Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)
A growing problem has resulted from operators of private car parks deciding that a lucrative income stream is to be had by clobbering motorists who use their car parks but, for whatever reason, overstay the period they paid for. As an MP, I have received several letters from constituents who see the practice as totally unfair and wildly disproportionate to the fee paid for parking.
Just a glance at the fee versus the fine will demonstrate that admirably. In 1817, a Bedfordshire man received the death penalty for stealing a sheep; the sentence was commuted to life transportation. One might think that that was somewhat harsh for the crime that was committed. That disproportionate penalty no longer exists, but if one is looking for a new fine that is as disproportionate to the misdemeanour, if I can call it that, one can see that the car park cowboys fill the role admirably and with a zealotry and passion that would normally make their mothers proud—although not in this case, I imagine.
The car parks are cash magnets for the operators, who milk the motorist and use harassment and threats to extort money. Their intimidating letters are intended to frighten and their message is quite simply “stand and deliver”, the motto of the highway man in a long bygone era. The only thing missing is the pistol, but they use the threat of courts, which could be expensive if people use legal representation, and an ever-escalating tariff of fines that simply bleed the motorist further, and all because they overstayed their welcome by a few minutes after having paid perhaps just a pound—giving the ultimate new definition of “poundstretcher”.
That is tantamount to demanding money with menaces and should now be outlawed. A good case in point is The Whalley Arms car park in my constituency, used by the local community in a village that is strapped for car parking places. Local councillors Terry Hill and Joyce Holgate and I have received numerous letters of complaint from individuals who are incandescent that the operators are allowed such powers.
One constituent, Mr Clive Marsden, was visiting his GP in Whalley. He is a bit slow on his feet as his hip needs replacing. That is being done tomorrow and we all wish him well with his operation and his new hip. He unknowingly typed his registration number wrongly but he still paid his £1 fee. Some of the keyboards are very small and relatively low, and if the sun is shining on them and a person’s eyesight is not 20/20 things might be a bit hit and miss, as they were in this case. He received a fine through the post of £100, to be reduced to £60 if he paid up. He rightly thought that that was unfair as he had paid his pound but unwittingly made a minor mistake. Clearly, he appealed.
Mr Marsden had his son-in-law with him who at the same time parked another car whose registration number was entered correctly. My constituent politely and helpfully suggested that if the company looked at its records, it would see that a fee was paid at a particular time using a registration number very similar to his. The cameras collecting the registration plate numbers would have collected their plate numbers and shown that a fee had been paid for a car that did not enter the car park. Simples, as the advert says. The case could have been closed.
The company ignored Mr Marsden’s suggestion and reiterated the conditions of parking with the stipulation about the correct registration. He appealed to POPLA, the panel that considers such appeals, but it rejected his appeal, stating that his ticket was not displayed correctly as stipulated by the operator. I assume that the P in POPLA stands for pathetic, as the car registrations are collected by the camera, there is no parking attendant, the extortionate fine is issued automatically, and the operator’s notice states that there is no need to display a ticket. I assume that POPLA will read the debate and I want it to tell me which bit of what Clive Marsden was asking the operator to do was unreasonable. Does POPLA think it is right to clobber motorists when there is a system of checking car registrations paid for against those entering the car park when motorists can furnish rough times of entry? Now, Mr Marsden, fresh from his operation, will have to go to court to fight his case. I hope he wins.
There is also the case of a young lady, Niamh McNamara, at the same car park. She failed to pay because the machine was faulty and would not take money, and the other machine had a black bin bag over it. There was no attendant to take the money. She could not pay, so she went to the GP’s surgery and came back, thinking nothing of it. I wonder how many people were nabbed that day. She went home and left for South America on a backpacking holiday. Fortunately, her parents, my constituents, went to Manchester, where she lives, and picked up her mail. There was a demand for £150. Clearly, the time for appeal had elapsed and the charge had gone up to the full fine with an added penalty of £50. Her parents tried to reason with Debt Recovery Plus Ltd, but the company was not interested. After much reasoning, it said that it would reduce the amount to £120. The debt recovery people also threatened the family, saying that their daughter would face court proceedings and that her credit rating would be affected. Under duress, her parents paid up to protect their daughter. The short of it is that she could not pay, and yet was still fined. That is simply not justice.
