Gale's View - March 4th 2009
I am a regular visitor to the Royal Mail sorting offices in Margate and Herne Bay. I know the pride that our postal workers take in the job that they do for my constituents and over the years have developed a very considerable respect for the dedication that they bring to what is a relentless and at times difficult job.
To rise with the sun on a Summer's morning at three o'clock, to travel to work on quiet roads, to stroll around leafy lanes delivering a few letters and passing the time of day with villagers, then to finish work at around mid-day and go off to spend the afternoon gardening or fishing or playing golf sounds like a pretty idyllic way of life. Unfortunately the reality is rather different. The three o'clock in the morning wake-up call is certainly how it is. The task of sorting and then humping heavy bags of mail around the town by bicycle in freezing November rain or February snow is, though, a rather less attractive prospect than the picture sometimes painted by commentators. But that is all too often how it is.
Somewhere at home I have a Penny Black and A Penny Red, the remnants of a schoolboy stamp collection and a reminder of the introduction of what became the universal postal service created by Rowland Hill. Since 1840 the men and women of the Royal Mail have been trudging the streets and highways and byways of Britain in all weathers to deliver, to any house or farm or croft in whatever isolated corner of the land, our daily post. On six days of the week and at a flat first or second class rate. Not only do postal workers deliver the good news and the bad, the birthday cards and the condolences, the bills and the lottery winnings, they have been and remain the eyes and ears of the community, frequently alerting authorities to signs of need or distress. There is nothing exactly like it anywhere else in the world.
It is not surprising that the prospect of the fire-sale of a part of the Royal Mail has caused alarm. We know only too well from bitter experience, Mr. Brown, that once the family gold is sold at a knock-down price it is hard if not impossible to reassemble it.
It is also the fact that historically the Government of the day has regarded the Royal Mail as a milch cow. It has creamed off large profits to help fill the Treasury coffers and taken pension contribution holidays when the going was good instead of investing in the modern technology needed to take the business into the 21st Century. As a result Royal Mail has been left ill-equipped to compete with the challenges resulting from the introduction of electronic mail and the loss of a huge amount of government and commercial postal business through the introduction of competition.
This, in itself, would have been bad enough but the competitive playing field has not been level. The much-lauded private companies that now sort bulk mail by fast machines instead of by hand do not offer a universal service and they are not required to take the post of all shapes and sizes that the Royal Mail is still required to collect from its letterboxes and to deliver to every far-flung outpost of the United Kingdom. It is, of course, a relatively simple and cheap task for a private company given, by legislation, special privileges and monopolies to collect a ton of gas bills in envelopes of an exactly identical and pre-contracted size, feed them into a machine that reads pre-contracted codes and then hand them on to somebody else to deliver for a fee that does not meet the cost of that operation. I think that the nation's Royal Mail might manage that! The big question is "is the Government now proposing to take the shackles off Royal Mail and create fair competition?” and the answer, I fear, is almost certainly "no".
In order to meet a huge pension deficit the Government, with the support of the Opposition, is proposing to sell off (initially) a thirty per-cent stake in the Royal Mail's delivery service. Not Post Office Counters or any of the rest of the business, just the deliveries.
Faced with huge opposition from the Labour back-bench Lord Mandelson of Foy, our unelected Trade Minister, has made "concessions". We are told, now, that Royal Mail will remain publicly owned - unless future legislation is introduced to change this!
We are also told that the universal postal obligation (UPO) under which letters are delivered anywhere in the UK for the same price will be written into law. Will the UPO now apply equally to wholly private companies such as TNT and DHL or will it still be left to the Royal Mail to take receipt of and deliver "downstream access mail" (which means "stuff that it is not cost-effective for us to deliver") at charges that do not pay the delivery bill? In other words, will the private competitors be compelled, as Royal Mail is, to go "the final mile"?
Having pawned the nation to bail out failing banks it now seems a near certainty that the government will have to proceed down its part-privatisation route to avoid having to pump further millions into the postal service. If it does so without addressing the issues of unfair competition and miserably weak top management from which the Royal Mail has suffered in recent years then we shall either be back with the begging bowl in short order, or we shall find a ”People's Mail" service compelled to offer the same more expensive and poorer service "enjoyed" in most other European countries. Is that really what we want?