Monday, 26 April 2021
Post Office Network: Motion
That Seanad Éireann: recognises that:- post offices are at the heart of local communities, playing a unique and important role in both rural and urban areas;believes that:
- post offices provide crucial economic, administrative and social services to communities all around Ireland, especially to those in rural and isolated areas;
- post offices serve an important function as ‘a service provider of last resort’ in rural communities where other service providers have decided not to operate for commercial reasons;
- post offices create significant direct employment and supports further employment in some of the most disadvantaged areas;
- An Post’s retail network is one of the largest indigenous commercial enterprises in Ireland in terms of turnover and employment;
- An Post has a proven track record of service delivery;
- post offices act as a significant support network for individuals, businesses and Government during times of crisis, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic;
- many citizens depend on post offices in order to access basic State services, including social welfare payments and passport applications, as well as key financial services including insurance, banking and foreign exchange;
- rapid technological and societal changes have presented significant challenges to the existent post office business model;
- the financial viability and sustainability of An Post’s retail network is under serious threat;
- significant change is required in order to ensure the viability of An Post’s Retail Network;- the post office network continues to provide an enduring and essential social value and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future;acknowledges that:
- a modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services and e-commerce services for citizens and enterprise;
- An Post has untapped potential to do more and to make a further significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland; and
- with an evolving mandate, An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community-focused services;- the Programme for Government ‘Our Shared Future’ commits to supporting a sustainable nationwide post office network;and calls on the Government to:
- the Government has established an Inter-Departmental Group to examine the feasibility of directing more Government business to the post office network;
- An Post is continuing to undergo vital transformation as part of the delivery of its strategic plan;- remain fully committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas;
- immediately roll out new services, as recommended by the Post Office Network Business Development Group and An Post’s own strategy, to ensure the financial viability of the entire An Post network.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.
We are all are acutely aware of the role played by the post office in every community across the State. Often it is characterised as being the focal point of communities in rural Ireland. While that is very much the case, it is far from an urban-rural divide because to the people who live and work in urban and semi-urban areas, post offices are equally a part of their livelihoods and of the general business centres of those places.The post office has proven itself as the bedrock of virtually every community across this State for generations. There is little doubt over the past 15 to 20 years that it has seen very significant changes in the profile of its customers, and the demands, requests and needs for its services. Like everything Irish, the post office has managed to change and adapt in so far as it can. Clearly, the State has been somewhat lethargic in changing the nature of the way it delivers services. I know, and I think we all accept, that with the movement to online activity, greater broadband roll-out and access to high-speed Internet, some of the services provided by the post office are no longer as relevant as they were in the past but we cannot and should not allow that to dictate whether a post office remains open. This is not a viability issue. We should not look at post offices as profit centres or in terms of profit and loss. We should see them as an integral part of service delivery by the State to those communities. If we were in any doubt about their importance then we would have seen the central role they played during the most recent pandemic. When some private services closed or were unable to deliver services in the face of a pandemic, post offices remained open, and postmen and postwomen continued to deliver the letters, which is a hugely important part of that connection with the communities they serve. For most people who found themselves housebound, and certainly for the first wave of the pandemic, the postperson was, in some cases, the only person they saw from one end of the week to the other. We should not lose sight of that aspect now just because the pandemic is, hopefully, reaching a conclusion or at least the end is in sight.
It is well accepted that the post office network has been under financial constraints for some time because its viability was based on the transactions that generated the funds to pay postmasters or postmistresses. In my view, based on the reduced activity in post offices, that model is no longer an adequate way to remunerate. The model is based on profit and loss from which we must move away. In my view, we should place an annual subvention or a public service obligation on An Post to provide the service to the post offices that currently exist. We have seen enough post office closures. Most recently, a post office was closed in my own area of Broadford. The closure is a shame and should be reversed, if at all possible.
There are 931 urban and rural post offices dotted throughout the country, 45 of which are company owned and the rest operate in a private capacity on licence or on contract from An Post. It is well recognised by a recent report that was prepared by or for the Irish Postmasters' Union that the financial shortfall is close to €17 million per year. The motion and the associated amendments look to having the State provide or fill that gap of €17 million on an annual basis to do a couple of things: to give confidence to the network of postmasters and postmistresses dotted around the country; show that the State is serious in its commitment to support the network; ensure that postmasters and postmistresses have a viable income; and ensure that the service remains in those communities.
I have never believed that it was acceptable just because the demand for a service is reducing that it is taken away based on profit and loss. Quite frankly, the service should remain while there are still people in need of same. Let us be honest. Some of these people are in their older years and are not computer proficient, do not have access to the Internet, and even if they had they might not be in a position to utilise it.In addition to being the point at which they get services, the post office and its postmaster or postmistress provide social interaction for people who live alone. I do not refer only to people who live alone and in isolation in rural areas. I am often taken by the number of people whom I bump into in this city, people who live in the midst of a large population, who feel very isolated and alone. Those of us from the country who happen to be here for a few days walk the streets and meet characters who are living alone and who want to talk to us because they recognise us from the television. They may recognise us more quickly than our constituents at home would. Notwithstanding that, we become acutely aware of the isolation some people suffer, even when living in a large city. They find that connection in their post offices.
I know a review is under way and I know there are issues with Government making commitments but let us understand what has happened during the pandemic and let us get a clear picture of the enormous service the post office network and its associated postmasters and postmistresses have given to the people. During this debate, it is right and fitting to recognise the enormous amount of work done by post offices, postmasters and postmistresses during the pandemic. Those who work in post offices are the epitome of front-line workers. We all rush to congratulate front-line workers but in some cases people neglect the range of front-line workers who operated during this pandemic. It is a bit like being at a wedding and forgetting to mention somebody. We absolutely congratulate those in the health service but there were also front-line workers operating in retail, postal services and public transport. It is right and appropriate to recognise that.
I appeal to the Minister of State to continue with her deliberations. Regardless of what comes back in that report, I want her to use her own experience, and that of Ministers, of the post office, which they understand and recognise as being the central bedrock of many communities. It is certain that Government can do much more with regard to delivering services through post offices. This would enhance and grow the business and be of benefit to it. Such services might underwrite, to some extent, other post office services.
As I have said, however, it is not just about covering costs. It is about this really important service. The removal of post offices sends a signal to other business and activities in villages or in communities within the larger cities. It tends to give the impression that the State has effectively given up on that population mass or village setting. In many cases, the post office, with the harp over the door, is the one remaining State entity in an area. We have seen significant change to the delivery of policing. We have seen Garda stations close and, time without number, we have been told that it is a better model of policing to centralise police officers and then to send them out to communities in cars. We are told this makes them more dynamic and responsive. That may be the case but, when one takes the one last State service out of a community, one effectively says that, from a Government perspective, the lights are out. I refer to the closure of post offices. That is a real pity.
In addition, there are many areas in which the post office can amalgamate with the local shop. We are all for that in communities so long as the service, the harp and the green livery remain and the identity of the post office is maintained as an individual unit. In commending the motion to the House, I thank my colleague, Senator Blaney, who is seconding it and with whom I am sharing time.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank her for taking the motion, which I formally second. I thank my colleague, Senator Dooley, for raising this issue today. I remember, when I was a small boy growing up in north Donegal on the Fanad Peninsula, there were nine post offices in an area roughly the size of the part of Dublin that is within the M50. We are now down to one. As has been outlined by the previous speaker, generally what we are dealing with is how activity is not what it used to be.The measly pay that postmasters get per transaction is not viable. It is not viable as recompense for the service provided to the community by post offices.
As has rightly been said, there has not been enough brain drain or thinking outside the box in the context of post offices. They provide a critical service for the people of this island, in both rural and urban areas.
As Senator Dooley noted, during the first lockdown when people were first grappling with Covid-19, the first people who were asked to step up to the plate were the postal delivery workers across the country. They started to visit the homes of those in rural Ireland who were isolated. Every one of those workers stepped up to the plate and they never looked for overtime or one extra cent in pay. They did it then and they have been doing it ever since. They are providing a massive service to communities across the nation. However, postmen and postwomen have not been given the acknowledgement they deserve for doing that service throughout the past year. They continue to do it week in, week out and do not say a word about it. Collectively, they, and the post office network as a whole, have played a vital role.
