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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 12 Apr 2011

Vol. 729 No. 5

Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It has been a while since I first spoke on the Bill. I will declare an interest in the legislation under discussion. I provide a postal service in Castletownbere, west Cork, although I am self-employed and not directly employed by An Post. I am a small operator at the working end of the mail delivery service.

I ask for some order for the speaker.

I work in an extremely peripheral part of the country. As an operator in the postal service, I welcome the legislation. It is inevitable that European legislation will allow for the final part of the deregulation of postal services. If it is not dealt with by national legislation and in an efficient manner in the Chamber, we will find ourselves in a situation where we have no control or management. It is important to manage the situation to maximise the legislation to the benefit of our consumers.

There are six or seven main provisions in the legislation that may be the source of serious concern to employees and consumers of An Post, particularly consumers in more remote rural areas where the service could come under the influence of cherry picking by the private sector. The designation of the universal service provider to An Post is a very important step in this legislation. To some degree, it gives a measure of protection to the company and, more importantly, it gives great protection to the consumer. Consumers in remote areas are worried that the terms of the legislation mean they will face three-day deliveries or severe disruption to postal deliveries. The designation of An Post as the universal service provider is a significant part of the legislation.

The expenditure incurred by An Post to provide for the universal service obligation is serious and must be reviewed on an ongoing basis. It may well be shipped by An Post at an early stage to attract potential users to the postal market. The margins are quite small and it is not attractive at the moment for potential investors and new users to enter the market. There is a major amount of legislation to be dealt with and it is not as attractive as one may first consider it. As the market becomes more deregulated, it is important that the expenditure incurred by An Post be examined with a view to levying the expenditure over the entire market to the new service users. If that is not appropriate, the Exchequer must take up the slack. We can try to provide a decent postal service for our consumers and a level playing field. The Minister outlined that the universal service obligation provides for a daily delivery and collection from every address in this State. It will be very difficult to achieve that if the legislation is not managed in an efficient manner.

The role of ComReg is an important feature of this legislation. It is right that ComReg is tasked with facilitating competition, setting standards, monitoring compliance, issuing directives to operators and discussing standards, pricing and pricing caps. It will be a challenge for ComReg to set up a regulatory system that can attract new postal operators while preserving the network in which An Post has invested. I refer specifically to the major volume of mail sorting facilities in the country, the mail delivery network and the An Post retail network, which is the largest retail and delivery network in the country. Many people gloss over the statistic that there is a presence in almost every town and village in this country. That was not done easily but was built up over decades. A major amount of technology has been developed in recent years. ComReg has the task of allowing new postal service users to piggyback on the network. It will be a difficult balancing act in terms of timing, agreements, compensation and remuneration and ensuring that, from the consumer's point of view, private operators do not try to cherry pick the most profitable parts of the business. No one in the Chamber supports the idea of an efficient service that leaves some parts of our country and our consumers without a minimal service. This might amount to a three-day week service. There are consequences for everyone and we should avoid that if we can.

ComReg will regulate many of the operators that have sprung up in every town and village over the past ten or 15 years. This applies particularly to parcels and packet services. I refer to companies with a turnover of less than €500,000. Will the register of service providers include operators with a turnover of less than €500,000? Will ComReg impose on those operators terms and obligations that may well put some of the smaller operators out of business? Even though they compete with An Post, they do so very efficiently and no one wants to see small rural and urban operators finding it onerous to continue in business because of a major amount of regulation by ComReg. We must bear this in mind.

The Bill also deals with the offences. I know many people who have worked with An Post and they are told very clearly about offences committed when one does not sail an even keel. It is not clear if the offences will be applied to every other postal service provider in this country. That is a very important point, particularly in respect of delaying, tampering, theft of mail and breaches of confidentiality that can only deeply hurt and affect the efficiency of postal services, irrespective of who provides the service. ComReg has an important role to play, as does the Garda Síochána and other State authorities. More clarity on this point would be helpful.

The provision of postcodes has been discussed in this Chamber over a number of years. I am concerned at the lack of clarity in the Bill. Much work has been done on introducing postcodes. Discussions on the Bill suggested it would provide efficiencies and quality benefits within the sector, stimulate mail volume growth, boost national competitiveness, address the problem of non-unique addressing, assist in the provision of public and private sector services, facilitate the entry of new postal operators to the Irish marketplace and bring Ireland in line with other international markets. While the Bill may to a small degree address all of these issues, I am concerned that a system without postcodes, while it may not work to everyone's advantage in terms of bringing about the type of vanity addresses some people would like and may mean we are out of line with other European countries, will not provide us with economic advantages or stimulate the type of growth the national postcodes project board believes it will provide.

I am concerned about the misuse of postcodes. If a person dials an incorrect telephone number he or she will not contact the person he or she wants. However, I know from experience working in the postal service, that many people believe mail will get to the right person if the address they put on it is near enough to the correct one and, very often, it does. However, if the consumer does not use the postcode system properly we will lose the benefits of having it. The real crux of introducing a postcode system is the cost to be incurred by An Post, the Exchequer, ComReg or whoever will be tasked with implementing it. In this regard, while I am not sure of what will be the true cost I have heard mention of figures in the region of €14 million and €20 million. In the current climate, this may, in terms of cost, appear a bit of a vanity. It is perhaps money that could be better spent in a more targeted manner.

We have a strong affinity with our townlands, particularly in rural areas. I am not sure if this is unique to Ireland. The reality is that postcodes in parts of our countryside will not provide a person with a unique address. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to have three or four people with the same Christian and surnames living in the same townland. A postcode will not solve that problem. This is one of the biggest issues with which mail operators must deal on a daily basis. Some mornings, the post office is a bit like Scotland Yard in terms of trying to figure out to whom a particular piece of mail is to be delivered. Mail is often returned to sender because the addressee cannot be determined. While this may not be an issue for the GPO or the headquarters of any other postal operator it is one of the big issues on the ground in terms of resources and time.

The postcode system will not in most cases address the problem of non-unique addressing. It will also not address another issue which many operators experience in terms of delivering mail, namely, the use by many consumers of vanity addresses. These are addresses in a particular area wherein people would like to live rather than those in which they live. This happens quite often. Postcodes can often determine property prices or a person's chances of getting a good job, although I do not suggest this has happened. This issue must be addressed. There is a lack of clarity in the legislation in this regard.

I would prefer if more thought could be given to the issue of postcodes before a final decision is made. As a new Member, I am not sure if it is possible to provide for a moratorium on a particular section of a Bill following enactment. I am not sure of the procedure in that regard. On that issue alone, some questions remain to be answered.

When it comes to value for money, the charge could be made that we are on an ego trip in terms of spending money on a vanity project at a time when An Post, as a postal carrier, is making huge grounds with its next day delivery service. As I understand it, the figure in that regard is 90%. This has been achieved by way of finding more efficient ways of doing business, without the use of postcodes.

As regards the other provisions, many Members will be interested in the section dealing with free election post for candidates. However, it is not clear who will pay for this service. Will it be postal service provider or the Exchequer? I would like clarity on that issue.

The Minister when moving the Second Stage of the Bill stated that the postal service is under severe threat not alone from deregulation or competition — many people in the postal service embrace competition — but from the electronic mail service. Why not? One can send an e-mail with the touch of a button. More often than not such mail is correct, which is what we all want. I am disappointed that our postal service providers did not embraced the electronic mail service as quickly as they could have. The technology has been in place for decades and has been in use for the past ten years. This service would have provided greater relevancy to post offices, retail outlets and postal service providers. While the level of broadband connectivity in our homes is high, many people do not have access to it. Such people might avail of a service provided by libraries or post offices.

