New Clause 15 — Offence of issuing excess parking charges

Protection of Freedoms Bill (Ways and Means) – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 10th October 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

‘(1) A person commits an offence who, without lawful authority requires a driver or any person in possession of a vehicle to pay parking charges in relation to a contract to park that vehicle.

(2) The express or implied consent (whether or not legally binding) of a person otherwise entitled to enter into a contract regarding parking is not lawful authority for the purposes of subsection (1).

(3) Subsection (2) does not apply where—

(a) the person or body attempting to enforce the parking charges is a member of an Accredited Trade Association so accredited by the Secretary of State;

(b) the penalty charge can be appealed to an independent body;

(c) the person or body attempting to enforce the parking charges takes reasonable steps to inform the driver or keeper of the vehicle about the right to appeal; and

(d) the person or body follows a prescribed parking enforcement process including clear signage and contact numbers.

(4) The Secretary of State can, by way of regulation, introduce a maximum charge, under which parking charges would not be subject to subsection (1).

(5) A person who is entitled to remove a vehicle cannot commit an offence under this section in relation to that vehicle.

(6) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—

(a) on conviction on indictment, to a fine,

(b) on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum which must be no higher than charges for an on-street parking offence.

(7) In this section “motor vehicle” means a mechanically propelled vehicle or a vehicle designed or adapted for towing by a mechanically propelled vehicle.’.—(Diana Johnson.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 21, 76, 39 to 54, 77, 55 to 61, and 78 and 62.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Bill sets out in chapter 2 to outlaw wheel-clamping on private land and to introduce a ticketing regime. We had an extensive debate on this issue in Committee. The major concern that still arises from the way the Bill is drafted is that there is nothing to offer any regulation or protection for the motorist from the problems experienced so far with rogue wheel-clampers. We believe that the rogue wheel-clampers will now move on and become rogue ticketers, and we are not alone in this. We have the support of the RAC, the AA, and the British Parking Association—and I am very pleased to say that today a leader in The Times supports Labour’s amendment on this point.

Our new clause seeks to offer a level of sensible protection for those parking on private land equivalent to the protections offered to people who park on the highway and wish to appeal when they have received a parking fine. For many of our constituents, it is bewildering that the law in each situation is so different. If someone parks on the highway, there is a limit on the fines and an independent appeals process, but if they park in a small private car park, or even a large retail car park, they can face unlimited fines and there is no formal regulated appeals system.

The real reason we need to move this amendment and have this debate is that the coalition Government rushed into the decision to get rid of wheel-clamping, and they did not go through any meaningful consultation with key stakeholders to discuss what the effect of removing wheel-clamping as something that a private landowner could use to protect their land. When the previous Government considered how to deal with rogue wheel-clampers and set out provisions in the Crime and Security Act 2010, those provisions were widely consulted on. Issues that had to be addressed concerned signage, the level of fees that should be paid, the methods available for payment, the evidence required and a full appeals process. They were set out fully in the drafting of the

2010 Act in order to deal with rogue wheel clampers, because it was recognised that regulation was required.

The Government have decided to introduce a ban on wheel clamping on private land, but they have failed to address the real issue now facing motorists, which is what happens when they are faced with rogue ticketers. In this regard, as in so many others, the Government have reacted in a knee-jerk fashion without really thinking through the consequences of the legislation they are bringing before the House.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:00 pm, 10th October 2011

Does my hon. Friend have any view on unadopted private roads in areas where there is a local authority parking scheme all around and where quite successful operations are currently run, with minimal levels of clamping? From now on clamping will be banned, so far more expensive systems will have to be introduced, which will cost residents a great deal of money—including council and social housing tenants in the area—but achieve nothing different from what exists now.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That issue was debated in Committee, but unfortunately the Government set their face against dealing with it and recognising that there was a problem.

We believe that under the ticketing regime set out in the Bill, the motorist could still end up facing extortionate fees from rogue parking companies, which could be enforced by aggressive security staff against the driver and, if necessary, against the keeper of the vehicle. We also believe that it may still be possible to use a barrier or even a chain to block an exit to a car park, forcing individuals to pay extortionate ticket fees. We believe that rogue parking companies could threaten motorists with the bailiffs and that their credit ratings could be affected. Our amendments have wide-ranging support from the parking industry and motoring organisations. The Government’s impact assessment recognises the risk of rogue wheel-clampers becoming rogue ticketers, but the Bill is silent on what should happen in those circumstances.

Patrick Troy, the chief executive of the British Parking Association, made it clear in his evidence to the Committee that rogue clampers will just move into another form of criminality—rogue ticketing. He recognised that parking is complicated and that it is often difficult for members of the public to understand the difference between the highway and private land. In the main, motorists remain ignorant of their rights, and rogue ticketers will take advantage of this.

