Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ceisteanna (11, 17, 31, 35)

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

11. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the actions he plans to take after the passing of the amended motion on post office services in Dáil Éireann on 26 February; the time frame he envisages for an action plan to come forward; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11507/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

17. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will liaise with the Department of Finance in ensuring the roll-out of the standard bank account to post offices nationwide; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11508/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

31. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the extent to which he expects to be in a position to encourage An Post to use every opportunity to generate extra business for the postal services including additional services compatible with those already available to An Post with particular reference to the use of the existing counter and delivery services throughout the country in view of the obvious opportunities in the course of the continuation of existing services alongside new and complimentary enterprises which will have the effect of ensuring the viability and success of the postal system and incorporating the use of modern technology in the provision of enhanced services in both urban and rural areas and in view of the fact that the pattern of post office closures which had become a feature in previous years has been successfully addressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10960/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

35. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the steps that are being taken to support the maintenance of the Post Office network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10853/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (25 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

I have a considerable weight on my shoulders as I must carry the can for my two colleagues, Deputies Pringle and Durkan, who tabled the other questions in this group.

As the Minister indicated in reply to a previous question, An Post's greatest asset is its local post office network. The difficulty is that the company views its local network as a cost rather than an asset. The Government is not giving serious consideration to how this asset could be sweated to bring services to communities as opposed to centralising them. I ask the Minister to comment.

As I have already heard the Minister's previous comments, there is probably no point in him reading them into the record again.

I am not sure I agree with Deputy Naughten that-----

There are four questions being taken together.

Did I not read the formal reply?

I am inviting the Minister to do so now.

As Deputy Naughten does not wish me to read it, I will not do so.

I am not sure I would agree with Deputy Naughten that An Post sees it as a cost rather than an asset. The collapse of mail volumes by 25% in the past five years owing to e-substitution and so on rather than the collapse of An Post's core business is what is driving the pressure on the postal network. The fear on the part of the postmasters is not so much that An Post might lose the social welfare contract, which I take with a grain of salt, but electronic funds transfers because the margin per item transacted would be of considerably less value to it than the traditional over-the-counter cash transaction. That is what concerns them.

I agree with Deputy Naughten that the postal network is an asset. As I said earlier, I am not aware of any business that has 1,149 retail outlets throughout the country. The Cabinet sub-committee is currently looking at whether there are other ways the network can be utilised as a contact point by the public in the context of different Government services. That is the issue. Unfortunately, it must be addressed within procurement and competition law. It may be the case that if we were in France we would not be so scrupulous about observing EU rules in this regard. However, we are not and those rules apply.

Deputy Moynihan raised a question with me earlier in regard to EU infringement. I do not know whether it is always the case that the EU pursues big business in the same manner as it pursues small business but that is the law and the impediment in the way.

I thank the Minister for his response. Would he agree that An Post's approach is blinkered, for example, its approach to parcel post, an area that is currently growing because of Internet shopping? An Post has wound down its parcel service and a private operator is currently developing the parcel motel system across the country. Surely, it would have made far more sense for An Post to use its own local network to provide that service, thereby facilitating people shopping via the Internet in the UK and US. However, that did not happen.

During a discussion with the Minister on this issue on 4 December last, I outlined to him a number of areas where I felt there was potential to develop the sector, including the use by the HSE of local offices in the context of applications for medical cards and by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the context of single farm payments. The Minister committed on that occasion to considering the feasibility of progressing those possibilities. Perhaps he would update the House of any progress in that regard.

I did. It is part of the submission being made by my Department to the Cabinet sub-committee on social policy. I have gone outside the two examples provided at that time by Deputy Naughten. I am also looking at the possibility of returning the driving licence service to An Post. I also wonder whether if in small villages where Garda stations have been closed post offices might serve as a clinic for a garda for four hours a day, two days a week or something like that.

I have asked my Cabinet colleagues to examine whether there are services relevant to their remits which, consistent with the law, can be provided. That is the purpose of the Cabinet sub-committee taking a whole-of-Government approach to the issue. I hope we will receive the co-operation of An Post and the IPU in respect of that matter.

I welcome the Minister's reply. My next question relates specifically to driving licences. Does the Minister not agree that a huge mistake was made in the context of the approach that was taken in respect of driving licences? Whereas people could previously apply to renew their licences via their local post offices, there are now only a handful of specific locations throughout the country at which it is possible to renew licences. As a result, it is taking ten to 16 weeks to process applications. Postmasters possess a unique skill set. Not only could this skill set be used to revitalise the post office network, it could also be used for the more import task of streamlining government. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is involved in a process of considering the centralisation of services and delivering them by electronic means. Does the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, agree there is a cohort of people who do not have access to decent broadband services or who do not possess the technological skills necessary to use such services? The post office network can facilitate this cohort by providing that vital link to its members.

While there may not be a specific saving to be made in respect of the small cohort whose members continue to use the paper-based system via their local post offices, there is a significant reduction in the supports required in respect of any national scheme - such as that, for example, which relates to the local property tax - if the system to which I refer is utilised. If the status quo continued to obtain in this regard, it would still be possible for the automated backroom service to continue to be provided on a national basis. Savings could still be delivered nationally while the service would continue to be delivered locally.

