I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I am pleased, on behalf of many of my constituents and many people throughout Northern Ireland, that the Minister is here to provide a response on this vexatious issue.
I have been made aware of the serious problem of dubious and irregular charges being levelled by private parking companies on customers who use private car parks, for example, near shopping centres. There is often little oversight or regulation of the marketplace and many companies seem to operate in a dubious manner. My constituents have made me aware of the problem, which I know exists across Northern Ireland. I am therefore delighted to have secured the debate, and again, I thank the Minister for coming to address the Chamber on the issue.
I am aware that the matter partly falls under devolved competencies, but given that the Department for Transport, or more specifically, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, provide such companies with driver and vehicle information, it is important that the UK Government address these concerns.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early on in her speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. I reassure her that the concerns are not restricted to Northern Ireland; they are UK-wide. Is not the critical point the role of the DVLA, which she just mentioned, and how, in a largely unfettered way—sometimes inappropriately, it seems—vehicle licence details from the DVLA are released to these companies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is absolutely correct, and the Minister needs to look into the unfettered handing-out of that information to private parking companies, because it is placing a lot of people, particularly the elderly and those who are disabled, in great distress.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the Chamber; it is important, as she said, to all of us across the United Kingdom, and especially to those in Northern Ireland. Does she agree that many companies seem to have no care whatever for people? In particular, they seem to have a zealousness for clamping the cars of those with blue badges, who are clearly disabled. Does she feel that perhaps the Government should take that on and train them, so that we ensure that they do not do a job that aggravates people, and pick on those who cannot necessarily defend themselves?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with him. He highlighted areas that I will move on to in my speech. These car parking companies are particularly zealous in their desire to overcharge people, and when they are taken on, they withdraw the charge. That makes me ask whether it was ever valid in the first place. He will be aware of some of the experiences that my constituents have had in his constituency, in the town of Newtownards.
I accept that we are talking about a legal marketplace, within which there are many reputable companies, but I would like to highlight the most pertinent examples of bad practice and the existence of less reputable companies. From the outset, it must be clarified that private operators do not have the right to levy a statutory fine. Instead, they are effectively levying a charge for loss incurred by the operator due to breach of contract. However, in practice, in the cases brought to my attention, it would appear that some companies often go to every length to give the appearance to the customer that they are being fined, and that the fine is non-contestable.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. There is a related issue, and I wonder whether it should be put out there as public knowledge. The Government need to come clean about whether we can tidy this matter up. These pieces of land were given a zero rateable value when the companies were given planning permission, or whatever permission it was, and now an income is being made from that land. The Government need to look closely at whether the Valuation Office Agency should try to revalue pieces of land where car parking charges are being applied, on the grounds that as there is now an income from it, the rateable value should be reviewed. I hope that the Government look at that, and I want to put that on the record.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have found instances of that in Northern Ireland, but the rating of particular properties or pieces of wasteland now used for car parking purposes in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. In this debate, I want to concentrate on the issues that are particularly the reserve of the Minister and the Department. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point. There is a certain over-zealous attitude on the part of many of the players, but the bottom line is that the ordinary person, whether they are elderly, young with a family, or disabled, is placed at great disadvantage—particularly a financial one—some months down the line.
I would like to give some brief examples of the way in which certain companies go to every length to put a significant amount of pressure on people to settle up as quickly as possible, without querying the nature of what they may perceive as an inescapable fine. Often the correspondence, especially the initial notification letter to the customer, will be designed to look like an official statutory notice of the kind issued by a council or a local authority. For example, they will commonly refer to “parking charge notices”, otherwise known as PCNs, mimicking the “penalty charge notice” title of official council tickets, and that will often be accompanied by an official-looking logo, such as the scales of justice. Such notices are clearly designed to make the person feel that this is something they have to pay, and that its source is a body other than a private company, thus making the person—it could happen to any single one of us—deeply uncomfortable.