Edmund King of the AA said that the current arrangements for street ticketing—that is, on the highway, for which there is a good independent appeals system through the traffic penalty tribunal—are independent and accepted by motorists and the industry alike as fair and proportionate. Parking companies pay a 65p levy per penalty charge notice to pay for the system, which is fair. We should have the same ticketing provisions on appeal for those who receive tickets on private land, especially as the Government are introducing keeper liability provisions in the Bill. Without a proper, independent appeal, it is unfair and unjust that a keeper could be held liable for a ticket that he or she knows nothing about.

In his evidence to the Committee, Edmund King talked about the following situation arising:

“A company, which seems to be incredibly profitable, is carrying out private ticketing. Its website says, ‘Welcome to the ultimate recession-proof business opportunity’ which has ‘limitless earnings potential’. All the company does is…suggest…that if you have a small piece of land and wanted to make some money, you could apply to my company, and I will send you some parking notices.

You will take your digital camera and take pictures of the cars of neighbours you do not like or of anyone who parks there, and send the pictures to” that company, which will then

“apply to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for their details, send out tickets, and if 60% pay up, which they currently do,” it will give £10 to the landowner for each ticket and pocket the rest. He continued:

“That company claims to have 1,200 agents who ticket in that way…even though that company claims to be a member of the British Parking Association, the 1,200 people are, as far as we know, just individuals. There is no control, and our worry is that the clampers who have been making money for nothing for the past 10 years are not going to give up”.––[Official Report, Protection of Freedoms Public Bill Committee, 24 March 2011; c. 145, Q419.]

Instead, they will become rogue ticketers.

Mr King also gave examples of problems in challenging the issue of a ticket, because there is at present no opportunity to do so. He cited the example of Mr B’s car, which incurred a private penalty in a Glasgow hospital car park even though Mr B and his car were in the south of France. The company involved commenced debt recovery procedures. A second case involved an AA member who had been issued with a parking charge notice by X. He had parked in the car park of a major DIY store and spent more than £1,000 in the store. It had taken him some time to choose the goods, and he received a parking charge notice from X, which stated that he had overstayed the maximum permitted time of three hours by 19 minutes. He had to pay £80, which would be reduced to £50 if he paid by a certain date.

A third example involved a Bristol driver whose car was spotted during two different visits to a fast-food outlet. The camera or operator took this to be one single visit and issued a penalty notice for 41 days’ parking. Two AA executives were also sent parking charge notices by post for infringing unclear bay marking rules in a local supermarket. Both of them challenged the parking charge notices, but they were threatened with damage to their credit rating and a visit from the bailiffs if they did not pay up.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

May I give my hon. Friend another example? It involves the Peel centre, a retail park in the centre of Stockport where many of my constituents have received penalty fines for overstaying in the car park. One of my constituents challenged this in the courts and had the penalty overturned because the signage was so small that it was considered unreasonable to expect people to read the notices. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be better to have a proper appeals system in place, rather than expecting our constituents to have to go through the courts in such cases?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

That is exactly right, and our new clause sets out clearly that anyone wishing to issue tickets should be a member of the British Parking Association or an accredited trade association, and should comply with the code of practice agreed with the DVLA on proper signage and a proper appeals system. We believe that that would solve the problem.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I was retained counsel by the Automobile Association in 2000, in the case of Vine v. London borough of Waltham Forest, so I come to this matter with a degree of experience. Subsection (1) of new clause 15 attempts to create a criminal offence in certain circumstances. Does the hon. Lady agree, however, that those circumstances are already covered by the measures in the Theft Act 1968 relating to obtaining property by deception, or by consumer protection legislation?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

It is quite clear that consumer protection legislation has not worked in the motorist’s favour in the past. Creating a criminal offence, as the amendment would do, would send a clear signal about how serious the matter is and how people who are going to issue tickets should be properly regulated. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I want to move on to the RAC, which gave evidence that the provisions in the Bill would not create a landscape for parking in which the motorist could be guaranteed a fair deal from the parking industry. I know that the Government have made much of the fact that they are on the side of the motorist, but when motoring organisations and members of the industry itself are saying that the system being proposed in the legislation is unfair, the Government need to think again.

