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 signage and ticketing technology for parking charges used in publicly-available car parks; and for connected purposes.
This is a straightforward Bill. It will get a better deal for the motorist and stop them being ripped off at car parks. Misleading and confusing signs are inexcusable; it should be simple to get the signs and pay machines right.
Last autumn, angry constituents came to see me when a new operator took over a town centre car park in Ebbw Vale. Within weeks, I had received a flood of complaints from blue badge holders. There were criticisms about signage, and about a complicated payment system in which drivers had to enter their car registration number into a fiddly key pad. I am fed up with poor signage in car parks that confuses and confounds the motorist. At that car park in my constituency, motorists were told, in micro-print:
“Do not leave the car park to retrieve change in order to purchase a valid ticket”.
The fact that they are unable to read that instruction before entry makes it hard for the motorist to do the right thing; it also helps the operator to pocket fines. However, the British Parking Association, which oversees the self-regulation of the private car parking industry, told me that that sign was acceptable.
Perhaps the greatest grievance brought to my attention was the extortionate parking charge notices. Like most MPs, I bat for my constituents. I am a reasonable person, and I think that motorists should pay to park on private land. However, I expect parking operators to tell drivers how and what to pay. Signs should be clear and unambiguous, and when drivers do pay, but make a genuine mistake when entering their registration number into a machine, they should not have to pay an additional parking charge of £40, as a constituent of mine was asked to do. They had already purchased a ticket and paid for their parking space, so there was no loss whatever to the operator. My constituent had done the right thing, but was still forced to cough up. That is just wrong.
I have met representatives of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which passes on vehicle registration data to the so-called approved car park operators. I have also met representatives of the British Parking Association, the industry-funded body, which requires its members to abide by its members’ club code of practice. The BPA told me that it would like statutory regulation of the sector, but that that has been spiked by the Government. When I met the Transport Minister, I was told that an independent appeals service for unfair ticketing would be introduced under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. That safeguard is welcome, but it fails to address the large-scale and deliberately exploitative ticketing operations of some in the sector.
Since raising this issue in Parliament, I have been contacted by people from all over the country who have been hit by car park operators’ sharp practice. Their anger and frustration is backed up by statistics from the DVLA. In 2011-12, the DVLA received 1.57 million electronic requests for driver information. Those requests give drivers’ personal details to car park operators, and the information is used to chase up motorists for payment. The number of requests went up by one third in the past year alone. When a driver allegedly breaks the rules, the car park operator gets their personal details from the DVLA and uses them to send them an instant penalty charge notice. In short, the operators are milking the motorist.
Now, following much consumer campaigning, the BPA is reducing the maximum charge, but it will still be a hefty £100. If drivers do not pay the charge, it increases and a solicitor’s letter often follows. That aptly named “threatogram” can often frighten the motorist into paying up. Such charges can cost the British motorist a staggering £125 million a year. In Stockport, a gentlemen won his case because the judge thought that the signage was poor, and that people could have been forgiven for thinking that they did not have to pay. It turned out that more than 11,000 people in the previous three years had not paid, but, yet again, the BPA thought that the signage was fine.
I am pressing for simple and fair signage. I want clear notices at the entrances to car parks, to let motorists know whether or not they have to pay. Drivers also need to know how to pay, and how much. One idea is to have large signs painted on the tarmac as well. That is certainly a low-cost solution. The BPA tells me that it plans to improve signage, including through the use of larger font sizes. Let us hope that it takes inspiration from the excellent Olympics signage that we have all seen in the past few months; it was first class.
Above all, the BPA must get on with this; otherwise, motorists will continue to be a soft target. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that the BPA is giving its car park operators up to three years to change their signs, even though we all expect the operators to make the changes quickly. That will mean another three years of unfair fines for many.
I am also worried about a developing business model for this sector, in which the landowner receives the hourly charge from the motorist but the car park operator receives the income from any extra charges. So, from the car park operator’s point of view, the more confusing the signage is, the better. When it is confusing for the motorist, the car park operators make more money. That cannot be right.
This Bill will end the open season on motorists; it will deliver clear, easy-to-read signs in all car parks used by the public. Payment systems, too, must be as simple as possible. Motorists who pay should not face extra charges when they have done the right thing.
If we want shoppers to use our high streets, we need to make sure they can park at reasonable cost. Confusing and misleading car park signs are quite literally driving consumers out of our town centres. They are going to out-of-town retail centres, where they can park for free. Nobody is arguing for free car parking in our towns. People should pay for parking and the landowner should get a reasonable return. Motorists should not be ripped off, however. This Bill would mean that, in future, motorists can use their local town centre without fear of being fleeced. Crucially, car park operators must clean up their act.
Question put and agreed to.
That Nick Smith, Stephen Barclay, Nic Dakin, Chris Evans, Yvonne Fovargue, Diana Johnson, Barbara Keeley, Ian Lucas, Seema Malhotra, John Mann and Jim Shannon present the Bill.
Nick Smith accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 71).