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Volume 703: debated on Thursday 10 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will refer to the Office of Fair Trading the practice of car park operators, including local authorities, of using payment machines that do not give change.

My Lords, the choice of equipment for collecting parking charges is entirely a commercial decision and, thankfully, not a matter for central government.

My Lords, I am disappointed by that reply, which is most callous. I remind the Minister that hospitals and local authority operators alone raise some £1.25 billion from parking charges; 10 per cent over-payment means £100 million perhaps wrongly collected. There is a wide range of new technology. Is this not exactly where the OFT ought to get involved? Where else can traders take your money and get away with refusing to give you change?

My Lords, I repeat that this is not a matter for central government and I am thankful for being able to say so. However, perhaps I can help the noble Lord to this extent: car park operators, whether local authorities or not, should ensure that ticket machines are clearly labelled and that consumers are aware that change will not be given. Failure to do so could lead to a breach under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which came into force on 26 May this year, and might be subject to investigation by both trading standards and the Office of Fair Trading.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a very simple solution used internationally is to have a change machine beside the other machine, but that that works only in secure areas? Is he also aware that Westminster Council has been forced to take away coin meters completely in large areas of the city because people have found such skilful ways of robbing them in just a matter of seconds, and it lost a huge amount of revenue due to that?

My Lords, I was not aware of the noble Baroness’s last point, but it does not entirely surprise me. There is a debate about the future of machines of this kind. The future will probably involve credit and debit cards and mobile phone payments being made so that cash is not there to be stolen.

My Lords, is there not missing from the Minister’s Answer the perfectly correct implication from the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that in many situations the car park operator is a monopolist? In the case of hospitals, you may be miles and miles away from a hospital before you can find another car park. If there is a monopoly, surely any form of exploitation is something that he should be concerned about?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I did not say that I was not concerned about it, but that the matter does not directly affect central government. It was devolved, as it were, in 1986 to local authorities or the National Health Service as appropriate. However, if there is incorrect and unclear labelling, and a failure to do what should be done to ensure that consumers—whether patients at hospitals or others—know about it, there is now some sort of remedy under the regulations passed in 2008.

My Lords, I sympathise with the Minister’s response that this has nothing to do with central government, but would he nevertheless comment on what seems to be increasingly dictatorial behaviour by a number of local authorities? Time obviously does not permit me to list all such items of behaviour, but the most extreme is the practice of some local authorities of putting microchips in wheelie bins.

My Lords, I do not think that I would be prepared to comment on that; it would be extremely dangerous. The House prides itself on supporting local authority freedom and objects when central government take too much of it.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that car-parking arrangements at hospitals fall under the Government’s responsibilities? Does he agree that it is difficult for people visiting patients, who do not necessarily know for how long they are going to be there if the patients are rather ill? They park their cars, put money into the parking meter and then find they have an enormous surcharge because they have overstayed. Does my noble friend agree that this is real difficulty, and can he make some suggestions?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and I agree with my noble friend Lord Borrie who earlier made the same point. There is a real problem, which should be tackled through the local hospital and the NHS. Of course, the Government eventually have responsibility for that. Today, however, I am pointing out that central government do not have a responsibility for whether or not machines offer change.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will know that hospital car-parking charges have been scrapped in Wales because when the relations of people with serious problems parked their vehicles it cost them a great deal of money to do so. Can special circumstances not be taken into account regarding hospital car parking?

My Lords, the House obviously feels strongly about this. I shall take the hospital matter back and write to noble Lords on the issue and, perhaps, on a possible way forward. I know from personal experience, as I am sure many noble Lords do, that this is a real issue for people going to hospital and must be looked at.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that change machines occasionally do not give change? I recently put £5 into a change machine in a hospital car park and got £3 back. That does not seem to be very good value.

My Lords, I am aware of that from personal experience, as, I am sure, are many other noble Lords. For central government to step in and say that every machine must be of a certain type would be too much central government.