Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: As I was saying when the debate adjourned, I must protest at the introduction of these amendments at this late stage of the Bill. I agree with the substance of the amendments, but I believe that if they were to be in this Bill — I do not think they should be in the Bill at all — then they should have been introduced when the Bill was published. There was plenty of time to do so. Committee Stage was missed and now we get a whole new section of the Bill on Report Stage.
Furthermore, I do not believe that this is a broadcasting Bill. The subject matter should have been the subject of a broadcasting (amendment) Bill. I have not yet heard a good explanation as to what was so complicated with bringing in a very short Bill called the broadcasting Bill and consisting of the sections, a Long Title and a Short Title. Deputy Ferris and I agree that if this were to happen, we would have facilitated the quick passage of that Bill.
As far as it goes, I welcome what we are doing here. However, I cannot agree with the Minister that Michael D. Higgins did all the work in setting up TG4. Mrs. Máire Geoghegan Quinn had done work before him and some of us were involved in the protests over many years. I remember the day I went to see my good friend Ciarán Ó Finneadha in prison. I managed to have the honour of bringing him out of the prison that evening, because he was released from Shelton Abbey for a protest in which he had been involved looking for adequate television coverage. I cannot agree with the Minister’s assertion that before the advent of TG4, RTE fulfilled its obligations in respect of the language. Anybody who tried to bring up Irish speaking children, inside or outside the Gaeltacht, would know that at that time, there were virtually no children’s programmes in Irish. Children can pick up languages with no difficulty, but there were virtually no children’s programmes in the Irish language.
I have often said that the greatest revolution that ever took place in the Irish language was the development of children’s programme on mainstream television. A child of two or three years of age will soak up a second language like a sponge, and will learn two languages as easy as one language, and will never lose those languages if he or she keeps in contact with them. RTE, the national broadcaster, which had a statutory duty towards the language, totally neglected that duty. Many people, like myself, believe that this basic requirement of the legislation was never fulfilled.
I have always been sceptical about general good wishes in Bills that do not provide anything concrete. Fair play to Michael D. Higgins and fair play to the Christmas meeting of the Cabinet that allowed this to be slipped through. That is the type of meeting with 50 items on the agenda that Ministers want to get through without much criticism. Thanks be to God this one got through, because it was one of the best things that did happen, and TG4 has provided a magnificent service.
I welcome the Minister’s statement of intention that he will look at the broadcasting issue. I do not find TG4 programmes hugely inferior to RTE 1 programmes. I asked a parliamentary question about the cost of an hour of home produced television on RTE and the cost of an hour of home produced television on TG4, which should be more expensive because it is in the minority language. I never got the answer, although I was promised that it would be supplied. My suspicion is that it is much cheaper on TG4. If it is cheaper and if we are giving out the public’s money through the licence and through the Exchequer, then why is it so expensive on RTE? I cannot see the qualitative difference. A football or hurling match, the Tour de France or Wimbledon is as good on TG4 as it is on RTE. Over the years when making programmes, RTE have made a huge mystery and have had a huge staff.
I listen to “Adhmhaidin” in the morning on Raidió na Gaeltachta. Sometimes I listen to “Morning Ireland”. Raidió na Gaeltachta manages to cover the local, the national and the international and it often gets a side of the international stories that one would not get from the standard, bland stuff on RTE. I look at the staff that produce “Adhmhaidin” or similar programmes on other radio stations and then I look at the staff that it takes to produce the RTE programme, which I admit goes on a bit longer in the morning. However, when I compare the costs of the staff, it is amazing that the listeners do not seem to notice the difference because on a proportional level, allowing for the number of Irish speakers in the country, Raidió na Gaeltachta has been doing as well. It is a well known fact that the mid-morning programmes on the local radio stations compare well in their own regions for market share with RTE programmes. If we look at the resources put into the programmes by RTE, we must wonder if the whole system the Minister is tinkering with today completely flawed. I must say that I think it is.
The Minister said that there is financial pressure on RTE. I am not surprised. He mentioned the BBC. Britain has a population of 60 million, whereas we have a population on this island of 6 million people, so obviously things have to be done to scale. If we did an absolute analysis on the money spent on public broadcasting, I am not sure that we are getting value for money.
RTE phone-in programmes will have different studios, special lines and so on. Every other radio station in the country just gets its listeners on the telephone. The people seem to understand that. We should be critical and open and look for explanations. Just because RTE has moved from an outrageous position of paying outrageous money to people, with historically outrageous staffing levels, to a somewhat slimmed down version does not mean that the organisation has got to where it should be and to where the competition is. I am talking here about public service competition in the broadest sense of the term.
