Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Financial Challenges Facing RTÉ and its Revised Strategy 2020-2024: Statements (Resumed)


1:40 pm

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time. The most surprising thing about last week's announcement of the scale of the problems in RTÉ was that the Government was surprised at all. The station has posted seven annual deficits in the last decade. The broadcaster reportedly requested €55 million earlier this year, while the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, requested an additional €30 million in 2018. Anyone living in the real world - I accept many in the Government do not appear to be - can see the challenges encountered by media organisations in Ireland and all around the world. New players in this sphere like Netflix, Amazon and the deluge of free content available have flipped the traditional media landscape as we know it on its head.

Put simply, people consume media in new ways that were inconceivable a few years ago. The challenges faced by RTÉ are not unique. For the Government to spend all of last week blaming everything on RTÉ's failure to attract more advertising was either delusional or disingenuous. Last week the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, suggested RTÉ broadcast death notices as part of its remit as a public service station. If that is the Government's policy for saving the national broadcaster, I fear there is no hope at all for Government policy in the area.

The Government can add television licence fee reform to the growing pile of difficult problems it hopes will go away if it just ignores them, with homelessness and the health service. We have the highest rate of licence fee evasion in Europe, at more than €30 million. Reform of the licence fee alone would go a long way towards addressing many of the difficulties faced by RTÉ. It is especially galling, given that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment did all of the work for the Government with its recommendations in 2017. They included a broadening of the charge to capture households which were benefiting from public service broadcasting, irrespective of the technology used, and the introduction of re-transmission fees, for example. The report also called for greater use of moneys collected to promote all public service media, including local and community outlets and anyone engaged in public service journalism. The Government's decision, however, to kick reform five years down the road will ensure public service media will continue their steady decline. There might not be public service broadcasting, as we know it today, in five years' time. The Government should get on with reform now and stop wasting time. I would not support an increase in the licence fee because it would only punish the 85% of the population who already pay their licence fee and deserve a decent service.

None of this looks beyond the urgent need for serious reform, modernisation and cost cutting at RTÉ. The State broadcaster needs to do more to help itself and better serve the people who are paying for it. The plan unveiled by RTÉ must be closely examined. The potential for 200 job losses and pay cuts causes concern for many, as do the closure of the Limerick unit, the sale of the RTÉ Guide, the offloading of the orchestra and so on. I am pleased that representatives of RTÉ will appear before the communications committee in early December on foot of my request. More people watched one of Ireland's matches in the Rugby World Cup on the RTÉ website than on a television set. That is the new reality. At the same time, we also need to promote to audiences homegrown productions and talent. Screen Producers Ireland stated the level of content produced by Irish production companies in the past decade had halved. It is concerned this has had an impact on the sustainability and growth of the independent production sector. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has found that RTÉ and TG4 "continue to deliver value for Irish audiences" and that there is justification to support increased levels of funding through licence fee reform.

The Government needs to make a decision. Any more dithering will only disregard public service journalism further, something the Government will do so at its peril. In the era of Donal Trump, fake news and misinformation, there has never been a greater need for a strong, independent media asking difficult questions, even if it makes everyone in politics and across the board uncomfortable. The Government should examine the landscape of US television and the spectre of the outrageous, right-wing, shock-jock journalism culture that thrives in America. If this is the kind of media it wants, it is heading in the right direction, but circumstances need to change.

1:50 pm

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I have to start by stating public service broadcasting is a public good that deserves to be publicly funded and protected in the same manner as schools, hospitals, railways, roads and other public services are. RTÉ, however, is not a public good in its own right. The need for public service broadcasting can be and is met in multiple ways, through multiple channels and media. As my colleague, Deputy Jack Chambers, noted, the communications committee made a number of recommendations in a detailed report that, by and large, have not yet been taken up by the Government. For a number of years, we, on this side of the House, have argued that a public service broadcasting fund should be created, with revenue raised from public service broadcasting charges - a television licence fee and a device independent broadcasting charge, or whatever we end up calling it - being ring-fenced and made available to content producers that satisfy criteria for indigenous, high quality, homemade productions, whether they are drama, factual or current affairs programmes, or sports or local coverage, as long as they satisfy the metrics of public service broadcasting. There is no good reason we cannot do it. It would be a competitive model that would allow content producers to pitch in and draw down funds from a publicly funded resource.

We have recently seen the best and worst of RTÉ. Dee Forbes had a heated interview with Bryan Dobson who, at his best, gave no quarter to his boss. We all accept that changes are needed, but Ms Forbes, in her defence of the changes, indicated that RTÉ 2 would become a "window" to the RTÉ Player. We all know that online programming will play a significant role in the future and that online on-demand services are needed, but the RTÉ Player can hardly boot itself up in the morning or play a programme without crashing during the advertisements. It cannot be so difficult to get it right, given that Netflix runs seamlessly at any hour of the night or day on any device. If RTÉ is to get its house in order and move online, it should at least get the RTE Player working.

