The End of Public Service
With Leo McKinstry
Mr Jones lives on Valley Road. I don’t know how old he is; in his eighties at least. Almost every morning, as I carry out my daily postal round, he is standing at his kitchen window when I come up the road. By the time I reach his house, he is at the front door waiting for me. ‘Usual rubbish, is it?’ he will say with a laugh. Or: ‘If it’s a bill, I don’t want it.’ There’s a bit more banter, then I have to get on with my round.
It was Mr Jones who initiated this daily routine. One day, when I first started doing this round, he greeted me on his front doorstep. ‘I always like to see the postman,’ he said. ‘It makes me feel that everything is right with the world.’ Words like that have made me realize how important my job is. My round is not just about delivering mail. It is also about being a valued and trusted member of the community, a source of support to the vulnerable.
That concept of public service has long been one of the guiding principles of the Royal Mail. But sadly today it is disappearing, overwhelmed by a crass mismanagement and political dogma. The tragedy of our times is that the cack-handed approach to commercialisation by managers and ministers has not only weakened the ability of the Royal Mail to function effectively, but is also fast destroying the public service ethic. That is why, in recent years, we have seen mass post office closures and heavy job losses.
It is also why we went on strike recently. I must admit that, as a postman for the last few years, I had feelings of ambivalence about these strikes. Precisely because I so strongly believe in public service, I hated to think of the disruption they would have caused during the busiest time of the year for the Royal Mail.
But I also felt that, if the Royal Mail is to be saved, then a stand had to be taken against the continuing run-down of a once great, uniquely cherished service. The strikes might have been called off, but the dispute isn’t over. There are a number of outstanding issues yet to be resolved.
The Government and their lackeys in the Royal Mail management like to paint our union as a dinosaur holding out against modernisation. We the employees are portrayed as an army of idlers who are bent on an act of suicide in a foolish attempt to protect our cushy and outdated working practices. Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the drive to streamline the service.
This move is all too typical of the belligerence which has dragged industrial relations to a new low within the Post Office. Contemptuous of the idea of public service, the bull-headed management has long been spoiling for a confrontation. At one meeting in my office, we were informed by the management of changes in working practices and hours, which would put a new emphasis on delivery to the corporate customer. It was what the corporations wanted that mattered. We were effectively being told that the quality of service to the average customer was less important than satisfying the requirements of big businesses. In the middle of this meeting, an old-fashioned postman piped up, ‘What about Granny Smith?’
Now I should explain that Granny Smith is the Royal Mail’s nickname for its customers. It is a deeply affectionate term. Granny Smith is everyone, but particularly every old lady who lives alone and for whom the mail service is a lifeline. When an old lady gives me a Christmas card with a fiver slipped in with it and writes, ‘Thank you for thinking of me every day,’ she means it. But, in response to the question from my colleague, the answer from the manager was chilling, ‘Granny Smith is not important. Granny Smith doesn’t matter any more.’
The ostensible justification for all this ruthless indifference to public needs is that volume of Royal Mail business has fallen, so costs have to be cut dramatically. ‘Figures are down’ is the mantra constantly repeated by management. But every postman knows that the figures are false. From my own experience, my mail bags are heavier than ever before. My job is meant to start at 6.15 in the morning, but many of us have to come in early, unpaid, to prepare our rounds because the pressure is now so great. When I start my round on my bike, with a tray at the front and panniers at the back, all filled with mail, I can almost feel my knees giving way thanks to the weight of it all. If the figures are really down,
then how come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit down or a tea-break?
The truth is that the volume is not down at all. The Royal Mail have just been fiddling the figures with breathtaking cynicism. This is how it has been done. The mail is delivered to the offices in standard size grey boxes, from which it is sorted into the individual rounds. The volume of mail is calculated by taking an estimate of the average number of letters in each grey box. Through a national agreement between the management and the union, that average used to be fixed at 208. But in the last year, the Royal Mail management has arbitrarily, and without any consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters per box to just 150. Having taken this step, the management then declares that business is down more than 10 per cent, so the workforce has to be slashed.
The Royal Mail must be the only business in the world that actually pretends its turnover is shrinking when the very opposite is the case. Doubtful of the management’s figures, the union ordered a random count of letters in the grey boxes over a two week period in a number of offices, including mine. On average, it was found that these boxes each contained 267 letters, not the absurd 150. So in reality the figures are up, not down. And that is hardly a surprise, given the amount of traffic that is now generated by the internet, and TV and phone shopping.
Armed with their manipulated statistics, the Government and management keep running down the service. Indeed, much of the Royal Mail has already been deregulated, which means that private firms, like TNT and Citypost, have successfully bid for contracts for profitable bulk mail and city-to-city trade of large corporations. TNT, for instance, has a lucrative contract with British Telecom. But this kind of cherry picking of certain businesses will have a disastrous long-term impact on the integrity and viability of the Royal Mail, since we are the only organisation that has universal delivery obligation, meaning that we have to delivered letters at a fixed price to any part of the country regardless of distance. At present, the profitable parts of the business subsidise the public obligation. Take away the those parts, and the whole system will collapse.
The Government has also used the vast pensions deficit, estimated to reach about £8 billion next year, as a further justification for privatisation. But this is another piece of nonsense. A partial sale of the Royal Mail will not get rid of the deficit, nor would any private investor take on such a staggering sum. So, even if there is a sale, the taxpayer will be lumbered with the pension costs, while a private firm rakes in the profits.
We cannot go on like this. The strikes were not a return to the arrogant union militancy of the 1970s. They represented a battle to protect a much-loved service. We will all be the losers if the Government and management are allowed to carry on swinging their demolition ball at the Royal Mail.
- Roy Mayall London Review Blog
- Leo McKinstry in the Express
- Postmen: We bind the nation together – Times Online
Roy Mayall’s book, Dear Granny Smith.
This book is a letter to you, me, all of us, from a British postie. A fascinating, eye-opening, heartfelt letter which goes behind the scenes, through the ages, in the sorting room and out on the daily round, to tell the other side of the story.
At a recent staff meeting, a postman asked what the modernisation of the Royal Mail would mean for “Granny Smith” – the little old lady who lives alone and for whom the mail service is a lifeline. “Granny Smith isn’t important,” was the reply. “Granny Smith doesn’t matter any more.” Well, Dear Granny Smith is an attempt to explain why she does matter.
An appeal to all of us to spend an evening by the fire with a cup of cocoa and take a quiet moment to read a letter from the people who are the real Santas, not just at Christmas but all year round…