My Lords, on
What followed that experience will be familiar to many in your Lordships’ House. Notices from the company fluttered down on me, demanding payment. All used legal language; none pointed out the simple fact that I cannot be made to pay without court action. My “appeal” was turned down, but it was not an appeal in the normal sense: it was an appeal to the company that had delivered the fine in the first place—what a surprise it was turned down. It passed my debt to a so-called debt enforcement agency. I particularly enjoyed its note saying that it had not received a reply from me and would therefore proceed to legal action, when at no stage had these notices contained an address to which I could reply. I had found other ways to write to it to say that it was not getting a penny out of me without taking me to court.
I looked around the same car park the other day. Yes, there was a notice by the spot I parked in; it was in Welsh. Yes, there was a machine to pay at; however, it was covered in polythene that said it was not in use any more. Yes, it said I could pay at the ticket office, except that was not open—indeed, it may soon be closed permanently. As an averagely intelligent person, I could find no accessible way to pay. I therefore parked off-site and, believe it or not, my car was towed away—a bad day for Lipsey.
Of course, this may mean no more than that APCOA, the firm concerned, is impossibly incompetent, but after this experience and reading government documents and press coverage about these companies, I am more inclined to believe in a conspiracy theory, although I am not given to them. These companies have one object and one object only, and that is to maximise the amount of money they can make from charges. They make it either difficult or impossible to pay, and they utter empty threats to bully the poor motorist into coughing up, together with blandishments of reduced charge if he or she does so. I understand that the company’s CEO is a Mr Philippe Op de Beeck. Certainly, his skills and those of his company would befit the mafia: Philippe, “capo dei capi”.
At this point in my speech, I would normally turn my attention to what the Government have done. After 13 years in power, this kind of abuse remains, so far as I can see, legal and unchecked. How the Government manage to criticise my party, the Labour Party, for being tough on motorists, when they allow this kind of abuse to flourish, simply escapes me. I bet there are many more people who are cross about the illegal parking charges levied by these companies than about ULEZ.
Anyway, the Government did finally act: in February 2022 they produced a draft code of practice. The parking companies behaved exactly as you would expect the Mafia to behave: they threatened judicial review, a kind of SLAPP action designed to deter the Government from taking the action they were threatening to take. And did the Government play the part of hero—one of those brave cops who chased the Mafia down the streets of Salerno? No, of course not. They threw in their hand, so actions such as APCOA’s against me could go on extracting money from unsuspecting motorists who had done absolutely nothing wrong.
This is a sad tale—particularly for me, but for many others who have had similar experiences. However, in this case, I am absolutely delighted to say that it may have a happy ending. In July, the Government produced a new consultation document designed to pave the way for a new code, not dissimilar to the old one. The greedyguts of the parking industry will no doubt continue to argue that any charge limits proposed are excessive and make their trade uneconomic. You hear weepy tales of all the poor parking attendants who will be made redundant if the charges have to be reduced at all. Whether the code will deal with every abuse the parkers now commit, we shall see.
I pray every night that APCOA carries out its threats and brings a court action against me—a court action it will assuredly lose, and with it such reputation as it may have. It would be a great story for the pro-motorist press—the Daily Mail or the Express—to report. Not only have I been able to study this subject, but I had an excellent chat with the Minister last night and I thank her for finding such a length of time for an appointment with a Member of this House on what is probably not the most important piece of business this week—although many people might disagree with that. I am very grateful to her, and I think we saw eye to eye.
I hope therefore that the Minister, when she rises, will confirm that the Government really are determined to act, irrespective of judicial reviews, that the parking industry, which has started to realise that it cannot win this one at the end of the day, that the public hates it and that its position is insupportable, will realise that the game is up, and that ripped-off motorists throughout the country will come to realise that they are not powerless against their abusers—not while this Parliament exists to stand up for them.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on securing this debate. It is, perhaps, a slightly strange moment to have it, being right in the middle of the call for evidence to which he referred, which closes on
I remind your Lordships of my interests and inform your Lordships of my employer.
