At the moment I’m getting a huge amount of correspondence from constituents opposing the Government’s plans to privatise the Royal Mail.
Thankfully, and perhaps understandably, I’m getting this correspondence through the post, rather than via email.
I think the Royal Mail is a great British institution.
If you think about some of the institutions that bind the country together, the Royal Mail and the notion of a universal postal service is surely one of them.
I like the fact that I can post a letter and, regardless of where the sender lives, whether it is the centre of London or in the Shetland Islands, the price of a stamp and the level of service will be the same.
The privatisastion of Royal Mail is the biggest sell-off of public assets since the government led by John Major sold off the railways in 1996.
The idea behind the privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s of such services as water, gas and electricity was to encourage a share-owning democracy, to inject more capital and competition into the industries and to improve customer service.
I don’t think it has been very successful: it’s probably right that the state doesn’t run the nation’s telephones and the service provided by BT and another host of competitors is now much better, but can people honestly say that they feel like they are getting better quality service and value for money from their gas and electricity companies?
It would be better, in the light of that picture, if ministers thought a little bit more about selling off the Royal Mail.
In doing so, they might want to think about a little pearl of wisdom from Margaret Thatcher.
Mrs Thatcher is not somebody who I often agree with, but I do think the fact that she drew the line at privatisation of the Royal Mail is something to consider.
The timing of the sell-off does seem a bit odd. The Royal Mail is now making quite substantial sums of money.
The boom in on-line shopping has given the Royal Mail a big boost – when I had a look round the sorting office at Clark Street last year, the number of parcels from Amazon and ebay is having a hugely positive impact for the postal service.
The Government has been a bit naughty in using an accountant’s trick to take the Royal Mail’s pension liabilities onto the public books. This was intended to make the sell-off more attractive to potential private investors. But the fact remains that the Royal Mail is currently very profitable – it made £403 million last year, which can be ploughed back into re-investment and into the public coffers. The fact that the Government has nationalised its debt and wishes to privatise its profits seems to be an odd choice of priorities. It seems that the Government wishes to flog off the Royal Mail on the cheap to provide some cover in the public finances before the General Election. It is shameless and cynical as a stunt and I don’t think the public will want to see it happen.
Hang on a minute, some of you might be saying. Weren’t the Labour Government going to privatise the Royal Mail in 2008? The simple answer to that is no: the previous government acknowledged that private capital investment needed to be injected, but I remember that, crucially, the Bill put forward by Labour stated explicitly that the Royal Mail must remain publicly owned.
This is a very different proposal.
The big risk is that foreign companies will take over the Royal Mail, as they did with our utilities, and profits will not flow into Britain but elsewhere. The big risk is that people who don’t live in cities will get a second-class service – and not just the stamps – and that people in rural areas might not get a daily postal service at all. I think most people wouldn’t agree with the sell-off of Royal Mail, seeing it as a privatisation too far. I hope the Government will listen.