Post Office Network: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

recognises:

— the views of the members of Dáil Éireann as outlined during the private members’ debate of the 21st October, 2020;

— that a sustainable nationwide post office network is a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas;

— that post offices provide crucial public and financial services to communities all around Ireland, especially to those in rural and isolated areas;1385

— that from 1st July, post offices face a major challenge as a significant reduction in payment rates will take effect; and

— the need to put the post office network on a sustainable operational and financial footing in line with the Cabinet decision in 2017; and

calls on the Government to:

— introduce an interim solution that will be effective and deliverable from July 2021, to guarantee the current post office network and prevent any further closures;

— provide long-term certainty in order to enable postmasters to invest, develop and grow their businesses;

— ensure that all citizens have full access to the important services they provide;

— designate the post office network as the ‘offline gateway’ of choice for citizens availing of State services, due to its unique nationwide network and existing strong

relationship with offline citizens;

— reinvigorate the post office network by extending the services which post offices provide and by retaining existing services such as social welfare payments;

— commence the provision of offline Government services, with the availability of motor tax renewal through the post office network; and

— give recognition to the existing post office network as both a rural economic lifeline service and a locus for future development of financial services outside of the existing banking framework."

The motion has been tabled on foot of the Government's lack of action in supporting the post office network and follows on from our previous motion last October. At that time, the Government asked us to postpone the motion for six months to give it time to address the issue. The post office network is on a cliff edge and without Government support, we will see the closure of post offices across the region.

My colleagues in the Regional Group and I are calling on the Government to introduce an interim solution that will be effective and deliverable from July 2021 to guarantee the post office network and prevent any further closures; provide long-term certainty to enable postmasters to invest, develop and grow their business; ensure that all citizens have full access to the important services the post office provides; designate the post office network as the offline gateway of choice for citizens availing of State services due to its unique nationwide network and existing strong relationship with offline citizens; reinvigorate the post office network by extending the services post offices provide and by retaining existing services such as social welfare payments; commence the provision of offline Government services with the availability of motor tax renewal through the post office network; and give recognition to the existing post office network as both a rural economic lifeline service and a locus for future development of financial services outside of the existing banking framework.

Our motion of 21 October 2020 was agreed but deferred for six months to give the Government time to put things right. We believe every Member recognises that a sustainable nationwide post office network is a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in rural and urban areas. We also believe post offices provide crucial public and financial services to communities all around Ireland, particularly those in rural and isolated areas. The fact that from 1 July 2021, post offices face a major challenge as a significant reduction in payment rates will take effect. There is a need for the post office network to be put on a sustainable operational and financial footing in line with a Cabinet decision in 2017. Across the country, we have seen the devastation caused by post offices closing. A number of post offices have closed in my constituency. The communities involved put forward an economic and social argument for keeping them open but the people doing the figures on the calculators decided otherwise. Post offices have now gone from places like Eyrecourt, Caherlistrane, Ballyglunin and Ardrahan. The community in Eyrecourt has to travel to County Offaly to access a post office, which is not right.

I have also seen the campaigns by communities to retain their post offices. There was a celebrated case in Barnaderg in my constituency. The post office is still there because the people would not let it go. This not the right way to do business. We need to make sure that post offices are given every chance to survive in a time when the postman or the post office was the only social contact with a significant number of people across the country during the Covid lockdown and we paid tribute to them.

It is also important that we refer to what the Grant Thornton report said about post offices, in particular the fact that post offices produce so much social dividend contributing between €344 million and €776 million per annum in social value to communities. That is a powerful message for Government and the people who do the bean counting and who do not realise the social implications of post offices. We have been able to provide supports throughout the past 18 months for every type of business. What we are looking for here is for the post office network to be given the funding required to keep it viable and for it to be given the opportunity to provide offline services as a matter of urgency so that it can become viable.

It is also important that we do not continue to pay lip service to post offices. We cannot hope that some of them will close by stealth. We must make sure the post office network is maintained in a vibrant way and the postmaster, who is the lead within the community in delivering services, has the facilities and resources to make sure he or she can develop his or her business.

The Minister of State represents a rural constituency and will be aware of the devastation caused when a service closes, be it a national school or a post office, in a rural area. It is a depressing signal in these areas. We have the opportunity and capabilities but there is also goodwill across the House to support the Minister of State in supporting this service that we need to keep going. We should remember that if a post office closes, it removes the heart of a community in rural Ireland. We cannot let that happen. I commend the motion to the House.

I thank my colleagues in the Regional Group for facilitating the motion. It is vital at this critical time that Dáil Éireann gets behind this motion and supports our argument that post offices need urgent Government assistance to survive the current crisis and build for the future so that we have a profitable and sustainable post office network.

An Post is about more than post offices; it is a vital part of every community in every village and town in Ireland. In my constituency, the importance of the local post offices in the likes of Carlingford, Omeath, Knockbridge, Ardee and elsewhere in the county is clear. It is not only a place where people conduct business; it is also a place where social interaction takes place and, more often than not, it is the lifeblood of a local community. Recent research carried out by Red C found that 91% of those surveyed agreed that the post office provided a valuable service to the local community, 86% supported the Government providing financial support to keep their post office open and 86% wanted more State services available at the post office.

It is fair to say that we all realise that the local post office is much more than just a post office and, again, every Member will agree that the Government must do everything in its power to ensure that the local post office remains open. When a post office closes, other local businesses also suffer. This has been shown over the years.

In our motion, we are asking Dáil Éireann to recognise the fact that transactions within the post office network are down by an estimated 25% as a result of Covid-19, which further threatens the viability of the network. We are also seeking support to recognise the need to put the post office network on a sustainable operational and financial footing in line with the Cabinet decision in 2017. In addition to this, we are asking that the findings and recommendations contained in the Grant Thornton report are noted and acted upon, in particular, the recommendation that a public service obligation, PSO, of €17 million be introduced immediately. We are calling on the Government to designate the post office as the offline gateway of choice for citizens availing of State services due to its unique nationwide network and existing strong relationship with off-line citizens.

The statistics behind An Post are quite impressive. A total of 28% of the population or 1.3 million people continue to use the services of the network every week, which includes the distribution of €4.6 billion in social welfare payments.

Coming from a business background, I know the challenges one faces with what seem to be impossible odds. What the post office needs now is a small amount of Government support and a roadmap for the future.

The first of these Government supports is the easy one. The post office network shortfall is approximately €17 million. It generates revenue of €53 million which costs €70 million to deliver. These losses are mainly as a result of the ongoing transfer of traditional post office services to online providers and a reduction in traditional mail business. In today’s terms, the immediate requirement of €17 million is a small amount of investment to secure the future of An Post. I call on the Government first and foremost to provide this funding to safeguard our postal network.

The roadmap is the more difficult challenge. If An Post is to be viable, it must return to profitability. For this to happen, it must be allowed and given the opportunity to provide more services than it currently does. In recent times, we have heard about the likelihood of some major banking institutions pulling out of Ireland in the future. I am not alone in saying that all the major banks would prefer not to have personal bank accounts and the costs associated with them. However, the reality is that personal customers require an operational bank account. This account is needed to make debit card payments, direct debit and standing order payments and money transfers, etc. That presents a real opportunity for An Post to provide a service to personal account holders in the form of a basic payment account. An Post is uniquely positioned to offer this service. The credit union movement could also partner with An Post to provide this much-needed service to personal customers. It is clear that the main street banks are not interested in this type of business and this presents an opportunity for An Post.

An Post already has the infrastructure in place and with possible co-operation from the credit union movement could have the IT structure in place. I know from speaking with many local people that they are greatly in favour of such a move. It could also provide an opportunity to An Post to work closely with schools, particularly primary schools, where it could encourage students to open their first account with An Post. One finds that when people open an account at an early age and become familiar with it, they stick with it. I know from speaking with the older generation that they would be very happy to conduct their business with An Post as opposed to the main banks. There is an opportunity for An Post to develop this side of its business.

The pandemic has taught us that business must constantly change and adapt to the challenges faced. There is no doubt that the pandemic has made many businesses rethink. Many now realise that they must be more active online and this offers opportunities to post offices. I believe the local post office should be given the support it needs to work with local businesses to provide a cost-effective and reliable delivery service for those businesses that require the delivery of goods, particularly those purchased online. There are a number of couriers that carry out a similar service, but I firmly believe the post office could offer a unique partnership with local businesses to provide a more cost-effective solution. In Dundalk, for example, the local post office could work in partnership with many local businesses to deliver their online sales. These local businesses need help in order to compete with the large competitors many of which are based outside of the country. In Dundalk, we actively encourage people to shop local and keep their business in the area. A collaboration between An Post and local businesses could work in every town and village in the country, and provide much-needed revenue for An Post and service for local retailers. Another area in which An Post could benefit is in relation to motor tax. This service could be provided by An Post and could provide much-needed revenue.