Photo of Aindrias MoynihanAindrias Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Tá ról an-tábhachtach faoi leith ag RTÉ ó thaobh seirbhísí craoltóireachta poiblí. Tá sé ag freastal ar phobal ollmhór go forleathan i mBéarla agus as Gaolainn. Cuireann sé nuacht, spórt, cláir faisnéise, agus go leor eile ar fáil. Tá fíor-nuacht i gceist leis, i dtréimhse ina bhfuil go leor nuacht bréagach ann. Is ábhar buartha dom nach raibh ach eolas beag ann faoi todhchaí RTÉ, TG4, agus Raidió na Gaeltacht nuair a sceitheadh an tuairisc sin. D'fhág sé go leor daoine ar lár. Caithfidh an tAire dearbhú a thabhairt maidir le todhchaí craoltóireacht as Gaolainn, TG4, agus Raidió na Gaeltachta. Caithfidh sé cinntiú go bhfuil na seirbhísí sin slán. Tá ról an-tábhachtach ag RTÉ agus é ag freastal ar phobal na Gaolainne. Tá dualgais air maidir le hAcht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla. Tá an coimisinéir tar éis a rá go bhfuil sé ag sárú an dlí maidir leis sin. In ainneoin sin, tá sé fós ag freastal ar phobal mór Gaolainne agus ag mealladh daoine i dtreo na Gaolainne. Caithfidh an tAire a chinntiú go mbeidh dul chun cinn, forbairt agus fás air agus nach mbeidh aon chúlú ann. Ní raibh aon tagairt don cheist sin sna tuairiscí. Caithfidh an tAire agus RTÉ dearbhú a thabhairt maidir leis sin. Caithfear cuimhniú chomh maith go bhfuil go leor comhlachtaí tar éis fás agus iad ag cur fostaíocht agus seirbhísí do na cainéil sin ar fáil. Tá siad ag cur fostaíocht ar fáil ar fud na tíre i gcomhair go leor daoine. Tá siad ag freastal ar chraoltóirí eile ar fud na cruinne chomh maith de bharr go raibh TG4 ann ó thús.

Photo of Niamh SmythNiamh Smyth (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I raise the issue of RTÉ's strategy for Lyric FM. RTÉ is to close its studio in Limerick in 2020, with productions for Lyric FM to move to Cork and Dublin. The announcement was a severe blow to the mid-west and it was welcome that RTÉ reversed the decision. People in counties Limerick and Clare are proud of Lyric FM, as was shown by the outpouring of support when initial reports emerged that the wider station faced closure. When RTÉ made the decision to base Lyric FM in Limerick, it was seen as a statement of intent and commitment to the regions. It is especially concerning that the University of Limerick offered in the months leading up to the announcement to host Lyric FM, but RTÉ did not take up the offer, instead ignoring it until it became public. It was a visionary offer made to RTÉ by the president of the University of Limerick, Dr. Des Fitzgerald, to offer Lyric FM a home on the campus of the university, but it fell on deaf ears. Lyric FM is a small strand of the RTÉ story and punches well above its weight in the context of its budget and what it produces. It is also highly symbolic, not least for the arts and music. An explanation is required as to why the offer was first ignored and then rejected. It was a wonderful opportunity for Lyric FM to remain in a permanent and appropriate home in Limerick and ensure Ireland had a national broadcaster that was not only focused on Dublin and Cork, but it was ignored and disregarded against the backdrop of a financial crisis.

We have heard about the job losses and where they will begin. It is my understanding the process will begin with producers. That is a fatal mistake as it will mean getting rid of the creative people within the industry and the national broadcaster.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to have a further debate on public broadcasting.

We had one a couple of weeks ago and the Minister might remember that during it I offered to meet him to discuss this important issue. That offer still stands. It would be useful. I genuinely believe that we need to get to a point where there is some sort of political consensus on this issue because we need to protect public broadcasting, not just our public broadcaster. We need to look at public broadcasting more holistically.

This debate is about RTÉ, which is a significant part of public broadcasting, but the Minister would accept that many local radio stations and other forms of media provide a public service. When we are examining reforming, restructuring and re-examining public broadcasting, it has to be bigger than RTÉ, albeit that it is a significant factor. It is also important to point out that there needs to be cultural, financial, organisational and structural changes in RTÉ, irrespective of the funding crisis or the fact it is seeking changes to the licence fee and how the money is collected and its need to increase its revenue and get its house in order in number of different ways.

The announcement of its restructuring plan was premature. The Minister acknowledged the plan was made public in a less than desirable way but it happened because of a leak. I listened to the director general speak on many programmes. I do not know the Minister's view in this regard but I was not entirely convinced that the plan will succeed and that RTÉ will reach the targets it has set for itself. The plan did not seem to come with clear and specific targets or be fully costed, considering all of the individual pieces in the overall restructuring plan. There were many caveats, ifs, but and maybes. I am concerned about whether some elements of the plan will achieve a lot of what has been claimed. Was the Minister required to sign off on the restructuring plan, formally or informally? Deputy Quinlivan will also outline some concerns about what was announced but the bigger point is whether RTÉ can follow through on the plan.

During the last debate on this issue people referred to salaries in RTÉ. I accept and welcome the fact that there will be movement in the area, although we will have to wait and see how that will work out because people have contracts and asking people to take pay cuts of 10% or 15% voluntarily, as has been suggested, may present difficulties. While nobody in the Chamber believes that cutting the pay of prominent presenters and executives will solve the financial crisis in RTÉ, it is symbolic of what is necessary. The optics of some presenters earning €300,000, €400,000 or €500,000 when RTÉ is a public broadcaster paid for by the taxpayer rightly angers people and it is right that those issues are addressed.

There are issues with regard to class in RTÉ, something I have raised with the director general and RTÉ. I do not believe it reflects modern Ireland or modern Dublin at all times. It reflects what many see as a couple of postcodes in Dublin but does it reflect working-class communities? Do we hear their stories? Very often the stories we hear about working-class communities can be highly negative but those communities have very positive stories to tell. Many such communities have their struggles, many of which are a consequence of bad policies, but they are vibrant communities which do not always get the space that others do. For example, some of the weekend programmes on RTÉ radio feature the chattering and middle classes having a conversation about issues important to them, which do not always connect with ordinary working people and their struggles. That has to be part of a wider review of public broadcasting.

As I have said to the Minister a number of times, I sincerely believe there has to be political leadership from those in government and in opposition. We cannot rail against some of the decisions which have been made and staff cuts which will have an impact, such as the partial closure of Lyric FM in Limerick, and at the same time not put our money where our mouths are and support the reforms which are necessary to put RTÉ on a sustainable basis. As the Minister noted, what is the alternative to having a national broadcaster? It is more private ownership of the media. We already have problems with one individual who owns large amounts of the media. Do we want the equivalent of Fox News in Ireland and not have what is considered to be fair and balanced broadcasting with all of the protections provided by public broadcasting? I do not believe that is where we need to go and I do not believe that is where the vast majority of people believe we should go.

