Proposed Postcodes: Statements.

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan. Spokespersons have ten minutes and all other Senators have seven minutes.

I am very pleased to be here for statements on what I believe to be a very important part of the modern infrastructure needed in our country. This proposal for a postcode goes back to the working group on postcodes which published a proposal in 2005. It recommended the introduction of postcodes on the basis that we needed an efficient system for our postal sector that would improve national competitiveness and assist in the provision of public and private sector services.

A second report was carried out in July 2006 by the National Postcode Project Board which again recommended the most appropriate postcode system for Ireland, one that would deal with the cost and benefits and implications of the postal code. The board, which comprised representatives of the Government and public and private sector organisations, identified many postal and non-postal benefits of introducing codes. A third report carried out by external consultants was commissioned on foot of a Government decision to do further analysis and quantify the wider benefits of the postal system.

The National Postcode Project Board recommended an alpha-numeric, publicly available and accessible postcode model. The country would be divided into approximately 200 post towns. Within each post town there would be groups of approximately 40 to 50 properties. The postcode would have the structure ABC 123 in its numeric code, the first three characters representing the post town, the second three representing the group of properties in which the particular building is located.

The benefits of a postcode lie in a number of sectors. First, it will be of significant benefit in the delivery of postal services and it would be expected that we should look for such benefits. Ireland is the only country in the European Union which does not have a postcode. Although I believe An Post has done some very good work recently in improving the efficiency and quality of service delivery, we will be able to see further efficiency gains and improvements in the quality of the postal service through the application of this postcode model.

People may be concerned that the application of the postal address code would have particular implications for people in their addresses. I do not believe it will. The type of postcode we propose will allow for existing Dublin postal district codes to be incorporated within the new postcode. There has been much correspondence with regard to Irish language issues but there is nothing to prevent a person from using a form of address in either of the official languages of the State, as we develop the postal code.

I see it, therefore, as of really significant benefit for the postal service and the provision of a postal service which, because of evolving European Union directives in this regard, involves not only An Post but a range of different operators. It will be of equal benefit to all operators working in the area. More crucially, I see postcodes having wider benefit. It is the provision of a facility by which, as well as providing a postal code, we will be able to devise a locational code for the country. Real and evolving benefits will emerge in the management of spatial data and emergency services in this country and the development or provision of a range of infrastructural services. For example, if one were sending a driver to repair a particular lamp in a postal area, or if there were a breakdown in a particular electricity network or in any of the evolving infrastructural networks, having a common locational code of which everybody is aware that can be used to direct people to a particular point in the country, will provide real benefit from the postcode system we are developing.

One of the tasks we have undertaken is to consider what are the monetised benefits. Reports indicate we can expect approximately €22 million in benefit to the economy. An example of where that will come from, in Government business alone, is in the likes of service providers such as the Revenue Commissioners. Obviously, they have a very large postal requirement and must send cheques and demands. In that business, the benefit to them of the application of a postcode system is €3.6 million per annum, given the reduction in misdirected mailing and the proven efficiency in sending distributed mail.

There is a cost. We estimate the initial cost involved in establishing the system and implementing it could be approximately €15 million. The ongoing annual maintenance cost might be approximately €2.5 million, which will be met by the revenues generated by the postcode manager charging for the value-added products and services that the system will deliver. This is a crucial investment as part of our wider digital Internet economy, where people will increasingly access products and services through the Internet and will need a speedy, clear and simple system of locating the delivery of such services. This offers our postal system considerable opportunities, particularly An Post's distribution system. The local post office can be turned into one's local department store and access, notably for people in rural communities, can be improved through this new Internet shopping technology. The postcode is a crucial component in making the system work.

I commend the proposal to the House. My Department is working with An Post and various other private and public parties to set out the best way of tendering for the provision of this postcode service. Completing the task and introducing the system will take us a number of months. It has taken a long time and this is not an example of Government working at its fastest or most effective. Since the starting date of almost four or five years ago, however, we have stepped up and the Government has made a commitment via its decision to introduce the postcode. This will be of widespread benefit to people working in the postal sector, consumers requiring postal services and the development of new location code services that can help us to run the country more efficiently and effectively.

Tá fáilte romhat, a Aire. My party fully agrees with the introduction of a new postcode system. We believe it should be done as a necessary part of a modern economy and as cost efficiently as possible. It would speed up the post's delivery and increase efficiency. At this stage, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the tangible improvements achieved by An Post in recent years in its delivery of the postal services. An Post is constantly working on increasing the speed of its delivery.

