Dáil debates

Thursday, 2 June 2005

5:00 pm

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The recent announcement by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, that a new system of postcodes will be introduced in Ireland by 1 January 2008 provides no seriously persuasive argument as to why new postcodes are necessary. I am not convinced this scheme does not have the potential to turn into another €50 million squandering of public money which could be used in any number of under funded areas highlighted recently, such as nursing homes or seatbelts on school buses.

The Minister claims that a postcode is "a vital piece of infrastructure for any modern economy". This infrastructure exists already in the use of automated sorting, including optical character recognition, and the GeoDirectory system, which is a highly developed national address database system. An Post and the Ordnance Survey of Ireland established the GeoDirectory and they have invested significant resources in the technology. This system is excellent and, as the postcode working group reports, "provides a unique identifier for each building in the State, including penetration to individual delivery points in a building". The argument that a postcode system is essential for the quality and accuracy of postal delivery is nonsense and is discounted by the postcode working group's report.

The An Post and Ordnance Survey GeoDirectory system is on the market already and is available for prospective postal operators to buy. Surely the fact that An Post has already spent significant resources on this technology and that it is commercially available must be recognised and taken into account by the Minister when deciding on the introduction of a postcode system. If a postcode system is introduced, will it be based on the existing and effective An Post technology? If not, how can the Minister justify the costs and operational difficulties this will generate for An Post and the Exchequer?

The initial estimate for the proposed methodology and business plan is estimated at between €200,000 and €300,000. However, An Post estimates that it will cost it in excess of €6 million in private operational costs if postcodes are introduced. This is apart from the financial burden that will be placed on individual businesses and institutions across the country who will have to realign their databases and software to the new postcodes. The electoral register will also have to be revamped at considerable expense to local authorities.

With this Government's and especially Deputy Noel Dempsey's record for taking up disastrous projects with huge price tags, such as the e-voting debacle, the prospects of spiralling and unacceptably high costs for this project are not unlikely. I have read the report on postcodes commissioned by the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. Has the Minister read it? If so, can he point out the disadvantages that Ireland suffers at present and detail how consumers, public services and postal operators will benefit from the introduction of some of the systems proposed? Can the Minister convince us that this postcode system is not being introduced so we can be bombarded more effectively with unsolicited and often junk mail? The commercial benefits are not quantifiable and the drawbacks of such increased so-called customer service and mailshot opportunities, from the general public's point of view, must be seriously considered.

There are also serious data protection, privacy and socioeconomic policy concerns about postcodes. These codes, on the basis of experience in Dublin, can also be a code that unfairly categorises whole populations on the perceived economic status of the postcode area. Do we seriously want to replicate this throughout Ireland through the adoption of codes based on so-called atomic small areas? It is also clear from the postcode working group that the Dublin distinctions are unnecessary and could be abolished.

If there is a case to be made for the establishment of universally known postcodes, let us prioritise the use of the existing system and minimise unnecessary spending by providing greater access to or full publication of the national GeoDirectory so every individual and household knows their postcode, as was proposed by the broadcaster Pat Kenny earlier this week. People have little difficulty remembering telephone and bank account numbers so why should a random digit postcode or zip code be any different? There is great potential in the existing system and a great danger that a new postcode scheme will become another disastrous and unnecessarily extravagant project to add to the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey's, unfortunate and sad record.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I reply on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey. A postcode is a necessary piece of infrastructure for a modern developed economy. Almost 90% of mail in Ireland is now generated by business. A recent report to the European Commission on developments in the European postal sector identified that Ireland has relatively low mail volumes.

The report suggested that a possible explanation for this could be that Ireland is the only member state without a postcode system. The report further suggested that there is an unrealised potential for letter post growth in Ireland. Public services and utilities and private businesses, such as the ESB, Eircom and the banks are major users of the post and need a precise address for billing, sales, marketing and to assist field staff locating customers' premises. Without an effective postcode in Ireland, there is a real danger that not only postal operators but also consumers, business and public services will be at a disadvantage compared to our EU partners. The Government is committed to redressing this situation.

To this end, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources established a working group comprising people with experience of the postal sector, together with a representative from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which is the lead Department for the Irish spatial data infrastructure initiative to examine the introduction of a postcode system in Ireland. This group produced its report earlier this month. The report found that the introduction of a publicly available postcode could deliver many potential benefits. The purpose of a postcode system would be to improve efficiencies and quality in the postal sector, stimulate mail volume growth, assist utilities and emergency services, address the problem of non-unique addressing and facilitate competition by making it easier for new postal operators to enter the market. These improvements collectively will boost the country's competitiveness. For this reason, the Minister has decided, in principle, that a postcode system should be in place by 2008.

The Minister is asking the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, to appoint project managers to support the postcode project. The next step is to establish a national postcode project board, comprising representatives of Departments, together with public and private sector organisations which will be appointed by the Minister to assist the project managers with their work. It is hoped to present a proposal describing in sufficient detail what is the most efficient, effective and publicly usable postcode system by 31 December 2005.

In its deliberations, the project board will examine all the options for a postcode system. This may include an examination of An Post's GeoDirectory. An Post has advised, however, that the geo-directory product is not a postcode system. It is a commercial, proprietary address database which is linked to geographical co-ordinates to provide a unique identifier for buildings which has been developed by An Post and Ordnance Survey Ireland. The cost of the GeoDirectory product supplied by An Post comprises a once-off fee of €57,000 plus an annual licensing fee of 14% of the initial cost. It is a very useful product which is used by local authorities, emergency services and utilities, but it is not a publicly available postcode system. The generally accepted definition of a postcode is that it is an identifier that identifies the addressee's locality and assists in the transmission and sorting of mail. Effectively, a postcode is primarily to facilitate mail delivery.

While a postcode can be used with automated mail process systems, it must also be capable of being used with manual systems. The GeoDirectory product is a building identifier and the purpose of a postcode system is to make it easier to process and deliver mail. A publicly available postcode system would help organisations to direct mail more accurately and provide better customer service. In response to the ComReg consultation on postcodes, organisations such as the ESB and BreastCheck were in favour of postcodes because they help to provide better access to customers. In addition, the Department has received correspondence in support of the initiative.