I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am very pleased to introduce this Bill because it is timely that we have a serious debate around broadcasting. There are major changes in the broadcasting arena and none of us need to be told the pace of that change. It is having an impact on the way in which people receive their media. There has been a significant move away from traditional linear television and radio towards consuming material from online services, which has had an impact on many of those who are seeking to provide linear broadcasting and newspaper media. This is a tough change and the environment has become very difficult. All Deputies have recognised this and we have had useful debates on the value of local media and the need to recognise its contribution to public service broadcasting.
The Bill is also an occasion for us to be able to recognise the importance of the public service provided by broadcasting in our community. It is, of course, primarily provided by the two major public service broadcasters, RTÉ and TG4, but it is also important to recognise the significance of local radio across the country in providing a forum for informed debate on the issues of our time, access to information about what is happening in the community and offering education opportunities and entertainment, all of which are important. While growing institutions such at Netflix provide high-quality levels of production, these platforms will not be interested in delivering the distinctive Irish content that people deserve to receive. It is important that we create within our broadcasting environment opportunities for new talent to emerge, Irish content to be created and innovation in the sector to be delivered.
The proposals in the Bill are starting the process of making significant changes. Some are related to issues that have been of concern around the levy in respect of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. The Bill provides that it will be part funded to a maximum of 50% from television licence receipts. It is intended that any consequent reductions in levy contributions would be applied across the board by the BAI in order that all broadcasters would benefit in equal proportion from the measure. It is proposed that doing this will provide scope to exempt smaller community radio stations from the levy altogether. The Bill allows the Minister to decide what percentage of the levy to fund from television licence receipts.
People will welcome other changes, such as the fact that the BAI will be able to accrue a level of working capital to meet its day-to-day expenses without the need to pursue costly and burdensome borrowing facilities. The BAI will be granted the authority to determine exemptions and deferrals from the levy depending on the qualifying income of individual broadcasters and the level of regulation they require. As the BAI is being given greater flexibility in regard to which broadcasters are covered by the levy and to what extent, there are significant improvements in that regard.
We are also introducing an important provision in the Bill, namely, granting bursaries to journalists in local or community radio stations. It is intended that approximately €500,000 will be made available by the BAI to support 20 bursaries each year, which will benefit emerging talent in rural communities seeking to support and maintain regional broadcasting services.
We have had a wider debate on the role of the sound and vision fund. At present, 7% of receipts are set aside by the BAI for the fund. There is a need to consider whether that should be changed and I would be open to legislation that would alter that. We need to provide scope for more creative content to become available regardless of where it comes from, and that is an important vehicle in terms of how we might proceed.
As the House knows, there has been considerable debate about the way in which the current licence fee is subject to considerable evasion. A cross-governmental working group was established by the previous Minister to assess this issue. Its report examined all of the various options, including collection. I accepted the recommendation of the working group on opening up the collection of television licence fees to public tender, and I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to give effect to this. Where that has been done in other jurisdictions it has considerably reduced the evasion level. The current evasion rate in Ireland is 12%, compared with 7% in other countries. That offers a considerable increase of 5% in collection rates, which would represent about €10 million in additional funding if executed effectively.
We also have committed to a new broadcasting charge that would be independent of the device used, but we need time, as recommended by the working group, to introduce that. A five-year period is proposed, during which time its workings will be developed. The working group identified a number of complexities in respect of introducing it immediately. While some people had suggested adding it to the local property tax, the base for that is different because the television licence fee is related to the occupier, rather than the owner of the premises.
We will need to keep this area under review. We can now start identifying how we can move to a broader definition than is the case for the current licence fee, because the system that has been in place for many years, which links it to the ownership of a television, as currently defined, is becoming out of date. It will take time to develop a new system and carry out the necessary consultation on that but I want to move much more rapidly and start to make changes in respect of the funds available to the BAI for onward distribution to RTÉ, TG4 and the sound and vision fund.
I am conscious that this is a challenging time for RTÉ in particular. We have seen the challenges it faces following a significant decline of, I understand, 33% in its commercial revenues since the mid-2000s. The situation has stabilised for a number of years but it is a challenge. It is hard to see how that trend could be reversed.
As the BAI has pointed out, the audience profile for many of our public service broadcasters is becoming challenging.
The age profile of the typical user is very high and usage of public service broadcast media declines as one moves down the age categories. RTÉ recognises the need to transform its service in order to access a greater audience share, particularly among the younger cohort. It is committed to developing its online presence, including its web player, and providing the services that allow the web player to be relevant and quickly consumed by younger users. That challenge will take time to overcome. RTÉ is working on a transformation plan which is of great importance if it is to continue to make the quality of contribution it has always made.
The BAI indicated that RTÉ required additional funding. In the budget last year and the previous year the Government was able to deliver improved funding to support RTÉ and TG4. The BAI set out proposals for the improvement of the latter organisation. It is important to recognise that the BAI has developed new metrics to evaluate the impact of public service broadcasters. They take account of a wider range of indicators of the broadcasters' impact and relevance, including penetration of key audiences, which is a very important test of the relevance of what is being produced.
Although the Bill is important in itself, it is also part of a continuing programme of reforms which we will need to introduce in the coming years to ensure the framework for the support of the public service broadcasting all Members recognise as being of significant importance is relevant and capable. I look forward to the debate on the Bill and considering proposals put forward by Oireachtas Members. We will seek to accommodate as much change as possible on Committee Stage.