Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Ceisteanna - Questions

National Digital Strategy

4:15 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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3. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the consultation process on the digital strategy recently announced by his Department. [45623/18]

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department's digital strategy. [45639/18]

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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5. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the digital strategy of his Department. [46990/18]

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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6. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently announced consultation process in respect of the national digital strategy. [49144/18]

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Government is developing a new national digital strategy to help Ireland maximise the economic and societal benefits from digitalisation. This is a commitment in the Action Plan for Jobs 2018. The strategy is being led as a shared effort by the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the office of the chief information officer in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. An interdepartmental group, which includes representatives from all Departments, is also assisting the development of the strategy. This approach reflects the broad spread of policy areas impacted by digitalisation.

In July, the Government agreed a framework for the national digital strategy, which reflected preliminary consultations with civic society, business representatives, education providers and academics. A wider public consultation exercise to allow citizens to influence the development of the strategy started on Monday, 22 October, and closed last Friday, 23 November. This allowed people to submit their views online, by email or by post. More than 300 responses were received and the submissions are now being analysed. In parallel, there is ongoing consultation with stakeholders and experts to inform development of the strategy.

It is intended that the new national digital strategy will set out Ireland's vision and ambition in the fast-changing digital world as well as specific initiatives in areas such as eGovernment, enterprise policy, digital inclusion, access and regulation. Importantly, it will also position Ireland internationally and within the European Union, where we are active supporters of the digital Single Market.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. The Government announced its intention to produce another digital strategy in its Action Plan for Jobs in 2018. We are agreed it is meant to maximise the economic and societal benefits that arise from ongoing digitalisation. It is meant to be citizen focused and to set out how we are all meant to embrace digital advances and provide for a national discussion on how it will impact on the people of Ireland well into the future. Given recent reports, the strategy cannot be done quickly enough. It seems it has infiltrated all of our lives far quicker and deeper than anyone could have anticipated. Throughout the European Union, 66% of the labour force has basic digital skills whereas in Ireland it is 53%. A total of 50% of Ireland's labour force has above basic digital skills but in the European Union it is 63%. How will the Government address what is, essentially, a digital literacy gap? Is the Government assessing how job displacement will be catered for? Is the Government planning to diversify courses and target workers most at risk? Will these courses be available free of charge to workers?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Any digital strategy that is truly national must envisage access to high-speed broadband for every citizen wherever he or she lives. This is axiomatic. Clearly, there is a real difficulty for the vindication of true equality and there is a real danger of a digital divide. How does the Taoiseach propose to address this issue?

There is another issue, which is that one in six adults in this country is functionally illiterate. This will impact on people's ability to use new digital technologies. Before they even get into digital capacity being illiterate is an enormous impediment to accessing services online.

An enormous amount of work on eGovernment was done and I am glad to see the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is present. We looked at best practice in countries such as the Republic of Korea, where an enormous number of public services are accessible very readily, with a unique identifier for each citizen so they do not have to put in endless data each time they contact a local or national Government office or agency. Is it envisaged that we are making progress on facilitating ready access to all Government services online?

4:25 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Surely digital safety is a key component, if not the key component, of a new national digital strategy at a time when an increasing number of young people are accessing the Internet and social networking apps. Young people are accessing them not just in greater numbers but also at a younger age. The Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment recently discussed the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill, which was brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire. The Bill is supported by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, CyberSafeIreland and the Ombudsman for Children's office. Industry bodies have also stated that they are open to the concept. The Bill complements many of the objectives in the Minister for Justice and Equality's action plan for online safety. The previous Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment broadly supported the Bill as does the Chairman of the Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.

