I beg to move,
That this House has considered the relationship between the DVLA and private car parking companies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this slot for the debate. I was pleased to be joined in my application by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who I can see in his place. I am sure that he will follow my remarks with his usual alacrity.
I want to be clear that this debate is not about what is charged in a car park. Normally when we talk about car parking and parking fees, we talk about local councils and the balance between how much is charged for an hour’s parking and the trade that a town centre may receive. This debate is not about that. This is very much about the relationship between a body of the state—the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—and private companies that seek to enforce parking contracts.
If we own a car, we are all required by law to supply the details of the keeper of the vehicle to the DVLA; it is a criminal offence not to. To be clear—because it certainly is not clear in many of the letters that go out if someone is not a lawyer or conversant with this area—this is not about people committing offences, but about when people are deemed to have breached a parking contract. The contract can be on a sign on a wall with quite a lot of small print. Those of us who are skilled in the legal world may be able to understand it—I am sure you would easily read through it all, Ms Dorries—but for most people it is not an easy or digestible read. When people drive in, they are unlikely to see the sign and to read the terms and conditions before they get in the parking space, but they have already been caught on the camera systems that are used to enforce car park contracts, which is what has brought the issue to my attention.
I hope that over the next hour and a half we will consider what we as Members feel about the current system and its relationship with the DVLA and how we think it should change. We must be clear that, if it were not for that relationship and the DVLA’s ability to get hold of the keeper’s details, many of the issues brought to me, and I am sure to other right hon. and hon. Members, would not exist, because it would not be possible to enforce this in the way it is being enforced now.
I also want to be clear that the next hour and a half is not about portraying every private car park operator as a rogue operator. Most, but not all, operate good-quality car parks at a reasonable price and use methods of enforcement that are perfectly fair and reasonable. However, some need to be tackled.
What first brought the issue to my attention were two car parks in my constituency: the Crossways shopping centre car park in Paignton and the Marina car park in Torquay. The Crossways car park is managed by Premier Parking Solutions of Newton Abbot and the Marina one is managed by a different company, Premier Park. Since my election as a Member of Parliament, I have received complaints about enforcement practices in both car parks. I accept that people are not happy when they receive a fine if they have not paid or for whatever reason, but what stuck out about those two car parks was that the number of complaints I was receiving about them far exceeded the number of complaints I was receiving about the entirety of Torbay Council’s parking enforcement. Given Torbay Council’s parking enforcement covers 39 car parks and all on-street car parking violations, it was noticeable that the two car parks were generating far more complaints than I was receiving about the council’s entire operation.
Issues raised with me included everything from unclear signs to bad lighting. There was a day when a particular letter or number was not working on the keypad, which meant that everyone with that particular letter or number in their registration found themselves getting a letter a few weeks later. Also, I started to get letters from colleagues complaining about the car parks concerned when their own constituents had visited Paignton or Torquay on holiday, looking to enjoy themselves, and had had a nasty surprise that would encourage them not to come back.
Parliamentary privilege is a great right, but also a responsibility, so we alert individuals or companies when we are thinking of referring to them. I wrote to both the companies concerned. To give Premier Parking Solutions of Newton Abbot, which runs the Crossways car park, its due, last Friday, I had its managing director, general manager and business development manager come to see me to discuss the various issues that had been raised about their car park. They listed a range of things that they feel will deal with the matters raised and complained about. I will obviously look for the proof in the pudding and see whether complaints decline. I accept that there will always be the odd one, but I certainly hope that we will see the back of some of the complaints and issues that I have seen so far.
The other company, Premier Park, decided not to give any form of detailed reply. Given the sheer number of complaints I have had about the Marina car park, which is a car park you drive into without realising exactly what you are entering, suspicions have been raised. Even when told that it was likely to be discussed under parliamentary privilege, the company was not particularly interested in engaging, and also did not engage with BBC Radio Devon this morning, so that creates real suspicions that it is looking to run a business model based on catching people out as much as on what it charges in the car park. That gives rise to suspicions that this is not a genuine parking enforcement operation intended to stop people chancing their arm—I accept people will do that, so there needs to be some enforcement—but that this is an operation looking to enforce and act in a way that no one would see as conscionable. It therefore says a lot that, even when given a chance to offer a final explanation before being named today, the company did not wish to do so.
If it were just a couple of car parks in Torbay, I would probably view the matter as a constituency campaigning issue and something I could pick up with the local trading standards department. Yet it was interesting to see the number of other issues that started to be raised as I talked to colleagues. I can see colleagues nodding in the Chamber now. I am sure that we will hear more examples during the debate. I looked at the Library and RAC Foundation figures on how many transactions there are between the DVLA and private parking companies. It is estimated that they will exceed 4 million in this financial year, which is a very large increase compared with the position in 2012. When private wheel clamping was banned under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the impact assessment suggested that there would be 500,000 extra requests, which is not a surprise given the change in enforcement techniques, but there has been an increase of nearly 3 million, which highlights the issues.
The DVLA charges companies £2.50, and some information suggests it costs DVLA more than that to process each application. Perhaps the Minister will cover whether the DVLA is losing money in this area, because it would add insult to injury if taxpayers were helping to subsidise the operation.
We have to be clear that these are not fines. However, it is the DVLA’s information—something is sent out that looks like a fine, probably for about £100, which is the maximum, but far above what councils charge. There is no suggestion that councils outside of London need to charge such a fine when people do not pay in the car park. However, that supply of information makes people think it is much more official than it is, and of course it makes it look as though the state supports what is being done. Ultimately, the only source of the information could have been the state, the DVLA, given that there is no other way of getting hold of the registered keeper’s details.
When I started to look into this issue, many Members wrote to me, and I still get letters today about how the system works. Many of them cover the suspicion that automated number plate recognition systems are used as an opportunity, first, to fine people after they have left and, secondly, to make the process easy. For example, someone who drives in, waits to see if there is a space, drives out and ends up getting a fine would not get that fine if there were manual enforcement, because someone enforcing tickets would see that that person was waiting. Likewise, barrier systems do not let a car in the car park unless there is a space. This system is a kind of invisible barrier that can become a nasty trap that the driver finds out about later.
I am clear that there does need to be enforcement. If someone goes into a privately owned car park and plonks their car in a disabled bay, I have no problem with the idea that they receive a significant fine for such antisocial behaviour. However, there are real issues emerging from the system of enforcement that has grown up over recent years.
