Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Ceann Comhairle: Before the debate was adjourned, Deputies Simon Coveney and Liz McManus asked me about the question of recommittal, so it is best if I clear that matter up briefly. A motion may be made to recommit an entire Bill at the commencement of its consideration on Report Stage. Indeed, it can also be done in respect of sections and amendments before their consideration has been completed. Then, if it is agreed at the commencement of the discussion on the Bill on Report Stage, or in relation to any sections or amendments at the commencement of their discussion, or during the discussion of them and prior to them being completed, the matter can be recommitted provided there is agreement. However, it is not an automatic right and this is where the problem arises. If on any section, amendment or the entire Bill, prior to its consideration on Report Stage, the Minister opposes the actual recommittal, a brief statement can be made as to why a given section, amendment or the entire Bill before it is discussed should be recommitted. Then there would have to be a vote.
I am trying to get the point across that there is no automatic entitlement to recommittal. It is open to any Member to make that proposal at any time, but it can be opposed and can be defeated. With all the amendments we have in this particular Bill, we could in theory be doing nothing else except voting to see whether a section or amendment should or should not be recommitted. If, however, a Member feels at any stage that an amendment or section should be recommitted, and that there are valid reasons for it, that argument can be made. There is no automatic right, however, and the Minister can oppose it. A brief statement on to why it should be recommitted would be allowed but there would be a vote. I am really trying to say that there is no automatic right.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): I thank the Ceann Comhairle for that clarification. I had completed my submission with regard to the amendments in question, so I would be interested to get the views of the Deputies opposite.
Deputy Liz McManus: I do not think we should unduly delay the passage of the Bill. It has been a long time in gestation and the purpose is not to put obstacles in the way of its conclusion.  I am always uncomfortable with the idea of amendments being submitted on Report Stage. It makes it extremely difficult for any kind of proper scrutiny to be carried out. I appreciate that these things happen, but it is not good law making. From that point of view I want to lodge a protest, although I do not want to delay the work we are doing. I am confused about the term “continues in being” as opposed to “continues”. Maybe I am missing something but I would have thought that continues means continues. It is a perfectly good word in the English language, so why does it have to be qualified by the words “in being”? I do not want to be pedantic but I find the idea arcane that we are adding “in being” to the word “continues”, as if there was some other way to continue. What other way would the Minister suggest it could continue, other than being in being?
Acting Chairman (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan): Having just taken over the Chair, I should explain that amendment No. 93a arises from committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 93a, 101a, 148a and 148b are cognate, while amendment No. 149 is related, so they may all be discussed together.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I think it was. I may have read that out at the start of my own contribution. All of those amendments, with the exception of the last one which is a variation, relate to this difference between “continue” and “continue in being”.
Deputy Simon Coveney: Can I propose that we take amendments Nos. 93a, 101a, 148a and 148b together, as they are all technical in nature? I have no issue with them, but amendment No.113 is a substantive amendment on DTT and I would like to explore that.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: In response to Deputy McManus’s question, the sole reason is to ensure consistency with existing drafting precedents in other statutes. For example, in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, the social insurance continues in being. It is just a matter of better drafting.
Deputy Liz McManus: This happens and I really feel it should not happen. As it is already in law, we are perpetuating it. Instead of doing things better, we are doing them the way they were done in the past. One of the problems with legislation is that it is written in very obscure language and it is difficult for people to connect with it. Stating that we must do this because it is in some other piece of legislation is not good enough in my view. However, I will not labour the point.
