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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 21 Nov 2007

Vol. 187 No. 20

Postal Services: Motion.

I move:

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.

I second the motion so ably proposed by my colleague, Senator O'Reilly. EU postal markets will be open to full competition in 2011. This involves a two-year extension from the original date of 2009 and I hope the extra two years will prepare Europe's postal monopolies, including An Post, for the competition in the marketplace which will undoubtedly come.

Most segments of the market, such as parcel and letter deliveries above 50g, have already been opened to competition but the standard letters segment, which is the most lucrative segment of the EU postal market, has not been, except in Sweden, Finland and the UK which at this stage have fully liberalised their postal service markets. An Post has stated that it is ready to take advantage of the opportunities offered by postal liberalisation, and I hope the company is correct. It will certainly face tough opposition in the future from pan-European operators such as Deutsche Post in Germany.

The fact that, on average, 78% of mail posted in the period from 1 January to 30 June last was delivered next day suggests that An Post has some way to go to reach the 90% plus target for next day delivery services, as is the case in Belgium, Holland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Austria, Britain and Poland. One of my concerns about the recent ComReg report is the major variation in the results between different mail flows. It suggests there is a problem in ensuring that the people in rural areas get the same level of postal service as that provided in Dublin. Has any decision been made yet on how the cost of the universal service obligation will be met? An Post accepts it will have to compete with companies coming here to cherry-pick profitable areas but in reality can An Post be expected to cross-subsidise loss-making areas where it will be required to serve out its universal service obligations? That question must be addressed.

In 2005, the Government, through the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, committed itself to introducing postal codes by January 2008. What is the current position regarding that commitment? It will not be introduced by January 2008 as promised but I urge the Minister not to delay any further and introduce that system at the earliest possible opportunity. A well-functioning and cost effective service is good for business and the rollout of a postal code system would speed up the sorting process and allow for a more reliable postal service. I am aware the chambers of commerce of Ireland are keen to see this system in place and I would welcome the views of the current Minister on that subject. Is it another promise gone by the wayside or what is the position regarding that commitment given two or three years ago?

My other colleagues will spell out the cost to communities of the closure of so many post offices nationwide. Are we likely to see more closures in the not too distant future? It is my information that another batch of closures is imminent and were merely put off until after the general election.

I welcome the fact that An Post will continue the arrangement with the Department of Social and Family Affairs for social welfare payments, which is of paramount importance. It is a major part of the business of post offices and it is essential that they expand their services into other areas such as banking and other aspects of postal services to keep post offices open and viable.

I ask the Government to withdraw its amendment to the motion as I believe both sides would wish that An Post would stand up to the mark, provide the best possible postal service for its customers and maintain the essential services our post offices provide nationwide. We all want An Post to succeed. We all want the best possible postal service and the protection of the workers in An Post by having a strong, viable service and an expansion of services for post offices in the coming year.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:


the Government's commitment to a nationwide postal service which ensures all customers, both business and residential, have access to a high quality, competitively priced postal service;

the progress made to date by An Post in respect of its recovery strategy and change programmes as the key factor underpinning improvements in quality of service;

the commitments in the Programme for Government on improved quality of service and the maintenance of a strong and viable post office network;


the role of ComReg in setting and monitoring An Post quality of service standards;

that the universal service obligation and An Post's role as universal service provider are enshrined in legislation,

and commends

the improvements in next day delivery levels achieved in postal deliveries;

An Post for securing new business for the post office network, such as the payment of Garda fines, utility payments, AIB banking facilities and theE-parcels card;

the approval by Government to the launch of Postbank;

the progress made by An Post management and unions in the implementation of change programmes in order to prepare for the challenges posed by liberalisation and electronic substitution; and

the commitment of the Government to the post office network in terms of the arrangement with the Department of Social and Family Affairs for social welfare payments and with the NTMA for retail savings products."

At the outset I want to acknowledge the presence of two members of An Post management in the Visitors Gallery. I welcome them to the House.

Senator O'Reilly referred to deliveries. In the past five to six years, major industrial relations issues arose in An Post but there has been a vast improvement in that respect. An Post is a shining example to other companies in the way the union works with management in a partnership arrangement and puts the customer first. The union is aware that if the customer is not put first, everybody in the company, management and workers, suffers.

As a national service provider with a long and proud tradition of public service, An Post has a strong interest in what happens in rural as well as urban areas. I am a former employee and trade union official of An Post and I have some affinity with the company.

An Post is currently dealing with the issue of the provision of services under its universal service obligation, the equally significant issue of the European Union led liberalisation of the postal services and the ever present matter of meeting important commercial imperatives. Each of those issues is as relevant to its activity in the urban area as they are in the rural environment. For many years there has been an inexorable move away from rural areas to urban areas, even allowing for a strong underlying growth in the population.

The statistics outlined by Senator O'Reilly are correct but considerable improvements have taken place since. I did my own survey here and asked Deputy Kelly about the postal service in Longford. He said it was tremendous and that his postman was a great ambassador. He said he meets him every morning and he has a smile on his face. He said it was a terrific service. Incidentally, Deputy Kelly, at a past meeting with An Post management and the unions, told the union leader that he should be managing the company and that came about. The union leader at the time is now a manager in Eircom, and An Post had a manager who is now a very good union leader. That is to be applauded.

Last year for the third year in a row An Post reported profits at operational level of €14.7 million. During 2006 it processed up to 3.5 million items of mail each day, a figure which rose to 8 million per day over the Christmas period. That was made possible by increased automation which enabled mail to be sorted automatically down to route level. That was a major improvement in efficiency and productivity.

A postman, particularly in a rural area, is often the only person in touch with people who live on their own. We should never forget that. He is a vital part of the community. The rural transport initiative managed by An Post has developed a model tailored to meet the needs of communities that collects people at their doors and brings them to shops, banks, etc. The progress made by An Post management and unions in the implementation of the change programmes to provide for the challenges posed by liberalisation and electronic substitution is to be commended.

The European Commission took a case against Ireland on the basis that the awarding of the contract of the social welfare distribution to An Post was not in accordance with EU laws. The service is vital to post offices. An Post has provided a good service and I welcome that the ruling provides security for An Post, its workers and its customers. I am pleased that the European Court of Justice ruled that Ireland did not fail in its obligations under community law. How much time have I remaining?