When I was a young boy, our postman doubled up as a farmer. He delivered his milk in glass bottles at the same time as he delivered letters. Those days are gone but there are other ways in which post offices can evolve. Those who are running the service at a local level need to be given proper pay per transaction but there is also a need to think outside the box in terms of new and innovative ways to deal with the needs of customers. The delivery of letters is no longer necessarily what is needed. The country is crying out for more financial services. There are opportunities in financial services and banking. There is much more that we could and should explore. I ask the Minister of State, as part of the review, to take up that mantra and to deliver a service for people that goes above and beyond the call of duty. It behoves us to take up the mantra and to deliver for those working for An Post.
Central to this is that An Post maintains its sustainability and viability to the fore, while remembering the important role that it plays not simply as a postal delivery provider, but as a provider of the services outlined by Senator Dooley. An Post fulfils many roles in providing vital supports to communities that allow their continued existence and ensure their connectivity to the rest of the country. It is important to recognise the value of An Post beyond the cash flow of each retail outlet.
An Post has already tackled massive challenges. We must now take the next step to overcome the challenges that currently exist and provide proper solutions. The progress in digital technology has created a vast opportunity for An Post to provide more services and to work alongside people's habits, such as the shift towards online shopping. It is necessary to ensure efficiency and timeliness and credit must go to the staff of An Post who have done so while the service they provide has evolved to meet new needs.
I urge all Members to keep in mind the thousands of people involved in the safe and efficient operation of An Post. Many of them should be considered to be front-line workers, as was outlined. Without the staff of An Post and their efforts, many businesses throughout Ireland would have struggled to operate through the pandemic. We had our difficulties with Brexit. Thankfully, An Post managed to overcome those issues to the best of its ability and provide a very efficient service throughout all of that. I believe in the vision of An Post as outlined by Senator Dooley. It is a provider that is growing and that is resilient. It is always evolving when it comes to technological changes. It has already adapted to those changes and will do so again.
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.
I concur with Senator Dooley's comments on the staff throughout the network being classified as front-line workers during the pandemic. Sometimes that can be forgotten.
I welcome the Minister of State here to discuss the sustainability of the post office network, which is very important. Why should we support the network? Because the network is at the heart of communities in rural and urban areas. It has a proven track record in the delivery of services and as a brand, it has one of the highest recognition levels in the country. In a 2020 Red C poll, 91% said it provided a valuable service, 86% supported the Government providing it with financial supports to maintain the network and 86% said that they wanted more State services available in their local post office.
I should have said at the beginning that I am a postmaster myself and a member of the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. My family took over the office in my local village in 1972, when my late mother took it on. I succeeded her in 2012. I will give a brief history of the cuts that I have taken myself after taking over in 2012. We lost the four postpersons attached to our office despite having been given assurances from An Post that that would not happen. With that came a 12.5% reduction in wages and no compensation for that. Last January there was a further 10% reduction in wages and I expect another 10% cut in July and a downward spiral in the coming years. We are contractors who bear all the expenses - rent, light and heat, rates etc. and we do not even get a pen - we provide everything for the business. The July reduction is due to expire because the 2018 agreement between An Post and IPU, which was supported by the Government, is coming to the end. I also have a small shop with my business which I purchased in 2007 to co-locate in an effort to maintain the business into the future.I anticipated there would be difficulties ahead. I employ seven part-time staff, and if my office goes, will my business survive? It would be difficult to do so. It is not only the seven staff who would be affected because other businesses in my community would be affected by the lack of footfall. People would not be coming into the village. They would be more likely to head to Longford town, seven miles away.
The post office is not just a business. It is a vital cog in our community. We have been open throughout the pandemic and, along with the postal network, have played a major role in our community. Our value has been immense and recognised. Based on a model that was used in the UK to calculate the social value of the network, post offices in Ireland are estimated to be of a value of €550 million. The UK Government between 2010 and 2018 invested £2 billion in a network transformation programme and a network subsidiary payment, which was designed to cover the operating costs of rural offices that may not be profitable but are required for the system and to protect the local economy.
A Grant Thornton report of last year stated:
The Irish Post Office Network is at a critical juncture. The financial viability and sustainability of the Network is challenged like never before in its history.
The president of the Irish Postmasters' Union stated around the same time that:
A Post Office PSO needs to be sanctioned this year and implemented by mid-2021. We do not have time to delay and do not need any further evidence. The level of closures next year is potentially so significant as to mean a collapse of the Irish post office network as we know it.
That is where we are at. There has been talk in recent months of the closure of Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank and AIB. I remind people that in 2009, when the financial crisis hit the country, we bailed out these financial institutions that are now closing down. The only bank that was not supported was Postbank, which was owned by An Post. It had no debt and 200,000 customers but was not supported and had to be closed down. We did not receive any help then but we need it now. As postmasters, we are not looking for money for nothing. We want to maintain levels for the next three to five years, allow those who wish to retire to do so, reduce the size of the network and try to bring it back to profitability.
I welcome the recent Grant Thornton report being sent to NewERA. I also welcome the offline services report which recommended a coherent approach to the delivery of offline services which has led to the establishment of the interdepartmental group co-chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am confident the Minister of State will present a strong case for a funding model to be put in place.
I welcome that the Government remains committed to a sustainable network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. Our programme for Government is committed to it. Our recently launched rural future initiative states the post office plays a central role in the delivery of public services. We have identified our town centre first approach as a key pillar to reinvigorate our urban centres throughout the country. I believe there is an opportunity here, and if we want to revitalise our towns and villages, we need to maintain the network. We need other services to survive, and if footfall is reduced, it will make it more difficult for ancillary services to survive. If we do not have those services available, will we get people to move back into town centres? I believe not. If the services are not there, people will not move back. I believe the post office network is key to the success of the urban and rural regeneration fund. It should be about not only upgrading derelict buildings but also building communities.
We need immediate action to address the current and impending financial crisis. We need to follow through on the programme for Government which states the network has untapped potential to do more and to make a further, significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland. An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community services, but to fulfil that vision, we must not only put the services in place, we must financially support the network. I have spoken to the Minister of State and her officials on a number of occasions and I am confident she understands the issue and will work towards a viable solution.
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.
I welcome the Minister of State. It is great to see another Galwegian in the House. I know she is very committed to and made a recent announcement on the post office in Eglington Street, which is to be welcomed. I will mention that again later.
The establishment of an interdepartmental committee is to be welcomed, as are the commitments in the programme for Government. Now is the time to put those into action because many people across the country are living in fear that their local post office will close. Postmasters are living in fear also because they are reliant on the State to support them.
At the start of the pandemic all of us were on Zoom and we thought it was great because we could connect with our families and friends, life could go on and we could still be sociable. However, it was not too long before the chats and the drinks we had dried up because it was not the same. We cannot do everything online. If we think back to that time we can put ourselves in the shoes of people who are reliant on things that are outside the digital world for their social lives and services. We need to remind ourselves that progress does not mean moving everything online and being digital. Progress means something else and well-being has to come into that.
I visited post offices much more often during this pandemic because I was not living near family and I had things to post. We would write on postcards and send them to loved ones, particularly our older loved ones. We can continue doing that because we saw that has enriched our lives. Our mental health and well-being in general relies on post offices and other community places that are real locations as opposed to on the Internet and it is important that we keep them.
From the point of view of sustainability, every time we close a post office people have to travel a little further to find one. It has not happened so far but we have seen many closures around County Galway and other counties. That has meant somebody has to travel a little further each time for those services. Looking at it in terms of climate and emissions, keeping post offices and other services open and developing our town centres first approach that we have advocated in the Green Party for a long time is about communities but it is also about the environment and is the reason we must invest in rural transport. We do not ask how much money it is bringing in. We may have been doing it but we should not ask how much money post offices are bringing in. As a State we need to say it is not about what is coming in but about the cost in terms of emissions and people's well-being when we close down these services.
