We meet to consider the proposal that Dáil Éireann approve the terms of certain Acts of the 1994 Congress of the Universal Postal Union, namely - the Fifth Additional Protocol to the Constitution of the Universal Postal Union; the General Regulations of the Universal Postal Union; the Universal Postal Convention and the Final Protocol thereto; and the Postal Parcels Agreement and the Final Protocol thereto. It is all very sensible and reasonable. I do not think anybody has any difficulty understanding its implications.
1994 Congress of the Universal Postal Union.
The Universal Postal Union, a specialised agency of the United Nations since 1948, is the body governing international postal services. Ireland became a member of the UPU in 1923. The basic Act of the UPU is its constitution, which was adopted in 1964. Amendments to the constitution can only be made at congress, the supreme body of the UPU, by means of additional protocols. Four such protocols were adopted at congress in 1969, 1974, 1978 and 1989, prior to the adoption of the Fifth Additional Protocol of 1994 in Seoul. The Irish delegation signed the Fifth Protocol and other Acts adopted at the Seoul congress in 1994.
The motion to be moved in Dáil Éireann will seek approval of the Fifth Additional Protocol to the constitution of the Universal Postal Union. The basic Acts comprise the General Regulations of the Universal Postal Union and the Universal Postal Convention, as well as the Postal Parcels Agreement. These Acts, which are binding on members, are the general regulations setting out the various internal rules of procedure. The Universal Postal Convention contains the common rules applicable to the international postal service. Ireland also signed the Postal Parcels Agreement, which was optional and governed services other than letter post.
The motion is necessary on the advice of the Attorney General under Article 29.5.2° of the Constitution, which requires that Dáil Éireann approve the terms of international agreements involving a charge on public funds. Following approval of the motion, the Minister for Foreign Affairs will arrange for ratification of the Fifth Additional Protocol and the other Acts.
In general, the Acts of the 1994 Seoul congress streamline structures and procedures in the UPU, improving international mail handling arrangements and enhancing quality of service for customers. A distinction between the texts as they impact on policy and operations was inserted into the constitution and general regulations. This was designed to introduce greater flexibility into the union, where previously rules could be changed only at congresses which met at five-yearly intervals. It was also intended to reflect the growing trend for postal administration to be granted commercial independence and addressed the diverging needs of regulators and operators in the industry. To meet this challenge, two newly elected councils, one dealing with regulatory matters and the other with operational issues, have met annually at UPU headquarters in Berne, Switzerland since 1994.
The main amendments to the convention relate to the following issues: the obligation to ensure the security of mail in transit through third countries, which is incorporated in the text, and a more explicit emphasis of the general principle according to which charges are to be related to the costs of the service provided; letter post classification systems based on speed with priority and non-priority now recognised as the norm and the contents-based system, namely letters, printed papers etc. viewed as the exception, reversing the position which existed previously; charges applicable to priority items, which shall always be conveyed by the quickest route, air or surface, to include any additional costs of fast transmission; introduction of new rules for ensuring quality of service in respect of express items; the sanctions which can be applied against people who post mail in countries other than those in which they reside in order to profit from lower postal tariffs have been streamlined; a compensation provision for lost mail in certain circumstances; the desirability of quality of service targets which postal administrations are obliged to set being verified periodically by an impartial third party; some progress and reform of the terminal dues system which compensates a postal administration for delivering another country's mail; a new chapter containing the general provisions to encourage the establishment of electronic communications networks; issues related to the resolution of disputes affecting courier services; a change in the majorities required to submit proposals introduced between congresses.
I wonder whether we should approve these regulations. Should the Dáil accept them now when there are proposals from An Post to close down at least 1,000 sub-post offices throughout the country? Essentially, An Post will be present only in major towns and will disappear in rural Ireland. I have tried on a personal basis to keep sub-post offices going. I initiated pilot schemes which I ran out of the Department of the Taoiseach when I was Minister of State. We went through the various operations of setting up one-stop-shops. We had fairly good models, the purest one of all being in Cranny in County Clare. Then the State aid ran out and there is now just a community room to which people come at the weekends. The shop in which the post office was housed is closed. The closure of these sub-post offices is very bad for the security and the confidence of rural people.
