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Royal Mail Sale

Volume 755: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of the value for money achieved from the sale of Royal Mail.

My Lords, the Government’s overall objective in selling shares in Royal Mail was to protect the universal postal service by ensuring that Royal Mail has a sustainable and secure future. The sale raised £2 billion for the taxpayer and it enables Royal Mail to access the private sector capital that it needs to invest in growth. The sale guards against the real need for Royal Mail to request additional taxpayer support in the future.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, even though it was what I expected. If the enhanced share price, which today stands at 479.60p, was just market “froth”, can the Minister explain why the long-term priority shareholders sold their stakes for huge profits? Given that the National Audit Office has said that the business department’s desire to sell Royal Mail before the election next year resulted in a knockdown price that cost taxpayers £750 million, does the Minister feel that there are any lessons to be learnt for any future sale?

My Lords, there are a number of questions in the noble Lord’s question. First, let me cover the share price. The share price for Royal Mail is very volatile. It reached £6.15 in January and stands at £4.79 as of this morning. The Government achieved their intention to ensure that Royal Mail started with core, long-term, stable investors who understood the business, along with some hedge fund participation to ensure liquidity in the aftermarket. This was absolutely real value for money and such a success story of this Government.

Would the Minister remind the House that the Labour Party failed completely in its own attempt to sell Royal Mail, and was much relieved when this Government managed to sell it for what was certainly at that time a fair price, in order to save the post offices which we still have and—most importantly—to save the pension scheme, which had no money left in it at all?

My noble friend raises a very important question. The party opposite failed to achieve a sale or to find a solution to the problem of Royal Mail. This Government have taken a loss-making public enterprise and turned it into a highly successful, respected public company. Both the National Audit Office report and last week’s Select Committee report reached the important conclusion that we had successfully achieved our objectives. The Royal Mail IPO has inspired other companies in the UK to go for a flotation.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that much concern has been expressed by Royal Mail and others at the threat posed to the sustainability of the universal postal service by the rapid rise of direct delivery competition in postal services, which are able to cherry pick the lowest hanging fruit without any obligation to serve less profitable and harder-to-reach markets. Would he agree that, in those circumstances, it would be helpful if Ofcom, which has responsibility for the integrity of the universal service, undertook a full review of direct delivery as a matter of urgency, instead of in 2015 as planned, and determined quickly any regulatory changes needed to protect the universal service?

My Lords, the businesses complement each other. As the chief executive of Royal Mail has said, it is unthinkable that the two companies will not always work very closely. Ofcom is an independent organisation and it will regulate and oversee the function of the Royal Mail.

My Lords, we certainly do not need to be reminded of the failure of the previous Labour Government, because I still feel the shame about how the Bill was introduced in this House. However, putting that to one side, could I ask the Minister a question that is pretty much along the lines of the previous question? I am sure that he will recall the assurances that the Government gave to Royal Mail and the British public. In talking about the value of Royal Mail, one should look at the value of the service that it gives. Has the Minister any idea of bringing forward the review, which I am told will not be until next year? The cherry picking is already having a great effect on the ability of maintaining a universal service, and I am sure that the Minister will agree that, if it carries on haemorrhaging the profitable parts of the mail business to unregulated operators, the regulator will quickly have to have another look at Royal Mail’s situation. Could he please give us the assurance that the review will take place sooner rather than later?

My Lords, here was a company which prior to privatisation was turning around £9 billion a year. It lost money for a number of years, to the tune of £1 billion. Preceding the era of privatisation it made a £300 million profit, hence we went for the flotation, at the time when there was the real threat of the American debt crisis as well as unions threatening to strike—and each strike day costs roughly £30 million, so a £300 million profit can be wiped out in 10 days. It was a successful flotation, and the Secretary of State has appointed the noble Lord, Lord Myners, to look into how best we can do any future flotations.

I am sorry that we have reached the 30 minutes for Question Time and, even though it is me who is at the Dispatch Box next time, I think that it is time that we moved on.