This article was written in response to Simon Barnes, producer of the Dispatches programme which was aired on Channel 4 on Monday 8th of February 2010. I wrote a review which was published in the Guardian’s on-line Comment is free, which drew another response from Simon Barnes himself.
You can watch some of the programme here.
You can read my Guardian piece here.
You can read Simon Barnes’ response here.
I have yet to receive a reply to this letter.
Thanks for responding to my article in Comment is free.
I think that both of us are agreed that the Royal Mail is in an appalling state, and that something needs to be done. Where we disagree is in the idea that your programme actually addressed any of the issues.
You said that your coherent analysis of the situation was provided by the section dealing with industrial relations inside the company. What you failed to do was to ask why industrial relations are bad. Why are workers who were once loyal to the company disinclined to give of their best? What has gone so wrong with relations between the workers and the management that makes them speak with such bitterness of each other?
At the beginning of the programme you showed an agency worker training your reporter. The agency worker was cavalier in his attitude to the mail, so while he told his trainee the proper way of doing things, he consistently ignored his own advice. The narrator said that the agency worker claimed he had been doing the job for two years. The question you failed to ask at this point is why the Royal Mail has been employing an agency worker for this length of time? Why does the Royal Mail prefer to employ casual labour – and to keep it casual – than to employ a full-time postal worker on a proper contract?
You say that the fact that three of your four experts have a privatising agenda was not relevant to what they had to say and that they all want the Royal Mail to succeed. I think you will find that Dr Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute does not want the Royal Mail to succeed in its present form, but would prefer full-scale privatisation, including the ending of the universal delivery obligation. The other two probably want the Royal Mail to survive, but in a much reduced form, giving profits to the private companies who they serve.
One of the problems in attempting to have a discussion via a third party, is that an editor stands between us. The line “where were the voices of genuine postal workers” in my original version actually went on to say “who were not being filmed covertly?” That’s the question I wanted to ask. You had “experts” passing their opinions, and then covert filming of postal workers in a strife-ridden office, but you did not have reflections on the state of the industry from postal workers able to answer your questions directly.
This is cheap, nasty, sneaky television, like telling tales out of school, not even allowing the postal workers whose jobs you have no doubt jeopardised the right of reply. I wonder how long it would take for covert filming in your office to turn up similar material?
As one of my colleagues said: “how many hundreds of hours of film of ordinary everyday activities hit the cutting room floor just to leave these 40 minutes of shock-horror-outrage TV?”
However, you might be surprised to hear that the response in our delivery office was not all negative. Another colleague said he thought the programme was good in that it highlighted the inadequacies of management, the lax security, the poor equipment, the lack of training and the use of agency workers instead of full-time staff.
My problem with the programme, however, lies in its utter lack of analysis. You looked at the symptoms, but not at the cause, and in your response to my article failed to answer my main point, that the Royal Mail is being undermined by a regulatory system which requires the company not only to deliver its rivals’ mail for them, but to then supplement them at the rate of 2p per letter.
You asked if I had a story for you. Well I do.
You say that the private companies are a side show and that the problem with the Royal Mail is down to bad industrial relations. But this is the exact opposite of what is really happening. The private companies are not a sideshow, they are the cause of the problem.
We do the work, the private mail companies take the profit. Every time I deliver a letter for TNT or UK Mail, or any one of the other 41 other private mail companies, it is a blow to my job and my pride, not to say my pocket as a taxpayer.
You can read my views on that here:
They call this process “deregulation” but in order to achieve it the Royal Mail is highly regulated. And then, when you look at who does the regulating, you find that most of the members of the Postcomm have interests in privatisation in one form or another.
You can check that out here:
Your programme makes it clear that there is a bad attitude in some (but not most) offices, but it failed to address any of the major issues facing the Royal Mail at the moment. “Modernisation” is a euphemism for privatisation, and for an attack upon our wages and conditions at work. The company has shed 60,000 jobs in the last 7 years, while mechanisation has not taken up the slack. In other words, the remaining 120,000 RM employees have been doing a third more work for the same wages. It has been becoming harder and harder to do a proper job. We’ve watched our status as workers go down. We’ve listened to endless propaganda from the government and the management. We’ve heard them telling lies about us. We’ve been threatened with the loss of our pensions. We are carrying more and bulkier mail while being pressurised to do the job ever faster, doing longer rounds, all for the same money. Is it surprising then that some postal workers have become surly of late and that industrial relations are strained, to say the least?
