Committee on Finance. - Vote 42: Posts and Telegraphs (Resumed).

Thursday, 18 November 1971

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 256 No. 13

First Page Previous Page Page of 62 Next Page Last Page

Debate resumed on the following motion:

That a sum not exceeding £36,732,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1972, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and of certain other services administered by that Office, and for payment of a grant-in-aid.

Mr. Tully: Information on James Tully  Zoom on James Tully  I have very little else to say about the post office end of the Estimate. As Deputy Power has just illustrated, the shortage of equipment which is the main trouble is chronic. We cannot blame the Minister for this. Apparently it was the practice for a [2573] number of years that if there was a shortage of money in the Government the money which had been given to Posts and Telegraphs was taken back, or they got very little for that year, with the result that the service suffered. Much needed equipment which should have been ordered within the last ten years has not been ordered and we are now getting into a line with other countries looking for equipment which apparently cannot be produced. Is there any good reason why we should not attempt to manufacture some of this equipment here? Surely it is absolutely ludicrous that £7 million, £8 million or £9 million worth of equipment per year is required and we must wait in the queue until some other country finds it convenient to release the equipment we need? We have manufactured more intricate items than those required for the telephone service. The Minister should stress this to his colleagues in Government. There is a demand for this equipment and there will be a continuing demand. If he wants to know where to site such a factory I will be only too glad to tell him.

Mr. G. Collins: Information on Gerard Collins  Zoom on Gerard Collins  West Limerick?

Mr. Tully: Information on James Tully  Zoom on James Tully  Not West Limerick. The Minister referred to pensions and retirement gratuities. We have been talking for years here about auxiliary postmen. The auxiliary postman was the man who did all the work, got very little pay and when he came to retire went out without a pension or gratuity. Recently a pension and gratuity was introduced in the public service and I understand that the Post Office Workers' Union are negotiating with the Minister's Department for a different type of scheme for the postmen concerned. One of the difficulties is the number of hours. When is a man an employee of the post office? I know people who never worked for anybody except the post office. Their standard of existence must not have been very high. How they existed I do not know but they did so and they were indispensable in their areas. It is not easy to get anybody to take this kind of work in rural areas now. If a man who has been doing this type of job gets a [2574] better one, which is not very hard, it is common to find the unfortunate postmistress looking for somebody, even a woman or a schoolboy to carry out the work. The Department should make some arrangement whereby there would be more encouragement to keep these people employed. There is a kind of vacuum between those who will be pensionable in future and those who are about to retire within the next year or so. The Minister should make a special effort to give something decent to those. He does mention retirement gratuities for part-time staff and that there has been a substantial improvement in this. It would need to be a very substantial improvement.

Another difficulty for some of these people is the question of stamping an insurance card. Sometimes when the cost of the insurance card is taken out of the temporary, part-time postman's wages, particularly if he is a student, or a woman who has been doing it for a short period, a person who will never be able to benefit from it, it makes the wages look terribly small. I do not know whether there is any way of dealing with this but the Minister might have a look at it. I had a case about 12 months ago of somebody who was employed by CIE and they were stamping his card. The post office insisted also that he should stamp a card for them when he was doing a part-time job for them and it took a lot of untangling to get it straightened out and to get a refund. After it had caused expense to everybody it was eventually straightened out. There should be a more reasonable approach to the matter. I hope it will be possible to make the life of the rural postman more comfortable in the matter of wages, retirement pension and gratuity and also the matter of uniforms.

The Minister stated that with the national wage agreement coming into operation on 1st January this would mean an increase of £2.4 million. He also stated:

the 4 per cent which will come into effect on 1st January, 1973, will cost a further £1.3 million, and as Deputies are aware the national agreement provides for a further increase [2575] on that date should the cost of living rise in 1972 more than 4 per cent.

The Minister might have to spell that out because for each 1 per cent increase there is a 15p increase. If the Government are allowed to remain in power for 1972 I am afraid the increase will be much more than £1.3 million.

Again, I suggest, as I have done previously, that saving certificates, and particularly the post office savings bank, could be improved if there was a reasonable rate of interest paid. The Minister must accept that the rate is not attractive. I see no reason why the post office must keep the rate down. People are not encouraged to invest their savings in the post office when they can get higher rates of interest elsewhere. I realise there is no element of risk involved, but it is not right that people who have small sums to invest should get a lower rate of interest than those who invest large sums and can shop around for more attractive rates. The Minister has gone into detail on the various saving schemes and I do not propose to continue on this point or to try to improve on what he has said.

Perhaps I have a view on broadcasting which is different from that of many people. I think it is a good idea to dispense with the additional licence that was charged. The actual cost of providing it was greater than the amount of money collected. People who have a car radio and who were paying television or radio licences in addition felt aggrieved that they had to pay this extra licence and the fact is that many people did not bother to pay if they could get away with it. The number of people who do not pay their television or radio licence fees appals me. Quite frequently people brag that they have never had a television licence. They are not the poor people and usually could afford to pay for these licences.

The matter of television has been discussed by previous speakers. It can be approached in many different ways; it depends on where one comes from, and the stratum of society to which one belongs. Having looked at some of the programmes, particularly political [2576] programmes, on RTE, I sympathise with those people who can get only one channel. I live in an area in which four channels are available and if we wish we can have a fifth or sixth channel. Nevertheless, it is amazing that notwithstanding this selection, my family spend a considerable time viewing RTE. This is an answer to those who say the standard set by RTE is not high enough. I think Telefís Éireann do excellent work in many fields. They fall down occasionally, but so do the other statations. When viewing some of the material on television one is tempted to ask what is the purpose of screening these programmes. I suppose there are people who would take an interest in practically anything; there must be a market for this material because otherwise it would not be shown.

