I beg to move,
That this House has considered delivery charges in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Unfair delivery charges to Moray and other parts of Scotland are not new. The despicable practice of hiking up prices to deliver to mainland UK has been going on far too long and people are fed up. That was one of the key themes that I mentioned in my maiden speech when I came to this place and it follows on from the work of my predecessor and other hon. Members who have been seeking a solution to the problem. I welcome the true cross-party approach to tackling this injustice, to calling out the unscrupulous companies that think they can treat people in the north as second-class citizens and to highlighting this shoddy behaviour for what it truly is—an inexcusable rip-off of consumers in Moray and across Scotland.
What is the issue that we are seeking to resolve? First, I have to commend the work of Royal Mail, which continues to deliver parcels anywhere in the UK for the same price. When I visited my local delivery office on Monday morning, I spoke with the manager, Mike Sinclair, and the huge number of parcels to be delivered by our local posties over the next few days was clear. People who use Royal Mail can do so with confidence that a parcel going from Moray to Manchester will cost the same as one going from Manchester to Moray. Sadly, the same cannot be said for other companies and couriers.
So often I am contacted by local people who are frustrated because they have tried to buy something online, only to be let down at the final stage. They have browsed the products, made their choice and selected a delivery option that clearly states “delivery to mainland UK”, only to be told when they put in their postcode that the IV or AB postcodes in Moray are in fact on some island offshore the mainland. If that were not so duplicitous, it might be funny, but it is not. It is a lie these companies peddle to hike up charges, and we will not stand for it any more.
I asked the hon. Gentleman before the debate for permission to intervene. He will know that the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has brought this issue to the attention of people in Northern Ireland, where consumers are affected by it greatly. Some 33% of UK retailers apply a delivery restriction to Northern Ireland and 26% of Northern Ireland consumers are charged additional delivery costs. They are asked to pay 41% more on average than consumers anywhere else in the United Kingdom; the average charge is £11.89. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Scotland is important, but Northern Ireland is equally important? We want fair play as well.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Before the debate, the parliamentary digital team created a video illustrating it and asked for people’s responses, and one response came from Northern Ireland. Sandra Dean said:
“I have been refused delivery from England to Northern Ireland, too. It is cheaper with some couriers to get a parcel delivered from UK to the Republic than to Northern Ireland!”
I therefore fully agree with the very valid points made by the hon. Gentleman.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the picture of delivery charges across the country is inconsistent? When couriers or retailers advertise free delivery to the UK mainland, that should obviously include mainland Scotland and mainland Northern Ireland.
I fully agree. I will come in a moment to the fact that the Advertising Standards Authority is looking into that specific issue, because I want now to talk about some of the research that has been done on this matter.
As hon. Members will know, Citizens Advice Scotland issued a report on delivery surcharges in Scotland, and I raised that report directly with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently. It highlighted the fact that up to 1 million consumers in Scotland are affected by excess delivery surcharges; the incidence of refusal to deliver at all has increased; and in the areas of Scotland affected by this problem, people are asked to pay, on average, at least 30% more than people elsewhere on the British mainland, rising to more than 40% in places such as Inverness and the rural mainland highlands and 50% on some of the Scottish islands.
That was excellent research from Citizens Advice Scotland. I welcome the follow-up work that it has proposed, including the establishment of a parcel delivery forum, support for pilot projects to test innovations that may reduce the need for surcharging, clarification of the information available to consumers, and evaluation of current consumer protection in the parcels market to determine whether it needs to be improved.
The Advertising Standards Authority has also been involved, and I welcome the action that it has taken to enforce the ASA rule on advertising parcel delivery charges: the advertising must be clear and not mislead. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) was making. In its briefing for today’s debate, the ASA says:
“We consider that it is reasonable for consumers in Scotland to expect a definitive claim about ‘UK delivery’ to apply to them wherever they live, even if they are located in a remote village or island. So, if there are delivery restrictions or exclusions then these need to be made clear from the outset.”
I particularly welcome the view that information in an advert must complement the main headline claim, not contradict it. For example, one advert said
“Free delivery on all orders”.
However, there was a link to another page on the website that had additional information. It said that anything north of Glasgow or Edinburgh would incur a surcharge of £20 to £50, depending on the products and the postcode. In the ASA’s words,
“This information contradicted the main claims, rather than clarifying them, so we upheld the complaint on grounds of misleadingness and qualification.”
We need more of that type of action. If companies get the message that they will not get away with that type of behaviour, we can start to right this wrong.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has been at the forefront of this campaign, standing up for his constituents and, indeed, all residents of the highlands and the northern part of Scotland who have been affected by this practice. Is he aware of the additional problem that affects cross-border communities in my constituency? Postcodes on the Scottish side do not get deliveries from courier companies based in England, and Scottish courier companies do not often deliver to postcodes south of the border, because of the cross-border nature of some postcodes. I wonder whether that is also an issue for some parts of the highlands.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point; I would expect him to highlight this crucial issue for the borders, as he has done so ably. I think it is something we have to address as we progress this campaign.
