Seanad Éireann - Volume 137 - 24 June, 1993
Adjournment Matters. - School Television Licences.
Mr. O'Toole Mr. O'Toole
Mr. O'Toole: I am delighted to have this opportunity to put this matter on the record.
It is a matter of concern that teachers throughout the country appear to have been targeted recently by An Post for the purchase of TV licences. The Irish primary school system is the only one in Europe that does not have access to a schools educational programme on television. I have consistently said RTE is remiss in its responsibilities under its charter to educate, inform and entertain; I mentioned this yesterday on the Second Stage debate on the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill, 1993.
Earlier this year the Minister for Social Welfare on behalf of the Government announced a commitment to provide free colour TV licences for the up to 95,000 pensioners in the State — that initiative is welcome. There are marginally more than 3,000 national schools and, in the words of the Minister for Education, they are “grossly under-funded”. According to the OECD's recent report on European and world countries, ours is the most under-funded primary education system in the developed world.
Nine out of ten primary schools are involved in fund raising. This has always been part of the operation of primary schools, but in recent times fund raising has been directed towards providing heat, light and sanitation. I said yesterday that between a third and a half of all grants available to primary schools are spent on insurance.
The cost of a TV licence to a school of 20 or 30 pupils is equal to the total grant for two of those pupils, making a serious inroad into the money the school has available. The need for a licence would be understandable if televisions were used generally in the school but because  there are no educational programmes available, it is not. Televisions are only used to show BBC programmes in schools with large outside aerials or, usually, with video machines.
Generous parents have provided some schools with television sets either through fund-raising or by donating a barely working TV set from the home. The school then borrows a video machine from a teacher, principal or parent to show educational videos. These people are now required to have TV licences. This is grossly unfair.
Recently I was advised that a school, which does not have a television, was being pressured to obtain a TV licence. The reason was there was a broken piece of aerial protruding from the roof of the school; at one time the school had a licence. However, under the legislation, the holding of an aerial or part of a receiver or even a monitor or screen requires a TV licence.
There is a lack of computer facilities in primary schools. Many schools are endeavouring to raise funds for some form of computer facilities in order to provide children with practical experience. Such schools are stretched in this regard through organising a range of fund raising events such as cake sales, sponsored walks and sales of work. When these schools obtain the necessary equipment, part of that equipment includes a monitor which is not used as a television. Because of this they are being pressured to obtain TV licences. This amounts to an extraordinary tax on education within the State system.
I hope that in his response the Minister will not elaborate on the provisions contained in the relevant legislation. I contacted the Department of Education this morning and requested them when formulating a reply not to advise on what is already known.
The legislation does not allow for any exceptions to be made in regard to TV licences. It requires those using a television to have a TV licence. The Minister will note that I have not requested that schools be exempted from having TV licences and I hope his response will not be to advise me of that position.
 My proposal is that schools be issued with TV licences by the Department of Education, or by the Department of Education negotiating a licence with the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications for all schools or by the two Departments negotiating a fee or transfer of resources or notional transfer of money to allow individual licences to be issued to the 3,000 or more primary schools. This proposal is clear and simple and should resolve an issue of concern to schools. It is a particular problem in County Galway and County Cork and in the areas around County Louth and County Monaghan. The problem arises because An Post has targeted primary schools as an area where it will earn more revenue from TV licences. While not criticising An Post in this regard, I believe this needs some form of regulation by the Government.
It is possible that court cases may arise from this issue. I am aware that two schools have indicated that they do not have the money for a TV licence. Action will have to be taken against these schools. Will such action be directed at the chairperson of the school board, who is usually the parish priest, the principal of the school, a class teacher, a member of the board of management or the patron, usually the bishop, as owner of the school?
The only positive developments on this issue has been the initiative by the Minister for Education, for which I compliment her, that schools designated as disadvantaged who require a TV licence will be refunded the cost. However, there are approximately 200 schools in that category throughout the country out of approximately 3,000 schools altogether. It is, therefore, necessary to act quickly.
I ask the Minister in his reply at least to provide a commitment that the Department of Education will put a proposal to the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications to resolve this issue.
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Aylward) Liam Aylward
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Aylward): I thank the Senator for raising this matter. No doubt, he is aware that legislation would need amendment in order to exempt schools  from the purchase of TV licences. Also under present legislation there is no distinction made between television sets used as monitors for videos and those used to receive television programmes; therefore, an amendment would be required for such exemption.
Such changes would be a matter for the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and not for the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications as suggested.
I have been informed that the cost of a licence is set out in Government regulations. Therefore, it would not be possible to arrange for a national fee to apply to schools which would be different from what is already prescribed. The Department of Education consulted with the relevant Department and have been informed that under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, 1926 to 1988 all apparatus must be licensed and the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht has no power to exempt television sets used for specific purposes from the licensing requirement.
They are of the view that schools are just one of the many institutions and categories of person that would regard themselves as worthy of exemption. They also consider that the removal of the necessity for the payment of television licence fees would have to be compensated for from other sources, for example, from the general body of licence payers through increased licence fees or by means of subvention from the provisions of another Department.
I certainly can see some merit in their arguments. As a general issue I am of the view that such payments should be covered as a cost to the school in its normal operation. Such cost are assisted by way of the capitation grant and I wish again to remind the Senator that I secured a substantial increase in the grant for 1993. This is a recognition of the need for extra funds in this area and I will continue to improve this grant, as resources permit.
Of course I accept that arrangements could be made to cover the cost of TV  licences for schools by recouping, from the Department of Education to An Post the relevant amount. Thus, schools would have a “free” licence but this would mean a further drain on our resources. I know the Senator has expressed the view on numerous occasions that the resources available are already inadequate.
The view of the Minister for Education is that the licence fee should be paid directly by the school in the ordinary way as with any other operational cost. However, in line with my policy of priority assistance and extra support to the disadvantaged I decided, exceptionally, that in schools designated as disadvantaged there was merit in covering the cost of licences. Arrangements for this are being put in place at present and will help those in the schools in these disadvantaged areas.
The Senator asked for a commitment which, regrettably, I am not in a position to give. However, I personally believe that there is merit in the Senator's suggestion and that perhaps some mechanism can be considered in the future to facilitate a phasing in of this proposal. I will bring the Senator's views to the attention of officials in the Department of Education.
Mr. O'Toole Mr. O'Toole
Mr. O'Toole: I thank the Minister for his reply. I am obviously unhappy with it and I would ask him to take one message back to the Department of Education. In view of the unemployment problem there is a consensus that there should be more computerisation and technology in education. However, those who take the trouble to raise money for computers in schools are being asked to pay an extra tax of £66 on top of costs already incurred. This is wrong, it is counterproductive and is against national policy. The National Economic and Social Forum was established yesterday; yet, efforts being made to give people practical experience in job creativity are penalised. It is unacceptable.
The Seanad adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 June 1993.
Seanad Éireann 137 Adjournment Matters. School Television Licences.