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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 Carol Nolan: Information on Carol Nolan Zoom on Carol Nolan] The post office is an essential service. It is a basic but vital service. The Bill may temporarily help to tackle the financial challenges of An Post, but it is not a long-term solution. We need a long-term solution to protect the post office network and ensure the reopening of post offices in rural towns that were unfairly closed, thereby depriving people of vital services. An example of this is the closure of the post office in Killeigh, County Offaly following the retirement of the postmaster. I am calling for the reopening of that post office because there is a demand for it. As in the case of many other villages and towns, there is a demand for this basic and vital service in Killeigh, which is a rural village with a growing population. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions with the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, and representatives of An Post. I am calling again for real consideration to be given to this proposal, which will help to revitalise a rural town which, like many other towns, has a great deal of potential but has been abandoned by the Government and is being kept alive by community spirit.

I recognise that there are challenges facing An Post. We have all acknowledged this. We need to modernise and transform the role of the post office so that its becomes a hub for accessing public services within the community. An Post can be part of a joined up approach to financial services provision to support SMEs and the development of local economies. Post offices should be afforded the opportunity to sell insurance, process motor tax and link up with credit unions. There is need for a serious change in the Government's approach to the post office network and to rural Ireland. Rural Ireland exists. There is life beyond Newlands Cross. We need a pragmatic, long-term solution to protect and encourage the development of post offices in rural Ireland.

Deputy David Cullinane: Information on David Cullinane Zoom on David Cullinane The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, can take Sinn Féin's opposition to the Bill, in the first instance, as a vote of confidence in post offices and, in the second instance, as a vote of no confidence in the policies of the Government in terms of its failure, and that of previous Fianna Fáil Governments, in regard to post offices generally and, in particular, rural post offices and rural Ireland. Once again, rural issues come a distant second when it comes to policy and practice in this state.

The Bill is principally about a cap on postage charges. The Minister of State spoke about how, from his perspective, increasing the price of a stamp will help post offices. As pointed out by the Sinn Féin spokesperson in this area, Deputy Stanley, the Bill not only proposes to increase the postage charge, it seeks to remove the current cap and the checks and balances in place in this area. As such this is not a quick fix solution but a proposal that will have long-term consequences because of a lack of regulation following the removal of those checks and balances.

The problem is that the Bill is presented as a panacea for the problems facing the post office network. In reality, a full suite of measures are necessary to help and boost rural post offices, many of which were outlined by my colleagues and have been well rehearsed in all of the reports published on the future of post offices. The Government has turned its face against such measures. We are all aware of the difficulties which arose in the past when people in receipt of social welfare payments were directed to banks and other financial institutions and away from post offices. The policy of the Government is anti-rural post offices and anti-rural Ireland, which is not in the interests of rural communities.

As I said, Sinn Féin's opposition to the Bill is a vote of confidence in post offices and a vote against the policies of the Government.

Deputy Martin Kenny: Information on Martin Kenny Zoom on Martin Kenny As stated, Sinn Féin does not support the Bill because, at the end of the day, rural Ireland matters. If rural Ireland matters, we must ensure the post office network is retained and grown. There have been many post offices closed throughout the country. The post office in the village of Cloone, which is in my constituency, closed a number of years ago following the death of the postmaster. Similarly, post offices the length and breadth of the country are being closed. The Government is doing its best to close post offices. That is the experience of communities. The Government may state is not its policy, but that is the reality on the ground for the vast majority of people. The post office in Ballygawley in Sligo is under threat of closure, in respect of which consultation with the local community is ongoing.

Legislation which seeks to remove the cap on postage charges does not change policy. The policy of the Government is continuously to move the more profitable parts of the postal service to the private sector. The country is awash with couriers delivering parcels yet our post office service, a network that has been in place for over a century, cannot access that type of work. This is happening because Government continues to pursue its policy of moving profitable services to the private sector while the remaining services are left to the public sector. When the post office network then loses money we all throw our hands up in the air declaring that it is no good and the public purse cannot afford it.

The Government needs to realise the people must have a service and that that service can be profitable if a genuine effort is made to make it profitable. I am of the view, as is the post office network and the trade unions involved in this area, that a solution can be found to make the postal service work. The solution put forward by the Government is not adequate and will not provide for rural post offices the length and breadth of this country. We do not want to go down the road of privatisation of this service and the closure of post offices by a thousand cuts. This proposal will result in rural Ireland being left behind again. I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure that does not happen.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock The Labour Party's support for this legislation is conditional on the Kerr report recommendations being taken seriously and the role of ComReg not being excised into the future to that of a regulatory body overseeing its obligations under section 12 of the 2002 Act. I take some comfort from the Minister of State's contribution in regard to the recommendations inherent in the Kerr report.

If one has regard to ComReg's postal strategy statement 2015-2017, there is a statutory remit to ensure the provision of an affordable universal postal service that meets the needs of all postal service users. There is legitimate doubt as to whether this legislation, as proposed, will compromise affordability for consumers. It is clear to anybody that the proposals in this legislation in terms of the increase in postage charges will compromise the affordability element inherent within ComReg's remit. ComReg has limited statutory powers to regulate An Post postal services that are not universal postal services. We know from ComReg that letter volumes have fallen by 32% since 2007 and that An Post is forecasting a further decline of approximately 4% per annum in this regard. As the universal postal service provider, An Post is the market leader in the delivery of letters and it must take the necessary steps to address this decline and ensure the continuation of the universal postal service.

I welcome the review commenced by the company. We are all agreed that strategic changes and restructuring must be real and that there must be definitive timelines on those actions. If An Post has full commercial freedom to ensure that its other postal services are viable financially then there is a question mark over whether it has achieved this historically.

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