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Consumer Protection (Private Car Parks)

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision relating to the licensing of charging, publicly-available, privately-owned car parks; to require local authorities to introduce a licensing system for such car parks; to enable local authorities to recover the costs of such a licensing scheme from car park operators; and for connected purposes.

Hon. Members are sent to this place for essentially two reasons: to represent the interests of our constituents and to ensure the passage of good legislation that will enhance and protect the well-being of citizens. I believe that the proposed Bill would do both.

I remind the House that there are two kinds of car park provider in this country. First, there are local authority-controlled car parks, which are covered extensively by legislation. Secondly, there are private car parks, which are covered to a much lesser extent by legislation. I will not say that all private car parks are operated irresponsibly. The vast majority of providers treat their consumers with the respect that they deserve. However, there are all too many rogue car park operators who use unscrupulous practices, not only in my constituency but in the constituencies of right hon. and hon. Members up and down the country. The Bill would address that problem. Concerns have been raised not only by right hon. and hon. Members, but by the Consumers Association and organisations such as the Automobile Association.

What is the problem? Often, consumers who have used a publicly available private car park receive in the post several days later a threatening demand from the provider for a so-called penalty payment, alleging that the consumer has not purchased the correct ticket. Even when the consumer produces evidence that they bought, for example, a pay and display ticket, the private operator says that it was not displayed properly. That contrasts with the way in which local authorities run their car parks, where, if somebody can show proof of purchase of a ticket, their fine is cancelled.

The second area of concern is the way in which some unscrupulous operators, who make up the minority of private car park operators, demand payments for the most minor and accidental infractions, such as a wheel that is just touching the dividing white line between spaces. In one case that I came across, somebody received a demand for payment because they got stuck in a queue of traffic as they were trying to leave the car park and were timed out. Again, we may contrast that with how council-run car parks operate. There is an appeals system, and reasonable appeals often succeed. Indeed, appeals succeed in almost two thirds of cases.

The third, and perhaps most disturbing and insidious, aspect of unscrupulous private car park providers is the sheer scale of the “fine” that they seek to levy against the consumer. Often, there is a threatening letter with a demand for £70, which is hiked up to £100 within a fortnight and then further still as time goes by. Again, we may compare that with local authority-controlled car parks, where the fine is typically £50, reduced to £25 if paid within 28 days. We can see that there is quite a difference.

The threatening and aggressive letters sent to many consumers are causing a great deal of concern, particularly among the most vulnerable and elderly constituents of right hon. and hon. Members. Many people simply feel intimidated into paying the apparent fine, which of course is not a fine in any criminal sense, because they just want the problem to go away. Even people who would not be classed as vulnerable have come to me and other Members deeply concerned about threats to destroy their credit rating, send in the bailiffs or seek county court judgments. That means that many people simply pay the demand, which is how unscrupulous private car park firms make an awful lot of money in an unfair way.

The situation is starting to have a detrimental effect on many town centre businesses. I have received plenty of evidence from legitimate businesses in town centres, which have come to me to say that where rogue private car parks operate, they damage business. People say that they are simply not prepared to go into the town centre to shop or for entertainment purposes, because they fear that they will have an arbitrary penalty notice issued against them by a car park provider.

The question is, what is the solution to the problem? It is certainly not in my instincts immediately to reach for regulation or for the rulebook. I certainly would not advocate establishing some sort of national agency or quango, because the Government are quite rightly seeking to reduce the number of quangos despite the best efforts of another place. I am certainly—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but private conversations are getting much too loud in the Chamber. If people want to have private conversations, I suggest that they go outside.

I am very grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am certainly not proposing that local authorities should take over the patrolling of private car parks that are available to the public, or that the resources of the police should be used for that purpose. What I propose in the Bill is that local authorities with a licensing function should have the ability to license the operation of publicly available private car parks, in the same way that local licensing committees make decisions about the licensing of publicans for the sale of alcohol or cab drivers for the running of taxis. In a similar way, we could have local democratic control with a local focus, to ensure that there is better practice by the minority of unscrupulous car park operators. My proposal would also carry no cost to the council tax payer or the taxpayer in general. Simply, the system would be paid for by a modest application fee paid by private car park operators to the licensing authority when applying for a licence.

Coming before the House shortly in the freedom Bill will be proposals to restrict the use of wheel-clamping. I very much welcome that, but I fear that one unintended consequence will be that unscrupulous wheel-clampers will simply switch to issuing demands for payments from people, in the same way that some private car parks do. I believe that the Bill could be a useful way of closing that loophole.

There is provision in legislation already for local authorities to operate with private car parks. However, that requires the compliance of the private car park operator and the local authority, and of course, an unscrupulous provider is unlikely to agree to work with the local authority. Self-regulation could be a solution, but so far, the British Parking Association has not introduced an appeals process. It has a very small pilot scheme, but that has not been effective yet. It is therefore my pleasure to propose this motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That Henry Smith, Mr Mark Williams, Anne Marie Morris, Gareth Johnson and George Eustice present the Bill.

Henry Smith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 February 2011, and to be printed (Bill 114).

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and as a new Member, I am baffled by the actions of the Government and their Departments. My hon. Friend and I tabled questions for yesterday’s Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Question Time on the impact on participation in sport of the proposed abolition of schools sports partnerships. The questions were accepted by the Table Office and drawn in a ballot for oral answer. Subsequently, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport moved the questions to other Departments for answer, as you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have today received an answer to that original question from the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). The reply is:

“I will reply as soon as possible.”

Are the Government and Ministers, as my hon. Friend said yesterday, trying to park matters that they are too embarrassed to deal with—

Order. This is supposed to be a point of order, not a speech. I take it that the hon. Gentleman is complaining about his question being transferred at short notice from one Department to another. That is a matter of business for the Government, not the Chair. He is saying that he is expecting a prompt reply, and I am sure that Education Ministers sitting on the Front Bench have taken note of that and that they will make sure that he gets that reply—promptly.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members should have been made aware, because the process was set out to them, that if they have concerns about written questions, they should write to the Procedure Committee for us to consider.

Order. I am sure the House is very grateful for that point of information, Mr Percy. It was not directly relevant to the point of order, but never mind.