This year the Welsh Government announced a climate target to have 30% of its workforce working flexibly to ensure that they spend some time at home. For that reason it is investing in working hubs. It is taking a climate perspective but we also need to look at it from the point of view of building up our communities and town centres and not destroying them. Regional development would be the next step. We have seen that the north-west has moved back to being a region in transition. What is the reason for that?If we fail to invest in some of our regions, that is what will happen. Investment does not mean: show me the companies or small businesses and SMEs that are already in these towns and now let me put in the infrastructure such as post offices, schools and transport. It means having a transport first and a town centre first approach and then developing around that. That is why I am supportive of the western rail network and post offices.
We also need to consider that if people are not using post offices in the same was as they were, we need to use them and be more creative. I mentioned working hubs. We could put much more investment in and look at, perhaps, diverting some of our funding from activities that are damaging to the climate into something that will ensure that we bring life back into communities and protect the environment. That might be something for the committee to look at but it is certainly something for the Minister of State to look at as well. I know he also has that commitment to climate and transport so all those things go hand in hand.
Finally, I will go back to the point I mentioned about the Eglinton Street post office in Galway, where we have these large spaces that are no longer needed in the same way as they were for post offices. They can still be used and developed for the community rather than sold off or, as we have seen in Galway, sitting idle for a really long time waiting. As the Minster of State will be aware, fantastic exhibitions have been held there as part of the Galway International Arts Festival. TULCA Festival of Visual Arts uses that space almost every year and it is used for an indoor market. Investment in that building is needed in order that it can be used all the time and also retain that post office. That is the way forward for small and large post offices.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I welcome the motion. We are all in agreement about the crucial role the post offices provide in our local communities. It is not just rural communities; they are a vital service in urban communities as well.
That said, the network has suffered from years of neglect by successive Governments with hundreds of closures and the loss of vital outlets right across the country. There are only so many cuts that the system can take. The postal service has been blighted by closures and hobbled by cutbacks. When an emergence like the pandemic hits, the staff are placed under a massive strain. We owe our postal workers a debt of gratitude for the way they rose to the challenge of Covid-19.
Last year, the IPU commissioned a report that recommended a PSO levy of €17 million per annum to be introduced to secure the future of the network and allow post offices to continue to provide excellent services, which are particularly important in rural Ireland. Sinn Féin supported this call. In fact, we have been advocating for a PSO to secure the future of the network for more than a decade now.
As far back as 2011, Sinn Féin highlighted that a PSO arrangement would be needed to save those post offices at risk of closure. Unfortunately, since then, successive Governments have done little to protect the network, allowing its further decline with hundreds of closures impacting rural Ireland the most.
During a Dáil debate on a Sinn Féin motion relating to post offices in 2018, Fianna Fáil called for a PSO to be introduced. I welcome that Senator Dooley has reconfirmed the commitment and support for such a levy. The support for the PSO is conspicuously absent from this motion, however. I am sure, therefore, it was just an oversight on the Senator's part. We are all very busy. I have done him a favour and included it as an amendment.
Given that Senator Dooley has expressed his support, I am sure he will facilitate that amendment passing.
We know the post office network remains a highly valuable national asset, which contributes hugely to our economy and society. It must be protected. Unfortunately, however, we know that is not what is happening. Over the past number of decades, we have seen the encroachment of a business mentality into the provision of public services in this country. This approach demands that our public services constantly justify their existence by making a profit instead of serving the needs of the community. This mentality is visible in what is being allowed to happen to our post offices. There is a shortfall between the cost of running post offices and the revenue they generate. Such narrow metrics fail to capture the true benefit of the postal network, however.The review of the economic contribution and financial sustainability of the Irish post office network by Grant Thornton highlights the true benefits of post offices very clearly, and that the social return they deliver for communities and, indeed, the economic return communities get from post offices, is enormous. Therefore, not only are the social and economic returns significant, they are far greater than the €17 million that would be required for the PSO.
Undoubtedly, An Post faces funding challenges, but the answer is not to simply remove the vital infrastructure; the answer is to invest in it, and to do that urgently, and to offer new services. In addition to a PSO, Sinn Féin wants to see more services delivered through our local post offices. There is an opportunity to explore the role post offices could play in providing energy services, as highlighted by the 2016 Kerr report. There are massive challenges in retrofitting our housing stock which An Post could well be suited to addressing, in addition to banking. One example is supporting people through the process of applying for energy saving grants. The applications are often technical and daunting, and the post office could become the front-facing part of a one-stop shop in helping people access information and support for energy saving grants. This can be a win-win situation through increasing the uptake of these grants and providing our post offices with a new avenue of business.
The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications is well suited to exploring the possibilities in this area. An Post has led by example in respect of its climate obligations. Most of its fleet is now electric, for example, so we have seen the company take a leadership role in this area and it is perfectly placed to do this. An Post can also have a role in bringing on stream the national database for microchipping of dogs, and linking that to the dog licensing system, which is also managed by An Post. It could therefore be the location as well for a national database on microchipping. Bringing those processes into one location would make it much easier for people to know where their pets are.
I will leave it there. As I said, however, we have several amendments. I mention amendment No. 5, in particular, and we hope we will get the support for the PSO levy.
As part of my party's commitment to rural Ireland, we decided to put forward this motion and it is an opportunity to acknowledge the vital importance of post offices to all our communities. Post offices are the fabric not just of rural Ireland but also of urban Ireland and they provide an important social as well as commercial service.
When I was growing up in Rathangan, and I am sure we all had the same positive experience of the post office aligned to the area where we grew up, we had the most wonderful post mistress, Molly Forde, whom I have spoken about previously. She really was an influential person, not just in my life but in the lives of everybody in the community. Ms Forde dispensed advice and wisdom as much as she dispensed stamps when we went into the post office. There was an intergenerational connection with her and her team. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but I think of her fondly often and the influence she had.
When I went to Carysfort College of Education in Blackrock as a young student leaving home for the first time, not knowing anyone else and being quite lonely, there was a small post office just at the back entrance to the college which was run by a lovely couple. They were the kindest of people. Students, particularly new students, would go into the post office to get stamps to send their letters home. This was well before emails, phone calls were expensive, nobody had mobiles and one had to queue up with coins. Letters were the way to go, which was a wonderful thing. The kindness that couple showed to many students was exemplary.
Many years later, I was backpacking around the world and I think again of the kindness of a couple in the suburb of Fairlight in Sydney in Australia. A few months before I eventually came back to Ireland, I was sending items home to Rathangan.They could not have been nicer. When I eventually arrived home, I found there was not one but two parcels, as well as a lovely letter from the couple saying that they had realised afterwards that the parcel was too heavy. They went to the trouble of getting two boxes and dividing everything between them. It was the kindest and nicest thing to do.
All of the post offices in this country run an invaluable service in helping and supporting people. There is no doubt that we need a new form of public service obligation payment to post offices that are commercially non-viable but provide the important social function I have described. This will ensure that even the most isolated communities have access to a post office. Incredible service has been given by post offices during the pandemic. That is certainly true of the service I received from Brendan Kelly and his team in Newbridge in sending small parcels to siblings and friends who I was not able to meet. The postman often was the only person calling to the house. I heard about older people writing to themselves to ensure a visit from the postman to their home on an ongoing basis, or sending a letter to a family member purely to talk to the postmaster. That absolutely shows us the importance of the whole post office network.
We must increase the array of financial services offered by post offices and develop a new community banking model. I come from a county in which the towns of Kilcullen and Monasterevin recently lost their Bank of Ireland branches. It is more important than ever that we build up post offices' existing financial services, such as currency exchange and bill payment, and ensure communities can access them. We should transform post offices into hubs for State services. It is incredible what Sean Fogarty, the postmaster in Ballymore Eustace, has done. He has set up a cycle café at his premises, the country's first online medical consultation service, VideoDoc, and an eGovernment service. There is a huge number of services that could be given to the post offices to deliver. We have lost four post offices in my area, in Moone, Narraghmore and Donadea, as well as in Ballybrittas in County Laois, which is part of the Kildare South constituency. I have spoken to those communities and seen the devastation they have undergone because of the lack of this vital service.
