Wednesday, 4 October 2017
Post Office Network
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to the House. I thank him for coming in to discuss this very important and worrying issue. Senator Conway raised this same issue during yesterday's Order of Business, which shows that there is cross-party support for immediate action in this regard.
As the Minister will know, there are 1,100 post offices throughout the State and reports have claimed that An Post intends to close 400 of these, in particular in rural areas. This is a frightening reality for many people in rural Ireland who are already witnessing a decline in the services offered to them. In Mayo, just before the summer, there was great anger over the closure of an Ulster Bank branch in Ballyhaunis which came just a couple of years after the closure of the AIB branch in the same town. It was commonly remarked at that time that older people in particular were disproportionately impacted by the decisions, as many preferred to go into their branch and deal with people rather than use online banking. That is, of course, understandable, especially in the older cohort of people. They now have to travel further afield to do their day-to-day banking. The exact same thing is going to happen with the post office network and there is going to be very real distress imposed upon people if the reported closures go ahead.
The Post Office Network Business Development Group, under the chairmanship of businessman, Bobby Kerr, looked at a range of additional services that could be delivered by the Government through the existing post office network, if the Government and indeed An Post were willing. Ample measures could be taken from the report. One of the recommendations related to the introduction of the option of paying for motor taxation in post offices. I know that this matter is under deliberation and I would like to know where the Minister's Department stands on this issue. The An Post network itself acknowledges that it provides many services for Departments and agencies but it believes that many more Government services can be provided through the post office network. Just the other day, the Irish Postmasters Union general secretary, Ned O'Hara, said:
The post office network is under huge pressure as postmasters' incomes are falling dramatically. The IPU's aim is to keep as many offices as possible open, to introduce new services and to develop the network's social function within communities.
The appetite to offer new services is there, the network is well established and the infrastructure in place. I commend my Fianna Fáil Party colleague on Kerry County Council, Councillor John Lucid, who has proposed that the National Driver Licence Service be asked if driving licence renewals could be made available through the post office network. In his own county, Tralee is the only location where one can renew one's licence. For some people that is a three-hour round journey. As I have said, certain cohorts of people are being disenfranchised, especially the elderly community.From my own neck of the woods, Belmullet, it is at least an hour's journey to Castlebar. From Blacksod it is a three-hour round trip. It is something that needs to happen. I urge the Minister to consider the idea of the National Driver Licence Service being located in post offices.
It is Government policy that An Post remains a strong, viable company in a position to provide a high-quality, nationwide postal service and that it maintains a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community. However, the An Post group lost €13.7 million in 2016, with the core mails business losing more than €30 million. The An Post network has just over 1,100 outlets, extends nationwide and reaches almost 1.7 million customers. It is the Government's front-of-office provider of choice for many of citizens and is seen as a trusted, local, reliable and friendly service. The four big strengths of An Post are its strong brand, the fact that the organisation is trusted by the public, particularly older people, its nationwide network and guaranteed delivery and collection five days a week, 52 weeks a year. These strengths have been built upon over the years by the postmasters and postmistresses in conjunction with An Post.
Given its nationwide reach, the company brings vans and postal workers to every single premises in Ireland five days a week, 52 weeks of the year. This is a valuable service, particularly in rural areas and for rural-based businesses. To protect this service, I repealed the cap on the price of a stamp because, despite advice to the contrary, I believe that a five days a week service is an asset to be developed, not undermined. The Government is fully committed to a sustainable post office network and sees it as a key piece of financial and social infrastructure for both urban and rural areas. Part of the strengths of the An Post brand and one of its selling points is that it reaches all parts of the country and can be accessed by anyone. I expect this to be a cornerstone of any future strategy for the company and indeed the post office network.
An Post has entered a period of structural change and decline in activity mainly due to the impact of e-substitution on mail volumes and post office transactions. The environment in which the post office operates is changing and the network needs to change to thrive, particularly with the move to digital transactions. This involves harnessing existing strengths, such as its trusted brand and the relationship of postmasters with individual communities, to build the network of the future. There will be opportunities to develop new or enhanced product lines for the network and I am keen that this would include the concept of "digital assist", whereby the post office would become a default option for the provision of Government services for those who are not comfortable in the digital space.
The post office plays an important role in serving the needs of business and domestic customers alike and this is at the forefront of An Post's mandate. I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices and am concerned to ensure that the needs of those communities continue to be met. The Government remains fully committed to a sustainable post office network, which it sees as a key piece of economic and social infrastructure for both rural and urban areas.
In response to the challenges it is facing, a strategic review of An Post including the post office network, which will identify the changes and restructuring necessary to maintain the company on a sound financial footing, was initiated and is nearing completion. All opportunities are being assessed by An Post in the context of the strategic review. Until such time as the review is finalised and assessed it is not possible to comment further. The Government will be briefed once a definitive strategy has been agreed.
On the issue of the driver licence, there were issues at the time of the tendering process in respect of the criteria that were used and the bid that was made by An Post. It is hugely frustrating, not just in counties like Mayo and Kerry but in my own county of Roscommon, where people have to travel to Roscommon town to avail of this service. It is a service that can and should be provided in the post offices. This contract will be coming up for renewal. There are many more services. The example we have given in the past is motor tax, which is only one of a myriad of services that could be provided. I am one of only five Members of the Oireachtas who made a submission to the Kerr report. Very few Deputies and Senators did so. I specifically focused on that point in my submission. I am determined to see it delivered upon.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. As he said, An Post lost €13.7 million. The more services we provide in the post office, the more profitable it will be. At the end of the day, we are about serving communities and people who may not have a voice. It saddens me to think that elderly people are being disenfranchised because of the long distances. I acknowledge the efforts and the fact that there is a review process in place.
Senator Swanick has hit the nail on the head. The perception is that An Post should be a service for older people, particularly in isolated, rural areas. I disagree with that, however. I think An Post can be a service for the whole community in both urban and rural Ireland. We need to turn the post offices into places people visit regularly, particularly younger people, not just at Christmas and when they are going on holidays. Our own generation, that of Senator Higgins, Senator Swanick and myself - when do we go into the post office? We go in at Christmas to buy stamps to send Christmas cards, which many of us still send, or we go into the post office when we are renewing our passports or availing of foreign exchange. What do we need to do to make sure our generation is using the post office? That is the challenge. It is not just about the older generation.
We need to provide new and enhanced services and we can do so.We also need to expand the financial services, however. The banking network and banks across the country have abandoned provincial towns and rural Ireland. An Post can fill that void and provide not only the existing range of services but other, new, innovative financial services that have not been available heretofore. One in seven people in Ireland, young and old, has never used the Internet. Using websites like bonkers.ieor switcher.ie- as Minister with responsibility for energy I have to be conscious of this - people can save up to €300 a year, yet many of those who are in fuel poverty are not availing of this because they are not able or prepared to go online. That is a service that the post office could provide, which would be of value in urban and rural communities and which would benefit the public, the postmaster in respect of footfall, and the economy as a whole.
The review is ongoing. I expect to receive proposals from the board of An Post quite soon. Once I have them to hand, I will brief the Cabinet and we will engage directly with the company. I have already asked NewERA to engage with the company. It has done a complete financial assessment, which is of huge benefit to me in making the final decisions.