As drafted, the right to challenge a ticket is very limited. It would apply only to cases in which liability could be enforced against a keeper. That means that if a person did not pay up to the parking company, the company could go after the keeper of the vehicle, whose information is held by the DVLA. The protection offered is that only a member of an accredited trade association—currently the British Parking Association—will be allowed access to DVLA information. However, the Government state in the impact assessment that they expect 74% of penalty tickets to be paid up front at the time the ticket is issued, rising to 82% when keeper liability is added in. The expectation is that people will just pay up and will not have the opportunity to lodge any kind of appeal. There is no independent appeal procedure. We understand that, under the Government amendments, members of the British Parking Association must have an internal disputes procedure, but we say that is not good enough: it is not fair and not independent. It is widely perceived that it must be independent.

I mentioned the example of the company that Edmund King suggested made a lot of money out of ticketing. Will the Minister respond on the issue of road parking companies that are not members of the British Parking Association but are able to get information about a vehicle—for example, the address of a commercial vehicle on the side of a van parked in a private car park—or to gain access to lists of customers’ details in a private car park? In those circumstances, the ticketing organisation could pursue the keeper without having gone through the DVLA. As I understand it, that could be done perfectly legally, but it could be threatening if money is demanded quickly in order to avoid the bailiffs coming round.

Will the Minister for Equalities talk more about contract law and consumer protection? She made much in Committee of the fact that consumer protection law was already in place, but we made the case that that did not provide adequate protection for motorists. Will she therefore comment on the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 and explain whether she feels it needs to be strengthened or whether further information needs to be given to the public about its provisions?

Let me make some specific points about the amendments in the group. New clause 15 would ensure that anyone issuing a penalty ticket must be registered with an accredited trade association, that all ticketers were currently members of the British Parking Association who must abide by the trade association’s code of practice, which is agreed, in turn, with the DVLA. The new clause also means that tickets placed on the vehicle or those issued later through the use of ANPR—automatic number plate recognition—would be subject to an independent appeals procedure. This would ensure that the maximum fines on private land are the same as for those on public roads and that the same terms and conditions, the same right of appeal and the same prompt payment discount would apply. This has widespread support. The RAC and the AA have recently conducted a populist poll of 12,000 people, of whom 98% thought that there should be some form of licensing for ticketers. That shows that there is clear and overwhelming public support for this new clause, so I hope the Minister will think again and support it.

Will the Minister clarify some points about the other amendments in the group? We welcome Government amendment 21, which came out of the evidence given to the Committee by Patrick Troy of the British Parking Association and Edmund King of the AA. The Opposition took the view that the drafting of the clause dealing with a fixed barrier was ambiguous. I am glad that the Government have recognised the issue raised by the Opposition and have sought to amend the provisions. I know, however, that the BPA still has some doubts about the new wording, as it fails specifically to mention wheel-clamping.

Government amendment 76 passes liability from the car hire company to the person who has hired the car where appropriate. Will the Minister comment on the fact that she is making it easier to transfer keeper liability in those circumstances? Has she given any thought to the circumstances where, for example, a motorist takes their car to a garage and the garage parks it on someone else’s private land? In that case, can the liability be passed back to the garage? As currently drafted, keeper liability means that the individual car owner would be liable as the keeper, even though the actions were carried out by the garage.

Amendments 39 to 54 are technical, but will the Minister explain why she wants to move from the term “relevant contract” to “relevant obligation” in the wording of the affected clauses?

Government amendment 59 deals with the issue of keeper liability. I understand that it relates to the use of ANPR and would allow a ticket to be sent to the keeper after the parking infringement has taken place. Let us suppose that a disabled person is dropped at an airport where there is a 15-minute limit for use of a parking space. Because of the nature of the disability, it takes up to 30 minutes for the car to be unpacked and moved away. What redress is open to the disabled person? If a ticketing regime were in operation, the person issuing the ticket would presumably be allowed to exercise some discretion on the basis of the disability, but an ANPR system would merely register that the car had entered the parking space at a certain time and left at a certain time, and a ticket would automatically be issued.

There has been a real failure to address issues involving disability, which we discussed at length in Committee. It is a great shame that the impact assessment still fails to acknowledge or deal with the equality issues raised by parking bays and the time that people are allowed in which to park. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the example that I have given.

I understand that the latest definition of car hire is not included in Government amendment 78. According to the hire car associations, specifying a six-month time limit is a rather old-fashioned approach, and it would be better to reflect modern leasing practices, which often involve a much longer period than six months. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that as well. As for Government amendment 62, why do the Government need the power to change the definition of “relevant land”?

I look forward to hearing from the Minister that she has had an opportunity to think again about the Bill’s failure to deal with the issue of ticketing and introduce a fair, independent system of appeal to deal with the problem of rogue ticketers, which I believe will come back to haunt the Government.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 9:15 pm, 10th October 2011

As Diana Johnson pointed out, we had a long debate in Committee on issues such as ticketing and clamping. Before I reply to her specific questions, let me remind the House what was said by many of the people she cited when we announced that we were going to ban wheel-clamping on private land. Edmund King, president of the AA, said:

“An outright ban on wheelclamping on private land is a victory for justice and common sense.”