We do not want to see any more post office closures. We must acknowledge that many of them cannot pay their own way. The extra €17.5 million a year that the postmasters have said is needed would be money well spent to ensure this vital service, which is the hub of many communities, is not lost.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to the Chamber. I am trying to remember whether I have spoken in the House when she was here before. We have had a crazy year and it has been hard to get speaking slots. I am not sure whether I congratulated her on her appointment and wished her well. I would like to put that on the record today. I thank her for being here for this important debate.
I come from a very rural area in County Tipperary. I would be surprised if anyone here lives in as rural an area as I do. My home is just outside a very small village that has a school, church and community hall, and that is it. We have no pub, shop or post office. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and brilliant community and I am very proud of being from there. We used to have a shop and post office until 2017 or so. It was run by a man called Frank Hughes, who is now retired. Approximately two years ago, his grandchild, Michael Hughes, was in his final year in college as a film student, and a very talented one at that.He is qualified now. For his final year project he did a short film on his own grandfather's shop and post office and what it meant to the community. The film was called "The Shop That Was". It was a look back at when Frank started in Grange, when he first came and bought the shop in the 1980s. I am not sure what year it was. I was very young and he was there for as long as I remember. In the late 1980s or early 1990s he developed a post office in the shop as well. The concept of the film was acknowledging what someone has done and their contribution to their community. There was almost a premiere in our village for the launch of the film. I was lucky enough to be near Clonmel at the time so I got to speak at it. It was in the community hall, which was jam-packed with people, which is totally alien to what we are used to nowadays. It had not been that way for years. It is a small village with a small community and very few services. The film was shown and there was chat and everything afterwards. Even though it was a celebration of the life of someone who is still alive and his contribution to the community, there was an essence of sadness in it because of what we have lost as a community in terms of the post office and shop and what they bring to a community as well as being able to post a letter or buy bread, milk and a newspaper. Almost everyone who was at the short film premiere in our village spoke about the sense of loss and what having a post office can do to a community. Previous speakers have spoken about how the only interaction a lot of people have in a week is going to the post office to meet the person there. What has happened in the past year is that it has changed to the postman delivering post being the only interaction people have. In the course of the debate today speakers refer to how numerous post offices around the country have been closed. There has been a realignment of how the post office network operates. We can all see in our own village what it does to a community to lose a post office.
As a State, we have an obligation to make sure that when we restructure the post office network we support it in the way that we can. No one is under any illusion that how the post office worked five, ten or 20 years ago is the same way it should work now. Times are changing and everyone understands that, but it does not mean that we should end up in with a cliff scenario, as happened with my post office in Grange, where everything just goes under. The Government must support post offices to change the way they work and to have new services. Other speakers have referred to the ability to administer driving licences and motor tax. Many post offices have the capability to do that and we must allow them to do so or to bring an orderly end of life to some post offices. We must not have a situation where almost overnight we hear four post offices in Tipperary, three in Kerry and two in Galway are closed. We must give back to the people who have given an awful lot, and not alone by providing a service but by giving to the community. We must give them an opportunity to transition to either finish a service they have provided for many years or, in a bigger town, to give an opportunity to expand and grow. I commend the opportunity to discuss the Private Members' motion tabled. The sum of €17 million a year is not an awful lot of money given the scale of what we are spending at the moment to support an organisation that is hugely beneficial to areas right across the country.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.I support this motion, but it is unambitious and it needs the amendment proposed by Senators Boyhan, Craughwell, Norris, McDowell and I, and the Sinn Féin amendments as well. It seems there is little point in us debating the generalities of the problems facing post offices in our rural communities unless we are going to promote concrete action to assist them. If we do not, then motions such as this have all the hallmarks of being those regular inoffensive motions which the Government does not oppose, but does nothing to action either and there is no change of policy.
In 2018, we had the announcement of a raft of post office closures, which was debated at length. At that time, my fellow east Galway native and the current Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, described the closures in Galway as shocking and the death knell for rural Ireland. She said also that the Government was creating wastelands. I agree with those comments. It is a shame, therefore, that this sense of outrage is not reflected in the approach now being taken by the Government, of which the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is a member.
The recent announcement of the withdrawal of KBC Bank Ireland and Ulster Bank from the Republic and the closure of more than 100 branches by Bank of Ireland should surely change our attitude to the post office network. Two hundred and twenty bank branches are set to close on foot of these announcements, which is roughly one third of all bank branches across the country. More rural and less populated areas will, of course, as usual, suffer disproportionate closures. It is interesting that as our political system and the number of political parties has increased and fragmented, our banking sector has consolidated and regressed. We have gone from being a country with two and a half political parties to a country with two and a half banks, none of which entities is viewed as bywords for public trust, probity and honesty. They are synonymous with incompetence, reckless lending, the gouging of consumers at every opportunity and, in some case, defrauding customers, as we saw in regard to the tracker mortgages.
The number of credit unions has also halved in the past decade, down from 405 to 246, due to the Central Bank of Ireland pressurising many into mergers which in retrospect were not necessary, as evidenced by the large surplus in capital not used by the Credit Union Restructuring Board, which I raised in this House last November. All of this means that there has been a massive reduction in the number of options available to consumers in terms of savings, loans, mortgages and so on. Credit unions will, hopefully, have a greater role in the future. Is there room for a new State bank, which has been mooted many times? As a general rule, I do not think we should encourage State intervention in private enterprise except when private enterprise is failing the needs of ordinary citizens, as we found in 2008. Maybe we are approaching that point again, but from a different perspective and caused by different factors.
There are approximately 950 post offices remaining. It is clear that these will have to form part of the solution as well. As the motion notes, post offices are the service provider of last resort. A large section of our population still do not have the means or know-how to access banking through online means and they will need physical branch networks for the remainder of their lives. Post offices are now the last resort for many to process bill, pension and social welfare payments and so on. Our amendment proposes the extension of this service, turning post offices into one-stop shops or hubs for the services of Departments. There is much untapped potential for the post office network which can strengthen their viability.
I am a little surprised that the motion before us today makes no reference to the Grant Thornton report from late last year which found that nearly one third of the population attended a post office once a week, with 91% of people believing that they provide an important service to the community. Grant Thornton said that the only real way to preserve the network was through State investment of €17 million per annum through the public service obligation. Surely, that is justifiable. I have heard Senators from the Government side mention it, but why is it not in the motion? Why is the motion so meek? It reminds me of the saying, "the meek shall inherit the earth." If Government Senators believe it, they should say so and call on Government for it.
We are currently spending €12 million per day on the pandemic unemployment payment. Is the Government seriously saying that post-Covid we would not be able to find €17 million per year for our post offices? This issue is symptomatic of a much wider problem that we have seen over successive Governments, namely, a contempt for people in rural Ireland and for working people, urban or rural. There is a Government in Dublin with a Dublin-based policy making elite that thinks it knows better than ordinary people and it is not shy about telling us so. We see this regularly, including yesterday with the revelation that the minimum unit pricing in regard to the sale of alcohol is to be implemented, which will do nothing to reduce drinking, but will penalise the poorest, particularly poorer people who abuse alcohol and who will end up spending more of their limited money on the habit.We also saw contempt for people yesterday in Athlone when members of the Garda Síochána, and there is no blame on them because they are forced into this position, broke up a small group of people attending mass. That is a clear and blatant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and, importantly, our Constitution. All this is presided over by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, as Members of the Dáil and Seanad sit with their arms folded. If it had happened in Hungary, several Senators opposite would be jumping up and down about it. Against that background, it is a little difficult to accept the platitudes and, in particular, the weakness of the motion before the House because what rural communities need is concrete action, not well-meaning verbiage.
People describe being reactionary as wanting to go back to the status quo ante. Any of us familiar with the state of our larger and smaller towns knows about the physical decline and the problems in terms of drugs but, in particular, the pathetic look of so many of those towns. We need to invest in the appearance of our towns for the sake of public morale and our tourism product. I would rather drive through a Potemkin village that had been painted up than drive through a place that looks like a bomb site. In the context of post offices, maintaining one of the few remaining institutions that can be the lifeblood of some of those smaller towns to which I refer must become an important public priority.
