I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Parking is an indispensable part of motoring. If you arrive by a car, you need to park it. Our high streets, in-town businesses, many other facilities and even some housing units are all only reachable, useable or viable through the use of local parking facilities.
According to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, there are 38 million vehicles on our roads. Of those, probably some 19 million—about half—will drive and then undertake at least one parking transaction each and every day. The number of tickets issued every year from private car parks is near to 5 million, so it is clear that the majority of vehicle owners do not have an issue involving parking fines.
However, it is important that those parking on private land who receive a private parking notice are treated fairly and consistently. Motorists should have the certainty that when they enter a car park on private land, they are entering into a contract that is reasonable, transparent and involves a consistent process. Poor signage, unreasonable terms, exorbitant fines, aggressive demands for payment and an opaque appeals process, together with some motorists being hit with a fine for just driving in and out of a car park without stopping, have no place in 21st-century Britain.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. We usually co-operate musically, rather than politically, but in this case I am happy to co-sponsor his Bill. Does he agree that the statutory code of practice he proposes ought to take into account the poor response by parking companies to inquiries from our constituents and from us as MPs? I wrote to New Generation Parking Management in September last year about my constituent Ann Martin-Jones and had no reply. I wrote again in January this year and had no reply whatsoever from that company. Does that not show that some of the companies in this industry are cowboy companies?
It is only common courtesy in business to respond to correspondence. I expect the code of practice to have a requirement that where someone challenges a parking notice, whether it be the car owner, the car owner’s solicitor or the car owner’s MP, the parking company is obliged to respond, and within a reasonable time—I would say 14 days.
I thank my right hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Does he agree that these parking companies often indulge in what I term confusion marketing in the car parks they manage? There are signs that say different times and days, and when Members of Parliament point out these quite fundamental problems in their systems, the companies often write off the fine but do not rectify the original problem.
I completely support the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill. I will make my own speech, but I wonder if he will add to his list of unreasonable circumstances the repeated issuing of fines to individuals parking in their own parking space outside their property, which has affected me and many of the residents in the block where I live in Cardiff.
I certainly would condemn that, and I will share an example with the House shortly of a similar case that I regard as outrageous.
Today, we have the opportunity to tackle this issue. I know that the worst abuses feature in the emails and postbags of all Members of Parliament. Not only my constituents in East Yorkshire but motorists right across the country are angry and calling for action.
One such motorist is Mr O’Keefe. He was driving in a private industrial estate, searching for a particular outlet that he was having difficulty finding, when he stopped in an empty lay-by for 15 seconds to check his satellite navigation settings. It transpired that he was caught by a passing security van equipped with a camera, and a week later he received a ticket for £100 for stopping in breach of a sign situated further back on the road that he had passed at 30 mph. The parking company agrees with his version of events—it accepts that he was stationary for only about 15 seconds—but when he made a complaint and then appealed to the Independent Appeals Service, he was fobbed off in both cases and he continues to receive threatening letters.
Even homeowners have been hit, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said in his intervention. A case was brought to my attention concerning residents in a Salford block of flats to whom over 200 tickets were issued for parking in their own car park in just one month. They were given a day’s notice to display a newly designed permit by the management firm, which posted warning letters and the new permits through residents’ letter boxes only one working day before it enforced the new regime. Some of the residents were away on holiday and others did not receive the new parking permit, but they found that their vehicles, parked in their own dedicated spots, had a penalty of £100 stuck to the windscreen. At least one resident who had been away on holiday came back to find tickets to the value of £2,000 on his car. The dispute is ongoing.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the acronym PCN is very confusing for people in relation to parking? It is used as a penalty charge notice when issued by civil authorities, but as a parking charge notice when issued by private companies. The terms are very similar, but very different sets of rule and regulations govern those two separate types of penalty.
I agree. When we are dealing with private land, such notices should be called private parking notices. The code of practice, if the Bill goes ahead, should contain requirements about what is in the parking notice so that it cannot mimic a police ticket or a court document, and cannot use unnecessary threatening language. My hon. Friend makes a good point.
The case has been drawn to my attention of 69-year-old Angela. Her car was ticketed for £70 for exceeding the time permitted in a supermarket car park. Angela is 5 feet tall, and the small signs were mounted so high up that initially she did not even see them. When she returned to discover the ticket, she looked for signage and eventually saw a sign. It was secured, if that is the word, with pieces of baler twine. Even after staring at it to try to read it, she could not read the wording as the text was so small and too far away.
In another part of the country, a pensioner mis-keyed her number plate into an automatic machine when paying for her parking, getting one digit wrong. On returning to her car, she discovered that the innocent mistake had resulted in a ticket. On appeal, she was able to point out that it was an honest mistake and, indeed, that no other car on the DVLA database had that registration number, but the parking company still demanded payment.
My right hon. Friend is setting out some very bad examples of behaviour by some of these companies, but does he accept that there are some good examples? I can point to one that happened to me last week. I arrived back at my car at York station, where I had left it all week, to find a ticket on my windscreen, and realised that I had forgotten to pay, but a note on the ticket simply said, “Did you forget?” The company did not charge me because I am a regular customer of the car park.
I think “Lucky” is my hon. Friend’s middle name. The cases I have itemised and that my hon. Friends have drawn to the attention of the House have one thing in common. They show a lack of fairness and a sense of injustice in how the motorists were treated, yet they are just a few examples of what is happening across the UK under the present advisory code regimes. I am sure that many Members will have other examples to raise, if they catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with my frustration—I have had lots of cases in Worthing—that people legitimately try to pay at the machines and the machines do not work? They try and ring a number, and that does not work and it is so complicated. Or they have to download an app. The average resident of Worthing does not have apps. If the equipment does not work, there should be no basis on which the charge should go through. Does he agree that there should be a system like that?