The final piece of research that I want to mention is by Ofcom, which has now completed a two-year study of this issue. I welcome the confirmation that I recently received from the Minister that she will work with the Consumer Protection Partnership to establish a review of the evidence collected by Ofcom so far on excessive delivery charges and see what can be done to protect Scottish consumers from excessive charging. I would welcome further comments from the Minister on that point in her response today.
For me, the most important part of today’s debate is sharing just some of the examples that I have received from constituents and others through Parliament’s digital engagement team since I secured the debate. Their testimonies speak far better than anything that we politicians can put forward.
For example, Lynn from Moray was going to order a product from Groupon, but was disgusted to discover that the shipping does not cover her IV36 postcode, with the company saying that it delivers only to mainland UK. On its site, it had a map showing in red the areas to which it would not deliver. However, that red covered hundreds of square miles and included two cities—Aberdeen and Inverness—all of which are most definitely on the UK mainland. When the delivery company said that it would not deliver because it would have to take a ferry to reach Lynn’s address, she made the very valid point that it would not have to do so and, crucially, someone could continue to drive for another three hours north, east or west and still not require a ferry. We are definitely part, and an integral part, of mainland UK.
Lynn finished her correspondence to the company by saying:
“This is a blatant, lazy, cost saving exercise on the part of whichever delivery company this producer is using and is factually incorrect. This is disgusting and insulting.”
I absolutely agree with Lynn.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will make that point again as the debate progresses. However, I think that using a ferry to get to Moray would incur a greater surcharge when we can use the road, rail and planes as anyone else would.
Marion from Speyside bought a new shower earlier this year. She knew the design that she wanted; she knew the model, the product, but she ended up buying it from Germany with free packaging and postage. That was cheaper than using other firms that advertise free UK mainland carriage, because of the large surcharge on AB and IV postcodes. She added in her email to me,
“It is this type of pricing that really annoys me as you are often at the final stages of paying before you find out. I am glad you and Mr Lockhead are highlighting this issue.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Having worked for Parcelforce for 27 years and been a union rep, I am well familiar with the surcharge debate, because we have been arguing about this for 20 years.
This is the problem: these companies, which the hon. Gentleman is referring to and his constituents have talked to, advertise postage and packaging and they make a massive profit out of it, but the final mile is left with Royal Mail. These companies charge a fortune for the parcel, take a piece of the postage and packaging, and make a massive profit by only handling the parcel once; the parcel is given to Royal Mail and we do the final mile. That is why our wages have been under threat, because that is a cost efficiency that costs Royal Mail a lot of money. These people need to be exposed and I thank the hon. Gentleman for doing that today.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The discussion I had at my local sorting office on Monday suggested that these companies pick all the low-hanging fruit. They are quite happy to deliver to the more urban areas where they can get these parcels out very quickly, but they leave the more challenging areas to Royal Mail, or, as we are speaking about the private couriers, they just refuse to deliver to some of these areas at all. That is unacceptable.
I have spoken about a number of products that I expected to speak about in this debate, such as showers. I did not think I would be speaking about pigeon racing, but I have a constituent from Elgin, whose hobby is pigeon racing. He is a member of the North of Scotland Federation and the Elgin and District Racing Pigeon Club. He tells me that all the members of the Elgin club send away for various products for their pigeons and most of the companies that sell to them believe that Moray is not attached to the UK mainland. As soon as you punch in “IV30” to the address section, up pops an attachment saying that special terms apply. He tells me that there is in fact a website from Spain that will deliver cheaper to Scotland than the biggest online pigeon supplier in the UK, which trades from Scarborough. That is surely not acceptable.
Finally, I want to mention Rebecca from Stacks Coffee House and Bistro in John O’Groats, who started a change.org campaign in July to help bring to light the widespread issue of delivery costs to the highlands and islands, and Scotland as a whole. As of this afternoon, that petition had attracted 13,600 signatures. The website they have set up is a great way of presenting the case against these rip-off charges and to show people that the politicians are taking their views seriously. One quote on the website summed up the situation well. It said:
“If a company can deliver to Land’s End for free…they can also deliver to John O’Groats.”
A gentleman called Alan, who had seen me raising this at Prime Minister’s questions, contacted me. He had tried to get a kitchen worktop delivered to the Kyle of Lochalsh. The delivery was £475. However, when he put in his in-laws’ address in Fife, it reduced to £40.