With regard to the standards set by RTE, I consider we are entitled to criticise here if we think this is necessary but, at the same time, there is no point in engaging people to run the service if we do not allow them to get on with their jobs. Everyone thinks he is an expert and this is a trap we all fall into. We think we could do the job better but I wonder if this is so.

Whether an effort has been made to muzzle RTE, or whether they should be muzzled, is a question I should not like to answer. From time to time I have seen people on Telefís Éireann and on other stations and I wonder what was the purpose of allowing them on. Those who presented the programmes were entitled to put them on and we must not forget this point. The same thing applies to the matter of news. What I consider news might not be what the Minister considers to be news. I may be riled if I see what I consider to be a slanted picture on UTV or BBC, but I am the last person to consider I am entitled to criticise how they put across the news. Similarly, it has been suggested that RTE are slanting the news. My answer is that these things should not happen because if they did not happen they could not be filmed. However, if they are filmed the public are entitled to see them.

[2577] I do not see much television, but I try to see the late news on more than one station and the similarity between the pictures shown is remarkable. Occasionally when some news item is flashed on—perhaps of an event in Derry or Belfast—whoever is manipulating the camera does not switch it quickly enough and when the BBC announcer is heard it rather spoils things. However, I suppose the television authorities must cut their cloth according to their measure and people who are running the television services must take what they can pay for.

There are excellent programmes on the radio. Anyone who drives a lot and who has a car radio tends to be selective about the programmes they listen to. It was mentioned today that an increasing number of people were listening to the radio and I can understand this. Although the visual quality of pictures on television is improving, the quality and variety of programmes that can be picked up on RTE radio and some of the BBC stations are amazing. We can go further afield particularly at night if we want to.

One of the things which keep people from turning on Radio Éireann in the afternoon and night more often is that if you switch on the radio without picking the station and you find that there is some kind of highbrow music being relayed, you can be sure it is Radio Éireann. I think they are overdoing that. I do not know what the market for this type of music is in Ireland. I do not think it is as large as the radio people seem to think it is. We are not all music lovers to the extent that we would prefer to listen to Bach or Beethoven rather than a band playing Irish dance music. We have different tastes. I feel this has been slightly overdone or even more than slightly overdone. This is a fair criticism.

Another thing that irritates me, particularly when I am in company with people who have little or no Irish, is the fact that when there are important items of news—we do not notice it so much at other times—the news comes on in Irish and they are left wondering [2578] what the dickens is happening. I am asked: “What was that about?” Perhaps it is their fault for not being able ot understand, but Radio Éireann in particular should try to understand that about 90 per cent of the people would rather hear a news item, particularly if it is a hot news item, in a language which they can understand. This is one of the mistakes being made by that station.

I have grave doubts about the new Gaeltacht radio station which is being set up. No doubt Irish enthusiasts will pour vials of wrath on my head for saying that but I honestly believe that even Deputy Tunney, who is so often mistaken for me in many ways, will find that the number of people who will make use of a very expensive gadget, which is what it is, will be very small. In view of the fact that everyone in this country understands English, so far as I know, and a very small proportion of the people understand Irish——

Dr. Browne: Information on Noel C. Browne  Zoom on Noel C. Browne  The rights of the minority.

Mr. Tully: Information on James Tully  Zoom on James Tully  So long as you can afford it you can give the minority as many rights as you wish. I believe the setting up of a radio station for the Gaeltacht areas was achieved by a pressure group who have not done badly out of Irish and who would like to give the impression that everybody in the country wants this station. I do not think the demand is so great.

On television and radio sport is very well catered for. An excellent job is being done by the people who look after these programmes. The value that people who have colour television can get from looking at games or races is extraordinary. I do not believe the Government would be entitled to spend the necessary money to provide a colour television service. It would cost far too much. They are providing an experimental service. They are doing very well and the quality is exceptional. It is rather a pity that we cannot afford it. We cannot afford it and we might as well face up to that fact.

With regard to the question of extending a multi-channel service throughout the country it is a shame [2579] that the Government do not allow it. It is disgraceful that they should ask anybody to pay what they are asked to pay for a television licence and then tell them: “You have the licence but we do not approve of your looking at anything except the one station.” There is neither sense nor meaning in that if we could have four or five or six stations for the same fee. The Minister should try to encourage the Government to branch out. After all, if travel broadens the mind surely the opportunity to view what is happening in other lands would be an advantage. I do not want to give a plug to BBC 2 but they put out some wonderful programmes.

Mr. G. Collins: Information on Gerard Collins  Zoom on Gerard Collins  The Deputy is not referring to the programme on Casanova which was on the other night?

Mr. Tully: Information on James Tully  Zoom on James Tully  I work for a living and I do not see those programmes.

Mr. G. Collins: Information on Gerard Collins  Zoom on Gerard Collins  I missed it too.

Mr. Tully: Information on James Tully  Zoom on James Tully  So the Minister knows about it at second hand only. It is a mystery to me why some of the geniuses who invented television have never invented a television aerial which would not spoil the skyline as it is spoiled by the forest of television aerials to be seen in every city and town. I cannot understand why something small, about three inches long, was not substituted for an aerial long ago, and why it has not been possible to get some type of aerial which could without much trouble pick up the signals which apparently are travelling around all the time. I do not think the Government would make it illegal for people to look at these programmes. They have not made it illegal for us to look at them so far.

