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London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

Read a third time.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. I hope not to detain your Lordships for too long. I need to declare an interest as joint president of London Councils, the representative body of the 33 London borough councils—that is, the 32 boroughs and the City. I am delighted to see in his place my fellow joint president—or co-joint president; I am not sure how to express it—the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, would have been here but he has to be abroad. On this occasion, I am also speaking on behalf of Transport for London, which, with Westminster City Council, is the joint promoter of the Bill. All the 33 authorities have passed the necessary resolutions, and the mayoral consent needed to get to this stage has been given.

The Bill contains a number of important measures for the councils and for Transport for London in their roles as highway, street and traffic authorities. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has made a valuable contribution to the penalty-charge provisions of the Bill from his questioning of that issue.

First, however, I should like to mention one other topic—that is, filming in London. The promoters of the Bill have worked closely with Film London, the capital’s film and media agency funded by the UK Film Council and the London Development Agency, and have come forward with clauses which will enable the London authorities to close streets for the purposes of filming. The provisions take up and modify existing legislation which was originally introduced to enable the Tour de France to take place in England last year. Unfortunately, the provisions were not drafted widely enough to enable closures to take place for filming. Your Lordships will appreciate the importance of the film industry to London and to the country as an income generator. Huge expertise is concentrated here and we have already made films set in the centre of London. It would be nice if the outskirts of London were used a bit more. When I was a member of the London Assembly we looked at the constraints on filming and we heard what a difference a supportive local authority can make. I am delighted this Bill will assist.

The main area of discussion today and the largest part of the Bill is Part 5, the provisions proposed to deal with the problem of those who persistently evade parking and other penalty charges. The problem is serious. There is a hard core of persistent evaders who rack up thousands of pounds-worth of penalty charges which are never paid. They do this in not only the parking regime, but congestion charging, bus lane infringement and other traffic regimes. There is evidence to show that those responsible are quite often involved in criminal activity as well; I have heard tell of that on a number of occasions. I do not understand why some people will fail to pay their car tax, which is quite easily noticed, since being stopped for this apparently leads to their being discovered to be responsible for a whole raft of other crimes—non-driving ones as well—but it seems that there is a mindset about evading every rule rather than being smart about the ones evaded.

Part 5 provides what is, unavoidably, a complex framework for enabling the London authorities to recover outstanding penalty charges. In summary, the authorities would ultimately be able to immobilise and remove offending vehicles to the pound if three or more outstanding penalty charges have been incurred and remain unpaid—“outstanding” is defined in the Bill. Based on the experience of the congestion charging regime, which has similar provisions, the authorities have every reason to believe that it is unlikely that innocent motorists will be caught up in these procedures. However, they recognise that there may be the very occasional case where, through no fault of his own, an owner of a vehicle finds that action has been taken against it under Part 5. The obvious example is where someone buys a vehicle second-hand and charges were incurred by the previous owner. To deal with this, at every stage of the procedure, the authorities have introduced a provision which would entitle the person claiming the release of the impounded vehicle to pay a bond rather than the full amount of the outstanding penalty charges. Those, in extreme cases, could amount to thousands of pounds. The bond would be recoverable by a claimant if, through the representations and appeals provisions in the Bill, he were able to establish that he was not responsible for incurring the penalty charges. While the representations and appeal process is ongoing, he would be able to continue to use the vehicle without fear of it being removed to the pound again, because the authorities will issue a certificate of immunity to be displayed on the dashboard.

Your Lordships will not be surprised that the actual level at which the bond will be set is not set out in the Bill. It will be decided jointly by the London borough councils and Transport for London once the Bill attains Royal Assent. The promoters have assured me that, on introduction of the scheme, the level of the bond will be less than the total cost of three outstanding penalty charges. The view is that the figure will be in the region of £250, an amount which anyone who can afford to drive is likely to be able to access without too much difficulty.

The other issue which has been raised with the promoters by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is the clarity of information given to claimants of vehicles who have discovered that their car has been impounded. In particular, I believe he is understandably concerned about information given about how representations and appeals can be made. I entirely agree with him about the importance of ensuring that people—in this case, drivers—know their rights and are not baffled by legalese.