Industrial relations within An Post are a shining example to other countries. The general secretary, Mr. Steven Fitzpatrick, takes a keen personal interest in the welfare of his union's members and the progress and development of the company and its service to its customers. Since his appointment, he has put forward plans and ideas for progress and development instead of making management prod the union into activity. He is capable of weighing the pros and cons of any project or idea. To kill the company's initiative would reduce its competitiveness and lose customers. Mr. Fitzpatrick keeps in touch, is a skilled negotiator, heads off trouble and ensures that none of his union's members suffers a reduction of income as a result of changes in structures or work practices.

We should give An Post a chance because it has had a difficult time in recent years. Considering prevailing industrial relations, I do not doubt that with co-operation between unions and management, the situation has never been as good. I checked this fact with the union. While I worked there, we struck for 19 weeks and no one spoke to us. Thank God that type of situation does not prevail and that unions have come a long way in the past 20 years. Union members are aware that if they do not provide a service to the company, there will be no company, management or staff. If customers are lost, the knock-on effect is the loss of staff and union members.

I commend An Post on its progress. That progress will continue and the public will get a more satisfactory service, but a number of problems remain. For example, a man contacted me last night concerning the whereabouts of his regular postman because someone else had started delivering the mail. One cannot go into a bar and ask for the regular bar staff. They must be off work some time.

I wish to share time with Senator Norris. He is only willing to take two minutes.

The clock is ticking.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State and this debate, as a discussion on An Post is good. It was interesting to listen to Senator Brady speak from experience, as I have experience also. I was chairman of An Post and its predecessor, the interim board, for ten years from 1979 to 1989. I have tended to avoid speaking about the postal service in the House because when one leaves a job, one should keep one's mouth shut in case one appears to be second-guessing the people who follow.

I want to speak on this motion because it is seriously confused in two ways, including its presentation of the postal service as an integral part of a competitive economy. The truth is different. With each year that passes, the postal service is falling further away from the mainstream of our economy. It is and always will remain an essential part of our infrastructural backbone, but it is no longer a key success factor. In today's world, the importance of next day deliveries is not as great as it once was. Nothing that is time-sensitive is sent by post. Yesterday, we learned that important information in Britain was sent on an assumption, but such a situation will not recur.

While I regret that An Post has not met ComReg's targets, this failure is not crucial to the economy, as the real problem in communications is our continued failure to deliver broadband across the country. This issue has a real economic impact because our failure will hobble our economic future in a meaningful way. To bleat about next day deliveries in a situation where the scandal of broadband continues shows a curious sense of priority.

The confusion in the Fine Gael motion relates to the issue of post offices and arises through regarding it as a business issue when it is a social issue. We will only solve the problem when we face up to the reality that the post office retail network cannot be justified in purely business terms. We must recognise that rural post offices are a crucial part of a social framework and are vital to our society in a way that they can never be as part of An Post's business.

During my time as chairman, the question of post offices was every bit as hot an issue as it is today, but people would not face up to the realities anymore than they do today. An Post was given an uncompromising business mandate to run a postal service efficiently and to make it pay. This mandate was the death knell of post offices. In serving the mandate, I presided over the closing of a number of post offices. Every closure broke my heart and the heart of the villages in which they had been located, but I had no option. If one insists that a postal service pays its way, with which I have no quarrel, while supporting elements that are not viable in business terms, one is asking for the impossible and will not get it. That was true in the 1980s and it is true now.

In the past generation, some of the key anchors of our rural life have disappeared. The village school tends to be a thing of the past, which is regrettable, but one can understand if people want to be educated in larger schools. The local rural Garda station is becoming a thing of the past. I have my doubts about the wisdom of this, but I can understand the economic pressures that force such closures on the Garda.

However, the local post office is different. Its continued presence becomes even more important as the schools and the Garda stations close. In many cases, it is practically the only glue holding a small rural community together. To lose the network of remaining rural post offices forever would be nothing short of a national tragedy.

It is inevitable that such will happen as long as we insist on regarding the question in purely business terms. If one expects An Post to pay its way, the death of the post offices is inevitable. If one regards the post offices as performing an important social service that one wishes to preserve, the way to do it is clear, namely, one must support the post offices by a national subvention quite apart from the business revenue that An Post can raise from the network. As a nation, we can only preserve our post offices if we are prepared to pay for them. Are we prepared? We should focus our attention on answering this question.

Senator Brady touched on an issue. When I joined An Post, I was told that I could never change the aspects that were wrong because of people with bad habits, etc. That advice was incorrect. As soon as the shackles of Civil Service control were removed, those people became entrepreneurs. They became customer-minded and the very people who could make a financial and customer service success of An Post. We must find a way to ensure the rural post office network survives without necessarily expecting it to compete on business terms.

When watching the start of the debate in my office, I found it to be unbelievably dreary with no passion to it. There was a little spark from Senator Martin Brady because he spoke of his experiences as a postman.

Senator Quinn, to whom I am grateful for sharing his time, speaks with some authority on the matter as a former chairman of An Post. He spoke from the heart and said virtually what I wish to say in defence of post offices, particularly rural ones. My grandfather, who was a distinguished scion of an old Gaelic princely family and was swindled out of most his land by relatives, had many jobs including auctioneering and being the local postmaster.

That is from where the Senator's decency comes.

His post office was the hub of his local community in County Laois which it remains to this day. When debating hospitals and the need for centres of excellence, politically every Member will stick up for his or her little backyard. However, in the case of the rural post office such a demand is justified.

While we worry about the flight from the land, if we leave no social organisation in rural areas what should we expect? I was delighted to hear a successful businessman like Senator Quinn state that as chairman of An Post he was given a brief to make it money and to make it pay. He has argued that cannot be done while retaining it as a social service.

It must be a social service. Elderly people in rural communities receive their visits from the postman. Often, they will go to the local post office to collect their pensions even though it can be done electronically and letters can be sent by e-mail. Visiting the rural post office entails meeting neighbours and hearing the local gossip. Sometimes the local post office can be a little huckster shop where people can get milk and teabags. It is a vibrant part of society, part of what we are as Irish people.

All of us, including myself, I am proud to say, have one foot in the bog. We should not forget this and not abandon the life so characteristic of this country. We cannot abandon the elderly who need this facility. I strongly support Senator Quinn's arguments on the social element to the post office network.

I urge the Government to ignore the political toing and froing across the floor of the House with Members trying to score party political points. Members must think of the post office workers and the value they give us. We must also think of the social infrastructure it provides.

