Meeting date: Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 06 December 2017
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority, Ferry Services (Fares and Funding), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Parcel Delivery Charges
- Portfolio Question Time
- Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority
- Ferry Services (Fares and Funding)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Parcel Delivery Charges
Parcel Delivery Charges
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-07776, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on unfair parcel delivery charges. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament understands that, compared with other parts of the UK, people in Moray, the north of Scotland and other rural areas are often charged excessive rates for parcel deliveries; understands that recent examples of this practice include Halfords charging £50 to send towels, which cost only £5.99, to Speyside, and LloydsPharmacy charging £50 to send a mobility scooter to a terminally-ill woman in Keith, despite advertising free UK delivery online; recognises what it sees as the frustration of consumers living in postcodes such as IV and AB, who have to pay these charges, which it considers unfair; welcomes both Halfords and LloydsPharmacy reported decision to review their charging policies in response to public concern; acknowledges the importance of challenging companies over such policies, and notes the view that there is a need for the relevant authorities to address this issue, which it believes affects many thousands of households and businesses.17:10
I thank the many members who signed my motion and are attending the debate. The cross-party support for an issue that affects homes and businesses across the country is most welcome.
I pay tribute to Drew Hendry MP, Citizens Advice Scotland, Highland Council and the many community campaigners—including Rebecca Wymer who runs Stacks bistro in John o’ Groats and who started her own petition in July—for previously highlighting the issue that we are debating. I say to all of them, and to members in the chamber, that I believe that December 2017 will go down as a turning point, when, with household budgets already under pressure, the people of Scotland will say enough is enough—no more rip-off parcel delivery surcharges. Hopefully, the authorities will also accept that real action is now required to address the issue.
More Scots than ever will shop online this Christmas, because better digital connectivity allows us to part with our cash without ever leaving our homes. For their part, retailers know that in today’s marketplace they need to sell online to compete. In rural areas in particular, the internet can be a godsend, especially for goods that are not available on our own doorsteps. Yet, for a large part of our country, online shopping comes with a big, expensive drawback. Many households and businesses are being ripped off by retailers who are charging jaw-dropping and completely unjustifiable sums for delivery.
Richard Lochhead mentioned jaw-dropping examples and I am sure that he is about to give some. Does he agree that in the island communities the situation is extreme? I can think of a constituent in Harris who was charged £61 on top of the £145 price for a parcel, even when the constituent offered to pick up the item in Inverness. I am sure that the member will agree that the situation is extreme in all our island communities.
I will give you extra time, Mr Lochhead; that was a long intervention.
Thank you. I absolutely agree with Alasdair Allan. His constituency is, of course, very much affected; I will refer to that later.
Many retailers deliver free or at low cost elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but impose hefty surcharges to much of Scotland: a delivery fee of £50 was demanded for despatching a £5.99 pair of handtowels to a Speyside constituent of mine; a £60 surcharge was levied for sending a small £8.99 item—a nozzle for a washer—to Fochabers; and another Fochabers constituent purchased spare car parts from Germany with free delivery, rather than pay up to £45 for delivery from elsewhere in the UK.
What started as a Moray campaign has gone national. I have been contacted by people from throughout the country via fairdeliverycharges.scot and social media and I have learnt a lot. I can tell Alasdair Allan that I have been told that a pair of boxer shorts—not ones that I would wear personally—sold by the Lincolnshire-based Internet Fusion Ltd store and costing £19.91 can be delivered to Barra for an extra £33.94, but it costs only an extra £19.15 to get the order to Bulgaria, according to the website. I think that we can all agree that that example is completely bonkers.
There are many issues, of which lack of transparency is one. Disgracefully, consumers are sometimes not told about the surcharge until after they have completed their purchase. A lady near Inverurie bought an exercise bike at £155 plus £15.99 for delivery, which she thought was reasonable. The next day the company informed her that there would be an additional £34 surcharge due to her AB postcode.
Citizens Advice Scotland estimates that 1 million Scots are affected. It is important to be clear that not all retailers impose these surcharges and that others keep them reasonable. However, many do not keep the surcharges reasonable—they are like a delivery tax that costs much of Scotland millions of pounds a year. There is such an inconsistent picture. Some retailers offer free delivery to some or all postcodes, or minimal surcharges, but others apply huge surcharges. There is no rhyme nor reason to how many of the surcharges are calculated.
I have heard of cases in which the surcharges for delivery to addresses in Elgin, on the A96, with IV postcodes, are higher than delivery charges to nearby rural villages with AB postcodes, and cases in which the opposite is true. The blunt use of postcodes is a big problem. I visited a community in Moray where the boundary is a field. The houses with IV postcodes at one end of the field are subjected to huge surcharges, such as £32.99 delivery for a referee’s whistle and mini-wallet costing £7.95, while the houses at the other end get charged only £4.95 delivery for the same item. To add to the absurdity, delivery lorries using the A96 drive past the houses that are charged the higher surcharges. No wonder the public are completely exasperated.
According to the courier company Menzies, whose depot I visited and which delivers to all corners of the Highlands, many of the higher charges, such as a £74.99 surcharge for delivering a £61.99 kids toy, which was bought through Tesco Direct, are unjustifiable.
We know that it is not nearly as common for Scottish companies based in the north to surcharge customers in the far south of England. Johnstons of Elgin, for example, charges the same for delivery anywhere in the UK, yet Groupon, Kiddicare and others have been criticised for refusing to even deliver to the north of Scotland.
There is often geographical ignorance and flawed computer software. One lady told me that she was asked to pay a £70 surcharge for an item advertised as coming with free delivery. The reason for the surcharge was that her AB postcode put her in the Highlands. She explained that she lives in Stonehaven, next to the A90, but that did not wash. One man from mainland Argyll sent me his paperwork, which showed that the retailer had applied a £7.99 surcharge because his home was deemed to be offshore.
