Seanad Speech on the Postal Services Bill 2010 – Committee Stage

Sitting Time 14:30

Sitting Date 01/12/2010

^ Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010: Committee Stage ^

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

Sections 1 to 5, inclusive, agreed to.

SECTION 6

Senator Joe O’Reilly: I move amendment No. 1:
In page 9, subsection (1), between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following:
” “distribution centre” means the main hub location where efficient automatic processing of mail takes place in large volumes sufficient for the operation of a national mail collection and delivery network;”.

The objective of this amendment is to ensure we will continue to have a clear definition of what is a distribution centre. The thinking behind the amendment is that we should establish the principle that there should be no distribution of mail below the level of such a centre. In order words, a private operator would not be able to seek to enter the marketplace and operate below the level of a mail centre. There are four automated centres in the country, the establishment of which cost the Exchequer €100 million and in which 2,000 people are employed. These primary hub locations must remain the centres of distribution. The objective of the amendment is to ensure a private operator would not be able to enter the market and cherry-pick below that level. In other words, an operator would not be able to agree a price for the distribution of mail from a smaller centre. To use the Athlone centre as an example, we want to ensure an operator would not be able to distribute mail from the central post office in Moate and have the most expensive part of the work done by postal workers there and in so doing avoid using the distribution centre through which all mail for the area must be processed. That is the reason I want to include the definition of “distribution centre” in the section.
There is an amendment in my name and that of Senator O’Toole to section 28. It seeks to copperfasten the concept embodied in amendment No. 1, namely, that we maintain the distribution centres and ensure that when private operators enter the marketplace, they would not be able to get An Post to make their deliveries at a special price from a location below the level of a distribution centre and thus prejudice the operation of such a centre and ultimately place An Post, the wider public service and the universal service obligation at risk.

EU law requires us to introduce this legislation, but in so doing we must preserve the universal service obligation and the integrity, effectiveness and success of An Post. In other words, we must ensure An Post is fit to deliver a universal service and that business is not taken from it, which would make it impossible for it to continue delivering the service successfully. If private operators are allowed to cherry-pick centres from which it wil be attractive to deliver mail because of high volumes and not to use the central post office system – comprising the four network centres – that will present a problem.
As I said on Second Stage, it is very important to preserve the universal service obligation. If one looks out the window today at the severe weather conditions, one will realise why it is very important there are postal service staff at isolated locations providing a very important social service in calling to people. I gather that on his radio programme on Radio 1 today Pat Kenny received many calls expressing gratitude to An Post for the social service it was providing in these weather conditions. That is worthy of mention. It would be wrong, therefore, if people had to collect mail at central locations. If it was not for the current system, persons in isolated areas could be lying dead for days in their homes without anyone knowing. Everyone has the same constitutional rights.
The amendment seeks to define “distribution centre” as the main hub location where efficient automatic processing of mail takes place in large volumes sufficient for the operation of a national mail collection and delivery network. That is where mail should be processed in the system, whether handled by the universal service provider or private operators. I also recommend the later related amendment to section 28 in my name and that of Senator O’Toole and others. I would recommend the inclusion of this definition in the legislation and ask the Minister to accept it as reasonable as it would provide the necessary reassurance.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): While I thank the Senator for tabling it, I am afraid I do not propose to accept the amendment and will explain why. The term “distribution centre” is only used in section 6 which defines the terms “distribution” and “postal network”. The term “distribution centre” is not defined in the directive and it is not proposed to define it in the Bill as it is unnecessary to do so. No decisions or actions are dependent on its definition. If we were to define “distribution centre”, it could potentially be restrictive, as it is not possible to predict future work arrangements of postal service providers. As the Senator said, we will discuss section 28, under which there is a mechanism, where agreement cannot be reached on how access can be provided by the universal postal service provider, for ComReg to resolve the issue by imposing certain terms and conditions but in so doing to take reasonableness into account. It will be difficult for us to predict how the new postal networks will be configured in the future. If we were too restrictive, therefore, it might tie the hands of An Post or other providers in a way which would not be beneficial. As a consequence, I do not propose to accept the amendment.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: There has been considerable investment in the existing centres – €100 million of State funds and personnel – and that is investment worth protecting. I appeal, therefore, to the Minister to consider this amendment on the basis that we should provide statutory protection for them. Access to the market should not be below the level of existing centre, in other words, a smaller unit. While the position may change, it should not change to such a degree as to weaken the existing centres or make it possible to gain access to the market below that level. I will come back to this issue when we discuss section 28. I again ask the Minister to consider accepting the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: As amendment No. 2 is consequential on amendment No. 3, they may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Government amendment No. 2:
In page 9, subsection (1), line 42, to delete “, subject to subsection (2),”.

