Britain’s biggest privatisation in years was blighted by a fear of failure and poor advice from state-appointed banks, a committee of lawmakers said today following an inquiry into the 2 billion pound sale of Royal Mail.
Britain sold a 60 per cent stake in the postal service at 330 pence per share last October after a politically charged debate which pitted the coalition government against Royal Mail’s heavily unionised workforce and the opposition Labour party.
The stock quickly rose by as much as 87 per cent, prompting criticism that the price had been set too low and the government had botched the deal. The price has since fallen back, but at 473p per share remains above where it was sold.
“We believe that fear of failure and poor quality advice led to a significant underestimate of the demand for Royal Mailshares,” said Adrian Bailey, the Labour chairman of the cross-party parliamentary committee which scrutinised the deal.
Some of the concerns echo those expressed earlier this year by spending watchdog the National Audit Office, which said the 500-year-old state postal operator was sold off too cheaply.
Ministers have staunchly defended the government’s handling of the sell-off, which followed three failed attempts by previous administrations to privatise Royal Mail, saying they were cautious to reduce the risk of the launch being a flop in the face of possible strike action at the postal firm.
“The committee’s views on the share price are based entirely on hindsight and ignore that we were selling 600 million shares – they found no evidence that the department or its advisers missed vital information prior to sale,” a business department spokeswoman said in response to the lawmakers’ report.
However yesterday the government launched a review of the bookbuilding process used to collect orders for shares in such sell-offs. Over the next six years, ministers want to raise £20bn from the sale of public assets such as stakes in the Eurostar rail link, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds.
Labour said the committee’s report backed up their argument that the sale had been mishandled, and that the review of the privatisation process was effectively an admission from the government that it had sold the firm too cheaply.
It had previously seized upon the flotation, and the quick profits made by big banks and City investors, to reinforce one of its central arguments ahead of next year’s general election - that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is out of touch with ordinary voters.