Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages (Resumed)
It is untrue that there was a derogation in the Netherlands. This canard was flown in the Dáil and I double checked the matter; it is not the case. On the matter of postal codes, we will come to that at the appropriate stage. I will deal with the comments of Senators White and Ó Clochartaigh as well.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 10, to delete lines 17 and 18 and substitute the following:
" "universal social provider" means An Post and that An Post is retained as the only provider of the collection and delivery of letters.".
I will be very brief. Amendment No. 5 states:
In page 18, to delete lines 23 to 46 and in page 19, to delete lines 1 to 20 and substitute the following:
"17.—An Post is designated as the universal postal service provider.".
That amendment will provide the Minister with a last chance to honour the commitment given in the programme for Government that he would designate An Post as a universal service provider for 20 years. We made that point before and I would like a response on why there has been a move from that clear commitment in the programme for Government. If the Minister supports this amendment he will have taken the last chance for the Government to support what it put forward in the programme for Government, and before that in election promises. Previous to the election the Minister's party had long-held views on supporting An Post as the universal service provider in this State.
The Minister indicated that the Bill is not intended to privatise An Post but it is a first step in privatising the service. Private operators will cherrypick some of the more lucrative services. I have no doubt that this is a stated intention, although perhaps not from the Minister. I accept the Minister's bona fides but there is no doubt that the European Union would like to see states privatise many services currently supported by the State. It is a stated objective of the Union. The Minister's partners in the Government, Fine Gael, would most certainly be supportive of the privatisation of An Post.
I do not necessarily question the Minister's commitment in this respect but I have a concern about the intentions of the European Union directives which are essentially based on a wish to privatise services, including An Post. I am also concerned about the intentions of the other party in the Government. I have no doubt that Fine Gael would look to privatise An Post much more quickly than the Minister if given the opportunity to do so.
I support my colleague on amendment No. 5. As the Senator mentioned, we are only supporting Fine Gael and Labour in their commitments in the programme for Government. As I indicated in my opening address, that document was produced only four months ago. I do not know what has happened in the meantime but the parties have rowed back on that commitment.
I fear that we are teeing up An Post for privatisation, which may not equate to a better service. I do not know if that is the objective of the European Union but we will be bowing to the gods of commercialism while ensuring that rural Ireland does not receive the service it had up until the implementation of this EU directive. We will support the amendment because, ironically, it supports Fine Gael and Labour. That is a turn-up for the books but I am sure Fine Gael and Labour Party Senators will vote against their own programme for Government. That is politics. I second the amendment.
We are retaining the universal service obligation. That is at the heart of the Bill. Every piece of post will be delivered to every house in Ireland five days a week. That is the commitment. A further commitment is that An Post will not be privatised. It is not this Bill that poses any threat to the future of An Post - it is the prevailing economic conditions and, more pertinently, the growth in electronic substitution. I said in the other House that the only people who write letters nowadays are Deputies and that is about it. It was a slight exaggeration, which is something that would not happen in this House. There has been a decline of almost 20% in postal volumes since 2008. That is the challenge facing An Post. It will have to diversify into new products. That is why we are in the circumstances we are in.
I think I have done a rather good job, if I may rather immodestly say so. When I inherited this Bill, the derogation was for seven years - it is now for 12 years. I am providing that ComReg may extend it for a further period at the end of the 12-year period if it so wishes. Given what has happened in the last three or four years, I venture to say it would be a brave Senator who would predict what the circumstances will be 12 years from now. I am noticing the historical alignment of the grand old republican tradition that envisages Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin coming together again. Sinn Féin has been consistent on this issue, but I assure Senator Daly that it will take me a little time to recover from finding Fianna Fáil rowing in on an anti-privatisation ticket.
I got a good belt of it from Deputy Ó Cuív in the other House as well. As long as Fianna Fáil remains opposed to privatisation, I cannot see what the threat to An Post will be. It appears that both sides of the House are ad idem on this matter.
I am as astounded about the Minister's position on these issues, and that of his party, as the Minister is about Fianna Fáil's position on them. His party has flipped on a range of issues in recent weeks and months. It has been breathtaking. I would like to return to the point the Minister made about the changing nature of An Post. He was right to say people are writing fewer letters. One of the fruits of the increased use of the Internet and e-mail is that people are ordering more items online. People buy clothes, CDs, DVDs and other products from a host of websites. The opportunity such activity presents to An Post negates much of the loss of business that has resulted from the decrease in traditional letter writing. The Minister needs to show some vision by considering how he can support An Post to take advantage of that activity through parcel deliveries, etc. The Minister should help the company to avail of the opportunities that present themselves as the market changes.
