The announcement last week by Vince Cable on the future of Royal Mail was of great interest to me as I played a large part in developing Liberal Democrat policy when I was Shadow Trade and Industry Minister.
Two things have been clear to me for a long time. The first is that Royal Mail needs to attract substantial investment capital if it is to compete and survive.
The second is that the Post Office network is an essential public service which can and should attract business from the public and private sector but will require a degree of subsidy to maintain a network. It is now a separate state owned business and will remain so.
Unlike previous governments the present one has no closure programme for post offices. In the last three years, freed from responsibility of the Post Office network and the pension fund, Royal Mail has become profitable. This can only be maintained if the company can invest in new technology and compete with existing private sector networks free from restrictive state aid rules.
What is crucially important is that the universal service is guaranteed in law with the regulator, Ofcom, given the right to intervene if it believes it could be compromised. It also means that the Royal Mail’s dominance in delivering the last mile through its network of ‘posties’ should be a commercial advantage.
Royal Mail’s growing parcels business is particularly valuable in rural areas where some private carriers are adding a surcharge to deliveries to our area. This does not apply to the Royal Mail’s universal service. One additional feature of the flotation of Royal Mail shares is that at least ten per cent will be given to Royal Mail employees with the condition they are held for a minimum of three years to give them a real stake in their business.
Far from being an ideological privatisation coming from the right of the Conservative Party, this is a policy thought through by Liberal Democrats to give Royal Mail and post offices the best chance of a long term future in a rapidly changing business environment.
That is why it was announced by Vince Cable, having been developed by Ed Davey and then Norman Lamb on the basis of Liberal Democrat policy I initiated.
Of course, it faces uncertainties at to who will buy it and how much they will pay. The unions predictably oppose it and threaten industrial action which could compromise the sale. What has to be recognised is that, given the budget deficit, Royal Mail could not go on raising money within the public sector in competition with schools and hospitals and would therefore struggle to survive let alone compete.
what DO MPs really do?
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Association consulting on MPs’ pay and conditions has said that they conclude that members of the public have little idea of what members of Parliament do all day and every day.
Certainly, I am aware that people assume that appearances in the media might be a determinant of activity. People also assume that MPs live apart from the rest of the community leading to people asking how often do you visit the constituency and assuming that somehow home is in London SW1. So it is worth recording that my family and I live in an ordinary North East village using the local services with children attending the local schools. When Parliament is sitting I fly down to London some time on a Monday, returning some time on Thursday. The timings depend on engagements in the constituency or commitments to attendance in the House.
A website, They Work for You provides a formulaic summary of activities in terms of questions asked, speeches made and votes cast. This, however doesn’t cover activities outside the chamber. Most MPs have a variety of policy interests relating to their constituencies or their own special concerns. This will involve them with any number of meetings, either one to one or with other MPs.
In addition is the work of select committees which takes up considerable time. As a committee chair I spend at least half my long working hours on committee business (which reduces time in the Chamber or attending votes especially if on a visit or speaking to outside organisations).
Whether away in London or at home in the constituency, a lot of time is spent dealing with issues and problems raised by constituents as well as visiting all kinds of organisations across the area. This level of activity goes up when the House is in recess.
The work is interesting, varied and unpredictable – but the hours are long and not family friendly. I calculate I have spent 10 years away from home during my time as an MP. Passing legislation, reviewing policy, holding ministers and civil servants to account and engaging with constituents and interest groups is a real and significant job required by a working democracy. However, it is up to each MP how they organise it but I know of none who do not put in long hours away from home to try and do the job in the best way they see fit.