As we all know, astonishingly, some mainland Scottish postcodes are not mainland UK, according to many retailers. The banners emblazoned with claims boasting of free UK delivery are absolutely worthless once the customers get to the small print at the end of the ordering process—if there is even any small print there.
There have been attempts to tackle these rip-off surcharges. In 2014, ministers working with the industry and consumer groups drew up a statement of principles for retailers to follow. Some retailers stick by them; others ignore them. Principles relating to location, discrimination and transparency are being flouted by many retailers and courier companies. They are voluntary and are aimed only at retailers, not couriers, and they are largely ignored.
I recently met stakeholders in the Parliament and I was delighted to learn today that the minister plans to host a similar event. There is an appetite for more action, because too many Scots are being treated as second-class customers. UK, rather than Scottish, ministers have legislative responsibility, so it is time for them to investigate and regulate. After ruling out regulations in September, UK ministers this week seemed to be softening their position.
The Office of Communications regulates only the Royal Mail, the universal service provider. Regulating parcel deliveries, either through the Post Office legislation or consumer protection rules, which is a reserved issue, should be urgently considered. We must ensure that there is transparency before orders are placed, through better enforcement or better regulation.
Many retailers seem to be acting illegally, given the behaviours that I have outlined in the past few minutes. If delivery is free to what is referred to as the UK mainland, that must obviously include all of mainland Scotland.
In the meantime, customers can shop around and name and shame the worst offenders. Big retailers such as Halfords and LloydsPharmacy reviewed their charges after I contacted them, so they can change.
To end rip-off delivery charges, we need common standards by which all retailers and couriers must abide. I urge the minister, whom I met recently to discuss this issue, to take up the cudgels on behalf of customers and the people of Scotland, take the case to the retailers and couriers, lobby his UK counterparts and use the Scottish Parliament’s new powers over consumer advocacy and advice to tackle this issue. I ask Scottish and UK ministers to deliver an early Christmas present to up to 1 million Scots by pledging to tackle these rip-off delivery surcharges.
We come to the open debate, in which 10 members wish to speak. I ask for speeches of four minutes.17:19
I thank Richard Lochhead for bringing the debate to the chamber. I imagine that it is one debate that will find consensus across all parties. All members will have stories about ridiculous delivery charges. There are stories from my constituency, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, as well as stories from all over the Highlands, Moray and even as far down as Perth.
There is ambiguity about where the charges actually go. Do they go to sellers, or is it the delivery companies that make the charges?
The situation in the far north has become so frustrating that a local Wick man, Gary Gunn, has set up his own delivery company, to counter the excessive charges. He says that he took a gamble in leaving his job but although he has been in business for only four weeks he has been inundated with orders. On his Facebook page, he tells people where he is heading on certain days and he takes orders for certain companies. His feedback shows that he is already building up a happy and loyal customer base.
We all have stories about excessive, disproportionate and frankly ridiculous delivery charges to some postcodes. My postcode, KW, originates in Wick but is often mistaken for a postcode that is exclusive to Kirkwall. It is hard to ascertain whether that is a genuine mistake or merely mischief making on the part of the companies involved. Let me make it clear by referring to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia—as well as reliable sources, I must add. Wikipedia says:
“The KW postcode area or Wick postcode area is a group of postcode districts in the far north of Scotland. Though the area includes all of the Orkney Islands, it is named after Wick, the largest town in Caithness and the post town of the KW1 district. Districts KW1–KW14 are on the mainland of Scotland, roughly corresponding to the boundaries of the historic county of Caithness. The area comprises the post towns of Berriedale, Brora, Dunbeath, Forsinard, Golspie, Halkirk, Helmsdale, Kinbrace, Latheron, Lybster, Thurso, and Wick, as well as Kirkwall, Stromness, and the rest of Orkney.”
As is probably the case with all members, I have been sent loads of examples of excessive charges. If I had more than four minutes for my speech, Presiding Officer, I could probably relay them all. I will not do that, but I will read out some. Gary told me:
“Euro Car Parts—Delivery to ‘GB Mainland’ is free. Delivery to ‘Scottish Highlands & Islands’ is £5.95. What particularly annoys me about this, aside from actually living on the GB Mainland, is that they have a store located in Inverness.”
The company should know better.
James told me:
“Not extortionate but The Whisky Exchange charge £5 surcharge for Highlands & Islands which they classify with Isle of Man, Isles of Scilly and Northern Ireland.”
Shona wrote to Kiddicare, which Richard Lochhead mentioned,
“You advertise that you do free delivery to UK mainland. I think what you mean is that you deliver to some parts of the UK mainland”,
and said that the company replied that it currently delivers only to specific areas and has no plans to change that.
I have had other examples sent to me:
“Ebay—many of their sellers have the message, ‘NO delivery to the Scottish Highlands’”.
“Why are FlexiFlue charging more to deliver to the Highlands than they charge to deliver to the islands and to Ireland?”
“Amazon—Please educate your sellers. The Scottish Highlands IS part of the UK mainland!”
“These actually contravene Trading Standards! If something is offered as free to the UK mainland, then make it free to the UK mainland.”
So what is the solution? It is all very well to say that people should shop around, but why should we have to tell people to do that? A solution that is being mooted is a network of distribution centres or pick-up points, but such an approach is almost impossible to implement if some companies will not deliver to the area in the first place.
We can name and shame—and keep doing it. The campaign is gaining momentum, and the more stories that we get, the more we can bring the issue to the fore and report companies to trading standards.
Another suggestion is a website—
I am afraid that you do not have time for another suggestion. Your suggestions have all been very good. Please sit down.17:23
I congratulate Richard Lochhead on bringing the debate to the Parliament.