The RAC published a report last month entitled “Private Parking—Public Concern”. I am sure that the Minister has read it. In it, John de Waal QC argues that these fines are illegal as they have no relationship to the loss incurred by the company. The person pays £1 for parking, overstays 10 minutes and is fined £60 or £100. How can that be fair? The charge at The Whalley Arms car park for 12 hours—there is no charge for night time—is just £5 for the entire day, so how can a fine of £60 or £100 be fair? Mr de Waal also argues that early payment discounts are unfair as they put pressure on the consumer to pay up rather than risk having to pay another £40, or even more if they go to appeal.
Is my hon. Friend as shocked as I am by the behaviour of ParkingEye at the Roaring Meg retail park in Stevenage? Parking there is free for three hours, but on match days it is free for only one and a half hours. Every week constituents who do not know it is a match day incur large fines. When we take those cases up with ParkingEye, which we do on a weekly basis, it says that it puts out mystical boards demonstrating when it is a match day, but it provides no photographic evidence of the boards and nobody has ever seen one.
Nothing shocks me about that industry. It sounds to me like a scam, so I am pleased that my hon. Friend has come here this evening to talk about the plight of his constituents. If a car park has a tariff, or if it has no tariff for certain hours, that is what people are accustomed to. He is right to say that many constituents will be uninterested in whether it is a match day, whatever the match happens to be, and so will carry on in their usual fashion. It seems that many of them will thus be clobbered by ParkingEye. That is totally unfair and it should look again at its practices. I trust that the Minister has heard what my hon. Friend has said.
Back to POPLA—or un-POPLA, as I prefer to call it. On the “Frequently asked questions” page of its website, to the question “Will the parking charge increase if I lose my appeal?” amazingly it answers “No”, but follows that with:
“If your appeal is refused then the full parking charge will be due because the time for any early payment discount offered by the operator will have passed.”
In my book that is a £40 increase in what an individual would normally have paid. Only POPLA could make those grasping operators appear angelic by offering a reduction should the individual cough up straight away and fail to appeal.
The message from the operators is this: “If right is on your side as you couldn’t get the coins in or you mis-typed your registration number, just take the hit on the chin; otherwise, you might get another hit on the chin.” If that does not work there is always the threat of a third hit on the chin, as credit ratings could be affected and another financial penalty added to the already extravagantly and insanely high fine.
How big is that insane fining regime? It is a massive extortion racket worth hundreds of millions of pounds. In 2013 the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency was asked for the registration plate numbers of 2.2 million car owners, and it provided them for a fee—a nice little earner for a Government agency.
The RAC instanced its own example of a young mum returning late to her car because one of her young children got upset. She also had a seven-month-old child in tow. She had to attend to her upset child and was late returning to her car, so she was fined. She did not have the resources to raise the £60 to pay the fine in time so ended up paying £100, and all for being a good mother.
Minister, enough is enough. We all know that this wretched rinsing of the public has to end. The disproportionate fines should go, and those operators and the hoodlum side of their operations—the debt collectors who use oppressive means—have to be tamed and reined right back. Strong-arm tactics can be met only with a strong law response.
The Government did well in 2012 to stop the ferociously active, salivating clampers from persecuting drivers with their hated Denver boots, but a new and sinister breed of persecution has taken over. The Government acted once, and it is now time to act again. As one might expect, I have a few suggestions for the Minister. The Government have already made an announcement concerning council-owned car parks giving a 10-minute grace period before fines becomes actionable. I understand that that is now to be extended to privately owned car parks, which is good. That is one suggestion I was going to make that has already been enacted before I even asked for it. I hope that is a good omen for my other suggestions.
The technology is available to allow car registration plates to be monitored on entrance and exit, so why not allow motorists the option of paying via credit card and being charged for exactly what they use? There would be no fines. I understand that that might require a change in legislation. If so, let us do it quickly in the next Parliament. In cases where the motorist does not have a credit card, why not just pay on exit with money, but at the actual rate? Again, there would be no fine. That might not even need a legislative change.
Then there is payment by credit card or by phone. Drivers could be charged when exiting a car park, or they could pay by phone, as happens in London, with car park operators texting them to inform them that they are about to overrun their paid parking, offering them the option to extend. There would be no fine in that either.
When someone mis-types their registration number, the operator should be duty bound to check the information to see whether it was likely that the wrong number was entered. I am sorry if that technically simple operation would spoil the bumper payouts to the car park regimes, but that is tough—natural justice is something I believe in. For small car parks in which it is simply not feasible to introduce that technology, we could have old-fashioned car parking attendants issuing tickets for the non-display of tickets.