If there are a number of payment machines and one of them is not working, that is not an excuse, but if there is only one machine or all the machines are out of order, that ought to be a perfect defence. The company operating the car park has in effect invited the motorist on to the car park to park the car on payment of a fee, and if it is not going to facilitate payment, it should not be able to extract a penalty. Rip-offs from car park cowboys must stop. Most parking operators have nothing to fear from the Bill, but we must stop unscrupulous operators who are undermining the whole sector with their bad practices.
The proposals in the Bill form a framework for action. If it is approved, it will require the Government to create a new mandatory code of practice across the private parking sector, which will end inconsistent practices and unfair treatment of British motorists. It will ensure that the terms under which private parking is provided, including the rights and obligations of each party, are fair, clear and unambiguous.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. In 2011, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill entitled the Consumer Protection (Private Car Parks) Bill. Alas, I was not successful on that occasion. There have been years of abuse by rogue parking companies, and I wish his Bill every success. Has he had any indication that the Government will be supporting it?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. We can all agree that action is overdue on this.
The changes in the Bill will reassure drivers that private car park operators will in future treat them in a fair and proportionate manner. If they do not—here I answer a point raised earlier—drivers will have access to a robust, transparent and independent appeals service. The erring car park operators will risk being put out of business by being denied access to the DVLA keeper records.
Several stakeholders have shown their support for the Bill. I have been working with a number of motoring groups including the RAC, and I am pleased to say that I have indeed had an indication of support from the Government today, as well as from the official Opposition and the Scottish National party, for which I am very grateful.
As I have said, almost 19 million journeys every day end at a parking space, so this issue affects all voters, regardless of geographic region, class or age. If you have a car, you will benefit from the Bill, and Members who support me today will be supporting the British motorist. Parliament now has a real chance to make parking fairer for both consumers and businesses.
On the point about fairness, one of my constituents recently raised with me the question of the telephone numbers that some of these companies provide, and the lack of transparency for people who try to find out why they have been charged. Does the Bill cover that?
The Bill provides the framework for the introduction of a fair code. In my discussions with the Minister, for which I am obliged to him, he has indicated that he expects signage to play a part in the code. The code should set out that signage must be adequate and must provide details of how to contact a company to make a complaint or dispute a ticket, as well as details of how to activate an independent appeals process.
Today gives us an opportunity to introduce fair play all round to an industry whose reputation has been besmirched by a few car park cowboys. I hope that the House will agree that it is an opportunity that should be grasped.
I rise to support this Bill wholeheartedly, because it deals with an issue that hugely affects my constituency. I have come across examples of all the problems that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) has mentioned. It is a particular challenge in my area of Cardiff—I know that it is also a problem in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—because of the density of accommodation in the Cardiff bay area. In Butetown and Grangetown, we have a lot of high-rise apartment blocks; I think there are about 15,000 such units in the bay area. With that come pressures on parking and lots of private parking facilities.
Everybody agrees that we want to prevent people from misusing other people’s parking spaces. People who come to enjoy the Wales Millennium Centre or other entertainments in Cardiff bay need to be able to use the public parking lots in the area, so that they do not block up residential areas. On the other hand, when rogue parking companies are doing all the things that the right hon. Gentleman has set out, it is clear that there is a fundamental problem that we need to address.
I will remark briefly on a couple of issues; I am keen for us to get on to the third private Member’s Bill, which concerns the taxi trade. I want to point out several companies with which I have had particular problems, and against which I have had to advocate on behalf of constituents: Link Parking, New Generation Parking, UK Parking Control and ParkingEye. I also want to highlight the firms of solicitors that work with those companies. We might refer to such firms as “roboclaims” firms, and they often have a close and cosy relationship with the parking companies.
I have experienced on many occasions exactly the frustration that my hon. Friend describes. My constituents and I have tried to contact the company by phone, in writing and via email. We have succeeded in getting several cases overturned, but it is absurd that someone should have to go to their Member of Parliament to overturn a parking ticket that has been issued in very unreasonable circumstances. Our constituents should be able to resolve such things easily with the companies concerned, rather than getting into the chain of events that many people find themselves in.
In some cases, information has been wrongly obtained from the DVLA and documents have been sent to the wrong address or to an old address. People are then served with a series of demands, solicitors’ letters and bailiffs’ letters. I regret to say that many of my constituents have ended up with county court judgments, which do huge damage to their credit rating and their ability to get mortgages. Some people have even ended up on “Can’t Pay? We’ll take it away!” over a tiny parking fine, which may even have been for parking in their own parking space. That simply cannot be right.
Gladstones Solicitors of Knutsford is involved in many such cases—to be clear, I am talking about the firm in Knutsford; there are other firms of solicitors that use the same name—as is BW Legal. I have been involved in a lengthy case concerning a constituent. This week, I raised concerns about such firms with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and I am hopeful that it will take a close look at the matter and consider whether the firms are complying with the regulatory environment for solicitors, and with best practice.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that public authorities have a responsibility not to engage private parking companies that act irresponsibly? In my constituency, I have had dozens of complaints about ParkingEye, which is engaged by a local hospital —very unusually for Wales—to undertake their paid car parking.