It is good enough to say the break-up or privatisation of An Post might happen simply because people are sending fewer letters. We need to support An Post and make sure the opportunities that exist are grasped. We need to ensure it has the resources and abilities it needs to be capable of adapting its operations in a way that reflects the changing nature of the market. My family buys much more on the Internet than it would have done in the past. The changes happening every day are leading to opportunities for the future. The Minister needs to reflect on that when he talks about An Post's possibilities.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 15, lines 33 and 34, to delete "authority for the purposes of the Directive." and substitute the following:
"authority. The Minister shall reserve the right to veto decisions of the Commission where it is deemed to be in the national interest.".
This amendment is self-explanatory. Given that any Minister, in almost all circumstances, would put the national interest before any decision of an outside body like ComReg, we are asking the Minister to take on board our proposal that "the Minister shall reserve the right to veto decisions of the Commission where it is deemed to be in the national interest". This amendment would ensure the interests of the market do not take precedence over the social value of the An Post service, or put that vital public service at risk. We are returning to the previous discussion about the role of An Post. It has a broad social role, rather than a purely economic role. It is important for legislators and the Government to take on board the social aspects of what an organisation like An Post does in rural areas and all other areas. We have spoken about the value of this public service and the contribution it makes. The Opposition is keen to ensure the service is protected and not compromised by market value. More important things than the market need to be considered when it comes to the provision of services to those who are most in need of them and depend on them.
The spirit and principle of this amendment involve the indefinite protection of the postal service. That is why we have tabled it. We either have faith in politics or we do not. We hope the Minister will take that on board. Past regulation in other spheres has not been in the national interest. It is important that services which are provided in the national interest continue to operate as such. We can be proud of the postal service that has been consistently provided across this island. Despite the fact that ComReg will be able to continue to regulate An Post for a further 12 to 20 years, as has been said, I have major worries about the future. I am afraid that the door will be opened to a private company which will cherry-pick the services it wants to provide. This Bill is all about the liberalisation of the postal service and, in the long term, its privatisation. I raised similar fears with the Minister during an Adjournment debate on the ESB. I said on that occasion that the Cahill report needs to be published and we are hoping for a response in that regard.
We believe the liberalisation and privatisation of the postal service would be a significant disadvantage to those who are most need it, including those living in isolated areas who depend on such social contact. If one examines the state of this country's transport and health services, one will find that peripheral areas suffered quickly when liberalisation took place. I appreciate that the Minister has said he hopes to retain the universal nature of the service. We cannot over-estimate the importance of the service provided over the years by An Post and its local offices. I refer particularly to An Post's staff on the ground who visit people each day to deliver letters. The service is of great importance to our communities. That is why we are asking the Minister not only to retain the veto, but also to include it in the Bill.
The Senator is right to say An Post has played an important social role in Irish life. I accept and acknowledge that the role of the postman, in particular, is much valued in rural Ireland. Some of the decisions I have taken in amending the Bill are designed to protect that role as best I can. An Post is a commercial State company. I had hoped Senator Quinn might be present as he was chairman of An Post at one stage. I would say he has some interesting thoughts on An Post as it was then and as it is now. As it is a commercial State company, it has to have regard to doing things efficiently and well. I heard lots of stories in the Dáil about the postman who buys messages and takes them home to the widow woman, or cycles up the hill to perform all kinds of roles - as a social worker and all the rest. Deputy Ó Cuív, in particular, took us "up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen" many times. At the end of the day, the postman is neither a social a worker nor a shopper for the local community. While this is not to say that a tradition valued in rural Ireland should not continue, An Post is a commercial entity and must survive in that environment.
Some Senators do not accept my point about the directive and the role of the regulator in circumstances where a country's postal provider is still in state hands. Under Article 22 of the directive, there must be a separation between the regulator and the Minister where ownership of the provider remains in State hands. I have no freedom where the effective structural separation of regulatory functions is required by the directive.
To be honest, we were unfair in the Dáil and should not be unfair here to the role of the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. It is not the purpose or role of the regulator to put the postal service in rural Ireland out of commission or to end it as we have known it. Since coming into existence, not a single decision of the regulator has suggested it is minded to take such a view. I must have regard to Article 22. It is the overriding interest.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 16, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:
"(4) The Commission will take into account the unique value that the postal service has in Ireland with regard to the substantial rural population and that particular care should be taken to ensure that the interests of the market will not take precedence over, or put at risk, this vital public service which is part of the fabric of communities and which provides a sense of national and social inclusion.".
