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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 Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath] In this regard, the company has started a fundamental review to identify necessary strategic changes in restructuring. This is jargon which was written by some of the Government's advisers or officials. It has been staring us in the face since before Fine Gael went into government six years ago and Fianna Fáil was in government before it. It is quite obvious to anyone with a nose on his or her face. The Government is looking in the wrong place, as it is on so many other issues. It is looking at the problem as being postmistresses and postmasters in small sub-post offices, but they only receive a tiny transaction fee for all they do. The Government is trying to take the business away from them and now it is stating it will increase prices which will kill it off altogether.

We have just finished a great year celebrating the 1916 Rising. I ask the Minister of State to look at the GPO because that is where the problem is. I have it on good authority that the problem is in headquarters. He should look at the costs incurred there and ask whether there are people who are not gainfully employed because of union and other sweet deals. It is there and in other big post offices where the money is being siphoned off. I do not want to deny anyone a job, but I do not and cannot condone what we have had in Cashel hospital for the past eight years where people have been paid to be idle. That is madness and it is not fair to the workers involved. The elephant in the room is on O'Connell Street, in the famous building in which we saw so much happen last year - the GPO. We should look no further than it. Both there and in some of the bigger post offices throughout the country there are huge costs, while others deliver the post in all weather conditions and on bad roads to distressed people. We are not looking at the main problem because of sweet and cosy deals and agreements done, perhaps not by the Government, but it is not acceptable. Union representatives can come here, as can postmasters, and whinge, cry, moan and groan, but let us be honest with ourselves and the people. We are in the middle of a deep recession and hope we are coming out of it, but we must weed out such practices. They are in certain parts of the public service, but there is no place for them in an Ireland that is struggling and recovering. We must look at where the problem is. We are awaiting the Kerr report and wondering when we will receive it. I am not saying Mr. Kerr is, but people are afraid to face the reality and look at the elephant in the room sa GPO agus in áiteanna eile. They went there for noble reasons at the time.

When our Bill was debated, I said "Use it or lose it." I genuinely thought that when the Government accepted it, it would act on it in good faith, but it has not done so. This is not a solution but a knee-jerk reaction. It is like cutting off one's hand if one has a spot on top of one's finger. That is what it is. There will be a 30% to 40% increase in prices, but more and more business will be lost. Therefore, it does not make sense. Businesspeople are struggling and need services. They use postal services. There are people, including my children, who do not send anything by post. They use IT facilities, but this is damaging. We have seen it in the past 15 years; it is not today or yesterday that it has happpened, but this is a knee-jerk and desperate reaction, a desperate effort to avoid facing the real problem. It should be dealt with and the unions should be challenged. If I am wrong, I will come back and correct myself, but I do not think I am because this is what I have garnered and been told. I was not told by whistleblowers, but it is known and it is happening in other areas such as the HSE. It is not fair to those on the front line who struggle and suffer on a daily basis in doing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. This issue should have been dealt with years ago.

I do not blame the Minister of State for all of this, but it is a cop-out and I cannot support it because I am a businessman and it would be totally against every vein of intuition in my body and business sense or nous I have to think prices could be increased by that much when the business is declining. They should be cut to try to increase business. We all had to cut our prices drastically in the past five or six years to hang on in. Some cuts were forced but more were agreed to. Anyone involved in business will state this, including shopkeepers, but the Government is out of touch. It is in a bubble, as was said earlier, but that bubble will burst very soon and the Government will up in smoke when it does.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy It is important to put the history of the postal service in context because it is a survivor and in 2000 celebrated its tercentenary. There has been a postal service since 1700 which has been capable of change over the centuries. Mail has been delivered by stagecoach, the railway system which played a big part and mechanised vehicles and we are now going through another period of change in which technology is playing a part. We know that email, text messages and other electronic means are now the preferred way to engage in speedy communication. However, notwithstanding any technological advancement, there will always be a pivotal place for traditional postal services for business and personal use. Many online retailers to the forefront of technological advancement are dependent on traditional postal services to deliver goods to their customers. The postal service has been capable of change and I have no doubt that it will continue to be so, but it does require support and to do things differently.

The Bill seeks to remove the price cap mechanism and provides for ComReg to undertake a review of the consequences of removing the price cap. However, the review is not be due to commence until two years after the Bill has passed. In the meantime, it has already been indicated that the purpose of removing the cap is to allow price hikes to generate cashflow for An Post. An immediate increase in the price of postal services will add to the already exorbitant cost of living and doing business in Ireland, something that should not be taken lightly. An Post and the post office network nationwide are in danger. We know from various representations made by post offices and postmasters that they feel vulnerable and the reduction in the amount of State services administered through the post office network is of particular concern and threatens the survival of many. There is plenty of evidence and we all see it when people show us a letter from the Department of Social Protection in which it is presumed they have bank accounts and they are pushed towards receiving payments through them rather than at the post office. We are also aware that services such as bill payment and that stamps and gift cards can be obtained in shops other than post offices. I am aware that in 2014 ten supermarkets were part of a trial. I do not know the results, but according to An Post services followed the footfall. What those running post offices tell us is that this drives away footfall they would otherwise have and that people would engage in other transactions if they went to the post office. It is not just about buying a stamp conveniently; it is something of importance.

A lot of the conversation has focused on the rural post office network. Of course, post offices in rural Ireland are vitally important, but post offices in urban areas are just as important. We have seen the withdrawal of banking services in communities with an older population and in which there is less demand for banking services, as well as in poorer communities. It is not exclusively a rural issue, but having said that, I accept that it is more dominant in rural areas. There is also the social aspect of people going to the post office to collect their pension and someone knows if they have not turned up. This is a valuable role; it is not a tangible return, but it is the reality. With this in mind, long term we need to look at solutions to the threats facing the post office network and how we can best support it and acknowledge its vital place in Irish public life. A price hike now is a short-term fix which may do further long-term damage to the sector. Either way, the answer to the ills of the post office does not lie in isolation. Price hikes can and will be counter-productive. We must, therefore, look at ways in which we can realistically increase the functionality of post offices to bring them up to date, while also giving us an opportunity to use the network to deliver services to communities, with far-reaching benefits to society.

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