I thank my colleagues in the Regional Group once more for their assistance in bringing this motion before the House. It is vital that we first recognise the vital service An Post provides to all local communities in every village and town in the country. It is also vital that we come to its rescue and that the Government provides the necessary funding to fill the current gap of €17 million. It should be noted that the Government already provides substantially more funding to bus and rail services in order to keep them operating, and An Post should be treated the same way. I hope this motion gets the support of the House, particularly from Members on the Government side, and that they recognise, now more than ever, that we need a viable and sustainable postal network.

Last October, the Government was put on notice that if there was no movement on the post offices, we would revisit the issue, and here we are, which is disappointing to all concerned. This motion calls on the Government to introduce an interim solution that could be effective and deliverable from July 2021 to guarantee the current post office network and prevent any further closures. It could provide long-term certainty to enable postmasters to invest, develop and grow their businesses and ensure that all citizens have full access to the important services the post offices provide. It should designate the post office network as the offline gateway of choice for citizens availing of State services due to its unique nationwide network and existing strong relationship with offline citizens. It could reinvigorate the post office network by extending the services post offices provide, by retaining existing services such as social welfare payments, by commencing the provision of offline government services with the availability of motor tax renewal through the network and by giving recognition to the existing network as being both a rural economic lifeline service and the locus for future development of financial services outside of the existing banking framework. All these objectives are achievable with focused, dedicated and determined action.

The post office sector is a vital piece of infrastructure to many rural and regional communities. Almost 950 post offices exist throughout Ireland. They vary in size and in the services they provide. In County Wexford, there are 52 post offices. I am in regular contact with people who run post offices, particularly in the areas of Fethard, Ballycullane, Ramsgrange, Campile, New Ross and many others. Clearly, the rural post office plays a crucial role in community life. Unfortunately, it is becoming more of a struggle for postmasters and postmistresses to make a sustainable living from their work. Post offices throughout Ireland provide a vital service to hundreds of communities and millions of people. Not only do they provide vital services, but they also provide a warm, helpful and friendly face for the people in the local community. These things make the post office network a crucial asset worth protecting and capitalising on.

As part of the Regional Group, I have called many times for post offices to be viewed as a one-stop-shop for engagement with State services. I know many State services can be dealt with via the post office, but there is still a long way to go and there are many more services that could be incorporated into the post office's role. This could result in huge benefits for the customer, the post office and the State.

The correct action is for the Government to ensure the sustainability of the post office network. When a postmaster or postmistress retires, there must be conditions in place to encourage new entrants to take his or her place in order to keep the service alive. This may involve emergency investment, but, more importantly, it will require an expansion to the role of the post office network to allow it greater opportunities to sustain itself. In recent correspondence from An Post, it highlighted the announcement that Bank of Ireland customers will be able to avail of banking services in post offices as proof of An Post's value in local communities. More than 500 post offices nationwide are situated in locations without a mainstream bank. This development shows how important the post office network is.

The Grant Thornton report made the point that the post office network remains a highly valuable national asset that contributes far more to the economy than the cost of the public service obligation. It stated that protection and expansion of the network would result in an estimated social value for Ireland of between €344 million and €776 million. Post offices need opportunities to develop. They need to provide as many useful services for people in local communities as they possibly can. They need to be seen as the go-to place for people to engage with State services.

The financial services market needs competition for consumers to be able to get value for money. The post office network is ideally placed to provide an alternative in this market. As I said last week, the current state of our banking sector is a major cause of concern and has a big impact on many other aspects of our lives, most notably the housing crisis. We have seen Ulster Bank and KBC leave the Irish market. I believe there is a more important role for post offices and credit unions in our financial sector. Hopefully, it will lead to a situation where a healthy and vibrant banking sector can develop in a sustainable way without the need for the State to provide rescue supports again. Competition in any sector mainly benefits the consumer. The current lack of competition in the market is bad news for the consumer. A lack of competition reduces the number of products available and means that the remaining firms have fewer incentives to provide competitive deals to consumers. Overall, I hope there will be cross-party support for the motion, which aims to revitalise and further modernise the Irish post office sector.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions and for the opportunity to address this motion today. I know Deputies raised the important matter of the post office network in October last year and the motion before us today recognises the views of the Members who participated in that debate. I noted at the time I was in agreement with many of the sentiments expressed by Deputies and the Government does not intend to oppose today's motion from the Regional Group.

The Government's programme is clear and a modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial and e-commerce services for citizens and enterprise as part of our commitment to a sustainable nationwide post office network. The Government's objectives for An Post include harnessing the opportunities presented by e-commerce and the digital economy, capturing and retaining market share in parcels and delivering a sustainable nationwide post office network offering a range of e-commerce, financial and Government services.

Deputies are aware of the scale of the transformation that An Post is undergoing, which is a vital part of the delivery of its strategic plan. In order to implement the plan, the cost of which was estimated to be in the region of €150 million, the Government provided a long-term low-interest loan of €30 million to the company in December 2017 to support and protect the renewal of the post office network and the continued fulfilment of a five day per week mail delivery service. An investment loan of €40 million from the European Investment Bank has also been made available to finance innovation and modernisation projects. This borrowing is being used to help to fund the capital costs associated with five investment programmes that form part of the transformation plan, including post office renewal. A capital expenditure programme has also been approved, which, as part of the company's commitment to the sustainability of its network, is designed to develop the newer elements of An Post's financial services business and mitigate declining core mail volumes and revenues on the retail side of the business.

The deal agreed between An Post and postmasters in 2018 centred around a renewed vision of the post office network and a revised postmaster contract. There is an acceptance that new business lines were required, with a focus on financial and new government services, along with a capital investment plan for the renewal of existing offices. The agreement reached between An Post and the Irish Postmasters' Union underpinned significant change and investment to redefine the post office network, including reducing the number of post offices, modernising the postmaster contract and updating the brand.

The consolidation of the post office network has assured the widest possible distribution across the State with an ever-improving network. The key focus continues to be to future-proof the company and keep it relevant to customers in the types of services it provides. This restructuring has seen the development of new areas of business, particularly in parcel delivery but also in new retail areas and financial services, resulting in a return to annual profitability since the implementation of the plan.

Acknowledging that the transformation plan has been severely affected by Covid-19 and the transformation payments to postmasters provided under this agreement ceased at the end of June, my officials and I have been engaging extensively with An Post on the matter. I am pleased to advise Deputies that An Post reached an agreement with the Irish Postmasters Union in late June for an €8.5 million fund that will benefit all post offices over the next 18 months. Due to the improving financial position of the company, An Post will fund this programme from its own resources.

The agreement is in line with An Post's strategic plan and it recognises the central role of the post office network to the company. It provides for a tailored payment for each post office based on the forecasted business loss and it will benefit the entire network. It will take account of products affected during Covid-19, such as foreign exchange transactions. An Post has invested in its network and as part of this proposal it will equip postmasters with commercial training and marketing support to promote their businesses, as well as maintaining continued investment in new products and services. I stress that the terms under which postmasters are contracted to An Post is a matter between postmasters and An Post and any negotiations are a matter for both parties directly.

An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products and formats, including, among others, the diversification and growth of financial services products that it provides for individuals and small and medium enterprises, including loans, credit cards and more foreign exchange products. It will also provide local banking in association with major banks and a full range of State savings products.

An Post is a strong commercial semi-State body and its strategy, as approved by the Minister, seeks to build on its growth and diversification. The post office network is one of the company's core strengths and the continued development of the network and its services is a vital component in its sustainability. As with many businesses, the post office must continue to develop commercial strategies to enable it to grow and maintain its relevance for users. We are working with An Post to investigate the scope to channel additional services through the network. All options will be considered fully and the ongoing transformation in the company aims to ensure the commercial viability of An Post and the continued fulfilment of its mandate to provide mail delivery services and ensure a viable post office network.

It is important to note that An Post is a commercial State body with a mandate to act commercially. It has statutory responsibility for the State's postal service and the post office network. Decisions relating to the network, including those relating to the size, distribution and future of the network, are operational matters for the board and management of the company. It is long-standing Government policy that postal services would not be directly subsidised by the Government but we remain fully committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas.

At a recent meeting of a joint Oireachtas committee, the chief executive of An Post noted that the company has been commercially successful and self-sufficient and there are no plans to bring forward a public service obligation at this time. If An Post, postmasters and the Government continue to work together, we can ensure the network can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable, community-focused services. We want to have a sustainable post office network available to all our citizens, both urban and rural, in the medium and long term.

The Government continues to provide significant business to An Post through the Department of Social Protection social welfare contract and National Treasury Management Agency business, which sees over 44 million transactions through the post office network. This includes €20.6 billion of State savings administered for the National Treasury Management Agency, 520,000 Department of Social Protection clients paid every week, with an annual value of €7.2 billion, €160 million in television licence income and 198,000 passport applicants.

The Government decided in March to set up an offline services group to explore the potential of a one-stop approach, including the identification of suitable services based on the recommendations of the offline services report, and to examine the feasibility of directing more Government business to the post office network. The group is co-chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Departments of the Taoiseach; Transport; Foreign Affairs; Rural and Community Development; Social Protection; Housing, Planning and Local Government; and the Revenue Commissioners are represented, along with the Road Safety Authority and the Local Government Management Agency.

