Delivery costs must be clearer: MP

Updated: 
postman and bicycleOnline retailers should be more transparent about delivery costs as customers in remote areas or who share a postcode with a remote area are being hit with large surcharges after they have finished shopping, an MP said.

Liberal Democrat Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) said online sellers should display the existence of surcharges for delivery to certain UK areas at the beginning of the shopping process.

He called on the Government to adopt his Delivery Surcharges (Transparency for Consumers) Bill which would make Business Secretary Vince Cable and his department bring forward regulations within a year to make online retailers be more transparent about costs .

Sir Robert said retailers do not do enough to provide a delivery system that works for the whole of the UK.

He told the Commons: " This is an extended problem across much of the geography of the United Kingdom, mainly in the Highlands and the north of Scotland but also extending down into the borders of Scotland and to the islands of England - the Isle of Wight, the Channel Islands, the Scilly Isles.

"It's part of a wider awareness raising because I think the retailers need to be more focused because they are looking at the vast majority of their customers are thinking of a delivery system and not shopping around for one that will deal with those at the margins.

"What a lot of retailers could be looking at is Royal Mail's universal service delivery products for those areas that can't be dealt with by couriers and should make a serious consideration of that.

"Bringing the retailers together and bringing the greater spotlight on them will help them understand this frustration and I think the Bill would end that frustration."

Shadow business minister Ian Murray voiced Labour's support for the Bill and said it was in businesses' interests to be more transparent about costs.

He said: "It's quite reasonable that parcel delivery operators should do their utmost to provide a clearer rationale of the pricing structure for parcel delivery at the outset.

"Retailers and parcel operators should ensure that pricing mechanisms do not arbitrarily surcharge customers because they live in a particular area, for instance having one charge for all customers in a large geographical postcode area."

Mr Murray went on: "It's in business interests to make transparent the delivery charges for customers because people who use online retail and are treated well and have reasonable and transparent charges will indeed go back to those particular businesses.

"So it's incredibly important from a business perspective as well."

Business Minister Jo Swinson said the Government supported the principles behind the Bill.

She said: "I think it's certainly the case that people who are perhaps genuinely living in very rural and remote areas may sometimes expect, they may be used to the fact, that delivery may not be as straightforward.

"If you live on an island you know from personal experience that if anything is to get on to the island then it has to either be flown in or come in on the ferry and that can have an impact on costs of all sorts of things.

"And while I think we want to make sure those consumers also have information you were quite right to outline that if you are living in the suburbs of Aberdeen you're perhaps not quite in the same mindset of expecting to suddenly be hit by massive delivery charges when you are by no definition living in a remote area.

"So I very much support the principles of clarity, transparency and fairness for consumers that lie behind the Bill that you have brought forward today, these are principles that the Government fully supports."

Ms Swinson said she was "not convinced" the legislation was the right way to tackle the problems raised - but promised a summit to discuss the issues.

She said: "What should we do about this issue if this particular Bill is not the only answer?

"These are genuine concerns raised highlighting a specific problem your constituents and others are experiencing. There are limitations on what can be specified in regulations about the timing of information provided to consumers because some of that legislation derives from EU law and needs to be the same across Europe.

"I'm happy to bring together some of the retailers to a summit to discuss this issue... and really have a mix of attendees there. I think it would be good if we could identify some of the businesses that are exemplars in this area, that provide the information at an early point, that have managed to give alternate delivery options.

"And perhaps some of those who are not doing it well and then as a result of the Citizens Advice work and the Trading Standards work, have improved their game and made the situation much better for consumers.

"And then I think we also need to have some of the offenders who are still not giving consumers the right information and where there is that detriment that still exists, so we can have a discussion about how business may well be able to solve this issue and recognise the responsibilities they have."

The debate was adjourned to be resumed at a later date.

© 2013 Press Association