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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002

Vol. 549 No. 4

Private Members' Business. - Sub-Post Offices: Motion (Resumed).

The following motion was moved by Deputy Jim Higgins on Tuesday, 26 February 2002:
That Dáil Eireann, acknowledging the contribution of sub-post offices to the commercial and community life of the country and to sustaining the rural and urban communities which they have served for many decades, deplores the decision by the Minister for Public Enterprise to disregard the recommendations of the report of Mr. Philip Flynn which recommended "that all necessary steps be taken by the Government to maximise the amount of business channelled through An Post's network" in favour of the interdepartmental report which will lead to the forced closure of up to 900 sub-post offices and calls on the Government to ensure the following:
–a current account system similar to the model operated by banks;
–ATM facilities at each sub-post office;
–retention of payment of social welfare entitlements at sub-post offices;
–payment of bills to public authorities on a fee per item basis;
–renewal of driving licences and motor taxation;
–the development of e-commerce facilities;
–a low interest loan scheme repayable over ten years for the modernisation and upgrading of sub-post office premises;
–a programme of retraining modules for sub-postmasters, sub-postmistresses and sub-post office staff;
–an agreed redundancy scheme for sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses who do not wish to continue to operate, and
–the restriction of PostPoint outlets to communities where sub-post offices cease to exist.
–(Deputy Higgins,Mayo)
Debate resumed on amendment No 1:
To delete all words after "decades" and substitute the following:
", commends:
–the commitment of Government to the post office network which is explicitly set out in the White Paper on Rural Development;
–the undertaking by Government that there would be no forced closures of post offices;
–the automation of a significant part of the post office network which has enabled post offices to offer additional services, including:
–transfer of ESB payments to post offices from 1 March 2002;
–bill payment for all other utilities;
–joint initiative with the AIB to allow post offices to become agents for the bank from 1 July 2002;
–bill payment facilities for many local authorities, including all four Dublin local authorities, both Cork local authorities and Limerick City Council and Galway City Council; and
–business banking services for retailers;
–ongoing discussions with a number of Departments, including the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of the Environment and Local Government, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and FÁS on the transfer of additional Government business to the network;
–the availability of Internet access points at post offices;
–the establishment of the Post Office Forum representative of all interested parties to progress restructuring of the network, including the generation of additional business;
–arising from the work of the forum, agreement in January 2002 between An Post and the Irish Postmasters' Union to a revised severance package for postmasters and agreement on the introduction of postal agency arrangements in respect of 26 offices on a pilot voluntary basis;
–the equity injection of €12.7 million by Government to An Post for the post office network;
–the payment of the 12% to postmasters recommended in the Flynn report; and
–the continued commitment by Government to work with all relevant parties in the post office network to further enhance the quantity and quality of services available throughout the network.".
–(Minister for Public Enterprise)
Dr. Upton: I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael Higgins.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Dr. Upton

The party which pledged in 1997 to put people before politics has not shown much of that philosophy in relation to the staff and customers of An Post. The Minister has repeatedly spoken about a commitment to a national postal network and about her opposition to the forced closure of post offices both in rural and urban areas. However, she is not doing anything about it and is undermining by stealth the national postal network of more than 1,800 officers in sub-post offices and An Post workers. The Minister categorically rejected the main recommendation of the Flynn report on the future of the postal network last year. The basis of this proposal is that Government funds would be required to keep the existing network in place. She has done absolutely nothing about her promise to establish Government service outlets in areas not serviced by postal agencies. Fianna Fáil's so-called progress report on its four wasted years in office, which appeared last summer, clearly stated that the Government agreed that in situations where it is impossible to continue a post office on an agency basis, a Government service outlet would be developed. However, speaking in the Dáil on 17 October last, the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, said that should no postal agency be established in an area the concept of a Government service outlet would be explored. It is clear that for the Government this concept is merely scattered about when local communities express concerns about their post offices.

A post office is a vital element in the social fabric of any community. This is equally true for urban as well as rural areas, even if the emphasis is different. A post office is not just a place to avail of the services provided by An Post, it is also a place for people, particularly the elderly, to meet. There is much more involved in drawing up a policy on the sub-post office network than just considering its commercial viability.

The Minister has frequently stated that post offices will not be forced to close. This means little in reality when post offices which are closed down, for whatever reason, do not reopen. It will be impossible to recruit post office staff unless a decent standard of living is assured. In my constituency, post offices are a constant source of concern to the people I represent. For example, the post office in Terenure village was closed for many months. It proved incredibly difficult to find a replacement premises and it was equally difficult to obtain a commitment from someone to manage the post office. Thankfully this situation has been resolved. However, in the months when there was no local service there was a huge level of concern among people and an enormous amount of inconvenience was caused.

Not too far away in Crumlin and Walkinstown there is another crisis in the post office service. The accommodation and space provided for the running of the post offices in these localities is completely inadequate. It is not unusual to find people queuing in cold or wet weather on a very narrow footpath, or on occasion on the road and at risk of being knocked down by oncoming traffic, to gain entry to the post office. This is a regular occurrence. The people queuing are the most vulnerable, namely, the elderly, the unemployed, and young mothers with small children. These people are seeking a professional service and facility. What is being offered in these and a number of other sub-post offices in my constituency is far from satisfactory, much less state of the art. This is not to reflect on hard-pressed staff who work there; far from it. However, the facilities are appalling and it is impossible to provide a satisfactory level of service in the circumstances. In some of the areas to which I refer, the bank branches are also closing and the heart of the village community is being destroyed. It is those who most need these services who are being denied.

The future of the sub-post office is not, as already stated, just about economic viability. It is about serving the community and ensuring that local structures are retained. Within those structures there is an opportunity to meet the long-established needs of the community where a social service of a sort is available for elderly people in particular. However, there is also an opportunity to marry that need with the commercial development of the post office service through the provision of services such as ATM facilities, e-commerce facilities, etc. I sincerely hope that this is the direction we will take and not proceed with the closure, forced or otherwise, of any of our sub-post offices.

I thank Deputy Upton for sharing time with me. I wish to make a number of comments on this important motion.

The statement by the Minister some time ago, repeated by her colleagues in my constituency, that there would be no forced closure of post offices could be couched in terms of her stating "I will allow them to wither on the vine". While there have been no forced closures, there has been an inordinate delay in providing capital investment, restructuring, retraining and technological innovation in post offices to enable them to be viable.

I wish to draw attention to a point which should be debated widely, not just in rural areas but also in urban areas. I refer to the assumption that universal postal delivery and universal access to postal facilities can be changed in two phases by 2003 and 2006, respectively. It is one of the fundamental rights of citizenship to communicate. A person in a remote rural area who might be elderly is entitled to receive a letter or a package. It cannot be argued that the citizenship rights of such a person, who may live in a remote area, can be eroded by stating that the postal service has to be liberalised to a degree to which people will be able to enter into a contract to supply postal services and cream the market – pursue the most lucrative aspects of the market – and leave An Post, which is a State body, in deficit and the service it provides to wither.

