TOPICAL ISSUE (Ref. No.: 1 )
( 4 minute Statement)
Ongoing threats to rural post offices
I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices. This is why I committed myself since coming into office to protecting the post office network to ensure the needs of communities continue to be met by An Post.
An Post has entered a period of structural change and decline in activity mainly due to the impact of e-substitution on mail volumes and post office transactions. There is no doubt that the environment in which the post office operates is changing and the network needs to change to thrive, particularly with the move to digital transactions. These changes are impacting on the revenue being generated by the network as a whole.
Proving its commitment to sustaining a nationwide post office network and a daily mails service, the Government made €30m available in State funding to An Post which will be used to support the renewal of the post office network (€15m) and the continued fulfilment of a 5 day per week mails delivery service (€15m). This, in turn, will secure the future of mail and post office services for local communities throughout the country in both rural and urban areas. In addition, the company proposes to invest €50m in growing and modernising the network over the next few years.
We all agree in this House that the post office network has a number of strengths such as its nationwide reach, trusted brand and the relationship of postmasters with individual communities. The challenge is to harness these strengths to develop a viable sustainable network for the future. Despite these many valuable attributes, the communities that the post office serves are changing and it's important that the services offered by post offices reflect these changes.
As part of its strategy for modernising the post office network, An Post has established a dedicated business unit within An Post, An Post Retail. An Post recently announced its plans for a modernised post office network.
The vision centres around the availability of new services in a modernised, revitalised network. Such services will include a better range of Government services, financial services and e-commerce services for shoppers and small businesses. The announcement by An Post is supported by an agreement reached with the Irish Postmasters Union (IPU) executive following three months of intensive negotiations, which has subsequently been endorsed by 80% of IPU members.
The announcement represents a positive first step in reinvigorating our national post office network and making it a viable sustainable, modern and vibrant network for the future, capable of adapting to the changing environment in which it operates by providing a service that meets the needs of communities across the country, particularly in rural areas.
Given the challenges it is facing, the company will have to pursue an ambitious agenda across its various business areas and there is likely to be significant change and new business models implemented in the coming years. This will result in a solid, sustainable business future.
Enhanced banking services are becoming available through the post office network with the smart bank account. It is expected that further such opportunities will be available across the network, especially as high-speed broadband becomes widely available through the roll-out of the national broadband plan.
As part of its consideration of the financial position of An Post, Government agreed that further opportunities for Government business through the Post Office Network, particularly the payment of motor tax, should be explored. While Government policy is to offer Government services online, there is always likely to be a segment of the population that is not comfortable or confident in accessing online tools or services.
The post office network is the obvious choice as the "offline gateway" for citizens with its nationwide network and existing strong relationship with offline citizens. Department officials have engaged with An Post and other relevant stakeholders such as the Office of Government Procurement, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and other Government Departments to assess how additional Government business might be channelled through the post office network. Discussions have been positive in this regard.
The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty and I are actively engaged in this to ascertain how we can bring more Government services into the local post office network. We are determined to ensure that is happening while also remaining cognisant of the need to adhere to public procurement procedures.
The first practical step that the Government is taking is the digital assist pilot programme. Under that programme, post offices will provide access to a wide range of Government services. Government funding of €80,000 has been secured, through the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, for the roll-out of a pilot digital assist scheme. Ten post offices will be equipped to help citizens with online Government interactions. The ten pilot schemes will be located in rural post offices and will be in place later this year.
The proposed pilot locations are:-
|Austin Friar Street, Mullingar||Westmeath|
The affiliation with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection remains a significant feature for the future of the post office network.
In April 2018 the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection renewed her Department's contract with An Post to provide pensions, Child Benefit and other social welfare payments in cash at Post Offices.
Last year's contract amounted to €51 million for 33.6 million payments, and the value of the 2018 contract is expected to match that.
This re-affirms Government policy which sees the post office network as a key piece of the country's financial and social infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Accordingly, the Programme for a Partnership Government commits to actively encourage payment at post offices.
I know there is concern regarding the potential closure of some post offices. An Post has advised that under the terms of the new agreement between An Post and the IPU some postmasters who wish to retire will be offered a voluntary severance package. There will be no compulsory closures of Post Offices as a consequence of this new deal. Postmasters have until July 31st next to signal their intentions in this matter.
However in general terms, a new protocol has been established which sets out how An Post will facilitate the continued provision of Post Office services in areas where an existing postmasters retires or ceases operating an existing Post Office. In such cases An Post will make an assessment on the future provision of post office services within the locality by reference to specific agreed criteria.
Any individuals, groups or representatives concerned with the decision can apply to have An Post's decision reviewed through a new independent review process which will determine if An Post has correctly applied the criteria outlined in the protocol. Details of the independent review process will be specified in the notice detailing the decision of the future post office services within the relevant post office and will also be detailed on the An Post website.
All avenues are being explored to ensure services available through the post office network are enhanced in order that we have a strong customer focussed network.