Mr Watson said:

“I just want to say that this part of the Bill is fantastic and that the Home Secretary has my full support for it.”—[Hansard, 1 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 210.]

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“We are extremely pleased that the government has decided to deal with the scourge of clamping and towing on private land, as a matter of urgency.”

The AA said in a press release:

“It is a momentous decision to prepare new legislation to end this scourge that has blighted the name of parking control in private parking areas for so long.”

I quoted those comments partly to remind Opposition Members that what they proposed to do was license the companies concerned—in fact, individuals have been licensed, which clearly has not worked according to the tales told by almost every Member in the House about those whose cars have been clamped and from whom money has been more or less extorted—and also to remind them that the system that we propose was wanted by Members on both sides of the House. The issue now is how to ensure that we can implement it. Licensing clamping businesses, as suggested by the Opposition, was not the answer.

We have discussed the “what ifs”—all the issues that might arise—and the potential problems if rogue clampers became rogue ticketers. In Scotland clamping was banned in 1992, very successfully. On deciding to consider the option of banning, the first thing I did was ask my officials to inquire what the repercussions and difficulties had been in Scotland, such as whether the use of barriers had been impossible and whether there were rogue clampers. I looked into those matters in 2010, which was after 18 years, and my officials came back and said there had been just a handful of letters about any problems in all that time.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The hon. Lady will have received correspondence from the Aberdeen Park Maintenance Company, which manages a private road in my constituency. It has an effective, low-cost system of controls and a minimal level of clamping. Under this legislation, however, it will not be allowed to do any clamping at all. Instead it will have to install expensive barriers and employ staff. That will cost everyone, including council and social housing tenants, a great deal of money. I realise this is a somewhat anomalous argument, but in every city there are private and unadopted roads where such issues will arise, and I would be grateful if she would share her thoughts and say what response she will give to this company.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am sure such issues will arise across the land. The way to deal with them will be through either ticketing or barriers. However, it is also possible—although this is not required—for a local authority to take over responsibility for that land and issue tickets. Such matters can be addressed in that way, therefore. I cannot give a specific response on every circumstance that might arise across the land, but in Scotland the answer was barriers or ticketing; it was not particularly complicated.

We will carefully watch how things pan out, but our proposal is our best effort to get the balance right and to make sure that we proceed without the burdens of regulating everything in the land and instead let the parking industry look after itself so there is no cost to the taxpayer if ticketing is taken forward. An appeals process will also be put in place, and I shall address the detail of that shortly.

I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, and I think we are all trying to achieve the same outcome, but we just believe that we can get there in different ways. The best way in which I can respond to new clause 15 is by reference to the Government amendments in this group, which address ticketing issues.

The Government amendments propose a number of changes to schedule 4, which makes provision for vehicle keepers to be held liable for unpaid parking charges in certain circumstances. The amendments, many of which are of a drafting or technical nature, seek to clarify the effect of the provisions in order to reduce the potential for them to be misunderstood either deliberately or inadvertently by motorists, vehicle keepers and those responsible for parking restrictions and enforcement on private land.

In Committee, the hon. Lady argued for the introduction of a statutory scheme for the regulation of parking on private land which was the same as the one we are discussing now. The Opposition were particularly concerned for there to be statutory provision in respect of signage at car parks and appeals rights. That theme is again picked up in new clause 15.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I want the Minister to set out very clearly that the Government amendments do not provide for an independent appeals process, but are instead limited to keeper liability in very specific circumstances. They therefore do not provide proper and adequate independent appeals for anyone who receives a ticket.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

For any land that is properly signed and under lawful authority, people will be protected by either consumer law or the appeals process that will be set up by the British Parking Association. If the hon. Lady lets me pursue my argument, I think that some of her questions will be answered.

I made it clear that parking enforcement was properly a matter for existing contract and consumer protection law, backed up by self-regulation by the parking industry. That remains the Government’s position—that is clear. However, we have looked again at the provisions in schedule 4 to see whether they include adequate safeguards for motorists and vehicle keepers, and the amendments strengthen those in two ways.