Post offices play a strong role in our communities. We need to tread careful with this legislation. I support its provisions and welcome deregulation and competition. If managed correctly, this legislation will be positive not alone for service providers but for communities.

As this is my first contribution in the Chamber I take this opportunity to thank the people of the constituency of Cork South West for placing their trust in me. I thank them sincerely for doing so. I hope I can live up to it.

Congratulations on your maiden speech. I call Deputy Brian Stanley, whom I understand is sharing time with Deputy Catherine Murphy. Deputy Stanley has ten minutes.

I congratulate Deputy Harrington on his maiden speech which was very interesting——

——in particular in terms of what he had to say about vanity addresses. It is amazing what people will do to get noticed.

As a representative of a mostly rural constituency, I am familiar with the challenges facing my community and the counties of Laois and Offaly. Like other rural counties, these counties have been left behind by the Government when it comes to regional development. We have witnessed the withdrawal of vital services such as post offices that were once the heart beat of our communities. I witnessed families who had run local post offices for 40 or 50 years having to lock their doors for the last time.

The Irish Postmasters Union has said that the income of postmasters in some rural areas can be as little as €10,000 per annum. Postmasters are not being replaced on retirement even though post offices are seen as a lifeline for many people living in rural areas. Post offices remain the only public institution in many small towns and villages. Communities are dependent on this public institution for employment. There are 370 people employed in the sorting centre in Portlaoise. They are decent jobs with good working conditions and union representation. They must be some of the last jobs of that kind left in this State, so why is the Government actively trying to jeopardise them? Make no mistake about it, the Bill will close post offices and impact on An Post. More jobs will be lost and another service will be gone. Sadly, such closures are not unique in rural areas. Garda stations, corner shops and local pubs are all suffering the same fate.

The Bill, if passed, will have a profound impact on the lives of rural dwellers as well as postal workers, in particular on the lives of older people. The Government obviously does not realise the importance of the local post office as a social hub for older people. The Bill will allow private operators to cherry pick business, with whom to do business and where the most profit is to be made.

The services will go to highly populated urban areas, leaving the State operator as the sole service provider in rural areas. It has been said that the public service obligation will be protected but private operators will not take on the least profitable part of the service. This kind of arrangement will lead to high costs for doing business in rural areas. The State provider will be obliged to continue the service and will be compelled to fund it by either receiving massive subsidies from the taxpayer or massively increasing its prices, or initiating a combination of both.

Either way, the people of rural communities will lose out. They will face higher costs for basic postal services. Anyone in Government who thinks this will not be the case is living in a dream world. Low income older people in rural areas may already have to drive to the next village to use the post office or to pay their bills. We are all aware of the increases in transport costs and petrol. Such people may only be able to afford to take a trip once a week. When they go to the post office, they pay bills, post letters and perhaps put by some money in savings. The post office acts as an important social centre for them.

Given the very sparsely populated nature of rural Ireland and the isolation experienced by many, communities frequently feel helpless in their ability to halt the decline. Their voices are not being heard in the corridors of power. Their lobbies are too weak to exert the pressure that is needed to bring about change and in any case the Government is certainly not listening to them.

Between 2001 and 2008, some 344 post offices closed and many others were downgraded. The majority of closures took place in rural areas. Closures and downgrading place a huge strain on local communities. The post office increases footfall to local businesses in villages and, therefore, when one post office closes in a rural area, it has a knock-on effect which is felt by other local businesses nearby.

There is a need for a clear Government policy on the minimum number of post offices that are necessary in the State. In order to save a number of post offices at risk of imminent closure, the Government should intervene in the form of a public service obligation order. Sinn Féin has consistently stated there are services that could be expanded in rural post offices to enhance their economic potential, including combining postal services with council services to provide insurance and taxation services, developing post offices as centres of information and making door-to-door deliveries for people with impaired mobility.

I paid my motor tax in a post office in Scotland when I lived there. The local post office van doubled as local public transport. Such things can be done. Rural transport programmes in this State are ill-equipped to offer access to post offices, while travelling to post offices in other towns is time consuming and ecologically damaging. Even if adequate public transport existed, the damage to the social fabric of rural communities would be immeasurable. A number of initiatives have been taken in other countries to prevent the closure of post offices through developing the types of social services to which I referred.

While An Post is mandated by legislation to engage only in profit-making initiatives, the State could intervene in the form of a public service obligation order. If the EU was to authorise such an order, post offices scheduled for closure could be entitled to a subvention and therefore broaden their services to ensure their viability. We have always believed that the Government should intervene in the form of a public service intervention order to enable the subvention of post offices in rural areas to ensure post masters' incomes are brought to the minimum wage as a matter of priority

This and the previous Government have neglected the importance of the post office in the lives of older people and those in rural areas. Localised services assist older people in living independently in their own homes. Some older people may be relying on a visit from the post man or woman as the only daily contact they have. This is a very important social support that cannot be allowed to disappear.

The social supports provided by post offices consistently go unnoticed and unacknowledged. People who collect social welfare payments in post offices usually pay their bills at the same time and vulnerable people who very often face difficulties in opening a bank account, such as Travellers, unemployed people or refugees, can open accounts without any difficulty in the local post office. Other European states have taken the approach that citizens must be entitled to a postal service within a certain distance of their home.

Why will the Government not do this in Ireland? The answer is quite simple. It is because this Government is not concerned with enhancing public services to maintain employment and ensure that people can access services. It would much rather pass legislation like this Bill that will give private operators a foot in the door and the opportunity to make money while rural people are left high and dry without services or with services that they cannot afford to use. I ask the Government to take heed of what we are saying and not pass this Bill in its current form. Furthermore, we ask it to stop the privatisation agenda it has embarked on.

We have had a postal service for in excess of 300 years. Therefore, it is a service that is well used to change. Most of the change occurred because of new opportunities and challenges that opened up the opportunity to improve delivery times. The service developed from the initial stagecoach service linked by the designation of post towns to the development of the railways in the 19th century and then onto road transport in the 20th century, particularly after the First World War.

Clearly, the urbanisation of Ireland, which has been the dominant pattern of growth in recent decades, has changed things again. However, the last part of the journey has always been a person physically delivering post door-to-door to a business or a home, which has happened for hundreds of years. At times that was vitally important, such as in the second half of the 19th century when $260 million was delivered by the postal service. We all know just how vital that was. Indeed, it also provided the funds for many to emigrate, which is unfortunately a feature of today's Ireland.

The changes being debated in this Bill have been brought about by our membership of the European Union and the Single Market in particular. It seeks, according to the document prepared by the Oireachtas library service, to safeguard universal services and facilitate competition within a liberalised postal market. If there is one thing that our financial crisis tells us, it is that the European Union is a very diverse place.

I did not support the Single European Act or the Maastricht treaty. However, as a democrat I respect the view that was expressed at the ballot box by the citizens of Ireland and this is one of the issues that flows from that. What I feel we need to keep in mind when adopting any legislation is what the outcome will be not just now, but in years to come. We also need to look at the practical issues that flow from the changes we make. As this Bill provides for An Post to be the designated universal service provider for the next seven years, there is a temptation to postpone some concerns.

The designation of An Post as the universal service provider followed an evaluation that determined An Post to be the only service provider currently capable of providing the universal service following the market opening. The three things we need to ensure are that we retain a universal service, retain a quality service, which is what I believe we currently have, and that the jobs of those providing the service continue to be of a good standard. The Oireachtas Library document states that in Ireland "it is suggested that the economics of postal service provision may not facilitate low cost competition and will not allow for two operators operating a profitable nationwide delivery network at the same time". If that is currently the case and given the difficult economic times ahead, it is frankly very difficult to see when this might occur in the medium term, or even at all.

