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Code of Practice for Private Parking

Volume 820: debated on Monday 28 March 2022

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets the Code of Practice for Private Parking, laid before the House on 7 February, because Her Majesty’s Government have not made adequate provision for swiftly improving the legislation if problems emerge.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the introduction of this code of practice. I have long been a campaigner for the motorist in this and other areas and have served my time in the courts as a defendant against parking operators, so I am delighted to see this legislation reach the borders of becoming effective.

None the less, I wish that the Government had recognised that this is a difficult area, and that preparation should be included in this to amend in the light of the way that things turn out in practice. Otherwise, we will be waiting again for a chance of primary legislation before we can do anything about it, and it has taken a long time to get to this point. However, here we are, so I ask my noble friend—I do not expect him to reply in detail today, but I hope to have correspondence with him or his colleagues—whether we can set things up so that enough data is collected for us to tell quickly what is happening.

The data that I would particularly like to see collected is, first, on the volume of parking charges. That will be the best indicator of how parking operators’ business models are changing. If we see a lot more parking charges being issued, we will know that something is not working. It would be a big alarm signal if the result of this code was to push operators towards a financial model that was dependent on parking charges. We ought to be seeing the volume of parking charges coming down. This ought to be the key bit of information that is being collected and reported to the department, and not casually at the end of a year. Such information ought to be coming in monthly, once the system is up and running, so that problems can be caught early and understood early.

The other big indicator I hope the Government will look at is the volume of county court judgments relating to parking issues. It is really important what happens to parking charges. What percentage are paid and what percentage are appealed? How are they chased up? What happens in the end? How are those percentages changing? If we see an increase in the number of county court judgments, that indicates that we are seeing operators moving outside the code. In other words, they are judging that the conditions of the code are so strict that their best option is to operate entirely outside it.

It is entirely possible to do that, because if you are operating a park outside the code and go around sticking parking charge notices on people’s windscreens, about 30% of people pay them and another 20% appeal, which means the parking operator immediately knows who they are. Then there are vans with company names on them, and databases outside the DVLA collected by leasing companies and others and made available—quite how legally I do not know, but they are available—so that a parking operator outside the code can count on not a bad return on issuing parking charges.

That will show through in county court judgments because, without being able to collect through debt charges, there is none the less a way for unregistered operators to collect through solicitors who are able to obtain remuneration from the courts. To my mind, those are the two key indicators I would like to see the Government having regular information on and not, as is foreshadowed to the introduction to the code, waiting for a couple of years and then starting to look at what is happening.

There are other areas where I hope the Government will also collect data. What is the volume of appeals based on producing blue badges late? What are appeals based on? What is the pattern of appeals and what are their outcomes? What does that tell us about what is going on? How are the keeper/owner questions being resolved in general, in particular on railway land where the Protection of Freedoms Act does not apply—as it does not in some other circumstances too? What is happening in areas where tariffs exceed penalties, where it is in the motorists’ interest not to pay because they end up paying the penalty, which is less than the tariff that they would have incurred anyway?

What practice is evolving on grace periods? How are they set and how is that changing? What percentage of operators are offering remote additional payments so that, rather than being done with a parking charge, you get a text saying that you are about to go over and asking if you would like to pay some more? What is evolving in payment methods? How much is becoming digital and how much are we enabling people to pay in different ways? How is this all working with—I know cross-ministerial boundaries are difficult—the national parking platform, which the DfT is evolving in Manchester? What is happening in the pattern of the parking offer? Are we seeing movement away from payment-per-hour to having to buy a whole day in order that the revenue of the parking operator is increased? Are we seeing increased use of parking barriers?

This is a complicated area with a wide range of operators in it. We need to sort out how we are going to approach it quickly and clearly. We need to define what is legitimate, to play the role of the shepherd keeping our flock safe from wolves, and, at night, counting our sheep. I beg to move.

My Lords, in principle I am very much of the same view as the noble Lord in supporting this code of practice, because there surely is plenty to improve in the operation of private parking. As he outlined, the key question is whether the code is fit for purpose and strong enough, as well as, of course, the issue about review once we have more information.

