Sunday Times journalists worked undercover as postal workers

Investigation finds Royal Mail prioritising packages over letters

More than half (56%) of Royal Mail’s revenues for 2021/22 were made up of package deliveries
More than half (56%) of Royal Mail’s revenues for 2021/22 were made up of package deliveries

Royal Mail regularly prioritises the delivery of packages over letters, a Sunday Times investigation has found.

Published this weekend, the undercover investigation, which saw journalists taken on as postal workers in London and Southampton, found that workers were being forced to deliver parcels ahead of letters – leaving whole streets without their post, including important documents like bills, doctors’ appointments, and payments arriving late.

Managers and postal workers at both locations told the journalists that it was normal to prioritise packages, with letters frequently held up at Royal Mail depots – though senior management at the company have insisted there is no central policy to prioritise the more lucrative packaging jobs.

More than half (56%) of Royal Mail’s revenues for 2021/22 were made up of package deliveries, despite the number of letters delivered outnumbering parcels more than five times over.

One postal worker in Wandsworth, London, told one of the undercover journalists: “They’re not supposed to, but they prioritise parcels.”

Another said: “If you know you might not complete [a delivery round], you need to bring it back [to the depot] or they will decide what to take out. Leave the letters, take the parcels today. They will let you know.”

The Royal Mail’s ongoing struggle for profitability – or rather, to cut its losses – has seen it slim its workforce by 9,000 since September 2022.

When Royal Mail was privatised in 2013, a minimum service level was agreed: governed by law, the company must deliver letters to every address in the country six days a week at a fixed rate, and parcels five days a week.

In a statement sent to Printweek following a request, a spokesperson for Royal Mail said: “We will always do our utmost to ensure both letters and parcels are delivered on time.

“The run up to Christmas is our busiest time of year, with more than double the normal number of letters and parcels passing through our network. Average parcel sizes have grown by around 30% in recent years, and in any typical week parcels take up around 90% of sorting space in our delivery offices.”

The growth in number and size of packages has hobbled Royal Mail. Many of its depots are small, traditional offices built before the advent of e-commerce sites, and the packages – which on average take 200 times the volume of a single letter – must be cleared quickly to keep the offices functioning.

When combined with the fact that parcels take longer to deliver than letters – often requiring a signature, physical receipt, or special directions for where to leave them, rather than just a letterbox – the delivery system becomes choked by Royal Mail’s growing parcel business.

Royal Mail’s spokesperson added: “We have always been clear that at busy times such as Christmas it may be logistically necessary to clear parcels first, to avoid network issues, keep the mail moving and ensure the safety of our colleagues, especially in small delivery offices.”

Ofcom found no suggestion that Royal Mail senior management have purposefully directed that parcels be prioritised.

Only last month, however, the regulator fined Royal Mail £5.6m for failing to meet its first and second-class delivery targets in the past financial year, with 89% of delivery routes completed daily instead of 99.9%. These targets do not apply in December.

Royal Mail’s annual December squeeze – when parcel and letter volumes typically double – has seen it bring on 16,000 temporary staff, and bring back office workers onto the front line to make delivery rounds.

Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), responding to The Sunday Times' investigation, told the paper: "It is clear from what postal workers are saying and what customers are seeing that on the ground parcels are being prioritised over letters across the UK.

“Morale amongst postal workers is at an all-time low. They are devastated to not be properly servicing their customers.”