Someone I know from Wick contacted me about how it was cheaper to get something for his business delivered further south in Scotland, but it also had a delivery guarantee for the next day. When it did not arrive on time, he complained and sought a refund. The company refused. When he said he would pursue this, he was told that they would cancel his whole order and take back all the goods. In other words, a very blatant threat of blackmail: “Don’t speak up about delivery prices and standards, and if you do, we will punish you.” It is simply not good enough.
This does not just impact individuals. I have heard from a small business in Moray, which regularly gets better service from a supplier in Lower Saxony, Germany, than from the United Kingdom. The point is that high delivery charges contribute to a relatively high living cost in remote and rural areas. It acts as a disincentive to entrepreneurs setting up businesses, which could mitigate depopulation caused by declining employment opportunities in traditional sectors. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that this should be of concern to Highlands and Islands Enterprise and I am very keen to work with it to ensure that we can move this campaign forward.
In the last few minutes, if hon. Members will allow me, as the mover of this debate, I will finish with some personal experiences. My wife is celebrating her birthday today in the north of Scotland, separated from me by 500 miles. While I cannot be with her, I was hoping that if I mention her in the debate tonight, that may make up for my absence. That allows me to say that given that her birthday is on 20 December, it is difficult for me, like any man, to come up with present suggestions. She is always very efficient. She gives me a list and does not trust me to use my own initiative; I have a list of the presents I have to buy her for her birthday and Christmas every year. But like all of my Moray constituents, when I purchase these presents for her and I put in my IV30 postcode, I get charged a fortune to have it delivered.
She’s absolutely worth it! I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, just in case there was any doubt. While it is worth it, I was thinking about this recently when I bought my easyJet flight down from Inverness to London, as I do on a weekly basis. As ridiculous as this may sound, when I paid for the flight, it turned out that rather than getting parcels delivered to my home in Moray, it would be cheaper for me to get them delivered here to the House of Commons and then for me to buy a seat for that parcel on an A320 aircraft, to get it home to Moray. That is a ridiculous situation and just shows how much people are taking advantage of my constituents and others who suffer in this way.
The Minister has heard from me, and will hear from other hon. Members, just how significant this problem really is. She will be aware from the meetings that I have had with her and the Secretary of State earlier this week that this is an issue I will pursue until consumers in Moray are treated the same way as those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I am keen to hold a roundtable in Westminster with companies that believe they can take advantage and impose these rip-off charges on Scotland, and I have requested an inquiry on this issue with the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.
In the last 18 months or two years we had exactly that roundtable, hosted by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who was the Minister’s predecessor. It was a very successful engagement. Many companies go the extra mile and the extra cost to ensure that the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), those of us in Northern Ireland and others in the Channel Islands are not disadvantaged, but many do not. Rather than do exactly the same thing again, I suggest to the Minister that now is the time to start talking about how we encourage and force companies to recognise that in this United Kingdom, we should all get exactly the same service.
I fully agree with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. We have had discussions in the Scottish Parliament and we are now discussing this for the first time in this Session, but I do know, and I did accept at the beginning, that this is an issue that has been raised time and again.
We get to the point where the public are fed up of politicians speaking about it; they are looking for action. That is certainly something that I am considering going forward. I am grateful for the support I have received so far from the UK Government on this issue, and I hope that both of Scotland’s Governments can work together with the companies that treat Scotland so badly and deliver what has been called for: quite simply, fair treatment for consumers across the UK, including those in Moray and across Scotland.
Today I am wearing my “We heart Moray” badge. It is inscribed with towns and villages that make up our wonderful community. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live and work there know how lucky we are to stay in such a wonderful part of the country, but we should not be punished for choosing to live there, as we currently are with delivery charges. It is time to end the parcel rip-off. It is time to deliver the message loud and clear to the companies that impose those charges. We can deliver a Christmas boost to Moray and to Scotland, by calling time on this deplorable behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. This is an issue that I have pursued over many years; I think it is fully 15 years since I first initiated an Adjournment debate on this subject. In that time, I think that, if anything, the situation has got worse.
In 2002, it was myself, the then hon. Member for the Western Isles and some colleagues from Northern Ireland who were interested in a debate like this. Since then it appears that the contagion has spread, so that it is now as far south as Moray—indeed, we have heard that communities and conurbations as significant in size as Inverness and Aberdeen can often find themselves excluded.
We have heard also, from the excellent piece of research done by Citizens Advice Scotland, “The Postcode Penalty,” that the cost of delivery to island communities can often be more than 50% higher than to other parts of the country. That is why I say to the Minister today that a market that operates in such a way that it excludes this number of people, our own fellow citizens, from any meaningful access to it, is an instance of market failure.
