Wednesday, 25 January 2023
Communications Regulation Bill 2022: Instruction to Committee
That, pursuant to Standing Order 233, Standing Order 187 is modified to provide that it be an instruction to the Committee to which the Communications Regulation Bill 2022 may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments that it has the power to make amendments to the Bill which are not relevant to the general subject matter, to amend the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act 1983 to provide for payments to be made to An Post to support the post office network and to enable funding granted under the EU Brexit Adjustment Reserve to be transferred to An Post.
I move that, pursuant to Standing Order 233, Standing Order 187 is modified to provide that it be an instruction to the committee to which the Communications Regulation Bill 2022 may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments that it has the power to make amendments to the Bill which are outside the scope of the existing provisions. This is to enable funding to be made available for the purposes of maintaining the post office network and to counter the consequences upon An Post of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to change the Title of the Bill and make other consequential amendments required to take accounts of the changes above. The purpose of this motion is to instruct the Dáil in committee that Standing Order 233(2) is modified to provide that the committee has the power to make amendments to the Communications Regulation Bill 2022 which are outside the existing subject matter of the Bill. This is required so that I can introduce Government amendments to the Bill on Report Stage.
Deputies may recall that on Second Stage, on 5 October, I noted the possibility that the Government would bring forward a short amendment to the Postal and Telecommunications Act 1983 to provide for payments to be made to or via An Post, particularly in the context of support to postmasters. I also referenced this on Committee Stage on 26 October. As indicated, the proposed amendments would provide a legal base for the provision of funding from the Minister to the post office network and An Post, specifically the provision of €10 million per annum to the post office network over a three-year period from 2023 to 2025 to support a sustainable nationwide post office network and the transfer of funding granted under the EU Brexit Adjustment Reserve from the Minister to An Post as compensation for the impact of Brexit on the company.
The context for the provision of funding to the post office network is the Government decision of 31 May 2022, which stated that €10 million per annum will be provided to the post office network over a three-year period, a fixed-term from 2023 to 2025, to support a sustainable nationwide post office network in line with the commitment to the Programme for Government. This funding aims to ensure access to important socially-valuable services across the post office network and that there is a network of sufficient scale in place for the public to access these services across the country. This intervention will support the existing network of approximately 900 post offices and will provide the necessary time for new commercial initiatives and services to develop. It brings sustainability and certainty for postmasters and addresses concerns around potential reduction in accessibility to services.
The EU's Brexit Adjustment Reserve aims to provide support to counter the adverse consequences of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. An Post has successfully submitted an application via the Department for funding relating to the management of the EU customs and VAT requirements applying to all An Post UK traffic following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. This important change in international trade has had a significant negative impact on the postal sector in Ireland.
Brexit also coincided with long-planned extensive changes to EU customs regulations governing goods entering and leaving the EU. All traffic from the UK was previously categorised as intra-EU and became non-EU and subject to customs-related obligations, which directly impacted An Post operationally and commercially. The proposed amendment is required to provide a legal basis for the funding granted under the EU regulation to be directed from the Minister to An Post as compensation for the impact of Brexit on the company. The specific terms and conditions under which funding is to be provided to the post office network, under subsection (1), and An Post, under subsection (2), remain subject to the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I look forward to our debate on the motion and I will do my best to respond to any specific questions.
I will share time with Deputy Ó Murchú. I welcome this motion and thank the Minster of State for bringing it forward. We will have an opportunity later on Report Stage to have further discussion on it. I commend those involved on getting us to this point. This has been a particular focus of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications. There have been numerous debates in this House over the last number of years regarding the future viability and sustainability of our post office network. I commend the Ministers and the Departments, particularly the Irish Postmasters' Union, IPU, and their representatives, who engaged with representatives across the political spectrum in a range of forums and put their case strongly and clearly forward regarding what they saw as needed to ensure the viability of the network.
In other areas, issues came up during debates and were raised by representative groups and An Post regarding offline services. There was an inter-departmental review. Enough is not coming from that as regards offline services. I support the proposition that there is significant opportunity for An Post and post offices to deliver offline services.