I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. None the less, we find ourselves in a very poorly attended debate for 90 minutes, possibly due to its timing, which might have been deferred. So be it.
I was drawing your Lordships’ attention to the fact that my employer, Cavendish Financial, acts from time to time for clients in the parking sector, but purely to offer corporate finance advice and on no other matters. I first spoke on this subject in the debate on my noble friend Lord Hunt’s private Bill, which became the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019, on
Very many people have an interest in parking. There are some 250 billion vehicle miles travelled in the UK every year, and, interestingly, vehicle ownership has increased by 57% since 1994. I do not accept the suggestion that this Government are anti-motorist, particularly since the most egregious anti-motorist act was taken by the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. I was canvassing in Uxbridge and South Ruislip and felt the degree of irritation that people were, in effect, prohibited from driving their cars into central London by the ULEZ charge.
I was motivated, in part, to speak in my noble friend Lord Hunt’s debate because Westminster City Council had moved dramatically to reduce the single yellow lines available in its borough and increase the double yellow lines. My freedom of information request revealed that, in one ward alone, some 433 metres of single yellow lines had been lost to double yellow lines. It is true that many people claim that the main benefit of being elevated to the peerage is to have free parking in SW1. I am not sure that that is entirely fair; none the less, many of us have a strong interest in this matter.
In the debate on the Bill, we heard from its sponsor, my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, that there were a lot of issues facing customers, relating largely to appeals, poor signage and collection—as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, mentioned. The Bill received widespread support from all sides of the House but was of course challenged by a judicial review—which the parking operators are more than entitled to do. While I certainly take some exception to a British industry being described as a “mafia” when it is carrying out regular, lawful business, I accept that the challenge does not seem to have been handled well by the then DHCLG. I gather that the officials were slightly out of their depth and, as a result, we have been in abeyance. But there is a call for evidence and I understand that discussions between the new department and the industry have taken place as recently as this week.
So the implementation of the private parking code of practice has stalled, primarily due to the proposed imposition of a reduction in the value of parking charges and the removal of debt recovery fees, without any impact assessment being carried out. DLUHC, as it is now called, has claimed that the increase in the number of parking charges issued over the past decade is indicative of a system that is inherently unfair and not fit for purpose. It is seeking to reduce the number of charges issued and to see more people being able to park with peace of mind. However, its proposal to reduce the deterrent value of a parking charge is counterintuitive; it is more likely to lead to an increase in abuse, reducing the available parking for compliant motorists who do the right thing.
DLUHC also proposed a ban on debt recovery fees, on the grounds that they were not fair, and related that to the fact that motorists who pay the debt recovery fee were contributing to unrecovered costs from motorists who do not pay. That would appear to be the norm across a number of sectors and most industries, certainly including all the retail sector; the difference between the parking sector and a standard business is that the cost of parking enforcement tends to be borne by the non-compliant motorists and not the compliant motorists. So the bone of contention seems to be about the amounts that can be charged and debt collection.
On the amounts to be charged, clearly if they are too low, they will not be a deterrent. At the moment, only 0.27% of parking events led to a PCN, suggesting that the deterrent is high enough to bite. As I understand it, the industry is, in principle, in agreement. The majority of the rest of the code and the trade associations are aligning their codes with the single code, where practicable and, hopefully, with a view to early adoption.
The rest of the code will continue to drive professionalism and improve standards while codifying minimum standards across the sector and adding layers of external oversight. It would be a win-win if the two contentious and unjustified points were removed from the code and the rest was immediately adopted. There is scope for the value of parking charges and debt recovery fees to be reviewed by the scrutiny and oversight board after the code is implemented and its effect properly considered and reviewed.
The code of practice talks about charges as low as £50, dropping to £25 outside of London. Let us think about this. If four people share a car and take it to, say, a railway station and park illegally, would they think it too painful to share a £25 charge for the car to be left somewhere that could inconvenience their fellow citizens? Even in London, £80 falling to £40 means that there would not be enough bite; even TfL recognises this and has just increased its deterrent from £130 to £160.
