Dáil Éireann - Volume 595 - 14 December, 2004

An Post: Motion.

  Mr. Broughan:I move:

That Dáil Éireann,

— recognising the critical importance of a vibrant universal public postal service;

— alarmed at the repeated failure of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to clearly set out the Government position on the future of the universal postal service and to clarify the deep confusion on the financial outlook of An Post and its subsidiary, SDS;

— deeply dismayed by the refusal of An Post management to award the workers of An Post their due pay entitlements under Sustaining Progress and to pay the linked cost of living rises to the An Post pensioners;

— disappointed by the unilateral decision of An Post management to close the State SDS parcel and courier company without debate in this House and [318] abandon a strategic recovery plan agreed with the workforce and its trade union representatives;

— noting the challenges posed to the An Post workers and management by the development of e-commerce and market deregulation; and

— opposed to any attempt to dismantle or privatise the universal public postal service;

calls on the Government to:

— ensure that the management of An Post immediately pays the arrears due to An Post workers under Sustaining Progress and the linked arrears due to the An Post pensioners;

— suspend the closure of SDS pending a departmental investigation of the financial record and outlook of the company and full consultation with the trade unions and workforce;

— utilise the 1990 Industrial Relations Act to request the Labour Relations Commission to urgently investigate the present crisis at An Post and to provide a platform for its resolution through agreed industrial relations procedures, including the full involvement of the workers and their trade union representatives in the CWU, CPSU and PSEU trade unions; and

— prepare a Government White Paper on the future development of the postal service and on the economic means to enable An Post to discharge its universal service obligation, including any necessary State supports to postal services as with other critical universal public services.

I wish to share time with Deputy Michael D. Higgins and Deputy Gilmore.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. Broughan:I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss the current difficulties at An Post and the urgent necessity to secure the future of the Irish public postal service. The frustration and deep anger of postal workers at the failure of the Government and past and present management of the company to provide a clear vision for the future of the postal service led to the one-day strike last week and to the recent overwhelming vote by the workforce to reject the collection and delivery restructuring proposals.

I will outline, as I did last week in my address to the 7,000 striking postal workers and their families, where the Labour Party stands with [319] regard to the current industrial relations situation and the future well-being and security of the An Post company and its staff. The Labour Party is deeply committed to the continuance and strengthening of the universal public postal service. We greatly appreciate the wonderful daily and nightly work of our 10,000 postmen and postwomen as they process over 1.5 million letters and parcels per day to 1.75 million households and businesses. We thank them and salute them for their service. We are strongly of the view that this great and invaluable national service should continue to be available daily to every citizen in every part of the country, urban and rural, and at uniform rates of postage. We utterly reject any attempt to dismantle, diminish or privatise our universal postal service and we oppose every proposal to allow private contractors to cherry-pick valuable elements of the universal service while ignoring the needs of our dispersed rural population.

We view the 1,500 post offices and sub-post offices as a great national communications network which should be cherished and developed along the lines proposed in the commendable report of the interdepartmental post office working group of July 2001 and in the earlier Flynn report. The Labour Party is alarmed at the failure of successive Fianna Fáil Ministers with responsibility for public enterprise and communications to clearly set out the Government’s position on the future of An Post and to clarify the deep confusion which exists among the workforce, the media and other interested observers, such as the Oireachtas, on the financial history and outlook for An Post and its subsidiary, SDS. We urge the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to resume the work of the 2001 interdepartmental working group and to publish a White Paper on the future of An Post up to the year 2020.

The postal workers and their representatives in the Communications Workers Union have, rightly, argued over the past two years that the fundamental issue in the current dispute is whether the Government is prepared to support the continued provision of a universal postal service, including the provision of financial supports, especially for the rural infrastructure. The postal workers, as represented by the CWU, the CPSU and the PSEU trade unions, have strongly opposed any attempt to reduce the level of pay and conditions in their public service jobs and to “yellow pack” their important communications role. The Labour Party also opposes it.

Over the past 15 months it was the postal workers who paid a high price for the past mistakes and miscalculations of management. The pleading by An Post management of inability to pay the cost of living increases under the Sustaining Progress national pay agreement was a gross breach of faith by management of the transformation of An Post through the partnership agreement of July 2000. The pay rises of 3% on 1 November 2003 and 2% on 1 August 2004 would have [320] barely kept An Post workers in line with inflation, given the modest incomes in the company. Now, however, they have been left behind all other workers. On the Adjournment debate on 20 October last, I raised the appalling treatment of An Post pensioners. The deprivation of 8,000 pensioners and their families of their due, linked increases under Sustaining Progress is reprehensible and should have been avoided by the current management at all costs. I call again on the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to ensure that all due increases under Sustaining Progress and the linked arrears owed to pensioners are paid immediately.

Apart from its failure to pay nationally agreed pay rises, An Post has been brought to its current crisis by the unilateral decision to close SDS, its parcel service subsidiary, last July with the loss of 270 jobs. The decision flew in the face of the strategic plan for 2002-05, which was agreed between unions and management, and the recovery plan which was also agreed in 2003. The Communications Workers Union has raised serious doubts about the financial outturn for the company in 2004 and there are suggestions that without the July decision for closure, the SDS company was heading for greatly reduced losses this year. I was informed through a management briefing, which I acknowledge gratefully, that, financially, An Post would break even operationally in 2004. If that is the case, it seems likely that losses at SDS would also be significantly reduced. The Labour Party believes, therefore, that the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources should report on the financial position of SDS to Dáil Éireann. Pending the report and full and open consultation with SDS workers, owner drivers and their trade union representatives, the proposal to close SDS should be suspended.

The Labour Relations Commission has referred the current dispute to the Labour Court. I welcome warmly the development whereby Mr. Tom Pomphrett will meet management and the Communications Workers Union on Thursday to draw up an agenda for meetings between the two sides. The Communications Workers Union has also received and accepted an invitation to meet the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. I hope the invitation represents an acknowledgement by the Department that it has a crucial role to play in the resolution of the current difficulties. It is for the Minister to provide a political response on a future vision for the universal postal service, rather than simply for management, workers or, indeed, the regulator, ComReg. The Government has an obligation to utilise urgently all instruments open to it under the Industrial Relations Act 1990 to ensure the speedy resolution of current difficulties.

