The first Topical Issue matter is in the names of Deputies Eamon Ryan and Boyd Barrett to discuss the overflow from the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Is the Chairman waiting for Deputy Ryan or are we pressing ahead?
We can wait for a moment if the Deputy wants. He can take the first two minutes and see if Deputy Ryan arrives.
We have four minutes between us.
Okay. If Deputy Ryan does not arrive, do I get all four?
Do not do that to me.
The discharges of sewage into Dublin Bay as a result of rain, something that happens a lot in this country, and the rendering of significant parts of Dublin Bay and its beaches - many in my area but all around Dublin Bay - impossible to swim in is horrendous and unacceptable. Many constituents in my area have rung me in disgust at the idea that rain could be the reason sewage is discharged into the sea. It is not as if this is an isolated example. It happened earlier this year and has happened repeatedly over many years.
I took the time to look back at the Irish Water business plan from 2015, four years ago, in which Irish Water identified 44 wastewater agglomerations where discharges were taking place nationally, 43 of which did not comply with secondary treatment requirements. Irish Water identified the critical problem relating to the discharge we are discussing, which was the lack of capacity at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant. It is massively over capacity. That was identified four years ago and Irish Water stated it was going to do something about it. It is still happening and, although there are plans in train for the upgrade and so on, it will still be another year, according to Irish Water, before anything happens to stop this. It is not acceptable.
We have a problem at the moment in Dublin Bay. There have been discharges of sewage of various types into the bay 15 times in the past year. The fact that it is only noticed several days after the fact means people are swimming in sewage.
I am keen to hear the Minister of State's views on same day testing all year round. People swim, surf and do everything in Dublin Bay all year round. We should have same day testing all year round. I want to know from the Department if that is being advanced and funded as needs be.
We also need to know the exact technical reason this is happening. Is there anything that can be done other than waiting for the new sewage plant in north Dublin or the expansion of the existing site? We need to know if that will solve the immediate problem in Ringsend or whether the cause is that the other parts of the plant cannot cope with the volume, particularly when there are heavy rains causing sewage and rainfall water to mix together with the overflow tanks unable to cope. We need details on this and on the timeline offered for solutions. We also need details on the public information aspect so we are not getting notice several days after the fact and do not have to close all our beaches for several days after that until further updates come into place.
This issue is enormously significant for the people of Dublin where access to our bay is one of the best things about the city. We cannot tolerate the ongoing problem in Ringsend and the Government needs to take proactive measures to try and avert it.
I thank the Deputies for raising this as it gives me the opportunity to discuss the matter and set out some clarifications on it. The issue has been raised at Leaders' Questions this week so I am conscious there is information out there but I am happy to put more information on the record and tease out some of the issues around it.
On Tuesday, 24 June, Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council both issued temporary bathing prohibition notices for local bathing waters. Notices are in place on Dollymount Beach following a storm water overflow from Irish Water's Ringsend wastewater treatment plant and at Seapoint, Sandycove and the Forty Foot bathing areas following storm water overflows at a number of locations in the bay area of south Dublin. These are specific and temporary bathing water notices and have been issued as a precautionary measure to protect people, pending water test results. This form of notice is required by the bathing water quality regulations.
Separately, the status of Sandymount and Merrion Strand is classified as poor and these bathing waters will have a bathing water restriction in place for the entire 2019 season due to more complex pollution issues. This is unrelated to the recent overflow from the Ringsend plant.
Under the bathing water quality regulations, responsibility for water quality testing at bathing waters lies with the relevant local authorities. The frequency and parameters of such sampling, as well as the appropriate laboratory procedures, are set out in the bathing water directive. Due to the nature of the testing required, it may take between 48 and 72 hours before validated results are available. That is to allow the bacteria time to grow. Deputy Ryan raised the issue of same day testing. There are certain procedures and science behind the testing that mean a certain period must be allocated. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has asked and stressed that we look into any ways we can improve those timelines. There are clear directions set down regarding how those tests should be carried out. I am not sure if we can beat that timeline but we are looking at that. It is hoped that we will have results tomorrow.