I have particular questions for the Minister; I will give him time to note them down. Is he content that the current relationship between the DVLA and private parking enforcement companies is appropriate? Does he believe that there should be a single standards setting body? In my investigation of the subject, one aspect I found quite interesting is that there are two such bodies, with similar sounding objectives and appeals processes. Is that a sensible system or should there be one single standards-setting body, over which the Government have more oversight? I would suggest, however, that it is probably more sensible that that be based in and funded and organised by the industry, rather than an “Ofpark”-style body set up directly by the Government.
Does the Minister believe that enough action is being taken to deal with rogue actors and offenders in the industry? Many Members will probably give examples of where they think not enough action is being taken. Although some rogue actors and offenders have been removed, the presence of two different bodies as the accredited trade associations that a company needs to be part of to access the DVLA breeds confusion in the public eye.
Is a response to the 2015 consultation likely to be published? Would we be better to conclude that the Government may take the view that, two years on, it may be better to look afresh at how the DVLA works with private parking companies?
There are some good operators out there providing reasonable car parks at a fair price and some operators charge a premium for a slightly better service. That is a matter for them and for their business. What we need to take action on is the growing scandal where more and more people receive these invoices, which look official and which are able to be issued only because of the active co-operation of a body of the state that gives the information for them to do so. There needs to be a change in that relationship. There need to be clearer and stronger standards and much more transparency in how those standards are set, in exchange for information from the Government.
We got rid of the cowboy clampers in the last Parliament. The suspicion is that the cowboy clampers have now become the cowboy finers and cowboy invoicers. Although they may wish to leave their spur marks on car parks across the country, I hope the Minister will be clear what action will be taken to ensure that they have to ride off into the sunset for good.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this debate.
I speak from the perspective of the consumer and the tourist who visits the south-west on a regular basis, rather than as a Member of Parliament dealing with complaints submitted by the public. The car parking in my constituency is run by Sandwell Council. Although I am sure that there are plenty of residents who have had issues over the years, I cannot honestly say that I have received the volume of complaints in my postbag that would justify me taking up the issue. However, I have had personal experience as a tourist in the south-west with a private parking company, which I would like to bring to the hon. Gentleman’s notice. That experience raised concerns, and I considered taking exactly the same actions as he has. I will not mention the company concerned because I have not informed it—as he said, there are issues around parliamentary privilege that should not be exploited—but it is legitimate to mention my experience.
As someone educated at Exeter University, and whose ancestors on my father’s side all hail from the Falmouth and Penryn area, I have an enduring affection for the area and love to visit it, which I do on a regular basis. However, as a tourist, I have had two experiences there that were exceedingly off-putting.
The first was when I parked at Falmouth quayside car park and left the car. It was very windy. I went back, picked up a coat and then came back later to find that I had got a parking notice. What had happened in the meantime was that my ticket had blown off the dashboard and was on the floor. I appealed to the company and got a response offering to halve the fine. I was still indignant, but thought, like many people in my position, “Oh, what the heck; I will accept it as a compromise,” and paid up. That was a couple of years ago.
Last year, I parked at Perranporth. On that occasion it was pouring with rain, and I decided it was not immediately appropriate to go for a walk on the beach. I joined my wife for a cup of tea in a nearby café, leaving the car window open because we had the dog in the back. We came back and took the dog for a walk, returned to the car and found that, yet again, I had got a parking ticket. I was quite astonished because my ticket was on the dashboard, but then I realised what had happened. I have a Honda Civic and the dashboard is split-level: the ticket had slid under the ledge at the front and was not visible from the front. Well, I took the ticket and very indignantly went to the attendant, who said, “Oh, you can appeal.” So I did.
Within four hours, I was appealing online. I got a response and some photos, which basically dismissed everything I said. There were two photos—one taken from the front of the car, in which the ticket was not visible, and the other from the passenger-side window, in which where the ticket was could be seen with difficulty. Had that photo been taken from the driver’s side, the ticket would have been perfectly visible and readable. I was furious. I have dug my heels in and not paid the fine. To date, I have received three debt collection notices; I am collecting them and waiting to see what the company does about it.
My constituent, Steve Mostyn, parked in the Clarkston car park. He paid his 50p and was a bit surprised to receive a penalty charge. It appeared that he had keyed in a digit wrongly; the number he had keyed in did not actually appear in the DVLA database—that registration number did not exist—but the company still fined him. He found that completely unacceptable. He thinks that the model that Smart Parking is operating is corrupt and unethical, and is particularly concerned that those who are more vulnerable and those who can perhaps least afford to pay are those who will not feel able to appeal and will just cave in. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is simply unacceptable?
I have heard similar cases. I have detected a difference in the way in which local authority-run parking systems are reasonably responsive to that. The private car parking operators are not. Again, it points to a culture and philosophy that is designed to catch people out and make the most money out of perfectly human mistakes, despite the fact that an individual on every other criteria will have demonstrated that they not only accept the principle of paying, but have done their personal best to conform to the conditions that preside over the process.
From my experience in the south-west, there are a number of issues that have to be looked at. First, there is the issue of organisations that employ private car parking companies to exercise this activity. After my experience at Perranporth, I complained to the organisation that employs the private car parking company, but it just dismissed my complaint and said that it had contacted the company concerned and that I could appeal—we were going round in circles.
Any organisation in an area such as the south-west, which is hugely dependent on the tourism industry, has to take a degree of responsibility for the way in which the company it contracts to operate its car parks behaves. Tourism is a highly competitive industry, and if anybody who goes on holiday to those areas has such an experience, their abiding memory will be the injustice that has been inflicted upon them, despite the fact that they tried to be law-abiding, civil citizens and tourists. They not only feel that personally, but recount it to other people, which deters would-be visitors to the area. Those companies do no service to their area or their tourist industry by having such a system.
As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, this raises legal issues, because by and large tourists are not lawyers and do not know about the legal vacuum in which those companies operate, so they assume that the companies have to conform to laws that do not actually exist. There is a wider issue of educating the public, and I think there is a very good case for tightening up the regulation to ensure the companies that operate private car parks are licensed and subject to an agreed set of standards. There should be an appeal process that is totally independent of the industry to adjudicate when there are genuine disputes, as there always will be in such circumstances.
I fear that areas that make the mistake of employing that sort of company could damage themselves and the industry to the detriment of the perception of the area and to the benefit of the most sharp-practiced operators—the hon. Gentleman described them as cowboys. I ask the Minister to look at the issues that the hon. Gentleman and I raised, and those that I am sure other hon. Members will raise, with a view to looking at how the regulation of the industry can be tightened up to the benefit of the affected individuals and the economies of the areas where such practices operate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate on an issue of particular interest to the area I represent.