The problem is that, as the hon. Gentleman said, these are all private companies, and they are doing what private companies do; but when a market fails, it ceases to be a matter just for the private companies involved and it becomes a matter for Government. When a market has failed there is a duty on Government and on the competition authorities set up by them to ensure that it is made to operate in a way that is fair to everyone. That is not happening at the moment and there is an opportunity now for the Government to initiate these discussions and to say to this industry, “You are operating in a way that is not fair to too many of our fellow citizens, and if you are not going to put your house in order, as manifestly has been the case for some years, the Government will take some action to make you do that.”
One of the things I always say when people bring me examples of this situation is that there are many local businesses that can often provide the same thing at a comparable price once the delivery charge is taken into account. But there are often many things that are not available for people to buy, especially in our smaller towns and more remote communities.
Ahead of this debate a magazine, Culture Vulture Direct, was given in to my office in Kirkwall. It included a piece of furniture that I thought could grace the Carmichael living room this Christmas. It is a lovely little piece of furniture: a two-drawer cabinet, painted grey, with a soft whitewashed finish. Who could resist such an idea? What really sealed the deal for me was that it is called the Orkney narrow two-drawer cabinet. Ideal! Who on earth could possibly not want to have that in their living room in Orkney? Unfortunately, it comes from culturevulturedirect.co.uk, which in relation to this piece of furniture states that delivery is to the UK mainland only. That tells you all you need to know, Ms Dorries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing the debate. My input is not going to be as romantic as his, but I was 47 years married yesterday, on 19 December; I remembered late last night, but I did make the phone call this morning. [Laughter.] There was a lovely minister; he must have been very good at his job.
A number of people have contacted me regarding surcharges, but at a recent surgery one of my constituents from a lovely village called Barrhill, raised concerns about delivery charges imposed by various private companies. Barrhill is an Ayrshire village with a small population. It is 12 miles inland from Girvan, which sits on a busy artery, the A77, which my colleagues from Northern Ireland will be familiar with. For the inhabitants it is an idyllic part of the countryside for them to call home; for the delivery companies it is apparently a remote rural location attracting, in some cases, a significant surcharge, which is often disproportionate to the value of the goods being delivered.
My hon. Friend is making a strong speech. Does he agree that it should not matter what size the village or town—everyone should have equality when it comes to these payments? In my constituency, people in the PH and FK postcodes have the same disadvantage; does he agree that that is something they should not have to endure?
I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend about the equality—that is the key word—aspect of deliveries.
The term “remote” is open to interpretation. Could the issue be the centralisation of distribution hubs? Could the dispatch hubs look seriously at the bulky and excessive packaging for small items, where a ballpoint pen is delivered in a box the size of a shoebox, and thereby either increase the delivery capacity of their vehicles or permit the use of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles for rural, remote deliveries? Some company websites confirm that a surcharge is applied to remote location deliveries, with “remote” defined as highlands and islands, a postcode that is difficult to serve or a suburb or town that is distant and inaccessible or infrequently serviced. There is a whole range of excuses.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. As many of my colleagues on the Conservative side of the Chamber will remember, I have an issue with the word “remote”. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) agree that it is the lack of these services or the disproportionate removal of them that makes our rural areas remote?
I fully agree, and we need to do more to secure the vibrancy of these remote locations.
Citizens Advice produced a short report entitled “The Postcode Penalty”. It was done a few years ago, and a number of the respondents to the survey were from my constituency in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. The report appeared to conclude that some online retailers are disadvantaging Scottish consumers. I think that we could extend that to consumers and our neighbours in Northern Ireland and those elsewhere in our United Kingdom. At that time, approximately 63% of retailers that charged extra for delivery to remote locations did not offer delivery by Royal Mail, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), as an alternative. It may be prudent to offer the customer this lower-cost and very trusted service.
I understand that it is a breach of consumer protection to add an additional charge after purchase, with the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 providing that prior to the conclusion of a contract from distant sellers—that is, a transaction that is not done face to face—they are required to disclose delivery costs so that the purchaser is not caught unawares by what are, in some cases, very significant charges. However, such transparency does not detract from the often disproportionate and unfair charges for those who, for a variety of reasons, may not be free to choose or change where they live, and so become embroiled in this delivery postcode lottery.
It may be prudent to look at the proud founding principles of the Royal Mail, which was established in 1516. The introduction in May 1840 of the penny black postage stamp paved the way for the prepaid one-price-goes-anywhere postage system that we love and value in the UK today. This system applies—the hon. Gentleman will keep me right— to 30 million addresses in the United Kingdom, including 2.5 million addresses in Scotland. It is a six day a week service and caters for parcels up to 20 kg. Royal Mail’s sister company—this is like an advert for Royal Mail—Parcelforce Worldwide has a single Scotland-wide tariff for all mainland deliveries and has limited surcharges to highlands and islands contract customers only.