People have said that children see too much television. While this may be true, it is also true that the children of today who have been reared with television are far more intelligent and up-to-date than the children of the generations who were not reared with television. Many people disagree with that. I see Deputy Mrs. Hogan O'Higgins shaking her head.

[2580]Mrs. Hogan O'Higgins: Information on Brigid Hogan-O'Higgins  Zoom on Brigid Hogan-O'Higgins  They do not read any more.

Mr. Tully: Information on James Tully  Zoom on James Tully  That is the next point I am coming to. I am a member of a library committee and we found that when television first became popular the demand for books decreased. However, within two years we found that the demand for books which were unheard of before this, particularly by children and young adults, was astonishing. There has been a complete reversal and there is more reading of worthwhile books than ever before. That is a complete answer to those who say people do not read if they look at television.

The student riots in America and in Paris which have been screened and have been shown again and again although, in my opinion, they have not got news value, were responsible, in my opinion, for spreading that type of thing around the world and particularly in this country. That is my one criticism about the choice of material. I believe that those who are expert at the television game should decide what should be shown. That is a comment which I think I am entitled to make. I believe it is wrong that that type of thing should get the amount of publicity it got. It did not do anybody any good. In fact, I think it caused a lot of trouble.

I raised quite a number of matters in great detail on this Estimate last year. I have already congratulated the Minister in his absence on the fact that an astonishing number of them were attended to, or a start was made on attending to them. I will not throw bouquets at a Minister of the present Government. I am rather surprised to find that there is even one efficient Minister in the Government. That is all the more reason why I should say that I consider he is doing fairly well.

The Minister mentioned further increased charges. Increased charges are resented by everybody. I would ask the Minister to ensure that if charges are increased at a later date they will not be linked by him, and by those following them, with increases in salaries and wages. Increased salaries and [2581] wages are coming. It is terribly unfair that, in relation to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and no other Department, people should say that the costs of various items had to go up because of increased salaries and wages. Every other Department must give the same increases as those received by people employed by the post office.

Some years ago a start was made on painting the post office vans a bright colour Some people disagreed. I said I thought it was right and I still think it was right. It is all very well to be so Irish that you will not wear anything except green, but I am afraid we overdid it in a way. We have this dirty dark green. Recently someone asked why the “VR” and “GR” were not removed from pillarboxes. If we try to do that we shall probably knock holes in them and the cure will be worse than the disease. But the pillarboxes are painted a very dull green. In the country districts it is very hard to see them when they are buried in green hedges. Having started on a new colour scheme, I suggest to the Minister we would not object too much if he added a little splash of colour to these pillarboxes.

Would he also try to persuade the Department to keep post offices bright? Apart from the staff who have to spend their time in them many members of the public have frequent occasion to use them, particularly old age pensioners and people like that. There are a great many sub-postoffices throughout the country. Would the Minister pay those who run them some allowance to enable them to paint and keep the post offices clean? Some go to the trouble of growing flowers and shrubs outside. When asked why the inside is not painted the answer is that, if they spent all the money they get for a month on paint, without saying anything at all about the cost of labour, they would have nothing left to live on. The Minister should have a look at that particular aspect to see if something could be done to brighten up the scene.

Mr. Briscoe: Information on Ben Briscoe  Zoom on Ben Briscoe  I welcome the Minister's [2582] speech and I congratulate him on the manner in which he has run his Department. I shall start by complimenting the Department on the stamps we are now using. Our stamps have become very colourful, very imaginative and very attractive. They are a credit to those who select the designs. I am sure the Minister can take some of the credit.

I am very pleased with the direct dialling system between Dublin/Belfast and Dublin/London. It is working very well indeed. Telephone operators are, on the whole, very polite and very courteous. If an operator is trying to obtain a number for a caller, very often the operator does not come back to say to the caller: “One moment, please. We are still trying to connect you.” Sometimes the caller gets the impression that he has been forgotten about or cut off. It happens rarely but I just throw out the suggestion. Those who train operators might take note of it. Generally speaking, the standard is very high.

With regard to RTE, sports coverage is of a very high standard. The commentators are excellent and the presentation is of a very high standard. I should like more outside broadcasting units. There are not enough at the moment. This would be a worthwhile investment.

I should like to mention specially one particular programme. It was an interview between Jack White and the writer “John Brennan”. I rang Jack White next day to congratulate him but I was unfortunately not able to reach him. It was a very interesting programme. They spoke about people like Tom Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada, MacDonagh and so on. She knew these people personally. For the first time they became flesh and blood human beings for me. It was a new experience. It was different. They were brought into one's home and one felt one knew them. I hope this programme will be repeated. There is a demand for this kind of programme.

I think the “7 Days” programme is better balanced now. It tended to be, perhaps, too controversial. Generally speaking, Members of this [2583] House do not mind criticism if it is balanced. Many more of the programmes being shown lately are better balanced. This shows a greater sense of responsibility and I certainly welcome it. I know that some people will not agree with me but I think the selection of films shown every Saturday and Sunday is very good. The “Here and Now” radio programme affords listeners an opportunity to meet people from different walks of life and to learn about what they do. I was surprised to learn the other day that a programme which can be put out on television can constitute a public meeting. What constitutes a public meeting to me is when an announcement is made that such-and-such a meeting is to be held on a particular day and that anybody who wants to come is welcome, depending on the availability of seats. If a station is going to hold a public meeting an announcement should be made as to what the public meeting is about and members of the public should be free to attend; there should be no question of the selection of audiences.

