Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Priority Questions

Television Licence Fee

1:00 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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Question 3: To ask the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if he will elaborate on potential future changes to the public service broadcasting licence fee structure, particularly with reference to the introduction of a broadcasting charge; if he will make known figures relating to the use of online services which would fall under the definition of public service; if he will outline the way such figures might verifiably be used as part of any new funding system for the delivery of public service broadcasting, if possible; if he is considering differential rates in the new charge for domestic householders and commercial businesses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12634/12]

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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The programme for Government commits to examining the role and collection of the television licence fee in the light of existing and projected convergence of technologies and transforming the television licence into a household-based public broadcasting charge to be applied to all eligible households and applicable businesses, regardless of the device used to access content. In line with this commitment, my Department is examining both the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing model of television licence fee collection in the context of the changing technological environment. It is also examining the applicability to the situation in Ireland of various international models for the funding of public service broadcasting.

Although subject to evasion, the existing television licence fee system has provided a stable funding base for public service broadcasters. The rationale for providing State funding for public service broadcasting is to provide an independent and reliable income flow that allows these corporations to attain their public service objects, while ensuring they can maintain editorial independence. This is especially important in the context of news and current affairs.

The overall aim of public service broadcasting is to provide services and content which cater for all interests in society, while ensuring the varied elements of Irish culture and its intrinsic values are protected. Through the obligations placed on public service broadcasters and the criteria set for the funding of content through the sound and vision scheme, the production of quality indigenous programming and the production of minority interests can be assured. Whatever the system of funding, the rationale for providing funding will continue to apply and any changes that may be implemented on foot of the review must continue to provide a secure funding base for public service broadcasting and content, while also recognising the reality of new mechanisms to access such content and its pervasiveness in today's society.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The principle underlying the proposal for the introduction of a public broadcasting charge on eligible households and applicable businesses is that publicly funded public service broadcasting is a public good and, as such, of benefit to society in general.

Publicly funded public service broadcasting services and content are now available to everyone on an ever-increasing range of platforms and devices - radio, television, smartphone, personal computer, laptop and many other devices - and access is not dependent on ownership of a device. In short, everyone benefits from the availability of these services, regardless of how content is accessed or relayed to the public. Therefore, the cost should be borne by society as a whole.

The replacement of the existing funding system based on the collection of television licence fees with one based on the imposition of a device-independent charge on eligible households and businesses is a complex process and much of the detail has yet to be worked out. In this regard, I can confirm that my Department is in the initial stages of developing proposals to engage independent consultants to assist in progressing this work in the coming year. At this point, however, as the charge will be device independent, the issue raised by the Deputy regarding the use of data relating to online services is of no particular relevance to the funding system or the manner in which charges might be applied. The charge will replace the current licence fee and all households and businesses will be subject to the charge, except for those specifically exempted. I can confirm that the question of differentiation between the charges to be imposed on households and businesses will be one of the issues to be considered by my Department as part of this process. However, the details of the precise approach have yet to be determined.

On the issue of exemptions under any new system put in place, this will have to be given detailed consideration when the type of model to be developed is agreed. That said, it is my expectation that the current exemptions relating to pensioners and those entitled to the household benefits package will continue to apply.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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The programme for Government includes what the Minister has outlined. When is he likely to introduce enabling legislation? Is it likely to be this year? I refer to the scale of implementation of the charge. For example, people renew their television licences on a rolling basis. If a new charge were applied, would that be on an annualised basis?

I spoke on another occasion of consulting with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government about the use of a database. Is that the same database as the one used for the household charge? Section 14 of the relevant legislation allowed for the use of the database, or there was some discussion about the protocols with regard to the Data Protection Commissioner.

On previous occasions the Minister said the charge for the television licence might end up being less than it is at the moment. If that is the case, somebody else is coming into the mix. I understand people are viewing on different platforms and so on. Most companies, for example, will have a computer, but will not necessarily watch television. The charge the Minister is considering appears to capture businesses also. Will there be a differential in the charge for businesses and households, or does he envisage a single charge?

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I do not envisage that any decision will be finalised this year, for a number of reasons. High among these is the objective of successfully managing the transition from analogue to digital television services by RTE. That is a big project, and RTE has put something like €70 million into building the system and general preparation. The termination of analogue signals across Europe and the move to digital terrestrial television is high on the list of priorities, and I do not see that being interfered with this year.

Deputy Murphy wanted to know whether the television licence charge would be lower. This is a dangerous business. I answered a question about whether it could be less by saying it could, but I did not say it would. We have not reached that stage yet. What I did say was that any public service broadcast charge will be a replacement of the existing television licence. This is not an additional charge or tax or levy. If we improve the efficacy of the collection system to avoid the loss of up to €30 million, one never knows. I might well surprise Deputy Murphy, as the amount conceivably could be less.

With regard to the distinction between business and domestic viewers, there are many anomalies in the existing system, one of which is the fact that only one television licence is needed for a 500-bed hotel, but if one has three cottages occupied for two months a year on the west coast - or a caravan, if that is one's choice - one must have a television licence for each of them. There are issues such as this that need to be ironed out to be fair to consumers.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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It will be a new charge if somebody new has to pay it.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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Most of us value public service broadcasting, and I acknowledge that it needs to be funded. There is major pressure on public service broadcasting due to the limited amount of advertising and so on. How extensive will the review be? Will it be a total review of broadcasting, taking into account not only internal but also external competition and dealing with the survival of public service broadcasting in the face of this?

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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The Deputy is right; unfortunately, advertising is limited, and I regret to say there is no particular sign at the moment that it is increasing. There is competition, also, from online advertising for a share of the traditional advertising market. That is a problem for the industry. The answer to the Deputy's question is that it will be an extensive, root-and-branch review because of the phenomenal and accelerating developments in the broadcasting sector. Viewers no longer rely on accessing public service content on traditional televisions. They may now access it through a number of different devices, and they do access public service content, although they may be reluctant to admit it. It does require an extensive review. The Deputy mentioned competition outside the jurisdiction. Obviously, there is online competition, but we must also compete with high-quality public service broadcasters in the neighbouring island. We will examine the overall situation.