The General Election created some unlikely political bedfellows. A by-product of the coalition agreement has, perhaps unwittingly, been to throw together the likes of Bill Cash and Simon Hughes on the Government’s benches and who would have dared to have predicted such a outcome?
For my own part I find myself making common cause with the postal workers' union – the CWU. We share a mutual interest in the Postal Services Bill which is currently wending its way through Parliament. Unlike the union, I am not against the privatisation of Royal Mail, which is the centrepiece of the legislation, but I do share the brothers' concern that the Bill as it is written will herald the slow but sure erosion of what is called in the trade, the “minimum requirements that are included in the Universal Postal Service.”
The Universal Postal Service is the legal obligation that everyone must receive a visit from the postman. The minimum requirements are the services that make up the obligation. There are essentially seven of these requirements, including a commitment to collect letters nationally and deliver them to all 22 million UK households six days a week; to charge a single price by size and weight for postage; and to provide special services for the blind. This is what makes up the bulk of the work Royal Mail does. To you and me it is the daily visit from the postman and the liveried red vans that run around the streets. Along with the local post office, it forms an important part of the fabric of many communities.
The Government is conscious of the importance of these requirements and the Bill clearly sets out how any organisation that seeks to provide postal services (currently Royal Mail has that right exclusively), must meet these requirements.
So far so good?
So why am I concerned? Whilst the Postal Services Bill has made those requirements good for now, that guarantee is strictly time limited. A further clause in the Bill requires the new regulator of postal services, Ofcom, to review those current delivery requirements within eighteen months to see if they meet the “reasonable needs” of consumers. That review is timed to coincide with the proposed sale of Royal Mail. And what prospective purchaser would not want the costs associated with the universal postal service trimmed before they make that massive investment? It seems that an Ofcom review in 18 months' time is unlikely to call for anything other than a reduced service.
That’s why I have submitted an amendment to the Bill when it is to be debated tomorrow. As I said, I am not against privatisation and I am not voting against the Government. But I do want to see the current level of services provided by Royal Mail guaranteed while privatisation proceeds. My amendment ensures that the current minimum requirements are maintained for the next five years. It is a sensible, moderate amendment for which I believe my constituents would expect me to make a strong case.
Perhaps there are some readers of ConservativeHome who feel that a pure market for postal services is the solution. Of course I respect that view and in some areas – telecommunications for example – it operates pretty much in that way. Indeed it may one day operate in postal services. But for me, the Royal Mail and the daily visit from the postman is part of the fabric of our society. It would be sad to see that fabric torn and frayed with the sole objective of making Royal Mail more attractive to investors. Consumers Count too.