I was asked to table this amendment by people concerned about radio reception in Britain and in Northern Ireland. It was initially about medium wave, and it relates to LF broadcast transmission. I would be surprised if the Minister accepted the amendment, but it raises an issue about those in the diaspora being able to obtain transmissions from Ireland. More importantly, it raises an issue about the diaspora channel, which was agreed by the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The statutory requirement for the diaspora channel was laid on RTE, which is now clearly not in a position to deliver on that requirement. I am extremely concerned about that because it is a real undermining of the work we do. If we are passing laws to require RTE or whoever to do certain things in the public interest, but these do not happen, it really raises questions. If it is the case that we are not providing the necessary funding, then that should be confronted. It is all too easy for a Government to propose some other authority to do something. It means the Government gets kudos for a commitment. The Bill is brought through the House, we all agree on what must be done, the Bill becomes the law of the land, but nothing happens.
Deputy Simon Coveney: I want to support the points made by Deputy McManus on the diaspora. RTE is in a unique position, being both a commercial and public service broadcaster. However, another unique part of RTE is its responsibility to the enormous number of Irish people who live outside this island. About 70 million people worldwide consider themselves Irish. A policy decision was rightly made by the Government that our public service broadcaster would reach out to that community. RTE management has taken it upon themselves to decide that they will not prioritise that project, as it is too expensive, without any consultation with the policymakers that made the strategic decision on what they should do. I have real issues with RTE deciding not to prioritise the diaspora because of funding problems, when that is a fundamental part of its public service remit since the Government made a decision this should be the case.
When we consider some of the other things RTE is doing, and remembering the debate we had about salaries and so on, this is an important project that simply cannot be put on the back burner for funding reasons as it is politically easy to do that. The only people who can check RTE and the priority it gives to the diaspora are people like the Minister. I would like him to do that. I am not sure whether it is appropriate in this Bill, but we should not let the opportunity pass.
Primary legislation mainly outlines objectives, rather than the specific technology standards and parameters needed to support such objectives. This is a logical approach given the rapid pace of technology and service development. In this case, it also means the operation of the long-wave transmitters is left to those with the expertise, experience and responsibility for ensuring a sustainable and affordable long-wave service into the future.
Radio services are licensed by ComReg under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926 and for each licence ComReg sets out the maximum permitted powers and relevant technical parameters under which the service can operate. In the case of a long-wave radio service, the radio waves travel further at night than in the day so the maximum permitted power is less at night than during the day. If RTE operated according to its maximum licensed power at all times, it would operate on slightly increased power during the day but at lower powers from 6 p.m. at night. This would greatly increase the cost of providing the service, reduce the reliability of the service and reduce the life of the equipment, but would not increase the quality or reach of the service.
RTE chooses to operate on constant power, operating below its licensed day time maximum power, in order to provide a more reliable service, something that is essential in the event of an emergency. It also does this to increase the lifetime of the equipment, which is also essential for an emergency service, and to save on costs. The increased operational and capital costs associated with changing the power of the service each day and night would bring into question the long-term viability of the service. I do not propose to accept the amendments.
I am aware that RTE has not yet fulfilled its obligations in existing legislation to provide that service to Irish emigrant communities. RTE is considering the matter and how it will approach it. I reminded it in September of the obligation and the desire of the Government that this matter would be pursued. There is a recognition that in this dramatic economic downturn and dramatically difficult budget times in RTE, flexibility must be shown. RTE is being given that. An RTE player is being developed for international on-line use but I want to see RTE committed to delivering on the proposed channel. It will bring commercial opportunities to RTE in the long run. The audience of 70 million with Irish connections is one we should go after rather than one we should feel we serve by dint of obligation.
Deputy Liz McManus: That is not a satisfactory answer. A decision was made by the Oireachtas that the channel would be provided. There is an onus on the Minister to do more than say that RTE should be doing more about this. Emigrants left this country because there was no work and they are increasingly leaving now because there is no work. Yet again, they are being shut out and at a time we intend to set up an Oireachtas channel we tell the diaspora that it is tough and that even though we went through the motions and made it law, we do not mean what we said. Deputy Stagg has diligently addressed this issue until results materialised by way of legislation. It is not good enough to say that RTE has not done it yet but that it will some day. I agree with the Minister that it is a positive idea, not one that is for nostalgic reasons only, nor is it to build connections with those who were dispersed because of economic necessity. It is also a positive aspect in today’s world, where we must do so much globally. Connecting with Irish people abroad is the justification for elaborate trips by Ministers around St. Patrick’s Day yet it is anomalous if we cannot provide the diaspora channel they were promised.