This is particularly the case in the area of ID verification. The post office service has the technology, the physical footprint in the communities the length and breadth of Ireland and there remains significant opportunity in those areas.
My colleague will pick up on more recent developments in respect of the price of stamps and other matters but I will conclude by saying that I welcome the motion, look forward to the debate later on, and more importantly, look forward to this funding being distributed to the post office network in a fair manner to ensure the viability of it. That will be matter which will need constant review, update and engagement because the post office network is of great importance to communities for so many reasons.
As Deputy O’Rourke said, we welcome this motion. It is fair to say that there has been a considerable number of conversations in respect of the post office and its network and this discussion has been around sustainability and viability. We all saw the great, and spectacular work in some cases, which has been done over many years but, particularly during the pandemic, by the post offices. If a message was needed in respect of the complete necessity of this network and the cornerstone it provides, that was it. We all use post office services in urban settings but this is particularly the case in rural centres. We are talking about rural centres which have been detrimentally impacted by the loss of Garda stations, the local public house or whatever other service as has been the case over many years.
We have had many debates and a considerable amount of work has been done, as has been mentioned by Deputy O’Rourke, by the Irish Postmasters' Union. Many of us here would have spoken about the Grant Thornton report. The whole idea behind that was to look at how much money we needed to put in to individual post offices and into the network to provide the money and the means by which we would be able to keep the system afloat. We are almost tired speaking here about sustainability and viability but this is a definite step in the right direction. Once again, over the past number of days we are also dealing with the issues in respect of State aid and the rules surrounding it. I liked being able to see that we were able to find a solution here.
On an ancillary point, I request that we find that sort of a solution in the future, rather than the madness we have in respect of Gresham House and where Coillte is at the minute. That is not something we like to see. There is a complete necessity in respect of postal services.
Deputy O’Rourke spoke about State services and I know the Irish Postmasters' Union, An Post, and others have spoken about the necessity of looking at tendering rules in respect of a greater amount of State services being made available and which could be offered through the post office network. We all welcome the greater amount of services which can be offered, such as post offices operating as a green hub, together with the financial services which can be provided, including banking services.
Over the summer we had the threats of further closures of banks in rural areas and small towns, in particular, and saw what is the general trajectory. While we may not accept that, particularly from our pillar banks, there is a need where people live in very close proximity to post offices that they have that sort of facility. We need to look at post offices being able to offer those sorts of services.
We all know, however, that the world in respect of postal services has completely changed and that, to some degree, people do not send letters. When people receive a letter it can be a huge thing. From a political point of view or in respect of an invitation, it sometimes works when one can get something hand-delivered. The danger at this time is that we know that there is a cost-of-living crisis and that there are issues in respect of businesses and whatever, but the extra 10 cent postal charge is not something we need to see. This is on top of the previous increases, I believe, last March. I understand that comparisons will have been done in respect of prices across Europe and the rest of the world in respect of postal services but we do not need to put more pressure on the system. The Irish Postmasters' Union was very strong and forthright in what it said, which is that we do not need fewer items being posted. We all know that the parcel delivery system is something that is here for the near future in respect of online purchases, but we need to ensure that the core business is sound.
A great amount of services in respect of the post office need to be looked at and, inasmuch as this is a step in the right direction, including where more moneys can be taken through the post office network in offering services from the State, banking services and green hub services. That would definitely move us to a place where there would be less need for State aid and we would have a more sustainable system. That is a place to which we definitely need to go.
I welcome the opportunity to speak and to offer my support for the proposals which the Minister is making. As a Deputy from the rural constituency of Galway East, I have experienced over the years post offices closing in our area and the amount of upset it causes to a community. This is a symptom of what can happen when the service is not being supported properly from central level. What we now have we should hold in respect of the post office network. We should freeze any more closures of post offices in rural Ireland and if the postmaster is giving the licence up, every effort should be made to put somebody else in place to keep the facilities going.
I welcome the funding that is being made available but I hope that funding gets to the network on the ground rather than being held at An Post executive or national level.
The Irish Postmasters' Union has done a great job over the years in highlighting the issues within the postal service in how it is trying to keep a business going against all of the tides. The roll-out of the off-line services which have been talked about should be given to and carried out by the post offices. I am aware that there were issues around procurement, but we need to get going with that.