First, on appeal rights and keeper liability, I fully agree with the hon. Lady that there should be appropriate safeguards for motorists, including access to an appeals body for drivers or vehicle keepers to challenge parking charges where they believe they have been wrongly or unfairly imposed. Amendment 59 makes it clear that the notice to the driver or the keeper of a vehicle must set out the arrangements for the resolution of disputes or complaints. We have asked the parking sector, led by the British Parking Association, to establish an independent appeals body, funded by the parking industry and free to consumers, to cover tickets issued by members of the BPA or another accredited trade association. We have also made it clear that we will not bring the keeper liability provisions in schedule 4 into force unless and until the sector establishes, financially supports and agrees to abide by the decisions of an independent challenge body. Unlike the hon. Lady, we do not see a need to constitute this appeals body in legislation. We believe that effective self-regulation by the parking industry is the right way forward, wherever possible, rather than relying on a governmental regulatory approach.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am interested in what the Minister is saying. However, self-regulation for wheel-clamping clearly did not work and we are ending up in a similar position in this area. By providing self-regulation, we will find that the good ticketing and parking companies will be members of the BPA but the organisations that are just going to intimidate and impose excessive charges through ticketing notices on vehicles will not be covered by the appeals process.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Intimidation is against the law. I would say to any motorist intimidated by a rogue ticketer that they should report it immediately to the police.

Secondly, on signage, amendment 61 sets out a reserve power to prescribe requirements on the display, content and location of signs at car parks and other relevant land. I say a “reserve power” because parking providers will be able to access DVLA keeper data, and therefore benefit from the keeper liability provisions, only if they abide by the British Parking Association’s code of practice on signage. We do not consider that regulation on signage will be necessary and we would want to introduce statutory rules on signage only if there was clear evidence that the BPA code was not living up to the job. I would be more than happy to read out to the hon. Lady the BPA code on signage, but it is quite long. Suffice it to say, it is big, clear and exactly what one would want in terms of proper parking signage. If that was not the case, we would keep an eye on the situation, but we do not want to introduce statutory rules about signage automatically because we believe that the BPA code will work.

The third significant change introduced by these amendments is to extend the application of the keeper liability regime to circumstances where an obligation to pay a parking charge arises as a result of parking on land without permission, which is to say in the context of a trespass or other tort. This change will help to address the concerns expressed by tenant associations and others about their ability to tackle unauthorised parking in communal parking areas once the ban on wheel-clamping comes into force. We have also made it clear in relation to vehicle hire companies that liability for any parking charges during the period of hire will rest with the hirer of the vehicle once the vehicle hire company provides a copy of the relevant documentation to the creditor. Again that reflects the position for on-road parking contraventions.

Finally, the amendments will allow for the use of CCTV or automatic number plate recognition technology, as well as the physical ticketing of vehicles, in order to manage parking on relevant land. Taken together, these amendments to schedule 4 will ensure that parking providers and other landowners will have an effective means of enforcing unpaid parking charges which are, at the same time, fair to the motorist and vehicle keepers.

On the concerns expressed about rogue ticketers, the Government are fully committed to monitoring the effect of the ban on vehicle immobilisation and removal and the associated keeper liability provisions in schedule 4.

I have cited the case of Scotland, where such things did not happen in anything like the way described by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, but if there is evidence that we need to take further steps when the new arrangements are in place, we will do so. We recognise that some may attempt to extort money through rogue ticketing, but the evidence from Scotland is that that has not been a significant problem. Rogue ticketers, by definition, will not have access to the DVLA database, so will not be able to pursue the vehicle keeper. All they will be able to do is issue a ticket and hope the recipient pays up, which is quite a different level from the intimidation and extortion that exists through the bad practices of rogue wheel-clampers.

Ticketers will not be able to possess the car and prevent the person from getting away from the place where the car was parked. That is a different level of intimidation and threat to that experienced by those targeted by wheel-clampers who were out to extort money unfairly. No longer will motorists have their cars held hostage, which was clearly the main reason why the unscrupulous clampers were able to levy excessive charges. We believe that the measures we are introducing in the Bill, together with existing consumer protection laws, are sufficient to deal with issues such as rogue ticketing, inadequate signage and excessive charges.

Let me deal briefly with Government amendment 21 to clause 54, which responds to an issue raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North in Committee. The hon. Lady referred to the concerns expressed by the British Parking Association about the effect of subsection (3) of the clause. The provision is intended to permit the continued use of barriers as a legitimate means of parking control and enforcement once the ban on wheel-clamping comes into force. As I said many times in Committee, it is not our intention that the presence of a barrier should, in itself, confer lawful authority for the wheel-clamping of a vehicle. It is clear, however, that subsection (3) as drafted has been read as providing such authority. The Government amendment puts the matter beyond doubt. A landowner will not be committing the clause 54 offence in circumstances where a fixed barrier, present at the time when a vehicle was parked on the land in question, restricts the movement of the vehicle, but that does not mean that the landowner will be able to resort to wheel-clamping or towing away in those circumstances. I trust that the amendment makes the position crystal clear.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 9:30 pm, 10th October 2011

Let us be clear. Are we saying that if someone receives a ticket in a private car park and there is a barrier that restricts the car from being driven away, that is completely legitimate? Is the Minister saying that a vehicle can still be immobilised by a barrier being put down at the front of the car park, with a ticket being issued, so that the car cannot move away? Is that correct?