I wish to be positive in what I say and I believe a number of positive steps could be taken. The future of post offices should be considered within the terms of rural retention and renewal. We must also accept the fundamental principle of universal access of citizens and oppose the principle of reducing these rights to suit the needs of the marketplace and the implementation of a notion of liberalisation, which would have the net effect of reducing rights. For example, the banks, as everyone knows, are behaving disgracefully and are operating entirely on the basis of making profits. They are departing not just from rural areas but also from parts of cities where their profits are no longer viable. However, I do not have adequate time to speak about this disgraceful retreat by the banks.

The facilities provided by credit unions are sometimes limited by the unavailability of premises in remote and rural areas and in towns. Why could the Minister not come forward with posi tive proposals and suggest, for example, a scheme of subsidised rental or subsidised buy-out for such post offices as might be threatened with closure and their transfer to the League of Credit Unions? Why not allow the credit union movement expand in every location in which post offices are threatened? That would have the advantage of retaining services and providing a venue in which services could be expanded. It would also have positive benefits in terms of encouraging a form of social banking.

There are other issues that arise in relation to post offices which are important. There is a suggestion that a post office can disappear and that its future can be regarded purely in terms of commercial criteria. In the rush to liberalisation, no cognisance has been taken of the social structure of the communities which post offices serve. Those who run post offices have long experience of dealing with elderly people, those with particular needs and those in receipt of different forms of State benefit. Their relationship with those who use their facilities is not merely commercial in nature; it is a profoundly human relationship. I am aware, from considering what has happened on the outskirts of Galway city, that when a post office closes a fundamental blow is struck against the social fabric of an area. Pensioners who made a certain kind of journey on a particular day are suddenly forced to move to a different venue.

While the Irish Postmasters' Union has been willing to accept a pilot scheme in relation to agencies, we must consider where the indiscriminate liberalisation of that which was providing a social service is taking place. Should we sit back and allow the notion to take hold that supermarkets and other outlets will supply everything? I would prefer to buy a newspaper from a newsagent on the basis that newsagents are part of the social fabric. Every post office that is in danger of closing should be offered, in the first instance and as a going concern, to those providing an equivalent service. In my opinion the suggestion I made about offering them to the League of Credit Unions is worth pursuing. I hope the Minister will move from her position of allowing post offices to wither on the vine and take some positive action.

I wish to share time with Deputies Michael Kitt, O'Flynn, Cooper-Flynn and Conor Lenihan.

At the outset I must state that my wife runs the post office in the village in which we live. I am, therefore, speaking from a position of knowledge vis-à-vis the operation of the post office network. Since I was elected to the Dáil, the Government commitment to the rural post office network has allowed the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, to ensure there will be no forced closure of post offices. In my constituency and in others throughout the country, several post offices were to close due to the retirement of a postmaster or postmistress. The Minister directed An Post management to ensure every effort was made to readvertise these posts with a view to retaining post offices in those rural communities. In County Laois several of the post offices were reopened in response to her direction to An Post management. Had she not intervened, those post offices would be long since closed, never to reopen. I welcome her commitment to the Flynn report and the recent forum established under his chairmanship.

In relation to the rural post office network, the best development for many years was the agreement with the ESB to allow people to pay their ESB bills at their local post office where they can also pay their telephone bills now that many Eircom offices do not want the trouble of processing payments at their counters. This has brought additional business to An Post. These are initiatives that have been forced on the post office network by the Government.

I am critical of An Post senior management which is not committed to the post office network in rural Ireland. As part of its preparation for the Flynn report, An Post produced various alternatives. One option was to close 400 branches, another to close a greater number, yet another to close practically every branch in rural Ireland. That is the view of An Post senior management. One of the key problems in relation to An Post is that senior management is not committed to its rural network and such commitment as it has is as a result of Government pressure.

It is disappointing that some recent business which An Post has secured has only gone to the automated offices, numbering about 1,000 or less than half the network. The other 1,000 offices, in the smaller villages, have not got the facility to handle many of the transactions in question, such as topping up mobile phones or operating the Government's new special instalment savings accounts. Smaller post offices can only hand out application forms to be used at a computerised office in the nearest town. The arrangement with the AIB is excellent, but, again, it does not apply to the 1,000 small post offices without computer systems. An Post management appears to have decided, some years ago, not to roll out the computer network to the smaller offices because it believes those offices should not be in place. Such a lack of commitment by An Post to its own local network is disappointing.

Postmasters have recently been invited to apply for the voluntary redundancy scheme. In that context at a recent meeting in Tullamore some 30% of those present indicated an interest in a severance package. That is because they have not been properly remunerated, even though there has been some increase, and because An Post management is not providing proper facilities and business opportunities to make small post offices viable. It is not surprising that many of the older people want to get out if there is an attractive severance package on offer from An Post. I look forward to the completion of the three months trial period in order that people can assess the suitability of the package and discuss it with the postmasters union.

It is important to retain the universal postal system whereby post is delivered to any location in the country for the same price. It is noteworthy that, where the waste management service has been privatised, those living in rural areas now only have a fortnightly collection – that will probably be reduced to once a month in another year or two – whereas those living in built-up areas have a weekly collection. An Post should not move in the direction of providing for different levels of service in rural and urban areas.

I commend the Minister for her support for the An Post network. When An Post sets its mind to a particular task, it can perform very efficiently. One such example is the new SDS mail sorting and distribution centre in Portlaoise, one of the biggest sorting centres outside of the Dublin centre at Knockmitten Lane, Clondalkin. Millions of mail items are sorted each year and a very good service is provided. An Post should apply the same dedication to rural post offices, which should not be regarded as a burden but as part of its organisation for future development.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I share the view of other speakers on this side of the House that the Minister has been very positive in trying to promote the continuation of post offices in rural villages and towns. The post office is a focal point in a town or village. In my home village of Castleblakeney, when the postmaster retired last July, the local community was very anxious that the post office should continue to operate, but difficulties were put in our way by An Post management which is not as committed as it should be to rural Ireland. There are appalling delays in appointing a new person to take over the post office. I had to appeal to the family who ran the post office to continue for one month and, subsequently, for a further month. New appointments should not be made in this way. When a post office is without service for two months and people have to go to the next town to collect their social welfare payments, many may not return when a new local post office is put in place. Castleblakeney post office is now located in the local supermarket, which is an excellent arrangement, but some business has been lost due to the delay which occurred. That is wrong and I have been very critical of An Post in that regard.