Some people will say, "To hell with RTÉ and the State broadcaster." If we believe in public services, we should believe in public broadcasting. That brings me to what we need to do. I have said before that funding for independent production has been cut from €80 million to €40 million, which is a significant cut that we want to be reversed. In fact, we want the €80 million to be provided directly from the Exchequer over a number of years. This would provide more funding for independent producers and screenwriters who create jobs in the regions. If the entire €80 million was funded through the Exchequer in a fair and progressive way, rather than simply increasing the licence fee, it would be better for RTÉ, independent production and jobs and would mean that money could be freed up to do other things.

We have to have a discussion on enforcement of the licence fee. Nobody can stand over the high levels of non-payment. There needs to be some sort of political consensus on this. The Minister has a responsibility to reach out to the Opposition and others to try to bring that about. The perception is that the can is being kicked down the road for five years and we have to wait. I do not know whether that decisions has been made to get any parties over the election or is ideological but it is not right and will not work. As I said to the Minister a number of weeks ago, I am prepared to meet him or a representative of any political party on this issue to find out whether some political consensus can be achieved in order that there is real change and action in this area, rather than more talk.

2:00 pm

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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I want to make a short contribution in the limited time available to me. This discussion has to be about whether we want a public broadcaster and that is a decision we have to make. A public broadcaster does not have to be RTÉ alone; we are all aware of local radio in our communities and local newspapers, which are struggling to keep the doors open. If we are serious about having a public broadcaster, we need to decide what we mean by that. We know the consequences of not having a decent public broadcaster, which can be seen across the water in America where, as my colleague said, there are all sorts of bizarre news stations, the right wing runs free and fake news is everywhere.

When Lyric FM came to Limerick, it was a statement of intent from RTÉ that it was going to reach out to the regions and show itself to be a national broadcaster. It cannot retreat from Limerick and say the reverse is now the situation. It is disgraceful that staff members in Lyric FM and other RTÉ staff members read about these plans on the front page of The Irish Timesbefore they were briefed. That is a shocking way to treat the people of Limerick and staff members who have been loyal to RTÉ for a number of years.

The decision regarding Lyric FM was a slap in the face of the people of Limerick. Was consideration given by RTÉ to moving more of its services to Limerick? I am not sure if the Minister has visited the fantastic studio there. It is a large studio and I am sure it costs a lot less to run it there than to run one in Ballsbridge. The University of Limerick offered a site which would allow RTÉ to remain in Limerick city which was, I believe, rejected. Can the Minister explain that decision? Did he speak to Dr. Des Fitzgerald from the University of Limerick about the generous offer which would have kept Lyric FM in the city?

If RTÉ wants to be truly a national broadcaster, we need to examine how it has worked in the past. It has not featured working-class voices very often and has been very Dublin 4-centric. The Minister might not like to hear that, but it is true. Hardly anybody in my constituency listens to the discussions which take place on Saturdays and Sundays because they do not raise the issues which affect them.

As stated by Deputy Cullinane, when working-class communities are portrayed on RTÉ, it is often not in a positive but in a negative way. For instance, I am only ever contacted by RTÉ when it is a bad news story, unfortunately, about Limerick. It does not come to me for the good news stories.

2:10 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Business Committee for facilitating this debate. I called for it last week at the committee.

It is really important that we put on the record, as legislators, our views on the announcement by the director general of RTÉ last week, leaked to The Irish Times, as others have said, which was really putting people on the back foot. It is very important that we address this issue today and that the Minister is here to respond.

I am very disappointed in the Minister's contribution because there does not seem to be any sense of urgency on the issues that were raised in the RTÉ report, which I have here. The Minister appears to be kicking the can down the road and leaving any major change for possibly five years. I do not know what RTÉ is going to be like in five years or what condition public service broadcasting is going to be in then. Public service broadcasting is extraordinarily important. Others have talked about the kind of news media people are subject to in other countries, where they do not get objective facts or the kind of service that we get from RTÉ, and indeed from other stations as well. It is vital for public interest, but also for the whole public discourse, that we get proper public service broadcasting. I am very concerned if the Government presents this as an RTÉ problem that it will not get involved in. The Minister must get involved in this early on.

Some pages in the report are headed "the TV licence is broken", "this is fixable" and "urgent action is required". These are headings for three different pages in the report. My former colleague, Pat Rabbitte, when he was Minister did a considerable amount of work in changing the model of the licence fee and of the funding of RTÉ. This was continued by Senator Alex White. This seems to have been left on a shelf for the last three years. I would be really concerned if it was going to be left for another five years.

The report states: "the decision to delay a meaningful reform of the TV licence system for a further five to six years will, if unchanged, have a catastrophic impact on the future of public service media, the future of the Irish independent production, and the broader cultural and creative sectors." I want the Government to take this seriously and to take action.

I am also concerned about the response from the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, last week which seemed to imply that RTÉ could get a whole lot more money from advertising, which we know it cannot because it is capped. The way in which the Government has defended itself and has stepped aside from the decisions that have to be made is disingenuous.

I sympathise with the RTÉ Authority but I do not agree with many of its proposed solutions. The proposals do not take account of RTÉ's role as the national public service broadcaster. The positive developments, which are outlined in the report, include new content, life TV moments and big events, an integrated media centre and a new digital infrastructure and they are all centred in Donnybrook, Dublin 4. The downside is outside of the capital, particularly in Limerick. The Government should stop this Dublin-centric plan which goes against the goals of the national planning framework. All of the Government Ministers should be concerned, because this is re-centring what RTÉ is doing back into Dublin and to some extent into Cork and it is not acceptable.