I am privileged to live in the most beautiful part of our country, and I have the honour of representing the great people of St Austell and Newquay. It is because of our stunning scenery, our beaches, our wonderful heritage and our excellent food that 4 million people a year come to Cornwall on holiday. I am delighted to learn that the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) is one of those who comes to enjoy all that Cornwall has to offer. An additional 14 million people a year come to Cornwall for a day visit, and the vast majority of them come by car. That is where we start to get into some of the issues.
One of the jewels in Newquay’s crown is the very special Fistral beach, which is the surfing capital of Cornwall, and indeed of Europe. The beaches of north Cornwall attract many people to the area. In the summer, we can see more than 10,000 people on our beaches in north Cornwall, many of whom go into the sea to catch the waves on nice days. It has even been known for Prime Ministers to come to catch the odd wave in the Newquay area, which is always very welcome.
People come and park their cars. On their journey home, they battle through the roadworks on the A30 at Temple, which are soon to be completed thanks to the Minister’s support. When they eventually get home, they unpack their car with their hearts full of happy memories from their time in Newquay, and open their front door to find the inevitable pile of brown envelopes. In among the envelopes, there is a sinister-looking one, which they open to discover it is a penalty charge notice from a private parking firm that has issued it as a result of their stay in Newquay—it is an invoice masquerading as a fine.
As the hon. Member for West Bromwich West pointed out so well, that becomes people’s lasting memory of their time in Newquay. It ruins their memory of that holiday, because they feel they have been unjustly billed. That is very often the case. The reasons why penalty charges are issued are often spurious. It can be for overstaying for very few minutes. It can be, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) said, because when they put their car registration number into the machine they got one digit wrong. I have been told that people sometimes go into the car park, find that there are no spaces available, wait a few minutes to see whether one becomes available, and then after some time give up and decide to move elsewhere, only to find that they have overstayed the grace period and that their car has been clocked by the camera. They then receive an invoice as a result.
As has been said, that situation damages the reputation of Newquay and many other holiday areas where such parking firms operate. I believe we need to take action. Many of the hard-working businesses in places such as Newquay are owned by families who go out of their way to welcome tourists. They go the extra mile to look after them well, which is why tourists keep coming back to those places. Those parking firms damage the reputation of those areas and other people’s businesses. They do not damage themselves, because they hide behind anonymous PO boxes. They are faceless organisations that do not face the public.
The hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly important point. Our town centres can ill afford to have their business impacted by parking operators that act against the interests of the people who park there.
Not a speech—an intervention.
They often act very inappropriately when they deal with people who try, as we do, to put forward the interests of our constituents.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Absolutely—the whole point is that those parking firms are not damaging their own reputation. In fact, a cynic might say that their whole business model is built on being able to issue extra charges. Their businesses are profitable because they charge people extra money. It does not damage their businesses; it damages the many other businesses in our coastal areas and town centres that rely on people coming back and being able to park. The action of those firms puts people off.
Some hon. Members have said that they are inclined not to name the parking firms. I am going to name two, and there is a very good reason why I am going to do so. I would like the Minister’s help. My office has received many pieces of correspondence, both from local people from Newquay and tourists who have gone to Newquay on holiday, complaining about those companies’ actions and the unfair way they believe they have been treated. Despite numerous attempts by my office to contact those firms and open some constructive dialogue with them, not once have they responded. They have not got back to me or even given me the courtesy of sending a letter saying, “Please leave us alone. Go away. We don’t want to talk to you.” Never, not once, have they responded, despite my many attempts to contact them.
I am therefore more than happy to name ParkingEye and Smart Parking as the firms operating in Newquay in that way. They deserve to be named because of their refusal to respond to me as the local Member of Parliament. I ask the Minister what more the Government could do to make such firms engage—to force them, if necessary—and have a constructive dialogue when issues arise, so that we as Members of Parliament may represent our constituents and the businesses in our constituencies to resolve some cases so that the image of our towns is not tarnished.
We need to look at the relationship the firms have with the DVLA. In my view, they are abusing their privileged relationship and their access to drivers’ information in order to issue penalty charges. When we have unfair practices and firms operating in ways that damage other businesses, it is right for the Government to look at the situation carefully and to introduce regulation or, if necessary, legislation in order to stop those unfair practices and protect other businesses, which rely on people being able to park. I am delighted that we have been able to have this debate, and I hope that as a result we will see some positive and constructive action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak, having received several heavy mailbags from constituents about private car parking companies in my area. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate and for all his work on the subject. He gave an excellent speech.
For too long, cowboy private car parking companies have operated with impunity. Many have reasonable practices, but a considerable number operate in a way that is not conducive to holiday resorts, as several hon. Members have said, or to town centres, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) mentioned, and that is certainly not in the best interests of motorists or the community in general. Without any substantial legislation or regulation, those companies have been free—to be fair—to rip off car park users and charge bogus fees. In my view and that of the British public, it is time to act. The reality for far too many motorists up and down the country is that people are duped into false charges and harassed by firms that, as has been mentioned, somehow manage to get hold of personal information, whether through the DVLA or other sources.
A considerable number of constituents have written to me asking what can be done to tackle private parking companies, because they have found themselves powerless. Presented with a process that is not transparent but opaque, people have no clear way to resolve problems. I will draw attention to examples from my constituency before suggesting what to do to tackle the scourge. I, too, will name some of the companies involved, but that is because they have been named every week in the Accrington Observer and the Lancashire Telegraph, so I am not bringing anything new to the public that has not been said previously. I am repeating it for the benefit of the House and the Minister.
Eastgate is a big retail park in Accrington. Back in 2012 much anger and frustration was caused for hundreds—I mean hundreds—of people when its private car park operator, Excel, misled them about its parking charges. I recall having to deal with that as the local MP for week after week. Excel changed the three-hour parking limit to 90 minutes without any clear warnings. The firm announced its new policy on signs hidden behind trees on the edge of the car park. It then issued hundreds of fines to shoppers, with demands for immediate payment or even higher fines once they had understandably failed to spot the notices. Some disabled people were also caught out by the changes, and they threatened court action with the help of the National Motorists Action Group, which was very helpful—I would recommend the group to anyone fighting pernicious private parking companies which operate such voracious policies.
The National Motorists Action Group, the local councillor in charge Clare Pritchard and I had a running battle with Excel about changing its policy. The issue was a difficult one and it bounced around the press for weeks and weeks, before the company finally changed—in fact, Excel was fired by the management company. One of the complications was that the retail park owners had not only let some of the units on the site to businesses, but let the parking contract to a management company which had sublet it to the private car parking company.