Unfair delivery charges are something with which members from across northern Scotland are, unfortunately, very familiar. We have heard about a number of individual experiences and will, no doubt, hear about more in the course of tonight’s debate. It is regrettable that the charges impact most on those who rely on delivery services. In rural and remote areas, the alternative is often a long round trip to the nearest major town. In our island communities, accessing goods and services can take longer and be even more complicated.
Excessive charges are sometimes entirely incomprehensible. For example, people in the town of Elgin and the city of Inverness have experienced many issues. Over recent weeks, constituents have been writing to me a great deal on the subject, and I will share some of their experiences.
In Orkney and Shetland, the main problem appears to be firms often refusing to deliver at all. My mailbag has named a mix of both small firms and major global companies in that context, some of which are even based here in Scotland.
In the mainland Highlands, the examples tend to point more to charges and costs. In one case, a gentleman was faced with a delivery charge that was considerably greater than the value of the item that he was having shipped. After negotiation, he managed to get agreement to have it shipped by Royal Mail at less than an eighth of the cost that was initially proposed.
From Elgin, I was given the example of a delivery charge being inflated by over £50 compared with delivery to Inverness. It was almost in the realms of it being cheaper to have the parcel chauffeur driven for the remainder of the journey.
Another constituent in Elgin bought from a UK-based company that advertised itself as being able to post to the “UK mainland”. However, the offer was retracted even though the company was prepared to ship across the Channel to continental Europe.
Those are just a handful out of many experiences that take place all the time in my region, and not just among individuals—the issue is also faced by businesses across the Highlands and Islands.
The motion makes reference to the cost of delivering a mobility scooter to a woman in Keith. That one example represents a wider problem that arises when specialist medical equipment is delivered and people in the region can be excluded, although people in most of the UK take such services for granted. All of us in the chamber will recognise that, sometimes, there are additional costs for deliveries to the Highlands and Islands. In many cases, they are reasonable; however, in many cases, it is clear that they are not.
I welcome, in particular, the briefing from Citizens Advice Scotland for today’s debate, as it recognises many of the problems but also proposes some solutions.
In many cases, it will be business that has to adapt, but I commend the interest of the Government, too. The minister, Paul Wheelhouse, has previously noted that the UK consumer protection partnership, which is chaired by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is reviewing parcel delivery surcharging. Similar problems arise in other parts of the UK, such as Northern Ireland. My colleague and the member of Parliament for Moray, Douglas Ross, who has campaigned extensively on the issue, today raised it with the Prime Minister. He will have further discussions with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which shows how seriously these problems in my region are taken at Westminster. I commend the Scottish Government for its interest in the area, which will be helpful in tackling problems.
For now, it is positive that members are keeping up the pressure on businesses that apply unfair delivery charges or whose actions lead to delivery black spots. Individuals and businesses across the Highlands and Islands have suffered as a consequence of them, and where we see unfair delivery practices applied they must be challenged.
I look forward to more businesses recognising these problems and acting responsibly to address some of the many concerns we have heard about today.17:27
I congratulate Richard Lochhead on lodging his motion on unfair parcel delivery charges and securing this afternoon’s debate. It has taken a lot of work locally and nationally to garner support for the campaign, and I congratulate everyone involved.
The issue affects many parts of Scotland including my constituency. I first raised the issue in early 2012, in my motion entitled “Time for a 21st Century Revamp of the Parcel Delivery Service”, which highlighted the fact that rural and island areas are worst affected by our outdated and unjust delivery structures, with many customers facing high surcharges and refusals to deliver by operators.
Five years later, that situation still pertains. For those living in urban areas, it is easy to take delivery services for granted, but, as we have heard this afternoon, analysis from Citizens Advice Scotland shows that up to 1 million Scots will be affected by extra parcel delivery charges this Christmas.
Some people might be tempted by offers of free delivery during this time of giving, but more than 20 per cent of Scots live in areas where parcel surcharges are applied. Ironically, it is those who live in rural areas and on our islands who are most likely to rely on online orders, given the shortage of shopping options and their distance from high streets.
That often leads to the almost unbelievable scenario of it being cheaper for a customer living on Arran to have their parcel delivered to a collection point in Ardrossan and purchase a £7.80 return ferry ticket to collect it than to have the parcel delivered to their home. The same can be true for my constituents who live on Cumbrae, who pay £3.20 to travel to Largs to collect their parcels.
That situation is neither practical nor sustainable, especially for island and rural businesses that require frequent deliveries or for constituents with limited mobility. One Arran constituent recently faced a £10 delivery surcharge on a folding walking stick that cost just £12. Although such products may be picked up in most high street pharmacies, for islanders, being able to access them online is a vital lifeline.
In browsing the Marks and Spencer website, I noticed that it proudly declares that the company delivers to 30 countries around the world including Australia and the USA. That makes it even more mystifying that it refuses to deliver what it terms “large” items to Arran, and it gives no guidance as to how such items are classified.
Since the postal service was fully liberalised, in 2006, ending Royal Mail’s monopoly over the sector, the market has been flooded with firms offering low-cost delivery alternatives. Sometimes, though, that low cost has been at the expense of good service.
As the universal service provider, overseen by the communications regulator, Ofcom, Royal Mail must commit to at least one delivery of letters every Monday to Saturday to every address in the United Kingdom, and it must offer postal services at an affordable, uniform tariff across the UK. Meanwhile, unlike Royal Mail, rival companies are allowed to operate unregulated. For customers, that can translate into surcharges and even refusal to deliver. It also means that there is no ombudsman to arbitrate complaints, making it difficult to make consumer voices heard.
In the Scottish Parliament today, we must support our constituents, make their feelings known and challenge those companies on their discriminatory practices. There is a voluntary code to which many companies subscribe, but it is surely time to move beyond that.
The postal redress service, which is run by the dispute resolution consultancy the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution, or CEDR, accepts complaints only against regulated member companies unless a non-member agrees to be bound by its decisions. The alternative dispute resolution scheme for communications invites dissatisfied customers to refer unresolved issues with unregulated couriers and postal companies, but there is a problem: it can deal only with firms that are signed up to its scheme. Currently, none are named on its website, and it has not responded to my request for a list of members.
During my five years as the convener of the cross-party group on postal services, we raised the issue time and time again with the Westminster Government, so I sincerely hope that this high-profile campaign is the wake-up call that it needs to tackle the persistent lack of understanding of Scotland’s geography and infrastructure, which is punishing many of Scotland’s communities, especially on our islands.
I support colleagues in this campaign to resolve the issue, and I look forward to engaging with industry and public sector representatives to bring our parcel delivery services into the 21st century.17:31
I congratulate Richard Lochhead on securing the debate and on his campaign to highlight the unfair delivery charges that we face in the Highlands and Islands.
The rise of e-commerce has been a great benefit to the UK—especially to those of us living in the north of Scotland and the islands. When it is not uncommon for people to have to travel long distances to access shops and services, being able to shop online from the comfort of their own homes has been a fantastic development. However, what is not fantastic is being ripped off for merely utilising the same opportunities that are open to all other consumers. Additional delivery charges are not just an occasional nuisance but a common and unjust burden placed on people in the Highlands and Islands.
Evidence from Citizens Advice Scotland confirms that we pay more, on average, and most of us have our own stories to tell in that regard. I recently bought some furniture online. Although the delivery cost was quite high, I really liked the items, so I went ahead. A couple of days later, I got an invoice for an additional charge for delivery to the Highlands and Islands that would have doubled the delivery costs. I immediately got in touch and asked the company to cancel the whole order. It got back to me pretty quickly and waived the additional charge. The moral of the story is not to accept that additional charge.
At the very least, delivery costs should be clear and defensible. I have a principle of cancelling orders from companies that have inflated delivery surcharges. At this time of year, it is sometimes easier for me to buy presents online and have them posted straight to the person if I will not see them before Christmas. On occasion, I have had reasonable delivery costs for those gifts going south only to find that those going north can be totally over the top. When that happens, I cancel every item—for both north and south—and the company loses the whole order. Like many others, I often decide to go elsewhere.
I have found that, when I shop online at small local companies, they do not charge exorbitant prices. By shopping locally, I support the Highlands and Islands economy and I also get beautifully unique gifts to send to friends who live a distance away. Frankly, it is a win-win situation.
Although I agree with campaigns that highlight bad surcharge practices and that name and shame those who charge those fees, for the most part they have little long-term impact. In reality, companies that unfairly charge Highlands and Islands customers consider that they have no need to court our business, because it is not as profitable. Online shops often contract out their delivery to other companies, and, for the most part, that is based on the lowest contract price. However, those low prices are achieved by targeting the places that are easy to deliver to and by charging exorbitant prices to areas that are more challenging to deliver to.
To see a meaningful difference, we need a universal rate for all deliveries. Companies should be allowed to set their rates, but they must be universal for all customers. At the very least, online shops should be willing to send items by Royal Mail or Parcelforce when their preferred contractors exercise such discriminatory practices. The fear for delivery companies will be that, by carrying higher costs, they will become less competitive than their rivals. That is a glaring example of market failure, and we cannot allow the market to operate unfairly. Discriminatory postal and delivery charges plainly highlight the requirement for public ownership. Until we are at the point where that is possible, we need regulation of all delivery companies. Regulation would allow us to ensure that companies did not undermine other businesses while protecting all Scottish areas from disadvantage.
I appreciate that postage is not a devolved matter and that, therefore, we need to work with colleagues at Westminster to raise the issue there as we campaign for fairness for all areas. Nevertheless, we should explore how we can use the Parliament’s new powers to address the issue as well.
Due to the high level of interest in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Richard Lochhead]
Motion agreed to.17:36
I thank my colleague Richard Lochhead for bringing the issue of delivery charges before the Parliament. For too long, there have been huge disparities in the amount that constituents have had to pay, including in Aberdeenshire East, which I represent. At a summer meeting with the chair of the Turriff Business Association, I was told that unfair delivery charges are its biggest issue. That Aberdeenshire town is classed as being in the Highlands and Islands by many companies, which think that being in the Highlands and Islands is an excuse to charge more. Turriff is only 40 miles from Aberdeen. One business owner in the town told me that some UK companies expect a minimum spend of £250 to qualify for their advertised free delivery. The charges go through the roof for any amount less than that. Even worse, some will refuse to deliver at all unless the minimum spend is at least £250.
The UK-wide Consumer Protection Partnership has promised to tackle the retail side of the issue and encourage more transparency from retailers, which I welcome, but the main issue is with carriers. In a meeting that Richard Lochhead organised with stakeholders last month, representatives of Royal Mail, which is obliged to apply equal delivery charges, was present, but no other carriers were represented. We are talking not just about the small couriers but about the large carriers, some of which operate globally. They are silent on this because they are not serving the whole of Scotland or the whole of the UK in an equitable manner. My challenge therefore is this: when retailers award delivery contracts worth a tremendous amount, they must ensure that they do not disadvantage their customers by choosing a carrier that charges more for delivery to the north, because the reputational damage will be done to them, not the unseen carriers. It is time for the retailers to be part of the solution.
How much more will a rural household spend on delivery at Christmas time than an urban one will? More money spent on delivery means fewer stocking fillers and, as any of Santa's helpers will tell you, that will not go down well. One family in Aberdeenshire told me:
“When ordering a basketball hoop they were going to charge about £60 to deliver to my address luckily I have family in Carlisle who were coming up the road so I sent it there for about £10 and this is not the first time I've experienced over charging which I find ridiculous just for a few more miles”.
Another resident said that two online firms would not deliver to Aberdeenshire at all.
However, rural businesses are affected severely all year round. North East Boiler Sales & Services Ltd said that it experienced higher delivery charges in the AB53 postcode in Turriff, often being classed as being in the Highlands and Islands or, in some instances, “not on the mainland”. Turriff is not even near the sea. The firm said:
”The majority of our goods are shipped up from England and Wales and it is annoying that we and other businesses are penalised by higher charges.“
Many people will go to retail companies in Europe rather than pay extra when dealing with a UK company, which is not good for the UK economy. A speciality food shop that moved its premises from Aberdeen to Turriff now finds itself classed as being in the Highlands and Islands and paying extortionate charges for its niche stock. Many local businesses also find that they are unable to get next-day delivery at all, so they cannot provide a speedy service when filling customer orders. Traffords cafe in Turriff tells me that it is constantly quoted a minimum of £15-plus for carriage when its suppliers have previously stated that delivery will be free.
I commend Richard Lochhead for bringing this issue to wider public attention. We should all continue to call out unfair delivery costs wherever we see them, and I urge people in my constituency to report instances either to Mr Lochhead’s campaign or to me directly.17:40
I, too, congratulate Richard Lochhead on bringing to the chamber an issue that, as he has rightly pointed out, is not new. I go along with giving credit to Drew Hendry and others for their work, but there is no doubt that Mr Lochhead has displayed real tenacity in this.
I have been paying delicate attention to a lot of what has been said this evening. Mr Halcro Johnston said that the MP for Moray was raising the issue in the House of Commons today; I noted Mr Lochhead’s example of the cost of relaying a referee’s whistle to Moray, and I had to wonder whether the two were not entirely unrelated. [Laughter.]
We know that there is a disproportionate impact on the Highlands and Islands. A lot of nice phrases such as “statement of principles” have been used; we understand that competition law applies; and I noted the point about extra costs and low volume. This is, of course, called capitalism, but as many of the examples that have been highlighted show, people in these areas cannot vote with their feet and go to an alternative provider.
The report “The Postcode Penalty: The Distance Travelled” was illuminating in that respect. As we know, Parcelforce has a single tariff for mainland Scotland. Moreover, Ofcom has no or limited powers over this. I know of someone in Mr Gibson’s constituency who, despite living on the mainland, was told by a retailer on the phone that they would have to pay a significant surcharge because they lived in rural Scotland. When it was explained to the retailer that the person lived literally 15 miles from Glasgow, it changed its tune.
I am interested to hear that there will be collaboration on what has been an issue for long enough. Obviously, we need transparency on this. We will all have examples like this—and I have to say that I never thought that I would be talking about fishing waders in the Scottish Parliament—but I was contacted by a constituent who wanted to name and shame the Glasgow Angling Centre, which is now known as Fishing Megastore. The gentleman in question lives in Forres in Moray while his son lives in York, but even though York is further from Glasgow than Forres, the son gets his fishing waders delivered for free while his father in Forres has to pay what now seems the quite modest sum of £9.99. The gentleman said to me:
“You know I am mild natured but when a Scottish firm does this to its own people I get a bit annoyed ... I had a logical discussion with them a few years ago but I might as well have been talking to the squirrels in the garden.”
When I wrote to these squirrels, I got a very peculiar reply. They said:
“I have received your letter regarding our delivery charges and find it a bit strange for an MSP to chase this up”.
However, I was then asked for details. I have chased up the matter with the retailer, and I am now chasing it up with UPS.
Clearly, UK ministers can play a role here, but we need to see whether there is any willingness to look at the devolution of these powers. I would certainly support my colleague Rhoda Grant in her call in that respect. The more powers we have here, the more we can address this self-evident rip-off.
At this point, I should also say well done to Mr Gunn from Caithness. If I ever have cause to transport parcels there, I will turn to him.
I recall as a child in rural Inverness-shire that most of the buses had a grilled-off section at the back for parcels; in fact, parcels, prescriptions and so on came in the bus, and I think that we have to look at such options. It would, of course, be very difficult to get competing companies to co-operate, but such an approach would have environmental implications. Indeed, perhaps it could be adopted in urban areas, too.
We need to keep talking, but I commend Mr Lochhead for his work and look forward to hearing the minister’s comments.
Thank you very much. I wonder whether the squirrels ever felt like replying to your constituent.17:44
Like others, I congratulate Richard Lochhead not just on securing the debate but on his on-going work, including the recent round-table meeting in Parliament. As others have said, the debate has generally been consensual, although I took exception to Gail Ross planting a flag in the KW postcode and claiming it for Wick. However, let us move swiftly on.
I also pay tribute to Citizens Advice Scotland for its latest “Postcode Penalty” report and its on-going work over a number of years.
I remember lodging a similar motion back in 2012, but it is right that Parliament is returning to the issue. I think that there is consensus across the parliamentary parties that progress has not been fast enough or gone nearly far enough and that we are determined to continue to press for more action.
The postcode penalty reveals, as others have said, that as many as 1 million consumers in Scotland are asked to pay at least 30 per cent more on average to have their parcels delivered than consumers elsewhere in Britain are. For those living on islands, as Alasdair Allan rightly pointed out, such as those whom I represent in Orkney, the figure is even higher, at around 50 per cent, always assuming that we can persuade online retailers to deliver there at all.
We all know what the problems are because, as others have said, they have been around for years. We can all, as many have, cite egregious examples of eye-wateringly exorbitant charges, often exceeding the value of the product that is being ordered. Only those in Barra who do not wear boxer shorts can be happy with the news that Richard Lochhead relayed in his speech. There are also cases where the existence of our islands as part of the wider UK is flatly denied by obstinate online retailers.
