Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Steve McCabe.]
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is expressed in very broad terms on the Order Paper but I wish to narrow down to a series of practical problems in the sphere of parking enforcement and Government guidance.
I am aware that there has been a substantial amount of activity in this field. In 2005-06, there was an excellent report by the Transport Committee. There has been a wave of Government regulation following the Traffic Management Act 2004. The Government have been very active in legislating in the past few years, and in a generally helpful and positive way, notably by introducing a single system of decriminalised penalties and by recognising that this is essentially a local function whereby authority should be devolved to local councils. In the process of introducing guidance, they have emphasised proportionality and more flexibility in how parking offences are dealt with. I am very positive about the way in which recent legislation has improved these matters.
However, there are still problems. I have brought this debate to the House because I have been alarmed by the sheer volume of casework that I am getting—and other MPs are getting—about parking offences, often on a staggering scale and involving real horror stories. Some of them can be dealt with through the individual appeals system that has been established and now works better. Some relate to parking policy, which is a matter for the local council rather than for me and for Ministers. However, there are a sufficient number of cases where it is clear that councils do not understand Government guidance or are not applying it. I felt it necessary to bring those to the Minister’s attention and thought that the best way of doing so would be to cite one or particular examples that highlight the general problems.
The first example relates to a constituent, a 76-year-old lady—she did not wish her name to be publicised, so I will call her Mrs. F—who was regularly attending West Middlesex University hospital, just outside my constituency in the borough of Hounslow, to care for her elderly husband, who had a terrible combination of stroke, prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s. She was therefore spending a great deal of time with him and finding it difficult to afford the cost—£1 an hour—of the hospital car park. One quiet Sunday morning, she parked in a nearby street, on a single yellow line. It was not a residential street, and there was no traffic, congestion or obstruction, but it turned out, although she was not aware of it, that she was committing a parking offence by parking within 10 m of a junction.
In the afternoon, somebody ran into the ward, where she was feeding her husband, and told her that her car was being taken away. She ran out of the hospital and remonstrated with the driver of the truck, who represented a company called NPC, a contractor of Hounslow council. He said that he had his job to do, that the car had already been loaded, and that she should retrieve it from the pound. She went home by taxi, obtained a set of documents, as she had been instructed, got another taxi to the pound, 5 miles away in another part of west London, and sought to retrieve her car. It turned out that the staff of the company did not accept her documents. They said that one of the insurance documents was not what they required, although she was clearly the owner of the car and had the key, so she spent an hour and a half on the phone to an insurance company trying to retrieve information, which was eventually sent by fax.
On that wet, cold evening, this 76-year-old lady was finally allowed to take her car for the payment of £250. A few weeks later, she got a £50 fine from the council, which she paid promptly because she had read the print at the bottom, which said that if people pursued an appeal, they were liable for cost.
There were two aspects of the case that worried me and raised wider issues than the rather desperate circumstances of that particular lady on that particular day. The first is the use of clamping companies for the taking away of vehicles. I raise that because the Transport Committee, when it considered the matter two years ago, said:
“The removal of a vehicle by a local authority on the grounds that it is parked illegally is a very serious matter. The Chief Adjudicator…has concerns that vehicle removal may be incompatible with human rights legislation. The Government needs to examine this issue carefully”.
The Government did, and in their response to the Select Committee they said it was a matter for the courts to determine whether provision is compatible with convention rights, but they concluded:
“the view of the Department is that the powers which provide for the removal of vehicles in specified circumstances are proportionate in respect of balancing convention rights with the need to protect the safety of other road users and the general public interest.”
It is clear that in this case that was not so, and there are many other comparable cases in which there is not adequate protection concerning the removal of vehicles. Given the strong comments of the Select Committee, I wondered whether anything further could be done on the matter.