Last Sunday Gay Byrne on Lyric FM had a request from Attymass in County Mayo, a town which he used to visit. Its post office will be soon closing down, an event of which we often hear. The elderly couple who ran it are retiring but there is no replacement.

I congratulate An Post on the wonderful philatelic items all Members receive.

I am mildly surprised at the tabling of this Private Members' motion, not that anything in politics should surprise me. The tabling of the motion is badly timed, considering the potential to improve An Post's services and the post office network.

That is what we said on this side of the House.

This comes a week after the European Court's decision that social welfare allowances should be paid through the post office network. That decision was hard fought for and many thought it could not be won, especially with the impending onset of the EU directive on postal services. That it was won shows the potential for how the one-stop-shop concept, particularly for rural post offices, can be developed.

Are the Greens selling post offices now?

The wording of the motion should have provided an opportunity to have a more open and consensual debate on the future of the postal services.

The Senator should read the motion.

I read the motion. It concentrates on post office closures, the diminution of services and the failure of delivery within set times. It is negative throughout.

It is anything but negative.

It does not highlight the potential of the post office network.

The network is very good.

If Fine Gael wishes to be taken seriously as a potential party for government, it should have put forward a broader vision for the postal service, how it would use it to its maximum potential and how the service, which has served us well since the foundation of the State, can adjust to change and the new EU directive. Sadly, I have not heard this in the opening contributions or through the motion.

The Government's amendment is correct in calling for the debate to be placed in a wider and more positive context. The positive moves such as the arrangement with Fortis Bank and computerisation must be acknowledged. I accept there has been almost a bidding war about which locations should receive a computerised service. However, there should be a general political commitment on the overall computerisation of the post office network. All possible services should be offered locally in as many places as possible on the island of Ireland.

The motion refers specifically to the closure of 247 post offices in recent times, 50 of which were in County Cork.

The figure is 399.

Many of these closures were decided on commercial grounds and population levels. That is not necessarily how these decisions should be made. Ideally, I would like the Government to examine the possibility of a rural services Bill. It should not be the case that a service in a rural area must be justified by population level and viability. No citizen should have to live more than a certain number of kilometres from services such as public transport, a post office or a fire station. If there were a legal or a constitutional requirement in that regard we would justify our role as legislators and public representatives.

This is particularly true of the post office network which offers the largest amount of person-to-person service which is needed, particularly in isolated areas. We cannot concentrate on the rationalisation that has already occurred. Instead we must identify the future of the network and how existing post office services can be enhanced and upgraded. Most of the rationalisation decisions made by An Post related to sub-post offices. It we heed critical mass and economies of scale in rural communities, post offices must provide certain services to a certain number of people at any given time.

These are the quality decisions of which we, as legislators, must inform An Post. It is a stand-alone body and we cannot be responsible for its day-to-day operations or its general policy. However, I hope my Green Party colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, who is responsible for the general operations of An Post and accounting for it to the Oireachtas, will take on board much of what was said in this debate. I also hope he takes a broader view than the spirit and wording of tonight's motion.

An Post has achieved much in recent years. Not so long ago its management and staff were at loggerheads. I am glad to see that day has gone, that management and unions are working together for the good of the company and that any changes to its practices are implemented after discussion between both groups. More, however, needs to be done. The company has reached 78% of its projected 94% of next day delivery and hopes to bring that to 80% by the end of the month, which would be welcome.

I am more concerned about the impact of post office closures throughout the country. In the past seven years the number of post offices has decreased from 1,800 to just 1,300, corresponding to a closure every five days which has had an impact on rural services. An Post is one of the largest retail chains in the country, larger than AIB and the Spar network. There is one post office for every 3,000 people.

An Post adds so much to our society that it would be the death of some communities if their post office closed. One third of all post office business is based on social welfare. Post offices are an essential part of daily life in rural Ireland. As Senator Norris said, people go to them for a chat, to pick up local gossip and hear about local events or the local football team. In many parts of the country the post office is the last community service because the pub and local shops have gone. People from all walks of life regularly use the post office, from children starting their first accounts to parents collecting child benefit and elderly people collecting their pensions. Some things are worth paying for and if it requires additional subsidy to ensure this essential community service is retained throughout the country, then the Government should provide it.

Sceptics say that with the advent of e-mail there is less need for postal services, but international comparisons show that is not strictly true. Use of the postal service here has increased by 8% over the past two years while the volume in Denmark has decreased by 1% and in the UK by 2%. We have the second highest growth rate in Europe, which shows that people continue to use the service. The amount of post despatched from the Houses of the Oireachtas shows that it is an essential form of communication.

The EU deadline to ensure an open postal market is only a few years away and we need to know how the Government will respond to this. Attempts at privatising other sectors has caused problems because in some cases it has not been adequately thought out. We have time to ensure any liberalisation of the postal market can be properly implemented. We can also learn from other countries. In the UK the privatisation of the Royal Mail led to significant problems. New entrants to the market did their own sorting which increased the complexity of delivery mechanisms throughout the country. As a result, the charging rates in the UK may in future be based on distance rather than volume. We need to know what will happen to the post box at the end of the street and who will be responsible for next day service. We need to ensure any changes to the universal service obligation are well thought out.

I saw a report in the newspaper a few weeks ago that An Post is reviewing the cost-effectiveness of the universal service obligation. We need assurances this obligation will remain. I would be interested in the Minister of State's views on that review. The Labour Party suggested introducing a postal industry regulator or adding this function to ComReg. We need to consider regulation to ensure the interests of the consumer are protected.

Post codes are a mid-20th century mechanism for sorting and delivering post. Other methods are available, for example, the Garda, ambulance services and pizza delivery services use new technology such as geodata.

I thank the Acting Chairman but I hope he will be as lenient with me as he was with Senator Norris whose two minutes were more like five. I will be brief.

We must take advantage of all technological developments to improve sorting and delivery services. The opening of the market could pose some threats to the future of the postal service. I urge caution because we can learn lessons from privatisation in this country and liberalisation in other countries.

My local postman is one of the only ones in the country who delivers all of his letters by bicycle every day. A recent TG4 programme followed him for a few days to show that he goes up and down every road on good and bad days delivering the post by bicycle. He is one of the fittest and happiest postmen in Ireland. He told me that he is happier delivering on the bicycle than in a car and if given the choice he would continue to deliver on the bicycle. His name is Seamus Mulligan.

