Some who move to Switzerland from abroad might not be aware that they are almost certainly required to pay one of the world’s highest broadcasting licence fees. An annual Swiss licence costs CHF 451.101 per household compared to a UK one, which costs CHF 210 (£145.50) – less than half. When you arrive in Switzerland the onus is currently on you to determine if you are liable, sign up with Billag, a subsidiary of Swisscom, and pay. And just because you haven’t registered doesn’t mean you are OK. Fines for non-compliance run as high as CHF 5,000.
Billag AG collects around CHF 1.3 billion per year from about four million households and businesses. The per capita cost of broadcasting in Switzerland is always going to be high. It is the unavoidable result of being small and having four national languages. The upcoming vote however, is less about the high cost and mainly about who pays.
Presently, if you do not watch or listen to television or radio you don’t have to pay. In practice this means you must not have any devices that can receive radio or television. Devices include suitably equipped computers, smartphones, tablets and car radios. An exception is made for television owners who don’t watch television broadcasts – these households pay only the CHF 165 radio portion of the fee. This exception is nicely explained in this Le Temps article (in French).
On 14 June 15, the citizens of Switzerland will get a chance to vote to change the current system for a new scheme that has worked its way through the parliamentary process in Bern. The National Council voted in favour of the proposal with 109 votes for, 85 against and 4 abstentions, and the Council of States cast 28 votes in favour, 14 against with 3 abstentions.
Under the proposed rules virtually all households will pay2, even those who have only a secondary residence in Switzerland, whether they tune in or not.
Households will become automatically liable when they register their presence at the commune office, which will spontaneously inform the licence fee collection service. Initially the fee would be CHF 400 per household, a bit lower than the current CHF 451.10.
Likewise all businesses with revenue over CHF 500,000 will pay whether they receive Swiss national broadcasting or not – businesses will be charged a fee by the VAT office based on their revenue. For example companies with revenue between CHF 500,000 and one million will pay CHF 400 p.a. while those above one million will pay fees starting at CHF 1,000.
Arguments in favour of the proposal
Those in favour argue that the system needs simplification. They claim that because virtually everyone can now access radio and television via computers and smartphones, it is nonsense for anyone to claim they don’t have access. They assert that the current system supports cheaters who are subsidised by honest households that pay.
The new payment of CHF 400 is lower and only payable once for a household’s primary residence (unless you only have a secondary residence in Switzerland in which case you’ll pay for your household on this basis).
Because all households pay when they register their presence at the commune office, there will be no need to police payment and collection costs will be lower.
Arguments against the proposal
Some are crying foul describing the proposal as an unfair tax that hits those that don’t want and can’t receive local broadcasts.
In addition, making businesses pay results in double payment – the same people are charged at home and then again via their employer at work.
It is also argued that the new rules will open the door to large licence fee increases in the future. Fees have already increased 64% since 1990. The proposal aims to tempt “Yes” votes with an initial discount and then hit them with large price increases later.
Could go either way
It remains to be seen whether the initiative will pass or not. Political party support for it is fairly mixed. The Socialists, Greens and Democratic Christians (PDC/CVP) appear to be largely in favour of it while the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP) and Liberal Party (PLR/FDP) are against it.
And while a recent attempt to mount a campaign to eliminate the fee ran out of steam before being dropped in May 2015, the public appears unconvinced by the proposal being put forward on 14 June 2015.
Update: this initiative passed by a slim majority of 50.1%. Billag says the changes are unlikely to be implemented before 2019.
Full text of proposal (Federal website – in French)
Vote on federal law on TV and radio (Federal Council website – in French)
Anything could happen with the TV-radio licence vote (Le Temps – in French)
1 Until 30 April 2015 VAT of 2.5% was charged bringing the total fee to CHF 462.40. From 1 May 2015 no VAT will be charged following a recent legal ruling.
2 Some beneficiaries, diplomats and a few others will be exempt.