Deputy Eamon Ryan: Section 6(2) which provides that the transport alone of postal packets does not constitute a postal service is being deleted, as it is not an explicit requirement of the directive. Furthermore, transport is only one element of postal services and included in the definition of the term “postal services” in the Bill. I hope on that basis amendments Nos. 2 and 3 can be accepted.

Senator Joe O’Toole: The Minister has made a valid point. It is not a service of delivery but of transport. It makes sense to accept the point he make in the two amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Government amendment No. 3:
In page 10, lines 26 to 28, to delete subsection (2).

Amendment agreed to.

Section 6, as amended, agreed to.

Sections 7 to 13, inclusive, agreed to.

SECTION 15

Senator Joe O’Toole: I move amendment No. 5:
In page 16, subsection (2), line 15, after “providers” to insert “, trade unions”.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: I strongly support this amendment. Yesterday I contacted the Bills Office to append my name in its support. Obviously, it goes without saying that trade unions and workers are important stakeholders in An Post and in the delivery of the postal services. We can be very proud of them, something I say in an unpatronising way. Our postal staff at local level and up the line, those with whom we come in daily contact, the postpeople, the men and women who deliver the post throughout the country, are an exemplary group. They do enormous service and act considerably beyond their defined duty, which is to deliver mail. As a representative of a rural constituency in Cavan-Monaghan, I have anecdotal evidence with which I could keep the House all evening, recalling tales of individual workers for An Post who have done jobs way beyond their call of duty. I know they are doing so this evening as they do every day of the week. I wish to say that to them, very unpatronisingly and this amendment gives me the opportunity to put on the record of the House my appreciation of them, as a representative of the community on which they impact so greatly. Their legitimate organised body, their spokespeople and their union should be part of any consultative process. I would like to think, charitably, that this has been a draughting omission of some sort and there was not a conscious decision to omit them. If there has been, that would be horrendous and unacceptable and would contravene every kind of right, whether rights accrued under the Lisbon treaty, constitutional rights or normal negotiation rights which to date are precedent. There are no grounds or criteria that would justify excluding postal workers, postal unions and the organised labour organisations.
Neither are there grounds that would justify excluding consumers, end users or beneficiaries of the service, the people on the ground who receive the postal services. They must be part of a consultative process and have every reason so to be. The people at post office level, postmasters and postmistresses throughout the country, must also be included. All people who have an involvement with the services should be part of a consultative process and should be consulted. I strongly support the amendment and have a real expectation that the Minister will accept it.
End of Take

It is not an issue a democratic assembly should be contemplating dividing on at this stage. It is a matter of simply amending the legislation or of receiving a commitment from the Minister to come back on Report Stage to so do.

Deputy Eamon Ryan

I listened to what Senators had to say. I will give a commitment to return to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to discover if it might be possible to include a wording which recognises that it is important to listen to the employees as well as the users and the companies involved. I will, if possible, try to obtain such a wording from the Parliamentary Counsel but it might not necessarily be that which is contained in the amendment. Subject to a wording being forthcoming, I hope to be able to meet the concerns of Senators on Report Stage.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: On behalf of my party, I wish to acknowledge that the Minister is going back to the drawing board in respect of this matter. I take on board what he said. The approach he has adopted is appreciated because there is no logic in dividing the House in respect of such a central issue.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 15 agreed to.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: The general thrust and purpose of these amendments is – while accepting the diktats of Europe and the requirements of the relevant directive – to preserve the universal service obligation that applies in this country. In other words, our aim is to ensure that, with no exceptions, people’s post will be delivered to them each day regardless of where they live.
End of Take

