Making delivery charges fair for rural Scotland

Imagine shopping online with the promise of ‘free delivery’ only to be told once you have hit ‘checkout’ you’ll have to incur a charge. It might be £20 for an electric drill, or a whopping £90 for ordering a new mobile phone.

This is an issue that my constituents deal with on a daily basis and they tell me about it regularly.Those of us who live in the Highlands and Islands or other rural areas will understand the frustration of being forced to pay excessive charges to have goods delivered.

With the expansion of online shopping, more and more people are buying online for delivery – whether it’s your weekly shop, household items, clothes or technology. For people living in big cities and urban areas it can be a cost-effective way to buy essentials and other items – but for people in largely rural areas like my constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, shopping online is often a necessity.

It is clear current legislation to protect online consumers is not working effectively. That’s why this week I launched the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling Delivery Charges) Bill in the UK Parliament. If passed by Parliament, the Bill would require distance sellers to provide purchasers with the lowest available delivery cost option; introduce a quality mark for responsible retailers, and establish administrative penalties where vendors advertise statements such as free delivery but subsequently impose charges or conditions.

There is consumer appetite for improved online shopping across the country, but there are some areas that are being particularly badly served by some retailers and carriers. Costs of delivery will always vary – this is about people feeling excluded because of a disproportionately narrow and costly range of delivery options.

Even people living in cities such as Inverness are being charged punitive surcharges for delivery of goods. Indeed, one of my constituents was recently asked to pay £90 just for the delivery of a mobile phone because Inverness wasn’t considered to be part of the UK mainland. Another constituent was asked to pay an extra £20 to have a drill delivered to his home in the town of Nairn. Overall, for goods to the Highland and Islands, 53% of retailers apply a delivery surcharge & consumers have to pay an additional £14.71 on average.

This unfairness is not only wrong, it is bad for business. When 7 in 10 consumers reluctantly pay a surcharge for delivery of their item, they will look elsewhere next time. In this connected world there is an accepted need for universal services in broadband provision, to allow everyone to participate. Why does that not extend to the product at the end of the process?

Existing laws are often unenforced and are too cumbersome so opportunities around administrative penalties need to be considered. Of course online retailers have the right to choose where they supply their products or services, but consumers should also have the right to know before they get to the last page of their online transaction what they will be charged.

In the Highlands and in my constituency, there are many mysteries, such as the location of the Loch Ness monster. However, the biggest mystery has to be why Inverness, one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and towns like Nairn are apparently not considered to be on the Mainland – at least according to some couriers. They are not buying boxes to Brigadoon, they are asking for things to be sent to a modern city.

Drew Hendry is MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey