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Private Car Parks

Volume 676: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)

It feels like groundhog day. This debate has been scheduled, I believe, perhaps as many as four times, but events repeatedly knocked it off course. Today, however, we are finally back in the Chamber physically with a full day of debate, and I have the chance to finally bring to the Floor of the House the long and tortuous case of a single parking ticket.

My hon. Friend the Minister need not look panicked that I am expecting him to do something about a specific parking ticket—the matter is now resolved—but I wish to draw to his attention the fact that my constituent, Mr Guy Hindle, was bullied by a succession of organisations over a period of some 20-plus months over a six-minute transgression. As Mr Hindle happily agrees, this is not about his experience. He is a resilient individual—very much so—and he eventually negotiated a payment of just £15, when at one point £247.62 was being demanded from him. It is about shining a light on what he refers to as the sharp practices of the wild west of parking services. It is not just my constituent who refers to private parking as the wild west. He is in great company. I tracked down some commentary from my hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was a Minister at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; he referred to it—private parking, not the Department—as the wild west, too.

This case is a litany of bad behaviour. My constituent parked for a mere six minutes outside Vets for Pets in Southampton and did not see any signage regarding the charge for parking, so he was surprised to receive a penalty charge notice. He informed the company, Premier Park, that he intended to defend himself, preferably in court proceedings, because he regarded the £60 charge for a six-minute stop as unreasonable. He heard nothing more until June the following year—2019—by which time the matter had been passed to Premier Park’s legal representatives. Remember the original offence, if one can call it that, happened in March 2018. Then followed a succession of increasingly threatening letters mentioning county court judgments, and each letter and every telephone call my constituent made to Premier Park or their legal representatives made it clear that there would be many more letters—and so it proved. All along, my constituent was responding, “Take me to court. I have amassed a dossier of evidence. I am prepared to defend myself. I believe I have a good case.”

Finally, in January this year, my constituent received confirmation that Premier Park would commence court proceedings unless my constituent was happy to agree to mediation. This was the first time that mediation had been mentioned. The original offence was in March 2018, and here he was, in January 2020, and suddenly the offer of mediation was made.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing this case to the House. She is not the only one who has had run-ins with private car park firms. Indeed, the one she talks about ranks high in my mind. I fought a number of cases against it, and I have to say that ultimately I won them all. Does she agree that in the times we are facing, the privately run car park sector should show the same flexibility as our council car parks by removing charges and forestalling following through on any contraventions until we are past this very difficult time? Now is not the time for anyone or any private car park to profiteer or take advantage. We have to help our constituents and those individuals who have been held to be in the wrong for these contraventions.

I will make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, I have a most excellent staffer who for the last 10 years has described herself as my office expert on parking charges. She cringes somewhat when into the email inbox pops yet another case, but as I tell her, she has a 100% track record so far and we are very proud of her.

On the points the hon. Gentleman made about private parking charges at the moment, I am conscious that in Test Valley borough, half of which I represent as the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, the borough council waived parking charges right at the beginning of the pandemic and has since extended the free parking period. There are some challenging questions ahead, because as we move forward post pandemic, we want to see our high streets recover and to assist that recovery. I think the Chancellor and the Department have come up with some amazing and really important packages, but I have no doubt that the income from parking that councils have forgone has been a huge cost to them. They will need to find ways to make up that loss, but my plea to them is to show a spirit of tolerance and support for the shopkeepers and to allow our high streets to recover gently from this difficult period. The immediate reimposition of parking charges as lockdown ends would be a retrograde step. I was delighted to see the Minister nodding during that intervention, in which a really important point was made.

As my constituent said to me, had mediation been offered to him early in the proceedings, he would have taken it—it would have been the sensible thing to do. Instead, however, he kept responding to Premier Park, “No. I’ll see you in court.” The company kept responding, “We’ll take you to court,” or rather, “We’ll send you more letters threatening to take you to court. We’ll get increasingly aggressive. The charges will go up and up. We’ll employ a succession of different legal representatives until you don’t know which one you’re trying to deal with.” But two years on, the offer of mediation was made, my constituent accepted it and they settled on a sum of 15 quid, which I do not think is bad going.

