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Post Office Closures (Continued)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 942 No. 1

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  5 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív] Whereas for some of the population and particularly those who use iPhones, tablets and so on, e-booking and e-payments are very handy, there are many people who think that is a very mysterious world and much prefer to do the thing in person.

  Bobby Kerr published his report in January 2016 and it is now March 2017. A working group was established; it had one meeting between July and November 2016 but we have still had no action. I repeat what needs to happen: motor tax; white-label offerings and projects in telephony, energy, financial services and banking. The Minister of State knows the menu.

  The issue here today is not what needs to be done. The issue is whether the Government will do it. If it does not do it, we will not be talking about 80 post offices. I hear from postmasters and postmistresses that persisting with the status quo will mean that very cleverly, the Government and An Post are forcing them out of business. It is not viable anymore because the Government will not give them the alternative services to address dropping mail volumes and dropping revenue that is happening in every post office in the country.

  Finally, let me say the Government is closing the post offices and it will not give us broadband either.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue today. The Rural Independent Group recently tabled a Private Members' motion. We had consultation with the Departments of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Taoiseach. The motion was agreed and we were delighted. Everybody supported it here. In Monday's edition of the Irish Independent Charlie Weston reported that an unpublished report, which we have been awaiting, will recommend that 80 post offices should close. If these indications from the unpublished report are accurate, our worst fears will have been realised. It will result in increased economic hardship, increased social isolation and an escalation of the decline of rural communities.

  I remind the Government that as recently as last November, it supported a Dáil motion on the future of the post office network tabled by the Rural Independent Group. We asked for clear and explicit commitments in terms of seeking out new and innovative approaches to sustaining the post offices in rural communities. We all thought that acceptance of that Dáil motion meant we were all right. However, here we are. The Government is doing nothing while Rome burns and is twiddling its thumbs. The Government is either committed to rural post offices or it is not. So far all the indications are that the Government will continue to speak out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. We need absolute clarity. We need an acknowledgement that rural areas cannot cope with the level of withdrawal of services going on at present, including post offices, credit unions and what is happening with our roads. It could lock the people up altogether, as Deputy Ó Cuív said. It gave us no broadband either.

  As a Deputy from a rural county, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, should understand. I think it might have been a trick by the Taoiseach when announcing his last Cabinet he split ownership across three Departments and no one knows who is responsible. None of them is responsible and none of them is looking after it. The Government is closing them by stealth. It will not allow them do motor tax or driver licences. It will not allow them to be tourist offices. It will not allow them do the parcel post. It is strangling them with their hands behind their backs and eyes blindfolded.

  As the Minister of State knows, the postmasters and postmistresses give sterling service. There is a huge social aspect to their service and they are willing to do much more if the Government lets them. Successive governments have closed them by stealth, but this Government has been the worst. We are going to be stripped of more post offices resulting in less connectivity. It was buses last week and also last week the credit union in Clonmel was bulldozed into taking over debts from Charleville credit union. Now it is the post offices.

  The Minister of State has no empathy with rural areas. Is he trying to punish the electorate after it punished Government members for their reign of terror over five years in bailing out the banks? Is it trying to take away everything from rural communities? Given that he is a rural Deputy, the Minister of State should know what is going on. He should hang his head in shame. The post offices represent the last bastion. The Government let the Garda stations go. If it were approached imaginatively, the post offices could also be used in the evening time to allow the community garda be in there for an hour to meet people. There are many imaginative ways to support the post offices instead of strangling them, stifling them, kicking them down the road and insulting the good postmasters and postmistresses. There is huge waste in the GPO with many staff who have had no meaningful work for decades. The Government should look at where the real problem is with waste and not with the individual post offices.

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris If 80 rural post offices are to close as reported, it would be a national scandal and it has to be resisted. I would like to think that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who comes from a rural community in one of the most western parts of our country, would have a full understanding of the value of post offices and the life link it is for rural areas. Over recent years we have seen the total erosion of small shops, the creameries are practically gone, Garda stations have closed down and a lot of pubs have closed down. These are all areas of what I would call rural connection. Those facilities, along with our small post offices, are of immense value particularly for those who live in isolated rural areas and those who are elderly. They depend upon that for the social connection.

Representatives of An Post management told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs that 55 out of 500 are unsustainable. However, how is unsustainability defined? Is it defined just in monetary terms or by the social value it gives to communities? I argue that small post offices are invaluable to rural areas. Elderly people can go to post offices and the post offices come to them through their postman and they keep that connection. If the post offices are closed down it would be another death knell to rural areas.

We need to be prepared to stand up and ensure we judge the value to the community, not as unsustainable but as sustainable. Having such facilities in a community adds to the sustainability of the community. The Government and previous Governments have had a very negative impact on rural areas. I have considerable faith in the Minister of State, Deputy Ring; I say that as an Opposition spokesperson. The fact that he lives in a rural area and is acquainted with what is happening there means that he should be able to take this on and defend the facilities for rural areas. He should defend the small post offices so that they survive and that connection to rural communities is maintained.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith If we had €1 for all the various committees and studies on An Post that have been commissioned by the Government we would have a nice few bob in a savings account in An Post. There has been a plethora of working groups reviewing the post office network. One was under the auspices of the Minister of State, the post office hub working group to examine the Kerr report which, itself, was a separate report. In addition, the Government set up a network renewal implementation group. Meanwhile the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and his officials are examining the potential for motor tax etc. to be paid through post offices.

I ask the Minister of State to explain to us how all these groups knit together to try to resolve what An Post claims is an impending crisis for the 1,100 remaining post offices. Obviously, the announcement that 80 are to close is an indication of the failure of these groups to come up with ideas. For example, we could give some sort of public service obligation payment to the post offices, which they do not receive. We could stop underfunding them and stop removing services from them such as social welfare payments by insisting that certain Government payments must be made through bank drafts etc. The State could form something similar to the Sparkasse or Kiwibank models that would help An Post perform multiple functions and therefore survive.

It reminds me of the same rhetoric we have heard regarding Bus Éireann.

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