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13 Oct 2004 : Column 396

Parcel Delivery Charges (UK Islands)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

7.29 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I expect that all hon. Members will have had occasion at some time to curse the acres of adverts that are a common feature of every Sunday newspaper and supplement, and all the various inserts that come with them, offering a remarkable and sometimes exotic array of mail order goods. For some of my constituents, however, those Sunday supplements, alongside the internet and more traditional mail order catalogues, offer access to a range of goods and services that would otherwise be difficult for them to obtain.

Many Members, I suspect, will be less likely to understand the significance of the small asterisk attached to the banner headline offering "free delivery", which explains only in small print and at the bottom of the page, "UK mainland only". One business that offered a delivery charge of £7.75 to mainland customers wanted to charge one of my constituents £85. Such practices penalise local people and add significantly to the costs incurred by businesses. Of course, this creates a great deal of frustration in Orkney and Shetland—a frustration that my constituents bear with great patience and good humour. Companies boasting of a next-day delivery service are often met with a wry smile. The services offered by courier companies to the isles are often the poorest.

A few weeks ago, one of my constituents in Foula told me of a batch of veterinary medicines that were to be sent to the island from a supplier in southern England. I should say in passing that the supplier could just have easily been located anywhere in mainland Scotland, given the attitude that is often demonstrated there. Again, the supplier in question was adamant that the medicines would be with my constituent the next day. Knowing the reality of the situation, he was happy to expect them to arrive within four or five days. Two weeks later, he still had nothing.

It eventually transpired that the courier had dumped the package in the shed for goods to be transported to Foula from mainland Shetland, without anyone bothering to make arrangements for its onward transportation to the island. Such service is particularly damaging to an island such as Foula, which is 14 miles due west of mainland Shetland, in one of the most remote parts of my constituency. It has what could best be described as a challenging ferry service, and an air service four days a week. Driving to the local wholesaler if something does not arrive is simply not an option for the crofters of Foula. To discriminate against a market of some 50,000 people strikes me as short-sighted. One can to a degree understand why some companies add an extra charge for delivery to non-mainland residents; but to refuse to deliver to those communities at all is indefensible.

It would be remiss of me not to give credit were it is due. Some companies have been prepared to look again at their delivery charges, following representations that I have made. To favour the House with but one example, I commend a small internet company based in
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Devon that supplies arts and crafts materials, called Kered. As a result of a constituent's complaint, I wrote to Kered to bring to its attention the inequity of its charging extra for delivery to islands. It went to the trouble of renegotiating its agreement with the courier. It previously charged £18 plus VAT for parcels delivered to the isles; the charge has now been reduced to £8.95 plus VAT. Would that there were more companies like Kered. If a small company such as Kered is able to make such significant progress, why cannot more major firms follow suit, given their economic clout?

Several other companies have realised that they can send parcels weighing less than 20 kg by Royal Mail for a relatively modest charge. It is disappointing that many businesses are oblivious to that service; however, I fear that that is as much a comment on the Royal Mail as it is on the businesses themselves. It is not just private individuals who are penalised by the poor and expensive postal service; many local businesses suffer, too.

According to a report produced by Postwatch Scotland in April 2003 on parcel and other postal services in the highlands and islands, 12.5 per cent. of companies have experienced difficulty with businesses refusing to send them goods. I suspect that the figure for businesses in island communities is higher than for those in the mainland highlands. The Postwatch report also revealed that 17 per cent. of highland and island firms were being charged higher delivery charges than businesses elsewhere in the UK.

Since the Postwatch report was published, many highland firms have experienced a reduction in postal charges. In January, Parcelforce announced that parcels travelling within mainland Scotland will no longer be surcharged if they cross Parcelforce's "invisible line", which has divided Scotland for some 15 years. However, parcels sent from elsewhere in the UK to the north of Scotland still have a surcharge added, and parcel recipients who live on Scottish islands still have to pay a surcharge, wherever the parcel comes from.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I represent a constituency that includes the Isles of Scilly, where Sunday newspapers and supplements do not arrive until the Monday. Does my hon. Friend recognise—I am sure he does—that other islands in the UK do not receive or benefit from what claims to be a universal service obligation? Does he also agree that there should be more equity in the service?

Mr. Carmichael: My geography is not all that it might be, but I certainly recognise that there are other islands within the UK. They do not necessarily have the good fortune of being within Orkney and Shetland, but no doubt they have their own charms. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is a history of discrimination here. I was born and brought up in an island community, and I, too, grew up to expect to get the Sunday papers on a Monday morning. The matter I raise is just one aspect of that particular difficulty.

When the Minister responds, I suspect that he will tell me that there is little he can do. That would be a perfectly fair comment. We now have a liberalised parcel market, so if companies cannot make a profit
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from deliveries to a constituency such as mine, they have the right to refuse to do so or to make extra charges. That may be true, but I hope the Minister will concede that the same would inevitably be true if we were ever to have a completely liberalised mail service for letter post. For my constituents, it would likely mean a worse service that would end up being more expensive.

I believe that a large part of my job in this place is to bring to the Government's attention the very real challenges that come from living away from the main centres of population in this country. Liberalising the mail market in the same way that the parcel market has been opened up would only add to our difficulties and to the pressure to move to already overcrowded parts of the country. The one yardstick by which I measure any proposal that comes before this place is what it is likely to do for population levels in the isles, because an island community is constantly struggling to maintain the critical mass of population. It is apparent from the contents of my mailbag that my constituents identify having a good reliable service that is comparable if not the same as that on offer to people in the rest of country as a crucial consideration in their decision either to come to or remain in our part of the country. In my experience, it is up there with the quality of health and education available to people in their communities.

This is not the first time that I have raised this subject with Department of Trade and Industry Ministers. I previously met with the Minister's predecessor and as recently as 16 September raised the matter with the Secretary of State at DTI questions. I have always received a sympathetic response from the Government, particularly the DTI, but I am not persuaded that they have any great ideas as to an answer. I await the Minister's reply with interest.

What I am looking for tonight is, first, a recognition that the Government understand the nature and extent of the problem, and secondly, that they are prepared to look for some means of solving it. If the Minister stood up in his place tonight and said that the Government would re-regulate the parcel service, I should be delighted. I should be absolutely astonished, but truly delighted. What we must achieve is somewhat more imagination and lateral thinking about how best to use the liberalised market that we are left with to ensure that island communities such as Orkney and Shetland—and others, which I am delighted to see represented in the Chamber tonight—do not suffer from this continued discrimination, which has a real impact on private individuals and businesses within our communities.

When I think back to my maiden speech, I remember saying that we were not looking for any special handouts or treatment. We wanted the same treatment as anyone else. This is one area in life where we previously had the same treatment, but it was removed from us, probably as a result of an unintended consequence. The challenge for me and for the Government now is to find some means of ameliorating the worst effects.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) wants to make a short contribution to the debate. He, too, represents a constituency that contains a number island communities—not least the one in which I was born and
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brought up. In view of the short time that has elapsed so far, I hope that the Minister will be able to range a little wider in his response.

7.40 pm

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