Last week saw the publication of the Conservative-Lib Dem Government’s Postal Services Bill to privatise the Royal Mail. Much has been made of the opportunity for employees to buy shares, but this would only account for 10% of the shares, with the remaining 90% and therefore the majority decision-making power going into private hands.
The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is making great play of the fact that, whilst they are selling off the Royal Mail, they are not selling off the Post Office network. What they are not telling us is that a privatised Royal Mail could well decide to provide its counter services through other outlets such as supermarkets or high street chains, which could offer a deal undercutting the post office network. This would have catastrophic results for the post office network, taking away vital, core business, prompting mass closures and making previous closure programmes pale into insignificance by comparison.
No-one wants any post office to close, but, to set the record straight, when the last Labour government was faced with the fact that a purely commercial decision would have reduced 14,000 post offices to 4,000, we provided £1.7 billion to support a network of around 11,500 branches up until 2011, with a commitment to continue to subsidise the network beyond that time. We have always recognised that the post office plays a very important social and economic role particularly for the most vulnerable in rural and deprived urban communities. If the Royal Mail took its business elsewhere, it would be precisely those rural and deprived urban areas that would lose out.
Also under threat is the commitment to provide a six-day a week delivery to all homes throughout the UK at a uniform, affordable price. This commitment is over and above the EU requirement for a five-day a week service, and a privatised Royal Mail could well put pressure on the regulator to get rid of the Saturday delivery.
We will have a busy time in parliament, trying to get some safeguards into this legislation.