I completely agree; I have had problems with ParkingEye too. This is not just about public authorities, but freeholders of large blocks of apartments, lettings companies, and those doing short lets—all the people who are involved in letting out, for long or short periods, properties with parking spaces attached. They must make sure that they do not do so, for example, one day before a change of parking arrangements and they must also make sure that a person who changes their car can easily get a new permit and not run the risk of getting a massive fine while they are waiting for their new car to be registered. The process for motorists should be simple and straightforward.
I want to deal with one more area, because it relates to the next Bill that will be debated today. I have seen harassment of taxi drivers in my constituency, for example, when they operate around some major retail areas and are waiting to pick up elderly or vulnerable customers, who want to get back home with their shopping from places such as Asda in Cardiff bay. The drivers suddenly find themselves caught with massive fines for driving in and out of a car park—this has happened on a number of occasions—to pick up people doing their shopping. Sometimes they have been harassed by staff who are employed by these companies. A number of drivers have come to me with video evidence of harassment from staff involved with these rogue parking companies.
Fundamentally, this comes down to common sense, justice and reasonableness. When things end up in court, it is an absurd situation. Roboclaims companies, which are making a massive mint off this industry, can issue a summons for just £30, and yet a defendant can sometimes have to pay as much as eight times that to defend the case, as well as having to deal with the time, emotion and everything that comes with that process.
I wholeheartedly support the Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire and very much hope it gets Royal Assent. We need to crack down on these rogue companies. They are an absolute disgrace to this country. Ordinary motorists and ordinary residents should not have to put up with it, and I wholeheartedly support the Bill.
I am delighted to support the Bill and thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) for his work over a long period to make progress on this matter. I also associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I recognise a lot of the incidents that he discussed.
As a number of Members wish to speak, I will cut short a lot of my remarks, which essentially endorse the Bill, and come on to a couple of extra points that I really want to make. I completely support the Bill’s objectives. I spoke to my local citizens advice bureau yesterday and asked about the levels we are seeing in south Gloucestershire. It said that in the last couple of months, 29 people have received advice from the CAB about private parking enforcement notices. Clearly, incidents and the amount of ticketing are rising, so I completely support the Bill. I will make a couple of points and perhaps suggestions about how we could alter the Bill in its next stage.
The Automobile Association has probably been in touch with a lot of hon. Members about parking hotspots. Essentially, hotspots are covered up or hidden because of access to location data. When councils enforce parking restrictions, they are obliged to detail, by location, how many PCNs have been issued and how much money has been raised, but private parking operators are not. That means that problem locations, where parking charges are issued essentially too liberally, remain hidden.
My hon. Friend is right as far as the present situation is concerned, but if the Bill proceeds, I anticipate that the new mandatory code of practice would require transparency of data. I hope that the Minister will commit to ensuring that information about the number of tickets issued per car park will be in the public domain.
I completely endorse what my right hon. Friend said and hope that the Minister will give that assurance. As has been discussed, parking hotspots can be due to poor signage, unclear signage, poor markings on the floor and even, in some cases, signs that are deliberately designed to mislead the person who is parking and catch out motorists. I am not saying that that is happening in all cases, but it clearly is in some.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the provision of confusing signs, along with the confusion over PCNs and the machinery that people have to use to get their tickets, is often deliberate, with the intention of levying fines rather than ordinary parking charges?
It is important for us to address that during the Bill’s passage. Parking hotspots in private locations continue to trap innocent drivers month in month out, year in year out, and because the information is not released, there is little pressure or incentive for layouts to be improved in order to prevent drivers from making the same mistakes. I support the AA’s recommendation that when a private parking company requests a person’s data from the DVLA, it should be required to give either the postcode or the location where the driver was caught, so that the number of parking charges issued per location could be recorded and published by the DVLA. I understand that it would be quite a simple change, and that the information could be added to the V888/3 form that private parking operators have to fill in. I hope that that can be incorporated in either the guidance or the Bill.
I also want to make a point about cost. According to a report published by the Transport Committee report in 2014, which I understand is still accurate, the DVLA charges £2.50 to process each request for information, but the processing costs the DVLA £2.84 per application, which means a deficit of 34p. We are effectively subsidising the private companies that are making the applications, and that surely cannot be right. I hope that we would make the charge the same as the cost, but, if not, we would surely charge slightly more rather than slightly less. The DVLA is having to cover a shortfall of £700,000 a year, which is 0.1% of its total operating costs.
I know that a number of other Members wish to speak. Let me end by saying that this is a positive Bill. I hope we shall be able to address a couple of the points that I have made as it progresses, and that the Minister will give some assurances about the guidance, but I think that it will promote confidence in private operators by creating what will be a set of recognised standards. It is endorsed by the chief executive of the British Parking Association and the director of the RAC Foundation. I commend my hon. Friend for introducing it, and I will support it.
I wholeheartedly congratulate the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), my partner in crimes against music. I see that the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is present as well. I was wondering what song we might be able to cover to celebrate the Second Reading of the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill, and I thought that perhaps it would be the Beatles classic “Drive My Car”—“Baby, you can park my car”.
I think all this just goes to show how much in harmony the members of MP4 are on these issues.
This is a particularly useful Bill, which I strongly support. I believe that it is absolutely necessary. Private parking companies have become a curse in so many of our communities, and they are out of control in so many areas. They are a blight on communities, harassing motorists and driving tourists away from many towns and city centres. The city of Perth is plagued by these cowboys. I have received more complaints about one car park in Kinnoull Street than about any other issue in my constituency. That car park is operated by the John Wayne of all the cowboys, the appalling and loathed Smart Parking, a company that blights communities throughout Scotland, including Inverness, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). It distributes fines like confetti, and its so-called smart technology seems almost designed to frustrate motorists and harvest fines from them.