In the interests of greater efficiency and speed, we support the introduction of a postal code system, which forms part of a modern economy and is of extraordinary importance in the context of opening the postal services to international competition during the coming years. It is important that competitors and An Post have a new system that improves efficiency, provides necessary information and a good service delivery and increases the service's use.

We have a difficulty with the Government's position in that we believe a GPS system should be used to pinpoint addresses rather than the proposed numbers system, which will be less efficient and more cumbersome. PON codes were designed by GPS Ireland Consultants to allow road users, particularly those in the logistics and service industries, to get better and more efficient use out of their SatNavs. PON codes help to resolve the ambiguity of Ireland's property addressing system, which causes even locals confusion. They can also be used by postal services and any service that involves navigating to somewhere at any time of the day or night.

They are position orientated navigation codes, PONC, meaning a dot or point. It is a seven-character alphanumeric code that defines a geographic position to within plus or minus 600 centimetres of the equivalent latitudinal and longitudinal Irish grid co-ordinates for the same location. As a pinpoint, it is extraordinarily accurate and easy to use. PON codes are easier to remember and work with than latitudes and longitudes on grids and, therefore, can be widely used and accepted as a postal code-type system. The code's structure is simple to understand. For this reason, we recommend it.

There are more than 500,000 GPS users in Ireland, 60% of whom are SatNav users. It is conservatively predicted that there will be more than 1 million SatNav users in Ireland by the end of 2010. They already share positional information widely for tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, accommodation, sports events, petrol stations, personal addresses and business customer locations. These are widely distributed by e-mail or telephone or over the Internet in written reports.

The easiest way to define location is by means of co-ordinates, which SatNav manufacturers already inherently support. However, geographic co-ordinates in their natural form are cumbersome to handle and easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. They also have too many characters and cannot be easily memorised. While geographic co-ordinates are desirable, they must be modified to make them user friendly. PON codes are user friendly and can be memorised more easily and our party recommends them to the Government for an alternative delivery system.

PON codes could be of use to people who are trying to seek out addresses, including those involved in the courier trade, food and flower delivery services, mail documentation collection and delivery services, which are what we are discussing, construction vehicles, car hire businesses, shop deliveries, mail orders and, more importantly, the emergency services, those being the fire service, ambulances, doctors, police, Civil Defence, Order of Malta etc. The list of services that could be more readily developed with this system is large.

The codes' unique feature is that, unlike traditional postcode systems, they do not need to be allocated by someone on high. One can create one's own. It adds significant value to data and is a more efficient operating system. It would be more accurate and cost effective in the delivery of the postal services.

A GPS system is the modification to the postal system that we in the Fine Gael Party are proposing. We fully accept the principle of a postal code system that is in the interests of competition, the efficient delivery of the postal service and a modern economy. It is worthy of note that this is one of the last countries to adopt a postcode system. It is necessary that we do so. When speaking in general on this proposal it is worthy of mention that we want to preserve the social dimension, particularly in a new competitive environment and in a new evolved postal system open to international competition and other domestic competition. We want to preserve the social dimension or the social factor of this element of the postal delivery system. There should be no dearth of service to isolated places and no dearth of service to people who live in isolation and in locations which are difficult to access. We want to ensure that in the interests of profit and greed there would not be an unequally balanced postal delivery system in this country. It is incumbent on Government to ensure that as competition comes into the postal services and the postal delivery market the delivery of services is maintained on a similar basis in order that the constitutional rights of every citizen are preserved. If this involves positive discrimination in financial terms to An Post in order for it to deliver that service — to maintain its social mandate — then this must be the case. An Post must remain obliged and enabled to deliver post to all areas of the country.

Fine Gael supports the introduction of a postal code system; therefore, there is no disagreement on this matter. We believe the number system, the concept of Dublin 2, area one, two, three, is not the best system to use because it is not the most efficient system nor in the long term the best system in a modern context. We propose the GPS system as an alternative. We do not argue the principle or the policy position because this policy position has been advocated by Fine Gael for some time but we argue the methodology, the delivery of it. We do not regard this proposal as being the best way to go about it.

