Monday, 26 April 2021
Post Office Network: Motion
I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the House today. I thank the Fianna Fáil Senators for introducing this important matter to the Seanad today. There is no doubt the post office network is vital to the future prosperity and social cohesion of this country. The numerous call by different parties and interested groups to support the post office network must be seriously considered but, more important, we must see immediate action.The recent announcement of the closure of several bank branches has once again brought into focus the importance of the post office network to our regional towns and villages. The €17 million requested in the form of a PSO must be considered urgently. When this cost is weighed up against the potential of the network to sustain and grow towns and villages, the Government must surely act urgently. As mentioned, many countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Finland and Spain, operate, with approval from the European Commission, a post office network through a PSO. Of course, it was a feature of the recently departed network in the United Kingdom. The bottom line is that the cost of running the 900 or so post offices throughout the country is around €70 million and that the revenue generated is €53 million, creating the shortfall of the aforementioned €17 million and the need for a PSO.
If the Government is serious about rebuilding rural Ireland, the cornerstone must be the post office for it is true that the post office is often the heartbeat of rural Ireland. I am aware from conversations with Ms Lily O'Mara, postmistress of Ballitore post office, that she has seen the knock-on effect of previous closures in nearby villages. She says that such is the regularity of her customers' visits, she can set her clock by them. This is a very important aspect of the rural post office. It is almost a health check for the village. For many who go to Ballitore post office now, their visit is their only social interaction. Rebuilding rural Ireland must ensure social interaction at that level. However, Ms O'Mara will state that, as with most well-run businesses, the post office must be about the transactions also. Since the very unfortunate closure of Moone and Narraghmore post offices, she has seen an increase in business, thankfully facilitated through a new rural village link. She outlines other opportunities to grow the business and provide further justification for assisting the network.
I am sure many Members will mention the use of our post office network for such tasks as applying for a driving licence. While recent figures show 80% of applicants apply online, that still leaves 20% of the population queueing in our local authority offices. We should remember that applicants need to email to apply or reapply for a driver's licence, which raises additional concerns for those without computers or, dare we say it still, those without any reasonable broadband. With very little investment, we could consider passport applications and, of course, expanding the system of payments and applications for social welfare given the knowledge postmistresses and postmasters have of their community and who lives in it.
A question that I am informed the Government and Department of Social Protection, in particular, have been considering since the pandemic and lockdown concerns how we can streamline the procedures for reporting and dealing with bereavements. Once again, given the knowledge postmistresses and postmasters have of their locality, this is a role post offices could expand into. Regarding the reporting of a bereavement, the facilitation of the bereaved and the provision of a link between the grieving family and various Departments, it is always much better in such sad circumstances to be dealing with somebody you know and somebody who knows you.
Our Rural Future, the rural development policy recently announced by the Government, includes an aspiration to increase the number of people living in rural areas and the number living in rural areas in employment and self-employment. I suggest that we cannot have such an aspiration without maintaining an expanded rural post office network.
I have been struck by conversations with several rural post office operators about the number of rural businesses they assist through the services they currently offer, be it through registered post or parcel services. It seems that rural jobs and their creation and sustainability go hand in hand with the maintenance of a rural network of post offices.
Another important point to raise in this debate concerns the recently announced and proposed closure of various bank branches throughout the State. I am on record as having been critical of recent bank policy to direct customers to machines in the corner, to the embarrassment of bank staff who were always so helpful and excellent at their jobs but who now must operate according to a new regime. The opposite has always been the case in post offices, where the operators and staff recognise those who need assistance and go out of their way to help.
In my area, we are to see two closures of bank branches, one in Monasterevin and another in Kilcullen. It has been said that the post office will take up any slack. The very future of the towns is dependent on having a financial outlet. Proposed additional services, to be operated by post offices that remain, must be made available.The results of an online survey I carried out recently after the announcement indicated that it was our older population and the most vulnerable who were worried that they would be left behind because of closures. An expanded post office service will assist this sphere and plug the gap that such closures will bring to these towns should they proceed.
The post office is a key component of and piece of infrastructure in all our villages and towns, both from an economic and a social point of view. The network needs and wants to survive. We should push more businesses through the post offices and expand the services their operators are keen to assist. Post mistresses like Lily O'Mara are the cornerstone of their communities. We must ensure that they not only survive but flourish and grow. They provide employment and community cohesion. With Government support of the network they can be the cornerstone of a new rural and urban town and village renewal.