I thought I had stepped out of place there and that I had done something wrong.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an important consumer issue that affects individuals’ rights across the United Kingdom, but most particularly in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and the highlands and islands of Scotland. I am indebted to Kellin McCloskey in the Gallery from the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and David Moyes of Consumer Advice Scotland for all their hard work on this issue. I thank the Minister this evening for being prepared to respond and recognise that on this issue, a continued and concerted effort is required to effect the changes necessary to bring a level playing field to consumers right across the United Kingdom.
“Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to consider last week’s report from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, which highlights the barriers to online consumers getting postage to Northern Ireland, the islands or the highlands of the United Kingdom? What steps can the Secretary of State take to create, dare I say it, a ‘one nation’ consumer market where the inhibitors and the barriers are removed once and for all?”
In response, I was delighted to hear from the Secretary of State:
“I have not yet had an opportunity to look at the report, but now that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it, I shall certainly do so, and I shall then be able to respond to him on the issue that he has raised. He may be interested to know, however, that just today it was reported that consumer confidence throughout the United Kingdom had hit a 15-year high, which means that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working.”—[Hansard, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1336.]
I am delighted that consumer confidence was at a 15-year high, but I suspect the following figures I seek to rely on from the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland’s report are just not as encouraging to read.
When a constituent of mine contacted me about an online purchase, he explained how initially delighted he was to read that not only had he found a good deal online from a reputable site, but that delivery was advertised as “Free in the UK”. It was only at the final pay page that he discovered that the free delivery he had been promised was for mainland UK only, and that to proceed with the purchase he was required to pay an additional £5.99. Unclear as to whether this was an isolated issue, another constituent who works in east Belfast explained that he had faced a similar problem. Using eBay on this occasion, the inducement of free UK postage and packaging was quickly withdrawn when he supplied his postcode. To proceed with the purchase, he had to phone the retailer directly and agree a fee of £14, representing an additional 10% of the item cost.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this most important debate. As he rightly said, it affects constituencies right across the United Kingdom and certainly in the highlands of Scotland.
I note that a survey from Citizens Advice Scotland, published today, shows that average delivery prices across the UK have increased from £4.99 to £5.01 over the past three years—a decline in prices in real terms—yet over the same time the average highland surcharge over and above that has increased form £12.10 to £14.23. When we consider that online shopping is 15% of the retail market in the UK, consumers in rural areas are facing a massive increased cost to participate in this growing market. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must protect consumers in rural areas from being exploited, and that, it is a first step, via a division of the universal service obligation, to take into account the growing importance of parcel delivery in the modern world?
Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps uniquely in my short experience in the Chamber, this Adjournment debate has struck some interest from the more peripheral parts of the United Kingdom. I do not wish to be mean or unkind, but it is important that I do not accept interventions from across the Chamber, to give me the opportunity to put forward my points. I should note that Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of the all-party group on the Isle of Man and the all-party group on the Channel Islands, has taken a keen interest in this issue. I am grateful to Members from across the Chamber who have highlighted the importance of this matter.
The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, following its survey, indicated that 33% of online retailers applied a delivery exclusion to Northern Ireland. That can include higher delivery costs, longer delivery times or a refusal to offer a service at all. Other peripheral areas of the UK face high exclusion rates: 42% in the Channel Islands, 38% in the Isle of Man and 31% in the Scottish highlands and islands. Regrettably, and astoundingly, the figure for Northern Ireland as a whole stands at 33%. That is in stark contrast with the rest of the UK: 3% for the entirety of Scotland and Wales and only 1% for the entirety of England. Half of all online retailers in the UK fail to offer the same delivery options across the country, 17% refuse to deliver at all, 20% apply higher costs and 18% take much longer to deliver. The average one-off cost is £10 when free delivery is withdrawn, so while free UK postage and packaging is advertised, £10 is the average additional cost levied on a Northern Ireland consumer. An additional £2.71 is sought when the standard price for delivery is unavailable.
It is easy to try and give a reason for this. I will not use the vocabulary contained in this tweet, but this evening, when I announced that this Adjournment debate had been accepted and that we had the opportunity to raise this issue in Parliament, I got a rather caustic reply saying, “Well, of course it’s more expensive. You live on an island. What do you expect?” Of course, that goes some way to explaining the nature of the issues, but it does not answer or resolve the frustration facing consumers.
Unlike for letters, there is no universal regulated service for parcels. Standard delivery operators prefer to offer their services in densely populated and urban areas, and in offering retailers a contract price, they limit their own costs, and of course no one is forced to proceed with their purchase, should they not find the terms attractive.