Another company in my constituency, UKPCS in St Catherine’s Retail Park in Perth, has even managed to outdo Smart Parking. One part of this free car park is ringed with signs saying that anybody who parks there who has the temerity to leave that zone and access facilities in other parts of the retail park will be fined up to £100, and people’s privacy is being invaded by car park attendants taking photographs of unsuspecting customers to prove this crime. This is the level of harassment our constituents are now having to put up with on a daily basis at the hands of these cowboys, and it has to come to an end.
The sheer scale of their preying on our constituents is almost industrial in its operation and organisation. A private parking ticket is now being issued every 4.5 seconds, the equivalent of 13 per minute. The RAC estimates that the total value of illegitimate parking tickets issued by private companies in a single year could be as much as £100 million. These parking cowboys know they are on to a good thing, and they know what to do now is build parking ticket charges into their business models in order to increase their profits at the expense of our constituents. This Bill will hopefully signal the beginning of the end of the parking cowboys.
Self-regulation has obviously failed dramatically. The British Parking Association is as much use as a multi-storey car park in the middle of Gobi desert. The parking cowboys hide behind BPA membership to give a veneer of legitimacy. Every time I take up issues with Smart Parking, it just comes back to me and says, “We’re members of the BPA so it should be all right.”
What do our constituents think? Some 93% of participants in an RAC survey think a Bill aimed at tackling the issue is a good idea, so the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire is on to something here; 84% want fines to be proportionate to the contravention; 74% want fines capped; and 81% of motorists want a national standard on signs. The good news for the right hon. Gentleman is that 78% want a parking regulator that enforces good practice.
We have heard some of the things that should be included; I will make a couple of pitches, and I hope to serve on the Bill Committee to pursue them. When people receive PCNs, their rights should be included on them. Too often the parking cowboys dress them up as fines; they are not fines. They are not even effectively legally enforceable; what they are is a statement to say that the recipient has somehow breached the terms and conditions of using that private land, and if the parking company were to pursue them, it would have to go to the civil court and prove that they broke those terms and conditions.
I make a plea, too, on the use of debt collection agencies, which has to end. They are grossly invasive, threatening and meant to intimidate people into paying. I have seen some appalling examples of the use of debt collection agencies and how they increase the intensity of their threats and intimidation. I have had constituents who have had 10 threatening letters, which increase to the point where I almost think they are going to be taken out and shot at dawn, such is the level of their threats.
The National Motorists Action Group has also found an unsavoury profitable collusion between private parking companies and debt collection agencies. It is right that PPCs should expect settlement and that they write letters, but local authorities do not use private collection agencies, so if it is good enough for the statutory sector it should be good enough for the private sector, too.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) about DVLA access. I believe parking operators should have to prove they are entitled to get DVLA access. I know that is not being considered, but I would like it to be. Parking operators should meet a test to show they are a responsible parking operator in order to get DVLA access, but if there are any examples of bad practice, DVLA access must be removed. I like the AA’s suggestions and ideas about monitoring hotspots through postcodes, and if something peculiar and particular is going on, as in Perth, the private operator has an obligation to resolve it and, if it is not resolved to our satisfaction, they lose access to the DVLA. That is a straightforward suggestion.
I am also grateful that this will cover the whole of the United Kingdom, so that areas like mine are covered. My constituency has been particularly blighted by the parking cowboys and hopefully this will mark the beginning of their twilight months.
In my experience, people are happy to pay for their parking, and an arrangement that ensures that parking on private land is properly charged and any transgressions are proportionately tackled is the way forward. Surely it is not beyond our wit to design such an arrangement.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). As a touring actor for 45 years, I picked up tickets all over the country, including in his area. It is my pleasure to support the Bill proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). His proposal for a code of practice sets exactly the right tone. No one is seeking over-intrusive regulation of the private parking market, because there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it if it is run properly and with oversight and consideration. Private parking is a legitimate industry that is vital to economic activity in some areas, and overregulation would put a burden on local authorities, and therefore on the taxpayer, if they had to administer and maintain all the car parks themselves.
However, a code of practice is necessary to inform correct behaviour, as for all public amenities. Without such codes, poor practice grows. I have seen this in my own constituency. My experience in Clacton is with a firm called Smart Parking. It advertised free parking in a very pronounced way on a very big sign. Far less prominent was the request to enter a plate number and to take a ticket. That was required even though the parking in that car park in Ravensdale was supposedly free. The widespread view was that a large “free parking” sign meant just that, so people just parked their cars and went about their business, only to have a hefty fine levied on them because they had missed the deliberately small print.
In my view, that is an outrageous scam, and it is still going on. It enables Smart Parking to issue tickets and therefore collect fines. It would appear that the company is not interested in levying ordinary parking charges. Instead, it raises money through levying these very expensive fines—a legal if dodgy practice. It was totally legal, for instance, that a 70-year-old lady visiting a friend at the Abbey nursing home round the corner from the Ravensdale car park for 45 minutes was later sent a fine in the post, despite the fact that a notice advertising one hour’s free parking was displayed in the car park. I am informed that since Smart Parking took over the site in Clacton, about 400 unfair parking tickets have been issued, and given the local demographics, these have probably been issued predominantly to elderly, and therefore potentially vulnerable, people. Of those, 250 are being pursued by a company called Debt Recovery Plus, one of the debt recovery schemes that we heard about earlier.
