Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
MONDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2001
SCHOLAR, KCB AND
20. So we come back to the risk. You were in
the dark about profitability, you were in the dark about the financial
consequences of the deal. Why did you have so much faith in the
Post Office itself to be able to deliver? Why did you give them
such a free rein? Why were you not more involved as a Department?
After all we are talking about approximately £290 million
of taxpayers' money.
(Sir Michael Scholar) We assured ourselves that the
Post Office were being advised by competent, professional advisers.
We ourselves took on a professional adviser. That adviser conducted
discussions with the Post Office themselves and with the Post
Office's advisers. We assessed the results of those discussions
and we came to the conclusion, as the NAO report suggests, that
this was a carefully considered commercial acquisition and, as
in the words of the report, that the DTI covered the ground well.
21. You feel you did have a close surveillance
of what was going on.
(Sir Michael Scholar) No, as the report says, we did
not have a close surveillance and that was deliberate as a matter
22. Are losses potentially possible?
(Sir Michael Scholar) Of course. When any such acquisition
takes place, losses are possible. In any kind of commercial activity
losses are possible.
23. Who will pick up the bill if there are any
(Sir Michael Scholar) The bill is picked up by other
consumers and in the last resort by the taxpayer, because it is
a public sector owned business.
24. It has taken me four minutes to get to that
(Sir Michael Scholar) It is a familiar point.
25. What you are saying really is that the risk
again is on the taxpayer at the end of the day.
(Sir Michael Scholar) So is the upside.
26. Are you talking about profits?
(Sir Michael Scholar) Yes.
27. We shall come onto that in a minute then.
Are you now keeping a close eye on the situation? Are you monitoring
what is happening?
(Sir Michael Scholar) Yes, we have monitored it quite
28. At what stage would you have stepped in
and stopped the deal?
(Sir Michael Scholar) We could have stopped it at
29. Hypothetically when would you have said
"Hold on a minute".
(Sir Michael Scholar) We could have decided that the
acquisition was inconsistent with a strategy which Ministers thought
30. So on policy rather than financial consequences.
(Sir Michael Scholar) No, we could have decided that
the proposition was not commercially promising.
31. I should like to come onto profits and page
38. Here I think I am on your side. Paragraph 2.44 talks about
the competitors who were a little bit worried about the disadvantage
or the unfair advantage they thought was happening in this purchase
by the Post Office. Distribution of profits. Where did profits
(Sir Michael Scholar) The profits before 1997 were
partly retained by the Post Office, but in very large measure
taken into the Treasury.
(Sir Michael Scholar) Since the statement in 1998
to which I have referred, a much smaller proportion of the Post
Office's profits have been taken into the Treasury as a matter
of policy by Ministers.
33. At the time of this acquisition were huge
balances being built up by the Post Office?
(Sir Michael Scholar) Yes, the Post Office has had
a sizeable profitability. In the year in question the profit was
much reduced by a large write-off for the Horizon project.
34. If anything goes wrong it will have to be
the taxpayer who subsidises them at the moment because the Post
Office should in effect be able to subsidise the deal if anything
goes wrong from its profits. Is that right?
(Sir Michael Scholar) Yes, in a year in which the
Post Office has profits it could use some of those profits to
mop up any losses which might come from this particular transaction.
Yes, that is true.
35. Is that a major change in policy?
(Sir Michael Scholar) No, it has always been the case
that when the Post Office was profitable, there might be a particular
kind of activity in which it was engaging, which was lossmaking
and which was being financed from those profits.
36. Do you think that as a nationalised industry
you were able to benefit because of that in the acquisition process?
(Sir Michael Scholar) Are you referring to the financing
(Sir Michael Scholar) Not in the event because the
decision of Ministers was that the financing of this deal should
reflect commercial borrowing rates. We have applied commercial
borrowing rates to the borrowings that the Post Office needed
to make in order to finance the acquisition.
38. When I read the report I got the feeling
that the deal was struck and the Post Office went into the deal,
and you with knowledge of that, and you did not really know what
the financial situation was at all. You did not know how much
you were going to pay for German Parcel and indeed you did not
know what the interest rates were going to be or what you were
going to have to pay. That seems a very extraordinary way to go
into a deal in purchasing another company. The private sector
could not have done that, could they?
(Sir Michael Scholar) I think the private sector would
have done exactly that. We had a pretty good idea of what the
price of this acquisition should be and together with the Treasury
we set a limit for the negotiation. The Post Office carried out
that negotiation and came in under that limit. As to the financing
of it, the way in which we approached that was to carry out an
analysis of the expected profits and the expected costs for the
years ahead and we discounted those in the way in which this is
normally done; we discounted it to take account of an estimate
of the weighted cost of the Post Office's capitalbetween
eight and nine per centand that produced a small positive
net present value.
39. Do you know the fact now?
(Sir Michael Scholar) We knew those estimates then.
We do not know the facts yet because the estimates span many years,
many years ahead.