I welcome the Minister's announcement of new business for post offices, starting next Friday, in relation to the payment of ESB bills. The AIB banking transaction contract will also be available at post offices, including a range of services such as lodgements, withdrawals, AIB credit card bill payments and business lodgement services. That is very welcome. As Deputy Michael D. Higgins said, many banks are pulling out of smaller towns and, realistically, even the limited once weekly cash collection service currently being provided is not certain to continue indefinitely. Banks also cite the security implications of bringing large sums of money from smaller to bigger towns. There is a great opportunity for An Post to develop the role of local post offices in providing the banking services that are being withdrawn slowly but surely from the smaller towns.

I commend the many post offices which, on their own initiative, even without Government support or any help from An Post, are getting involved in new business. I know of post offices which are providing photocopying and fax services which are badly needed in rural communities. One postmaster has told me he is handling mobile phone sales, another is providing a photographic processing service and yet another is supplying laminated signs for such purposes as planning permission notices. Perhaps there may even be further opportunities for the supply of signs in connection with the forthcoming general election.

It is encouraging that new business is being made available to post offices and that post offices are seeking out new business on their own initiative. The new package referred to is a pilot scheme under which 26 offices will be operated. A full assessment of its success will be carried out before it is extended in any way. The package includes seven weeks' pay for every year of service which sounds good in theory, despite the disappointing fact that the payment is low in the first place. These operators can subsequently return on an agency basis and non-automated post offices can apply. Are we putting the cart before the horse here? Why do we not automate those post offices and install computers in them? There are computers in every school in the country and many homes have computers, yet there are thousands of post offices with no computer system. It is not right to tell people they should apply for this pilot scheme. They should get their computers in the first instance and operate on that basis and I hope that will be the case. Nonetheless, there is agreement between the Government, An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union to introduce the pilot scheme. The package is there and I am sure people will be interested in it considering the provision for seven weeks' pay for every year of service.

I welcome the fact that the Minister for Public Enterprise has written to four Ministers asking them to consider channelling business to individual post offices from their Departments or agencies under their aegis. Moreover, I understand the Revenue Commissioners were also approached with this request. That is the way to go. If there is a positive response, post offices will remain the focal point of communities and will hopefully grow their businesses in the smaller towns and villages throughout the country.

We must acknowledge that sub-post office staff work hard to provide a good service. Whether they are getting paid enough is another matter although they recently received a 12% increase. Given the services they provide and the staff they employ I do not know how they can operate on a commercial basis. We had a serious problem in Cork last August when our local post office in historic Shandon Street was due to close. The postmistress who had spent 14 years there said she had had enough and intended to retire. We found it difficult to find a suitable person with a suitable premises to take over the role of postmaster or postmistress. There was uproar in the community. People were devastated by the closure and were upset at having to move to a new post office. I have never seen such a number of people upset by the closure of a local post office. That puts into context how important is the role of the post office in the community.

I was delighted that the chairperson of Shandon North Cathedral Community Association, Alice Morley, secretary, Joe Sheehan and I, together with my colleagues in the Dáil and Cork Corporation, were able to put our heads together and convince An Post that this post office had to remain open and that they had to try harder to recruit somebody to take it over. They did so and I acknowledge the role of the Minister for Public Enterprise in pressing An Post to ensure it found a replacement. The post office was not being forced to close, rather the postmistress was retiring. The Socialist Party put up posters stating it wanted the post office to remain open and it tried to take the credit. However, I can assure the House that it had no hand, act or part in keeping the post office open. This is a story with a happy ending because the post office reopened in November with a new, more modern premises and a new postmaster and is working out very well.

I welcome the many initiatives introduced by the Minister for Public Enterprise through An Post to create a one-stop-shop and her commitment in her speech last night that there would be no forced closures of post offices. The Minister's actions have helped and will help to grow the post office network by increasing its services and I have no doubt that the 1,916 post offices and sub-post offices throughout the country will benefit from these initiatives.

The losses in 2001 and 2002 cannot be allowed to continue and An Post must get back to profitability or it will go under. An Post must increase its turnover or reduce its costs if it wants to survive and it is going the right way about it. I commend An Post on its SDS service which we use in our company in Cork. It is a fantastic door-to-door service which delivers on time. An Post is competing with commercial companies to provide this important service and is doing very well. I welcome the new commercial businesses on which An Post is embarking and the 26 pilot schemes for the post office agencies in shops, in particular the new AIB banking transactions contract which will allow people to make personal account lodgements, withdrawals, AIB credit card bill payments and business lodgement services. I welcome its successful tender for the ESB bill payment service – an important service which will commence in a few days – and the PostPoint system where people can top up their mobile phones in the different network offices throughout the country.

I was fascinated by what my colleague Deputy Michael Kitt said about initiatives such as the pilot scheme which I welcome because it presents an opportunity for people to build their own businesses, providing services that are not provided in their own communities. I welcome the entrepreneurial flair being shown by the postmasters and postmistresses of Ireland.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Coming from Mayo, which has a diameter of 140 miles, we have experienced many rural post offices in operation. We also have island communities which have had essential services provided through the rural post office network over many years. I compliment all the people who have been involved in the provision of this very important service for very little pay. We always heard complaints about the poor payment received for the provision of those services in rural sub-post offices. It is important to recognise the huge social importance of these post offices, not just in the provision of services to elderly people but in providing essential services to the community as a whole. This must be preserved and, in that context, I welcome the commitment of the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke in the White Paper on rural development in which she affirms that there will be no forced closures of post offices. This very important commitment from this Fianna Fáil-led Government must be welcomed.

Unfortunately, if that commitment had existed under previous Administrations, the post office network might be in a better state. Following on from a point raised by a colleague, the commitment of senior management at An Post needs to be questioned because if the rural post office network is to survive and be seriously developed, it is vitally important that there is commitment at the highest possible level in An Post, not just because the Minister for Public Enterprise is beating on its door and forcing it upon people. It is important that senior management recognise the vital social service provided by post offices. One thing that stands out in my mind, having spoken to postmasters and postmistresses, is that they want to seize the business opportunity that is out there for them. They want to be automated and want to develop their businesses. They recognise that improvements must be made in the network if it is to return to profitability. In the environment in which we live and work, we all recognise that if serious losses occur, something must be done to address the problem.

I see great recognition of that among rural post offices that are anxious to proceed with automation. I welcome the fact that 1,000 sub-post offices will be automated, because this is the key to the service. Almost every ten year old child in the country is using a computer and operating on the Internet. It is almost unthinkable that a ser vice provided through a post office would not be fully automated, whether it is on Clare Island or in Dublin City – that service can be provided no matter where one is located. The beauty of the IT age is that no matter how remote one is, these essential services can be provided through automation.

I compliment the Minister, particularly for commissioning the Flynn report. Rather than being ignored, as the Opposition asserts, this report has formed the basis for many of the improvements that are being carried out in the post office network. Following from that an interdepartmental group was established to set out the framework for the implementation of the Flynn report recommendations. I welcome these developments as a serious attempt by the Government to try and tackle the problems within the post office network.

