Shetland could be held “over a barrel” by unscrupulous companies from down south which force customers to pay unfair postal charges, once the planned privatisation of Royal Mail goes ahead.
That is the warning from SIC councillor Amanda Westlake, who has suffered personal experience of high payments demanded by organisations.
She insists consumers in the isles could be left high and dry once the universal postal service passes into the private sector. Itis feared higher prices and a reduced service could be the end result of any planned sell-off, leaving consumers with little option but to rely on companies eager to make unfair gain.
Mrs Westlake says Shetland can expect to be at the sharp end of any unsavoury decisions, especially given the recent difficulties over hidden postal fees by online delivery companies.
However, isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who fully supports the coalition government’s controversial plans for the postal service’s radical reforms, insists safeguards will be in place to protect rural locations such as Shetland.
It follows last month’s major piece of work by the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in Lerwick, which collected thousands of stories of overcharging, late deliveries or poor customer service.
Consumers, said CAB, had to pay a “shocking” extra £18.60 in delivery charges when buying goods online, just because of their postcode.
Mrs Westlake said she had suffered from a poor experience after trying to order furniture for her B&B at Norlande in the town. She was quoted over £400 from companies in London and in Wales. In one instance she would have had to fork out more for delivery than she did to buy the item.
She said: “My personal experience happened when I had just opened a guest house in Lerwick, and I buy a lot of stuff online. One of the companies in London wanted to charge £400 for furniture. A lot of it is ignorance. We have haulage companies that we work with up here, and they say they don’t know about haulage companies and will have to check it out.”
She added many organisations posted free to Glasgow, but immediately slapped on a £30 surcharge for anywhere further north than the central belt.
“When the post office is privatised, is Shetland going to be pulled over a barrel? What are the consequences going to be for us? There are companies which cancel your order if they don’t want to deliver to Shetland.”
Mrs Westlake said certain sites advertised free postage, but left a sting in the tail for customers in rural areas by highlighting rural postcodes in which extra charges apply.
“The shops are trying their best in Shetland, but they can’t provide everything for what you need. There are various things I can’t get in Shetland. I feel like I’m being persecuted for living here.
“As long as something is fair and honest, I don’t care. It grates me about Shetland that we live here, but we don’t have basic facilities that mainland Scotland has, and that’s not fair.”
Mr Carmichael insisted he had lobbied hard for protection to be put in place for Shetland. He said safeguarding the universal service had always been at the heart of the government’s plans for the reform of Royal Mail.
“Royal Mail privatisation should not affect Shetland any differently than it will the rest of the country, for one very important reason,” he said,” Mr Carmichael said.
“The bill enabling the privatisation to happen includes a provision that, if the universal service is under any threat from cherry-picking companies – companies that just deliver to easy to reach places – then the regulator has the power to impose a levy to subsidise the universal provider – Royal Mail – in providing for hard to deliver areas.
“That’s a real financial protection, because what’s happened in the past is that governments have said, ‘of course there will be a universal service …’ but there’s been no money put in to support that. That was what happened when parcel mail was opened to competition in the 1990s. We’ve put in the protection and I lobbied very hard for this.”
Mr Carmichael’s comments follow further evidence of companies charging customers in the isles because of where in the country they live.
Lerwick man Sandy McMillan cancelled his order for paper he had ordered from a Scottish company called Ensco 209 Ltd, after the firm said it would charge him £19.99 to send up his purchases.
In a letter to isles MSP Tavish Scott he stated: “I had been using this company for a number of weeks without any problems as their advert stated, ‘free express delivery throughout the United Kingdom’. Is Shetland not part of the UK?”
The company said charges applied depending on the weight of the delivery. It encouraged customers to buy items in smaller bulk to help avoid any unwanted charges.
A cross-party group of MPs has signed an Early Day Motion at Westminster calling for a guarantee that moves to privatise Royal Mail would not end UK-wide standard postal charges.