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Refer Ferry Fares to Fair Trading Tsar, Minister tells MP

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A Government Minister has suggested that the Office of Fair Trading be asked to judge whether Wightlink’s ‘dominant position’ in the cross-Solent market is ‘abusive’, in a parliamentary answer to Island MP Andrew Turner.

Referring to fare increases since the takeover of Wightlink, Mr Turner had asked Transport Secretary Alistair Darling whether instead of launching investigations only after the ill effects of a dominant position become apparent, the OFT should keep local transport monopolies under review.

Mr. Darling replied that he appreciated the problem that Mr Turner had raised but:

“I am not sure that I would want the Competition Commission to keep a constant watch over everything that might constitute a monopoly. I imagine that its resources would have to be significantly increased were that to happen. The best thing to do in relation to this particular case, if the hon. Gentleman is so minded, is to raise it with the authorities.

Mr Turner said afterwards,

“I have been in correspondence with the OFT since Wightlink changed ownership but today I pointed out to the Minister that the £230 million cost to MacQuarie of their takeover of Wightlink could only be met by their customers, and that rapid fare rises could impact adversely on the Island’s economy and individuals who have to travel, particularly for healthcare.

“He is right to say that the OFT can only investigate an ‘abusive’ monopoly, but we are increasingly obtaining evidence not only that Wightlink occupies dominant positions in a number of markets, but also that its use of that position is not in the public interest. I will certainly be writing again to the OFT when I have collated that evidence.”

END

Contact: Andrew Turner 01983 530808

Follows: Extract from House of Commons Hansard, 21st March 2006:

Local Transport Monopolies

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Office of Fair Trading on local transport monopolies. [59776]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): My officials meet regularly with the Office of Fair Trading. It is for the competition authorities to consider whether a local monopoly is abusing its position and having a detrimental effect on consumers.

Mr. Turner: Wightlink, which enjoys what the OFT calls a dominant position in the cross-Solent ferry market, has just been sold for £230 million, which can only be recouped from its customers. Fares have increased significantly, potentially damaging the local economy and causing hardship particularly to those who have to travel because of a need for health care. Does the Secretary of State agree that instead of launching investigations only after the ill effects become apparent, the OFT should keep local transport monopolies under review and ensure a fair deal for local communities?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having raised his concern directly with my Department. I appreciate the problem that he sets out. I think that the competition authorities last looked at the position on the Isle of Wight in 1995, although there was a further review in 2000. The test is not whether there is a monopoly but whether those involved are abusing the position. As I understand it, there are three operators on the Isle of Wight, two of which are bigger than the other one. If the hon. Gentleman, or anyone else on the Isle of Wight, has a particular problem, he might want to raise it with the OFT.

On the hon. Gentleman’s general point, I am not sure that I would want the Competition Commission to keep a constant watch over everything that might constitute a monopoly. I imagine that its resources would have to be significantly increased were that to happen. The best thing to do in relation to this particular case, if the hon. Gentleman is so minded, is to raise it with the authorities.

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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.”

END

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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