Update: Postmasters are concerned about the Government plan to tender the contract for the collection of TV Licence fees.
The Irish Postmasters’ Union (IPU) said it is worth €3m to them each year and claim that if it is lost, it would place hundreds of Post Offices at risk of closing.
IPU General Secretary Ned O’Hara said: “If a major utility were to win the contract it is likely that it would push for a deduct at source approach, thereby removing the need for use of the Post Office.”
The IPU welcomed a five-year commitment to providing TV Licence renewals at Post Offices as part of the Tender contract, but warned that this may make little difference if An Post does not retain the contract.
Mr O’Hara said: “Moving forward it is also important that customers will also have the option of purchasing licences for their computer and phone devices at the Post Office counter, as RTE licencing is to expand beyond television sets.”
IPU President Sean Martin said the Government needs to do much more to expand the range of public services provided through the Network.
Mr Martin said: “Postmasters have agreed to new contracts, new opening hours and accepted the need for some consolidation. New Government services are critical to offset the ongoing decline in social welfare payments.
“Post Offices simply must diversify their over-the-counter offerings. Many services have long been identified such as car tax, drivers’ licences, Leap cards and identity services.
“The IPU has recently written to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton seeking a meeting on these issues and has not received an offer to engage.
“If the Government does not take a serious level of initiative, further large-scale Post Office closures are inevitable – and for those remaining a Public Service Obligation (PSO) model will become necessary.
Independent Kerry TD Michael Healy Rae has defended post offices and their role in collecting TV licence fees.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Today with Miriam O’Callaghan show in his capacity as a postmaster, Mr Healy Rae said that the high TV licence evasion rates were not the fault of individual postmasters.
Mr Healy Rae said 230 post offices were under threat of imminent closure with potentially another 600 in danger in the next 24 months.
The TV licence and the collection of fees are a mechanism of Government, he said, expanding it to a Broadcast Fee was “essentially introducing a household charge".
The current evasion rate of 12% was not the fault of postmasters, he said, as local post offices are not in charge of enforcement, “we can only take money from people who come in to pay it.”
Mr Healy Rae accused the Government of “flying a kite to see how they will get on with it.”
- Vivienne Clarke
An Post has said the announcement "offers some clarity on the future of the licence".
The firm said: "The Television Licence contract is an important part of An Post’s business strategically, a key facet of our public service role and an essential income stream for our Postmasters and the national Post Office network.
"An Post has long argued that the contract needs to be longer term than the current annual renewal to allow for investment into databases and IT to facilitate more efficient collection."
The firm said that last year it collected 1,038,986 TV Licences accruing €166m in TV Licence fees, a 1% increase on the prior year.
An Post said: "The 2018 evasion rate was 12.83%, down from 14.1% in the prior year. This 1.27% improvement demonstrates An Post’s commitment and focus in growing licence sales in a very challenging market rife with difficult conditions, many of which are outside the control of An Post.
"Licence fee collection is a difficult and complex task as the TV Licence is a voluntary tax. Achieving a compliance rate of 87% under current conditions is a credit to An Post’s Licence collection team across the country."
A new "broadcasting charge" is set to replace the TV licence fee and will apply to all households, including those that don't have a TV but who use laptops, tablets and other devices to watch programmes.
The new charge is likely to be rolled out in five years' time, once a contract to maximise collection of the current TV licence fee ends.
A new bill underpinning the change will see the Government tender for people to collect the current licence fee in a bid to crack down on non-payment. 12% of households currently evade the fee. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 10% of homes access content on alternative devices which do not require a television licence.
At the end of the five-year period to maximise collection of the current licence fee, the charge is set to be replaced by a "device-independent broadcasting charge". It will mean that people will have to pay a fee regardless of whether they have a TV, as long as content is watched on other devices, including laptops and tablets.
Communications Minister Richard Bruton said the new bill is aimed at futureproofing funding for public service broadcasting.
The licence fee is currently collected by An Post. RTÉ - which is funded by the licence fee - believes another €40m a year could be invested in broadcasting if there were better collection of the charge.
The Broadcasting Bill being brought by Richard Bruton will also reduce the levy independent broadcasters have to pay and establish a grant for young journalists working in local and regional radio, in a bid to address increasing financial pressures on journalists caused by falling ad revenues.
The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2019 will also see the broadcasting levy reduced for all broadcasters, while some community broadcasters will be exempt entirely.
A review has also been announced of the Broadcasting Act, to evaluate the proportion of the TV licence revenue which is allocated to the independent sector and native Irish content.
The review will also consider the minimum amount of funding that RTÉ is obliged to spend on commissioning external content.
In 2018, this amounted to €39.7m - the Government says increasing this would provide "an important stimulus" to the independent production sector.
The Government says approximately 12% of people do not pay their licence fee.
Communications Minister Richard Bruton said: "Audiences are transitioning away from traditional platforms and are increasingly accessing content online through digital mediums."
"It is also clear that due to the nature of technological change and the movement towards digital devices, the design of the TV licence fee will have to change.
"This is a fundamental reform that will take time to develop, but it will future proof the funding model, taking account of changes in technology and in how content is now consumed."
"The objective of this review will be to see how we can best support original Irish content production."