After that battle, we ended up with Excel deciding that anyone who had not paid was to be let off—the fines were rescinded, and there was no need for people to pay—but it refused to give refunds to those who had done the right thing and paid the fine, even those who had been threatened multiple times. Excel got away with that. I ask the Minister, how can some people have their fines rescinded because they have not paid and others pay but never receive a refund? What does that say to the British public? That is totally unacceptable.
Another car parking company operates at the Accrington Arndale shopping centre. I receive dozens of complaints about some of its practices, with people being fined for whatever little reason, such as being even an inch over the line or five minutes past the time limit. I draw the Minister’s attention to that—surely under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and so on some latitude is allowed to some of our constituents in such a position—and to how the appeals process does and does not work. Going back to Excel, NMAG and a disabled constituent of mine had to go through the courts to seek redress, which is unacceptable.
Another cowboy private company has already been alluded to by Members, and a more recent issue is that of the new buttons on the machines in some car parks. I have had several complaints about a company operating such machines. For example, an elder constituent told me that he had been fined and he had lost his appeal. He is fortunate that he has an appeals process, although he did not win it. He is 81, I think, and he had to bend double to see the buttons. The screens and buttons are at a low height and, on a sunny day, he was unable to bend down sufficiently to enter the information accurately. He tried and, most of the time, succeeded, but on the occasion in question he put the wrong digit in. He explained that he had paid for his time in the car park—he had the ticket—but the company was not interested. He was forced to pay the fine.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that had the car parking operation been a public one, an honest mistake would have been a complete defence? That has been established at the High Court in relation to the congestion charge.
I appreciate that valid point. We are talking about private car parking companies in private car parks, and not about statutory or public car parks, which are not part of the debate. We are talking about the practices of some companies outside any firm regulations or guidelines. I will address the point about that difference in a minute.
One lady could not buy a ticket from the machine at that car park because it was broken. She still ended up with a fine, even though she left a note on her windscreen to say that the machine was broken. The company has been mentioned already, so I will do so again—I have no shame in naming such companies, because they need to be shamed. ParkingEye was also mentioned by the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), and it operates that particular car park on the edge of my constituency. I find that practice abominable. She put a note on her windscreen, which should be sufficient if the machine is broken. That £1 parking charge quickly became £100 because of the firm’s own administrative incompetence and failure to fix the machine.
As I say, other constituents have come to see me about that particular car park. One was an elderly gentleman who could not bend down to see the screen and, on one occasion, entered a wrong digit. Giving a fine for that is totally and utterly unacceptable. Members on both sides of the Chamber who have spoken, and probably all Members of the House, are well aware of such scandals in their constituencies. This issue is not unique to my constituency or coastal constituencies—it seems to happen in all our constituencies all the time, up and down the country.
Although private car parking companies were barred from wheel clamping by legislation, they seem, as other Members have intimated, to be in the game of trying to find new ways to extract money from motorists, perhaps to make up for some of their old practices having been barred. One gripe that all Members have mentioned is that, under the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002, the DVLA provides information to those car parking companies. Actually, I believe that they can purchase it—according to NMAG, the DVLA sells information, which is worrying. That practice should end, and there should be better regulation. Those companies access that information and then pursue motorists. I am deeply concerned about that relationship, and the Minister ought to look at it, because it is not right.
The hon. Gentleman is making some good points. Citizens Advice Scotland highlighted in its briefing on this subject that many companies still issue tickets whose appearance mimics those issued by the police or the local authority, have difficult-to-read signage in their car parks and, at times, charge fees of more than £500. Does he agree that it is time that the British Parking Association and the International Parking Community strengthen and properly enforce their supposedly strict codes of practice, or ensure that rogue companies lose their right to the release of vehicle owner information?
I was going to come to the two parking organisations that the hon. Lady mentions, which seem to have no transparent processes. One of them—I think it is the BPA—has a very opaque appeals process, if it has one at all. Not every private car parking company is actually affiliated or associated with either of those organisations.
Passing off is a massive issue. People turn up at car parks run by private companies to see a yellow and black zig-zag all the way around a cellophane or plastic envelope stuck to their windscreen that is simply passing off as a statutory notice. It is not a statutory notice, and it is not a fine—it is a charge. There is no clear distinction. The Minister ought to look at that, because those little yellow and black bags that appear on people’s cars intimidate them and do not give them the necessary legal information.
The hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point. Does he agree that the Minister should also tell us when we will see proposals to stop companies continuing to receive personal data from the DVLA when they have a track record of abusing it by sending out legally incompetent frighteners to people and charging inflated fees for overstaying?
I was going to say that the third point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) was inflated fines. I said that, in one case, a fine had gone from £1 to £100. I hear that fines go even further in other constituencies. That is totally unacceptable. I return to the point that there is a lack of regulation in this field. There is no transparency—there is opaqueness. It is the wild west, and there are real concerns—first about passing off, secondly about the process when people are fined, and thirdly about the DVLA’s relationship with private parking companies. The Minister ought to reflect on Members’ concerns. I am sure that if I asked the 635 or so Members who are not in the Chamber—I do not know how many are here—they would agree. It is time for the Government to act.
Does my hon. Friend agree that something else that needs to be looked at—I believe that this is actually illegal, but it is commonly exercised—is the threats that these companies send to people subsequently, either through debt collection agencies or by putting notices on their credit ratings? By so doing, they undermine people’s credit ratings and convey to them the belief that they will have financial penalties in the future.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When I said that the process is not clear, I meant the process all the way down the line, from passing off and someone picking up a fine to that person opening their fine and then quickly—after a fortnight, not a month—getting a doubled demand or losing their discount. That process is threatening, intimidating and misleading, and the appeals process is not transparent. If someone contests a charge or has been away on holiday for a fortnight or three weeks, before they know it, the charge is higher, and it escalates from there. These are charges and they are contestable, but if people contest them or simply do not pay them, as they are encouraged to do by some organisations because of the issues around some of these ticketing practices, they escalate, which frightens some of our older constituents. They get worried about it. They see some of these charges—£500 has been mentioned, and I mentioned £100 in my constituency—and get very frightened by them.
Order. Mr Jones, may I just say that two other people are waiting to speak, and we will not be able to get them in if you do not wind up soon?
