Post Office Network.

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to the House. However, if this matter were to be given the consideration it deserves, it would be necessary to have not only one but several Ministers present. I realise, however, this would not exactly be in keeping with practical and procedural constraints.

For a serious review of the post office network to be carried out by An Post and the Government, it is necessary to bring an interdepartmental perspective and input to any deliberations, to facilitate the maintenance of current provisions and the putting in place of add-on services. To date, the Government's attitude to the future of the post office network shows a complete disregard for this bedrock of the rural community. I strongly condemn its callous lack of care for postmasters and postmistresses, many of whom have seen generations of their families run a local post-office, and for their customers who rely on the practical and social services which they provide. The postmasters carry out their duties in what now have become dangerous conditions.

On the Government's watch, more than one quarter of post offices have closed. The entire network faces collapse due to declining business and the possible loss of social welfare payments. Hundreds of Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, members earn less than the minimum wage, with 135 members earning salaries below the poverty line. Some 400 members are paid less than the legal minimum wage and 35 members have an income of €8,200 per annum. Forty-four postmasters have closed their post offices since the start of 2006 and over 300 have closed in the past six years. IPU members work 41.5 hours, five and a half days a week. In my own area approximately 25 postmasters earn less that €17,000 per annum. What other group is expected to accept such poorly paid employment, yet risk their safety on a daily basis?

Despite the threat to the livelihood of postmasters and the loss of a service to rural areas, the Department of Agriculture and Food has advised people to draw their agriculture payments through banks and building societies, ignoring the post office network. Maintaining a viable postal service is vital, but it is essential that add-on services be considered as part of the overall strategy. Where closure is necessary, it must be on a structured approach eliminating the current haphazard closures. While post offices are socially essential they must also have a public service obligation. The provision of an adequate network, both rural and urban, must take place against the backdrop of deregulation and increased competition, in line with the public service obligation which other European countries are providing.

A cost-effective, efficient, reliable next-day delivery service with the necessary electronic upgrading is the least the public can expect. However, the closure of too many post offices will weaken the system, making add-on services less viable. Closures have already seriously damaged the network. Now is the time for proper planning to protect our rural post offices both for the postmasters and postmistresses who are the backbone of the service and the people who rely on the availability of such services.

The perceived exploitation of postmasters and postmistresses is a matter of grave concern. They cannot be expected to continue to subsidise the post office network to the detriment of their own livelihood. The Irish Postmasters Union has deferred its Dublin march, planned for today, until after 28 February to facilitate ongoing negotiations. I sincerely hope these negotiations will bring about a better deal for these hard-working people who have been ignored by the Government for too long.

The attitude of the Government to the ongoing problems of the postal network may best be summed up by the Taoiseach who, in reply to a question by my colleague, Deputy Durkan, on the status of the Postal (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2001, said he believed it had fallen off a truck. I certainly would not treat these hard-working people with such flippancy. Neither would my colleagues who called for an extensive debate on this issue this afternoon.

The Minister ended his speech to the Irish Postmasters Union conference in 2005 by observing that a strong, viable An Post is the best guarantee postmasters and postmistress can have for the future. He repeated these words at the 2006 conference. Is it not time that he and his Government gave up on words and concentrated on delivery? I would welcome a positive response from him.

I repeat that a strong, viable post office network is the best guarantee of a future for postmasters and postmistresses. That is the commitment we gave in our programme for Government and it is precisely what we have delivered in the last ten years. Although the organisation of the post office network is a matter for the board and management of An Post, the programme for Government clearly sets out our commitment to the objective of securing the largest and most economically sustainable nationwide post office network possible. We have backed up that rhetoric with our actions in government.

