22. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to address concerns that wholesale closures of post offices are imminent; his further plans for the post office network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 42100/17 asked on 04 Oct 2017)

Deputy Timmy Dooley: A procurement process has been under way for some time around the national broadband plan. The national broadband plan has been in the offing since 2012. At this stage, could the Minister give us some indication as to the date on which every premises in the country will be connected and can he give us some idea of a date when, or even within a range within which, the contractor might begin work on the roll-out of the plan?

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment (Deputy Denis Naughten): Gabh mo leithscéal, my understanding was the first question was on An Post but I am happy to answer the parliamentary question. Am I correct?

An Ceann Comhairle: Sorry, Question No. 22 is on post offices.

Deputy Brian Stanley: On a point of order, Question No. 22 relates to post offices. Question No. 23, which is in my name, relates to the national broadband plan. Could the Ceann Comhairle provide clarification?

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Dooley is ahead of himself.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Am I right?

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister is right.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: I do not have the Order Paper in front of me. If that is what the Ceann Comhairle says, I agree.

An Ceann Comhairle: Question No. 22, as the Minister says, is on post offices.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Very good.

An Ceann Comhairle: Does the Minister want to take the question that is started anyway and we will come back to Deputy Stanley? Is that all right?

Deputy Denis Naughten: Does the Ceann Comhairle want me to take the broadband question?

An Ceann Comhairle: I will take Deputy Stanley’s question immediately after this.

Deputy Brian Stanley: With respect, if the Ceann Comhairle is going to deal with the one on the national broadband plan, and he is going in the order of the questions as listed on the Order Paper-----

An Ceann Comhairle: Sorry, it is the wrong Member. My apologies. Okay, we will go back and start again. Will Deputy Dooley introduce his own question?

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Take two. As the Minister is well aware, there is very significant concern, particularly throughout the vast tracts of rural Ireland, about the proposed closures of post offices. People fear that mass closures are imminent. I ask the Minister to outline the plans of An Post and of the Government with regard to the maintenance of the post office network.

Deputy Denis Naughten: It is Government policy that An Post remains a strong, viable company in a position to provide a high quality, nationwide postal service and that it maintains a nationwide, customer focused network of post offices in the community. However, the An Post group lost €13.7 million in 2016, with the core mail business losing over €30 million. An Post has entered a period of structural change and decline in activity mainly due to the impact of e-substitution on mail volumes and post office transactions. The environment in which An Post operates is changing and the network needs to change to thrive, particularly with the move to digital transactions. This involves harnessing existing strengths, such as its trusted brand and the relationship of postmasters with individual communities, to build the network of the future. There will be opportunities to develop new or enhanced product lines for the network and I am keen that this would include the concept of digital assist whereby the post office would become a default option for the provision of Government services for those who are not comfortable in the digital space.

The post office plays an important role in serving the needs of business and domestic customers alike and this is at the forefront of An Post’s mandate. I am acutely conscious of the value placed by communities in both rural and urban areas on services provided by post offices and am concerned to ensure that the needs of those communities continue to be met. Government remains fully committed to a sustainable post office network which it sees as a key piece of economic and social infrastructure for both rural and urban areas. 

In response to the challenges it is facing a strategic review of An Post, including the post office network, which will identify the changes and restructuring necessary to maintain the company on a sound financial footing was initiated and is nearing completion. All opportunities are being assessed by An Post in the context of that strategic review. 

Deputy Timmy Dooley: That strategic review has been completed for some time now. An Post, through various different guises, has begun a process of closing post offices. Some are closing because, quite frankly, the level of transactions based on the current business model is not enough to sustain the employment of a postmaster or postmistress. They just cannot make ends meet and are being forced out by stealth. Others are closing when the end of the contract period is reached or on the death of the postmaster or postmistress.

What we need is Government intervention. The Minister talks about the importance of a wide area network and a sustainable network. However, the nature of the changes that are happening in the transactions that are taking place in post offices means that they are no longer viable in the way they were in the past. It will require Government intervention if we are to retain the network to the broadest extent possible to serve communities. I do not believe anything the Minister has said will give any confidence to the communities who believe their post office is under threat.