If the motorist appeals, there should be no inferred gamble here. The motorist has the option of going to Coral, Ladbrokes, William Hill, Betfred, Paddy Power or a number of other legitimate bookies if they want a flutter—I am currently at 33:1 for my seat at the general election. When a motorist makes an appeal, there should be no element of gamble in it. Let us end the early payment discounts or extend them to cover the full period of the appeal. I have never gambled £40 in my life on any single punt, so why should the hapless and otherwise law-abiding motorist either be lured into a gamble that will cost them more if they lose or just have to cough up and pay the fine? That is no choice at all.
Let us make fines relate to the loss incurred by the operator. If it costs £1 to park for an hour and someone overstays by 10 minutes, some dynamo accelerator should not be allowed to kick in. Fines should be commensurate with the actual loss in relation to the car parking charges. I appreciate that there is an administration cost to be included, but it should also be proportionate, and the authoritarian, threatening, white-knuckle, gut-turning, official-like demands for eye-watering sums of money because someone has the audacity to overstay by a few minutes have to stop. If a car parking machine is not working, for whatever reason, it should be made illegal to fine people. That will stop another little scam whereby some people are simply harassed into forking out a fine despite the fact that they simply cannot pay.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is about to be handed authority over private car parks by the Prime Minister. He will have the opportunity to bring some sort of order and common sense to a system that has simply spiralled out of control and is hated by the long-suffering motorist, a system that is geared towards inflicting the greatest financial misery and disproportionate stress for what is, frankly, a minor contravention.
I have spoken to the man who is about to take the reins of that wild animal and told him to be strong—not that he needs my advice, as I believe he knows what needs to be done. I and the public are fed up to the back teeth with charlatans operating under their own distorted and disproportionate penalty regime, unrelenting in the face of genuine mistakes or lapses in order to fill their coffers. It is now time for them to be brought under control and strictly regulated, with no room to siphon off hundreds of millions of pounds with kick-backs to debt recovery agencies and the DVLA. In short, it is time to act. Get to it, Eric.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) on securing the Adjournment debate tonight, and I thank him and my hon. Friend the Minister for being gracious enough to allow me to contribute.
ParkingEye has been mentioned. When I became MP for South Derbyshire in 2010, I did not think that ParkingEye and particularly hospital car parking would become such a big issue, mainly because in the fabulous constituency of South Derbyshire we have free car parking. Our council does not charge for car parking. Every time we have had an extension of a shopping area, new companies coming in and new developments, we as a district council have always negotiated with the owners so that they would also have free car parking.
That turns into a nightmare when firms such as ParkingEye come in and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley so clearly described, people mistype the number plate of their car. That tends to happen when they go over the border into east Staffordshire to Burton. At both of my two local hospitals, Derby to the north and Burton to the south, people have to pay to park, which is unknown to people in South Derbyshire, but as we do not have a hospital, we go north or south. In such circumstances, when people are rushing and are at the end of their tether because, for example, they are going to accident and emergency or their wife is going into labour, the last thing they need to have to cope with is ParkingEye. Exactly as my hon. Friend described, the press-button key pad is very small, and if the sun is shining on it or the person is flustered and makes a mistake, the fines issued by ParkingEye are horrendous.
I am pleased to say that in the 18 cases in which constituents have asked me to intervene on their behalf, the hospital has waived the fee. I have not taken on ParkingEye because, fortunately, the chief executive at Burton hospital, Helen Ashley, has been very gracious, listened to the circumstances and waived the fee. There has been further investment to change the press-button keypads for ParkingEye so that they are much bigger and at eye level, and people no longer have to crawl out of their car window to hit the buttons appropriately. That has helped enormously, but the system is still pernicious and the fines are outrageous.
We would like the Minister’s help on private car parks. With our fantastically expanding shopping areas, to mirror the free parking in the council car parks, the big property developers that own the car parks have put in three free hours, after which a fine is imposed. I have some delightful pensioners who travelled in from one of the villages. They were doing a big shop so they did not come in on the bus. They take their car out about twice a week. The car park was incredibly full. The expansion of the economy of South Derbyshire is so tremendous that they ended up parking on a hatched area in the car park and got a horrendous fine. They are two pensioners on the basic state pension. The fine is incredible. They were visiting our new Aldi in Swadlincote, which is going great guns. The manager of Aldi is on their side. He wants ParkingEye to rescind its fine and we are fighting the case.
