With your indulgence, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, as this is my first opportunity to do so in the House, I wish to take a minute to thank all Members who sent me cards and messages of support over the difficult days during my illness. That support came from all sections of the House, and I am very grateful for it. I especially acknowledge the messages of prayer support, which meant so much to me and my family. I look forward to that support continuing in the difficult days that may lie ahead.
I beg to move
I find myself in somewhat of a catch-22 situation today. I have moved the motion as Chair of the Committee yet will oppose it as a Member of the House. Therefore, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I hope that I do not confuse you or Members along the way.
I will present the facts of the matter in my capacity as Chair. They are as follows: on 19 April 2012, the Minister for Regional Development, Mr Danny Kennedy, appeared before the Committee to brief it on the proposed legislation relating to car park and on-street parking tariffs and increases to the penalty charge notices. During the briefing, the Minister advised the Committee that he intended to raise the penalty charge for illegal parking from £60 to £90, with a 50% remission of the charge should it be paid within 14 days. Members were advised that that increase, along with the increases in car-parking charges, was contained in the Northern Ireland Budget and had been approved by the Minister and his Executive colleagues and subsequently by the House. The Minister stated that a total of £7·5 million would be required over the remaining three years of the Budget period and that the money raised would be returned to Roads Service to cover operational costs. Members did not agree the policy merits of the proposed charges, as they believed that there were further efficiencies to be realised in the collection processes. That was formally relayed to the Department by letter on 18 April 2012.
The Committee received correspondence from the Department dated 3 May 2012, which was considered at the meeting of 9 May. The correspondence advised that, as the Department’s budget and spending plans had included the increases, and given that the Budget had been approved at a plenary sitting of the Assembly in March 2011, the Minister had instructed officials to introduce the legislation. Members responded by stating their concerns about the inappropriate time that was being given to consider and scrutinise the regulations
The next time the Committee had sight of the regulations was on 6 June when the statutory rule was presented to the Committee for agreement. The Committee had also received a presentation from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) at that meeting. The association said that it was opposed to an increase in the rates as it would drive shoppers out of town centres and into shopping centres, and so on, where parking is free. At the appropriate time, the Deputy Chairperson put the Question on the matter, which was defeated by four votes to one, with the majority agreeing that the Committee should seek to annul the rule.
On the following Monday, 11 June, I attended a meeting with the Minister and was accompanied by the Deputy Chairperson and the Committee Clerk. There was a frank conversation in which the Minister detailed the consequences of the prayer being carried in the House. Those consequences essentially would mean the Minister and his officials having to identify alternative efficiencies in the Department that would potentially, as the Minister put it, impact on front line services and on health and safety matters, such as reducing the cutting of grass on verges alongside roads.
On 13 June, I submitted written notice of my intention to bring a motion to Committee to rescind its decision of 6 June. The notice was discussed in the Committee meeting of 13 June and was forwarded as a prior notification to all Committee members by post and e-mail and was included in the Committee packs for that meeting, indicating that a motion would be considered at the meeting of 20 June.
The Minister accepted an invitation from the Committee to attend the meeting and again outlined his reasons for introducing the proposed charges and the consequences of their not being brought in. During the debate, alternative options to the current charging regime and ways of enhancing and communicating the discretionary powers of wardens were also discussed.
I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to look at the merits of a dual-layer approach to charging, where low-impact offences, such as being a few minutes over the time, will attract a lesser penalty than those for people who park in blue badge bays, in bus lanes and next to bus shelters.
In addition, the Minister said that he would look at protocols for enforcement officers based on those that are used in local government in England and Wales. Those define the offences and outline the steps that enforcement officers will take before issuing a ticket. Importantly, those protocols are published and are available so that an individual receiving a penalty charge also knows the enforcement powers, limitations and procedures.
As I said, there was a full and frank debate on the matter, which was followed by the Question on the motion to rescind the decision to lay a prayer of annulment. I advise the House that this was defeated by a majority of seven votes to four.
That is how we find ourselves here today, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I wish, with your permission, to speak now as a Member for South Belfast. I am not opposed to the introduction of increased penalty charges, because, to put it bluntly, if you break the law you have to pay for it.
As elected representatives, we are, perhaps, all aware of tickets being handed out to elderly people whose doctors’ appointments have overrun by a short period or the individual who has the misfortune to run over time in a pay-and-display car park. However, I ask Members not to confuse the need for increased penalty charges as a contribution towards departmental savings plans and as a deterrent to illegal parking with the overzealous behaviour of traffic wardens.
Since the new arrangements for traffic management were first introduced in 2006, some 700,038 penalty charge notices have been issued in towns and cities in Northern Ireland. That is one for every two men, women and children who live in Northern Ireland, which I find astonishing. I do not agree that the majority of these have been issued in error either, as the figures show that an average of approximately 123,000 tickets are issued each year. Thirteen per cent of these tickets are appealed, and, of those, 59% are successfully upheld — that is over 9,000 appeals.
The figures that I have outlined are indicative of the problem that the Department is facing in relation to illegal parking in our towns and cities. The parking charges have been set at £60 since 2006, but the problem still exists, and, apparently, occurrences are increasing at a time when the Department is investing heavily in rapid transit systems in Belfast and quality bus corridors in Londonderry, and when it is providing park-and-ride facilities to offer motorists alternatives to driving into our towns and cities. It is entirely appropriate that a real deterrent to illegal parking is offered and implemented.
During the Committee debate on the matter last week, my Committee colleagues provided a range of reasons why these increases should not be applied. Without stealing their thunder — I know that they will speak for themselves shortly — I want to address some of those reasons. First, there is an idea that this is not an attempt to achieve efficiencies in the Department, but rather a revenue-generating scheme to plug a budgetary defect. Yes, these increases are detailed in the Budget — a Budget that was consulted on, debated in the Committees and eventually endorsed by the Assembly. I am not aware of any objections being raised at any of these stages in relation to the Budget. These increases were also identified in the savings delivery plans, which, again, were approved by the House and have been before the Committee on a number of occasions. Again, there were no objections.
It is normal government accounting practice to use revenues to offset operational costs. Student fees offset the cost of education; sales of timber offset the Forest Service’s budget. These parking charges offset the cost of providing an enforcement regime. The taxpayer is currently subsidising this whole process to the tune of £7 million a year. This is an opportunity to lessen the burden by some £2·5 million a year by making those who break the law pay for blocking our laneways, taking up spaces reserved for blue-badge holders and preventing other legitimate parking from taking place. It is an appropriate charge, and one which makes the offender pay.
There is also the argument that this is a stupid form of budgeting because, if the increased charges are a successful deterrent and the number of parking offences declines, you will not be able to raise the revenue that has been identified. It is a utopian dream to believe that any level of charge will remove the problem of illegal parking. If the number of offences declines, the cost of enforcement will also decline. Therefore, efficiencies in the contract will be possible. Either way, the taxpayer will be better off.
A further suggestion is that enforcement wardens have targets for the number of tickets that they must issue. Many believe that that is the cause of the overzealousness that is displayed by traffic wardens, which supports the attitude that the red coats are out to get everyone. I have a copy of the key performance indicators (KPIs) in the contract. I assure the House that there are no targets that specify the number of tickets that should be issued. Remember that this is the legal definition and the legal document by which both parties are bound. Any breach, such as unofficial targets, would leave both parties open to judicial process.
The Minister has identified a number of areas that might have to take a hit if the statutory rule were annulled, including the possibility of further increases in car parking charges. I accept that there is a degree of sabre-rattling by the Minister, but I agree with his conclusion that, if that were the case, people who park legally will be forced to pay to support the cost of enforcing legislation against those who park illegally. In this instance, I believe that that is a greater incentive than the threat of increased fines for people to move from town centres to suburban centres. I would find it hard to condemn anyone who did so; those who obey parking laws should not have to pay for those who breach them.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, before concluding my comments, I ask again for your indulgence for a few seconds. As many will already be aware, this debate will be the last occasion on which the Deputy Chair of the Committee for Regional Development will speak in the House. It is hugely ironic that we find ourselves at the opposite end of the spectrum on this occasion, because we have enjoyed — and I mean this — a very good working relationship in Committee. I am very appreciative of the Deputy Chair’s help and support to me on a personal basis, particularly over the past few months, which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks. I wish him well in his new ventures, which all seem to be centred on Westminster. He tells me that he will be in that place on Thursday of this week. He is wasting no time; he will be on the plane and off to London some time after the debate today. Seriously, Pat, on behalf of all members of the Committee and personally, I thank you for your hard work and dedication to the Committee and wish you well in your work outside this House.
The problems that Members will identify today are not associated with the increased charges; they are problems that are associated with the enforcing regime. Let us address that problem separately and in consultation with the Minister, his officials, and, where necessary, other areas of best practice. We should not penalise law-abiding citizens. Those who break the law should be made to pay for their transgressions.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas le Cathaoirleach an Choiste. I thank the Chair of the Committee for Regional Development for outlining the Committee’s position on the prayer of annulment. I support that annulment. I do so not because I am opposed to the increase in parking fines per se but because this is not the right time.
I say that because, particularly in the provincial towns and villages, shops and businesses are increasingly coming under pressure. At local government level, we have tried as hard as we could to keep rates as low as possible, and, speaking from experience in my borough of Limavady —
Does the Member realise that the purpose of the parking ticket is to ensure good parking and good road safety so that people do not abandon their cars inappropriately at entrances to roads, car parks and on footpaths? In saying that you are opposing this for a commercial reason for retailers, are you totally ignoring the road safety implications?
Absolutely not. The purpose of the issuing of some PCNs goes further in that they restrict the time that people might use in some town centres, and that restricts the business that they can get done. In some cases, that is as little as an hour, and, if you want to do anything in the town, you will not get the chance to do it in that time.
We have been lobbied by the chambers of trade and commerce in the smaller provincial towns and villages and by the NI Independent Retail Trade Association, which has outlined its objections to the proposals. Ideally, people should come into towns on public transport, but, in the rural settings, that is not possible and there is a continuing diminution in the supply of transport in rural towns and areas. I appreciate that the situation is rather different in our two major cities and our larger towns.
I do not believe that we would have been in this position had we put in place the on-street parking charges that the previous Minister had proposed, because that would have raised sufficient revenue to cover the shortcomings that we have been talking about. Any proposal to increase the —
I am saying that I support a decent on-street car-parking system whereby people could pull up and pay for the amount of time that they want to stay, be that one hour, two hours or three hours. Ideally, it should be more than one hour, but, in some areas, it is just one hour, and that is certainly not enough to do your business. People are caught out when they go to the hairdresser or a dentist, or whatever, because an hour is not enough, and people come to us with appeals to challenge a ticket. Those appeals are upheld in only about 7% of those cases, and we are talking about pensioners who could end up paying £30, £60 and now potentially £90 or half thereof.
Business users who are doing deliveries are also struck by the issue. I know of one butcher who has to park his van some 500 yards from the front door of his premises because of restrictions there. Those people are set on by the red coats. I am not saying that that is the case everywhere.
The Member is objecting to parking restrictions outside a butcher’s shop. You do, of course, realise that, if you think that there should be no parking restrictions there, there are methods to go through to get yellow lines or double yellow lines removed. If that is the objection, why not deal with the issue in that fashion rather than simply say that you want to reduce the penalties for those who breach the rules and the law?
The Member knows very well that it is a very cumbersome process to get any parking restrictions removed, particularly from town centres. That is an issue right across the board.
I contend that parking fines are a deterrent to trade. It also leaves a bad taste with our visitors who come here and happen to end up with a ticket. In one area, a council car park outside the council building is controlled or monitored by the red coats, and, in the past, guests, tourists, and everybody, have been booked there. That has left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
There is another issue with the issuing of PCNs. In some towns, the numbers of those are minimal. My town, which is one of the most congested anywhere in the North or maybe on the island, as the Minister well knows, has had two tickets issued in the six years from 2006 to 2012. On many occasions, I have seen traffic attendants in that town. There are only five disabled parking bays, and I assume that that is what they are monitoring. I rarely see anyone parking in those, so I wonder whether that is the best use of money. The Chair proposed that we might look at some sort of staged or staggered system, and that might be well worth looking at. We might also look at a differential between city and country delivery. I urge the Minister to revisit this and come back to the Committee with new and updated proposals. I support the annulment.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the prayer in the name of the Regional Development Committee, of which I am a Member. On this occasion, I completely disagree with the course of action on which the Committee has decided by bringing this proposal to the House. From the outset, I make it clear that I was as concerned as anyone else when I heard that parking tickets were increasing from £60 to £90. When I thought about it, I realised that those who are complaining loudest about the increase are probably those who have been at the receiving end of the greater share of tickets.
I also have to admit that I, too, have been the recipient of a parking ticket. I confess that I deserved that, as I arrived early, prior to the charges being implemented, intending to use my car, as a friend and I were going to Belfast. However, he turned up and picked me up from the front of my office, and off I went, completely forgetting that I had no ticket on my car. When I came back, a ticket of a different kind was attached to the windscreen. Therefore, even the most innocently intentioned people can be issued with a parking ticket. It can happen to any of us, and no one likes the sight of one taped to our windscreens.
