Wednesday, 2 May 2012
Television Licence Fee
Question 11: To ask the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources if he has advanced his proposals to replace the TV licence fee with a broadcasting charge levied on all households; if he will guarantee that such a charge will be Exchequer neutral; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21919/12]
Question 30: To ask the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the position regarding the proposal to replace the TV licence with a content licence and if he will indicate to which appliances the content licence would apply and the way in which the revenue from the content licence would be allocated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21711/12]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 30 together.
The programme for Government commits to examining the role and collection of the television licence fee in light of the existing and projected convergence of technologies and to 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 or services. In line with this commitment, my Department is involved in the ongoing analysis and policy development work necessary in advance of the implementation of any new charge of this nature.
Although subject to a degree of evasion, the existing television licence fee system has provided a stable funding base for our 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 achieve their public service objectives 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, which are firmly grounded in legislation passed by this House, and the criteria set for the funding of content through the Sound and Vision scheme, the production of quality indigenous programming and minority interest programming is strongly promoted.
Whatever the system of funding, the rationale for providing it 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. It is also important that any new system of funding should recognise the reality of new mechanisms to access such content and services and their pervasiveness in today's society. Publicly funded public service broadcasting services and content are now available on an ever-increasing range of platforms and devices, including radio, television, smartphones, personal computers, laptops and many other devices. In fact, access is not dependent on the ownership of a device.
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. This includes identifying the most appropriate method for collecting the charge and the manner in which issues such as exemptions and enforcement should be dealt with. In this regard, my Department is considering proposals to engage independent consultants to assist in progressing this work over the coming year. At this point, however, I can state that the charge will be device-independent, will replace the current licence fee and that all households and businesses will be subject to it, except for those that are specifically exempted. The issue of exemptions will be given detailed consideration when the type of model to be developed is agreed. That said, it is my expectation that the current exemptions in regard to pensioners and those entitled to the household benefit package will continue to apply.
On the question of the charge being Exchequer neutral, a large proportion of TG4's funding is Exchequer-based, with the remainder coming mainly from licence fee revenues and some commercial revenue. No decision has been made to alter this position.
However, it is a new charge to a person who has not had to pay it to date but may now fall into the eligible category. The Minister might have been gilding the lily a little in this regard. Is it his intention to collect more revenue under the broadcasting charge than is the case by way of the television licence fee? Has he any plan or proposal to deal with the allocation of that funding? As it stands, RTE receives 92% of licence fee revenue, with the remainder disbursed in various directions, including to TG4 and the Sound and Vision fund. There is a case to be made that some of the independent broadcasters merit a greater share of the funds, which is something the Government should consider.
The broadcasting charge will be a replacement for the television licence fee, not a new charge. When the Deputy says it will amount to a new charge for some people, that is true in so far as it refers to those who are cheating. The extent of evasion is currently of the order of €25 million. On the question of whether I hope to raise more revenue under the new system, that depends on what impact we can make on that €25 million, that is, how much of it we can bring back into the fold.
Anybody already paying the television licence fee has nothing to fear. If we do manage to bring in additional revenue, we might even be able to decrease the charge. I am sure that would be applauded by Members on the benches opposite.
I understand some 7.5% of licence fee revenue goes to the Sound and Vision fund and some €10 million to TG4. I acknowledge that some of the independent broadcasters provide important public service content. During yesterday's Topical Issue debate I noted that RTE is projecting a bottom line deficit for the end of the year of some €50 million. That is an enormous sum and is clearly not sustainable. The legal impositions on RTE in terms of aspiring to deliver a quality public broadcasting service are severe. In addition, there are serious challenges confronting it as a consequence of the collapse of advertising and the level of evasion of the television licence fee. We are proceeding with our review, but the process is more complicated than one might imagine. When the day comes that we know exactly how many houses there are in this country and where they are located, it will be a major breakthrough. We are working on that. When we know exactly how many houses there are in the State, and where they are, it will be a major breakthrough.