I will not oppose these amendments tonight because they represent a step; céim bheag sa treo cheart. However, it is only a small step in the right direction. We need a root and branch reorganisation of how we fund public service broadcasting and how we measure the value we are getting for public service broadcasting. We must also remember that public service broadcasting is for everybody in this country and does not reflect the views of a small, cosy set that seems to consist perennially of the commentators on what is right and wrong in this society. Unfortunately, the social spread leaves much to be desired. How often do we hear a person, perhaps a community worker from the Minister’s area of Tallaght, or a person from a more remote area geographically being asked for their views on the great issues of the day? From listening to many of the programmes, it seems all we get all the time are the same small, close circle who would be communing with each other here. The big fad in the past five years has been the trend whereby politicians have been pushed aside and replaced by media commentators on news programmes that we see on our television screens. Every second person who writes articles in our newspapers is on some radio or television programme giving us his or her news on that medium as well and no doubt he or she gets the appropriate fee for doing so. There are huge issues to be dealt with in broadcasting.
I accept these amendments in as far as they go but if the Minister thinks that is a full endorsement of them, it is not. This is literally a stop-gap measure and we will expect him to come back here with root and branch proposals for the broadcasting sector that will deal with issues of major public concern regarding how broadcasting is funded, how the money is distributed and whether our public service broadcasting is a mirror reflective of the totality of Irish society or of only one section of it.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I will not oppose the amendments. There is need to have funding available for TG4, the work it does and what it represents, which is, even though I am not a fluent Irish speaker, something that is very Irish and national.
Regarding the broadcasting sector, I concur with a great deal of what Deputy Ó Cuív said, particularly regarding what is broadcast to us on a daily basis. It appears the media sector at that level is ideologically driven in that in terms of the wider capacity what comes across from RTE, and I am not questioning anything about the people involved in it, is much different from the life experience of the majority of people on the ground. TG4 is very reflective of the constituency it represents, the Gaelic cultural side of our county and of life from those on the ground.
It is necessary to examine the whole set-up in the sector and I hope the Minister will do that. When the vast majority of decent, hard-working people look at television programmes, they find that their content is far removed from the lives they live and their experience of life on a daily basis. A forum must be created within the sector to allow ordinary people to have voice in this respect. Economists, media commentators and some politicians appear on current affairs programmes but what really matters is the voice of people on the ground. They live life as it is every day. They experience the highs and lows of life and are struggling in the current economic situation. Many people, low income families, have always struggled. There is a need to have some programmes that represent their views. The nearest a programme comes to doing that is Joe Duffy’s “Liveline” radio programme to which people can phone in and articulate their views. That process brings issues to the forefront. There does not appear to be any television programme that provides such an outlet for people.
Deputy Joan Collins: Like the other speakers, I am not opposed to the amendments providing for the allocation of moneys to TG4. Perhaps the Minister would take on board a matter that has been raised with me. People in my community have expressed their anger at the wages many RTE presenters earn and they have raised the possibility of boycotting the payment of their television licence fee on that basis. That is a strongly held view of many people, particularly in these stringent times when many people are taking cuts. That issue should be examined.
On many news programmes, the views presented are only those of economists and other professionals. These people have huge earnings and their views reflect their lifestyles. They talk down to people and challenge the politics and ideas of people like ourselves on the left and other small groups yet these commentators are the people who earn a huge amount of money. In many ways they protect their status by challenging people like ourselves. There is a mood among the people in regard to RTE. I believe there should be a television licence and a free-to-air television station.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Pat Rabbitte) (Deputy Pat Rabbitte): I thank the Deputies for their support for these amendments. There is no other purpose in terms of the explanation Deputy Ó Cuív seeks about why this provision is included in a communications Bill. It is a communications Bill——
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: ——and the only reason for adding this amendment is to ensure that TG4 does not run out of money. If, once the committees had been set up, I had had to introduce stand-alone primary legislation and compete with my colleagues for time on the floor of the House, I would not have been able to enact this in time for the July deadline. At the end of July, TG4 will run out of money. We are now in the final week of the sitting of this House before the summer recess and I will be dealing with the Bill in the Seanad next week. I am sure Deputy Ó Cuív would not want to have situation where TG4——-
I do not disagree with Deputy Ó Cuív. I am not claiming that this is anything, as he put it, but a céim bheag i dtreo ceart. I am not disputing that this is but a small step but it is an important one. On the question raised by the Deputy about the comparison between what it takes to make an hour of current affairs broadcasting, any kind of broadcasting or sports broadcasting in TG4 as compared to RTE——
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: ——I do not know the answer to that but now that the Deputy has raised it, I will examine it. I imagine that it comprises many factors. TG4 has its own culture, its own way of doing things and its own way of managing and staying within its budget. As the Deputy will know from what I have said, I do not believe its work is in any way inferior. On the contrary, I believe there is some very innovative programming on TG4. The Deputy might have been more generous about his constituency colleague, former Deputy Michael D. Higgins. I acknowledge the campaigning and agitating undertaken by Deputy Ó Cuív and Máire Geoghegan Quinn for TG4 but it was Michael D. Higgins who established the station when he was Minister in the Government in which the Ceann Comhairle and I also served. The vision has been delivered on since. Deputies Ferris and Collins have acknowledged that TG4 does a good job.
Deputy Ó Cuív has stated parents of Irish speaking children are not facilitated by RTE. My children speak Irish as well as they speak English and I wonder about the deficiency in RTE in the sense that there are deficiencies in children’s programming in this regard. TG4 has embarked on what is undoubtedly a valuable exercise and I would like it to be imitated by RTE. It is a fact of life that TG4 seeks to reflect the culture of its audience’s community.