In conducting its work, this group is considering the increased use of the post office network for the delivery of government services. Like many other aspects of our lives, the way in which the public accesses government services is likely to have been profoundly affected by the pandemic and we must consider these changes and our response to them very carefully. The group is increasingly looking at the strengths of An Post in terms of brand, digital presence and reach and its characteristic of being a unique human network. It is clear An Post has the capability to compete for more than just offline services and can offer an "omni-channel" agency role to the Government and other customers.

We must consider our approach to government service provision in light of our experience not in terms of individual offline services, such as offline applications for motor tax, but as a modern, customer-focused collective whole. The Government is committed to working with An Post and postmasters to ensure the network can continue to play a strong role in delivering State services. While respecting An Post's commercial mandate, every effort will be made to give effect to the Government's commitment to ensure a sustainable and viable post office network.

I am delighted to speak on this important topic of post offices in Ireland. I am also grateful to be here as a member of the Regional Group. As the Minister of State is most likely aware, my colleagues and I never come in here to trade insults with the Government of the day. Rather, we come in here to trade ideas and exchange potential solutions to address the problems of our time. It is on that basis and in that spirit this motion has been brought back before the House, nine months after it was first discussed.

I am grateful for the Minister of State's opening comments. They were detailed and more detailed than expected. I am also appreciative of the fact the Government will support this motion today. It is very encouraging. I also welcome the fact the Minister of State mentioned there will be an €8.5 million fund established between An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union, which should go some way towards alleviating some of the issues, and the fact a one-stop shop feasibility group has been established since March. I encourage the Minister of State to expedite the findings of that group, if possible.

It is worth asking the question, nine months after it was first discussed, if this motion is still relevant. I contend it absolutely is. It is more relevant now than it was back in October of last year, because a number of events have occurred. First, we have had two new additional waves of Covid-19 which have wrought devastation on the Irish economy and society. Second, we have had the publication of the Government's strategy on rural Ireland, Our Rural Future, which commits the Government to supporting rural Ireland. Third, there has been a significant shift of people moving from our large cities to settle in regional, rural and coastal Ireland, which is a good thing.

It is important people take full advantage of the fact they can live and work in rural and regional Ireland and take advantage of reducing their carbon footprint, cost of living and increasing their quality of life. That is a good thing for the people who move and the people who stay in our large cities because they will be dealing with less congestion and gridlock. That is something the Government should not only encourage, but support and facilitate by ensuring we have the requisite public services in these new communities to support the new communities moving in.

Of all the events of the past nine months, the events of the past week are possibly the most pertinent of all, when it comes to discussing this motion. It is to do with the fact that now, in the past week, the Government and, by extension, the State have entered into a commercial arrangement with privately operated and independently owned retailers throughout the country. I am referring to the deal between the State and the pharmacy network in this country to turbocharge our vaccination roll-out process. It is working really effectively at present.

This is precisely the model the Regional Group is proposing from the post offices' point of view. Instead of applying just to the pharmacies, we could apply a similar concept to the post office as well. That is very important. I commend the Government on leveraging and piggybacking on the existing pharmacy network. Why would it not do such a thing? The pharmacies have the premises and people in place, they understand their communities and the communities trust them. That concept is very good and should equally apply to the post offices.

My colleagues have spoken eloquently on how we need to establish the post office network as a one-stop shop and an offline gateway of choice. I certainly agree with those views, especially from a motor taxation point of view. I note the Minister of State's comments with regard to the services already taking place from post office point of view, but motor tax is the next step we should look at. Not only will it reduce the number of excuses a person can use for not displaying a proper motor tax certificate on his or her windscreen, but it will free up many local authority staff to focus more on the strategic and long-term planning for the local communities and counties.

In the time remaining, I want to focus on the provision of financial services at a community level. Over the past nine months, there has been a major change in the footprint of retail banks in regional, rural and coastal Ireland. KBC Bank is moving out, Ulster Bank is leaving and Bank of Ireland is significantly reducing its branch network throughout the country. It is up to the Government and the State to step into that void and vacuum and ensure there are sufficient financial services branches available throughout regional and rural Ireland, especially for our SME sector and the age demographic which is not as mobile as others, namely, our elderly population who rely extensively on having a branch in their local towns.

I welcome this motion and encourage the Minister of State to accept it, as she already has. I also encourage her to look at the pharmacy model which is working effectively at present and apply it not only to the pharmacies but also the post offices. We always knew this motion would work in theory and, looking at the pharmacy concept, we have proof it will work in practice also.

We are delighted to be able to bring this motion to the floor of the Dáil because it is such an important motion. In many ways, rural Ireland has become a box-ticking exercise in the Dáil over the years. We have a situation with regard to rural and regional Ireland in that they are becoming increasingly peripheral to the development of this country. Ireland is developing into a city state. Dublin, in its size in proportion to the rest of the country, is an outlier in European terms. Even in Britain, London is considered to be too big for the British economy and yet London is only a small percentage of the size of Dublin in relative terms.

It is estimated that about 45% of infrastructural investment which happens now happens in the greater Dublin area. That is not trying to reduce Dublin in any way. Dublin is suffering as a result of this really poor spatial development and a lack of access to housing, schools and with regard to transportation and seized-up transportation routes. Logically, we need to make sure we have balanced delivery of development and spatial development in the country. That has to be underpinned by the State in the provision of services.

One of the big issues which has reduced the health and well-being of small- to medium-sized towns throughout the country is the lack of services. The post office network has been one of those anchor services in that, when it delivers properly within the community, it invites people from a large hinterland into that town or village and makes sure that town or village is vibrant. I see it in my own constituency where we see that, in recent times, where the Government has closed post offices, the hairdresser or shop next door to the post office closes quite shortly afterwards as people start to head into the bigger hubs and towns.

Reducing the ability of post offices to function and closing them is a direct attack on regional and rural Ireland. It accelerates the process happening, whereby people are moving into bigger towns and cities all the time. If you look at the average age in Balbriggan, it is ten years younger than the average age in Killarney. What is happening there is younger people no longer have a viable life in some rural and regional areas and feel they have to go to larger cities to get a job. Of course, they cannot afford to buy a house in those larger cities and so they live in a growing commuter belt and experience a commuter hell which many people currently experience.

We have a lopsided development in this country with an overheating Dublin and a massive commuter belt which is now spreading into different provinces. People are living in a different province from the place where they work, which is an incredible situation. At the heart of that is this Government's lack of commitment to the development of small towns and villages throughout the country. Covid-19 has provided an opportunity or silver lining with regard to these small towns and villages. To do that, however, the Government needs to make sure the post offices become a hub of services for those small towns and villages, where people can get insurance, do their banking or get a driving licence and can get in the post office all of the different elements on which they would normally engage with the State.

I ask the Minister of State to listen to the motion proposed by the Regional Group and take it on board.

I move amendment No. 1:

(a) To insert the following after “in line with the Cabinet decision in 2017;”:

“notes the findings and recommendations contained in the Grant Thornton report entitled ‘Review of the economic contribution and financial sustainability of the Irish Post Office Network’, commissioned by the Irish Postmasters' Union, which recognises the contribution of the post office network, the huge challenges facing the sector and includes a recommendation to introduce a Public Service Obligation (PSO) of approximately €17 million per annum; and”;

and

(b) To insert the following after “financial services outside of the existing banking framework”:

“— implement proposals contained in the Final Report of the Post Office Network Business Development Group (Kerr Report) published in 2016; and

— introduce a PSO to guarantee the current post office network and help prevent further closures, to ensure people have continued access to the important services post offices provide.”

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and thank the Regional Group for tabling it. Sinn Féin has always been vocal in its support for protecting our post office network. Post offices are crucial services in our towns and villages and are especially important in rural Ireland, where they provide essential services and serve as a meeting point for local people. Therefore, we fully support this motion and have also tabled an amendment highlighting the requirement for a PSO to be introduced. A number of the motion's sponsors made reference to that as well. This is not a new idea. Indeed, the need for a PSO has been spoken about for years. One of the central recommendations of the Grant Thornton report was the introduction of a PSO to secure the future of the network and allow post offices to continue providing their excellent and important services. Some €17 million per annum was suggested as an appropriate amount. While I welcome the €8.5 million that has been agreed between the Irish Postmasters' Union, IPU, and An Post, it is half the amount deemed necessary in the Grant Thornton report and is intended to cover a protracted period. I am concerned that it is not enough and I am also concerned, having heard from the Minister of State, about the Government 's commitment to directly intervene and provide State funding to support the network.

