I thank the Acting Chairman for his welcome to the Seanad.
I find myself in a slightly unusual position in that I am bringing back to this House a Bill initiated by the previous Government in the last Seanad. I am, therefore, conscious that this is the first time many Senators will have seen or had an opportunity to consider the Bill. Before addressing the amendments I brought forward in the Dáil to improve the Bill, I will give the House an overview of the context of the Bill, in terms of its origins and objectives, and some background information on the postal market and the regulatory framework that will apply as a result of the enactment of the Bill.
Postal sector liberalisation is not new and much of the regulatory framework for the postal sector has been in place since the transposition of the first postal services directive in 2000. The Bill transposes the third postal services directive and puts in place the regulatory framework necessary to govern a fully liberalised postal sector, a sector which has been fully open to competition since January 2011. The Bill also enshrines and safeguards the universal postal service, that is, the collection and delivery of mail throughout the entire country on every working day. An Post will remain the designated universal service provider for the next 12 years. The Bill also provides for enhanced consumer protection measures.
The Bill has been the subject of a very thorough debate in both Houses of the Oireachtas. All Members of the Oireachtas hold their local postperson and post office in high regard and many of the current postal issues were given the benefit of a thorough airing. I was pleased to participate in the Dáil debate and noted that many of my colleagues made their maiden speeches on postal issues.
The opening of the postal market means that An Post is already facing a more competitive environment in which there are other operators. The reality is that — unfortunately, some Members of the Oireachtas are reluctant to accept this fact — the greatest competitive pressures on An Post and the postal sector are exerted by the twin threats of the general economic weakness and electronic substitution. Postal volumes have declined by almost 20% since 2008 and this trend is, unfortunately, set to continue. In order to address the competitive pressures on the company, An Post needs to build on its true competitive advantages. If it succeeds in doing so, I see a sustainable business for the company and its highly regarded workforce.
Most of the amendments which I will discuss individually seek to clarify policy around and make minor textual changes to certain provisions in the Bill. Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, are textual changes made to the Long Title of the Bill. They include references to the Broadcasting Act 2009, certain provisions of which are being amended by the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 5 and 8 relate to the commencement of the Bill which had been set as 1 January 2011, the date for full market opening as prescribed by the postal services directive. As the Bill will come into force on its passing, with the exception of section 48, the amendments delete the reference to the original commencement date. Amendment No. 60 relates to section 48, the commencement of which is dependent on the enactment of the customs Bill and will be by ministerial order. In addition, amendments Nos. 53, 54 and 86 are drafting amendments that arise as a consequence of amendments Nos. 5 and 8.
Amendments Nos. 6, 34, 35, 83, 84 and 87 are technical amendments to a number of sections in the Bill that reflect the establishment of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the transfer of certain functions from the Minister for Finance to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. They also account for name changes for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
Amendments Nos. 7, 9, 10, 12, 13 and 22 are drafting amendments that lend clarity to and remove ambiguity from a number of definitions. Amendments Nos. 23 to 26, inclusive, reflect a commitment made in the programme for Government to safeguarding the universal postal service, which is fundamental to the regulatory framework for the postal sector. The amendments made to section 17 extend the designation period for An Post as universal service provider from seven years to 12 and provide also that any decision made by ComReg in the designation process, if it decides not to redesignate An Post, shall be subject to ministerial oversight which I consider an important safeguard of the universal postal service. Substantial redrafting by the Parliamentary Counsel was required to accommodate the amendments, leading to the replacement of section 17 with four new sections, sections 17 to 20, inclusive. In addition, amendments Nos. 11, 16, 17, 61 and 62 are drafting amendments that arise as a result of the amendments to section 17, mainly in order to update cross-references in the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 14, 15, 19 to 21, inclusive, 41, 67, 79 to 82 and 96 are drafting amendments, made mainly at the behest of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, that seek to add clarity and make minor corrections to the text of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 18, 55, 56, 66, 69, 74 to 76, inclusive, and 78 are being made to reflect Part 2 of the Fines Act 2010 which was commenced earlier this year.
Amendments Nos. 29 to 32, inclusive, seek to add clarity in respect of the oversight by ComReg of the terms and conditions submitted by An Post or any other universal postal service providers, in relation to their provision of the universal postal service. In this regard, the main objective of these amendments is to provide that charges for universal services will not be subject to ComReg's approval under this section. The reason for this is that all charges must be compliant with the tariff principles, as monitored by ComReg, with charges for some universal services being subject to a price cap.
The intention of the Bill was never for ComReg to approve every price change made by a designated universal service provider and these amendments correct this. In addition, this set of amendments reduces the transitional period, for the ending of An Post's schemes and the publication and coming into force of its terms and conditions, from six months to three weeks. In addition, ComReg is to approve An Post's terms and conditions within six months of their publication. These amendments have led to some redrafting by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, resulting in the replacement of two sections by four. In addition, amendments Nos. 27, 28, 39 and 63 are consequential amendments, mainly to update cross references arising as a result of the insertion of these new sections.
Amendments Nos. 33, 57, 64, 65, 68, 71, 72, 73 and 77 replace references in the Bill to "employee" with references to "employee or agent" where appropriate, and are proposed to take account of and apply the rights and obligations of the Bill to the many postal workers who are agents rather than employees of a postal service provider.