Rural Ireland is facing a new post-Covid 19 crisis with the number of pubs which are closing which were a social centre for people to meet. Many community groups are becoming resilient in light of the fact that they are losing some of their services, including the local pub, which was very important as an economic driver in the area.
As politicians, we have it within our gift to ensure that we strengthen the post office network so that it becomes sustainable and, as one of the other speakers said, so that into the future we do not have to be offering supports for it to become a viable proposition for a postmaster. In this area, there is the idea of a one-stop-shop for services such as motor taxation, passport services, which the postal service is already carrying, and social welfare services. We should make every effort in every Government Department to ensure that any payments and services which are coming from social welfare are offered, in the first instance, to the post office service and that every form should have the post office as its first option. This would link people to the post office, which is very important.
Post offices and postmasters need guidance and funding to refocus the model of their business to the modern times we have. Parcel deliveries and online services are great but there is still a cohort of people who are not up to speed with the online service and are not, so to speak, computer literate. It is important that service can be provided at the local post office, whether it is applying for a grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, or whatever, with the assistance of its staff to ensure that it can be done online, because we seem to be driving everybody online now, for better or for worse.
We have lost many of our Garda barracks in rural areas. That is a legacy issue. We have lost enough and it is important the post office service is retained. We should be promoting services in post offices and what is available in them. Over recent years, retail banks have closed a lot of branches in rural areas and have left the market, including banks such as Ulster Bank. It is important we make sure we have a vibrant post office network to take up some of that slack.
I commend postmen and postwomen who, over the past two or three years since Covid first struck this country, showed leadership, which was important to the country. They were probably the first point of contact for many people living in rural areas. They knocked on doors and asked people if they were okay, whether they needed anything from the shop, if somebody had called, whether the heating was on and whatever else. They went beyond the call of duty to make sure they were providing a service. That came naturally to postmen and postwomen, and it is important we acknowledge that as something specific to rural Ireland. That experience has also shone a light on how the post office service in our cities and urban areas was able to do the same during Covid. The post office network is an important national asset. It is something we should be proud of and help to develop.
The move by the Minister of State today is to provide funding, on which I commend him. Funding is badly needed and we need to make sure it gets to the people who need it, right down to post office level. We need to make sure it is not lost in transit.
In respect of rural crime, we do not have rural Garda barracks and gardaí are not on the ground. The person who is looking out when passing in a green van is the postman or postwoman. Given they are familiar with an area, they will alert somebody if they see something peculiar or strange. That has not been accounted for, but it helps a lot in rural Ireland to keep everybody safe in their homes, as well as keeping property safe. Well done to the Minister of State and he has my support.
The Bill seeks to impose a wide range of obligations on network and service providers and mitigate security risks. It is required to bring into law the extension of the powers of ComReg to compensate customers and impose fines on companies that do not keep up their side of a contract. The Bill will give civil enforcement powers to ComReg where there are disputes about utilities and will also give customers protection.
If people terminate a contract and change providers, they are often billed twice. There needs to be accountability. ComReg needs to have enforcement powers and be able to fine companies. It needs to have the power to deal with companies that do not stop direct debits.
We know how important post offices are in our communities. They are the centre of any community, in terms of postage, pensions and everything else. The banking sector is now using post offices. The post office in Croom closed recently, and luckily Padraig Broderick in Spar took it on. It could not be taken on as a viable business in itself, because it was not viable. We could not lose it because of the people who used it. The shops in the area made it viable. If we want post offices to be sustainable, people have to be paid properly for the transactions that go through them. We need to make them a viable single entity for the future of all post offices. I would like to make sure any services provided through post offices are a viable option to future-proof post offices and communities. People need to be paid properly for the work they do.
I welcome the Bill. We have had more promises and announcements about oifigí poist and postmasters and postmistresses than we have had hot dinners. It is to be hoped this will be meaningful, tangible and provide real supports, rather than nice glossy brochures which tell people what they will have. Live, horse, and you will get grass. People are pushed out.