I recommend a rethink in this area. The system can be achieved at no greater cost and with ultimately greater efficiency and providing a better service for the people. I make the general observation in the style of a Second Stage discussion that the social dimension or the social service dimension of our postal services should not be lost in any new competitive environment or in any new configuration.

I wish to declare that I am a former employee of An Post and I was involved in the CWU having been on the executive of that union.

I am not too quick to say I welcome this proposal as I have many reservations about it. The Minister referred to an efficient system and many believed this was the reason for the introduction of postal codes. However, many other issues are associated with this proposal and which are of concern to me.

The postal service is very efficient and it has improved greatly in the past few years. I do not fear change but some points need to be considered. For example, I refer to Telecom Éireann. Liberalisation and competition are to be commended. However, as Senator O'Reilly stated, it creates a situation whereby in a liberalised market, greedy people only want to make money and amass personal wealth, and the customer comes last. What happened in Telecom Éireann is a good example. Prior to the liberalisation and privatisation of the service, we had one of the best telecommunications systems in the world. We were second only to France but now we are on a par with a Third World country and the public have a worse service.

The Minister stated it would be of significant benefit to the customer. I ask him to elaborate on that statement and spell out where the benefits would be. This proposal should not be rushed. I recommend a consultation process with the management and trade unions of An Post and some type of consultation with the public. A change in the postal code system could alienate the public. In previous years I dealt with members of the public who claimed that the use of a certain postal code would devalue their property. We must be conscious of such concerns.

The cost of designing this postal code system is estimated to be in the region of €15 million to €20 million. This claim should be subject to scrutiny, given that the previous Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources suggested the cost of introducing the same system would be in the region of €50 million with an annual maintenance cost of €3 million approximately. The Minister's latest announcement on postal codes does not clarify what the maintenance cost of this system might be. This is a considerable sum of money at a time when other services are not being provided. As a result there would be a public outcry if this proposal was introduced and this must be taken into account.

Costs are associated with the introduction of postal codes. For example, every company, including semi-State companies, will be required to update their address database, in addition to rebranding, marketing and stationary costs. There could be a question of compensation payments arising.

The introduction of the postal codes represents a significant cost to An Post as the existing sorting technology would have to be completely changed to deal with the codes. An Post has made significant investment in cutting-edge technology to ensure the national postal code service is run as efficiently as possible. Tampering with this system will not only involve costs but will ultimately lead to a potential temporary deterioration in the quality of service during the transition phase. There would be an imposition of an additional cost factor on the national operator. It is already preparing for liberalisation because there is no point raging against the inevitable. It is no coincidence that the Minister's predicted time for the introduction of these post codes coincides with the deadline of January 2011 for the liberalisation of the reserved area in the Irish postal market.

The Minister is on record as saying that the lack of a postal code system is a potential barrier to this liberalisation agenda. However, he shows no evidence to support this view. Throughout Europe the liberalisation of the postal market has led to a reduction in postal services and the loss of jobs in the postal market. Members of this House and the other House frequently speak about securing and maintaining good, sustainable jobs such as those in An Post. This proposal will do the opposite. Given this potential threat to the Irish postal market in the context of the current consultation process and the third directive, one must question the appropriateness of introducing a new postal code system at this time. An Post quality of service figures have been consistently improving year on year. Therefore, it is important to be clear on how postal codes will improve the system further. This has not been explained sufficiently to my satisfaction. I am not sufficiently informed to make any decision or vote one way or the other on this proposal.

In the interests of clarity and transparency, to which we refer a good deal nowadays, it is important that the Minister makes public the two reports from PA Consulting which he has used to support the claims made on the benefits of postcodes. In addition, the Minister should be called upon to release the reports produced by the postcode board. The previous Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources arrived at a different set of figures altogether regarding the costs involved in such a project. There is a conflict and we must have clarity and transparency in this regard. Time and tax revenue is at an absolute premium. It is vital in the interests of a healthy and public debate that these reports are made public such that all stakeholders and the public can consider who will benefit from the expenditure involved, especially given that approximately €500,000 has been spent on these reports thus far. The taxpayer has a right to examine these reports in the light of what has been proposed.

The Minister's suggestion that a postcode system will deal with Ireland's non-unique addresses is singular and serves only to create the perception that in rural Ireland the postal system requires a technological intervention to make it work. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The postal network is part and parcel of the fabric of rural Ireland. Our postmen and women know their area and they are part and parcel of the fabric of rural society. Everyone knows them and in some cases they bring news to those who live alone. The postman may be the only person such people meet every day or week. It is important to take this into account.