In addition, companies will present the possibility of the Debt Recovery Agency becoming involved as early as the first correspondence with the customer. Such a threat is clearly vastly out of proportion for what amount to relatively small civil claims. Again, the purpose of that is clearly to get the person to pay up as soon as possible and not to question the source, reasonableness or accuracy of the claim. People are made to feel under pressure and that they have no right to recourse.
Such tactics are reprehensible, especially in that many of those being pursued are elderly or vulnerable, and they have even been employed in my constituency against people with disabilities who have very specific parking requirements. Surely the Minister agrees that his Department should not facilitate things for companies that operate in that manner, and surely he will confirm that he would act on evidence that companies are harassing members of the public over dubious claims.
The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way. Is she aware in her constituency, as I am in mine, that when the companies are pressurised on behalf of our constituents, after a period of time, on many occasions, they back down and renege on the original clamping that they did? Does she feel that that underlines the fact that the Government need to be more aware of what the companies do within the law?
Deeply harassed by the companies. These people feel that they are criminals when they are not.
Having considered the manner in which some claims are pursued, we need also to consider the fairness and reasonableness of the claims. Again, it seems that certain companies are pressing claims that are spurious at best. Previous court guidance has said that charges must be proportionate and that an owner is entitled to seek only damages relating to actual loss. For a start, the existence of tiered levels of payment depending on how quickly fines are paid suggests that any real evaluation of loss is not being used. The charges also seem excessive against any determination of an actual loss incurred. The fact that some companies are charging up to £150, which is more than 50% higher than, in our case, the Roads Service’s fine, or a council fine, indicates that it is not actual loss that is being charged to the customer.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so generously. She makes a valid point about the loss. How is the loss quantified? In Hyndburn, there is free car parking everywhere, so how can a car park actually lose money? How can these companies fleece motorists for £100, £60 or whatever, as happens in the case of Eastgate retail car park in Accrington, when there is simply no loss of income? The comparator is that there is free car parking everywhere.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree; that is another point that needs to be investigated and explored by the Minister.
I want to press the issue of the Equality Act 2010. How do these car parking companies square what they do with the Equality Act when they are indiscriminate in their charging? Surely it is illegal to discriminate against disabled people with these car parking charges—and with time limits, when disabled people need more time. It is absolutely outrageous that disabled people are treated in exactly the same way as others when the law of the land says that they should be treated in a different way because of their disability.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that an area of the Equality Act needs to be investigated, but perhaps because these are private car parks, they sometimes fall through various loopholes. None the less, the issue requires investigation.
I concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). Mr and Mrs Sheldon, a disabled couple from Aberystwyth who visited me in my constituency surgery last week, had exactly the same experience. With regard to taking these complaints further, may I ask the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) what her experience has been of the British Parking Association, the body that is supposed to regulate the conduct of its member companies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that part of the problem lies with the British Parking Association—he is right—because it is not doing the job that it is supposed to do. It is letting things fall through the net.
Let me explain some more of the background. People may well be asked for proof of purchase from the car park’s associated store. I do not know about the Minister’s shopping habits, but it would be very rare for me still to have a receipt, months later, for every small item of shopping that I had bought. None of this seems to constitute a fair claim or burden of evidence, and I would like to know whether the Minister agrees.
Given the very uncertain regulations that cover this area, consumers caught in such cases have very little access to recourse, and companies seem to obfuscate where possible. If the operator is approved and controlled by the British Parking Association, there is a more formal appeal mechanism, but it must be recognised that the BPA is not an independent body; it represents the parking industry. Moreover, many of these companies operate outside the BPA.
Surely the Minister agrees that there should be a requirement on companies operating in this market to be BPA registered, at least, and that there should be a clear set of independent guidelines that require companies to provide information on the right of recourse for those being charged. I put it to the Minister that any such guidelines or regulations should also put clear limits on the nature of letters that can be sent to consumers and put a robust burden of evidence on the company demanding the charge.