Okay. In summary, I ask the Minister to look at the three points that I have raised. He must take this issue seriously. The British people want something to be done about it.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Ms Dorries? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing it forward, because many of our constituents have complained about what is going on in the parking field. I also thank the Minister and his predecessor for their many courteous replies to the letters that I have written.
The DVLA is at the heart of this issue, not the Department for Communities and Local Government or other bodies. It is the DVLA giving out information that begins this whole unfair process, so the buck stops with the DVLA and the Minister, not with other people or regulations. It is the DVLA that has decided that it will accept accredited trade associations and give out information to them, subject, apparently, to audits that it carries out. It would be useful to hear about what audits have been done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned Premier Park. I have no qualms about mentioning businesses without telling them in advance. There is no convention that we should be expected to do that, and we should be wary about limiting our right of free speech in this House. Premier Park behaved quite disgracefully to a constituent of mine and has a reputation for doing so at a place called Popham Diner, which local newspapers have written about. Has the DVLA audited that company? Has it looked into it? Has it, in response to complaints from Members of Parliament, gone beyond the accredited trade association to see what is going on?
The Government are at the heart of this matter, because it is about the principles on which our society is founded and what the Government are there to do. One of the great roles of the Government is to ensure justice and make it impossible for the strong and the powerful to bully the weak and the powerless, but the DVLA is party to helping the strong and the powerful to bully the weak and the powerless. It just says that these accredited trade organisations are, broadly, enough, but those organisations have a vested interest in approving the bodies that sign up to them, because that is where their revenue comes from. The last thing that one of those bodies wants to do is to penalise a parking company that is signed up to it, because if it does, other companies will not sign up and its revenue stream will be threatened. There is a clear conflict of interest.
To my mind, that is where the DVLA is not doing its job, because it is not protecting individuals against those who are more powerful. That is where it should change, and that is where the answer to the problem is. The DVLA should do its own approval of organisations and have its own code of conduct. The fee it charges may cover all of that—it is not unreasonable to charge a fee if you are doing the job properly and there is no vested interest. That work should be done properly by a Government body.
The law is there to protect us. This is essentially a system that is outside the law but to which the Government are party. It is not a legal process, but, as other Members have said, it appears as if it is. It appears to be the same as a fine from a local authority, but it is not. In my experience, the local authorities behave much more reasonably than the private companies. Yesterday, I had a letter from Bristol City Council, which is behaving extremely well to a constituent of mine, erring on the side of leniency to someone who made an honest mistake. The private companies do not seem to do that because their business model is otherwise, and the DVLA is party to that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, where local authorities lease car parks to private operators, the local authority should take a more active role in insisting that those operators work in a way more similar to that of local authorities?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We want fairness in the process. We must understand that the DVLA has the information in the first place as a legal requirement so that the police may know to whom cars belong. That is why, by law, we are obliged to register our cars. We are not obliged to register them for the benefit of a subsequent private contract, which is a subsequent activity beyond the initial purpose of the DVLA. It was to be there for public interest, not for private contracts. Because of the way in which parking has developed, the DVLA has got involved in this private parking aspect. It earns fees from that, although apparently it is loss-making, which if true seems extraordinarily silly.
If it is not true, that is very reassuring; I am glad. However, the fact that that is not true is worrying in another direction, because the DVLA ought not to be affected in its judgment by its revenue streams. If we have an accredited parking authority that gets revenue from the car park, and the car park pays money to the DVLA to get information, there is a chain of money going through, which seems to be overriding the chain of justice and the right of the state, the duty of the state and the obligation of the state to protect the individual.
The DVLA has the solution in its hands, as do the Government. The situation requires not changes of legislation but changes by the DVLA in how it gives out information. I will carry on banging on about this until we know that companies have been suspended, that companies have been audited, that companies are not getting the information any longer and that the DVLA is taking proper charge to protect our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and the compelling points he made. I thank my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for securing the debate. In the short time left, I will touch on unreasonable practices and appeals and make a few further points following on from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset.
There are highly unreasonable practices going on. We have heard many Members give examples. In my area, Premier Parking Solutions, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay referred, has a particular problem with its machines, which is affecting many individuals, particularly when number plate recognition is used in combination with a requirement to enter the vehicle’s number plate manually. In many cases, the machines do not record the first number of that registration plate.
The issue is that, because number plate recognition is being used, individuals do not receive a notification until about 10 days to two weeks later, by which time most reasonable people, having parked legally and paid the correct amount, will have discarded the clutter from their windscreen—I do not take much joy in tidying my car, so that would not affect me. Even if individuals have retained their ticket and can clearly prove that there has been an honest error, they find their appeals are not being upheld.
The other problem we have is the disincentive to appeal, because those who appeal have to pay a higher charge if their appeal fails—and fail it will. I have a series of clear cases from individuals who can demonstrate—I suggest to the Minister it is beyond any reasonable doubt—that they have legally parked, fully paid the correct amount and left within the required time, but who are still being hit. If they carry through the appeal process, they find they get nowhere. If they then refuse to pay, they are hit with a series of harassing letters and ultimately receive letters from debt recovery agents, which has an impact on their credit rating. That practice is wholly unacceptable, and intervention from Members of Parliament does not make any difference, either.
I am afraid that our constituents are being caught, and that has consequences. I will read from part of a letter from one of my constituents, which sums up the problem:
“I am an honest lady in my late 60s and I have never had an experience like this before. I live in rented accommodation on a limited income—I am not financially secure. It will cause me hardship to pay this fine when I fully believed I was doing everything legally and correctly.”
The letters go on. Another pensioner wrote to me:
“I am a pensioner and all this angst really upsets me…I will do as everyone else has done and pay the £60 within the allotted time and try to forget it—but I have to say the injustice really riles me.”
That is the injustice to which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset referred. He is right that the role of Government is to stand up to help those who are powerless against such practices.
It is not just pensioners—I hear this from across a spectrum of individuals—but we should ensure that particularly those who may have difficulty in entering details via these machines have their interests protected. I agree with hon. Members who have said that at the root of the problem lies the DVLA and its complicity in the process. Will the Minister use every power he has to ensure that it takes its role and responsibility seriously? It has a responsibility to ensure that such practices are not allowed to continue. I hope that in responding he will inform all Members here, and constituents following the debate closely, what the Government will do to ensure that justice is done for all our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on bringing the debate to the Chamber. It has been one of those pleasant debates where everyone agrees that something needs to be done and it is in the gift of the Minister to do something about it. I look forward to hearing his remarks.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks in a moment, but I will preface that by saying a few words about how this issue affects all the nations of the UK, despite some small variances in approach to regulation. We only have to look at the amount of times it has been raised in the UK Parliament to see that it is as much of an issue in Ipswich as it is in Inverness and across the rest of the isles. Having already discussed the practices of some private operators with Scottish Government Ministers, I am encouraged by their response in terms of what they can do. I welcome the work of the Business Services Association and others to improve the regulation of parking, and that of those seeking changes at Westminster.