When Sinn Féin tabled a motion on the future of post offices in the previous Dáil, Fianna Fáil submitted an amendment calling for a PSO to be introduced. Now, more than a year into a Fianna Fáil-led Government, it still has not introduced one and we are still waiting and kicking the can down the road to a questionable future for the security of the network. Postmasters are frustrated from hearing Government representatives talking about the benefits and importance of our post office system but doing little to support it. This frustration is justified. We were here in October debating this very issue and the Government has done little since. The Government needs to stop prevaricating on this issue and introduce a PSO. I hope other Deputies will support our amendment. It will send a clear message that we need more than warm words from the Government; we need real action now. The Grant Thornton report also set out the challenges faced by the post office network and highlighted the significant value and contribution it makes to our economy and society. It showed that the estimated social value of the network stands between €334 million and €776 million per annum.

However, the real value of the helpful and friendly service, the local knowledge and the convenience of post offices is immeasurable, particularly for older people. In government, Sinn Féin will not just provide a PSO to shore up our network but will work with An Post, postmasters and unions to bolster the services post offices can offer and secure the future of the service. There is a list of State services that should be considered for provision through the post office network. This could include motor tax, the public services card, payment of fines, payment of tax, property registration documents, voter registration, the certification of official documentation and the registration of births, deaths and marriages. We are not suggesting removing these services from existing offices or agencies but post offices could provide another avenue for people to access to more State services, on a more local basis.

An Post’s green hub is a great recent addition in that regard. To meet our climate targets, we will need to transition to cleaner heating and transport options and the post office can act as a one-stop shop for people accessing information and grants in this area. It can be daunting for people when trying to find information about retrofitting, solar panels and the grants that are available, or might be in the future, and having a trusted local post office providing this information will be invaluable.

I know very well from my constituency the impact the loss of a post office can have on a community. My local post office in Tara was one of the more than 100 post offices closed in 2018. Local people, particularly older people, say to me that it has not been the same since the closure of that post office. The outpouring of goodwill and support for the post office network has been positive. I encourage the Minister of State to support the motion and the Sinn Féin amendment and to address the needs of the post office network to put it on a secure and sound footing into the future.

I commend the Regional Group on bringing this motion before the House once again. I also commend the amendment Deputy O'Rourke has moved. As has been stated by many Members, the local post office network is in many respects the heartbeat of local communities. For many people, it is also their primary interaction with the State. It is where Government, business, communities and real living people can meet. That is why the closure of a post office can be such a devastating ordeal for a local community. It cannot be overstated that when a service such as a post office is removed, it also removes part of the fabric of that community and creates a sense of disengagement and disempowerment. Unfortunately, all too often post office closures are part of a wider removal of other services so the same communities that lose their post offices will also see their Garda stations or schools under threat. Invariably, local enterprise will follow those services out of the community.

The Government should not only agree to adopt this motion and accept the Sinn Féin amendment but also recognise the failures of its own policies. Under a Fianna Fáil Government, 755 local post offices were shut down between 1999 and 2011 and Fine Gael oversaw the closure of 159 other post offices in 2018 alone. With each one of those closures, the Government failed those communities and the principle of balanced regional development. Therefore, it is important that as a first step we accept the PSO as a model that can revitalise those post offices and start putting our money where our mouth is. It is not good enough to simply say we support our local post offices unless we are willing to adopt the budgetary and policy framework that will allow them to be viable.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on this motion, which offers inroads to diversifying the range of services provided through post offices, including renewals of motor tax, offline services for people who struggle to process their paperwork online and personal banking services, among others. I support all these suggestions. The post office network has shown its adaptability and versatility as things have become more digitised. Social welfare payments are now successfully channelled through post offices and the fact that they are to start managing personal banking services also proves how willing and able they are to adjust to a modernising society. They have traditionally been a hub and a connection point for goods and services and are particularly valued in rural areas as a point of information, for familiarity and for the activity they generate and attract. However, the network is operating at a deficit of €17 million per annum, according to the Grant Thornton report. If the 2021 projections are anything to go by, each post office will experience a further loss of €19,000 per year going forward. The report estimates that the protection and expansion of the network would result in a social value for Ireland of between €344 million and €776 million. It costs €70 million to run the post office network for a year and its direct revenue generation is €53 million, with the numbers I mentioned previously representing the indirect financial benefits.

Four years ago, a deal was done with the IPU on the protocol for the future of the post office network. Three months of negotiations mediated by senior counsel led to an agreement that post offices serving communities of 500 or more would be prioritised.

I take issue with this as it was a criterion used as a justification to refuse to re-evaluate the closure of Broadford post office in County Clare. Communities in which more than 500 people reside often have other services available to them and are not necessarily as vulnerable to irrevocable rural decline. The number of post offices which have closed since 2018 is 192, six of them being in my home county of Clare. A public service obligation, PSO, is a good place to start and a helpful interim measure but it does not address the root issue. Rural services are in decline when we look at a broad range of issues, including homeless supports, access to independent living supports, dentists, health specialists and Shannondoc. The list is endless. The term "balanced regional development" that was thrown around so much in the programme for Government and subsequent debates in these Houses has rung hollow as the experience on the ground for rural communities is a far cry from the fantastical promises and commitments to strive for rural regeneration.

I thank the Regional Group of Independents for tabling this motion as well as Deputy O'Rourke for bringing the amendment. That we are again talking about the future of the post office network is testament to the continued refusal of the Department to support our post offices and to support rural areas and their local economies. At this stage it seems as though the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is deliberately trying to put an end to the network.

Through the engagements I have had with the sector, I have been given the impression the resistance to supporting the sector through a public service obligation primarily lies with the Department. I say this because I have been told the Minster for Public Expenditure and Reform is far more amenable to the idea but a request for the €17 or €18 million must first come from the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. That, unfortunately, is not happening. Why not? I have also been told the Department has told the IPU in no uncertain terms that no PSO will be given to our post offices. Will the Department tell me precisely if this is the case? If it is, why are there different aims being pursued within the Government? If it is not the case, will the Department confirm whether it is intent on allowing our post offices to fall by the wayside, and with them, the local economies they play their part in supporting? It is astonishing that the Government is allowing rural communities to become so bereft of services that people will have to travel further afield to get the services they need, increasing their carbon footprint and making rural Ireland redundant.

The post office network needs the financial supports through a PSO, and then it needs the additional services the Grant Thornton report and the Kerr report have both recommended. As these recommendations are being ignored, a short-term deal had to be done with the company for 18 months. The funding is below what Grant Thornton advises and means that within a year we will be back here again, making the case for our post offices and the communities the network serves. This is leading the people running our post offices to believe the Government's aim is to leave the network to die over time. The Minister and Ministers of State in this Department do not seem to get what makes rural economies tick. Rural transport is lacking and the horticultural sector is being asked by this Department and several others to source peat or its alternatives from abroad and is in crisis. Despite this the Government is just watching on. This entire Department really needs to decide where its priorities are. Is it to give rural Ireland and local economies the vibrancy they need, or is it to focus on urban renewal at the cost of our smaller communities?

It seems barely a week goes by without us discussing more decline in rural life in Ireland. It is important we are having this discussion about post offices, which often remain the only focal point in some villages. We are stuck in an awful cycle of depopulation, downgrading of services, lack of investment, employment and then more depopulation. In the Listowel-north County Kerry area we have seen the threat to the SouthDoc service, the removal of dental services, the closure of the Courts Service office and now the removal of a Garda superintendent from the area. After talking for years about Shannon liquefied natural gas, LNG, rather than doing anything about it, the Government's idea now is just to introduce a task force which will kick the problem of depopulation and lack of employment further down the line.

I have said before we cannot hope to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic on the cheap, and investment in rural communities will help our spatial strategy, environment and aid public health. Rather than removing services such as the pension and social welfare during the pandemic, post offices have been further disadvantaged by removal of the passport service and by the online service which is taking longer. Consequently, post offices are losing more business. In the new contract, the top-up payments have been removed from the beginning of this month and that is another disadvantage for anyone minded to stay in business.

There is a way to improve services, as was revealed in the recent reports. While the €8.5 million is welcome, that is over 18 months rather than what was recommended by Grant Thornton, which was €17 million over 12 months. Thus in effect, only one third of the recommended amount is to be provided to post offices. A proper public service obligation should be the cornerstone of this approach, as we have seen recently with County Kerry's regional airport. This would help people of working age either to relocate or locate in County Kerry and be confident they would be able to access postal services when working from home. E-commerce businesses depend on postal services and we should not deprive budding start-up businesses of the ability to avail of services. Other ideas such as the green hub mentioned earlier and navigating State forms online would be helpful.

I thank the Regional Group of Independents for bringing forward this motion again and our own Deputy O'Rourke for putting our amendment forward. I welcome the majority of the Minister of State's response. Much of the PSO aspect has been covered but this is about the vital nature and the seriousness of losing a service like the post office in any town, village or city. It is just unbelievable. The social impact of it is huge. We have heard about the banking sector and so on, but a banking machine will not advise a person on how to fill out an application form whereas post office staff will.