Deputy Ó Cuív’s contribution belied an underlying resentment of RTE which I am not minded to share. The comparison he made with the position on the neighbouring island works both ways in terms of economies of scale. A country with 60 million people is able to contribute a level of resources for public service broadcasting that is simply not possible on this island. That has to be accepted. RTE has specific public service broadcasting objectives which are laid down by law. It is unlikely we would be to be able to enjoy Raidió na Gaeltachta, RTE lyric fm and the RTE Concert Orchestra were they not supported by public service goals. The Deputy will be aware that the 2009 Act charges the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the task of reviewing how both stations meet their public service objectives, as well as the adequacy of funding. I understand the authority has completed one report, while a second is in progress and will be presented to me before the end of the year.
It would not greatly advance the narrow purpose of passing this legislation to follow Deputy Ó Cuív down every boreen in terms of broadcasting policy. He raised interesting points and I am more than willing to see what can be done to improve the position. He believes too many panellists in RTE are drawn from the same stables and says they spend their mornings writing columns and the rest of the day regurgitating them on radio and television. He may have a point on the proliferation of panellists who do not appear to have anything more original to offer than a regurgitation of what is written in the morning’s newspapers. I presume, however, that RTE will argue it does what it can within its budget.
As the Minister did not accept this amendment on Committee Stage, I am tabling it again on Report Stage to ensure post will be delivered to recipients rather than taken from a centre and dropped off in post offices. I am concerned that An Post and other postal services maycherrypick the easy options. I propose to close this loophole by inserting amendment No. 4.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: On amendment No. 28, I welcome the addition of the phrase “the capital investment in the postal network made by the universal postal service provider concerned”. This shows that the Minister at least took this much from the debate on Committee Stage. However, I share Deputy Ferris’s concern that the Bill will lead us down the short road to cherrypicking and diminished services in the long term. This small state cannot maintain a variety of postal services on a uniform basis and the inevitable outcome of the Bill will be the destruction of the service we know. It is under enough pressure owing to falling means without the additional burden the Bill represents. For whatever reason, the European Union believes the competition agenda offers the solution to all problems, even though unbridled cross-border competition in the banking system became the source of the current chaos by allowing money to flow in an unregulated manner.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: The Bill requires that access to a universal service provider network should be agreed in the first instance on a commercial basis. I stated on Committee Stage that I did not believe legislation which restricted legitimate commercial activity would best serve the needs of postal users, the economy or An Post. Especially in the context of a contracting market and the need for flexibility in meeting challenges, I do not propose to accept the Opposition amendments. However, I did accept that Deputy Ferris had raised legitimate concerns on Committee Stage regarding access and undertook to explore with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel the possibility of drafting an amendment that would add to the list of issues mentioned in section 33(8) that ComReg had to consider in settling disputes around access. I now propose an amendment to section 33(8) to the effect that it must also consider the capital investment made by a universal service provider in arriving at any decision in resolving disputes around access.
The effect of this provision is that it will be an explicit requirement that the capital investment made by a universal service provider must be factored into ComReg’s considerations when resolving a dispute relating to downstream access. A number of Deputies have raised that with me across all sides of the House and as Deputy Ó Cuív admitted earlier, this goes some way to addressing the concerns of colleagues.
There is much concern throughout rural Ireland, particularly among those of us who live there, about the potential downgrade of An Post. There is a dependency on An Post in rural Ireland, not just as the service providing delivery of letters but as a social contact. Many areas from the tip of Donegal right around the coast have elderly people and there is no public transport or real connection with the outside world for them in particular. They are very dependent on the local postman for groceries and other connections in daily life.
That is the reason I want to see An Post retained as the only provider of the collection and delivery of letters. An Post has served us well and given fantastic service through the years. To tinker with it now and put it into competition with other providers will effectively lead to other companies cherrypicking more lucrative routes. Less profitable routes will be left to An Post, which will be strapped for cash, leaving a reduced and watered down service. I hope the Minister will take this on board and retain An Post as the main provider.
My amendment, which I have no doubt the Minister will accept is fully in line with what was promised, gives exactly what was promised in the document, no more and no less. I have gone to the minimum of what is in the document, which states “at least 20 years” and my amendment stipulates “20 years”. I ask the Minister, in the interests of credibility in politics, to reflect deeply on the amendment before him. I hope that when we get to section 17 and amendments Nos. 13 and 14, the Minister will accept those as being in line with the programme for Government. I am not asking the Minister to act in a way other than that which he promised a short few months ago as a member of the Government and of the team which accepted the Statement of Common Purpose to be implemented.
My heart lies with Deputy Ferris’s amendment and I regret that European law requires us to introduce this Bill, whether it is good, bad or indifferent. I have no doubt that the Minister will probably argue that Deputy Ferris’s amendment is out of order because the sector would not be opened to competition as a result, which we have been bound to do since 1 January 2011. The Government has probably researched the area well before writing the programme for Government, and it knows the service could be assigned to An Post for 20 years.