However, the debate is about the relationship between private parking companies and the DVLA. While parking legislation is in the main devolved to the Scottish Government, the ownership and control of DVLA data is not. The current system has been built on the flawed premise of industry self-regulation, enabled by the provision of data from the DVLA. We are sharing DVLA data with companies whose practices, as we have heard from hon. Members today, are simply outrageous. I agree that it is right to call out companies such as Smart Parking, which has been mentioned several times and operates in my constituency too.
People are being charged excessive fines, and the tactics used to collect the debts are intimidation and threat, albeit through the written word. That is still intimidation and it is still unacceptable. I and my hon. Friends believe that access to our data is a privilege. I have asked the UK Government to put regulation on a better statutory footing. I know that operators must pay for access to the data, but I was displeased to hear that the cost of providing data to private parking operators is in fact subsidised. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says about that. The research from the Library says that the cost to the taxpayer of making up the shortfall was £612,000 in 2015—if the Minister is going to take on the might of the House of Commons Library, I will be delighted to hear what the data are. If that information is right, it means enabling what is tantamount to threatening behaviour.
The hon. Member for Torbay spoke in a measured tone; many of us feel more passion on the subject. I could tell that the passion was there, but he was holding back his anger. Certainly people hit by fines and chased for them would be unlikely to use such a measured tone. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the small terms and conditions. There are also machines that are difficult to use for reasons of height, and so forth. Perhaps when it is dark, or because it is necessary to bend down or conditions are not good, people press a zero instead of an “O” or vice versa. The hon. Gentleman talked about what reasonable behaviour would be, and it is certainly not reasonable behaviour to impose unreasonable fines without a real appeal process. I have had a similar experience to other hon. Members of writing to parking companies; Smart Parking was one that refused to acknowledge an MP wanting to act on behalf of a constituent. The hon. Gentleman also made a point about taxpayers subsidising the information, and I reiterate that I look forward to the Minister’s response to that.
The UK Government have undertaken a consultation on the matter. Last year I received written answers that made it clear that they were aware of public concern, but they had not discussed it with the companies or the DVLA. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful to hear from the Minister whether those discussions have happened yet, and if not, why not?
My hon. Friend is right. The Minister is a reasonable man, and I look forward to his response. It is clearly something that he can deal with.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made an important distinction, in a phrase that is worth repeating: he said that people got an invoice masquerading as a fine. That is exactly what people get. He talked about people waiting, to look for a space, which is a common occurrence, and getting fined. He, too, had had the experience of failing to get a response from Smart Parking and the other company that he mentioned.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) mentioned someone making an honest mistake. Surely there is room in our society for people to be able to say, “Look, I just got it wrong; I didn’t know I was in there,” if it is a reasonable and honest position. The hon. Gentleman also underlined the fact that responsibility lies with the Minister. I was struck by his comment that when the DVLA allows the data to be used by the companies in question, it enables them to bully people. That is something that clearly must be addressed.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) was right when he spoke about people paying the fine even though they feel it is wrong. Many people just pay because they feel they have to. It is a point of honour for them, even though it is their honour that has been unfairly besmirched by the company that fines them—or, I should say, gives them the invoice. Dismissed appeals are common. Little attention is paid to what is said, and there is no agreed set of standards, or licensing or appeals process. That, too, needs to be addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) rightly mentioned that often it is the most vulnerable people—the ones who cannot afford to pay—who end up paying high fines, which puts them in difficulty. Those people are used to trying to make ends meet, and if they get a bill, they feel a sense of honour about paying it. Also, they rarely have the opportunity to go elsewhere to seek advice.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Does he agree that the fines are far higher than those that are legislated for in public car park enforcement?
That is an important point. It is not just a question of the unreasonable behaviour and bullying—because that it what it is. The fines are also disproportionately large compared with what might be imposed through a public sector car park, for example. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, among others, said, that damages the reputation of our towns and cities, and areas that people visit for enjoyment.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) talked about problems when fines come through late, when people have discarded their tickets. People clear out their cars and get rid of evidence before they receive the letters, and that is a difficulty. If there are set times for the administering of statutory fines imposed through the DVLA, that should be mirrored when fines are imposed by companies—if they are still allowed to do it. Personally, I would not allow them to do it, but in any case, speed should be a consideration.
The hon. Lady also mentioned people being hounded, even though they had paid for a ticket. I thought she was correct when she talked about “harassing” letters, because that is what they are. They are designed to harass people into paying. That is simply wrong and should not be allowed. She raised another point that is a common theme—and the Minister should listen: a message should be sent from this place to the operators that they should not be able to ignore MPs when they seek information on their constituents’ behalf and forward a reasonable case for appeal.
Some of the letters that the hon. Lady received from people were telling, because those people were saying, “Look, I’m an honest person.” That came through in the letter from the “honest lady”. That is important. People are having their honour taken away in such cases. They feel that they have done the right thing. They have tried to make things work and to do everything correctly, but they are stopped at every opportunity, by a company that would be deeply suspected by most people of trying to make money from errors. That is clearly not correct. Another of the hon. Lady’s constituents commented “I’ll pay anyway”—how unjust to have to pay anyway, even though they were not at fault. They should not have to pay those amounts.
I am keen to hear what the Minister will say, including about cost to, or profit made by, the DVLA, and whether that contradicts the information I have had from the House of Commons Library. I hope he will listen to hon. Members and make sure that there is action to hold the DVLA to account for the information it gives to Smart Parking in Inverness and all the other companies we have heard about that indulge in similar practices.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on bringing forward the debate, which has enabled many hon. Members to give accounts of dreadful experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) powerfully explained from his experience how this works, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) described how powerless people can feel when they are treated so outrageously.
I want to concentrate my comments largely on what the Government have or have not done. In March 2015 the Department for Communities and Local Government published a consultation, “Parking reform: tackling unfair practices”. That came at a time when the Government chose to move responsibility for off-street parking to DCLG. The then Secretary of State clearly saw regulation as a problem rather than a civilising solution. I note in passing that there is still some confusion about where responsibility for parking policy lies. We will hear from a Transport Minister today, but there is clearly a lot of crossover with the Department for Communities and Local Government.