That is what we are trying to achieve. We are concerned that the subsection with the wording, “or, as the Commission considers appropriate, under such conditions as it may determine from time to time, to appropriate installations”, could be used to the detriment of the universal service to require people in a given area, such as the residents in an isolated rural area, to travel to a central point to get their post. That is unacceptable. That should not be allowed. It would go against the spirit of the universal service obligation and would be against the rights of the people in those areas.
Gradually, as one diminishes a service, the diminution continues. If it becomes all right one year not to deliver to a person because he or she lives at the back of a mountain, the next year it will become all right not to deliver to people who live close by and so on until, eventually and by extension, people go to a central location for their post.
We spoke earlier about the considerable advantage of and social service provided by the postperson coming to the homes of people and going up boreens and meeting people. Sometimes they are a person’s only visitor. This is not merely about letters. It is about a communications network and support system. Senator Coffey stated earlier that any postperson in the country is as knowledgeable about his or her community as many local politicians or social workers, and they provide multiple functions. It is important we preserve that.
My party believes this part of the Bill could be used wrongly. It is worth saying that neither an official in the House nor the Minister decided this morning to thwart the service by providing this in the Bill, but that could be the outcome. As we have drawn the Minister’s attention to it in the interests of improving the legislation, we appeal to him to withdraw it and leave the matter as it is.
The Minister need have no fear that when exceptions arise and when human difficulty arises, these will not be long being identified and acted upon anyway. The reality is that on a given day where there is a large dog somewhere, there are shocking weather conditions or whatever, people will use their discretion. That level of discretion is fair enough but one does not want to give a hostage to fortune. This part of the Bill runs the risk of being a hostage to fortune if it is left as it is. It could allow commercial operators to pretend to provide a universal service but instead asking unfortunate people to go to a central area to collect their post. We do not want that. I think no one in the House would stand over that.
I want to put on the record of the House that I share the distinction with Senator O’Sullivan of being a former part-time postperson. The Minister has another expert.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: Senators on this side of the House are uncomfortable with leaving the wording as it stands. We are concerned that the provision may be used to undermine the principle of a universal service at some point in the future. In order to make a fast buck by providing a cheap service, it may be decided to require people from a dispersed community to get their post from an installation, that is, a post box in a fixed location.
The traditional way of life in country areas has been eroded. Post offices and Garda stations have closed and rural Ireland has been denuded of services. As we become more urbanised and removed from country living, the day may come when a commission considers it appropriate to restrict postal deliveries to a couple of days each week during the winter months or decides that certain geographical terrains do not merit delivery.
In his very competent contribution, Senator O’Toole spoke about force majeure. I assure the Minister that postal workers are braving the elements to deliver letters all over the country today. They would be horrified if they thought we were making legislative provision for them to do otherwise. Discretion will, of course, apply. If a road is physically impassable, a postal worker will not drive up it. If the seas are too rough on a given day to travel to the islands, deliveries will be delayed. A wild dog may prevent the postman from walking up a long bóithrín. Issues of force majeure will arise in practical situations but common sense will apply.
I do not question the Minister’s bona fides but I doubt the wisdom of his answer. I am concerned that the section will be used cynically or for sinister purposes against the principle of the universal service obligation. We do not know what actors will be on the stage in the future or what their agendas may be. The desire for a quick buck could be the dominant motivation for a private operator who wins the franchise. An Post could perhaps come under serious financial constraints and, in order to achieve efficiencies, decide to deliver to a post box rather than to houses in certain locations. The universal service would then be thrown out the window.
The issue of weather is nonsense because common sense will apply. Postal workers try their best to deliver and it is seldom they are not successful in doing so. We should stand in awe at their efforts over the years.
We do not want to be remembered as the Legislature that presided over the end of the universal service or gave gangsters an opportunity to denude the people of a service for financial expediency. God knows, the people of rural Ireland whom I represent have suffered enough cutbacks in terms of closed Garda stations and post offices. We should not consider further cutting rural services. We need a vision and a value system that recognises the people who live up a bóithrín in Killinkere, of which Senator Brady is one of the most distinguished former residents, have the same right to post as the residents of Dublin 4. They have the same right to have it delivered efficaciously and with good humour as if they lived in Dublin 4. If there is a major physical obstacle to delivering the post, the postal worker will clearly use his or her discretion. Common sense has applied in these matters since time immemorial. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider the amendment because I do not accept his response on it.

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