The Government is pushing forward with plans to shift the responsibility for television licence fee enforcement away from An Post.
The Office of Government Procurement has published a request for information on television licence fee collection services on behalf of the Department of Communications.
It is seeking responses from private contractors about how best to manage the collection, payment and enforcement of the €160 a year licence fee, which has an estimated evasion rate of 15-18 per cent.
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten indicated late last year that people should still be able pay their licence through An Post even if the responsibility for its collection and enforcement is transferred elsewhere.
The Office of Government Procurement said its request for information was “a preliminary market-sounding exercise” and not a competition or invitation to tender. The deadline for responses is April 28th.
The high rate of licence fee evasion in Ireland has been a source of concern for many years and is estimated by Mr Naughten to cost the Irish broadcasting sector some €40 million a year in lost funding.
It is understood the Department of Communications previously discussed the issue with representatives of Capita, the UK group that was appointed to develop the Eircode system and also manages the enforcement of the licence fee on behalf of the BBC.
Although the shift to a household broadcast charge is officially off the table, Mr Naughten said in December that he was considering extending the definition of “television” to include other screens. This follows a rise in the number of households declaring that they have no set.
In the UK, a loophole that enabled people to watch BBC content via its catch-up service iPlayer without being charged a licence fee was closed in September 2016. Mr Naughten said he had “looked at what they’re doing in the UK” and it was one of the options available to his department.
RTÉ, which receives the bulk of licence fee funding, has no direct role in the collection of the fee. The database of both licensed and unlicensed household and business addresses is currently maintained by An Post.
The Government would still like to oblige pay-TV providers such as Sky, Virgin Media and Eir to share subscriber data with the licence fee enforcement agency.
A number of amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009 will be proposed shortly. Mr Naughten told broadcasters last month that he hoped to make these amendments by the end of 2017 “at the latest”.
RTÉ received €179 million in licence fee funding in 2015, according to the last published annual report.
TG4 receives about €9 million from the licence fee, while the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland distributes 7 per cent of the sums collected among independent producers.
RTÉ has asked for an increase in the licence fee rate as part of its negotiations with the Government. Director-general Dee Forbes said on Radio 1 last week that she "quite honestly" thought the licence fee should be double the current rate. However, a couple of hours later she conceded that the possibility of such an increase was a "nonsense".
The broadcaster, which is thought to have recorded a deficit of €20 million in 2016, has announced a major restructuring that will see hundreds of employees leave the organisation. Under the legislation, it must present a five-year strategy document by September.