The tackling of this problem started in the Protection of Freedoms Act. That might surprise quite a lot of people because it is not an obvious topic for an Act about freedom, but it includes a section on the recovery of unpaid parking charges and the limits on powers to remove and immobilise vehicles. That was an important area of public concern about the use of excessive power by some parking companies and, in some cases, very sharp practice.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has criticised the code’s lack of an impact assessment. Since this will have an impact on thousands of companies and millions of drivers, it is surprising that there is no formal impact assessment. The big question is how that lack of an impact assessment can be defended.

The Government apparently spoke to three companies and the British Parking Association. They predicted an apparently massive impact on the industry, which seems unlikely to me and, I believe, to the Government. If it will have a massive impact, that suggests that things are very much awry with the way the industry is being run at the moment, if it is saying that it will not be possible for it to run well and fairly within its current cost structure.

It is important to bear in mind that we are talking not just about fairness to drivers. Drivers are also people who run businesses, so the unfair organisation of private parking has a huge impact on the economy.

Of particular importance is the single appeals process. I very much welcome that concept, and the idea that there will be limits on additional charges levied on motorists. Many motorists, particularly those who travel around the country a lot, find the whole process very complex. One will not be surprised that trying to appeal a parking charge is a complex process designed to discourage one. The guidelines are welcome because parking operators are judge and jury to their own charges, so a single appeals process will be very welcome.

I also welcome some kind of concept of a standard grace period, and ask the Minister how that will be advertised, because there is talk of having a different grace period for different types of car park. The idea that someone might go in, park and be allowed only five minutes is, of course, completely unrealistic—if there is a queue to pay for parking, or if the person has three young children in the back of their car who have to be taken out and sorted into buggies, and the day’s goods and chattels taken out as well. It is important that there is clarity on that.

I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has drawn our attention to the complexity of this and the inadequacy of the powers to review the provisions of the code. With modern technology, the problems of exploitation of the data are going to get only worse and more complicated to deal with, so it is important that there is a thorough review in a short period of time.

My Lords, the Private Parking Code of Practice has been introduced in an effort to regulate the industry and respond to the evolving threat of rogue operators. This is an objective that I am sure the whole House will support, and I am pleased that steps such as these are being introduced to this end. I am concerned that the Government are, unfortunately, not going far enough. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is right to raise his concerns in today’s debate.

The Minister will be aware that the Government have been obligated to introduce the code as a result of the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019. There is certainly some merit in the code that the Government have brought forward. I am particularly pleased that the code caps the amounts that should be charged for various parking charges. In practice, this will cut most fines at £50 and others at £100. However, it is unclear whether there are loopholes that could be exploited by this limit. There have been recent press reports of individuals receiving multiple separate fines in one day, resulting in a total fine of many thousands of pounds. Can the Minister assure the House that this would not be possible under the new code?

I am also pleased that a new process will be developed that will allow drivers to appeal fines. Although I appreciate that this service will be independent, what mechanisms will Parliament have to evaluate its operation? The code is right to bring forward the possibility of banning rogue companies that act outside the rules. Will the Minister commit to transparency over this? Will he arrange for the department to publicise those who have been banned?

On the issue of clear signage and markings, while this is also welcome, I would appreciate it if the Minister would explain what steps have been taken to ensure that they are accessible for people with disabilities.

Ministers have previously stated that the code was developed in close consultation with private parking experts including consumer and industry groups. Can the Minister elaborate on the findings of that consultation, and whether this will feed into further regulations?

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, talked about the complexities of this area. I thought he talked well about indicators and, in particular, the volume of CCJs and statistical analysis of what has been happening. We welcome the opportunity to debate the code today. I hope the Minister will be able to provide assurances on the issues raised by this House. Regulations to confront rogue parking operators are long overdue, but the Government must go further to hold them to account.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for his interest in the Private Parking Code of Practice and for securing this important, valuable and informative debate. I hope noble Lords will agree that the code of practice is a significant step towards creating a fair system for motorists, ending the poor practices and behaviour that have been widespread within the private parking industry for far too long, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Khan. It will bring greater consistency and improve standards across Britain, boosting our high streets and town centres by making it easier for people to park without receiving unwarranted charges.