What worries my constituent and me is the repeated bullying tactics: the threats of legal action, which are then not followed up for many months—in this case 20 months—the alarming threat of county court judgments, which we know have a devastating impact on people’s credit rating, and the threatening assertion that there will be lots more letters like that one.

I am conscious of the most excellent piece of legislation introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), which came into force in March 2019 and paved the way for a single code of practice for private parking, giving drivers greater protection through a new appeals service. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and occupying a similar portfolio to the Minister, championed the issue on behalf of the Government. This sort of code could have made my constituent’s life much less of a misery.

More recently, back in November 2019 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government appointed the British Standards Institution to work with consumer groups and industry to write the first ever compulsory code of practice for private parking firms to

“restore common sense to the way parking fines are handed out…crack down on dodgy operators”

and

“introduce a new independent appeals service”.

I know that is correct, because I lifted it from the press release I found on gov.uk. The code was also to ensure that a mandatory 10-minute grace period, which already applies to local authority car parks, be extended to all private parking services.

I take my hon. Friend the Minister back to the precise period my constituent parked for: six minutes, which is four minutes less than the minimum grace period suggested. I am prepared to concede that my constituent’s supposed six-minute transgression happened before the excellent private Member’s Bill and before the Secretary of State appointed the British Standards Institution to write the new compulsory code, so maybe it is not reasonable to expect a member of the British Parking Association to apply 2019 standards to a 2018 offence—notwithstanding the fact that it was Premier Park itself that dragged the whole matter out for 20 long months—except that the British Parking Association voluntary code of practice already referenced a 10-minute grace period.

Returning to the crux of the matter, the previous Minister with this responsibility, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), in response to a written question indicated that the British Standards Institution was contracted in December 2019 to develop the new code. It was tasked with convening a group of key stakeholders to write it, and there was to be a full public consultation within six months. The final code would be developed this year.

I do not wish to hassle the Minister and try to hurry the process along, and I absolutely acknowledge that covid has got in the way of many things, but this year is ticking by very quickly. My constituent and, indeed, those of other hon. and right hon. Members who have returned to this Chamber time and again to discuss private parking services need the code. I argue that the parking industry also needs it, and it is more than a year since the excellent private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire.

Will the Minister this evening in this much delayed debate therefore please give us an update on progress and an absolute commitment that, exactly as was said in February, the code will be developed this year and introduced? Will he reassure me and my constituent that the 10-minute grace period or transaction period, which allows a driver to enter a car park, establish the charges and then decide whether he wishes to pay them or whether they are far too high for his taste and he wishes to leave and go elsewhere, will be included? That could have saved my constituent 20 months of harassment and pain.

That grace period should be a crucial part of enabling drivers to make informed choices in future. That is what this is all about: allowing drivers to make informed choices and giving them a bit of leeway so that they can decide whether that is actually where they wish to park. I learned from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire that there might be many good reasons why parking charges are not advertised outside a car park, such as it being in a conservation area where there might be restrictions on signage. We should give drivers the opportunity to go into a car park, have a look and then potentially leave.

I conclude by asking the Minister to make that assurance, to give us an update on when this code is coming and when the public consultation will happen or whether it has already happened and to give us a sense of progress and a sense that this matter is in hand and will be dealt with.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for raising this issue and I congratulate her on securing this much-delayed debate. I also want to thank her and indeed, hon. Members across the House because this is an issue that I receive a lot of representations about on a daily basis. It is something that I am keenly aware needs resolving, and Members across the House are firm in their view that action is necessary on the regulation of the private parking industry.

Too often, our constituents are treated poorly at the hands of parking firms, and I know that many of my constituents in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland feel the same. The clear cross-party support for the Parking (Code Of Practice) Act 2019 was therefore hugely encouraging, and I am pleased that, through the Act the Government are giving motorists greater protection against bogus parking fines and clamping down on rogue operators.