Amendment No. 106, which was already discussed even though I was not present, sets out how this could be done. There could be checks and balances to see if RTE lived up to its obligations. If it did not, we could ascertain the reasons and what it would need, such as additional funding. We have direct funding of TG4 for cultural and language reasons yet we cannot have the same commitment to people forced out of this country through economic necessity. That shows a double standard. Tender words are not worth a lot when the result is nothing on the ground in terms of change and delivering on a statutory commitment that binds us all.
These amendments aim to address the concerns raised by Deputy Coveney on Committee Stage in respect of the need for a multi-annual perspective in funding TG4. Amendment No. 105, which amends section 123, requires the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources when determining the level of public funding for TG4 to consider its multi-annual funding needs.
Amendment No. 107, which amends section 124, requires the broadcasting authority of Ireland, in its five year assessment of the adequacy or otherwise of public funding to TG4 and RTE, to consider the multi-annual nature of the public funding requirements of both TG4 and RTE.
These amendments relate to the wireless telegraphy elements of the Bill, and can be divided into subgroups. The first subgroup is amendments Nos. 110, 116 to 122, inclusive, and 150. Amendment No. 150 is advised by the Parliamentary Counsel and creates two collective citations which allow for the referencing both in the Bill and in future legislation, in a single phrase, of “wireless telegraphy legislation” and “broadcasting offences [illegal broadcasting] legislation”. Amendments Nos. 110 and 116 to 122, inclusive, apply that collective referencing throughout the Bill.
Amendment No. 152 is intended to facilitate a joint request from ComReg and the Department of Transport to amend section 2 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926, as amended by the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007, to clarify the respective roles of ComReg and the Minister for Transport with regard to the regulation of shore-based wireless telegraphy apparatus associated with marine safety. The amendment clarifies that any shore-based apparatus is to be licensed by ComReg.
Another subgroup comprises amendments Nos. 153, 157, 159, 160 and 163. Amendments Nos. 153, 157 and 163 derive from a request from ComReg to amend section 8 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926 in respect of the legal position of the return of apparatus for wireless telegraphy seized by ComReg in the course of its duties. In addressing this request the Parliamentary Counsel has advised, from a statute law revision perspective, the restatement of sections 7 and 8 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926. Amendments Nos. 159 and 160 propose the repeal of section 9(3) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1972 and section 17 of the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Act 1988, which are no longer required as a consequence of the review, and restatement of sections 7 and 8 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926 as proposed in amendment No. 163.
The final subgroup comprises amendments Nos. 151, 154 to 156, inclusive, 161, 162 and 164 to 166, inclusive. Amendments Nos. 154 to 156, inclusive, 161, 162 and 164 to 166, inclusive, correct errors and omissions in the text of section 180 and Schedule 2. Amendments Nos. 151 and 153 excise unnecessary and duplicate text in sections 180.
Deputy Simon Coveney: There are many amendments in this grouping and I do not need to comment on some of them because they are technical. The one I am most concerned about is amendment No. 158. Is that part of the grouping?
These amendments fall within the context of Part 8 which addresses the development of digital broadcasting services in Ireland and the closure of the analogue free-to-air television services currently provided by RTE, TG4 and TV3 using RTE’s analogue terrestrial transmission network’s analogue switch-off. Part 8 largely repeats the requirements for digital broadcasting as set out in the Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007 and I will take each of the amendments in turn.
With regard to amendment No. 111, sections 130(3) to 133(5) provide for ComReg to issue licences for digital radio multiplexes on request from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Subsection (3) provides for a national commercial and digital radio multiplex; subsection (4) provides for a multiplex or multiplexes for regional digital radio services; and subsection (5) provides for additional multiplexes. The reference to subsection (5) was omitted in error from the definitions section in Part 8 and amendment No. 111 seeks to correct this error.