In many rural areas we have lost the pubs and the Garda stations. The weekly visit to the post office to collect their old age pension is an opportunity for some people actually to engage with others. In my very brief time I will add something which arose at the Sub-Committee on Mental Health a number of weeks ago. We were discussing rural services and I came across one individual who told me that during Covid they wrote to themselves so that the postman or woman would actually visit once a week. That is the kind of service you do not get in any other industry. I commend An Post on what it has done. Certainly during Covid when everything was kind of shut down, An Post services continued and the postmen and women were still delivering free newspapers to people and interacting with them. As such there is a bigger picture here when it comes to the actual full social and economic impact of An Post and the kind of services it provides.

This was a worthy motion for the Regional Group to bring back to the table because it is certainly a service we cannot afford to lose in this country. We would be losing much more than just a little postage stamp or little parcel at the door. It is about the whole impact of it. Mention was made as well of all the other services which can be tied into it. We must support the post office network.

I thank the Regional Group of Independents and commend the Sinn Féin amendment as well. The postal service is an essential national and public service. Something we are looking at in the context of community development is societal value. We cannot look only at the financial value of everything. We must look at societal value and what is contributed to our communities.

Unfortunately, the post office network has been crippled by closures and cutbacks. This is not just a rural problem; it also affects many urban areas. In my constituency of Dublin West, we have a population of more than 110,000 people, yet we have only four post offices. We have seen massive growth and development over the past 20 years with new areas of growth such as Tyrrelstown, Hollywoodrath, Ongar and Pelletstown. We have not seen a single post office established in those areas, and in the past ten or 15 years, I think, we have lost one post office in the Corduff community in Blanchardstown. I have seen how a post office can regenerate a local community. In my own area of Mountview in Clonsilla, the post office has relocated to the local supermarket. This relocation, along with other improvements, has made a massive difference and has provided a new focal point for our community and especially for our senior citizens.

Sinn Féin fully supports the call of the Irish Postmasters Union for a public service obligation. It is something we have been advocating for over a decade. Simply expressing concern each time this issue is raised is not good enough from the Government. We must follow up this commitment with action.

Without urgent action we will see the demise of the local post office not only in rural areas but in urban areas. We cannot overemphasise the importance of the post office's societal value. That needs to be considered by the Government. I commend the motion and the amendment in our party's name.

I thank the Regional Group for tabling the motion. Private Members’ time is an important slot, and I would say that as I am in opposition, but when we see groups or parties use their Private Members' time, which does not come up that often, to bring some continuity to a debate, it shows how much that group believes in it. It is an important issue for this House and we need to discuss it as much as possible.

My brother-in-law is a musician and he is in a band. The band is pretty sensational and I am not just saying that as a biased family member. It is a band that has built up a not insignificant fan base all across the world in recent years. Like many artists and musicians, the pandemic has crippled the band members' ability to generate any income because they cannot tour. Even recording and getting content out is difficult. The one thing they could do, even to a small extent, was to continue with the trickle of merchandise their fans from across the world or here would order. My brother-in-law was in charge of the merchandise. Usually with a band like this, one whose members greatly value their fan base, they set up a table after a gig, sign albums and spend time appreciating their fans as they know that without their fans, as is the case for many artists, they would not have a livelihood. It was important for my brother-in-law and his colleagues in the band to ensure they were able to trust an operator to deliver their merchandise, whether it was to another part of Dublin or another part of the world, be it Toyko or South America, and whether it was a poster, an album or a tee shirt, ensure it would arrive safely. A decision was made that the only operator they could trust to do this was the post office. My brother-in-law developed an important professional relationship with the local post office. Every few days he would go to there with a clutch of merchandise and the band members would know that once the merchandise was handed over and its delivery from here to where the fans were based was paid for, they could trust that the packages would arrive safely. That link which they have with their fans, which could not take place over a trestle table after a gig any more, could continue and they would that have connection.

No other delivery service offers that level of trust and service. That is not to disparage any other group. We have all received packages from various courier firms. Some of them are fantastic and they will knock on the door and leave the package with a neighbour but some will throw a package over the back wall and not even send a text to advise that. One just does not know what the service will be but we know with An Post it has a proper service, back office follow up and tracking numbers and whether someone is in a band or running a company or a for-profit business it can be replied upon. We talk about various groups that have been impacted by the pandemic almost in silos. We will have a debate about the impact of it on artists, taxi drivers and the aviation industry and now we are debating the impact of it on the post office network but the longer this pandemic goes on, we can see the way they are all interlinked, that our economy and society are interlinked, and the way we rely on each other and how important various parts of our social infrastructure are. That is what our post office is. I do not know if an economist could put a price on that trust but if he or she could, it should be a high price. It is the hardest thing to build up and the easiest thing to break. A trust has been built up in our post office network, as in many of our public services such as the fire brigade service or Dublin Bus, and that must be protected.

While much of the debate on the motion is weighted towards the rural parts of the country, and that rings true because post offices have added import in our smaller and more rural areas, they are just as important in our cities and commuter areas. I live in a commuter belt. Our post offices are vitally important in Fingal. We have had campaigns to protect the post offices in Phibsboro, which is right in the centre of Dublin. These are vibrant and important focal points for communities all over the country. There are opportunities for the network. The IPU published the Grant Thornton report last year, which highlighted the opportunities that exist for post office service to grow and ensure it is sustainable. In that way when a postmaster retired there would be a clamour for people to make a pitch for the contract because it would be a viable enterprise for someone to get involved in. When people retire or age out of running a post office there is no one to take up the running of it. That is the reason many of our post offices are closing. The Government can stand aside and be passive, which is what is happening, and it can make soundings about how supportive it is and how important post offices are, but it cannot stand back and allow the number of closures to ractchet up year after year. We know that in 2021 a great number will close unless something is done. The Government has allowed post office after post office to close because it has not provided what is needed, which is direct State intervention. That would ensure these are vaible enterprises for people to take over and sustain in communities for further decades. A postmaster will be in a post office for decades. That is good continuity and what we want to support. That is where the trust comes from. People in communities throughout the country know they can rely on their post office. They know its hours of business and the workers and that they can get advice. Let us get the services into the network.

We all have a responsibility to use our post offices more. They provide services that people probably do not know exist. As was the case with my brother-in-law, when people are faced with a decision and their eyes are opened up to what the post office can bring, they use it and get an amazing service. It is incumbent on all of us to go that extra mile to support our post offices and ensure the existing services are used. Crucially important in the motion is the call for further services to be provided and a vision for the future of our post office network. If post offices are gone, they are gone and we will lament it for decades to come if we let them all go.

Post offices are a vital part of our communities, providing access to public services and supporting communities and small businesses. My small family business is wholly reliant on An Post. I cannot say enough about what an amazing service it is. It is one of the best in the country.

I thank the Regional Group for raising the importance of post offices again. I say "again" because we discussed the role of the network as a rural economic lifeline service back in October. There seems to be unanimous agreement on this issue. We all value the social and economic role of post offices, especially in rural areas.

Therefore, why are we having this discussion? We understand the importance of post offices. We are aware of the immediate issue facing the network and we have solutions. Why is the Government not doing what is necessary? In 2018, post offices moved to a new contract to modernise the service, involving a two-year transition, including payments, to allow new services to replace the consequential loss of revenue. According to the IPU, none of these additional services has materialised and the transformation payments are ending, leaving up to 200 post offices at risk of shutting down.

The research is clear. The Government must introduce annual PSO funding of €17 million. Not only would this intervention ensure the preservation of a vital community service, it would make economic sense with the network providing a social value of at least €344 million.

For an investment of €17 million, the Government can keep services in communities, keep businesses open and get a substantial return. When I suggested that we divert the more than €19 million given to the greyhound racing industry annually, I was strongly opposed by many Deputies, especially Government backbenchers. I hope they bring that same passion to the defence of post offices to ensure that the €17 million is provided.

With regard to motions and Bills from the Opposition, last October the Government was still proposing counter-motions, but since Christmas its approach has been to not oppose issues so it can safely say to constituents it is not against issues such as increased maternity leave and workers' rights. The Government now lets motions pass without following through. Issues such as the national maternity strategy or an independent beef regulator slip off the headlines until an Opposition group has to use its very limited time to raise them again. This cynical approach will not work for long.

Post offices need an interim solution immediately to replace the transformational payment and they require the public service obligation of approximately €17 million. This is a clear issue with a clear solution. It also highlights the importance of joined-up thinking. The Government’s recent rural development policy states that it is committed to a "sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas". With banks closing and bank branches in rural areas shutting down, post offices are needed as hubs for community banking. For rural areas with no broadband and cohorts of people who do not and never will bank online, post offices are a lifeline. They are essential. Yesterday, we discussed domestic violence. Post offices and credit unions which still carry out face-to-face banking provide additional protection against financial coercion and abuse. Later today, the Joint Committee on Disability Matters will launch its pre-budget submission stressing the rights of people with disabilities. Post offices are a vital local service where individuals with diverse abilities can access services and exercise independence.

All these points are connected. Post offices are vital facilities in rural and urban areas. They support businesses, bring people into towns and villages and ensure that public and banking services are available to as many people as possible. The Government has to preserve these social and economic hubs. The solution is there, but is there the will to do it?