There are very good social reasons why we cannot consider this matter only through the prism of cost. I accept the argument in that regard. Like all clichés, however, that which Deputy Moynihan condemned earlier has a grain of truth. As Deputy Moynihan stated, An Post is a commercial State company with a remit to carry out its business profitably, etc. As such, it is not in receipt of an Exchequer subvention. Obviously, the company and its directors must have regard to that.

My memory of the driving licence issue is that the tender was won on the basis of 40 outlets being provided, whereas An Post had offered some 200 plus outlets. The experience anecdotally is that the new system is proving inconvenient for people in many parts of the country, including Dublin. It is a bit of an undertaking for people to travel to a single location to renew their driving licences and then return to work or wherever. This is a good example and I am in discussions in respect of it with my colleagues. I received enormous support a couple of weeks ago on Private Members' business. In fact, I have never had such a gale of support behind me right across the House. I hope that will last.

Is it not the kernel of the issue that An Post has a major asset in terms of the number of retail outlets it owns? Any company operating in an urban or a rural setting whose business is in decline as a result of the impact of electronic transactions and so forth will seek replacement business. There is a huge volume of such business available. The board and management of An Post does not seem to be empowered to go after the type of business that would make the company's retail network sustainable.

Until there is an obligation on the board under a memorandum of understanding or a policy direction from everyone to the effect that An Post should go after these businesses, nothing will improve. Every Deputy in the House has ideas on what business An Post should be going after. The board of An Post does not seem to be making any effort to ensure the feasibility of these post offices now or in future.

Reference was made to Private Members' business and most of the Minister's response merits our support because he restated the Government's intention in the programme for Government to sustain the post office network. The Minister also stated the Government has no intention of closing post offices. However, it was what the Minister said further on in his response that concerns me. There seems to be a fatal acceptance by the Government that all the trade will move from the town and village high street to shopping centres in major county and provincial centres of population. That could be a self-fulfilling prophecy unless the Government steps in, and if we do not have a strategy that is what will happen. If that is what happens, then whether the Government wishes it, not only will post offices close but every business, including all the shops, will close in the high streets of towns and villages. I call on the Minister to look again at the response he gave to that point. There is more to the country than major shopping centres in major centres of population and we should nurture what is precious in the smaller towns and villages as well as looking after the cities.

My apologies for not being present from the beginning of the Minister's reply, although I heard it from a distance.

We missed Deputy Durkan.

One thing that is emerging and which I fully support is the fact the Minister is committed to the ongoing provision of services through the post office counter and delivery services that are available throughout the country. Will the Minister set out the extent to which he has continued to encourage likely suitable or applicable services to be attached to An Post that could broaden and spread its services throughout the country, increase the feasibility and longevity of the network and contribute largely to an interaction with urban and rural communities, which is needed as we progress?

In recent years greater efforts have been made by the Minister to ensure the retention of the services of An Post. One possible service which could be added on - it is a necessary service - is the collation of the voting register, which is in need of urgent review in most constituencies and counties. It is eminently suitable as a bolt-on service to An Post.

There is time for two more brief questions from Deputies Naughten and Troy.

As the Minister is aware, the banks do not want customers, especially those dealing in cash or cheques, coming into branches, and this causes major problems for older people in particular. Will the Minister ensure that when the NTMA contract is being renewed, this issue is addressed? In many cases older people use the Government savings schemes and they like the system that is in place through the community network provided by An Post.

Will the Minister outline the position on the payment of social welfare in the post office network? As I highlighted last week during the Private Members' debate, the Department of Social Protection is actively encouraging people to move their payments from the post office to bank accounts. Last week, we learned that the payment for rent allowance will now be taken directly at source from social welfare payments, thereby removing another service rather than encouraging and pushing services to the post office system. Last week we learned that a Department is taking a further service away from the post office, that is, the payment of the rent allowance, which will be taken directly at source.

It is not the case that An Post has sat on its hands, so to speak, in this area. An Post has extended new business lines in recent years in a range of areas, including Garda fines, gun licences, insurance services, foreign exchange services, Postfone, extended banking services, TaxPay, the DHL retail partnership, real-time waste top-up, Dublin same-day delivery, Saorview and the secure meter pilot scheme. Many new bill payment customers have been added and there has been a significant growth in the gift voucher business and so on. It is not true to say, therefore, that An Post has not come up with new business.

What concerns me a little is the proposition that it is the responsibility only of An Post, the Minister or the Government. At issue is a network of commercial enterprises that are privately owned. Of the 1,147 retail outlets, only 57 are owned by An Post. The remainder are privately owned and these too have a responsibility. I will be very positive about any new ideas they come up with provided that does not involve nailing a sign stating "Post office to close" on the door, which is what some of them are doing and which is not exactly the most business-oriented way forward.

Some 3,000 jobs are at stake.

Of course it is not true because the Government has no plans to close post offices. As I have stated, a total of 197 post offices were closed between 2006 and 2010 but I did not hear a squeak from some of the people who are now concerned about the fact that a total of 17 have closed since 2010.

It is reflection of a lazy Opposition at the time.

We should see this in perspective and acknowledge that there is a responsibility on the part of the people who manage the commercial offices.

I agree with Deputy Durkan. At a time when the banks are resiling from interaction with average customers at the bank counter, there are possibilities for the post office given its network of retail outlets. An Post is and has been examining these possibilities, and some of the arrangements An Post has come up with, including with the likes of Allied Irish Banks, have been rather positive. I assure the concerned postmasters of Ireland that the post office is in safe hands.

I do not think so.

There has not been a peep out of Deputy Durkan.