The removal of Lyric FM from Limerick is positively destructive. The station has been firmly rooted in the cultural life of the city since it was set up their 20 years ago. It sustains and is sustained by a wide variety of cultural organisations and venues. A Big Roar of Support music event is starting in the Irish Chamber Orchestra's home in the University of Limerick at 5.30 p.m. This will include the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Irish Chamber Choir, the Limerick Choral Union, Voices of Limerick, An Cór, the Gúnas Choir, Seoda, East Clare Community Choir and students from the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, which Members will know is based in the University of Limerick. The people of Limerick are fighting back against RTÉ's plans and we want the Government to support us. There is no justification for taking Lyric FM out of Limerick. Lyric FM costs €4.31 out of each person's licence fee of €130 per year. It will still cost, I estimate, at least half of that or maybe more to run it from Dublin and Cork. It will cost some fine people jobs because they cannot uproot their families and move. It is particularly unfair to those employees who have given their commitment to the policy of Lyric FM for the past 20 years to operate out of Limerick and to expect them to move their families and their lives.

I was very concerned when I heard Dee Forbes on the radio saying that of the voluntary redundancies that RTÉ is seeking, they are expecting a significant number of those to come from Lyric FM. In other words, people based in Limerick and who work for Lyric FM are going to be forced to opt for voluntary redundancy because they cannot afford to move to Dublin or Cork, or will not move their children out of their schools etc. That is wrong.

I have already called on RTÉ to respond to the offer from the president of the University of Limerick, Dr. Des Fitzgerald, to provide a home for Lyric FM on the university campus when the lease on its present location expires, which I understand will happen at the end of 2020. I am calling on the Minister now to insist that this option is explored positively. The University of Limerick, UL, is already home to the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance and it has an excellent media facility, with graduates and a postgraduate course in media journalism etc. It is a perfect home. Practitioners and academics in the university already have close ties with Lyric FM and it would be a very good fit for the station to move there. It would be a profound blow to the artistic and cultural identity of Limerick if Lyric FM is removed. This is not and cannot be a fait accompli. I am asking the Minister and the Government to stand with us and tell RTÉ that it cannot take Lyric FM out of Limerick. It is as simple as that. We need firm commitments from the Minister.

I know this is a wider issue and that there are general issues of significant public importance as to the future of RTÉ and public service broadcasting. For the people who work in Lyric FM, for the people of Limerick who depend on that integration with Lyric FM, and for the health of our cultural life in the city, we really need a commitment that Lyric FM will stay in Limerick. It is a tiny amount of the savings that RTÉ is looking for and it is not acceptable that Lyric FM would be taken out of Limerick. I hope that the Minister will not just ignore this, that the Government will respond, that RTÉ will be required to respond to Dr. Des Fitzgerald's offer, and that there will be meaningful engagement so that Lyric FM can stay in the city of Limerick.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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People Before Profit strongly supports public service broadcasting and believes we need to ensure the maintenance of public service broadcasting. The suggestion that we may not have RTÉ in a few of years because of inadequate funding is very alarming. This is something that we have to prevent from taking place. We need our national public service broadcaster and we need to have a clear statement of intent from this House that we are going to do what is necessary in order to maintain the national broadcaster and public service broadcasting.

We have to address the funding and financial issues. There are certain things which in my opinion should be ruled out right from the outset. Having said that we need to maintain our national broadcaster and public service broadcasting, we should also state clearly that ordinary workers in RTÉ, or ordinary householders, should not be made to pay the price for the financial crisis or the lack of funding for public service broadcasting. It is important - I will address the issue of high salaries for the top presenters - that we need to clarify in the minds of the public that the vast majority of people working in RTÉ are not massively or highly paid and should not become the fall guys and victims for the financial plight that RTÉ now finds itself in.

3 o’clock

We will certainly support the workers in Limerick who are fighting to save their jobs and retain Lyric FM in Limerick. There should be no question of it being moved.

Equally, we state our clear support for those who work with the RTÉ Guideand challenge the logic behind selling it. It makes little or no sense, given that it is profitable, selling 35,000 to 40,000 copies a week - a lot more are sold at Christmas time - and there is plenty of scope for it to move in the direction of becoming more digital. It is unfair that the workers are being told that it will be sold under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, whereby they cannot seek redeployment within RTÉ or redundancy. That is not right. We should not accept the idea that they are victims of the current financial crisis; nor should ordinary journalists, crew members, cameramen and all of the various others who work for it have pay austerity further imposed on them because of the funding crisis.

Beyond that, we need to recognise that the lack of funding for public service broadcasting is a symptom of a wider problem resulting from the failure of this and successive Governments and the political system to take culture seriously. RTÉ and public service broadcasting are not only about news and current affairs programmes; they are also about supporting, projecting, developing and deepening our culture. In this country we do not take the arts and culture seriously. We provide a pathetically low level of funding for the arts generally, something we debated here in recent weeks. Certainly, I have made the point repeatedly that there is an abysmal level of funding for the arts and culture, way below the European average, at 0.1% of GDP as against the European average of 6%. It is particularly terrible that this should be the case in a country, the international reputation of which for most people is based on our rich cultural heritage and the output of our artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, theatre-makers, as well as Irish film and drama productions, etc. We give little or no support to the sector, which is utterly pathetic. It shows a philistine attitude on the part of the Government that it does not take the arts and culture as seriously as it should. In that sense, any state that takes the arts and culture seriously sees a public service broadcaster as being central to them. In fact, we have been moving in the opposite direction, with the volume of new dramatic and film output from RTÉ reducing dramatically in recent years because of the lack of funding and support. We should be moving in precisely the opposite direction.

Not that we can hope to ever compete or particularly even want to compete at the level of Netflix and Amazon, something we can take from them is that people tune in to them because they carry a lot of new original film and dramatic content. If we want the volume of Irish cultural and dramatic output to increase, we need to invest, unless we are going to rely on the for-profit sector, which I do not believe we should and which I do not believe will deliver the cultural and artistic output we want. We have to invest in institutions such as RTÉ and public service broadcasting generally in order to increase dramatic and cultural output.

