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 I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era