Amendments Nos. 123 and 127 are minor drafting amendments necessary to improve the clarity and internal consistency of the text of the Bill. Section 130 provides for RTE to establish, maintain and operate a national digital television multiplex which will eventually replace the existing national analogue terrestrial television system.
Amendment No. 113 amends section 130(1)(b)(i) to provide additional clarity with regard to the time line for the provision of RTE’s digital terrestrial television services. Under this amendment, RTE is required to offer services to approximately 90% of the population by a date to be set by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources by order, and to have the network completely built and operational by December 2012 or such later date as set by the Minister. The first date will be set following further consultation with RTE as to its network build and roll-out plans. The second date has been set with a view to allowing a transition period for television viewers which provides adequate time to change to the digital service in advance of the analogue switch-off in 2012.
Amendment No. 113 also amends section 130(1)(b)(ii) so that the Minister may request regular updates from RTE as required. Amendment No. 113 proposes a new paragraph (c) in section 130(1) which provides for RTE to work to ensure the availability of suitable receivers on the Irish market. Digital television receivers must be compatible with the specifications of the RTE network if they are to receive the RTE DTT offering. RTE will need to work closely with manufacturers in ensuring a steady supply of receivers into Ireland.
The proposed paragraph (e) of section 130(1) is new and is intended to clarify that RTE can use any spare capacity on its multiplex in pursuance of commercial opportunities, subject to the approval of the Minister, the Minister having consulted the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
Amendment No. 114 is consequential to amendment No. 113. Amendment No. 128 amends section 139 which deals with analogue switch-off. This amendment introduces four new subsections which provide additional powers for the Minister in managing the process of switching off the analogue television services. These amendments aim to empower the Minister to address some of the issues raised by Deputies Coveney and McManus on Committee Stage in respect of the need for a managed analogue switch-off process.
The new subsections (9) and (10) empower the Minister, by himself or in conjunction with others, to manage the analogue switch-off process by promoting co-operation between key stakeholders in the switch-off process, commissioning research regarding analogue switch-off, promoting public awareness and providing appropriate help schemes for disadvantaged members of our society.
The new subsection (11) provides that the Minister by order may confer additional functions relating to analogue switch-off on ComReg, RTE and the BCI. The new subsection (12) provides that any such order would be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Deputy Simon Coveney: I will focus on amendment No. 113, which gives us an opportunity to have a discussion on where we are with DTT. I have raised this issue with the Minister during Question Time as a result of the very difficult position that RTE finds itself in with regard to funding because of Boxer deciding not to go ahead with a contract for commercial DTT. Boxer was to provide the necessary equipment to ensure households could get the set-top boxes which would allow people switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television. The idea was that RTE would build the infrastructure and a commercial operator would then lease the infrastructure or pay RTE for the use of it to provide a digital network across the country.
We have no commercial operator now and yet RTE is still being asked to roll out the infrastructure. It has spent €40 million so far and must spend another approximately €50 million to €60 million, which it does not have. I presume that is why the Minister feels it necessary to change the target date from 31 December 2009 — the original wording whereby 90% of people would have DTT coverage with regard to the public service multiplex for which RTE has responsibility.
We are now considering a wording indicating that this may happen on such a date as may be specified by the Minister. In other words, it will be at some stage in the future when RTE can afford to do it. There is recognition of a real problem, and this is the first time the Minister has given us that acknowledgement. Until now, his line has been simple; if Boxer does not do it, we will move to the next best tender, which is OneVision. The BCI is speaking with that consortium with a view to providing a commercial DTT product, although many of us are very sceptical about whether OneVision has the capacity or will to do this. I hope I am wrong in that respect. What is sure is that there will be a delay in the commercial DTT product over three multiplexes, amounting to approximately 20 channels, whether it is provided by OneVision or somebody else.