I should like to compliment the Minister on the new colour scheme for the post office vans. It makes them look much brighter. I should like to support everything Deputy Tully has said about the increased amount of reading which has resulted from television. I have had this confirmed to me by the chief city librarian in Dublin. Any time there is a programme about some historical figure in Irish history, or otherwise, there is a tremendous increase in the demand for books on that particular subject. Such programmes have aided people's desire to read.

I have no suggestions to make other than to say I hope the director-general of RTE will keep an eye on the question of balance within the station. This is very important and I have no doubt that this will be his policy while he is head.

Mr. Cooney: Information on Patrick Mark Cooney  Zoom on Patrick Mark Cooney  The Minister this year and last year announced with justifiable pride, if the announcement is correct, that the post office are run as [2584] a commercial venture, with commercial criteria and are a profitable undertaking when considered in that light. I find great difficulty in considering them in that light and in applying normal commercial criteria to them because we would have from a normal commercial undertaking at the end of their financial year a profit and loss account, with details of income and expenditure, and a balance sheet. While these financial documents may be available there is nothing like it in the Minister's statement or the very useful notes provided for us and no such detail is contained in the Book of Estimates. It is therefore not possible to examine the Minister's claim to see if the post office are a viable commercial undertaking. If the Minister persists in that claim he might introduce the provision of these things into his Department. Apart from giving information to the House at this time of year they would in themselves be an excellent form of control. It is a basic control for any business to have detailed accounts. I have no doubt there are detailed accounts but it is very difficult to assess the commercial viability or otherwise of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs because of the form in which they are presented.

If the claim is made that this Department are a viable commercial concern it constantly amazes me that the most profitable part of their activities—telephones—is starved of capital. If any industrialist or businessman has a concern operating under several headings and one of them has a built-in profit he will ensure that part of his operation will get all the capital it requires to expand so that he can take the fullest possible advantage of its particular profitability. The telephone system which is consistently profitable is starved of capital. What makes it profitable is use by telephone owners and yet there are 18,500 people waiting to be connected to telephones.

The Minister gave the figure of £9.5 million as being this year's budget on works in connection with the telephone system. This sum is obviously inadequate and the fact that the Government have made available [2585] another £1.25 million is somewhat belated recognition of that, even though I understand only a certain proportion of that money will be available this year because in fact the total additional Estimate sought is only £623,000. If I am mistaken about those figures I should like to be corrected.

The Minister has indicated that the money available this year is being spent mainly on capital works. It is understandable that before the telephones can be provided cables and equipment are necessary. If enough money was provided I see no reason why extra works to give a telephone to everyone who wants one could not be undertaken, particularly when it is guaranteed to show a very handsome return. The return on capital last year in percentage terms was 8.9. Precisely how that percentage is calculated I do not know—it is stated to be on net assets. It is not a bad figure, but it is not a great figure, particularly, as I say, when this service is in growing demand and that it is a monopoly service. Any businessman with a monopoly in a public utility would turn it into a very high profit indeed. The Minister has fallen down in that he has not been able to persuade or to bully his colleagues in Government into making more money available for this profitable part of the operations of his Department.

Again the lack of ordinary accounts makes it difficult to comment on the analysis, provided with the Minister's notes, of each £1 income, but there are two figures in it which I find odd. On the expenditure side, it shows in graph form the breakdown of each pound of expenditure involved in the telephone service and shows that of that £1, 4/-, that is 25 per cent, of the expenditure is set aside for depreciation. It seems at first sight to be a high figure and I would like the Minister to comment on why such a high depreciation figure is arrived at. It seems that with the type of capital equipment used in the post office and again bearing in mind that it is a State body with a monopoly, it is a peculiar depreciation figure. Perhaps there is a very high depreciation in telecommunications equipment [2586] and that with technological advances, it may become obsolete very quickly and that is probably one reason for it, but I suspect, too, that it may be a hidden means of saving Government investment, and that it is not so much depreciation as another way of “milking” the cow of profit-making capital. Would it not be better to show that the system is more profitable within itself than to show it in that way? I note that the total amount allowed for depreciation is £3,764,000 in relation to the total expenditure of £9.5 million. It is a very substantial sum.

The other large part of the expenditure, apart from wages, is on interest which is shown to be 4/3d. in every £1 spent. I worked out this expenditure for 1970-71 at £4,705,000, but yet somewhere in the Minister's statement, I read that the interest payable is 8.5 per cent and I cannot equate that 8.5 per cent with that sum. I do not know on what the 8.5 per cent is calculated. It is not obviously calculated on expenditure and it must be calculated on Government investment.

These are difficulties which I see and which confront me in trying to analyse the financial position of the Department, and particularly the telephone accounts, in connection with this Estimate. It adds point to what I was saying, that if the approach is to be commercial, employ all the commercial documentation, so that we can see the whole operation as any company or industry would present their affairs at the end of their year.

It is very disappointing that there is not, and that there is no sign of, vastly increased investment in the telephones to take advantage of the huge and growing demand. The Minister pointed out that the use of the telephone system is growing rapidly, and Deputy Tully pointed out, as did Deputy Desmond, that as standards of living and sophistication increase, more and more use is being made of telephones. In the more sophisticated and advanced countries, they have reached the stage where local calls can be free because the volume of other use is so high. We are a good bit away from that yet. but nevertheless it is a target we should [2587] be aiming at. We have no possibility of achieving it unless capital investment is vastly increased.