What exists currently is not fit for purpose and damages not only consumers, but those companies that seek to operate in a reputable manner. We have a private parking regime that is highly inadequate. The Government claim to want people to return to their city and town centres to support small business and the local economy. We have had the Mary Portas report, and we have had an emphasis on regeneration of our town and city centres, but what message does it send when people return from shopping trips and a month later are served with parking notices such as these? I will tell the Minister exactly what they think: “I’ll stay at home and do my shopping online.” That is only those who are fortunate enough to have that option. People will simply stay at home or go elsewhere, where there are not these impediments or hindrances, but they will not go back to the town or city that placed that burden on them through a parking operation.
I have come here today hoping at the very least to gain assurances that the Department for Transport is aware of the problems and, more specifically, will take remedial action to prevent companies that are operating in a disreputable manner from accessing the DVLA’s database. I know that in the Northern Ireland context, my party colleague who is the Minister of Environment there, Alex Attwood, has been talking to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), about this issue, but also about the very important need to devolve the DVLA to Northern Ireland, so that we have our own base there. Perhaps the Minister wants to take that issue away and talk to his colleague about it, but surely there should be a degree of concern that the DVLA information system—
I was about to do that, Mr Owen; I have just one more sentence. The DVLA information system is being used to help process very dubious claims. I want to know what discussions the Minister has had on this matter, and what the DVLA considers when dealing with requests from private car parking companies. Private firms have no right to impose a fine or penalty, and anything that purports to be a charge but is in reality a fine or penalty should be outlawed.
Thank you, Mr Owen. That is quite a challenge, given that my time has been reduced somewhat. May I begin by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing the debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss in detail a matter that is clearly of great concern to her and her constituents and to other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I will give the hon. Member for South Down the assurance, because this is a highly complex area and she has covered a considerable amount of ground, that I will get the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to write to her on those issues that I am unable to deal with specifically in the limited time left to me.
The management of private parking and the release of vehicle keeper details to allow car park operators to apply parking controls can, understandably, be emotive matters. Receipt of a parking ticket is never popular, and some drivers become very annoyed when they are subject to enforcement action, particularly if they disagree with the principle of vehicle keeper information being provided to private companies for such purposes. Unpopular though receipt of a parking charge may be, measures to control parking on private land are necessary to ensure that parking facilities remain accessible and provide value to all who use them. Drivers who choose to park their vehicles on private land do so in line with terms and conditions that should be clearly displayed on signage at the entrance to the car park and around it; I take the hon. Lady’s point about the size of displays and their accessibility.
I will not be accepting any interventions from the hon. Gentleman. This is the hon. Lady’s debate; I do not have much time and I want to address as many of her points as I can.
Typically, conditions relate to the need to pay a fee and display a valid ticket, and to observe the maximum permitted time for parking. There may be other conditions, such as a stipulation that parking is for patrons only. Parking control is necessary to allow landowners who invite drivers to park on their land to exercise their legal rights and gain the benefit to which they are entitled from the use of their property. Without any form of control, I am sure the hon. Lady would agree that errant drivers might park as they liked, breaching reasonable terms and conditions, without fear of any recourse arising from their misuse of the land and the detrimental effect that their actions might have on the availability of parking spaces for more considerate motorists.
It is important to bear in mind that UK law specifically provides for the release of vehicle keeper information to those who can demonstrate that they have a reasonable cause for requiring it. There is no statutory definition of “reasonable cause”, but our policy is that requests for such information should relate to the use of a vehicle, following incidents where there may be liability on the part of the driver. Where a parking infringement may have taken place, it is considered reasonable to provide the vehicle keeper’s contact details to allow the matter to be taken up with the driver responsible.
Those procedures are fully in keeping with the terms of the Data Protection Act, and the Information Commissioner’s Office is fully apprised of the release of information for such purposes. Although the law provides for the release of information, we are committed to striking the correct balance between protecting drivers from unfair or unscrupulous practices that some parking management companies may employ, and ensuring that land owners are able appropriately to control the use of their land and benefit fairly from it.
