Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Questions (3)

Timmy Dooley


3. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to introduce a public service obligation for post offices in areas in which these post office are set to close; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41206/18]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Communications)

As the Minister is aware, An Post has introduced a programme for the closure of a very significant number of post offices across rural Ireland. There was an expectation and a hope that the Minister's Department would come forward with a level of support that would make it incumbent on An Post to maintain that network open and that it could have been possible for the State to provide appropriate funding to retain the network open. Can the Minister give the House any update on that?

I am responsible for the postal sector, including the governance of An Post, which is a commercial semi-State company with a mandate to deliver a postal delivery service and a viable post office network. I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices. I am fully committed to ensuring a sustainable post office network is available to all our citizens for the medium and long term.

As a result of various actions taken by the Government in the past two years, An Post has been able to construct and begin implementing a strategic plan for a sustainable future. There is widespread acceptance that the post office network requires modernisation to build, maintain and protect a service that meets the needs of communities throughout the country. As part of its strategic plan, An Post is implementing a renewed vision for the network, which centres on the availability of new services in a modernised and revitalised network. Such services include a better range of government, financial and e-commerce services for shoppers and small businesses. Investment of €50 million in the network, equivalent to €45,000 per post office, is about getting communities to use the enhanced services in their local post offices.

Essential to delivering on a renewed vision for the post office network is the agreement reached with the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. In its negotiations with An Post, postmasters sought both the modernisation of the network and a voluntary redundancy package for those who wanted to exit the business. There are several reasons postmasters are availing of this offer, including age and low population levels, as well as the fact that some postmasters are not even earning the minimum wage as a result of declining transaction levels and mail volumes.

It is long-standing policy that postal services will not be directly subsidised by the Government. This view has been held by successive Governments. An Post is a commercial semi-State body with a mandate to deliver postal services and a viable post office network.

Reflecting its commitment to sustaining a nationwide post office network and daily mails service, the Government made €30 million available in State funding to An Post in 2017, in the form of a repayable loan, to support the renewal of the post office network and the continued fulfilment of a five-day-per-week mails delivery service. In addition, Government funding of €80,000 has also been allocated to roll out a pilot scheme called Digital Assist, which will equip ten post offices to help citizens with online government interactions. The pilot scheme is currently being rolled out in rural post offices.

The Minister has conceded that it was a decision by the Government and himself not to support the post office network. Other countries do, such as the UK, where a public service obligation is placed on the post office and the state provides appropriate funding to ensure post office services are available close to where people live. The Minister is inflicting on vast tracts of rural communities and on vulnerable people, particularly the elderly who still use the post office, an encumbrance and a requirement on them to travel significant distances to avail of basic post office services. The Minister knows full well that, with a little support, the key services of a post office, namely, social welfare payments and other postal services, could be delivered locally and within the curtilage of other businesses. That could be done for a relatively small investment by the State.

Sadly, through the budget discussions and the negotiations, the Minister and his Department failed to make a case for that and have refused to advance the case. He spoke about enhanced services, which will make the network viable. That is fine and good for the communities which will have, as the Minister sees it, a viable post office. I am concerned about the smaller ones which do not have a viable post office and for which the elimination of the post office service will impact on their viability.

Will the Minister look at it again? Services in smaller villages, close to where people live, could be retained with relatively little State support.

This decision was not taken today or yesterday. It has been a consistent policy of successive Governments.

The Minister should change that policy.

In fact, during the greatest economic boom in this country between 2002 and 2010, 629 post offices closed, 26 of which were in Deputy Dooley's county, Clare. At the time, there was not this big public outcry for a public service obligation from Deputy Dooley and his colleagues.

An Post is reconfiguring its entire operation, which includes the expansion of the PostPoint service and making electronic financial services available to every retailer and community throughout the country. On top of that, An Post has introduced a new current account service. Two weeks ago, we launched a new joint venture between An Post and Avantcard in Carrick-on-Shannon. There will be personal loan services, as well as business loan services and, potentially, mortgage services. We have launched the pilot scheme, Digital Assist. The objective is to increase significantly the range of services available in post offices and to encourage people, particularly younger people, to use our post office network.

Sometimes when a Minister takes on the responsibility and is afforded an opportunity to make a difference, he or she attempts to do that. However, for the Minister, who represents a rural constituency, to claim that this has been Government policy for decades rings hollow. He could have broken with tradition and moved towards a new policy position in which the State would, in special circumstances, preserve and protect postal services at a time when it is not financially viable to deliver them in those villages.

We all accept and recognise there is a significant fall-off in activity in many post offices. Regardless of what restructuring the Minister does, some post offices will not be viable on a profit-and-loss basis. To protect the viability of the community, however, it is our view that those post offices should be retained with the support of a State subvention.

The Fianna Fáil spokesperson, Deputy Ó Cuív, described maintaining all of the post office network throughout the country as "tommyrot". He is on the record here as saying "tommyrot" to anyone who thinks we can save every post office throughout the country.

My objective has been to make as many of those post offices as viable as possible. The Deputy said that we should put taxpayers' money into a post office which conducts 12 transactions a week and where the local community, for one reason or another, does not support it. He knows as well as I do, in his heart and soul, that some local communities bypass their local post office and go elsewhere. If a community is not prepared to support or use its post office, the Deputy wants the State to step in and support it.

Absolutely. There are people in every community who might need a service. The onus cannot be on the entire community using the service.

What would be the threshold for how many use a service? One person a week? Ten people a week?