Clause 6 of the Bill covers the delegation of functions, and would give the Secretary of State the power to
“enter into an agreement with another public authority authorising the authority to perform any of the functions listed in subsection (2).”
In my mind, that means local councils are in the best place to lead the charge. After all, councils already administer their own municipal car parks, and are experienced in having to balance the needs of the local community, including those of small businesses, parents on the school run and so on. They have the bedrock of skill, experience and local knowledge that can really help to tackle some of the outrageous abuses that we are seeing.
The extant regulation is insufficient. Smart Parking claims that it is fully compliant with British Parking Association guidance, and it is. However, that still allows it to issue hundreds of fines that are legal but totally disingenuous and unjust. That is why I support my right hon. Friend’s Bill. It is unjust that we allow signage that is legally compliant but blatantly results in hundreds of parkers ending up under a misapprehension that causes them to receive fines, as is happening in the Ravensdale car park, off North Road in Great Clacton. When hundreds of people are fined due to the same mass confusion, the system is failing. We in this House need to fix this, just as we once did with unscrupulous clampers.
Having two different accredited trade associations with differing codes of practice creates inconsistency and confusion in the market. We need universal standards that can be understood across the country. For example, there could be a universal standard providing parkers with a five-minute grace period in which to decide whether to buy a ticket or not, having read the signs. They should be able to leave the site with impunity if they decide not to proceed. Sadly, I know of cases of people who have merely driven into a car park then turned round and left, not knowing that an automatic number plate reader had recorded their visit and started the process of issuing a fine.
Let us be clear that the issue is getting worse. As it currently stands, private parking operators seek car keeper details from the DVLA to follow up unpaid charges. Research from the RAC Foundation suggests there was a 28% rise in requests for keeper details in 2016-17 alone, which means private car parking companies are ticketing drivers once every seven seconds—that figure conflicts with an earlier statement. There are an awful lot of parking tickets, anyway.
I urge Ministers to consider how we can bring to bear the core pillars of localism and use this Bill further to empower councils—in line with a code from the Secretary of State, as suggested in the Bill—to root out some of these unscrupulous practices that damage good local parking and, therefore, the economic and tourism prospects of towns across the country.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on introducing this much-needed Bill, which I am pleased to support on behalf of the Opposition.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, everybody knows a victim or has been a victim themselves of these parking companies. Two weeks ago I met Resolver, which helps people to resolve their consumer complaints. Resolver also campaigns to raise awareness of consumer rights in relation to private parking, and it told me that the number of complaints it receives about private parking nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017—from 1,865 in 2016 to 3,522 in 2017.
We all accept that parking operators are entitled to protect vehicle access to private land and to protect people with a rightful reason to be on that land. The problem is how some of those companies go about it, with their often indiscriminate and excessive enforcement. I have received the example of someone who parked in a car park and unfortunately died while they were out shopping. They received a parking charge because, obviously, they had not thought to remove their car, and their relations were chased by a parking company for the parking fine. The case caused considerable distress. Only two things used to be certain: death and taxes. Now it is death and parking fines, apparently.
Resolver has a lot of in-depth statistics showing that the main complaints arise where firms unfairly apply charges in contravention of their own rules, with 625 complaints; where the recipient has left the car park within the allotted time limit and is still fined, with 286 complaints; and where the signage is unclear, obscure or behind a tree, with 198 complaints.
Resolver also says there are too many barriers to getting in touch with these parking companies, as we heard from my hon. Friend. The companies only accept complaints in writing. They do not accept emails or telephone calls, and they do not answer the complaints in writing. They say that they have never received the complaints. It is far too difficult.
As we have also heard, the most common misunderstanding is that people think the charges are actually fines. The invoices look like penalty charge notices. The invoices have black and yellow on them, and they try to mirror penalty charge notices in every possible way. They try to blur the rules between public and private car parks. Many people are intimidated into paying the tickets even when they do not think the tickets are fair, not least, as we have heard from my hon. Friend and from the hon. Members for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), because the companies use debt recovery agents and solicitors. They try to get the parking fines paid by any means possible.
I have heard of inaccurate threats to use bailiffs, outside the court system, to repossess cars. It is vital that the code of practice outlaws such dodgy practices. I agree with the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) about the honeypot car parks that catch drivers repeatedly, sometimes because the signs are not illuminated in the dark, and sometimes because the signs are not visible at all. As the AA says, the postcodes of all the parking fines that are issued should be submitted. If there are these honeypot car parks, they should be looked at.
The statistic that got to me was the fact that 5 million vehicle keeper records have been requested by private parking operators from the DVLA—5 million people have been issued with these fines. That is an incredible number, and this is the time to bring forward some justice for the motorist. The parking companies should not all be lumped together, as there are some that follow the law. However, the bad practices of many parking companies colour people’s view of all parking companies, and it is time for us to take this Bill forward. I look forward to it going through Committee and receiving Royal Assent.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on introducing this Bill and on his very lucid ConservativeHome article, which was published yesterday and which I read with interest. I rise to support the Bill and welcome the cross-support it has already garnered, and I hope the Minister will be supportive, too.
People contacting me to ask for support in appealing car parking tickets and for help with queries with private car parking firms form an increasingly large part of my parliamentary postbag, so I very much welcome this timely Bill. I am delighted that it has received industry support, including from the RAC and the British Parking Association. I am particularly delighted that my right hon. Friend has committed to a wide-ranging consultation in clause 2(1), which I understand covers the operators, managers, providers and users of car parks—and, indeed, anybody else considered to be a stakeholder by the Secretary of State.
I very much welcome the creation of a new code of conduct, which I hope will incorporate the best parts of the two existing codes of conduct, but I also encourage members of the public to respond to the consultation, because this appears at a timely moment in the development of vehicle technology. As the fourth industrial revolution accelerates and new technologies mean self-driving vehicles —autonomous vehicles—becoming an increasingly large part of our personal and commercial lives, the truth is that parking and its regulation should be reviewed and updated, so that this country is ahead of the times, not behind the curve. We need to make sure that the technology that is transforming our economy is incorporated into our law. Therefore, I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s Bill.
As a Conservative, I believe in a smaller, smarter state, rather than big government, but there is a role for the state to play in the regulation of parking. My right hon. Friend’s Bill strikes the right balance between transparency, consistency and protecting consumers. Many Members will be aware of his campaign jingle during the election, where he promised “accountability with Conservative delivery”. I commend him for his Bill, which delivers both. I am happy to speak in favour of it, and I hope the House will give it a Second Reading.
I am delighted to support this Bill and, in turn, support the long list of constituents who have come to my surgeries to discuss private car parks. It is time we addressed these issues, and I am confident that this Bill will do so, by introducing a statutory code of practice. I echo the sentiment of Andrew Pester, the chief executive of the British Parking Association, who says that a single code
“is important to ensure that unscrupulous providers don’t undermine the parking sector with bad practice.”
This problem is not just isolated to Wiltshire; nearly 10,000 people approached Citizen’s Advice for advice on this issue last year alone. The problem is getting worse, which makes this Bill particularly pertinent. Parking firms are issuing almost 13 times more tickets than they were a decade ago. A major issue is rogue private parking operators—I am sure we all have those in our constituencies. This Bill will tackle them by creating clarity and consistency across the sector and—pardon the pun—driving up standards. The current system is rather fragmented. It is important to note that both accredited trade associations have their own code of conduct, which means there is a complete lack of consistency. This Bill will rectify that.
One area I would like to see further action on, which other hon. Members have mentioned, is the issue of parking fine hotspots—I, too, support the AA’s campaign on that. About 70% of the constituency parking charge cases I deal with come from the elderly, and the problem is usually with a lack of signage, unclear instructions or a very small font—the lighting or technology is not user-friendly and so they cannot work out where to park.
Although the code will address those issues to an extent, it is only right that private operators are bound by the same level of transparency adhered to by local authorities. Councils are currently obliged to detail by location how many PCNs have been issued and how much money has been raised; private parking operators are not. That needs to change, so that hotspots can be reasonably identified and the reasons assessed. I hope that the Minister will consider that. The new code will raise industry standards and provide consistency and the assurance that consumers and our constituents need.
I was going to regale the House with a whole litany of complaints, but everyone will be happy that I am not going to do that because Members from all parties have shown their unanimity on this issue. There is unanimous support for the Bill, and I completely concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight).
Much of my postbag and email inbox is taken up by correspondence on this issue, about which more than 10,000 people a year now seek advice and guidance from Citizens Advice. Enough is enough. Firmer regulation is long overdue. The technology is often a problem for the more elderly people in my constituency, along with issues such as eyesight, signage and access to telephone numbers.
There is a clear case for a unified code of practice being really useful. Currently, any given parking operator could be regulated by either the British Parking Association or the International Parking Community, each of which imposes separate and different codes of conduct on its members, so a degree of digging is involved just for a resident to find out to what rules the company they have a dispute with is bound, let alone for them to find out how to hold the company to account.
A unified set of standards will make it much easier for ordinary citizens to learn their rights and take action against unscrupulous parking operators, by making the information easy to find and universally acceptable. That will make it faster and simpler for the likes of Citizens Advice and the staff in our offices to help people who approach us about parking issues, and I hope that it will also allow more people to find out on their own what they need to know.
Although failure to meet the new code of conduct will not be a criminal offence, the Bill will ensure that such a failure may lead to a parking operator being refused access to DVLA data. I hope that will effectively put such an operator out of business in that respect. I strongly support the Bill and am very pleased that it will hopefully be given its Second Reading.
Given the time, I shall keep my remarks brief to allow for discussion of the next Bill on the Order Paper. I very much welcome this Bill, which follows on from a debate I secured last year in which many right hon. and hon. Members recounted various issues in their constituencies.
In my constituency, I have two parking companies: Premier Parking Solutions of Newton Abbot and Premier Park Ltd of Exeter. They are responsible for the management of one privately owned car park each, yet each of those car parks generates more complaints about enforcement practices than the entirety of Torbay Council’s enforcement operations, which include 39 car parks and all on-street car parking. Various interesting practices and excuses are used for things such as why a barrier cannot be put in place so that people know, before they leave, that they have not paid, and can avoid getting one of these fake fines in the post. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said, they are made to look like fines, but they are not—they are invoices.
When I secured my debate last year, one of the companies pleaded with me not to name them as part of a cowboy industry, saying, “We haven’t had any complaints over the past month or two,” and I said, “Yeah, that’s because you had a massive fire in your car park and it’s been closed for the past couple of months, so you haven’t been trapping people.” Companies in this industry are like bloodsuckers in many cases. The reality is that the current system of regulation is absolutely hopeless. It is like putting Dracula in charge down at the blood bank. There are two different sets of regulations and companies can choose which they use, so there is an incentive to dismiss as many appeals as possible. To be fair, I do not want to impugn either set of regulations, but it is clear that the system does not have any rigour or structure and it desperately needs to change.
