I ask the Minister for Finance to clarify his plans to move towards processing most of the State's business electronically. This issue arose previously in the context of social welfare payments. It will not be possible to achieve this aim unless all citizens have what is known as a standard bank account. This will only be feasible if An Post establishes a banking system. I have asked An Post to examine this issue but I am somewhat concerned because it has not yet responded to me. The traditional banks are not interested in setting up standard bank accounts and I expect that many of these banks will pull out of rural Ireland over the next several years. With developments in information technology and electronic banking, we will have less access to face-to-face services. We need to have a conversation on who will operate the standard banking system. Given that issues arise in regard to fraud in social welfare and tracing payments, I would like everyone to have a standard bank account through which payments would be processed.
In the context of banks gradually withdrawing services from smaller towns and rural areas, standard accounts are targeted at people who have traditionally dealt in cash and who do most of their business through the post office network. If the Minister is to be successful with his reform package, An Post will have to get its banking act together and facilitate these customers by developing a structure for opening standard bank accounts. This would also make rural post offices more viable and give them a chance to maintain their central role in small towns and rural communities. These post offices are much more than a place to conduct transactions. They are meeting places and focal points for the communities they serve. This is not solely a rural issue, however, because a considerable number of citizens in urban areas are also reluctant to engage with a banking system that is growing ever more aloof.
An Post has not yet replied to my inquiry as to the progress it is making on establishing a banking system. The Government has an opportunity to advance this reform package, while at the same time strengthening the role of post offices in rural Ireland. It is vital that we develop a plan which offers people a lead-in time to become aware of their options. Furthermore, if we do not have as many rural banks, issues will arise in respect of access for older people. If older people are able to lodge or withdraw money through An Post, it would be beneficial to them. It is important that we plan for this before it is forced on us.