Stamping out four centuries of service: Alan Johnson condemns government plans to break up the best postal system in the world

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR could today be chopping the Queen's head off our stamps and putting his own on the stump. A meeting of the Cabinet's economic and domestic policy committee will discuss plans to break up and privatise the Post Office. Granted the Royal Mail Charter by Elizabeth I in 1591, it will be destroyed under Elizabeth II after 400 years of public ownership.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, apparently want to break up the Post Office once and for all. They appear to be planning to split off Post Office Counters, keeping it public, while selling off 51 per cent of Royal Mail and Parcelforce - currently separate public sector businesses within the Post Office.

Their unholy alliance seems to think that by keeping Post Office Counters in the public sector they will placate anxious rural Tory MPs with narrow majorities and at the same time raise a quick buck to finance some hasty tax cuts before the next election. In fact, they are paving the way for a Labour and Liberal Democrat landslide in rural areas.

Keeping Post Office Counters in the public sector is tantamount to an admission that vulnerable services need public sector protection. Moreover, the separation of this network from Royal Mail and Parcelforce ignores the synergy between these businesses that is vital to the survival of thousands of rural post offices.

Nobody in the Post Office at any level supports such a split. The recent report by the parliamentary committee on trade and industry made no recommendation for privatisation and called on the Government only to announce its intentions 'without delay'.

If the plans go ahead, a much-loved feature of British life will be placed in jeopardy as a result of a 22-month review held behind closed doors, and a Select Committee report that heard evidence from only two sources - the Government and the Post Office. There was not a single word about a Post Office sell- off, or even a review of ownership, in the Conservatives' 1992 election manifesto.

The most damning consideration is that nobody wants a privatised and separated Post Office. A Mori poll commissioned by the Union of Comumunication Workers showed that 81 per cent of British people want to keep the post public. The Post Office's own poll showed that 67 per cent want greater commercial freedom - not privatisation. This is a privatisation project that even Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley avoided.

So will the Prime Minister endorse such a proposal? He must know that a publicly owned Post Office dedicated to the provision of a universal, accessible and affordable service is part of the Britain he claims to be trying to recapture. The public will simply not tolerate any interference with the best postal service in the world.

The Select Committee report gave further evidence of why the Prime Minister would be wise to listen to those who are counselling him to tear up the recommendations. It showed that all the postal administrations capable of competing with the Post Office are publicly owned.

In the United States, which produces 40 per cent of the world's mail, the post is public. In Canada moves towards liberalisation led to a public outcry and a government subsidy for rural services. The Dutch post office, which the privatisers cite as the greatest threat to the Royal Mail - it is reported to be setting up a London-based operation to compete - will always be government controlled. Lauded as a lodestar by commercially minded senior executives at the British Post Office, it provides only one delivery a day (compared to two a day for urban areas in this country) and has a monopoly on all items weighing less than 500g (there is no weight criterion in Britain).

In Sweden, the only other country considering privatisation, they also deliver only once a day in urban areas, with no delivery on Saturdays. The country that free-marketeers used to hold up as an example was New Zealand. But the level of public concern meant that its experiment in liberalisation never reached privatisation or complete deregulation. Political intervention had already led to central collection points in rural locations and tariff increases up to 116 per cent.

If the Royal Mail is privatised, the second delivery will go - indeed, it was only public accountability that prevented the business from converting to a single, later delivery three years ago. Other loss-making services such as free prescription delivery, articles for the blind and even cards from Santa - all heavily subsidised - will disappear.

Yet the real right-wing agenda has still not come out into the open. It can be found in a variety of pamphlets issued by organisations such as Aims for Industry and the Institute of Economic Affairs. A quotation from one, Liberating the Letter, published in 1983, should be salutary.

Querying whether a uniform tariff is necessary, it says: 'The starting point for analysis, however, is that people make a choice where to live . . . people make decisions about location in the light of a set of price signals. There is no reason why postal price signals should be excluded.'

If the Government is allowed to place postal services beyond the control and influence of the citizen, we will lose a distinct detail of our social fabric. As a fitting tribute to the man responsible, perhaps Mail Services plc will paint all our pillar boxes grey.

The author is general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers.

(Photograph omitted)