€5m TV licence fee cut conflict for Labour Ministers

Rabbitte critical of Cabinet colleague Burton’s decision to cut RTÉ payment


Two Government departments run by Labour Ministers are at loggerheads over when it was made known that the Department of Social Protection would be cutting the fee paid to RTÉ for the TV licence by €5 million.

The Irish Times reported yesterday that Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte had criticised the decision by his Labour Cabinet colleague Joan Burton to reduce the annual payment from the Department of Social Protection to RTÉ from €59 million to €54 million.

Mr Rabbitte, whose Department of Communications has responsibility for the TV licence and for RTÉ, said the first he had heard of the reduction was at the Cabinet meeting held last Sunday night, two days before the budget, which signed off on all the individual cuts by departments.

However, while neither department was willing to make any public statement yesterday, it is understood that Ms Burton’s officials in the Department of Social Protection have said they informed the Department of Communications several weeks beforehand.

But the issue of contention for the Department of Communications is that Mr Rabbitte himself was not informed until two days before the budget, making it too late for him to raise a substantive objection over an issue on which he had firm views. His view was that it was counterproductive for his department to make major efforts to raise the revenues being collected through TV licences as a support to public service broadcasting only for another department to withdraw that funding.

Sources on both sides said they did not want to exacerbate the matter but there was a conflict between both departments on when and how the information was communicated. There was also a suggestion that a legal obligation to inform the Minister for Communications about the change may not have been fulfilled.

Under the Broadcasting Act it is the Minister for Communications who has the powers to determine the amount paid, and that amount can be changed only after consultation with the Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure.

The department of Social Protection administers the Household Benefits scheme for pensioners. Some 410,000 households are entitled to a free licence under the scheme. The Department’s savings measures included a €5 million reduction or discount in the payment to RTÉ, without any pensioner losing his or her licence.