In closing, we must bear in mind the fact that in many cases rural incomes tend to be less than their city counterparts, and that surcharges are a financial burden on a limited income. I ask the Minister to strive to let us have some fairness and equality when it comes to delivery charges in rural areas.
I am delighted to participate in this debate and build on the excellent work carried out by one of my former colleagues, Mike Weir, the former MP for Angus; former MSP, Rob Gibson—no relation—of the Scottish Parliament; and Kenneth Gibson—relation—in the Scottish Parliament.
As an MP who represents two islands, it is very important that I speak in this debate, as some of my constituents on the island of Arran are expected to pay a postcode lottery of 50% more on some occasions than the rest of the UK, based purely on where they live. We know that the cross-party Scottish Parliament group on postal services, of which Kenneth Gibson was chair, has been relentlessly lobbying the UK Government for five years to no avail. This issue truly has been going round for a long time and it is time that it was properly addressed.
Regarding the point that if ferry journeys are needed to deliver parcels that will increase the price, the fact is that because the Scottish Government have fully funded the road-equivalent tariff going on a ferry should not incur any additional delivery costs. That is clearly a con and it has to be addressed.
It really is time that the UK Government addressed this issue and stopped the discrimination against my island constituents and all those constituents who live in rural areas.
I cannot give way because of the discourtesy that has been shown to Members by speakers taking far longer than was advised.
It is essential that a set of standards are adopted for deliveries to every single corner of the UK, just as we have for the universal service obligation. I am keen that the Minister should tell us today that this will somehow be addressed by the UK Government, because it has been going on for too long and my constituents, and constituents living in rural communities across the UK, deserve better.
I will keep my remarks brief as a courtesy to colleagues who wish to speak. The issue of fair delivery charges to Scotland has had no greater champion in this place over the last two and a half years than my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). It is an issue not just for this Parliament but for the Scottish Parliament, and I pay tribute to the work of my Scottish National party colleague, Richard Lochhead, the MSP for Moray, who launched the fair delivery charges campaign and who led a debate in the Scottish Parliament a couple of weeks ago.
In preparing for today’s debate, I sought examples from my constituents and I was deluged—almost overwhelmed—with the examples from the people of Argyll and Bute. The one from Alex Samboerk from Lochgilphead was notable. Lochgilphead is not on an island; it is 88 miles from Glasgow and it takes less than two and a half hours to get there. Alex went online and bought a case of 28 healthy fruit and cereal bars. The cost was £17.81. When he went to check out, he was astonished to see that for the PA31 postcode in which he lives, the economy service was £90 for delivery. Alex is not alone. I have been inundated with people complaining about such things.
My wish is that this is the last time we have to debate this issue. I hope that the Minister can say that she and the Government will take on board the anger and frustration that has been felt throughout rural Scotland at this unscrupulous and outrageous practice by some delivery companies. As I said, I will cut my comments short as a courtesy to other speakers, but let us never have this debate again.
I, too, will cut my speech short as a courtesy to everybody else. Along with the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), it is my mother’s birthday today. I send her a happy birthday—her card is in the post.
In conclusion—I will make it short—Scotland and Northern Ireland are not in isolation. We have roads, bridges, boats and aeroplanes where needed. We—I am talking about the Royal Mail, given my connection with it—deliver six days a week. We keep the universal service obligation—the USO. To those private companies, it is a UFO. Some private profiteers believe that we have UFOs, but we do not. They should stop ripping off customers with these surcharge prices. We can do it; we do it six days a week. We give a fantastic service. I ask Ofcom to look at the prices. If it can set them, we can deliver on time. Then when we talk to customers, we can talk about the quality of service, not the surcharge price.
Finally, on behalf of Santa Claus, I thank all postal workers for the hard, dedicated work that that they do for us, and wish them all a merry Christmas.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. Across my vast and very remote constituency—the remotest on the UK mainland, although it is part of the United Kingdom—my constituents face iniquitous delivery charges. It is a scandal. Rebecca from John O’Groats is quite right to establish that petition, and I support her all the way.
As has been said, the cost of delivery charges has a knock-on effect on every other cost in my constituency because it is passed on to other services. Surely the mark of a civilised society is that it looks after everyone on the same level terms, independent of where they actually live. It is completely and utterly wrong that somebody is disadvantaged simply because they happen to live in a very remote part of the United Kingdom.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that constituents who live in rural areas are being left behind, not just with regard to delivery charges, as some areas of my constituency are, but with slow broadband speeds? Time and time again, residents in rural areas are penalised for choosing to live where they do.
I wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Lady’s comments. The argument for the interest of the remotest and most rural parts of Scotland is one on which we can unite, regardless of party political divisions. I look forward to working with her on this issue.
I have only a short time left, so I will be brief. Governments on either side of the border have looked at this issue—even, in my own case, once upon a time when I was part of the Government in the Scottish Parliament. We did not deliver on either side of the border. We have to work together to sort this problem out once and for all.
