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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 Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae] Why should a person in his or her 80s have to drive to Tralee to get a photograph taken for a driver's licence? That is crazy. Why should people have to do a round trip of 120 miles just to get a photograph taken? It is nonsensical. Services like the driver's licence service should be available in our post offices. Post offices are already equipped with the most up-to-date technology. They do not need any further updating. All they need is the opportunity to offer more services to customers. If more services could be decentralised to local post offices and if they could offer community banking, that would ensure their future survival. We should learn from the Kiwi banking model instead of taking the same route as that taken in England when more than 10,000 post offices closed. Surely we should learn from the mistakes of others and model ourselves on those countries which were successful in steering their post offices away from disaster.

Unfortunately, I cannot agree with what is being proposed in the Bill. That said, I appreciate where the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten is coming from. He was placed in a very difficult situation given the financial situation within the An Post group. I hope that at the end of this process we can work together to enact a Bill that will save the post offices. I do not want to see the last remaining facility in many rural communities going by the wayside. We have lost so much already with the closure of creameries, small pubs and shops. We are now in danger of losing post offices too.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae: Information on Danny Healy Rae Zoom on Danny Healy Rae I am glad to have the opportunity to speak to the Bill which is very important, especially to those in rural Ireland. Many people in north-west Cork and parts of east Kerry are very worried because the post office in Ballydesmond is due to close at the end of February. They are hopeful An Post will issue a tender for the service again and that someone in the locality will be successful in getting the contract and will keep a post office open in the village. The Ballydesmond post office is very important for the vast rural area of east Kerry and north-west Cork. Many people working in that area use the post office regularly. Munster Joinery employs almost 1,400 people and Kelly's of Ballydesmond, a big civil engineering company is also a significant employer. Indeed, there are four or five big employers in that area and a post office is needed.

The post office in Ballydesmond, as with many parishes, is one of the last facilities available that make the place a village. Most of the other facilities and services associated with villages have gone, such as the creameries, small shops and pubs. If Ballydesmond were to lose its post office, that could signal the end of the village and the identity of the community would be lost. Down the road, only a few miles away, the post office at Knocknagree is due to close in March. We are not so sure if someone will tender for the contract because there is no other shop in the village. There was a little shop in the post office but that is due to close. It is very sad for the community in Knocknagree, where Sliabh Luachra music and the best of Irish traditional music is played regularly. Knocknagree plays host to many big music events and it would be very sad to see the parish without a post office.

Not enough is being done to ensure post offices remain open. We have had Bills, promises and so forth, but all that is needed is for more work to be given to the post offices. Sadly, the last Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, instructed her officials to tell social welfare recipients to provide the Department with their bank details in order that their payments could be transferred electronically via the banks. That did an awful lot of harm to rural post offices. People did what they were told and the post offices were left behind. As the previous speaker said, more work should be given to the post offices. The driver's licence service and many other services and schemes could be administered through the post offices.

An increase in the price of stamps is not the way forward. If I was to increase my rates by 30%, I would not last more than a couple of days in business. I will not be supporting the increase in the price of stamps. I am sorry that I cannot support it but some other way will have to be found to deal with the financial issues. Such an increase will signal the end for An Post completely.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I am pleased to speak to the Bill. First, I convey my good wishes to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten. I wish him a speedy recovery. It was an awful trauma for himself and his wife, but I believe he is making a good recovery. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, will pass on my good wishes.

I am appalled by this situation because in the negotiations on a programme for Government, 90% of which were attended by the Minister of State, rural post offices were a big issue. The rural Independent group, including Deputies Michael Collins, Noel Grealish, Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Healy-Rae, prioritised this issue because it is a very important one. What is the point in having a programme for Government if the Department is just going to decide unilaterally to increase the price of stamps drastically? It is easy to tell that there are not many business people on the Government side of the House. The proposal is to increase the price of a stamp from 72 cent to 95 cent or €1, which is an increase of almost 40%. As Deputy Danny Healy-Rae said, no business could sustain this. That is not good planning or good management. It is just a knee-jerk reaction.

The Kerr report on the rural post office network was published several years ago and there have been a number of other reports. As a previous speaker said, we had crocodile tears from the Labour Party and others in government in recent years. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, myself and others brought letters into this House that people received from the Department of Social Protection encouraging them to provide the Department with their bank details. The Department was actively taking away business from the post offices. I have to declare an interest because my sister is a postmistress. I have not spoken to her about the Bill before us but I know the social value of every postmistress and postmaster in the small rural post offices. They have given sterling service over the years. Rural posts offices have acted as community alert centres, interpretative centres and tourist offices. Postmasters and postmistresses would notice when a person did not turn up to collect his or her pension. Many times people who had collapsed in their homes were saved because the postmistress or postmaster noticed they had not turned up on Wednesday or Friday to collect their pension and raised the alarm. Post offices provide connectivity.

Recently the rural Independent group introduced a Private Member's Bill in the House. We put a lot of work into it. We had to find out who was the Minister with responsibility. That was the biggest difficulty. We thought it was the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment but then found out that it was the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Michael Ring. We put an enormous amount of work into getting the Bill ready and received agreement from the Government that it would accept it. Members from all sides of the House spoke on the Bill, but where is it now? The Government has come up with this drastic action and our Bill is null and void. This House is reduced to a talking shop again. We need to see where the problem lies.

The Minister of State referred to various aspects of this issue. He said that the trend in An Post has been evident for some years but that it accelerated in 2016 with the company experiencing a doubling of the year-on-year decline in postal volumes, resulting in a serious financial impact. The Government's answer to this is to increase the price of stamps by 30% to 40%. Children in kindergarten or first class would not do that. As Deputy Danny Healy-Rae said, if he did that in his business he would close within a week. I am in business and I, too, would close in a week. No business could sustain it.

The Minister of State has pointed out that the mail business still accounts for almost two thirds of An Post's revenue and represents 78% of the company's payroll. That is fine and I salute the workers who do a good job. The Minister of State went on to say the company was entering a period of significant change to try to cope with the rapidly changing environment in which it operated.

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