The key question is how can it be funded. I do not believe it should be funded yet again by reaching into the pockets of ordinary householders and by attacking the wages and conditions of workers. For the record, our policy is that anywhere in the public sector - I am not singling out RTÉ in that regard - those paid from the public purse should not be receiving more than €100,000 a year. I am sure it is a tiny group in RTÉ who are paid in excess of that amount, but they should not. There should be a cap on pay, but the vast majority of workers in it who are on ordinary or medium range pay and conditions should not see their them being attacked further. Cutting or even capping the pay of the very highest earners, however, would not solve the financial crisis at RTÉ. As for how we would fund it without reaching into the pockets of ordinary people for broadcasting fees or higher television licence fees, there should not be a cap on the contribution of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for those who receive a free television licence. If its contribution was not capped, there would be more coming in from that Department. We should immediately impose re-transmission fees on companies such as Sky, Virgin Media and Vodafone which re-transmit public service output but do not pay a fee in doing so so. If they then state they will not transmit it, we should tell them that they will not be allowed to broadcast at all in this country. If they were paying re-transmission fees, it would bring €15 million into the coffers.

Critically - this is the really important point, given that advertising revenue is migrating from public service broadcasting, RTÉ and more traditional media to social media outlets such as Facebook and Google - on a global level, 80% of all advertising revenue is now going to such companies. Therefore, we need to impose a tax on them. That is from where we will get the money, but, of course, the Government will not do it. It is allowing them to continue to benefit from massive tax loopholes. If, as I believe, the European Union is correct in the Apple case, etc., the Government helped to engineer tax loopholes to enable the company to avoid its tax responsibilities. If a digital tax was imposed and other tax loopholes which are benefiting these considerable companies in making astronomical profits from digital advertising and more generally in this country were closed, we could generate billions of euro in extra revenue for the State generally and provide the resources and revenue necessary to deal with the funding crisis at RTÉ and in public service broadcasting., as well as putting extra revenue into public service broadcasting to increase the volume of artistic and cultural output. That is where we should look for the money, rather than attack workers' pay and conditions or, for that matter, reach into the pockets of ordinary householders.

2:20 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan is sharing time.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Connolly.

In looking at recent headlines such as, "RTÉ - a broken broadcaster?", "...financial crisis", and ""Transformational change" needed ...", my initial reaction was to ask what was new because the signs had been there for quite some time.

Yesterday I attended a presentation in Buswells Hotel by the Nevin Economic Research Institute in which it discussed the concept of a just transition. While it was related to the interventions needed because of issues to do with climate change, sustainability and biodiversity, it is relevant to this debate because it is obvious that there is a need for a just transition in RTÉ to adjust to the changes occurring in digital media, in particular. A just transition is about preparing and being ready for change and having a plan in place. RTÉ did not suddenly face financial problems, while the digital transformation involving other media outlets did not happen overnight. I have to ask where was the drive in RTÉ in those years when it was obvious that there were problems. We recently witnessed the selling of land and the shedding of jobs which were followed by the call on the Government to invest more money, but there is a need for a more radical, innovative and progressive vision within RTÉ. My question is if the strategy will be enough? I certainly hope it will. The Government has a role to play, but it cannot only be the proverbial cash cow or an ATM dispensing funding to cover losses incurred by RTÉ in recent years.

There is a high licence fee evasion rate in Ireland. The figures range from 12% to 14%.

It is much higher here than in other European countries. In Germany it is 2%. In addition, the collection costs here are double what they are in some other countries.

The transformation in media must also be taken into account. Many people are watching RTÉ on devices such as iPads, tablets and laptops and they are not paying a licence fee. It is estimated that over 10% of Irish homes are accessing content on these devices. When one adds that to the 12% to 14% who are evading the licence fee, it means approximately 25% of households are watching RTÉ and not paying a licence fee. That is a significant loss of revenue. Again, it is back to restructuring and not slapping an increase on the traditional television licence fee of €160. That would punish those who pay because of those who do not pay. There must be a level playing field before any increases are considered.

The plan is to have a device-independent broadcasting charge. The Minister said the new system must be robust and not vulnerable to the evasion the traditional licence has suffered. The BBC has similar issues but it appears to be more ambitious. Its director general has a plan, which is difficult, for its BBC iPlayer catch-up service to be capable of rivalling Netflix. That brings me to the competition from Netflix. It costs approximately €144 per year. I have spoken to younger people and they prefer to watch programmes in their own time, which Netflix allows. They get their news and current affairs from social media at their choice of time, not from the news at 5.30 p.m., 6 p.m. or 9 p.m. It is not just Netflix. Apple has launched its streaming service and Disney intends to do the same. We are at a crisis point. Action is urgently required now, not in five to seven years' time.

The top salaries of certain broadcasters are an issue that was allowed to develop and continue during the financial difficulties. I have done the sums. If one takes 15% off €495,000, €450,000 or even €300,000, one is still left with quite a good salary. Even with the 15% cut, the salary is higher than the salaries of President Higgins and the Governor of the Central Bank, considerably more than the US Chairman of the Federal Reserve gets and more than the salaries of the President of the ECB and the President of Deutsche Bundesbank in Germany. It will not solve all the problems, but it will be a signal that this is being taken seriously, especially when one considers that the lower-paid people in RTÉ will have to suffer an indefinite pay freeze.

Tá rudaí dearfacha i gceist anseo, mar shampla, aitheantas do TG4. Tá caighdeán an-ard ag TG4, go háirithe nuair a smaoiním ar an easpa maoiniú. The other positives are sports, when RTÉ gets the coverage, and the commentators, drama, news, current affairs and entertainment. The coverage of Brexit was excellent also. There is also "RTÉ Investigates". The investigation closest to my heart was "Greyhounds Running for Their Lives". Without RTÉ, the scandal of what was happening to greyhounds would have remained unexposed. There are excellent viewing times for the main programmes. An interesting online survey found that the majority of respondents do not want live coverage of political party conferences. Perhaps there is a saving there. There is also the role of Irish independent production companies. They produce popular programmes with original Irish content. They provide employment and skills development.

