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Thursday, 11 Jan 2007

Staff Obligations for the Public Service Broadcaster.

We will move on quickly, since we are behind time. I note that several observations and submissions were made regarding staff, accounts and audits. Perhaps Mr. Dooley and Ms Curtin might tell us whether they believe the Bill provides sufficient guidance on transparency and recruitment procedures at RTE and TG4. Should sections 3 and 4 be amended to add "and as agreed in collective agreements with recognised trade unions"? We were looking through certain parts of the submissions and wondering whether section 5 should be amended to add "circumstances outlined and agreed in collective agreements with recognised trade unions". Would Ms Curtin like to comment on that point?

Ms Mary Curtin

Yes. In recent years we in the trade union group and individual unions have negotiated agreements with RTE that have by and large been honoured by both sides. The result can be seen in our industrial relations. We have enjoyed an extremely good industrial relations climate. We would be worried if the phrase that we suggested was left out of the Bill. We would be concerned that at some stage the situation might develop in RTE where one or other side might not honour agreements, seek to recruit in their absence or refuse to negotiate future agreements. For that reason, we feel that if the phrase is inserted under the headings outlined, it will provide for an obligation in line with the current partnership ethos ensuring that the two sides work together to achieve good industrial relations in RTE. I ask that it be included.

Mr. Hayes raised a question regarding audits and accounts. There were several submissions from RTE regarding some of those areas. What specific clarifications are required under the proposed audits and accounts section of this Bill and what additional measures would ensure the desired transparency regarding RTE's total expenditure and the independent production account expenditure? I believe this was raised by Mr. Hickey of the SPI. Is he present?

Mr. Hayes

This is head No. 100.

Mr. Hayes

Our primary concern in that regard is technical. Essentially, we make the observation that if RTE is to be turned into a company, which is the intent behind this Bill, its account and audit requirements should be absolutely ad idem with all other companies. In seeking to provide additional clarification, the Bill, or the document before us, unintentionally intermingles the normal statutory obligations with very specific ones of a regulatory nature. Purely from a perspective of technical accounting, that is not a good idea, since they should be dealt with separately.

I am sure that it will be taken on board.

Mr. Hickey

Our only concern in this regard is to ensure that transparency and accountability be guaranteed regarding the cost of production and programmes produced inside RTE, as with independent television production, which has accounted for virtually every cent of expenditure. In that way, there will be a fair and level playing field for internal and independent producers competing for programming funds. At present, the RTE accounts do not detail the cost of programmes such as "The Late Late Show", "The Tubridy Show" or "Fair City", which is probably fairly expensive. There should be transparency and accountability, with a level playing field for the two.

That is fine. We have taken that point on board.

Does the production of the audited accounts not have to comply with standard audit procedures applicable across the board in the commercial and every other sector?

Mr. Hayes

We have gone well beyond that point. Unfortunately, the drafting of the sections intermingles regulatory and normal accounting standards. For example, it mentions cost-accounting principles and decisions by the Minister. When the auditors come to interpret that, they cannot do so by reference to generally accepted accounting principles, GAAP, or international financial reporting standards, IFRS, since those principles have not been enunciated anywhere. While I accept that they have been included for entirely genuine reasons, it could result in some very difficult situations.

Our view is that one should try to ensure that the reporting obligations imposed on RTE in the first instance are exactly the same as those imposed on any other public body. They should be objectively measurable and capable of being reported in exactly the same way. That is how it should be, and if one intends to include additional information requirements, that should be done separately.

That is the norm in such areas as telecommunications, where several companies compete, some of which have been defined as having a significant market presence. ComReg, the Competition Authority or some other regulatory body may get involved and prescribe certain requirements. Accounting separation, for example, is imposed in a regulatory situation. However, the company still produces all its information in exactly the same way as any other and it is all objectively measurable. As with all other companies, the information is produced separately.

Deputy O'Malley may ask a final question.

It appears from the discussion that took place that the current Audience Council is infinitely preferable to the proposed council. Am I correct?

Mr. Quinn

Yes, I agree with that point. The issues raised by the audience council are brought back to the RTE editorial board for discussion. The audience council then receives feedback on the issues. The council has its own report in RTE's annual report and its members meet regularly with the director general and the programmes sub-committee.

I thank everybody for their contribution. This session has run over time, but it was important to make these points. We will suspend for five minutes and when we resume, we will discuss the safeguards and guarantees for the Irish language, as well as the independence and remit of TG4. There will be a translation provided via headphones for anybody who requires it.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.25 a.m.