Royal Mail and ideology

Robert Henderson

The starting gun for the privatisation of the Royal Mail has been fired t(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10303689/Royal-Mail-privatisation-Government-confirms-flotation-within-weeks.html).

As with the banks,  the taxpayer takes the losses  and private business gets the profits. To prepare Royal Mail for privatisation the taxpayer has taken sole responsibility for the Royal Mail’s pension fund . They have done this  because its liabilities are huge and no private investor or business would take Royal Mail  on with the pension fund attached.

The pension scheme is closed to new members, which means that over time the liabilities will decline as pensioners die. However, that will take a long time and the liabilities are huge and uncertain.

The pension fund had estimated liabilities £33bn in the 2012/13 accounts (http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1314/hc01/0149/0149.pdf).  This figure had risen by nearly £3bn in a year:  “The total pension scheme liability increased, from the date of transfer on 1 April 2012, from £30.547 billion to £33.378 billion at 31 March 2013.”

The scheme is “an unfunded defined benefit scheme providing pension and lump sum benefits on retirement and  death to members and former members of the Royal Mail Pension Plan (RMPP), and their dependants, in respect of their service up to 31 March 2012. The scheme is closed and has only pensioner and deferred members. As this is a closed scheme, there are no employer or employee contributions, the on-going pension payments and other payments are funded from the consolidated fund”  (Ibid)

The key words here are “unfunded” and “funded from the consolidated fund.  That means it is like the  Old Age Pension, namely, funded out of taxation.

The Pension Fund was supposedly made shipshape and Bristol fashion by the government  pumping in £2.2 billion in 2012.  However, after the first year of operation after the taxpayer bailout the “Royal Mail Group is facing an extra £300m annual bill from its pensions, one year on from a multi-billion-pound deal that was supposed to have solved its pension issues once and for all ahead of a public listing.” (http://www.efinancialnews.com/story/2013-05-31/pensions-talks-return-to-haunt-royal-mail?ea9c8a2de0ee111045601ab04d673622)

What can be expected from a privatised postal service

The experience of every other large privatisation apart from BT is of rising prices and decreased service.  Even in the case of BT the comparative success of the privatisation – the landline connections for phones and broadband are still dependent on BT’s  control of the network – would probably not have occurred if the mobile phone revolution had not taken place and  introduced genuine competition into the telecoms market.

There are a number of reasons why a privatised Royal Mail will go the same way as the likes of British Rail and the utilities.  To begin with there is the VAT exemption which is bound to vanish. As   it is a public organisation Royal Mail  does not pay VAT on most of its products: a privatised Royal Mail will almost certainly pay VAT on all of its products. The present position with VAT  is this:

“Royal Mail products that remain exempt from VAT, in addition to free products

UK

1st and 2nd Class (stamps, online, franking, account*)

Special Delivery™ Next Day (stamps and franking)

Standard Parcels

Recorded Signed For™ (if purchased with a VAT exempt service)

Keepsafe™ (personal and business)

*1st and 2nd class account is a new product that was launched in April 2012. This is a Universal Service which does not qualify for volume related discounts. Royal Mail also offers a 1st and 2nd class service called Business Mail which is available on account. Volume related discounts are available on this service for larger postings and VAT is liable

International

Airmail

Surface Mail

International Signed For

All HM Forces Mail (BFPO)

Inbound Mail

Redirections within UK (personal and business) “

(http://www.royalmail.com/information-vat-and-postal-services)

All those exemptions will  be under threat with privatisation,  not least because  EU competition commissioner is likely to  be after them like a shot as the exemptions would be viewed as illegitimate state aid ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2305592/Price-class-stamp-soar-1-just-years-Royal-Mail-privatised-campaign-group-warns.html) . There will also be challenges by private postal companies and TNT Post UK has already said they will try to get the courts to rule that “ the exemption should be removed from all Royal Mail services apart from stamps and services directly connected to the obligation it has to provide a universal service six days a week”. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/steve-hawkes/10309856/Legal-fight-threatens-Royal-Mail.html).  If successful that would put 20% VAT on bulk mail deliveries.  In time, it is reasonable to expect even more dramatic challenges to any VAT exemption.

Then there is the question of raising capital. The official line is this: “ To help protect the future of the universal postal service, we aim to end Royal Mail’s dependence on unpredictable funding from the taxpayer and allow them future access to private capital. We will do this by selling shares in Royal Mail. “ (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/ensuring-the-future-of-the-universal-postal-service-and-post-office-network-services)

On the face of it this is a nonsense statement.  As a matter of simple fact the British government can raise money by way of borrowing far more cheaply than a private company, no matter how large, can do (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/21/royal-mail-public-sector-privatise).

The claim becomes less odd if the real reason why capital cannot be raised by Royal Mail is the EU competition commission’s resistance to  state aid. The commission  is especially keen on stamping on state aid  in relation to EU postal services, which it desperately wants to see in private hands or at least with a mixture of private and public providers competing on the same basis, as it seeks to have a uniform postal service throughout the EU ((http://ec.europa.eu/competition/sectors/postal_services/cases.html).  It is probable that a publicly owned  Royal Mail would not be allowed to raise cheap money through the offices of the government because the assistance  would not be available to other private postal competitors and, hence,  would be judged as unfair competition by the EU competition commissioner.