In February this year, I put a suggestion to the Minister by way of Parliamentary Question about the possibility of hiving off the telephone engineering section of the Department so that they could be run as a separate entity on a purely commercial basis, and I understood that the matter was being considered by the public services organisation review group, but that they had recommended against a change of this nature. I do not know if there has been any fresh thinking on the matter, or indeed if hiving them off would improve the position, whether if they were a separate commercial entity, their capital structure would be improved in many ways. If they were a separate body, they would be in a position to go to normal sources of finance for capital they would require, like any State body, such as the ESB, and go on the stock market and borrow abroad. Certainly if they were providing a monopoly service which had been profitable up to now and which in a more streamlined organisation could be assumed to be even more potentially profitable, I do not think there would be any doubt that such a separate commercial entity would get all the capital they would require. What is wrong at the moment is that they are starved for capital because they have to take their place in the queue because of the other calls on the Exchequer. I suggest that the Minister ask this review group to reconsider the position of the telephone section of his Department because unless they are reorganised as a separate commercial entity, they are going to be continually starved of capital and the growth of which they are capable will not take place. This is something which should be considered urgently.

I understood from the Minister's speech last year that professional staff for the telecommunications sections were difficult to recruit, that private industry was proving more attractive and that this was met by the provision of scholarship schemes. I am glad to [2588] see that a number of graduates under these schemes have now joined the Department. It would be important, if there was any hope of extra capital becoming available, that the professional skills to manage it and to apply it and to design the works for spending it would be available. If there was any danger of graduates not coming in sufficient numbers to the Department, I would urge the Minister to expand these scholarship schemes which seem to be the only way to recruit the technical personnel, but, of course, the demands of industry on the pool of graduates are very heavy.

In addition, the rates of pay would have to be made competitive because you get your scholarship graduates who do whatever service they have to do, to pay back the scholarship, and then depart. A constant changing of the professional staff in that highly sophisticated engineering section would not be a good thing and would also inhibit growth. This is a factor that might not be troublesome if the telephone section were to be a separate commercial semi-State body.

The Minister paid tribute to the post office staff and I would like to endorse that tribute. He mentioned also the provision of welfare officers and that these had been of considerable assistance in securing harmonious staff relations. I am glad to hear that such officers have been provided, but it is a pity that they are not more widely spread. At the moment there are six in Dublin and one each in two provincial centres. If one could be in the midlands, he would be able to take in a large area and deal with a big number of staff in an area which is not catered for in this regard. It shows a humane approach on the part of the Minister and the establishment officers to staff problems to have such an officer there for the welfare of the staff. I have no doubt that such consideration will be reciprocated by the staff, and indeed, as the Minister said, this has happened over the past year.

I am glad to see that consultation takes place between the Department and those working within it, and if there is any room for expansion in this regard, I would urge the Minister to [2589] see that such expansion is achieved. The more involvement that there can be by workers, whether they be in the Civil Service or in commercial firms, the more harmonious will be relations generally and the less likelihood will there be of strikes. Also, this involvement leads to greater productivity. I commend the Minister on his efforts in that regard.

Regarding the amount of money that is being made available this year for post office buildings, I suppose the Minister is in the queue to the Exchequer; many of these buildings are very old. In some towns they are being replaced while in other towns they are not being replaced although they are in urgent need of replacement. About two years ago the Department of Posts and Telegraphs purchased a fine premises and site in Longford town. It was accepted that this was for the purpose of providing new headquarters for the Department's operations in that town. However, this building which happens to be in the main street has been allowed to stand unusued since then and Deputies will realise that any building so left becomes derelict and shabby and a derelict building takes from the appearance of a country town. In view of the fact that this town is growing fast and that it has expanded rapidly, particularly during the past couple of years, perhaps the Minister could have this matter of the post office moved to the top of the priority list and that by next year work will have commenced on the building.

The next matter I wish to deal with is that of the operations of the post office savings banks. Potentially, this branch has tremendous possibilities for the whole economy. We are being urged constantly by economists to save and we are told that our savings are two-edged weapons against inflation in that they take purchasing power out of the economy and that they provide capital for Government investment. There is no doubt that this is so. Perhaps it is a section of the Department in which there has not been enough propaganda work. For example, the Minister has told us that the interest rate on the Eighth Issue [2590] of saving certificates amounts to 9¼ per cent to persons who would be paying income tax. At the moment, that is an excellent yield. Granted, the certificates must be held for five years in order to gain this yield but, nevertheless, they are a good investment for anybody who wants security and a good yield for his money. I do not think that very many people are aware that in the post office they can have as good an investment as they will get elsewhere. If they invest in one of the national loans there is a danger that they will be affected by inflation and perhaps that there will be some loss of capital. That danger is obviated by purchasing saving certificates. We are told that the sales of saving certificates for the three and a half months ended September 30, totalled £3.6 million. It is obvious, therefore, that quite a number of people are aware of this particular investment but I wonder if there is a tapering off of sales after new issues are introduced. Perhaps some of these were purchased by way of transfer from other issues but I would like to think they were actually new cash to the post office.

The national instalment savings scheme was very imaginative and was geared to encourage small savings regularly. After its initial impetus, it seems to have fallen off. At least I am assuming it has fallen off because I do not hear very much about it. During the 12 months ended 31st August, we are told that there were 36,000 agreements and that instalments totalling £4 million were received. However, if the figure for saving certificates represents actual sales, in three and a half months £3.6 million was taken in. Perhaps the instalment savings scheme could be pushed. I hesitate to use the word “glamorised” but perhaps this is what could be done in respect of the scheme. Very often the advertising of a branch of a Department of State has not the same impact that private commercial advertising might have. The savings branch might review their advertising policy with a view to giving to their savings schemes a glamour image, if that would be possible with regard to something as mundane as saving money. This particular branch has so much potential [2591] for the economy that gimmicks should be employed without any hesitation so as to boost savings. I have no doubt that a considerable budget is set aside for advertising, both newspaper and television advertising, but it might encourage more saving if that budget could be increased or if the type of advertising were to be changed.