DCLG’s consultation concluded in May 2015, and the Government have still not responded. In December that year, I asked when we were likely to see the response and was told that it would be in the new year. It was not clear which new year was being referred to; we went through 2016 and are now in 2017. Just last month, I asked what reason the Government had for not publishing their response, and was told:
“We have set out a clear manifesto commitment to tackle aggressive parking enforcement and excessive parking charges, and are taking steps to tackle rogue and unfair practices by private parking operators.”
They also said they were
“considering responses to the discussion paper, and options for reform.”
However, there was no mention of when those considerations might conclude.
The responses to the initial consultation clearly show just how many problems exist, and they are very much along the lines of what we have heard from hon. Members. The summary of responses was published in May 2016, and the consensus was a stark indictment of the current situation. The majority of respondents—78%—indicated that there were problems with either how parking on private or public land is regulated or the behaviour of private parking companies. So 78% think there is a problem, yet the Government show no urgency in dealing with it. The majority of respondents considered there to be significant issues with how parking on private land currently operates, and the majority of organisations concurred. Issues raised by individual respondents included the lack of a private parking regulator to protect the interests of motorists, problems with the current appeals process, unclear signage, which we have heard about, and a general lack of clarity and information.
As the Government fiddle and tarry, a further problem has arisen. Back in 2012, the British Parking Association set up an appeals service, as the Government had requested. One of the Government’s key requests was that the service be independent, so the BPA set up the Independent Scrutiny Board for Parking Appeals on Private Land—ISPA. It may be easy for hon. Members to get confused by the acronyms, but please stick with me. More recently, the other major parking organisation, the International Parking Community, established a competing scheme.
As hon. Members have said, both schemes have access to DVLA data, without which neither would work. However, because the BPA feels that the IPC scheme has no independent scrutiny element, BPA members feel that they are being put at a disadvantage because they have to meet the cost of funding ISPA. They feel that the IPC should not have access to DVLA data without that independent scrutiny element. Because the Government have completely failed to sort all this out, the BPA will cease funding ISPA from the end of this month. The voluntary regulation system for the private parking sector is falling apart, so I am bound to ask the Minister what he and his colleagues are doing about that.
Let me say a little bit more about the relationship between the DVLA and private parking companies. On the one hand, individuals who responded to the consultation felt that the DVLA was failing to properly scrutinise private companies before releasing driver data, and many felt that it should not profit from the release of those data, as hon. Members have suggested. In turn, parking organisations said that companies already have to be governed by the code of practice, to which I have already referred, in order to access DVLA data. There are real concerns that the DVLA profits from the sale of the data that it holds on drivers. We have already heard that there are views on whether the DVLA is making or losing money, and the evidence I have seen is contradictory. I would rather welcome some clarity on that from the Minister.
The actual test for who can access those data is
“any person who can show to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that he has reasonable cause for wanting the particulars to be made available to him.”
“Reasonable cause” is not defined in the legislation and seems to take precedence over the Data Protection Act 1998. However, since 2009, the release of that information has been limited to members of an accredited trade association, which goes back to the point I have just made.
In 2015, the Government said that the DVLA
“takes the protection and security of its data very seriously. A comprehensive set of safeguards is in place to ensure data is disclosed only where it is lawful and fair to do so. Individuals may write to the DVLA to request that their personal information is not disclosed if it would cause unwarranted and substantial damage or distress. The DVLA does not operate a blanket opt-out process but considers each such request taking into account the individual's particular circumstances.”
That comprehensive set of safeguards is vague. When pressed on the specifics in a written question, the Government answered:
“The safeguards that are in place to protect information held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) vary depending on the channel used and sensitivity of the data processed through the service.”
All of that shows that the situation is a mess. There is a complex set of trade-offs between the role of data held by the state, the privacy of individuals, the rights of landowners and the obligations of operators, but in essence, the poor old driver, who just wants to park, is left dazed and confused. The British Parking Association has made a strong case for a single standard-setting body with an independent scrutiny board. It would deliver a single code of practice and a single independent appeals service for consumers. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that proposal. Ultimately, we need to see the Government finally respond to the consultation. It has been almost exactly two years now, which is surely enough time to consider the responses and come up with a plan to clarify this mess, which is pleasing no one.
Before I call the Minister, I ask him to please leave a few minutes at the end for Mr Foster to wind up the debate. That would be much appreciated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing the debate on the disclosure of DVLA data to private parking companies. I welcome the opportunity to discuss a matter that is clearly of concern to him and to his constituents; there is a slight bias towards the south-west, but this is clearly of concern across the UK.
Although the policy on disclosure of DVLA data is of long standing, it is true that management of parking companies and the release of vehicle keeper data frequently generate significant concern. Of course, that is entirely understandable. No one likes to receive a parking ticket, and motorists become annoyed when they are the subject of enforcement action. Many examples have been shared of inappropriate and heavy-handed enforcement action. Motorists often disagree with the principle that DVLA vehicle keeper data can be provided to private companies for such purposes. I should point out that the private parking sector is not regulated by the Government. The Department for Communities and Local Government consulted on this issue in 2015 and is currently considering the approach to any future Government intervention. I am afraid I cannot give the House a detailed time as to when that will be finished.
As it stands, the private parking industry is an unregulated sector in which common law on breach of contract or trespass applies in the relationship between the motorist and the landowner. Drivers who choose to park their vehicles on private land do so in line with the terms and conditions, which should be clearly displayed on signage at the entrance to and around the car park. Those conditions may relate to the need to pay a fee to use the car park and to display a valid ticket, to observe the maximum permitted time for parking or possibly other conditions, such as a stipulation that parking is not permitted at all.
Parking control is necessary to ensure that landowners are able to exercise their legal rights and gain the benefit they are entitled to from the use of their land for that purpose. The use of wheel clamping used to be widespread in the sector as a means of parking enforcement, but was banned in England and Wales by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, meaning that that method of enforcement is now effectively outlawed. I am sure that colleagues will agree that, without any form of control, errant drivers could park as they like, breaching reasonable terms and conditions without fear of recourse arising from their misuse of the land. That would obviously have a detrimental effect on the availability of parking spaces for more compliant motorists.
To be clear, no one is arguing that there should be no ability to control. Does the Minister agree that the issue is about the heavy-handed enforcement, and the fact that the fines are far above those that local authorities find are perfectly adequate for management and enforcement in their own car parks?
I do indeed recognise that. I was just trying to clarify the legal position. My hon. Friend made his case extremely well and has now clarified it again.
