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OFT meeting ‘useful and constructive’

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Andrew Turner yesterday met with officials from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to discuss their draft report on the cross-Solent ferry market. During the meeting, the OFT and Mr Turner confirmed the competition issues on which they agree, which include:
• the fact that competition is limited;
• the difficulties of bringing new operators into the market due to restricted berthing availability;
• that high profits have been enjoyed in the past; and
• that the prices that had been paid for both Red Funnel and Wightlink were high, as are related levels of debt.
Both parties also recognise that there are high levels of customer dissatisfaction with the ferry services.

The Island’s MP and others who have been working with him on this project met OFT Director, Mary Starks and five other members of the OFT team at their headquarters just off Fleet Street. Mr Turner described the meeting, which lasted over two hours, had been ‘very useful and constructive’

Speaking this morning Mr Turner said:

“We thanked the OFT for the work they had done so far which had drawn them to the same conclusions as we had reached about the background problems in the cross-Solent ferry market. There is a high level of agreement on those issues, and I am saying that it is hard to see how those factors could not adversely affect consumers.

“We discussed a number of matters that we thought the OFT should look at in more depth, including fare levels in recent years and issues relating to services, such as the lack of capacity at times of peak demand. We had the opportunity to impress on senior OFT staff how important this is to the Island, and they do understand that it is literally a lifeline service. I was pleased that the OFT acknowledged that one of the factors they had taken into account when deciding to look at this market was the high level of public support I was able to demonstrate when I asked them to investigate, so I would like to thank everyone who supported the campaign – that is over 8,000 people and organisations. It really did make a difference.

“The OFT have made a finely balanced judgement and they are currently deciding whether to take any further formal action. In order to move forward they need robust evidence that high ferry fares cause hardship to Islanders and harm the economy. We had a very useful and constructive exchange of views and I now have to think about how we can help produce what they need. I will be considering these matters over the weekend. I do believe that with public support we may still be able to achieve a full investigation and I will let Islanders know next week how I plan to move forward.”

The meeting followed up on a report issued by the OFT on June 12 containing provisional findings following a market study. Although they found clear evidence that competition in the market was not working properly, they have said that they have seen only limited evidence that this has caused harm to consumers. Additionally, the lack of an ‘appropriate and proportionate’ way of resolving the issues means they have provisionally decided to take no formal action at present. They have already suggested that the ferry companies should publish more information on prices and services on a voluntary basis so that it would be easier to take action in the future in the case of any abuse of market position. They are consulting on their findings until 12th August and would welcome comments from the public on what information the ferry companies should publish.

Mr Turner commented:

“Although more information would clearly be welcome I do not believe it would solve the problem – and I am glad to say the OFT agree. For instance the OFT report contains a chart based on information supplied by the ferry companies which suggests that average prices for the car ferry have gone up only 20% since 1990 – I think many Islanders would question that statistic. The difficulty is that the ferry companies have all the evidence and can present it however they wish – it is only with a full investigation that the background information would be properly examined. I am not giving up on achieving that.”

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Broadlands jobs safe

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Island MP Andrew Turner has received confirmation that the future of jobs and services at Broadlands House are secure following press reports that previously announced new jobs would not now be coming to the Island. Mr Turner said that yesterday’s press reports were completely at odds with assurances he had received both from the Minister last summer and the regional manager as recently as November last year. On hearing the reports that plans had changed he contacted the senior management of JobCentre Plus to seek clarification of the position.

Mr Turner said

“I have now received definite confirmation that the plans of Jobcentre Plus have not changed and that they will be keeping a benefit processing centre on the Island as well as establishing one of only two national insurance number processing centres here. I have been told that the additional jobs will arise as their plans are implemented over the coming months.”

Mr Turner went on to say

“During our meeting last November Guy Tompkins Jobcentre Plus’s regional manager was very complimentary about their workforce on the Island and told me that the positive approach of the staff was one of the reasons why they planned to expand on the Island. I am very glad that they see the sense of bringing work to the Island rather than taking it to the mainland and I will continue to press Government to follow their example.

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School Reorganization – Where will £70m come from?

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Government have denied promising the IW Council £70 million to pay for reorganizing Island schools from a three- to a two-tier system. And the Island’s MP has criticized the ‘optimistic noises’ on funding given at consultation meetings.