We must remember why the penny post was put in place. Rowland Hill was moved to found it because he saw a young lady who was too poor to pay the charge for a letter from her fiancé—at the time, people had to pay money when they got a letter. That was how sad it was, and that is why we have a universal charge for Royal Mail deliveries, which is something that we should be rightly proud of in this country. It is absolutely essential that we try to deliver on this. I will repeat myself and say that it is wrong for anyone to be disadvantaged because of where they live.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this important debate. It is worth noting that he acknowledged the work of his predecessor, Angus Robertson, and, through his constituent, of Richard Lochhead MSP, who has worked very hard on the issue.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly described this as market failure. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about the long-running nature of this issue and the failure of action by the UK Government. It has been going on too long. I hope the Minister is paying attention; we need this sorted out now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) mentioned the long-running campaign by Richard Lochhead and many others. He spoke about being deluged with examples, which is a common experience for anyone who has tackled this issue. To be inundated with requests for help over sharp and unfair practices is all too common. It should not be the case.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) rightly said that it is time to end this rip-off. It is time to get it done, not to wait any longer. Let us just get something done about it. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was right about the problem, but this is not an issue that the Scottish Government can directly deal with. This is a reserved matter for the UK Government and it is important that they take action.
We hear a lot about a UK single market in political exchanges and banter, but the reality is that my constituent wanted to buy five radiators and it was £350 to deliver them to the Isle of Lewis—£10 more than the actual order. A boiler, which was quoted as £24 on the website, ended up at £200. Where is the single and fair market there?
That is a good example—one of many—of what affects people across the whole of Scotland, particularly in the highlands and islands. Rural shoppers are one of the largest markets for online shopping, so it is particularly unfair that they are penalised. The lack of transparency that people face is deeply unjust.
There is an alarming lack of understanding of Scotland’s geography. When I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in early 2016, I described one of the mysteries of my constituency in the highlands—not whether the Loch Ness monster exists, but why Inverness is somehow not on the UK mainland. It is outrageous that that myth is still being perpetrated by delivery companies.
The SNP has led a campaign for fair delivery charges. We are delighted that there is now such cross-party agreement that something has to be done. I welcome the fact that we seem to have the momentum together to get a response from the UK Government about what will be done, but that has to be something meaningful.
I mentioned Richard Lochhead, but I will also talk about the exemplary work of Citizens Advice Scotland, as other hon. Members have. I pay tribute to the work it did with the trading standards department at the Highland Council. I was honoured to be leading the council when it did some groundbreaking work on challenging unfair practices. Its officers deserve a lot of praise for their work. I also commend all the constituents who have highlighted the issue. There are far too many to mention individually, but I would have loved to have time to run through some examples.
Richard Lochhead’s work has highlighted thousands of cases of injustice. Anybody who has read it will have seen that it costs Scots consumers £36 million more than the rest of the UK. That is not good enough, and something has to be done to change things once and for all. In September 2015, when we were tackling the issue together, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) secured an Adjournment debate on it, as a result of which we had a roundtable. He is absolutely right: let us not hear about any more roundtables that do not achieve anything. We need solid action to get this sorted out for consumers once and for all. Let us see something being done.
As I said, I would have loved to go through some examples, but time is extraordinarily limited, so I will conclude. I welcome the cross-party approach. I hope that the hon. Member for Moray will have a word with his council group. If consumers have a Christmas wish, it is for the UK Government to use their power to deliver. Let us hear from the Minister about how the UK Government will make this the last Christmas in which sharp practice, dodgy geography, false claims and unfairness are visited on shoppers in the highlands and throughout Scotland and other rural areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I will be brief, because we have all had a long week. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate on a very important issue for his constituents, and I applaud his eloquent speech. The residents and businesses who have campaigned against huge and often arbitrary surcharges and delivery delays deserve much praise for bringing the issue to public attention and forcing the Government to respond. Much credit is also due to the research done by Citizens Advice to draw together evidence of the very patchy picture.
This is not simply an issue that affects a few people on remote islands. According to a Citizens Advice Scotland report, the average delivery charges for customers are at least 40% higher in the highlands than in the rest of the UK, and in the Scottish islands and Northern Ireland they are approximately 50% higher. One million people live in the affected areas in Scotland, despite often living in sizable cities and towns. Being charged up to five times the standard delivery cost is a huge issue, especially for businesses with frequent orders and low-income residents.
It is very welcome that the Government are finally investigating the issue, but Ofcom needs to be empowered to clamp down on geographic discrimination in the provision of deliveries. Ministers would not tolerate it for a minute if delivery charges were higher in their country piles than in inner-city locations, so why should they tolerate it for Scottish families, who are as much a part of the UK as people living at any other address?
