Skip to main content

Private Parking Companies

Volume 493: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2009

It is a delight to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley; I have not had that privilege before. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that I am sure many hon. Members have come across in their constituencies: the regulation of parking on private land—predominantly land owned by businesses—and the enforcement of rules by privately run and contracted parking companies.

Let me say first that I do not advocate a state of affairs in which business owners are unable to maintain propriety over the parking spaces that they provide for their customers. I also recognise the work of the British Parking Association and many of its members to raise standards and improve practices in the private parking industry. It must be made clear, however, that the behaviour and attitudes of a significant minority of private parking firms are at best questionable; at worst, they are rude, aggressive, manipulative and potentially threatening.

I have called for this debate to raise the concerns of my constituents, to expose the opacity of the legal landscape in which the firms operate and to see whether my hon. Friend the Minister will give me some comfort in thinking that we can move some way towards finding a solution. Although the experience of my constituents does not relate specifically to wheel-clamping, many of the arguments that I shall make are relevant to the companies that impose wheel-clamping sanctions as well.

First, I shall highlight some of the experiences of my constituents in recent months, which initially brought the problem to my attention. In Stirling we recently had an example of what I can only suggest is questionable practice on the part of one particular private parking firm, even though it is apparently operating within the voluntary guidelines. It was able to access the details of the drivers—my constituents—through the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, as it is a member of the BPA. My constituents have been subject to fines for wheels being inches “outwith the parking bay”. In fairness, the company has disputed that. Constituents have told of parking attendants waiting in their own vehicles, apparently ready to pounce as soon as someone leaves their car unattended. Again, in fairness, I have to say that the company denies that. My constituents have suffered at the hands of parking attendants who have not been clearly identifiable by their uniforms, contrary to the claims of the company involved, or who have failed properly to identify themselves when asked. Many elderly and infirm constituents have reported parking attendants being confrontational, rude and intimidating.

Many of those ticketed live on extremely limited means. The parking area to which I am referring covers an area where there are cut-price shops, which are attractive to people watching their budgets. Failure to pay the so-called reduced parking charge of £60 within the tight time scale of 14 days results in an increase in the fine to £85, which increases to £135 to cover “administrative costs”—I am quoting from the letters received by my constituents—if it is not paid within a further 14 days. I ask the Minister to compare that with the local police authority fine of £30, with 21 days to pay, and an option, if the owner challenges the fine, to request a court hearing.

It is not reasonable to expect my constituents who found themselves in that situation to be able to find £60 or £85 in the time scale given. If there was a breach of the deadline, they received even more threatening demands—letters that implied that non-payment could affect their credit rating or lead them to lose part of their wages. One constituent reported that she was receiving calls up to twice a day from what she believed was a debt collection company, demanding payment on behalf of the car parking firm for a fine that she claimed she had already paid. The tone of the calls was described to me as rude, patronising and threatening. The company could not explain what the £65 it was demanding was for, and in the end the woman was so fed up and distressed that she paid it by direct debit over the phone. She believes that she has now paid £135 in total.

Signage in the car park met the minimum BPA guidelines but, in my opinion and that of my constituents, it was improperly placed and therefore difficult to see. Only this week, a constituent sent me a photograph of a parking sign upside down at the bottom of a wall. I do not know how people are expected to see such signage. As the parking area had previously been free and was supposed to be free for people shopping in the area, the signage should have been sufficient to indicate that that was no longer the case.

The company will tell us that there is an appeals system, but it is flawed. First, it is conducted by the company whose operatives have handed out the fines in the first place, so it is someone’s word against theirs. A number of my constituents report submitting an appeal, receiving no acknowledgement and then receiving an automatically generated final demand for payment. Eventually, many of the fines were written off at appeal, but that was after a lengthy, stressful and very public process that caused great distress to my constituents. There is no margin for understanding and no middle ground. The attitude is far from constructive. I am only astonished that the business owners in the area did not see that the attitude was counter-productive and that it was detrimental to their businesses if customers were frightened of parking outside their shops.