If the service is broken up it will inevitably lead to a less satisfactory and perhaps more expensive service, particularly in rural areas. That must be avoided. The postal service currently provided by An Post is just that; a postal and parcel delivery service. It is often the only human contact people, particularly older people, have and that is not just in rural areas. All sorts of deliveries used to be made door to door on a daily basis, such as milk, bread and insurance. Most of that has stopped and there is a presumption that everyone can make it to the shops, that everyone has a car and that we are all equal. However, we know that is not the case. Everything must not be measured in economic and efficiency terms; it is impossible to quantify the value of human contact. It has a practical outturn for people who are very isolated.

One potential issue raised by the Communication Workers Union is that of zonal pricing. Ultimately, the cost of this would be borne by those living in less populated areas. There needs to be an explicit understanding throughout this Bill that its aim is the provision of a universal service. We should not deviate from that in any way.

ComReg is to take on the mantle of supervising the service. For example, it may issue a direction to the universal service provider to take corrective action where it finds failures and I have no problem with that. Section 39 makes provision that any expenses incurred by ComReg in regulating the postal service can be recouped from postal providers that are providing services under the scope of the universal service provider. We are told that this levy shall be imposed "in an objective and transparent and proportionate manner". For the moment at least, this levy will be imposed on a monopoly. Additional costs in a situation where there is no scope for State funding means the levy will ultimately be imposed on the consumer. There obviously needs to be some cap on this in order to ensure that such a levy is reasonable.

The ownership of postal infrastructure is also something in which ComReg has an interest. Post boxes and databases might seem like a small issue, but we know potential competitors often seek to access some aspects of the incumbent's network, rather than build an entire competing network. I saw first hand what occurred when Dublin Bus and a private operator operated in north Kildare. Each had their own time tables, their own bus stops and termini. The one thing that did not seem to be considered was the consumer. The travelling public had to figure out for themselves what they were supposed to do. I saw people standing between two bus stops and guessing the next service that would arrive. This cannot occur with our postal services. Not every service lends itself to competition and I have serious doubts that the postal service can do this, particularly with the structure of our population.

The Bill clearly acknowledges the diversity of the European Union and it does not insist that one size fits all in how liberalization of the market takes place. Those countries that have been designated in the intense competition category are already along the way towards a liberalized postal market. We can see the issues that have been thrown. For example, the Royal Mail has a problem in closing the pension deficit gap and liberalization is taking place in that context. This is not without its consequences. An Post has a €400 million deficit in its own pension fund. How that deficit is to be closed is an issue in itself and it is of concern when dealing with how the market might be liberalised.

One area where An Post has competed with door to door delivery is in the area of advertising material. This has grown so much that many homes have placed "no junk mail" notices on their letter boxes. I estimate that up to 20% of homes in my area have one of these signs. It is not yet a feature in rural areas, but it is dominant in urban areas. I expect that figure will grow and this provides an opportunity for An Post to get better penetration. I presume the delivery of advertising material is excluded from regulation, although I am not entirely sure.

While we are the only country in the EU not to have post codes, we seem to exist fine without them and An Post itself cannot see any benefit from their introduction. This is an expensive luxury at a time of economic difficulty. I can see the value of the codes in the collection of social and economic data, but this does not justify spending €15-20 million. The initiative is intended to improve our postal service, but there is no evidence that will occur. Incidentally, the Bill states that liberalization of postal services will incur no costs on the Exchequer. If the Exchequer does not pick up the €20 million tab for the introduction of post codes, then it will fall to An Post and that will have a knock-on effect on the cost of the service to consumers. We are all acutely aware of that at the moment.

We are told that the introduction of post codes would see the country divided up into 200 post towns, with 40 to 50 properties within each post town. That would have to be sensitively handled. Such identity tags have thrown up conflicts within counties. For example, the proposed change is likely to ignore county boundaries, and although I do not personally have a difficulty with that, the issue of county identity is important for many and there are likely to be conflicts. Do we really need these conflicts? Some of those will have a practical impact. Post codes could be used for insurance purposes, with some people paying a higher premium, or even used as part of the school enrolment criteria. We do not know what way they would be used. We have seen conflicts such as that between Glasnevin and Finglas in Dublin 9 and Dublin 11, and between Ballyfermot and Palmerstown in Dublin 10 and Dublin 20, so we can predict it will happen. We have to resolve many problems in this country, and this one should be long fingered.

Currently there are 5,000 skilled employees in An Post. There seems to be evidence that where liberalization takes place, it can contribute to job losses. The fact that the market is being opened up to competition at a time when new technology is changing work practices makes it difficult to quantify the exact number of jobs, but I have no doubt that it is having an adverse impact and it is valid for postal workers to be concerned.

I would like to share my time with Deputy Nolan.

Now that the Bill is before us, it is important we give it strong scrutiny. Will it go to a full committee of the House, rather than remain in here? The committees have not been established yet, so can we delay the legislation until that happens? It needs proper scrutiny in the committee rooms. Interest groups such as the Communication Workers Union could be brought in to update us on their opinion on the Bill. The Bill was dealt with in the Seanad in less than one month before Christmas, at a time when the outgoing Government's tenure was coming to an end. Committee and Report Stages took place within a week and debate only took place for a couple of hours each day. I do not believe it has had the scrutiny it deserves. It is very important that it has good scrutiny here. There has been an election, with a change of Government, and the present Administration needs to familiarise itself with this legislation and its implications and really think them through. I would like to see interested stakeholders invited in to consider the legislation at Oireachtas committee level and go through it bit by bit.

Most Deputies agree that what we have with An Post should be protected. We should adopt a precautionary principle with the legislation and do the minimum with it so An Post is protected as much as possible. It is a matter of going through the different parts of the Bill with a fine tooth comb. I realise the date for transposition has passed, but what will happen if we take another couple of months, to ensure the committees are up and running so the Bill may be given the fullest consideration possible? I would appreciate if the Government would consider that.

At one stage the Communications Workers Union, CWU, was asking whether there could be a moratorium as regards this legislation. I do not know whether that is possible, but there are many incidences where we do not transpose European Union directives for years, and we allow the Commission to take us all the way to the European Court of Justice, threatening fines and so on. This procedure can continue for many years. Is there an urgency in bringing forward this legislation? Would it not be better for us to take the necessary time to get it right?

The case being made by the Communications Workers Union was to the effect that there should be proper implementation of Recital 16, which states that the directive "is without prejudice to the competence of member states to regulate employment conditions in the postal services sector, which should not, however, lead to unfair competition". It says social considerations should be duly taken into account when preparing the opening of the postal market. The union, in particular, placed a strong emphasis on the social considerations and the need for these to be taken into account. That has been raised here on many occasions.

The CWU makes the point that we are in a different place now. It is not just that we have had an election, but so much has happened over the last couple of years both in this country and in other parts of the European Union. We should not just keep doing things on the basis that since this was the way something was started we must conclude as it began. We could change our minds and find ways to strengthen the legislation. We have a good postal service. I was looking at some of the statistics provided by the CWU, which show we have very competitive postage costs, the eighth lowest out of the 29 member states. Ireland is the seventh most efficient postal operator out of the 29. An Post operates with no State subvention or taxpayer support. Sometimes people complain about letters not being delivered, but in general our postal service is pretty good. It is remarkable when one thinks about what is involved from once a letter is posted, say, in Dublin to its arrival in Clonakilty, where Deputy Harrington is from, the next day. We have a remarkably good postal service and we do not want to lose that. We want to protect what we have. This legislation must be seen against the backdrop of the philosophy and ideology imposed by the European Union as regards the free market and competition. We need to examine these concepts again at EU level. The EU used to say that Ireland was doing great in respect of the economy, and now look what has happened. Now it wants to punish us. I believe the whole ideology that underpins much of the work of the EU and its member states needs to be re-examined and questioned. Obviously it is very important for the Labour Party as part of Government to reflect on this and what we stand for. What does the left stand for now? While we cannot go back to the time of the Soviet Union, it is fair to say that the policies of the right have failed our economies over the last few years.