With regard to dealing with the regular storm water overflow issue, Irish Water is undertaking a major upgrade at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant to deliver improved treatment and additional capacity, and to ensure a decrease in the number of overflows experienced each year. This upgrade is due to be completed by the end of 2022. It has been said that this has been going on for a long time. Planning permission takes a little time. It was secured in April this year so plans can now move on, this can go to tender and the works can start. It was signalled a number of years ago but all the channels had to be followed to implement that and bring forward planning permission. I am sure the Deputies want us to follow correct procedure in these cases because of the significance of the area we are putting the development and to make sure everything is done correctly from the planning point of view.
The recent overflow occurred following heavy rainfall during a status yellow weather event in Dublin. Our sewer network is designed to collect both rain water and sewage. During the recent exceptionally heavy and sustained rainfall, the storm water holding tank reached capacity at the Ringsend wastewater treatment facility and the overflow from the tank entered the sea. It is important to note that this form of release ensures that sewers do not back up and flood streets and homes, which would be a much more serious threat to public health. That is the choice one is faced with and the procedures that are in place.
Notwithstanding the planned investment at Ringsend, the Minister accepts the concerns of Deputies about the closure of beaches in Dublin. He has asked his officials to meet officials of Irish Water, the EPA, HSE and the Dublin local authorities to ensure the response to incidents of this kind, any restrictions imposed and the associated communications are appropriate and consistent. Many of the issues that have been raised this week, and by the Deputies here, have been about communication and ensuring we get the right, up-to-date and timely information out there and that people have confidence in that information. That will be a part of what the Minister is asking, as well as exploring if there is a quicker way to do the testing and make other changes.
The Minister has clearly asked for the issue of the testing regime to be examined as part of this consideration but there are issues in that regard, which might mean we cannot improve the timelines but we will do so if we can. EPA reports show an overall improvement in the quality of our bathing waters with 94% of our bathing waters meeting the required standard and almost 86% classified as either good or excellent.
However, it is no secret that the wastewater networks require ongoing and sustained investment to bring them up to the required standards, deal with population growth and adapt to the impact of climate change. Investment in wastewater infrastructure is prioritised in the Irish Water strategic funding plan, as it was in the business case made a number of years ago. It is estimated that through the national development plan €1.9 billion will be invested in wastewater projects from 2019 to 2024, inclusive. Delivering on this investment will continue to be a key priority. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his Department will remain closely engaged on this issue with Irish Water. The solution to these problems is this planned expenditure.
We should have same-day testing, but even if we do not, there is surely a way, when discharges occur, that it can be announced immediately. There is a problem if we do not know when there is a discharge and it cannot be announced publicly. At the very least, the public can be made aware of the incident.
Representatives of Irish Water gave testimony before the joint committee recently. They indicated that it needed €18 billion to rehabilitate water infrastructure. It is clearly not getting that kind of money. It stated large-scale service failures were unavoidable and that they were happening. There is not enough money going into rehabilitating water infrastructure and it was exacerbated by misguided austerity cuts after 2008, when the already inadequate expenditure went from €423 million per year to €382 million under the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. That pattern continued under the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government and spending has only begun to climb up again recently. However, it is still inadequate. We need more investment, as well as early warning systems.
If the Minister of State does not have the details, his Department might respond in writing to my questions. I understand it is possible to have same-day testing services and that Dublin City University might have pioneered some of those systems. It is important that we advance these processes as the current system is completely inappropriate because we only find out what is wrong days later. Are we assured that the key problem of the overflow tanks, arising from the mixture of rainwater and sewage, will be solved with the addition of the new aeration and settlement tanks on the Ringsend site? Will the Minister of State provide the details of the wider and more complex pollution issues on Merrion and Sandymount strands, given that they will be closed for the entire summer? Is it safe for children to play on Sandymount beach and build sandcastles? That is one practical question people are asking me.
I will try to answer all of the questions asked, but I can send anything I miss to the Deputies in written correspondence. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has asked that we look at earlier communications and officials are investigating if that is possible. There is also the question of giving more detailed information in our announcements. We are happy to try to do that, too.
