As the Minister probably is aware, there is concern about the threat to the post office network nationwide. There is a particular threat in County Galway, where three centres have been the subject of public meetings recently, namely, Barnaderg, Caherlistrane and Cappataggle. I attended two of those meetings, which were well attended, at which the reason An Post moved so quickly to talk about the possibility of closure was raised. In two of the cases, the postmaster had died, as in Barnaderg, Sean Fahy had passed away, while in Cappataggle, the postmistress, Christina Dooley, had died. The consultation notice posted in the village stated clearly that one option would be to close the post office. It also mentioned service provision needs and other criteria that would be considered. However, what I found interesting was that at the public meetings, reference was made to 28 services that are available in the post office. Reference also was made to services that could be available at local post offices and that was the reason I tabled this question. Particular reference was made to matters such as motor tax and driving licences, both for new applications and renewals. This certainly is the subject of much debate in Galway at present, where people are unable to find the driving licence centre. Reference also was made to business customer services, buying dollars and sterling, as well as hospital charges, property tax and other Government payment services.
Post offices were one of the issues considered by the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications when it examined the issues of accessibility and rural isolation. Rural communities will suffer socially and economically if post office closures continue. Disadvantaged urban areas will also be affected. Rural isolation describes the reduced services and opportunities available in areas with a low population density. Cappataggle is located halfway between Ballinasloe and Loughrea and the loss of its post office will require local people to travel much more. It is interesting that rural transport is often discussed in the context of mobility and accessibility to services. The post office is of particular importance in rural communities, notably among older people, as a number of commentators and organisations, including Age Action, have noted.
I note media reports indicating that An Post has threatened to terminate the contracts of postmasters for providing services outside their remit. Newsagents regard it as unfair to be described as postmasters running other businesses on their premises. The Irish Independent has seen a copy of a letter from An Post in which it promotes a new service, PostPack. I understand the letter detailing ways in which customers can avoid visiting a post office was received by 3,000 shop owners who operate the post point outlets. Instead of encouraging people to avoid using their local post offices, the company should offer people every incentive to continue to do business in post offices. New business could be done in rural post offices, which also provide an important social outlet.
I have listened to the views of people attending public meetings in the west, a region the Minister knows well. People are tired of An Post’s argument that it is not its policy to close down post offices and want instead to hear that it is the company’s policy to keep post offices open.
The Minister addressed the issue of direct debits and alternative means of making payments. This issue needs to be reviewed and I hope the Minister will do so. I wrote to him recently indicating that a constituent of mine who tried to pay an ESB at her local post office, as her late mother had done for many years, was treated as a new customer and asked to pay a deposit of €300 if she wished to pay directly at the post office. Those who pay by direct debit, however, do not incur an additional charge. This type of approach suggests An Post would be pleased if people avoided visiting post offices in person. I brought this matter to the attention of the Commission for Communications Regulation on 5 June and have not yet received a reply, although I understand the commission is considering the issue. There is, however, no reason to change existing arrangements, for example, it should be possible to transfer an ESB bill from a mother to her daughter. I ask the Minister to examine this issue.
New uses and types of business must be considered for post offices.
I am confident that, if given the opportunity, post offices will develop new business and will be a viable alternative, particularly for those in rural areas.