The proposal presented provides for compensation for lost mail, but what about all the mail that will be lost when smaller units of the post office are closed? There is a proposal to close almost 1,000 of these units. Mr. Hynes has made this proposal on a number of occasions. While the Taoiseach said in the Dáil yesterday that this proposal will not be carried through, what assurance can the Minister of State give us before this protocol is passed? What is the position on sub-post offices? We know there is an economic difficulty about sustaining them but the State had an opportunity to study a one-stop shop system. Small post offices have a recognised body which makes proposals on their behalf. New high-tech units should be installed in post offices. If I recall correctly, pilot one-stop-shops were set up in Roscommon and Sligo. I am disappointed to learn Mr. Hynes is coming back again to close these units. We should not pass this protocol without commenting on its potential effect on cutbacks in rural postal services? All of us around this table represent rural constituencies.
The Deputy is seeking clarification on whether these additional protocols will impact adversely on post office services. That is the concern.
The Minister referred to electronic mail and so on.
The Minister of State is deputising for the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke. I am not defending him - he does not need my protection - but he may not necessarily have had notice of the post office issue unless it relates to or impacts on the matter before the committee.
Clearly, the issue raised is not particularly relevant to the business at hand. Having said that, I appreciate the work the Deputy did during his tenure of office in the area of rural development. That was part and parcel of that portfolio. We are all rural Deputies and have our concerns in regard to this matter but we should not set off alarm bells unnecessarily. I have not heard anything about the closure of 1,000 post offices. The Government has given an explicit commitment in the White Paper on rural development, with which Deputy Carey would be au fait, to retain the rural sub-post office network. The Minister has given an undertaking that there will be no forced closures of post offices. Those commitments were given and that position remains unchanged. I know from speaking regularly with the Minister for Public Enterprise about this that she is passionate about retaining the post office network, particularly throughout rural Ireland.
The Minister of State, when going though these additional protocols, referred to the issue of charges being related to cost. This sets off some alarm bells, bearing in mind the liberalisation of the postal service which is happening in the EU. In the context of guaranteed universal delivery of post the day after posting, and with liberalisation in the EU, there is a danger other operators will come in here and cherrypick. In other words, they will operate postal services in the large centres of population. If we are to maintain a next day delivery system throughout the country, obviously the cost of delivery in rural areas will be considerably higher than in cities and towns. Are there negative repercussions to the movement towards relating charges to cost? On the issue of sub-post offices, I understand it is the Minister's policy that no forced closures will take place, but a considerable number of sub-post offices have closed and have not reopened.
Since the Minister took office.
I do not have the figures off the top of my head although I have tabled parliamentary questions on the matter. On the one hand the Minister can say there will be no forced closures but there has already been a considerable number and, as Deputy Carey said, this is a serious matter. Speaking in terms of "no forced closures" does not represent the true position. Sub-post offices are closing. This is not unrelated to my other concern that in the not too distant future we may not have a next day delivery service in parts of rural Ireland, particularly in the more isolated parts where communication is all the more important.
I support what my colleagues have said. We are worried about this issue in rural areas where we have already seen the closure of banks. Pharmacies are now under threat, as well as Garda stations and post offices. In remote areas, such closures are a big problem.
On the issue under discussion, we received these proposals last evening. Perhaps we could be guided on what we are supposed to do with them. Our remit is to consider and rubber stamp them.
We can be deemed to have considered these proposals at any time; there is no presumption that the longer one addresses the issue, the greater the consideration accorded. I subscribe to the concerns raised by Deputies Carey, O'Shea and Stanton which I am sure Deputy Higgins shares. Given what the Minister has said, I understand what is being done does not impact upon the issues raised, in so far as members are anxious to establish whether they should be concerned about the plight of post offices.