A few weeks ago, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, told me he did not have a magic wand with which to address the difficulties at An Post and SDS. The comment followed an earlier statement by the previous Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, that he would not micro-manage An Post. [321] That Minister referred issues repeatedly to An Post management and workers or hid behind the regulator, ComReg, on Question Time over the previous 18 months, especially during the earlier lock-out of postal workers last March. On a whole plethora of communications and postal issues, the Office of the Ceann Comhairle turned down questions I wished to table on the basis that the subjects to which they referred were matters for ComReg alone. Where they involve the general political direction to be given to a great semi-State body like An Post, such questions should be accepted.

The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, was also opposed to what he called a look-back exercise on the astonishing financial deterioration at An Post during 2003. Any such exercise would, of course, have drawn serious attention to the abysmal failure of the Minister to address core problems and to the swiftly changing external environment facing An Post.

The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has seriously failed An Post since 1997 and placed the universal public postal service in great danger. During the term of office of the first Government led by the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, little was done under the then Minister, Senator O’Rourke, to prepare the company for the arrival of e-commerce, e-mail and texting. As Government, businesses and households went or prepared to go on-line little was done by the then Minister to prepare An Post management and workers for the significant business and cultural changes new technology was effecting in personal and business communications. Thanks to the ongoing strong efforts of the An Post workforce and the nationwide network of post offices and sub-post offices, the company continued to produce operating profits averaging £10 million a year during the five years to 2000. As the Celtic tiger economy roared ahead, mail volumes of course increased by over one third in that period.

According to the July 2001 report of the interdepartmental working group, post office counter services lost just under 3 million in 2000. At that time, losses were predicted by An Post management to reach 27.7 million by 2004. There was an operating loss for the An Post group of €6.7 million in 2001. As reported in the final report of group chief executive officer, Mr. John Hynes, which covered 2002, this loss rose to €17.4 million for the year. A further €52.5 million was set aside as an exceptional item to be used for voluntary redundancies. During his first year in office as Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, like his predecessor, Senator O’Rourke, could have had no doubt that very difficult times were ahead for the An Post workforce and management, but he chose to do little or nothing to energise his Department to take action and approach the workforce and management with a vision for the future of An Post and the universal postal service.

[322] The Minister’s performance was part of a general pattern in the administration of his Department. In a newspaper profile, the journalist Stephen Collins described the Minister as a dark horse for the future leadership of Fianna Fáil and said he made the work of the Department look easy. I must say he is a very dark horse. The Minister’s work looked easy because he did not address a single major issue faced by this most important enabling Department. A brief survey of the key responsibilities of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources bears out this observation. Days after the current Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, was landed in the Department, a key national development agency, Forfás, reported a deficit of 360,000 household and business broadband connections. According to the agency, Ireland and Greece were struggling for last place in the EU table of broadband take-up.

In the broadcasting sector, the then Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, did little to encourage listener or viewer choice and failed to support the national public broadcaster RTE to develop a digital platform. In the energy sector, the move to sustainable and alternative technologies such as wind power completely stalled in the hopeless wrangle over the grid code. As in the case of his approach to An Post, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, made no effort to spell out the future national outlook for the ESB and Bord Gáis. I do not remember the Minister ever mentioning Bord na Móna. There was a similar story in the fisheries and marine sector. Key issues of conservation, decommissioning and support for vulnerable fishing communities were put on the back burner while difficult decisions on the protection of salmon stocks and the urgent need to preserve angling tourism were completely avoided. As the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, ascended the steps of the Department of Foreign Affairs, a potential major fisheries scandal erupted in the faces of his successors in the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher.

As the briefing notes assembled for the current Minister by the Department and published on its website confirm, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, is a classic example of a cowboy who gets out of town just ahead of the posse. The poor Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is left to clear up the mess, and on many of the issues I have outlined, there may not be enough time for him to do so before we both face the people.

  Mr. O’Flynn:That is an outrageous statement about the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern.

  Mr. Broughan:As Chairman of the Select Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy O’Flynn knows that better than anyone.

[323]   Mr. O’Flynn:It is an outrageous statement on the fisheries fraud.

  An Ceann Comhairle:Allow Deputy Broughan to continue.

  Mr. Broughan:On 12 May last, I asked the then Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, if his attention had been drawn to a call from An Post staff at the Communications Workers Union conference in Galway for an Oireachtas inquiry into the earlier mismanagement of the State postal service. The Minister reported to the Dáil that it was not until he decided to refuse to bring its 2002 accounts to the Cabinet that the company accepted it was in financial difficulty.

I have before me the An Post presentation given by group chief executive officer, Mr. John Hynes, to the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in January 2003. According to the report, an operating loss of €18 million was predicted to become a €1 million profit in 2003. In reality, the 2003 outturn was an operating loss of €42.9 million even after profits of €13.3 million on the disposal of land and buildings were taken into account. In the meantime, significant bonuses were paid to the outgoing chief executive, Mr. Hynes. While Mr. Hynes’s board refused to prepare a so-called survival plan in the first part of 2003, the new chief executive, Mr. Donal Curtin, declared very soon after he took over in July of that year that ongoing losses at An Post were unsustainable. The revelation of this astonishing turnaround in the finances of a vitally important semi-State body was a shocking blow to the workforce and its confidence in An Post’s management. It raises serious doubts about financial forecasting and the reliability of elements of audited accounts.

The previous Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, declared he was only advised of what he called the true financial situation in September 2003. In apparent panic, he demanded monthly financial reports to the shareholder — in this case, himself — and attended several board meetings. He also began to suddenly take an interest in the calibre of Government appointments to State boards and talked about personal probity tests and the provision of tax clearance certificates. There appears to have been an effort by the Minister, as in Chairman Mao’s China, to re-educate directors on boards under his remit, but as with much of the Minister’s administration of this Department, those reports turned out to be useless waffle.

The saga of the 2002 and 2003 accounts have played a major role in the breakdown of trust between An Post workers and management. The financial mismanagement is regarded by workers as a grotesque repudiation of the transformation through partnership deal to which they committed themselves wholeheartedly. The more recent lack of consultation by the present management and total confusion over the financial prospects of SDS have greatly added to this sense of having placed trust in the professional competence of managers and feeling badly let down. It must be [324] noted that the decision not to increase the price of the basic stamp for 12 years up to 2003 is also a factor in the current difficulties that have emerged at An Post.

I refer briefly to the nature of the universal postal service. For over a century and a half, every developed country had a national post office following the British invention of the stamp in 1844 and the German creation of the international Universal Postal Union in 1874. All the member nation post offices delivered a universal postal service without distinction between urban and rural or local and national, and with free daily delivery to every door. In economic terms, there was cross-subsidisation between cheap to handle urban post and the more expensive to deliver rural service. The great post office networks of the world were rightly celebrated and included in national laws such as the US postal code, which instructed the post office in its governing legislation to bind the nation together through the personal, educational, literary and business correspondence of the people.