I also welcome the pilot scheme that has been set up for non-automated post offices, although I take on board Deputy Michael Kitt's point that automation is the key and it would be preferable to see all of these sub-post offices automated. Having said that, it is a pilot scheme and before it is expanded further it will be evaluated to see if it was successful. I recognise this as an attempt to move these sub-post offices towards profitability. I welcome the fact there is a severance package for older postmasters and postmistresses who have operated an essential service over the years and now wish to retire.

I welcome the new business initiatives that have been made available through the post office network, particularly the AIB banking transaction contracts and the ESB bill payment at post offices. They are very important developments for the sustainability of post offices. The Minister has already been in contact with all Departments to see if more essential services can be provided through the post office network and a report on this is expected soon. That is an important step in the right direction.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate. It is very telling to hear somebody of Deputy Cooper-Flynn's expertise concluding her speech with her experience in banking and her understanding of the network from a rural perspective.

Do not mention the war.

I think the Deputy has performed extremely well in all her functions, be it in banking or in politics. I resent the implications of what is being said on the Opposition benches. Deputy Flynn has performed wonderfully in all her roles.

Is the Deputy the favourite girl again?

(Interruptions.)

I have no problem with anything the Deputy has done either as a Deputy or in her role as a senior executive with a bank. She is an excellent Deputy and I expect to see her here after the next election with a very high poll.

Many people would not like to see her back.

There seems to be a degree of confusion in the Opposition about the exact status of Deputy Cooper-Flynn. She is a member of Fianna Fáil and a Fianna Fáil candidate in the next general election.

As Deputy Jim Higgins is aware.

Let there be no ambiguity about that. She will be adding to our numbers and voting for Deputy Bertie Ahern in or around 18 May when we resume here to elect a Taoiseach.

Does Deputy Lenihan have anything to say about post offices?

I am going to speak on post offices now. Deputy Stanton and I share a common concern for the social purpose of the post office and its important network both in rural and urban areas. I get a sense from many of the contributions, mostly from rural Deputies, that the viability of post offices is only a rural issue. It is not, and for that reason I joined Deputy Stanton on the committee on enterprise and small business in defeating the attempt by the Competition Authority to lift the ban on below cost selling. I believe small retailers, particularly post offices, serve an important commercial and social purpose in urban and rural areas.

In my own constituency we have a number of very important suburban retail shopping centres where the post office is vital to the viability of the shopping centre and the shopping centre itself is vital to the survival of any sense of community spirit in these locations. It is very important that we do not drive business from the small village or, indeed, the small suburban shopping centre to large retail outlets.

One of the dangers here is that the political class – and I include all of us in this – often far too slavishly follow the diktats of the Competition Authority or the false god of competition. There is, and always has been, a tradition in Europe of supporting the small players – small retailers, post offices and other such commercial and state enterprises. This Government has fulfilled its mandate in that regard. The current Minister has moved to defend this network and build on its viability by providing a real future.

As we can see from the pilot programmes some will be run on a pilot basis with 26 in total run on an agency basis, which hopefully will be extended. The issues concerning automation are obvious and the role that the post office network can play in regard to electronic payments and the development of e-commerce and e-government is very important. The network is second to none and is an ideal vehicle through which State services can be delivered and made available through the Internet on a local basis. An Post management and the Minister need to look very closely at developing it.

Moves by Allied Irish Bank in terms of transactions and the commencement by the ESB of its bill payment system in post offices are critically important. This is hugely important because it not only underpins the role of the post office but also allows the banks at a time they are closing branches to retain an involvement in communities. It is important that we develop that connection very strongly.

We have a priority to defend not only post offices but also the integrity of our banking system. To have an Irish owned bank is an important control mechanism in one's economy and I fear for the day we might lose not only our post offices but Irish ownership of banks operating in the Irish market. That day may not be too far off, so it is important that we entwine the banks with the post offices in a relationship that makes it harder for foreign predators to come in and take over our banks. If they are linked to the social purpose of post offices it would be harder to take them over.

I have never believed in fully open competition and do not agree with everything the Competition Authority says. It has made some rather misleading statements over the years, for instance, in regard to the ban on below cost selling in relation to small retailers. It also said some other foolish things in other areas but we probably do not have the time to go into those tonight. I praise the Minister, not just because she is my aunt, but because I believe she has made a commitment to the social purpose of the post office network.

The Minister is closing them down.

Deputy Lenihan wants to get her past the election.

That is clear in terms of the appointment of a serious player like Phil Flynn to look at the area and come up with the recommendations, which are being implemented. Fine Gael is clutching at straws.

(Interruptions.)

Will we hear next that they are going to compensate people whose post offices are closed? What is the next great free offer from Fine Gael?

I wish to share time with Deputies Crawford, Kenny, McGrath, Boylan, Neville, Burke and Deenihan.

The motion before us is very timely. The Minister said the losses of the post office network could amount to €100 million by 2004. It is timely, therefore, that, on the eve of a general election and what is possibly a long summer recess, we do all we can to keep the post office service operating. Many colleagues have expressed concern with regard to the closure of individual sub-post offices, but if action is not taken, not only will individual sub-post offices be at risk, the whole company will be endangered. It is obvious that An Post needs investment. Deputies on all sides of the House agree the company needs to be modernised and computerised. Many sub-post offices are not connected to the computer network and cannot get involved in many of the initiatives proposed by Deputies. It is imperative that all sub-post offices are connected.

The Minister has commissioned three investigations into this area. There was the Flynn report, the interdepartmental working group and the partnership forum. I acknowledge this, but not much else has happened. Useful reports were brought forward, but there has been very little action by the Minister herself to support the post office network. At the same time, the network may lose up to €100 million, a loss no company could sustain. Something has to give in the end. It is quite menacing that the Minister began last night by saying there would be no forced closures of post offices. She did not say she would ensure all post offices would remain open or that she would not stand idly by while post offices were closed. In saying there will be no forced closures the implication is that post offices will be allowed to close and that she will not assist them. That is what is happening.

There is great uncertainty in the post office community. As many colleagues have said, in towns, villages and cities the post office is part of the infrastructure of the State and communities. It is essential that just as we maintain the road and rail networks, we also maintain this one. It should not be abandoned. Communication is vital. Communication by mail is not only vital, it is extremely complex. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport recently considered a report dealing with extremely complicated international postal agreements. The amount of negotiation and expertise involved in putting it together was remarkable. We dealt with provisions to deal with the sending through the mail of dangerous and damaging substances, a matter which currently is extremely relevant. The post office has an expertise and an integrity that we cannot afford to lose.

