The Cabinet agreed to set up an inter-departmental committee to establish the full facts about the laundries and the state’s involvement with them.
The religious institutions that ran the laundries are to be asked to release all records on residents past and present.
It comes after demands by the UN Committee Against Torture for an inquiry and a long-running justice campaign by female survivors.
The move falls short of a full state inquiry but has been classified as a “first step” by the Government.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Equality Minister Kathleen Lynch have agreed to meet the religious congregations involved and the groups representing the women mistreated in the laundries run by nuns.
Mr Shatter wants the committee to lay the groundwork for “a restorative and reconciliation process”.
The committee will be chaired by an independent person and will include civil servants from the departments of Justice, Health, Education, Environment and Children. It will be asked to produce a progress report to the Cabinet within three months of being set up. The committee chairperson is expected to be appointed within 10 days.
Four religious congregations that ran the Magdalene houses have agreed to help achieve justice for thousands of women who were forced to work there.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Religious Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy and the Good Shepherd Sisters last week said in a statement that the workhouses were a “dark story of Irish society”.
The UN panel’s report also recommended that the Government “in appropriate cases, prosecute and punish the perpetrators” in abuse cases.
There have been claims that judges automatically consigned women convicted of petty crimes to work in the system that also served as asylums for pregnant single women and others.
Research by support group Justice for Magdalenes shows the courts sent women to institutions “on probation” and “on remand” and the Department of Health paid capitation grants for “problem girls” sent there up to the 1980s.
The research also highlights how at no time did the state license, regulate or inspect the laundries.
Justice for Magdalenes last night welcomed the setting up of the committee. It said: “Much work remains to be done, however, and JFM looks forward to working with both the state and the religious congregations in the coming weeks and months to bring about a prompt and timely resolution to this ‘restorative and reconciliation process’.”
But the group noted with regret that the Government was unwilling to issue an apology to women as a first step.
Many survivors were ageing and elderly and the group said that for this reason the Church and state should consider offering an apology immediately.