My mind boggles at the logic of arguing that in a market which is under pressure and which faces declining volumes because of electronic mail, it would make the service better to create more players. For those who believe competition is the spice of life, we have seen that in a contracting market there is normally fewer rather than more players getting into that market. The logic dictating that the answer to this declining market is to create more players fighting for what will inevitably will be less post — and that this will provide a better and more economic universal service — blows my mind.
We all know what will really happen. There will be competition in Dublin 2 or Dublin 4, the business parts of town, as virtually all mail is generated by businesses. Even in west Dublin, where there are not so many businesses, will the housing estates enjoy the same service in ten or 15 years that they have today? There are people who are very dependent on An Post as a way of getting a parcel. We have liberalised that element of the service but in the far removes of the country people are still dependent on An Post to get parcel mail because it is the only available service. In the more rural parts of the country, in the midlands, south, north or west, despite all the fine talk in Europe about universal services, we will inevitably see an accelerated destruction of the five-day delivery week for every house.
If these amendments are not accepted and these safeguards are not provided for, in a few years the private companies will take the most lucrative parts of this service. The universal service provider — An Post, which is the only company with the infrastructure to get into the far reaches of this country — will be left with the less lucrative parts. Some Minister will then try to implement the part of the Bill that provides for money to be charged to the profitable companies to ensure a universal service is provided.
Community interest dictated that the same thing be done in the case of the VHI in order to maintain universal health insurance coverage. In this case, just as in that case, the private companies will bring us down to the Four Courts, at the very least. The private operators will find then some means of holding this up for years. An Post will then demand money from the Exchequer. That is another promise that was made in the document I mentioned but is not included in this Bill. We will be told that it is not legally possible and that we do not have the money. Something will have to give at that stage. I suggest it will be the quality of the service.
The last time we discussed this legislation — we are at the heart of it tonight — I suggested some changes should be made. I was told this Bill was for the long term and I was reminded that circumstances change. I take it that it has been decided, again contrary to the programme for Government, that no provision for State subvention will be made. The programme for Government included a commitment to make such a provision. If the Government was concerned about the long term in this instance — we have been told everything else in the Bill is for the long term — State subvention would be provided for in it.
I will press my amendments on the basis that the Government has reneged on a promise it made a few months ago. It could easily have introduced an amendment in order to keep that promise. If the amendment to provide for a 20-year universal service is not accepted, we will vote against this Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 at its conclusion. I know the Minister has the numbers to carry such a vote. There is no question about that. He could probably carry it with half the Government’s numbers. That makes no difference. It is important to give every Deputy on the Government side an opportunity to state whether he or she will honour the commitments outlined in the document I mentioned. The commitments in question have no connection with money or anything else. Can we take it that the document in question is now dead and that the promises in it were not worth the paper they were written on?
Deputy Joan Collins: As I said earlier, I am a member of the Communications Workers Union, which opposes the liberalisation of the postal market and, in particular, the third postal directive. I am sure the point that one shoe size does not fit all has been made to the Minister on many occasions in recent months. He may have made a similar argument when he was on this side of the fence not so long ago. This EU regulation might suit bigger countries like Germany and France, but it does not fit the needs of the economy of a small state like Ireland, where 40% of the people live in rural communities.
It has already been mentioned tonight that many postal workers were encouraged by their union to vote for the Labour Party in order to protect their jobs, conditions and pay. We know what the outcome has been for many workers in Eircom and what some workers in Bord Gáis Éireann and the ESB are facing. While these jobs might not always have been well paid, at least the companies in question were strong. Postmen and postwomen are not well paid, but at least they have a job with a pension at the end of it. The Celtic tiger passed the average postal worker by. People in other industries were well paid but the pay increases of postal workers were limited by the partnership system. They did not even get some of the pay increases due to them in more recent years. Post office workers will be disappointed when they see how the Labour Party is pushing this measure through.
I will support amendment No. 5, in the name of Deputy Ferris. If that is not carried, I will support the amendment that seeks to extend to 20 years An Post’s period as a European postal service provider. I will leave it at that. I just wanted to make those points.
Deputy Sean Fleming: The Minister will understand where I am coming from on these amendments. I have spoken trenchantly on certain aspects of this legislation. I am pleased that the Minister has decided to make some improvements to the Bill that was published when we were in government. All legislation that goes through the Dáil is changed significantly between its publication and its finalisation. Substantial changes would have been necessary even if there had not been a change of Government. That is why we are proposing the amendments in Deputy Ó Cuív’s name. We must reiterate where we stand on this issue. This is about An Post, but it is also about integrity and honesty. Can people believe what we say?
The Minister will be aware that I represent the Portlaoise area. I think he visited the mail centre in Portlaoise recently. He will appreciate that it is an efficient organisation. Its costs have been cut to the bare minimum. It is based in a high-tech building. Those who sort the mail will probably arrive for the night shift shortly. They will work through the night so that everyone gets their mail tomorrow morning.
