Local Property Tax database will be used to target TV licence fee evaders

People who watch TV shows solely on a digital device could also be in line for fees. Photo: Morad HEGUI

Hugh O'Connell

REVENUE’S Local Property Tax (LPT) database could be used to target TV licence fee evaders after the Government rejected proposals to abolish the €160 charge.

Ministers have instead asked officials to examine ways to develop a new and more comprehensive register “by potentially leveraging existing national databases of households”, including those maintained by Revenue, which operates the LPT, and GeoDirectory, operated by An Post and Ordnance Survey Ireland.

A new cross-departmental technical group, due to report to Media Minister Catherine Martin in November, will look at new enforcement measures.

It will establish whether the licence fee should apply to households that do not own a TV, raising the prospect of people who watch RTÉ on phones and tablets being charged the fee.

The Cabinet was told yesterday that An Post’s licence fee database is “based on archaic technology and is significantly out of date”.

The coalition rejected the Future of Media Commission’s proposals to replace the licence fee with funding “derived from general tax revenue” by 2024 over concerns that future governments could cut RTÉ’s funding if they do not like its coverage.

With an evasion rate of just over 15pc, RTÉ estimates it loses €65m every year because thousands of households are not paying the licence fee.

However, ministers were told that even reforming the licence fee may not generate the level of public service broadcasting funding recommended by the commission.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it would be “dangerous for democracy” if funding was contingent on annual budgetary decisions by government.

He said some EU governments were “now directly influencing to an unhealthy degree media outlets”.

Replacing the fee with Exchequer funds could cost taxpayers’ €300m and was “not realistic” in the “current fiscal climate”, Mr Martin said.

The commission, chaired by Professor Brian MacCraith, made 50 recommendations, 49 of which were accepted by the Government, including a new regulator, Coimisiún na Meán, to set industry standards.

Other measures include a “National Counter-Disinformation Strategy” to enhance trust in media; a reduced or zero VAT rate for newspapers and digital publications and a media fund to support local democracy reporting, courts reporting and community media.

A cabinet memo outlined the Taoiseach and Ms Martin’s view that reforms to the current funding model can reduce evasion rates with new “innovative collection mechanisms” used to enhance compliance, along with a public communications campaign and “additional enforcement measures to be made available to the designated collection agent”.

The group will examine whether the licence fee should extend beyond those who own a non-portable TV and the challenges of targeting those who use phones or tablets in the context of the burden of proof, collection, enforcement and public perception.

It will also look at obstacles to accessing Revenue and GeoDirectory databases, and consult the Data Protection Commissioner.

The memo acknowledged reforms may need legislative changes to underpin the sustainability of the new database, which ministers were told could cost up to €5m.

The group will also examine the limitations of current collection methods; current enforcement options; what options might be used to tackle evasion; and how quickly reforms can be implemented.

The Cabinet was told Ireland is one of only a few countries still operating a licence model limited to ownership of a TV set, and evasion rates are higher than in many other European jurisdictions.

One commission member, Storyful founder and former RTÉ broadcaster Mark Little, criticised the Government’s rejection of the funding recommendation, saying: “Trying to better enforce the licence fee is a recipe for public resentment of public media.”

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