There is no Government plan to close post offices. The decline in post office numbers has, in fact, been arrested. Figures in the Grant Thornton report commissioned by the Irish Postmasters Union show that, although there were 197 closures between 2006 and 2010, from the end of 2010 to date there have been 17 closures.
Reference was made to the business carried out by An Post for the Department of Social Protection. The new six year contract to handle social welfare payments, which was recently won by An Post, is good news for the post office network. Securing the future feasibility of the post office network in the longer term will not be achieved by restricting individual access to e-payment solutions. Rather, the post office network must continue to modernise, as it is doing, to provide the services that its customers require. An Post has undertaken a programme of capital investment especially in the computerisation of the post office network, including the automation of all post offices. As a result, the post office network stands well positioned to become the front-office provider of choice for Government and the financial services sector for both electronic transactions as well as the more traditional over-the-counter transactions. Naturally, any such developments would have to be subject to public procurement requirements, as appropriate.
An Post has made considerable progress towards diversification with its enhanced arrangement with Aviva for the transfer of Aviva Ireland's branch office personal business insurance business book to One Direct.
The opportunity to pay local property tax through the post office network has also been secured. It is also important to acknowledge the responsibilities of postmasters themselves to develop new ways of meeting customers’ needs at the post office counter. I look forward to hearing what the Irish Postmasters Union considers its members can achieve at a meeting I am due to hold with the union soon.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
I welcomed the fact that the Government has agreed to my proposal for a whole-of-Government consideration, encompassing central and local government and the wider public service, of the nature and extent of services that can be provided to the public using the post office network as a front office of Government. This whole-of-Government analysis will be undertaken in the first instance by the Cabinet committee on social policy with a view to a report to Government by that committee. This will afford an opportunity for a holistic review of the range of services which could be provided by the post office network and could perhaps yield synergies among the different agencies. The Cabinet committee on social policy is the appropriate vehicle for dealing with the whole-of-Government approach required for the future of the post office network.