I’d like to see you do a programme about “final mile delivery” and the collusion between government and the regulators to hide this attack upon our service behind the smokescreen of “market forces”. The market is a sham, a cheap cover for what is really happening to our industry – which Dispatches entirely failed to address – the process of enforced (and hidden) privatisation.
Postal workers will certainly know about Downstream Access, but how many members of the public have heard about it or understand what is going on?
The following is a user’s guide to Downstream Access and its impact on the Royal Mail.
Downstream Access (DSA) is the means by which private mail companies can gain access to the Royal Mail network, using Royal Mail staff to deliver their mail for them. It is the result of a series of EU directives whose ostensible purpose was to liberalise and harmonise postal services across Europe. What the process has actually achieved is the casualisation of postal worker’s jobs and diminishing standards for the ordinary consumer.
There are 41 licensed postal operators in the UK, including the Royal Mail. Of these only the Royal Mail has a universal delivery obligation.
Downstream Access companies include Citipost, DHL, SecuredMail, TNT and UK Mail. They bid for the most profitable bulk city-to-city and business to business trade, taking it away from the Royal Mail, before handing it over to the Royal Mail to actually deliver it.
You can tell which is Downstream Access mail by the frank in the right hand corner of the envelope. Any mail that doesn’t have a Royal Mail stamp, or which has some other kind of mark on it, is Downstream Access mail.
Samples of DSA franks are shown to the right.
According to Billy Hayes in a recent article, every downstream access letter actually costs the Royal Mail 2p.
This means that the British taxpayer is subsidising private companies to run-down the Royal Mail at the cost of 2p for every letter.
The trick that is being played on all of us is to present this process as part of the normal workings of the free market. We are being presented with the picture of an out-of-date, old-fashioned Royal Mail struggling in a free market against its more efficient and “modern” rivals. The Royal Mail is then being asked to “modernise” in response to this.
What this means for the workforce is increasing amounts of work for diminishing numbers of staff, increasing casualisation of the workforce, more and more part-time staff on diminishing pay and conditions, and a lessening of the ratio of full-time to part-time staff. It is full-time staff who are expected to take up the slack, while, at the same time, the pressure is on for full-time staff to leave the Royal Mail, to take redundancy, or to look for work in other trades.
What this means for the consumer is an increasingly shoddy and make-shift service, as Royal Mail staff are coming under pressure to do more work in less time.
The old-fashioned postie’s pride in his job and his service to customers is being squeezed out in favour of a cheaper mail service for the big corporations. B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to customer) is being made cheaper at the expense the ordinary consumer, including small businesses and High Street shops, who are receiving their mail ever later.
What we can do about this
We need to start a campaign to return Downstream Access mail to the sender.
All unsolicited mail, such as advertising leaflets, promotional or charity mail, or other non-urgent mail sent by DSA, should be immediately returned.
Make sure the address window on the envelope is covered, and that the return address is highlighted.
Make sure, also, that it is clear WHY you are returning the mail.
Write “NO TO DOWNSTREAM ACCESS”, or some similar phrase, in bold clear letters on the front of the envelope, and put the letter back in the post.
What if I need to read the contents?
Obviously you will need to read some of your DSA mail. Bank statements, for instance, are often sent by DSA. Clearly you will need to open these.
However, you can write to the company who sent you the mail telling them that you disapprove of their use of private companies to deliver their mail and asking that all letters be sent by Royal Mail in future.
It is up to you how much or how little of your DSA mail you return. Obviously the more the better, but even if only non-essential mail is returned it will put pressure on those companies who opt for DSA to use the Royal Mail instead.
Downstream Access is not “competition” for the Royal Mail, it is a burden. The companies who profit by DSA are not “rivals” they are parasites.
Say NO to Downstream Access!
Return the Royal Mail to full public ownership.
It’s not a free market, it’s a rigged market, says Roy Mayall
The Hooper Report
When Peter Mandelson came on TV in May last year proposing the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, he was very clear. Volumes are down, he said. People don’t send letters any more, they send texts and emails instead. The Royal Mail is under threat from the incursion of new technology into the communications business. It is all down to the market and to market choice.