A second aspect of the case is also troubling, and I have encountered it in a substantial number of other cases. It affected an elderly lady who had already suffered a great deal of financial loss, quite apart from her distress. She received a fine with a warning at the bottom that anyone proceeding with an appeal could be liable for costs. Subsequently, I took that up with Hounslow council and the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service—PATAS. They confirmed that, under Government legislation, the law prescribes what the notice must contain:
“One of the requirements is that the notice must ‘indicate the nature of a parking adjudicator’s power to award costs against any person appealing to him.’”
Clearly, that is legally correct, and shows what Government legislation requires. I did a little research as to what it means in practice, and I discovered from PATAS that of 51,484 parking appeals in 2006-07, there were only 30 successful appeals by local authorities, with an average penalty of £64. Those were in extreme cases of vexatious, persistent offenders.
It was clearly never the intention that the warning about costs should be used to deter people from going to appeal. Indeed, the Select Committee said:
“We encourage parking adjudicators to be…alert to their powers to award costs. Where motorists have been unduly inconvenienced by poor council performance some financial award can help to alleviate the sense of injustice.”
The Committee saw it as a way of penalising councils, not individuals, but large numbers of people are being deterred because of the wording of what is currently presented as a Government regulation. I do not know whether there is any way in which that matter can be dealt with.
My second case raises the question of discretion for local authorities in the case of offences. As an example, I have chosen a gentleman I shall call Mr. L, who also wished to remain anonymous. He was a throat cancer patient at the same hospital who went in for emergency examination, and chose to park in the same road, also on a Sunday morning, seduced by the same apparent attraction of what he thought was legal parking. He was fortunate in that his car was not taken away, but he discovered a month later that he had incurred a parking fine of £100. He was told that he had not paid the £50 fine of which he was originally notified. He was not aware of that—these things get lost, and perhaps he was preoccupied with his condition—and he was faced with a £100 fine. He paid it for the same reason as the lady whom I mentioned: he was frightened by the warning about costs. I took the matter up with the local council and received the most extraordinary reply. It stated that it had sought legal advice, which was that:
“Parking Services cannot be selective when it comes to applying legislation, otherwise it could be accused of maladministration.”
In other words, it could not exercise discretion because that would imply acceptance that it had made a mistake. It therefore could not apologise, compensate or show discretion of any kind. That is clearly perverse and absolutely stupid.
The Transport Committee acknowledged that that problem was quite widespread, stating:
“It is a serious failing that some local authorities are not properly discharging their responsibility to use discretion in considering representations. Councils must take this responsibility seriously in order that a just outcome is reached on each occasion.”
The Committee was aware of the prevalence of the problem, but there are many councils that do exercise discretion. The AA recently suggested that 50 per cent. of all informal representations were successful and charges were dropped. Westminster city council allows 50 per cent. of its cases to drop when representations are made, Camden a third and Lambeth 40 per cent.
My borough of Richmond, which used to be quite harsh, adopted a policy some time ago that any first-time offender who presented reasonable evidence that the charge was unfair or unreasonable, or that there were mitigating circumstances, would have it waived. However, the council that I contacted appears to believe, and appears to have been persuaded legally, that it has no power to exercise discretion. I wonder whether guidance and advice from the Government is required, because some local authorities are behaving very strangely.
My third example raises a different issue, and one that the Government should be aware of because it will land in their lap sooner or later. A Mr. Beauchamp was fined for parking on a yellow line. He would have been parking illegally, but he was disabled and had a disabled badge that legalised his parking. He was fined because of one of these new mobile CCTV trackers that parking departments are using, which I believe were authorised in recent regulations. The problem was that for technical reasons, the camera could not see the dashboard, where his disabled badge was displayed. The same is true in other cases.
The local council was quick enough to realise that that was wrong and withdrew Mr. Beauchamp’s fine, and I believe that it is now consulting other councils about the fundamental problem that the cameras, by their design, cannot pick up cases in which disabled badges are displayed. That approach will have to be dropped, or a large number of disabled people will pursue appeal cases or be fined without being aware that their position is protected. That, too, requires clarification from the Government.