The withdrawal of banks from many rural and urban areas provides post offices with the opportunity to take up the slack. Post offices should, as we suggest in our motion, be allowed to carry on current account business. Those with cheques could then lodge and cash them at post offices. There is no reason driving licences and motor vehicle tax should not be renewable at post offices here, as is the case in other countries. The register of electors, which many Deputies have pointed out is often out of date, could be updated by local authorities with the help of postmen and women who know all those to whom they deliver letters. A low interest loan scheme over ten years is one way of providing the impetus for modernisation and an agreed redundancy scheme should also be put in place.

There are many positive elements to the motion before the House and I ask the Government not to vote against it. An Post is an essential part of our infrastructure and we must do all we can to modernise and support it.

I thank Deputy Jim Higgins for moving the motion and outlining its proposals in detail. Rural post offices have provided a great service. They have acted, not only as a public service, but as a social service to many single and lonely people. Their closure, if it is the will of the Minister, will have major implications. Postmasters and postmistresses have survived on a pittance, worked long hours and kept enormously detailed records, often for less money than the pensioners to whom they disbursed payments. Many do not recognise how minimal was the salary paid to them for the service they gave during the years. The Minister has stated clearly she hopes they will wither away. She will not prevent the closure of post offices. There needs to be an agreed redundancy package for those who may have to close, or who may want to get out of the business at this stage. Whether they are postmasters or postmistresses, if they do not wish to continue, they should get something to recompense them for the extraordinarily low level of pay they received during the years.

It is not the cost of rural post offices that has got An Post into financial difficulty. An Post may need help to maintain rural post offices and if it does, that should be the Government's priority. Without the rural post offices, often linked to the local shop, there would not be a focal point in communities for many elderly and lonely people and the cost to the nation would be great. The person behind the counter knows that when someone does not turn up on a daily or twice-weekly basis they need to be checked up on. They are in constant contact, over the telephone and otherwise, with all the people concerned. The forced closure of 900 post offices by the Minister must be prevented, as must the destruction of rural Ireland.

There are computers in every school; why are they not in post offices? That would allow them to increase the number of services they offer. Over the last five years the Minister has sat idly by, but we were given the great news tonight that she has written to four or five of her Cabinet colleagues to ask them to provide more services for post offices. I was delighted to hear the famous Cork representative, Deputy O'Flynn, who is so outspoken on all issues—

He is infamous.

—admit that he had to involve the Minister herself in order to have a post office reopened in his constituency.

An Post must be competitive, but that should not be at the expense of rural post offices. My mother was a nurse in Dublin in the 1930s and could post a letter home to the country at 7 p.m. to arrive at 9.30 a.m. the next morning. That is the sort of postal service we need. If that level of service is restored, the company will get the business it needs to be profitable.

An Post will not save rural Ireland but, if it is given the opportunity, rural Ireland may well save An Post. There is an insidious movement involving professional organisations including An Taisce and some fishery boards, to deny people the right to live in rural Ireland. The post offices are the life blood of rural Ireland and other centres of commerce and activity.

The Government should set out its stall by saying that it and the Members of the Oireachtas want to have post offices in as many places as possible. It is perfectly obvious that fairly significant numbers of people running post offices are elderly people who really do not want to continue, but they continue because of tradition and it is part of a way of life for them. It is scandalous that many of those postmasters and postmistresses have had to ask business people to buy quantities of stamps on umpteen occasions to boost their income because income was determined by the rate of sale of stamps.

The former Minister of State, Deputy Donal Carey, who had responsibility for this area under the Department of the Taoiseach, drew up a comprehensive plan to save rural post offices and to provide them with alternative business on a range of fronts. When this Government took office, that ministry of state was transferred from under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach into the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and this plan was rejected by virtue of the fact that no money was provided to implement it. Where lies the CLÁR programme to resuscitate and rejuvenate rural Ireland, part and parcel of which is the rural post offices?

There is a future for many of the post offices and for many people who work in them, but there is a need for a re-vamped statement of intent and, moreover, a guarantee by this Government of such a future. Then it might be possible for younger members of families of postmasters and postmistresses and others, who would see this as an ideal opportunity, to build a commercial foundation and to create a life in rural Ireland dealing with people who would be enabled to live there if we had a slightly more enlightened approach towards the kind of country we want in the times ahead.

This is an important motion. The post office is at the heart of the rural community. The post office, together with the schools, the garda station, the church and the doctor's sur gery, is the life blood of rural communities. If we take away those services from rural life, we will take away the real heart of rural Ireland and it will close up.

We must acknowledge the quality, the integrity and the dedication of postmasters and post mistresses down through the years. They have done a tremendous job in every community up and down the country. Although many of them were on small incomes, they saw themselves as providing the post office to look after the way of life in rural Ireland. They did all the things that have been mentioned here already. They provided contact for people in rural areas. They looked after people in rural areas. They made sure that people were out and about and up and around. They provided a commercial service but it was also an important social service.

Unfortunately this Government is doing very little to keep that service in operation in rural Ireland. In the same way as the Government is closing Garda stations and is not helping rural schools to remain open by not providing the necessary extensions, etc., it is helping with this proposal to bring about a decline in rural life in Ireland. Such is the state of rural life that recently I saw that there were no applicants for a doctor's post advertised in a rural community. It is a sad commentary on our modern society that we do not provide the services to keep rural life alive.

What can we do? There are a range of services which can be offered by post offices in rural communities. If they were computerised and brought on-line to provide automated services, they could provide many of the services people need. As previous speakers said, they could process motor tax applications, driving licence applications and other such services. All the Government services could be provided by the local post offices on a fee per item basis. The local authorities could do a great deal more to bring the post offices into the picture and they could provide services through the local post office network. After all, there are postmasters and postmistresses doing their jobs in post offices in virtually every village and small community around the country. When one considers the service they provide five and a half days a week, and the out of hours services they often provide to facilitate local neighbours in those localities, they do a tremendous service and we should commend them for that. Instead of presiding over the winding down of those services, the Government should boost them and help them to survive and thrive in this new century.

It shows how far from reality this Government has moved when the Minister can come in here and arrogantly stand over a decision taken at Cabinet to close rural post offices. It shows that the Mercs, the helicopters and the jets have taken them into the clouds and they no longer realise the needs of people in rural Ireland. Thankfully too much damage will not be done in the next ten weeks and a Fine Gael led Government will restore the post offices and improve the service to people in rural Ireland.

Not everybody in remote areas and small communities owns a car. There are one car families where the husband goes off in the morning at 7 o'clock to earn an income and the stay at home wife is left to look after the household. She must go into the local post office, which generally is attached to a small shop where she gets what she needs for the household. There are other services which could be provided there, as Deputy McGrath pointed out. Why can they not use the post office to pay motor tax, get a driving licence or pay the ESB bill directly? Why does the post office not dispense the range of application forms for the various services available? I am only thinking of a few items. Is there anybody in the Government to advise this Minister or does she ever get out of the tub this weather to see what is needed in rural Ireland? All she needs is simply advice on what can be done. Expand the services and the people will respond.