I refer back to the case of Eircom. In a liberalised market such contact would not occur as it is all about making money and it is nothing to do with providing a service for the customer. In addition, in any system which identifies individual private dwellings or small groups of private dwellings, especially in a sparsely populated area, serious data protection issues arise. The data from postcodes could be potentially used by insurance companies to target sections of the population in different ways. For example, they could charge higher premiums for car, home and health insurance based on location. The introduction of a postcode would lead to a great expansion of junk mail. The average number of marketing deliveries in Ireland is significantly below the UK average, which is approximately 1,000 per day. The environmental impact of such marketing should be considered in the context of the value it adds.

We discuss jobs all the time. There is no doubt if there were a liberalised market here good, sustainable jobs would be lost. We must also take into account what takes place in a liberalised market. Senator Reilly referred to the tendering processes that take place. As part of the tendering process, firms cherry-pick and seek the best routes. This takes place in other countries in the area of transport. In a tendering process one should be obliged to take two or three non-profitable routes in addition to the lucrative routes. That is for further down the road and I do not wish to pre-empt the matter or suggest that this would proceed so quickly. We should not rush this matter for the reasons outlined as we may be back here in some years arguing that we should not have done this. We could end up with a situation similar to that of Eircom. I cite that example because I worked there and I am conscious of the service which the public receives now, which is zilch. One cannot get a phone fixed or installed in parts of Dublin for up to six months. One cannot get broadband. We have the worst telecommunications system in Europe. People cannot operate business because of the state of broadband availability. Such people contact me every day and inform me the service breaks down and cannot be fixed for six months. I call on the Minister to address the points I have raised and clarify them for me because I am not sufficiently informed to deal with it as matters stand.

The comedian Dara Ó Briain has a routine in which he lauds the efficiency of the Irish postal service, claiming any letter from Britain will reach its destination here if it has the name of the person and "Ireland" written after it. It would be good if that were the case and Senator Brady has made a strong case for the efficiencies in our current system. However, the fact is postcodes make a postal system more efficient and they do so in a cost efficient way. Some 117 of the 190 member countries of the Universal Postal Union have postcodes. It is right that Ireland, in common with all our European neighbours, should adopt such a system. There are concerns as to how such a system could be implemented and subsequently used and Senator Brady has highlighted several of these. However, these concerns can be overcome.

There are concerns regarding the possibility of including an Irish component, similar to the vehicle registration system. Since any system would be technologically or digitally read I do not believe the idea of a dual track system is likely to fly. I am encouraged by the view within the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources that it may be possible for Gaeltacht areas to have a specified code that would reflect the language ethos of such areas at least.

The efficiencies of a system of postal codes would extend not only to the better delivery of letters, parcels and other post. There are also benefits to having a system in terms of how we organise other means of communication with our citizenry. Let us consider a Member of the Oireachtas who engages in mass mailing using the Oireachtas database of their given local authority. The number of letters which return because of the wrong address often reaches hundreds. There is no more telling argument of the need for a postcode system.

Our electoral register is very much out of date and does not reflect accurately the people living in the houses in which they are recorded as living. A postal code system allied to a regularly updated electoral register would benefit from a new postal code system. Such an alphanumeric system could identify houses within a grouping of 12 and in rural areas specified households could be identified.

Some people have a difficulty with the elements of the current address system that may be lost with the introduction of postal codes. I am satisfied that the view of the Minister and the Department, to the effect that a new system would involve simply the addition of one line on each existing address, would hold true. People identify with communities, parishes and townlands and these will remain part of addresses. It is not only in rural communities that people identify strongly with townland names. I come from an urban community approximately one mile from Cork city centre. When I married, I moved to a house approximately a ten minute walk on the other side of the parish church, where the people insist they do not live in Turner's Cross. However, I still put "Turner's Cross" on my address. That people hold such identification to placenames will not change with the introduction of an alphanumeric code. This is about efficiency and having an address system that matches the technology and allows mail to be delivered quickly.

I refer to the point made regarding whether this system could fit into a single provider system or a system of postal delivery in which there are already private sector interests. That is another debate. Whether there is a single provider system or a competitive postal service one still needs a postal code system. It is probably a prerequisite to have such a system. These are the matters we should debate to bring about the system.

