Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ceisteanna (3)

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

3. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to outline his plans to guarantee the future of the Irish post office network; if he is concerned at the possible movement to e-payments by the Department of Social Protection which would have a dramatic impact on the post office network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11699/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

The question relates to the future of the Irish post office network. Is the Minister concerned about the movement to e-payments by the Department of Social Protection? What plans does the Minister have to guarantee the future of the Irish post office network?

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.

The importance of the post office network cannot be overstated. The Irish Postmasters Union is very concerned about any threat to post offices, including issues concerning their closure. It is time we examined the post office network, which is a trusted high street brand. Like other public services, including the ESB, there is a public service obligation to maintain the network. We must challenge An Post because for far too long the line has been that the company is a commercial State entity which must conduct its business commercially. If we are serious about maintaining the post office network, both in urban and rural areas, there should be an obligation on An Post to maintain the network. That should be written into the memorandum to An Post, so that it would have to maintain the network like the ESB and other State companies. That would force An Post to find products for its market. Over the years, we have had debates on what services the post office network should provide.

I will come back to the Deputy for the next reply, but I must now call the Minister.

It is important to place an obligation on An Post to maintain the network.

I agree with Deputy Moynihan's disposition towards the importance and value of An Post. However, the Irish postal service is a network of commercial enterprises that are subject to EU competition law, so there is no avoiding that. I do not disagree with the sentiments that Deputy Moynihan has expressed but in his question he asks about my plans to guarantee the future of the Irish post office network. Since coming to office, I have taken a number of measures to arrest the decline and rate of closure. I gave the figures earlier but I cannot give a guarantee because public procurement and EU competition law apply. That basic point must be understood because we are not going to have some deus ex machina entering from stage-left that can wave a magic wand and say that EU law applies, but not to the Irish post office network.

The Cabinet sub-committee on social policy is examining what can be done on a whole-of-Government basis but that, too, must be responded to by the Irish postmasters themselves in terms of innovative ideas. These include creating new products and services that, consistent with EU law, will enable the post office network to be used as a front-of-office facility for the provision of Government services.

Can some obligation be put on An Post to maintain the network? The ESB is a case in point - it is a commercial semi-State company but is obliged to maintain networks in every community. Is it not time to be realistic? It is 23 or 24 years since the "Save our post offices" campaign began, yet the post office network has been steadily eroded. When a post office closes, the community closes also.

Is there a possibility that under EU and domestic law we can push An Post to maintain the network which will then become the Government office in a community? It is high time we dramatically challenged what is there at the moment, otherwise I fear for the future of many post offices.

The universal service obligation stands. It is Government policy and we have reflected that Government policy at EU level, which is that the universal service obligation should apply and continue to apply. It is no longer possible, as a member state of the European Union, that any Minister or anyone from any side of the House can prescribe that in future the post office in whatever town or village has the exclusive right to be the front office for government services, irrespective. It was necessary to go through a public tender process to hold on to the social welfare contract. Happily, this happened last year. However, these services have to comply with EU procurement law but this compliance allows for many things to be done. I do not know of any other organisation that has almost 1,150 retail outlets scattered throughout the length and breadth of the country. I will welcome any input I receive not only from Deputy Moynihan and his party but from any other colleagues in the House. I will bring any such proposals which are innovative and feasible to the Cabinet sub-committee dealing with this matter.