POSTMASTERS protested at the Department of Social Protection yesterday over the latest in an ongoing series of attempts by the department to take business away from post offices and hand it to the banks.
The position of postmasters is simple — we regard the post office network as a national asset entrusted by the people to the Government to manage on its behalf.
It is important to understand that Ireland’s 1,100 postmasters are sub-contractors to An Post and cannot decide on which social, financial or citizen services they provide. These decisions are the gift of government and then commissioned through An Post or other arms of government.
That is why the IPU believes that the future of the post office network is a political decision and not for exclusive definition by market or consumer trends. Citizens can voice their opinions and Government policy should reflect the overwhelming will of the people.
The position which we believe acting Tánasite Joan Burton’s department has taken in recent years is an “open market view”: That society is ever-increasingly moving towards use of electronic funds transfer (EFT) and that government transactions should follow suit.
However, is the decision that simple and it is in our social interest to hand the future of our post offices over to an open economy logic? Postmasters do not think so.
Yesterday’s protest was triggered by a recent letter which the Department of Social Protection sent to casual and part-time workers, seeking their bank details for future payment. The letter made no reference to using the post office, or that people could continue using the post office if they choose.
On receipt of this letter our customers believed they had no choice and were being forced to the banks, where they are faced with bank charges in order to collect their payments. However, of course the post office remains available even though the department intentionally failed to mention this.
Social protection transactions account for 30% of all post office business and an estimated 50% including spin-off transactions. Taking this work away from the network will close post offices across the country. We are not scaremongering, sit down with any postmaster, do the sums and our point will be borne out.
Last Tuesday, we met with Ms Burton to highlight the issue and at the meeting she refused to withdraw the letters and to cease the transfer of post office business to the banks.
However, there are a number of important political and social issues to consider. First of all there is very strong public support for post offices. The IPU recently collected 500,000 public signatures calling on the Government to support the network. So, we can fairly deduce that the public want the post office network to remain and consider it to be a meaningful and valuable part of our society.
Secondly, the need for more locally based services and greater regard for communities were central issues during the recent general election campaign. The post office is a core piece of infrastructure that can help to deliver on this. Surely any new Government that may emerge should listen to what voters raised at election time.
Thirdly, we in effect as taxpayers own the post office network. An Post is 100% owned by the State, which sub-contract postmasters to run the local offices. Why therefore would the Government not encourage as much business as possible through its own Network rather than handing this gratis over to private commercial banks?
Furthermore, we currently have in place a Department of Communications-led, An Post and IPU-supported working group, chaired by Bobby Kerr, to develop a five year strategy to grow and diversify post office services, including new epayment choices.
How can it be that a Department of Communications-led group is working to develop post offices, while the Department of Social Protection is sending letters that will shut them down?
Also a great many people continue to like using the post office. It creates social interaction and people can avail of multiple other services in one swoop. Customers also tend to do their other business while in the town, village or urban centre — so we help to put cash into the local economy around us.
And though hard to quantify, there is the wide acknowledgement of social and community value of post offices. It is a shared public space which brings people together, a source of citizens information and an unspoken “community watch system” for older or vulnerable people.
In fact there are many opportunities that the post office network offers to address issues in our society.
Post offices can be expanded into more meaningful front offices for government services, can support greater access to health and transport services in rural areas and can provide a greater number of essential commercial services.
We would have thought that 500,000 signatures presented to the Government last November, and the overwhelming demand for better local access that came up at general election time would have provided a very clear message on what the public wants for their post offices.
If we want to support communities, local economies and have accessible services — as it seems clear that people do — post offices can play a key role.
However, for this to happen we have to recognise the value of post offices to the country’s social and economic infrastructure. This means using the network — and the leadership required needs to come from Government.
It to highlight all of these issues that led us to protest at the Department of Social Protection. We hope that the next Government will listen to what half a million signatories, voters and postmasters have said.