Contrast that system with the one governing the solicitors these companies use. We can complain to the Solicitors Regulation Authority—at least we know who is responsible. The same cannot be said in this instance. The Bill is therefore welcome and long overdue. My constituents and I fully support it. I hope it gets its Second Reading quickly so that we can get on with the task.
It is fundamentally wrong that details given to the state—details that we are required to give to the DVLA in order to register our cars by law—are then used to allow the industry to practise in this way. Most examples come from remote enforcement. It is the DVLA that needs to be the focus, and not how much is charged in a car park or the choices that people make. We should focus on the relationship whereby we have given information to the state only for it to be passed on to a company to behave in this manner. That is why the law needs to change and why this Bill is so welcome.
Although the vast majority of privately owned car parks treat their customers with respect, there are still far too many rogue operators. As Members are aware, a common scenario is that people park their car, pay for a ticket and leave without giving it a second thought, but receive a parking ticket in the post some days later demanding an up-front payment within a specified timescale. If they do not pay right away, the fine may double—it is pay now or pay more. The difficulty in such a situation is that the onus is on the owner of the car to prove not only that they have paid to park, but that the ticket was displayed appropriately, when the evidence is all with the person trying to impose the charge. These charges are often accompanied by threatening and aggressive letters that, in their own right, cause a great deal of distress to those receiving them. It is understandable why so many people in receipt of such charges feel pressured into paying them straightaway, partly due to the escalating cost.
The Bill is needed because some firms are not playing by the rules and are not being fair to car park users, and there is sometimes not a clear and fair appeals process. Such companies should simply not have privileged access to public and official databases such as those maintained by the DVLA. The only surprise to most of us is that this is not already the case because it seems so blindingly obvious.
The damage caused by these unfair notices is not just to the people receiving the charges; the wider community also suffers. Unfair parking charges and penalties cause a culture of avoidance. People stay away from those car parks and become more fearful of pay and display car parking. This is having an impact on our town centres, as drivers are concerned that a trip to the town centre could result in an arbitrary penalty. We need this Bill to pass not only for the sake of our constituents, who are directly affected, but for the sake of our local economies.
I am aware that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) is poised to introduce his Bill, which addresses an important issue. Also the Minister, to whom I shall shortly be acting as Parliamentary Private Secretary, will be cross with me if I give her cause to have to reduce her no doubt excellent speech by too much. There may even be some colleagues who are in a rush to get home because their own parking ticket expires soon.
As we have heard from colleagues across the House, this is a very good Bill, which I am pleased to support. However, a number of concerns have been raised by other Members that I also want to underline. The fact that private parking companies use the PCN abbreviation as “parking charge notice”—compared with the “penalty charge notice” issued by the police and civil authorities—is wilfully misleading and should be stopped. We should also look at the way in which private parking companies are allowed to design the waterproof wrappers for tickets, the tickets themselves and the language on them. There is a clear attempt to make these tickets look like they have come from the civil authorities or from the police.
In my experience and the experience of many of my constituents, signage in private car parks is inconsistent. At best, that could be down to poor maintenance or a mistake. At worst, it could be argued that the poor signage is again a deliberate act to confuse or deceive.
Another development that I have found unhelpful is car parks where people can park only with an app. Some of these apps are absolutely excellent. It is not the case that people can park in car parks on the Great Western Railway network only by using the APCOA app, although that app is very good; many Members will have had experience of using it. That is not so in other car parks, one of which belongs to a very fine hotel in Bristol that insisted that people used an app to pay for their parking.
Some years earlier, when the company was in a very different guise, I had used an online parking facility with that company and given over my car details. I could no longer remember any of the log-in details, and it turned out that there was no facility for me to reset my membership or to be able to access the app. However, because I had entered the car park, I would be charged, and if I was unable to pay through the app, then I would have to accept the ticket and appeal it. The fact that the company could do that was quite extraordinary, especially as I had entered the car park and incurred the charge before any of this became clear to me. That could have been a unique and extraordinary happening experienced by almost nobody else, but it does perhaps indicate how unregulated and unreasonable the private parking industry can sometimes be.
What underlines all the things we have heard today better than anything else is that in all our experience when dealing with casework, we have heard time and again that when these private parking companies are challenged, they capitulate almost immediately. Very rarely do they stand their ground, and that indicates exactly how thin the ice they are skating on is. I agree with colleagues across the House who have said that access to DVLA data is, very clearly, a privilege for companies that behave correctly and should not be allowed for those who repeatedly behave very badly indeed. I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill.
I have two or three questions for the Minister.
I have already mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) my concern about the DVLA’s inadequate behaviour in this respect. I do not see why the DVLA itself does not stop giving access to its database to rogue parking companies. This Bill proposes to deal with that indirectly through members of parking associations rather than directly with the parking companies concerned.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for correcting me. In that case, may I challenge the Minister to explain why so many of these rogue parking companies are continuing to operate in the disgusting way that we have heard about during this debate?
Will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure, when this Bill goes forward, that we also introduce a provision ensuring that there should be equal treatment of all vehicles in private car parks? In my local authority area of Christchurch there is a lot of resentment about the fact that when, for example, Travellers invade the car park, they are treated with impunity, whereas people who may have just overstayed by 20 minutes find themselves having the book thrown at them. Can we ensure that the Bill is used as a vehicle for getting equal treatment for all motorists who park in private car parks? Will my hon. Friend say when he expects the provisions of this Bill, and the secondary legislation, to be enacted, so that people who are concerned about this issue know the deadline for implementing what we in this House want to do?
If my hon. Friend gives satisfactory answers to those questions, I hope that the Bill can make progress.