There is a cost to introducing a new system. We live in a fiscal environment in which spending anything additional on anything new must be examined carefully. However, in spending this money there will be efficiencies and economies for An Post, whatever the environment in which it will work in future. We will save that expenditure and more in future. The Minister should be commended for proposing such innovation and encouraged by the House and all within the political system to ensure a system can be introduced in the quickest possible time.

I am at variance with some of the comments made earlier on the Order of Business to the effect that this is so unimportant that it should not be debated in the Chamber. There are implications and ramifications. It does not reflect well on the people who have been putting forward various arguments for Seanad reform, however, to see the Opposition seats vacant for a debate on a topic which needs their attention. If anything illustrates the importance of greater scrutiny in all aspects of public services, it must be the manner in which some of our important State agencies, such as the Financial Services Regulatory Authority and the Central Bank, were found to be deficient in the run-up to the severe economic downturn we are experiencing. It is only through the input and commitment of people in public life who scrutinise policies as they evolve in all public service sectors, that we can ultimately have the services to which we aspire.

Postcodes have been on the agenda for a considerable time. They have been discussed and, as often as not, dispelled because it was felt that the cost benefit was not justified. I listened with interest to my colleague, Senator Martin Brady, speak on this issue. He has a particular knowledge of the area in that he worked with that company and has an insight into it. I concur in so far as he says that we should maintain good quality jobs in public services. I am a proponent of doing so. The only caveat is that the efficiency and cost effectiveness of those operations would be a measure of the commitment we have to them. We should not therefore be afraid to have efficiencies within those services. There has been a significant change in the manner in which we undertake communications. The advent of new technology, including e-mails and other forms of electronic communication, means there is less reliance on the postal service. As a consequence we have seen a decline in mail volumes. It is imperative that those businesses respond commensurately to the challenges, which often means embracing new technology, change, efficiency and cost effectiveness. An Post has been applying itself to achieving all those things in recent years. The company will be faced with more acute challenges when the liberalisation of postal services arises from the directive to be implemented on 1 January 2011. Public services generally are faced with such challenges due to the propensity of policy in Brussels to ensure greater competition. Businesses benefit from open markets, rather than suffering as a result of them. It is only if one is inefficient and does not respond to change that one ends up being caught by the open nature of competition. Competition is the lifeblood of business and, in fact, strengthens the value and quality of services provided.

It is interesting to note, as the Minister stated, that Ireland is the only country in the European Union without such postcodes in place. There is widespread public support for the introduction of a postcode system, which must match the technology that is evolving, as well as meeting the needs of liberalisation. It will have benefits, some of which may be difficult to quantify at this stage. They may well be outside the public sector, particularly in linking databases with the Government's various spatial elements.

We are considering using the first three letters of 200 towns in the proposed postcodes. When we introduced the new registration plates for motor vehicles, it was a pity we did not make use of the Irish names of counties, rather than English names. That could have been done. It was talked about at the time, but for some reason we went with the English names. We spend a lot of money on preserving and promoting the Irish language, which I fully support. It is our heritage and part of what we are. We have inherited the benefits of the sacrifice of previous generations, but if we do not value our heritage we can hardly expect anybody else to do so. I ask the Minister therefore to consider using Gaeilge when deciding that aspect of the proposed postcodes.

I am a strong proponent of fiscal rectitude, greater cost effectiveness and efficiency across the public service, which makes people proud of being part of organisations that illustrate and display those criteria and qualities. It is estimated that the benefits to various Departments could amount to €22 million in the medium term, which is a significant saving. I note the initial cost will be €15 million, but the information to date shows there is a cost benefit involved. Past arguments opposing the introduction of postcodes were that they did not pass the cost-benefit analysis test and therefore the cost of introducing them did not justify the savings that might be made. As this matter is considered further, hopefully we will get more evidential support for that case. The Minister is right in moving in this direction. I welcome and support his proposal. While some interesting comments have been made, there are also reservations which should be taken into consideration before the postcodes are finally implemented early in 2011.

I welcome this opportunity to say a few words on postcodes. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who was here earlier, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. I would have liked the Minister to outline how this system would work in practice. Senator Boyle outlined how he thinks it would work, whereby a number of houses could be grouped together. I presume, however, that the new postcodes arrangement would not do away with the use of county addresses. I hope we will still have a county identity, although we would also have numbers. The counties that are dear to our hearts should not disappear from postal addresses.