As for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about the charges being unpopular, 81% of respondents to a DHCLG consultation undertaken earlier were in favour of charges of at least £80 and even £100 or £120. The current proposals represent a 58% reduction in deterrent for most common breaches outside London. For some reason, charges by local authority councils outside London are set by His Majesty’s Government but not in London. I have no idea why; perhaps my noble friend the Minister can explain it. Of course, with inflation, the £100 set in 2012 should really be £137 now.
Parking fines affect only a small proportion of motorists and businesses—in particular retailers, who need motorists to feel encouraged to come to shop and carry goods home with them easily.
Finally, I mention APCOA, which the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, referenced, in respect of one specific matter: Heathrow. It is not exactly a parking charge but it is in lieu of one that, when one goes to Heathrow, one has to pay a £5 penalty for visiting. I do not object to that in principle but I object to the method by which payment is required, which is that one has to go to a website, enter details then hope that it has been processed properly on the basis that you know if it has been but you do not know if it has not. I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that an idea might be to require Heathrow and other airports to have a tap machine that, as one passes, pays the £5 charge, thus negating the necessity of having to go to a website. Most people are slightly stressed when travelling to an airport and have other things on their mind. It would be great if regulation were brought in to make that payment simpler.
Let us hope that common sense prevails and that the code is brought in with sensible levels as soon as possible.
I thank my noble friend Lord Lipsey for bringing this short debate to your Lordships’ House. I think he was rather kind to the car parking companies because he has to listen to what some people out there actually think about them.
Anyway, there are 40 million cars on the road. Most drivers are responsible but some of them park illegally and get fined; I and my wife were fined once. Responsibility also lies with the car parking company, which sometimes cuts corners with signs and tries to entrap innocent, unsuspecting drivers with the latest sophisticated CCTV—more about that later.
Over the years, I have run all kinds of businesses, including shops, cafés, car parks and so on. The car parking business is one of the least labour-intensive businesses because of the latest technology. These days, every time I pay my car parking fee, I hardly ever see anyone walking around with a yellow jacket like we used to all those years ago. Last year, the car parking industry told the Government that, if they introduced a new code of practice, it would lose thousands of jobs. I disagree. The car parking business is a cash cow. Compared to other businesses, it has far fewer workers yet it is far more profitable. The industry’s threat of job losses if the Government did not introduce a statutory code does not stack up.
This is an industry worth more than £3 billion. There are well over than 40 million cars on the road. The public need to park somewhere when they go about their business. They need assurance that they are getting value for money when they pay for car parking. I do not know of any other industry that is so big and yet is not properly regulated. The Government should introduce a statutory code of practice as soon as possible. Furthermore, there should be an ombudsman to oversee any dispute relating to fines or pricing, like Ofgem and Ofcom. Perhaps it should be called Ofpark and be financed by the parking industry.
I want the Government to take note of this point. Designated car parks, such as those operated by NPC or in a hospital or at an airport, are clearly proper car parks with payment required at the entrance or exit. During the past 10, 15 or 20 years, we have seen the advent of very clever CCTV cameras. They are now everywhere. They are on private land belonging to pubs, supermarkets—any location you can think of. The cameras are looking and waiting to catch drivers out. Most drivers know they are there and take precautions, either paying or leaving their number in the computer inside the shop or supermarket.
The signage is the problem. Signs are 60 centimetres by 80 centimetres, mostly tucked away somewhere in a corner, in the dark or covered in dust. They inform drivers that, if they do not pay, they will be fined. Some people get caught out. A few days later, a letter arrives with a photograph of your car number plate and threatening legal language saying that, if you do not pay up, you will be taken to court. Most drivers pay up because they cannot be bothered to appeal or go to court, which is time-consuming and can mean taking time off work. This is what happens. It is nothing more than a page out of Del Boy’s book of money-making scams: “Come on, Rodney. Let’s stick a few of these clever CCTV cameras here and there, give a certain percentage to the owners and keep the rest. Lovely Jubbly!”
