Thursday, 20 January 2011
Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
Michael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I propose to share my time with Deputy Alan Shatter.
I wish to begin my contribution with a personal childhood anecdote, which is not in any way unique. We had the privilege of having our postal service delivered by a very strong supporter of the party opposite, who was affectionately known locally as "An Taoiseach", may the Lord have mercy on him. In return for delivering the newspaper to my father and mother every day, he had his tea in our house. I am glad to say that is a tradition which continues to this day, notwithstanding the fact that since my childhood, many different postmen have come and gone. It is a tradition that continues and it is not a unique thing in rural Ireland.
There is a distinct perspective which needs to be brought to the debate, to which previous speakers have alluded, which is the rural perspective. In the context of the universal service obligation, everybody will want to compete for postal services on Patrick Street or O'Connell Street, but not everybody will want to deliver post to the Muskerry Gaeltacht, to Sliabh Luachra, or to the more remote parts of rural Ireland, because it is not a profitable service. We have to establish first principles in the context of this debate. As citizens of the country, regardless of where we reside, we expect the same level of service provision. It is to the great credit of An Post that for many years since the foundation of the State - indeed even before the foundation of the State - that equality of treatment of citizens has been a cornerstone of the postal service in this country. What most people fear is that this is something which could be lost in our headlong rush to embrace new directives from Europe without adequate scrutiny of the proposals.
In wrapping up the Second Stage debate, I would like to hear the Minister of State outline his vision on how we can re-assure people in my constituency, who are probably reflective of the urban-rural mix but many of whom live in remote areas and who would have real fears due to their recent experiences with An Post's administration of other non-postal services. I am referring in particular to the services of the local post office. That goes to the kernel of the debate.
I acknowledge that the financial position in which An Post finds itself is quite precarious. Any company that turns over €800 million but makes a profit of only €5 million is not in a comfortable position. The volume of mail being delivered is falling year on year, due to the downturn and due to new technologies and changing human behaviour, and due to cost and competitiveness issues. An Post needs to take stock at management level of the kind of service delivery to which it aspires in the years ahead. A critical component of that must be that the universal service obligation is key. We must acknowledge that this comes at a cost. It is not free and it is not cheap. This Bill is about facilitating competition. We must ensure that competition is fair.
As a representative in a rural constituency I have seen the consequences of the privatisation of Eircom. That debacle has led to great difficulty in terms of broadband provision, for example, in the more rural areas of my constituency. The attempts by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in the national broadband scheme to reach out to all areas have not been entirely successful. If one contacts Eircom today about any matter, from the provision of a new land line to moving a pole, one will wait months on end for a response because there is no competition. That was a mistake in the manner in which we structured that privatisation. We must make sure that in facilitating competition, as proposed in this Bill, that we do not emasculate An Post in terms of the obligations we want it to deliver.
An Post must think outside the box and look at new technologies. It must consider what is happening in terms of best practice in other countries and how to embrace new technologies. Deputy Mitchell made reference in her contribution to shopping trends, Internet shopping and a parcel delivery service. Parcel delivery is one of the areas where An Post has competition but An Post has a unique network that could enable it outflank many of its competitors by virtue of its post office network. In terms of someone buying something on-line, if An Post were to put in place a series of parcel delivery post boxes for individuals where they can deliver a parcel and access it by virtue of a code that is emailed to them that would be unique to them, we could use the effective post office network we have throughout the country to grow business for An Post and to tackle head-on that aspect of its business which has been haemorrhaging in recent years to private parcel and service delivery people in the private sector.
I met recently with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and a number of his Cabinet colleagues, unusually, in the context of the closure of a rural post office in my constituency in Béal Atha an Ghaorthaidh. I attended a public meeting in the village some weeks ago where several hundred people committed to retaining that service met and formulated a campaign which, regrettably to date, and notwithstanding platitudes from the Minister and from other Ministers and meetings with An Post, has not borne fruit. We need to hear from An Post on the level of post office provision throughout the country it proposes because with regard to the post office in Ballingeary, for example, the view of An Post is that there is a post office in Inchigeela and in Renaniree and that those are adequate for people's requirements. However, it is likely that in the foreseeable future those post offices may have their contract relinquished and An Post will say it is withdrawing those services. There will then be a vast swathe of countryside with no access to a postal service.
Rather than being reactive and tied into contractual arrangements, which I understand and appreciate, An Post must present a picture of what is the sustainable level of post office service it can maintain and the business opportunities it has identified that it can grow out of its network of post offices and sub post offices throughout the country. Otherwise, vast swathes of the rural countryside will have no post office network. Notwithstanding An Post's anxiety to promote the postal agency service, large part of the countryside will not have banking, registered post or parcel facilities in their local post offices. An Post must examine its national remit in terms of post offices and indicate the level of service it can sustain, where it would like to have those post offices located if it were starting with a blank canvass, and how it can grow that business rather than accepting that it is doing a terminally declining volume of business in those post offices and sub post offices.
There is opportunity, and part of that opportunity is embracing the new technologies head-on including Internet shopping, the parcel delivery service and the opportunities that network of local post offices - in excess of 1,000 throughout the country - offers to it in that it can deliver one's parcel to a local community more effectively and efficiently than any of its competitors. I have no difficulty with competition in principle. Unfair competition, which is the critical point in this debate, poses serious risks to the constituency and the people I represent in rural Ireland.
I will be interested in hearing the Minister's response. It is time for new thinking. An Post is in a precarious financial position. People will point to the fact that it made a profit of €5 million but €5 million on a turnover of €800 million is not a strong financial position. It is less than 1% of turnover, which in any business would be a worrying signal, and it is declining. This is an opportunity but it will not last forever. The Minister must reassure us in terms of universal service.