The CEO of Royal Mail and other senior figures in the business clashed with MPs in parliament today after being recalled to give evidence, following a session last month in which the CEO’s testimony was criticised as ‘not wholly accurate’.
Simon Thompson was accused of being “contemptuous” and goings on at Royal Mail described as “corporate anarchy,” in a lengthy session which saw MPs become increasingly frustrated with much of the testimony provided.
MPs took the unusual step of asking all three witnesses to swear an oath before giving evidence, with Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee chair Darren Jones reminding them that to to knowlingly mislead the commitee would be considered contempt of parliament and perjury.
Thompson was quizzed by MPs last month on whether he is “worth” the £140,000 bonus he received last year on top of a £540,000 salary, and was later criticised for some of his responses during the evidence hearing. Jones said Thompson was “quite good at evading my questions” and reminded him that “misleading parliament is not something we appreciate”.
Jones recalled Thompson to Parliament to give “futher evidence” at the earliest opportunity, along with Royal Mail Group chairman Keith Williams, after the committee “is now not confident that all the answers you gave during the session were wholly accurate”. Ricky McAulay, the company’s operations developement director, also took part in the session.
CWU members in Royal Mail staged 18 days of strike action during the second half of 2022 over pay, jobs and conditions. The union recently renewd its mandate for industrial action, with a turnout of 77% and more than 95% in favour.
Royal Mail’s embattled CEO returned to Parliament to the BEIS committee to clarify evidence he gave in a bruising session last month. Thompson was recalled after the committee received evidence which contradicted some of his testimony from the previous session.
The session was highly fractuous, with Jones becoming visibly frustrated at the testimony of Thompson in particular, but accusing all the witnesses of seeking to evade responsibility for problems within the business and for the failure to provide accurate information during the first session.
“There’s a theme to your answers today gentlemen,” he said, “which is, we have rogue posters, we have rogue managers, we have isolated incidences, we’ve got a global pandemic, we’ve got industrial action - it’s everyone else’s fault that there are all of these problems. Nothing to do with me, guv. Nothing to do with me. Can you see based on all the information we’ve had why it is difficult for me to agree with the way you’re presenting your cases today?”
The committe received around 1,500 pieces of correspondence following the last session which called into question much of Thompson’s testimony, particularly on the use of technology within Royal Mail to track and monitor worker performance, and the firm’s adherence to its Universal Service Obligation to deliver letters as well as parcels. The witnesses were presented with a number of pictures, including of charts showing how long staff had spent on deliveries, and scripts for managers to tell staff to prioritise parcels over letters, directly contradicting Thompson’s previous evidence.
Referring to Thompson’s last appearance, in which he claimed to not know what Jones was referring to when he asked the CEO about the use of “PVAs” to track performance until Jones clarified he had in fact meant “PDAs,” Labour MP Ian Lavery described his testimony as “contemptuous”.
In one particularly striking exchange, Jones asked Thompson nine times to answer his question, to which Thompson repeatedly tried to side-step or otherwise avoid giving an answer. In an earlier exchange, referring to a discrepancy between Thompson’s testimony today and in the previous session, Jones said: “So is the problem that you weren't listening to the question as opposed to misleading the committee with your answer? Is that what you're telling us today?”
Thompson replied, “I heard a different context,” to which Jones asked “you heard a different question?” and Thompson responded “a different context”.
“That's your answer?” Jones said, “I mean, it's quite remarkable.”
NationalWorld previously reported how a source familiar with the BEIS committee’s thinking said they were “universally unhappy” with Thompson’s evidence.
The Committee pointed to three discrepancies it wanted clarity on:
- Whether Postal Digital Assistants are used to urge staff to work faster;
- Whether Royal Mail is compromising its obligation to provide a minimum guaranteed mail service to all addresses and is prioritising parcels; and
- Royal Mail’s position on sick pay for employees.
Jones, the committee chair, wrote to Thompson, demanding he returns at the earliest opportunity. In the letter, the Labour MP wrote: “Thank you for giving evidence to the BEIS Committee on 17 January about Royal Mail’s current operations.
“Following the session, I received a significant amount of correspondence from Royal Mail employees across the country, challenging some of the statements you made to the committee. The committee is now not confident that all the answers you gave during the session were wholly accurate.
“The committee has therefore decided to recall you to give further oral evidence at the earliest opportunity. I’m also extending this invitation to the Royal Mail Chairman by copy, to accompany you on the day.” Jones explained which areas of evidence the committee wanted Thompson to elaborate on.
This includes Thompson’s claims that it is not Royal Mail policy to prioritise parcels over letters, in keeping with the firm’s universal service obligation. Ruth Edwards MP said she had been contacted by Royal Mail workers to say this was not the case and they were routinely told to prioritise parcels.
After Thompson insisted that this was not and had never been Royal Mail policy, Jones cited a poster he had been sent a picture of by a whistleblower.
He said: “A whistleblower wrote to me only last week once we had advertised that this session was happening to tell me that you do in fact prioritise parcels over letters. In fact, he sent me a picture of a poster that is on his rack in one of your offices.
He added: “It says, “The future is parcels. Unless your manager directs you otherwise these are your priorities on delivery each day: number one, premium items and collections; number two, large parcels; number three, lapsing, including all parcels; number four, at least half of the delivery points on your frame, including letters”.
Thompson said he was “aware of that particular correspondence,” and that it was a “local action.” This exchange prompted Jones to remind Thompson that “misleading Parliament is not something that we appreciate here on the committee”.
In his latter recalling him to Parliament, Jones said: “Contrary to your evidence, we have been told that managers in many delivery offices are advising Royal Mail delivery workers that parcels are still to be prioritised. Many Royal Mail employees have told us that the poster was not a one-off and that similar posters appeared in other delivery offices across the country.”
Asked to name the external advisers being used by Royal Mail on the transformation of the company and changes to working structure, Thompson said he would write to the committee as some agreements were protected by confidentiality clauses. Jones took issue with this, pointing out that Thompson was protected by parliamentary privilege, so couldn’t be subject to legal threat if he did name the consultants.
Jones said that, “a certain set of external consultants and advisers are advising all businesses to invest in technology, automated devices and reducing headcount for workers and using self-employed drivers, cutting costs”.
He said: “You might see that in Amazon or Evri or other types of companies where this committee has heard testimony of working conditions being entirely unacceptable for those people, you’re just following a similar track aren’t you because you’re being advised by probably those same consultants.”
Thompson was also challenged over whether workers are required to carry a PDA which collects data on the speed at which they work. Amazon has been criticised for using similar technology. Thompson said workers do carry the device but it is not used for “telling people to go more quickly”.
Following this exchange, Jones remarked that Thompson was “quite good at evading my questions”. And since the committee, Jones said in his letter “we have received evidence that suggests this is not correct.”
During the committee Jones added: “The points I wanted to make today are that your bonus package has been changed in order to focus purely on shareholder value; that you are using external consultants to do what is happening in the rest of the industry; and that you are using technology in a way that adds an enormous amount of stress on to your workforce.
“In the long run, the answers to all of those questions have been yes. I would politely suggest to you that, when we have talked to other businesses doing that, it does not really go in the interests of the business and their customers. It is not the best way to go.”
A Communication Workers Union spokesperson said: “The British people deserve clarity and transparency from Simon Thompson, who is seemingly dedicated to running Royal Mail into the ground and can’t help ducking and dodging questions put to him by politicians who are elected by the public to hold people like him to account.”