I am not disputing the ownership of the land, the owners’ rights or the legality of the practice. It is just the sneaky way in which they try to do this to the motorist. As I said, the problem is about signage. Signs are not clear; they are confusing and misleading. Some innocent, unsuspecting drivers sometimes get caught out. The people who put up the CCTV know the score. The reaction of most drivers on getting one of these letters is, “Oh, I didn’t know there was a CCTV camera. If I had known, I would have done something”.
In introducing a new statutory code, the Government should make it clear that signs in these particular types of car park should be much bigger and displayed clearly on all sides of the car park—at the front, at the back and so on. There should not just be a 60-centimetre by 80-centimetre sign obscurely tucked away in the corner where people can hardly see it. It should be written on the road as well so that, when a driver enters this particular place, they know what will happen if they do not pay up.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has accepted that this practice by a small number of cowboy companies is unacceptable. DVLA data estimate that, between 2022 and 2023, more than 2.8 million drivers will be fined. In recent years, the number of car parking companies has grown expeditiously because there is easy money in it.
The AA has said that:
“Private parking companies are acting like pirates, plundering innocent drivers”.
I thank the noble Lord for reminding me. I did think that I still had three minutes left.
The Government need to introduce a statutory code for the parking industry as soon as possible, to sort out the fines and so on. Also, the Government might be aware that, in some local authorities, you can only pay via an app. If you do not have a phone on you or do not know how to use the app, you are in trouble. Perhaps the Government can look at that as well.
I have a lot more examples, but I had better take it easy—I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I appreciate it.
My Lords, I am grateful for the indulgence of the House in allowing me to speak in the gap.
I thought that we had tamed the worst excesses of parking operators with the provisions of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, but clearly that is not so. In some ways, these problems were unforeseen at that time because, as we increasingly pay by app and by debit and credit card, it becomes the case that the more technology that there is the more technology there is to go wrong.
I want very briefly to bring to the Minister’s attention a recent complaint that came my way about a station car park. I do not expect her to be able to answer at this moment, but I hope that the issue will be considered. For Northallerton car park, you must register on the APCOA site. It seems that you must pay a £1 fee to a company called Alltainment, which appears to be linked to the apcoaconnect website, although Alltainment appears to be a digital entertainment site. The complainant who came to me said that the site tried to take £39.99 from her credit card, until her bank intervened to urge caution. What is the link between APCOA and this apparently related company? Why are the operators of station car parks operating in such an apparently dubious manner?
In this case, to add insult to injury, when the complainant tried to get on to the website to complain and to set up the system again, the website told her that there were no car parks to be found at Northallerton station, despite the fact that she was standing in one and had parked her car in one and the signs were all around her to say that one existed. That level of inefficiency causes huge frustration among the public. I would be grateful if the Minister could, in time, respond to me in writing about this issue.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lipsey for a very timely debate—which reminds us that this important issue is still outstanding business—and for his very colourful introduction. As ever, I thank our Library for the thorough and helpful briefing on this subject. As a council leader until very recently, I am afraid that parking is one of the subjects guaranteed to make my blood run cold and the mention of double or single yellow lines by the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, did nothing to help that feeling.
Of course, the difference between local authority parking proposals and those from the private sector is that local authority-run schemes generally recycle both the parking charges and the fines for breaching them to improve the local area. But whether parking schemes are operated by local authorities or the private sector, they have a tricky balance to strike between ensuring that parking is available and managed well, keeping our roads passable and having reasonable enforcement processes that will dissuade irresponsible parking.
The code was introduced to tackle some of the very sharp practices of some operators that were becoming notorious as their operations expanded. The figures for the proliferation of private parking schemes are eye-watering, as are the increases in the number of tickets issued. Parking fees amounted to an estimated £2.62 billion in 2021-22, a figure which has doubled since 2017-18, so the companies’ plea of poverty has a bit of hollow ring. There were 8.6 million parking tickets issued last year—about 23,000 a day.
The introduction of the code in 2022 was widely welcomed by motorists and the organisations representing them. It enshrined the common-sense practices and transparency that they wanted to see and was a relatively modest ask of the private parking sector. Who would not want to see better signage and marking, clarity on ticketing and payment, clarity on how unpaid charges are dealt with and the level of fines, and professional standards about complaints handling? When the code was “temporarily” withdrawn following legal challenges in June 2022, the Government undertook to carry out the impact assessment and consultation that was needed before Summer Recess this year.