I plead with the Minister for a much better code of conduct for the likes of ParkingEye, a much better code of conduct for policing fines on private car parks, and a better ethos on the part of such firms. They are the pirates of the new age and their behaviour is disgraceful. I do not want the good name of South Derbyshire, with our free car parking, taken in vain by those pirates. Anything the Minister can do to help would be greatly appreciated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) on securing this debate. I understand how important this matter is for him and his constituents, and I recognise that the practices of some private parking companies can result in complaints from constituents. I have tried to find a stronger word than “complaints”, but I suspect I would veer into unparliamentary language were I to use the words that sometimes come to mind when I hear about cases where companies have behaved unreasonably.
My hon. Friend has seen the written ministerial statement from the Prime Minister last week explaining that policy responsibility for off-street parking is now under the auspices of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Ministers in both Departments have worked closely together on a wide range of parking reforms, and it is my pleasure this evening to represent my Communities and Local Government chums in this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) for raising the important issue of hospitals, where having a pay-as-you-leave car park that has a system of number plates or tickets that can be used at a barrier on leaving reduces the stress that people feel in not knowing how long their appointment will take or how long they may have to wait. Many people worry that by overstaying, through no fault of their own, they may incur a fine. She also mentioned places where parking is initially free and people then overstay. I have had correspondence from colleagues whose constituents have taken a break at motorway service areas, as they are advised to do, only to overstay the two hours allowed because they have fallen asleep.
The Government have taken decisive action during this Parliament to end clamping so that motorists no longer live in fear of their car being held hostage until they can pay for it to be released. I am sure that colleagues have heard horror stories from their constituents about the practices of clamping companies—practices that we have stopped. No longer are people being marched to cash point machines to secure the release of their vehicle. In my constituency, we had a big issue outside Whitby station. In Whitby, every car park is free after 6 pm apart from the car park outside the station, so it is little wonder that many motorists assumed that it would be free there too. Surprise, surprise—the parking company did not turn up until after 6 o’clock on most days because it was keen to catch as many people as possible. Thankfully, the car park was in the control of Northern Rail. Alongside Whitby Hospitality Association, we ran the company out of town. We then made representations to Northern Rail, which engaged a much more benign parking company that acted more reasonably and, at the same time, controlled parking in the car park, which is important for those who wish to use the railway station or the Co-operative shop nearby. There are plenty of reasonable companies out there, but unfortunately some of the others give them a bad name.
Good parking helps us to be good neighbours, and it is critical for a growing economy. However, as anyone who has driven round and round to find a space in a car park or has been blocked in will tell you, parking is not simple. The management of private parking can understandably be an emotive issue. Receiving a parking charge is never popular, but measures to control parking on private land are necessary to ensure that parking facilities remain accessible and provide value to all who use them.
In the past few weeks there has been some talk about the fines that are imposed on those who allegedly park where they should not. There seems to be a grey area. Is the Minister able to give some indication of the fees that they charge, because I understand that some people will be able to claim that money back?
I need to be careful because this matter is before the courts. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley talked about somebody in a pay-and-display car park who overstayed their time. It could be argued that the loss to the parking company was the value of the time that had been used, and therefore that these fines amount to many times that loss.
On the other hand, many businesses—my hon. Friend is a shopkeeper himself—rely on their own car parking areas outside their premises for their customers. If all the parking space outside a kitchen showroom, for example, was taken up by people who were not using that shop, the company could lose an order for a whole kitchen, which could represent several hundred pounds. We need to look more carefully at exactly why people may need to keep car parking for their customers. Many companies get frustrated when people park in the parking area that is meant to be for their customers and is integral to their business. If there is no car park outside, a person may drive by and go to a competitor.
I understand the Minister’s point. However, The Whalley Arms car park is a relatively large car park for the village that is now used by the entire community, not for any specific shop. All the shops benefit from the fact that the car park is available. It is next door to a GP surgery. The two cases that I mentioned related to people who wanted to use the surgery; one wanted to pay and the other mistyped their registration number. Their loss is the amenity of the car parking space, which costs £1 an hour or £5 for the day—nowhere near £60, £100 or £150.
I absolutely understand that point. The point I was trying to make is that there are situations whereby the survival of a business may be determined by it being able to make sure that its customers can use its limited car parking. However, in the case of a car park that might cost £1 an hour, it would be difficult to argue that the loss to the landowner or the parking company was anything like the magnitude of the loss to another company that would lose custom.
Drivers choose where to park their vehicles, and if they park on private land they do so in line with the terms and conditions that should be clearly displayed on signage at the entrance to the car park and around it. If the terms and conditions include that a motorist must pay and display, and stay no longer than the time they have paid for, those are the conditions that the motorist has deemed to have agreed to when they park their vehicle.