I wish to raise a couple of wider issues, not so much about how the clarification of Government guidance can help in dealing with individual cases but about how we can deal with dissatisfaction with local authorities’ parking policies. In many ways, that is an issue for local democracy and should remain so. There are protections through the Audit Commission if councils mishandle funding and through the local government ombudsman if they mishandle process. None the less, there are questions that are raised repeatedly and do not appear to have had a satisfactory outcome.
There is massive dissent about controlled parking zones in many urban boroughs such as mine. Councils are often caught in the middle, with some residents demanding controlled zones and others opposing them. There are bitter arguments about whether the procedures have been followed correctly and whether particular roads voted for or against the zone. It would help the residents and the council if there were a court of appeal of some kind—the equivalent of a planning inspector—that could examine such cases impartially. We could call it a parking ombudsman. I believe that the Select Committee considered that and decided against it, and the Government have not responded to the suggestion, but there may be scope for doing something of that kind.
The argument for doing so is reinforced by the fact that there are many other sources of dissatisfaction with local schemes. Another example is that people widely assume that councils’ local contracts incorporate incentives to increase the number of fines. That may or may not be true, although the Committee was damning about those instances where it was. It said that incentive schemes were utterly misplaced and the Government agreed.
The problem is that nobody knows whether there are incentive schemes or not, because councils are not required by law to publish the details of their contracts or the annual accounts of their parking policies. Doing so is good practice and the Government encourage it, but there is no reason whatever why councils should disclose information about levels of fines or the process by which they are imposed. That gives added support to the principle that there should be a modest arrangement whereby a third party—we could call it an ombudsman or a point of reference—would perform a function that the local government ombudsman and the Audit Commission currently cannot perform. I leave the Minister with the thought of whether the Government have an open mind about that.
The final issue that I want to raise with the Minister relates partly to her Department and partly to the wider constitutional affairs issues concerning bailiffs. It is becoming increasingly clear from my casework that large numbers of councils are issuing bailiffs orders at a fairly early stage in the process when people fail to pay their parking fines. Some people break the law, treating it in a very cavalier way, and they deserve to be sanctioned. However, there are many reasons why people do not pay fines, including the misdirection of mail, moving house, living in multi-occupancy flats and so on. In my experience, such people are increasingly encountering bailiffs.
One extreme case involved a gentleman from my constituency, a Mr. Cohen, who lived next door to a Travellers site. Several of the Travellers hit on the ingenious idea of registering their cars in the name of Mr. Cohen’s property, which resulted in a large number of fines arriving at his address. He did not pay them, of course, because the vehicles concerned were not his, but bailiffs started arriving, on several occasions early in the morning and in one case in the middle of the night.