I like Senator O'Reilly's idea about using the GPS system, which is probably the way forward for postcodes. Postcodes have been on the agenda for a long time. I hope we can include the GPS system before the new system is brought to fruition. No matter where one is in the world, one can use a GPS system in a car or briefcase to reach one's exact destination. The GPS system would be a revelation. The potential problem for the use of GPS is townlands in some areas appear in Irish on maps and in English elsewhere andvice versa and, in some cases, the system might not recognise the location and one could find oneself in a different part of the country if one took full heed of the directions. However, in London and cities on the Continent where the GPS system used by drivers is based on postcodes, it is absolutely marvellous. The Minister stated the introduction of postcodes would lead to a more efficient society, business sector, communications system and postal service. The GPS system would be revolutionary in this regard, particularly where there is a turnover of staff in a post office and the new postman is not familiar with the area or for courier operators who make deliveries throughout the country. They would not have make inquiries on the side of the road about where a person or a firm was located.

It is most difficult to establish where one is on industrial estates throughout the State and particularly in Dublin. It is almost an impossibility in some cases and while a small signpost on a pavement or map on a noticeboard at the front of the industrial estate sometimes gives the location of various companies, it is still a nightmare to find them. The use of postcodes in a GPS system would be revelatory, particularly for couriers because they find it most difficult and frustrating to reach their delivery address.

The Minister outlined his proposal in detail and it is welcome. The set-up cost will be €15 million and the ongoing maintenance cost is estimated at €2.5 million annually. Since such investment is taking place, how much more would it cost to put the navigational system proposed by Senator O'Reilly in place or to couple it what the introduction of postcodes? It would be beneficial for the emergency services. It is critical that the staff of the ambulance service, the fire service and the Garda should arrive at a destination on time to carry out their duties. On the Continent, if an ambulance does not arrive at an address within 15 minutes to collect a patient, an investigation is carried out whereas it is difficult sometimes for ambulance crews in Ireland to find an address.

Senator O'Reilly's proposal deserves examination and it is credible, particularly as it may not cost much more on top of the Minister's proposal, which is welcome. I appeal to him, in light of Senator O'Reilly's contribution, to seriously examine our proposal.

I support the introduction of postcodes, as proposed by the Minister. This is long overdue and the cost involved is not prohibitive. From a security perspective, it is important that items of significant value which are sent in the post reach their destination and people can be assured of the security that their letter will be delivered to the right destination.

The proposal to incorporate postcodes into a GPS navigation system should be examined and the Minister has displayed an interest in such technology in the past. I am sure he will take on board the suggestions of Opposition Members, particularly those enunciated by Senator O'Reilly. When one uses the Internet to purchase goods, one is generally asked for one's postcode. Ireland is one of very few countries that does not use postcodes. Even from the point of view of bringing us in line with our European peers, this action should be applauded.

When will the postcodes be fully operational? Will they be introduced on a county-by-county or piecemeal basis or will a system be introduced nationwide on a specified date? They should be introduced on the same day throughout the State and I presume that is envisaged but I would like the Minister to elaborate on that. I thank him for his contribution and I hope he will take on board the issues raised by Senator O'Reilly.

This was a useful and important debate. I will take on board the concerns raised by Senators about the protection of county recognition, the requirement for An Post to be protected by not applying excessive costs and the need to deliver this system in a timely manner. As I acknowledged in my opening contribution, it has been a long and slow process but one which we are prepared to complete. I will introduce postcodes for the benefit of every citizen and the postal service and for the development of a range of other locational application devices used by a range of public service providers.

When will the postcodes come into play?

The key task is to agree the data system, the mapping, the allocation of small clusters of between 20 and 40 houses into a particular code and the allocation of addresses to each house. It takes time, however. I want to do it by way of open tender because we want to see the level of input from the range of public and private sector bodies which might have an ability to do those tasks for us. Whichever system we introduce, I want other companies to be able to use the basic infrastructure in a flexible way to ensure they devise new applications for the use of the code. It will take us most of next year to manage that system and therefore I expect the code to be introduced towards the end of next year or early in 2011.

I will allow two questions.

I thank the Minister for his participation in the debate. Many Members asked when this system will come in and so on. I raised many questions also but the Minister may not get an opportunity to read the Official Report in that regard. When will I get replies to those questions because they are important to me as a former trade union activist and a former employee of An Post, with which I am proud to be associated? I take it from the nod of the Minister's head that he will reply to my questions but I would not like to take this as afait accompli. People on the Opposition side are asking when this system will be brought in but we must have proper consultation before we plough ahead with any new system, and I want an assurance that will happen.

