Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010: Committee Stage (Resumed)

Debate resumed on Government amendment No. 48:
In page 48, lines 21 and 22, to delete "Act, or" and substitute the following:
(ii) section 13 of the Communications Regulation (Premium Rate Services and Electronic Communications Infrastructure) Act 2010, or".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 49:
In page 48, line 23, to delete "(ii) section 33(7),” and substitute the following:
"(iii)section 33(7),”.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 52, as amended, agreed to.
Section 53 agreed to.
Government amendment No. 50:
In page 49, to delete lines 5 to 7 and substitute the following:
"(i) section 25 of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937;
(ii) section 57 of the Electoral Act 1992;".

The amendment places the Acts listed in this section in chronological order and also clarifies that free election post is provided to candidates pursuant to section 25 rather than section 28 of Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937. I bow to the experience of Members on this and I am interested to hear their thoughts but the amendment provides for electoral communications.

In light of current whisperings from the Cabinet table, do we need to deal with this amendment at this time? Is it superfluous? There is a strong view that Senators will not need to take advantage of free post anymore. Should we go through with the amendment?

This facility is provided via registered post and it was put in place in 1937. Communications are required under the Act to be sent by registered post but there is no need for that. Various options are available nowadays. The Minister spoke at length about the importance of using new innovative ways but he is about to set in stone a system that has been in place for 70 years. This is contrary to the vision articulated by him yesterday. Under the current legislation, election literature must be sent by registered post. This means that it must be signed for when it reaches its destination. When a postman, therefore, arrives at apartment No. 46, No. 4 New Road, Anytown, and no one is there because everyone is at work, he or she will leave a note in the door saying the registered letter is at the delivery office awaiting collection. That is the only way the postman can deal with the letter. Consequently, people wonder whether they need to go to the trouble of collecting the post and voting and, therefore, the returns are low. Will the Minister consider ensuring an option other than registered post is offered?

Registered post also creates additional work and costs for everyone involved. Is payment required or is there a cash transfer? I understand money is involved at some point and costs in connection with this are assigned. Registered post is much more expensive. There are a number of in-between operations that are not quite registered post. Could we approach this in a different way?

I said I would bow to the greater experience of Senators on this. I ran for the university panel in the Seanad.

I recall it well. The Minister made life very difficult for me.

I am afraid I did not. As a young man, I was full of ambition but I was so uncertain of winning a seat that I had my mother tallying my box. With the Senator being an O'Toole and me a Ryan, our boxes were beside each other alphabetically. His daughters were tallying his box and my mother looked on as the wheelbarrows arrived and pitched the votes into his box while my mother took out her tweezers for the single ballot that fluttered on to the floor of the Eamon Ryan box. On that basis, I am shocked that the wise Senator would expect me to talk about whisperings in the Cabinet. I could not possibly add to or comment on them.

It would be between us. Nobody listens to the Seanad. It would be a secret.

They do. I am informed by my officials that it is not registered post — I will check that detail to make certain — but that the usual arrangements——

It has always been registered post and I assumed it was because of a legislative requirement.

Perhaps austerity has hit even Seanad elections.

We can offer savings.

I will check on the details and revert to the Senator.

It is a direct payment to An Post, for which the arrangements are set by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the scheduling of elections. There are mechanisms for the Minister to set the conditions. However, the purpose of the amendment is to order the Bill correctly and ensure the error in terms of it being pursuant to section 25 is corrected from section 28. I will check on the issue of costs and arrangements with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in advance of Report Stage.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 54, as amended, agreed to.
Government amendment No. 51:
In page 49, before section 55, to insert the following new section:
"55.—(1) Section 3 of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937 is amended by inserting the following definition:
" ‘relevant postal service provider' has the meaning assigned to it bysection 54 of the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Act 2010.”.
(2) Section 5 of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937 is amended—
(a) by renumbering the existing provision as subsection (1) of that section, and
(b) by inserting the following after subsection (1):
"(2) The expenses incurred by reason of this Act by a relevant postal service provider (whether such expenses relate to the exercise by candidates at elections of the right of free postage conferred by section 25 of this Act or are otherwise so incurred in relation to a Seanad election) shall, to such extent as may be sanctioned by the Minister for Finance, be paid out of the Central Fund or the growing produce thereof.".".

