Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Questions (10)

Brian Stanley

Question:

10. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if alternative options such as those outlined at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment in regard to the collection of the licence fee for RTÉ have been considered. [41194/18]

View answer

Oral answers (35 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I ask the Minister whether there are alternative options, such as those put forward by the Oireachtas committee or by me, for the collection of television licence fees. There is a problem with the funding of public sector broadcasting and we need to address it. There seems to be some inertia in the process at this point.

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 television licence fee collection. The proposed amendments were considered under pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment and I received the committee's report on 8 March. The Bill is currently being drafted by the Parliamentary Counsel and is included as a priority on the Government's draft legislative programme.

As the Deputy is also aware, I requested the committee to examine the longer-term issue of the future funding of public service media and the committee published its report at the end of November 2017. Following consideration of the recommendations made in that report, Government approval was received in July 2018 to establish a working group on the future funding of public service broadcasting.  The group is chaired by an assistant secretary from my Department and comprises senior officials from the Departments of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government, as well as the Office of the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The report of the joint committee on the future funding of public service broadcasting will form an important input into the work of the group. The working group will examine options for the future funding of public service broadcasting and collection of the television licence fee that include collection by the Revenue Commissioners, tendering for licence fee collection, the replacement of the fee with a broadcasting charge or a variation. The group will also examine related issues such as more equitable contribution from the business sector through the introduction of different rates or categories, for example, for bookies or the Dáil itself. The impact of the new arrangements on the current licence fee collection mechanism also will be examined, as will any legislative, administrative or resource changes required to implement recommendations. The group will also look at the likely timeline for transition to any new arrangement and a communications strategy to inform stakeholders of planned changes.

The working group held its first meeting on 20 September and has agreed a programme of work to progress consideration of all of the issues set out above. It is intended that the group will report back to me in the first quarter of 2019 and I will revert to Government at that stage.

In the meantime, there will be no change to the existing television licence fee arrangements and An Post continues to work as the issuing agent for television licences in accordance with section 145 of the Broadcasting Act 2009.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, has recommended that €30 million of taxpayers' money be given to RTÉ. At the same time there is an evasion rate of between 14% and 15%, with approximately €40 million that needs to be gathered up. I do not want to see an increase in the TV licence fee, and the party I represent certainly does not. People are facing enough in terms of rises in the cost of living. This needs to be addressed. I am concerned that the Oireachtas committee went through the long process of putting a report in place. The committee had many witnesses appear before it and the report is in place. We disagree with the privatisation of the collection of the licence fee. Consider what happened in this regard in Britain with the BBC facing legal actions because they used private companies. I would argue strongly that the collection of the licence fee should be retained with An Post. The main recommendation of the Oireachtas committee was to hand the collection of the fee over to Revenue. It is noted in the report that we disagreed with that recommendation, but we proposed to put in place a scheme to pay at the point of purchase or registration. This process works in other countries and is very easy to collect the fee because everybody is in the net. The minute a person buys a television set or connects to a service or a platform then he or she is in the net and is in the database.

If a person is in the database then he or she must have a licence. It is easy then to leave the collection with An Post.

This needs to be cracked because that €40 million in uncollected licence fees needs to be gathered up.

I thank Deputy Stanley for his co-operation.

I agree with Deputy Stanley that the €40 million needs to be gathered up. We, as a result, should be able to look at and consider a reduction in the TV licence fee, rather than an increase.

With regard to the specific issue raised by Deputy Stanley at the mid-term review of the Estimates on 2 October, I have referred it to the working group for its consideration. I understand that under the Broadcast and Wireless Telegraphy Act 1998 individuals were required to register their details at the point of purchase of a television. These details were then forwarded for inspection regarding the purchase of a TV licence. This provision was repealed in the Broadcasting Act 2009 due to the burden it placed on traders and the poor level of information that was actually recorded on it. Now we could have a situation where many of those sales would be moved online, outside of this jurisdiction, where Ireland would lose out on VAT and taxation, and the lack of collection of that data.