I disagree with much of what Senator Mullen said. There is nothing meek about this motion. From the perspective of the Fianna Fáil Party, protecting and advocating for our post office network is something we have been doing for many years. That is the reason it is still on the agenda. There is a Government commitment to maintain and modernise the post office network and ensure that it is sustainable and that post offices can survive in the changing environment through which the country is moving. I take umbrage with what Senator Mullen said. He focused far more on the drafting of the motion than on the issue itself. That is regrettable.
In terms of any suggestion that there is contempt on this side of the House for the people of rural Ireland, I, as a person who lives in rural Ireland, can assure the Senator that, from my party's perspective, there is no contempt. There is nothing but support for the people of rural Ireland. We know the importance of the post office network to the people of rural Ireland but also to the people of urban Ireland because they also use the post office network. This is not an urban versus rural issue. This is a national issue and there is Government support for the motion to make sure that we protect our post office network and ensure that it can survive. It is not about maintaining things exactly as they are all of the time. We want to modernise. An Post wants to modernise. It has been doing that without the Government pushing it to do so. It has been doing that anyway because it is being led by demand and by people. We have seen that with its Parcel Connect product. All the new products it is bringing online is being done because it is listening to its customers and responding to their demands.
This motion is an opportunity. The inference is that this is just a general debate on the post office network. We debate many issues in this House and every debate has its merits and positive outcomes. It is important to be positive about this motion and to know that there is Government support to maintain the network is positive. That was not always the case heretofore but there is now a very strong commitment to that.
Senator Mullen mentioned the Grant Thornton report. Just because it is not physically written into the motion does not mean we are not acknowledging it. In fact, there are references to it in my notes. We are well aware of that report and what it contains. It has formed the basis of the policies the Government has taken. It is a welcome report that contains many good elements. It certainly merits debate but the Senator understands that everything is not put into the wording of a motion. Its purpose is to promote debate but not every single digit must be expressed on the page.
I commend Senator Dooley on bringing the motion to the groups and getting it drafted with the support of our members. It is welcome to have an opportunity, as a House of the Oireachtas, to debate the issue and what the post office network means to citizens. Very often we focus on the economic aspects to this issue but there is a social value to the post office network. Many members have discussed that. I refer to what it means to a local community to have that hub and that space that people can use.
I think it was Senator O'Loughlin who spoke about the additional services and the post office networking going above and beyond in terms of assisting its customers and the local people because there is local knowledge. The postmaster or postmistress will know his or her community. He or she will know the people living in the area. That is an important relationship and connection and it would be foolish to dispense with a network that has been built up over generations. Nobody is suggesting we do that and nobody wants to see that. We are here to talk about how we can modernise, protect and make sure that the network survives and thrives into the future.
Since this debate started a number of years ago, things have changed dramatically. We are coming through a pandemic and we have seen seismic shifts in the banking sector.This lends itself to an even stronger argument for giving more to the post office network and empowering it to deliver additional banking services. Now we have Bank of Ireland pulling out of certain communities. We also have Ulster Bank and KBC pulling out of Ireland. The banking sector is in trouble. We have said this on the floor of the House on many occasions. Let us turn this negative into a positive for the post office network and empower the post office network, along with the credit unions, to assist us in delivering greater banking services to our citizens and ensure there is greater competition in the market, which we all want to see. There are a lot of positives to be taken out of this.
We have to dispense with the rhetoric and popular suggestion that things will always stay the same. Nothing stays static. Things move and change and the public is well ahead of us on this. The public is demanding changes to the network and wants to see the network survive but the public does not expect it to stay exactly the same. I say this as somebody who lives in a small community where there used to be a post office a stone's throw from my family home. It is not there any more but there are bigger post offices a little bit closer by that are doing very well. People are supporting them and they want to see the Government support them.
We hear on the floor of the House today that there is strong Government support to protect the network, and the public will be really happy with this. It is incumbent on us all to work towards finding solutions, new ideas and thinking outside the box. How can we modernise the network to make sure it survives because it is competing with private companies for certain products, be it banking products, financial services or parcel delivery? It is competing against private sector companies, and this will always be a challenge because we expect a different standard from An Post in its treatment of its workers and employees and those who avail of the services. We expect the highest standards and it always delivers the highest standards.
It is important to commend An Post on having been an innovative organisation in recent years. In the face of significant adversity with all of the private providers coming on board to put it up to An Post in terms of competition, it has done a fantastic job of reimagining and reinventing its organisation, protecting its workers and employees and delivering a stellar service in the most difficult of times. Government support will not be found wanting and I am sure it will be the same on the Opposition benches because we are all working for the greater good. We are all working to make sure that, collectively as a House, we deliver for citizens, and this is the most important element in the debate rather than critiquing back and forth individually.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome this opportunity to say a few words on post offices and not for the first time. We have had quite a number of debates on post offices and post office closures over the years. I compliment Senator Dooley on tabling the motion, which is very important, as Senator Chambers has said. This issue needs quite a lot of debate because many post offices have closed, and in recent years there has been a big shift in how business is done in many ways and not just with regard to postal services.
I remember quite a number of years ago I expressed concern that another financial institution was opening in my home town of Castlebar. It was the 14th institution in Castlebar where people could get credit, loans or money. Now we have gone full circle and Castlebar will have considerably fewer financial institutions. It is not all about competition. Competition is fine to a certain point but businesses have to make money and make a profit. They cannot survive otherwise. This is why there is such a big shift in banking infrastructure. The banking institutions have to make ends meet. With the reduction in interest rates, the basis for them to make money is not there and they have to find other ways of making it. We know what they are and we can see why they are closing and pulling out of Ireland.
Perhaps not everybody here but many of us have witnessed how the post offices have worked over a long number of years, with regard to telegrams and parcels, as Senator O'Loughlin has said. It has provided great services, and not just postal services, to local communities.My home county has seen quite a number of post offices over a vast area closed in recent years with the result that there is not one post office in a large chunk of central Mayo. They cannot survive because neither the population nor the business is there. The area I come from had two shops, a post office, two pubs and a Garda barracks. Now there is no shop, no Garda barracks, no post office and one pub. That is not uncommon in large areas throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Many proposals have been made in respect of banking services but other services could be provided by the post office. I remember going to the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Mr. Ross, to ask him to let the post offices bid for the driver licence contract. He did not take much heed of anything I had to say in that respect. It was a golden opportunity at the time but one that was missed.
I believe the post office network could provide social services. This should be looked at. We have all spoken in this Chamber, in other chambers and in the Dáil about social exclusion. This is an area where the post office could become involved. Post offices could provide a great service throughout the length and breadth of the country. They could co-ordinate many of the relevant services. Postmasters and postmistresses know their areas and the people in their areas. They know the vulnerable people. They know their areas inside out. I believe this area should be looked at. Social services could be co-ordinated by the post offices. It would be an ideal opportunity. This area should be looked at, especially in rural areas. We have seen over the years how social exclusion, loneliness and people living on their own in rural areas can be problematic. The person who knows all those people best is the postmaster or postmistress. I believe they could co-ordinate many of the social services. I believe it is an area the Minister of State could examine to see whether they could provide those services. This could be done.
I compliment those in the post office network on the services they have delivered and co-ordinated over the years. The post office services provided were accountable and transparent. The service stacks up and is dependable. The people in charge, the postmasters and postmistresses, did a great service to the country over many years. I believe that with some ingenuity, with the structure in place and with the people involved much could be done and they could deliver the services that I have spoken about.
I thank Fianna Fáil for the motion, which sets out how this is about post offices in urban and rural areas. While there is, obviously and inevitably, much focus on the viability of rural post offices and their important place in rural communities, I can attest to the great importance of post offices in urban villages like my village of Phibsborough. I grew up in a small place called Carrignavar in Cork, where the post office was at the heart of the community. The post office in Phibsborough, which is an urban area, occupies the same important place in providing services to those of all ages in the locality. I am reminded of my first political campaign, which was to save Phibsborough post office from closing down in its current form. An Post was under financial pressure and was looking at the small number of branch post offices still within its network - the majority are run by independent contractors.With the support of the local community, we managed to get An Post to change its mind. Of course, if it were to outsource the post office to an independent contractor, there was most likely going to be a loss of services and less money to sustain the functioning of the post office, which is not something that we, as a community, could countenance. An Post, to its credit, backed away and the venue remains a branch post office.