Parking management and control is necessary so that landowners who invite drivers to park on their land can exercise their legal rights and gain the benefit to which they are entitled from the use of their property. Without any form of control, indiscriminate drivers might park where they liked and for as long as they liked, breaching reasonable terms and conditions, and without fear of any recourse arising from their misuse of the land.
We are committed to striking the right balance to protect motorists from unscrupulous practices that some parking management companies may employ—we have heard about them this evening—and to ensure that landowners can control the use of their land and benefit fairly from it.
The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 banned clamping and made a number of other changes to the law related to parking. It banned private sector wheel-clamping and vehicle removal where there is no lawful authority to do so, and, as a balance to that, provided landholders with extra powers to manage parking on their land.
Most private organisations, including private landowners and their agents, are not able to clamp or tow vehicles and have to rely primarily on ticketing to enforce parking conditions on their land. This could be by placing a parking ticket on a vehicle, giving it to the driver or sending a ticket to the vehicle’s registered keeper in the post.
Before the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, a private landholder could only seek liability against a vehicle driver to recover unpaid parking charges and therefore needed to be able to identify who was the driver of the vehicle that incurred the parking charge. There was no requirement, however, for the registered keeper either to say who was driving the vehicle or to accept liability him or herself. This allowed both the vehicle driver and the registered keeper to avoid liability and meant that landholders could find it difficult to manage parking by ticketing alone.
Schedule 4 to the Protection of Freedoms Act came into power at the same time as the parking sector introduced a new, free appeals service for motorists who received a parking charge. This means that motorists can appeal to the parking operator and to an independent adjudicator, and both those appeals are free to the motorist. However, I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point about an early payment discount, and the suggestion to extend the discount during an appeal certainly has some merit.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, I assure my hon. Friend that significant control is already applied to the operation of private car parking companies. The activities and standards of operation in the sector have changed substantially in recent years and parking trade bodies have improved standards further at the heart of their vision.
Where the terms and conditions of parking have been breached, parking management companies can apply for information about the vehicle keeper so that they can enforce appropriately. The Government control the access to those data through the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and there is a requirement for companies that receive keeper data from the DVLA to be members of an accredited trade association. Incidentally, the fee for access to those data is £2.50. That means that the parking company must abide by the accredited trade association 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 accredited trade association 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 outlining 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 is not permitted on the land.
What does the Minister think about the fact that the terms and conditions can change? I mentioned the ambiguity of three hours of free parking being reduced to an hour and a half on match days, but without match days being specified.
I have not looked at that in any great detail, but from what my hon. Friend says, it seems unreasonable to expect a person to know when it is or is not a match day. It does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility to list days when there will be matches to address that particular situation.
The code 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.
Even though strong requirements are in place to regulate the actions of parking companies, the disclosure of data from the DVLA is tightly controlled. 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. 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, contrary to what one may read in some newspapers.
Inevitably, motorists who feel that they have been unfairly treated will complain. The parking operator needs to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice of its accredited trade association to retain its membership. The ATA exists 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. A company can still manage parking on private land, but if it is no longer a member of the ATA the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency will not provide contact details to enable breaches to be pursued. That has a serious consequence for a company’s survival, and it is an incentive for it to behave responsibly.
The DVLA plays a key role. Where sufficiently serious concerns are raised or ongoing issues are identified, it 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.
We recently announced a new package of changes to help tackle over-zealous parking enforcement. The changes are designed to help local shops, and they include the introduction of grace periods. As we have heard, drivers will get a 10-minute grace period where they have legitimately parked on the street or in council-owned car parks. That will prevent penalties for being just a few minutes late back to the vehicle. We have also introduced a new right to enable residents and local businesses to demand that their council reviews parking in their area.
Off-street parking has many synergies with policy about car park charges, land-use planning and high streets, so we have decided to transfer responsibility for all off-street parking to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government. That will enable the Government to look more easily at the contribution that public and private off-street parking can make to a place, and how it can support local economic rejuvenation. Communities and Local Government Ministers will now turn their attention to the behaviour of off-street car park operators, and they intend to ensure that unfair and unreasonable behaviour is dealt with in the way that the Government have addressed on-street parking abuses.
I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley to discuss any concerns he has directly with the parking operator, and if he is not satisfied, with the accredited trade association. Providing them with details of any cases in which his constituents have experienced questionable actions or bad behaviour will allow the ATA to investigate and to take the necessary action.
Question put and agreed to.