It was unfortunate that difficulties and delays arose in the post office savings bank as a result of the increased business to them because of the prolonged bank strike. There have been complaints about the difficulty of withdrawing money from the post office. That was a pity because if the post office had been geared to cater for the business that would be transferred to them from the commercial banks, many people might have transferred altogether from the commercial banks to the post office. Difficulty in withdrawing money whether it be from the bank, post office or anywhere else is something that inhibits people in saving. I suppose this is one of the reasons why so many people keep money in banks on deposit accounts at ridiculously low rates when they could be earning decent rates with the post office. We can appreciate, of course, that the demands on the post office savings bank as a result of the bank strike were unduly heavy but the bank strike lasted for almost 12 months so there was a falling down in that the post office did not gear themselves for the heavy volume of business that went to them.

In dealing generally with the financial position of his Department, the Minister ended on a rather peculiar note when he said that the question of a further adjustment of post office charges would have to be considered shortly but that he was not in a position to say any more than that at present. Earlier, the Minister gave details of impending wage claims and we have had also the provisional accounts for the year ahead. Therefore, I am surprised that at this stage the Minister is not in a position, while on the Estimate for his Department, to say how he intends dealing with the estimated deficit of £1,500,000. This is a large sum and indicates a serious [2592] trend. He has indicated his projections for the year. If he is to claim that this is a commercial undertaking, the shareholders—these are the people we represent—will be very surprised to hear the chairman of the company say: “we will possibly have to make an adjustment in charges in the near future but we will say no more than that now.” There will be blue murder. The Minister owes it to the House to give some indication of how these financial problems may be tackled. Is he going to surrender to inflation or is there to be some novel thinking, some new form of management control to see if anything can be done about the sectors that are costing more? It is disappointing and it is a serious gap in the Minister's speech. It makes nonsense of his claim that this is a commercial undertaking.

It is difficult to analyse the figures that were given but I noted in the summary of financial details under the heading: “Surplus or Deficit after Charging Interest on Capital” for the year 1969-70, presumably the final account therein, the deficit under the telegraph section is given at £19,000. Yet in the Book of Estimates in Appendix C at page 139 the deficit is given at £180,000. Happily the deficit is £19,000 instead of £180,000 but there is such a huge discrepancy between those two figures that I find it very difficult to understand how when the Book of Estimates was being prepared it was not known to the Department, that this discreapancy would occur. There is a note that there was an improvement in the telegraph position due mainly to changing telex income from receipts to an accrual basis but that could be in German for all it means to me or to anybody else. Surely the knowledge that this dramatic change in terms of charges was contemplated should have been known to the Department? It seems extraordinary that there could be this discrepancy. It is a pleasant surprise but it it a disturbing discrepancy and makes one look at the Book of Estimates with rather a jaundiced eye as to how accurate these things are, or are all these figures just to fill pages?

[2593]Mr. G. Collins: Information on Gerard Collins  Zoom on Gerard Collins  That will be explained to the Deputy very simply in due course.

Mr. Cooney: Information on Patrick Mark Cooney  Zoom on Patrick Mark Cooney  I look forward to that. After a few hours there is very little left to say on this Estimate. The Minister must be the most bored man in Ireland at this moment but it has to be said because repetition can often get an idea across where a single utterance of it might fail. I should like briefly to deal with the broadcasting section although I hesitate to do so. Last year the Minister gave us figures for the cost of VHF radio. I think that service is in operation. It has often struck me as being an extravagance by the Department because the difference in quality is apparent only to a person with a very highly educated musical ear and the numbers of such persons in this country must be comparatively small and the number of receivers to receive that type of service must be comparatively small. I suggest that the cost of providing this service was out of proportion to the numbers availing of it. I would be interested to know how many receivers there are capable of receiving VHF radio. There possibly was not enough investigation before this was set up. It is an extravagance that is unnecessary for this country.

Other Deputies have spoken at length on television broadcasting and what they like and do not like. I suppose it is difficult to resist the opportunity this platform provides. I should like to recommend to Telefís Éireann that when they are purchasing programmes from other stations, as indeed other stations purchase programmes from them, there is nothing reprehensible in it, they should consider buying selected programmes from the BBC series called “Omnibus”. It would be a pleasant change from American domestic comedies about which Deputy Desmond spoke so scathingly and I agree with him.

I should like the Minister to deal with the question of multi-channel systems. He stated that there is no change in the position, that authority cannot be given to the use of special technical means, that is to extend the range of external programmes when [2594] they cannot be taken off the air. Why cannot that authority be given? Is it an international convention or are we bound by treaty not to pirate other people's broadcasts? If that is so, it is unfortunate. If it is a question of the equipment being expensive perhaps the Minister would have a look at it because I think Deputy Tully put the case very well when he indicated that some people, because of an accident of geography, have a wonderful selection while others in the far south and south-west have to depend on one station only. Again, what does “off the air” mean? In Athlone we can get quite good reception from stations other than RTE at certain times and in certain climatic conditions, and sometimes it is fringe. If multi-channel were to be extended to Athlone would the quality of the other channels be as it is now or could it be improved by reason of the multi-channel? If it could then I would recommend that multi-channel be extended to such fringe areas because I think multi-channel has a great commercial future for Telefís Éireann. It might help solve some of their budgeting problems, although one does not have much sympathy for them with their budgeting problems when one sees some of the extravagances they indulge in. One thing that particularly exasperates me is when a sports commentator is sent many thousands of miles to give a comment on a particular sporting event that is already being well commented upon by a person from the station putting out the broadcast. However, that is a niggling, personal complaint.