The EU bathing water directive sets out the frequency and parameters of water sampling, as well as the appropriate laboratory procedures. There is an issue in allowing bacteria to grow over 48 hours. I do not know if that can be changed to allow results to be given within 24 hours. The Minister has asked about this to see if there is any way we can improve the timelines for testing. I am not saying there is, but we can follow up on what Deputy Eamon Ryan has mentioned. If it is possible, it is something we will certainly strive to achieve. I understand how significant this issue is for everybody and we should have test results by tomorrow.
The Deputy asked if increased capacity at the Ringsend plant would solve the problem. We are fairly confident that it will. At the Ringsend wastewater treatment facility any flow from rain storms above maximum flow capacity is forced into a holding tank in order that it may be sent back to the plant after the storm flow has passed. During especially heavy and sustained rainfall the storm water tank reached capacity and the overflow from the tank entered the sea. This is not something that generally happens in the summer months; it has probably happened twice recently and is not very common. It is a capacity issue which will be dealt with through planned expenditure.
Separately, in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's area, the heavy rain affected the pumping station on the west pier and had an impact on bathing waters around Dún Laoghaire. This is not connected with the storm water overflow from the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant, but it has resulted in notices forbidding bathing at Seapoint, Sandycove and the Forty Foot. Irish Water is liaising with the local authority on the matter. It is not a capacity matter.
The bottom line is that the Ringsend facility was built for a population of 1.64 million people and is over capacity. That is why there is a planned upgrade. As we all know, infrastructure such as this must go through a planning procedure involving much environmental law. That is correct, but it takes a little time to spend the money. The funding is secured for the project which will happen in the years ahead.
Special Educational Needs Service Provision
I sincerely thank the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, for taking this matter as I know a change had to be made that was nobody's fault. These things happen. I appreciate his coming to listen to my comments and hope he can provide a positive reply.
As the Minister of State knows, the July provision scheme provides funding for an extended school year that is not available to the vast majority of children with Down's syndrome, leaving them at a major educational disadvantage. A recent High Court settlement involved children with various educational and social needs. They will now receive additional schooling under the July provision scheme. In the light of this recent ruling, I ask the Government to consider extending the July provision scheme to all children with Down's syndrome.
The scheme allows an extra month of tuition during July for children with a specific diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder or a severe or profound general learning disability. The scheme is very beneficial as it ensures children do not regress over the long summer holidays. I have been contacted by numerous parents associated with the Roscommon branch of Down Syndrome Ireland who believe the exclusion of their children from the July provision scheme is an injustice and a disgrace. How can the education system and the Government leave children with Down's syndrome behind, as that is what is happening? They are being denied the right to learn at their own pace. In the light of the recent High Court ruling, it is imperative that the scheme be extended to all children with Down's syndrome.
On a separate matter and wider note, parents of children with Down's syndrome in County Roscommon have also told me about the great difficulties they have in accessing occupational therapists, speech therapists and physiotherapists in the county. Many parents of children with Down's syndrome must finance the cost of these services because of the serious lack of services provided by the HSE. They are placed under serious financial pressure as a result. Even where services are provided by the HSE, visits by therapists can be infrequent, piecemeal and insufficient to meet the needs of children. I am informed by some therapists that too many children are assigned to them and that, as a result, they cannot provide a more regular service. More therapists in these areas are required as therapists expect parents and teachers to carry out programmes. I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of this issue. A change must be made.
I hope the Minister of State recognises the message that we should rectify the July provision scheme and will bring it to the Government. We can give the children a decent chance in life.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and the Minister of State who has been unavoidably detained because of the changing schedule of the Dáil. I recognise the matter raised by the Deputy and know that it is common in other constituencies also. I thank him for raising it as it provides me with an opportunity to outline the current position on it.
The July provision scheme provides funding for an extended school year for students with severe or profound intellectual disabilities and students with autism spectrum disorders. The scheme was developed to reduce potential regression in learning associated with these specific categories of special educational needs over the summer holidays. In July 2016 the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which advises the Minister on these matters published its policy advice on educational provision for children with autism which included a review of the July provision scheme. The review found that in general parents valued the July provision scheme because it provided day respite care for families and a structured day for students. However, the NCSE's review found a number of problems with the scheme. They include concerns that the scheme may be inequitable because it is not provided for all students with complex special educational needs.