As we know, postmistresses and postmasters operate on a pittance. The basic amount they get is little or nothing. They get a certain amount per transaction. They are being squeezed. We have quoted letters from the Department of Social Protection, which instructed people to get their money through banks. Banks have exited most towns and are cashless. Of the four cash machines in the centre of Clonmel last weekend, three were out of order because the banks do not want to fix or do anything with them. They do not care about the ordinary people.
Post offices have saved many people. The late Johnny Grady from the Nire in Hollyford was making wreaths and went missing. He did not turn up at a post office one week. Fuair sé bás sna coillte. He was dead in the woods. The postmistress missed him. They miss people and look after the community, from a crime point of view or whatever.
We have problems with CCTV. Post offices normally have their own CCTV and gardaí check it and everything else. I could not say enough about postmistresses and postmasters who have done so much to help people, in particular the elderly. Young people have been tricked and fooled into doing everything online. What will happen when there are cyberattacks, crashes and a cashless society, which is what the Government wants?
This is an important Bill. Anything that relates to the security of post offices is important. The post office sector has gone through quite a lot in recent years, with little Government aid or attention. I see the same in my village, Goleen, which lost the post office few months ago. Only two or three weeks after losing it, the now Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, who was a Minister at the time, turned up for a photo in the village and stood outside a post office which was on the verge of being closed. He showed no action in terms of saving it when he was there.
The bottom line is that it is not a viable business. People find themselves in a very serious situation. Unfortunately, the people in Durrus are finding themselves in the same crisis because there is an advertisement seeking a postmaster or postmistress to take over the post office. An Post is expecting too much. It needs to deliver a postal service in communities where there is nobody to take up that service until someone comes along. I congratulate Wendy Briscoe and present company in Schull who took over the running of the post office which was up for grabs at the same time as the Goleen one was closed.
The loss of a post office in a community is devastating. People tell me Goleen is now like a ghost village on Fridays. People move on to the next town, which is a sad fact we are facing. It is time to compensate people who are running these businesses because they will not be viable. An Opposition Deputy in west Cork put all sorts of things on Facebook about Goleen being a beautiful place to come and live. People cannot live on air. They must live on an income. That would make it viable to run a business, and unfortunately that was not the case in Goleen.
It is upsetting when consumers have to resort to approaching ComReg to sort out their issues and problems. Anything in the Bill that will improve the lot of consumers is something I would welcome.
As the owner of a small rural post office, I see at first hand the importance of our local post office and the good work post offices do. Supporting that network is very important. The Government, to much fanfare, announced it would support post offices. This is a very important point. It said it would compensate them by means of a package. Unfortunately, the package has not yet been delivered, as the Minister of State knows. It is a little bit like the cheque being in the post, when one has to keep looking to see when it is coming. The promise of money does not keep a business open.
This Government is promising and promising but it is not delivering.
The retention of the post offices we have left in rural Ireland is vital if communities are to survive. We saw what happened in the UK. They got rid of a lot of their post offices, more than half of them, and now they are trying to bring them back into existence again. We must do our best to retain the post offices we have left because they are vital to local communities. Elderly people go to the post office for their pensions and social welfare payments. I ask the Minister of State, as I have asked previously, to give more work to the post offices. It is not money they want; it is work. We have asked previously about banking services that could be operated through the post office network, a form of community banking where the profits would go back into communities. We asked the Government to do that before and we are asking again now. We cannot afford to lose any more post offices over and above those we have already lost.
I am afraid there is a problem with the ordering of business for today. I must now adjourn the House until 5.30 p.m. when we will resume the Report Stage debate on the Communications Regulation Bill 2022. We obviously did not get our ducks in order when we were scheduling the business-----
On a point of order, Ceann Comhairle. Is there a possibility we could have a short adjournment now and that the business that is scheduled could be brought forward? I am not saying we should roll straight into it. It is only a humble suggestion.
If we are restructuring our business a bit better so as not to have an unnecessary adjournment, could the voting block also be brought forward tonight or is that locked into the scheduled time? If we move more quickly through our business, can we bring that forward as well this evening?
No, and I am looking at a note now that says it will not be possible. This was discussed yesterday with the Whip's office and rearranging the business is not possible. That is what I am seeing on the screen in front of me now.