Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010

Report and Final Stages:

Senator Joe O’Reilly: I join in the welcome for this Government amendment as a co-sponsor of the initial amendment alongside Senator O’Toole and having spoken on the issue on Second and Committee Stages in the belief that the unions should be part of any consultative process, public or otherwise, as important stakeholders.  I would have preferred the explicit use of the word “union” and I see no reason it should not be the case, but I welcome the amendment as achieving the same objective.  I am not sufficiently expert in linguistic nuances to know the implications of Senator Ryan’s concerns, but I am prepared to support him in his comments.  His proposal is worth consideration, as it would specifically give workers’ representatives a voice.

End of Take

I shall leave it at that, but I welcome it in that it is achieving one of our objectives.  As I have said repeatedly, our sole objective is to shape this legislation in a fashion that maintains the integrity, quality and strength of the existing service and personnel.  This is a step in the right direction, but many more will be needed as well.

Deputy Mary Alexandra White: I understand that the language used in the amendment was based on advice from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, which had been advised of the Senators’ concerns, and we believe it fully represents the views expressed.  I hope that is clear.  We are talking about semantics here, but I believe it fully addresses Senators’ concerns.

Amendment agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: Amendment No. 3 in the names of Senators O’Reilly and Cummins arises out of Committee Stage proceedings.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: I move amendment No. 3:

In page 29, to delete lines 24 to 28 and substitute the following:

“28.—(1) A postal service provider has the right to enter into negotiations with a universal service provider with a view to concluding an agreement with that provider to access the postal network of the universal service provider up to the inward mail centre and may serve notice.”.

The legislation places no specific limit on where network access should begin.  The current postal network is built around four mail centres, with Government support over the years.  As I have said previously on Second and Committee Stages, €100 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on automation in those four centres.  An Post is now ranked as the seventh most efficient postal operator out of 27 EU countries.

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that access should not be permitted below the mail centre level.  This protects the collection and delivery model that aims to serve all addresses at all locations, maximises the efficiencies provided by hi-tech equipment and ensures adequate volumes in the system.  In other words its objective is to ensure that an independent or private service provide cannot enter the marketplace at a lower level than the four automated centres so as to ensure a level playing pitch for An Post and guard against cherrypicking.

A competitor might negotiate a price lower than An Post, put it into a town and have it delivered at that level.  We are trying to prevent it going in at the lower level.  Everything we are doing in this legislation with these amendments is aimed at protecting the universal postal service and its quality along with the 2,000 jobs that are at stake, which must now be at a premium.  This is a reasonable amendment, which allows for the directive to be implemented, along with free trade and competition, while not allowing the structure of An Post as it has been built up over the years to become an unfair victim of competition.

I shall not be argumentative as regards the wording.  If the Minister of State proposes to change it, that will not be an issue.  The objective is to achieve the principle of fair play and to maintain the integrity and quality of An Post.  We have a great national service and workforce.  At ground level our post men and women throughout Ireland are exemplary, providing a great social service and facilitating crucial human contact at local level.  These are great people of whom we are proud, and I include the sorters and personnel within the offices.  I want to preserve those people in situ while at the same time achieving the objectives of the directive.

Our attitude towards every EU directive should not be too cap in hand, and we should not take them too literally.  We have this tendency in that we almost have to go beyond the terms of a directive in effecting its implementation.  We can be nearly more penal than what is intended in the directive, and therefore I ask the Minister of State to see reason on this.  I am totally open to the manner in which she does it.

Deputy Mary Alexandra White: It is not proposed to accept this amendment.  Section 28 places an emphasis on access being granted following commercial negotiations between a universal postal service provider and another postal service provider.  Where an agreement cannot be reached, ComReg may resolve the issue and may impose certain terms and conditions in relation to access.  Section 28 sets out ComReg’s role in this context and the issues to which it must have regard, including the need to ensure and maintain the efficient provision of the universal service, the reasonableness of the access request and network costs incurred in granting access.  It is not appropriate to legislate for where access should be granted and the precise terms under which it is granted.  To do so, could potentially be restrictive and it is not possible to predict future work arrangements of postal service providers.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: I am disappointed with the Minister of State’s response.  We do not believe there is sufficient protection in the legislation to provide for a level playing pitch.  The legislation is too ambiguous and open to different interpretations.  There is also too much of an assumption underlying this legislation that An Post, while it will expand and take on new roles and services and so on, will discover a crock of gold or new business model at the end of the rainbow.  As eloquently put by Senator O’Toole, we are anxious to preserve jobs and a level playing pitch.  We accept the directive and have been particularly constructive in our approach to it because we accept the legal requirement to implement it.  It is a shocking state of affairs, however, if in this process we throw out the baby with the bath water, which is effectively what we are doing.

