Cabinet approves measures for TV licence crackdown

An Post to be allowed access Sky and UPC subscription data to tackle evasion

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte sought Cabinet approval to introduce measures which would help curb the 16 per cent rate of TV licence evasions. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte sought Cabinet approval to introduce measures which would help curb the 16 per cent rate of TV licence evasions. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has said the “scourge” of TV licence evasion will be tackled after the Cabinet agreed to permit An Post to access Sky and UPC subscription data.

The €160 yearly fee is collected by An Post and a new law will be drafted so the organisation can cross-check its database of licence fee payers against a list of households and businesses with cable or satellite TV services.

“Given the ComReg estimate that over 73 per cent of ‘TV households’ have such services, this measure should significantly reduce the level of evasion,”

Mr Rabbitte said.

“Licence fee evasion is an ongoing scourge. While in the nature of things it is difficult to be exact, we estimate that it is running at over 15 per cent, which is more than three times the rate in our nearest neighbour.”

Until now, there has been no legal obligation on cable or satellite TV service suppliers to inform An Post of the names and addresses of people availing of their services.

UPC said it was not in a position to give An Post access to its cable subscription data “because this would contravene our obligations under data protection”.

However, speaking after today’s Cabinet meeting, Mr Rabbitte moved to assure consumers they should have no concerns about data protection as a consequence of the crackdown. “A short piece of legislation is needed in order to implement this proposal, so as to ensure compliance with data protection concerns,” he said.

“An Post will have access to the information solely for its statutory functions in relation to licence fee collection and the commercial confidentially of the information will have to be safeguarded.”

The Data Protection Commissioner’s office said the legislation when enacted would have the effect of setting aside the consent requirements which would otherwise apply under data protection law.

The Department will consult with the office when the legislation is being drafted.

Mr Rabbitte said he hoped the legislation could be passed and in force by the end of this year and that it would have an immediate impact on RTÉ revenues. He estimated €25 to €30 million of potential revenue was lost annually to the national broadcaster due to licence evasion.

He said the revenue lost through fee evasion also created an inequality between compliant licence holders and evaders.

“With this proposal, the licence fee inspection and collection system can enter the 21st century,” Mr Rabbitte said.

Each year, the Government provides a grant to RTÉ which is funded by the television licence fee, and the national broadcaster has responsibilities to deliver public service programmes.

The fee is collected by An Post on behalf of the Minister for Communications, who has responsibility for broadcasting policy in Ireland.

Income from the TV licence amounts to some €220 million a year. The bulk of the money, around €180 million, goes to RTÉ, with the rest distributed between TG4 and independent productions funded through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

The Programme for Government committed the Coalition to examining the role and collection of the TV licence “in light of existing and projected convergence of broadcasting technologies”.

The Programme said the TV licence would be transformed into a household-based Public Broadcasting Charge. The Cabinet has agreed to permit An Post to access Sky and UPC subscription data as part of a drive to reduce TV licence evasion.

The level of licence fee evasion in Ireland is around 16 per cent, which is higher than in Britain. The TV licence costs €160 a year.

“We suspect some people are happily paying out €30, €40, €60-plus a month to access cable or satellite services but aren’t prepared to pony up the 13 euro for the TV licence,” a spokesman for Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte said.

The Minister sought Government approval to draft fresh legislation to enable the collection agent, currently An Post, to access subscription data held by TV service providers such as UPC and Sky.

ComReg research suggests some 73 per cent of households avail of some kind of subscription service.

Mr Rabbitte’s move will be carried out in accordance with strict data protection guidelines. Protection for consumers would be enshrined in the proposed new law.

However, UPC said in a statement it is “ not in a position to give An Post access to our cable subscription data because this would contravene our obligations under data protection”.

Income from the TV licence amounts to some €220 million a year. The bulk of the money, around €180 million, goes to RTÉ, with the rest distributed between TG4 and independent productions funded through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

Each year, the government provides a grant to RTÉ which is funded by the television licence fee. RTÉ has responsibilities to deliver public service programmes.

The television licence fee is collected by An Post on behalf of the Minister for Communications, who has responsibility for broadcasting policy in Ireland.

The licence fee has previously been a point of contention between Mr Rabbitte and the new Tánaiste Joan Burton.

Last December Mr Rabbitte criticised Ms Burton’s plan to reduce the payment from the Department of Social Protection to RTÉ by €5 million.

The Programme for Government committed the Coalition to examining the role and collection of the TV licence “in light of existing and projected convergence of broadcasting technologies”.

The Programme said the TV licence would be transformed into a household-based Public Broadcasting Charge.