The problem for RTE is that it still has the financial commitment to continue rolling out the infrastructure of masts and aerials. On top of that there is recognition in amendment No. 113 that there is a suggestion that RTE will have to provide the set-top boxes. The new section 130(1)(c) states “RTÉ shall take steps to promote the availability of equipment capable of receiving, identifying, decoding and displaying a national television multiplex operated by RTÉ under section 114(1)(i).” Not only will RTE be required to meet the expense of rolling out the infrastructure across the country but it will also be asked to solve the problem of the set-top boxes, which it was not supposed to be involved with at all. That was to be resolved by the commercial operator.
That will have a significant financial consequence for RTE on top of everything else. We should have a dose of honesty as to when we are likely to have 90% coverage for DTT in Ireland and how much it will cost. How will RTE afford to carry this out in its current financial position? I would like to hear the Minister’s comments on that. I make these statements in the context of being very supportive of the DTT project while acknowledging the real barriers and roadblocks which exist from a financing perspective.
Paragraph (e) provides for RTE to exploit the commercial opportunity if spare capacity is available on its multiplex. Is this contradictory to section 130(1)? It will be required to provide RTE 1, RTE 2, TG4, TV3, the Irish Film Channel, the Oireachtas Channel and such other television services having character of a public service as designated by the Minister by order. What further commercial opportunities will be available?
Deputy Liz McManus: I have similar concerns to Deputy Coveney’s. The provision of digital terrestrial television services, DTT, has become a tangled issue. It is of necessity a complex issue but I am concerned it is complicated by the number of players involved. There is the unknown entity which will replace Boxer, the commercial interest, RTE, ComReg, the BCI, the new authority and the Minister.
Apart from the delay in its roll-out, this autumn people on the east coast will lose the access which they have enjoyed for a long time to the overspill in transmission of British television channels. Britain has got its act together while Ireland has not.
Other problems relate to costs, as has already been outlined, the timeframe and the loss to the digital dividend which has great potential. The roll-out of the service has been delayed because of what has happened to Boxer. While I do not blame the Minister for this, there is a question mark over the approach expressed in these amendments. Some of them are so far behind of what is required of us, it is becoming disturbing. Public awareness of this issue is zilch. The receiver boxes issue should have been resolved some time ago and now there is a new departure as to who is responsible for those.
I recall some years ago the broadcasting industry sought one person to take charge of this whole transformation. This mishmash of amendments tells us we need a type of DTT tsar to complete this project.
While an EU obligation in this area must be met, there are also issues for those involved in this transformation. They need to have a certain amount of information and security about what is involved. However, I get the impression because there are negotiations starting with RTE and OneVision we are into unknown territory. Allowing for all the caveats involved, will the Minister clarify the timeframe involved in this? How will it be managed? I do not believe there is a management structure in place to ensure we meet the deadlines.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: The key timeline derives from the switch-off of the analogue system by the end of 2012. This is the one certain deadline with which everything has to work back. That deadline is not there just because of EU directives but because of the economic imperative that comes from the digital dividend from using the spectrum elsewhere.
It will be a tight timeline. The BCI selected a winning bidder last year and one would have expected the system to be up and running at this stage. However, this has not occurred and it will require RTE and the BCI to enter into separate contract negotiations with OneVision, the second consortium on the list. While the economic conditions are difficult, I have pointed out on Question Time and elsewhere that the economic case is strong for such an investment in DTT, particularly for some of the companies involved in that consortium. I am not as sceptical as Deputy Coveney that these contractual arrangements will not be agreed. While I am not involved directly, I am confident suitable arrangements will be made and we can proceed with the switch-on of digital services with a combination of free-to-air services and a commercial mix of channels.
