bring leaders in that field together on a quarterly basis to advise the Government on the policy required to support job creation in this area. I welcome any suggestions Members may have in that area. It is an area that offers significant opportunities and we must seize those opportunities, and work collectively to ensure we do so.

Sitting suspended at 11.22 a.m. and resumed at 11.33 a.m.
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