It feels as if each summer, at least I think it is each summer, we reach the part of the Dáil session in which a motion to support post offices and keep them open is before the House. It has been a regular feature in the Dáil since I was elected to the House. Support for urban and rural post offices is shared across all parties and appears to unite all colours of political opinion. Every programme for Government states that it will support the urban and rural post offices. It is odd, therefore, that despite universal support, we are confronted yet again with a crisis in the network. Despite Fianna Fáil's and Fine Gael's support, post offices continue to close or to be threatened with closure even though we all know and eulogise the role they play in keeping local communities bound together. It seems we cannot save them. This is very odd. Everybody supports them and acknowledges the role they play and how vital they are to our communities. They are the centre and focus of communities, yet they continue to decline.

In 2016, when I was first elected to the Dáil, there were 1,100 post offices across the country. According to an Oireachtas committee, there are now 944. There have been many motions in the Dáil and all have been passed as far as I can recall. There were campaigns in counties Sligo and Kerry, west Limerick and parts of Dublin such as Rialto to keep local post offices open. Those local campaigners have been fighting for years to keep them. There have been many large campaigns because people understand the practical and social importance of the post office. Only last week, the post office in one of the oldest villages in Dublin closed. Chapelizod post office served a community that has a large ageing population, but hopefully in the next year it will have a new community in social housing that is to be built nearby, so this makes no sense. The postmistress was retiring, but looking for an alternative did not seem to be biting the bums of An Post management. The management is now saying that people who live in Chapelizod village and who need to access services must walk 1 km to Ballyfermot. There is no connecting bus service and the two areas are connected by a large, steep hill. That is not fair to older people, people with disabilities and young mothers with babies in prams.

I will repeat what I said in a debate on a previous motion in the Dáil. I contrast the efforts of campaigners and communities with the inaction and lethargy of the Government and the Ministers who are in charge and An Post. This closure programme is not inevitable, nor is it a natural phenomenon. It is the end result of a slavish devotion to neoliberal economics. The closure of 159 post offices in recent years was because they were not commercially viable as far as the management of An Post, the Government and the relevant Minister were concerned. The current threatened closure of perhaps another 200 post offices stems from the same logic and reasoning. I support the immediate payment of a PSO levy to keep the offices open and a replacement of the now-ended transformation payment, but that will not address the decline. When we discussed the previous rationalisation programme, we saw 150 post offices closed. The head of retail in An Post stated that up to 700 post offices were not commercially viable. There is an ongoing threat to An Post's contract for social welfare payments as this may or may not be put out to tender in the future. I do not accept that EU procurement rules make this inevitable. I believe such rules are repeatedly selectively used, largely for ideological reasons. That threat should end.

It is true that there have been and will continue to be changes in technology, along with commercial businesses moving away from smaller towns and social welfare clients switching to electronic money payments. It is also true that volumes of traditional post continue to decline. However, while some elements are outside our control, it does not follow that the end result is the mass closure of the post office network. Not every service or piece of infrastructure needs to be commercially viable to exist or survive. We do not demand that our primary or secondary schools are commercially viable or that health services are commercially viable. We choose what services and elements of our social and economic life we want to retain and nurture, regardless of commercial viability. If we believe it is important enough, and Members across the House believe this is important enough, we should save it.

We support this motion, as we supported all previous motions. We will continue to support the demand for a PSO levy by the State to keep these post offices open. However, I support the longer-term and wider aim of keeping and extending the network and seeing the post offices as hubs for local life in both rural and urban areas, which are not simply judged on their commercial viability. It is worth noting some of the statements from the Irish Postmasters' Union and revisiting some of the many reports produced over the years. The Irish Postmasters' Union commissioned a report from the consultants Grant Thornton. The consultants recommend that the State introduces an annual €17 million public service obligation payment. The report says that PSO funding models for post office networks have already been introduced in the UK, France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Finland and Poland, all with the approval of the European Commission. Why does the Government not follow this model? The Minister should address that.

The report also states that the post office network remains a highly valuable national asset and contributes far more to the economy than the cost of the PSO. The annual social value of the post office network is from €334 million to €776 million. Some 28% of the population, a not insignificant 1.3 million people, continue to use the post office every week, including for the distribution of €4.6 billion in social welfare payments. It makes no sense to any Member of the House that this closure or run down of an essential public service, which is what it is, is continuing. An Post financial supports are unsustainable in anything but the short term.

It is essential to establish alternative funding options to maintain a sustainable future for the post office network and for postmasters. We support both the motion and the amendment from Sinn Féin.

We now move to the Rural Independent Group. There are four speakers who have two minutes each. The first is Deputy Michael Collins.

I thank the Regional Group for putting forward this motion, which we fully support. The Post office network is facing collapse due to Government detachment. Our Rural Independent Group has seen a depressingly familiar fight against the Government’s failure to protect rural post offices. The serious warnings by the IPU about the inevitable collapse of the network and up to 200 branch closures are being ignored by the Government, despite it controlling the entire issued share capital of An Post. Tangible State intervention is now needed to combat the potential raft of further post office closures. From 1 July 2021, 875 postmaster operated offices face a major challenge due to the reduction of approximately 20% in State payments. Instead of the Government trying to channel new State services to the post office network, as promised in 2018 and as sought by the IPU, it is cutting existing services. Therefore, the demise of the network lies firmly at the door of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government.

In 2016, my colleagues and I in the Rural Independent Group tabled a motion calling on the Government to commit to a strategic five-year holding plan for the post office network, while also working on new modernisation roadmap to support the roll-out of new services and ensure financial viability. At the time, we warned that Government inaction would result in the complete demise of the network. Now, five years on, the network is facing even more significant challenges, due to the complete failure of this and the previous Administration to do anything meaningful to combat the demise. Such gross incompetence by the Government is letting everyone down. The main casualty will be the rural and regionally-based postmasters. Rural communities across the country will again be hit hard by this negligence. We need direct Government intervention immediately. The time for pondering and self-observation is long and truly over. Direct financial intervention is needed, together with a longer-term economic strategy, to ensure survival. I know that in rural post offices down in west Cork, letters have been sent to their local shop to try and take some business for them. This is a scandal and it needs to be stopped.

I commend the Regional Group on bringing forward this motion. Deputy Naughten did what he could, which was a lot, when he was Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I have been in the House since 2007 and I am like a bad record talking about post offices. I believe the Minister, if I am not wrong, was a postmaster. I could be wrong, but the Minister should understand this. There is a greater problem here, which we have had with big companies for decades. We see it now with all the big delivery vans for all the different big companies travelling up and down boreens and roads and blowing the mirrors off people’s cars. The drivers are under such pressure to deliver all of this stuff. It is destroying everything local. This has to be part of a great, big plan. Of course, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and now the Green Party, and the powers that be, will not change. It is obvious. I have come to that conclusion. I salute from the bottom of my heart na fir an phoist and the mná an phoist, the postmasters and postmistresses up and down the country who do a gallant job under such pressure. I have question marks around the union and the grubby deal its representatives did. It was a con-job. They were conned by the Government to sell out communities. They had no authority to deal on behalf of the public, so they did. Now that they have their cake, are they going to eat it? This is a perilous situation. I believe that it is part of the greater plan to close down everything small and everything beautiful in our own communities. Ní neart go cur le chéile. People work so hard. It is sad for Deputies who came up through that vein of community service. They are coming in to vote down motions like this, or they probably will not have any vote. They will not support this motion. This is strangling and suffocating anything that is small, wonderful, beautiful, and that has connectivity with the people. Na daoine óga, na daoine aosta, na daoine beaga, ordinary people simply want a modicum of services and they cannot get them. This is affecting urban as well as rural areas, but mostly rural. What is going on here is a shame. It is all about control, control, control to get rid of people off the land altogether.

I am delighted to be able to speak on this motion. I commend the Regional Group on bringing it forward. We spoke on this issue ourselves only a few weeks ago, when we held a press conference outside of Leinster House. This issue needs urgent attention. There is much talk and gestures from Government and many references in the programme for Government about supporting our post office network. However, this has not been matched by action. The post office network, in rural and urban areas, is facing significant challenges, especially with the average rate of payment falling by 20% since last week. The Bank of Ireland branch services that have been in operation in some post offices are also in danger. We want action from Government so that they provide the additional range of services that were promised to post offices as far back as 2018. The Government parties must step up to the mark. They must protect our post offices. They must provide them with support to help them to remain viable within communities, particularly rural communities, where small businesses also depend on the post office network. There are many communities, as I know from my constituency of Laois-Offaly, where many banks have closed in the community. All that is left now is the post office. I am calling for the Government parties to please put their money where their mouth is, make sure that supports go in, and that the range of services that have been promised since 2018 are put in place. I also appeal to constituents to please continue to use the post offices. Communities should avail of post offices, because we need to make sure that Government does not use any excuse to close our post offices. We are fortunate in my community to have a post office in Kinnitty, County Offaly. We want that retained and maintained.