One reason for the change in the deadline is that we cannot be exactly certain of the date for this switch-over. It is not very bright to tie ourselves legislatively to a particular date. As stated earlier, we should not tie ourselves to certain technologies in the legislation because they change. Similarly, I do not want to be tied down legislatively to the switch-over. There is still a mechanism in the legislation to mandate RTE to ensure the switch-over from analogue to digital in 2012. While it is a tight timeline, I am confident we will achieve this transfer.
Deputy Simon Coveney: Will the Minister accept that the whole DTT project will collapse financially because of the absence of a commercial DTT operator on the three remaining multiplexes? Why would anyone pay to switch over to DTT to get a public service digital product when the channels are already free on the analogue system? Why are we forcing RTE to spend a fortune to do this? Until OneVision, or some other company, is nailed down to provide the 25 commercial DTT channels, RTE is being placed in a precarious position of providing DTT and its multiplex even though no one will avail of it.
Deputy Simon Coveney: ——as well as the infrastructural costs and so on. I understand what the Minister must do in respect of these amendments because of the uncertainty that now exists. However, I stress that in the absence of getting a commercial operator in place for DTT, the entire project begins to fall flat in its face. If the OneVision proposal is not going to produce a result, we must face up to that, move on quickly and find another result that will secure a commercial operator for DTT.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: May I respond? We will switch off in 2012 and RTE needs to know that. It needs to know the Government is firm and committed to that date and it must begin to prepare for this certainty. Yes, in the event of not making a commercial agreement with OneVision, the Government will move to an alternative system. Come what may however, the analogue system is being switched off in 2012. This is the reason RTE must know that and must begin to working towards that date with real certainty, which is what is being provided in the legislation.
This amendment relates to an issue that I raised previously. It was sent to me as a possible solution to the problem that I had raised and I would be grateful were the Minister to take on board its points. Essentially, it relates to an issue that has been quite widespread in this metropolitan area in particular, whereby people in apartments cannot use the provider of their choice because of management company agreements. While this might appear to be a basic and simple issue regarding people’s rights, it turns out that people do not have any rights and often end up with providers they do not want. Even when people have many complaints in this regard and go to the Competition Authority, etc., it does not appear to make any difference.
I would be grateful were the Minister to accept the principle that people have a right to choose, regardless of whether they live in an apartment or anywhere else. If the Minister does not intend to accept this amendment, he should advise me as to how he proposes to resolve this issue that has been raised by my colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, in particular. He has received many submissions in this regard from both apartment owners and tenants, who cannot ensure that they can have their desired provider. Members are aware that standards of service vary considerably between companies and this issue must be addressed in the Bill.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: In respect of amendment No. 112, which relates to the provision of digital services in multi-occupancy developments, the issue in question concerns access to shared infrastructure and, therefore, is relevant to television services and, for example, to energy, telephone and broadband connections or any other shared infrastructure over which competing providers seek to provide services. I understand that while the issue of the exclusive provision of television services currently is the subject of a Competition Authority review, the principal solution is for a legislative intervention that will regularise the position of management companies with respect to apartment residents, with specific emphasis on the vesting of management companies in the owners of such appointments in a timely manner. This appears to be the crux of the issue as it is clear that management companies and their control play a central role in the right of residents as a group to select common service providers.
In June 2008, the Law Reform Commission published a report into the reform of property and planning law. In response to the commission’s report, a high level interdepartmental committee on multi-unit developments was established to identify the necessary legislative and administrative actions that should be taken in response to the commission’s recommendations. The work of the committee has, in turn, fed into the development of the multi-unit developments Bill 2009, which was published by my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform last month. The multi-unit developments Bill specifically addresses the role in control of management companies in respect of multi-unit developments and, as such, I do not propose to accept the Deputy’s amendment.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: As I noted in my response, my understanding is that it does. I noted that the regulation of the management companies is the key to this issue and that matter will be controlled in that Bill.