Amendments Nos. 36 and 37 arose following discussion on amendments tabled by Deputy Ó Cuív on Committee Stage. The amendments provided that under section 23, a uniform tariff will apply across the State to any postal service provided at single piece tariff. The legislation now sets this as the default position. It also permits ComReg to make a decision, having regard to the reasonable needs of users and with the consent of the Minister, to move away from this default position, should the market necessitate it. This is in line with the postal directive which permits the imposition of a uniform tariff in the public interest.
Amendments Nos. 38 and 52 are technical amendments that arise as a result of amendments Nos. 36 and 37. Amendment No. 40 also relates to section 23 and deletes subsection (5) of that section, which linked special tariffs for businesses to terminal dues which is the method of settling accounts in relation to cross-Border post. This amendment is being made on foot of a requirement of the postal directive to distinguish clearly between the regulation of terminal dues and the regulation of domestic universal services tariffs.
Amendments Nos. 42 to 44, inclusive, relate to accounting obligations placed on universal postal service providers, and seek to reflect more accurately the intention of the directive in relation to the submission of accounting information by the universal postal service provider to the European Commission. Amendments Nos. 45 and 46 clarify that the monitoring by ComReg of the quality of universal postal services relates to domestic services only. While intra-community services are monitored by the EU according to specified standards, the Bill provides that ComReg will have a role to play in any instance of those standards not being met, in that it can issue directions to a universal postal service provider in relation to corrective action to be taken.
As a result of discussions held on Committee Stage and in order to address concerns that Deputies Ferris and Mattie McGrath expressed on the matter of access to An Post's postal network, I brought forward an amendment to section 28. Amendment No. 47 adds to the list of issues, set out in that section, that ComReg must take into account, when settling any disputes around access. The main effect of the amendment is that it will be an explicit requirement that the capital investment made by a universal service provider in its network must be factored into ComReg's considerations when resolving a disagreement in relation to access issues.
Amendments Nos. 48 to 51 relate to section 30, which provides that a universal postal service provider may apply to ComReg for funding for the net cost of the universal postal service obligation. ComReg is required to assess any such application and determine whether or not the universal postal service obligation represents a net cost and is in its opinion an unfair financial burden.
The effect of these amendments is threefold. First, to clarify that any request for funding may relate only to a designation made under section 17, that is, no funding can be sought in regard to the current designation under the 2002 regulations. Second, to clearly set out the timeframe within which a designated universal postal service provider may submit a request for funding to ComReg, so as to give certainty to all players in regard to the timing of any potential request for funding. Third, to clarify that it is ComReg that is responsible for determining the net cost of the provision of the universal postal service and to widen the class of body that ComReg may appoint to verify the calculation of the net cost.
Amendments Nos. 58 and 59, relating to section 42, permit postal service providers to open postal packets only in cases where there is no return address and which do not comply with the providers' terms and conditions. This allows the provider to ascertain details of the sender in cases where a packet may, for example, be underpaid or not properly packaged. Amendment No. 70 clarifies that postal packets, whose transmission may be prohibited under this section, may legitimately be sent if they comply with the terms and conditions of the postal service provider concerned.
Amendment No. 85 relates to Chapter 11, which provides for the regulation of free postage for election candidates. Section 56 will enable the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to designate a postal service provider, for the purposes of providing free election post for candidates and determine the conditions under which it is to be provided. It also provides that An Post will be the provider of free election post until such time as the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform makes a designation order under this section.
The amendment to this section provides that the terms and conditions of this free postage and the sum payable from the Central Fund for it shall be agreed between the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the relevant postal service provider rather than simply determined by the Minister. This amendment better reflects the contractual nature of these agreements. The amendment also better reflects the intention that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Defence are consulted, not in regard to the contract, but rather in order for them to satisfy themselves that electoral needs are met.
Amendment No. 88 relates to section 61, which enables the Minister to establish, maintain and operate a national postcode system. This amendment restates this section in its entirety in order to clarify that the national postcode system may be used by a person or body for purposes other than the provision of postal services. The amendment aims to avoid any unintended restriction on the use of postcodes. It provides for terms and conditions of a postcode contract regarding property rights and charging. It allows for the sharing of the national postcode system with public bodies free of charge to perform their functions.
Amendments Nos. 89 to 94, inclusive, introduce a number of amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009. The purpose of these amendments is twofold: first, to give legal effect to two budget 2011 decisions in relation to television licence fee receipts and, second, to pave the way for the establishment of a funding scheme for public and private broadcasters in relation to the archiving of programme material. The proposed amendments are of vital importance, in particular as they ensure the ongoing funding of TG4. There is an urgent need to enact provisions to give effect to the decisions taken. These amendments seek to generate savings to the Exchequer, while ensuring that RTÉ and TG4 continue to be funded sufficiently to enable delivery of their statutory public service obligations. I am sure Senators will agree that it is crucial that Irish viewers and listeners can enjoy access to a quality, free to air broadcasting service into the future and in this regard support the rapid passage of this legislation.
The effect of amendment No. 95 is to ensure that An Post may continue to make schemes, which are statutory instruments, in regard to the services it provides that do not fall within the regulatory framework of the Bill. These services, for which An Post will still be able to make schemes, are non-postal services and relate primarily to money and postal orders.