The council recommended that the relevant Departments consider how an equitable national day activity scheme could be developed for all students with complex special educational needs. The proposed scheme would provide a structured, safe, social environment for all students with complex special educational needs, which might include some children with Down's syndrome.
The Department of Education and Skills has convened an implementation group to ensure the report's recommendations are fully and appropriately considered.
There has been consultation with a number of other Departments and State agencies on the future direction of the July education programme. It is expected that the group will make recommendations shortly concerning a revised scheme which would be implemented next year at the earliest. Before any changes are made, there will be consultations with stakeholders.
The Dáil will be aware that the Department settled two High Court cases where children with Down's syndrome had sought access to the July provision scheme. While the terms of the settlement are confidential, I want to clarify on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills that the children concerned were not given access to the scheme. Officials met with Down Syndrome Ireland yesterday to discuss the implications of the settlement and they will be in further contact with it this week. I want to inform the Deputy that the Minister is scheduled to meet Down Syndrome Ireland next week.
I thank the Minister of State. Like many TDs, he will be aware of this situation from his own constituency. I welcome the fact that discussions are taking place and that further meetings will take place next week. My only regret is that we are entering into discussions again. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is clearly saying we need to do something for those children with Down's syndrome. All of us acknowledge and recognise that parents are under enormous stress. If the July provision applied to children with Down's syndrome it would be a huge benefit. It is very important that the educational needs of these children are met during the summer. They are special cases. They need that help. We have to look after people like these children, and their parents, and give them every possible chance.
While I welcome what the Minister of State has said, and I know he has knowledge of this issue from his constituency, I do not want discussions to go on and on without any changes taking place. Last week's High Court decision regarding two children with Down's syndrome did not give them full access to the system, and I accept what the Minister of State has said, but it certainly has changed the goalposts. All of us must recognise now that we must act in response to that High Court judgment because it means there is dissatisfaction, as far as the court is concerned, in the way those children are being discriminated against. I will not labour the point. The Minister of State knows where I am coming from. He has an understanding of the situation. I am sure all Deputies have such cases in their constituencies. I hope we can move matters on and get a better system in place as quickly as possible.
The valid points the Deputy made will be relayed to the Minister for Education and Skills. I will reflect on them also. I am not in the Department but I am a teacher and I understand the importance of the July provision and its delivery. There are different methodologies in respect of it. Some of it is school based and some is not school based. The Minister will take his policy direction from the National Council for Special Education in terms of trying to formulate a decision. When he reflects on it and has had the discussions with the Down Syndrome Ireland group, which are important, it will provide him with an opportunity, in conjunction with his dialogue with the NCSE, to be in a better position to make a decision on how to move forward. The Deputy's points are well made. They are not unique to any particular constituency. We all deal with parents of children with special needs and intellectual disabilities. I know that teachers are dealing with them also. They are challenging. These are special children for a special reason. Until now, the July provision has been a very good scheme but the Deputy is asking that it be improved upon rather than changed. I will reflect his views to the Minister for Education and Skills and ask him to respond directly to the Deputy.
I thank the Minister of State.
Post Office Closures
I am disappointed that neither of the Ministers from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are here but I presume there is a good reason for that. This issue goes back to 14th of this month when it was announced that Kilcar post office was to close. Seventeen post offices closed last year and it was our understanding that no more would close in our county until such time as An Post announced that. Myself, Deputy Doherty and Doherty Pringle attended a meeting in Kilcar attended by approximately 300 people. At the end of the meeting we were mandated to write to the public affairs manager of An Post. We copied that to the Minister. We met the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. We also copied that communication to the chief executive. The only acknowledgement we got was from the public affairs manager. In fact, it was not an acknowledgement but rather a full reply by way of email.
We were mandated to make the approach to request that a period of six months be given to allow for the locals, various organisations and the public representatives to make a case to the appeals panel. Our only request was that Kilcar would be afforded the same opportunity as that given to the other 157 post offices. A very cold reply came back stating, "Of course they can but we are closing and you can submit your appeal then". That is not the way other post offices were dealt with. We believe there must be consistency in that regard. We are making the case to the Minister of State, who is here representing the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, that at the 11th hour this decision would be reversed, allowed to be extended to the end of the year to allow Kilcar make an appeal, which every one of the others was allowed to do. They are prepared to make a comprehensive appeal but giving two weeks is tantamount to saying there will be no appeal.