The main point is that there must be radical, innovative restructuring and financial reform, and urgently.

2:30 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. Once again, I am disappointed that the Minister does not have a written speech. In addition to health, climate change and housing, the future of public service broadcasting is one of the most important topics. It is not a luxury, but an essential part of a functioning, healthy democracy. I expected, at the very least, that the Minister would have set out his and the Government's views and what decisions they will make with regard to saving public service broadcasting. I will return to what RTÉ should do momentarily.

This is particularly relevant, given the amount of misinformation with which we are so familiar. Last week, the Oireachtas hosted a meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and 'Fake News', which was chaired by the Minister's colleague. Members from seven countries, including Ireland, signed a declaration to advance international collaboration in the regulation of social media to combat harmful content, hate speech and electoral interference online. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg told a US congressional meeting that Facebook does not fact-check political advertising and will not remove advertisements containing false information. As a new member of the justice committee, I am fully up to speed with the challenges posed by false information going up on various platforms. The word "platforms" is used because, according to Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, they are not publishers. However, information is going on them that has detrimental effects on people's lives.

It is vital that we discuss public service broadcasting and have a definition of what it is. The first focus is on the evasion of the licence fee. I wish to focus on the 87% of people who have televisions who pay it. They are endorsing public service broadcasting. I acknowledge there is a problem with the 13% who do not pay and a problem with the 11% or 12%, of whom I am one, who do not own a television. I am open to paying whatever fee is necessary to ensure there is public service broadcasting. However, 87% of people with televisions are endorsing public service broadcasting and its importance.

With regard to the plan that has been produced by RTÉ, it is very good that the executive board has agreed to take a 10% reduction in pay. The high earners are going to take a 15% reduction. I see no reason for presenters being on such a high salary. Public service broadcasting is as important as being a politician, in that one pays a reasonable salary and expects a public duty and public service in return. We should find a different way, aside from money, to value public service broadcasters. That is a challenge for Members of the Dáil. Certainly, I cannot support the salaries being paid to them.

As regards the Irish language, the lack of urgency in the Minister's speech is regrettable. Members of the Irish committee published a report in May 2019, but the all-party committee published its report almost two years ago. It highlighted the problems facing RTÉ. Stillwater Communications was commissioned in 2012 to address an bealach ar aghaidh ó thaobh na Gaeilge de. Chuir siad an spotsolas ar na rudaí a bhí le déanamh. Stillwater Communications looked at RTÉ from the point of view of the Irish language and highlighted the wonderful advantages that exist if they were used in terms of using many more of the programmes produced by TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta to mainstream Irish. What is worrying is that those recommendations fit in with Government policy but, once again, there is cognitive dissonance. The Government policy is to normalise na Gaeilge through every sphere in Irish public life. Stillwater Communications looked at that and came up with good recommendations, yet that has not happened. Both our report and Stillwater Communications recommended that Aonad na Gaeilge be re-established, but that has not happened. The main message I wish to convey here, trí Ghaeilge, ná na buntáistí a bhaineann le húsáid na Gaeilge ar na meáin chumarsáide mar RTÉ. It has utterly failed to do that.

If the Minister replies to this debate, I hope he will address the crisis in public service broadcasting, the necessity for it and the steps to be taken by the Government to ensure we have an independent public service broadcaster that reflects the variety of people in Ireland. It is ironic that RTÉ in the statement on its new strategy talks about being close to the people on the ground, yet it is closing Lyric FM in Limerick. It is moving away from being on the ground and from its legal obligations to use the Irish language in the most normal and natural way possible.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter. First, as everybody is aware, RTÉ gives a good service throughout the country. I am not fluent but I know a good amount of Irish.

I watch TG4 a lot because its coverage, especially on Sundays, of the GAA, rugby and the different fabrics of Irish life is extremely good. Often I would flick over from RTÉ 1 and stay watching TG4 a lot longer. That is a tribute to the channel which is run on a small budget.

Other television stations do not receive a subsidy and must cut their cloth to measure. They cannot be over-inflated or have a situation where too many cooks spoil the broth. They must make sure they are run efficiently. I smiled when Members referred to wages and salaries. There should be a cap on but not long ago, the House debated bringing people on a lower salary up to the top salary of someone else and now we are looking at the reverse. While there should be a cap, because some of the salaries are astronomical, but in journalism everything is gauged on viewership so it is a question of whether someone has 100,000 viewers or 50,000 or 500,000. It is similar to Ronaldo and someone playing in the second division. Who will get the higher wage? If broadcasters have 500,000 people watching them or 100,000, that is how their salary is gauged in the world of journalism. It might be cruel but that is the reality.

We must also look inward. How many days have one of us received a call asking if we will come out to RTÉ and the last question we are asked before they hang up is: "Do you need a taxi?" I smiled on Monday after they spent six hours telling people in rural Ireland how they were destroying the planet. One would swear we were going to save the world from all the research RTÉ had done, especially farmers and people living in rural Ireland, yet any time one visits Montrose it is like a taxi rank with the number of taxis that carry politicians and ordinary people there. If one visits from further they will ask if one is okay for a hotel. These are expenses where RTÉ can start cutting its cloth to measure. We are in a city, which has the best public transport in the country, certainly compared to where I am from or Cork, Limerick or Galway where Deputy Connolly is from. I do not know much about Lyric FM because I am certainly not into that but then RTÉ decides to close its studio in Limerick to try to whip things back to Dublin again and leave people who have set their lives up in a different part of the country in the lurch.

There is no doubt that RTÉ incurs more expenditure. RTÉ has reporters in every part of the country and that costs more. There is a good service where one can go to local studios for instance, in Athlone. Should the orchestra be moved under the remit of the Department Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht? Can RTÉ afford that? Where has the money gone from the site that it sold? Has it more land that could be sold? Did managers consider moving to a different location because land close to the city is expensive?

