Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Questions (21)

Timmy Dooley


21. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he is satisfied with the manner in which Ireland's public broadcasting sector is funded; his plans for changes to the licence fee collection system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7722/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

Will the Minister outline whether he is satisfied with the manner in which Ireland's public service broadcasting sector is funded and whether he has managed to advance in any way the proposed changes to the licence fee collection system?

RTÉ is dual funded through a proportion of television licence fee receipts and the commercial revenue it generates. TG4 is funded by way of a combination of direct Exchequer grant-in-aid, television licence fee receipts and commercial revenue. The broadcasting sector continues to face very serious commercial, structural and market challenges, including, in recent years, a substantial fall in advertising revenues of over 40%. For example, RTÉ now earns less in commercial income than it did in 2008.

RTÉ has responded to this contraction in revenue by cutting operational costs and implementing major organisational restructuring. Despite these measures, in 2016, RTÉ had a deficit of €19.7 million. RTÉ remains in a very difficult financial position and further deficits are predicted. TG4 also posted a small deficit for this period, and has done so for several years.

I am very much aware of the challenges that face the existing TV licence system, including the current level of evasion which is estimated to be 14.6%. While the rate has fallen from 15.3% at the end of 2013, it is still very high and equates to a loss of €40 million annually to public service broadcasting.

To address this issue, my Department has been working with An Post and RTÉ on an ongoing basis to ensure that the TV licence collection system is working as effectively as possible. Measures such as marketing campaigns, more evening and weekend inspection and appointment of additional temporary inspectors are just some of the initiatives that have been utilised to enhance sales and improve compliance rates.

As the Deputy will be aware, I obtained Government approval last year to draft a number of legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009, including amendments for the tendering of the TV licence fee collection. The proposed amendments are under pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and I look forward to receiving the committee's report on the matter.

As the Deputy is also aware, I requested the committee to examine the longer-term issue of the future funding of public service media. The committee published its report at the end of November 2017 and I intend to bring the matter to Government shortly. 

I do not think that the Minister has that much time. He has painted a picture of which all of us should be aware in terms of the situation in RTÉ, but there is also an issue, which I have raised several times and on which I have published legislation, namely, the public service broadcasting element of local and regional radio stations. They also deserve some funding from any increased revenues coming from a renewed television licence system. It is vitally important for the national broadcaster, for TG4, and for the independent local radio sector that the Government moves quickly on this to ensure that the level of funding being lost through evasion, which is up to €40 million, is addressed quickly. Germany has an evasion rate of around 2% while the UK has an evasion rate of about 4%, so comparing like with like, we are way off the scale. I would like to see the Minister address this matter as quickly as possible and bring forward proposals. He will not find any resistance from Fianna Fáil or from most people on this side of the House.

I am somewhat confused. The joint committee commenced pre-legislative scrutiny of the broadcasting (amendment) Bill on 11 July. It was attended by my Department officials, representatives from RTÉ, TG4 and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. A further hearing was held on 3 October with the platform operators, Virgin Media, Sky, Eir, Vodafone, and TV3 to discuss both the scheme of the Bill and retransmission fees. That report is awaited. To be fair to the committee, it did seek legal advice on retransmission fees as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny, but I am waiting. It is to deal specifically with the €40 million shortfall. I am willing to move quickly on it. If the committee would return its report to me, then we can start working on it. I thank Deputy Dooley for his support on this and urge colleagues to refer that report back to me as quickly as possible so we can move on it.

My recollection of that legislation is that it has no implications for the licence fee or restructuring the licence fee collection system. I am sure it does not. Neither does it address the issue of a broadcasting charge at a broader level. It deals with some minor issues and retransmission is thrown in. Retransmission is an important facet of RTÉ's future funding, but the core issue relates to the licence fee collection system or moving towards a broader method of collecting that charge. That is what the report did. The Minister has received that report relating to the work he had asked the committee to undertake. I believe it sets out the future and how we address the question into the future. The short-term measure must be addressed by a more enhanced licence fee collection system. The Bill has no implications in that regard.

The Bill I referred to the committee is the broadcasting (amendment) Bill. One of its provisions is to amend section 145 of the primary Act to deal with evasion. On the legal advice received from the Office of the Attorney General, it is clear that the current legislation does not allow me as Minister to appoint a television licence agent by way of public tender. The amendment to section 145 in the broadcasting (amendment) Bill, as currently before the committee, allows me to rectify that. There are also amendments to sections 33 and 123, specifically dealing with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, levy which would allow for the allocation of funding to the BAI from the television licence receipts to meet its operating expenses. That would allow the BAI to reduce, by a maximum of 50%, the annual cost of the BAI levy to independent broadcasters, all of whom have publicly welcomed this. My intention, and the discussion I have had with the BAI, is that it would remove altogether the registration and licence fee for the community broadcasters. There is also an amendment to section 154 of the broadcasting funding scheme to allow for a bursary scheme to be introduced to encourage quality journalism in local and community radio. That is the legislation which is before the committee. As soon as it comes back, I will expedite it.