All this emanates very much from a right wing perspective, namely, that the free market will somehow reach equilibrium over time. That was often said as regards the Irish housing market. I saw a documentary where the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, spoke about how in reply to a question, he was told it was the free market and that this would work itself out. We all know, however, that all these matters do not work themselves out. We cannot have free market conditions, with no intervention whatsoever, because we are human beings and we live in a social society. We must look at the legislation in this context.

Most significant, we should take precautions about this legislation and that is why it is very important to take our time and really scrutinise it. Many issues have been raised. The CWU has raised issues to do with ComReg's role in relation to this as the regulator. We frequently make reference here to the need for the Oireachtas not to reduce its role. Is there anything we can add to the legislation to ensure the regulator can be brought to this House and is answerable? Can we put a halt on the legislation at any stage and stop what the regulator is doing? That is one of the issues.

There is also the issue of proper licensing of private operators. The CWU argues that this legislation should ensure access by competitors should not be below the level of the four mail centres. It is important to protect the type of public sector jobs we have. The public sector should be a benchmark for good working conditions and stable jobs. Those are good developments we have built up over the years and we should not be trying to introduce more temporary workers, poorer working conditions and so on. This is something which should be considered as part of this legislation.

At the outset it is good to ask what we like about the postal service we have. People around the country say they like the price of the stamp, at 55 cent, the extensive delivery network across the country and the fact the service is reliable. In almost all cases a letter arrives the day after it is posted. People relate to and personalise the postal service.

Most people in my constituency in Galway know their postman to see and there is an element of trust in the relationship. There is the daily collection of the post and a daily delivery. It sounds quite basic when it all works properly, but this is what people look for in a postal network, and it is what we have. The Bill seeks to open this to competition, as a result of a European directive under which we are obliged to introduce competition to this market. However, the suitability of this market to be opened to competition has been raised by several speakers. It is a vital public service, and not every market has to be viewed in the same light in terms of competition. There are some businesses and industries that should be treated differently on the grounds they serve a vital social function and the postal service is one of these.

It impacts not just on business and commerce on a daily basis, but is the lifeblood of many offices in terms of their communication with customers and other businesses, while it also has an enormous impact on the personal lives of people. Whether it is receiving correspondence from Revenue or personal letters, the postal service impacts on every aspect of people's social lives. In that respect we must look upon this legislation as something we have to get right first time. There is no room for error. We cannot come back in two or three years when serious damage could have been done to the postal network to say, in effect, the damage should not have happened, that we should have got it right.

We all remember with regret what happened with Eircom, where a vital company with a key role in new technologies such as broadband was privatised. As a result, the country is only now catching up and is almost a decade behind the rest of Europe. One shudders to think what would have happened if the ESB had been privatised, particularly given the intense capital infrastructure and expenditure required in upgrading the network. One can only wonder whether that would have been feasible if such a small market, as Ireland, had been divided and opened to competition between small providers lacking the scale or ability to invest in their networks.

It is worth examining what we are moving from. As Deputy Tuffy mentioned, postage costs in Ireland are the eighth lowest of the 27 countries in the European Union and An Post is the seventh most efficient operator. In 20 years, postal costs only increased on three occasions and continually lagged behind inflation. We are moving from an efficient, well operated State company that requires no State subvention into the unknown. We are moving towards uncertainty and are fixing a system that in many ways is unbroken. We have a system that does not require State subvention, yet we are talking about introducing competition and a mechanism that will require subvention from the taxpayer for that competition. Therefore, we are moving from no State support to competition, with the potential of State support. This does not make much sense.

The United States could be considered one of the most free market countries in the world, yet it has resisted all attempts to introduce competition in its postal market, believing it to be a market that cannot sustain such competition. The fact there are 300 million people in the US as against our 3 million suggests we should ask questions about changing. Unfortunately, we are where we are and the European directive has been made and agreed by the Government at European level. Therefore we must implement it. We must ensure now that it is implemented as carefully and properly as possible to ensure we maintain the positive aspects of our service of which we are so proud.

Any debate on this legislation cannot be divorced from a debate on An Post. We cannot talk about the postal market without talking about the State postal provider, which has a staff of approximately 10,000. On a daily basis, An Post processes and delivers more than 2.5 million items of mail to 2.2 million business and residential addresses and it has 2,700 cars and almost 1,700 bicycles. These bicycles should be a key component of our climate change policy. These services are all available for the price of a stamp.

There has been much discussion of what occurred when the Royal Mail was broken up following competition. There large pension obligations were left with the parent company. I see no reason the cost of a stamp and the service provided should not cover those obligations. Why can we not subvent these obligations via the cost of a stamp and work that into the new regime?

An Post faces a difficult time over the next number of years. We must commend its staff and management over the past two to three years. Having spoken to workers in An Post, I understand that some 402 staff left in 2009 and that 260 have left this year to date. The overall target reduction of 1,400 has been agreed with the unions, which is another example of unions playing a positive role, recognising the difficulties in the market and ensuring businesses survive for the benefit of the workers remaining.

There are immediate challenges for An Post. It is good and positive news that An Post will remain the universal service provider for 20 years, as committed to in the programme for Government, although the legislation only stipulates a period of seven years. The environment in which An Post operates, where it made a €5.7 million profit in 2009 on a turnover of €804 million, shows that the service basically breaks even. A percentage ratio profit of only €5 million out of €804 million is very low, but this demonstrates the target is not profit. However, in the time since 2009 there has been a decline in mail volume of 16%. Looking at a postal organisation seeing such a decline, one would wonder whether any private operators would enter the market, particularly given the dominance of a single player and the shrinking market. Another factor is the prevalence of electronic substitution and the factor that many utility providers and banking institutions are moving from postal billing.

I have watched this debate from my office and in the Chamber. It has been a good debate, but some themes have recurred constantly, including the viability of the universal service obligation in the liberalised market. Everyone in the House agrees that must continue. I represent a constituency which consists of Galway city, the east of Galway which has a village structure and Connemara where single detached houses are spread over a broad area. The quality of service to all three is excellent and it is important to maintain that quality when the Bill is implemented.

We should not undermine An Post in the future through this structure. Representations have been made with regard to downstream access and ensuring mail enters the postal service network via the mail centres in which An Post has made significant capital investment over the years. Not doing this would represent a waste of taxpayers' money and would place an undue capital burden on An Post, requiring it to reinvent itself. Given the context of a declining market and customers, this would put an unfair burden on An Post. It would be fairer to set up a system from the outset with those requirements. This would be fairer for both An Post and new operators as they would know the game they were entering and the playing field within which they should operate.

I intended mentioning social dumping and job losses. With regard to job losses, we must not create a situation where competition breeds such ferocity that we see temporary agency workers replacing full-time employees. A statement on the social value of the postal service in the legislation is important and would be welcome. We need careful debate on this issue. We must get it right first time as we cannot revisit it. If we damage the postal service, we damage it irreparable. As Deputy Tuffy said, we need a good committee debate to ensure we get the best possible system.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Richard Boyd Barrett and Joan Collins.

The Government needs to recognise the unique and vital role of the postal service, particularly in rural Ireland, as a means of communication, a vital economic tool and an intrinsic part of the fabric of the community. Our postal service has a social and an economic value. These must be protected as the Government passes this legislation. Postmen and women of this country provide an important public service and function as an integral part of the social fabric of their communities. These men and women who deliver post all over the country are known and trusted. In many cases they are the only human contact our isolated and elderly residents have. In particular, in the adverse weather conditions we experienced over the past number of years, the social contact provided by members of An Post was often the only communication many people living in isolated areas had.

