Thursday, 24 January 2019

Questions (14)

Brian Stanley


14. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if consideration has been given to the expenditure of the licence fee by RTÉ; and if legislative change has been considered in order to establish a greater level of accountability in the expenditure of the licence fee. (details supplied) [3357/19]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Communications)

Has any consideration being given to the expenditure of the TV licence fee by RTÉ and have legislative changes been considered to establish a greater level of accountability in that regard? It is a substantial sum of money. Looking at costs, €3 million is expended in RTÉ every year in paying the wages of the ten leading presenters.

The governance and reporting structures in respect of the expenditure of the licence fee by RTÉ are set out in the 2009 Broadcasting Act. It places an extensive range of reporting requirements on RTÉ in relation to its activities and expenditure. As well as oversight by my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, RTÉ is subject to regulation by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. RTÉ is audited separately and independently by externally appointed auditors, KPMG.

As part of its annual reporting process, RTÉ submits a statement on the use of public moneys paid to it. A statement on total revenue and costs derived in that financial year, distinguishing between moneys received or expended on activities related to the delivery of its public service objects and activities related to its commercial opportunities, is also provided.

The BAI also has significant regulatory responsibility in relation to RTÉ, requiring each year a statement on performance commitments and a review of the extent to which previous commitments have been met. The commitments include such items as maintaining audience reach; growing online and the RTÉ Player weekly reach; developing and opening RTÉ archives; implementing a diversity strategy and action plan; meeting news and current affairs targets; providing a broad range of content and services for children; making content accessible to the widest possible audience across different devices and platforms; and supporting the Irish independent production sector through commissioning radio and television programmes.

BAI also conducts a review of RTÉ’s strategic plan every five years.

I note the response of the Minister and his reference to the BAI and the fact that there is an external audit. The shareholder on behalf of the taxpayer and the householder is the Minister. In 2017 RTÉ looked for the licence fee to rise to €175 because, as we know, it was in significant financial difficulty at the time. Certain measures were taken to address that issue. I am asking what conversations took place between the Minister and the director general of RTÉ. Some of the costs at the station seem to be excessive. We are fully in favour of good public service broadcasting and funding it, but if one looks at wages alone, one will see figures of €495,000, €400,000 and €389,000, which are substantial sums for a station that is serving the population of the whole island of 6,500,000, which is roughly half that of London. The BBC, for example, proposed the introduction of a cap on pay.

The Deputy will have another opportunity to speak.

The position is that RTÉ is independent in many of these operations. They are not day-to-day matters with which the Minister deals. Notwithstanding this, RTÉ states the latest figures demonstrate a reduction of 32% compared to fees earned in 2008. I understand the director general has indicated an intention to see further reductions in the fees paid to top performers, but that is an operational matter for the company. It will respond that some of the top performers are key in generating advertising revenue and that from its point of view they create important access to audiences and commercial revenue. However, there is a balance that it has to strike, but we must recognise that it is part of the day-to-day operations of the company.

On the question of how money is spent in RTÉ, I am sure the Minister has conversations on an annual basis with the director general. I understand he cannot go in every day of the week and demand this, that and the other be done. However, this issue needs to be monitored. The Minister needs to do this on behalf of householders.

On the licence fee, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment made various proposals and set out a course for the improved collection of the licence fee. We know that there is a significant gap; in the region of €40 million a year is not being collected. Has the Minister any update on the matter?

On introducing a cap on wages, the Minister has said the director general is seeking to reduce costs, which is welcome. Has the director general indicated to the Minister that there is talk of a cap on wages similar to that being considered by the BBC?

First, I recognise what the Deputy is saying in that there is concern and public comment on the very high wages paid to individual broadcasters. It is something RTÉ has also recognised. It has indicated its record in bringing down salary levels and its intention to see it occur further. I will certainly raise the concerns of the Deputy when I meet RTÉ. There is a balance to be struck.

On the collection of the licence fee and the level of efficiency achieved in stamping out non-compliance, there is a cross-government report being produced which is due to be presented in the first quarter of the year. I am looking forward to receiving it as it will look at the effectiveness of the system in place.

Questions Nos. 15 and 16 replied to with Written Answers.