When the code was withdrawn, a DfT spokesperson said:
“We’re determined to end rip-off parking practices, and it’s very disappointing that … the parking industry are resisting this”.
However, now we discover that, far from the code being reintroduced in July 2023, the call for evidence was issued only on
One of the complaints of the parking industry was that the introduction of the code would result in the loss of over 3,000 jobs. Can the Minister tell us whether the department has asked to see the workings of this assertion? Has it carried out its own assessment of how accurate that is? My noble friend Lord Sahota raised the point that much of the monitoring and operations are now carried out using electronic surveillance, so can we get clarify whether the 3,000 jobs figure is accurate? Can the Minister reassure motorists that the Government still intend to deal with all issues arising from the previous practices of private parking companies by the use of a strong code of practice combined with enforceable measures on those companies which do not comply?
It seems that some elements in the private parking industry have been unwilling to use, as they could have done, all or part of the code as a set of voluntary guidelines during its suspension. That might have helped convince us of their willingness to adapt to some consumer pressure in this area. They have taken the suspension as an opportunity to carry on just as they were or—as in the worrying case set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson—have actually got worse. Can the Minister tell us how we can support motorists to know where they are with private parking fines, as so many people are now having to carry out their own appeals on matters that would have been covered were the code in place? How quickly do the Government expect to be able to carry out the impact assessment after the call for evidence closes? I suppose the key question here is: just when do we expect to be able to reintroduce this important code of practice?
Nicholas Lyes, the RAC’s head of roads policy, said when the code was withdrawn:
“The fact that parking companies take issue with the capping of charge notices and debt recovery fees shows precisely why both the code and the cap are needed. For too long, some companies have been allowed to prey mercilessly on drivers who might make an honest mistake and then have to face both over-zealous enforcement and threatening debt recovery letters. The Government must stand up to these companies and get the code over the line so we finally have fair and transparent enforcement in the private parking sector”.
His comments were very much supported by the fellow organisation, the AA.
While none of us has any sympathy with irresponsible, inconsiderate or dangerous parking, too often we are not talking about any of those. The latest case I heard was of someone who stopped at a local shopping centre—it was in Flitwick, which might indicate why they were there—which had a pub restaurant, for a lunchtime meal. The pub was very busy and took so long to serve them that they eventually cancelled their order and left the car park just five minutes after the allotted parking time. Incidentally, it was so badly signed that the complainant had not been able to find any sign indicating the parking restrictions. Just a few days later, they received a fine of £100 from the private parking company. It is no wonder people get infuriated.
Please can we get this code back in place as quickly as possible to ensure that private parking is fair and transparent to motorists?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for bringing forward this important debate and other noble Lords for their considered and insightful contributions. It is fair to say that there are a lot of stories out there. I am sorry to hear about those experiences and, after preparing for this over the last few days, I am sure that everyone has a story. It seems to be a widespread issue to which everyone can relate. I am sorry that such stories are not rare. I assure all noble Lords that the Government remain committed to implementing the private parking code of practice as soon as we can.
Parking is a crucial part of our transport infrastructure; we all have an interest in how car parks are managed, especially given the important link between transport accessibility and the vitality of our high streets and town centres. There are good private parking operators delivering this crucial service. As was referred to, most times people park it is hassle free and does not result in any grievances. However, from public correspondence, the interventions we have just heard, news media reports and various consumer and motoring group campaigns, we know that poor practices are persistent within the private parking industry. Rest assured, the Government are committed to reintroducing the code of practice to ensure fairness for drivers, vehicle keepers and landowners.
Examples of poor practice range from confusing instructions on signage, which many noble Lords referred to, to the use of intimidating and pseudo-legal language in the enforcement of parking charges to the opaque appeal processes that were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey—I suspect that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and I would be able to help the noble Lord with the Welsh signage, but it is not fair that he did not understand the requirements of those parking restrictions.
