An Post is a crucial part of our society- Deputy O’ Reilly makes his maiden speech of the 31st Dail.

We have a postal system in this country that is ranked as the seventh most efficient postal system out of twenty-nine countries in the European Union. In European benchmarking terms, we already have a pretty good system in place. It is right that we should of course seek to improve on that however we should ensure that we protect the service when we are seeking to improve on it. An Post employs around 10,000 staff and on a daily basis they process and deliver more than 2.5 million items of mail.

The current Postal Network is built around four main centers. These four centers are supported by the Government and €100 million of Taxpayers money is spent on their regulation. Both the State and the Taxpayer have invested heavily in this network over the years.

When speaking on this particular Bill in the past I made reference to the need to redefine what a ‘distribution centre’ is. In section 6 of the Bill reference to this centre can be found.
‘Distribution Centre’ should be defined as the main hub location where efficient automatic processing of mail takes place in large volumes.
The idea of having a clear definition of what a distribution centre is is to ensure that, further down the line, there would not be the case of a private operator seeking to enter into the market and operate below the level of a current mail centre. It would remove any chance up unfair cherry-picking by private operators who decide to deliver mail from certain centres in the country that have a high volume of post, thus compromising the four network centres and leaving An Post unable to compete with new market entrants in more profitable areas.
If this was allowed to happen it would place An Post, the wider public service and the Universal Social Obligation at risk also.

The Communications Workers Union would propose that network access should not be permitted below the mail centre level – this protects the collection and delivery model that aims to serve every address in the country, it maximizes the efficiencies provided by the hi-tech equipment and it ensures adequate volumes in the system. They would also support the definition of the term ‘distribution center’ as a means to protect the integrity of the postal collection and delivery infrastructure.

The Bill recognizes that we need a Universal Service Obligation and it states that An Post will be the sole provider of all postal services in Ireland for seven years. ComReg has the authority to review the Universal Social Obligation designation given to An Post prior to the expiration of the seven years.
There are social and economic interests in regard to the postal system that go above and beyond the interests of the companies involved. As a result we have a wider public interest that we look to protect and do so with the provision of a universal service obligation.

Section 17 of the Bill tells us that ComReg may decide to designate An Post as the sole USP for a further period once their seven year tenure is up. They may however decide not to designate a USP where the market is meeting with the reasonable needs of users.
They may also decide to designate a specific Postal Service Provider for the South of the Country and leave An Post to provide Postal Services for Dublin City and County. Any further designation is not prescribed in the Bill. Direction of services seems to be at ComReg’s discretion.
This is a issue that I have dealt with when debating this Bill before. The period of seven years is, in my opinion, too short of a timeframe to give.
International research has suggested that Ireland is only able to sustain one Universal Service Provider and it should be written in stone for the longest period that it should be An Post. The risk is that if private operators are allowed to come into the market, we will end up with a more expensive postal service, regional disparity regarding the cost of delivery of letters, risking up to 2,000 jobs and over €100 million of taxpayers money. My fear is if the contract is not written in stone then we will be putting at risk the Universal Service Obligation, which would be a horrendous outcome, given the fact that Ireland’s population is largely dispersed.

I would firmly believe, as has been stated by colleagues in this house when this Bill was read last, that the provision in the Bill which gives ComReg the power to review An Post’s position as an Universal Service Provider, is something that needs to be looked at.
This needs to be looked at with a view to the rural parts of Ireland which are set be more affected by this clause than any other part of Ireland. There is a very real danger that under this provision, ComReg may decide to curtail daily postal services to more rural parts of Ireland as they would be seen to be no longer viable.
Ireland is a largely rural country and a lot of our population is dispersed. What works well for larger European Countries may not fit as well for a country such as ours.
Our Postal Service is crucial when we look at it in terms of a social service aspect.
For elderly people living in rural areas the daily door to door service that is delivered by their local postman or woman may well be the only contact that they make with another person all day.
For them it provides a sense of security that many do no longer feel in their community with the closing down of so many rural Garda Stations. Having a Postman or woman call to their house every day gives them that extra sense of security, we should do all we can not to remove that from them.

I would like to finish by briefly commenting on the need in the legislation for appropriate Ministerial oversight on the decisions of the Regulator. There should be clear and transparent oversight mechanisms which firmly place the Minister in charge of decisions that affect the postal market, particularly those taken in national interest.
I am not talking about the Minister mirco-managing regulation, or asking the regulator to seek approval of the Minister for all decisions made, it is more a provision that enables the Minister to intervene in certain cases.
It is also a way of ensuring that the Minister has the ultimate responsibility and prerogative to intervene when appropriate in the public interest.
It’s about having a checks and balances system in place in the legislation and is ultimately an issue of democracy.

To conclude, we are lucky in this country to have such a reliant and excellent State postal service. All for the price of one stamp, An Post serves 1.7 million customers per week with a road fleet of 2,680 vehicles and 1645 bicycles. The Post Office network is of huge social value, particularly in more rural parts of Ireland and remains a vital communication link for many isolated elderly individuals.
I would welcome any legislation that seeks to improve on a service that is such a fundamental part of so many people’s lives.
However I would also feel that we must be mindful of the fact that due to its central role, it is something that should be looked on with due respect and no decision that is taken should be one that is taken in haste.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website