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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.