I want to reflect on how this situation could have come about and to dwell for a few moments on the legal landscape. We have seen regulations passed to govern parking enforcement on highways and other local authority land with the Traffic Management Act 2004, along with similar legislation in the devolved regions and nations. There have also been welcome attempts by the Home Office to regulate the wheel-clamping industry with the Private Security Industry Act 2001 and its corollaries. However, the issues that I am raising go far beyond wheel-clamping, which, as the Minister will no doubt tell me, is not legal in Scotland.

With parking on private land, however, the situation is somewhat different. Currently, private parking is not governed by any specific legislation. In England it falls under the laws of contract and trespass; in Scotland it is purely contract law. In Scotland, by parking on private land, a member of the public is in effect entering into a contract with the owner. If they contravene the rules set out by the owner, such as in respect of parking bays, by exceeding the time allowed or in respect of patronage conditions and so on, they are in breach of contract. It is a mysterious contract to many, I have no doubt. It may be covered by contract law in Scotland, but then perhaps it is covered by contract law that covers aspects of life on a Great Britain basis.

Is it not also the case that car owners who intend to pay but need to go to a nearby shop to get change to do so are given no period of grace in which to do that?

I have not had time to go into all the examples, but what the hon. Gentleman describes certainly illustrates some of the experiences of my constituents in that there was no period of grace at all. I refer him back to my comments about operatives waiting in vans, giving the impression that they were ready to pounce as soon as someone came out of their car. I want to be clear that the penalty notice is not a fine. It looks and feels like a fine, people think it is a fine, but it is a notification of a breach of contract. Paying it is effectively an out-of-court settlement of a contract dispute, not a fine. However, none of that is much comfort to an elderly lady who receives an unpayable fine and a threatening demand letter. I shall return to the behaviour of some of those firms in a moment.

Any landowner—which could be anything from the local pub owner to the largest supermarket—can set restrictions for parking on their land. If they own the land on which they provide parking, they are free to enforce whatever rules they see fit. They are also free to employ somebody else to enforce those rules, which is where private parking companies come in. If a landlord enters into an agreement with one of those firms, the amount charged by the parking company, and who gets the revenue, is decided on an individual basis by the landowner and the parking contractor. Sometimes landowners will pay firms a flat fee, in which case the landowner will usually receive all or a share of the revenue from the tickets issued. In other cases, the landowner will pay the firm nothing on the understanding that it can keep all revenues from ticketing, however large.

There is no legal limit on the amounts that contractors can charge, and no oversight of how they enforce their charges. The parking industry’s representative body, the British Parking Association, is aware of that, but I suspect that it is no more enthusiastic about poor practice among parking firms than I am. Although it has made no particular criticism of the company that I have used as an example, it recognises that the poor behaviour exhibited by some of its members reflects badly on the entire industry.

The BPA has established an approved operators scheme, which sets out approved practices that should remedy the above concerns. However, as I indicated, the firm that I mentioned was a member of the BPA and the approved operators scheme. Although the BPA does not investigate individual incidents, consistent breaches of the rules by member companies could lead to exclusion from the scheme and from BPA membership.

The approved operators scheme is voluntary, and because the BPA is a membership organisation, its sanctioning powers are limited. No companies have been excluded from the BPA as a result of reported abuses. That reflects the BPA’s desire to keep member companies on board and retain some form of incentive for companies to comply with the scheme. Part of the way such companies work is by utilising the right of anybody to request keeper information for a vehicle from the DVLA. That can be done by post or—most likely in the case of a parking company that handles large amounts of requests—electronically.

The DVLA recently restricted electronic access to its vehicle keeper register to members of an approved trade association, which in effect means the BPA. That provides a stick—albeit a very small one—to add to the BPA’s carrots. However, I suggest that it exposes a potential conflict of interest for the BPA. As the registered trade association, it would be incredibly difficult for the BPA to act as both regulator and representative of the industry. In addition to creating a conflict of interest, it simply does not have the capacity to be all things to all parking firms.