Now that bailiffs have additional powers under Government legislation, which I believe involves the limited use of force, the phenomenon has become extremely alarming. Has the Minister, in consultation with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, considered whether there should be some limitation on the use of bailiff powers in the case of what are, after all, minor infractions of the law, because of the potential difficulty that it is creating?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of what a concern the issue is to members of the public, and we all have quite large postbags on it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the Government’s direction of travel, if I may use that phrase, and for the Government’s desire to see parking policies used positively. Good parking policies should be about helping to keep traffic moving, so that people can get to work, to the shops and to businesses, but not obstruct, for example, emergency vehicles. As he said, since 1991, there has been a move towards local authorities enforcing their own parking enforcement policies and not being reliant on the police. As he also said, the issue is also about recognising the part that local democracy plays in ensuring that councils are accountable to their electorate for making their parking enforcement policies, as well as for how they are run. We now have about 255 English authorities, including all those in London, taking on this responsibility.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that central Government need to get the framework of regulations and guidance right. He is also right to say that local authorities need to adopt policies that are acceptable to their population and meet the needs of their area, and to enforce them fairly, reasonably and legally. Councillors, who are accountable to the local electorate, should ensure that that is done, and will have to explain themselves through the electoral process if there is dissatisfaction with the way in which a council is carrying out its parking policy.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points, which I shall cover in a moment. He did not mention clamping on private land directly, but it has been a matter of great concern to me as a constituency MP—I have been pursuing the matter for about 10 years. As a Minister, I am having discussions with the Home Office to determine what else we need to do about it. In our recent guidance, we said that councils should use clamping as a last resort. The hon. Gentleman mentioned some cases in his constituency, and I shall deal with the issues that he raised in a moment. When a parked vehicle is causing an obstruction, clamping it is not particularly helpful, as it reinforces the obstruction rather than removing it. To be fair, some councils are increasing their use of towing away as an option, in order to remove such obstructions. They need to get the balance right between the two options for dealing with those difficulties. It is up to the councils to decide how they do that, but it is important that they should be sensitive to the implications involved.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about whether pursuing an appeal would render someone liable to costs, and he was right to say that we need absolute clarity on this. Any appeal is free, and costs would be payable only if the appeal were found to be frivolous or vexatious. I will look into whether that guidance is clear enough, however. In March, we introduced regulations to create a greater degree of consistency in the appeals process, and we have issued guidance to local authorities on the wording on penalty charge notices. I will look into how they are now being phrased and come back to the hon. Gentleman to tell him how we are making that point clear.
On the issue of cameras and disabled badges, cameras have been used in London since about 2000 under local legislation. The Department’s statutory guidance states that cameras should not be used where they would be unable to detect permits or badges. I can give the hon. Gentleman further information on that, if it would be helpful. We recognise that that could be a problem, which is why we have phrased our guidance as we have.
With regard to the possible confusion over whether a council is able to exercise discretion, the issue is again covered in the Department’s statutory guidance. Councils are able to exercise discretion; indeed, I should emphasise that authorities have complete freedom to cancel a penalty charge notice at any stage in the process. Our statutory guidance has reminded councils of that.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that his constituents had had their vehicles towed away, so let me clarify that this happens where there is an obstruction. In the particular case he mentioned, he said that it happened too close to a junction on the main road. If vehicles are obstructing the highway, however, councils need the power to remove them. If the hon. Gentleman’s constituent felt that this action was unfair, he could have appealed against the decision.
When it comes to dissatisfaction over controlled parking, as constituency MPs we are well aware that there are always two sides to a dispute and we can sometimes get caught in the middle, but the council must consult on a proposed controlled parking zone. If people object, the local authority must consider holding an inquiry, which will give people the opportunity to explain why they think the proposal would present difficulties or, on the other side, why they support it.
Let me deal finally with some of the hon. Gentleman’s points about transparency and whether people understand how a council’s parking policies are carried out, what it does with the revenue and so forth. Part of the guidance makes a strong recommendation that local authorities should publish an annual report of their parking policies. The hon. Gentleman rightly went through all the different processes and means by which members of the public can challenge councils—from making an appeal and looking at the accounts to see how the money has been spent right through to going to the ombudsman.
We have seen quite of lot of press coverage about incentives in contracts. The statutory guidance makes it very clear that we believe unreasonable incentives should be discouraged. The incentives should be based on delivering transport objectives, such as keeping traffic moving and ensuring that there are no obstructions rather than on factors such as over-zealous parking attendants, who are resented by people. There has been a lot of press coverage of such incentives, but actual evidence has, frankly, not been so forthcoming.
I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments about bailiffs to the Ministry of Justice and I will get back to him with any response.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this is a very controversial issue. We have tried to ensure that we have policies that allow central Government to look at best practice and advise through statutory guidance. It is up to us to continue to work with local authorities to ensure that policies are in place that meet our transport objectives while also emphasising that local councils are accountable to their electorates for the policies they pursue.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o’clock.