The universal service obligation, which provides everyone with the right to send and receive mail five days a week at a uniform price, has worked well in this country. Under this Bill, An Post will no longer have the monopoly, but no explanation has been provided as to how, without that monopoly, the universal social obligation will be financed to ensure a universal service is available in every corner of the country. In the current economic environment postal volumes are already down and liberalisation could signal the beginning of the end for An Post.

Other countries that have opened their postal markets have experienced many job losses and a general reduction in the quality of service. It is clear the new companies entering the market will resort to cherry-picking by concentrating on the profitable routes thereby forcing An Post to seek State support. While the legislation claims it is bound to protect the USO, it is not clear how the cost of the USO will be met and the already overburdened taxpayer may well need to subsidise the postal service as the profitable parts of the business are taken over by the new companies, which will only be interested in profit and not delivering a very good public service.

As a rural Deputy I have strong reservations about the Bill's negative effect on individuals and businesses, which will be felt far more strongly in rural areas. The daily deliveries will be under threat and the cost of postage will be likely to increase especially in rural areas. The sense of community will be undermined and isolated customers will face a reduction of service. For the protection of small rural post offices, I ask that the House give serious consideration to the issues I have raised.

When it comes to postal services, we should apply the wise adage that if it is not broken, do not fix it. Probably nowhere does that wisdom apply more than to the postal service. It is not an exaggeration to say that the postal service is a modern wonder. Everybody gets the same service for next to nothing — it costs 55 cent to post a letter from anywhere to any other place in the country and people receive it within a day or two regardless of how isolated is the place they live.

As many speakers have said, it is not just an efficient and cheap service but it is also a social service. It is a lifeline for people in isolated areas, the elderly, those in rural communities and so on. It also provides good, decent, stable and secure jobs. While we might say that nothing is perfect in this world, the postal service is one of the better things in our society. Given that it works well, is reliable and is loved by people, why should we change it? Why does Europe want to change it and why would we accept its diktats in demanding that it be changed?

It is euphemistically called liberalising the service, but bringing for-profit considerations to bear on this social service would be a better way to describe it. Letting those with greed for money get their teeth into a social service which is so important to the people would be a better term than liberalisation. Is it not absolutely inevitable that if we bring market forces to bear on this service, cherry-picking will take place? Private for-profit companies will be interested in the profitable postal routes where there is high volume of letters and parcels, and will not be interested in those areas with low volumes, namely those isolated rural areas that need the service so much. Once they take the profitable routes from An Post, it will be left with the unprofitable routes and the ability of An Post to provide the service to those unprofitable routes is dependent on it also having those profitable areas. That cross-subsidy is the underpinning of the wonder of the postal service. If that is undermined, as liberalising will do, it will inevitably undermine the basis of what makes our postal service great.

All the good things that Deputy after Deputy has described about the postal service will inevitably be threatened by liberalisation. It will threaten the universal service, the daily service in rural areas and the social service value because for-profit companies are not interested in social services. It will threaten the low cost, which is spread evenly across the entire service, and will threaten jobs as it has done everywhere else liberalisation has been introduced with thousands of jobs lost in the service. In addition it will cause a problem of needless replication of services with several postal providers unnecessarily replicating themselves in particular areas while we will have virtually no service in other areas.

Is this not an example of the addiction of Europe to neoliberal economic dogma through privatisation? This addiction does nothing more than promote the interests of big private corporations which in the absence of being able to make profits anywhere else in the current difficult economic climate see vital public services as an area to prise open and sink their teeth into in order to make profit for themselves without any consideration of the vital nature of those services to the people who avail of them and the workers who work in them.

Did we learn nothing from the disaster of deregulating financial services? The deregulation of the financial and banking sector has led to disaster and underpinned the economic crisis. The deregulation allowing market forces to rip in the housing sector here caused absolute disaster for which we are now paying in spades. The deregulation and privatisation of water services in countries across the world, including Britain, have been disastrous and have been resisted hotly in many places and successfully, I am glad to say, in places such as Latin America. We need to stand up to this insane addiction of Europe representing the interests of corporate vultures by saying we will not allow the ripping up of this vital service, which works, is loved and has no reason to be changed.

I welcome the comments by the previous two Labour Party speakers, Deputies Tuffy and Nolan. It is great that they are saying those things and I could not agree more with them. I hope that when it comes to making a decision on whether we will accept or reject this legislation that threatens to destroy our postal service, they will not cave in, will stand up for the postal service and not capitulate to the insane addiction of Europe and the political establishments across Europe to the failed ideology of privatisation when it comes to the damage it could do to our postal service which is so loved and needed by the people.

I declare an interest in that up to five weeks ago I was a postal worker and am still a member of the CWU. I have seen the impact the deregulation of An Post has had on jobs and communities and socially in rural areas. We are facing the third phase of deregulation of postal services. There is considerable concern about that. I agree with what other Members have said. We should consider not implementing the directive in its current form. Recital 16 allows member states to take into account the social impact of the directive on communities. Given the comments made to date it is imperative that we consider the social impacts of the directive and state that we do not accept it, in particular because of the social impact on rural areas.

Thousands of jobs have been lost across Europe due to the liberalisation of postal service in other countries. Various studies bear that out. Most recently, Union Network International conducted a study which found that in Germany, Deutsche Post cut more than 21,000 full-time jobs and more than 12,000 part-time jobs between 1999 and 2006. In The Netherlands the number of full-time equivalent jobs was reduced from 40,000 to as few as 24,000. The Government must use the job initiative, previously a job budget, to keep jobs within An Post and other companies in this country. An Post is one of the largest employers in the south of this country.

There is a campaign in Europe to counteract the liberalisation process. I refer the Minister of State to Recital 16. It is most important that we discuss the issue. I agree with Deputy Tuffy that we should address the matter. We do not want to just push it back and have it come up on the agenda again in six or eight months' time. As a country we must say we do not need it, that it is not part of our agenda and we will not implement it. Otherwise, we will be reduced to debate a race to the bottom. An Post workers cannot compete against courier companies whose pay and conditions are so different, who do not have trade union recognition or access to pension funds. An Post has a commitment to its workforce. One cannot compete against the low-pay element. It will result in a race to the bottom. As a nation we should not accept that.

The point was made previously that An Post is a much-loved service. Our bin service was much loved but let us consider what happened to it. Currently, up to six private companies travel up and down roads in residential areas to collect waste. The previous collection system involved one, well-organised local authority collection every week on every road, street and estate. Now we have six. So much for the environment. We will face the same situation with the postal service. There will be between six and eight competitors cherry-picking the most profitable areas served by An Post. We cannot accept that.

I could focus on many parts of the Bill. We should examine in particular section 28 and consider tabling amendments on the inward mail level and to protect the provision of the service by outlining what an "inward mail centre" would mean. At this Stage of the debate we must deal with the change in the situation we face and not accept what is proposed. Will the Minister of State clarify whether it is part of the memorandum of understanding to push the legislation through? If that is not the case, we must have a different focus for the debate. I seek clarification on the matter on Committee Stage before we advance matters further.

Proper licensing and regulation is necessary. An Post must adhere to standards set down by ComReg on the speed of delivery of post. New companies will not have to adhere to such standards and they will have no commitment to their workers or to national pay deals. They will not be committed to providing a similar service to that which has been part and parcel of rural communities where a postman or postwoman walks 50 m or 100 m up a by-way, talks to people and can see whether someone is well. If he or she has a problem then they let people in the community know. There is an important social aspect to the service.