The British Royal Mail, the ancestor of our Irish service, inspired the poet W.H. Auden to commemorate the great national endeavour of the postal service in his poem, Night Mail, which reads:

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner and the girl next

door ...

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,

Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,

Receipted bills and invitations

To inspect new stock or visit relations,

And applications for situations

And timid lovers’ declarations

And gossip, gossip from all the nations . . .

Nowadays, the lovers would not be so timid. They would be texting, and some of the rest would be sent by e-mail.

That wonderful and interesting universal postal service celebrated by Auden is now being captured bit by bit by market and regulatory forces unleashed under EU legislation in the name of transparency and competition. In this new framework, national public postal services must be reclassified as monopolies. The mutually beneficial terminal dues regime operated across the Universal Postal Union by national governments must be subject, under Article 81 of the EU treaties, to close scrutiny by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.

Increasingly, the universal postal service, one of the chief representatives of European culture and civilisation, is being reclassified as “services”, that is, commercial activity within a market structure. An intense international campaign is being [325] waged against universal postal service terminal dues by organisations like the International Express Carriers Conference based in Washington DC, with the aim of replacing public provision by competitive market provision in one segment of the postal market, namely, cross-border mail, and that effort is increasingly successful.

As these developments proceed, the EU is increasingly confining and reducing the sphere of so-called monopoly held by national postal services, that is, the reserved activities. The sphere of the universal postal service, the area of service of general interest, is being squeezed increasingly and ComReg and similar regulatory bodies across Europe have busied themselves with studies and consultations regarding service delivery performance, future postal rates and bland talk about sharing the universal service obligation across various companies.

The development of the EU Single Market for postal services began in 1992 and the Postal Directive 97/67/E.C. was issued in December 1997. This directive, as amended by Directive 2002/39/E.C. of the European Parliament and Council of June 2002, was pushed through Dáil Éireann by the then Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, as the European Communities (Postal Services) Regulations 2002, SI 616 of 2002. Under these provisions, from January 2003 the reserved area was reduced to letters of 100 grammes, with a price multiple of three. In January 2004, the market for all outgoing international mail was opened to competition and in January 2006, the thresholds for full competition will be reduced to letters of 50 grammes and over. In 2009, it is envisaged that full market opening will extend to the 20-gramme letter.

Full market opening for all letters may not happen. Our larger EU partner countries appear to be having second thoughts about the so-called competitive markets as they fail to deliver the excellent universal service that was once taken for granted when there was not a regulator in sight. This decision will depend on a European Commission study of the effects of deregulation on the universal market due in 2006.

Meanwhile, the delivery of a nationwide universal service becomes more and more difficult as An Post-operated main post offices are sold to support the cost-cutting programme or regraded to become sub-post offices. Throughout the past two years, I and many other Deputies in this House were contacted by important centres like Clonakilty and Cahir where the main post offices are being reclassified as sub-post offices or on an agency basis. The Irish Postmasters Union made a worrying submission to the Oireachtas committee on communications showing a massive decline in the post office network over recent decades from nearly 2,000 offices to just under 1,400. The graph is still falling as operators in small rural communities become older and possible successors refuse to carry on the service given the low rates of remuneration paid by An Post. In [326] 2001, approximately 100 sub-post offices were temporarily closed as a result of postmasters retiring.

Given the growing danger to a universal national network, the 2001 interdepartmental report set out a range of options to secure the service. Financial supports from the State to maintain rural networks were seen as essential, although that would entail State-aid clearance from the European Commission. The retention of the contract for social welfare transactions was also seen as critical. The report also proposed an interesting Government services outlet model as a one-stop shop for all Government services in small local and rural communities. Other proposals included a universal banking service and Internet links, where the local post office would act as the local link of the public services broker, and Reach, the new enabling website for Government. Over the past three years, An Post management has received little encouragement from the Government to develop those models. That is the challenge now facing the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in the remainder of his term and I urge him to address it.

The failure to pay cost of living increases to workers and pensioners, and the recently rejected restructuring proposals for the collection and delivery service, are other effects of the pressure to downgrade the whole postal service in the spurious name of competition. The impact on the delivery of the universal service obligation from the restructuring proposals as outlined to me by the Communications Workers Union seems to be detrimental. An Post management proposes to rationalise the number of delivery offices and delivery posts and rural deliveries will be handed over to private contractors who, presumably, will also be awarded a universal service obligation. Important priority deliveries for business customers will be drastically cut.

The conditions of the postal workers will be savagely worsened in the current proposals with the abolition of traditional grades, compulsory redeployment, compulsory relocation, reductions in annual leave and electronic tracking of deliveries. Despite the negative national and Oireachtas reaction to roadside delivery boxes when proposed by the previous management, the idea has re-emerged in these proposals. It seems clear that the long and wonderful tradition of the rural and urban post person who knew every customer and was a lifeline to the world for elderly and infirm residents is under serious threat if these proposals are accepted in their current form. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has a grave responsibility in that regard to ensure that type of development does not happen. He also has a grave responsibility with regard to the events at SDS.

I met a group of owner-drivers in this House a few weeks ago who outlined to me their tremendous hard work to develop the business of the company. They had been full SDS workers up to the time of the recovery plan of 2003 when they took voluntary redundancy to become owner-dri[327] vers. Despite fierce competition in the parcels market, they spoke of their deep appreciation of their mainly small business customers and the scope for higher revenues from their service. The detailed information obtained on the subsidiary by the Communications Workers Union shows a reasonable revenue projection from February 2004 of €69 million. That would put the expected losses for the year at under €5 million and would, therefore, indicate a significant reduction from the €12 million lost by the company in 2003. Had there been modest price increases, which workers indicate the market could have borne, and a reduction of other costs identified in the Sweeney report, SDS would have approached a break-even position in 2004. I urge the Minister and his Department to investigate and urgently address these apparent discrepancies and halt the closure of the SDS company.

With regard to the Government’s proposed amendment of the Labour Party motion, I too welcome the involvement of the national implementation body and the greatly experienced Mr. Peter Cassells. One of the key issues which Mr. Cassells and other facilitators must address is the failure of An Post, the Minister and his two predecessors to bring forward an employee share ownership trust in An Post. Although there was a definite commitment to an ESOT in the Transformation Through Partnership agreement of 2000, the Minister’s predecessor made no serious attempt to introduce the Postal (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 on Second Stage in Dáil Éireann. I have grown weary asking the Taoiseach to bring forward this agreed legislation.