I would like to remind the House of what the programme for Government says about the issue that this group of amendments attempts to address. The Fianna Fáil amendments were drafted to give full support and co-operation to what the Government parties signed up to a few months ago in the programme, which states:
That is what Fine Gael and the Labour Party agreed to do when they signed the programme for Government earlier this year. If the financial world had fallen in, I could understand it if the Minister came in to say “we are broke, we cannot afford to do it any more”. The Government cannot argue that these matters are outside its control. These specific matters are within the control of the Government. An extension in the relevant period from seven to 12 years was provided for on Committee Stage. It was rolled back to a certain extent when it was decided that the regulator would review it after seven years. There is room for the Minister and the Government to reconsider that aspect of the matter through the regulator.
The commitment that was made was not even an election promise. The Taoiseach said recently that election promises are not personal commitments. We all know that election promises are not legally binding. That was found to be the case by Mr. Justice Denning in Britain years ago. A manifesto is a general offer, rather than a legally binding contract to each voter. The Government made commitments after the general election when there was no need to do so. It was not out there hunting for votes. There was no prospect of it gaining extra seats when it knew in its heart of hearts that some accident and emergency units could not be kept open. It made promises to get extra seats.
Some Government backbenchers have been asking senior Ministers why they made all the promises which are now causing such difficulty. I understand some of them have been told by their parliamentary colleagues that if the parties in question had not made the false promises, they might not have won so many seats. That is from where the Fine Gael Party is coming. However, that was during the heat of an election. We make no excuse for that, but I am merely pointing it out.
After all of that, when the Government has more than 100 seats, in the cool light of day when it sits down behind closed doors, is not facing the public for years to come and has the biggest Government majority, nobody forced it to sign this. The Government signed it in negotiations behind closed doors and then came out and published it. They stated they would have their review within 100 days. I do not understand why they went so far as to make this commitment only a few short weeks ago and within weeks utterly renege on it here in legislation. No good reason has been given for that.
I support the amendments and the thrust of what has been stated here. Everyone knows An Post provides an efficient service. All of these European competition issues are necessary but Ireland is a more rural country than most other European countries. We are not Birmingham or London where there is a population of 4 million and 12 million, respectively, within a couple of hundred square miles. Our population is well dispersed. People will see that density of population will become a more difficult issue, and we will deal with the downstream access into the postal system and the man in the van stating he is an operator when we come to those particular amendments. In general, I fully support my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, in putting down the amendment to extend the designation period for An Post to 20 years in line with the programme for Government. I look forward to the Government agreeing to accept the amendment which is in line with the programme for Government and approving this.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: There was quite a substantial debate on this at Committee Stage. As we discussed then, I moved an amendment to extend the designation period for An Post from seven years to 12 years with the Minister now having a consenting role in a decision made by ComReg in the designation process.
I cannot accept Deputy Ó Cuív’s proposal to extend further the 12 year period to 20 years and Deputy Martin Ferris’s proposal to designate An Post permanently with a monopoly on letter post. As I stated previously, a reliance on legal protections that shield An Post from competition will not ensure it is in a position to face the various challenges that lie ahead, and providing for the continuation of its legal monopoly is expressly prohibited by the directive.
The challenges facing the company include not only the opening of the market, but the much more significant one of electronic substitution and also the ongoing effects of the recession. In light of these significant changes that the sector is rapidly experiencing, it would be inappropriate to designate, that is, to impose obligations on, An Post for any longer period. As Deputy Harrington, who contributed at Committee Stage and who has first-hand experience of the postal system, correctly pointed out on the last occasion, a period beyond 12 years could be onerous on An Post. However, the Bill provides that ComReg may designate a universal postal service provider after an initial 12 years and An Post could, if ComReg so decides, be designated beyond that period.
It seems, in terms of the opinions expressed by the Deputies on the other side, they do not really accept competition. They do not really accept that the State is compelled by the European directive to open the market. As a result, arguments are made such as those we heard from Deputies Fleming and Ó Cuív. Deputy Martin Ferris wants it left as is permanently. Whether one agrees with that, it is not a choice that we have given the European directive. That is simply a fact of the matter.
It is a fact of the matter that is accepted by the Communications Workers’ Union as well. I took care to meet the union, formally and informally. I have gone out of my way in the Bill to address key points that it raised, for example, the extension of the universal service obligation, the fact that, legally, it is maintained into the future. I dealt with the downstream access in so far as I require ComReg to take into account the investment to which Deputy Fleming referred in the case of Portlaoise. It has just been accepted in the previous amendment that that is a substantial change in terms of a concern that the union had on behalf of its members.
When I inherited the Bill, it provided for seven years of designation with the universal service obligation. It is now 12 years and ComReg at the end of that period can, if it so deems, continue it for as long as appropriate thereafter. Contrary to allegations of departing from the programme for Government, we did well to negotiate this being accepted elsewhere. The fact that it is now 12 years is a generation in the context of the changes we have seen in An Post.
Some Deputies think that designation confers a monopoly. That is not the case. We have retained the universal service obligation here, which means that if the horrors that Deputy Ó Cuív envisages happen there is a provision for sharing in terms of the other competitors in the marketplace.
