Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Post Office Network
76. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if there is a contingency plan to protect the network of rural post offices considering the recent warning by a union (details supplied) that up to 200 further post offices could close in the next 12 to 18 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29466/21]
Is there a contingency plan to protect the network of rural post offices in light of the recent warning by the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, that up to 200 further post offices could close in the next 12 to 18 months?
The programme for Government sets out the Government’s commitment to a sustainable, nationwide post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. An Post is statutorily obliged to provide a postal service and needs a viable network to deliver on its mandate. The company had commenced a transformation programme designed to modernise the business practices in post offices, attract greater footfall and complete more transactions. However, the anticipated 36-month timeline for implementing the network transformation plan has been severely impacted and has constrained postmasters' ability to transform their businesses.
With the Minister, I brought a report on the provision of offline Government services to the Government on 9 March. On foot of this, the Government approved the establishment of an interdepartmental group, co-chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to examine the feasibility of directing more Government business to the post office network. This group has met twice, with a further meeting scheduled early this month, and will report back to the Government by the end of July.
The Government continues to provide significant business to An Post through the Department of Social Protection’s social welfare contract and National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, business. Government efforts have been focused on supporting An Post in the roll-out of new services and the delivery of its strategic plan. An Post has been growing its financial services as a key part of its business strategy, building on the significant savings business it operates in partnership with the NTMA, its market-leading position in foreign exchange and its existing current account, credit card and consumer-lending customer base.
The Government is committed to working with An Post and postmasters to ensure the network continues to play a strong role in delivering State services. All options will be considered fully to give effect to our commitment to ensuring a viable post office network.
I welcome much of the information in the Minister of State's response. I asked this question on behalf of the postmasters and workers affected in my constituency, Clare, who as we all know have endured significant hardship and uncertainty in the name of Covid. I would love to be able to return to Clare and tell them the Government is committed to putting preventive measures in place to prevent these closures as projected by the Irish Postmasters Union. It laid bare the potential impact if the Government does not continue with the transformation payments and put other safeguards in place to protect the future of rural post offices. The anticipated number of closures is 200, which is huge given that only 160 were lost in 2019, and six in Clare specifically. Recently, we lost a much-needed post office in Broadford, a community to which an awful lot of people seeking rural communities have relocated due to the pandemic.
I assure the Deputy the Government is committed to ensuring a viable network throughout the country. Part of the work I have been doing across government relates to that focus and exploring the potential for a one-stop shop approach to delivering Government services. As the Deputy knows, the Government is also, as part of our programme for Government, preparing a national strategy for the digital transformation of the public service. Many people will always need offline service and access to that. I see An Post playing a vital role in that work, which is why that cross-departmental group will be essential. The IPU commissioned Grant Thornton to produce a report on how the network could be made more sustainable and that report is being assessed by NewERA. An Post has also put forward a proposal, which has been assessed by NewERA.
The introduction of a public service obligation, PSO, was vital to secure the future of the network and to allow post offices to continue to provide excellent and important services. I cannot stress enough to anyone living in Dublin the need for them to remain in these rural communities. Not committing to the introduction of the PSO is unravelling the fabric and killing the heartbeat of our beautiful towns and villages. The Minister of State should not underestimate the importance of this service, and specifically to our most marginalised and disadvantaged, such as our elderly and disabled, and to the many others who see this service as vital to their everyday lives. It is interesting that during a debate on a Sinn Féin motion on post offices, Fianna Fáil tabled an amendment supporting the introduction of the PSO. Is that party, now that it is the lead party in government, rolling back on that commitment?
I have been contacted by constituents who are very concerned about this issue. Is the Minister of State concerned that post offices might close from the end of July and never reopen? Has she recently met representatives of the Irish Postmasters Union to discuss the matter?
To respond to Deputy Stanton, I have had regular meetings with the IPU, and its representatives are in constant contact with Department officials. I am considering options with officials at the Department and everything is under consideration. As I said, NewERA has assessed the proposal from Grant Thornton, while An Post has also come forward with a proposal. The Grant Thornton options have been assessed and are being considered at the Department with officials.
I assure the Deputies that the sustainability and viability of the post office network is critical. The transformation payments will cease at the end of June. The interdepartmental group is working on the offline services piece, and will report to the Government at the end of July, so I am conscious of that June date. Work is ongoing in the Department to look at the most viable options.