Despite the current difficulties An Post remains a great national resource. The collection and delivery service for mail and parcels, the post office branch network, the bill payments facility, the investments and savings products, the very successful management of the national lottery and the other great An Post undertakings represent a nationwide service of great distinction. Again, I salute the An Post workforce.

Given the onslaught from deregulation and the arrival of electronic substitution, it is clear that a modernisation and development of the company in a spirit of close consultation and partnership between the workers and their trade union representatives, management and the Government is essential to secure the future of the universal public postal service.

Management failure over the past few years with regard to the financial administration of the company has brought us to the present position. This is illustrated by the unilateral decision to close SDS and threaten 1,400 jobs.

With a spirit of partnership in a company which is a classic people business and the strong support of the Minister and the industrial relations machinery of the State, the Labour Party believes the current difficulties can be overcome. I thank Mr. Steve Fitzpatrick, Mr. Seán MacDonagh and [328] Mr. Michael Bride of the CWU and Mr. Larry Donald and Mr. John Foley for their useful briefings. I have also been assisted in my contribution by unpublished work on the erosion of the public postal service by Mr. Fergus Ó Raghallaigh, the distinguished journalist and economist and personal adviser to the leader of the Labour Party. I commend the motion to the House.

  Mr. M. Higgins:I wish to share the remaining time with Deputy Gilmore.

I am delighted to have the opportunity of speaking on this Labour Party motion on an issue which brought thousands of workers onto the streets of Dublin last week. Most people who watched that demonstration would have been shocked at the basic pay of a post person in 2004.

As I listened to the speeches in Molesworth Street, I was struck by the extraordinary attitude of An Post’s management. The changes to which Deputy Broughan has referred are being proposed and introduced by management. They are reminiscent of a time when authoritarian managements could totally ignore the rights of workers. They reveal a kind of prejudice. It is as if management can have a go at visiting the trough of bonuses, be free not to publish the figures the public are entitled to have and then, when it does not succeed, turn on its low-paid workers and tell them they are responsible for having to work overtime. None of this is acceptable.

There is also a deep prejudice at its basis, based on two fundamentals. One is that there is something antiquated and old-fashioned about working in the public service. The second is that there is something unimportant about the right to communicate. The right to communicate is fundamental in a democracy. The right of an older person, irrespective of where he or she lives, to send and receive a letter is fundamental. If An Post had a problem about honouring the basic right to communicate, it should have come to Government and said, “We need to be compensated for accepting this right of citizens to participate”.

Instead of that, the whole tenor of the debate has been structured in terms of the distribution of commodities. I rarely listened to such an extraordinary performance as that of a spokesperson of An Post recently on radio. Her every second sentence referred to the need to get real. The same person did not tell her predecessors to get real when they were asked for information and figures about the performance of An Post, one year taken with another. It was easy to say to the people on low pay, “Get real, turn over and lose your job”.

The Labour Party is committed to a universal postal service that accepts the right to communicate and to participation as a citizen. Reference is made to 2009. At the heart of the European Union is a contradiction in the Lisbon agreement which must be fought for. On the one hand, the agreement spoke about cohesion and on the other about competitiveness. It is the function of [329] governments to defend the basic rights of citizens of the new and extended Europe and to be able to speak to citizens about such services as are appropriate in a democracy.

This company has an extraordinary recent history with regard to published accounts. It appears to move from the prospect of profit and surplus to extraordinary levels of loss. On what basis could such a company give bonuses to those who are having a go at a commercial ethos and suggest changes and offers relating to positions to those at the top of its executive structure, while refusing to publish the basic figures for which the public was asking?

It is not a time for surrendering the right of every citizen to send and receive a letter and to participate as an equal citizen. It is not a time for letting down the post persons who have been working in all kinds of weather, in every season and on low pay and who are suffering abuse through a tissue of propaganda in relation to their working conditions. The word “partnership” is nonsense to those who have not got what they were promised under agreements and who had to bring their pensioners onto the streets to make their case.

An Post management is going down the road of attacking the citizens by removing their right to communicate and attacking workers’ rights to a job and fair conditions and their basic right to be given information and to participate in discussions about their future. That is what is at stake. The public owe it to themselves and to the public service workers involved to support the CWU and the other unions involved in this dispute. They must make sure the State accepts its obligations to provide a universal postal service and decent working conditions in real and genuine partnership.

  Mr. Gilmore:It would be easy, as the Government seeks to do, to characterise the current difficulties in An Post as a dispute between trade unions and management. There is a political responsibility for what is happening in An Post. The Government’s responsibility with regard to the postal service has not been discharged over the past number of years.

The statements issued by Deputy Broughan on behalf of the Labour Party in the past year make it clear that the difficulties in An Post did not happen overnight. Consistently over that period, the Labour Party has drawn to the attention of the Minister and his predecessor their responsibility for the delivery of postal services. On 4 March last, a statement issued by the Labour Party spokesperson stated, “Ultimate responsibility falls on the shoulders of Minister Dermot Ahern who has, so far, failed to bring forward the 2001 Postal Services Bill”. The statement went on to call on the Minister to intervene in An Post. Later that month the spokesperson pointed out that ultimate responsibility for the situation at An Post rested with the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy [330] Dermot Ahern. The spokesperson stated, “He cannot stand by and let the situation deteriorate”. The calls continued throughout the course of the last year.

The response from Government was to allow the situation to drift. There has been a failure on the part of Government to come to terms with the requirement for a decent, universal, modern postal service. Government has failed three groups of people in particular. First, it has failed the people who work in the company. We talk about a universal postal service, but it is only a slogan until one considers the position of the workers who must deliver that service. They get up at all hours of the morning to sort and deliver the mail. They have delivered a service to the public for years for which they have not been adequately rewarded. It is proposed to break up An Post through part privatisation with one type of postal service provided in one part of the country and a different type elsewhere. This, in turn, will break up the sense of public service among the workers. That cannot be replaced, nor can a price be put on their loyalty to the company and their sense of duty to the public they serve, not only in delivering the mail but in acting as a conduit to the community and between other services.

In allowing the situation to drift, the Government has also shamefully betrayed and let down the pensioners of An Post. A total of 8,000 people have not been paid increases due in their pensions. They cannot engage in the collective bargaining negotiations between trade unions and the company. They are being denied part of their pensions. Pensions are often described as deferred pay. They have worked for this money and have made a contribution to these increases, if not directly, then through their level of pay while working. The increases to which the pensioners are entitled are being denied to them and it is shameful. Whatever happens during the discussions and negotiations, at the very least, the moneys owed to the pensioners should be released and paid to them.