Every year more than 3,600 An Post staff deliver more than 75 million items of mail to 1.3 million homes and businesses from more than 4,500 post boxes and 1,395 post offices nationwide using 2,900 vehicles, including the bike to which I referred. More than 1,000 staff process mail for onward delivery while 1,000 post office clerks at post office counters provide customers with an ever-increasing range of products and services. In addition, more than 1,307 post office contractors employing a further 1,000 staff provide post office services in dedicated outlets and within large retail outlets throughout the State. A further 162 individuals operate postal agencies for An Post while PostPoint agencies exceed 3,000 nationally.

An Post is in the process of a major countrywide quality initiative geared to delivering and improving on its service. A target of 80% for 2007 was set and agreed with ComReg and 72% was achieved in 2006. At present, a level of 78% has been reached and new figures are due at the end of November. A major three year programme has been agreed between An Post and ComReg with the objective of increasing this level to 94%. Inbound international targets were set at 84.4% in 2006 and 93.3% for 2007.

Mail in Ireland has seen an 8% growth in volume between 2006 and 2007, which reverses the international trend. The TNT system is down 4.4%, Deutsche Post is down 3% and Royal Mail is down 2%. Up to 1 million items are sorted per night by postal staff around the country and we should recognise the great work the postal service does for us in delivering messages daily. Members of An Post's management are here this evening and they are very welcome.

Of the 1,450 post offices in Ireland only 90 are directly staffed by An Post and the rest are operated by self-employed contractors. People are quick to criticise An Post and other companies when they want to distance themselves from blame. Post offices may be closing around the country but when a post office in my constituency of Port na Blath closed some years ago, not due to cutbacks but because the postmaster was retiring, I contacted the chairperson of An Post, Margaret McGinley. The company began local negotiations in an effort to obtain an alternative service provider but was unsuccessful because nobody was willing to take up the service. An Post provided a post box that was subsequently criminally damaged. The company replaced that post box but it was damaged again so it is now unwilling to replace it unless a safe place is found for it. I agree with An Post in all of its decisions in this case because they were made due to the retirement of the postmaster and postmistress who may now enjoy the fruits of their working lives. It is easy to point to closures in general and use general figures but we must remember that there are also specific cases.

The post office network is critical in rural Ireland and the local post office, where people can drop by for a chat, offers a focal point for many communities. I welcome the ruling of the European Court of Justice last week that social welfare payments by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, delivered through the postal service, will not be interrupted and will be allowed to continue. This will be of major benefit to the many recipients of social welfare payments across the country and it will be of advantage to An Post in the delivery of other services. The Postbank system referred to by Senator Boyle is also of major benefit and means all post offices nationwide will, effectively, operate their postal services while dispensing social welfare receipts and providing a top of the range, international standard banking system. We should welcome this initiative and the ongoing commitment to An Post of Fortis Bank, which is an international financial services provider engaged in banking and insurance.

I support the Government's amendment to the motion because we must support An Post in its work and in the targets it has set with ComReg. There is scope to extend the role of the ordinary postman and we should consider allowing the him act as a conduit in collecting data for the electoral register.

We could give a statutory basis to the pivotal role the postman plays in providing social fabric for the elderly population of rural Ireland through assistance and daily calls. If the postman was given extra resources to make a call to every house on a daily basis, rather than just those he must visit with the mail, it would provide a sense of security to the elderly and the Department of Social and Family affairs could examine this.

I support Senator Boyle's proposal to have a rural services Bill enacted in the Houses of the Oireachtas because it would be hugely beneficial to rural Ireland, including my county of Donegal, to set its needs on a statutory footing. I wish An Post well because I know what it is trying to achieve and I feel we must support the company. Last week's ruling in the European Court of Justice will assist the Government and An Post in reaching out to the pensioners of Ireland and those in receipt of social welfare.

E-mails and texts are providing new types of competition to postal services that we have not considered and people are no longer sending letters as they would have in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Competition is greater yet letter delivery has increased 8% in the past year and this is to be welcomed because it shows the confidence people have in the system. Reference has been made to snail mail but people are still using it instead of the Internet and other methods of communication.

I support the Government's amendment to the motion, though the Opposition's motion is to be welcomed because it allows us to have a wide-ranging discussion on the postal service and on proposals for its future. It also gives us the opportunity to welcome the work An Post is doing and make reference to its efforts, in conjunction with Departments, to provide much needed services in rural Ireland.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The motion set out by my party highlights the importance of the postal system to our nation and, lest there be any misconception, this side of the House supports and endorses the work done by employees of An Post in the distribution of mail and all of that company's ancillary activities. As Senator Hannigan said, post offices are closing at the rate of one every five days. The total number of closures is 399. We cannot hide from this fact and the vision of this motion is a post office system in Ireland that provides an excellent service and a social network for many around the country. Like Senator Ó Domhnaill, I would like to see An Post used in the reform of the electoral register as it is in a complete mess.

I will not take lectures on the spirit of this motion from the Deputy Leader of the House, Senator Boyle. I regret that he is not here to listen to me because the comments of Senator Boyle highlight the Government's abdication of responsibility for post office closures as shown in the different surveys that have taken place. I will debate with any person in this House on the post office system and its services. Does Senator Boyle seriously expect me to believe he supports the closure of post offices in Cork city, specifically my area of Bishopstown? I do not believe he does.

We are all agreed that an efficient postal service is necessary for our society. Senator Ó Domhnaill observed that our affinity with our local postman remains as strong today as it ever was. In my own area, we have probably the best postman in Ireland in Vincent O'Brien. Like Senator Ó Domhnaill's postman in Donegal, he is courteous, good humoured and has a word for everybody. He delivers the mail with a smile. For many elderly people, their exchanges with him may be one of the few social interactions they enjoy on a daily basis. He is a wonderful ambassador for An Post and it is a pity there are not more of his kind. Perhaps the Taoiseach could use him and others like him as models in his active citizenship programme.

The closure of post offices, whether in urban or rural areas, is a challenge that must be confronted. In Cork city, we have seen the closure of the post offices at Dennehy's Cross and in Bishopstown, which were amalgamated into one large office in Wilton shopping centre. One can travel large tracts of both rural and urban areas without encountering a post office. DeputyLucinda Creighton told me today that post offices have been closed in Rathgar and Terenure. Senators Norris and Quinn referred to competition and viability. However, the social value of postal workers and post offices must be highlighted. Senator Quinn referred to the hardship caused in communities when post offices are closed.