May I continue, please? I have examined the document which is detailed and interesting and I congratulate those involved in the negotiations which must have involved hard work over a long period. Certainly in the present climate when there have been scares about various substances, including anthrax in America, going through the letter boxes, it is relevant. That is mentioned in the document. There are issues that will impact on the public. In future, it would be useful if we could be supplied with a briefing note or a summary on these matters if that is possible. We received this detailed documentation yesterday and are expected to debate it today and that simply is not practical. If this type of documentation contains matters that should be brought to our attention, it would be useful if that were done. Such briefing would be useful because it is not practical to consider something like this in a short period of time. Perhaps we are not supposed to, perhaps we are only supposed to rubber stamp it.
I am informed that this document was put in pigeon holes last Thursday. In the normal course of events, Thursday is the day Deputies, particularly rural Deputies, head home. I take the point that the notice was short given the serious nature of the matters involved for which sufficient time is required to obtain clarification. I understand also that this protocol was signed on behalf of Ireland on 14 September 1994, and we were instructed that we had to have today's business done by tomorrow, 14 February. I take your point. It is not the fault of the secretariat but——
No one disagrees with its passing but as Deputy Stanton said, if we had got an executive summary of the five protocols it would have been useful for everyone. To return to Deputy O'Shea's point, the cost factor for rural postal deliveries is important because rural areas may get only one in three or one in four deliveries. If the Dáil passes it by a majority, that is its democratic right but we should point out to the Minister of State that we have reservations about it.
We are all on the same wavelength and there is no conflict but what concerns me is the impact on the postal service. There may be something unforeseen in the protocol that we have not had time to pick up on. This goes back to the problem faced by committees, namely, they do not have the resources to deal with this type of material. We do not have the back-up or the research. The clerks are doing the best they can and they work extremely hard, but we could have benefited from some advice on this matter if we are to be independent in our consideration of it.
On page 26(1), convention article 26 states that letters may not contain documents having the character of current and personal correspondence exchanged between persons other than the sender and the addressee or persons living with them. It goes on to state that if the administration of the country of origin of this nation discovers the presence of such documents, they should deal with them according to this legislation. Will the Minister of State explain what that means?
I will endeavour to respond to the Deputies. Deputy O'Shea was concerned about the cost factor. I am advised that the common tariff is guaranteed under universal service obligations by An Post, thereby placing an obligation in that regard on An Post. Similarly, colleagues referred to closures that have occurred and are occurring - we all have some experience of closures that have occurred. This has obtained because An Post has been unable to recruit suitable persons. In my constituency we are endeavouring to exhort people to retain the post office in particular locations. In some cases there is a reluctance on behalf of the incumbents to stay on and when the incumbent dies or moves on, there is not exactly a rush of people to take up the position.
A restructuring process was put in place, which included the introduction of an agency based system. The purpose of the restructuring process is to bring about a situation where the provision of postal services is seen as an attractive business opportunity. These offices, therefore, would operate on a viable financial footing, meeting the needs of the community, both in rural and urban areas. All parties agree that the basis for determining a postmaster's income has to be restructured if such closures are to be avoided and we are to continue to provide a comprehensive, high quality service. It is not possible at this stage to indicate whether there will be voluntary closures to any extent. That depends on the roll-out of the restructuring process, which I understand has the full agreement of the unions. That is the reason for the closures which have obtained thus far.
Perhaps Deputy Stanton will give us the reference from which he quoted.
Article 26(3) of the convention.
Are we clear on the question? Does the Deputy want to establish the meaning of Article 26(3)?
Yes, does it make sense?
It appears one's girlfriend could not write to one in certain circumstances.
I do not know what it means.
It is very strange. If you wish, Chairman, I can read it out. It states that letters may not contain documents having the character of current and personal correspondence exchanged between persons other than the sender and the addressee or persons living with them, and if the administration of the country of origin of this nation discovers the presence of these documents, it shall deal with them according to this legislation. I do not understand what "having the character of current and personal correspondence" means.
I am right, that is all I can conclude.
