Peter Luff MP, head of the House of Commission Business and Enterprise Committee, was our guest at a Power Lunch in Westminster yesterday. Round the table we had a number of regulators, lobbyists and businesspeople, mainly from the telecoms, mail, and energy sectors, so it made for a wide-ranging discussion.
Luff's topic was how far we might streamline the workings of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Quite a bit, I would say. Rather a lot of its work involves simply replicating what private agencies do already. It seems to delight in devising all kinds of taxpayer-supported special schemes for this sector or that, this activity or that, as the political wind blows. It would be much better off standing out of the sun and letting businesses grow under the light of lower taxes and lighter regulation.
One topic that did come up at the discussion was the independent review of postal services that is currently underway. This could be quite radical in its findings. There is certainly a strong case for privatizing the Royal Mail, as we explained in our report Privatization - Reviving the Momentum. Indeed, with many other national mail carriers now in private hands, and with the growth of private carriers in the UK, the case is getting stronger. The political problem, of course, has always been what to do with rural post offices. Privatization brings transparency, and transparency is the enemy of the sort of cross-subsidies that keep rural post offices open today.
On the other hand, many of the rural post offices have gone already. More banking, benefits, licensing and other traditional post office functions are now done online. So maybe the problem is getting smaller. And maybe the question of whether some rural village really needs a post office or not should be up to the local authorities – not a decision made by some distant bureaucrat in London.