The company he had in mind as the new potential co-owner of the Royal Mail was TNT, which had once been the Dutch national mail company.
TNT, of course, is one of any number of private mail companies vying for a place in the British postal market.
The impression we were being given was of an old-fashioned and beleaguered Royal Mail struggling with its more efficient rivals in an open market place.
The document that Peter Mandelson was basing his statements on was the Hooper Report.
The report makes a number of recommendations which are worth reviewing as they are still the basis of government policy. The Royal Mail has to modernise, but fast, it says. The CWU and Royal Mail need to get their act together and start being more cooperative. The government should take on responsibility for the pensions deficit in order to allow the company to concentrate on the modernisation process. A new regulatory regime is required to put the postal business in line with the rest of the communications market. And finally – and crucially – there should be a “strategic partnership” between Royal Mail “and one or more private sector companies with demonstrable experience of transforming a major business, ideally a major network business.”
These were precisely Peter Mandelson’s conclusions, although his plans for the part-privatisation were shelved – according to him – because of the weak condition of the market prevailing at the time. We might also add that there was an almighty outcry from the public, and from his own backbenchers, not to say, from Royal Mail staff and the CWU.
Plans for the sell-off remain in place, however, awaiting a change in “market conditions.”
All of this talk of “the market” makes you wonder.
Because when you take a close look at it, the market doesn’t exist. There is no market. It turns out to be little more than a propaganda tool used by the privatisation lobby to beat the Royal Mail over the head with.
In fact, the Royal Mail is in a very healthy state in terms of the profits it generates. Not only did it make £255 million in the first nine months of 2008 – a profit of over £1 million a day – but it also, through downstream access, generates massive profits for TNT and the other private mail companies too.
This is the issue that the Hooper Report fails to address: downstream access, the process by which private mail companies can crowbar themselves into the Royal Mail network, profiting from the system while undermining it. The Royal Mail is being regulated in order to allow the private companies to make a profit from it.
This isn’t a “free market”. It’s a rigged market.
What’s worse, according to Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, the Royal Mail actually subsidises the private mail companies at the rate of about 2p per letter. So not only do they take the profitable trade away, leaving the Royal Mail with the expensive and hard to run universal service obligation, but the Royal Mail actually pays them to do this.
“I must make it clear, that the system used in the UK is not used in any other country,” Billy Hayes said, in a recent article. “It is uniquely bad.”
So what is going on here? The government can’t pretend that it is not aware of this. The members of Postcomm, the regulatory body which sets the prices, are all appointed by government, and I can’t imagine that Peter Mandelson, control freak that he is, does not insist upon being kept fully informed.
Not only that, but if you check out the Postcomm website you’ll see that members of the commission all have interests in private mail companies; either that or they are in the deregulation business. In other words, the people who the government appointed to look after the regulatory system are also the people who are rigging the market, for their own benefit.
It’s like the Royal Mail is being forced to enter the “Free Market Casino” against its will, only to discover that the roulette wheels are loaded, and that the dealers are all card-sharks.
None of this is mentioned in the Hooper Report, which also goes on to avoid a number of other issues. In particular, while it highlights the pensions deficit, estimated to reach £10 billion this year, what it doesn’t do is to tell us the cause of the deficit in the decades long pensions holiday which the company took, with full government approval, draining the coffers while allowing the workforce to pour our own hard-earned money into what was effectively a bottomless pit.
Finally the report makes what amounts to a threat. “Our recommendations are a package,” it says. “Each element of the package is needed if the universal service is to be sustained: modernisation achieved through partnership, tackling the pension deficit, and changing the regulatory regime.”
Or, to put it another way, the Hooper Report is a long drawn out ransom note with our pensions as hostage.
Give us privatisation, it says, or your pension gets it.
Petition to save the Royal Mail
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- Roy Mayall | guardian.co.uk
Roy Mayall is a pseudonym for a postal worker who has been in the job for about five years and works in a delivery office somewhere in the south-east of England. He writes a blog at roymayall.wordpress.com
I’m interested in the way that words change their meaning once they are adopted by bureaucratic institutions. Take deregulation, for instance, as it’s applied to postal services in Britain. It appears to mean an opening of the market to allow competition. But if you look more closely you will see that, in order to achieve this, the Royal Mail’s ability to act in its own interest has been severely curtailed…
Read more here.
