The Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture engaged in a wide-ranging, constructive discussion with representatives from the Irish Postmasters' Union (IPU).
The Committee met with General Secretary, Brian McGann, President Sean Maher, Vice President Simon Murphy, Treasurer Sean Martin and Executive committee member Breid Gallagher
Post offices should be placed at the centre of the Government's plans to provide bank accounts to people who have no access to the banking system, according to the Irish Postmasters' Union General Secretary, Brian McGann.
The Union called on the Government to include the post office system in its plans to make social welfare payments through these proposed bank accounts. An ESRI report last year highlighted the problem of financial exclusion with estimates that there are more than 300,000 households in Ireland without access to a bank account.
The Union also warned that any move to remove social welfare payments from the post office network could lead to the immediate closure of 600 of the company's 1,100 branches operated by self-employed postmasters. Such a development would have a catastrophic effect on rural Ireland the Union pointed out. "Not only would post offices disappear but many shops in towns and villages would disappear too," said general secretary, Brian McGann.
Mr McGann, addressing the Oireachtas communications committee, expressed fears that the Government's strategy was flawed as the new bank accounts in themselves would not address the problem. He pointed out that many people had moved away from mainstream banking services in recent years in part because they no longer had trust in banks. "People trust organisations like the post office and the credit union. However, the post office alone had a single, coherent accessible infrastructure that can deliver the banking solution that will help to achieve financial inclusion," he said.
The Union said the Government could achieve substantial savings by outsourcing transaction-based services to post offices. It said all post offices were now fully automated and provide services including passport express, banking transactions and bill payment services. Mr McGann said the network should also be allowed to process motor tax and driver licence renewals, the household charge, water charges, and local authority payments.
Fine Gael TD Noel Harrington, a former postmaster, said the idea since the foundation of the State of post offices being a focal point for doing Government business had not always been realised. He said many people did not realise postmasters were only paid on a transaction basis and depended on the support of local people for their livelihood.
Vice-Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee John O'Mahony TD said: "Members were impressed by the proactive approach by the Postmasters to ensure that the network of Post Offices, so crucial to the fabric of rural life in Ireland in particular, is sustained.
"The theme of financial inclusion loomed large and the Committee heard a strong argument that the Post Office, deeply rooted and trusted in the communities they serve, play a central role in providing the 'unbanked' with a basic bank account.
"The IPU's thought-provoking presentation will inform the Committee as they consider the practical and enriching role Post Offices can continue to play in Irish life into the future."