Speech by Denis Naughten T.D.
Minister for Communications,
Climate Action and Environment
to Annual Conference of the Irish Postmasters' Union
Hotel Westport, Co Mayo
Saturday May 6th.
Thank you for inviting me to address you via video link. I am sorry I cannot be there in person this afternoon.
At the outset, I would like to compliment you for the sterling work you do both in a commercial and social context in running the network. Your knowledge and professionalism has served and maintained the branch network extremely well down through the years and your ingenuity and experience will be key strengths for the future.
It is Government policy that An Post remains a strong, viable company in a position to provide a high quality nationwide postal service and that it maintains a nationwide customer-focused network of post offices in the community.
The post office network of just over 1,100 outlets extends nationwide and reaches almost 1.7 million customers. It is the Government front office provider of choice for many of our citizens and is seen as a trusted, local, reliable and friendly service. The 4 big strengths An Post has is its strong brand, the fact that the organisation is trusted by the public, particularly older people. It is a nationwide network and guaranteed delivery and collections 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year.
These strengths have been built upon over the years by you, the Postmasters and Postmistresses, in conjunction with An Post.
With its nationwide reach, the company brings vans and postal workers to every single premise in Ireland five days a week, 52 weeks a year. This is a valuable service particularly in rural areas and for rural based businesses. To protect this service I repealed the cap on the price of the stamp because, despite advice to the contrary, I believe that the 5 day a week service is an asset to be developed NOT undermined.
The Government is fully committed to a sustainable post office network which it sees as a key piece of financial and social infrastructure for both urban and rural areas. Part of the strength of the post office brand and one of its selling points, is that it reaches all parts of the country and can be accessed by anyone. I expect this to be a cornerstone of any future strategy for the company and indeed the post office network.
Despite these many valuable attributes, the world around us is changing with the move to electronic and mobile payments gaining pace year by year. More than most, you can see the impact of these changes in your daily business.
Bobby Kerr has devoted a lot of time and attention to the network in the last few years. In doing this, he has brought his knowledge and retail experience to the process of identifying and developing business opportunities. He clearly sees a future for the network. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see the strengths of a business. I too am passionately committed to a future for the network.
I was one of the very few members of the Oireachtas to make a submission to the Kerr report as a backbench TD in 2015. I gave specific examples of State business that is not currently going through the post office network but which could be put through it. Naturally enough, as a Deputy from the most rural constituency, I fully understand the impact that declining business and customer foot fall is having on the post office network. As a follow on to his first report, Bobby Kerr also chaired a Network Renewal Implementation Group which involved a big commitment in terms of time and energy on your part.
The other dynamic that has changed is the appointment of David McRedmond as a new chief executive of An Post. He is undertaking a root and branch review of the entire company - looking at scale, scope and structure of the company for the long-term, taking into account major technology and market shifts. I have asked New Era, the State's own independent advisor on Semi-State bodies, to assist with this process.
Turning to the role of Government, the Programme for a Partnership Government commits to acting on the recommendations in the report of the Post Office Network Business Development Group and contains a number of actions to support the network. As you are aware, responsibility for the post office network transferred to my colleague the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs who delegated the function to Minister Ring who chaired the Post Office Hub Working Group.
Arrangements are now in hand to transfer responsibility for the post office network back to my Department, given my overall responsibility for the governance of An Post and postal services.
I would like assure you all that I am committed to working with An Post, Postmasters and staff to ensure that the State can have a viable postal service and post office network to serve all communities into the future.
Nonetheless, the task we all face – postmasters, An Post, its staff and Government – is to build on the achievements of the past and the undoubted goodwill that the post offices and postmasters have earned in their local communities.
But the achievements of the past are no guarantee of a successful future. A solid network of vibrant post offices can only be maintained if we are delivering the community services that people want today and tomorrow.
As Minister for Communications, I am more aware than most of the potential and the downsides of the development of an e-commerce and digital economy. The reality is that there is no turning back the clock on digital in either urban or rural areas.
Ensuring access to high speed broadband irrespective of location is a key priority for me. The Government will deliver a "connected" economy and society where every citizen, company and community can realise the full social and economic potential of the digital world. On foot of my Commitment Agreement with Eir within the next 86 weeks, 97% of all post offices will have high speed broadband.
The National Broadband Plan will bring broadband to areas of the country where post offices may have had difficulty in the past getting access to quality broadband. Within the next 86 weeks all but 33 of the 125 post offices which were previously in the National Broadband Plan State Intervention Area will have access to fibre to the door high speed broadband as a result of the Agreement I signed with Eir last month.
Rather than seeing high speed broadband as a threat to the network it will enhance it. Broadband will revolutionize post offices. It'll provide access to new products and services and meet the needs of post office customers now and into the future. I see the local postmaster as the gateway to the digital world particularly for those who are not yet comfortable in the digital space.
We need to return post offices to a place that people will visit regularly, not just at Christmas or when they are going on holidays.
But to do this we need an innovative programme that modernises (a) infrastructure (b) service (c) offering.
Post offices are a Government network so all online Government services such as passports and motor tax should be available in post offices. For example in my submission to the Kerr Report I pointed out that the State could have saved half a million euro by operating the property tax through post offices. Looking to Estonia where they have digitised mostly everything, a saving of €400 million per year in staff costs alone in the Irish context, is feasible.
Remember that 1 in 7 people have never used the internet. There's a significant opportunity to provide Digital Assist programmes. When you look at websites such as bonkers.ie and switcher.ie there's a considerable number of people missing out on opportunities to save anything up to €300 on their electricity bills simply by not being able to use the internet because they don't know how to.
When you look at VideoDoc – the online GP clinic being developed by Postmaster Sean Fogarty in his post office in Ballymore Eustace – this is an example of modernisation and ingenuity combined.
There's a natural link between parcel pick-up and returns, financial services and young people that needs to be nurtured and developed to make the local post office relevant in the lives of young people.
As well as generating new lines of business, it is vital to retain existing contracts. The Department of Social Protection (DSP) contract and the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) contracts comprise most of the revenue of the post office network and I know that the retention of these contracts is key for the business. They are a significant source of revenue for the company and for over the counter transactions in the network.
Designing a new roadmap for the network has taken time and I can appreciate a certain amount of frustration on your part with the pace of events.
I know that a group involving members of the executive and An Post is currently looking at how a strategy can be implemented. In my view, it would help to deliver a successful outcome to these negotiations if it involved outside facilitation and I conveyed my view to An Post.
I welcome the decision of An Post and IPU to appoint facilitator to work on an implementation strategy and provide a sustainable income for individual postmasters.
As a rural TD, I know many individual postmasters and I know how committed you are to your local communities and to your customers. Be assured, I am as committed as you are and I am listening to your concerns and those of your customers across our communities.
Thank you for inviting me to address you via video link and I wish you a successful conference.