I have always supported the rural post offices. On my local radio station I have encouraged people to do as much business as they can in them but they say there is very little they can do in the post office except collect their parents' pensions. However, there is more which should be done and can be done. Provide the service and the people will respond.

The post office is the lifeblood and the focal point of a rural community. It is wrong of the Minister to close post offices and the Government will not get away with it. The people will react. Thankfully 9 May is coming and a new dawn is shining. People will realise that it is time to close down this Government and to open up a new opportunity.

People will come to live in a remote rural community but they will do so only where there are services provided. That is the bottom line. Taking away the services discourages people from coming to live outside of the towns and villages. In outlying areas it is well nigh impossible to get services such as a water supply and in the towns the people are choked by traffic.

The life blood of a rural community is its people and they will respond to positive initiatives. Any thought given to the kind of services a post office can provide would show that every activity in a post office is chartered as a unit and every unit brings in income to the postmaster or postmistress. The postmasters and postmistresses have done sterling work in the past. They are living on a pittance, providing a social service for which they have not been compensated. In the time of the Celtic tiger economy and the prosperity about which we have heard so much – much of which has been blown by the Government – why was the income of postmasters and postmistresses not increased in order that the post offices could be maintained and why did An Post not look at what is being provided and broaden the agenda in order that the people would respond?

The people will not accept what the Minister is doing. It is arrogance on her part. She should be here listening to our concerns and she should address those concerns. It is not acceptable to me and it is not acceptable to the people I represent. I hope it will not happen in the short term.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate and I congratulate Deputy Higgins on tabling the motion. The role of the post office is crucial to rural Ireland. It is crucial to urban areas but it is rural areas which are in danger of having their post offices removed. The Minister has announced 1,100 redundancies and many of these will occur at sub-post offices in rural areas. There is a prediction that up to 900 post offices will close in rural areas. This is a disgrace and will remove an important service to many communities. The post office is much more than just the postal service. It has been used by people for generations and there is much more to it than just selling stamps. The changes in the postal service and the role of the postman have been detrimental to rural areas. There was a time when the postman fulfilled a social need by calling on elderly people. That has changed and now he puts letters in a box at the end of the road.

The level of payment to sub-post offices is starving people out of the business. In my constituency, in Knockaderry and other places, it was not worthwhile for people to take on the post office when the postmistress or postmaster retired. Last year, two post offices, Croagh and Loghill, were to be closed by the Minister, but, under pressure, she relented and kept them open.

It is a disgrace that she is disregarding the recommendations of the Flynn report, that all necessary steps be taken by the Government to maximise the amount of business channelled through the post office network, in favour of the other report which will involve the closure of up to 900 sub-post offices. The network should be developed. I do not see any reason ATM facilities should not be available at sub-post offices. Banks are moving out of rural areas. In my constituency last year in Kilfinnane a vibrant and developing community saw the AIB remove its facility from the area, although it did leave us the sop of an ATM. All sub-post offices should have one. The retention of social welfare payments is vital and a mainstay of the network.

The post office in Carrigkerry was closed some years ago when the Minister of State's party was in government which proved detrimental to the community. The effects are still being felt and spoken about in the community. The village has seen a decline in population in recent years, part of the reason for which is the removal of the sub-post office. Payment of bills to local authorities should be made through post offices, as should the renewal of driving licences and motor taxation.

I am glad to have the opportunity to support the motion and thank and congratulate Deputy Jim Higgins for bringing it before the House. The first contact most people have had with any banking institution has been with the post office when they opened a savings account with it. From this initial contact a loyalty has been built up to the network which has remained with many people throughout their lives.

The seeds of uncertainty have been sown by the Minister through her inaction. She is causing the demise of the rural post office network by standing idly by. She has already caused the demise of the national airline and the rail service. In the case of the post office network, she has done nothing. It is odd that her opening statement was that she would not force post offices to close. She does not have to because, by her inaction, it is happening in rural areas and is a great loss to many.

We have noticed in the past five to ten years that many of the commercial banks have withdrawn from small towns and villages in rural areas. That has given post offices an ideal opportunity, assuming they are properly financed, to develop a new banking network and facility throughout the country which we never had before. I would have thought the Government would have taken that opportunity to move in and direct support in whatever way possible to the post office network. Unfortunately, that has not happened and we are witnessing the demise of the rural post office.

Sustainability is a word of great importance for Departments. Local authority development plans state houses cannot be built in rural areas unless it is sustainable to do so. For that to be so, there must be a post office, a school, a shop and a church. The Government is removing one of these by allowing the network to die. If the Minister can stand idly by and allow 1,100 people to lose their jobs, then ten more weeks is much too long to leave the Government in power.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I come from a village which, unfortunately, lost its post office and I saw at first hand the effect it had. The postmaster could no longer run the post office and informed An Post which decided to close the office despite the fact a number of people were willing to take on the running of it. The company did not give them that opportunity and I have seen the detrimental effect that has had on local people. When they want to collect pensions, children's allowance and avail of other services they must travel at immense inconvenience to a town four or five miles away.

A neighbouring village, Lixnaw, where I receive my post, has lost its creamery, school and railway. It had a larger Garda station at one time. When I was in office for two and a half years I had the opportunity of doing something to retain the Garda station and, as a result, the village still has a small barracks. Had I not done that, the garda concerned would not be living there today. The village is under a great deal of pressure to survive. It has a local post office, but the postmaster is concerned about his future and that of his daughter who runs it.

Unless an effort is made by the Minister and a preferential Government strategy put in place for post offices, they will not survive. Post offices provide many services for local communities. More than anything else, they are a focal point for local people where they collect their pensions and avail of other services. From a social point of view, many post offices are now the only place where people can meet and talk to each other. That advantage will be lost throughout the country if there are widespread closures. The approach the Minister is taking means closures will be the inevitable result.

The post office has always been an integral part of rural communities as much as the church, the school or the local shop. Without the post office and its services, villages will decline further. A number of speakers on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill outlined what has been achieved in the area of social welfare. If one drives through rural areas from County Mayo to County Kerry, one will see they are declining because services are being removed. I agree with the proposals Deputy Jim Higgins has brought forward in the motion to make post offices viable and ensure proprietors have a decent living. I support the motion.

I will begin by affirming the commitment of the Government to the post office network and its decision that there will be no forced closures of post offices. I also remind Deputies of the personal commitment of the Minister for Public Enterprise to a viable and sustainable post office network, with a range of services meeting the needs of a wide variety of customers. The post office is in an unusual situation in that it fulfils both the commercial and social remit. It offers a range of services to personal and business customers, competes head to head with other financial institutions and, on the other hand, provides a range of services such as social welfare payments and financial products to groups such as pensioners and those living in rural areas without a banking presence.