Reference has been made to the universal service provided by An Post. No State subvention has been provided to date, yet now taxpayers could be asked to pay such a subvention because we cannot allow a situation where we must depend on other providers, which has happened already in Europe. Deregulation has failed miserably. Many countries such as the United Kingdom, for example, are facing the privatisation of services because they could not rely on private companies to fulfil the universal social obligation. If the proposed changes go ahead we must provide the money to ensure the service is continued.

The legislation does not deal with ministerial oversight of ComReg, which has been given power to decide how distribution is regulated and who is involved. That is totally unacceptable. The legislation must be changed so that the Minister can be held accountable in the Dáil for the day-to-day running of the postal service. It is wholly unacceptable that a regulator without democratic accountability would be given such latitude with a vital public service. It is important that we tackle that issue if the Bill is to progress to further Stages in the Dáil.

Irrespective of the direction we take, e-substitution and e-billing are being used by many companies in an underhand way. People are offered a reduction of 20% on gas or electricity bills as an inducement to pay online. As not everyone has a computer we should introduce legislation to ensure that cannot happen unless everyone has access to a computer and can access the same discount.

I wish to share time with Deputy Healy-Rae. We will take ten minutes each.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit nua agus deánaim comhghairdeas leis.

The Bill is important legislation. In his remarks on Second Stage the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, indicated that the aim of the Bill is to establish a robust regulatory framework for the newly liberalised postal sector. More importantly, he said the economy and society at large needs a strong and vibrant postal service and that a framework is needed which takes account of the significant challenges facing the sector in the future. That is important.

Notwithstanding the comments made this afternoon in the Chamber, Committee Stage will provide an important opportunity to analyse the Bill and examine all aspects of it. I agree with some of the comments made by Deputies opposite, but not all. It is important that we tease out aspects of the Bill that will have a profound implication.

I participated in a very good debate on the Bill in the Seanad earlier in the year. It is important that we consider the role of ComReg, in particular the section which deals with the development of competition and the innovation of the market in the postal services sector. Equally, if in some cases the Deputies opposite read what is outlined in the Bill on the role of ComReg it would allay some of the fears and suspicions they have concerning it. The dogma and philosophy of some of the speakers opposite must be put in context. From talking to An Post employees it is clear that they are not afraid of competition. They want a fair and level playing field. I remind Deputy Collins that EU legislation forbids the continuing provision of State subsidies to An Post and other such organisations. It is, therefore, important to get the facts right.

This Bill comes at a time of opportunity and challenge for An Post. It is important that, in considering this Bill, we deal with the postal service holistically. The growth of technology, including the Internet, broadband, e-mailing, e-messaging and other forms of electronic communication, poses a challenge. Some regard it as a threat but it should be embraced by An Post. The postal services in the United States and many European countries reinvented themselves. We now have an opportunity to reinvent our postal service.

There has been a decline in the use of our postal service. The second directive, which pertained to competition, did not wipe out An Post but posed a challenge to which it rose. Many friends of mine who are members of the union to which Deputy Collins referred spoke to me about this Bill, and Members spoke about it in the Seanad. They said one of the greatest strengths of An Post is its workers.

Why are they against it?

They have said to me this Bill will not threaten them and, if formulated properly, will enhance the role of An Post.

In preparing for this Bill, we must be honest about the fact that we are living in a different era in which competition is welcome. However, I question genuinely whether we need competition in our postal service. We have a small peripheral nation on the edge of Europe with a population of approximately 4 million. I am not sure we need competition. We have moved away from our traditional form of communication. When moving office after the general election, I found bags and boxes of paper. We did not need it. I was recently at home with my father and found boxes of letters that I received from my mother, family and friends when I was studying in Maynooth in 1984. Today that means of communication has been replaced by the e-mail, text, Skype and other technologies. We live in a challenging, changing world and must not stand still. The stance of some of the Members opposite, who are behaving like the town crier who objects to everything and is for nothing, gets us nowhere.

This Bill must be about the protection of the service user and the employees of An Post. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, stated one of the strengths of An Post is its workers. As I stated in the Seanad, postmen in rural and urban areas comprise the strength of the service given. I include the postal worker. The user must be central, be it in respect of the cost or the delivery time of mail.

It must be recognised that some people have not moved towards other forms of communication. The number of people who use traditional mail has declined. There is a big gulf in terms of usage on the part of the business consumer and private consumer. We have not yet debated this. We should have this debate on Committee Stage.

I share the concern that the urban-rural divide will feature. There is genuine concern over cherry-picking. In the Acting Chairman's constituency, Dublin South, it is very easy to run a service, but it is a much different position in parts of my constituency of Cork South-Central, such as Minane Bridge, and other parts of rural Ireland. We must have a proper debate on this on Committee Stage to tease out all the facts.

Irrespective of whether one lives in a rural or urban area, be it in Mayo, Cork or Dublin, one demands a service characterised by its excellence. It is important that we debate this. I am confident that the market, when it opens, will have the same level of service for all.

I acknowledge the economic climate has changed and that An Post is under pressure. Tá sé faoi bhrú. Competition will improve the service and quality thereof. After the liberalisation of the postal service, we as legislators are required to iron out the flaws in the legislation and work with and consult the stakeholders in this area.

I welcome the fact that the protection of the universal service obligation is in the programme for Government. I very much welcome the commitment made in this regard by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, in respect of the workers and integrity and cost of the service.

While I welcome this Bill, that does not necessarily mean it is perfect. Our job is not to come in here with vested interests or advocate on behalf of a certain section but to consider how best we can make the Bill work for all involved. Despite the reservations being expressed by many in this Chamber and the Seanad – the former Minister, Mr. Ryan, accepted some of the amendments and the current Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, has committed to examining the legislation – the opening up of the postal service to competition could be positive if managed properly. Those Members opposite who oppose the legislation should look at their ideology, dogma and addiction to opposition for its own sake and embrace change, listen and be open to the idea that this could work.

The Deputy should look at his addiction to neoliberalism.

Sometimes I wonder whether they come in here blindly and oppose for the sake of opposition.

I genuinely believe we will fail in our duty as legislators if we do not consider this Bill on behalf of the workers and service users. We have a very fine postal system and staff. The latter do more than just deliver mail. In many cases, the postman is the only person certain individuals meet in the week. Therefore, it is important, in debating this legislation, that we be cognisant of the mistakes made in other jurisdictions, such as those made by the Royal Mail in England.

I hope the urban-rural divide will be addressed by preventing cherry-picking. We must consider the way in which An Post can reinvent itself and make itself more relevant in a more modern Ireland in which there is a growing move towards technology. The Bill, in bringing about competition, will provide a better service to the users in all communities.

I congratulate in his absence Deputy Harrington, my neighbour from across the border, on his maiden speech and I wish him well.

I declare an interest in this legislation, which is very close to my heart, because I am the postmaster of a small rural post office. I very much welcome this debate and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, for hosting it this evening because it is very important. I have reservations about the Bill, bearing in mind that the mail volume has fallen by a massive 16% since the start of 2009, with each 1% drop accounting for a loss of €5 million. As traditional letter-writing dies out and customers turn to e-billing, An Post has indicated it will have to cut staff by more than 400 by the end of the year.

The postal service is not just any old business that is being knocked to one side because of the Internet or modern technology; it is a service for the public good. Post offices unite communities and the postal service connects remote regions to the centre.

In the context of the future common agricultural policy and stimulating rural areas, it is necessary to increase the attractiveness of rural areas by ensuring access to various public services and infrastructure such as education, health, broadband, the Internet, transport and postal services. Over the years, our rural countryside has declined greatly in that we have lost small shops, pubs have been decimated and local creameries are gone. A way of life in rural Ireland is being destroyed. We are losing a lot of what made this country so special. People came from all over the world to see what we had, which was something different. It was something that one would not see in other parts of Europe or in the United States. We had a very special way of living in Ireland and I believe our postal service and local post offices were a cornerstone of this. This is why this issue is so important and it has to be dealt with in a very serious fashion in the House. I very much welcome the contributions made by speakers on both sides of the House.