This is a very serious issue that goes right to the heart of rural Ireland. As Deputy Gallagher said, in the past year Donegal has seen the closure of 17 post offices. That is the heart ripped out of 17 rural locations across our county. We were told time and again by Government and by An Post that this was about securing the network, the other 950 post offices. Lo and behold, right after the local elections - the timing was calculated by Government and An Post - they announced the further closure of a post office. This is a post office that serves a vibrant rural community and a vibrant textile industry in Kilcar. Many people will know of the brands that come out of that area and how the industry ships its products through the local post office. A post office that has served that community for many decades is about to close within the next couple of days. No opportunity has been given to the community to come together, to organise and to make a proper appeal to An Post.
The reality is that this closure should not be forced upon the community. It should not be left to the 300 people who turned up at the public meeting myself, Deputy Gallagher and Deputy Pringle attended. This should be a decision by Government. We, in Sinn Féin, tabled a motion before this Dáil last year and got approval from the other political parties that no post office should be closed. The Minister needs to listen to the will of the people and their representatives in this House. It is scandalous that the people of Kilcar are being pushed into this situation. Our ask today is twofold. First, the Government must intervene. Second, at the very least a six-month extension must be given to allow for the community to organise, to plan and to make the proper case to An Post if An Post at this point is not willing to reverse its decision. I am asking for that commitment from the Minister of State.
When I sought this Topical Issue debate today I did not name any particular localities, although I did ring the Minister's office to be helpful, to name the two localities I was to talk about. Interestingly, since then, my constituency colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, has issued a statement on one of them. I am glad of her interest in this topic, but it was not evident until I raised this today on the floor of the Dáil.
I refer to two issues which are similar and different to those raised by my colleagues. One relates to the village of Carlanstown, with a population of almost 700, where a postal agency has closed without any notice at all for the almost 100 people who deal with this post agency for their social welfare payments every week. This is a devastating blow to this village and the people around it who use the postal agency. At a time when we are supposed to protect rural Ireland, we are not succeeding.
The other matter on the post office network is related to the announcement last year, which included the closure of seven other post offices in County Meath, was that some new post offices would open. We were given a list of towns where there would be new post offices. One was in my constituency in Kentstown, County Meath. No post office has opened there. An Post told me that nobody was interested in such a post office. In fact, there is someone who is interested in having it in their premises but the terms and conditions which An Post proposes do not make it worthwhile for anyone to take it on. This village, which is probably one of the largest settlements in the country, and certainly in the county of Meath, without a post office has been promised one by An Post and this Government but this has not been delivered. It calls into question the reality of the announcements last year. The post offices closing was a reality: all seven which were announced were closed and this has torn apart many communities, with their hope gone in Batterstown, Bellewstown, Clonalvy, Drumree, Dunsany, and Tara. I pay tribute to all the postmasters who served in those post offices. When An Post promised new post offices, it was good news but it is so cynical for them not to follow up on this and leave the people of Carlanstown bereft.
Yesterday, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and I met representatives of the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, on the crisis in the network of rural post offices. The Government has been speaking on both sides of its mouth to the effect that there is no policy directive on social welfare payments being paid out in rural post offices. Rural post offices tell us, however, that social welfare officers are asking recipients to open bank accounts in order that payments can be paid directly into them. That removes a viable aspect of rural post offices. When they lose a transaction, they do not lose that alone; they lose five or six transactions on the back of one. The only thing that will keep rural post offices alive and continue to survive is if they have enough transactions. Part of that is that the Government should make transactions available to post offices, whether online or otherwise, in order that they can remain viable and continue in our communities.
Two motions were passed on this issue in the Dáil, one on 16 November, in which Deputy Michael Healy-Rae was involved, and another in September 2018 tabled by Sinn Féin. Those are sitting on the shelf and have progressed nowhere. Why is that? Why does the Government not respond and implement motions passed here? A large part of those motions was to ensure that post offices would have encouragement and support for a community banking service. A community banking service has helped the survival of post offices in New Zealand and other places where it has been allowed to develop, but it is necessary that the State support community banking services so that post offices can survive and be viable into the future.