The public is the third category of people being let down by the Government’s attitude to An Post. People want a decent public service, which they are not getting. The ComReg survey highlights that only 71% of mail is delivered the following day. All of us have anecdotal evidence of postal deliveries that did not happen or that were considerably delayed. The expectation people traditionally had that if a letter was posted today, it would be delivered tomorrow no longer holds. This cannot be landed at the feet of the postal workers because this has been a failure on the part of management and the Government to set out the strategy and direction of the postal service in a modern society.

I can also give examples of the way in which the postal service infrastructure has been dismantled. A series of sub-post offices have been decommissioned and put out of operation in my constituency. Blackrock is one of the largest sub[331] urbs in my constituency but the local post office was downgraded last year to the status of sub-post office. Registered post has not been delivered through the local post office in Shankill for the past two years. If somebody is due to get a registered letter, a note is dropped through the door and to collect it, he or she must travel five and a half miles to the Foxrock post office, which is not accessible by public transport and is only open for certain hours. Such post should be available for collection locally. That post office serves a population of approximately 20,000 who do not accept this as an adequate service but neither is the public calling for the privatisation and break-up of the company. People want An Post to operate efficiently and deliver the postal service they expect. The great failure of Government is that it has not addressed that issue or set out a strategy on the future of the postal service.

The motion calls on the Government to pay the employees and pensioners of the company the money they are owed; to suspend the closure of the SDS pending a departmental investigation of the financial record and outlook of the company and full consultation with the trade unions and workforce; to address and settle the immediate industrial relations issues; and, in particular, to prepare a White Paper on the development of the postal service so that we can all see where the company is going and end the drift that has characterised the Government’s attitude to the postal service and the company that has been charged with its delivery.

  Mr. N. Dempsey:I move amendment No. 1:

  Mr. N. Dempsey:To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

— recognises the:

— critical importance of a vibrant universal public postal service;

— commitment of the Government to the postal network as set out in European Communities (Postal Services) Regulations 2002 which explicitly provide for the universal service obligation in relation to nationwide postal deliveries at uniform tariffs and, in recognition of the universal service obligations on An Post, the designation of part of the postal market as reserved to An Post;

— difficult financial situation faced by An Post in recent years with losses of over €24 million between 2001 and 2002 and a loss of €43 million in 2003;

— challenges posed to the postal service by electronic substitution, potential liberalisation by 2009 and the entry of [332] strong international operators into the Irish postal market;

— need for An Post to develop a customer service ethos and to offer a range of high quality, competitively priced services and products to customers who increasingly will have a choice of postal provider;

— difficult issues arising in SDS, the parcels division of An Post, arising from the loss making situation of €12 million in 2003 and expected losses currently being dealt with in the National Implementation Body; and

— difficulties caused to An Post pensioners by the non-payment of Sustaining Progress.

notes the:

— work already undertaken by the Labour Relations Commission in brokering a proposal in regard to restructuring An Post collection and delivery processes;

— progress made by the LRC in facilitating agreement between An Post unions and management in agreeing Christmas mail arrangements;

— work being undertaken by Mr. Peter Cassells under the auspices of the National Implementation Body in resolving issues arising from the SDS closure; and

— work undertaken by the Labour Court in resolving issues between An Post management and the AHCPS.

urges:

— management and unions to continue to finalise these talks as a matter of urgency and in a spirit of partnership and expects that on agreement that both sides will honour all aspects of that agreement in spirit and letter.

and commends:

— the commitment of the Government to the renewal of An Post as demonstrated by the decision of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to meet the An Post Board and the CWU this week to outline the Government’s views on the future of the postal service.”

I wish to share time with Deputy O’Flynn.

I join the Labour Party speakers in acknowledging the role played by postal workers for more than a century. My grandfather was a postman and I am familiar with the commitment he showed. I agree that postal workers regard the postal service as a great national resource and it must be ensured it not only survives but thrives [333] into the future. That will be my aim for as long as I hold this post. I also agree with the comments on the necessity to move forward in partnership.

However, I do not agree with many other comments made by the Labour Members, particularly Deputy Broughan’s attack on my predecessor who he claimed did nothing about the situation in An Post. As early as 2002, my predecessor asked the company’s board for a survival plan and pursued the company in this regard. Early in 2003 he initiated monthly meetings at which the Department got the latest figures from An Post. He refused to bring the accounts to Government because he was not satisfied with them and, eventually, he managed to have the true picture revealed.

However, it is strange that the Labour Party, in tabling this motion, did not kill itself doing much homework because its first demand is details of Government commitment to a universal service. Deputy Broughan paid tributes to his researchers but basic research would have highlighted that the commitment of the Government to the postal network is set out in the European Communities (Postal Services) Regulations 2002, which explicitly provide for such a universal service. It states our obligation to nationwide postal deliveries at uniform tariffs. The universal service obligations on An Post allow the designation of part of the postal market for An Post. The universal postal service provided to every address in the country is enshrined in European and Irish law.

The Government recognises the critical importance of having a nationwide, reliable and efficient postal service. Despite the changes that have taken place in recent years, particularly with regard to electronic communication, we recognise that postal deliveries and the range of services available at post office counters are an integral part of the daily lives of our business communities, our public services and the citizens of our towns and villages in every corner of Ireland. There is no wavering in the Government commitment to our postal services. It is precisely because of this commitment that we believe urgent action is needed to put in place the necessary measures to ensure An Post can deliver a quality service to its customers and to the community at large.

There has been a long and honourable tradition of postal services in Ireland. In an age when transport and communication services were neither as numerous nor as rapid as they are today, postal services were critical to the social and economic well-being of our citizens. However, we cannot live in yesteryear. We must recognise that the challenges facing us now at the start of the 21st century are not the same ones that faced us at the start of the 20th century. Like all businesses, if An Post is to prosper and grow, it must adapt to changing circumstances and the demands of its customers. It must develop a genuine partnership relationship with its employees that places delivery of quality services to its customers as its primary focus. We must focus on the consumer and customer.

[334] The European Communities (Postal Service) Regulations 2002 make specific provision for a universal service obligation, featuring nationwide deliveries of mail at a uniform tariff and with guaranteed frequency. This is not an aspiration, but a statutory obligation which An Post must meet. On the other hand, An Post also has the benefit of having normal letter post deliveries reserved solely for itself. This reserved area represents a significant commercial advantage for An Post, one on which it must capitalise if it is to be fully prepared for liberalisation of the market when it comes on stream, probably in 2009. We cannot afford to assume, as Deputy Broughan does, that it will not happen then. I would rather take the approach that it is likely to happen, prepare for that and ensure that An Post is strong and viable enough to meet whatever competition comes in 2009 or thereafter.

Already, there has been part liberalisation of postal services in the parcels area. Unfortunately, An Post’s specialist parcels delivery service, SDS, has been unable to survive in this market. Nobody can say that Irish consumers do not have available a range of fast and efficient service providers for parcel delivery, but it is a cause for regret that An Post has not been able to effectively compete with other players in this market. All is not lost, however, and An Post management is taking steps to integrate its parcels service back into the main business, thereby saving the jobs of 180 SDS employees.

  Mr. Crowe:That is nonsense.

  An Ceann Comhairle:The Minister, without interruption. The Deputy will get an opportunity to contribute.

  Mr. N. Dempsey:The redundancies required will be entirely voluntary.

It is a timely reminder to us all that if consumers are to have the benefit of competition in all sectors, including the postal area, existing players in the market must adapt to the competitive world. Our citizens are demanding the right to have choice available to them wherever possible. Accordingly, the way forward for our postal services is to ensure that we have, on the one hand, adequate competition and, on the other, no diminution of the universal service.

The European Commission has embarked on an extensive analysis of postal services throughout the 25 member states. Over the next two years it will continue with that analysis with a view to proposing a model for European postal services that combines competition and the delivery of a reliable service to all 450 million European citizens. This is a daunting task to which Ireland will contribute with particular regard to the need to cater for both our significant rural population and our fast -growing and vibrant economy.

I have deliberately concentrated on sketching out the rapidly changing business environment in [335] which our postal services operate because it is important that we are under no illusion about the challenges facing An Post.

I would like to address some of the specific issues An Post management and unions are attempting to resolve so that the company can be placed on a firm financial footing. An Post lost €43 million in 2003. This fact cannot be disguised. Nobody can argue that following losses of this scale, workers, management and Government were not facing a crisis. Thankfully, during 2004 management and unions working together have made some progress in dealing with the situation. Despite all the negative comment we have heard in recent weeks, I acknowledge there has been a joint commitment by all parties to restructuring. All sides are to be commended for their efforts to date.

I am not trying in any way to ignore or minimise the significant disagreements that exist between the management and the Communications Workers Union. I recognise that we are not yet in the position where we can say that the necessary restructuring programme to secure the future of An Post has been agreed. This is the nub of the problem we face today.

The unsustainable losses of 2003 have been stemmed by implementing a number of drastic measures, including the non-payment of Sustaining Progress increases and the vigorous control of costs. I very much regret that Sustaining Progress payments have not been made to the workers and pensioners of An Post.

The only way An Post workers can ensure that they achieve increases in line with other sectors in the economy is for management and unions to sit down and agree details of a restructuring programme. Much work has been done by both sides under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission. However, it is essential that both sides continue to work together in conjunction with the State’s industrial relations machinery to broker a deal that will allow the company to deliver quality services to our citizens, while at the same time offering good well-paid employment to its employees. That is the challenge facing us today and the board and management, together with the unions in An Post, should not allow themselves to be deflected from meeting that challenge.

I take this opportunity to commend the Labour Relations Commission and the work it has done to date. There can be no doubt but that it has made a big contribution towards teasing out the possible way forward for unions and management in An Post. We are fortunate to have industrial relations dispute resolution procedures which are widely recognised as being both fair and effective.

One regularly hears concerns with regard to the future of our extensive rural post office network. Since coming to office I have made it clear to the board and management of An Post that I will be extremely supportive of them in their efforts to ensure that our post office network con[336] tinues to develop and thrive. I am aware that An Post, in partnership with postmasters, has had some recent success in acquiring new business for our post offices. Many Members of the House will no doubt be aware that in accordance with a contract between An Post and AIB, customers of that bank can now transact business at more than 1,000 post offices throughout the country. This is good for AIB, An Post and their customers.

8 o’clock

Other opportunities in the public and private sectors are being explored by the company and I have assured the Irish Postmasters Union and the management of An Post that my Department will play its part in assisting An Post to secure additional Government business, whether it be in the field of social welfare or development of e-Government services. My predecessor provided an equity injection of €12.7 million to enable the post office network to face the challenge to modernise.

To return to the immediate problem of agreeing a restructuring plan, I have invited representatives of the CWU to meet me to discuss with them the future of the postal services and the future of An Post. I want to hear their views and ideas and I want to initiate debate with them on the liberalisation agenda that is current in Europe. I do not intend entering into negotiations on industrial relations issues but I will impress on the union representatives that both sides must approach the difficulties now arising in a spirit of partnership, while at the same time making full use of the available industrial relations machinery.

The future can be bright for An Post if the company and its workers seize the moment to implement the changes that all agree are necessary to secure the company. We desperately need both sides in An Post to get out of the trenches and stop fighting the battles of the past. We need a heads-up approach to tackling the radically different problems of the future that are faced by workers and management.

The Government is committed to a great future for a renewed postal service. We believe An Post can provide the universal service, innovation and seamless adaptation required in response to the changed environment. I will hammer home that message when I meet the An Post board and the CWU later this week when I will share with them the Government’s view on the future of the postal service.

  Mr. O’Flynn:I thank the Minister for sharing his time with me. I wish to put on record my appreciation of the contribution of An Post workers to the State over many decades. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, I look forward to meeting the three unions, especially the CWU, on 2 February to hear their side and listen to their vision for the future of the company.

When Donal Curtin, the new CEO of An Post, appeared before the committee in January 2004, [337] he informed us that An Post was heading for losses of €43 million in 2003. Emergency action was called for and the newly appointed management team put in place substantial cost-saving measures in 2004, including, as the Minister stated, the non-payment of Sustaining Progress increases and rigorous control of costs. An Post is now looking at operating profits of €14.8 million for this year. However, I am advised, following an allowance of between €22 million and €25 million for the closure of SDS and profits from subsidiaries, the bottom line for 2004 is a loss of between €2 million and €9 million. I congratulate all those involved in the company, management and staff members——

  Mr. Broughan:It was the sacrifice of the workers that paid for it in their wages.

  Mr. O’Flynn:——for turning around the fortunes of the company, from a loss of €43 million to between €2 million and €9 million this year. Without an agreement on the restructuring plan the outlook is obviously very bleak.