It has fulfilled both roles admirably through its countrywide network of offices, the largest retail network in the State, the public services ethos displayed by postmasters and postmistresses – this ethos was particularly apparent during the foot and mouth crisis last year – and its investment in technology in recent years. Despite the resilient framework under which the post office operates, all relevant stakeholders, including An Post man agement, trades unions and the Government recognise that change is necessary and that while retaining the best of the old, the new model of service delivery is required. As an indication of its willingness to play a constructive role in identifying necessary improvements for the network, all relevant stakeholders participated in the post office forum established by the Minister and chaired by Mr. Phil Flynn. The work of the forum has cleared the way for the introduction of 26 agency pilots in the sub-post office network on a voluntary basis, as recommended by Mr. Flynn in his report on the post office network undertaken in the earlier part of last year. An Post recently invited sub-postmasters and postmistresses to apply to take part in the pilot arrangements. I understand the company received a very good response which should enable an early roll-out of the agency pilots. Another recommendation of the Flynn report of a payment of 12% to postmasters was made last November.

An amount of work has taken place in recent years to devise a strategy which builds on post office strengths, while providing a more modern range of quality services to customers. The outcome of this work is that post offices are positioning themselves to be the premier service delivery channel for over-the-counter financial services. Already substantial progress has been made whereby it is now possible to pay most utility bill payments using the post office. From Friday onwards, payment of ESB bills will be added to the list of services.

One of the most important aspects of the post office delivery strategy is the adoption of a partnership approach with other financial institutions. From July this year, post offices will act as agents for AIB. This will allow AIB customers to pay bills and make lodgements using their local post office. An Post is also co-operating with the banks on the development of an enhanced suite of financial services for people who currently do not hold bank accounts. With its background in handling social welfare payments, the post office is well positioned to offer attractive banking options in this area.

The investment in computerisation made by An Post in the last few years has allowed post offices to offer better quality services to many of its customers, particularly social welfare clients. It is clear there is substantial scope for the transfer of additional Government business to An Post and the post office network, given the existing relationship between An Post, many Government clients and the extensive network of offices. To progress this, the Minister for Public Enterprise has written to a number of her colleagues requesting they give serious consideration to the channelling of business under the auspices of individual Department agencies to An Post.

A number of working groups have been established and a report in respect of each individual Department or agency is expected within the next few weeks. In addition, as part of its commitment to the post office network, the Government last July approved €12.7 million equity injection to An Post subject to State aid approval.

Given what I and the Minister have said, many actions have been taken which speak for themselves and I commend the Government's amendment to the House.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Ó Caoláin and Higgins.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this motion. I do so having grown up in north Meath, in my constituency, and seeing the important role the post office played in the fabric of rural Ireland. If one considers the overall development which has taken place in Ireland in the last number of years, many of us are of the opinion that enough has not been done to fast-forward proposals to upgrade and improve the service being provided by local post offices. It was interesting to hear the Minister of State say that the payment of ESB bills will become part and parcel of the service provided by post offices. This should always have been the case. As we are all aware, the ESB closed offices in many towns throughout the country which left people on small incomes in a very difficult situation in regard to the easy-payment system whereby they could pay their bills on a weekly basis.

I recently spoke to a man who works for An Post as a postal delivery man and he told me the amount of mail being delivered today is three times greater than it was four or five years ago. It is amazing that up to now nothing has been done to encourage business and five years into her term of office the Minister has just now come up with proposals to save post offices from extinction.

No post office should be closed. What we want to see in rural areas is people living in small parishes. There are serious problems with planners who do not want to see people living in parishes, the football team continuing to grow or the soccer team continuing to develop. Many barracks in rural areas have closed. This has led to a fear among elderly people that all the services which used to be available locally are no longer available. An Taisce has said it will oppose the building of proposed single dwellings in rural areas, such as houses for people to live in and rear families, and it is amazing there has not been a word from Ministers condemning the proposals.

I was informed recently that a postmaster is no longer available in the post office in Kells, a town of approximately 4,500 people and which serves a surrounding area of approximately 8,000 to 10,000 people. I have been told that on occasions there is no one to answer the phone at the head post office in the Kells district for which I have been elected as a local representative and a representative in this House. I wonder what is happening to the services. If we do not provide facilities and sufficient staff to provide a better service what is the point in the proposals referred to by the Minister of State and having a more cost effective service available? In order to ensure the future of post offices, many more services should be provided such as payment of local authority bills and so on. Some people may live 30 or 40 miles from the nearest county council offices where they can pay their car tax and so on.

I fully support Deputy Higgins in this proposal. The Government has again left the issue on the long finger and not dealt with it very effectively in its five years in office. Unfortunately, there are many disillusioned people in the parishes of Ireland as a result of what has been proposed.

I thank Deputies Farrelly and Jim Higgins for sharing their time with me. The contradictions in the Government's stance on rural development are starkly exposed by the response to the motion before the House concerning the essential role played by sub-post offices, particularly in the lives of rural communities. The motion, which I support, is about sub-post offices. Its text refers to sub-post offices, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses no less than 11 times. The Government's amendment does not mention sub-post offices or those who staff them even once. Not once in the Minister's text is there mention of the focus of this debate.

I have recently and, quite correctly, commended the Minster of State with responsibility for rural development, Deputy Ó Cúiv, on his introduction of the CLÁR programme, which seeks to fast-track development works and projects in areas where there is identifiable population decline. Naturally, I wish the qualifying areas could be extended and hope that might yet happen. However, the commitment of the Minister of State is not only not matched by any of his ministerial colleagues, it is not even reflected by those who hold potentially supportive portfolios – so it is that our rural post offices are now under serious threat. Imaginative measures to upgrade the level of services provided at rural sub-post offices are required. The "can't do, won't do" mentality must be replaced by those who take a must-do approach to the future of sub-post offices and rural Ireland.

(Mayo): On Tuesday and Wednesday last week we debated in the House the circumstances in respect of 850 primary and post-primary schools and the fact that they were in such a state of neglect and dereliction. Seldom has any debate managed to generate such interest. There was such interest that there were Deputies sharing four minute and even three-minute slots. Again, over the past two nights, we have dealt with another cornerstone of urban and rural Ireland – the post office, particularly the rural sub-post office, as Deputy Ó Caoláin said. He rightly identified the stark omission in the Minister's amendment, namely, that there is not a single reference to a member of the staff – sub-postmaster and sub-postmistress – employed in the sub-post office structure.

I thank all the Opposition Deputies who contributed to the debate: Deputies John Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny), McGinley, Connaughton, Belton, Timmins and Sargent, who spoke and supported the motion last night. I thank particularly the Labour Party. In a fine contribution, Deputy O'Shea elaborated and elucidated on all ten elements of the Fine Gael plan. His colleagues, Deputies Micheal D. Higgins and Upton, spoke tonight. Also supporting the motion tonight on this side were Deputies Stanton, Crawford, Kenny, McGrath, Boylan, Neville, Ulick Burke, Deenihan and Farrelly. I have already mentioned Deputy Ó Caoláin. There was a queue of Deputies who would have loved to participate had time permitted.