The management and control of parking on private land has been under considerable scrutiny over recent years, and the activities and standards of operation in the sector have changed substantially. Despite perceptions to the contrary, I assure the hon. Lady that significant control is already applied to the operation of private car parking companies. Unscrupulous operators can no longer put a sign up in a car park that sets outrageous charges and harass motorists for payment. Rogue operators might once have been able to request vehicle keeper details, but that is no longer the case. Unlike in the past, control is now exercised over the charges that can be imposed, the standards for signage and the operating standards for the conduct of staff employed by parking management operators.
Since 2005, when the previous Government were in power, the issues raised by motorists aggrieved by private parking enforcement have been carefully scrutinised. As a result of the first review, the systems for accessing vehicle keeper data were totally changed and formal safeguards were introduced. The review led to the introduction of a requirement for companies that receive keeper data via electronic links to be members of an accredited trade association. The conditions have been strengthened by making ATA membership a requirement for all car parking companies as a prerequisite for access to data. Since 2009, all private car parking companies that want to request vehicle keeper information for private car parking management have been required to be ATA members, regardless of whether they make such requests via electronic or paper channels. That requirement has delivered a regulatory regime for the parking industry where none previously existed.
An ATA must have a code of practice based on fair treatment of the motorist, which requires its members to operate to high professional standards of conduct while allowing them to take reasonable action to follow up alleged parking contraventions. We would expect any organisation that wanted to become an ATA to be able to demonstrate that it has a code of practice that ensures that only a fair parking charge is asked for and that prominent signage is present, which outlines clearly the restrictions on parking and the charges and conditions that apply. There should be no hidden charges or ambiguity for the motorist as to what is and what is not permitted on the land. The code also helps to ensure that contact with motorists is not threatening and that parking charge notices are issued promptly so that a driver can recall the circumstances surrounding the event. A reasonable amount of time must be allowed for payment to be made before any additional charges are imposed or the matter is escalated. That is the case in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom
Even though strong requirements are in place to regulate the actions of parking companies, disclosure of data is also tightly controlled. Even when a company can demonstrate full compliance with the code of practice, the DVLA and its Northern Ireland equivalent, the Driver and Vehicle Agency, operate to the same standards and must be assured that there is good reason to believe that a parking contravention is likely to have occurred and that the company is acting with integrity when requesting data.
Parking management companies are visited to audit their operations and further in-depth checking of individual cases is undertaken to make sure that requests have been submitted for genuine reasons and with reliable evidence to back them up. All requests for keeper details of Northern Ireland-registered vehicles are written requests, and the information provided in support of the application is examined to confirm that the release of the information requested is fair and lawful.
Car parking operators pay fees when requesting keeper details. The fee levels are set to recover the cost of processing requests, so that those costs are not passed on to the taxpayer. The Government do not gain financially from the provision of such information.
It is inevitable that motorists who feel that they have been unfairly treated will complain. The first port of call is usually the ATA, and I have mentioned that an operator needs to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice in order to retain its membership. The ATA is there to investigate and ensure that, where appropriate, remedial action is taken. It is for the ATA to decide whether the operator needs to be placed on notice with additional scrutiny, follow-up audits and checks to monitor future actions closely. In more serious cases, a decision may be taken to terminate an operator’s membership of the ATA, without which they cannot operate. That consequence is serious for a company’s survival and it is an incentive for them to behave responsibly.
The agencies that supply data to operators also play a key role. Where sufficiently serious concerns are raised or ongoing issues are identified, agencies will consider whether continued access to vehicle keeper data is appropriate. Several parking management companies have had their ability to request vehicle keeper data suspended where shortfalls in the standards expected have been identified. In addition, trading standards departments can prosecute companies if they have breached consumer protection law. In short, if a company is not meeting the standards expected, there are serious consequences.
I trust we can all agree that we have come a long way in providing proportionate regulation for the parking sector. I do not have enough time to deal with the hon. Lady’s other points, so I will ensure that my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, writes to her. I conclude by urging her to forward to the responsible Minister the details of any cases experienced by her constituents and others that have involved questionable actions and bad behaviour, and where the expected standards of operation have not been met, so that those cases can be investigated.