Noble Lords may be aware that the code is part of a wider regulatory framework that we are also putting into place to ensure a fair system for motorists. This includes a certification scheme, to which parking trade associations must adhere if their members wish to request access to DVLA data. It also includes the establishment of a scrutiny and oversight board to monitor the new system and the creation of a single, independent appeals service for motorists to turn to if they are unhappy with the handling of an appeal by an operator.

The certification scheme, based on the code, will outline how the requirements of the code should be measured, tested and assessed. It will provide an opportunity to clarify anything that proves to be unclear or confusing in the code itself for implementation by parking operators. The Government intend to finalise the scheme this spring. We will also appoint the scrutiny and oversight board this spring to oversee the operation of the new system and monitor its effectiveness. The board will advise the Government on the operation of the code and certification scheme, providing recommendations on whether these need to be updated. We anticipate that the code will be reviewed every two years, once it comes into full force at the end of 2023, and the scheme as required.

The governance of the code will include representatives from the department, the DVLA, industry and consumers. We also expect the new single appeals service to be represented in this governance to improve information and data flows, ensuring that the sector is monitored efficiently. In addition, we are preparing a data strategy and a robust monitoring and evaluation framework for the enforcement of the code. The strategy will provide an outline of relevant data and identify opportunities to maximise the value of that data, reflecting the principles of the National Data Strategy.

My noble friend Lord Lucas has a keen interest in ensuring that we track the data appropriately. I assure him that we will cover the data around the number or volume of parking charges issued by operators. The frequency of that will be determined by the data strategy in due course, but I note my noble friend’s desire to see that on at least a monthly basis. In addition, we will be looking at the number of appeals accepted by operators and the number of appeals brought to the single appeals service. I note that my noble friend also wants us to track the number of county court judgments which come in where appeals are rejected and people are still not paying, which would obviously be much lower.

This will allow us to better understand and manage breaches of the code, identify any issues not adequately covered by it and spot patterns and trends across the sector. At the same time, it will provide motorists and the industry with an insight into how the system is working. The data will be collected by the trade associations and the single appeals service. It will be examined by the scrutiny and oversight board and used to make decisions on the operation of the system and the updates required to the code and the scheme. I hope noble Lords will agree that, altogether, these measures will ensure that the code is effectively implemented and monitored going forward, with the appropriate structures in place for important issues to be identified and resolved without impacting on the service received by motorists.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised the issue of providing an impact assessment for the code, which I think is a question of timing. I hope I can reassure her that we do intend to undertake an impact assessment of the changes introduced by the code once the single appeals service has been designed, to ensure that we have all the necessary information to complete the assessments. It is about getting the impact assessment right at the right time. I hope that reassures the noble Baroness.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Khan, who is quite an expert on private parking practice, I note that the code introduces a 10-minute grace period. It also introduces high requirements for signage. On loopholes—a very important point raised by noble Lord—we are working with the industry, including the two trade associations, to ensure that there are no loopholes. The noble Lord asked about a register for banning rogue operators. These will be monitored through the wider regulatory framework, including the scrutiny and oversight board already mentioned.

So, we know that the involvement of the private parking industry in this process is crucial to the success of the code. We look forward to working alongside the industry—as well as consumer and motorist organisations —as we move towards the full implementation of the code and its regulatory framework at the end of 2023. Finally, with the expertise and knowledge of my noble friend Lord Lucas, I am very keen that he does provide his input around getting the data framework and data frequency right. I thank him very much for securing this very important debate.

My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and to the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley. I feel thoroughly supported around the House and, indeed, I feel supported by my noble friend the Minister in what he has said, for which I thank him very much. I would really like to take up his invitation to have a look at the data strategy and the other work surrounding that at an appropriate time of his choosing. I, therefore, take pleasure in seeking to withdraw my Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at 8.26 pm.