That Seanad Éireann:
notes that an efficient and speedy postal service is an integral part of a competitive economy;
is deeply concerned by the 247 post offices that were closed down from 2002 to 2006 and the further 15 closed up to July 2007 and the knock-on effect in rural communities of such closures;
notes that it is rural parts of Ireland that are suffering most in terms of delivery time;
acknowledges that many of Ireland's EU neighbours, such as Belgium, Holland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Austria, Britain and Poland, have a 90% plus rate for next day delivery services;
takes note of the target set by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, of 94% of letters to arrive by the next day and An Post's 2007 target of 80% for next day delivery services;
is deeply concerned by a recent survey, carried out in September and October 2007, that found only 72.8% of letters arrived the next day, and another survey carried out by ComReg in April, May and June 2007 that found that 78% of mail arrived the next day;
and calls on the Government
(i) to seek an improved timetable from the management of An Post for delivery services and to prioritise plans for better organisation of collections, sorting and delivery services; and
(ii) to seek assurances from An Post management that essential services provided by post offices nationwide are maintained.
I welcome the Minister to the House. We need an efficient and speedy postal service as an integral part of a competitive economy if we are to compete with our mainland European neighbours and our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom. Time is of the essence. There cannot be a time lag. We must compete on a level pitch for the sake of all our businesses. People now need quick and immediate responses.
A survey on the postal service was published in the Irish Examiner last week. During September and October batches of ten and 11 letters were posted by representatives of the newspaper at ten locations throughout the country and the times taken to reach their destinations were recorded. The following key results were found. More than one in four, or 27.2%, of the letters arrived late. Only 78.8% of letters arrived the next day, which is short of the ComReg target of 94% next-day delivery. One-fifth of letters posted in cities arrived late, compared to 22.8% in rural areas. Almost two in five letters addressed in Irish were late compared to one in five addressed in English. If we seek an international comparison for these disappointing figures, we find that the British Royal Mail delivers 94% of letters the next day, even if posted in this country. Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Austria all have 90% next-day delivery. Ireland, by contrast, is on a par with Greece, France and Lithuania, with 70 to 79% next-day delivery. It is surprising to see France in that batch, but that is not a reason to be happy with it.
We should also pay attention to the results of an MRBI study carried out at the request of ComReg which operated during the period January to June 2007. From one place to another in this country, despite the target of 94%, only 78% next-day delivery was achieved. From Dublin county to anywhere in the country, compared with a target of 94%, the rate of next-day delivery was 79%. From outside Dublin to anywhere, the rate was 78%. It should be noted that the rate of next-day delivery improved by 4% in the first quarter of 2007, which can be attributed to a better industrial relations environment at An Post than had previously been the case. That is to be welcomed. However, there is still major concern as the figures are just not good enough.
Also of note is the poor performance of mail posted outside of Dublin for delivery to addresses in Dublin county, only 72% of which is delivered next day. Some 76% of mail posted outside of Dublin, and 79% of mail posted in Dublin, is delivered next day. We all have anecdotal evidence of unsatisfactory delivery. For example, I was able to get a helpful public official in Cavan town to send out a cheque to somebody 15 miles out the road who was in particular need on a Friday of last week but that person did not get it until Tuesday, which is a hardly acceptable.
As our motion notes, it is rural parts of Ireland that are suffering most in terms of delivery time, but it is a nationwide difficulty. It also notes how we compare unfavourably internationally. Our motion calls on the Government to seek from management in An Post an improvement timetable for delivery, collections and sorting.
The second objective of this motion is to express our concern at the fact that 247 post offices have closed between 2002 and 2006. A total of 399 post offices closed between 1997 and 2007. I list the number of post office closures in each county because of their importance: Cork, 50; Clare, eight; Kerry, eight; Limerick, 21; Tipperary, 29; Waterford, five; Cavan — which is my county and that of my colleague, Senator Wilson — 21; Donegal, 23; Monaghan, 14; Carlow, five; Dublin, 20; Kildare, six; Kilkenny, seven; Louth, 12; Laois, seven; Longford, six; Meath, 11; Offaly, eight; Westmeath, 19; Wicklow, ten; Wexford, 16; Galway, 20; Leitrim, 18; Mayo, 31; Roscommon, 12; and Sligo, 12. In total, 15 post offices were closed this year between January and July.
The closure of a post office is damaging to a community. The post office is a focal point in any community. It should be noted, and An Post can take heart from the fact, that there is a favourable perception of the post office in every community and it is an important focal point.
One of the questions I want the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to answer is the number of post offices that are limited to what they can provide owing to lack of computer systems. Are there many post offices which do not have computer systems and consequently are so limited that they cannot process the volume and are closing owing to this chicken and egg dilemma?
I recommend the following steps to keep post offices open. There needs to be more publicity for them and more positive advertising. The Government must become proactive in assisting in this necessary process of raising the profile of post offices. The people need to be educated on the value, importance and use of the post office. We must encourage people to use the facility more, thus keeping them open by their actions.
We should welcome, as I do, the launch of Postbank. There will be a new banking system in the post office, undertaken in partnership with Fortis Bank which is a genuine leader in the European financial services industry. This Fortis Bank banking system provided through post offices must be supported by people. I recommend to An Post that it deploy high profile advertising and that this be used as an opportunity to rejuvenate post offices and bring back business. It can be used as an opportunity to renew the profile of post offices in communities.
The social welfare payments system must remain with post offices. I understand there will be some level of review of that. The position must remain unchanged.
Government must be proactive in support of post offices gaining any business that can be passed to them. Any State facilities and services that can be administered through the post offices should be so done.
There is potential for putting Internet facilities into post offices so that young people may use them, and this should be explored. They could possibly have a cup of coffee in such small local Internet cafes which would bring a throughput of people to post offices.
I am happy to state that An Post reached a profitable position last year. However, the remuneration for postmasters, at approximately €6,000 with the rest conditional on earnings, is too low in a modern context and should be increased with a view to providing an incentive to hold on to post offices.
There are a number of challenges facing An Post. Obviously, a major challenge in 2011 is deregulation. The maintenance of the universal service obligation will become a particular challenge in the context of deregulation in 2011. An Post rightly has an obligation to deliver post uneconomically in certain isolated areas where people have a right to their post and to every facility available. In those areas delivering the post is not economically viable and yet there is an obligation on An Post to do it. An Post must subsidise such delivery and that will become especially difficult in the context of deregulation. Therefore, I recommend to the Minister that the Government act strategically and consider ways to assist An Post in the context of deregulation. I realise there are prohibitions in European law on direct aid to An Post in a deregulated context but the Minister must be imaginative in every way to assist An Post.
The objective of the Fine Gael motion is to decry the Government complacency and inaction over the years as the lights in post offices were switched off. Our further objective is to condemn Government inaction and complacency in the face of serious difficulties with delivery time. It is for this reason we cannot accept the amendment which further indicates a Government out of touch, tired and arrogant in its response to our fine motion. Any suggestion that it should be amended in that way, taking away its essential meaning, could not be accepted. I appeal to the Government side to reconsider its position and accept our reasonable motion.