There is a bigger issue at play and many Senators have spoken about the closure of post offices in their own areas. We have to ask why and consider the business model behind so many of the post offices in this country because An Post cannot stop a contractor, the postmaster or postmistress, from calling it a day because of financial pressures or a desire to retire. If we are to stop the flow of losses in communities, as a result post offices closing down, then we must consider how we financially support An Post to negotiate contracts that allow a contractor to make a living and provide all of the necessary services. We need to have this discussion and that is why we very much support the amendments in terms of the €17 million, having a discussion on the new public service obligation and the development of hubs. It is fine to have words on paper stating that we want the interdepartmental working group to consider directing more Government business to the post office network. Some of the aspirations are well founded and well meaning, and we very much support them, but this House must make a concrete call that expresses Senators' support for An Post.
In terms of opportunities for post offices, Senators have mentioned the closure of 88 branches of Bank of Ireland, and the exit of Ulster Bank and KBC. It is positive to hear that there is some agreement in the works between An Post and Bank of Ireland but we need more details. For example, there are serious questions concerning instant access lodgements. Will the An Post network provide the service like we had within a Bank of Ireland branch? Are we going to have night safes for businesses so lodgements can be made? Are we going to have ATMs? If we can have ATMs in shops, we can surely have them on the walls of post offices. Bank of Ireland has ATMs on some walls of its branches and with closures, those ATMs will go, which will be a massive loss to many communities, in particular for anyone who wants to access their cash out of hours and outside of post office hours.
To conclude, the Labour Party supports the motion and urges support for the amendments. I thank my colleagues on this side of the House for putting forward these important amendments. We need to put figures behind the support from this House for An Post.
I thank the Minister of State for being here to discuss the motion. A strong post office network is something Fianna Fáil, as a party, has advocated for and supported for many years, and I am very glad to have this opportunity to echo my support for the post office network. I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of the workers in An Post who worked tirelessly to keep this country going while people remained at home, particularly through the first lockdown. Almost the only thing that was consistent and normal for everyone during the first lockdown was An Post when its vans and bicycles travelled around the country to towns, villages, highways and byways. Mr. John Grogan is my local postman and he is always a welcome visitor to my door. Unfortunately, for some people living in communities and for those who were isolated or cocooning, the postman or post woman provide the only opportunity of a chat in the day. That situation highlights to me that the postal service is not just about delivering post or being a business. It is a social network. Post offices are an integral part of the social and economic fabric of this nation, in both urban and rural settings, so I very much believe a PSO levy is important and necessary.The cost to the State is far outweighed by the social return for our communities.
This motion rightly calls on the Government to support the roll-out of new services to ensure the financial viability of the entire An Post network. Banking, the paying of bills and all the services that An Post already provides are fantastic but there are so many opportunities for them to be expanded. We need to be flexible and one idea would not suit every post office. We must think outside the box, expand our scope and work with the community on what supports and services work best for the community.
The programme for Government recognises that the modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services, including e-commerce and services for citizens and enterprise as part of a commitment to a sustainable, nationwide post office network. There is a large need in this country for community banking and we must advocate for it. All across the House today the idea has been echoed and increasing financial services for credit unions and An Post is absolutely essential. They were there for us during the financial bust and have been there for us since. Families struggled. I know I struggled but An Post and credit unions were there for me when everything else collapsed. They should be rewarded for this. They have proven that they can be trusted and the State owes them the opportunity to expand their financial services.
Fianna Fáil and its Government partners believe An Post has untapped potential to do so much more and make further significant contributions across many areas of public life, business and community. The Government believes An Post has untapped potential and it has already made a significant contribution to our communities and economic development. It can do so much more. I very much welcome the consensus across the House today. In terms of that consensus, we can show the Cabinet that we are all serious about looking after the rural and urban An Post network. We know it is as integral for our citizens in urban Ireland as it is for those in rural areas.
I commend my colleague, Senator Dooley, on tabling this very important motion. It is good to debate the future of An Post in the Seanad. An Post is intrinsically linked with practically every family in this country and that special relationship is amplified by the outstanding service of the postwomen and postmen in this country over many decades, particularly, as previous speakers noted, over the 12 months or so of this pandemic. In some cases, the only individual people saw in the course of a day was the postman or postwoman dropping a letter. We should always be very proud of our postal network and the fact that the vast majority of letters posted in this country get delivered the following day. It is exceptionally good when compared with international standards.
The future of the post office has been debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas and within communities or the media in this country for a long time. Many post offices that had been open and served their communities with distinction are no longer open and were probably not viable. My goal today is to secure what remains of post office network, particularly as it is not really realistic to expect that post offices that have been closed will reopen, unfortunately. We can aim to deliver on the remaining post offices being retained. I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. I know she fully understands and is committed to that principle.
The post office service needs two key elements, which are politics and people. It needs politics to deliver. I am not against the idea of a public service obligation payment to An Post so as to retain the network of post offices. There is much untapped potential in that network.A post office, essentially, should be a one-stop shop in which as much government, and other, business as possible can be done. Many forms are now downloaded online but many other things can be provided in post offices. The post office does not have to be a traditional, big building in a town. It can be a building within a supermarket or a shop. In many cases it is and can be in future. Technology is now very small; there is no need for big machines any more.
The post office also needs people to support it. Post offices close because they are not viable as people are not going through their doors and there is no footfall. Unless, as a nation, we support the post office by using it, we will lose it.
I thank Senator Conway for sharing time with me. The Minister of State is more than welcome to the House. I acknowledge her presence. Her portfolio is a very important one in terms of how we can address this issue. I acknowledge the motion put down by Senator Dooley. It is very important and well timed.
The post office network provides social welfare payment services to roughly 1.3 million people, which is equivalent to an average of more than €4.6 billion a year going into the economy. It is a very significant driver in local communities and local economies. However, there has been a major change and Covid has proven that. How we do our business has changed dramatically. The online effect has been huge. The demographic now using online is not just a younger one; it is everyone really. That is how society has changed. How An Post management and the network deal with that will be a major issue.
The next few months are critical for the An Post network. The major changes in society as regards the English, or UK, model saw the post office network there move into convenience stores and lose the ethos of a post office. That is something of which I am very fearful. I came across a scenario in Goleen in west Cork in which a convenience store, located right beside a post office, got a letter from An Post offering it the majority of its services. An Post subsequently offered an apology stating it was a mistake. That is what is happening on the ground. We could have our post office network pushed into the local Centra or Spar. That is not what we are looking for.
We are looking for An Post to come up with a real model, a model with a scenario in which the post office network will be a real part of the community and society and will fit into their ethos and economic drivers. That will involve hubs and places like digital hubs. It will rethink how our post office will be in future. Whether An Post management has the imagination to come up with that plan is something we need to start talking about. That is where this debate needs to go. We need a real, post-Covid plan for the An Post network. I have not seen any talk of it so far. We need An Post management to produce that plan so we can push forward and, hopefully, have a profitable and capable post office network.
Well done to Senator Dooley for bringing this motion forward. We have all probably been inundated with communication from post office owners and postmasters. I certainly have been. There is much stress in that sector. It is good that we have this motion and that the Government is taking it seriously. It is important that people realise An Post is State-owned and, as a Government, it is our responsibility to try to do all we can for post offices.
It is imperative that we save post offices. I will go so far as to say that I hope we could look into reopening some of the closed post offices. In some cases, people were willing to run some of the post offices which closed. If we do a good job, we should be able to make some of those that were closed viable again. For example, the post office in Broadford, in east Clare, is closed but that village will be a boom town. Once we get the water infrastructure, there will be many new houses and it will be busy place for people to live. We will see that post-Covid. People are moving to places and places are getting busy that never were before. I was in Labasheeda on Saturday and many old houses are being done up.There is a new café opening and the post office is doing well. Things are going to change and it will not be the case that people will only go to one or two places. Staycationing is going to change everything and people are going to discover places they never knew existed. There are lots of hidden gems of small rural areas that are going to be discovered. We will not all want to go to the same places that are packed and busy, we will want to spread out a bit more.