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The presence of the barrier means that the owner has either expressly or implicitly consented to pay the parking charges, which must be clearly labelled under either consumer protection law or the new laws under the keeper liability or BPA rules. If he or she has paid the charge, the barrier will be lifted and they can leave the car park. They must pay the charge for the barrier to be lifted, like a normal car park. That is what happens in a normal car park—when I go shopping, that is what happens. One complies.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The point I am trying to make to the Minister is that some rogue landowners will put down barriers to immobilise vehicles but will put a ticket for, say, £500 on the car, saying, “Pay the £500 and we will take the barrier up.” That is the issue. I am concerned not about legitimate parking organisations that are members of the BPA, but about those rogue companies that are out to make a fast buck.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That has not been the experience in Scotland. I would say to motorists, first, that they should not enter unless the signage is clear and they know what they are doing, and, secondly, that if that were to happen, they should call the police. [ Interruption. ] I was about to say that I hope, in the light of the reassurance I have provided in respect of appeal rights and signage, that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw her new clause and support the Government’s amendments, but I am not sure that the timing is entirely appropriate.

The hon. Lady asked about the six-month limit for hired cars and she made a good point that we are happy to consider further. She also asked about the effect of consumer protection legislation on ticketing. Where the terms and conditions on which land may be used for parking are displayed on a prominent sign at the entrance to the land, existing consumer protection legislation applies. Such legislation protects consumers from misleading information and unfair contract terms. That deals with the point about the £500 ticket the hon. Lady mentioned, which would, under that protection, clearly be an unfair contract term. For example, where signs for motorists in a car park are misleading or where other misleading or deceptive information is given, such as the use of tickets that look like local authority tickets, there may be a breach of consumer protection regulations. If so, local authority trading standards services and the Office of Fair Trading can take enforcement action.

Where there is no prominent sign setting out the terms and conditions according to which the land may be used, there is no protection, as I have said, and the motorist should not park there as he or she is probably trespassing. However, that may not always be clear and it may be that a car park provider could be accused of making a misleading omission under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 if they fail to provide information that no parking is allowed. Maximum penalties under the regulations are a £5,000 fine on summary conviction—that is in a magistrates court—or a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both, on conviction or indictment in a Crown court. Furthermore, companies can pursue motorists for a parking fee only when they have the motorist’s contact details, and the DVLA will provide those details only to companies that are registered with an accredited trade association. I have seen no evidence that contract law and consumer protection are defective in any way in that regard.

Let me return to the issue of extortionate fees and barriers, which the hon. Lady mentioned. If she was asking whether the exemption for barriers in clause 54(3) means that a landowner will still be able to charge extortionate fees to let motorists out of a car park where there is a barrier, the answer is no because, as I have said, subsection (3)(a) requires that

“there is express or implied consent by the driver of the vehicle to restricting its movement by a fixed barrier”.

Secondly, in order to establish a contract as a basis for payment, the terms for parking have to be clearly displayed. We consider that if a landowner demanded a fee for the vehicle’s release without that basis, he would be committing an offence under subsection (1).

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I know that the hon. Lady’s heart is in the right place and that we are trying to achieve something good with this Bill, but it is riddled with holes and exemptions. I foresee a scenario in which a person gets a ticket from one of these companies and the DVLA then provides that person’s address to the ticketing company, which then applies for a bailiff’s warrant in a distant court, and a bailiff then turns up and takes the person’s car. With the best will in the world, ringing up trading standards or the police will not help. If these companies cannot get you one way they will get you another way, and bailiffs’ warrants on vehicles will be in use.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but he is wrong. A rogue ticketer who is not a member of an accredited trade association or the British Parking Association would not be able to access the information from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

It is not rogue; it is the norm.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is not the norm. This is about making parking work for everyone. We are changing what was an appalling blot on the landscape. There is probably not an MP in the House who has not written to me or the Minister who previously held my position with terrible tales of rogue clamping. At the very worst, if the hon. Lady—sorry, the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I have forgotten my point now; it is lost to posterity.

