I propose to take Questions Nos. 175 to 178, inclusive,196, 200, 202 and 203 together.
In the four years since the Private Members motion referred to was debated a lot of work has been done to ensure An Post and the post office network remain viable.
An Post put in place a Strategic Plan, covering the period 2017 – 2021, in response to the structural challenges faced by the postal sector.
In order to implement the Plan, the cost of which was estimated to be in the region of €150m, the Minister for Finance provided a loan of €30m to the company in December 2017 to support the renewal of the post office network (€15m) and the continued fulfilment of a 5 day per week mails delivery service (€15m).
As part of the delivery of the plan the company was split into two distinct business units, An Post Mails and Parcels and An Post Retail.
An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products and new formats. This includes, among other things, diversifying and growing the financial services products it provides for individuals and SMEs to include loans, credit cards and more foreign exchange products, local banking in association with the major banks and a full range of State Savings products. Two new dedicated sub-brands, An Post Money and a new business-to-business brand, An Post Commerce, were launched. Investment by An Post of €50 million in the network is designed to encourage communities to use the enhanced services in their local post office.
With regard to the community banking model a project team comprising officials from the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Finance was established to progress that particular commitment. The final report was published by the respective Ministers on 4 July 2018. The report indicated that the Department of Finance would continue to engage in dialogue with Irish Rural Link and other stakeholders and that it would commission an independent external evaluation of the possibility or otherwise for promotion of the local public banking concept in Ireland. That further report was published by the Department of Finance in December 2019 and concluded that there is no business case for the State to establish a public banking system in Ireland, supporting the outcome of the July 2018 report.
The importance of the post office network has been clearly demonstrated throughout the pandemic where we have seen a range of initiatives through our post offices which have helped support local communities, the elderly and vulnerable.
The serious decline in the volume of mail and the impact of Covid on footfall through post offices, has had a severe impact on the postal network and I am aware of the concerns of the Irish Postmasters Union. I am also aware of the findings of the most recent Grant Thornton Report commissioned by the IPU, which are being considered by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.
While it is longstanding Government policy that postal services will not be directly subsidised by the Government, we 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.
The Programme for Government recognises that a modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services and e-commerce services for citizens and enterprise, as part of our commitment to a sustainable nationwide post office network.
Government believes An Post has untapped potential to do more and make a further significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland. With an evolving mandate An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community focused services. We will work closely with An Post to see if there is scope to channel additional services through the network. All options will be considered fully and efforts will be redoubled to give effect to our commitment to ensuring a sustainable and viable post office network.