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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 Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick] These payment accounts could also facilitate the use of a dedicated debit card, full access to ATM facilities and the use of standing orders and direct debit facilities. The report also identified that the payment of motor tax through the An Post network should be considered. One of the recommendations that must be looked at very closely is the proposal that An Post develop a formal structure with the credit union movement either through a representative organisation or interested unions to establish the potential scope for a link-up.

Another interesting aspect of the Kerr report was that it suggested we put a monetary value on the social aspect of the post office network. This is something about which I feel very strongly. We should put a monetary value on the social aspect of the postal network. The report also highlighted that there may be opportunities for An Post to provide additional services to the small and medium enterprise, SME, sector and this again is something that we must investigate further.

At this stage, it is important to state that the programme for Government also provided for commitments regarding post offices. The programme for Government committed to acting on the recommendations of the Kerr report and this I welcome. I am also pleased that the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, has established a working group to examine and identify potential models for how post offices could act as community hubs, particularly in rural areas. As I said, we must protect the post office network. The establishment of these working groups will go a long way to providing a way forward for the network provided the recommendations are acted on.

I record for the House my complete support for the retention of the postal network. The postal network is part of society and too many depend on it. We must not diminish the role of the post office but must continue to support fully the concept of the postal network and develop a strategy that will modernise and safeguard the future of An Post. Rural areas, in particular, must be reassured that there is a future for their post offices and that we in the Fine Gael Party will do everything in our power to ensure there is a bright future for the postal network.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak about this especially important item. We have been speaking for many years about postal services and alternative services that might readily be provided through the post office network, but there has not been a whole lot of progress. It is something in respect of which there was an obvious need for change. There was a need for change to move with the times and to face the threat coming from modern technology. I agree entirely with Deputy Eamon Ryan's analysis because An Post has a network throughout the country, which is a huge advantage. It has daily access to every locality in the country through the delivery service. It has counter services in place throughout the country. It is a considerable network. Somebody mentioned the number of couriers that are taking over and that is a question in itself. An Post has the network and could fill that void. An Post allowed that service to develop and could intervene. I know that it has similar services to a certain extent, but the fact is it is there to be delivered on.

We need to look for the compatible services that can be added to An Post through the utilisation of its counter services and national network. That can be done. Reference has been made to banking. I was never 100% certain that banking in the traditional sense was suitable to bolt onto An Post but certainly post office savings accounts and similar are. Rural transport has been referred to. I have spoken about this in the past. It could be linked into An Post. Again, there is a transport system An Post has to use to deliver correspondence, letters and mail throughout the country every day, so there are certainly opportunities there that could and should be utilised for the future. Considerable savings can be made if compatible services are identified for administration through the post office service throughout the country. Rural transport is one that comes to mind. We already have rural transport systems to a certain extent in certain parts of the country, but we often hear about the rural restaurant or pub which is dying for want of patronage. Of course, there is a simple way to deal with that. Provide rural transport and bolt it on if necessary to some of the services that are required.

Speakers have referred to mobile phone services and the fact that bills are now issued electronically. I am not so sure that this is necessary. It is a considerable irritant to many who cannot see a bill in their hands, in particular older people, and who get annoyed when they get a text to say their bill is due and should be paid. Incidentally, these are lucrative services that are being provided by mobile phone companies. Postmasters have first-hand experience of what might be suitable. We have mentioned some of the things about which they have spoken. The list is endless. One can go on and on and identify suitable services to attach to utilise counter services, the network services and the centralised system of An Post to great advantage both for An Post and communities, in particular rural ones.

I do not accept the notion that there is a plan by Government to close all the post offices and that this has been in offing for some considerable time. I drove past the post office on Thomas Street for a long time and there is a closed sign on it for many years now. I do not know who closed it but maybe they opened another one somewhere. The fact is that this has been going on for years. There is a problem where the postmaster or postmistress retires in a particular area and the position is not seen as attractive by anybody else. That has to be addressed. The means have to be found to ensure that a younger person or anybody else who takes over wishing to provide postal services in his or her area as postmaster or postmistress finds taking on the job sufficiently attractive. That is particularly so where there are rural enterprises that require regular postal services.

One of the things we seem to forget from time to time is a matter I have raised with my local authority recently. If we adopt a policy, as there is a tendency nowadays to do, of discouraging the building of any indigenously required houses in rural Ireland, we will eventually cease all development in rural areas and there will be no need for any services. I have spoken about this many times, as have others. It is fundamental to what we are talking about. If the population goes down, a number of things happen automatically. The number of rural schools comes under threat straightaway. That is the obvious thing that happens. Rural services generally, like dispensary services, all come under threat as a result. Decisions by planning authorities in each local authority area should have due regard to the need to try to accommodate, in keeping with good planning principles, the indigenous rural population which is encouraged nowadays to move to urban settlements. I am not sure why because no one has ever told me, notwithstanding the fact that I have been around this place for a long time. It is for economic purposes, of course, because the provision of services in dispersed rural areas is not economical. I can understand it might cost a little more, but it is not always possible to have the best of everything, the cheapest of everything and the most cost-effective of everything while also having a stable society.

One of the things we should always remember is that there has always been a rural community throughout this country. Professor Caulfield in Galway has spent some considerable time saying as much and calling for the recognition of that principle in recent years. As such, I note that this is also an issue and that it affects us in all parts of the country. Urban blight is another contributory factor if one looks at the number of premises throughout the country in towns and villages and even in this city which have been unoccupied and disused for years.

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