This debate is focussed on the integral nature of the post office system to all communities. Like Senator Brady, I pay tribute to Mr. Steven Fitzpatrick, who has an excellent letter published in today's edition of The Irish Times. We on this side of the House acknowledge that there have been improvements in the postal service. Investment has been made and the workers have agreed mechanisms, often at their own costs, to improve the service. An Post workers cannot be faulted by any stretch of the imagination. However, we are living in a changing Ireland. Do Government Members contend it is fine for 399 post offices, 50 of them in County Cork, to be closed? It is easy to envisage our main streets becoming like high streets in other countries, without a post office. Is that what we want?

I welcome the European Court of Justice's important decision on the usage of post offices. As Senator O'Reilly observed, the issuing of social welfare payments brings people into post offices. The European Parliament, meanwhile, has postponed a decision on competition and liberalisation. My colleagues and I would welcome a rural services Bill and I challenge Members opposite to bring forward that. We should have a debate on the challenges facing rural life, which might focus on the role of the post office as a vehicle to galvanise communities. Those of us who traversed highways and byways throughout the State before the Seanad election will testify that post offices in rural areas were a place to stop and ask for directions or to seek some other type of assistance. I recall a postmistress in County Clare — the Minister of State's constituency — who had a loaf of bread, a pint of milk and a copy of the Irish Independent on the counter. She was thrilled to meet us and to provide directions. The workers of An Post have helped to build and sustain communities.

We must modernise the provision of postal services. Other speakers referred to banking and Internet facilities. There is no reason that post offices cannot provide Internet café services that would attract locals and immigrants alike. Competition is inevitable in the coming years. How is An Post management preparing for the inevitable liberalisation of the market? Will there be job losses? It is important that we protect workers' rights.

In commending this motion, I emphasise the importance of improving the delivery of services and supporting workers. We must confront the challenges posed in the face of competition from new communications technologies and other sources of distribution of mail. I am disappointed by the comments made by Senator Boyle on the tone of the motion. It calls for a positive enhancement of the postal service.

I have no doubt if the management of the transport of 12 million names and addresses were left to An Post, the article would arrive on time and to the correct recipient. While we are sorry our neighbour is experiencing difficulties with its postal service, we take pride in our own.

The Government is committed to a nationwide postal system that ensures all customers, both business and residential, have access to a high-quality and competitively priced service. The progress made to date by An Post in respect of its recovery strategy and change programmes is a key factor underpinning improvements in quality of service. This reflects the commitment in the programme for Government to improved quality of service and the maintenance of a strong and viable post office network. It is clear that the Government is strongly in support of the national postal service.

An Post has a long and proud tradition of public service and a strong interest in what happens in rural as well as urban areas. The company currently deals with the provision of service under the universal service obligation, the equally significant issue of EU liberalisation of postal services and the ever present matter of meeting important commercial imperatives. Each of these is as relevant to An Post's activity in urban areas as it is in the rural environment.

There are several reasons to commend An Post. Its workers do a wonderful job. As many speakers said, each of us has established a rapport with our postmen. In many cases, they remain the centre of communities that have changed in many ways through the years. The postal service is a perennial feature and its reliability is something we have come to expect and appreciate.

I commend the improvements in the next day delivery levels achieved by An Post. I commend the company on securing new business for the post office network, such as the payment of Garda fines and utility payments, the provision of AIB banking facilities and the introduction of e-parcel cards. In addition, the Government has approved the launch of Postbank. I commend An Post on the progress made by management and unions in the implementation of change programmes to prepare for the challenges posed by liberalisation and electronic substitution. In any instance of liberalisation, there must be a level playing field. This means that any potential supplier must provide services in both rural and urban areas in order that An Post is not at an unfair disadvantage.

The commitment of the Government to the post office network is clear in terms of the arrangements with the Department of Social and Family Affairs for social welfare payments and with the National Treasury Management Agency for retail savings products. An Post has become significantly more than a provider of postal delivery services. It has expanded its capabilities. I am thinking about Komplett, a leading European e-commerce business with Internet shops in ten countries. Last year the company received an order every 36 seconds through these shops. For the Irish market, all orders are shipped from a warehouse based in Holland and the company's goal is to serve the customers, naturally, in the best possible manner. An Post is a strategic partner here and the company has noted this arrangement has improved the quality of distribution. Customer satisfaction has also improved.

Another concept which might not come to mind so quickly is DVD by mail. Screenclick is Ireland's leading DVD mail order company, bringing customers' favourite films directly to their homes. The business is entirely dependent on an efficient delivery partner for rental and returns. An Post has delivered large quantities of these DVDs with no slowdown in service and a quality on-time delivery.

Another e-business is Shopdirect, with more than 100,000 customers across Ireland. The company supplies everything from clothes to cameras. An Post provides the direct mail solution for most of the products, with unrivalled delivery.

We can see consistent improvement in the financial statements and profitability of the company, as well as diversification. I am sure I speak for many people in the Oireachtas in that I am delighted when I receive from An Post, on a regular basis, beautiful stamps. A member of my family has become an avid collector. We receive these gratis and they are of a very high standard, encompassing many aspects of Irish life.

I thank An Post for this, particularly the staff, who have played a strong leading role in the many years of economic development we have seen. I am delighted An Post has diversified so significantly into banking and e-payments to ensure its business continues to grow and move with the times. We should protect this through legislation and look to grow the company by ensuring it has a level playing field.

Before I make a few brief remarks on the motion, I will briefly respond to Senator Boyle's comments from earlier in the debate, when he criticised the Fine Gael motion. He indicated it was mainly negative and no concession was made to positive achievements that have undoubtedly occurred in recent years.

There is a funny dilemma here for us as Senators because nobody could think it is the Opposition's job to sit down and work out ways of congratulating the Government on every aspect of its work. That is hardly Senator O'Reilly's job in the context of promoting a debate in this House. It is the Opposition's entitlement — some would argue its bounded duty — to identify aspects of Government policy or activity which require debate or criticism.

It is a bit rich for Senator Boyle to come in here and turn on the Opposition — as he has done on previous occasions when he was right to seek a consensual approach to issues — if one considers the Government amendment. If the Fine Gael motion is all negative, which I do not accept, what can be said about the Government amendment? To read that amendment or to listen to some Government speakers, one would think nothing is wrong with the postal service. The executives of An Post listening to this debate, particularly the Government Members, must be embarrassed by some of the laudatory remarks and contributions.

It is of course accepted on this side that improvements have been made and excellent people work within An Post, including its management, but it is our duty to point out what could be improved and where difficulties lie. It is odd that Senator Boyle should indicate, for example, that due account has not been taken of a recent European decision which has brought changes, and that this should have been included in the motion. Why was the motion not amended to take account of that?