Sometimes, people are caught out for relatively minor offences, because their tickets have overrun by a few minutes or because they have foolishly run the chance of not paying for a ticket at all. People, such as me, who did not pay have absolutely no excuse, but people who missed by a few minutes should be given every sympathy. We have discussed that in Committee, with the Minister agreeing to look at the options open to him by perhaps extending the time between when the ticket has expired and the time that a penalty ticket can be issued. Of course, we do not then expect people to automatically assume that that means that they have one hour plus the added minutes and a few more for luck.
I must say that I have little sympathy for people who repeatedly park on double yellow lines, which was the most common reason for being given a ticket last year. Possibly even worse are people who park in disabled bays when they are not entitled to. In fact, I am sure you are all aware of the number of blue badges that have been illegally and immorally obtained by some people. At the Committee, I even suggested that an automatic £100 fine should be introduced for this infringement.
We have looked at other schemes, and there is an option to have a scale of fines for different offences. As someone who has a disability, I find that people who feel that any empty car parking space is fair game or who feel that the disabled space might prevent them from getting their hair wet when it is raining on a standard Northern Ireland summer’s day deserve to be penalised heavily for this infringement.
There seems to be a misunderstanding in some quarters about exactly why car parking tickets are issued. No one should be in any doubt about the real purpose of parking tickets. They are not simply a way of generating cash for the Department, and I will make some comments on that shortly. They are a crucial component in effective parking enforcement. People should not only be dissuaded from parking illegally but should be reprimanded if they decide to do so. Illegal parking not only compounds congestion on our roads but badly parked vehicles can present a risk to other road users as well as potentially limiting response times for emergency vehicles. There are housing estates in my home town of Omagh where elderly people live where certain individuals believe that they can park where they want. The fact that they are restricting access in and out is neither here nor there to them. The bin lorry cannot get turned, so the bins are left for another day. Ambulances have had to park in the middle of the road and attempt to bring patients out whatever way they can.
Of course, parking in Northern Ireland has, for many years, been a bone of contention. Since enforcement was privatised in 2006, the issue seems to have exploded. I never thought that we would ever hear people moaning that they miss the local traffic warden. Again in my home town of Omagh, the late Howard Hegan was a well-known character. Howard would patrol the streets day and night, and, if you were getting to the point that a ticket might have to be issued, Howard would attempt to seek you out and give you the 10-minute warning. There is no doubt that, if you got a ticket from Howard, you deserved it. Generally, it is fair to say that people were used to a different approach to enforcement. However, a very small minority of traffic attendants in a number of areas grew overzealous and gave the majority of absolutely fair attendants a difficult time.
On the issue of the disparity of parking tickets, I will use my home town of Omagh, with the population of 20,000, as an example. Last year, 5,097 tickets were issued. Compare that to a town such as Portadown, with 22,000 residents but only 2,506 tickets. That may be down to better parking facilities in some towns compared to others but, as the excellent The Detail website found, there are major inconsistencies across Northern Ireland.
Nevertheless, getting back to the debate in hand, if today’s proposal to annul is successful, it sends out an entirely wrong message. Not only would it be seen as the Assembly backing down on tougher parking enforcement, it would totally disregard the financial consequences of such an action. Most people are already aware that enforcing an effective parking regime costs far in excess of what the Department manages to raise through fines. That is on top of a declining rate of tickets. The number of tickets issued has been falling significantly over recent years. In 2006, over 160,000 were handed out. Last year, however, only 125,800 were issued. Even then, the downward trend was somewhat bucked, as in 2010 there were only 118,000.
Even though enforcement costs far more than is raised, the Ulster Unionist Party strongly believes that the benefits of reduced congestion on the roads, improved access to our towns and villages and improved road safety are worth paying the extra for. Most people in Northern Ireland will not be affected by the increase from £60 to £90 or, more realistically, the increase from £30 to £45, as most people do not get parking tickets regularly. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we can feel hard done by. However, rules are rules, and we would complain as quickly as anyone if an illegally parked vehicle was causing any of us any difficulties.
I should also add that I have appealed quite a few tickets on behalf of constituents and won. If you can provide a reasoned argument, and provided that it is your first and only appeal, you will generally win. It must be borne in mind that the majority of people do not appeal and must, therefore, accept that they were worthy recipients of a parking ticket.
I am sure that you will be pleased to note that I am coming to the end of my remarks. However, there are those sitting on the Benches opposite who might want the Minister to bring in town-centre charges for parking, as was the policy intention of the previous Sinn Féin Minister, Conor Murphy. If that were to happen, how long would we allow people to park their car in a town centre? One hour, two hours or three hours? Why not give them the full day? You would then have congestion in towns, because you would have people driving round continuously looking for a parking space that they cannot obtain.
The best policy is the one-hour free parking that we have in most towns. If people want to go to a town to shop, they will go to the car parks and pay the appropriate charge. If they are going to use on-street parking, one hour should be sufficient to go into the bank or whatever. I am sure that most ladies, who were referred to earlier, who go to the hairdresser are aware of how long it takes to get their hair set. I do not have that problem. I am sure that those who go to the dentist have a rough idea of how long it is going to take. Generally, you want to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. I am sure that when most people go to the bank — unless it is the Ulster Bank — they go in and come out in a fairly reasonable time. I am sure that, if you get a ticket for parking outside the Ulster Bank, it will come along and pay that fine.
The image of the Minister rattling his sabre appeals to me. I was thinking that I could just see him with his sabre rattling it about here today. However, this is not sabre-rattling; this is common sense. We have seen the need for parking charges. We know why people get tickets. You do not get a ticket for the fun of it, and it is not the sort of ticket that most people look for. You cannot win a prize, but you can certainly get a fine and, if you pay it on time, you will not get the larger fine.
However, we know from experience that people are inclined to chance their hand. The double yellow line? Well, I will give it five minutes. The disabled bay? Sure I am only going in and out. If you are a disabled person and you cannot get parked in a disabled bay because somebody has parked in that bay to go into the bank or the hairdressers or whatever, you are not a very happy person. People will always try their hand. People parking on corners; people parking on double yellow lines; people parking in disabled bays or loading bays. They will continually do it. They have to be told that they cannot do it. If they do not do it, they will not get a ticket. That is the message: do not break the law; do not get the ticket; no major problems.
I do not support the prayer.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I put my hands up immediately and say that I have just joined this Committee. I am very impressed by the Chairman and the Deputy Chairman; I am sorry he is leaving. I was also impressed by the openness of the Minister in how he treats the Committee. Indeed, I will be eternally grateful for all the money he found for the Derry to Coleraine stretch of railway.