The An Post post office network comprises the single largest number of retail outlets in the country, consisting of 986 automated post offices, 371 non-automated post offices and 171 postal agencies. In addition, An Post has also established 2,991 postPoint outlets in retail premises throughout the country, of which 609 can be used for bill payment. In the European context, Ireland still has one of the highest number of post offices per head of population, with 4.2 outlets per 10,000 inhabitants compared with a European Union average of 2.7. This is a testament to Government support for the service in the last decade and in the longer term, since the foundation of the State. Research commissioned by the Irish Postmasters Union in 2006 confirmed these figures.

Some network restructuring has been undertaken in recent years, and this activity is in line with similar trends across Europe. On a national basis, 80% of the post office network is situated in rural areas, that is, in settlements of fewer than 1,500, and serves 40% of the population. To ensure the continued viability and size of the network, it is essential that all efforts are made to build on its intrinsic strengths in terms of nationwide reach, high customer footfall and strong relationship between postmasters and their customers.

A key step in this regard is the automation of the network, with just under 1,000 outlets conducting more than 95% of post office business. On foot of this large-scale investment in the computerisation of the network, involving an investment of €13 million by the Government, the company has also had success in securing business growth in its contractual arrangements with AIB and Western Union, for which it sells gift vouchers, and in respect of the payment of Garda fines and various bill payment facilities. However, automation alone will not bring in the business required to support the network. The challenge for the company is to develop a strategy that satisfies the needs of existing customers, while attracting the new customers who will allow it to maintain as large a network as is viable.

It was to this end that the Government gave its approval last September for An Post to enter into a joint venture agreement with a Belgian bank, Fortis, to set up a retail banking business. One of the first points I made to An Post management when I became Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources was that it should seek new opportunities, including those in banking and financial services. I offered it every encouragement to do so and, in fairness, it responded strongly. The joint venture with Fortis will entail the provision of a range of financial services operated through the post office branch network, using the An Post brand and other An Post assets. Key to the Government approval of this joint venture was that it not only offers a genuine opportunity for the growth and development of An Post and the post office network but that it will, in time, greatly benefit the income streams of postmasters.

The venture is being developed at a crucial time that sees the An Post network facing several key challenges in coming years, including the possible migration of the bulk of its business to other payment channels. Another challenge for An Post is its reliance in terms of revenue for the network on certain Government contracts, including social welfare payments, and the National Treasury Management Agency's retail savings products. Some 65% of An Post's business is Government business. I understand agricultural payments are paid directly by the Department of Agriculture and Food to recipients. Any decision to alter this arrangement would be subject to the proper tendering procedures.

Social welfare payments continue to be paid via the post office network. The reality, however, is that increasing numbers of people are choosing alternatives to the post office because of the convenience of electronic fund transfers. Moreover, the European Court of Justice is examining the contract of the Department of Social and Family Affairs with An Post. The Advocate General to the court recently issued her opinion that the contract that An Post holds with the Department should have been advertised. The court is expected to rule on the case shortly.

The introduction of full electronic fund transfer functionality is envisaged as part of the new financial services joint venture between An Post and Fortis. The Government remains committed to the long-term viability of the post office network and sees the successful implementation of the An Post joint venture as a tangible opportunity to develop the business necessary to maintain the viability and current size of the network. Like all businesses, however, if An Post and its network are to prosper and grow, it must adapt to the demands of its customers and place delivery of quality services as its primary focus and objective.

I join Senator Bannon in acknowledging the role played by postmasters and postmistresses in the provision of services through the years. It was for this reason that I asked Mr. Eamon Ryan to facilitate talks between An Post management and unions to find a way forward. I am pleased both parties are talking. I said at the beginning of this particular campaign that the postmasters and postmistresses would be better inside talking rather than outside shouting at the other party. I am glad they took that advice, as did An Post management. I hope the ongoing talks will come to a successful conclusion quickly.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me again to highlight the crisis facing the post office network. We are all aware that 300 post offices have closed in the past two years. What action will the Government take to prevent the closure of more rural post offices? This was not addressed in the Minister's reply.

I rule that it was addressed.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.40 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 February 2007.