Lindsay Mackie is a consultant at nef. She is leading nef’s post office campaign and works on Clone Town and Ghost Town Britain.
The words choke and cornflakes suggest themselves when thinking of how Lord Mandelson responded to a report released (pdf) by the business, enterprise and regulatory reform select committee yesterday.
The committee, chaired by the highly respected Tory MP Peter Luff, is doing a forensic job on the various options for the Post Office network. It seems from the public sessions (where key witnesses are invited to give their views on how the Post Office is and should be run) that it’s a motivated, informed and tough body, intent on finding the right solutions for a great national institution – and applying its keen intelligence to the postal services bill (prop: Lord Mandelson) and its proposal that the Royal Mail be broken up through a 30% sell-off.
The latest report on the bill is an astonishing attack on the business secretary’s plan. Though couched in the silky language of parliamentary discourse – “it is surprising”, “worrying”, “the government is coyly refusing …” – the report, to use a technical term, tears the government plan to bits. It also rips apart the key recommendations of the Hooper report, which Lord Mandelson accepted in its entirety on the day of publication and then used as a basis for his sell-off bill.
The report is a rattling good read. Its main conclusions are unambiguous. It agrees with Hooper and the government that the Royal Mail pension deficit should be taken over by the government. And it agrees that Royal Mail should be differently regulated and governed – taking away the malign political interference (or negligence) that has dogged it over the years. Nobody could disagree.
Then it gets down to business, shredding all the arguments made for the 30% sell-off.
“We do not consider either the independent review or the government has properly made the case that these two reforms, about which there is a broad consensus, can only be made as part of a package that includes the third reform – the involvement of a private sector equity partner in Royal Mail.”
The report points out that the government has not put out the figure it hopes to get from the sell-off – or explained why a much-needed cash injection has to come from a sell-off.
“We are left with the conclusion that either the government has not fully thought through its position about future share sales, or that it has done so and is refusing to reveal its hand. Either case is worrying.
“It is entirely unacceptable for parliament to be asked to approve such fundamental changes to Royal Mail Group when there is no indication of how much money Royal Mail Group needs for investment; while the government appears to have no business plan and has not indicated the use to which any private sector capital would be put.”
After such a slating, it’s hard to see what will be left of the rationale for Lord Mandelson’s plan to break up Royal Mail, given that there is no certainty that there will be a cash injection from a private-sector partnership. There are several questions about the proposed partnership that must be addressed:
The figure cited by Lord Mandelson at the second reading was 30%, but why?
How much openness will there be about the partner’s rights and any arrangements between the parties about sale of the partner’s stake? As the bill is currently drafted, parliament will not have any right to see any agreement before the government enters into it (or afterwards). Is the government prepared to make such details public before a partnership is agreed?
What is the detailed rationale for dividing the Post Office from Royal Mail Group?
What will be the effect on competition if, as is very likely, the chosen partner is already active in the UK mail market?
What will happen if Royal Mail needs further capital injections? The natural assumption is that investors would fund this in proportion to their stake in the company. But such an injection from the Treasury would expose the company to all the state-aid rules that we are told this scheme is intended to avoid.
It’s hard to see how Lord Mandelson can now persevere with his wretched, destructive bill. Nobody – including now this august select committee – wants anything to do with it. Can’t someone throw the noble lord a lifeline out of this sinking ship?