An Ceann Comhairle: Amendment No. 129 arises out of committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 130 to 145, inclusive, are related. Amendment No. 133 is a technical alternative to amendment No. 132. Amendments Nos. 141 and 142 are technical alternatives to amendment No. 140. Amendments Nos. 129 to 145, inclusive, will be discussed together.
All these amendments are mine and I tabled them because I wish to fundamentally change Part 9 of the Bill. I do not believe the existing funding mechanism for funding public service broadcasting is appropriate any longer. Essentially, my proposal is to leave the existing system in place for the present and included a provision to that effect at the end of the amendment No. 129. However, the authority should be required to prepare a report “which shall be completed and laid before the Minister and Joint Oireachtas Committee within 12 months, on the most appropriate and efficient method of public funding for public service broadcasting”. The amendment then lays out the criteria for so doing.
On a series of levels, it is inappropriate, bad value for money, ineffective and outdated to fund public service broadcasting to the tune of more than €200 million each year by attaching an obligation to have a licence for every television in the country. We have an army of people knocking on doors, checking under beds for televisions and asking people whether they have licences. In this Bill, the Minister is attempting to introduce a new fines mechanism so that people do not have to be sent to prison. In the last two years, approximately 50 people have gone to prison because they do not have television licences. It costs the State a great deal of money to go through the courts system to put people in prison and hold them there. It is madness. It costs €12 million a year to collect €200 million, which is totally inefficient.
It is becoming more and more difficult to define what a television is. The Minister has claimed that under this legislation, laptops, computer screens and personal digital assistants do not constitute televisions. If somebody is watching television via a computer screen, he or she will not need a television licence. If somebody is watching television via a plasma screen, he or she will need a licence. On Committee Stage, I asked the Minister how he would describe the plasma screens that are used in the Oireachtas committee rooms. They are used as presentation screens, by and large, rather than as televisions. What are they? Are they computer screens or televisions? This is becoming a nonsensical argument. Surely we can put in place a new method of collecting €200 million from 4 million people to fund public service broadcasting in Ireland. The reality is that approximately 20% of the people do not pay the licence fee at all. The other 80% of the people have to pay for them. We are spending a great deal of money to chase after people to determine whether they own a television. The system is so inefficient that it almost encourages evasion. When those who have not bought television licences are caught, they have to pay a small fine that is considerably less than the cost of the licence fee. Where is the incentive to get a licence? When one buys a new television, one is almost incentivised not to pay the licence fee because one can be pretty sure that one will not be caught for a couple of years, at least. One is better off to wait until one is caught, to pay the fine, which is approximately one third of the licence fee, and to buy the licence at that stage.
For a series of reasons, we need to modernise the manner in which we raise revenues for public service broadcasting. We should consider the introduction of a household levy, in addition to a business levy that applies to pubs, hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts. That would allow us to collect the funds that are needed in an efficient manner. I do not mind whether An Post or the Revenue Commissioners are responsible for the system, as long as there is a proper tendering process. As I understand it, the Minister’s only justification for continuing to fund public service broadcasting through the inefficient television licence fee process is that no other European country has a better way of doing it. Why can Ireland not make the first move in this regard? I do not understand why we are not taking this issue more seriously. The current inefficient system, which is costing us money, is plagued by evasion. All of these problems will intensify in the years to some, as it becomes more and more difficult to define what a television is. I ask the Minister to consider these amendments, in which I propose that we should retain the current inefficient system while putting in place a braver and more effective system that ensures everybody pays. While I do not expect he will accept this proposal, I cannot be expected to roll with the punches and to accept the indefinite continuation of the kind of inefficient and outdated system we have at the moment.