Yesterday, Deputy Ferris and I, together with other Deputies, met the president of the IPU, Ms Marie Williams from the post office in Tralee who is on the IPU executive, and others. We listened to the IPU's urgent call on behalf of postmasters throughout the country. I must declare an interest as I am a postmaster myself of a small post office in Kilgarvan, County Kerry. I am proud to be the owner of a post office. I want my post office and every other post office to be sustainable, keep the jobs it has in place for the future. It will not happen without the Government's support.
Deputy Ferris is correct about what is happening. I do not want to wrong anyone. When the Taoiseach was Minister for Social Protection, I showed him a document to show how unfair the situation was. It was an application form for a new recipient of social welfare. I told him it was being sent out in his name and was telling people to use the bank. There and then he told me it was wrong and it should not be like that. In fairness, he went away and had it changed. He did not give us in the post office an unfair advantage; he gave us a fair playing field. He had the form read that the recipient could go to their post office or bank, and it was good and sound of him to do that. What is happening now in spite of everything is that people in Intreo offices are telling people to do things through the bank. We are asking the Government to give us a fair chance. This is a very important message and we need to get this straight. Deputy Ferris and I had this yesterday from the president of the IPU. We do not, as postmasters, want a handout. We are not asking Government to give us a grant or anything, we are looking for nothing from the Government. What we want is work. We want to be given new business that we can administer through our post offices, whether it is motor tax, or that farmers would come to post offices to use e-assist to fill up an area aid form or other applications. We just want work in our post offices and we are just asking the Government to help us in that. It is a very ordinary and humble request. Give us work to keep our post offices going.
I thank the Deputies from Kerry, Donegal, and Meath for raising these issues. I apologise that I am not a Minister in the line Department. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is at European Council meeting in Luxembourg. As Deputies will know, Ministers of State routinely cover their colleagues. I wish to cover as many of the points raised as possible. I have a reply from the Department but I will ask the Minister’s office to revert to the Deputies individually if there are any issues which they feel are not adequately addressed in the reply.
It has been stated here previously that An Post is a commercial State company and as such, day-to-day operational matters, including decisions in relation to the company and its operations are matters for the board and the management of the company and not ones in which the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has a statutory function. An Post has an independent board and its mandate is clear in that regard. That has been the case since An Post was created as a semi-State company.
The environment in which the post office operates is changing and the network needs to change to thrive, particularly with the move to digital transactions. These changes are impacting on the revenue being generated by the network as a whole. In the face of serious declines in the volume of mail and post office business, An Post faced growing losses and has had to undertake a major restructuring of Its business to continue to be able to build, maintain and protect a service that meets the needs of communities across the country.
The financial challenges facing An Post have been well documented, primarily due to the impact of e-substitution on mail volumes. Mail volumes have decreased some 40% since 2007. In 2018 alone mail volumes declined by 7.6%. In response, the board of An Post oversaw the preparation of a strategic plan setting out a transformation of the company in both the mails and retail business. An Post has advised that as part of this process, much detailed work has been done to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to adapt to the rapidly-changing mails and parcels business.
Two years later, critically important decisions have been made. An Post has been stabilised because of the action that has been taken. The implementation of the strategic plan is continuing to yield results. An Post has gone from being in a very difficult financial position to making a profit.
The post office in Kilcar is due to close at the end of this week as a result of the postmaster retiring. The business, including Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection payments, will transfer to Carrick post office, which is 5 km away. I understand that Carrick, like Kilcar, is situated within the Gaeltacht area. Customers can also contact the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to arrange to collect their payments at any post office of their choice, including Killybegs and Glencolumbkille, in addition to Carrick.
The transfer to Carrick will help to secure a sustainable future for that office and the other post offices in the area, as well as ensuring access to services to post office services. An Post has confirmed that there will be no change to mail services to Kilcar and the surrounding area.
Should the local community or local individuals wish to have An Post’s decision on future post office services in Kilcar assessed in line with the established post office closure protocol, they can apply to the independent review process to have the case assessed and An Post will have regard to the assessors' recommendations.
That matter was referred to by Deputy Gallagher. Any such appeal should be submitted as soon as possible.