The Leas-Chathaoirleach will appreciate I am new to this process and I have some difficulties in getting my head around how business is sometimes done. If Senator Boyle or other Government Members felt the European decision was missing from the motion, why did they not amend it in that regard? Instead, every week on Wednesdays at 5 p.m., if we have an Opposition motion in Private Members' time, there is a Government amendment which is almost laughable.

I realise that is the procedure of this House, which I do not denigrate, but the amendment always proposes the deletion of the words "after Seanad Éireann" and replaces all the bullet points with text detailing how incredible everything is in the service we are discussing.

Today it is An Post.

We should get real on the issue. If the Opposition is to be called to account for, in the Government's view, going too far in its criticism, the Government speakers must be called to account for some of their hyperbole. It is nearly impossible to take seriously some of the comments heard in these speeches.

A very important point was made relatively early on in the debate by Senator Quinn. As other Members have pointed out, it was particularly compelling coming from him as he has been successfully involved in business and understands the market and mechanisms of the marketplace. I respectfully agree with and reinforce his point that the market, as we know, does not and cannot solve everything.

Our post offices are more than businesses and must be seen as more than simply businesses. We must keep an eye on the financial viability of services, and people in this House should understand services must pay their way. Ireland and the places around it are changing. As this happens, the heartbeat of the community, the post office, is one of the last focal points existing in many communities throughout the country.

There has been a heavy emphasis in this debate on rural Ireland and I do not have any difficulty with people noting the changes affect rural Ireland more than anywhere else. We should not forget that the local post office is sometimes equally as important in urban, and particularly suburban, Ireland. In such cases the focal point of the community is the post office. One may argue there are other services available but we understand the post office is a place to go and a focal point for people to meet. There is almost a sense of an informal surveillance, although not in a sinister way. Those who run the post offices can understand very often what the issues are in the community, what is happening, who is up, who is down, who is around and who is not. It performs a community and social service, the value of which is incalculable to our society and well-being.

It is important that we, as Senator Quinn rightly indicated, see this as more than simply a business but also as a vital focal point in the community. I emphasise that significant changes have taken place in rural Ireland and the loss of a post office has a serious effect, but we should not forget suburban Ireland.

I worked in broadcasting and it interested me when people used to write into radio programmes about isolation in rural Ireland. I recall a person from one of the older inner suburbs of Dublin writing into a programme on which I worked, pointing out that loneliness and isolation is not confined to rural Ireland and can be just as debilitating and serious for a person in a city. The remaining focal points we have, with the post office at their heart, must be supported.

We should think of ways and encourage An Post to formulate innovations to expand the use of post offices, as other Members have said. We could integrate more functions into the post office, be they places like coffee shops or IT-based services. We should see both rural and urban post offices as part of the village square of the 21st century and we should support the service in future.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí a labhair ar an rún tábhachtach seo. Is oth leis an Aire Ryan nach féidir leis bheith i láthair ach tá sé páirteach i gcruinniú na Comhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas inniu.

The Government recognises the critical importance of having a nationwide, reliable, efficient and competitively priced postal service. It has set out in its programme the clear objectives of much improved next-day delivery rates and the maintenance of a strong, viable post office network which reaches into every community in Ireland and which properly remunerates all those involved in it. Senator Reilly asked about the postcode project. It is set out in the programme for Government and work is ongoing to quantify the full benefits and costs involved.

The economy and society at large also need a strong and vibrant postal service in light of the many internationally traded sectors operating in the country. There is also, however, a need for An Post to be competitive. In this regard, there is universal agreement that change is required if the postal services offered by An Post are to adapt to the modern business environment and to continue to offer a top class nationwide delivery service to the customer into the future.

Like all businesses, if An Post is to prosper and to grow, it must adapt to the demands of its customers and place delivery of quality services as its primary focus and objective. The Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, in its role as regulator of the postal sector, is responsible for the monitoring and measurement of levels of service to be achieved by An Post. It also is responsible for setting target levels and, in this regard, has set a quality of service target of 94% next day delivery for An Post.

We accept that An Post's quality of service has failed to meet the required standards. An Post management has accepted this reality and knows there is a long way to go before it achieves acceptable levels of service. However, its programme of action to improve its standards of service, conducted over the past two years, has begun to bear fruit. A 78% next-day delivery rate was recorded for the first six months of this year, up 5% over the same period last year. Levels are set to improve for 2007, with 80% target levels achievable by year end.

To maintain this rate of momentum, the company recently put in place a special initiative that is set to achieve ComReg's target of 94% incrementally over the next three years. There is no doubt this is a significant challenge for An Post but, if the company is to prosper, it will need to meet and be seen to meet the required service standards. Furthermore, to incentivise An Post to reach this standard, ComReg has said that no future price increases will be granted until such time as An Post reaches a satisfactory level of service.

The timeframe for meeting these standards will coincide with the period leading up to 1 January 2011, the date now set for full market opening of the postal sector in Ireland. It is therefore of the utmost importance that An Post improves its levels of service to place itself in a prime position to compete successfully with existing operators and new entrants into the market and to remain the operator of choice.

The protection of the universal service will remain important in the context of a fully liberalised market. As enshrined in EU and Irish law, An Post is currently designated as the universal service provider with a remit to deliver mail no less than five times per week to every address in Ireland at a standard tariff. The draft directive proposes that there is no change in the existing levels of universal service, a position the Government supports. A key objective of Government will be to safeguard the universal service in a liberalised market, to ensure that Irish citizens continue to receive a broad suite of postal services at competitive prices.

Another important issue that may arise is the cost of meeting the universal service obligation. The draft directive sets out a number of options for meeting this cost from which member states may choose. A number of international studies, however, suggest that there may not be a net cost associated with the USO. In addition, a number of countries, including Sweden and Britain, have already fully liberalised their postal markets and none has provided for a specific compensation mechanism for funding the USO. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources intends to conduct a public consultation when the directive has been ratified and this is one of the issues that will be explored in more detail. This will likely take place early next year.

Another Government objective is the continued viability of An Post in the face of open competition. In this regard, the Government is firmly of the belief that there will continue to be a key national role for An Post, both in the delivery of mails and as a quality service provider of Government and financial services through its nationwide network of post office outlets.

