Thursday, 11 December 2014
Post Office Network
8. To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his plans on publishing a strategy on sustaining the post office network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47260/14]
When it is planned to publish a strategy on sustaining the post office network in view of the changing society? What are the plans to produce a major innovative strategy in respect of maintaining the network as it now stands?
I thank the Deputy for his question. It is Government policy that An Post should remain a strong and viable company in a position to provide a high-quality postal service and maintain a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community. The network stands well-positioned to become the front office provider of choice for Government and the financial services sector for both electronic transactions as well as the more traditional over-the-counter transactions.
It would be wrong to ignore the significant challenges facing the post office network in the current economic climate while also taking account of changes in technology and general retail behaviour. The future of the post office network will only be secured by its continuing to modernise and diversify in the provision of services that large numbers of people and business users want to use and that are sustainable in the long term.
Currently, there is a whole-of-Government review under the auspices of the Cabinet committee on social policy exploring the scope for providing additional public services and securing new lines of business through the post office network. The Minister has been engaged with both An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union concerning this review as and when appropriate.
In view of the continuing talk about the maintenance of the post office network, whether it is in urban or rural Ireland, there is considerable concern about it. Is it not time for us to take a radical approach to An Post? The reality is that the Department of Social Protection is encouraging people to go elsewhere rather than use An Post for social welfare. We need to change the memorandum of understanding with regard to An Post and to be very clear. We need something similar to that used with the ESB. We need to make a direction to An Post that it must maintain the post office network in every single community full stop and tell it that this is its legal obligation and modus operandi. I do not see the management or the board of An Post effectively or aggressively going after business in respect of driving licences, motor tax and a whole raft of things. We must change fundamentally how An Post is governed and produce a memorandum of understanding to direct it to maintain the network.
I completely agree. Prior to the local elections, a debate was raging throughout the country about post offices. The overarching message from people within the communities we both serve was that the post office was an important one-stop-shop where people could meet. This must be the ultimate focus of any debate with An Post as technology improves.
We spoke earlier about broadband and that we will try to bring either wireless, fibre or copper to every home but we do not want to create a society where people do everything from their sitting room. We must focus on the idea that people must still meet each other. There are many suggestions being made to the Department, for example, that post offices should be developed to have a sharper focus on banking. AIB has a contract in this respect and Aviva has a contract relating to insurance. The Revenue Commissioners includes An Post as one of the three avenues for people paying property tax, so we must be conscious of keeping people moving through the doors of post offices. Ultimately, it is a place for people to meet. Some people have even proposed that they could become types of Internet hubs as well for people to access online facilities. There are plenty of creative options, including that from the Deputy, and we will work from the Government policy of keeping those post offices.
There was a whole-of-government report allegedly commissioned for the post office network in the run-up to the local elections in March or April. That has been lost along the way, if it ever existed. Where is that now? Fundamentally, the Government and the State must direct An Post to change its modus operandiand governing rules as it does not seem to be aggressively going after the businesses which they should pursue. There is a multiplicity of businesses out there which could be adopted into the post office network if there was a direction to do so. We must seriously consider the issue. Did the whole-of-government report ever exist and will it ever come to pass? Was it a figment of somebody's imagination, like the broadband announcement prior to the local elections?
I submitted No. 11 but it makes sense for me to intervene now. During the discussion on the whole-of-government approach, I suggested that post offices and credit unions need to get much closer. We could work towards a people's bank in every post office. That may not be an appropriate issue for the Minister of State but the working group should consider legislation relevant to credit unions because, between that legislation and the role of the Central Bank, there is a risk of losing the ethos of credit unions. It seems we are trying to make small banks that will not be fit to compete with the commercial banks. Will the working group take this on board? Will it consider what I have asked about, which is the potential for post offices and credit unions to set up functioning local people's banks?
I will certainly ensure that proposal will feed into the business development group. The Deputy asked where is the process now, with the conversation having started in March or April. At an October meeting of the Cabinet committee on social policy, approval was conveyed for the establishment of a business development group to examine potential opportunities for both government and commercial sectors. The group will be chaired by an independent chairperson and will have representation from An Post. My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for rural affairs, Deputy Ann Phelan, will have significant input, along with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The group will also have the capability to call on representatives from other Departments, and it will be asked to provide an interim report by the end of the first quarter of 2015, with a final report concluded by the second quarter of 2015.