Maintaining services in rural areas will be difficult. However, we must strive to do so. As we look at the falling demand for postal services should we be scared of private operators coming into the market? We should. The unions in An Post have some concerns about this also. There is the argument that the private sector companies which would be looking to enter will be in it purely for profit and will not be concerned about providing a social service or its importance. We are speaking about services to the community. Competition in this area will weaken rural services. There is no provision to protect people against the cherry-picking that will take place. Often, there is no Garda presence in rural areas. In a local town, there may be a little button on a door one can push to speak to a machine to seek a garda.

This legislation will result in a weakening of the personal contact which many people living in isolated rural areas depend on in terms of the social fabric. I do not like this aspect of the legislation. It could be detrimental to a way of life. The historical base of our postal service under the universal service obligation is important in that it obliges the State services to deliver and collect mail for the same price regardless of location. This is akin to the provision of social bus services in the rural countryside. I accept there is a shifting pattern, as the previous speaker outlined, and that more and more people use electronic communications. It may well be that the postal service needs to reassess itself as Deputy Buttimer suggested.

An Post and, more importantly the post men and women, are not merely delivery people. In the vast amount of cases in the rural countryside they may be the only human contact some of our isolated citizens have. Some elderly people living in the countryside look forward to seeing the postman coming into the yard with a letter for a bit of gossip and a chat and to see whether anybody is dead or whether there is any news in the parish. It is the man or lady in the post van who brings this news. Post persons act as social workers. They are a vital link in any community and they are the connection between isolated people and the rest of the community. I want to put on the record of the House that I salute these people, many of whom long ago did large runs on bicycles including in bad weather. In the cities, it is normal to see people on bicycles but long ago in the countryside it was how the mail was delivered in many cases, and delivering the mail involved very long and tough runs up and down hills in all types of weather. I salute the people who are gone to their eternal reward who delivered the post in Ireland and those who do so at present and I thank them for the work they do.

In areas where there is no Garda presence, as I already outlined, post men and women are the eyes and ears of the community. We must be very mindful of the excellent service provided by An Post and its postal workers throughout the country. We must ensure that no decision will be made in this House that would jeopardise this service. I respectfully say to the Minister, the Government and all Deputies that there is a great onus of responsibility on us and we must tread very carefully with this Bill. We must be mindful that decisions taken here could have a detrimental effect.

However, if we do our job properly we may hope that An Post will be able to continue to provide the excellent service it has provided over the years. I look forward to seeing and ensuring that those post people who have done so well in the past for the citizens of Ireland will be allowed to continue to do so in the future and that we will not have big multinational companies coming in and profiteering, cherry-picking and leaving the countryside with a service for perhaps one, two or three days a week. If a letter arrives for a person in the countryside he or she wants it on the day it arrives; he or she does not want to think about it resting somewhere to be delivered after a number of days. That would not be good enough. We must always remember that people in rural Ireland are every bit as entitled to the same quality of service as a person living in Ballsbridge. As I have always said, whether it is Ballsbridge or Ballinskelligs, the people are equal and they are entitled to the same level of service.

I wish to share time with Deputy Barry Cowen.

I was struck by Deputy Buttimer's remarks that the An Post workers to whom he spoke were not overly worried about this Bill although they see challenges in it. I have heard the opposite. Many workers are concerned. Many Deputies have commented that we need to be very careful when considering the Bill and in the decisions we take, particularly on Committee Stage — whenever the Government gets around to establishing committees. The Second Stage debate allows us to reflect on the role of An Post and on the challenges it faces and perhaps the opportunities that can be vested in An Post to provide it with alternative income sources that may assist it as its mail volumes decrease.

I was struck listening to the contributions of Deputies Harrington, Healy-Rae and Collins, all of whom worked with or on behalf of An Post in various guises. When one thinks of the postal service in Ireland, one thinks of trust, connection and a presence in every community, as has been said. These traits are lacking in many services and areas in Ireland at present. However, An Post has struggled to take commercial advantage and make commercial use of this.

Over the weekend we completed the census. Hundreds of enumerators were employed throughout the country and trained to complete the census process. They will collect the forms this week after which they will be laid off and sent back to the dole queues or their previous jobs. It struck me that An Post should have been given the opportunity to tender for that contract given that it has access into every home, business and community throughout the country and given that it is trusted. We would not have the expense we had training people if we had used the postmen — I will stick with the old variation if Deputy Healy-Rae does not mind — for that service. We might have achieved it more quickly.

The Government has committed itself to substantial reform of many State organisations, including the HSE. The postal service could step into a gap in the community work of the HSE. It is a service with access into every house and it is trusted. Surely through some type of community monitoring of older people and those who are vulnerable it could take on a role done in a half-hearted and half-resourced way by the HSE.

Many people mentioned rural transport and aligned the challenges facing rural transport with those facing rural post offices. If we consider how An Post can access communities, with a little investment and imagination with regard to the postal transport fleet we can combine both services. As Deputy Healy-Rae said, if this goes ahead helter-skelter and there is full liberalisation of the postal market, albeit even after 20 years, we know in our hearts that rural areas will be left waiting and there will not be next day delivery or next day access unless one travels to a main post office. When one considers postal systems throughout the world, it is amazing that in the US, where everything is done automatically, its postal system has not gone down this route. Surely in a small country such as this, where it has the values I mentioned, we should protect those values and seek to maximise them in other ways.

Many Members have referred to the move towards e-billing and use of the Internet. We do not know what is around the corner. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as the Internet and ten years ago nobody would have imagined we would be using it to the extent we do today. Given the progress of technology, the days of letters in the post are numbered. For that reason we must challenge An Post to examine its operations, move away from the comfort of being a sole monopoly provider in the traditional way and devise services it might be able to deliver for other State organisations, such as I have mentioned, or other commercial bodies. It must be more commercial in the way it delivers bulk mailing and more focused in the way it serves the business community in particular. It rose to the challenge when parcel post was liberalised and showed this could be done through Passport Express and the other services it offers.

It is a commercial model that needs change and updating and it is surely within the ability of its personnel to respond to the markets. With regard to the people who work in An Post, over the past ten days there have been a number of cases, ranging from a small case on the Mayo-Roscommon border to a large case in Kildare, where postal staff were terrorised in their homes. We should extend our thoughts to them and acknowledge that the presence of postal staff in communities, which is a major advantage to both An Post and the communities, is a challenge for them, particularly at present. Again, An Post has responsibilities in that regard, be they direct employees or agents. An Post cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to protect these people, particularly in these times and when rural gardaí are not as plentiful as they were previously.

Urgent clarification is required about the commitment in the programme for Government which states that the universal postal service provider will be in place for 20 years in view of the remarks last week by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, that the duration of An Post's designation is something he will consider in the context of the programme for Government proposals. The programme for Government is only approximately one month old. Is this already rowing back on it or just a wrong communication? If An Post is to plan and invest in a postal service, the 20 year guarantee is required so it can come up with commercial models and streams of income that will make it relatively robust commercially when the full market is liberalised.

There are huge opportunities for An Post in the current economy. Consider how we are reorganising our banking system at present. The values I mentioned earlier of trust, connection and presence are still aligned with our postal service, although no longer with any of our banks. An Post has a savings wing. With a little creative thinking in the Department of Finance it should be possible to consider an alliance between An Post and the credit union movement or some type of co-operative banking system that will have the qualities I mentioned that are still part of An Post and the credit union movement. As we move towards the two-pillar banking system there would be some type of alternative available to people, regardless of where they live and their IT skills or access, with the backing of the Government through the An Post bond. This should be given urgent consideration and, again, if it is done properly, it will provide An Post with a commercial revenue that will allow it to sustain whatever challenges emerge in the liberalised market.