I do not argue with Deputy Martin Ferris in seeking to explain the social role of An Post. I accept that. I understand well that there is a social role. I even understand it, I think, better than Deputy Ó Cuív given that I was born there and he was born in Dublin 4. I understand it, but at the end of the day I must say it is not the role of the postman to buy the groceries. It is good that in the community the postman services the role he does, but in all fairness to those who are employed in An Post we cannot ask a commercial State company to run itself into the ground when it is competing with unprecedented developments in recent years. It is not this Bill and the opening of the market that is the threat of further decline in An Post, rather it is the question of electronic substitution and the recession.
The decline that An Post is experiencing is not due to lack of investment, as Deputy Fleming correctly stated. I did visit the Portlaoise centre and I agree it is a model of its kind. An Post management is to be commended for the investment it has made in the mail centres, and the workers for the job that they do. I saw it at first hand. That is not the issue.
The issue is that volume of mail is down dramatically. I stated half-jokingly somewhere that the only ones who write letters anymore are TDs. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but the volume is down significantly. Electronic substitution is the norm today and the post office organisation must cope with that situation.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: He either accepts that the directive requires me to do that on behalf of the Government of this member state or he does not. If he accepts that I am required to do it, then I have done it in the most considered way feasible.
Deputy Martin Ferris: If my recollection is correct, during the debate on Committee Stage the Minister stated that after seven years he would have the power to extend the timescale to 12 years provided ComReg held a different view. I made the argument then and I make it again now that this is dependent on the ideological view of whoever the Minister happens to be. I recall the views of a former Minister when the current Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, sat on this side in the Opposition benches with Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Technical Group. At the time, there was a most right-wing Minister with no concept or understanding of social ownership or the role such a social connection has with the people. My great fear is that the proposal is dependent on the Minister of the day, irrespective of who he or she is.
The Minister remarked that the decrease in the volume of mail was one of the reasons for the opening up of the service. I believe this strengthens the argument. If the volume of mail is down, it is inevitable that whatever service or company is operating other than An Post will cherry-pick the most lucrative areas for its programme. As a result, on the social side there will be considerable detrimental effects.
The Minister also stated that the EU directive is compelling. Is the same European directive applicable to Holland? I am open to correction but my understanding is that Holland has a derogation. If this is the case, it will continue to have a universal provider under the auspices of the State.
The Minister also made the point, perhaps in a jovial way, that the postman is not obliged to deliver groceries. Where I come from, we are a community and any service in place has to it a social connection. In his day, the Minister would have been very strong in his views in this regard. It is not simply about showing vast profits at the end of the day. It is about providing a social connection with people who are less well off, more in need, incapacitated, isolated or whatever. If the postal service can help people in such situations it is providing a great service. It may not be rewarded but it is rewarding for its recipients. There is a great deal more to it than simply applying a directive and then manipulating it away from a programme for Government, in which the Minister’s party and Fine Gael agreed on a timescale of 20 years. If there was a commitment to 20 years it would greatly strengthen my argument.
Deputy Joe O’Reilly: I had the privilege of speaking to this legislation on Second Stage in the Seanad and Dáil. I do not propose to repeat the Second Stage arguments except to say that I am a firm admirer and I have a firm realisation of the wonderful, socially constructive role An Post has played in our society throughout the years. I am acutely aware of the universal service An Post has provided, what this has meant to people in isolated places and the role of individual personnel in An Post in reaching out to people in difficult situations, often serving as their only human contact. I made these points on Second Stage and I do not propose to regurgitate them unnecessarily save to state that they merit re-emphasis.
On Second Stage in the Seanad and Dáil I made the point that An Post should have the opportunity to be the universal service provider for the longest possible time and that the time proposed in the original legislation should be extended. I continue to firmly hold this view. The Minister is providing for the reasonable proposition to extend the period to 12 years. Initially, the period is seven years and there is a prerogative to extend it to 12 years. After 12 years, ComReg can make further changes if it sees fit and if several of the prevailing conditions that apply now, including the increase in electronic mail, the new emphasis and the new forces bearing in on An Post, continue.
It is a likely proposition that after 12 years ComReg will deem it necessary to extend the period. That is a reasonable proposition. In purist terms allowing for 12 years and for the possibility of even more may fall short of the 20 year period but effectively it is reaching a long spell and is well in excess of the original proposal of seven years. That is a reasonable proposition.
The debate is worthwhile and the arguments made on the Opposition benches which extol the virtue of the services provided by An Post are valid. They are also valid because they lauded the work of individual An Post people throughout the county and the social service provided by them. They also highlighted the right of people in isolated places to the same postal service as anyone in a built-up area in the middle of our cities and that argument is altogether valid. However, where the Opposition become disingenuous, unreasonable and begin to engage in a ridiculous form of debate is to state that to allow An Post 12 years to provide the universal service is less than reasonable. It is perfectly reasonable to hold that the possibility of extending the period still exists. The Minister has come on a great journey to improve the original legislation and it is right that he has so done because we should put nothing before the provision of the universal service. No one is in a better position to provide it than An Post.