Anyway, I hope that I have answered the points raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North. We are trying to do the right thing; we are removing a scourge. The measures have been welcomed by motoring organisations and people across the land. There is nothing as popular as the measures, as a result of people’s experiences of being clamped in unfair circumstances. I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw her new clause and support the Government amendments. I fear that she may not, but I live in hope.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

I rise briefly to support new clause 15, tabled by my hon. Friend Diana Johnson. In over 14 years as Member of Parliament for Exeter, I cannot recall a local grievance that has caused as many constituents to complain to me or seek my help as have done about the behaviour of private car park operators over the last 18 months or so. Constituents have been fined while going to buy a ticket; fined despite buying and displaying a ticket; and fined despite the fact that the ticket machine was broken at the time and the driver had left a note to that effect on his windscreen. One car park at Exeter airport, which has 24-hour digital recording of the cars going in and out, has fined motorists for using the car park to turn around in, or for driving in and out of it by mistake.

The vast majority of cases concern people who have been fined, not clamped. The common grievance is the sense of summary injustice and the lack of any right of proper appeal. In some cases, when I have intervened, the companies concerned have reduced or even waived the fines. My local newspaper, the Express & Echo, has also taken up individual cases and sought to name and shame the rogue operators, but no system of justice should have to depend on the intervention of an MP or a local newspaper. I wholeheartedly agree with the excellent editorial in The Times today that warned that the Bill threatens to make a bad situation worse. We need a proper right of appeal, and I am afraid that the appeal process outlined by the Minister, which will be on a voluntary basis, will not reassure my constituents.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that he would allow wheel-clamping on private land to continue?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

No. I am making the same point that other Members have made: if we ban wheel-clamping, the danger is in the unforeseen consequences. As I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate from her experience as a Minister, there is always a danger of moving the problem elsewhere. We are already seeing that happen in towns and cities such as mine. Her approach of a voluntary appeals process is wholly inadequate, given the problem out there; it certainly will not reassure my constituents who have suffered rogue fines.

I completely support the requirements in the new clause for any organisation enforcing a parking charge to be a member of an accredited association; for all parking signage to be clear; and for fine limits to be set at similar levels to maximum on-street parking fines. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North will push the new clause to a vote, and that hon. Members will support her.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I used to be one of the Automobile Association’s retained counsels. That is not necessarily a recommendation, but it is a past fact that I must acknowledge. I am no longer one of its retained counsels, and I am no longer a wheel-clamping specialist, but I was the counsel who represented Mrs Marina Vine. On 6 March 1997, she went to Langthorne hospital in Leytonstone. She was suffering from ulcerative colitis, and effectively she was being tested for a type of cancer. She left hospital, and on her way home, she felt violently sick. She pulled over to the side of the road, went on to what turned out to be private land, and was violently sick approximately 15 yards away from her car, just around a corner from it. In the time that intervened before her return—approximately three to four minutes—her car was wheel-clamped. She literally had to beg the clamper to release her car, but they would not do so unless she paid £105.

Everyone in the House, whether they have been here for as little as 18 months, as I have been, or for longer, understands that there is a significant problem with wheel clamping which, it is fair to say, the previous Government attempted to address—no one disputes that. It is right that we should change the law to try to reform it, but I wish to stress one point. Diana Johnson has tabled new clause 15, which seeks to make it a criminal offence to issue an excessive parking charge. I do not intend any disrespect to the hon. Lady, but section 1 of the Fraud Act 2006, which was introduced by the previous Government, the Theft Act 1968 and other measures that deal with obtaining property by deception apply in circumstances in which someone commits an offence without lawful authority—effectively dishonestly—and requires a driver or anyone in possession of a vehicle to pay a parking charge in relation to a contract to park that vehicle.

Effectively, those people take money from someone in circumstances in which they have no lawful authority to do so. I have no objection to reforming or tightening up the law in relation to wheel clamping, but the new clause alleges that it creates a new criminal offence, when that is manifestly not the case.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood 9:45 pm, 10th October 2011

Does my hon. Friend have any sympathy with the small company that has a piece of land in front of its office for its staff to park on, only for a member of the public to abuse that car park and park inappropriately and selfishly? The company lacks the ability to enforce provisions on its own land in front of its own building.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

Everyone would have sympathy with those circumstances. We have all, in the process of representing our constituents, encountered wheel-clamping cases that are to the detriment of the industry itself and the previous measures that applied.

I am mindful that other Members wish to speak on an important provision, so I shall merely make the point that new clause 15 adds nothing whatsoever to the existing criminal law. As much as I support the efforts of The Times and various organisations, what we have is sufficient.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

I am conscious, after the previous debate in which we discussed DNA, civil liberties and serious crime, that this may appear to be a mundane matter. However, as we have heard this evening and on other occasions, it is a source of great concern to our constituents up and down the country. I am pleased that it will be addressed in the Bill.

