Thursday, 20 January 2011
Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
Michael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
I appreciate that. However, the Minister will appreciate that there are some Ministers who have set their faces against ever accepting amendments while there are others who have accepted them. I was merely seeking clarification in respect of this matter.
I wish to comment on a number of the principles underlying the Bill. The Minister is aware that I have great respect for him. I do not say that just for the sake of being polite. I previously served as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and I had responsibility for broadcasting. I also worked in the area of communications. On foot of my experience in these areas, I wish, therefore, to make a few points.
My first point relates to the background to the legislation, which involves the implementation of the third phase of liberalisation in respect of postal services. In many ways, the legislation makes it possible for the Minister to introduce a system of regulation which may or may not defend certain principles. We must deal with such matters in general on Second Stage before discussing them in detail on Committee Stage.
In the background to the legislation there is a suggestion in respect of the balance between a liberalised market and the principle of universality. I wish to comment on this matter in the context of the concept of the universal service obligation. I agree with the sentiment expressed by Deputy O'Rourke to the effect that it is every citizen's right to receive post. This is important in a number of different ways. It is certainly important in a European sense. The discourse engaged in during the evolution and adoption of the various European treaties has frequently returned to the concept of social cohesion, that is, the ideal to emerge would be a Europe of the citizens which would be inclusive and so forth. The greatest failure of the European Union - in the various statements made by Jacques Delors and his successors - has been its lack of success in making contact, in the context of a genuine sense of inclusion, with all of its citizens.
Social cohesion is important. If an unrestrained, liberalised version of the market is created in the absence of such cohesion, an underclass is created and this is added to the existing levels of poverty. In turn, this breaks down into different social categories which include the aged and the poor in particular. As a result, a kind of exclusion that is dangerous in the context of the entire project relating to Europe is created. The notion, therefore, that every system should have the right to communicate through the postal system is neither sentimental nor old fashioned. It is, rather, practical, particularly in respect of building a Europe that includes all of its citizens.
What we are about here is also illustrative of the failure of citizenship to be delivered as a concept within Europe. We must consider, with extreme care, how we implement directives. I will develop my point in this regard further in a moment. I was not merely seeking to score points when I referred to the disastrous decisions taken by Deputy O'Rourke, when serving as a Minister, in respect of our telephone system. The Deputy cleared the way to allow gangsters to sell a company that was providing a State service over and over again in a way that scandalised everyone. Media commentators at the time suggested that the thing to do was to get in and get out quickly. Those who came in first after the flotation of Eircom were gone again after a few weeks and they made a killing. Many of them are very well known. I am merely highlighting what happens when one takes a State resource or network, transfers it to the market and invites citizens to purchase shares. In the case of Eircom and in the terms utilised in the highly greedy period in this country's history which is just now coming to an end, everybody "got a piece of the action".
Let us look to the future and respond to the circumstances I have just described. I will not make many more contributions in this House. However, I recall that at the beginning of my political career I often referred to the effect of the closure of the railways on society. In the area in which I was reared in County Clare there was a small railway station. When this was closed, the elderly people who used to sell daffodils and eggs in the markets in Ennis and Limerick - the kind of activity in which members of the Green Party would be interested and I applaud them for that - were suddenly confined to their homes. They were informed that they could travel a couple of miles in order to catch the bus. However, the bus service in question eventually fell into disuse. As a result of the closure of many of our railways, many elderly people in rural areas - particularly elderly females - found themselves increasingly isolated. Those are the facts.
In the context of seeking to get matters right, there are areas in which it is appropriate that the market should provide choice and cost-effective services - by means of encouraging competition - to the citizens of Europe. If Europe is to be meaningful, citizens must be capable of being connected through every means of communication. The Minister noted that the provision of broadband is a matter for the private sector. When the issue of connectivity was discussed in Denmark, the authorities there decided to do it the other way around. The Danes chose a model whereby citizens would be connected in a general sense in the first instance in the context of schools and basic essential services. It was only thereafter that the market entry point was created. That is the way Denmark proceeded. It created a right of communication and instead of opening up a new divide in respect of information technology, proceeded in the direction of inclusivity.
I oppose the notion that State services are somehow inferior to those provided by the private sector. Previous speakers referred to the points made by the Communications Workers Union, which represents 10,000 people who are employed in the postal service. The points to which I refer are not unreasonable. I agree with Deputy O'Rourke that there is a need to be specific in respect of the universal service obligation. I will not delay the House in rehearsing examples - such as those relating to the VHI, etc. - of what has happened to the health service. How is the universal service obligation to be funded? It has been suggested that the entry of people into certain parts of the market will generate a form of income which will, in turn, make the universal service obligation practical. Does this suggestion constitute plan B? It has been also suggested that An Post will carry this obligation - in the absence of specificity in respect of funding - for seven years and that a review will take place at the end of this period to discover if another entity can be considered in the context of assuming responsibility for it. I am not requiring the Minister to agree with me and I am quite used to being in a minority for most of my life in regard to this thinking. There is not the slightest evidence that markets are rational or inclusive, and practically no evidence in regard to the communications area that markets are necessarily efficient.