The law allows for the release of DVLA vehicle keeper information to those who can demonstrate that they have reasonable cause for requiring it. That provision has been in law for several decades. To receive data, a requester must show that their need relates to the use of a vehicle following incidents in which there may be liability on the part of the keeper or driver. Where a parking infringement may have taken place, it is considered reasonable to provide the vehicle keeper’s contact details, so that the matter can be taken up with the person responsible. Despite the unpopular nature of that process, it is a well-established principle in case law that such enforcement is lawful, as confirmed by the Supreme Court in late 2015.
Despite this being an unregulated industry, and while the law provides for the release of information, the DVLA has strict conditions in place in relation to the disclosure and use of data. The DVLA will only disclose vehicle keeper data to parking companies that are members of an accredited trade association; I will come on to that in more detail in a moment. Such trade associations have codes of practice that are based upon fair treatment of the motorist and require their members to operate to high professional standards of conduct, while allowing reasonable action to be taken to follow up alleged parking contraventions. The codes of practice contain requirements on clear and prominent signage, appeals processes and information that should be provided to motorists on parking tickets. They also contain requirements on the use of automatic number plate recognition cameras, which are expected to be in good working order.
There should be no hidden charges or ambiguity for the motorist as to what is and is not permitted on the land. The codes of practice require that contact with the motorist is not threatening and that parking charge notices are issued promptly, so that the driver can recall the circumstances surrounding the event. A reasonable amount of time must also be given to the motorist to allow payment to be made before any escalation of the matter occurs.
These codes of practice are marvellous, but the problem that has been established in this debate is that they are not followed, and the DVLA is complicit in that.
I am coming to that. I recognise entirely what we have heard this morning.
A further requirement in England and Wales, where additional liability for parking charges exists for vehicle keepers, is that access to an independent appeals body is provided. That independent appeals service must be free to the motorist. The outcome of the appeal is binding on the parking company but not on the motorist, who can continue to dispute the charge. Companies that do not comply with the codes of practice can face expulsion from the trade association, resulting in the right to have DVLA vehicle keeper data removed.
Will the Minister give way?
I am running out of time, so I will not.
I want to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay about whether there is enough enforcement action. Bad practices are tackled. The DVLA can and does suspend the disclosure of data to companies that have not been compliant. However, there is clear concern from Members that we need to go significantly further. I have been working to ensure that we get the balance right.
Let me reassure the House on how we control the data. We have had lots of debates in this House about the right to privacy of our personal data. The trade associations have a code of practice, which includes access to DVLA data being tightly controlled. Companies with an electronic facility to request DVLA data have to sign up to a detailed contract that lays out the requirements on the use and security of data. The DVLA undertakes remote checks on parking companies.
In addition, the Government Internal Audit Agency carries out detailed audit visits on the DVLA’s behalf and undertakes more in-depth checking of individual cases to provide further assurance that requests have been submitted for genuine reasons and there is reliable evidence to back up the request. Non-compliance can result in sanctions, including the removal of the right to data.
The DVLA’s controls around the disclosure of data to parking companies were subject to a detailed data protection audit by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year. I can confirm that the Information Commissioner awarded the DVLA the highest rating for the controls it has in place surrounding the disclosure of data.
There have been a few questions about costs. I can confirm that this is priced on a cost recovery model, so it is neither subsidised nor run at a profit. The DVLA charges a fee for providing vehicle keeper details. In the cost recovery model, the fee is £2.50, which is designed to ensure that the cost burden is met by the companies involved and not the taxpayer. There are significant volumes of requests; we are looking at potentially 4 million in the course of this financial year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay highlighted. However, the Government are not seeing either a profit or a loss.
Many Members have mentioned constituents’ complaints regarding bad practice and motorists who feel they have been unfairly treated by parking operators. There are several routes for redress should an operator fall short of the standards expected. The first is the company’s initial appeal process, which it is required to offer under its code of practice. There is also the independent appeals service, which is free to motorists. I have already mentioned the need for an operator to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice in order to retain its membership of an accredited trade association. If there are breaches of the code of practice, the trade association is there to investigate and ensure that action is taken. Without membership, there is no access to DVLA data.
Consumer protection laws also apply here. Those laws are designed to protect consumers from unfair practices. Trading standards officers are there to investigate complaints and can take action against a particular company. Consumer protection legislation applies to individual cases and the actions of the company in individual circumstances. Breaches can result in prosecution.
I hope that colleagues will recognise that the DVLA has gone through significant controls to ensure that the data are handled correctly and that there are controls and audits. There was a question about responsibility. The DVLA is the responsibility of the DFT. The parking companies and on-street and off-street parking sit with the DCLG. We have to work on this issue together because, without car ownership data, accessed through the DVLA, this industry would stop.
Colleagues have raised issues with me in writing previously and today, and there is clearly a significant issue to resolve. The Government are most concerned about the matter, which is why the DCLG launched its consultation. I will ensure that DCLG colleagues are aware of concerns and the content of this debate. I will also arrange a meeting with the trade associations, to highlight the concerns we have in this House about their members’ practices and to review exactly what enforcement action they take. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that this is a little bit David and Goliath. Our job is to stand up for the Davids, not the Goliaths. That is completely fair.
I have been asked whether there should be a single standard-setting body for the industry. Competition between industry bodies is generally quite good. Competition can improve services, so I do not think we necessarily need to have just one body. I was also asked whether the relationship between the trade associations and the DVLA is appropriate. It is legal, and it is controlled and audited. The information provision is managed. The concern lies in the code of practice and its enforcement. That is where the next actions will be, and I will take those actions forward from today’s debate.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. It has been interesting to hear so many examples from across the length and breadth of these isles. This issue is not localised to Torbay.
Competition is good where it is about services, but we would not suggest having competing magistrates courts. Once upon a time, we did that for the civil courts, and it did not produce a good outcome. The concern of many is that the industry is able not only to mark its own homework but to choose the marker. We need to look closely at that. There are more than 4 million of these transactions. Given the debate we have had today about the cost and the comments made in a House of Commons Library document, based on a Transport Committee report in 2014, I suggest that the Minister places a letter in the Library. It would be helpful if he clarified that point.
I am happy to make that commitment.
I thank the Minister for that positive reply and the courtesy he has shown. This issue will continue, and further action is needed. We cannot stand aside and ignore the key role the state plays in handing over details that it compels its citizens to provide to the DVLA and in allowing some of these practices to continue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the relationship between the DVLA and private car parking companies.