I am delighted to see the Minister here today. However, I must be frank and say that I had some initial trouble in finding a Department to take this issue on. Eventually, I was able to confirm which Department had that responsibility, and that allowed me to submit a written question on 20 March 2009, column 1390W. I asked whether the Secretary of State would bring forward plans to regulate parking on private land, and I was told that the Department had no plans to do so.

It is not surprising that there is some confusion as to who in Government holds responsibility for this area. I would be happy to be proven wrong, but by my reckoning, we have the following range of responsibilities: the Home Office regulates clamping through the Security Industry Authority; the Department for Transport regulates on-street parking through the 2004 Act; the Department for Communities and Local Government is responsible for local authorities, which administer parking within their remit under the law that I have just mentioned; and the Ministry of Justice is responsible for contract law across England, which as I have said forms the legal basis for parking restrictions and charges on private land. I have not even mentioned the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform as having a role in this as well.

In Scotland, some of those matters will be the responsibility of the Scottish Government and a host of other agencies and Departments. We also have the BPA, which covers private parking firms that operate across the whole country and provides access to DVLA records as a GB-wide organisation. To tackle that problem, I suggest that we need to address not only gaps in regulation of the parking industry but—with the greatest respect—gaps in Government responsibility.

I will move on quickly to a couple of comments that I want to make on future measures. We must create a framework that addresses three aspects of the private parking industry: regulation, adjudication and representation. For regulation, we need a legal framework in which companies can operate, and the means to judge how they have done so. That requires a means of setting and assessing compliance and common standards. The adjudication of individual cases of grievance requires some sort of recognised, transparent and trusted appeals process that is fair to landowners and those who have been ticketed. Representation is needed to allow a continued role for organisations such as the BPA, so that it can represent its members without a conflict of interest, set standards of best practice and lead the development of the industry.

We all recognise the importance of allowing business owners to control the use of their land to their best advantage. I recognise that some of the issues that I have raised will require discussion with devolved Administrations to seek a solution. I hope that we will have the chance to begin to expose some of the weaknesses in the system, identify what needs to be done and set in motion the work needed to do it. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is nice to be with you again in the Chamber today, Mr. Bayley. At the outset, I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) on securing the debate. It is an issue of importance to many people.

There is a debate about where a motorist can leave his or her vehicle on land owned by an individual company or institution. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, those bodies are many and various. They can be schools, hospitals, large shops, complexes, or cinemas and other entertainment venues. The one thing common to all those places is that their land is not part of the public highway, and a member of the public has no automatic right to use it.

We all have the right to enjoy the use of our land as we see fit and—if it is large enough—to restrict access to it. Landowners are entitled to prevent unwanted parking, which includes the use by others of any parking facilities provided for visitors and customers. Therefore, they also have the right to charge for the use of their land and to put in place such charging schemes as the law allows.

On the other side, drivers have a responsibility to check when they park their vehicle that they are allowed to do so. They must undertake that requirement, but we should expect fairness and civilised behaviour from those whose business it is to enforce the rights of landowners—an issue highlighted by my right hon. Friend. Of course, that does not mean that a motorist who parks on private land is not protected by the law. A motorist may complain to the local trading standards office if a landowner does not provide in good time material information about the service that is provided. Motorists can complain to the Office of Fair Trading if contract terms are considered unfair. It should be noted that unfair contract terms are not binding on the consumer.

Motorists are at risk, however, if they trespass on land. Many of us will have used such areas ourselves—for example, when visiting a pub or restaurant—and will know that the land can be used only by the customers of that establishment. It is therefore unacceptable for people to leave vehicles there if they are not customers. Land can also be set aside for resident-only parking; again, not everybody can leave their vehicles there.

Landowners use one of three main ways to keep watch over who is using their land. One is to have barriers at the entrance and/or exit, which can often be seen in private car parks. The second is immobilisation and/or removal of the offending vehicle. The third is ticketing. The barrier is, perhaps, the most acceptable method, but it is not always practical for small areas such as shop or petrol station forecourts. Nor is it suitable if it is likely to cause disruption to traffic on the main highway—for example, if people are queuing on the road to get in through the barrier. Nevertheless, barriers have a role to play.