Where a bond is paid and the vehicle is released the claimant will be entitled to make representations to the authority and subsequently, if necessary, appeal to an independent adjudicator on a number of grounds. For example, this will enable somebody who has bought a vehicle second-hand to allege that it was the person from whom he bought the vehicle who is responsible for the debts. The promoters will take particular care to ensure that the rights to make representations are clearly explained. The wording used on penalty charge notices under the existing regimes was revised recently to give more clarity in this respect. The promoters will ensure that the complex procedure in Part 5 will be set out in a form that can be readily understood by those who fall within its scope.

I hope that will serve to alleviate any concerns about the Bill, particularly those of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and I hope the Bill can be passed this afternoon.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Hamwee.)

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Bill’s promoters and to their advisers for the trouble that they have taken to address the concerns that I had with the Bill, and I am delighted to tell the noble Baroness that they have succeeded in that.

Two things get my goat about traffic enforcement: one is when the regulations are enforced unreasonably and the other is when they are not enforced at all. As far as the unreasonable enforcement is concerned, all the promoters of the Bill are my regular opponents. I chair an organisation called the London Motorists Action Group and we spend a lot of our time trying to deal, for instance, with Camden, which makes a vast surplus—tens of millions of pounds every year—on its traffic enforcement account by being completely unreasonable in the way that it enforces the regulations, and with my own borough of Wandsworth, which chooses to send people round on mopeds on Boxing Day to ticket people who are picking up supplies of groceries from backstreet convenience stores. So I am politically neutral in my targets in this matter: both the former Labour Camden and the present Liberal Camden and the Conservative Wandsworth all reap my ire. Indeed Transport for London, in its former practices in collecting the congestion charge, made the terms so unreasonable to begin with that if you were a minute past midnight in paying your congestion charge you were fined 50 quid, and it has never made it possible to pay by direct debit or any convenient means. I am very hopeful that our new mayor will remedy some of these deficiencies. I believe he has promised to do so.

However, on the subject of this Bill and dealing with people who persistently evade their parking fines, I am entirely at one with all the promoters of the Bill that something effective should be done, and I believe that they have come up with something that is in essence an effective way of doing it. But there are problems with that. If it is just Transport for London chasing people who have three or more outstanding congestion charges, and it takes a car, sticks it in the pound and you turn up there at midnight to deal with it, you have only one organisation—a reasonably efficient organisation—at the back end of that, and you are likely to be able to sort out problems reasonably quickly. But where you have all the London boroughs involved—some whose back offices are in a state of chaos, and where you will find when you are appealing a parking ticket that it suddenly goes live again because of the mistakes made in the back office—and if you travelled round London a good deal and perhaps collected your three tickets from three different authorities, none of which is maintaining a 24-hour helpline and a couple of which may have lost paperwork or take a long time to deal with the outstanding problem, which is typical, it is just not right for a motorist to find that they have been deprived of their car with no easy way of getting it back. They cannot just pay the fines. If you are appealing a fine and you pay it, you lose your right to appeal. So you cannot pay the fines to get your car out of jug. It is quite unreasonable to ask someone who has been wrongly towed to pay the full amount.

I am grateful that the promoters of the Bill have settled on what I consider to be a reasonable amount. It is important that £250 is a figure to which people have ready access, the sort of amount which you would expect them to be able to get on their debit or credit card in a single transaction. It must enable people to get their car out without doing their arguments over the correctness of their parking fines any damage, and for them to have the use of their car while they are pursuing their legal rights. The promoters of the Bill have achieved this, and I am grateful to them for their concessions.

My Lords, it gives me pleasure to follow my co-president of London Councils, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in warmly welcoming the Bill. Those of us who have worked on a Bill of this kind—I have done so only once—can be satisfied that the committee on the Bill did a proper job. It dealt with a topic affecting not only those who drive around and have businesses in London, but every citizen. It is right and proper that the 32 London boroughs, and others who are affected, take this matter seriously.

In 2008, we live in a society that is heavily dependent on access to a car and reasonable provision for it. I live in Loughton in the middle of Epping Forest, and frequently travel through London. I first congratulate the powers that be on the congestion charge. We all have experiences, but I am convinced that the situation for those who need and wish to pay the charge and drive in London is much more satisfactory than it was 10 years ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that he had a problem with enforcement being carried out “unreasonably” or “not at all”. That is true of the application of any legislation. One hears horrifying tales of road rage or car-parking rage, increasingly involving not only anger but violence and worse. We are dealing with an emotional subject for many. I do not envy the 32 London councils and others who must apply this legislation. Some of the caveats mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, may turn out to be well founded and worthy of reconsideration in some form. In my experience of working with the 32 London councils, I am satisfied that there will be a genuine desire to ensure that the law is applied fairly and evenly.