First, I want to sympathise with the families of two young boys who were killed in our county last night. My thoughts go out to the parents, sisters, brothers and families that have been left behind. Their lives will never again be the same. May God give them the strength to carry on and continue with their lives in the best way that they can. It reminds us of what true loss is. While we are here today to talk about post offices, tragedies like this are a terrible infliction on families. I hope that the little boy who is very hurt recovers.

We are now being told that there will to be a 20% cut in State payments to post offices. That will signal the end of many. Post offices only ever wanted more work. Direct Government intervention through a PSO of €17 million is needed to ensure that our post office network stays intact. Some 281 have been closed in the past decade in 25 of the 26 counties. I need not name the county that was not affected. It is ironic to hear the Labour Party Member regretting the closure of the post offices. When they were in power from 2011 to 2016, they closed 218 of them. All that postmasters want is more work. They could deal with motor tax, licence renewals, registrations, identity verification and community information. When the country was broke and we had nothing, we had post offices, Garda stations and GPs in every parish. Deputy Griffin talked about the local improvement scheme for rural roads. We only got enough money for ten roads in County Kerry this year out of an application list of 697.

I have to ask the Deputy to conclude-----

Rural Ireland is being left behind and I do not want any more post offices closed. I applaud the Regional Group for bringing forward this motion as we did previously. We are letting what we have go. It is way easier to keep something than to let it go and try to bring it back again. This is what will happen to post offices.

I thank the Deputy. We now move to the Independents group. I call Deputy Catherine Connolly. There are eight minutes in this slot.

There are three speakers and I am taking two and a half minutes. I thank the Regional Group for tabling this motion. I fully support it. I thank them for their persistence in coming back again to table the motion nine months after the previous one.

The motion is very succinct and to the point. Nobody could disagree with it. I thank the group for that.

I will add my voice to it. It has been said many times. I represent Galway city, Connemara and right up to south Mayo. I am very familiar with the importance of the post office network, not just to rural and urban areas, but also to the city. I use the local post office on Father Griffin Road on a regular basis. It is absolutely essential. If the Government is serious about revitalising rural areas, then this is croílár na faidhbe or croílár an réitigh. It is part of the solution to sustainable living in rural areas.

Reference was made many times to the Grant Thornton report, which sets out that post offices provide crucial social, economic and administrative services to communities in rural Ireland. I could go on but I will not because it has all been said. I just wanted to reinforce it. When the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, published the Department's Indecon report in December 2019 on the evaluation of the concept of community banking in Ireland, he said that An Post plays an important part in the local community banking sector. With regard to the network, 52.7% of An Post branches are located in areas where there is no bank branch within 5 km.

I find it very difficult that we are here again with another motion. If we are serious then action must be taken. We should look on this as a positive challenge: how to reinvigorate and make the post office network sustainable. It is part of the solution, and not just in providing extended services where we have reduced competition with banks. It is part of a positive response to many things arising from climate change and from the pandemic, where we must do things differently. If we have learned anything, we have learned that we must rely on social cohesion. This is the best example of social cohesion that I know, where we go into the post office on the basis of solidarity and where excellent services are provided.

I commend the Regional Independent Group for bringing into the Chamber this Private Members' motion on the post office network.

Post offices provide a crucial nationwide service, and especially for older people and those in more rural and isolated areas. There are 875 post offices operated by postmasters, and 46 operated by An Post. This is a truly national service and is unlike any other. Services provided by the post offices are crucial to those who are offline. This essential network should not be allowed to wither away or die out. I fully support the need for an interim initiative by the Government as outlined in the motion, and which was promised by Government in 2017. There is a need, however, for a longer-term solution. I spoke in the Chamber last week in the debate on the future of banking where I raised proposals put forward by the public banking forum for the development of a public banking system as an alternative to the private banks that are closing down branches and essentially withdrawing from the more rural areas. The public banking forum advocates that 300 credit unions, itself a strong national network, should be the basis of ten regional community-owned banks, working in co-operation with post offices and other community organisations. These banks would have a strategic remit to invest locally, developing the economy on a regional basis. This would be crucial to rural and isolated areas, and would give the post office network a real future.

I wish to speak in favour of the motion. I thank the Regional Independent Group for bringing forward this important motion. It is a mark of Deputy Naughten's commitment to the post office network, while in government and in opposition. I share that commitment. I supported a Government from 2011 to 2016 that was under a lot of pressure to close post offices. A lot of politics was played with those post offices. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Carey, will be aware that no post offices were closed during that period of time in Clare, despite many efforts to rationalise the post office network.

The post office network is particularly important across rural Ireland. There is much talk about banks leaving rural Ireland, but they are private entities. They were to be replaced with one-stop-shops, and post offices were to provide services to replace them. In places such as Tulla, for example, where the Bank of Ireland branch is mooted for closure, the obvious place to replace it would be the post office in Broadford, but that too is mooted for closure. There has been a lot of talk about supporting post offices, but little action from the Government. In the Minister of State's reply, I would very much like to hear what concretely will be done to sustain the post office network.

I agree with the Government that there are possibilities and that there is no cloud that does not have a silver lining. There are possibilities arising from the rationalising of the bank's network, but I do not necessarily see that the post offices will be in a position to avail of those opportunities. Consider the ATM networks, for example. Many of the ATMs are inside the post offices but we need 24-hour access to ATMs and to have them outside. This has security and insurance implications. Financial provision may have to be made for post offices to be able to provide that service.

I thank the Regional Independent Group for bringing forward this well-balanced proposal that outlines how we can help to sustain the post office network. The reality right now is that 900 postmasters are facing a significant drop in income. The Grant Thornton report said that €17 million per annum is needed to ensure viability of the post office network. However, An Post is speaking of investing some €8.5 million over 18 months. This is about 40% of what is needed. If that happens, as sure as night follows day, some post offices will close.

I will not call on the Government to save our post offices. That will not work: just like the call to save the west, although appropriate in its time, will no longer work. Like the regions, the post offices do not need sticking plaster solutions and they do not need saving. They need Government investment and Government intervention so that the post offices themselves can provide the services to their local communities that those communities need and want. That is what will ensure the viability and the long-term sustainability of the network. It is not about saving the network, it is about providing real opportunities to help them grow their business and provide greater numbers of services.

Agency banking provides opportunities but there is no clarity around proposals from Bank of Ireland. That is urgently needed. It cannot be a cheap way to provide banking services. That will not work. We need to look at the development of financial services outside the existing banking framework. Public banking is important here. The extension of online and offline services can play a role.

Our post offices need viable business plans so they can be self-sustaining. That is the only thing that will help to guarantee their future.

I call the Minister of State, Deputy Troy.

I do not see Deputy Crowe.

The Acting Chairman can shout for him.

Absolutely. We will keep an eye out for him.

I sincerely thank the Regional Independent Group for submitting this Private Members' business today. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I want to put on the record of the House that I am a postmaster myself. It has been in my family for many decades and many generations. I know first-hand the challenges faced by the post office network. I thank the House for the opportunity to contribute to the debate today.

There is no doubt about the important role that An Post and the post office network play in our society, from the social and economic perspectives in urban and rural areas. This was never more evident than during the lockdowns over the past 18 months where the importance and resilience of the post office network was clearly demonstrated with An Post keeping its network of over 900 post offices open during every single day of the pandemic and did not close for one day, ensuring the continued distribution of cash to the economy and playing an important commercial and societal role in the communities in which they operate. An Post has also played a key role in enabling small businesses to trade online during periods of lockdown. My two local postmen often had to do multiple trips to the parent office to collect, given the volume of parcels that was being distributed in the last 18 months.

A range of initiatives through An Post and post offices have helped local communities, the elderly and the vulnerable. All of this has been made possible by the commitment of postmasters and the staff of An Post. I take this opportunity to commend those staff today. I saw newspapers, groceries and, in some cases, pensions being delivered. Staff were extremely flexible and it is a great opportunity to commend all who played such a role in that.

The Government is aware that the pandemic has had a significant impact on businesses and their employees, including essential services such as post offices. Postmasters have seen significantly reduced footfall over the past 18 months, resulting in lower transaction levels, which has a corresponding impact on postmasters' earnings.

The motion notes that from 1 July post offices face a major challenge as a significant reduction in payment rates will take effect relating to the end of the transformation payments provided to postmasters under an agreement which was reached in consultation with and with the support of the Irish Postmasters' Union, the union which represented postmasters in 2018. The agreement was not foisted on anyone; it was reached through consultation. In response to this it is welcome that An Post is proposing a pandemic support fund for postmasters to assist post offices in recovering from the pandemic and continuing the transformation strategy over an 18-month period. An Post will fund this to the tune of €8.5 million.

In order for businesses to survive, it is most important that they adapt to the realities of the day. They also need consumers and customers to support them. I am not saying this about anyone in this House, but it would be interesting to note how many people pay their bills through An Post or use its credit cards or bank accounts. That is how we will support our post offices, namely the communities they have supported through the years supporting them in turn.