The Minister is correct to identify electronic media and the new acceptance of same coupled with the recession as great and significant challenges to An Post. The Minister is also correct to establish that we have a legal obligation to accept the EU directive. These things have a relevance to what we are doing today. Given the legal obligation to impose the directive and the external threat to the work of An Post, the 12 year timescale for An Post to be the universal provider is reasonable, as is the potential for the extension of this period. It is a reasonable recognition of the role of An Post and of the difficulties under which it labours.
This is a worthwhile debate and we cannot over-estimate the importance of the service to so many people in the country. We should never fail to recognise the absolute right of everyone in the country to receive mail on the same basis as people in a different part of the country, no matter where one lives and regardless of one’s personal circumstances.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: No. If the Deputy says it is unreasonable to push 20 years, what he is saying is that the programme for Government is unreasonable. The programme for Government is explicit in referring to “at least” 20 years — it does not refer to “up to” 20 years but to “at least” 20 years. I am going to the minimum——
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I apologise to the Chair. I could not be sure my ears were hearing properly what was coming from the Government benches. We have had a very clear admission from a Deputy that, in his view, the programme for Government is unreasonable. I actually think it is reasonable.
The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, said we cannot do this and spoke of big, bad Europe. However, I understand the Netherlands has done it. The Minister might explain how there is one European rule for the Netherlands and another for bold, bad little Ireland out on the edge. It is important that we start explaining to Europe that we are an island off an island, with a total population of approximately 6 million people. Therefore, the rules that apply in central Europe do not suit in this jurisdiction.
The Minister is right about one thing, namely, I was brought up in Dublin 4. I am very proud of Dublin 4 and I am a good supporter of the Dubs. However, the Minister is wrong about one other thing, which is that because he was brought up in the country, he has a better understanding of the country than I have. I believe that, to a certain extent, those who were brought up in the country often accepted inferior services because that was what was outside the door, whereas growing up in Dublin 4 I presumed there was a telephone, water, sewerage schemes, street lights and that the road was paved. I have to say it was a little bit of a shock when I went to the west to find that it took me a year and a half to get a telephone. In fact, to get a telephone for the business I was running, I had to put the telephone in the lodgings I was staying in — I had a very kind landlady and landlord.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: To be fair to Mr. Albert Reynolds, he was the first one who really gave a push to the provision of telephones. It was also a shock for me to find that piped water was a problem, which it is even to this day as there are still a few tail-ends to be finished, despite the huge progress made during our last period in government. I hope this Government continues with the CLÁR programme but we are told it is cancelled in regard to getting the last mile of piped water into houses for the people.
Yes, it was a shock. Perhaps it was because I was used to these things as just being given, as most city people were, that it was a shock that they did not exist for everybody, and services that were taken as basic in the city were not available universally on this very small island. Therefore, I am not sure the Minister has the monopoly of wisdom about rural Ireland.
I can tell him one thing about running businesses in rural Ireland with the services that were there. We move slowly and while we have the rural broadband scheme, we are still very deficient in broadband because, again, competition has not worked in that area. If we want a model of how not to do it, it is there. For example, we have three masts in one area and no mast in another area, with a very bad service in one area and duplicate and triplicate services in other areas.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I must once again plead with the Minister on the grounds of integrity and a commitment to his own programme that, when we get to the amendments I have put down, he will accept them. Please God, we will not get to those amendments until tomorrow. I hope that overnight the Minister will have time to reflect on his commitment and that he will come to the House tomorrow and have the good grace to say “Having reflected overnight, I am now satisfied that the proposal we put forward in the programme for Government was a serious proposal and one that we intend to implement”. I look forward to hearing those words from the Minister tomorrow.
Deputy Sean Fleming: I thank the Acting Chairman again for the opportunity to contribute on some of the issues that have been raised. The role of An Post and its universal service obligation is one of the crunch issues in regard to the legislation.
We must remember the position of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs before the telegraphs end was ultimately privatised as Eircom. We know what competition does. We are subject to the private market and I understand private industry works on the basis of operating for profit rather than providing a service. If a service is an obligation, industry will do it at the minimum cost possible but its heart is not in it, nor the capital investment that will be required going forward over a period of, say, five years with regard to the renewal and updating of plant, equipment and delivery, distribution and collection vehicles. This can only be done if there is a strong central organisation that has the funding to provide all of those services.
We have seen when the private sector gets hold of an organisation that it will be bought out. If some of the operators get bigger or are designated a universal service operator, they will be bought out, and it is only a matter of how many years this will take, whether 18 months or two years, for example. Then, after that operator builds up a big debt in the organisation, some other company from another part of the world, whether Australia, the United States or otherwise, will buy it out in a further two years. After several years, we will see a big debt loaded onto these companies, with no funding for capital investment and development of the business.
Ireland has a population of less than 2% of the EU population so the issue of ensuring competition is brought in immediately is not core to the European position. We are not rich pickings for anyone at EU level or for any of the major competitors. Even a company such as DHL has stated An Post is one of the most efficient operators in Europe at present but I am fearful that if the universal obligation gets stretched, it will cause difficulties.