I will take Deputy Stanley now, and I know that Deputy Timmy Dooley also wants to comment.

The situation here is blurring the lines. If a person buys a TV set, he or she must purchase it. There will always be exceptions such as those who go outside the State to purchase a TV set, but people must also connect to a service. There is a delay in taking action on this matter. There is no doubt that the funding is needed.

I also wish to discuss the pay structure in RTÉ. I am aware that it is a personnel matter - I will not use the term "human resources" because I will not reduce humans to being resources. In RTÉ it is a personnel and management issue, but the Minister is the shareholder on behalf of the taxpayer. Members have raised the issue in the past of five presenters receiving close to €2 million in fees. This needs to be addressed.

With regard to funding, when an individual accesses a broadcasting platform, be it hooked up to a cable or a satellite signal from Sky or another provider, the person enters a database. Whatever happened in 2009, we have moved on since then and technology has advanced.

There is a database for the local property tax and a database for dog licenses and so on. We should also be able to do it for TV licences. We should be able to keep the TV licence fee low to spread the cost and not incur extra cost for low and middle income households.

I ask Deputy Dooley to be brief as we are very limited on time.

Will the Minister confirm the implications of the budget for the State broadcaster? I understand that some €5 million has been set aside from the social welfare budget to cover the free TV licence, and some other support. Perhaps the Minister could alert the House to that.

Perhaps the Minister will stop giving people to believe that the licence fee can be cut if everybody pays. The BAI has taken the unprecedented position of outlining that there is a massive funding shortfall in RTÉ. It needs all of the €40 million that is uncollected, and more, just to take on the challenges from the digital platforms-----

Digital platforms are running riot and the Minister has not put in place a digital safety commissioner-----

-----and the Minister is not in a position, in my view and in the view of most people who have looked at this issue, to reduce the licence fee even if he collected all of that €40 million.

Can I just ask a question on the same issue?

On the same issue as the other Deputies.

I will be brief.

On a point of order, we are on Parliamentary Question No. 10 in the name of Deputy Brian Stanley. I have no problem with Deputies Eamon Ryan or Dooley-----

-----or anybody else asking questions, but the system is that one submits the questions so many days in advance and they are drawn out in a lottery in the order in which they came in, and if one wants to ask the questions they must be tabled as written questions. On a point of order I have never seen this happening before.

I will chair the meeting and I have every right to allow Deputies-----

But this has not happened before-----

Sorry. I have listened to you. I have every right to allow Deputies to come in and make a contribution. I am chairing the meeting. I have been more than fair to you. You have abused your time every time today and I let you away with it. I invite Deputy Eamon Ryan and I ask that he be brief.

I just have a supplementary question. Will the Minister confirm today whether he intends to give an additional allocation of €9 million to RTÉ to partly plug the gap? If so, why and what is the mechanism for doing that?

I will answer Deputy Stanley's question first. The Deputy is correct that most people who buy a television subsequently connect to a service. This was a question I put to my own officials after I was appointed as Minister and if we could get access to that database. I understand that my predecessors had sought access to that database and were not able to access it. I am open to correction on this, but I suspect that the general data protection regulation, GDPR, has made it even more difficult rather than easier.

When a person buys a car, for example, they will have to register-----

Please allow the Minister to finish without interruption.

They are two separate questions. First, the system for registration at the point of purchase was in place and for whatever reason - I do not know - it did not work. As I have said, I have asked that the Deputy's suggestion would be considered by the working group. Deputy Stanley is correct, and he is right that technology has changed since then. We have Eircode postcodes today, for example, that are far more accurate. The other aspect is that people do connect to a service and the question arises as to why we cannot get access to that. Those people are availing of public service broadcasting also and should have to pay for it, if they are not already. The advice I have received following my appointment as the Minister was that we could not get access to that database, and that my predecessors had sought that access. I suspect the GDPR would actually make it more difficult today.