A programme should be put in place to encourage children and teenagers with confirmation or pocket money to open accounts in the post office rather than the bank. Last Saturday I met a lovely man called Mike Cassidy, who is heavily involved in the Tidy Towns group in Labasheeda, which, by the way, has the best public seating I have ever seen in any village or town. Mike was with the postmistress, Mary Hehir, and I had a good chat with them. I was on my bike. One always gets a chance to chat with people when one is not in a car. It was sunny, of course, and we were all going slow. They made a very good point to me. There is a lot of funding available at the moment and I completely disagree with Senator Mullen's argument that rural Ireland is not getting much. I would say that rural Ireland has received more since last July than ever before, although we will keep looking for more, of course. This Government is doing a lot for rural Ireland, I would argue. Just because a few loud independent representatives start shouting and roaring when it is not their turn does not mean we should feed into the rural versus urban narrative too much. The Government is not split in that way. Anyway, Mike and Mary made a very good point. We have been giving a great deal of funding to Tidy Towns and community groups, and more is coming down the line, but the money has to go into a bank account. Most people in Labasheeda have a post office account because there is a post office there and they can do their banking locally. However, any funding that comes from the State is channelled through banks. I would like to see that changed so that such moneys can be channelled through post office accounts. Money has to be transferred from bank accounts to post office accounts so people can access it. As we know, many bank branches are closing and there are fewer of them. They are disappearing more quickly than the post offices at this stage. This means that people have to travel to larger towns, which we should be discouraging in the context of climate change mitigation.
In this day and age, everything seems to be going online. The post office is the last bastion of hope for older people. If we do not keep them open and thriving, it will be quite ageist. Older people need one-on-one interaction and many are stressed by trying to figure out how to do things online. It is so stressful for them. The post office can be the place to get help, where someone can talk them through how to do things and keep it simple. There is an opportunity for the post office to be that place for older people. Sometimes it is harder for older people to learn how to do things online. My father is great and he is able but I have shown him how to do certain things lots of times but he still cannot do it because it is just so abstract. The post office has a huge part to play in that regard.
Post offices also play a huge role for people in a social and mental health context. I urge the Minister of State to work to make sure that the post offices we have remain open and viable by turning them into places to which people go for many different reasons, not just for financial services. Nowadays, one sees coffee shops with their own-brand merchandise. Maybe we could have the same for our villages and towns and it could be sold at a profit. I am thinking of things like an Ennistymon reusable water bottle, a Broadford reusable coffee cup and so on. There are ways in which post offices could sell things that are useful in the context of the new, green economy. The post office could be the one-stop shop in which to get such things. I thank the Minister of State for her work to date in this area.
I do my best to cycle but three times now when cycling in Dublin I have come across An Post vans parked in cycle lanes. This is not good enough. On my way over here earlier, I was faced with being shoved out into traffic. I said to the driver that I did not want to be pushed out the in the traffic; there is a cycle lane and I want to use it. I said that it was not fair, he was shoving me out into the traffic. He said, "Life ain't fair love", laughed and hopped into the van. An Post is owned by the State. We have put in infrastructure and at least where we have cycle infrastructure, can we please be allowed to use it? I know this is not directly connected to the motion before us, which I strongly support. We must do all we can for post offices but I ask that An Post drivers would not park in cycle lanes.
I thank Senators for their contributions and for giving me the opportunity to address this important motion. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed and recognise many of the positive social and economic benefits provided by the post office network. I also agree that there is enormous potential for the network to provide a better range of financial and e-commerce services.This is set out in the programme for Government, as many colleagues have noted, and it is part of our commitment to a sustainable nationwide post office network, for which I believe there is cross-party support in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I commend the work of Government party Senators who have been working consistently with me and the Government to highlight the challenges facing the network and are helping to inform policy decisions required in the coming weeks and months to ensure the viability of the network. I reiterate the commitment from An Post to have a post office in every community of more than 500 people and that 95% of the population will be within 15 km of at least one post office in rural areas and within 3 km in urban areas. This is very important, particularly for rural communities.
The importance and resilience of the post office network has been clearly demonstrated. As most Senators who contributed to the debate highlighted, throughout the pandemic An Post has kept its network of more than 900 post offices open, ensuring the continued distribution of cash to the economy and playing an important commercial and societal role in the communities in which they operate. An Post has also played a key role in enabling SMEs to trade online during the lockdown periods. Over the past year or so, we have seen a range of initiatives through the post office network which have helped to support local communities, the elderly and the vulnerable. An Post is to be commended on these initiatives and I have no doubt all present share an appreciation of them, as well as a belief there is potential for An Post and the network to make a further contribution across many areas of public, business and community life. The motion before the House recognises this, as does the programme for Government.
Although the financial position of An Post has been stabilised in recent years, underlying challenges remain as the postal sector is evolving rapidly. Mail volumes continue to decline. E-substitution and the move to online payments and online banking continue to have an impact. Similar challenges are being felt across Europe, with many postal operators seeking to diversify their business in recent years and to seek new business opportunities. During Covid-19 in particular, we have seen an acceleration in both e-commerce and the adoption of online banking and card payments. While letter volume decline has created challenges for the sector and continues to drive changes, the growing e-commerce industry creates new opportunities and demands for postal operators to respond to and minimise the negative impact of letter volume decline. These changes are impacting on the revenue being generated by the network and as a whole, with An Post and postmasters facing into their own particular challenges.
There is broad acceptance that the environment in which the post office operates has irreversibly changed and that the network needs to change too if it is to thrive. Even before the pandemic, core mail volumes continued to decline by 6.3% in 2019, resulting in a €25 million decrease in revenue. An Post estimates that the pandemic has probably accelerated this process of volume decline by two to three years. A further difficulty in that regard is that once customer have adapted to digital alternatives, they rarely return to sending mail and, as such, the decline is likely to be permanent.
There is no doubt the pandemic has accelerated and increased the challenges facing the post office network, hitting some of its key business lines. Social welfare payments have declined more quickly than expected, with knock-on effects on footfall and related product lines such as BillPay. Revenue from foreign exchange transactions has also been severely affected. Postmasters have seen an accelerated decline in key revenue and product lines as a direct result of the public health restrictions, which has been coupled with the need to focus on maintaining their day-to-day business in very challenging circumstances.
As with any business, the post office needs to develop commercial strategies to enable it to grow and maintain its relevance for its users. We are working with An Post to investigate the scope to channel additional services through the network. All options are being considered fully and efforts will be redoubled to give effect to our commitment to ensuring a sustainable and viable post office network. The agreement reached between An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, in 2018 underpinned significant change and investment to redefine the post office network, including reducing the number of post offices, modernising the postmaster contract and updating the brand.The consolidation of the post office network has assured the widest possible distribution across the State, with an ever-improving network. The key focus continues to be on future-proofing the company and keeping it relevant to its customers with regard to the types of services it provides. This restructuring has seen the development of new areas of business, particularly in parcel delivery but also in new retail areas and in financial services, which has resulted in a return to annual profitability since implementation of the plan first began.
An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products and new formats. This includes, among other things, diversifying and growing the financial services product it provides for individuals and SMEs to include loans, credit cards and more foreign exchange products, local banking in association with major banks, and a full range of State savings products. Two new dedicated sub-brands, An Post Money and a new business-to-business brand, An Post Commerce, have been launched. Investment by An Post of €50 million in the network is designed to encourage communities to use the enhanced services in their local post offices.
While many people who use local post offices prefer to use cash for the purposes of weekly budgeting and money management, An Post is increasingly appealing to and attracting a new cohort of customers who transact in a cashless manner and who want what An Post is offering online. An Post aims to serve both these demographics and, in many ways, the pandemic has helped to accelerate An Post's response in driving forward investment in digital.