An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products in new formats. These include diversifying and growing the financial services products it provides. Many spoke of the new arrangements with major banks, a full range of State products and launching the green hub, which includes providing end-to-end project management and money saving advice for all levels of home retrofitting. I have engaged with the CEO on how An Post could play a role in providing credit facilities to SMEs because there may be another opportunity there.

An Post and the post office network continues to offer choices to its customers. While people who use the post office may prefer to use cash for weekly budgeting and money management, An Post is increasingly appealing to and attracting a new cohort of customers who transact in a cashless manner and want An Post to offer online services.

A lot of work has been done over the past four years to develop the network and this has had a positive effect on postmasters and customers. The ongoing transformation of the company aims to ensure the commercial viability of An Post which will, in turn, facilitate its continued fulfilment of its mandate to ensure a mail delivery service and viable post office network.

I believe that An Post, working together with postmasters and the Government, can ensure the network can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community focused services. We want a sustainable post office network that is available to urban and rural citizens in the medium and long term.

The Government continues to provide significant business to An Post through the Department of Social Protection and I will use this opportunity to call on the Department to dissuade from encouraging people to have their payments paid through electronic funds transfer. The Government provided a loan of €30 million to An Post in December 2017 to support the renewal of the post office network. An Post has received an investment loan of €40 million from the European Investment Bank to finance innovation and modernisation projects.

In March this year, the Government agreed to the establishment of a subgroup to explore the potential of a one stop shop approach, including the identification of suitable services. That draft report has been prepared and I want all options presented in it considered in a timely fashion to ensure that every effort is made to give effect to the Government's commitment to ensuring a sustainable and viable post office network for many years to come.

I am glad to be able to speak to this motion. I bow to the expertise of the previous speaker, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, whose family has given a lifetime to the postal service and post office network. It is important that we work very quickly to bring about a medium to long term solution for the national post office network. The community and politicians, including the Acting Chair, fought the good fight for many months but on Monday morning a stepladder went up, the screws were taken out and the sign which had been over Broadford post office for 190 years was taken down. The service is gone.

An interdepartmental working group is working on a more long term solution to tide over the sector. It concerns me that its work and reporting to Government does not perfectly align with the current payment regime to postmasters that is concluding in the month of July. There needs to be an acute urgency to this.

Fianna Fáil has a policy group and has repeatedly pushed for a public service obligation. This was identified by the Grant Thornton expert report in 2019. It would cost around €17 million to ensure that all 900 post offices in the post office network would be sustainable and operational this year and into the future. That needs to be in the mix. It concerns me that at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications the chief executive of An Post, Mr. David McRedmond, spoke about a Covid payment over the coming months. That stipend is coming in at a time when we are trying to emerge from Covid. Most sectors have been supported throughout the pandemic, but An Post seems to be introducing this plan at the very end.

As I said to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, every effort should be made to reopen the four post offices that were closed during Covid. In Broadford, a member of the postmaster's family was unwell and the family decision to retire was seized upon by An Post as an opportunity to close the post office. We need to examine specifically such cases.

I refer to PostPoint, which are small units in shops where people can buy stamps, weigh a parcel or complete small transactions. It is being offered time and again as an alternative and proper solution to replace a post office. It does not work to any great extent, in particular in a rural environment. Speaking of Broadford, if it was to be introduced as an alternative to the post office the financial return for having it in a local shop would be about €1,500 per annum. That does not pay and it is for that reason that the whole model is in danger.

State intervention is urgently needed. I welcome the work underway by Government. It cannot be concluded soon enough. I ask the Minister of State to examine the four post offices, including Broadford, that closed during the Covid pandemic. They need special examination.

The last time I spoke on this issue during a Private Members' motion I pointed out that too often the State, through its policymakers, can tell us the cost of everything but the value of nothing. The retention and resourcing of the regional and rural post office network is more than just a commercial consideration in terms of Government policy. It is a demonstration of actions being louder than words in terms of supporting regional and rural Ireland.

Other Deputies have outlined the challenges facing the network and the value of the network. Despite the move to online transactions, over 20% of customers wish to use the face-to-face services in An Post. Despite the many promises from Government to support the network by referring to Department business and transaction fee income, this has not happened and the Government has not been to the fore in pursuing this agenda. The recent agreement reached with An Post to provide 18 months of support to the tune of €8.5 million to the network is somewhat welcome, but it is a long way from the €17 million identified in the Grant Thornton report.

It begs the question as to what it is the Government wants in terms of the post office network. Does it want a purely private commercial concern with no public or community service obligation?

It is projected that this €8.5 million will only serve to cushion a network unit loss averaging 10% to 15% of the turnover of each post office unit. Postmasters are rightly up in arms because the Government is lauding them for their efforts but not providing any resourcing.

How is the rural regeneration of Ireland to happen and be sustained if we are not to have any banking or post office networks on our streets? When will the Government correct this ambiguity? The Government has not delivered on promises to support offline services through the post office network. If the Passport Express option returns to the post office network, most of the business will already have migrated online.

The Government convened a subcommittee on motor tax services that was supposed to report at the end of July but will not report until September. The vaunted Bank of Ireland association will deliver at most €500,000 in revenue to the network this year and perhaps €1 million in the following year. This will do nothing to shore up the finances that are required. I can suggest two initiatives that will facilitate both the Government and the post office network. Where pandemic unemployment payments are being discontinued and recipients are returning to jobseeker's payment, the Government should mandate that those payments are processed through the post office network. That could deliver between €3 million and €4 million to the network but would also give Government control of fraud measures by ensuring recipients must be in the country to collect.

Rural post offices should be segmented. Those with a smaller hinterland could be supported by a retainer fee of €5,000 to €10,000 per year. Value for that money can be provided by directing government services through those post offices. That responsibility and onus should be put on individual Departments. It would ensure the problem would land where it ought to, that is, at the door of Government Departments.

The retention of a post office network in towns and villages is a fundamental requirement to building back better. We are doing a lot of talking about that but it appears to be all we are doing. The State is the best positioned and probably the only actor which can provide initiatives and frameworks that both support and enhance the national post office network. A continuing hands-off approach by the Government to this situation is giving two fingers to the regional and rural people of Ireland who pay taxes and contribute to the well-being of this nation. The time for glib platitudes is over. It is past time for the Government to show intent to the retention and regeneration of a national community-based post office network. Further Government indolence will not rescue this situation but future Government-directed funding will.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and thank my colleagues for tabling it. I also thank the Government for accepting it. Every time a Government Minister comments about An Post, he or she makes the point that it is a commercial semi-State company with a mandate to act commercially and that it has statutory responsibility for the State's postal service and post office network. That statutory role needs to change and must incorporate an offline avenue for all government services. The post office network is the only State-controlled network with a footprint across the country to provide such a service. Since the emergence of Covid-19 in March 2020, access to many government services has been restricted for those who do not want to or cannot use the online digital options. Throughout the pandemic, our post office network remained open.

It is long-standing Government policy that postal services are not directly subsidised but no one is asking for that. The Government has, in fairness, been focused on supporting An Post in the roll-out of new services and in the delivery of the strategic plan. However, part of the agreement regarding voluntary closures that was made with postmasters in April 2018 was that a subsidy would be put in place over a three-year period to allow An Post to put new and additional services into the post office network and that the State would roll out services across the network. No State services have been provided in the past three years and the Government is now looking at the feasibility of directing services to the post office. We have seen during the pandemic the important role that the post offices have played. We have also seen the potential of An Post to develop new services and yet here we are, still talking about the feasibility of it.

In January of this year, the Tánaiste published Ireland's national remote working strategy. One of its objectives was to provide a permanent option after the pandemic for 20% of Government and public sector employees to work from home by the end of 2021. How in God's name can that happen if we are still operating counter services and paper forms that must be physically inputted? We can provide that service if the post office network becomes the offline option for front-of-office government services. We can provide that option for many more public services.

The difficulty is that the online service does not work for everyone. I will give one practical example. You cannot renew your motor tax online unless you have an email address. There are hundreds and thousands of people across this country who do not have an email address. Should they be excluded from government services because they do not have an email address or cannot use the technology? The reality is that taking services offline and directing them through the post office network would eliminate costly, paper-based notices and transactions. I have outlined this in detail in a case study relating to the roll-out of the property tax. We need decisive action from the Government to support rural communities, vulnerable people and our vital post office network.

The Government published a report on the provision of offline government services on foot of an interdepartmental group that was established in 2018. The report was produced in 2019. Lo and behold, at the end of the process, the conclusion was to set up another interdepartmental group to look at the issue. Why is the support of our post offices always just one report away from action? The reality is that such a policy approach was taken prior to my appointment as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment and it nearly led to the collapse of the post office network and the company as a whole. Yet here we are failing to learn from the mistakes of the past, continuing the political dithering on this matter. We need urgent action. We are committed to bringing this matter back to the House again and again until we see action to support this vital network across rural and urban Ireland.

Amendment put.

The division will take place during voting time this evening.