There are reasons why the code was drafted and introduced. Data on parking charges are still not collated and centrally held, but I understand that the number of parking charges issued is getting larger and can have significant impacts on individuals and businesses. This lack of central data is being addressed. However, DVLA data on the number of requests made by private parking operators for registered vehicle keeper data provides a proxy for the volume of parking charges issued. As was mentioned by a few speakers, in 2019—which is the latest year for which I have data—private parking operators made over 8 million requests to the DVLA. That represents a significant increase from the 2012 figures, which were about 2 million. As was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, 2012 was when the Protection of Freedoms Act banned clamping and introduced keeper liability.
As others have mentioned, the significant increase in the number of parking charges issued is not in line with the increase in the number cars or indeed the demand for parking. We know that the increasing number of parking charges has negative impacts not only on motorists but on parking operators and landowners too. Non-compliance with parking restrictions can have adverse consequences for access to businesses, while motorists of course face financial penalties and, potentially, county court judgments.
That is why we developed the code following Royal Assent of the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019. The code of practice and the enforcement framework seek to meet three key objectives: to create consistency across the parking system and raise standards, to ensure fairness for drivers and registered vehicle keepers, and to increase transparency in the way the private parking industry operates. In doing so, the code seeks to tighten obligations on private parking managers to ensure—as just requested by the noble Lord, Lord Sahota—that signs at the entrance to and within the premises are designed and located so they are clearly visible and convey all the information drivers need to see.
The code seeks to standardise requirements for consideration and grace periods. It also tries to raise standards for complaints and appeal handling, including the introduction of a requirement to consider mitigating circumstances and an ability to cancel parking charges in certain prescribed circumstances. It also prohibits misleading or intimidating language in car park charges or debt recovery notices.
The two controversial measures are introducing new parking charge levels that are proportionate to the seriousness of the contravention, and introducing new debt recovery fee limits or potentially banning them altogether. As noble Lords know, the code was laid in Parliament in February 2022. However, shortly after its introduction, a number of private parking operators, and indeed debt recovery agencies, initiated a judicial review proceeding into the Government’s decision to introduce within the code new levels of private parking charges and to ban debt recovery fees. It was accepted that the original processes, unfortunately, were not adequate with respect to the impact assessment conducted prior to the introduction of the code. The Government therefore decided to concede those challenges and temporarily withdraw the code to ensure that its impacts were rigorously examined. Failing to do so would open us up to further challenges and could ultimately set us back further. I recognise that the setback is frustrating but, as we know, a further judicial review is possible and therefore we cannot cut corners. I hope noble Lords will recognise the need for this and we remain totally committed to delivering the code of practice.
While developing the new impact assessment, the Government have engaged with a range of relevant groups, including consumer representatives, parking trade associations and representatives from private parking operators and debt recovery agencies. To ensure the decisions are as well informed as they can be, we decided to publish the draft impact assessment to test the initial assumptions and run a formal call for evidence alongside it, to give all stakeholders an opportunity to provide relevant evidence.
My noble friend Lord Leigh referred to the parking charges element of this. We are of course considering the level of parking charges. My noble friend is right to highlight the importance of an effective deterrent. We are trying to find further evidence to demonstrate how effective or otherwise the deterrent would be with each option to inform the decisions on these matters.
This call for evidence, which closes on
We know that, following the call for evidence, we will publish a new impact assessment, which will need to be subject to further public consultation, on the options for parking charges and debt recovery fees.
In conclusion, I hope that the recent publication of the draft impact assessment, albeit slightly later than expected, and the call for evidence demonstrate that not only are the Government committed to publishing the code but keen to make sure that the measures set out in this new code work and stand up to legal challenge. The draft impact assessment estimates that, should we do nothing to improve the sector, parking charges will continue to rise. The estimates we have seen are that, by 2033, private parking operators will issue over 12 million charges a year. The Government are therefore working to try to stop this from happening.
I will look into the specific case of Northallerton car park on behalf of the noble Baroness and will respond in writing when I have spoken to the department about the specifics. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for bringing forward this debate and all noble Lords for their contributions. The Government look forward to continuing discussions on this important topic and delivering the expected results.