As has been said repeatedly tonight, the Minister gave a commitment last night that there would be no forced closures. There will be no forced closures, certainly this side of 9 May. However, closures take place through neglect, decay and the failure to develop services. The opportunity has not been grasped by the Government which has been five years in office and has watched and stood by abjectly as the post office system has fallen into steady decline. It has wilfully allowed post offices to decline and close. As Deputy Michael D. Higgins said, unless one enhances, invigorates and energises the system and provides the additional services, post offices will simply wither on the vine. One does not need a decision to close them. They will close automatically.

There is a huge window of opportunity. There are 1,916 post offices, including mainstream and sub-post offices. There is a huge window of opportunity by virtue of the withdrawal of the banks from many areas in both urban and rural Ireland. The kind of agenda we sketched out in terms of having current accounts, ATM machines, bill paying services, etc. is realistic. If the credit unions could start from a zero base or greenfield sites just over 25 years ago and penetrate every single community, both urban and rural, why in the name of heaven has an institution in existence before the foundation of the State limped lamely along and failed to rise to the challenge and opportunity?

If services are provided, people will support them. They will rally to the cause and change. Take the building society movement, for example. Not alone is there one in every town in Ireland, there are two or three all competing with each other for business. People will break the mould and change. They are prepared to invest and take out their savings and move them from one institution to another. Likewise, as we said before, if An Post can beat the banks hands down in terms of its savings plans, it can do exactly the same in terms of matching and beating them where current account facilities are concerned. As I said last night, I genuinely believe that millions of disillusioned, disappointed customers would abandon the banks and transfer billions of euro to the post office if there was a current account system available.

I agree fully with the comments on the sad lack of management on the part of An Post at executive level. I do not accept the Government's assurance that there is no long-term agenda concerning the closure of post offices. I was somewhat amused at the allegation by Deputy Cooper-Flynn that those now in opposition had, when in government, some kind of hidden agenda, that they had not dealt with or developed the post offices, and that they had some kind of agenda regarding their closure. I recollect vividly sitting on these very benches eight years ago listening to a debate on the infamous An Post viability plan brought forward by none other than the Minister of State, Deputy Séamus Brennan, which would have wiped out overnight huge tracts of rural Ireland by closing down sub-post offices and some of the smaller mainline post offices. Thanks to a motion brought before the House by Deputy Currie, our spokesperson on that occasion, the Government suddenly got the message. It started as a small series of bush fires and built up to an inferno. Ultimately, the Government did what it had to do; because of the huge backlash from both urban and rural communities, it backed down and withdrew the plan.

I do not accept that supermarkets can do the business post offices can do. We are talking about a one-to-one relationship, a kind of confessional relationship. We are talking about confidentiality, which supermarkets or service stations cannot provide. As of now, the Government's stated position is that, in theory, it supports the existing network of post offices. The reality is that, as far as An Post is concerned – the Minister is the main shareholder – the plan is to withdraw 1,123 jobs. Last night the Minister in her contribution and tonight the Minster of State in his made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to fudge or deny this. As of now, the plan brought forward by Mr. John Hynes, chief executive of An Post, is that 1,123 jobs are to go. If one takes out 1,123 jobs, one is dealing a mortal blow and it is inevitable that post offices will close. It is time to acknowledge the reality, which is that 1,123 jobs will go, and with their going there will be the inevitable closure of post offices. That is what the motion seeks to rescind or thwart.

Amendment put.

Ahern, Dermot.Ahern, Michael.Ahern, Noel.Andrews, David.

Aylward, Liam.Blaney, Harry.Brady, Johnny. Brady, Martin.

Tá–continued

Brennan, Matt.Brennan, Séamus.Briscoe, Ben.Browne, John (Wexford).Callely, Ivor.Carey, Pat.Collins, Michael.Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.Coughlan, Mary.Cowen, Brian.Cullen, Martin.Daly, Brendan.Davern, Noel.de Valera, Síle.Dempsey, Noel.Dennehy, John.Doherty, Seán.Ellis, John.Fleming, Seán.Flood, Chris.Foley, Denis.Gildea, Thomas.Harney, Mary.Haughey, Seán.Healy-Rae, Jackie.Jacob, Joe.Keaveney, Cecilia.Kelleher, Billy.Kenneally, Brendan.Killeen, Tony.Kirk, Séamus.

Kitt, Michael P.Kitt, Tom.Lenihan, Brian.Lenihan, Conor.McCreevy, Charlie.McDaid, James.McGennis, Marian.McGuinness, John J.Martin, Micheál.Moffatt, Thomas.Molloy, Robert.Moynihan, Donal.Moynihan, Michael.Ó Cuív, Éamon.O'Dea, Willie.O'Donnell, Liz.O'Flynn, Noel.O'Hanlon, Rory.O'Keeffe, Batt.O'Malley, Desmond.O'Rourke, Mary.Power, Seán.Roche, Dick.Ryan, Eoin.Smith, Michael.Treacy, Noel.Wade, Eddie.Wallace, Dan.Wallace, Mary.Woods, Michael.Wright, G. V.

Níl

Allen, Bernard.Barrett, Seán.Bell, Michael.Boylan, Andrew.Bradford, Paul.Broughan, Thomas P.Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).Bruton, Richard.Burke, Ulick.Carey, Donal.Clune, Deirdre.Connaughton, Paul.Cosgrave, Michael.Coveney, Simon.Crawford, Seymour.Creed, Michael.Currie, Austin.D'Arcy, Michael.Deasy, Austin.Deenihan, Jimmy.Dukes, Alan.Durkan, Bernard.Enright, Thomas.Farrelly, John.Flanagan, Charles.Gilmore, Éamon.Gormley, John.Hayes, Brian.Healy, Seamus.Higgins, Jim.Higgins, Joe.Higgins, Michael.

Hogan, Philip.Howlin, Brendan.Kenny, Enda.McCormack, Pádraic.McDowell, Derek.McGahon, Brendan.McGinley, Dinny.McGrath, Paul.McManus, Liz.Mitchell, Jim.Mitchell, Olivia.Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.Neville, Dan.Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.O'Keeffe, Jim.O'Shea, Brian.O'Sullivan, Jan.Penrose, William.Perry, John.Quinn, Ruairí.Rabbitte, Pat.Reynolds, Gerard.Ring, Michael.Sargent, Trevor.Sheehan, Patrick.Shortall, Róisín.Spring, Dick.Stagg, Emmet.Stanton, David.Timmins, Billy.Upton, Mary.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies S. Brennan and Power; Níl, Deputies Bradford and Stagg.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.
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