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Communications Regulation (Postal Services) (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Continued)

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 935 No. 1

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  8 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock] However, most Deputies are of the view that, if it is a choice between that and protecting workers, the network and the universal service obligation, USO, as well as ensuring the hundreds of post offices around the country stay open, and notwithstanding the attitudinal issues in respect of rural areas, it is important that we continue to maintain the infrastructure and not risk the demise of the service as we know it. If that means supporting this legislation, then we will support it.

We also support the Bill on the basis that the Minister will be proactive in terms of the recommendations of the Kerr report, will explore genuinely further cost reductions and will make a genuine attempt to engage on the matters of services of general economic interest. We should ensure cash reserves are bolstered in order that everyone can continue to enjoy, if I may use that word, or use the service and there is no risk of an immediate closure of certain of its elements.

I take the opportunity to wish the Minister, Deputy Naughten, well in his recovery. We wish him a speedy return to the workplace.

Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley Hear, hear.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard J. Durkan): Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan I call Deputies Barry and Bríd Smith who are sharing time.

Deputy Mick Barry: Information on Mick Barry Zoom on Mick Barry Let us take a glimpse into the near future and examine the case of a modern Romeo and Juliet, and Denis Naughten. Romeo and Juliet are engaged in a passionate correspondence. All of their friends have smartphones, tablets and laptops, but this romantic couple feels exchanging words of love via technology is a bit of a passion killer; therefore, they decide to conduct their correspondence via post. One day in 2017, Juliet calls down to her local post office - she visits often because they send loads of letters - to mail her latest letter. Alas, the postmaster regretfully informs her that Denis Naughten has decided to increase the price of a stamp from 72 cent to €1.06. Distraught, Juliet runs home in tears and sends a plaintive message to Romeo by e-mail. It was never platonic, but now it is electronic.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley Joe Higgins lives on.

Deputy Mick Barry: Information on Mick Barry Zoom on Mick Barry Romeo and Juliet may not be the typical stamp buyers. An Post's customer base may comprise more small business people and older people than lovelorn teenagers, but is the Minister of State not concerned that the basic effect of a large stamp price increase might be the same for them? The Government will not hike stamp prices by large amounts without losing customers. The volume of mail is down 38% since 2007. Does the Minister of State not believe that a price increase would drive that down even further?

There are alternative strategies for increasing An Post's revenue stream. In New Zealand and Germany, state-run post office banks seem to be highly successful. It is high time that we had such a bank. A Bill proposing this initiative passed Second Stage before Christmas. The Minister of State might update the House on the Minister's attitude to this initiative and the timescale for same.

The Irish people spend €6.6 million everyday on clothing and household goods ordered online and delivered by parcel post, yet an Irish Government shut down An Post's SDS delivery service when it should have been beefed up. What plans does the Minister have to revive such an initiative?

Thankfully, the Government has backed off from its plans to divert business away from An Post and towards the banks by paying 625,000 social welfare recipients via electronic transfer into their bank accounts. Why was such a proposal ever made in the first place and will the Minister of State assure the House that no such proposals will be repeated?

There is the potential to make post offices into hubs where a range of State services can be accessed, but talk is cheap. This idea needs to be translated into reality. What concrete plans does the Minister have to do so?

The Anti-Austerity Alliance has no faith in the Government to act seriously on any of these proposals. After all, since 1984, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led Governments have presided over the shutdown of 1,000 post office branches. Why should those who have butchered the service be trusted to develop it in future? A genuine left government would implement all of these progressive measures. While we campaign for such an outcome, we will continue opposing all measures that undermine rather than save the post office network, including this one.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith I attended yesterday's committee meeting and noted the absence of the Minister, Deputy Naughten. As I was not aware that he was out of action, I would like to wish him well in his recovery.

Although I was not present for the whole committee meeting, my impression was of a love-in between a plethora of representatives of the many committees that were investigating how we could make An Post viable. Each committee has been studying one aspect or another of the problem, yet none seems to have reported back with any meaningful solution other than to increase the price of a stamp. One might say that it is only 30 cent, which is not all that much, and it would give the company a cashflow and enough breathing space to survive, as argued by the Labour Party Deputy before me. That sounds reasonable, but when one considers how the volume of mail has declined - Deputies have referenced the percentages - and the cohort of people who pay for stamps, one realises that this would place the 30% increase on the shoulders of those who can least afford it. I refer, in particular, to pensioners, older people and small organisations, for example, communities and organisations that regularly communicate by letter with their audiences. As Deputy Barry stated, an increase of 30% would probably see them turning to e-mail, being put out of action or having their budgets hurt badly. Needless to say, the Government will not give them an increase in their community grants, which have been slashed consistently during the years of austerity.

We will not deal with the serious problem facing us simply by increasing the price of a stamp as an emergency measure. Instead, this will have the opposite effect, in that more people, and smaller organisations in particular, will move away from using postal services.

As the House knows, An Post's key loss maker is the USO. An Post had an operating profit of €5.2 million last year because of the increase in the volume of parcel post, but it has been forced to compete in that regard with the likes of DHL and FedEx, which do not have the compunction of the USO, and the Government cannot subsidise the USO under EU law.

With more than 1,100 outlets across the country, 74% of An Post's business is connected with social welfare, savings accounts etc. Attempts are being made to get more such business. That would be of considerable help, but it should also be acknowledged that An Post's workers have helped to reduce the company's running costs through various means down the years, for example, through wage reductions, productivity measures etc. Unless I am mistaken, the contribution of An Post's 10,000 staff has led to savings of approximately €100 million.

There have been all sorts of attempts to make An Post better, but this latest attempt should be rejected. It is the wrong way to try to mend the service. It is like being given a plaster after splitting one's head. It will do nothing to service the rural and isolated communities whose post offices are facing closure. As a member of the committee, I have seen no real attempt being made by any of the study groups that have been established to consider the impact of the removal of post offices on the fabric of society in rural and isolated communities. Post offices play a vital role. Although it might be said that they only service small communities, those communities are just as important as this community in the Dáil or any other.


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