I am pleased Senator O'Meara and Senator Finucane raised the question of the licence fee set out in the article in today's Irish Independent. I addressed one aspect of this issue when I was Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. I was pleased to be able to lower the bar for old age pensioners, irrespective of who lived in the house. In order to quality, one had to live alone. However, I decided to extend the scheme to people over the age of 70 rather than 75.
I read the article at approximately 7.30 a.m. and I was surprised. I immediately rang one of my officials and it transpired it had nothing to do with the free TV licence scheme. It related to an issue about which I was not aware until this morning. Apparently RTE traditionally paid the licence fee for pensioners who left its employment. If Senator O'Meara had remained in RTE, she might have got a free TV licence. It appears letters were issued in error to approximately 150 of 600 pensioners advising them that the scheme would end from March 2003. In other words, a new RTE pensioner would not get a free licence, but the existing ones would be retained. I asked RTE to publicly clarify the matter and I informed my successor in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Her Department received a considerable number of telephone calls on the issue. I am pleased to be able to clarify the matter.
In reply to Deputy Kelly, it was decided to consider the issue of a commercial licence in relation to the experience in other countries. Most, if not all, other European countries have a commercial licence. In Austria it is €215 for TV and €65 for radio, in the Czech Republic it is €26 for TV and €12 for radio, in Denmark €267, Finland €165, France €116, Germany €173 and Iceland €285. They all have a commercial TV licence. This is being considered in conjunction with RTE. It may be brought forward, depending on the workability of the proposal.
I agree with Senator O'Meara in regard to political involvement. I wanted to get away from the suggestion that RTE was always going cap in hand or that it was in the pocket of the Government. I did not think that was good for the political process or for RTE. It is one of the reasons the Government decided the licence fee should be increased annually, following independent valuation. We decided we would work with a formula which is used in many other areas whereby RTE would get the consumer price index increase, minus X, X to be determined on its performance in the previous year. In other words, RTE would get up to but no more than the CPI, but it could even get less than the CPI. It would be based on the recommendation by the independent body, the BAI, which would make a recommendation and, ultimately, the Government would act on the recommendation.
Apart from the annual licence fee increase, the CPI minus X, it was proposed that there would be a formal review every five years of the RTE licence fee and its funding. In other words, the process on which we embarked would roll-over every five years, but any increase would be independently evaluated conditional on its delivery of its commitments. My rationale in this regard was to take the issue out of the Government's realm.
On foreign news coverage, RTE foreign correspondents would, in effect, have had to go if the licence fee increase had not been granted. As part of its commitment to the licence fee increase, RTE has agreed to expand on the location of foreign reporting. That is one of the specific commitments with which it must comply.
Deputy Morgan raised the issue of home-produced programmes. It costs approximately €75,000 to €100,000 per hour to make a home-produced programme as opposed to €3,000 to €5,000 for a non-home-produced programme. There is a dramatic difference. If we did not give RTE the licence fee increase, it would have had to buy in foreign-produced programmes at a hugely reduced cost. It would have ended all RTE's home-produced programmes.
Someone referred to peak times, which has changed for the better, even since the licence fee increase. Between 6 p.m. and midnight tonight, RTE will carry the following home-produced programmes: "Six-One News", "News at Nine", "Eco Eye", an Irish documentary, "Fair City", "Prime Time", "Arts Lives", a documentary on Alan Simpson, "The View", an arts discussion, "News Summary" and "Oireachtas Report". On the morning of the Cabinet decision, I produced the paper indicating a large proportion of Irish-produced programmes on RTE 1 that evening.
Deputy Morgan raised the issue of people on low incomes. We decided to allow people to pay the licence fee on a monthly basis. My Government colleagues and I insisted that this should become part of the process.
In regard to DTT, all I can say is that we are considering the matter. The experience in the UK in regard to DTT has not been good. It is an expensive process but it is the way broadcasting is going. Either we are in it fully, or we are not in it at all. It is something we are considering in the context of a changing economic situation.