That Seanad Éireann:
- post offices are at the heart of local communities, playing a unique and important role in both rural and urban areas;
- post offices provide crucial economic, administrative and social services to communities all around Ireland, especially to those in rural and isolated areas;
- post offices serve an important function as ‘a service provider of last resort’ in rural communities where other service providers have decided not to operate for commercial reasons;
- post offices create significant direct employment and supports further employment in some of the most disadvantaged areas;
- An Post’s retail network is one of the largest indigenous commercial enterprises in Ireland in terms of turnover and employment;
- An Post has a proven track record of service delivery;
- post offices act as a significant support network for individuals, businesses and Government during times of crisis, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic;
- many citizens depend on post offices in order to access basic State services, including social welfare payments and passport applications, as well as key financial services including insurance, banking and foreign exchange;
- rapid technological and societal changes have presented significant challenges to the existent post office business model;
- the financial viability and sustainability of An Post’s retail network is under serious threat;
- significant change is required in order to ensure the viability of An Post’s Retail Network;
- the post office network continues to provide an enduring and essential social value and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future;
- a modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services and e-commerce services for citizens and enterprise;
- An Post has untapped potential to do more and to make a further significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland; and
- with an evolving mandate, An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community-focused services;
- the Programme for Government ‘Our Shared Future’ commits to supporting a sustainable nationwide post office network;
- the Government has established an Inter-Departmental Group to examine the feasibility of directing more Government business to the post office network;
- An Post is continuing to undergo vital transformation as part of the delivery of its strategic plan;
and calls on the Government to:
- remain fully committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas;
- immediately roll out new services, as recommended by the Post Office Network Business Development Group and An Post’s own strategy, to ensure the financial viability of the entire An Post network.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.
We are all are acutely aware of the role played by the post office in every community across the State. Often it is characterised as being the focal point of communities in rural Ireland. While that is very much the case, it is far from an urban-rural divide because to the people who live and work in urban and semi-urban areas, post offices are equally a part of their livelihoods and of the general business centres of those places.
The post office has proven itself as the bedrock of virtually every community across this State for generations. There is little doubt over the past 15 to 20 years that it has seen very significant changes in the profile of its customers, and the demands, requests and needs for its services. Like everything Irish, the post office has managed to change and adapt in so far as it can. Clearly, the State has been somewhat lethargic in changing the nature of the way it delivers services. I know, and I think we all accept, that with the movement to online activity, greater broadband roll-out and access to high-speed Internet, some of the services provided by the post office are no longer as relevant as they were in the past but we cannot and should not allow that to dictate whether a post office remains open. This is not a viability issue. We should not look at post offices as profit centres or in terms of profit and loss. We should see them as an integral part of service delivery by the State to those communities. If we were in any doubt about their importance then we would have seen the central role they played during the most recent pandemic. When some private services closed or were unable to deliver services in the face of a pandemic, post offices remained open, and postmen and postwomen continued to deliver the letters, which is a hugely important part of that connection with the communities they serve. For most people who found themselves housebound, and certainly for the first wave of the pandemic, the postperson was, in some cases, the only person they saw from one end of the week to the other. We should not lose sight of that aspect now just because the pandemic is, hopefully, reaching a conclusion or at least the end is in sight.
It is well accepted that the post office network has been under financial constraints for some time because its viability was based on the transactions that generated the funds to pay postmasters or postmistresses. In my view, based on the reduced activity in post offices, that model is no longer an adequate way to remunerate. The model is based on profit and loss from which we must move away. In my view, we should place an annual subvention or a public service obligation on An Post to provide the service to the post offices that currently exist. We have seen enough post office closures. Most recently, a post office was closed in my own area of Broadford. The closure is a shame and should be reversed, if at all possible.
There are 931 urban and rural post offices dotted throughout the country, 45 of which are company owned and the rest operate in a private capacity on licence or on contract from An Post. It is well recognised by a recent report that was prepared by or for the Irish Postmasters' Union that the financial shortfall is close to €17 million per year. The motion and the associated amendments look to having the State provide or fill that gap of €17 million on an annual basis to do a couple of things: to give confidence to the network of postmasters and postmistresses dotted around the country; show that the State is serious in its commitment to support the network; ensure that postmasters and postmistresses have a viable income; and ensure that the service remains in those communities.
I have never believed that it was acceptable just because the demand for a service is reducing that it is taken away based on profit and loss. Quite frankly, the service should remain while there are still people in need of same. Let us be honest. Some of these people are in their older years and are not computer proficient, do not have access to the Internet, and even if they had they might not be in a position to utilise it.
In addition to being the point at which they get services, the post office and its postmaster or postmistress provide social interaction for people who live alone. I do not refer only to people who live alone and in isolation in rural areas. I am often taken by the number of people whom I bump into in this city, people who live in the midst of a large population, who feel very isolated and alone. Those of us from the country who happen to be here for a few days walk the streets and meet characters who are living alone and who want to talk to us because they recognise us from the television. They may recognise us more quickly than our constituents at home would. Notwithstanding that, we become acutely aware of the isolation some people suffer, even when living in a large city. They find that connection in their post offices.
I know a review is under way and I know there are issues with Government making commitments but let us understand what has happened during the pandemic and let us get a clear picture of the enormous service the post office network and its associated postmasters and postmistresses have given to the people. During this debate, it is right and fitting to recognise the enormous amount of work done by post offices, postmasters and postmistresses during the pandemic. Those who work in post offices are the epitome of front-line workers. We all rush to congratulate front-line workers but in some cases people neglect the range of front-line workers who operated during this pandemic. It is a bit like being at a wedding and forgetting to mention somebody. We absolutely congratulate those in the health service but there were also front-line workers operating in retail, postal services and public transport. It is right and appropriate to recognise that.
I appeal to the Minister of State to continue with her deliberations. Regardless of what comes back in that report, I want her to use her own experience, and that of Ministers, of the post office, which they understand and recognise as being the central bedrock of many communities. It is certain that Government can do much more with regard to delivering services through post offices. This would enhance and grow the business and be of benefit to it. Such services might underwrite, to some extent, other post office services.
As I have said, however, it is not just about covering costs. It is about this really important service. The removal of post offices sends a signal to other business and activities in villages or in communities within the larger cities. It tends to give the impression that the State has effectively given up on that population mass or village setting. In many cases, the post office, with the harp over the door, is the one remaining State entity in an area. We have seen significant change to the delivery of policing. We have seen Garda stations close and, time without number, we have been told that it is a better model of policing to centralise police officers and then to send them out to communities in cars. We are told this makes them more dynamic and responsive. That may be the case but, when one takes the one last State service out of a community, one effectively says that, from a Government perspective, the lights are out. I refer to the closure of post offices. That is a real pity.
In addition, there are many areas in which the post office can amalgamate with the local shop. We are all for that in communities so long as the service, the harp and the green livery remain and the identity of the post office is maintained as an individual unit. In commending the motion to the House, I thank my colleague, Senator Blaney, who is seconding it and with whom I am sharing time.