Of the post offices referred to in County Meath, I understand seven have been closed in the consolidation process that was announced last year. I have also been told that An Post proposed to open a new post office, with Kentstown being chosen as the location, but having advertised twice for someone to take on the position, it has as yet received no applications.
Key to the survival of the network is the willingness of the public to use the services the post office provides. Investment of €50 million in the network is under way. It is based on getting communities to use the enhanced services provided. There is no doubt that continued transformation of the postal business will be difficult and require tough decisions to make An Post fit for the future.
To respond to the specific issues raised by Deputies Michael Healy-Rae and Ferris, I will ask the office of the Minister to reply directly to them specifically on the issues they raised following their meeting with representative of the Irish Postmasters Union.
I remind the House - reference to it was made by Deputies Ferris and Pearse Doherty - that when we voted on the Private Members' motion, not alone was it carried but it was also unanimous. The Government supported the motion, but then in a cynical exercise it went off and did the opposite. When the Minister of State says it is not a matter for the Government and that An Post is a statutory body, it was the Government that gave it its imprimatur. Ministers, including the Minister from County Donegal, gave An Post their imprimatur to do this. Furthermore, there is the cynical exercise of using settlement patterns, rather than judging on the basis of a population of 1,740 in Kilcar. The Minister of State has said they can go to Carrick or Glencolmcille, but there are no existing transport services that link them. Closing the post office is a much bigger issue because other businesses will suffer as a result and jobs will be lost. I appeal to the Minister of State to request the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to meet the Deputies for County Donegal at the earliest possible date in order that we can make the case directly to him. We cannot hide behind statutory bodies when it is the Government that has taken this decision.
We need a bit of common sense. I invite the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to come to Kilcar to see, listen and talk to the people and businesses that use the service all the time. People are employed by businesses that are trying to build up what is a rural Gaeltacht area, but they see the State taking services away from them. The suggestion made by Deputy Gallagher is one that needs to be actioned as soon as possible. We need to talk face to face with the Minister and to do so quickly as the post office is to close in the next couple of days, although there is no reason whatsoever for it to close. This falls outside the agreement between the Irish Postmasters Union and An Post. The voluntary redundancies have happened. We were told that they were to secure the network, but now another post office is to close. How many other post offices will close if this is the carry-on by An Post while the Government sits on its hands? The spin it puts on it, that any community with 500 or more people will have a postal service, is nonsense. Kilcar has a population of more than 1,000. The way in which the Government calculates the figure is completely disingenuous and amounts to nothing more than spin. We need an extension of time, a meeting with the Minister and him to visit the area in order that the Government can get a feel of what it really means and what it is doing to the area in pulling out the heart of this rural community.
I endorse with what my colleagues have said about their local post offices because the same applies to my area. I informed the Minister's office about the position in Carlanstown where a postal agency has closed. They do not cost An Post anything, but they provide an unbelievably valuable service in distributing social welfare payments. Just like the village mentioned by my colleague, there is no public transport between Carlanstown and Kells post office, despite the fact that the NTA promised such a service approximately one year ago. This is a very serious issue. The heart is being pulled out of villages and people are being told to travel to the nearest town. The nearest town - Kells - is very important, but it is also seriously important to protect villages. I ask the Minister of State and the Minister to go back to An Post with what he has said in the House about Kentstown post office because it does not tally with what I am told on the ground by people who were interested in taking on the position. They expressed interest to An Post, but the terms and conditions were simply too onerous for anybody to open a new post office. The population of Kentstown is approximately 1,200 people and a post office was promised but not delivered, which was the most cynical exercise ever. To sugarcoat the dreadful announcement made last year, we were told about all of the post offices being opened, but then we found that there was no sugarcoating. That leave a bitter taste in the mouths of people.
What is needed is an active policy change by the Government to try to secure the survival and viability of rural post offices as otherwise 600 post offices will close in the next number few years. That is the reality. It will happen in the constituency of the Minister of State and the constituency of every Deputy in the House. It would take very little to make them secure and viable such as delivering social welfare payments. In my county Tús, a public body, has been instructing people that they must open a bank account in order that money can be paid into them. That is wrong. They were receiving their money in the post office. Welfare payments, motor tax, driver licences, change of ownership of vehicles, driver and theory test payments, registration of electors, hospital charges, local authority parking fines and toll charges are just a few of the services that could be provided through post offices to make them viable. When we bring people into the local post office, it contributes to the introduction of other transactions. The Government needs to be active in promoting a policy to ensure the survival and viability of local rural post offices.
