Thursday, 20 January 2011
Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
John Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
I thank Deputy Brady for sharing time. In recent months we have had a great deal of representations from the CWU, including a booklet entitled "Protect your Post". We have met the representatives in Buswells Hotel, in our offices and in our homes. Most of us meet our postman on a daily basis. These workers have serious concerns about some of the provisions in this Bill. They are concerned about their futures and about how the legislation will impinge on their working conditions and on how they operate the postal service for the future.
We are fortunate to have a strong postal service in this country. We may criticise it from time to time if a letter or parcel does not arrive within the indicated timeframe, but in general the service has been of a high standard. Postal workers are usually very helpful and co-operative. The postman is very much at the heart of the social fabric, particularly in rural areas. In the case of elderly people living alone, for example, their only contact with the outside world may be with their postman. None of us wants to see that change dramatically. There will and must be changes under liberalisation, but those changes must be managed in a way that ensures new entrants to the market do not cherry-pick the cream of the routes while leaving less profitable services to An Post. Such an outcome would have devastating effects.
An Post currently employs some 10,000 staff. On a daily basis it is responsible for delivering 2.5 million items of mail to 2.2 million business and residential addresses using a fleet of 2,680 vehicles and 1,645 bicycles. Every week it serves 1.7 million customers through its unique national network. All of this for the price of a stamp. These workers are providing a vital service. Moreover, the purchase and servicing of vehicles, purchase of uniforms and so on provides spin-off benefits to local suppliers throughout the State.
There was a great deal of criticism of An Post some years ago in respect of its operational losses, with a consequent imperative on the company to bring its operations in line with current Government spending. For example, there has been a reduction in staff numbers, the introduction of efficiency programmes, new collection and delivery programmes, investment in technology and so on. In 2007 the figure for next-day delivery was 77%, increasing to between 87% and 91% in 2010. There are 32 authorisations to companies to the postal market, with 60% of the market already fully open to competition. The post office network has a huge social value and represents an excellent delivery channel of various State services.
It is important the Minister reflects on some of the issues that have been raised during the debate last week and this week. There is serious concern within the postal service that if the Bill is not managed in a proper way, it could spell the death knell of the postal service that we know. The postal service has already been hit by declining mail volumes and is down 16% from 2009. Each 1% decline represents a loss of €5 million. We have the Internet, e-billing and all these modern methods of communication. Even within our own offices, we are inclined to send e-mails and use other forms of modern technology. This is having an effect on the postal service as well. Its representatives met us in Buswells Hotel and they said that their key concern was how the USO would be funded in future. They pointed out that compensation funds have not worked in other countries. They claim that they need State aid as an option in the future. We do not know what the market will look like in five years, so we should have a plan B in the form of State aid if the market needs it. I would like the Minister or the Minister of State to give their views on that.
Deputy Brady spoke about cherry-picking and this is one of the major concerns in the postal service at the moment. There is a need to ensure that An Post has commercial freedom to compete with new market entrants in profitable areas. There is a danger that companies will cherry-pick Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, but when it comes to going to Curracloe in Wexford or Ballindaggin in the hills of north Enniscorthy, they just will not want to know. They will leave it to one side and say that the An Post postman will do those jobs. It is important that all the An Post operations be protected in the area of cherry-picking.
Downstream access below the mail centre level will signal the end of An Post, so this should be provided for in legislation. Is that the Minister's intention? How does he intend to deal with the downstream access area? The Communication Workers Union will tell us that this is an area that will have a serious effect on services if it is not included in the legislation and dealt with accordingly.
This Bill is very important in many ways, but it could do serious damage to the postal services as we know them. It is very important that the legislation would be as it should be. Liberalisation is essential under EU legislation, but it is also important that we protect our own An Post services, which are so valuable to this country. They have served us well down through the years. We criticise it from time to time, but An Post has generally provided a tremendous service. The postman is a very important part of rural Ireland. Maybe he should not be doing so, but the postman often brings the newspaper and messages to old people. During the bad weather period over the winter, postmen provided a tremendous service in parts of rural Wexford and across the country. They helped old people and brought to the attention of the local authorities and health services people who were suffering and isolated.
I welcome this Bill and the opportunity provided to me to contribute on it. At the end of the day, it is important that the Bill reflects the views we have outlined today. The CWU campaign slogan is "Protect your Post", and that is a very important message. I am sure the Minister will take on board some of the suggestions that are being put forward here.