Think that Royal Mail is bad? Wait until you see its privatised successors

The important task of getting crucial and confidential letters to people on time is jeopardised by profit-oriented thinking that prioritises getting postmen back to the depot to meet targets.

Last week marked the formal announcement by the Minister for Business and Enterprise Michael Fallon that the Royal Mail will be sold off by next April, setting the ball rolling on what is set to be the biggest privatisation for over 20 years.

This follows the deregulation of postal services in 2006, which has allowed companies such as TNT post to win contracts to deliver mail on behalf of private and public sector organisations. TNT post are in a pilot phase in West and Central London this year, providing competition to Royal Mail to deliver letters directly to the doorstep for the first time in Royal Mail’s 360-year history. They intend to expand their operation across the country in the coming years, aiming to employ up to 20,000 postal workers.

In light of recent changes in the postal system, upon hearing of problems with mail turning up late and sometimes not at all, I went undercover as a delivery operative for TNT post for Channel 4 Dispatches’ Secrets of Your Missing Mail (airing at 8pm tonight) to examine the quality of service provided by privately owned companies. I found cause for concern on several fronts, arising from the profit-driven privatisation of an industry that remains an important public service; the contracts up for grabs include the delivery of crucial letters for hospital appointments, benefit assessments, credit cards statements and household utility bills, so it is paramount that these letters are delivered reliably, punctually and securely.

However, I found that the important task of getting crucial and confidential letters to people on time jeopardised by profit-oriented thinking that prioritises getting postmen back to the depot to meet targets. On several occasions, I was called back to the depot in the early afternoon with bundles of mail left to deliver, frustrated as there were no logistical reasons as to why these letters couldn’t be delivered that day. This attitude, combined with the fact that TNT only deliver to each address every other day, means members of the public can be kept waiting unnecessarily for days or even weeks before receiving crucial letters. One of our contributors, for example, missed an appointment for a cancer test due to the late arrival of a letter from TNT Post, and was then made to wait agonisingly for three weeks to receive the letter with his results. Whilst TNT have not confirmed the reason for this delay, it is clear that if they are handling letters of this importance, mail should only be returned to the depot if there’s absolutely no other alternative.  

Furthermore, operating as private company - free from many of the regulations that bind the Royal Mail - allows TNT to operate on an uneven playing field. TNT are not obliged, like Royal Mail, to provide a universal service: Royal Mail are committed to delivering post up and down the country, six days a week, whether in Sheffield or the Shetland Islands, with a uniform pricing system allowing equal access to its services for everyone in the country. TNT, however, can simply cherry-pick highly profitable areas in which to operate, bidding only to deliver in dense urban areas such as West and Central London. There is a genuine concern amongst organisations such as the Communications Workers Union that this universal service will no longer be possible if private companies undercut Royal Mail for lucrative contracts, as it will leave Royal Mail unable to foot the bill for costlier deliveries in rural areas. Individuals and small businesses will be hardest hit, whilst the winners will be the large organisations that need to send out huge batches of mail.

Unlike Royal Mail, TNT have no obligation to meet the targets set by Ofcom, the independent regulator for the communications industry, so are not required to publish statistics or results on the quality of their service. Security practices were extremely poor at the depot in which I worked, as we delivered mail on bikes with no locks on the panniers containing the letters, leaving the bikes unattended in busy areas for lengthy periods of time whilst we walked large sections of our round. TNT hires temporary staff and students on zero-hour contracts and, whilst most of my colleagues were conscientious and honest, a combination of poor training, low pay and a transient attitude towards the job can only increase the likelihood of postal workers taking shortcuts and dumping mail, a practice that Channel 4’s Dispatches also exposed in this investigation.

Our investigation highlights worrying problems with privatised postal services; not only is our much-valued universal service under threat, but also the quality and integrity of services provided. If, as expected, privatisation continues to be rolled out across the country, the 29 million homes and businesses that rely on the service are entitled to expect better. 

Secrets of Your Missing Mail airs tonight at 8pm on Channel 4. 

A Royal Mail employee at the depot in Rathbone. Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Mills is a freelance journalist and filmmaker. He was the undercover reporter for Channel 4 Dispatches' Secrets of Your Missing Mail. His views are his own and he tweets @pmamills.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle