The privatisation of Royal Mail: a fire sale to dig Osborne out of a hole

Ministers are motivated by the desire to make a quick buck, not by what is best for the taxpayer in the long-term.

As a result of George Osborne’s failed economic experiment, the government is set to borrow £245bn more than it planned. So ministers are now desperately scrabbling around for ways to make a quick buck and dig themselves out of the hole they have created.

Amid reports that the government is considering selling off public stakes in the banks at a knockdown price, ministers have confirmed they are pressing ahead with a fire sale of Royal Mail this autumn. The timing of the sale is curious and seems entirely dictated by what is politically expedient for the Tory-led government in the short-term, not by what is best for the taxpayer in the long-term. In effect, David Cameron and George Osborne are playing politics with the postage stamp.

We opposed full privatisation when the government proposed it early in this parliament because we believe that maintaining the Royal Mail in public ownership gives the taxpayer an ongoing interest in the maintenance of universal postal services. It also gives us an interest in the all-important agreement the Royal Mail has with the Post Office, under which the Post Office provides Royal Mail products and services – crucial to the Post Office in the long term. Public ownership helps ensure the taxpayer shares in the upside of any modernisation and future profit that the Royal Mail delivers too.

Despite all this, the government is pressing ahead with its plans to sell off this 372-year-old institution. In so doing, it has failed to demonstrate why this is the best time to sell and why a sale this year will deliver best value for the taxpayer. Instead they are rushing headlong into privatisation without addressing fundamental outstanding issues for consumers and, in particular, the many small businesses that rely on Royal Mail services. 

Legitimate concerns have been raised regarding the competition posed to Royal Mail by other postal service operators: questions regarding the fairness of the competition and whether it delivers a good outcome for consumers, given other postal service operators are not subject by the regulator to the same high performance and service quality standards as the Royal Mail. 

These different service requirements arguably put the Royal Mail at a competitive disadvantage as compared to its competitors. This was laid bare in shocking detail in last week’s "Secrets of Your Missing Mail" Dispatches documentary on Channel 4, in which mail and parcels were filmed undercover being recklessly thrown around at a private postal operator’s depot. This state of affairs has not been addressed by the government and, as things stand, will surely compromise any price they can secure for Royal Mail for the taxpayer from potential investors.

Most people access a sorting office or Royal Mail office in reasonably close proximity to their home or business. But there is no guarantee that a privately=owned Royal Mail won’t sell off delivery offices - particularly those occupying urban sites where land values are higher - and replace them with distant, out-of-town locations, meaning individuals and small businesses would have to further go to pick up parcels and mail. What safeguards does the government intend to put in place to ensure easy access to Royal Mail locations following the sale? We do not know.

Then there is the future of the Post Office. Royal Mail customers currently rely on being able to access many Royal Mail services through the Post Office under a ten-year agreement between the two companies. This is convenient for many businesses and families. However, a privatised Royal Mail may well have very different management with different priorities. If ministers press ahead with the privatisation, there is no guarantee that Royal Mail under private ownership would continue providing services through the Post Office in the long term. 

We do not yet know of ministers' concrete plans for the Post Office.  What we do know is that they have made noises about fully mutualising it and are consulting on employee-owned models in that regard, among others. If they are considering turning the Post Office into a employee-owned mutual, why are they only giving Royal Mail employees a 10 per cent stake on the sale of shares in their employer? Again, no answers.

Finally, ministers have repeatedly argued that turning the Royal Mail into a wholly privately-owned business is essential to attract new investment. But they haven’t said how much capital they envisage the business being able to raise after privatisation. We are told the Royal Mail needs capital investment in the region of £2bn over the next five years. It is not at all clear - if the government rushes to sell now - that a privatised Royal Mail will be able to raise those sums. In part, this is because it depends on its future earnings.