One rather disturbing matter that came to light during the year was the policy of the television authority in destroying film in that their archives can be very inadequate. It was mentioned that several programmes made on the life and works of the late Seán Ó Riada had been destroyed. As some of his music was on tape it was felt that these television programmes did not need to be kept. We know now because of his lamented and early death that the lack of these programmes is a serious loss in our television archives. Lack of finance to keep adequate archives was the reason for this destruction. Because of the [2595] seriousness of this, the Minister might consider making a special grant-in-aid each year or devise a financial system for the broadcasting authority to enable them to keep original programmes in store for future generations. It would be a pity if programmes of this type were destroyed because of lack of finance when one considers the amount of money spent in buying material that can only be described as nonsense.

The most serious development in broadcasting during the year was the necessity for the Minister to issue a directive to RTE, serious because it was, in effect, State censorship of the broadcasting authority. I accept it as being true when the Minister states that he took this step with great reluctance but it is unfortunate that the circumstances arose in which that notice or direction had to be given. It is a matter of subjective opinion whether it was necessary. I am not dodging the issue but I do not see sufficient television to be able to pass any comment on that point. I read afterwards that it was a form of censorship and that professional journalists should not be censored, that their own sense of integrity in their profession is, in effect, censorship to ensure that what comes forth from their pens or their productions is balanced.

It is a matter for the conscience of individual journalists to ensure that this is so. Certain events have taken place in this country in the last 12 months with a high emotive content and it is possible that individual journalists have allowed their emotional involvement to blur their sense of professional judgment. Obviously, the Minister thought this had happened and perhaps the fact that he did and that he took action may serve to restore the balance. It is a delicate area and one in which politicians must be loath to move. I shall not say any more about this matter but I am glad that the Minister took this action with reluctance and I take it from that it will be a long time before the like will have to be done again.

In conclusion, I should like to repeat what I said at the outset. If this [2596] Department is presented to this House as a commercial undertaking, all that goes with that should be by way of facts and figures. It would be of tremendous assistance to us in the House to have these facts and figures presented in that way because we could make a more accurate analysis. I have no doubt that I have misinterpreted some points and, if so, the Minister will be able to correct me. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and I wish the Department a successful year.

Dr. Browne: Information on Noel C. Browne  Zoom on Noel C. Browne  The Department of Posts and Telegraphs is an odd Department in some ways. Usually, when the Estimate passes through the House, people criticise it mildly and in general praise is given for the successes achieved by the Department. There is an important principle involved in relation to this Department. The principle here is the question of commercial viability in an organisation of this kind, an organisation which has a social content. The analysis Deputy Cooney has gone through in relation to the Estimate has been thorough. We have a responsibility to be inquiring and inquisitive about every penny that is spent by the Department and I hope the Minister will be able to answer the pertinent questions put by Deputy Cooney. I was interested in Deputy Cooney's contribution, and this kind of objective assessment of the cost of running a Department is important. I tend to be concerned about the fact that it provides an important social service and in those circumstances it is difficult to look at it from a profit and loss point of view. It is important that this is done by someone competent to do so and I hope the Minister will be able to answer the questions put to him by Deputy Cooney.

In a matter of this kind it is difficult to attempt to provide in certain circumstances a service that cannot pay for itself. Earlier today Deputy Crowley spoke about the provision of telephone kiosks in rural Ireland. These kiosks cannot pay their way but the people in rural areas have a right to this service. Similarly, the person who lives in a very remote area has the right to [2597] have his letters delivered. All this is self-evident but it means we are faced with the possibility of carrying a loss because of the social content of the service in question. So long as that expenditure is justified to the satisfaction of the people who are capable of assessing these things, we must accept that the social content has a certain primacy and that the community must pay for it. I understand that in the United States many of these services are provided by private enterprise and that they attempt to make them pay their way, but in fact, the telephone and postal services are most inefficient. I do not think we should lose sight of that fact in deciding on the efficiency or otherwise of such services.

I should be glad if the Minister would tell us why he has not considered more seriously the idea of the Post Office giro system. As Deputy Cooney pointed out, the existence of an alternative banking system during the bank strike might have had a most salutary effect on the bankers at that time in coming to a more rapid conclusion to that very inconvenient and economically damaging bank strike, which went on for so long and did so much damage to the economy. Why is it not possible for us to introduce the Post Office giro system? The Minister is aware that it is used in some of the Scandinavian countries. In every town in Ireland there is a post office and the giro service could be competitive with the commercial banks, it could provide fair interest rates and it could provide the Government with a large amount of capital for expenditure on housing and for other social spending. Has the Minister examined the post office giro system and the likelihood or the desirability of introducing it here? If not, why not? What are his objections to the system?

To a limited extent the Minister is responsible for the television service. We know what the limitation is. At the same time, I understand that on this Estimate we are allowed to contribute a point of view on the service. Like Deputy Cooney, I do not see very much television. I think we all know well that most of our comments on [2598] programmes of one kind or another are essentially subjective and for that reason are not particularly valuable. This is a very expert and specialist problem. To comment on individual programmes is not of any great help.