In a Parliamentary Answer to Island MP Andrew Turner it was revealed that there have been absolutely no promises from the Government to provide the estimated £70 million needed for the changes being proposed by council officials. In answering Mr Turner, Stephen Twigg MP, the Minister responsible for school funding, made it clear that the Isle of Wight council has received no assurances that extra money will be made available for the proposed changeover. Mr Turner has criticized the impression given to parents and teachers that obtaining the money needed from central government would not present a problem.

Andrew Turner said,

“During the meeting I attended at Sandown High School it was clearly stated that ‘we can get’ the £70 million needed to change the system. I was surprised to hear that because that simply isn’t the way that Government works. I have asked the Government what promises they have given and they have clearly told me that they have given none. I have now asked the Council what led them to give such a misleading impression to those who went to the trouble of attending the meeting. I have been told that there have been informal meetings with government officials who support these proposals – I am afraid that does not represent government spending commitments. Frankly I am shocked that optimistic noises were made which misled people.”

Exam results and education standards on the Island are far below the national average and the recent report costing £100,000 by 4S recommended changing the system but did not provide any evidence that this alone would improve standards. Mr Turner went on to say:

“There may well be arguments for changing the system – but changing the system does not guarantee improving standards; the issues should not be mixed up. Even the advocates of change admit it would cost a fortune. If that money does not come from central government it will have to come from existing council budgets and be topped up by Island council taxpayers.

“It is at very least disingenuous to suggest that finding the money to achieve change is not an important issue that needs to be discussed as part of these proposals. I am worried that the Council seems to believe that informal discussions with civil servants translates into promises of many millions of pounds – sadly that is not the case.

“We need to raise standards but that is best done by the Council accepting that some schools are better than others, publishing that information to parents, governors, teachers and the wider public, and tackling the problems on a school-by-school basis. It is not as glamorous as being the architect of a whole new system, but it is much more likely to give our children the quality schooling they deserve.”

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Contact : Andrew Turner 01983 530808

School Building (Isle of Wight)

Mr. Andrew Turner: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what (a) commitments and (b) undertakings she has made to the Isle of Wight Council regarding future capital allocations provided (i) through the Building Schools for the Future programme or (ii) otherwise, whether (A) contingent on or (B) not contingent on school reorganisation. [216280]

Mr. Stephen Twigg: A letter has been sent to all council leaders stating that, for authorities not prioritised in the first three waves of Building Schools for the Future (BSF), including the Isle of Wight, we are determined to make a start on BSF plans between 2005–06 and 2010–11. Our ambition is that in the next full Parliament, subject to future spending decisions, 60 per cent. of all authorities will have started in the BSF programme, or else be given resources to renew at least one secondary school with the greatest need as a school for the future, or as an academy. Each BSF scheme will be judged on its merits, and is not necessarily contingent on school reorganisation. Other capital allocations to the council and its schools were announced on 30 November, and are set out in the following table:

£000
2006–07 14,853
2007–08 15,446

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Can we become a Fairtrade Island?

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As World Fair Trade Fortnight draws to a close this Sunday the Island’s MP Andrew Turner has praised the work of the IW Fairtrade Forum. The Forum is working towards the accolade of Fairtrade Island by building on existing users and suppliers of Fairtrade products to spread the word about the products and the good they do for their producers in the developing world. There are now more than 250 products bearing the distinctive green and blue logo which guarantees a fair deal to producers of such items as coffee, tea, sugar and bananas.

Andrew Turner said,

“The Fairtrade product range has expanded over recent years and whilst once they were seen as an expensive alternative they now offer good value and quality. In order to become a Fairtrade Island we need more suppliers of the products so everybody really can make a difference by asking their local coffee shop or convenience store to stock a few items from the range. As the largest constituency in the country the Island gaining this accolade really would make a difference and give a boost to the national campaign. Fairtrade really makes a difference to those communities that need a helping hand – and I know that on the Island we have a really caring and compassionate community”.

Jim Curtis the co-ordinator of the IW Fairtrade Forum said

“I very much value Andrew’s support for this campaign. In order for the Island to be recognised in this way we need the active support of the Isle of Wight council as well as that of suppliers across the Island. I urge everyone to let their local councillors know that they would be proud to see us become a Fairtrade Island helping less fortunate people to take control of their own lives and build themselves a better future.

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