The former CEO appeared before the committee on 29 January 2003 and informed us that An Post would make a profit of €1 million in 2003. I was annoyed, as was my colleague, Deputy Broughan, who makes an important contribution to the committee, at the way an Oireachtas committee was misled by the former chief executive of An Post — I do not think Deputy Durkan was a committee member at the time. It is possible to read what he said in the committee proceedings on the Oireachtas website. One can also read the text I read on 8 January 2004 on this matter.

Competition can be expected to increase, whether from the privately owned express sector, the large European public operators now looking for international business or the electronic communications technologies such as e-mail and texting. The trend of dropping mail volumes internationally is also impacting on An Post, which does not bode well for the future of a volume-based business.

The parcels business has been liberalised, with major international players operating in the Irish market. Furthermore, as the Minister pointed out, the European Commission’s stated intention is to complete the Internal Market for postal services in 2009, thereby opening up letter post to full competition. The Commission will undertake further studies on the impact of competition on the universal service requirement which is enshrined in EU and Irish law. The universal service requirement means that all addresses, both business and private, are entitled to deliveries at uniform tariffs, with a guaranteed frequency.

Changes in the collections and delivery operations area are critical to addressing the company’s precarious financial circumstances. They will enable the company to provide a cost-effective mail service and quality of service standards which meet customer expectations. The changes [338] will increase operational flexibility and significantly reduce the company’s existing cost base. The proposals are aimed at cutting existing overtime levels and employee numbers involved in collections and delivery in addition to increasing operational efficiency by replacing current work practices.

The information available suggests that the Communications Workers Union will report to the Labour Relations Commission on Thursday and that a ballot on the proposals developed at the LRC has been overwhelmingly rejected. The next step will be to try to resolve the disagreement between the union and management in the Labour Court. I encourage the CWU to go to the Labour Court to resolve the issues.

As I said, the committee which I chair invited the three unions involved in the postal business to come in on 2 February. We are keen to hear the views of the unions as they did not address us last year and we only have a one-sided picture at present. I want to chair a discussion with the unions which is frank and open so that we can hear what they have to say on the viability of An Post. It was regrettable that on the last occasion the union leadership decided not to appear before the committee. Deputy Broughan and other committee members will know that a letter from the union was read into the record and this can be accessed on the Oireachtas website.

An Post workers have not been paid Sustaining Progress increases as the company pleaded inability to pay. In such circumstances it is open to the union to refer this to the LRC and ultimately the Labour Court where a binding ruling can be made. The inability to pay claim was based on the fact that An Post made losses of €43 million in 2003 and projected group losses of €20 million this year. At the end of this year the company will show an operating profit of €14.8 million, but this needs to be viewed in the context of savings made through the non-payment of Sustaining Progress increases. The cost of those increases this year would be €18 million.

  Mr. Broughan:They should be paid.

  Mr. O’Flynn:The cost of Sustaining Progress increases would be €37 million in 2005 and €56 million in 2006. Furthermore, an allowance of between €22 million and €25 million will have to be made in 2004 for the closure of SDS, but this is expected to be offset by the sale of SDS property in 2005. The recovery plan presented by the board of management, which assumed significant changes in work practices, tariff increases and the payment of wage increases, projected that An Post could have an operating profit of €4.5 million in 2005. I hope this will be achieved by the management and the unions. I acknowledge this is a break-even position but it is on the right side in order to become profitable and sustainable.

The adoption of restructuring which delivers real change is the only way An Post workers can look forward to receiving pay increases in line [339] with other sectors. I encourage talks to ensure the company, which has served the State well since its foundation, survives and prospers in the years to come for the sake of all the workers who have passed through it over the decades and those currently employed, who are proud of their jobs and the company.

My company, Noel O’Flynn Ltd. in Cork, was probably one of the first customers of SDS when it opened in 1989. Its service was second to none, which I stated on the record when the company’s representatives appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Enterprise of which I was a member during my first term in the Dáil. If Deputy Broughan does not believe me, he can check the Official Report. I have not been involved with the company for seven years but, when I asked my general manager who now runs it what he thought of the SDS service, he informed me that it was fantastic. The company operates a number of couriers but SDS provides a fantastic service and I was very sorry to hear the company was closing with the loss of 170 jobs.

An An Post pensioner came to my clinic about a medical problem last week and expressed concerns about whether workers would receive full medical care or not, which is an issue which must be examined and was taken up with the company today. I understand An Post has its own superannuation scheme funded by employer and employee contributions managed by a board of trustees. Payment of the pension increases was delegated to An Post by the Department in 1989. Normally, the Minister does not have any operational involvement in the management or payment of An Post pensions. The issue of non-payment of pensions increases to An Post pensioners arising out of Sustaining Progress is due to the financial difficulties experienced by the company. An Post management has taken the view that the company was unable to pay Sustaining Progress increases to its serving employees as it was entitled to do so under the terms of the agreement. I hope to see this urgent matter resolved before the meeting on 2 February.

Post offices enjoy some advantages in the delivery of financial and Government services by virtue of a nationwide retail network with a recognised brand name. Last year there were 96 company offices, 1,400 sub-post offices and 160 postal agencies operating nationwide, 1,000 of which are automated. The post office network accounts for 18% of the overall turnover of An Post and is important. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party raised this issue with the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resource, Deputy Noel Dempsey. It is important that all post offices should be on an equal footing, be automated and be able to provide services and compete through the facilities which are available to the network. I hope we will find a mechanism with the company to ensure the remaining 450 post offices are able to——

[340]   Mr. Broughan:Who will pay for it?

  Mr. O’Flynn:If the company was making a profit and I was running the company, I would ensure all these post offices were automated. Moreover, I would augment the existing services with more financial institutions using the post office system, I would include more e-Government services and I would like to see implemented a recommendation of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on the provision of broadband and Internet facilities in post offices. For a small fee, this could provide Internet access and on-line booking facilities in post offices to people who do not own a computer. I hope members of An Post management are in the House tonight or are listening to the debate because this is just one of the services which could be provided through the post office network and which would help bridge the digital divide.

A practical expression of the Government’s commitment was its decision in 2003 to invest €12.7 million in An Post to facilitate the modernisation of post offices. That equity was paid to the company in 2003. Last year, An Post management told us the post office network was making a small profit, whereas a few years ago it was the poor relation. New communities are springing up all over the country and county development plans are encouraging the development of towns and villages, as opposed to ribbon development and one-off housing, and strengthening local communities. This represents an ideal opportunity to build our post office network and expand these services.