As was mentioned, Citizens Advice Scotland today published a report highlighting not only that more than 1 million people in rural Scotland are still suffering the inequity of delivery surcharges, but that these surcharges are still increasing. Taking into account inflation, delivery costs are now 10% higher than three years ago. People in the highlands and islands are paying more for deliveries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this punishing difference in costs must not be allowed to continue?
Yes, I do. I am seeking to outline some of the reasons why that might be, but I think there is a role for the Government, which is why this Adjournment debate is so important.
There is a substantive unfairness in leading a consumer through the entire process of purchase, only to levy a charge at the final stage. It is unfair and—I suspect—illegal. The first obvious issue engaged is the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. I am talking about a situation where someone is enticed into a sale that includes, as part of the terms, free postage and packaging in the UK, only to find the offer reneged upon when a postcode is provided. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister believes that to be a misleading inducement. Secondly, there is a contractual issue with the delivery agent only.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this matter before the House for consideration. I often wonder, as I am sure he does too, whether people know that they have a 14-day cooling-off period. If they do not, is it not perhaps time that the Government, and particularly the Minister’s Department, set about educating people about their rights?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. Seventy-two per cent of consumers in Northern Ireland are unaware that there is a cooling-off period available to them, so that if they make a purchase and they are not happy with the terms, they have 14 days in which to return it and recoup their costs.
That leads back to the issue of postage. The relationship for the consumer is with the retailer and the retailer alone. The retailer has a consequential relationship with the service agent. Only one in 10 consumers are aware of that relationship, so nine out of 10 consumers in Northern Ireland are unaware of how best they should either return an item or seek a refund, or to whom they should speak should that issue arise. Similar contractual conundrums exist in the tourism sector, although of course anything purchased through a travel agent registered with the Association of British Travel Agents is protected as part of a global package.
There may be merit in the Minister’s considering what better protections could be available for consumers in this country. Most importantly, Parliament transposed the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 last year. They eliminate hidden charges and promote price transparency for distance and off-site sales. I very much suspect that the Minister will say that a process of education is required and may move towards that as a solution. Although that would be a wonderful initiative, may I respectfully urge him to recognise that it may not be enough? I have mentioned the trading standards issue concerning false representation on UK free postage and packing, and the need for an holistic control similar to that applying to travel agents, and I would welcome education. However, the issue of mis-selling and unfair terms of postage relates primarily to smaller retailers and independent traders. They use sites such as eBay and Amazon as a medium, and there is no reason why such large organisations should not live up to the spirit and the letter of the regulations on behalf of the small independent retailers who use their sites. Will the Minister consider mandating those organisations that provide the online medium for retailers to ensure that they, on behalf of those retailers, live up to the legislation?
I want to thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to have this debate and all those who have come into the Chamber and given their support on an important consumer issue. It is one that leads to a great deal of frustration for people, whether they live in Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or the highlands and islands in Scotland. I think the figure for Northern Ireland for prospective purchasers who will refuse to go through and will not go back to a site is 39%. If we are interested in the one nation consumer market and if we believe that retailers who offer free postage and packaging in the UK should provide it, then I hope that those of us on the Opposition side of the Chamber can work together with the Minister to see how best we can redress the balance and give consumers the best chance to avail themselves of the offers they seek.
It is a great pleasure to reply to this Adjournment debate with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate Gavin Robinson on securing this debate, which is very much on a subject of constant, day-to-day importance for his constituents and those of so many hon. Members. It is a tribute to the importance of this subject that, perhaps rather later than we hoped and on an evening after a day when we were here even later, there are nevertheless many more people at an Adjournment debate than is customarily the case.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the case that the hon. Gentleman laid out, not least because earlier in my life—you might even say in my mis-spent youth, Madam Deputy Speaker—I ran a business in the fair city of Belfast. I spent a long time commuting and dealing personally with the shipment of goods to the paintbrush factory that we ran just off the Crumlin Road and then shipping its products out of Belfast. I well know the difference in cost between shipping something to Felixstowe and shipping it to Belfast.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the case that the hon. Gentleman makes—that it is very unfair that consumers in some parts of the country should be treated so very differently from those on the mainland. I think he will understand that in an intensely competitive market, which the market for the delivery of parcels is, there will always be a variation in prices that reflects the true variation of shipment costs. When many of the goods purchased are themselves being shipped to the UK from elsewhere, it is not that surprising that getting them to an address in Hertfordshire is going to cost the consumer rather less than getting them to an address in Belfast East.
Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government’s road equivalent tariff fare structure should be helping to reduce the cost of delivering goods to the islands of Scotland, such as the Isle of Arran and Isle of Cumbrae in my constituency, and that more must be done to ensure that any such reduced costs are passed on to consumers? Does he further agree that the whole point of the statement of principles on parcel deliveries was to secure a better and fairer deal for consumers in our rural areas? However, more must be done to increase delivery operator and retailer buy-in to these principles, given that Citizens Advice found that only four out of 449 businesses had even heard of this statement of principles.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I certainly agree with her about the statement of principles. I would like to come on in a minute to what we can do to make sure that more people understand and adhere to it.
