Monday, 26 April 2021
Post Office Network: Motion
I move amendment No. 1:
To insert the following paragraphs after "and calls on the Government to:": - introduce a Government financial support package within three months to secure the Post Office Network, in line with recommendations of the 2020 Grant Thornton Report, and finalise an action plan within that timeframe;
- establish a working group to identify the potential for local post offices to act as hubs to facilitate services relating to Government Departments and to act as a one-stop-shop for Government services;
I welcome the Minister of State. I thank Senators Dooley and Blaney and the Fianna Fáil Party for bringing forward the motion. Galway, north Donegal and Clare know the importance of An Post and the importance of sustaining rural communities. They also know the significance of the post office as a critical hub and a centre for communities, a place people feel that they can come to. No place has been more obviously local through the Covid pandemic. I expect, and do not doubt for one moment, that the Senators would be champions of post offices.
Where does this all start and where does this motion come from? I must first acknowledge the work done on this by Senator Norris. We have had a similar motion on this matter on the Order Paper since November. Many of the parts of both motions are word for word. I believe everyone is on the same page with regard to rural post offices.
It is important to make the point that postmasters and postmistresses are not employees of An Post. They are contracted to offer the various services. Postmasters must pay rent and their employees. They must also pay for light and security. One postmistress told me, "The only two things I got were a computer on loan and a safe on loan. I will be returning them to An Post. Everything else I pay for." Senators have spoken previously about the poor remuneration package that does not make it viable to run a post office.
I will make a case for my local post office. It is not located in a rural area, it is in the urban area of Monkstown village. Monkstown is in the heart of the Dáil constituency of Dún Laoghaire, in which lives one of the largest groups of people over 80 years of age. They have no post office. The reason they have no post office is that the postmistress has retired and An Post cannot do a deal with anyone there because it is simply not prepared to pay enough to make matters sustainable. Monkstown lies in the heartland of Dún Laoghaire, out along the coast, and people might think it is full of money, full of IT systems and computers and full of people banking, but that is not the case. In a recent newspaper piece, Deputies and former Deputies wished the postmistress well and hoped that we would have a new post office. I give credit to David Andrews in respect of this matter also. Hopefully a campaign will start soon and we will get a post office. I wanted to make the point that this is an urban and a rural issue.
An Post management pledge that every community with 500 people or more will have a post office. What does this say to Deputies and Senators who live in rural communities? The stipulation that there be 500 people would lead to a lot of post offices being closed. An Post management also states that everyone in rural Ireland will have an opportunity to avail of a post office located 15 km away. What does that say to rural communities? Not a lot. An Post has suggested that too many post offices are no longer viable. This highlights the issues relating to rural viability. This is a bigger issue for rural areas than it is for urban ones. The Government must introduce a public service obligation similar to that relating to public transport. We have such obligations in the areas of health, education and transport for schools. We do not say that those services are not viable or that we cannot afford them so we do not have them as a result. Some post offices are not viable but they need to be supported because they lie at the heart of our communities and provide an important service. This is very important.
The Grant Thornton report warned of the need for a public service obligation. The report warned that if this did not happen then post offices would face unrestrained closures if action was not taken. We know that the public service obligation model works in the UK. It also works in France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Finland and Poland. We know that this has the full approval of the European Commission. It is no longer a viable excuse to suggest there are issues with the European Commission. The public service obligation model operates in the countries to which I refer. I have taken the time to look at each of them but I do not have the time to tease the matter out too much now.
The Grant Thornton report also states that post offices distribute more than €4.6 billion annually in social welfare payments.Is that not really interesting? There are difficulties with Irish banks. Some of them are restructuring. The Government has shares in them but it cannot interfere in the banking model and their day-to-day operations but we know there is a difficulty there. We need to expand An Post's services and give it the option of community banking. Credit unions are consolidating, amalgamating and closing down. There might be potential to do something there.
I do not need to convince anyone in here and I do not doubt anyone's credentials. I believe we all are committed to supporting rural post offices - the issue is how are we going to do it and what is the commitment. In preparing for this debate, having the advantage of knowing who the speakers would be, I made a simple Google search of names of those who were to speak along with rural post offices. From that, I printed media stuff from The Connacht Tribune and other papers. I will not say much about that other than that I was fully satisfied that there was a lot of tension and cross-engagement in this House on the issue. There was much support for the idea of a post office being a post office hub. Nothing in these amendments is in conflict with the press reports mentioning a number of Deputies and Senators.
I support the amendments. The first, in the name of Sinn Féin, speaks of post offices providing "a crucial service, particularly in rural Ireland, and with major banks now closing hundreds of branches, people in rural Ireland will become even more reliant on their local post office". All the amendments are reasonable. Ours calls for a Government support package within three months and securing the post office network in line with the recommendations. I hope that the Government will find itself able to agree with what I think are very reasonable, fair, concise and achievable amendments.