Nobody leaves their house because they want to go and do some parking; parking is simply a means to an end, and it should be as easy as possible. The millions of people across the country who use private parking facilities every day deserve a system that is fair, transparent and consistent, but as we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, it is clear that the current private parking system has at times failed each and every one of these tests.
I join hon. Members across the House in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) on bringing the Bill to its Second Reading. It rightly seeks to address an issue that comes up time and again in all our postbags and inboxes. As we have heard, there is currently no standardised, central and independent regulation of private parking operators. Today, there are two different trade associations, each with its own code of practice, and, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) mentioned, the industry is largely self-regulating.
That has led to a range of issues for hard-working constituents doing their best to abide by the rules as they go about their day-to-day business. As we heard, people are being charged unreasonable amounts of money for what are clearly very minor and honest mistakes. My Department has received a case where someone accidentally mistyped their registration number into a parking system, and for the sake of a 50p ticket received a £45 fine in the post—90 times the cost of the original parking ticket.
As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Solihull (Julian Knight) and for Clacton (Giles Watling), also problematic is poor signage. To park in a private car park is essentially to enter into a contract, but signs are often poorly lit and have unreasonably small text, meaning that drivers are completely unaware of the contract they have just entered into. As my hon. Friends the Members for Havant (Alan Mak), for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Wells (James Heappey) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) set out, however, unjustifiable charges and poor signage are not the only problems facing motorists.
I am glad to hear that the Minister supports the Bill. Will he also look closely at the links between one of the so-called trade associations, the International Parking Community, and Gladstones Solicitors, and the listing of all these accredited operators? It is clear from Companies House information that there are clear links between the individual directors of Gladstones and the IPC, which goes under United Trade and Industry Ltd, and that there has been a repeated changing of names and addresses in an attempt to cover up these links.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the alleged conflicts of interest within the industry. That is certainly something that the code should look to improve. On his other point, he is right that the way some operators contact members of the public is deeply worrying, as we have heard, and how they label tickets. We have also heard familiar stories of intimidating letters issued by companies that often falsely give the impression of being from a solicitor. These letters often contain threatening, legalistic language, hide appeals information in the small print and disingenuously push people towards paying unjust fines, unaware of their right to appeal.
The hon. Lady raises the issue of the level of fines, which is also something the code is considering. In theory, there is currently a maximum fine; the job of the new code is to make sure it is properly enforced.
Similarly concerning is the use of county court judgments, as was raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. We are aware of a case in which a private parking operator pursued a ticket against someone who had sold the offending car before the ticket was issued. Inexplicably, the operator decided to obtain a CCJ against the unsuspecting person, which they only discovered when it caused the family’s application for a mortgage to be rejected at the last minute—their chance to buy their dream home ruined by a £40 fine meant for someone else entirely. Such practices are clearly unacceptable and must come to an end.
That brings me to the appeals process itself. As many hon. Members have mentioned when writing to my Department, accessing the appeals process is no guarantee of a fair hearing. In too many cases, appeals seem to simply ignore common sense. In one case, despite the fact that the parking operator had stated that the alleged parking offender was a male, the appeal process upheld the case against a woman.
We would imagine that if the industry had confidence in the tickets they were issuing, they would be willing to defend their decisions at appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells touched on this, and the House may be interested to know that in the year to September last year, for just one of the trade associations’ appeal services, in almost 40% of cases brought to appeal, the parking company immediately caved and cancelled the ticket. That statistic suggests that parking operators are in many cases issuing questionable tickets that they themselves do not even think are worth defending at appeal.
Clearly we must take action to put an end to the indefensible behaviour we have heard described today by Members across the House, and the Bill is an opportunity to do just that. Specifically, it will enable the Government to introduce a new single code of practice to cover the whole industry, which will give drivers the confidence to know that they will be treated in a fair and consistent way.
To respond to the comments from my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) and for Dudley South (Mike Wood), an operator that fails to comply with the code will lose its access to DVLA data. That is a severe penalty, making it effectively impossible to enforce a ticket. Further, if a trade association has been found to be breaching the code of practice, its status as an official trade association will be revoked immediately. Any costs arising from the code, including its enforcement, will be covered by a new levy on the industry, which the Bill also provides for.
The Government have started to develop the new code in partnership with stakeholders, and I welcome the fact that the director of the RAC Foundation, Steve Gooding, is chairing an industry advisory panel. I put on record my thanks to him and the other panel members for the work they are doing. I look forward to receiving their latest submission.
I thank all hon. Members who have participated today for highlighting the clear need to improve standards and regulation in this industry. I am sure that my officials have been taking close note of all the examples raised, which will go into developing the code, the principles of which we hope to publish at the same time as the Bill’s Committee stage.
The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) raised the issue of disclosure. The Government agree that transparency in disclosure is very important and should form part of the Bill. The exact form is still being worked on, with not just car park operators but those involved in the appeals process, and that data should be available for the public and audit authorities to analyse.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire for the time and effort he has put into bringing the Bill to Second Reading. It will pave the way for real reforms that will make a positive difference to people across the country, and I am delighted to speak for the Government in support of his Bill.
With the leave of the House, I would like to thank all Members who have taken part in the debate and expressed their support. I particularly want to thank the Minister for indicating Government support for the Bill, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), and the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). The point raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) about seeing that an appeal process is truly independent will be dealt with in the Bill.
Every Member who contributed to the debate made a valid point. I will not cover them all, but all good points raised can be covered in a robust code of conduct. The Bill may not make finding a parking space any easier, but it will make the whole process fairer, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).