Places such as The Climbers Inn in Glencar and Browne's shop in Ballinskelligs held on to what we will call new post offices and we are very glad of it in County Kerry. However, we lost other post offices. When a post office is lost, it tears the heart out of a community. It is something that does not need to happen. We can hold on to more of them. I ask this question, as I have consistently during the years. We have great advocates such as Tom O'Callaghan of the Independent Postmasters Group, an independent union through which he represents many post offices. There is also the Irish Postmasters Union. They are all excellent in working together and asking the Government to do one thing - to assist us and not let us go down the road followed in England, Scotland and other places where thousands of post offices have been lost. If they could reopen them, they would, but they are not able to do so. It is like tearing up the rail network and then saying in 20 years' time it would be a good idea to put it back together. We cannot do that because if we lose it, it will be gone. When a post office, like a shop, pub or creamery in a rural community, is closed, there is no going back. I, therefore, ask the Minister of State to help us. That is all we are asking. We are not fighting about it or being argumentative; we are just asking for help for small post offices and post offices in larger towns that are also struggling. Will he, please, help them to survive?
I will try to address some of the comments made. With regard to Kentstown post office, I have a reply that states the position has been advertised twice. The Deputy says that, to the best of his knowledge, he does not-----
It has been advertised, but people have not been able to take up the position.
The reply states it has been advertised twice, but An Post has yet to receive an application. I can only take the reply as it is.
To answer Deputy Michael Healy Rae on the issue of engagement with the Irish Postmasters Union - other Deputies mentioned a meeting with the Minister - I will relay the request to the Minister.
When I was listening to Deputy Gallagher, I thought of my own town of Newcastle West, where seven post offices were closed during the time another Government was in office and when the same issues arose. The Minister is the shareholder, as we all know in this House because the party opposite was in government once upon a time when waves of post offices were closed. The same issue was raised as to whether the Minister could intervene to keep open the post offices in Ballagh, Mountcollins, Tournafulla, Castlemahon and Feohanagh, as well as all of the other post offices in my part of the country that were closed. Deputy Michael Healy Rae is right that we need greater dialogue on the network of post offices between An Post, the Irish Postmasters Union and all of the stakeholders. We also all need to support post offices. We all have an obligation as people who want to keep services alive in rural areas to support them.
Deputy Pearse Doherty asked about a meeting with the Minister. I will relay that request for the Deputies from Donegal to meet the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on this issue. I note, however, that when post offices in my own area, like Tournafulla and Knockaderry, were closed people also asked if the Minister could intervene. They made representations to me at the time when I was councillor and Fine Gael was in opposition. We all know the reality that An Post is a commercial company with serious financial problems. It is on a path to trying to redress those problems.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is right, however. In support of the stakeholders, the Irish Postmasters Union, the service providers, the public, the Government and State agencies are working together. We have had this discussion in this Chamber before. One of An Post's greatest attributes is its ability to deliver parcels in future and to use the post office network to facilitate that. I am not a Minister of State in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment but I will relay the concerns raised to the Minister, Deputy Bruton.
I am afraid that I cannot allow-----
Just one point-----
We are just asking for an extension to allow for an appeal.
The Deputy knows the rules better than anyone.
I think it is fair. I was explaining my own previous engagement with post offices that have closed.
I am not interested.
There is a provision for an appeals mechanism-----
I am sorry, we must move on.
I think that it is fair-----
On a point of order-----
No, please. I am sorry-----
It is a valid point being raised by Deputy Gallagher. Will the Minister write to An Post-----
I ask Deputy Pearse Doherty to resume his seat.
Deputy Gallagher specifically asked me to raise this matter with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and I will.
All of the Deputies know that Topical Issues matters are set down here. We all agree on how they are handled. I ask the Deputies to not constantly break the rules. That applies to everybody.
The Acting Chairman is no angel himself.
The Acting Chairman is a good man at that himself.
The Deputy knows I am in a difficult place too.
We will all use that in future.