Citizens Advice Scotland has recommended that the public and private sectors co-operate to reduce costs. It suggests exploring the possibility of extending Scotland’s network of pick-up and drop-off locations in places such as parcel lockers, convenience stores and post offices, which can reduce costs for delivery companies. Has the Minister considered Citizens Advice Scotland’s recommendations? If so, will she give us a timeframe for responding to them? I would also welcome her response to the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who has had an extensive career in the postal service, that Ofcom could be given the power to cap surcharges.
I look forward to swift recommendations from Ofcom for protecting Scottish customers and businesses from higher charges and slower services. Labour is committed to a high-quality delivery network that provides a timely and cost-effective service for all customers. I conclude by expressing my support for Royal Mail and its deliverers at this busy time, and wishing them all a happy Christmas and new year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and to respond to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing it and echo the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) about his eloquent speech. I know that he first raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago and that he met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier this week to reiterate his concerns.
Let me start by reminding hon. Members of the Government’s general approach. We are committed to promoting growth in the UK economy, and empowered consumers are vital to that. Consumers who demand quality products and services, and are prepared to take their custom elsewhere if their needs are not being met, drive competition, innovation and productivity. The industrial strategy we published last month reminds us that consumer choices are key to a productive and efficient business base. It also recognises the importance of the local economy and infrastructure.
If consumers feel that they are being unfairly treated because of their location, they can challenge retailers, particularly if they are aware of a particular courier or delivery company that is known to deliver to it more cheaply. It is not unreasonable for businesses to seek to cover the legitimate costs of delivery, but customers in remote areas all too often face charges that go beyond a reasonable rate of return.
The Minister says that consumers can complain, but often when they do, nothing is done and they have absolutely no recourse. As we have heard today, the companies offering to deliver can just say, “Well, I won’t deliver to you.” How does she answer that? What will she do about that unfairness?
I will come on to the rights that consumers have, but from the strength of feeling that has been expressed in the debate, I recognise that things are clearly not working for consumers in certain parts of our United Kingdom. I have great sympathy for the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, because it is unfair that consumers in some parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland should be treated so very differently from consumers in other parts of the UK.
I would like to take this opportunity to state that the Government welcome the ongoing activity to address the problem. The work of parliamentary colleagues and consumer bodies to consider local public and private sector solutions, as outlined in the Citizens Advice Scotland report, could result in ideas suitable for all parts of the UK.
The Minister mentions ongoing activity on this campaign. We have heard some passionate speeches from SNP Members, presumably about the work of their Scottish Government. Will she confirm what contact her Department has had with the SNP Scottish Government on the issue and what actions they have asked about?
I am not aware of any contact. My office has not had any, but I will find out whether any other offices in my Department have had any contact and write to my hon. Friend with the answer. Obviously this is not a devolved matter, but since he has asked, I will give him the answer.
Online shopping is an increasingly important part of our economy.
I will give way in a minute, but I want to cover a lot of points made in the debate and I have only 10 minutes or so.
Retailers have legal obligations to be up-front about their delivery charges—where they deliver to, what they charge, and any premiums that apply—before an order is placed, so that consumers at least have the information they need under consumer law and can make informed decisions before purchasing online.
Does the Minister agree that it is frustrating that Sir Robert Smith, the then MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, introduced a private Member’s Bill to address this very issue back in 2013—yet here we are, four years down the line, and no progress has been made?
I certainly understand the hon. Lady’s frustration, and the frustration felt and expressed by other Members of Parliament this afternoon. I was not aware of that, although I was a Member at the time. I missed that private Member’s Bill, but clearly this issue has a lot of history, and is all the more frustrating for that, as the hon. Lady says.
Consumers must have the information needed under consumer law. At the same time, if retailers are to exploit fully the vast market potential of online business, they will need to listen to and respond to the needs of consumers in all parts of the country, developing effective delivery solutions throughout the United Kingdom.
The Government strongly encourage businesses to provide consumers as far as possible with a range of affordable delivery options. It is really up to businesses to determine the most appropriate delivery options for their products.
I understand from my colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), that the situation in the Republic of Ireland is not the same as in Northern Ireland or Scotland. Would our Government perhaps take the time to look, as they are responsible for this matter, at what the situation is in the Republic of Ireland, and to perhaps learn from Ireland?
I did hear the intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I will look into that.
Businesses have a choice through the universal service obligation, which the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) reminded us about. Royal Mail can deliver parcels up to 20 kg, five days a week, at uniform rates throughout the United Kingdom. Regrettably, some businesses and retailers choose not to use that option, and the Government are not in a position to oblige business to choose a particular delivery supplier. There are no regulations that prevent differential charging for deliveries by companies other than Royal Mail. A competitive market should be a sufficient incentive to put pressure on charges applied by retailers and delivery operators, and consumer law requires traders not to mislead consumers or partake in unfair practices.