Chapter 11 of the Bill amends provisions contained in various electoral Acts that relate to the recoupment of expenses incurred by An Post in the provision of free postage for election candidates and extends the provisions to all postal service providers. The amendment corrects an omission by inserting a section clarifying that costs incurred in the provision of free election post for candidates under the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act are to be paid from the Central Fund. It is a continuation of the issue of Seanad electoral communications and ensures all providers will be covered by the provisions.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 55 agreed to.
Government amendment No. 52:
In page 50, subsection (3), lines 21 and 22, to delete paragraph (b) and substitute the following:
"(b) by substituting the following for subsection (3):
"(3) The relevant postal service provider may permit a candidate to exercise the right aforesaid before the candidate is entitled under subsection (2) so to do upon the candidate giving such security as may be required by the relevant postal service provider for the payment of the postage on all communications sent by the candidate under this section in the event of the candidate not becoming so entitled to exercise the said right.",

This section amends the Presidential Elections Act 1993, making it possible for postal service providers other than An Post to be selected for the purposes of providing election candidates with free postage. The amendment is a textual amendment to clarify section 32 of the 1993 Act which enables the postal service provider to request a security to cover the eventuality where a candidate who has availed of free postage in advance of being nominated ceases to be entitled to free post.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 56, as amended, agreed to.
Section 57 agreed to.
Government amendment No. 53:
In page 51, subsection (1), to delete lines 4 to 8 and substitute the following:
" "postcode" means a code consisting of numbers or other characters or both numbers and other characters that identifies the locality of an address and, where appropriate, the geographic location of an address;
"distribution" and "postal packets" have the meanings assigned to them respectively bysection 6.”.

This section enables the Minister to establish, maintain and operate a national postcode system. The amendment relates to the definition of "postcode" and makes it clear that the postcode relates to the address, not to the individual to whom the mail item is sent. When an individual moves house, the postcode stays with the address. From a data protection point of view, it is important to clarify that the postcode relates to an address, not an addressee.

I do not have a problem with the amendment, but will the Minister give an indication of the timescale involved in the production of postcodes? How close are we to having them? Will they be based on co-ordinates or random numbering? What system does the Minister favour? I accept that this is not his final decision; therefore, I do not intend to challenge him later if something different is chosen. However, Members would learn something if they knew his current position on the issue.

I am happy to brief the House. There has been significant progress made in recent months. We have been examining the detailed arrangements and, with everything we have seen, the introduction of a postcode system makes more sense. There would be huge efficiencies and cost savings for postal service providers and huge benefits in public service administration and for other users. My preference, as I have said publicly on a number of occasions, is to adopt the advice given by the group established to examine this issue which is to have an alphanumeric solution which would give memorability but which would also, critically, gives us the capability of having a single house identifier, whereby one would have a unique location code for a particular house, not just an area-based system. The exact mechanism or way of doing this will be determined following a procurement process which will be launched within weeks. It will follow the usual procedure for a pre-request for tenders process, an initial phase when we will seek broad statements of interest. It will be followed by a more detailed final procurement process, leading to the introduction of the postcodes towards the end of next year or early in the following year. The process is on track. Huge benefits are starting to accrue and the more we look at it, the more it makes sense to do it. Critically, it will have a unique location code, as well as a general area detail to it. I am keen to progress it as quickly as possible.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 58, as amended, agreed to.
Schedules 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That Schedule 4 be Schedule 4 to the Bill."

I wish to remind the Minister about the issue to which he said he would return on Report Stage, the cost of the universal service, how it might be related to people bidding for sections of it and in what way the various costs might be taken into consideration. We talked about the various items that could be taken into consideration when determining the access charges and the Minister said he would report back to us on Report Stage after examining that aspect of the matter. Section 28(9) deals with the items that should be taken into account and the Minister said he would take another look at it. I am pushing my luck here, but it relates somewhat to what is included in Schedule 4. I am not opposing the Schedule and have no problem with it, but I am reminding the Minister that he should have something to say to us on the issue on Report Stage tomorrow.

The Senator is not pushing his luck. My officials have been in contact with the Attorney General's office and we will be able to table an amendment on Report Stage to amend the section to include in the definition in section 28(9) the assessment of postal network costs. Following our debate yesterday, it will reflect our desire that it incorporate a review of all cost implications across the network. I hope to present an amendment to that effect tomorrow.

That is much appreciated.

My question is associated with the same theme and relates to what I said on this section with regard to cherry-picking and remote areas. I believe the relevant amendment was amendment No. 16. This is about social issues and whether they will be included. Will the Minister comment on the matter?

I am advised by my officials that we will not be able to take it. It was related to special employment rights and the issue of employment. I am advised by my officials that it is not possible to take it, but we might be able discuss it again if a revised amendment is tabled.

Question put and agreed to.
Government amendment No. 54:
In page 7, line 32, after "2002," to insert the following:

This is a drafting amendment which proposes to amend the list of Acts referred to in the Long Title of the Bill. It proposes to list two further Acts which were the subject of amendments earlier in the Bill, the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993 and the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937.

Amendment agreed to.
Title, as amended, agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Tomorrow morning.

Report Stage ordered for Thursday, 9 December 2010.
Sitting suspended at 4.20 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.