My right hon. Friend mentioned immobilisation, but it was not the key thrust of her speech. None the less, I can tell her that on 30 April the Government launched a consultation on the regulation of vehicle immobilisation businesses. We wish to curb practices such as unreasonably high release fees and inadequate signage, another important subject in today’s debate. To tackle unacceptable practices, the consultation seeks views on the Government’s preferred option of introducing a compulsory membership scheme for vehicle immobilisation businesses. You will not expect me, Mr. Bayley, to prejudge the outcome of that genuine consultation, but the Government are likely to introduce industry-wide standards for the size and visibility of signage, maximum penalties and control of payment methods.

That brings us to the third way of watching over those who park on private land—that of ticketing, the sending to the vehicle keeper of a request for payment or an excess charge for leaving the vehicle on the said piece of land. Developments in technology and the requirement for vehicle immobilisation operatives to be licensed have resulted in a number of landowners changing their enforcement methods from immobilisation to ticketing.

The Government’s view is that the disclosure of keeper data is fair and reasonable if there is a breach of civil or contract law—a factor highlighted by my right hon. Friend. Tracing people who do not comply with the conditions for parking on private land is regarded in most circumstances as reasonable. To ensure that the data are used responsibly, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency introduced in 2007 a requirement that data could be obtained electronically only by companies that were members of an ATA—an approved trade association.

The only trade association accredited for the private parking sector is the British Parking Association. To obtain and keep membership of the BPA, a company must abide by a strict code of practice. The provisions of the code include the requirement for appropriate signs to be provided, which means that the contract for using that land would in most circumstances fall within the Government’s consumer protection legislation. Not only is there a need for signage, but to comply with BPA membership a company must have a contract with the landowner, use trained staff and operate dispute resolution procedures. Indeed, BPA companies are encouraged to use liveried vehicles and to use the BPA’s charge structure.

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend’s comments about the experience of some of her constituents; I understand that the company concerned is a member of the BPA. What she said about the trouble and difficulties that her constituents have had with this company causes me concern. I have no doubt that the BPA will be aware of today’s debate, and the concerns raised here will do it no good. It must be well aware that one of its member companies is falling short of the association’s requirements. I will return to that issue.

I wish to clarify a couple of points raised by my right hon. Friend. I understand that the BPA investigates individual incidents if it believes that there has been a breach of the code of practice or if the DVLA receives a complaint about a company that it would like the BPA to investigate further. The BPA will work with such companies, usually to ensure that they understand the requirements and the standards that are to be met. I have known that happen in other examples, and there has been substantial improvement.

The Competition Commission is not concerned that the BPA cannot fulfil two functions at the same time, although my right hon. Friend said that it would be a conflict of interests, but it would be concerned if the BPA was the only organisation that the DVLA would consider for accreditation, as it would effectively hand the BPA a monopoly. That, however, is not the case. The BPA is the only organisation that has applied for and gained accreditation in the parking sector. The DVLA is happy to consider applications from other organisations for accreditation.

Under current arrangements, data can be obtained electronically only by recognised members, although they can be obtained manually by non-ATA members. However, we recognise that the provisions should be tightened, and in April we consulted on extending the requirement for membership of an ATA to all parking enforcement companies, whether data are obtained electronically or manually.

I am conscious of the time, and I want to cover most of the main points raised today. Legislation is already in being. For instance, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 ensures that we receive service free of harassment. I recall the case raised by my right hon. Friend of the lady who had received a threatening telephone call. Under the Administration of Justice Act 1970, it is an offence to claim payment of a contractual debt in ways that cause alarm, distress or humiliation. We also have consumer protection legislation.

Given the points raised this afternoon, I believe that we need to continue our work across various Departments. There is no question about that. However, the BPA will be well aware of the cases raised by my right hon. Friend. We need to ensure that the strict codes of the BPA, which are normally followed through properly, are enforced in this case.