Deputy Denis Naughten: An Post brought in the firm of consultants, McKinsey, to assist with the strategic review. As Minister, I brought in NewEra to assist the company and to go through the financial projections. It is imperative that I have the best possible information available to me and having a resource like NewEra is of huge benefit in that regard. The Deputy is right that a do-nothing scenario is not acceptable. If one looks at the figures from 2000 to 2010, when Fianna Fáil was in government, one sees that 721 post offices closed because there was a failure by successive governments at the time to take definitive action vis-à-vis the post office network. I am not about that. Five Members of the Oireachtas made a submission to Mr. Bobby Kerr. I was one of those five. I feel passionately about this and believe that there is a future, as do the vast majority of my colleagues, particularly those from rural areas. We can plan out a future that involves digital. I do not think it is about holding back the tide; it is about exploiting that resource.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: I accept that Deputy Naughten supported the Kerr report prior to becoming Minister but I have not heard him offer much support for that report since taking office. He is now overlaying the NewEra agency and we have had the McKinsey review. We need decisions and the Minister knows what those decisions involve. We need to decide how many post offices we want and how widespread the network will be. If we believe in that then we, as part of the Legislature, must be in a position to provide appropriate funding from the central Exchequer to support that service delivery. We can then look to the model of services that will give a business model that will reduce the extent to which the State will have support the network. The Minister knows full well that key decisions have to be taken. How many post offices are needed? The Minister must be upfront with the people. If post offices are to close, the Minister must identify them and let people know. If post offices are to be preserved and protected, the Minister must identify them, get behind them and make them viable enterprises. In some cases, where there is a necessity, State funding should be provided so that the service can be delivered.

Deputy Denis Naughten: I disagree with the Deputy. I do not think it is a case of deciding how many post offices are needed. There is an opportunity to bring far more business into post offices in order to make them financially viable. An Post is going to come up with a plan that can actually put more business, work and footfall into post offices. There is a real opportunity here because there is a cohort of people who are not using or exploiting the post offices at the moment, including all of us in the Chamber at the moment. The only time that any of us goes into a post office - if we are honest - is to buy stamps at Christmas, to renew our passport in the summer or to get foreign currency if we are going abroad on holidays. What we need to do is to change the model whereby post offices are not solely reliant on social welfare business. That said, we need to maintain the social welfare payments through the post office network. We also need to maintain the current funding through the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, but there are opportunities to bring in new business, particularly in terms of banking and parcel services involving the use of the internet. By the end of next year, 97% of post offices in this country will have access to high-speed broadband, yet one in seven people in this country has never used the Internet. There are huge opportunities to provide services that are currently available online to communities that cannot access them at the moment.

Deputy Brian Stanley: On a point of order, can I ask a question before the Ceann Comhairle starts the clock on the next question?

An Ceann Comhairle: Certainly.

Deputy Brian Stanley: My question relates to the order of the questions. Sinn Féin has one question on the priority list. I understand that as Fianna Fáil is a larger party, it has three priority questions. I have raised with the Ceann Comhairle’s predecessor an issue with regard to the order of the oral questions that are not on the priority list. I have been told that the order is determined by a computerised system, a bit like that programme on the television on a Saturday night in that we put them all in and see what comes out.

An Ceann Comhairle: Yes.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: I would prefer to be on the programme on a Saturday night.

Deputy Denis Naughten: It would be great if we could predict that.

Deputy Brian Stanley: Consistently, the five oral questions that I table are down at the back of the queue. For example, No. 54 is my first oral question this week. This is the first time I have raised this issue with the current Ceann Comhairle but I did raise it with his predecessor twice. The order for the oral questions is such that Sinn Féin never seems to be in a position to deal with the questions on the floor of the Dáil.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Stanley is well aware that in terms of the number of priority questions for each Dáil grouping or party, that is fixed, while the other is done by the officials of the House in a lottery.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: It is the officials, Deputy Stanley.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is more than welcome, as is anyone else, to be present when the lottery is being transacted.

Deputy Brian Stanley: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for that clarification.

An Ceann Comhairle: I cannot do any more for the Deputy than that.

Deputy Brian Stanley: I am raising the point with the Ceann Comhairle because it is not as if I am coming out at the wrong end of it in just one month. Every month for last 60 or 70 months-----

An Ceann Comhairle: Perhaps the Deputy should go in and watch them spinning the ball-----

Deputy Denis Naughten: I would advise Deputy Stanley not to buy a lottery ticket if he is so unlucky.

Deputy Brian Stanley: I do not, for that very reason.

An Ceann Comhairle: Anyway, let us move on to broadband.