Some offenders are persistent in not paying their charges and, often, not paying their road tax and insurance; in other words, they are a bad lot. They must be dealt with seriously. I do not have a reputation for being hard on people, but anyone who seeks to drive a car—a weapon that can kill—and does not take the proper steps to ensure that they abide by the law, and this is the law, ought to be dealt with harshly.

My two pennyworth consists of congratulating the London boroughs and others involved in the Bill. I especially congratulate those who were involved with the proceedings in the committee. They deliberated for a long time and dealt fairly with it. I am satisfied that the Bill was substantially improved by the committee. I am very glad to have the chance to take part in this debate.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her explanation of the Bill. I wish to make a few observations. I share some of the anxieties expressed by my noble friend Lord Lucas. I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, in which he said nothing with which I disagreed. I am always surprised that the measures in such a Bill are not already provided for somewhere else. Clearly, its passing will not make the “News at Ten” this evening but it covers important details. I pay tribute to all those who have worked on it, including your Lordships and officials outside the House who put a lot of effort into getting it right.

My Lords, I shall be brief. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who took the Bill through the House. I am an impostor as this is my first appearance on the Bill. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the points he raised. Before I turn to the detail of those matters, I reiterate the importance of the measures in the Bill that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned.

Parking enforcement both nationally and in London is no trivial matter. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that it should be enforced fairly and proportionately, but it should also be enforced properly. TfL claims that there are in the region of 165,000 persistent evaders, and that they account for about 1.3 million unpaid penalty charge notices, which is not a good situation.

When the Bill first entered the legislative process, the Government initially had some concerns about some of its provisions. However, I am glad to say that, following careful negotiation and some amendment of the text, these concerns have now been resolved. The negotiations have led to a Bill which is now aligned with, and will usefully supplement, the Traffic Management Act regime for parking in London, which came into force here, as in the rest of the country, at the end of March this year.

The Government’s concerns about the rights of motorists to a proper representation and appeals process have also been addressed and I commend the Bill to noble Lords on that point. An issue that caused considerable concern was that of the payment of bonds. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has been persuaded by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on this point. A figure of £250 has been mentioned as a reasonable amount that is neither too high as to be unaffordable nor too low to ensure that drivers made some effort to recover their bond. These points have been recorded and I fully expect the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to be happy with that. I shall be glad if that is the case. The noble Lord also had concerns about rights of appeal. I believe that there are now sufficient safeguards in place to protect the interests of innocent motorists.

This is timely legislation. It may not make “News at Ten” but it will allow Transport for London and the London boroughs to carry out their highway responsibilities. It will allow them to take effective action against habitual offenders against the parking regime and will enable them to focus their efforts on those offenders who make a habit of breaking the law and expect to get away with it. It should also enable them to fulfil their duty to keep the roads free flowing and safe to use for honest motorists. I am therefore happy to commend the Bill and to congratulate all those, including officials in TfL and the Department for Transport, who have brought the Bill to fruition and ensured that it is workable.

My Lords, I share with the House that I, too, am something of an impostor, as I came to the Bill very recently as well. I am grateful to the Minister, whose head must be spinning from the variety of topics that he has had to cover this week. I have shared some of them with him.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for his support. The noble Lord said that the adjudication process has to be dealt with fairly. It has been in place for some years dealing with other matters, so I hope that we can rely on it for this. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. This might not make “News at Ten”, but I guess it will make quite a lot of technical journals.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I remembered as he was speaking that the two of us have in the past discussed in this Chamber the congestion charge scheme. When there is new technology, I hope that methods of payment such as direct debit will be easily incorporated. That is not for now. The noble Lord referred to the danger of there being different regimes in different authorities and he made some disparaging comments about council back offices. The noble Lord ought to become a councillor and get stuck in, in whichever local authority he would like to reform. He is right about the £250, and it is right that we take the opportunity to put that amount on the record as what is in view as the amount that will initially apply.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.