I propose to take Questions Nos. 218, 222 and 223 together.
An Post is a commercial State body with a mandate to deliver a postal delivery service and a viable post office network.
In November 2017, Government was presented with a future for An Post and the post office network that was uncertain and extremely bleak with a very real possibility that the company would go under. The potential for a complete shutdown of postal services with the loss of thousands of jobs was undeniable. Immediate action was needed to ensure the survival of An Post and the post office network.
As a result of the actions taken by Government, An Post has been able to construct and begin implementing a strategic plan for a sustainable future. Government remains fully committed to a sustainable post office network which is a key piece of economic and social infrastructure for both rural and urban areas. Reflecting its commitment to sustaining a nationwide post office network and daily mails service, the Government made €30m available in State funding to An Post to support the renewal of the post office network and the continued fulfilment of a 5 day per week mails delivery service.
Essential to delivering on An Post's renewed vision for the network is the agreement reached with the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. The consolidation process undertaken by An Post is the result of this agreement. In its negotiations with An Post, postmasters and postmistresses sought both the modernisation of the network and a voluntary redundancy package for those who wanted to leave the business. Talks were concluded between An Post and the IPU in April this year, following three months of intensive negotiations. The agreement was subsequently endorsed by 80% of IPU members. The decision on whether to accept the package was solely one for individual postmasters.
An independent appeals process was put in place to enable communities to have a decision relating to their local office reviewed. In addition, any retailer in the locations of the 159 post offices can apply to An Post to be considered to take over some or all of the services of the closing post office.
There is widespread acceptance that the post office network requires modernisation to build, maintain and protect a service that meets the needs of communities across the country. Investment by An Post of €50 million in the network is about getting communities to use the enhanced services in their local post office.
Decisions relating to the Post Office Network, including plans for individual post offices, are an operational matter for the Board and management of An Post and I have no statutory function in relation to these issues. The review process put in place and facilitated by An Post is an independent one and neither I, as Minister, nor my officials have a role in the process. In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on issues which are direct operational matters for An Post. Communities and representatives must engage with An Post directly.
An Post is already in the process of 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. A partnership with Avantcard announced in September will see personal loan services available in every post office across the country.
An Post has also confirmed the decision by its Board to provide a mortgage package from next year as part of its financial services strategy. The mortgage offer will be among a set of new products that will include credit cards, personal loans and fintech (Financial Technology) services offered via partnerships under a new brand, An Post Money.
In so far as the banking model is concerned, the Programme for a Partnership Government envisaged that An Post, the Irish League of Credit Unions and other interested stakeholders would be asked to investigate and propose a new model of community banking, such as the Kiwibank model in New Zealand. The Programme for Government also includes a commitment to investigate the German Sparkassen model for the development of local public banks.
A project team comprising officials from the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Finance was established to progress this commitment. The final report was published by the Minister for Finance, Pascal Donohoe TD and Minister for Rural and Community Development, Michael Ring TD on 4 July 2018. The final report indicates that the Department of Finance will continue to engage in dialogue with Irish Rural Link and other stakeholders and that it will commission an independent external evaluation of ways in which the local public banking concept could possibly be promoted in Ireland. The Department of Rural and Community Development will continue to focus on rural and regional development generally and will provide a coordinating role across Government in relation to this priority area.
Government business is the backbone of the post office network. In April this year the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection renewed her Department’s contract with An Post to provide pensions, child benefit and other social welfare payments at post offices. As part of its consideration of the financial position of An Post, the Government agreed that further opportunities for Government business through the Post Office Network, including the payment of motor tax, should be explored.
On 4 September 2018, the Government approved the establishment of an interdepartmental group to identify options, including procurement frameworks, for delivering services to those citizens who do not wish to use, or are unable to use, digital services. Where a business need is identified, it has been agreed to develop a procurement framework which would allow for the central provision of offline services by Government. The group will provide a report on its deliberations in Q1 2019 and the findings of this group may be of use to An Post in the longer term.
In addition, the Digital Assist pilot initiative was launched on 28 September 2018. Government funding of €80,000 has been allocated to roll out the pilot Digital Assist Scheme which will see 10 post offices kitted out to assist citizens with online Government interactions. All 10 post offices went live in the week beginning 20 October 2018 and the pilot scheme will finish in April next year. The pilot will provide further data and insight in relation to the provision of offline Government services to citizens. A review of the initiative will be carried out in Q2 2019 and feedback from this review will inform consideration of further offline services.