But not all state aid is bad in the EU commission’s eyes.  They  were willing to collude  with the  UK government to prepare Royal Mail for privatisation by allowing what amounts to massive state aid through the removal of the deficit laden Royal Mail pension fund from Royal Mail , viz:

“The European Commission approved UK plans to relieve the Royal Mail Group (RMG) from excessive pension costs relating to its past monopoly position and to provide RMG with restructuring aid consisting of a debt reduction of GBP 1089 million (around EUR 1311 million). The Commission concluded that RMG’s revised restructuring plan would ensure a sustainable future for the group in its twofold function of providing universal postal services and of granting access to its delivery network to other providers in the UK. Moreover, the plan negotiated with the Commission included appropriate measures to minimise distortions of competition induced by the aid (IP/12/260).” (Ibid)

The sale is also ostensibly  odd in that it comes at a time when  Royal Mail is making a solid profit  (£400 million in the past year). However, the strangeness of the decision vanishes when it is realised that  the Royal Mail has been deliberately fattened up for privatisation  by the massive price increase in the cost of postage stamps in 2012 (First class stamps rising from 46p to 60p and second class from 36p to 50p.  Parcel charges have also risen substantially http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17859782. Incidentally, iIt is a moot point how much of the £400million profit arose from people buying huge numbers of stamps at the pre-rise prices, but nonetheless the increase in profitability is too large to be  ascribed to that one off event alone ).

The obligation to maintain the universal  postal service (UPS )  – the obligation to deliver  post anywhere in the UK at the same price six days a week –  is protected by the Postal Services Act 2011 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/5/introduction) and the  EU Postal Services Directives (http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/post/legislation/index_en.htm). However, once Royal Mail has private shareholders  this could change, especially if a majority private shareholder emerges. This could easily occur  if much more than 50% of shares are sold  to the private sector . The intention of  the government is for a  majority of shares  to be in private hands  with the rest held by the government. The  percentage to be retained by the government might be very small  and this is suggested strongly because ministers  has been very coy on the matter of the size of government’s holding .  It could be as low 10% for all we know.

If a majority shareholder does emerge,  they  will inevitably argue that they cannot compete with other private operators who are not bound by the UPS. Their complaint could well be upheld either by the UK or the EU competition authorities on the grounds of practicality, that is, the impossibility of running Royal Mail as a private business when it has the  UPS obligation which its competitors do not have to honour.  If the VAT exemption is lessened or even abandoned altogether, that would  add to the argument to dilute or even remove entirely the UPS obligation. It is worth  remembering that the so-called “golden share” held by the government in Jaguar cars was limply given up by the government  not that many years after being introduced (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1989/dec/06/golden-shares).

The UPS is under attack already from retailers who rely on posting goods to customers. They are under no obligation to use Royal Mail. This means they can charge whatever they like for postage within the UK and there are claims that some online retailers are charging multiples of the postage cost  which Royal Mail would charge for deliveries to out of the way addresses. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-24069354).  This will be happening because  the contracts the retailers  have agreed with postal providers other than Royal Mail will stipulate that this must be done.  If Royal Mail had retained its monopoly of small parcel deliveries (or even had the size of parcels in its monopoly increased) this would not be able to happen with anything like the same frequency.

The privatisation of Royal Mail also threatens the Post Office network, which is now an entirely separate organisation, Post Office Ltd.  Governments have been cynically undermining the Post Office for decades with a gradual removal government services which bulked out the postal services. The threat is not immediate because “We have committed £1.34 billion of funding for the network from financial year 2011 to 2012 to financial year 2014 to 2015. This will enable the Post Office to maintain and modernise its network to help safeguard its future.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/ensuring-the-future-of-the-universal-postal-service-and-post-office-network-services). However,   looking ten years or so ahead it is probable that the cry will go up from politicians that the Post Office is a white state-owned elephant because there is every chance that a privatised Royal Mail will refuse to continue the contracts with the Post Office which currently exist on the grounds of cost and convenience.  

Why the privatisation is happening

Royal Mail would be perfectly viable as a public service if the old monopoly of letter post and small parcel post was maintained. It is true that email and other forms of digital messaging have reduced considerably the number of letters sent. But this drop has been offset by the considerable increase in parcel post arising from e-commerce, an increase which is likely to continue for quite some time.    Indeed, with the monopoly restored and modern sorting machinery being introduced, Royal Mail would almost certainly be able to make enough for necessary  future investment  whilst keeping postal rates moderate.   A cheap postal system would be a considerable boost to the economy generally.  The Post Office network could also be underpinned by the use of the offices as collection points for goods ordered through the Internet.

If that is so why is privatisation being driven through so ruthlessly  for transparently false reasons? The answer is ideology. The globalist, laissez faire ideology has infected to a lesser or greater degree all of Britain’s major political parties.  That  ideology dovetails with the supranational mentality engendered by the EU , commitment to  which is at the British political elite’s political core. It is doubtful if any senior British politician  not firmly committed to either laissez faire  globalism or the EU; most are committed to both. That is the simple truth.

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