A marvel through the letterbox

The Royal Mail is one of the wonders of the modern world, and we seem to be going the right way to losing it. The recent television documentary and the subsequent official revelations on the number of letters lost or misdelivered were devastating and, incidentally, run counter to my experience of the excellent postal service in my part of Leeds. Britain has a curious love-hate relationship with its public institutions. France is no less market driven than Britain but it is always proud of its "grands projets". When the government decides that a project has to be in the public sector France embraces it enthusiastically, whereas we apologise for it. France decides to have a fast train network on dedicated tracks and gets on with it. The TGV provides an effective and efficient national network. By contrast, under privatisation, our rail system has no slack in the system, so that when something goes wrong even the East Coast service often collapses spectacularly. The West Coast mainline is a bigger disaster, with no current prospect of Virgin trains ever being able to use their expensive "tilting trains" to their full capacity.

The similarities between the railways and the Royal Mail are striking. Decades of under investment in British Rail led to public frustration and disillusion with the service. Loyal and experienced railwaymen and women who understood the system found their pride in the service steadily undermined by the growing number of breakdowns in the system and by an understandably angry public. Eventually, British Rail lost so much public support and confidence that it became an easy candidate for privatisation - since when more public money is being poured into the train companies than was invested in British Rail. Today there is a pretty general view that rail privatisation was a costly mistake.

Unless we realise the importance and potential of the Royal Mail and ensure that pride in the service it offers is enhanced, we may well make the same mistake, and, once gone, it will be impossible to bring it back. It may well require an injection of public funds to restore the overall quality of Royal Mail service that its dedicated staff have hitherto prided themselves on, but some of these funds could well come from an increase in the price of the basic stamp. After all, the cost of a first class stamp is no more in real terms than the Penny Black was on its inception 160 years ago!

The break up of the Royal Mail would destroy the key principle with which Britain led the world in 1840. Before the revolutionary introduction of the postage stamp every letter was charged on weight and by distance, with the payment being collected from the recipient. Rowland Hill realised the inefficiency of such a system and also believed firmly that it was unjust to penalise a citizen for happening to live in a remote area. He therefore persuaded the post office and the government to adopt the universal penny post paid for in advance by the use of stamps that guaranteed delivery anywhere in the land at the same price. Without exception this British invention has been adopted by every country in the world. In addition from 1874 the world's postal authorities have joined together voluntarily in the Universal Postal Union to lay down a system for the post worldwide - a remarkable and unsung example of global co-operation.

In effect, the low cost of deliveries in urban areas subsidises expensive deliveries to remote areas. And why not? Why, for instance, should hill farmers in Mid Wales be penalised for having to live miles away from a major town? The principle of the single universal charge is precious and needs to be safeguarded. It certainly would not be retained under privatisation when companies would cherry pick the profitable bits.

Anyone who has been involved with organising election campaigns knows only too well the immense problems of getting leaflets out. Determining delivery rounds for election leaflets, the wearying task of dividing up the leaflets into the correct numbers and then the long slog of getting them through letter boxes. If they had to be addressed as well it could take weeks not days to sort out! The Royal Mail performs the miracle each day of taking an envelope or card dropped into a red box on the corner of the street and, more often than not, delivering it the next morning through a house letter box hundreds of miles away. Frankly, I regard the ability to deal with the intricacies of collection, sorting, transportation, sorting again, and delivery overnight as much more amazing than all mysteries of e-mail.

In Leeds night sorting has been abandoned and the postmen and postwomen have to come in early to do their own sorting with the result that they are much later out on their rounds and the mountain of mail to be sorted gets bigger as the week progresses. The second delivery has also been abandoned. During my time in parliament I usually had my post delivered before I left home to catch the 7.20 am train to Kings Cross! Alas, it now arrives much later.

It is time to defend the Royal Mail and recognise the value of this public service. If we have to pay a little more for it, through charges or via subsidy, then so be it. It is too precious a principle to be lightly abandoned.

7 May 2004