That aside, this is an issue that does touch me. Before Roy Beggs gets to his feet to tell me that I am irresponsible and all that, let me say that, for the best part of my adult life, I taught road safety studies. I was very proud of my pupils when they competed in the Northern Ireland road safety competition that was held annually in Stranmillis University College. And they won. So, I am not here to defend the people who defraud the blue badge scheme or the people who obstruct emergency ambulances trying to get to somebody in need. It is not about that.
Like my colleague Mr Ó hOisín, I am influenced. In Limavady, there are two very busy car parks. For a long time, my constituency council looked out on one of those — until the Commission decided that the rent was too dear, but that is a different issue. I saw, day and daily, who was getting nabbed. Ross, it was not the people you talked about. Very largely, it was people who were retired. They came in, paid the money that they could afford, went in to the town centre to the optician or the dentist or whatever and came back a few minutes late. They had to pay £30 or £60. A lot of those people are on a pension of £147 a week. That is a big blow. The other people often caught were young mothers with children, who would be going in to the town centre to get shoes fitted or whatever. The situation is not as simple as has been described. You do get queues in the banks. You do get busy times in shops. You do get children who become excited when in the town centre and maybe keep you longer than you intended. It is not about that. The Minister, when he talked to the Committee, was entirely honest about this. Let us keep the debate honest. The measure is about finding £7·5 million to fill a hole in the Minister’s budget. That is not his fault. He is dictated to by the Executive.
Somebody compared fines and fees. This is not the pantomime season. To suggest that fines and fees are somehow similar is not quite right. Fees are something you pay for something that you return. A fine, in this case, will be something you pay to make up Danny’s budget. That is totally wrong.
I am influenced by these times of austerity. In Limavady, something like 3,000 jobs have disappeared over the past five years. A lot of people will not be paying the parking fines, because they have already emigrated. Those who are left behind, particularly those who come in to the town during the day, are caught. We are all human.
We know, of course, that people will get nabbed by the redcoats. I am not painting the redcoats as some kind of vicious animal going around looking for people. However, like people in this Assembly and everywhere else, there are different personalities. I know one redcoat who enthusiastically goes out to get the scalps. Of course he does. He boasts about it afterwards. I know others, and their heart bleeds to even issue a ticket. Human beings are different, no matter what they are doing.
I would not dare to attempt to speak for the Minister, but I know that his heart is not in this. [Laughter.] It is not. He is a kind person who would not impose such a vicious fine on poor elderly people or young mothers if he could get away with it. He told the Committee that he is up against it in that cruel Executive that want to extract a new form of taxation from the oppressed people of Northern Ireland. That is what it is about; there is not much more to say about it.
I suppose I can be eternally grateful that I have got free parking up here. I do not have the problem that we are talking about. However, given the sorts of debates we have been having recently, I think I would be qualifying for parking charges regularly. Long may these fairly late debates take place; at least Members are having an opportunity to discuss the issue. I hope that Mr Spratt, the Chairman, accepts what I am saying, because he knows what fines are about from his previous life. They should always be pitched at a level at which they cause pain but not distress. This increase in fine will, unfortunately, cause a lot more than pain; it will cost hardship, particularly to those who may not be so bright at interpreting the rules in the car parks, those who are not so conscious of the time on their watch, or those who, perhaps, make appointments for which the time required is difficult to predict, as is, therefore, the time they will return to their car. Those are the main reasons why I am supporting the prayer of annulment.
I apologise to the House for being late in returning to the Building this afternoon. I was at another engagement in Enniskillen. There were no parking problems there today.
The Minister has to tell us straight: is this about revenue raising or, as he has told the Committee, about improving parking etiquette in Northern Ireland? If it is about revenue raising, then, Minister, go ahead with your draconian increase to £90. However, if it is about improving parking etiquette and, at the same time, dealing with those rogue elements who are persistent offenders, as you have suggested to us on numerous occasions, I suggest to you, Minister, that there are alternative ways of dealing with that and, perhaps, as a consequence, raising additional revenue. We all have concerns about the problems regarding the Department’s budget.
Due to public demand, all, not just some, London local authorities have introduced a two-tier system of fines: lower and higher levels. There is a £60 fine, as we have in Northern Ireland, for low-level offences, and a £120 fine for high-level offences. The high-level fine is for people who block bus lanes or cause blockages outside schools or who park on pedestrian crossings, on yellow lines, in safety zones, in disabled bays or in loading bays. Minister, if you are genuine about improving parking etiquette and about bringing about a sea change in driving and parking habits in Northern Ireland, and if, as I hope, the House supports the prayer of annulment and you are required to come back with alternatives, can I encourage you to give serious consideration to the introduction of a two-tier system? Such a system would, on the one hand, deal with the persistent offenders, the people who you say you want to get at, while, on the other hand, it would deal with those people whom other Members have referred to — those who spend an extra few minutes in the dentist’s surgery because an appointment has overrun, or those who have to go into the bank, for example — and for whom the overzealous traffic warden is waiting in a car park or in a parking bay on the street. Those are the people whom we do not wish to see penalised any more than they are currently. I think that £60, with the discount, is perceived to be a reasonable amount to deal with that.
There are persistent offenders and, perhaps, we could extend the two-tier process to those who receive fines on a regular basis. Offenders who had received three fines in a period for minor offences, for example, would receive a higher penalty. All those things are open and available to you. I encourage you and your departmental officials to come back to the House with constructive proposals in respect of parking fines, not draconian proposals. Minister, that is why I oppose your proposal and support the prayer of annulment.
At the outset, I will state that when the Minister was with the Committee, I expressed some sympathy with him on this matter because there are people who consistently break the law in respect of illegal parking. In that vein, I understand the need for the Minister to do something about it.
I came to the Chamber today hoping for something different in respect of the arguments being presented by those who support the prayer of annulment, but, unfortunately, I have not heard anything different. It is easy to say that we need to vote for the prayer of annulment, but it is not as easy to say what you would do in its place. I heard the Member for East Antrim suggest some alternatives, but I am not sure that there was much there, other than a charge for the rich and a charge for the poor. Nonetheless, I accept that the Minister needs to consider some alternatives to how we move this matter forward.
On a constituency basis, I have always been an advocate of trying to tackle the problem of illegal parking in our town centres. On many occasions, I have supported the need for the red coats or traffic attendants or whatever we wish to call them. I have no doubt that there are other names that people will choose to call them, but we will call them what they are supposed to be called today. They have a difficult job. There is no doubt that support to deal with this problem needs to be given.
I listened to what other Members said in respect of the increase. Maybe it is my ignorance, or maybe I just did not hear what they had to say, but it was more an issue about the fact that there were penalty fines, not the fact that there was an increase. We have to remember that penalty fines of £60 are already in place, and the issue is the increase. I have not heard that much of an argument against it. I have not heard much of a reason why people who consistently break the law by parking illegally should not be dealt with.
There is a wider issue in respect of how we deal with this.
The Member will appreciate that some of us listen to the radio in the mornings, and there is one particular presenter who, when he is not talking about his weight, consistently talks about the price of fines and the number of times that he has been fined. Obviously, that presenter has not been put off by the amount that he has been fined. In fact, he will probably be on the radio tomorrow morning welcoming an increase in the fines.
I try my best not to listen to him as much as the Member, but I believe that, recently, he was trying his best to pay his fine via the internet or the telephone. To be fair, the Minister is trying to address that issue to ensure that people can do that. On-street parking is a different matter from the fines. Nonetheless, the fine has the same end result.
Mr Dallat said that there are always one or two bad traffic attendants who bring down people’s opinion of them all. I could name more than one, but I will not today.
Nonetheless, the lack of a consistent approach is a problem, and that has been raised with the Minister. There is a need for a more consistent and human approach. People should not try to see how many tickets they can give out on any given day as if it were a bonus scheme, which the Minister has assured us it is not. That needs to be addressed.
To some extent, I have sympathy with people who feel that the charge is too severe. Nonetheless, we cannot sit on our laurels and do nothing. We have to show people that we intend to tackle the issue. If that means —
The prayer of annulment is what it is; it is speaking out against what the Minister has proposed. Obviously, the Minister will have to take on board what is discussed if the prayer of annulment is agreed to today. I believe that the Minister, who was praised by Mr Dallat earlier, has a heart. I also believe that he has a listening ear, and I respect him for listening to the issues that I bring to his table. I think that he will listen to the debate regardless of the outcome and will hopefully bring forward alternatives to address the problem while ensuring that people are not ticketed just because they are, through no fault of their own, a few minutes late. Some Members gave the example of hairdressers. I am not one of those who would get caught out by a long waiting time at the hairdresser, although I suppose that I should declare an interest because my wife is a hairdresser. Nonetheless, there are people who get caught out when they have an appointment and are, through no fault of their own, late getting back to their car to ensure that their ticket is up to date. Those are issues that the Minister has, no doubt, to take on board. However, I again urge Members not to vote in favour of the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. As a member of the Committee, I support the prayer of annulment. There has been considerable debate about the issue in Committee. I thank the Minister for coming to the Committee and for putting forward his reasons and rationale. I am not convinced that it is not a revenue-raising project. The Minister says that raising the level from £60 to £90 will act as a greater deterrent to those who choose not to park properly. He said: “The increase in the PCN will go towards the self-funding of car parking services which currently runs at a deficit of £7million per year. Reducing this deficit will free up other parts of my budget for maintaining front-line services such as fixing potholes and maintaining street lights.”
If the Minister is successful in doing the first, he will certainly have no money.
We do not encourage or condone illegal parking by any stretch of the imagination. The Minister told the Committee that he wanted to deter the small number of rogue drivers who incur penalties by parking in illegal places, etc. However, in my experience, the vast majority of those who incur penalties are ordinary citizens going into town for specific reasons such as appointments, etc, as all the other Members said. I think that Ross Hussey quoted the figure for Omagh — 29,000; nearly 30,000. Outside of Derry and Belfast, Enniskillen tops the league with almost 43,000. Is the Minister saying to me that there are almost 43,000 rogue drivers in and around Enniskillen? My experience is of living and having a constituency office in Enniskillen beside the car park. Personally, and on a representative basis, we have people coming from the car park who are angry, having received a ticket for having been 10 or 15 minutes late. People who come to shop from the border counties are being deterred.
From a personal point of view, I am not saying that I incurred all 43,000 tickets, but I incurred a number of them. Possibly some were from my own carelessness, but quite a few of them were for being 10 or 15 minutes late. A LeasCheann Comhairle, I want to tell the Members that I have paid them all.
Many of those people are van drivers making deliveries. They have to park somewhere. There is an overzealous attendant, or whatever you call him, in Enniskillen, and though the Minister says there are no bonuses, I would love to know what this man is on. If you have not the change in your pocket for the machine and you have to go up the town for it, there could be a ticket on your car. You need to tell someone to stand beside your car until you come back. I know people, from my own county and from the outlying towns in County Fermanagh, who will not go to Enniskillen to shop, unless they are going to the large out-of-town shops. They say that you will end up with a parking ticket. That is why I asked the Member down there who was in Enniskillen today whether he got a parking ticket, but it was one of those days when there might not have been any handed out.
The proposed increase is far too great, particularly in the economic climate. The Minister needs, as others say, to go away and look at other measures, reconfigure his figures in some way or look within the Department. He needs to put in place a more transparent and exact system. The one that is working, that gives out 42,000 fines in a small town, is not good enough.
If the penalty fines are increased, it will encourage more and more people to leave our town centres for the free car parking spaces at the large shops. I agree with the Minister when he said that he wanted drivers to park legally and consider other road users. I believe that the current penalty charges suffice to do that.
I ask all Members of the House to support the prayer of annulment.
I think we are having a useful debate. It is very interesting to hear some of the arguments and some of the illogical arguments. No one likes paying a car parking fine. Let us be clear. It has a deterrent value, a very important value. It has affected me; I am sure that it has an effect on all other Members, but perhaps not on some, like Stephen Nolan, who seem to be able to flout the law, continue to pick up fines and then whinge about it. In reality, the fines are there. Yes, there is a fine for illegal and dangerous car parking, and there is also a fine for those who have overstayed their dues. It is very important that those who abandon their cars in dangerous places face appropriate penalties, and it is clear that there is a deterrent effect with those fines.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree, and I think that he has outlined it, that there is a differential between those who are parking illegally and those who have unfortunately been caught short or whatever?
That is something which, it is clear, has come forth in the discussion. In the discussion between the Minister and the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Committee, it is something which — it was made clear— will be pursued further and, I hope, instigated. There is the issue of adopting protocol with those who are given the job of enforcing the law so that they do it with regard and some degree of good service to the customers, in dealing perhaps with someone who is just a few minutes late. That would go a long way towards improving the situation and would show that, for those who may have overstayed their welcome by a very short period, some degree of leniency would be allowed.
I have given way earlier. I would like to pursue my own argument, if I may. We have heard that the fee has sat at £80 — or £30, because most people pay within the deemed period — since 2006. Whether you like it or not, there have been considerable increases in offences since that time. We were given very clear evidence on that. That means that the deterrent is not working and is not sufficient. As a result, some of those who are continuing to flout the law, as I have highlighted, will be increasing road safety issues. They will be parking inappropriately, without receiving the appropriate penalty to act as a deterrent. That danger remains. It is very clear from the increased number of tickets that it is not doing that job as we wish it to do.
I got one ticket a number of years ago. My trailer was not parked perfectly, even though I had a ticket on the car. It was at the very far end of the car park. I thought it was well away from everybody. I had to pay my ticket. I reckoned that it was not parked correctly and I paid my ticket. I learned my lesson. I have since ensured that I have parked meticulously. I check when I have to, and always endeavour to be back at the car within the appropriate period.
This is a very emotive issue. People can go on a crusade against car-parking attendants, or red coats, but picture your local town without car-parking attendants. The Member for East Londonderry suggested that you should be able to stay for much longer outside the butcher’s shop.
The difficulty I have is that, when I look at Ballymena or Ballymoney, the car-parking attendants are absolutely useless when it comes to any traffic jams. They have no power to intervene to try to keep traffic flowing. They have no power to intervene to try to manage traffic in the towns. All that they are out to do is to make sure that they get some poor individual who has been in the town for four minutes over time, spending money, and chase them out of the town. That is the only benefit they are.
Anyone who has any knowledge of the subject will agree with me that the sooner the responsibility of local car-parking attendants is passed to local councils, the better, so that they are accountable to local people and have to respond accordingly. That is my view. If there are issues like that, that would certainly deal with them, because the local council would deal with them.
To go back to the issue, if, as the Member opposite suggested, they should not have waiting restrictions outside the butcher’s shop, or the butcher should be able to pay to park for three or four hours, what customers are going to get in there? Surely, the butcher is going to park there, or perhaps the office worker upstairs. There is purpose to some of those restrictions to enable customers to get there. We all need to look at it very carefully before changing such policies. On occasions, it is right to change, but, I have to admit, I was shocked when the argument against fines was that, instead of the fines, we should introduce on-street car-parking charges. I really find that ridiculous. It almost seems as if Sinn Féin is miffed that its policy of introducing additional on-street car-parking charges was avoided by passing some of the costs for the traffic management issue to those who are causing offences and not obeying the regulations. I think that is a rather childish approach, if that is what it is, simply because that party’s original policy of wanting to charge people for parking in town centres was altered.
I go back to the issue of road safety, which is very important. I declare an interest as a member of the Carrickfergus road safety committee. Some people think that they can just abandon a car anywhere. We have to make sure that that is not allowed. Surely, after six years with a steady price and the knowledge that the fine is not working, because the number of offences is increasing, there does have to be an increase. There are choices.
I welcome the discussion that has occurred between the Chair, Deputy Chair and the Minister. I hope that we can hear more and that the ideas of dual charging and protocols can be progressed further so that there is clarity and transparency for everyone.
There are choices in everything we do. A budget has been set that the Executive have passed. I have been a member of different Committees, and many policies to increase costs have come forward. I would have preferred many of those costs to stay at zero, just as most people would, but you have to act responsibly. Unless you can propose an alternative cost that will fill that void, you are acting irresponsibly. The only suggestion that I have heard here today to fill the void of this traffic management issue has been the introduction of on-street parking charges in town centres. I think that would have an adverse effect on our town centres and should not be introduced. I do not accept that as an argument.
Does the Member agree that it is not reasonable to suggest that that is the only proposal that has been made in this Chamber today? The proposal that I made, and which I think others would agree with, is that we should introduce a two-tier fine system. That would add to the Minister’s coffers, and, at the same time, it would not penalise those who can least afford it and those who commit the most minor of offences. We need some intelligent thinking about this, not just one big slap of an increase of a fine.
I thank the Member for his suggestion, again, but, if he was on Carrick Council discussing some issue, he would know that the budget is today. The budget is not in six months’ time, after you have gone through some new consultation procedures and introduced new legislation. The budget is today.
I am a former member of the Regional Development Committee. Officials came to that Committee just before I moved on, and I asked, or someone asked, what the choices were. They indicated, at that point, that the choices they had included the reduction of grass-cutting on the verges. Again, from a road safety point of view, I would not want that to be reduced because of the danger to pedestrians. It is not that long since we heard of tragic accidents where pedestrians were struck by vehicles, and, if there is long grass or bad visibility at junctions, you will increase the risk of road traffic accidents. Therefore, I reject the suggestion of reducing the cutting of grass verges.
Another suggestion, which I had to take a second look at, but I discovered that it is a very real suggestion, was to turn street lights out at night. People may be surprised and not take that seriously, but that is what many councils in England have done; they have turned the lights out in the wee hours of the night. Again, I do not wish to go down that route. There would be potential hazards for those who might still be working or going home from night shifts and possible dangers for the local community as well. I think many people become attached to their street lights, and, rather than turn them off, I would much prefer that we live with what the choice is now — [Interruption.]
I ask that we respect the fact that increased fines for road traffic offences, such as parking offences, would have a dual purpose. They would be a major deterrent. Those prices sat there for some six years without any increase. They would also fill the void that is there. If you go for some other option, and I wish to hear more from the Minister at the end, I understand that the alternatives would result in some potentially drastic instances. Realistic alternatives have not been presented. Therefore, regrettably, I have to support this measure. I do not want higher fines for myself or my constituents, but there are reasons why this is the best option — road traffic reasons and to fill the real budget gap that is there.
I support the retention of these costs and will be voting against the prayer of annulment.
It has been interesting to hear the different ideas and thoughts in the debate. I certainly take issue with the Sinn Féin perspective. I find the very suggestion that somehow paying on-street parking charges will alleviate all the problems quite illogical. Before the last election, I was very much part of the campaign to avoid on-street parking charges in towns in my constituency, such as Kilkeel, Warrenpoint, Downpatrick, Newcastle and others.
I congratulate the Minister on a very speedy decision to scrap the proposals for on-street parking charges. It was the right decision to make then, and it is right to support it now. I think that there is actually great support around the House for the Minister’s action back then, because Sinn Féin Members have talked about the economic conditions not being right to increase fines.
I thank the Member for giving way. He talks about supporting the prayer of annulment, saying that he does not want additional on-street parking fees, but is he in support of additional car-parking fees that were not previously charged? They are now being introduced by the Minister. That is happening in my own town in my constituency. Both are additional charges, so what is the difference between on-street parking charges and car-parking charges?
I am surprised that the Member has suddenly moved away from that position.