What is the Minister's position on the adoption of a GPS rather than the number system such as Dublin 2, area 111 or whatever? Ultimately, the GPS is more beneficial in economic terms, in terms of the delivery of the emergency services, etc.

To answer Senator Brady's question, my officials and I will go through the various questions he raised in his contribution and reply to him directly on those. There will be ongoing consultation. There has been a good deal of consultation. The original postcodes body investigating this had representation from a range of different interests and therefore as we progress, we will continue that strategy of talking to people.

We should recognise that while this new system will involve a change in working practices in certain locations, it will be of benefit particularly to the workers in postal companies because it allows us to get a much more efficient and effective service. In a time when we are starting to see postal services contract in terms of volumes, we need to turn that around and start developing new businesses and new business services. The ability that postcodes deliver to create new business opportunities will create the economic and the employment opportunities for people in the postal sector.

Regarding Senator O'Reilly's question, in the examination that was done of a variety of different options, cognisance was taken of the Data Protection Commissioner's views on this issue. There was a concern that if we have a code which brings one right down to a specific readily identifiable address, data protection issues might arise. We must manage and protect people's freedom from intrusive mail or inappropriate identification systems that could arise in a postal service with specifics such as XY co-ordinates which give a location down to a specific house.

The benefit of the postal code system being developed, as I understand it, is that the simple, alphanumeric, six-digit number will give one a postal code down to ten or 20 houses, depending on whether it is a country or an urban area, but there will be sufficient additional fields within the data system established to work such a code that an additional digit can give one much more specific locational details. That will allow one apply that locational code in a similar way to the advantages one would get from a GPS XY co-ordinate code. The code we are devising has the dual benefits of a postal code which does not infringe in a public way on people's right to privacy but which can be developed further to have those locational code characteristics that one gets off a GPS. That is the reason I am supportive of it because I believe it does both tasks.

I appreciate the Minister's reply and thank him. Is there not a risk of junk mail with every system? Is that not something people will have to be given the option of preventing? Is there not that risk already? Does the Minister believe the GPS would be a more accurate way of pinpointing locations for the emergency services? I appreciate the comprehensive nature of the earlier reply.

The Senator is right in that one of the possible outcomes from having such a postcode system, and this goes back to what I said about the economic and employment opportunities available, is that there may be a greater facility for direct mail services on the back of a postal code system. That is the reason we must be careful. While we appreciate that may have certain benefits and advantages, it is not something we want to pursue without providing householders with the ability to say "No" to it and not be a recipient of such extensive additional mail.

The mailing system is changing. In quantity terms it is moving away from the typical social communication network that was the case previously. We do not write letters to each other in this modern world. We text, tweet or e-mail, but there is an increasing reliance on the mail for many business services and even public services through direct communication. Direct mail advertising might be unnecessary but it also provides a valuable function for many companies here.

As to whether GPS would be more accurate, that is possibly the case but the information I have is that using the data systems we will look to use for the provision of a postcode will allow us provide a location code that will identify a location down to the nearest square metre or few square metres. That will allow an ambulance driver on an emergency call identify a piece of infrastructure or a roadway that will help them get to a specific location. Subject to the approval of the Data Protection Commissioner, this code can be evolved in a way that provides that level of accuracy for the ambulance service and other infrastructural services while not infringing people's right to privacy. I am told it is possible for us to do that in a way that is just as effective as GPS.

The Minister said changes in work practices could occur as a result of this measure. That is an important issue because if there are to be changes in work practices, that is all the more reason there should be consultation with the people involved prior to doing anything.

One of the main changes in work practices is that if one is on the Internet and looks to get something addressed to oneself, we are changing the address we give and that will lead to a much more efficient system and may lead to a significant increase in mail business, parcel business and a range of other new services which will create economic and employment opportunities. If there is any outcome from this, it is safeguarding jobs, especially in the postal service, and creating new economic opportunities, particularly in rural post offices which need footfall and need to again become the centre of the community for them to survive and thrive. That is one of the biggest implications in work terms I see coming out of the development of a postcode.

That is the Minister's view but the union, which represents the workers, will have its view and it is entitled to examine it.

I thank the Minister.