We must ensure that RTÉ remains a functioning station but we cannot keep throwing money at it and have them keep shouting back for more. It must be ensured there is accountability. I believe what RTÉ is doing is good. When I heard the announcement I was surprised that it was selling something that was making money, for whatever reason. The one thing I do not want to see them do is what they did with Lyric FM and cut the regional services to maintain the service in Donnybrook.

Recently I have noticed something about RTÉ that relates to someone giving an opinion that goes against what most or the majority think. I was watching a show about climate change recently. One either had to agree with everything the participants were saying or one was not allowed to take part. Correspondents were coming out with lists such as "Nine things that everyone should do". They need to be unbiased. I spoke to many people who turned off the television because of some of the stuff they saw.

Whether it is salaries or spending on taxis or hotels, it must all be looked at holistically. There are issues that can be sorted. We must ensure that RTÉ is preserved but there are stations that live on crumbs, such as TG4, which provide an invaluable service.

2:40 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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Approximately ten years ago I was involved in the drafting of the Broadcasting Act. There was a great awareness then that there was an issue with the television licence fee collection system and the public service broadcasting funding model. Even then, people watching on devices rather than television was an issue, there a significant evasion rate and high collection costs in an incredibly cumbersome system where people were going to the court and to prison because they had not paid their licence. We tried to address that but we said that instead we would wait five years to work out the more fundamental changes in the TV licence and funding mechanism.

The subsequent Government started tentatively to examine that but ultimately bottled it. The commentary, which there is no reason to doubt, suggested that a Government that ran into such difficulty implementing a household charge such as the water charges decided it could not afford to open a second front in that fight and, therefore, decided to do nothing. By the time this Dáil formed, it was clear that the ongoing decrease in the commercial advertising revenue, continued evasion and the high costs of collection meant that RTÉ and, indeed, all our domestic media were in trouble. The all-party committee did good work in examining the details of this, working with stakeholders across the board, and had an innovative consultation process in Dublin Castle. Our recommendations stand up today. It beggars belief that the Department and the Minister now think that consultation is needed for another five years. This is not rocket science; this is not complex policy or politically contentious if the Government only had the bravery to act. This year, next year or tomorrow with the stroke of a pen, we could raise an additional €50 million for public service broadcasting by changing the way we collect the licence fee by moving to a household charge so that, as the Minister said, all the houses that do not have a television but are using devices are included. A mechanism whereby, for instance, Revenue collect it so that it saves all the costs of collection and evasion could be adopted. If the Government did that while also changing some of the rules relating to social welfare, thus increasing the payments to the public service broadcasters, and, as the committee examined in intense detail for years, forcing Sky to bid for transmission fees, an additional €50 million could be raised next year. That would immediately resolve a problem. We could spend the next five years examining the broader context of how to address the fundamental fact that social media companies are taking all the advertising revenue. Are there ways that we can get money from them to pay for content creation? That is complex. It might take five years, but the initial measures could, and should have, been done in recent budgets but there is no logic to delaying it for another five years, and there are real risks attached.

RTÉ management has sold the land, which we argued for five years ago, as it was lying idle.

It is not as if it has done nothing. It has also come up with a new restructuring plan, having tried a redundancy plan. Broadly, I have trust in the executive and board of RTÉ. They are doing their best in particularly difficult circumstances.

There is one thing I would do differently and both the Government and the RTÉ board and executive should look at it again. The decision to move Lyric FM from Limerick, leaving behind a part-time studio, is fundamentally wrong. It is important for the country that Limerick rise. The benefits it saw in having Lyric FM based there were not confined to the broadcasting sector. Having it based on Cornmarket Square, close to the Milk Market and a five minute walk from O'Connell Street, was one of the few examples of life being put back in to the centre of Limerick city. It is what we seek and need. It may make sense for the station to move to the university, given that the chamber orchestra is based there, but my preference is to keep it on a city centre site. We must bring life back to the centre of Limerick. As that is already starting to happen, taking Limerick out of the equation is a fundamental strategic mistake. The decision should be reversed. I hope RTÉ executives will consider doing so, although I realise they face a difficult problem. The clear voice from this House is that the decision should change.

Broadly, RTÉ has done everything it can. Having looked at the figures, my sense is that will not be enough. If the Government waits for five years, it will cripple any restructuring plan or ability to evolve, innovate and develop new services being considered, something I would welcome. This is not just about cuts to the programme as RTÉ is moving to try to address a younger audience, use events and have a closer connection with people through new and different methods. It is exactly the right move and there are good elements to the plan. It will not have a chance, however, if the Government does not provide the basic and underlying funding required to allow a transition.

Last week the Oireachtas hosted the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and 'Fake News', with which I was proud to be involved. It did interesting and important work. The committee helped us see the power of social media companies in the new media world and their ability to microtarget people. Essentially, they know everything about us. It is not just in the media, as this week we saw how Google had collected health data and how Facebook was looking to create its own currency. These companies now like to think they are becoming more powerful than the state. The big story is that these companies can generate almost €400 million here per year in scooping pretty much the entire pot of digital advertising revenue. The remaining money in this country goes on subscriptions to Sky, Netflix and cable operators. This amounts to €1.5 billion every year going out of the country, rather than to Irish content creators or media. It is why all Irish media are in such a crisis, not just RTÉ. Virgin Media laid off 65 staff in recent weeks, which demonstrates the same story. We saw it again when we considered the application to sell a local radio station to the Independent News and Media. Good managers in the area have realised they are in a real crisis because they cannot attract advertising revenue in the current position where social media dominate.

It is not just about the commercial reality; we must also consider the political realities. People are living and speaking within microtargeted bubbles and the new media world is more atomised and individualised. It is private and personal media. In many ways, it is brilliant. I love being able to tweet, post photos on Instagram and share stories on Facebook. There can be substantial gains from these, but they are "private squares". In many ways, they are like a shopping mall. We need a public square for debate and a public forum for examination, critique and analysis of common stories. Some questions were asked here this week, demonising certain sections of the community. We have seen this happen in other countries where there are no public media but where people subscribe to local groups that spread conspiracy theories. We need a public square for discussion and debate to counter them.

