Wednesday, 24 May 2017
Post Office Closures
Tá céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Taim buíoch gur tháinig sí isteach. I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to take this matter. I appreciate that it is not her area of responsibility, but it is an important question for those of us who are living in rural areas. I hope I will not receive the standard answer to the effect that this is within the remit of An Post and that the Minister has nothing to do with it.
The question is about the protocols agreed between An Post and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment for the temporary closure of post offices on foot of audit findings. The post office in Carnagh, County Galway, has been closed for a number of weeks. We understand an auditor was sent to it. A number of other auditors appeared on the scene the following day and the post office was closed down. People living in the local community were not given an explanation for what had happened. We are being told it is a contractual issue between the postmistress and An Post, which I can appreciate and it is not an issue.
On Monday evening a very large public meeting was held to discuss the issue. We are hearing in the locality that what An Post originally thought was the problem had been exaggerated.It subsequently found out that the issue was not half as serious as it thought, but the post office has remained closed and the audit procedure is ongoing.
I have worked in a partnership company which received funding from Pobal. Anybody who has worked with a company or organisation in receipt of State funding knows that an audit is a regular part of the day-to-day work. One expects audits once every couple of years. When an auditor is coming, organisations get all of the relevant paperwork together. However, inevitably auditors are there to outline what needs to be improved and organisations always receive audit reports that state something is wrong and improvements need to be made.
The question then is how serious are the issues that are being raised. If an audit shows gross negligence or anything like that, one would imagine that an organisation would be closed down. I do not believe that has been proven in this case, but I remain open to clarification. Where there is something like gross negligence, one can imagine a service being closed down. The general procedure is that work goes on while the audit procedure is taking place and the issues that are raised are rectified.
This is an issue because the process has closed down a post office in a rural area and people now have to make a 20 mile round trip to a neighbouring post office. Many of those affected by the closure are elderly and do not have transport. There is no public transport to the other service. People have been severely discommoded. The issue involves rural living and the vital role played by the post office service. That is why I want to know the protocol that has been laid down between the Minister and An Post.
Does An Post have to notify the Department that it is going to close a post office? When an audit is carried out, are different levels of misdemeanours, if we can call them, that identified? If a post office goes over a certain threshold, is it then deemed appropriate to close it? Are those criteria laid down? Can we see them? Can the Minister see a role for himself in this and can he engage with An Post on this issue?
We have no indication from An Post when the post office will reopen. I am happy to say that it has indicated it does not intend to close the post office in the long term, but people are quite sceptical because we have heard the same about other services. Post offices in other areas have closed. We want the issue to be rectified, the audit is completed, the issues addressed and the post office service reinstated as quickly as possible. I look forward to the response from the Minister of State.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten. The response may not be what the Senator wants to hear. I will read the written response and I have taken a lot of notes. I will come back to the Senator.
The Minister, Deputy Naughten, has responsibility for the postal sector, including the governance of An Post, to ensure that the company is fully compliant with the code of practice for the governance of State bodies and the governance functions included in the statutory framework underpinning An Post. Day-to-day operational matters, including decisions on the closure of post offices, are matters for the board and the management of the company and not ones in which the Minister, Deputy Naughten, has any role or statutory function. Therefore, there is no protocol in place between An Post and the Department governing such matters, which also includes the temporary closure of post offices.
The Minister, Deputy Naughten, has, however, made inquires with An Post regarding the mailer referred to by the Senator. I have been informed that An Post has advised that the post office in Carna, Galway, was temporarily closed on 3 May due to circumstances beyond its control. While An Post regrets any inconvenience to customers, it is understood that the company is working to restore services at Carna as soon as possible but has indicated that this may take some time. In the interim, the company has indicated that Department of Social Protection customer payments have been transferred to Kilkerrin Post Office. Other services are being provided by other nearby post offices.
I trust that Senator Ó Clochartaigh will appreciate that it would not be appropriate to comment further on any operational matters relating to a specific post office under the remit of An Post. Finally, as far as the operational activities of the company are concerned, I am assured that the board and management of An Post are constantly working to ensure that the services the company provides are developed and delivered to meet the needs of its customers.
I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, but at a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges yesterday an issue was raised that is becoming more and more frequent, namely that a line Minister does not come in here and does not satisfy the Senator who is raising a Commencement Matter or is putting a Minister who is not a line Minister on the spot. Something will have to be done about this.
It is sometimes acceptable if a Minister is tied up, but more often than not it is now the case that a line Minister does not come to the House. I am not sure what we are going to do about that but some action will have to be taken. I ask the Minister of State to convey that message to others because I can see a day where we will close down on this issue until such time as some respect is shown for the House, in particular to Senators who raise matters. I will allow the Senator half a minute.
I concur with the Cathaoirleach. The line I take issue with is not from the Minister of State; rather, it is from An Post which stated that the post office was closed due to circumstances beyond its control. I do not believe it was. It made a decision to close the post office. What was the threshold on which the decision was based? Was there a minor or major discrepancy? A post office should not be closed on a whim. It is a vital public service.
We would not close the Houses of the Oireachtas, hospital or medical centre unless something very serious had happened. That may be the case here. I have been told it is not, and I remain to be corrected. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister whether he can put in place a protocol that would show that An Post can only close a post office when certain very serious thresholds have been reached, and under no circumstances should they be closed before then, that an audit process should be undertaken and matters should be rectified. The closure of a post office should be a last resort.
I note what the Cathaoirleach has said. Due to other business, sometimes Minister are not available. When I take a Commencement Matter, I always go back to the Minister and explain the situation.
The previous Seanad had matters on the Adjournment, which was changed by the then Cathaoirleach and Leader to facilitate Ministers because they felt that, given that we did know when business would finish on a Thursday, Ministers may have gone elsewhere. A morning session was introduced to try to enable Ministers to be here. For example, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, is regularly here. When the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, cannot be here he lets people know so that a matter can be withdrawn. It seems as if the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is being rolled out day in and day out as a punishment.
I do not know about that. I do not feel coming in here is a punishment. The Senator has raised an issue that is close to my heart. In my area a post office closed recently at short notice, due to a post master retiring. Unfortunately, local people, in a similar matter to those to whom the Senator referred, had to change post office. That can be very upsetting for older people, in particular, when they have to travel to another post office. There is an added difficulty when the next post office is a long distance away, which is not the case in the capital city. I take that into account.
I will relay the concerns expressed by the Senator to the Minister. It is somewhat unknown for me to agree with many things, but I agree with the Senator that it is very bad when An Post cannot relay, through the Office of the Minister, why a post office is closing. It is a real difficulty across the country. I am not in the camp of the Minister, Deputy Naughten, but I am privileged to represent him here today.