My point about the Sinn Féin position is that it is totally illogical. Its suggested argument that you should pay on-street parking charges is illogical. How are you going to enforce that if you do not want any type of fine levied? You would get into the same issues with on-street parking that we have now with people who come back to a car park a few minutes late. Either you have a fine system to enforce that or you do not. If you do not have a fine system in place, nobody will pay any of the charges anyway, because there will be no penalty. The very arguments that Sinn Féin makes are totally illogical. It simply will not work.
Parking is one of the most difficult issues to deal with in our towns. Getting the balance right in even our small market towns is difficult. Who parks in the towns? There are all-day parkers who go elsewhere in the country to work and do not bring any new business into the towns. How do you manage that? There are many towns in which we have restricted parking to help to bring in business to regenerate them, and it is right and proper that we do that. We are in the process of doing that in my local town, Rathfriland, because we have had a problem with all-day parkers and cars taking up space. Those people are not bringing commercial activity into the town, and we do not want that. We need to manage town traffic and parking to increase business and throughput in all our towns. Many of our smaller towns are struggling in these difficult economic conditions. That is why parking is such an important issue that we must get right.
Mr Dickson talked about other options. My understanding of the prayer of annulment is that either the motion is passed or it is not. Therefore, it is not presenting us with other options. He may well have brought other options to the Committee that may be useful to explore. However, tonight, we have to make a decision on how we will fund the future of parking.
The Member is right: the prayer of annulment is the only way of dealing with this matter. As the Member’s colleague Mr Beggs said, when departmental officials came to the Committee we saw the paucity of their proposals: stop grass cutting and turn off street lights. Those are not alternatives; they are ridiculous suggestions. The alternative is to introduce a proper, two-tier system of fines, and the only way that that can be achieved is by annulling the proposal tonight and genuinely allowing the Minister to come back with better proposals.
Has the Committee worked through how much that system would raise? At what level would the second tier of fines have to be set to raise some of the money? Is there not also an argument that those who were unlucky enough to have been caught several times in one year — or claim to have been — would complain about the level of fine? The Minister may also want to respond to questions about the level of bureaucracy required to deal with such a system. We already have a gap between what it costs to administer the system and the amount of revenue raised by parking fines. People have got the message about parking illegally, and we should encourage the levels of illegal parking to keep coming down. However, Mr Dickson’s proposals seem to be a few ideas that he has just thought of; he has not worked through the cost and workability of such a scheme.
Like my colleague Mr Beggs, I am concerned about a reduction of grass cutting. I am also concerned about turning off lights in our towns and villages, and the major impact that that could have on safety and crime. We have to take that into account.
Does the Member agree with me that some Members are simply not taking the issue seriously? What we are seeing is cheap political knockabout. We have Members who have no intention of passing the prayer of annulment but who see an opportunity for making a cheap political point. Surely it is time for Members to show that they are responsible politicians, rather than making cheap jibes from the Benches. We know how the DUP will vote and how Sinn Féin will vote. This is pure political pantomime — [Interruption.] It is not a serious point. I am sure that my colleague will want to elaborate on that.
I thank my honourable friend for that valuable contribution [Laughter.] It has certainly added a great deal of clarity to the debate, and, perhaps before I finish, he may wish to contribute some more of his knowledge. [Interruption.]
There are important issues. Members have argued that the increase is so great that people will be unable to afford it. For most who pay within the 14-day limit, the fine will increase from £30 to £45. That is about half a tank of diesel in most cars and probably less than 10% of an average annual car insurance premium. I find it incredible that someone would be thrown into hardship if they were asked to pay £45 for a parking offence. We should bear in mind that if you commit an offence and are caught, you should be fined. Are we going to argue that point for speeding offences and for every other offence?
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member spoke about the increase in the fine. Surely the issue is really about encouraging people not to park illegally. If they do that, they will not have to pay the additional amount, as they will not have a fine to pay.
The point is well made. The evidence suggests that if the number of illegal parkers is coming down, at least part of the message is getting through. I applaud that and encourage us all to do that. I am sure that there are very few Members who have not been caught out with a parking fine at some point —
I thank the Member for giving way. He talked about Members being caught for parking offences. I, too, confess to having been caught out, but it was not putting £60 or £90 into the Department for Regional Development or paying it to red coats; it was paid to a private clamper in south Belfast, which was far worse because getting clamped cost me £85. However, a dirty rumour is circulating around the House that I ask UUP Members to clarify. Some in the House say that the Minister received a ticket in Enniskillen today. Can you clarify that? [Laughter.]
I will let the Minister clarify that when he speaks. If he received a ticket, I am quite sure that, on an occasion such as today, he will be happy to pay it before the increase goes through. [Laughter.] At least the Member did not claim that he was innocent when he was parked in south Belfast and got clamped.
The House has a duty to act responsibly, to set an example and, when we change things, look at how we fund those changes. That is incumbent on us all.
I have to say that the Member on the Benches opposite raised an interesting point. I want to get to the bottom of whether ignorance is any defence. If you have got some sort of charge against you, should you not stand up and pay it like a man, or a woman, if that is the case? Should you not go and do that? Is that not what this House is all about: that you should meet your obligations fairly and squarely?
Absolute fairness and responsibility; yes. I look forward to hearing from other Members, but this is an important issue for the House to tackle and there is a responsibility on us all to vote for something that we can say is fair and responsible for the Executive and Assembly.
I am sure that the House will say well done to Mr John McCallister and Basil McCrea for demonstrating how to thank the only party that is likely to support them. I am sure that that party, namely the DUP, will recognise just how trivially they treat you. You have heard it, and you decide.
I thank the Committee Chairman for the degree of decorum and seriousness that he brought to the debate. On behalf of the Committee, I thank him for his report and, personally, I admire him for being here and doing that. Thank you very much. I also concur with his comments to the outgoing Deputy Chair. At that time, anyhow, they set the tone for the debate that we embarked on.
The law currently operates fines of £60. In my opinion, that sum is adequate and fair. People pay for breaking that law. The argument that increasing the fine to £90 will prove a major deterrent has not been backed up by evidence to the Committee. However there is, has been, and I think that there will continue to be strong representation from local traders and businesses in all our constituencies who advise us that the increase will drive customers away from town centres and towards shopping complexes.
In their efforts to stay afloat, those traders have every right to expect support from their elected representatives rather than have things made more difficult, as we could with this vote, so that they can survive and continue in business. There are no compromises here. It is not a matter of a £5 or £10 increase. It is a straight £30 uplift or nothing. However, we are told that this £30 increase is nothing to do with revenue. That is what was said to the Committee. The Committee was told that it was only about a deterrent and that that is all that it was about. So, why have we had the high-handed threats over introducing increased car parking charges and neglecting cutting grass verges? On the other hand, we were told that £7 million is required to plug a budget shortfall. If this is not revenue based, what is it? Is it revenue raising to compensate for budget savings? Or could it be that the NSL commercial contract is due for renewal this October? I add that to the mix, because, as you all know, £4·5 million is raised annually from the collection of the £60 fine. However, it costs £9·3 million to administer and collect the fines. There is no profit in that; there is not even a break-even figure on the balance sheet. So, if the deterrent aspect is to be believed, with the suggestion that fewer people are offending and that fewer fines are collected, how can it be that the £7 million extra can be collected at net value to the Department when there is a shortfall of £4·8 million?
