Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Questions (18)

Timmy Dooley

Question:

18. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if ongoing sustainability issues at An Post will be addressed; the reason many small communities are likely to lose post offices; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18304/18]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Communications)

In light of An Post outlining a rationalisation programme in recent days, will the Minister, Deputy Naughten, update us on concerns that exist in rural communities where there is now a real prospect that post offices will close?

As Minister, I am responsible for the postal sector including the governance of An Post. I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices and am concerned to ensure the needs of those communities continue to be met. As part of the strategy for modernising the post office network, An Post has established a dedicated business unit within An Post, An Post Retail. Last week An Post announced its plans for a modernised post office network.  The vision centres around the availability of new services in a modernised, revitalised network. Such services will include a better range of Government services, financial services and e-commerce services for shoppers and small businesses. The announcement by An Post is supported by an agreement reached with the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, executive following three months of intensive negotiations under the guidance of Mr. Turlough O’Donnell SC. While I am conscious that final acceptance of the agreement is still subject to a ballot of IPU members, the announcement represents a positive first step in reinvigorating our national post office network and making it a viable service that meets the needs of communities across the country, particularly in rural areas.

Operational matters relating to the company’s retail business, including the post office network, are matters for the board and management of An Post. I understand An Post has not made any definite decision on post office closures but there is no doubt that the move to electronic transactions has affected the post office network. Changes to the footprint of the post offices network, where they occur in the longer term, will be a consequence of the modernisation process as opposed to an objective of the modernisation process. That means over the next four years, some post offices may close, but that is solely a matter for An Post and the postmasters to work out through a defined process. The fact that there will be no compulsory closures of post offices is a highly significant outcome of the negotiations. The deal will see An Post invest €50 million in growing and modernising the network and includes agreement on a protocol which I specifically sought to help manage the modernisation of the network in a transparent and community focussed manner. IPU members will be balloted on the proposals later this month.

I am also pleased to advise that Government funding of €80,000 has been secured, through the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, for the roll-out of a pilot digital assist scheme. Ten post offices will be equipped to help citizens with online Government interactions. The ten pilot schemes will be located in rural post offices and will be in place later this year. Given the challenges it is facing, the company will have to pursue an ambitious agenda across its various business areas and there is likely to be significant change and new business models implemented in the coming years. This should be viewed positively as it will result in a solid, sustainable business future.

While financial and structural challenges remain, achieving a common view of the steps to be taken to regenerate the network is of great significance as the company rebuilds and takes action to secure the future of the company and the network. The agreement is a significant milestone and shows that An Post, the IPU and postmasters have the potential to work together to deliver a viable and sustainable future for the post office network to the benefit of all parties and the public.

The Minister may be aware that An Post over the last two days has offered, I believe, some 400 postmasters the voluntary opportunity to terminate their contracts for a severance package. That may well meet the needs of many of the postmasters concerned. However, I am sure it will not meet the needs of the communities that will be left without a post office. In his response, the Minister put a lot of stock on what the postmasters think and what An Post thinks. What about the communities that are losing a service? I can understand why An Post is taking this approach. The board of An Post has to look to profit and loss and to viability.

The Minister spoke of viability in his response, but what about the viability of the communities that will be left without perhaps the only service they have had for some time? Garda stations have closed and small schools have closed. I refer to the only facility with the harp over the door and that gives some inclination that the Government still cares about those villages. I want the Minister to put a plan in place to ensure those communities are not left without a service. It will require an input from Government. I refer to a public service obligation to ensure the services of a post office are available, even though in some of those communities we all have to accept that the services may not be viable on a profit and loss basis. However, if the service is not left there to facilitate the communities that still exist, then that community will cease to exist in a short time. In addition to the work An Post is doing, there is work to be done by the Government to identify what Government services can and should be delivered. We have heard a lot of talk about that for a long time with little action. We need Government investment to sustain a service that may not be viable otherwise.

They are two key aspects of this issue on which I have been highly focused. That is why, as part of the overall process, an agreed protocol has been put in place. Just to give an example, we could have a situation where there are two post offices within 700 m of each other. There is a broad range of situations here. It is not just about isolated rural communities. We have to try to develop a modern, robust network. Under the protocol that has been agreed between the Irish Postmasters Union and An Post, if a postmaster does not want to continue to provide a service it would be offered to another business within the same community or the business would be transferred to the next nearest post office. As I said, in some instances the next nearest post office may only be 700 m down the road.

The Deputy is correct in saying that we need to do more on the transfer of Government services into the post office network. As Deputy Dooley knows, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, made an announcement last week with regard to social welfare services. I have publicly advocated in the past and made a submission to the post office network business development group chaired by Mr. Bobby Kerr to the effect that we should be diverting more Government services, particularly off-line services, through the post office network.

I accept that but there has been a lot of talk on that from Government, particularly from the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and others. In fact, the Minister and Deputy Ring had a dispute when they were senior and junior Ministers as to who had responsibility in this regard, the net result of which is that we are no further on.

The Minister made reference to 700 m but the reality is that the document refers to 15 km. It refers to a commitment that there will be a post office within 15 km for 95% of the rural population. The notion of having to travel up to 15 km to avail of a post office service is hugely problematic in many rural areas. That is beyond the reach of a vast amount of people who live in rural Ireland. Incidentally, there is no big concession here as that is what is required of An Post, as I understand it, under its contract with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is not as if something major has been given here. In reality, 15 km is far too far to expect people in rural areas to travel. I appeal to the Minister to work with An Post over the coming months to fill the gap the company cannot fill. The State must provide an appropriate level of subvention under a public service obligation, PSO, to meet the needs of rural communities. Nothing less than that will ensure that those communities have the capacity to thrive and be sustained into the future.

The Government gave An Post a €15 million loan before Christmas specifically to allow it to look at the modernisation of the post office network. The first practical step that the Government is taking is the digital assist pilot programme. Under that programme, post offices will provide access to a wide range of Government services. We have picked out ten locations for the pilot programme across the country at Austin Friar Street in Mullingar, Ballaghaderreen, Bandon, Buncrana, Claremorris, Dingle, Loughboy in Kilkenny, Oranmore in Galway, Portarlington in Laois and Tramore. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty and I are actively engaged in this to ascertain how we can bring more Government services into the local post office network. We are determined to ensure that is happening.

We are going to start sticking to the clock, as is my usual way of doing things. Questions Nos. 19 and 20 are grouped together. I call Deputy Stanley to introduce his question.