I very much support, as my hon. Friend Guy Opperman said a few moments ago, the introduction of a ban on wheel clamping. As the Minister pointed out, a ban has been successful for 19 years in Scotland, and it is high time that such a provision was introduced in England and Wales. However, I very much wish to echo the concerns outlined by Mr Bradshaw and Diana Johnson that we may be shifting the problem elsewhere.

The protections that motorists enjoy as consumers differ enormously, depending on whether they park on local authority-controlled land or on privately controlled land. Under the local authority system, which is covered extensively by legislation, as we have heard, there is an appeals process that is laid down in legislation, and there is a reasonable level of fining. If someone transgresses, or apparently transgresses, the rules in a council car park, they are issued with a penalty notice of about £50, which is reduced to half that amount if it is paid within 28 days. Some two thirds of people who appeal to local authority car-park operators are successful, because they can demonstrate that they did indeed buy a ticket, which perhaps fell off the dashboard, or they can give another legitimate reason for their appeal.

That contrasts significantly with the situation of people who park on privately available public car parks and those operated by rogue car park operators. I have had one of those in my constituency. I know from raising the issue in a Westminster Hall debate that many other hon. Members have had similar problems. People, often elderly and vulnerable, receive a threatening letter in the post demanding payment, sometimes of £70 or even more. Within a couple of weeks that demand is hyped up to perhaps double the amount. There are then threats to send in the bailiffs and threats to destroy credit ratings. Even people whom we would not describe as vulnerable get very concerned, understandably, that their credit rating might be affected, and they end up paying the so-called fine—it is not, of course, a criminal penalty—because they simply want the problem to go away.

Earlier in the Session I introduced a private Member’s Bill on the very issue of consumer protection in relation to private car parks. Of course my Bill is rapidly going the way of the vast majority of private Members’ Bills. In it I proposed that local authorities should have the ability to license the operation of private car parks, in the same way as they license publicans or taxis. That would allow a responsive approach through the democratic system at a local level. However, I accept that my Bill is unlikely to find its way on to the statute book.

I hear what the Minister says with regard to self-regulation through the British Parking Association. I have met the chief executive of that organisation on a number of occasions. My assessment of its operation has been that the pilots that it has run so far have not been overly successful. It tends to be the responsible companies that are involved in such schemes, and the irresponsible ones that, understandably, are not.

I recognise that we have enough regulation on the statute book, and that the self-regulation route is the best way to go. However, if we are to go down the self-regulation route, I note that the legislation has provision for reserve powers to have the matter reviewed. I seek an assurance from the Minister that when the British Parking Association and perhaps other accredited organisations introduce an independent system of appeals, that is reviewed in a timely manner. If, as I suspect—I hope I am wrong— self-regulation does not work, those reserve powers will have to be used.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We have had an interesting debate re-examining the issue. Having listened to the Minister explaining the provisions that she is seeking to introduce by means of amendments to the Bill, and having heard her explanation of clause 54(3), I am even more concerned that companies that wish to get round the law, operate in an intimidating way and issue excessive parking tickets will see this as an opportunity to go ahead. Under clause 54(3) putting down a barrier in effect immobilises a vehicle so I am particularly concerned about the Minister’s response on that.

The impact assessment sets out that when issued with a ticket, 74% of people will pay up, so it is well worth rogue ticketing companies putting tickets on vehicles and getting those 74% of people to pay up. They do not have to worry about dealing with the 26% who might appeal from the keeper liability angle.

I am keen to test the opinion of the House on new clause 15. In terms of rogue wheel-clampers, I think that motorists are going to be out of the frying pan and into the fire and that the rogue companies will run riot. The problem will not be solved and I think that we will be back here another day.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

Does the hon. Lady not accept that the Theft Act 1968, consumer protection legislation or, more particularly, the Fraud Act 2006 apply in exactly the same way as new clause 15?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Unfortunately, none of those Acts has ever been used to deal with wheel-clamping problems. I assume that the hon. Gentleman thinks that they could be used where people have obtained excessive amounts of money by wheel-clamping and immobilising a vehicle. However, our new clause has the support of the AA, the RAC and the British Parking Association. Furthermore, given the views expressed by 98% of the 12,000 people polled on this issue, I think that we are on the side of motorists and the British public, and I certainly wish to push the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The House divided:

Ayes 230, Noes 301.

Division number 358 Protection of Freedoms Bill (Ways and Means) — New Clause 15 — Offence of issuing excess parking charges

Aye: 230 MPs

No: 301 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

Mr Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).