Will you explain what it means, Chairman?
Yes, but it would be a serious threat to my psychiatric condition.
If the committee could bear with me for a moment, my officials are endeavouring to deal with Deputy Stanton's technical question.
Thank you, Minister.
With the current war on terrorism, some of this is extremely serious. We might smile about it but the greatest superpower in the world is in serious trouble because of anthrax and other material being sent through the mail. We have had scares here also with regard to this so it is a serious issue. It is not the stuff of fantasy, it is happening.
I am sorry for the delay, Chairman. I am advised the receiver cannot be used as a second deliverer to pass on the delivery to a third party. It is all very technical.
Does that mean that he could not re-address the envelope?
I do not think it means that. It means that it cannot be used as a document of exchange to pass on to a third party. I do not think there is any restriction on re-addressing an envelope within the jurisdiction.
I am still not sure what it means, but I will take the Minister of State's word that it is in order. It states "having the character of current and personal correspondence". It is extremely technical.
It substantiates the point that the Deputy made at the outset.
The Deputy raised the interesting point of the risks which can exist in regard to materials being sent through the post. Paragraph 26(6) states that the insertion of live animals in letter post items shall be prohibited. However, bees, leeches and silk worms shall be admitted in letter post items other than insured items. Who identifies that a bee, leech or silk worm is a bee, leech or silk worm? The Deputy raised the important point of the risk such deliveries pose in the context of international terrorism.
When a document like this, which dates back to 1994, comes before the select committee, there should be a referral process whereby interested parties could make submissions to the committee. This document should be referred to relevant bodies such as the Competition Authority, the Consumers' Association, the CWU, the IPU, An Post and, having regard to the important points made by Deputy Stanton, the Garda. It should also be referred to the Army and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. Since 11 September, there is a new scene regarding terrorism. As I understand it, these protocols have been signed on Ireland's behalf and we are only considering them. We do not have a role in accepting or rejecting them. Like Deputy Stanton, I received this document yesterday. With the best will in the world, it would be impossible to read it all. An explanatory note from the Department would be a basic requirement. The document should be referred to the interested parties.
I realise there is not much progress, if any, we can make beyond this point. Would the Minister like to make a concluding remark?
In view of the difficulties regarding postal deliveries following 11 September, has the Department been in contact with the relevant trade union representing the staff handling postal deliveries?
In other words, has it been consulted?
The Minister of State will probably deal with that point when replying.
This measure is about the regulation of external services, services between postal operators in different countries and it will not have a direct impact on our domestic services. I did not catch Deputy Carey's point.
I have a concern about whether the Minister of State and the Department consulted the relevant trade union involved in this matter, whose members would deal with the receipt or the forwarding of such letters. There is a safety factor involved concerning——
Yes. Has the union approved these regulations?
I am advised such consultation obtained internationally prior to signing of this document at Seoul. There would have been union involvement in those consultations. We are talking about the interaction of international agencies; we are not talking about the domestic situation.
Not the local situation.
Many of the difficulties we would face, in terms of dangerous substances or obscene materials coming through the post, would probably come from an international source. This issue is relevant, topical and current. I congratulate the people who worked on this document. The work that went into it must have been colossal and I am sure it is top class. I am happy with it in so far as I can be.
The Minister has made the point that this is UPU material. I worked in the post office at one time and, from my experience, these are the conventions and charters that govern international movement of post. My recollection is that there is very little latitude in this for individual countries to make specific changes because it is multilaterally decided. There are one or two derogations. There is one for Greece, which has always had a derogation. One either accepts these regulations in toto or one does not; any impact we would have would be only on international postal movements. Deputy O'Shea was concerned that this could have an impact domestically but we have been assured that will not happen because the domestic situation is a matter for ourselves.
That is an accurate assessment by Deputy Roche. These regulations will cover 174 countries. That sums it up.
I must leave to attend a conference.
I will not be able to join the Deputy, much as I would wish to.
I worked in the post office too. I sorted mail for Christmas as did every good student.