We have a fantastic asset in An Post, its personnel and its values. In dealing with this legislation we must be careful not to devalue that asset. This country does not have a good record with the privatisation of State companies, and we can all put our hands up in that regard. As the Bill moves to Committee Stage, we must be very protective of our postal service because it will be impossible to repair it.

I note and acknowledge the rationale for the Bill and its background, dating to when it was first flagged in 1988. The first EU directive came forward in 1997 followed by a second directive in 2002 and a third in 2008. As Deputy Buttimer said, there was a gradual phasing in of competition before the third and final directive. A total of 60% of the sector has been open to competition and the directive will bring that up to 100%.

This Bill came before the Seanad in December and, briefly, before the last Dáil prior to its dissolution. We have had the public consultation process and consultation with stakeholders in a forum. The Bill was published by the previous Government. The current Government recently produced its programme for Government. The fears I expressed, only briefly, when contributing to the debate on the programme for Government are evident again with regard to this Bill and the comments made by the Minister, which I will refer to presently. Specific commitments published only weeks ago in the programme for Government, not only in this regard but in many others, appear to be fading, particularly when one listens to Leaders' Questions and looks at parliamentary questions, both written and oral. With regard to the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte's, comments in his speech last Thursday week, I noted his language, tone and demeanour. He spoke about various aspects of the Bill "in the context of the directive", "in the context of this Bill" and "in the context of our obligations". He was not very convincing, to say the least.

We are aware of the main provisions of the Bill. It provides for a regulatory framework to be managed by ComReg. It seeks to safeguard universal services and facilitates competition in a liberalised postal market. An Post is to be the universal provider. The Bill further clarifies offences and provides for the establishment of a national postcode system. I welcome that aspect. I doubt that it will be allowed to interfere with the sense of community and place that exists throughout the country in both rural and urban areas. It is essential that a system such as that being put in place should run side by side with our emergency services, so they can operate at maximise response times and so forth. I am thinking in particular of fire service and ambulance service responses.

Everybody recognises the history and value of An Post in their respective communities. I am glad the Bill does not impact on the rural post office network and post office banking and saving services. The delivery of Government financial services is also a pivotal part of the delivery of governance throughout the country, and I note those services are also secure within the post office network. I agree with the Minister that An Post must continue to be dynamic, forge new partnerships, innovate, re-invent and re-invigorate. Having listened to speakers in the House who are involved with the system, and being familiar with the system in my community and beyond, I have no doubt it has the leadership, capacity, willingness and ability within its ranks to meet and, indeed, lead the demands of this new and ever-changing digital communications age.

The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, said ComReg would be accountable to the Oireachtas and that it will act on his and the Government's direction on policy issues. While I welcome what appears to be this double accountability, the Minister should clarify whether it is to be one or the other or both. If there is this notion of directing State bodies or semi-State bodies with Government policy, if I may digress briefly, I ask the Minister to elaborate on the programme for Government's initiative on the sale of non-strategic assets. Is there to be a similar direction from him on Government policy on the part or whole-sale of ESB, the part or whole-sale of Bord na Móna or the part or whole-sale of Coillte? There have been biting remarks across the floor in this regard, not only by myself but by many others, and it is almost time that the Minister made an unequivocal statement in this regard.

The reference to commitments in the programme for Government pertaining to this Bill, and the worrying matter of tone and the apparent softening of attitude, may be clarified, as Deputy Calleary states, by the Minister at the culmination of our comments and in his response. The programme for Government states specifically that the universal service will be assigned to An Post for 20 years. This is a bold statement, considering the Bill has given a guarantee to An Post of seven years upon which ComReg might further lengthen the period based on the success of scheme and the delivery of service to the public in an efficient and cost-effective manner because that is the bottom line of the Bill. It must be done on a cost-effective and social-inclusive manner. All of those issues combine to allow ComReg to make a decision as to whether it continues for a further period.

The Minister, in his comments, stated: "The duration of An Post's designation is something I will also consider in the context of the programme for Government proposals". The word "consider" is vastly different from the word "insist".

Exchequer funding is not an option currently provided for in the legislation. I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív when he spoke on the matter last week. He stated that the Bill contains the power to fine and take profits from those who cherry-pick at the expense of, not necessarily but more than likely, rural or unprofitable areas and that funds raised in this regard would be for onward payment to the universal provider. While the Minister might not necessarily agree with this aspect of the Bill, can he or the Government afford not to? To highlight the apparent contradictions, the programme for Government contains a proposal to provide Exchequer funding but the Minister stated he "will consider this in the context of introducing amendments on Committee Stage". It is that word "consider" again. It is not "insist"; it is "consider".

I note the Government has made big commitments in the programme for Government. It has made big commitments in the first weeks of office, claiming to make serious inroads in the first 100 days with a jobs initiative, a jobs budget or whatever it is called — it changed today. It is an admirable commitment. I doubt its ability to deliver such an arduous task. I further doubt, on foot of the news we learned today about the growth rate being halved, an extra €1 billion being required and the same jobs initiative perhaps costing €0.5 billion, where and how the Government can find Exchequer funding for this when the Bill, as I stated, contains the capability of raising funds.

Returning to the Bill, and specifically to the commitments relating to it, I would appeal to the Minister, both on the commitments he made here and on those his party has given on semi-State bodies and State assets on many occasions, to stick to the principles that he honed when in the Workers Party, in Democratic Left and in the Labour Party, and to not be swayed or convinced by Fine Gael, now that he is coalescing with it, by that party's opinions on semi-State bodies. Looking on at the Minister, who is Dublin based, who is at full Cabinet and who is from Mayo, in the context of the geography of the Cabinet, surely he can succeed in maintaining the service and facilities.

It is a recipe that could not fail.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill which has far-reaching implications for the postal services. The legislation has two principal components: the deregulation of the protected segments of the postal market and the introduction of postal codes. These are necessary, long overdue but, nonetheless, welcome, provisions.

While I recognise and accept the march of progress, my concern, and I am sure, that of the Minister, is the protection of rural communities. Post offices are the cornerstone of rural interaction. With the previous Government, of which Deputy Cowen's brother was Taoiseach, striking a lethal blow against remote areas and, in particular, the elderly, it is necessary to bring a new look to bear on the issue of essential services for remote areas.

Accessibility is the key to the survival of rural dwellers. Expecting the elderly to travel a lengthy distance to collect their pensions, etc., is inhumane and unrealistic. I am sure that Fine Gael and the Labour Party in Government will bring a more caring face to bear on such legislation.

There is a genuine fear in rural areas that the introduction of competition will mean that people could fail to get their post. This can be to some extent insured against by designating An Post as a universal service provider for seven years following the enactment of this legislation. ComReg is the designated regulator and I would hope that the seven-year term will be enforced with an eye on further provision. However, no guarantee has been built-in following this period. While this could lead to worry about what will happen after seven years, there is, on the other side of the coin, a rapidly changing face of communications which perhaps will negate the need for further provision. However, it is up to the regulator to ensure a smooth transition.

The closure of post offices is an ongoing issue and people are deeply concerned that the social service role they play, particularly in remote areas, may be lost. Such closures leave the elderly out on a limb. As we know, social isolation is the scourge of rural life for many in remote areas. The local post office provides not only essential services but an important social outlet. Many older people combine a trip to the post office on pension day with other activities such as active retirement groups, church services and visiting friends. This is the reality of rural life. Perhaps the worst outcome of the closure of rural post offices is the forcing of the elderly to take buses or taxis to travel miles in order to collect their pensions.

Debate adjourned.