Let me briefly address the question of the distant and far-flung parts of Scotland, which a number of hon. Members have represented through their interventions. As it happens, another part of my mis-spent youth—and, indeed, my mis-spent middle age—was regularly spent in the islands of Scotland, specifically on the island of Colonsay, where I have often spent the best weeks almost every summer of my life, including this last one.
My one observation here would be that all those islands, including Colonsay, are connected to the mainland —currently by the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, a part of my life that I shall always cherish, not least the fry-ups. I know that this summer the Scottish Government were going through what I understand to be a somewhat controversial process of contracting out the tendering of the ferry service operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. It occurs to me that in the process of tendering that service, it might be possible to suggest to potential bidders—I believe Serco was much discussed in the local papers at the time—that they should group parcels together and take them to the various islands at a flat charge. It might be possible for the Scottish Government to achieve a lower cost and more universal service through these contracts for ferry services than is currently the case. That is simply an idea off the top of my head, having had a number of conversations in the Colonsay hotel this summer about the Scottish Government’s particular proposal.
Let me conclude with a constructive suggestion. The hon. Member for Belfast East made the very good point that the Government have passed legislation, set out principles and have high expectations, and that we have established that people should call trading standards if they have a problem or call Citizens Advice to report any bad behaviour. It is indeed outrageous, as the hon. Gentleman said, that people discover that a delivery option is either not available or available only at a dramatically higher cost only at the very end of the transaction process. It is clear from the principles we have laid out that that is not acceptable behaviour.
I suggest that, later in the autumn, we organise a round table. The hon. Gentleman is welcome to come and speak at it, as, indeed, are any other interested parties.
I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Lady, but may I finish describing my proposal first?
I propose that we invite representatives of Citizens Advice Scotland, and, indeed, the representatives of the Northern Ireland organisation who produced such an excellent report. Critically, I propose that we also invite senior executives from the big online retailers, and ask them what they are doing to ensure that information is provided transparently, early, and upfront. What are they doing to ensure that, as far as possible, the same options are available to all consumers, and that, when costs vary, they vary only in accordance with the true underlying costs of transporting parcels? I should be happy to organise such a round table, to chair it, and to welcome the contribution of all Members—
The Minister is very kind, and I am very grateful to him for inviting the Independent Member for North Down to the round table talks that he is to chair. May I, however, urge him to do something more, today of all days? Earlier today, in a special statement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland again conveyed her commitment to a one-nation Government, and Gavin Robinson used the same phrase quite frequently this evening. At those talks, could we see those words “one nation Government” translated into proposals for action? That is what people want to see when it comes to online charges for deliveries in Northern Ireland: they want to see evidence that there will be that commitment to a one nation Government.
I am certainly happy to promise action, in the sense of trying to ensure that the statement of principles that we have agreed to publish is adopted by online retailers, and that, if it is not, action is taken to ensure that those retailers step up to the mark. However, I want to be a little bit cautious about implying that we will pass legislation imposing flat charges, meaning that every delivery service must charge the same prices for every part of the United Kingdom. I simply do not believe that that would work, or would be in the long-term interests of consumers, because it would drive out competitive providers of delivery services.
Ultimately, there is progress. The percentage of online retailers who are offering delivery options on a uniform basis is growing, and the percentage who are doing the things that we do not want them to do is shrinking. However, that is not happening fast enough. I think that, working together, we can put more pressure on the industry—on the Amazons, the eBays and, indeed, some of the smaller players—to act more responsibly, without necessarily legislating or regulating further. I shall be happy to work with them, and with SNP Members and other representatives of the fair country of Scotland—the other representative, or two—to achieve that goal. If we can work together, I am sure that we can make some progress, and achieve that one nation for consumers throughout the United Kingdom.
That is an interesting question, which leads me to make a point that may correct an impression that was created earlier by the hon. Member for Belfast
East. The universal obligation applies to parcels, it is a five-day service and it involves uniform charges, but it is not compulsory for retailers to offer it. What I believe the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is that we should make it a requirement to do so. We may find that, at some points, we will part company on some issues.
This Government are a determinedly deregulatory Government. We do not believe in imposing more burdens on business, and I believe the direction of travel in terms of costs of delivery and the universality of the service suggests that that is the right approach, but I am certainly happy to discuss any issue at this round table; it will not only be me who puts things on the agenda.
If nobody else has any further questions, let me say that I look forward to working with all hon. Members on this issue and I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East for raising it.
Question put and agreed to.