I ask the Minister of State to reconsider and accept the amendment.  If not, we will have to press it.  The legislation in this regard is unacceptable, in particular to the workers.  There is too much at stake.  We have put too much into An Post as a national enterprise, in terms of taxpayers’ money and human effort, to throw it to the winds.  It is bad practice.

Deputy Mary Alexandra White: I thank Senator O’Reilly for his heartfelt input on the amendment.   The Senator will be aware that the postal service is undergoing significant change and must evolve to ensure it meets the needs of its users.  An Post may make commercial decisions in the future as to how it should configure its network to meet its obligations and best serve the needs of its users.  The challenge for An Post is to recognise the need to re-evaluate its relationship with customers and competitors alike.  It must explore its potential through competitive partnerships with rival postal service providers and ensure it remains the postal delivery company of choice for the foreseeable future.

End of Take

Government amendment No. 4:

In page 30, line 34, to delete “network costs” and substitute “postal network costs”.

Deputy Mary Alexandra White: In response to Senator O’Toole’s suggested amendment to this section, the Minister has agreed to make this amendment for clarification purposes.  Subsection(9) provides that ComReg, in making a decision on the price of access to the postal network of a universal postal service provider, should take into account any network costs involved in granting such access.  The amendment makes it clear that the network costs referred to are those of the postal network of a universal postal service provider.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: I co-sponsored the amendment with Senator O’Toole who asked me before he left the House to express his appreciation to the Minister for accepting the amendment.  The objective is to prevent a private service provider coming in to cherry-pick areas, enter the market at an unreasonable cost level and prejudice An Post and its operation.  While I wish the previous amendment had also been accepted, this is a step in the right direction, which is welcome.

Amendment agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are related and may be discussed together.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: I formally second the amendment and I strongly support it.  If we were to apply solely commercial criteria to the maintenance or otherwise of rural post offices, we would have two to three post offices in an average county.  This cannot be the case.  I support the effort to put a legislative imperative into the Bill to prevent this being the case in the future.  We have all attended the public meetings and we have all witnessed the closure of a local post office.  We all know it is effectively the death knell of a community and how traumatic it can be for a local community.  We have seen the rationalisation of schools, the reduction of Garda stations and the closure of post offices.  Even outlet post boxes dotted around the place mean so much to people in isolated communities.  Older people who are not in a position to drive and want access to their post need these facilities.

There must be a bit of positive discrimination involved here.  We cannot let everything out to the free markets.  We have to preserve certain things.  Right throughout the debate on this Bill, we have been trying to preserve the universal service obligation, as well as the State’s investment.  I support Senator Ryan in preserving the rural post office network and post boxes around this country.  They are such a part of our infrastructure, and not only in the countryside, but also in villages, towns and on the fringes of our big cities.  We cannot have people coming from Balbriggan and Skerries into the GPO on a daily basis.  A bit of common sense and compassion must be applied.

We must decide what our priorities are as a society and what we value.  If we are to turn the entire country into an economy, with no social dimension, it will be a sad and bleak place.  I urge the Minister of State even just to come back with an alternative wording to achieve this objective.  It is a worthy objective and it is hardly one that anyone could reasonably disagree with.

Deputy Mary Alexandra White: Let me reassure Senators that the Government is committed to as large a post office network as is economically possible.  However, it is not proposed to accept these amendments.

In respect of amendment No. 5, the opening, closing or maintenance of postal infrastructure, such as post offices, are commercial matters for the management of the postal service provider concerned.  The provision of post offices is not affected by the directive and the requirement to open postal services to competition.  An Post’s responsibility, pursuant to the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act 1983, to provide counter services for the company’s own and Government business is not being amended by this Bill.  The vast majority of post offices are operated by postmasters under commercial contracts with An Post.  The closure of individual post offices is a contractual matter between An Post and the individual postmaster in question.  Post offices are only closed when An Post has been unsuccessful in recruiting a postmaster to fill a particular vacancy.

It is not proposed to accept amendment No. 6, which relates to the closure of a post box or similar access point.  In respect of a designated universal service provider, section 16(10) of the Bill provides that ComReg may, following a public consultation process, direct such a provider for the purpose of ensuring that the density of access points and the provision of points of contact for users with the universal postal service provider, take account of the reasonable needs of postal service users.  ComReg already has this direction making power under the current regulations and section 16 (10) restates this in primary legislation.

For commercial postal service providers other than the designated universal postal service provider, establishing or removing access points to their networks are purely commercial decisions.

An Cathaoirleach: Does the Minister of State wish to comment further?

Deputy Mary Alexandra White: I have no further comment.

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