Does the Taoiseach support the establishment of such an office? Does he believe we need a regulator with powers and that such an office should be established as soon as possible? The Minister for Justice and Equality said last week that consideration is being given to the matter by a review group led by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and that he expects the group will report soon. Does the Taoiseach have an update on when we are likely to see such a report? Does he support the objective of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill, which provides for the establishment of a digital safety commission and commissioner to protect our young people?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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First, with regard to digital skills, we believe it involves a number of approaches. Obviously there is upskilling of people already in the workplace. That is important to ensure they can continue to have jobs into the future and that companies embrace the digital economy. That is done through a number of existing mechanisms. Sometimes it is fully funded by the Government and sometimes businesses have to make a contribution. A great deal of learning is happening in schools. Children in primary and secondary schools are getting a good digital education and I am impressed when I visit schools around the country to see the extent to which technology is being integrated into schools, particularly primary schools. Deputies will be aware that computer science is now an examination subject in the leaving certificate examination for the first time.

There is also the future jobs programme. Last week, we took the first steps in developing that programme, which anticipates the reality that the world of work will look very different in the next couple of decades. People will not have a job for life, and most people will have two or three different careers in the course of their lives. Many jobs that currently exist will not exist in the future and many jobs that we have not even imagined will exist. Changes such as automation, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and so forth will fundamentally change the world of work. Autonomous driving is one example. Between 10% and 16% of men in this country drive for a living in some way or other. If we replace buses, trains, taxis and trucks with autonomous vehicles we will have to find new jobs for the people who currently drive those vehicles. The future jobs programme is all about that.

In terms of encouraging greater use of online Government services, a healthy digital Government is fundamentally connected with the wider digital health of a country. We have made substantial progress in increased delivery of high quality online public services. For example, we have centralised portals for communications and services, gov.ie and MyGovId.ie. We also continue to work on improving the citizen experience and promoting the uptake of online activities. The national digital strategy will help to raise awareness and highlight the benefits of engaging with online Government services.

On the issue of the digital divide and digital engagement, increased digitalisation is going to change Ireland and the world with or without policy action. We cannot stem the tide but we can determine how to embrace digitalisation positively for the benefit of every citizen, business and community in Ireland. To this end we are working to develop a strategy that is collaborative and is developed in partnership with citizens and stakeholders. The public consultation is very important and that is why continuing engagement with stakeholders in all sectors of society will be a hallmark of the strategy's development. There will be a focus in the strategy on trust, society and inclusion. We are putting the well-being of citizens at the heart of the strategy. Digitalisation presents us not only with challenges but also profound opportunities. Digital Government services, for example, offer the chance of more equality and efficiency in how our public services are administered.

Regarding digital protection and digital safety, the general data protection regulation, GDPR, came into effect on 25 May last. We enacted the Data Protection Act 2018 which gives effect to limited areas of flexibility under GDPR before this date. Ireland is among a small group of member states to meet the deadline. Since GDPR came into effect the Data Protection Commissioner has seen a rise in data breach notifications, which are now obligatory. In addition, the Date Protection Commission is already seeing numerous major difficult cross-border complaints being transferred to it under the EU one-stop-shop model. There are several significant data protection cases before the Irish and European courts, as well as other cases that might end up before the courts. Whatever the outcome, the Government will continue to comply with GDPR as it evolves. Funding for the Data Protection Commission is €15.2 million for next year, which represents a 30% increase on the 2018 allocation and an eight-fold increase since 2014.

On the issue of a digital safety commissioner, many stakeholders have called for the establishment of such a commissioner. Last February the Government did not oppose the passing on Second Stage of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Private Members' Bill which seeks to establish the office of a digital safety commissioner. The Bill has been referred to the joint committee by the Oireachtas. The action plan for online safety covers a range of activities relevant to the proposed office of the digital safety commissioner, including education, awareness raising, communicating with the public, oversight and consultative structures. Action 18 of the plan commits the Government to working with the joint committee on the Bill in this regard and the Minister attended a meeting of the joint committee on 25 October last during detailed scrutiny of the Bill. At that meeting the Minister said that if the Oireachtas is to pass the legislation we must ensure we get it right and that it is robust, effective and meets the urgent public policy need to protect all online users, particularly children.

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has now requested legal advice from the Attorney General on the legal issues the Bill presents, most notably the lack of a definition of what "harmful digital communications" are and proposals in the Bill that would apply extra-territorially, which could be difficult. However, we are committed to working with the committee and the Deputy to resolve these deficiencies in the legislation.