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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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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith] In my area Rialto post office was recently closed. There is a post office in Dolphin's Barn and Kilmainham which are handy enough for me to get to on my bicycle, but there are many aged people, people with disabilities and others who are new to the community who depend on the local post office for the service, convenience and the vital social role it plays in their life. It seems that where we have problems in the delivery of public services the Government tries to put a plaster on a situation instead of being determined to protect and to ring-fence public services. Vital semi-State companies that play a very important social role are being considered as commodities in a competitive world that the Government seeks to cut and reduce. In a similar vein we had an announcement yesterday that it is intended to let hundreds of Bus Éireann workers go. We must think strongly about the cost to the elderly and the most vulnerable of what the proposed increase would mean. We should not consider it as just a small increase that would give us cashflow, it is a serious setback for the overall solution to An Post’s problems if we think we will address it by increasing the price of a stamp.

A plethora of working groups are looking at the issue. The Kerr report examined it in depth. Following that, a post office hub was set up which is overseen by the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. A steering committee was set up by Mr. Dermot Divilly to consider the Kerr report and when he gets back to work the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and his officials will examine the potential for incorporating motor tax and other Government services into An Post services. That is all great, but we have not had an outcome resulting from the reports. It strikes me that if there is a crisis then the speed and interest with which it is dealt with by so many groups, committees and Ministers should be coming to fruition.

In my experience, the problem with having so many different groups looking at various aspects of a service is that when the closure of a post office such as the one in Rialto occurs one does not know who to speak to. One speaks to the Minister, Deputy Naughten, who says he will look after that and get back to one. Days and weeks go by and when one e-mails the Minister he says he passed it on to the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. When one contacts the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, he acknowledges one's concern and then there is a further acknowledgement and a statement that he is looking into the matter. Weeks later one finally gets a communication saying one will have to talk to management in An Post about this. It is a case of "I know nothing; I am from Barcelona". That is what happens when one creates a network of responsibility involving this, that and the other committee and at the end of the day the crisis is not addressed and the service suffers.

There are solutions. One was mentioned in the previous discussion on the issue and it related to addressing the effect of the closure of banks in rural communities. We should have received a report back on it by now because it is not rocket science. We are not reinventing the wheel. The banks have shut up and gone off and one solution was to replace the services that were provided by high street banks with something similar to the Sparkasse model in Germany or the Kiwibank in New Zealand. I used the Sparkasse model when I was in Germany. One got all the banking services from a post office-type banking service that brought a dividend back to the government. Instead of having a cruel and inhumane banking sector that does not give a damn about its customers, one could create a community banking service that would make An Post viable and keep post offices in every rural village and small community like Rialto. Those are the solutions we must examine and we cannot take forever to do so. We will oppose the increase because it will be the first of many. If the Government thinks that is how one deals with a problem then it will try to do it again. Everybody should be aware of that and should oppose the Bill.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard J. Durkan): Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan I understand Deputies Thomas Pringle and Joan Collins are sharing time. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle The Bill deals with the universal service obligation and the need for An Post to have a price increase in the cost of postage to try to shore up its financial position in the current climate. As has been outlined, we had the cheapest postal prices in the European Union; therefore, the increase would probably only bring the price into line with EU levels. However, the crisis in An Post has also been created by the European Union. As other speakers have outlined, the post office network and An Post itself have a social responsibility and play an important social role in terms of everyday life across the country. The problem is that none of the EU regulations under which An Post operates recognise that, other than the universal service obligation and that is the crux of the problem we face in An Post. Until we as a people and a Government accept that An Post has a social role and we step up to that social responsibility, An Post will always be in crisis and it will be a case of diminishing returns until such time as the Government throws its hands up and says it can do no more and An Post will cease to exist. That would be a disaster for the 10,000 people whose work depends on An Post. It would also be a disaster for the millions of people across the country who depend on the postal service for the delivery of their post but also for the social contact involved in the postman calling to the house to deliver the post.

The banks and large utility companies have pushed customers to e-billing and e-statements, which has taken away a segment of the previous business of An Post. It is a cheap way for the banks and utility companies to deliver their bills. It was outlined by previous speakers that the price increase could speed up the process of encouraging others who currently use the postal service to change to e-billing, e-statements and e-communications rather than continuing to use the postal network. I am also concerned that the price increase could have the unintended effect, or perhaps it is a desired effect, of enticing private operators into the postal delivery service in more densely populated areas.

I am reminded of the situation with electricity. We had the cheapest electricity in the European Union in 2002. The ESB, a semi-State company, was providing electricity at a very cheap cost for consumers across the country and it also made a profit, but when the EU decided the electricity market had to be deregulated, liberalised and opened up to competition, we discovered that electricity was too cheap to provide competition as the price would not attract any private operators into the market. The energy regulator embarked on a programme of forcing the ESB to increase its prices over a number of years in order to entice private operators into the electricity market. I am concerned that a price increase in An Post would have the same effect of making the market more attractive for private operators to carve up some of the business for themselves. In deciding whether to enter the market and compete with An Post, they will look at what An Post is charging and seeing whether they could come in at a lower price, which ComReg will facilitate them to do. An outcome of the price increase could have a detrimental effect on An Post.

In his statement the Minister of State said a 1% reduction in mail volumes cost An Post €4 million a year, which is probably true, but I take issue with his statement that a 1% increase in pay costs An Post €4.5 million a year. The recent pay deal that was worked out with An Post staff has been introduced on a cost-neutral basis as staff gave up their entitlements to sick pay and other benefits to off-set the costs for the company. I do not believe a 1% increase in wages would have the same knock-on effect on An Post.

I have spoken about the social role An Post plays, which has not been recognised. It is a year since the Kerr report was published but there has been practically no implementation of the recommendations of the report, which would help to make An Post a sustainable company right across the country and would help to keep rural post offices open. We hear that the recommendations of the Kerr report will become part of the strategic review of An Post's business and we will have to wait for it to be completed before there is any implementation of the recommendations.

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