However, CAS deserves particular credit for setting out some potential solutions for the problems, with a call for delivery firms to collaborate more effectively with one another and with the public sector; for consideration to be given to whether the Post Office network in the Highlands and Islands could have a role in reducing delivery costs for consumers across that region; and for the potential for pick-up and drop-off networks in some areas to be explored. I recall that, when Parliament debated the issue in 2015, Derek Mackay, who was then the transport minister—I know that I have spent the afternoon trying to hold him to account, but here we go—said that Transport Scotland would be examining the possibility of creating collection hubs at ferry terminals as a way of making delivery charges cheaper. Perhaps the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy might be able to update us on that in his wind-up speech.
Companies—although not necessarily the society of squirrels that Mr Finnie has been engaged with—can be persuaded to look again at their practices and charges or, at the very least, to improve the transparency of the fees that they charge. Much more needs to be done, so I very much welcome the unfair delivery charges campaign. I wish it well and offer it my support. Again, I thank Richard Lochhead for bringing the debate to the chamber and for his wider efforts on what is an important issue for those in both our constituencies and well beyond. On their behalf, I hope that we will now see a stepping-up of the collaborative effort that CAS has called for, involving the private and public sectors, and with both the UK and Scottish Governments—and Ofcom—playing their full part.17:47
I thank Richard Lochhead for bringing the debate to Parliament.
In 1812, my great-great-great-grandfather, David Berry, who had served in the British Royal Navy between 1780 and 1782, required a duplicate copy of his service record so that he could claim his pension from a predecessor to the current Ministry of Defence. That letter cost him £1 and 10 shillings to be delivered. When Rowland Hill introduced the penny post in 1840, he transformed the whole nation—the whole island—by creating a uniform delivery charge of a single penny, which was fundamentally different from what my great-great-great—three greats—grandfather had to pay for his letter. Interestingly, the uniform delivery charge saved money, because it turned out that the cost of calculating how much individual letters cost exceeded the amount of the higher-rate charges that were foregone. Uniform charges can therefore have economic benefits in some circumstances—we just need to get computers out of the equation.
We would think that we are particularly disadvantaged in Scotland by our delivery system, but the reality is that Edinburgh airport is one of the three airports in the United Kingdom that is a huge—I mean really huge—transport hub, together with London Stansted and East Midlands airports. Edinburgh airport transports huge amounts around the UK every night, and it is not terribly far away from Inverness, Aberdeen, my constituents and the constituents of many of the members in the chamber. The infrastructure is therefore present.
It can be done slightly differently elsewhere. I like a particular kind of shoe for leisure wear that comes from Australia. Historically, I have ordered them from Australia; they arrive in 48 hours and the delivery charge is £15. The shoes are not expensive—they are about £40, so the company is not making a profit in other ways. If the company delivers those shoes to Great Barrier Island, off the coast of North Island in New Zealand, the charge is £8.50. That island is five miles further from Auckland than Stornoway is from Ullapool—compare and contrast. The shoes that go from Australia to New Zealand have a three to four hour flight and then they go on to Great Barrier Island. We know that it can be done differently elsewhere.
Like other members, my constituents have told me about their problems. A garden centre website advertises free delivery for orders over £50—unless the order is for Aberdeenshire, where delivery costs £20. Apparently, “free delivery” means only to England and Wales. Wayfair says:
“FREE Delivery within Great Britain (excluding extended areas)”.
For some of my constituents, the delivery charge was £25 instead of free.
Every member here has contributed in a cross-party and consensual way, and everyone has told the same kind of stories. My wife, in an attempt to please me, ordered gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes to plant next year in the garden. An extra charge was levied and her teeth are still grinding. It is time that we did something about it, if only to stop my wife’s teeth from grinding.17:51
I commend Richard Lochhead for bringing this debate to the Parliament and the contributions from across the chamber. There cannot be many debates that unite Stewart Stevenson’s great-grandfather—
—with squirrels, fishing waders and referee whistles. The issue is clearly very important and it has affected more than 1 million people in Scotland. I am more than happy to have signed Richard Lochhead’s motion and I support his comments.
It cannot be stressed enough why people in the Highlands and Islands and other rural areas should not be subject to exceedingly high surcharges that are based on where they live. It is fundamentally unjust and we should do all that we can to protect people in rural areas from such high costs. The period 2012 to 2015 saw an increase of 17.6 per cent in surcharges for Highland customers and a 15.8 per cent increase for island customers, excluding inflation. The problem is getting worse; unless we see real change, the people who live in our most remote communities will only suffer more.
We need to dismantle barriers to communities in rural areas and reduce the disadvantages of living in Scotland’s remoter regions. Encouragement of private consumer spending will drive economic growth and help to reverse depopulation, which has become problematic in many parts of the Highlands and Islands, especially in Argyll and Bute.
I pay tribute to Douglas Ross, the MP for Moray, for his efforts to raise awareness in Westminster of unfair postage charges. Earlier this year, he raised the problem in his maiden speech, when he said that high delivery charges are disrespectful to the Highlands and Islands, inexcusable and plain wrong. In addition to pressing for a debate in the Commons, he has called on the Scottish Affairs Committee to hold an inquiry into the issue. I hope that the committee will hold a debate, so that the issue can be discussed on a cross-party basis at Westminster in the same vein as our discussion today. As Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned, Douglas Ross raised this issue at today’s Prime Minister’s questions, taking the matter to the heart of the UK Government. The Prime Minister committed the business secretary to meeting Douglas Ross to discuss the issue, which I am sure will be productive.
It is incumbent on us all to work together on the issue, as we have demonstrated in today’s photocall and in this debate. Through our efforts here in Holyrood and the work of those in Westminster, we can jointly tackle the problem. In an increasingly digital world in which online purchases are becoming commonplace, it is inexcusable that some parts of our country have fallen behind and are discriminated against due to their geographical location.
