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Local Issues

Topical Issues Debate re Post Office Network

Mattie McGrath TD

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I am very concerned. I hope he will be like the previous Minister of State, who got rid of the script and spoke honestly. He knows, given where he comes from, that post offices are the vital lifeblood of rural Ireland. Deputy Healy-Rae tabled his topical debate at the same time as me and he is also very anxious about it.

I have two documents in my hand. One is the policy of the Department of Social Protection regarding post offices. It wants the majority of its transactions, bar 3%, done by electronic payment by 2015. The Taoiseach told Deputy Fleming and myself recently that this is not happening at all. He said so many post offices were closed under Fianna Fáil, while only 20 closed on his watch. That is not the real issue. The real issue is that the Department wants to have most of its business done by electronic means by 2015. That is only a few people out in the sticks who do not have broadband or anything else. There is a cat-and-mouse game going on here. I want the Minister of State to be honest and tell us what he is going to do about it.

We have nothing without post offices in rural Ireland. They are the last bastion. We have already lost the Garda stations and schools, and the post offices are vital. The post offices could do business through e-transactions if someone funded them. They have submitted proposals to the Department to be funded to do e-transactions. They could replace banks and other services that have been taken away from rural Ireland. It could do a great deal for tourism and the development of the rural economy. The former Minister, Mary Hanafin, in fairness to her, in the last Fianna Fáil Government ring-fenced social welfare payments. If this had not happened, the post offices would have been closed long ago. There would have been mass closures. The Taoiseach can play games all he likes but he is not telling the truth. He is telling the truth when he says that only 20 have closed, but if this policy is accepted, the game is over for post offices in rural Ireland. We want to get the ball on the pitch here. We want to play the ball fairly, openly and, above all, honestly, and deal with the situation because post offices are going to disappear before our eyes. That is not good enough and the Minister of State knows it from rural Ireland as well as I do.

Michael Moynihan TD:

We have raised this Topical Issue today because the Minister for Social Protection issued a letter to all pensioners over recent weeks encouraging them to have their money sent to their bank via direct debit rather than through post offices. This time last year, before the local elections, the then Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, made an announcement that there was a whole-of-government approach to the future of post offices. In February this year, some nine or ten months later, it was announced there would be a review. What was said previously was only to get the Government over the local and European elections.

Whatever the election cycle, a letter has been issued from the Department of Social Protection to pensioners advising them or encouraging those who have been receiving payments for a long number of years to have their money paid by direct debit into the bank rather than through the post office. This is in direct contradiction of what the Taoiseach stated in the Dáil, what the Government has said and what the Minister has said to me on numerous occasions in the House. How come a Department sanctioned this letter, which is in total contradiction of what has been said by Ministers and the Taoiseach in the House? If the Department continues to pursue this policy, it will mean all the post offices in the country will close. The Department should examine how An Post needs to change to ensure the transaction can take place in post offices in the same way as it can in banks. It should be borne in mind that if the Minister for Social Protection continues to send letters to social welfare recipients encouraging them to use banks, it will be the end of the post office network.

 

Minister Joe McHugh

I was as surprised as the Deputies to see copies of the letter. It is important to point out a working group has been established under the stewardship of Bobby Kerr. When I received a copy of the letter the first thing I did was go to the working group because it includes representatives from the Irish Postmasters Union and various stakeholders with an interest in pulling together a plan for the long-term sustainability and viability of post offices. Progress has been made and good work has been done by the group. There is good, open and honest conversation. I cannot say what the outcomes will be at this early stage because a report will issue shortly on the actions of the group. The Government has made a decision to work proactively across Departments to examine how all Departments can work together, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Social Protection, to lend their weight to the sustainability and viability of post offices.

I sit on the working group and I take this very seriously. It is important to point out that while the script states this was a trial, as far as I am concerned every Department must be on the same wavelength as the interdepartmental decision to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of post offices. As I stated several weeks ago, and Deputy Moynihan was in the Chamber when I did so, Friday at the post office on Tory Island is the only day when people meet, and the post office in any rural area provides an opportunity for people to meet. The Government is working towards this.

The Deputies have raised important issues. I have taken this matter seriously. It has been raised at the working group and is being taken seriously at that level. The message today must feed into the Government decision that each Department is on the same wavelength in terms of the long-term sustainability of post offices. Perhaps banking in post offices is an option. We can be critical of what happened with these letters, but they did not suggest that people change from post offices. It was not mandatory or prescriptive, but it is information in black and white and I accept this. It is important the issue has been raised at this juncture with regard to the working group. It is also important to point out each Department must be on the same wavelength with regard to where we are going. The Government is taking this seriously and it is important we continue in this vein.

 

Mattie McGrath TD

The Minister of State is from rural Ireland and he understands. If it was not the intention of the letter, why was it sent? Why were people told to reply via freepost? When something is sent via freepost, the postmistress or postmaster gets nothing for it. This is a concerted attack on post offices. I welcome the fact a report is being worked on but the Department of Social Protection must be reined in and restrained. Its policy statement of 2013 stated it wanted all but 3% of transactions to be electronic by 2015. This is the death knell for post offices and the social aspect in rural Ireland about which the Minister of State spoke and about which we all know. There is deception going on here. I do not say the Minister of State is involved, rather departmental officials and whoever. Yesterday the Taoiseach announced in a blaze of glory that he will send all his Ministers and Deputies to visit small businesses in rural Ireland to see what the Government can do and that they will not be discriminated against in the new constitution. We are discriminating against self-employed postmistresses and postmasters who do Trojan work and give employment, pay rates and taxes and look after people. Unless this codology is dealt with, we will have no post offices. If this is implemented in one single swoop, they will be gone. The letter should not have been sent out. Apologies should be sent out. The biggest insult is that replies are to be sent via freepost to ensure the postmistress or postmaster does not get a cent from it. It is undermining and closure by stealth. Brostaigh ort leis an situation sin.