On You & Yours on BBC Radio 4 there was a discussion about Dear Granny Smith, featuring Billy Hayes of the CWU and Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper Report into the future of the Royal Mail. This is Roy Mayall’s response to that programme.
One of the things that has started to get to me since the publication of my book, Dear Granny Smith, is how often it is misrepresented in the press and by the media.
That was odd, because he played a short snippet from the BBC Book of the Week reading by Philip Jackson, in which, after a brief description of how the new Walk-Sequencing Machines work, the narrator quite clearly says, “and there’s not a postie in the whole world who would object.”
In another sequence Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper Reportinto the future of the Royal Mail, described the book as “a witty, mischievous, wonderfully nostalgic piece of writing”, but went on to describe it as “absolutely anti-modernisation, anti the modern way of doing things.”
Then he said: “But let’s get real, we all agree, Billy Hayes has just said it, the union agrees, the management agrees, the government agrees, that if we’re going to maintain our beloved universal postal service…. that the Royal Mail must accelerate its modernisation programme….” adding that the Walk-Sequencing Machines will “save the posties time, giving them more time to be out on delivery.”
This is precisely our fear. As if 3.5 hours is not already long enough to be working flat-out – 3.5 hours which generally turns into 4 hours, often more – now they want to put even more weight on our backs, even more time out on delivery.
You see, when Richard Hooper and the management of Royal Mail talk about “modernisation” it’s actually a euphemism. It doesn’t mean modernisation at all.
No postie would object to machines that took some of the drudgery out of our work, or which speeded things up, or which made the Royal Mail more efficient. This is the trick that is being played whenever anyone says that Dear Granny Smith is a nostalgic book – or as Billy Hayes, the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union put it: “pining for the blue remembered hills” – that discussing past work conditions is being “unrealistic”, as if having time, having proper tea-breaks, good pay and conditions, time to do the job properly and not being worked like a pack-mule, were all unrealistic goals.
No. What “modernisation”, in the sense that management consultants and senior management at the Royal Mail mean it, is not modernisation. It is privatisation.
There is a passage in the book where I compare the lives of two postmen: one an old postman who started work in the 1950s, and the other, a younger family man, now in his 40s. The first, who I call “Tom”, now lives in happy retirement, having left the postal service a couple of years ago, while the other – “Jerry” – has only a lifetime of hardship to look forward to, and fully expects to be working for a privatised mail service by the time he retires.
And then I say:
You have to ask why this should be? What has changed in the last 50 years? Why is Jerry’s future so different than the one that Tom would have expected at the same age? How come Tom can rest in contented retirement, while Jerry only has a future full of hardship and uncertainty to look forward to?
Us postie’s haven’t changed. Jerry is as committed to his customers as Tom ever was. He is as dedicated, as honest, as straightforward, as hard-working, as decent, as kind. The post hasn’t changed. We still need the post. So why are the workers suffering in this way?
I guess you might say, “it’s the same for everyone. No one has any certainty any more.”
I guess that’s true.
But you still have to ask why? What is the driving force behind all these changes?
In the book I don’t answer that question, but I will try to here.
The driving force behind all these changes is something called neoliberalism. It is the guiding philosophy of the corporations. It basically says that nothing will exist on this planet – no human endeavour will take place, no plot of land will exist – that does not make a profit for them. Humans beings’ only purpose is to work for them. We are indebted to them through our mortgages, in the exact same way that serfs were indebted to the Lords in feudal times, and a portion of our labour will go to pay off our indebtedness in the same way that serfs were made to hand over a portion of their produce to the Lords.
In other words, what they have in mind for us isn’t “modernisation” at all. It is the exact opposite. It is a return to feudal serfdom.
Listen to You and Yours: 18/12/2009. The discussion on Dear Granny Smith is just over 29 minutes into the programme.
- BBC iPlayer – Book of the Week: Dear Granny Smith: Episode 1
Listen to Book of the Week: Dear Granny Smith: Episode 1
Modernisation agreements. Market liberalisation. Downstream access. Postal services should be simple: sender posts letter, post office sorts letter, recipient gets letter. Yet the Royal Mail strike in October was over issues so complicated that even union officials struggled to sum them up…
You have to read the comments on this. It seems I’m not who I think am…
Read more here.
Watch Panorama in BBC iPlayer here.