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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.