I know from my mailbag that there have been some extraordinary examples of individuals and small businesses that have been hammered by charges. One constituent from the Western Isles told me that, when he tried to order some floor panelling from a company in England, the company sought a delivery charge of just over £100. Another island constituent told me that he initially gets his business parcels delivered to a small mainland courier, which delivers the item to him for a fraction of the cost that the larger couriers charge. He told me that plenty of people now make orders in that way.
I commend many of the great local couriers, such as Woody’s Express Parcels, which is based in Stornoway, for offering realistic and fair delivery prices, particularly for smaller items. However, the exorbitant surcharges that are imposed by mainland couriers are unacceptable. Remote areas of the Highlands and Islands rely heavily on imported goods and we cannot expect our citizens to pay ridiculous surcharges for products that they cannot find in their local stores.
I trust that the debate will raise awareness of the struggle of those in rural areas of our country and I call on the Governments in Holyrood and Westminster to bring fairness to all. I thank Richard Lochhead again for bringing the debate to Parliament.17:55
It is 6 December and I am embracing the Christmas festivities only in so far as I have eaten a solitary advent calendar chocolate. For me, Christmas shopping is usually a 5 o’clock on Christmas eve affair, by which point most of the shops have closed and I end up with an assortment of truly random things to bestow upon my predictably disappointed family.
However, even for those who have put the tree up, cranked up the Michael Bublé and are halfway through their Christmas shopping list, the season can have its gift-purchasing disappointments. That is particularly true for my constituents, when so many online retailers think that it is acceptable to charge over the odds to deliver gifts and goods to the Highlands and Islands. Not only do those retailers charge more—sometimes more than the product costs—but they justify it by classifying the mainland Highlands as overseas. Sometimes, there is not even the luxury of paying over the odds for delivery, because the retailer flatly refuses to deliver at all.
I go home to Dingwall from Edinburgh every week on the Thursday train and I have never needed a passport yet, though who knows what will pan out this week. I have never needed a boat either, and I double-checked Google maps to see whether the faultline that runs through the Great Glen had widened, casting us adrift into the North Sea. However, despite storm Caroline, there is nothing to report and we are still firmly, unalterably and irrefutably part of the British mainland.
Despite that, Christmas shoppers living north of the Highland boundary line, which runs from Helensburgh to Stonehaven, and those in the islands will most undoubtedly face extra delivery charges over the festive period. It is not just that the mainland should be classified as the mainland—the islands need a fair deal, too. Every day, the Royal Mail delivers parcels up to a weight of 20kg for a flat fee to nearly every home in Scotland, whether urban, rural, island or mainland, so there is no excuse.
It is time, as my colleague Gail Ross and many others said, that we named and shamed the retailers who are getting away with it. Just last night, I was tweeted a map of the United Kingdom that highlighted in green where Groupon International delivers and in red where it does not. The red areas were classified as “not being mainland Scotland” and, miracle of miracles, included all of Highland mainland.
I will give just one story of a retailer, as many good stories have already been shared in the debate. The retailer is in County Durham and its standard delivery charge is £6. That includes its deliveries to Land’s End, which is 500 miles away from the retailer. However, to deliver to Fort William, which is 250 miles away, or the rest of the Highlands, the charge is three times that at £18. It costs three times more to deliver something half the distance. To add insult to injury, deliveries to Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg are all cheaper than a delivery to the Highlands.
I pay tribute to my colleague Drew Hendry MP for his efforts to introduce the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling Delivery Charges) Bill in the UK Parliament. If the bill had been passed, it would have required distance sellers to provide purchasers with the lowest available delivery cost option, introduced a quality mark for responsible retailers and penalised vendors who advertise free delivery but impose charges or conditions. It is time that we all worked together to do something along those lines.17:59
I start, as others have done, by paying particular tribute to Richard Lochhead. I congratulate him not only on securing this important debate, but on his tireless work on behalf of his constituents, and of the constituents of many members in the chamber. We are all grateful for the effort that he has put in, not just in recent times but during his many years as a minister. That is a superb example to people outside the chamber of how an MSP can make a real contribution to tackling an issue that is of great public interest, so I congratulate him. I welcome all his efforts, and those of others who have been named today—in particular, Drew Hendry, who was mentioned by Kate Forbes.
Richard Lochhead even managed to make the front page of the Daily Mail last week, which is a remarkable achievement, and I commend the Daily Mail, the Sunday Post and other papers for supporting his campaign. Given Mr Lochhead’s remarks, I am sure that he will agree that, although some progress has been made, much more has to be done to stamp out the unfair practices that we have heard about today.
The Scottish Government is committed to continuing that progress, both to protect consumers and to support the businesses that depend on their transactions, and to do the right thing and treat customers well.
Before I talk about the role of the Scottish Government, let me first say that I appreciate the tremendous work that many other people in Scotland are doing to improve the situation. The trading standards department of Highland Council is leading the way in enforcing consumer protection laws in respect of internet sales. Citizens Advice Scotland is also working on delivery surcharge issues, especially in relation to parcel delivery operators. Indeed, the research that CAS published yesterday is yet more evidence of the size of the problem. It makes clear the extent to which consumers from a wide area of the northern half of Scotland are seriously affected by substantial additional delivery costs that are, to be quite frank, totally unacceptable and deeply unfair.
The research also shows that retailers are losing out on potential sales by imposing unfair charges. The report states that 83 per cent of consumers are more likely to buy more goods online if they feel that there are no unfair surcharges being applied to postage, so it makes business sense to stop discriminating against customers purely based on where they live, and to value customers who could become repeat customers if they were fairly treated. Citizens Advice Scotland will now use the evidence that it has gathered to search for practical solutions. I also welcome the fact that CAS is working with partners to identify how co-operation can help to reduce delivery costs and inefficiency in delivering goods to the areas of Scotland that are affected.
