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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 Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan Zoom on Eamon Ryan]  Second, Mr. Bobby Kerr's report goes through some of this, but there must be a facility for the development of An Post's parcel network, which could also evolve into a transport network. In rural post offices where vans deliver parcels, is it not possible to integrate that system into a rural transport system? It may be unorthodox, but it could still provide connectivity, savings and an increased revenue stream by delivering parcels and helping to carry people at the same time. It could also be seen as an exporting capability, particularly from smaller rural areas where small businesses need that level of connectivity to reach customers.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the core communications business. An Post defines its mission as a communications business; therefore, the company should be moving into digital communication services provided locally through this network. Public trust in the brand can be used to become innovative in order that An Post could become a leading public company in providing a whole range of digital services.

When I look at what I pay daily for various communications systems, it may not be usual because Deputies must have a range of different services. I am paying Dropbox, LinkedIn, Google and a raft of media companies for a range of services. I am paying for telephone and broadband also. Some of it is bundled but one has to pay for that stuff now. I want to store all my material online, including photographs and family videos. As I want that material to be there for the children and grandchildren, I am paying all these American companies, even though each one is a small payment. I am paying Google because I breached my 15GB limit of free data, but I am paying €2 or €3 per week for it.

All those services are being provided by international companies, but why can we not look at a State company to provide them? We know that such a State company will be here in 50 or 100 years time. It might give us some security for the nature of our data, so we do not have Facebook or others changing the rules every few years to suit their purposes. Instead we might have a company that we could trust. We would know they are not just out to use one's data for advertising, but to provide a safe and secure place to store data, which could operate online and does not necessarily require a physical network.

It would work well with an outlet to provide that sort of contact point for a range of different digital services that might be provided by such a company which is used to dealing with large transactions. It has our trust, unlike some of those social media and other international companies. I think there is a future in that. It would require a leap of imagination, a change of management and a change in how workers see the nature of the company.

We have no choice about this, however. If we just stick to business as usual, those workers will face an even bleaker future; therefore, it has to change. We could examine many other services also, but An Post should be the centre point for the State's provision of services - not just motor tax renewal, but every aspect in terms of a contact point for the State, including agricultural forums and questions on every service the State provides. It should be a State information office to provide an increased level of transactions which we need to make the system work.

Whatever happens to the Bill and the price cap, my fear is that it could precipitate a real crisis in terms of a drop in volumes and revenue. I am minded not to support the Bill because of that fear, but I will support the Minister, whichever one it is. We have a real problem in that we do not know which Minister is really responsible. It is mad the way in which the responsibilities of this company have been divided. Whoever takes the reins will have a tough time, but this House needs to work collectively to help the Minister and the company to take a completely different direction. That company is hugely important for the future of the country.

Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. The main purpose of the Bill is to repeal the price cap mechanism currently in place for universal postal services which in turn will give An Post increased flexibility in its pricing.

There is no doubt that the post office network is facing huge challenges. One of these challenges is the fact that An Post is losing money and in the past seven years has incurred losses of €340 million. These losses are unsustainable and action needs to be taken to ensure the postal service has a viable and sustainable future.

In its assessment of the company, ComReg has established that An Post did not meet its efficiency targets of 2% per annum. Also, it did not price to the maximum allowed under the existing price cap. In addition, ComReg stated An Post was unlikely to break even on the services it provided that were subject to the price cap. With this in mind it is important that measures are now taken to ensure the postal network is protected and legislation is put in place to underpin its future.

Post Offices are an integral part of Irish society and must be fully protected in order that their future can be secured. I am mindful of the fact that An Post is operating at a financial loss and this must be addressed.

I read the Grant Thornton report which was published in 2012. It identified three main revenue streams for An Post - traditional mail services, Government contracts and financial services. It also identified potential future services that An Post could provide, including motor taxation, an extension of the banking services currently available, household charges, local authority charges and hospital charges.

It is interesting to note that the report also highlighted what were identified as future opportunities for An Post, including a restructuring of local government, additional Government charges, an ability to extend business in terms of capability and infrastructure, increased community interaction and technology related solutions including tracking, digital displays and phone applications.

Banks are facing cost pressures and seeking alternative solutions, while An Post has the required capacity to expand. Whilst highlighting the challenges faced by An Post, the Grant Thornton report also emphasised that An Post has a viable future.

Another report I want to highlight is the Kerr report which was published in January 2016. That report came about as a result of the establishment of the Post Office Network Business Development Group in January 2015 with a mandate to produce a report that would explore potential commercial opportunities available to the postal network. The report was developed following an extensive consultation process where the group engaged with a variety of stakeholders including those in the public sector, commercial bodies, post office customers and other interested parties. The report identified the principal activities that currently underpin the postal network including processing social welfare payments, processing State savings products, bill-pay transactions for electricity, gas, telephone and waste, licence collections on behalf of public bodies, money transmission services, agency banking transactions on behalf of retail banks, foreign exchange services, postal services and gift vouchers. The report clearly recognised the value and importance of the post office network as a key piece of rural infrastructure that could revitalise rural communities. I strongly agree with that view. As I stated, the post office network is an integral part of Irish society. It must be protected and made sustainable.

With regard to safeguarding the future of An Post, the Kerr report identified 23 recommendations that it considers would be central to the future sustainability of the network. In my constituency of Louth and in Meath East there are many rural areas that depend heavily on their local post offices, including Ardee, Louth village, Dunleer and Carlingford, to name just a few.

The Kerr report clearly identified that the network needs to be renewed and modernised. It also recommended that the Government and An Post agree a business model to facilitate the introduction by An Post of payment accounts for social welfare clients.

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