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.