Back in 2011, when ministers put through the Postal Services Act to pave the way for the privatisation of Royal Mail, the earnings of the business were poor. Two years on, the balance sheet of the business has improved significantly. Royal Mail’s historic pension deficit has been transferred to the government, agreement between trade unions and management has been reached, helping speed up modernisation, and the current CEO, Moya Greene, has proved highly effective. Consequently, operating profits increased from £39m to £120m last year. If the government is intent on privatisation, why not allow more time for the balance sheet to improve, so a higher price can be secured in the future instead of selling the Royal Mail on the cheap in the coming months?

Many questions, very few answers and so far little justification for doing a fire sale now. But there have been successful privatisations in times past which have delivered for the British people, ministers cry. Yes, there have also been examples, in rail and energy under the last Conservative government, where badly executed privatisations resulted in substandard services that were poorly co-ordinated, complex to navigate and have since resulted in people being ripped off. That is why any government intent on a sell off should proceed in a considered way, and exercise care, rather than dashing to sell for short-term political considerations.

This privatisation has the strong whiff of desperation from a government eager to dig itself out of a £245bn hole at any price. It is the taxpayer who will lose out.

George Osborne delivers a speech at media company Unruly, on April 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

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What is the Scottish Six and why are people getting so upset about it?

The BBC is launching a new Scottish-produced TV channel. And it's already causing a stooshie. 

At first glance, it should be brilliant news. The BBC’s director general Tony Hall has unveiled a new TV channel for Scotland, due to start broadcasting in 2018. 

It will be called BBC Scotland (a label that already exists, confusingly), and means the creation of 80 new journalism jobs – a boon at a time when the traditional news industry is floundering. While the details are yet to be finalised, it means that a Scottish watcher will be able to turn on the TV at 7pm and flick to a Scottish-produced channel. Crucially, it will have a flagship news programme at 9pm.

The BBC is pumping £19m into the channel and digital developments, as well as another £1.2m for BBC Alba (Scotland’s Gaelic language channel). What’s not to like? 

One thing in particular, according to the Scottish National Party. The announcement of a 9pm news show effectively kills the idea of replacing News at Six. 

Leading the charge for “a Scottish Six” is John Nicolson, the party’s Westminster spokesman for culture, media and sport. A former BBC presenter himself, Nicolson has tried to frame the debate as a practical one. 

“Look at the running order this week,” he told the Today programme:

“You’ll see that the BBC network six o’clock news repeatedly runs leading on an English transport story, an English health story, an English education story. 

“That’s right and proper because of the majority of audience in the UK are English, so absolutely reasonable that English people should want to see and hear English news, but equally reasonable that Scottish people should not want to listen to English news.”

The SNP’s opponents think they spy fake nationalist outrage. The Scottish Conservatives shadow culture secretary Jackson Carlaw declared: “Only they, with their inherent and serial grievance agenda, could find fault with this.” 

The critics have a point. The BBC has become a favourite punch bag for cybernats. It has been accused of everything from doctored editing during the independence referendum to shrinking Scotland on the weather map

Meanwhile, the SNP’s claim to want more coverage of Scottish policies seems rather hollow at a time when at least one journalist claims the party is trying to silence him

As for the BBC, it says the main reason for not scrapping News at Six is simply that it is popular in Scotland already. 

But if the SNP is playing it up, there is no doubt that TV schedules can be annoying north of the border. When I was a kid, at a time when #indyref was only a twinkle in Alex Salmond’s eye, one of my main grievances was that children’s TV was all scheduled to match the English holidays. I’ve migrated to London and BBC iPlayer, but I do feel truly sorry for anyone in Glasgow who has lost half an hour to hearing about Southern Railways. 

Then there's the fact that the Scottish government could do with more scrutiny. 

“I’m at odds with most Labour folk on this, as I’ve long been a strong supporter of a Scottish Six,” Duncan Hothershall, who edits the Scottish website Labour Hame. “I think the lack of a Scotland-centred but internationally focused news programme is one of the factors that has allowed SNP ministers to avoid responsibility for failures.”

Still, he’s not about to complain if that scrutiny happens at nine o’clock instead: “I think the news this morning of a new evening channel with a one hour news programme exactly as the Scottish Six was envisaged is enormously good news.”

Let the reporting begin. 

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