By Brendan Carlin 19th December 2010
The Queen: There is anger at the Palace over the sell-off plans
The Queen’s head could disappear from British stamps as part of controversial plans to sell off the Royal Mail, it was revealed last night.
Ministers are locked in frantic talks with Buckingham Palace to discuss how the monarch will be represented – if at all – on future stamps after the Government confessed it had failed to guarantee that the Queen’s image would survive.
Postal Affairs Minister Ed Davey admitted that current sell-off rules left future private owners, potentially including German mail operator Deutsche Post, completely free to stop using a representation of the monarch’s head which has appeared on every British postage stamp since Sir Rowland Hill invented them in 1840.
Liberal Democrat MP Mr Davey insisted he was ‘aware of the issue’ and revealed that negotiations with Buckingham Palace to close the loophole were under way.
But Royal insiders said that ‘anger’ at the Palace at the proposed sale had been heightened by the fear that it could be rushed through in advance of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee, when a range of special stamps is expected to be produced.
One said: ‘The Palace don’t like this privatisation at all but they are particularly keen to delay it until after the Jubilee if they possibly can. That could explain the delay.’
And Labour raised suspicions that the Coalition had deliberately kept restrictions on a future buyer as light as it could because it was ‘desperate’ to encourage foreign buyers to pay as much cash as possible for the mail service.
The Postal Services Bill to allow the sell-off, designed to raise up to £8 billion for the cash-strapped Government, is going through Parliament at the moment. It was debated in detail by MPs only last week.
Symbol: The Queen currently appears on stamps in silhouette and profile
But extraordinarily, Ministers have failed to include a provision ensuring that the Queen’s head retains its historic position on British stamps – either in a full profile of the monarch or a small silhouette in the top corner of themed stamps such as the current Wallace and Gromit Christmas issues.
Britain is the only country in the world allowed to use the head of state’s symbol on its stamps, with every other nation required to use an abbreviation of the country’s name.
The glaring omission came to light after a senior Government source told The Mail on Sunday that ‘technically, future private owners would be able to chop the Queen’s head off stamps’.
He explained that because there was currently no legal requirement on the publicly run Royal Mail to use the symbol, officials had forgotten to include the provision in the privatisation legislation.
'This just shows how desperate they are to sell Royal Mail off as soon as possible'
‘It’s only a convention that we always use the Queen’s picture but if we’re flogging off a majority stake in the mail service to private operators, that’s the sort of provision we should be putting in the rules,’ he said.
‘It may be unlikely that a private firm would want to do it but it’s hardly the sort of thing to take a chance with.’
To add to the Coalition’s huge embarrassment, the favourite to buy Royal Mail is Deutsche Post – raising the spectre that a German company could preside over the removal of the world-famous British symbol.
Another bidder is expected to be the Dutch mail giant TNT.
Mr Davey last night confirmed that the draft legislation already contained provisions requiring a future private operator to get Royal approval before issuing new postage stamps bearing Her Majesty’s image – but no clause obliging them to use it in the first place.
He indicated that because everyone thought abandoning the Royal symbol would be ‘total commercial suicide’, no one had thought to veto it in the sell-off Bill.
‘It has always been the case, and always been the assumption, that no one would wish to issue a stamp without Her Majesty’s image on,’ Mr Davey said.
The Minister said that he himself had spotted the loophole in the summer and had warned the Queen’s officials of the problem.
Head to head: Postal Affairs Minister Ed Davey said Government is working hard to close the sell-off loophole, but Labour's John Denham accused Government of deliberately making the privatisation rules lax to attract more buyers
But Labour, which opposes the sell-off despite attempting a part-privatisation of Royal Mail in the last Government, voiced suspicions that the sell-off rules were deliberately lax.
Shadow Business Secretary John Denham said: ‘They are not leaving glaring loopholes like this for no reason.
‘They think the fewer strings they attach, the more money they will get from a foreign buyer.
‘The fact that they have not bothered to protect the monarch’s head on our stamps just shows how desperate they are to sell Royal Mail off as quickly as possible and for as much cash as possible.’
Labour MP Nia Griffith, who has scrutinised the sell-off Bill in detail, last night said she had been ‘astounded’ to discover that the provisions did not guarantee the Queen’s symbol would appear on British stamps and called on the Coalition to close the loophole as soon as possible.
Government officials played down speculation that Royal Mail would inevitably be snapped up by a foreign bidder. They said it could also be sold by issuing shares for public sale in a repeat of the famous ‘Tell Sid’ privatisation of British Gas in the Eighties.
Last night, Buckingham Palace declined to discuss the details of the negotiations with the Government, but a spokesman said they had ‘no outstanding issues on the Bill from our side’.