There are a number of general principles in relation to television. In view of the fact that the Minister has set up a broadcasting review committee to consider the whole problem of television in Ireland, it is worth our while to give our own views on the subject. I take the view that, above all others, this service has an extraordinarily complicated function and not simply a social function, which it has as everybody knows. It has a very much broader effect on the wole structure of our society. It would be very interesting if somebody made a comprehensive social study of Ireland before television and Ireland three or four years later, to try to assess the extraordinary changes that have taken place in our political attitudes and our cultural attitudes, in our ethical and social values, and in our whole process of community living.

Remarkable changes must have taken place in rural Ireland because of the very fact that this wonderful scientific evolution has given people the advantage of a television service. With all its defects it has a number of valuable components. Changes have already taken place and I believe that, in order to help the committee that is to advise the Minister upon what his future strategy is to be in relation to television, it would be well worthwhile to have a comprehensive social study carried out to see how dangerous and how valuable, and how potentially dangerous and potentially valuable the television service has been and is likely to be.

Most working politicians know that it has completely revolutionised the whole science of politics. Most of us know that the public meeting is finished as a means of communicating with people, or virtually finished anyway, from the point of view of attempting to talk to any group of people. That is simply no longer of any value in public. Most of us have had the experience of going around [2599] canvassing and finding that there is a good programme on and that we are most unpopular because we are intruding on that television programme. This is something which other groups have found as well. We know that it has made an extraordinary change in the size of cinema audiences. Many cinemas have simply had to close down. The Churches have also found that there have been very great changes in the social pattern both in the urban and the rural areas. They are having their own difficulties in distracting audiences from the attractive convenience of the television set in the corner.

Broadly speaking, the trend has been towards political and social enlightenment because of the fact that the green curtain has been completely shattered by the advent of television. For that reason, questions which could not be discussed and subjects which could not be debated are now being debated and talked about in half a million houses throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. Many of the views now being put forward in all parts of Ireland are not the heavily censored views which were put to the people before the coming of television. They are views, good or bad, right or wrong, prejudiced or unprejudiced, from the North of Ireland, from the BBC and from various independent channels in Great Britain. We have the various canned television programmes from the United States as well as the latest development of the satellite service.

The situation in which our society lived, a rather tightly encompassed, concooned, isolated, inward-looking, somewhat smug and complacent society, with the very self-satisfied conviction that everything we believed and held and everything we stood for was right and that there was very little better anywhere else, has changed and is changing. Many values have changed and are changing fast. We are evolving into a completely new society predominantly because of the influence of television. While this has probably been good in many cases—I am not competent to say whether or not it has been wholly good—I would imagine [2600] that there have been certain great advantages. But there probably have been and could be certain great disadvantages as well.

The last annual report is a very gloomy one in which they talked about the year being the most difficult in the history of RTE. They went on to deal with that problem in a way which I believe is likely to be, to use the new “in” phrase, counter-productive in so far as they appear to have decided to retrench, to reduce the service, to reduce the quality of the service.

I do not understand the rationale of that and I should like to know whether the Minister can explain it to us. It seems to me Telefís Éireann is facing much the same dilemma as Aer Lingus. I refer to the formidable competition from wealthier countries, a competition which is beginning to provide very great problems for our tiny, very efficient little airline. Aer Lingus is quite likely to run into very serious financial trouble. I think there is a reasonable comparison between the problems Aer Lingus is facing and the problems Telefís Éireann is facing. I refer to the multiplicity of alternatives. I doubt if anybody could improve on the Americans in the production of rubbish. Nobody could do that better than the Americans do it. There are alternative programmes from Britain and Northern Ireland and, unless RTE is prepared to reconsider its attitude, it is very likely that the only people who will look at our television programmes will be the producers looking at the monitors in Montrose. There is a distinct possibility of this.

I share Deputy Tully's view on the quality of programmes generally. My experience is somewhat limited because I do not look at television very much. On the whole I do not think Radio Telefís Éireann is any worse than any of the other channels. There are some excellent programmes on all channels. There are also some appalling programmes on all channels. Faced with financial difficulty there is a possibility that the authority may decide to reduce the quality of the programmes and, if they reduce the quality still further, it will simply mean that they will not be looked at any more.

[2601] Telefís Éireann should stop trying to compete with these wealthy countries. They should devise a system different from that of other countries. I know it is easy to say this, but I believe this is the only likelihood they have of any success. They cannot spend money at the same rate as the BBC, ITV or the United States. Even if they wanted to do that the money is just not there. Appalling damage can be done by the wrong kind of television programmes. The general impression one gets—I have not seen many programmes myself—is that American television is completely moronic, devoted to a mixture of advertising and horse opera. Most of the programmes we take from the United States deal with violence of one kind or another, people killing one another, shooting one another, beating one another up. It is extraordinary that we should continue to tolerate the level of violence that is portrayed on our television screens. Telefís Éireann is no worse than the others, but why we should buy this kind of programme puzzles me.

Violence is glorified. We were discussing this recently; we were discussing the cult of violence. Part of that cult is the persistent exhibition of violence on our screens. Generally speaking, it is accepted that the whole process of education is an imitative process of one kind or another. If that is true, and I believe it is true, the child is learning to believe in violence as a solution to problems. For that reason these programmes can only do harm to children. I believe we should get the best brains we have to consider the whole subject and try to protect our society from the ill-consequences of these programmes.

I do not believe in subsidy by advertising. I am shocked to find £3,200,000 paid for advertising on television. This is just another burden the capitalist system imposes on the unfortunate consumer because the cost of television advertising goes into the cost of the end product the consumer buys.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.


Last Updated: 15/09/2010 02:54:56 First Page Previous Page Page of 62 Next Page Last Page