Chain of mail delivery 'should not be broken'

Consumer groups warned the Government yesterday not to interfere with the way the Post Office receives, sorts and delivers mail.

This chain would be broken if sorting offices were put out to franchise through competitive tendering, as envisaged in the proposals for the sale of the Post Office recommended to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, by civil servants.

'It is important to ensure the responsibility for the trail of receiving, sorting and delivering is maintained, because otherwise we will never know who is responsible for what,' Tom Corrigan, chairman of the Post Office Users National Council (POUNC), said. 'I don't say it couldn't work. It could work with suitable contractual arrangements, but it would be quite a high risk.'

Consumer groups said they would not be concerned about the ownership of the Post Office, as long as the industry was well regulated and provided a good level of service. The private sector is already involved in Post Office work, with 18,000 shops and supermarkets doubling up as post offices. There is also significant private sector competition in parcels, with companies such as United Parcels and TNT.

Last July, POUNC told Mr Heseltine that a high level of service could be delivered by either leaving the service as it was, or privatisation, or giving much greater freedom to the Post Office in whatever form it took.

Mr Corrigan said: 'This remains our view until we know what Mr Heseltine intends to do. We stressed the commitment - and Mr Heseltine described it as a non-negotiable commitment - to continue a universal service at a universal price.'

Commenting on a proposal to reduce from pounds 1 to 50p the figure below which the Royal Mail has a monopoly on post, Mr Corrigan said: 'If business were removed from the Post Office but the targets were to remain the same, then it would impose a very serious burden on the Post Office which might well fall on the rest of the public in terms of higher prices, or deteriorating standards, or both.'

The National Consumer Council said it was important to ensure careful regulation, and 'if they are introducing competition, provide true competition, and not the kind of thing you've got in telecommunications where there is only very limited competition on the fringes'.