Plans to target TV licence evaders
Television licence inspectors will be given access to personal Sky and UPC cable subscription records to catch evaders by the end of the year, under plans rubber stamped by Government.
Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said his scheme would root out the "scourge" of people refusing to pay the tax and boost funding for RTE by millions of euro.
In one of its last decisions before a reshuffle, the Cabinet agreed the crackdown would be enforced by new laws giving inspectors the power to scour bills and cross-check them against TV licence records.
Sky said it would ensure customer data is safe if inspectors are given access.
UPC was forced to clarify its initial assessment that releasing customer information contravenes data protection laws by adding that the company complies with legal obligations.
Mr Rabbitte said he hopes the new inspection regime will be in place before the end of this year.
"Licence fee evasion is an ongoing scourge," he said.
"While in the nature of things it is difficult to be exact, we estimate that it is running at over 15%, which is more than three times the rate in our nearest neighbour."
State mail company An Post is charged with pursuing and collecting TV licence fees from anyone who operates a television set, regardless of which broadcasters are viewed on it. The cost is currently 160 euro a year.
Evaders can be fined up to 1,000 euro for a first offence and as much as 2,000 euro if caught more than once. More than 400 people were jailed last year for not paying their TV licence.
Mr Rabbitte said some evaders pay subscriptions to cable or satellite every month, some ranging from 30 to 60 euro, and at the same time they refuse to pay just over 13 euro for the TV licence.
He said it is there to fund public service broadcasting and that evaders were responsible for hitting the quality of service on the national airwaves.
The Labour Party minister estimates RTE loses up to 30 million euro a year in unpaid fees.
"As long ago as 2004 the Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted the fact there was no legal obligation on cable or satellite TV service suppliers to inform An Post of the names and addresses of persons availing of their services," he said.
"Given the ComReg estimate that over 73% of TV households have such services, this measure should significantly reduce the level of evasion."
UPC, which is the country's biggest provider of home phone, broadband and television packages, initially warned that releasing customer information is a breach of data privacy laws prompting fears of a collision course with the Government.
In a short statement it said: "UPC has noted the comments by Minister Rabbitte.
"UPC is not in a position to give An Post access to our cable subscription data because this would contravene our obligations under data protection."
A spokeswoman for the company offered a clarification stating that as the law currently stands it will not hand over any information on customers, before adding that it would not comment on how it would act in the future as the legislation has not been written.
She added: "It is unclear what is proposed here, what is required of us. We will comply with our legal obligations, we have done, always did, but it is still very unclear what the Government (will) require us to do."
UPC has 427,000 customers on a television package. One of its main competitors Sky does not officially confirm figures but they are believed to have in the region of 500,000 television customers, with estimates from AC Nielsen stating the satellite service is in 40% of households.
On the TV licencing deal, Sky spokesman said: "Sky notes the announcement by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on proposed legislation dealing with TV licence fee evasion.
"Sky takes its responsibilities to protect its customers' data very seriously recognising the trust our customers place in us. Sky will continue to ensure that its customers data is safe in compliance with all legislative requirements applicable."