I wish to record my appreciation to all An Post staff in Cork for the service they are providing to the people of Cork. As I stated, I have experienced the SDS service but I have also experienced An Post delivering to my office on the Mallow Road in Cork city. One can time oneself by the arrival of the postman at the same time every day. I will have been in business for 20 years on 1 April next year. I am not sure whether I made a mistake by starting on April Fool’s Day; perhaps time will tell. I look forward to engaging with and listening to the three unions on the committee on 2 February with my colleagues Deputies Broughan and Durkan.

  Mr. Durkan:I propose to share time with Deputies Wall, Deenihan and Murphy.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. Durkan:It is my honour and privilege to speak on this important and topical matter. I support the Labour Party motion, which is timely in more ways than one. It gives us an opportunity to appreciate the time and space which have been afforded by both unions and management at An Post to providing a service over the Christmas [341] period, thereby alleviating what might have become a very traumatic time for many people who depend on postal services. I congratulate both sides for this.

We all recognise that this time should be put to good use. All agencies, including the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commission and the facilitator, should be called upon to give of their best to ensure the issues and problems which have arisen at An Post in regard to changing times, work practices and technology are addressed. The time should be used to review all the services which have been provided in recent years and decide what it is best to provide for.

Sections 45 and 46 of the Postal and Telecommunication Services Act 1983 relate to pensions, superannuation etc. This original legislation sets out quite clearly that staff in An Post will be treated as if they were civil servants who remained part of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs at the time of the changeover in 1983. That should be borne in mind by management to ensure there is no exacerbation of the situation and that the service is provided on the same basis as that provided 30, 40, 50 or 80 years ago. The proposed changes must be based on negotiations with the relevant unions as provided for in legislation.

It is important operational changes are debated in an open, frank and fair manner and that equal opportunity is given to the survival of An Post and its workforce. I do not take the view taken by many other speakers that because we are in changing times everything must be changed and that we must throw out the baby with the bath water. An Post has a powerful network of services throughout the country. Its post office and postal workers have done enormous work for the country. They have provided essential services in areas where few would provide them. The last thing we should do during this time of change is leave matters to one side, as was done with Eircom during its privatisation.

There has been much talk of privatisation and the benefits of same. We have only to look across the water to Royal Mail which had planned to go down that road. However, it will not now do so, or if it does, it will not be as had been planned. I hope the services provided by An Post and appreciated by the public can continue to be provided in the future. We should in the meantime focus the attention of the Minister’s heart and mind on the issues ahead.

  Mr. Murphy:I have a particular interest in this issue as my family have been involved in the postal sector for many years. The immediate issue to be dealt with in terms of what is at stake for postal workers and their families is ensuring An Post pays them their due rights and entitlements under Sustaining Progress. The bigger question that will affect the lives of postal staff, their families and the entire wider community is to what degree the Minister and management at An Post are committed to ensuring the survival of a [342] vibrant postal service. We need to be clear on one matter. The Government is the sole shareholder in An Post and if it wishes to intervene, it has the power and authority to do so. It is fooling nobody by suggesting it must abide by the decisions of the directors and management of An Post. If the Government does not agree with the directors and management, it can sack them or instruct them to carry out its wishes.

For many years, we have heard Fianna Fáil Deputies and Ministers tell us rural post offices would not close. We heard sanctimonious speeches from Fianna Fáil backbenchers on how post offices were the central plank on which villages and rural life survived. Yet, despite this outcry, village post offices are closing by stealth, from a lack of resources to enable them to provide adequate services for their communities. The SDS service is to close. Every effort put in place by local community councils, Leader groups and enterprise boards to create small industries in rural Ireland is being jeopardised. The SDS postal service is the only way of getting goods to customers at home and abroad. Courier services will not serve small rural towns and villages.

The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, spoke of their support in the drive to revitalise rural communities and small villages and towns and insisted that An Post serve these communities because without this service, without the ability to transport their products and import raw materials, businesses in rural areas cannot survive.

This issue brings us to another disturbing aspect of An Post’s restructuring proposals, the contracting out of deliveries, particularly in rural areas. Admittedly, current postal workers are being offered these contracts. They must purchase vans, pay tax and insurance and maintain their vans, at a totally uneconomic rate. I have no doubt that, as sure as night follows day, within three years An Post will suggest these postal workers should, to cut their costs, deliver twice weekly in rural areas. An Post will constantly cut the contract price, put the routes up for tender and, eventually, reduce the service to rural Ireland to once weekly.

If the Government does not intervene and take its responsibilities seriously, most rural people will have to collect their post from central sorting offices 20 or 25 miles away. Now is the time to call a halt. The Government must be held accountable before it is too late. It is closing by stealth post offices throughout the country and by sheer incompetence and lack of vision it will close parcel services. The introduction of contracts for postal workers will deprive rural Ireland of worthwhile services for the future. Postal workers and their families have been a central and crucial part of rural life for generations. They are poorly paid yet deliver a vital service. It is true this job has a social dimension and the Government must subsidise An Post in that regard if necessary. The absolute minimum that must be done is that An [343] Post pay postal staff money owed to them and maintain the current level of service in rural Ireland.

  Mr. Wall:I, too, congratulate the Postal Workers Union and An Post staff for the wonderful service provided by them for many years. It was the postman upon whom people in rural Ireland depended during good times and bad. When people did not have telephones in their homes, it was they who carried messages of illness to the local doctor or the Garda on behalf of people in trouble in rural areas, a service welcomed by all in rural Ireland.

If the proposals referred to by Deputy Murphy are accepted, many elderly people in rural Ireland will be isolated as they will be unable to get to locations 20 or 25 miles away to collect their post. Currently there is no transport for them to the local towns to collect post or other necessities. The postal worker was a vital link for those in rural Ireland. Before coming to this House today, I met postal workers in Athy who told me they felt they had been left behind in terms of the Civil Service. They had received no extra payments under benchmarking or Sustaining Progress for the past two years, yet they are expected to provide a service second to none and to ensure business operates efficiently. The workers at An Post have been ignored, resulting in their taking to the streets to highlight the problems experienced by them.

This is yet another matter on which we are told the Minister is not accountable to the House. How many times a week do we hear that statement? We raise issues of concern to our constituents only to be refused permission by the Chair to discuss them. An Post is another issue for which we are told the Minister does not have responsibility. Workers at An Post provide a good service and, given their daily activities on the ground, are often the only people available to feed information to elderly people in need.

They have been ignored over the years. In the last two years, they have been told they are not on a par with any other section of the Civil Service. They have always been part of the Civil Service yet have been ignored in benchmarking and Sustaining Progress. It is time the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and An Post accept there is a case to be made to ensure these payments are made.

Debate adjourned.