Competition in the postal services sector and the Universal Service Obligation - Business, Innovation and Skills Contents


The Universal Service is a postal service available to everyone living in every part of the United Kingdom, delivered at the same cost and with the same standard. It comprises of at least one delivery of letters every Monday to Saturday, at least one collection of letters every Monday to Saturday, at least one collection of other postal packages every Monday to Friday, and a service of delivering postal packets and registered items from one address to another, by affordable and geographically-uniform prices throughout the United Kingdom. It is an essential service to many people and the majority of our evidence highlighted the benefits of this service to people living in rural areas, to those less able to travel, to older people, and also to blind and partially-sighted people, who benefit from a free postal service.

Our inquiry concentrated on the concern expressed by many, including the current Universal Service Provider, Royal Mail, that the Universal Service is under direct and immediate threat. Given the fundamental importance of the Universal Service, we were surprised that Royal Mail could not provide a regional breakdown of the cost of the Universal Service, and that Royal Mail and Ofcom—the postal services regulatory—could not agree on what constitutes the cost, revenues and profits of the Universal Service. We recommend that both Ofcom and Royal Mail should agree on an accurate costing of the Universal Service, and that Royal Mail provides a geographical analysis of where the Universal Service is profitable, and where it is not. The Secretary of State should direct Ofcom to review the net cost of the Universal Service, in accordance with the Postal Services Act 2011.

We do not believe that the Universal Service is under immediate threat, but we recognise that market conditions are changing rapidly. Ofcom has the regulatory power to place conditions on other postal operators in order to protect the Universal Service. These are the General Universal Service Obligation, which takes six to nine months to implement, and the Universal Service Compensation Fund, which involves a much longer process. We recommend that Ofcom should have in place both a timeline for implementation of obligations that they can place on postal operators at short notice, and an assessment that that timescale is fast enough to avoid a failure in the Universal Service, even in the short term.

While we accept that Royal Mail has done much to improve efficiency, it still has to match the technical innovations introduced by many of its competitors—innovations that more clearly match the expectations of consumers, as well as contributing to the efficiency of competing postal operators. However, while such improvements may increase costs, Royal Mail should not increase postal and package prices simply in an attempt either to increase its own profit levels or to protect the Universal Service Obligation, without increasing the efficiency of its operations.

Royal Mail's competitors either deliver post end-to-end, without any assistance from Royal Mail, or they pay Royal Mail to deliver their post the final distance—what is known as 'the Final Mile'. Royal Mail offers two types of pricing plan for its competitors: either national average prices (when competitors never deliver end-to-end) or zonal prices (when competitors ask Royal Mail to deliver in certain geographical zones only). We support Ofcom's consultation on the level of zonal pricing to be set by Royal Mail, and any recommendations arising from that consultation must balance the need for Royal Mail to retain the freedom to set its own prices, dependent on the cost of delivering in that area, with the benefits of retaining an open market and increasing competition. Royal Mail is free to set zonal pricing, but it should be based on actual costs of delivering to those zones, and not as a device to deter, or even stifle, competition.

It is unacceptable that the delivery of the Universal Service should require downward pressure on the terms and conditions of staff delivering that service. We are opposed to a 'race to the bottom' of postal sector employees' wages, terms and conditions, and such a race should not be an inevitable result of greater competition in the postal sector. If standards of pay in the postal sector, as in other sectors, decline, then the taxpayer is left to make up the difference. We recommend that Ofcom investigates the impact on customers, and the service provided to customers of any downward pressure on wages, terms and conditions of postal sector staff. We also recommend that Ofcom's remit should be extended to include labour conditions and standards.

We recognise that Ofcom has a difficult role in ensuring that the provision of a Universal Service is both financially sustainable and efficient. The sector is changing quickly, and Royal Mail has now moved from the public to the private sector. Ofcom's overriding obligation is to ensure the protection of the Universal Service Obligation but, if necessary, there should be changes in the regulatory framework to enable it to do so. Ofcom should provide our successor Committee with quarterly updates on the state of the Universal Service, and must be able to respond quickly if the Universal Service is under threat.

The postal sector is working within a constantly changing market, with declining volumes of letters, and a sharp increase in parcel volume arising from the rapid growth of internet shopping. There is a fine balancing act to be set between ensuring that the minimum standards of the Universal Service are maintained while encouraging a competitive market in the postal sector. While we would not want to stifle competition, we are adamant that the principle of the Universal Service should be upheld. We are not persuaded that the Universal Service is a burden for Royal Mail, but is rather an obligation that brings revenue and status to the organisation.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 12 March 2015