Seanad debates

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Proposed Postcodes: Statements


3:00 pm

Photo of Martin BradyMartin Brady (Fianna Fail)

I wish to declare that I am a former employee of An Post and I was involved in the CWU having been on the executive of that union.

I am not too quick to say I welcome this proposal as I have many reservations about it. The Minister referred to an efficient system and many believed this was the reason for the introduction of postal codes. However, many other issues are associated with this proposal and which are of concern to me.

The postal service is very efficient and it has improved greatly in the past few years. I do not fear change but some points need to be considered. For example, I refer to Telecom Éireann. Liberalisation and competition are to be commended. However, as Senator O'Reilly stated, it creates a situation whereby in a liberalised market, greedy people only want to make money and amass personal wealth, and the customer comes last. What happened in Telecom Éireann is a good example. Prior to the liberalisation and privatisation of the service, we had one of the best telecommunications systems in the world. We were second only to France but now we are on a par with a Third World country and the public have a worse service.

The Minister stated it would be of significant benefit to the customer. I ask him to elaborate on that statement and spell out where the benefits would be. This proposal should not be rushed. I recommend a consultation process with the management and trade unions of An Post and some type of consultation with the public. A change in the postal code system could alienate the public. In previous years I dealt with members of the public who claimed that the use of a certain postal code would devalue their property. We must be conscious of such concerns.

The cost of designing this postal code system is estimated to be in the region of €15 million to €20 million. This claim should be subject to scrutiny, given that the previous Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources suggested the cost of introducing the same system would be in the region of €50 million with an annual maintenance cost of €3 million approximately. The Minister's latest announcement on postal codes does not clarify what the maintenance cost of this system might be. This is a considerable sum of money at a time when other services are not being provided. As a result there would be a public outcry if this proposal was introduced and this must be taken into account.

Costs are associated with the introduction of postal codes. For example, every company, including semi-State companies, will be required to update their address database, in addition to rebranding, marketing and stationary costs. There could be a question of compensation payments arising.

The introduction of the postal codes represents a significant cost to An Post as the existing sorting technology would have to be completely changed to deal with the codes. An Post has made significant investment in cutting-edge technology to ensure the national postal code service is run as efficiently as possible. Tampering with this system will not only involve costs but will ultimately lead to a potential temporary deterioration in the quality of service during the transition phase. There would be an imposition of an additional cost factor on the national operator. It is already preparing for liberalisation because there is no point raging against the inevitable. It is no coincidence that the Minister's predicted time for the introduction of these post codes coincides with the deadline of January 2011 for the liberalisation of the reserved area in the Irish postal market.

The Minister is on record as saying that the lack of a postal code system is a potential barrier to this liberalisation agenda. However, he shows no evidence to support this view. Throughout Europe the liberalisation of the postal market has led to a reduction in postal services and the loss of jobs in the postal market. Members of this House and the other House frequently speak about securing and maintaining good, sustainable jobs such as those in An Post. This proposal will do the opposite. Given this potential threat to the Irish postal market in the context of the current consultation process and the third directive, one must question the appropriateness of introducing a new postal code system at this time. An Post quality of service figures have been consistently improving year on year. Therefore, it is important to be clear on how postal codes will improve the system further. This has not been explained sufficiently to my satisfaction. I am not sufficiently informed to make any decision or vote one way or the other on this proposal.

In the interests of clarity and transparency, to which we refer a good deal nowadays, it is important that the Minister makes public the two reports from PA Consulting which he has used to support the claims made on the benefits of postcodes. In addition, the Minister should be called upon to release the reports produced by the postcode board. The previous Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources arrived at a different set of figures altogether regarding the costs involved in such a project. There is a conflict and we must have clarity and transparency in this regard. Time and tax revenue is at an absolute premium. It is vital in the interests of a healthy and public debate that these reports are made public such that all stakeholders and the public can consider who will benefit from the expenditure involved, especially given that approximately €500,000 has been spent on these reports thus far. The taxpayer has a right to examine these reports in the light of what has been proposed.

The Minister's suggestion that a postcode system will deal with Ireland's non-unique addresses is singular and serves only to create the perception that in rural Ireland the postal system requires a technological intervention to make it work. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The postal network is part and parcel of the fabric of rural Ireland. Our postmen and women know their area and they are part and parcel of the fabric of rural society. Everyone knows them and in some cases they bring news to those who live alone. The postman may be the only person such people meet every day or week. It is important to take this into account.

I refer back to the case of Eircom. In a liberalised market such contact would not occur as it is all about making money and it is nothing to do with providing a service for the customer. In addition, in any system which identifies individual private dwellings or small groups of private dwellings, especially in a sparsely populated area, serious data protection issues arise. The data from postcodes could be potentially used by insurance companies to target sections of the population in different ways. For example, they could charge higher premiums for car, home and health insurance based on location. The introduction of a postcode would lead to a great expansion of junk mail. The average number of marketing deliveries in Ireland is significantly below the UK average, which is approximately 1,000 per day. The environmental impact of such marketing should be considered in the context of the value it adds.

We discuss jobs all the time. There is no doubt if there were a liberalised market here good, sustainable jobs would be lost. We must also take into account what takes place in a liberalised market. Senator Reilly referred to the tendering processes that take place. As part of the tendering process, firms cherry-pick and seek the best routes. This takes place in other countries in the area of transport. In a tendering process one should be obliged to take two or three non-profitable routes in addition to the lucrative routes. That is for further down the road and I do not wish to pre-empt the matter or suggest that this would proceed so quickly. We should not rush this matter for the reasons outlined as we may be back here in some years arguing that we should not have done this. We could end up with a situation similar to that of Eircom. I cite that example because I worked there and I am conscious of the service which the public receives now, which is zilch. One cannot get a phone fixed or installed in parts of Dublin for up to six months. One cannot get broadband. We have the worst telecommunications system in Europe. People cannot operate business because of the state of broadband availability. Such people contact me every day and inform me the service breaks down and cannot be fixed for six months. I call on the Minister to address the points I have raised and clarify them for me because I am not sufficiently informed to deal with it as matters stand.


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