The Minister comes to the nub of the matter: a competitive market should provide the solution. In fact, the way this market is operating now is the problem; competition will not be the solution. Will she look at the issue of market failure, on the basis that courier companies are now a quite different and discrete market from Royal Mail?
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come on to what I propose to do before I close.
We already have legislation in place under the general Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013, which apply to online purchases. They make it clear that information given by traders to consumers regarding delivery costs must be up front and transparent before a transaction is entered into. Any consumer who believes those rules are being breached should report it to trading standards through the Citizens Advice consumer service.
If misleading advertising about the cost of delivery is an issue, the Advertising Standards Authority, which has responsibility for ensuring compliance with the code of advertising sales, promotion and direct marketing, will act to ban or amend advertisements that have the potential to harm or mislead the public. Decisions on complaints are made public, and where necessary the ASA will report persistent offenders to trading standards for further enforcement action.
The Government’s view is that regulating prices, or intervening in how businesses and retailers establish their pricing structures, would not overall be in consumers’ best interests, because they are commercial matters. The market is highly competitive and innovative, with many different types of companies being selected by online retailers to provide delivery solutions. That has given rise to new ways of receiving packages, such as collecting them from more secure and more convenient locations and post offices.
The issues involve a three-way relationship between consumers, online retailers and delivery companies. As Members stated in the debate, the postal sector regulator, Ofcom, has just concluded a two-year study of parcel delivery surcharges that reflect the cost to operators and go beyond them. It found that some retailers apply a surcharge to consumers for delivery to certain locations, while others do not. It is therefore not clear that surcharges applied by parcel operators to online retailers are automatically passed on to consumers in all cases. The Government will consult Ofcom further on what might be done to improve competition. As highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, the Consumer Protection Partnership, which brings together enforcement bodies and advice providers and is chaired by my Department, recognises that this is a priority that requires further work. It brings together a number of important bodies with an interest in this vexatious matter.
A number of Consumer Protection Partnership members, including Citizens Advice Scotland, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, the ASA and other enforcement bodies, along with Ofcom, are working together to undertake a review of parcel surcharging. That review is looking at the existing research, evidence and legislative framework, with the aim of improving compliance by online retailers with consumer protection law. It will also consider further proposals relating to concerns about the level and fairness of parcel surcharging, about which we have heard so much this afternoon.
I will certainly ask the partnership to take into consideration the petition to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
Recommendations will be considered by the Consumer Protection Partnership in early 2018, with the intention of agreeing a co-ordinated package of activities for organisations across the UK. I look forward very much to receiving that advice, and considering its recommendations as to what further action we can take to enforce the law and ensure fairer treatment of consumers—something which we have heard so much about this afternoon.
I am convinced by the strength of feeling expressed by hon. Members that some action is required, so the Government will publish a consumer Green Paper next year that will look at issues such as transparency and fairness across a range of markets. I expect that those responding to that paper will want to comment on how business treats customers, including in respect of delivery charges, and how it reacts to their complaints. That, too, will inform the Government’s approach.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray for dramatically raising the profile of this issue, and I will be interested in further input from him and other colleagues across the House in the future. I end by adding my thanks and Christmas wishes to all staff at Royal Mail, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney). We wish all our posties a very merry Christmas. I thank hon. Members and, as it is my last debate of the year, I will also say that I have enjoyed debating with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, and I wish her a merry Christmas as well.
Thank you, Ms Dorries, for the way you have chaired today’s debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in it. As we have heard, we have had a lot of discussion on this issue up to now, but that does not mean that we should stop speaking about it. It will remain on the political agenda only if MPs continue to raise the issues on behalf of their constituents. I welcome the speeches made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), as well as the very valuable interventions Members made during the debate.
I echo the comments that everyone made about our appreciation of the dedication of each and every member of Royal Mail at this incredibly busy time of the year. When I visited them on Monday, I took some home baking to keep them going. That seemed to be totally ignored when they started on their bacon and egg rolls. I am not sure if the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill followed a similar diet, but it was certainly getting the posties in Moray through the very busy final Monday prior to the Christmas period.
This is an extremely important issue for constituencies, particularly in the north of Scotland, but as other Members have said, across Scotland and in Northern Ireland, too. I hope people watching at home today can take comfort from the fact that their politicians, their elected representatives, are raising this issue. I particularly welcome—I want to put this on the record—the commitment from the UK Government given by the Minister to publish a Green Paper next year. I think I heard acceptance across the parties that that is an important move forward. I know that consumers will want to use it to ensure we get the best possible deal on delivery charges in Scotland.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered delivery charges in Scotland.