An Post, however, like all national postal operators, must change very rapidly to stay competitive and commercial in the European postal market. The increased level of competition that liberalisation will inevitably present is not the only challenge facing An Post. New technologies, that have developed outside the postal sector, such as electronic fund transfer and electronic communications, are currently posing a competitive threat to An Post's business. There is widespread agreement that change is required if the postal services of An Post are to adapt to the modern business environment and the likely increase in competition in order that it can continue to offer a top class nationwide delivery service to the customer into the future. It is worth noting, however, that new technologies have provided new opportunities such as a growth in the parcels market and e-fulfilment.

Senator Hannigan mentioned ebay. An Post has concluded a deal with ebay on an e-parcel card, which allow An Post to benefit from the Internet economy. The idea of e-fulfilment involves the delivery and completion of service for items ordered on the Internet.

It was with this in mind that the board and management of An Post prepared a recovery plan, incorporating details of new collection and delivery arrangements which are now in the process of being implemented. Work practice changes will increase operational flexibility within the company and assist in managing the company's cost base. Such changes will enable the company to provide a cost effective mails service and quality of service standards which meet customer expectations.

With regard to the post office network, this Government and the board of An Post are fully committed to the objective of securing a viable and sustainable nationwide post office network through a strategy of maximising the volume of both public and private sector business handled by the network. This objective is clearly set out in the programme for Government and has been central to policies for the postal sector.

The An Post network has many competitive advantages and comprises the single largest number of retail outlets in the country. In total it comprises 1,312 post offices and 170 postal agencies. In addition, An Post has also established almost 3,000 Post Point outlets in retail premises throughout the country, of which nearly 550 can be used for bill payment. Of the 1,312 post offices, 328 are not automated and the remainder are.

In the European context, Ireland still has one of the highest number of post offices per head of population, with approximately 4.2 outlets per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with a European Union average of 2.7. While some network restructuring has been necessary in recent years leading to the closure of some smaller post offices, it is worth noting that this activity is in line with similar trends across Europe.

The Government will support the network in any way it can and the Minister has made it clear to the board and management of An Post that he will be supportive of them in their efforts to ensure the post office network continues to develop and thrive. The development and continued viability of An Post and its network is, in the first instance, a matter for the board and management of the company. Consequently, the way forward is for An Post to enhance existing services and, building on existing strengths, to develop new product offerings and diversify its and postmasters' income streams.

To be clear, the post office network has a number of significant advantages of which Members are well aware, such as its nationwide reach, its high customer footfall, its strong brand visibility and a solid relationship between postmasters and their customers. The automation of most of the network has been a key factor in An Post securing business growth in its contractual arrangements with AIB, Western Union, Gift Vouchers and Billpay.

Also essential to the continued viability of the network are the Government contracts in place, which include the Department of Social and Family Affairs contract to pay social welfare payments through the post office network, Garda fines, TV licences and NTMA savings products. These contracts account for approximately 65% of the post office network's current revenue.

Automation and technology 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 new customers into the post office to maintain as large a network as is viable.

One such strategy was the Government-approved joint venture between An Post and the Belgian bank, Fortis. Postbank is a retail banking business that was launched in May of this year. It entails 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. This new venture will result in real investment in the post office network in both rural and urban areas at a time when many of the private sector financial institutions are withdrawing their facilities from rural locations.

In addition, the venture should place An Post on a platform to continue to win more business and to be able to compete with other financial services institutions. Postbank, when it is fully operational, will allow people who would not traditionally have been bank customers to avail of a full suite of financial services and products designed to be clear and simple to use at the local post office.

Furthermore, the venture will enable the company to deliver the quality customer services that are now demanded by the public and that also means social welfare recipients will have more options for their preferred method of payment.

We in Government want a strong and vibrant An Post delivering the highest quality postal and counter services to the Irish public on a financially sound basis. The Government also believes that Irish consumers deserve a quality of service comparable to that received by consumers anywhere else in Europe.

A quality postal service is important in the context of a modern competitive economy such as Ireland's.

The way forward for our postal services is to ensure we have adequate competition without diminution of the universal service. The development of further competition, allied with a modernised and customer-focused An Post, will provide the basis for further development of the postal sector here.

I thank the Minister of State for his informative outline. However, where is the conflict in this regard? When examining the motion tabled by Fine Gael, I cannot discern the point at which his statement is in conflict with its objectives or the reason it is necessary to be confrontational on this issue by tabling an amendment that rejects in it entirety the original motion.

Ireland has an extremely low volume of mail per head of population when compared to other countries of similar affluence, which is a reflection on the nature of the service. The Government's amendment acknowledges the need for "a nationwide postal service which ensures all customers ... have access to a high quality, competitively priced postal service". The issue of next-day delivery and its associated criteria has been debated and is a key measure of such a competitive and quality service. An Post has been assisted by the framework that is provided for in European law, which recognises the concept of the universal service of general economic interest. Moreover, the recent European Court of Justice judgment on the contract for the distribution of welfare payments through post offices is a welcome development. Consequently, the framework is in place and the issue is really one of competence and management domestically. No prohibitions or restrictions constrain the Government or An Post from providing an efficient service.

I refer to the criteria regarding next-day delivery. While the Commission for Communications Regulation standard is set at 94%, it appears that An Post is working to a different standard. Why have an independent regulator unless one works to its standard? The will does not appear to exist to complete the drive to achieve a rate of 94%. While these are not criticisms as such of An Post, its management or workers, it is incumbent on Members of the Oireachtas to point out continually the need for greater efficiencies, better management and competence at the different levels, as well as better direction and regulation on the Government's part.

Some post office closures are inevitable. However, the nature of the service of general economic interest provided by An Post is a factor that must be taken into account. I agree fully with the comments made by Senator Alex White in this regard. It is clear that the European Union does not perceive competition to be the be all and end all in such areas. It gives recognition to the concept of a service of general economic interest and An Post falls within such a category.

While the Minister of State's contribution was informative, it does not sustain the amendment to the Fine Gael motion that has been tabled. I have heard nothing in the debate thus far or from the Minister of State that cuts across Fine Gael's call on the Government for the two items listed in the motion. The first is "to seek an improved timescale from management in An Post for delivery services and to prioritise plans for better organisation of collections, sorting and delivery services". I cannot see how there could be a difficulty in acquiescing to this motion. The second item calls on the Government "to seek assurances from An Post management that essential services provided by post offices nationwide are maintained". There are no grounds for rejecting this Fine Gael motion.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to say a few words on the motion tabled by my colleague, Senator O'Reilly. I am also mystified as to the reason an amendment to this motion was tabled because it has facilitated a useful debate on the services that have been and continue to be provided by An Post. I also welcome the staff from An Post to the Public Gallery.

