Thursday, 25 January 2018
Television Licence Fee
I apologise to the Minister of State for keeping him waiting earlier. It was not my intention but I was delayed in traffic. I left it tight but the reality is that the traffic is much worse on certain mornings which is down to increased economic activity.
Many people do not watch conventional television anymore. The idea of a television licence man knocking on doors trying to find somebody with a television but without a licence seems outdated in the world in which we live today.There is----
Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh; it was really distracting.
In a world where we no longer watch television in a conventional way - many watch it on mobile devices, etc., are not watching it as much and not just watching the national broadcaster - we really need to look at this issue. The television licence does not make much sense to me, but we need a national broadcaster. We should not, however, go down the road of having US-type commercially driven, opinion-forming media. There is a place for the national broadcaster. Whether we need it to provide the services it provides is another question; that is a broader issue. I have suggested a system that would reduce the overall cost for everybody. However, I see difficulties with what I am suggesting. When Pat Rabbitte tried to do it, it was perceived as a broadband charge. That is a dangerous area into which to stray in the sense that there are people, some of whom contacted me in the past week or two, who say they choose not to watch television and ask why they are facing a charge. That is an issue.
RTÉ provides all of its television and radio stations; TG4, which is extremely important; the RTÉ orchestras; the Oireachtas television channel; the RTÉ Player and the sound and vision fund. It provides a huge array of stuff. However, certain things could potentially be reduced. We need to review how we think about broadcasting because the world is changing. This issue is difficult for the Government because it is political.
I want to be clear that I would not suggest anything that would affect people such as old-age pensioners who have the right to a free television licence. I have a difficulty with the argument in favour of a broadband charge in the sense that that is how it is perceived. It is something we need to address. I know that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment has found that the television licence system is not fit for purpose. Notwithstanding the difficulty in trying to sort out this issue politically, we need to bring the system into the 21st century.
I again apologise for being delayed.
I am not an expert on this issue either which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, who sends his apologies. He recognises the important part public service broadcasters play in our democratic society. The provision of stable and adequate funding is essential to ensuring the continued delivery of their role in that regard. He is also aware, however, of the challenges facing the existing television licence system, including the current unacceptable levels of evasion. While the rate has fallen from 15.3% at the end of 2013 to the current rate of 14.6%, it is still much too high. In addition, the number of households required to have a licence under the current system is declining due to a departure from traditional viewing habits, as the Senator outlined. Recent reports show that 9% of households no longer have a television set. I do not have the statistic which shows the percentage of households that never had a television set because a certain number did not.
While the current television licence model has provided a measure of stability to date, the rapid changes in technology altering the traditional way in which television is watched, together with economic pressures generally, mean that there is a serious question mark against the ability of the current funding model to provide continued stable funding for public service media in the long term. In October 2016 the Minister requested the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to examine the longer term issue of the future funding of public service media. As the Senator will be aware, the committee considered this issue following a period of public consultation and stakeholder engagement. It launched its report on the future funding of public service broadcasting in November 2017. The Minister's officials are considering its contents and it is the Minister's intention to bring proposals to the Cabinet in the near future on funding options. In addition, he has proposed a number of amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009, including amendments to allow for the tendering of television licence fee collection. The proposed amendments are being considered by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process. The Minister looks forward to receiving the committee's report as soon as possible. In the meantime, there will be no change to the existing television licence-fee arrangements.
The Senator has rightly pointed out that many people use mobile devices. I will try to avoid naming some of the bigger companies operating in that area, but people are already paying a fee to obtain that product. While public service broadcasting is done quite differently in the United States, as the Senator mentioned, there are other examples in Europe of how public service broadcasting is funded which should and I know will be examined. The television licence-fee arrangement has always been contentious because for many years RTÉ was the only television broadcaster and also the only recipient of television advertising revenue. There is the question of having a level playing field for other television stations that do not receive any part of the fee and have to compete for advertising revenue in order to survive.
The Senator has acknowledged that it is a complex issue, on which the Minister expects to bring proposals to the Cabinet in the near future.
I should have pointed out that what I am suggesting would avoid the evasion issue entirely because the telecommunications companies would collect the fee on behalf of the Government. Therefore, for a start one would be dealing with 20 organisations or however many telecommunications companies there are, rather than individuals. It is a very positive part of my suggestion.
I agree entirely with what the Minister of State said. He said people were being charged for the device used. However, they already pay a charge for Sky, Virgin Media, Netflix, etc. In addition, there is illegal downloading. It is a minefield. There is a load of stuff happening in the area about which I do not have a clue. Having a level playing field is a huge issue. It is arguable whether the funding should be spread and that all broadcasters have to be balanced, etc. It is a conversation we need to have. It is welcome that the Department is reviewing the committee's report. Perhaps we might be able in the near future to identify innovative ways to address what is a very archaic system.