All the work that has been done on the issue by MSPs including Richard Lochhead, by CAS and by others shows many examples of unacceptable charges being imposed. Often, there seems to be no logical explanation for the amounts that are demanded, and I will refer later to a few such examples. Richard Lochhead highlighted some frankly absurd practices, such as its being cheaper to get goods from Germany than it is to get them from England. It should not be a difficult concept to understand that Ellon and Elgin are on the mainland. We have heard other examples, such as the crazy conclusion that Turriff is in the North Sea.
I am happy to write to companies where bad practice has been identified and to invite an explanation for such practice, and I would be grateful if members from across the chamber could either give me details of the companies that they know about or feed them through to Richard Lochhead, so that we can tackle companies directly about their practices.
Of course, I know that what we need is systemic change and long-term solutions. I reassure members across the chamber that the Scottish Government is working hard to find such solutions. My predecessor Fergus Ewing chaired parcel delivery summits in 2012 and 2013, which eventually led to a statement of principles for retailers. I know that Richard Lochhead was also involved in that. We worked closely with representatives from the retail, courier and consumer sectors to achieve a positive change and to share good practice, including efforts to ensure that charges reflect actual delivery costs, and to provide the widest possible delivery coverage.
I believe that those principles have helped to raise awareness of the issue, have supported good business practice and have reduced the number of customers abandoning purchases that they would otherwise have made. However, although Scottish Ministers can promote good practice—I can say in response to Rhoda Grant that we will certainly use the powers that we have in respect of consumer advice and information to do that—the regulation of prices for parcels is still reserved to Westminster.
Will the minister take an intervention?
Will the minister take an intervention?
I have competing requests. I will take Mr Lochhead first.
Perhaps the minister could add The Press and Journal, The Northern Scot, STV and the BBC to the list of outlets that have been sympathetic to the campaign. On the question of UK ministers softening their position, has he noticed how, in the past few days, there have been comments from UK ministers who may now be more sympathetic to regulation?
I will add those, and I apologise to other media outlets for leaving them off the list. I am certainly pleased that they have supported the campaign and I have noted a change of tone, to which I will refer later.
I assure the minister that The Orcadian and Radio Orkney also take a close interest in the issue. Before he moves on to what he will legitimately say are the responsibilities of UK ministers and regulators, will he update us on progress on potential drop-off points at, for example, ferry terminals, which I mentioned in my speech?
Minister, I suppose that more people will mention more newspapers in due course.
I will come on to the matters that relate to the UK Government. I acknowledge the positive suggestion in Citizens Advice Scotland’s report, and the one to which Mr McArthur referred, about looking for sensible opportunities to use central pick-up points for goods. Indeed, that may be a solution to a wider issue that we face with local high street retailers, which are often open during the day when the resident population has commuted to work, and are closed when they come back. That could be a solution to more than one problem, so I will be happy to pick up the suggestion on ferry terminals with Mr Yousaf.
Unfortunately, the UK Government initially refused to adopt the statement of principles, but we were pleased when, ultimately, it announced a change of heart and adopted them throughout the UK. From a pragmatic perspective, we need more such positive actions from Westminster, because many internet retailers are based outside Scotland. Indeed, the issue does not affect Scotland alone: an MP from Northern Ireland secured an adjournment debate at Westminster in September 2016, which led to the UK Government producing a leaflet outlining retailers’ responsibilities. The Scottish Government welcomed that step at the time, but meaningful change will happen only if the UK Government takes a far more active role in the matter.
I am reassured that the UK consumer protection partnership, to which Jamie Halcro Johnston referred, is chaired by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The partnership is reviewing the evidence on parcel delivery surcharging and intends that there will be co-ordinated action by partners to address consumer detriment. That will be welcome, if meaningful action is the result. I firmly believe, and it is clear from Mr Lochhead’s data, that examples of unfairness will emerge from that work, so I will seek to ensure that UK ministers deliver much-needed change in cases where charges discriminate against communities in Scotland.
I was encouraged last week when the UK Minister of State for Digital, Matt Hancock, said that the UK Government would look into the matter. We need that to translate into affirmative steps to address unfairness. About a year ago, I wrote to Margot James, the UK Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility—with whom I have a good relationship—to explain the continuing importance of the issue. UK ministers took no action at that time, because they believed that it should be left to the market, but I will write again after the debate to convey the concerns that have been expressed by members around the chamber, given the apparent movement that Matt Hancock has indicated. Richard Lochhead, Citizens Advice Scotland, other campaigners and the media can take much credit for that change of heart.
I will refer briefly to a couple of members’ comments: we have heard some useful speeches from around the chamber. Some highlighted specific examples that demonstrate the extreme unfairness at local level. I endorse those points and remind members that we are keen to get practical examples that I can use in subsequent discussions.
The debate is, of course, a welcome addition to the discussions on improving the online shopping experience for all consumers. There is much going on and I promise that the Scottish Government will continue to play its part in helping to find solutions that are tailored to Scotland’s circumstances. A meeting of key partners that the Scottish Government hosted in August highlighted the value of collaborative working to find sustainable solutions. Following my meeting with Richard Lochhead to hear evidence that he had gathered, I plan to host a round table to take forward that process.
Let me be clear: there are no easy solutions to the long-standing problems that we have been discussing, but we can build on the progress that has been made. That will involve a range of initiatives and players, all with the aim of delivering the real change that is needed in order to eliminate the unfairness that is experienced by many members’ constituents throughout Scotland. I look forward to the support of members from across the chamber in doing that.
I commend Richard Lochhead and all members present for making clear the impact on their constituents. Whether it is waders from Glasgow or shoes from Australia, there have been some great examples of how ridiculous the situation is. I hope that we can work together to ensure that this is the last Christmas when customers in the north of Scotland face such prejudice in the online markets.Meeting closed at 18:09.