Self-regulation in the private parking sector has led to some undesirable practices, including misleading or confusing signage, aggressive debt collection, spiralling fees and opaque appeals services, and we heard some of that in the case of my right hon. Friend’s constituent, Mr Hindle. Members see in our postbags the effect that these poor practices have on people in our communities. They include the motorist who made a genuine and minor error entering their vehicle registration number into a machine and received £100 fine in the post; the driver who entered a car park on a busy day and could not park due to lack of spaces but got a ticket regardless because the camera assumed they had parked; the car park with signs that are impossible to read, subject to terms and conditions which are difficult to understand or which change without proper notice. Letters from motorists and even from MPs have gone unanswered by parking companies, although it does sound as though the hon. Lady has a staffer who will not be defeated by such tactics.

These practices are unfair and not good enough. The private parking industry plays a crucial role in our transport infrastructure, from facilitating commutes every morning to making our high streets accessible for shoppers and those accessing vital services. It employs thousands of people and serves millions of customers every day in normal times. We understand its importance, and that is why this Government are taking action to crack down on rogue firms, protect motorists and raise standards across the sector. With that in mind, I am pleased to update Members on the progress of our action after the passing of the Parking (Code Of Practice) Act, which was introduced thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), and we are actively delivering on our 2017 manifesto commitment to tackle rogue parking operators.

The Act provided for the creation of an independent code of practice for private parking companies and a one-stop shop for parking appeals, and our new code will ensure that enforcement and appeal processes are fair and proportionate. It will bring consistency, creating a level playing field across the industry, and it will benefit motorists, operators and landowners alike. If a parking company were to repeatedly break the code, its access to DVLA data could be blocked, and this data includes information on the vehicle keeper, so a company blocked from accessing it would be effectively unable to pursue parking charges. Blocking rogue operators in this manner will grant motorists greater protection against companies not delivering the standards that the Government and the public would expect.

We have taken steps to ensure that the code is not only reflective of the issues that we want to address but is informed by outside experts. On 3 November last year, the Government announced that the British Standards Institution would write the code in consultation with consumer and industry groups and carry out a full consultation once the draft was ready. The BSI is widely regarded as expert in regulatory delivery and has a proven track record of working with Government. Developing the code of practice as a British standard is thus a guarantee that the new regulation will be robust and of the highest quality, and the Government’s choice of BSI also delivers on our promise to listen to industry and consumers and involve them in the design of the new regulation. BSI’s process for developing new British standards involves reaching a consensus for a range of key stakeholders and seeking a wide array of views through a full public consultation. That will help to ensure that the code is entirely comprehensive.

I assure my right hon. Friend that, working in conjunction with the BSI, it is a priority to ensure that this code addresses the most significant and recurring issues that consumers deal with.

I welcome what the Minister has outlined for the right hon. Lady. I think it is exactly what we want to hear in this House, but when it comes to monitoring and checking, will the changes in the pipeline be enforced by locals councils, the police or another independent body?

It would not be an Adjournment debate without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. In this case, he raises a really significant point. We need to make sure that these regulations have teeth. The deterrent lies in the fact that repeat offenders will find themselves unable to access the DVLA database and so it will in effect be self-policing.

In November, we announced that the Government would propose that the code considers a mandatory requirement to give all drivers the 10 minute grace period, which my right hon. Friend referred to, after their tickets expire. This will be a common-sense measure to ensure that drivers are not unfairly penalised for trying to do the right thing.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He was very specific then about a 10-minute grace period after a ticket had expired. Will it also include a 10-minute grace period in the circumstance that he himself identified where somebody perhaps drives into a car park and finds that there are no spaces, or that it is too expensive?

I confess that, given the code is in draft, I do not know the answer to that question, but I will write to my right hon. Friend, as she would expect, to clarify. I suspect that it will make good sense for it to do so in practice, but I will not presume to prejudge what the independent regulation may eventually come up with.