Deputy Liz McManus: I support the proposal outlined in Deputy Coveney’s amendments. None of us can devise the perfect system, but that does not mean we should avoid the issue. I imagine that the current system of television licence fee collection dates back to a time when many households did not have television sets. It might have been appropriate then, but that is no longer the case. If we do not address the idea that we should maintain a quaint system of collection, even after the traditional one-off television set in the corner of the sitting room has been by-passed by technology, we will continue to get an inefficient return on the money that is spent. There seems to be a kind of acceptance that there is not much point in going after a certain percentage of people, because they will not buy a television licence anyway. It seems that the notion that certain people cannot afford to buy a licence or are determined not to pay, whereas more law-abiding people will pay when they are required to do so, is now part of the system. However, this does not take recent technological changes into account. Our idea of what constitutes a computer or a television set is changing. Deputy Stagg asked me to raise the case of a person who has a small black and white television set in the corner of his or her holiday home or caravan in a place like Ballymoney. Will such a person have to continue to buy a television licence even though he or she is there for just three months of the year? The use of the television set in question would not justify such an outlay. The annual licence fee would probably cost more than the television set.
This issue needs to be addressed. These amendments represent an honest effort to add some urgency to the need to do this. The alternative to confronting this problem, which has been raised many times, is to continue to talk about it indefinitely. I know the Minister will agree with what we have said. We have discussed this so often that I could almost recite the Minister’s response at this stage. That would not solve this problem, however. The Minister’s job is to solve problems of this nature when we meet them as the world evolves and technology advances. We should not be going through the motions. There is not a huge amount in this Bill, to be honest. The new structure that is being put in place will have many of the functions of the old structure. We need to modernise the way we collect funds to pay for public service broadcasting. That is absolutely essential to our future. We all must ensure that public service broadcasting has a really good future. If we continue to fund it through the television licence fee system or some other structure, we can ensure its future is assured. However, we have to ensure the system operates on some kind of efficient basis. We do not have such a basis at the moment.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: Amendments Nos. 141 and 142 are in my name. Amendment No. 141 proposes the deletion of a duplicate reference and amendment No. 142 proposes to clarify the timelines within which a fixed payment notice may be served.
Amendment No. 133, in the name of Deputy McManus, seeks to ensure that a person does not require a second television licence if he or she possesses a television set for a short period of the year at a second address to his or her main address. Section 144(1) of this Bill empowers the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to make such regulations as are necessary to achieve the effect proposed in amendment No. 133 if such a policy were to be adopted. Such a policy has not yet been adopted. Any such policy proposal would require further analysis, particularly in terms of how it would work from an administrative perspective. Therefore, I do not propose to accept the amendment.
Deputy Coveney’s amendments in this grouping — Nos. 130 to 132, inclusive; Nos. 134 to 140, inclusive; and Nos. 143 to 145, inclusive — would, in effect, delete the legislative basis for the television licensing regime without proposing an alternative funding mechanism. They would, in effect, bring an end to the principal source of public funding for public service broadcasting in Ireland. While I fully understand the point being made by Deputy Coveney, I am sure he will appreciate that I do not propose to accept these amendments.
I remind Deputy Coveney, who tabled amendment No. 129, that I have previously stated that in the near future we may have to move away from the television licence as the basis for the funding of public service broadcasting. I reiterate that the licence fee has served us well to date, despite its limitations. It has ensured some measure of independence for RTE from political and commercial pressures. It has also acted as a direct link between audiences and RTE, thereby reminding the national public service operator to whom its public service duty is ultimately owed. As such, we must review proposed alternatives with caution and due diligence. All the issues for consideration that are listed in amendment No. 129 are valid as policy matters for further consideration, primarily by the Department rather than by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Therefore, I do not propose to accept the amendment.
It is interesting to reflect on the views of others on this matter. I remember distinctly hearing RTE’s view on it when it was discussed at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Its preference was for a continuation of the current system because it works. The British Government examined this matter in detail in recent years and it came to a similar conclusion to that reached by us, namely, that while there is cause to examine alternatives it is not yet the time or right technically to switch. We in the Department are open to examining alternatives — but not yet — to replacing the existing system, which provides a certain security for the public service broadcaster in difficult times While it has its costs, it still ultimately works.
|Last Updated: 07/10/2010 12:45:10||Page of 129|