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Post Office Closures

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 18 December 2018

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Ceisteanna (48)

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

48. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the process to review decisions to close rural post offices undertaken by An Post; the number of reviews and successful reviews, respectively, which have been completed to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53419/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

This is to ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the process to review decisions to close rural post offices undertaken by An Post; the number of reviews and successful reviews, respectively, which have been completed to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Was there not a question to be answered before this one?

There was but the Deputy is not here to ask it.

That threw me as well.

An Post is a commercial State body with its own board. Decisions relating to the post office network are an operational matter for An Post. In the face of serious declines in the volume of mail and post office business, An Post faced growing losses and has had to undertake a major restructuring of its business to continue to be able to provide valuable services.

With post offices, An Post has agreed an exit arrangement where postmasters choose to retire. It has established a protocol which sets out how the company would facilitate the continued provision of post office services where this occurs. Its aim is to make as many post offices as possible viable. It takes account minimum service levels as well as a range of other issues. I understand that An Post has also set up an appeals mechanism. In the case of 45 of 51 appeals the independent reviewer upheld the decision of An Post. In five cases An Post reconsidered the decision and re-advertised the contract, while in one case the postmaster withdrew the resignation.

A key element of An Post's strategy is to develop new business lines. This includes parcel delivery, financial services that include personal loans, and more recently it has considered options relating to mortgages. It has also committed to extending its opening times. The Government is supporting An Post in the delivery of its €150 million transformation programme, and the Government provided a €30 million loan to An Post to support the renewal of the post office network and the continued fulfilment of the five day per week delivery service. Government funding has also been allocated to a new so-called Digital Assist scheme being piloted in ten post offices, where post offices are kitted out to help citizens engage with Government services online. We are also looking at options to deliver Government services to those citizens who do not want to use or are unable to use services online. The findings of this work may be of use to An Post in the longer term.

An Post continues to experience very significant declines in mail volumes and its traditional retail business, yet it has managed to strengthen its financial performance significantly and maintain a network of 960 post offices and 1,600 post points.

I am familiar with quite a number of community groups around the country, including in my constituency, where people came together in the aftermath of the proposal to close a significant number of post offices. Of course there were some for whom the business and the level of transactions had gone so low that some communities accepted it was not possible to retain them. In many cases there was strong community representation and support to retain the services. The concern I have is there does not seem to have been an independent appraisal of the documentation or the proposals made. Very clearly some communities have demonstrated that their numbers and the criteria set out by An Post in the first instance were clearly met. The contracts should have been re-advertised and the demand and desire was there. Unfortunately, this so-called independent committee did not find in favour of the communities. There is a question over how a review group can be independent when it was effectively appointed by An Post in the first place. It would have been appropriate for the Department to have put in place an independent mechanism rather than rely on An Post.

An Post is independent in its operation so it is appropriate that the independent operator would appoint an appeals group. It set out the criteria used and, as I indicated in the initial reply, from 51 cases there were six cases with a reversal in the decision. There have been examples where a case has been made and a decision was reconsidered. In a significant number of cases, some of the services have been allocated to other retailers in the area. There are 22 places where a post point was introduced or upgraded to ensure some post office services were maintained in an area. An Post has been trying to respond as flexibly as it can.

The backdrop to this remains the difficulty from the decline in volumes this year of both retail and mail businesses, which are very significant at close to 8%. The company is facing a difficult environment in maintaining a service, and that is why diversification is so important for the continued success of its network.

I thank the Minister and I know there are many other matters in his brief on which he has had to concentrate in his short time in office. When he gets the opportunity to review some of the discussion and debate, particularly the proposals made by Fianna Fáil, he may recognise that there are people and communities who see the post office service as being essential, and the distance they are now expected to travel to these other offices is way too far for the vulnerable people whom the post offices serve. I accept and recognise that An Post must consider viability. It is incumbent on the State to provide a level of support through a public service obligation, if necessary, to support the provision of post office services in certain communities. It is in that vein I would have thought the Government should have taken a more proactive role in trying to decipher those offices that were absolutely necessary from those that were nice to have. When the Minister reads into the brief in a more complete way, he will come to the realisation that vast tracts of dispersed rural population require a service, although not commercially viable, that should be given the support of the State. There are plenty of other services in the State that are not financially viable but which are important facets of the community. They therefore deserve the protection and support of the taxpayer.

No Government, whether involving Fianna Fáil or any other party, has chosen to operate the post office network as a State-subsidised scheme. It has always been part of An Post's commercial business. There is no doubt that if one moves down that road, there would be a question of identifying the service and putting it to public tender. To be realistic, we must ensure that a network we sustain services a need. That there has been such a sharp decline in the activity made it inevitable that the size of the network would decline.

An Post has specified minimum distances and so on in different areas to try to ensure there is cover. The Deputy's question concerns communication networks of the future, and it is very much about where we put our scarce euro. Do we ensure there are networks to future-proof rural areas from some of these challenges? We are trying to strike a balance and maintain an effective An Post network while also looking to future communications demands in rural areas. The questions relate to two sides of a coin. Insofar as it is reasonable, we can look at maintaining the existing network while planning for the future.

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