The time people receive their post is an issue, although this might not be understood. It is fine for people in towns. One can send private personal correspondence and find that people in urban areas get that post at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., before they go to work. However, many areas do not get post at that early stage and it can be 11 a.m., noon or sometimes into the early afternoon before the post is delivered. This is the situation at present. Can one imagine the situation if there is cherry-picking, with An Post providing the infrastructure but not the last mile of the delivery? It could be well into the evening before post is delivered. Not only will rural areas suffer a loss of service but they will be lucky to get their post before Angelus time at 6 p.m.
I am concerned that people will see a deterioration in the service. The point about the postman delivering groceries was a throwaway comment, and we all know they do not do that. They are not running other errands in rural areas but they are out there, meeting the people and providing a service and an interface for An Post with its own customers, which is very important.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: It would appear, listening to Deputies Fleming and Ó Cuív, that Fianna Fáil has now come out against privatisation. That may be a very good thing but the Deputies are entirely wrong when they ask me to look at the Telecom Éireann experience as being evidence of where competition does not work. It is not competition that has led to the situation we have in telecoms, it is the asset stripping that went on after privatisation, and it was you fellows who did the privatising.
I remember very well former Deputy Mary O’Rourke going up and down O’Connell Street like Molly Malone, selling shares out of a wheelbarrow during the privatisation at that time. The problem was the ensuing rip-off, under successive owners, that led to the strangulation of the broadband roll-out at the time. Competition is not the problem in this regard. The problem, unfortunately, is there has been an 18% drop in the volume of mail since 2008 and a 6% drop thus far this year. This is how serious the situation is and there is no point in reverting to a discussion on opening the market. It is neither my decision nor a decision of this Administration but a European directive. As for Deputy Sean Fleming keeping a straight face while suggesting to me we should be different because we are an island on the periphery of mainland Europe, that kind of talk went out 20 years ago. The Deputy is well aware of the position. Moreover, I am afraid Deputy Ó Cuív is misinformed. Holland does not have a derogation and I am unsure from where he picked up that suggestion because it is not true.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: The Government has done about the best job one can do in this regard. As Deputy O’Reilly noted, I have taken a Bill with which Fianna Fáil was satisfied that included a seven-year derogation. There was not a peep out of Deputy Ó Cuív then. I checked because I thought he might have made observations on the memorandum.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: However, he made no observations on the memorandum at the time. I must explain to Deputy Martin Ferris that when a Cabinet Minister sends around a memorandum for the Cabinet, his or her colleagues have an opportunity to make observations on it.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: The then Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, did not do that. I have taken the aforementioned seven years and have converted it to 12 years. Moreover, I have left the option for ComReg to extend it thereafter if it believes this should be done. I believe that is about right.
|Bannon, James.||Barry, Tom.|
|Breen, Pat.||Broughan, Thomas P.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Byrne, Eric.|
|Carey, Joe.||Collins, Áine.|
|Conaghan, Michael.||Conlan, Seán.|
|Connaughton, Paul J.||Coonan, Noel.|
|Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.||Costello, Joe.|
|Creed, Michael.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Deering, Pat.|
|Doherty, Regina.||Dowds, Robert.|
|Doyle, Andrew.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Ferris, Anne.||Fitzpatrick, Peter.|
|Flanagan, Charles.||Flanagan, Terence.|
|Griffin, Brendan.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Harrington, Noel.||Harris, Simon.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Heydon, Martin.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Humphreys, Heather.|
|Humphreys, Kevin.||Keaveney, Colm.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Kelly, Alan.|
|Kenny, Seán.||Kyne, Seán.|
|Lawlor, Anthony.||Lynch, Ciarán.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||Lyons, John.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McEntee, Shane.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|McHugh, Joe.||McLoughlin, Tony.|
|McNamara, Michael.||Maloney, Eamonn.|
|Mathews, Peter.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Mitchell O’Connor, Mary.||Mulherin, Michelle.|
|Murphy, Dara.||Murphy, Eoghan.|
|Nash, Gerald.||Neville, Dan.|
|Nolan, Derek.||Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.|
|O’Donnell, Kieran.||O’Donovan, Patrick.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Mahony, John.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Phelan, Ann.||Phelan, John Paul.|
|Quinn, Ruairí.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Spring, Arthur.||Stagg, Emmet.|
|Stanton, David.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
|Varadkar, Leo.||Wall, Jack.|
|Walsh, Brian.||White, Alex.|
|Adams, Gerry.||Browne, John.|
|Calleary, Dara.||Collins, Joan.|
|Colreavy, Michael.||Cowen, Barry.|
|Crowe, Seán.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Ellis, Dessie.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Luke ‘Ming’.|
|Fleming, Sean.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.||McGrath, Finian.|
|McGrath, Mattie.||McLellan, Sandra.|
|Martin, Micheál.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Murphy, Catherine.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Brien, Jonathan.||Pringle, Thomas.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Stanley, Brian.|
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