It is not just about current affairs and news programmes; it also takes in sport, drama and entertainment. As we will not gain political support to double the licence fee to €300, we will still have to go with an advertising and licence fee model. It means that there is a need for a broad spectrum of programming, particularly young people's programming. The Government must make a political decision. Commentators may be correct in saying it has a certain sense of wounded pride as it has received a lot of flack from various parts of the media in the eight years it has been in office; therefore, it now has a chance to redress the power balance and take some power away from those producers, editors and presenters. It is, however, flawed thinking and a mistake if that is the only logic or reason behind the otherwise inexplicable approach Fine Gael is taking on this matter. In the long run the strength of the country depends on the strength of democracy which, in itself, depends on the strength and quality of public debate. At times we must cede power by accepting hard questioning or taking the rap for something, or by even being the target of unfair commentary, but I prefer living in a country with that strength. We have had strong local media for the past 50 years, in particular. If we look at the countries where they have disappeared, democracy has weakened; therefore, we need the country to have strong media. If we do not have them, we cannot say to investors and everybody else that they should come to Ireland because it is a stable, balanced, reasonable and intelligent country that is open to the world. The Government should, therefore, reverse its decision to wait for five years and instead implement immediate changes in order to raise €50 million for all public service broadcasters, not just RTÉ, as a start in supporting media in this country in a time of crisis.

2:50 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I thank Members for participating in this important debate. There is absolutely no doubt that public service broadcasting, as we know it, is under pressure and that we must amend the model. RTÉ is making a significant effort in that respect as it has recognised the difficulties it has with audience reach for some of its existing offerings. It is devising a new strategy. It is equally important that we evaluate that strategy and ensure we can be convinced in this House that it is sustainable.

I agree that public money is very important in supporting that objective, but in the debate Deputies seem to have forgotten that the BAI recommended the provision of an extra €30 for RTÉ. We provided €10 million in last year's budget. This year, when we were not able to grant increases in social welfare payments, we did not ask the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to provide additional money to top up its contribution, which is the only way it is done. This year we also decided to tender to replace the leaky system of collection, as it has been predicted that a better system of collection would add a further €10 million in terms of capacity. We have recognised that we need to move to gain consensus on a workable system for a charge that would be device independent. The cross-departmental working group believes it will take time to build that consensus, for which it has put forward a number of reasons in its report.

Some may say the local property tax would be an alternative method of collection. We have had difficulty in this House in even considering the reviewing of its valuation which was due last year because imposing additional charges on people is contentious. Added to this is the ownership concept, while a service charge to contribute to television, radio or public service broadcasting is related to occupancy of a home. Naturally, it is a contentious matter and there is no consensus in the House on such a move. We can then consider the move to bring computers, laptops, tablets and phones within a charge. That would be a significant change and we would need to consider how a base for collection could be developed.

The Oireachtas committee favoured a system whereby a service charge would be collected by Revenue. However, Revenue's view is that its job is to collect taxes, not service charges. The report outlined some of the complexity involved, and I probably am not doing it justice. The committee noted that it will take time to build a proper pathway and achieve consensus across the House as to how we implement it. There is a challenge involved in broadening the base.

Most of the speakers - Deputy Boyd Barrett, in particular - were of the view that RTÉ needs to make significant changes. That view is clearly shared by the management and board. There is a recognition that RTÉ needs to make its public service offering more vibrant if it is to attract new audiences and reach the platforms on which people are consuming media. That will require significant restructuring within the organisation, considerable investment in new areas and a reduction in the scale of other traditional areas that are not delivering the type of platform needed for the future. We must ask ourselves what public service broadcasting should look like in ten years, in a world where the pace of change continues to accelerate. In an environment where people use different media to obtain news, information and entertainment, how can we ensure that Irish drama and other content reaches an audience?

We do not want a situation where the public broadcaster is merely a reserve that is not switched onto by most people. It is right that we take time to evaluate our approach and obtain a wider view of the direction of public service broadcasting rather than simply looking at charge mechanisms. The latter is an important consideration but it is not the entire job by any means. There is work to be done here. The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2019, which is currently before the House, affords us an opportunity to consider some of the changes that are required. We intend to bring forward an amendment to that legislation to allow for the contracting out of the charge.

With regard to individual content provision, including the decision to close the Lyric FM studios in Limerick, such issues do not present to the Minister for sign-off. Issues that are brought to me include where specific channels or radio stations are being changed or closed, the cessation of the Aertel service, the sale of the RTÉ Guideand so on. Some of those issues require explicit approval by the Minister and others do not. Several speakers questioned whether Dublin 4 is the right place for RTÉ headquarters either in respect of the scale of coverage or cost effectiveness. That question is worthy of consideration and assessment.

I do not have sufficient time to respond to all of the comments. However, a consistent theme from colleagues is that public service broadcasting is not just about the publicly owned broadcaster and that, as we look to the future, we must design something that is robust enough to support and sustain the value of local broadcasting and local content. Under state aid rules, such a model would have to be designed carefully. One cannot simply give out subsidies to private bodies; it is necessary to devise a model where we have quality content that is deemed desirable by the Oireachtas and for which others would compete. Some of the proposals included the suggestion of support for basic costs but, as I understand it, that is not something that could be approved under state aid rules.

NewERA has been undertaking an assessment of the robustness of the proposal put forward by RTÉ. It has also been consulting the BAI on these matters. It is important to note that he Minister is not the regulator of content or the appraiser of whether the content offered by RTÉ is reaching the appropriate audiences. That regulatory function is performed by BAI. Assessments by both NewERA and BAI are important in evaluating the direction of travel that is proposed. RTÉ has done the right thing in setting out a programme and seeking to reposition itself. The Government will strive to support that repositioning. As all Members will agree, it is vital that we sustain the production of vigorous, open and culturally diverse content of Irish interest that is available to people. I am determined that we will do so. I thank Deputies for their contributions.