I also want to address issues raised about debt collection, because it cannot be fair that a hard-working family is prevented from obtaining a mortgage because a small breach of a car park’s terms and conditions led to a county court judgment that, as my right hon. Friend refers to, can have such serious consequences, especially if it is sent to an old address. I have seen constituency cases of that nature. We are proposing that the code considers new protections for consumers, and looks at extra measures to crack down on intimidating and aggressive debt collection practices. We will also look at the appeals system, because this is a particularly significant issue. There are two appeals services in the private parking sector. Both have their own processes and procedures and different rates at which parking charges are overturned at appeal. Which appeals service a motorist has access to depends not on their choice or the nature of the alleged breach of contract, but simply on which trade association the operator happens to belong to. That cannot be fair and is at odds with natural justice, which is why it is the Government’s stated position that we intend to appoint a single appeals service for the entire industry, giving motorists the ability to challenge unfair charges.

Finally, we are actively exploring ways to combat unfairly issued tickets from automatic number plate recognition technology. There is a widespread sense from motorists that this technology does not function as it should. I have heard of motorists entering and leaving a car park yet still having a ticket issued, and that is obviously a real concern. We want a private parking sector that works fairly in that regard.

Turning to the substantive issue of timing, I am pleased to update the House that work with the BSI commenced in December, and it has now convened a group of key stakeholders to write the code. This group comprises representatives from the parking industry, consumer groups, standards bodies and, recognising the key role that parking plays in supporting our high streets, the retail sector.

I can also update the House that we have appointed Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation, as our technical author, and he has now produced the first draft of the code. The RAC Foundation is a well-respected transport policy and research organisation and Mr Gooding is a former director-general of the Roads Traffic and Local Group at the Department for Transport, so he will bring real knowledge, experience and expertise to bear on his work. This is only a first draft and, as I have said, the final draft will be worked up in close consultation with key stakeholders, and there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone to have their voice heard in this process.

In the context of this debate, I would like to put it on record that the Government are doing all they can to utilise our parking infrastructure to best serve our collective response to the coronavirus. I am sure that the measures that we have announced to support frontline workers and volunteers have been welcomed by both the House and the British public. We are offering free parking for NHS workers, volunteers and social care workers in council-owned on-street spaces and car parks. In conjunction with NHS England, the parking sector and local government, we have produced a free parking pass to allow those workers to park in council spaces, worry free. We have pledged to cover the costs of providing free car parking to NHS staff working in hospitals during this unprecedented time. Our aim is to alleviate any unnecessary pressures on those workers by removing any fears that they may have about fees or fines while they carry out what is by common consent truly heroic work.

As we take the first steps towards recovery, we want to offer alternatives to public transport, but we are of course wary of an increase in the numbers of people taking end-to-end car journeys. To ease parking capacity, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has announced that the Government will seek to repurpose underused parking facilities outside town centres, made possible by close collaboration with local authorities and private operators. Those who live too far from town centres to cycle or walk can therefore park on the outskirts and finish their journeys on foot, bike or even—excitingly—an e-scooter.

Individual businesses are also playing a hugely positive role. Many private operators have been offering parking spaces to NHS workers during the coronavirus crisis. I commend such efforts and reiterate the Government’s appreciation for them.

I recognise the need to progress the new code at pace, and across Government we recognise the urgency of this issue. It is crucial to get the regulations right and, as my right hon. Friend said, the coronavirus situation has had an impact, but we have committed to developing the final code this year. Prior to that, a public consultation will take place to give the parking industry, the public and other interested parties the opportunity to have their say.

The 2019 Act builds on action that the Government have already taken to tackle rogue private parking firms, including the banning of wheel clamping and towing and the stopping of over-zealous parking enforcement by councils and parking wardens. Beyond our work on the private car parking sector, the Government are taking decisive action to improve public and private car parking throughout the country.

The Government are taking determined steps to protect motorists across the country. The Act will tackle an issue that our figures show affects literally millions of motorists every year. We will ensure that the private parking industry works to the high standards that motorists can reasonably expect, and we will tackle the rogue operators and their unfair practices. It will be an industry that will deliver for everybody.

I thank my right hon. Friend again for raising the issue of Mr Hindle, and I put on record my own tribute to Mr Hindle for his persistence in showing a certain British doggedness in refusing to accept a fundamentally unfair situation. I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to update the House on the work that we are doing to improve the sector. I of course look forward to returning to the Dispatch Box to give further updates when the final code is ready.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.