An Post has also launched its Green Hub, a facility which provides end-to-end project management and money saving advice for all levels of home retrofitting, supported by competitive loan rates. The Green Hub is essentially a one-stop-shop which will cover loan-only or full retrofit services from initial home assessments to completed works and a Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant application and payment process. An Post has partnered with SSE Airtricity to give free home assessments and to fulfil works.
An Post has also invested in the training of staff in all post offices in 2019 and 2020 to better equip postmasters to run their businesses, to manage profit and loss accounts and to promote their businesses locally. All new services and initiatives such as these are geared towards driving footfall through post offices and keeping the network vibrant and relevant to customers.
Growing its financial services business has been a key part of An Post's business strategy, building on the significant savings business it has in partnership with the National Treasury Management Agency, its market leading position in foreign exchange and its existing current account, credit card and consumer lending customer base. In line with its commercial strategy to increase its banking services, An Post announced a new partnership with Bank of Ireland to offer personal and SME withdrawal and lodgement services to Bank of Ireland customers across the An Post network of more than 900 post offices nationwide. This builds on the agency banking service An Post already provides for a number of other leading banks including AIB and Ulster Bank, with more than 4.5 million transactions representing a cash value of almost €1.5 billion annually. This new agreement means that An Post can offer all Bank of Ireland personal and SME customers withdrawal and lodgement services in every one of its post offices nationwide. It is also in line with An Post's strategy to become a leading provider of financial services for personal customers and SMEs.
Approximately 500 post offices are situated in parts of the country which do not have a bank within a 5 km radius. An Post will continue to work to build a sustainable and successful national post office network that is modernised and reinvigorated and which offers new and relevant products and services for the communities on the post offices' doorstep.
It is important to note that An Post is a commercial State body with a mandate to act commercially. It has statutory responsibility for the State's postal service and the post office network. Decisions relating to the network, including those related to the size, distribution and future of that network, are operational matters for the board and management of the company. A lot of work has been done over recent years to develop and this has had a very positive effect for both postmasters and customers. The ongoing transformation in the company aims to ensure the financial viability of An Post and the continued fulfilment of its mandate to deliver a mails delivery service and a viable post office network. This momentum needs to be maintained and, if An Post, the postmasters and Government work together, we can ensure that the network can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable, community-focused services.We want a sustainable post office network available to all of our citizens, both urban and rural, in the medium and long term. Government efforts have been focused on supporting An Post in the roll-out of new services and the delivery of its strategic plan. Some €30 million in State funding was made available, of which €15 million is to support the renewal of the post office network and a further €15 million is towards the continued fulfilment of a five day per week mail delivery service. This helps secure the future of mail and post office services for local communities in both rural and urban areas.
The Government continues to provide significant business to An Post through the Department of Social Protection's social welfare contract and the National Treasury Management Agency business. The Minister also approved a capital expenditure programme which is part of the company's commitment to the sustainability of its network, designed to develop the newer elements of An Post's financial services business and mitigate decline core mail volumes and revenues on the retail side of the business. An Post has received an investment loan of €40 million from the European Investment Bank to finance innovation and modernisation as part of its strategic plan. The borrowing is being used to help fund capital costs associated with five investment programmes which are part of the transformation plan, including post office renewal.
As Senators will appreciate, developments in information and communications technology have transformed how Government and citizens interact with each other in recent years and have radically reformed the way Government delivers its services. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen an increase in online engagement with Government, and online systems were key in the swift processing of applications for pandemic supports and other Government services. It is recognised, however, that a cohort of the population does not have access to or the capacity to avail of online services, and alternative access through traditional channels will be essential to them and will ensure public service delivery continues to be geared to customers, irrespective of how they wish to engage with Government. I acknowledge many Senators stated the importance of offline services.
It was against this backdrop that the offline services report was recently brought to Government. The report notes the increase in digital service provision will see a corresponding reduction in footfall to offline services. It also recommends a collective and coherent approach to the delivery of offline services, whether through assisted digital or offline channels, should be considered. The report also notes some of the challenges to this approach and there are issues which require further consideration.
In response, Government agreed to the establishment of an interdepartmental group, co-chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to explore the potential of a one-stop shop approach, including the identification of suitable services based on the recommendations in the report. The group has now been established and held its first meeting on 20 April. As well as the co-chairing Departments, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Transport, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Revenue Commissioners are represented. These Departments are considered relevant in particular as they have significant operational areas and may also choose to nominate agencies operating under their aegis to attend.
In conducting this work, the group will consider the increased use of the post office network for the delivery of Government services. In advance of the next meeting, scheduled for 11 May, Departments have been asked to provide information on their existing services which would have the potential to benefit from a one-stop shop approach. Three subsequent meetings have been scheduled and the group will report back to Government by the end of July.
The Grant Thornton report, commissioned by the Irish Postmasters Union, is under consideration in my Department. We are looking at all mechanisms to ensure the viability of the network, including the offline services group, which will report back to Government in July. The Government is committed to delivering services using channels geared to the needs of the public and remains committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. All options will be considered fully and every effort made to give effect to the Government commitment to ensuring a sustainable and viable post office network.
I thank all Members who have contributed in a positive way to the debate on this motion and I thank the Minister of State for her endurance in listening to all the points. It is now really up to the Minister of State and the Government to take on board all the points she has heard to ensure at long last we reach a point where post offices are seen as an integral part of their community and do not limp on month to month, year to year and change to change without really knowing whether they will survive. We must get away from the principle of a post office just being a profit-and-loss operation. It is about its integrated nature with regard to the community by providing services to meet the needs of the people.
Of course, it is incumbent on An Post and the Government to identify more services to create better footfall through post offices, but as I have emphasised on many occasions and has been laid bare in the Grant Thornton report, post offices themselves cannot be seen as viable based on transactions. There must be State support that sits behind them. The view I have expressed on many occasions is the necessity for a public service obligation to exist and an annual funding stream from Government to An Post as a means of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the network. We must give that confidence and show that support to the postmasters and postmistresses so that we do not wear them down one by one until such time as they are capable no longer, physically or financially, of providing a service. Ultimately, this is what has been happening in recent years. The network has reached a point where we must say stop, and the only way this can be done is by providing appropriate funding to An Post to put it in a position to ring-fence the network as it is currently constituted and retain it from here on.
I have no doubt there are opportunities. There are opportunities within An Post in terms of the mix of services it can offer and there are opportunities for the State where it can deliver more services through the post offices. We owe it to all those involved in the operation of the network, urban and rural communities and the communities of people who will, ultimately, change the face of this country. We have all recognised there is a much greater demand for people who want to move from the cities into rural villages and smaller communities because they have seen the benefits attached to working remotely. I spoke to people in the Grow Remote campaign two years ago. While they thought it would be a slow build and would happen over five to ten years, if there is anything positive we can say has come out of the pandemic, and there is little, one element is that we now recognise we do not have to be in the office every day. People do not have to commute for two hours or at least not everybody has to commute for that length of time and take those kind of journeys. We can start to rebuild communities because of the advent of remote working, interfacing in an electronic environment and doing our business differently.
It will sustain our environment but we must sustain those economies and now is the time. As others have said, we can find money, as we have done in this pandemic, in massive quantums to meet a specific need. The Grant Thornton report identifies about €17 million. That may grow to some extent in the coming years but it is the right thing to do. It is the right investment in a social infrastructure to maintain communities in the way that so many people have outlined.
I appeal to the Minister of State as our conduit to Government on this issue to give very serious consideration to all the viewpoints she has heard across the House. I know the work she is doing will come to fruition soon. Is a public service obligation the only way to do it? It is my favoured option and I have made that clear on many occasions, but if the Minister of State can find another way to put in place the entirely necessary funding supports, I am prepared to accept that. I look forward to the Minister of State's deliberations and her return to this House when she has reached those conclusions.
I move amendment No. 2:
To insert the following paragraph after “recognises that:”: “- post offices provide 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;”
I move amendment No. 4:
To insert the following paragraph after “acknowledges that:”: “- the Irish Postmasters’ Union have called for a public service obligation of €17 million per annum to be introduced to sustain the post office network;”