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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 Joan Collins: Information on Joan Collins Zoom on Joan Collins] It does not add up from the workers' point of view.

The union welcomes the price cap decision and acknowledges that this significant and positive development has materialised relatively early in the tenure of the new CEO. However, in tandem with this change comes the increase in the price of the stamp. An Post must also review its overall pricing strategy which, in the union's view, is not coherent. It has displayed little or no joined-up thinking in the area over which it already has direct control in respect of the various products and service offerings which have also resulted in revenue loss.

The union fully supports the Minister's actions for the following reasons. An Post's quality of service is one of the best in Europe. Postal workers should not be expected to subsidise the national postal service. An Post has never received any State subvention. The Labour Court has stated there is a requirement on the company shareholder and regulator to engage in the pricing issue to ensure financial viability. Notwithstanding major ongoing cost reductions coupled with an eight-year pay freeze, the company is in a very precarious financial position. Crucially, 40% of the company's losses come from inbound international mail amounting to €15 million. Half of these losses arise from an international mail agreement entered into by the State and imposed on An Post.

We are seeing huge changes because of historical events and progress. If we want to provide services in this country, we have to be prepared to stand up to the European Union and say that at some point we cannot deliver the services we are obliged to deliver under the PSO and the universal service obligation to our community. It is a social service which also has to be productive.

I support my union's position. We have raised the issue of the rural post offices and the post office network in general in the Dáil since I became a Member and I am sure it was raised by Fine Gael in opposition before 2011. It has to be linked with a quick implementation of what can be a viable injection into the post office. I make a point also made by a previous speaker. Rialto post office was closed down overnight and it is happening everywhere with 1,000 post offices closed down under Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil-led governments.

Unless there is a change in Government thinking and unless the Government wants to keep the service viable, it will not happen. I do not expect much from the Government. I urge the people to put pressure on the Government to deliver from that point of view. It has to be the case.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard J. Durkan): Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan I understand the members of the Rural Independent Group, Deputies Michael Healy-Rae, Danny Healy-Rae, Eugene Murphy, who is an exception, and Mattie McGrath, are sharing time.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae I send my warmest best wishes to the Minister, Deputy Naughten, who is not here tonight and who would want to be here if he could. We are all grateful that he is recovering and hopefully making a good recovery after a serious accident.

The Government gave a commitment to post offices and community banking on page 48 of the programme for Government. The Minister explained to me that he was faced with a serious predicament, which was either to go along the lines of what he is doing now or else possibly be faced with having to go to the European Union to seek a derogation and bring us from a five-day postal delivery service to a three or four-day service. Having said that, I appreciate where he is coming from in what he is proposing to do.

I have to declare, as I have done several times previously, that I am a postmaster of a small post office in village where we are just hanging on to keep our door open. I have asked myself how increasing the price of a postage stamp will affect post offices like mine. I believe it will be prohibitive and will stop people from using the postal service at a time when we are inundated with other methods of communications such as the mobile phone and e-mails. We are really up against it in a battle for survival.

I have a number of questions. What is the post office development group's financial strategy for the next five years and is it operating a sustainable model? Has the post office development group within its report implemented any changes taking into account the promises made within the programme for Government? Does the post office development group foresee any post office closures, as predicted by the Grant Thornton report of 2014? How many contract post offices have had their income reduced since 2014 and in particular this year? Can this be broken down by the years 2014, 2015 and 2016? I know at first hand that in every post office that has come up for review, the postmasters have seen their incomes being dramatically reduced to the extent that it is making it unviable for them to continue. After rents, rates and insurance costs are taken into account, are some rural and urban post offices now operating at or below the national minimum wage? These post offices will not be closed by An Post but will just cease to operate because of lack of funding.

When the new social welfare contract is up for renewal, has the post office development group ensured within its current report there is both a social and economic element to the contract, which might help to regenerate and sustain all communities, both urban and rural? Does the post office development group have a plan to introduce community banking, as promised in the programme for Government following the New Zealand model in its final report? From a population of 4 million, Kiwibank now has income of over €100 million and 860,000 customers, as I have pointed out in this House previously. That is almost one in four of the population.

Are we to continue supporting the commercial banking sector that has vanished from rural and disadvantaged urban Ireland and has helped with the destruction of small communities everywhere? Bank of Ireland and AIB previously had branches in places such as Waterville and Sneem and throughout north, south, east and west Kerry. Those services of the commercial banks are now gone because they abandoned these rural areas. The one thing that is left standing in those places is the post office. Therefore, I see community banking being the lifeline for post offices. The Government and An Post keep referring to the new "e-payment account". However, that is not a full banking service and will only have a minor impact on the incomes of individual post offices.

I believe the Irish Postmasters Union took its eye off the ball over An Post's mail consolidation that is causing significant financial strain for postmasters nationwide. Action is needed now to prevent widespread closures and to prevent the collapse of the post office network. I suggest the introduction of a Bill based on the Private Members' motion passed on 17 November 2016 as a matter of urgency.

From my daily contact with postmasters, not just in County Kerry but throughout the length and breadth of the country, I know that the post office network is in serious danger of collapse. A number of years ago I predicted that of the 1,140 post offices, at least 500, 600 or 700 would face imminent closure unless drastic action was taken. That is why the Private Members' motion was passed unanimously in November. That is why a Bill enacting the provisions of that motion is now needed to secure the future and to introduce community banking.

Postmasters are not looking for a bailout from anybody. All they are looking for is the ability to increase the footfall going through their doors. The additional services that are centralised in county council offices could be delegated to post offices to accommodate elderly people.

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