We have mentioned the importance of post offices in rural Ireland several times. The past decade has seen considerable decline in those areas. I can provide the Minister with examples of the many villages in County Waterford, such as Bunmahon, that have lost shops, post offices and numerous basic services. This can create problems for villages, leading to them becoming ghost towns. People are concerned about what the future of the post offices across the State will be if the Bill sees the light of day.
Given the general decline in services across rural Ireland, this is not just a question of post offices. For example, three-teacher schools face closure. We are getting to the heart of what sustains and keeps many rural communities together. The Minister is technically correct, in that postal workers are not employed to provide groceries or social care, yet they are a valuable social resource for many people in rural communities who do not have daily access to other people. Due to a lack of public transport, someone may not see another person from one end of the week to the other. People look forward to dropping down to their local post offices. My grandparents lived in Bunmahon all of their lives, my grandmother until she was 96 years old and my grandfather until he was 99 years old. I visited the village on holidays almost every year while I was growing up and I know the importance of the local post office. We were sent down to get groceries, post letters to family members and so on. When my grandparents were able to access the post office, it proved a vital service for them.
I do not call into question the Minister's bona fides, as he sees merit in An Post being a service provider and the State continuing to play a role, but the European agenda evident in many directives puts market forces ahead of communities and individuals. Since the Minister has criticised this approach for many years, he understands my point about the liberalisation ideology that is dominant in the EU and in many of its initiatives that concern An Post's future.
Sometimes, people must be put before market forces. Underpinning many of the Minister's comments is the idea that An Post must be profitable. While we all accept this, we must also accept that a price cannot be put on supporting rural villages and their inhabitants. Sometimes, the price is the subsidisation of companies that provide services to rural communities. The Government should examine how to support the many villages that have suffered because of the Celtic tiger through the closure of shops, restaurants and public houses and have become ghost towns because they lack basic services. Many people are concerned that, if we remove their one remaining service, the local post office, we will rip the heart out of communities. I do not accept the Minister wants to do that, but it could come about if the Bill is passed and the liberalisation agenda continues.
A different Minister could be in the Chamber in five years time. I categorically state that it will not be a Minister in a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition Government, as the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, proposed. He knows my position on how advantageous it would be for political parties such as his and mine to work together constructively instead of his party resurrecting Fine Gael every time it is in trouble.
If the Minister worked with my political party, we would have an opportunity to guarantee the many elements on which we agree, including support for rural communities and protection for the weak and vulnerable and those who do not have access to necessary services. If the Bill is passed and the path for An Post set by the previous Government is followed, many people living in rural communities will become even more isolated. This is not what the Minister wants, but it could occur as a consequence of the Bill's passage.
As Senator Cullinane's grandfather lived to 99 years of age, we know he comes from a healthy gene pool. One could not know what changes will have been made by the time he reaches 99 years old. I would not rule out Fianna Fáil entirely, given the family's longevity.
The Senator was laying it on with the trowel when he referred to three-teacher schools in rural Ireland closing. I do not know too many three-teacher schools that are closing. Indeed, the demographics are healthy, in that the numbers are going the other way. I should also take this opportunity to inform Senator Ó Clochartaigh that I will determine whether I can publish the Cahill report before he returns in the autumn. He should keep an eye on the newspapers in August.
The threat to the post office does not come from the Bill. I agree with Senator Cullinane's remarks about the role played in rural Ireland by the post office but online postal services alone will not replace what An Post is losing in terms of revenue from conventional post. Therefore, the post office must diversify. For example, it has a unique infrastructure of retail outlets, at last count 1,343 post offices spread throughout the country. Not too many organisations have this type of infrastructure. Given that the banks are retrenching and do not want to provide over-the-counter services, there is a role for An Post. It has made a start in this regard and its link with the National Treasury Management Agency has been positive. It could play a larger role in the tailoring and provision of financial services to the average consumer. This is probably the way of the future.
Everything contained in the Bill, in particular the central tenet of retaining the universal service obligation, recognises the value of the postal service, which is at the heart of Senator Cullinane's amendment. Its whole thrust is to show that we value that and we intend to protect it.
As it is 7.50 p.m. I am now required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Seanad of this day: "That amendment No. 4 is hereby negatived, that the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and the Bill is hereby passed."
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 22 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Michael Comiskey, John Crown, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Aideen Hayden, Imelda Henry, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Rónán Mullen, Michael Mullins, Tom Shehan, Jillian van Turnhout)
Against the motion: 10 (Sean Barrett, Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Darragh O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Mary White)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Thomas Byrne and David Cullinane.
Question declared carried.