Postmasters in welfare forms action
Postmasters have launched a co-ordinated campaign of disruption by returning new welfare forms back to Government offices.
Thousands of documents were put in the post run yesterday as part of the deepening battle against plans for the state to offer more electronic benefits through banks rather than over the counter at post offices.
The Irish Postmasters Union (IPU) called for a meeting with Tanaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton over the row, which they say threatens livelihoods and communities.
The union's president Paddy McCann said welfare and benefits payments account for 30% of post office business and could be worth as much as 50% of a postmaster's trade in spin-offs.
"Transferring the largest element of post office business to the banks will shut down the network and remove a core piece of social infrastructure from communities across Ireland," he said.
"There is huge support in all constituencies for the development of post offices as hubs for the delivery of core state and commercial services. Many people want to use the post office and do not want to pay fees to the commercial banks."
The return of thousands of forms to the Department of Social Protection is the latest stage in the battle over the future of the network, with postmasters already stepping up to run in the next general election.
The IPU claims there are concerns that up to 557 post offices could close by 2017 as more social welfare payments are made electronically.
The new forms included advice to social welfare recipients to apply to get payments direct into a bank account.
Despite the very public opposition and protest, the Department of Social Protection said it had recognised the issue with the new forms earlier this year and plans are under way to issue replacements.
IPU general secretary Ned O'Hara said there is a lot of frustration over the dispute and a view that the Government is to hand core post office business over to the commercial banks.
"There is a view among postmasters that, by recommending social protection payments through the banks, Government policy is in effect closing down the post office network. We want them to meet with us and hear our concerns and solutions," he said.
In response the Department of Social Protection said the Government was committed to maintaining the network.
It said post offices are a key piece of financial and social infrastructure for urban and rural areas.
It also said it will pay 50 million euro to An Post this year for cash welfare payments over the counter - the single biggest contract for the company and the network.
The department said the original intention of the new welfare payment forms reflected the growing trend to electronic transfers of benefits while still giving people the option to collect payments at post offices.
"The revisions will ensure that a neutral wording in relation to payment options is provided and that one payment option is not favoured over another. Because of the necessary IT system changes, this will take some time to implement," it said.
The department also said the total number of post offices in Ireland is down by 24 under this government compared to 198 between 2007 and 2010.