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Stanley calls for the protection of rural post offices

12 April, 2011 - by Brian Stanley TD


Speaking in the Dáil today on the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010, Sinn Féin TD for Laois/Offaly Deputy Brian Stanley called on the Government to guarantee the protection of rural post offices.

Deputy Stanley also called for the protection of the 370 jobs in the sorting centre in Portlaoise.

He said:

“This legislation will lead to the privatisation of sections of the postal services. We have witnessed the withdrawal of post offices which were once the heart-beat of local communities. They act as a ‘lifeline’ for older people living in rural areas and in many towns the post offices remain the only public institution.

“This Bill, if passed, will have a profound impact on the lives of rural dwellers as well as those postal workers, and particularly on the lives of older people. The government obviously does not realise the importance of the local post office as a social hub for older people.

“It will allow private operators to cherry pick businesses where there is most profit. The private companies will go to the highly populated urban areas leaving the state operator as the sole service-provider in rural areas.

“This kind of arrangement will lead to high costs of doing business in rural areas, and the state provider An Post which is obliged to continue the service, will be compelled to fund this by either receiving massive subsidies from the tax payer or massively increasing their prices – or initiating a combination of both.

“Either way, the people of rural communities will lose out. They will face higher costs for basic postal services. Anyone in government who thinks that this will not be the case is living in a dream world.

“Sinn Fein has consistently stated rural post offices must be protected and that services in rural post offices could be expanded to enhance their economic potential. The privatisation of public services must end. Rural communities deserve better than this Bill.

Communities are dependent on this public service for employment – in total there are 370 people employed in the sorting centre in Portlaoise. These are decent jobs with good working conditions and union representation. They must be some of the last jobs of that kind left in this state so why is the Government actively trying to jeopardise them?” ENDS

Speech on Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 Second Stage

[Check against delivery]

As a representative of a mostly rural constituency, I am familiar with the challenges facing my community and the counties of Laois and Offaly. These counties have been left behind by government when it comes to regional development.

We have witnessed the withdrawal of vital services, such as post offices that were once the heart-beat of our communities. I have heard stories of how people after 40 or 50 years of families running local post offices, have seen their door locked for the last time. The Irish Postmasters Union has said that the income of postmasters in some rural areas can be as little as €10,000 a year. Postmasters are not being replaced on retirement even though post offices are seen as a ‘lifeline’ for many people living in rural areas.

In many small towns and villages post offices remain the only public institution. Communities are dependent on this public institution for employment – in total there are 370 people employed in the sorting centre in Portlaoise. These are decent jobs with good working conditions and union representation. They must be some of the last jobs of that kind left in this state, so why is the Government actively trying to jeopardise them?

Make no mistake - this Bill will close post offices. More jobs lost, another service gone. Sadly, such closures are not unique in rural areas. Garda stations, corner shops and local pubs, all are suffering the same fate.

The Communications Regulations Bill, if passed, will have a profound impact on the lives of rural dwellers as well as those postal workers, and particularly on the lives of older people. The government obviously do not realise the importance of the local post office as a social hub for older people.

The Bill will allow private operators to cherry pick doing business where there is most profit. The services will go to the highly populated urban areas leaving the state operator as the sole service-provider in rural areas. This kind of arrangement will lead to high costs of doing business in rural areas, and the state provider which is obliged to continue the service, will be compelled to fund this by either receiving massive subsidies from the tax payer or massively increasing their prices – or initiating a combination of both.

Either way, the people of rural communities will lose out. They will face higher costs for basic postal services, and be forced to pay, through the use of their taxes, for private operators to do business. Anyone in government who thinks that this will not be the case is living in a dream world.

Low income older people in rural areas may already have to drive to the next village to use the post office to pay their bills. We’re all aware of the increases in the price of petrol and very often these older people may only be able to afford to take a trip up the road once a week. They pay their bills, they post their letters, perhaps put aside a few bob in a savings account and the Post Office acts as an important social centre for them.

Given the very often sparsely populated nature of rural Ireland, and the isolation experienced by many, communities frequently feel helpless in their ability to halt the decline. Their voices are not being heard in the corridors of power. Their lobbies are too weak to exert the pressure that is needed to bring about change. And in case, the Government certainly are not listening to them.

Between 2001 and 2008 344 post offices closed, with many more downgraded. The majority of closures took place in rural areas. Closures and downgrading place a huge strain on local communities. The Post Office increases footfall to other local businesses, so when one post office closes in a rural area the knock-on effects are felt by nearly all local businesses.

There is a need for a clear Government policy in relation to the minimum number of post offices that are necessary. In order to save a number of post offices at risk of imminent closure, the Government should intervene in the form of a public service obligation order (PSO).

Sinn Fein have consistently stated that there are services that could be expanded in rural post offices to enhance their economic potential, including combining postal services with council services to provide insurance and taxation services, developing post offices as centres of information, making door-to-door deliveries for people with impaired mobility.

Rural transport programmes are ill-equipped to offer access to post offices while travelling to post offices in other towns is both time consuming and ecologically damaging. Even if adequate public transport existed, the damage to the social fabric of rural communities would be immeasurable. A number of initiatives have been taken in other countries to prevent the closure of post offices through developing the types of social services on offer.

While An Post is mandated by legislation to only engage in profit making initiatives, the State could intervene in the form of a public service obligation order (PSO). If the EU were to authorise a PSO order, post offices scheduled for closure could be entitled to a subvention and therefore broaden their services to ensure their viability.

We have always believed that the Government should intervene in the form of a Public Service Intervention order to enable the subvention of post offices in rural areas in rural areas to ensure post masters’ incomes are brought to the minimum wage as a matter of priority

The government are neglecting the importance of the Post Office in the lives of older people. Localised services assist older people in living independently in their own homes. For some older people, they may be relying on a visit from the post man or woman as the only daily contact they have. This is a social support that cannot be allowed to disappear.

The social supports provided by post offices consistently go unacknowledged. People who collect social welfare payments in post offices usually pay their bills at the same time, and vulnerable people who very often face difficulties in opening a bank account, such as Travellers, unemployed people or refugees can open accounts without any difficulty in the local post office.

Other European states have taken the approach that citizens must be entitled to a postal service within a certain distance of their home. Why will the government not do this in Ireland? The answer is quite simple. It is because this Government is not about enhancing public services to maintain employment, and that people can access services. They would much rather pass legislation like this that will give private operators the opportunity to make money while rural people are left high and dry without services, or with services that they can’t afford to use.

I would ask the Government to take heed of what we are saying and stop this legislation, and furthermore stop the privatisation agenda that they have embarked on.

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