Some great ideas have been put forward during this debate. The Leader of the House, Senator Cassidy, has frequently put forward his suggestion regarding the electoral register. I agree fully with Senator Cassidy and other speakers who proposed it in the House this evening. Undoubtedly, An Post is the organisation that can perform the best job in respect of the electoral register. It representatives visit every house and know the people in every locality and its employees are the best people for the job.

Much has been said in respect of social inclusion and much money has been spent in this regard by local authorities, health boards and other bodies nationwide. Senator Ó Domhnaill is correct to state that postmen could be a useful resource in the context of visiting houses. Perhaps this should be considered on a weekly basis in rural Ireland in particular. Some houses probably do not receive mail from year to year and having the postman call on a weekly basis, undoubtedly would provide a great social service in the most rural localities. This proposal should be considered by the Minister.

I also believe that An Post should have entered some public private partnerships, particularly in respect of the Internet café business. Perhaps it is not yet too late for An Post to enter such a business and it should explore this avenue. While I welcome the improvements that have been made in respect of next-day delivery, it is a shame to see the staggering number of post offices that are closing down nationwide. Were the Minister and An Post to consider some of the proposals made in the House this evening, it could have the effect of re-opening some of those offices. The Government amendment alludes to securing new business and I am sure all Members, as well as all public representatives nationwide, would welcome any initiatives put forward by either the Government or An Post.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to an issue in respect of dormant accounts. This matter has been brought to my attention by Councillor Michelle Mulherin from Ballina, who is a solicitor. While acting in her professional capacity, she wrote on behalf of an estate to An Post regarding some savings bonds or certificates. An Post replied stating it had no record of anyone holding savings bonds with the names she had forwarded. It took An Post two months to reply. She wrote to An Post again and after a considerable time, she received the same reply, that is, nothing. While not everyone has the physical bonds or savings certificates to hand, in this case she had them in her possession and could furnish them to An Post. An Post then found the names of the people who corresponded to the bonds and the certificates she had. It would not be long before those accounts would become dormant and the money would be disbursed to the dormant accounts fund. The person in this case had moved to rented accommodation and even if An Post made every effort to find him or her, it might not have succeeded. I cannot understand how An Post had no record in this case. Is it due to poor technology? Was the delay in answering the solicitor due to lack of personnel? In how many other cases has this happened? We are in favour of new business being created and the Government motion mentions retail savings products, but were it not for the diligence of this solicitor this estate would have lost out. She had to write to An Post twice and received two refusals. I ask that the Minister of State bring this to the attention of An Post, the senior Minister or whoever is involved. It begs the question as to how diligently the searches are done and whether we have suitable technology. I welcome the Minister of State's acknowledgement when he nods to say he will investigate this matter. Perhaps we should have a debate on the dormant accounts aspect of this. I look forward to the Minister of State responding to me on this issue.

I join with Senator Brady and others in welcoming An Post's representatives. I was unaware of their presence when I spoke earlier. I particularly welcome Mr. Angus Laverty, a senior manager in communications, who is particularly helpful in his contact. I acknowledge and applaud Senator Brady's previous professional involvement with An Post, his role in the trade union movement there and the expertise he brings to this debate as a consequence. I join with colleagues in applauding individual post women and men across the country who do a tremendous job every day in a friendly, positive way. We can do nothing but applaud them. They are great people whom we acknowledge. Senator Burke suggested post men or women calling on people who have no visitors could be a Government scheme that could augment An Post's income as part of the social services. I support that call and it has great merit. I often speak in other fora on the isolation of individuals in those situations. It is a logical reform to involve An Post in the electoral register. Post people are in an ideal position to assist with it.

Senator Boyle, in an almost student debating fashion, identified the debate he thought we should have but offered no practical solutions or constructive points. There is no practical or worthwhile suggestion in what he said and the record will support this. Senator Boyle is the poacher turned gamekeeper, and is taking his role as gamekeeper to an extraordinary level beyond requirement.

He is having a crisis.

Absolutely. He talked about negativity in our presentation of the motion but that was groundless and the record will substantiate this. I acknowledged An Post's 4% improvement in next-day deliveries this year. I acknowledged the advance in industrial relations, for which management must accept some plaudits. Senator Brady was aware of this because of his former trade union activities. I said the rural post office was a focal point in our communities and highly valued by the people. What I meant was subsequently elaborated by others here, that it is a drop-in centre, a place of friendship, a social centre, a one-stop-shop for many people and a friendly focal point in a community, and is of great importance. I acknowledge what Senator Quinn said, that it should be viewed in social terms, and so it should, however I identified ways we could augment its business, and Senator Quinn would be the first to acknowledge that this is necessary.

I appreciate Senator Alex White's comments, which are relevant. In a healthy democracy such as ours it is the job of the Opposition to raise probing issues, explore what is happening in a critical way and attempt to achieve change by that method. On Senator Quinn's point about broadband, we have addressed that issue and will do so again in the next month in a comprehensive fashion with many new ideas.

The motion makes two substantive points. It states we do not have next-day delivery for approximately a quarter of our post and in a competitive, modern environment that is not in order and we should strive to improve on it. We acknowledge what has been achieved to date but there is a wide gap between the level of delivery recommended and required by the regulator, which is 98%, and the national average of 78%. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed. It is relevant to our industrial performance and many other issues, and it must happen. Why should we be behind Britain and other European countries on this?

The motion's other point is the closure of post offices. The Government has been too acquiescent in the closure of 399 post offices in the past ten years. There should not be complacency on this. It is a crying shame and it is the job of Opposition to record that fact. The two problems are next-day delivery levels and the closure of post offices. In light of the Minister's speech, in which he accepted many of our contentions, and in light of all the arguments, we again ask the Government to withdraw its amendment and accept our motion. I commend the motion to the House as a sensible exhortation to the Government and An Post to improve its service to the Irish people.

Amendment put.

The electronic voting system will be in use next week. I ask each Senator to check with their group's whip as to what seat has been assigned to him or her. Should any confusion arise, Senators should contact the Seanad office.

The Seanad divided: Tá, 29; Níl, 20.

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • de Búrca, Déirdre.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Kett, Tony.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.


  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Joe O’Reilly.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

Sitting suspended at 7.20 p.m. and resumed at 7.25 p.m.