I offer this idea. For the year for which the latest figures are available, 2008-09, the net deficit to the Department to operate overall car parking services was around £9 million. It is on the upward spiral. Do Members not agree that that is a lamentable situation and that it shows an Oliver Twist mentality of asking for more? If you decide to defeat this prayer of annulment tonight, that would seem to be acceptable, and it would seem to be acceptable that commercial people can ask for more and more and that we give and give.
Is the issue not really about a departmental inability to manage its current budget? It has a problem, which the Committee respects and recognises. However, the Department cannot have it both ways. It cannot say that a greater deterrent will reduce the fines that are collected but then add that the increase in fines will reduce a deficit of £7 million annually. As somebody else said, if the deterrent works, the revenue to reduce the deficit will not be collected.
Surely the other question has to be this: why is the £60 fine not sufficient today? Why is it not working? Is the answer not to be found somewhere? It is sufficient. It happens to be that the cost of collecting it is provoking the loss-making inefficiency that is being discussed.
If the House wishes to tell the public that, as a consequence of backing a £90 fine, it supports an inevitable downturn in town centre vibrancy, it should do so. If the House wants to drive people out of town centres and to be accused of doing that, it should do so. However, if we, as a House that is accountable to the electorate, genuinely want to endorse the current £60 fine and if we want to send out and reiterate the signal that the law, as it stands, should be respected and will be rigorously enforced, we should do so by supporting the Committee’s motion. It is a straight choice. You can take that choice back to your electorate, constituencies, business owners, shopkeepers and the people who use those facilities. You can take that choice back tonight after you have voted, and you can tell them how you voted. It is a simple choice, but the £60 fine surely is worth preserving and worth sticking with. We are not talking about a £5 or £10 uplift, which is something that we might have been able to live with; this is £30 or bust. I put it to you to support the motion and bust any proposal to bring the £90 fee in.
I am grateful to all of the Members for their contributions. Through the course of my remarks, I will address many of the questions that they have raised and the issues about which they have asked.
Our aim in managing car parking is to reduce congestion, to improve safety and accessibility and to generate a turnover in car parking spaces. Parking enforcement is essential to ensure that parking restrictions on our roads and car parks are adhered to by motorists. Those restrictions are there to improve road safety, reduce congestion and make our town centres more accessible for shoppers. Regrettably, not everyone complies with the restrictions, and so a deterrent in the form of a parking ticket is required. My main reason — not the sole reason, but the main reason — for increasing this penalty is to provide a deterrent in order to get drivers to park properly. If that is successful, parking tickets will not be issued, and that is what I really want.
Since the Department became responsible for parking enforcement in 2006, the number of penalties issued has been reducing year on year, from approximately 160,000 to approximately 118,000. However, last year saw a reversal of that trend, with an increase to approximately 125,000. That upward trend contributed to my decision to tackle the problem at source and to try to encourage drivers to park properly in the first instance. However, if a minority of drivers continue to ignore the rules and park irresponsibly, it is right that they should pay.
Although my proposal is to increase the cost of a parking ticket from £60 to £90, it should be noted that, since the beginning of decriminalised parking enforcement, the vast majority of drivers have paid their parking ticket within two weeks, at the discounted rate. In practice, that means an increase of £15 in the discounted rate from £30 to £45.
An effective parking enforcement service costs money, and it is not right that law-abiding drivers who take the time to park properly and show courtesy to others should pay for a service that is there is to control the actions of a few. So, the people who flout the law should pay more for the cost of providing the enforcement service.
It has been highlighted in the debate that my Department’s parking services operate at a deficit of some £7 million per year. In accordance with the principles of ‘Managing Public Money Northern Ireland’ and the efficient running of my Department, I have a responsibility to reduce that deficit and make parking services self-funding. The obvious way to do that, following the logic of some contributors to this debate, is to increase charges wholesale and widespread. I am not prepared to do that. However, if I cannot proceed with the increase in the charge for a parking ticket, it is estimated that my budget will have a shortfall of approximately £2·5 million per year over the next three years, which is a total of £7·5 million. That will have significant consequences and will require me to review other parking charges to recoup the deficit; a move that I believe would not be welcome to town centre traders. It would, of course, also have the resulting penalty for motorists who park properly, as opposed to those who flout the rules.
Other options that I would have to consider if the prayer of annulment succeeds include a reduction in the frequency and extent of grass cutting, longer response times for the repair of street lights and a reduction in the frequency of inspection and repair of potholes on rural roads. Those are services that are already under pressure. These activities are already funded at a minimal level, and I am reluctant to reduce the level of service further.
We should all remember that this is a penalty that can be avoided. All that drivers have to do is obey the rules of parking in keeping with the vast majority of drivers in Northern Ireland. I am aware of comments to the effect that people are not fully aware of the parking system. I have, therefore, asked my officials to rerun an awareness campaign to remind drivers of the issues that are associated with parking restrictions and enforcement in the lead-up to the start of the new contract in October.
It has also been suggested that my Department should produce a protocol on parking. My Department already has clear procedures on how it deals with different circumstances. These procedures form part of the training for traffic attendants and processing officers. Again, as a listening Minister, and to ensure that there are no misunderstandings, my Department will publish a protocol that will help drivers to understand the rules and avoid getting a parking ticket. The Department will take this forward as part of an awareness campaign that I have asked officials to undertake in the lead-up to the introduction of the new contract in October. I hope that this will contribute positively to the whole debate around parking and the need for parking management.
I also hope that it will highlight the issue of discretion in the system and that there is a fair, equitable and easily accessible process for those drivers who wish to appeal. The appeals process itself includes an independent body of adjudicators who are appointed by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service in the Department of Justice. The four independent adjudicators in the traffic penalty tribunal are from a legal background. They are either barristers or solicitors, and they hear appeal cases brought by drivers.
I have listened closely to the comments about traffic attendants. I do not believe that the number of tickets that are being issued — one every two hours on average — is indicative of an over-zealous approach. However, again, as a listening Minister, and in an attempt to deal with public disquiet on this matter, I have instructed officials to reiterate to the company that is responsible for the attendants the need for improved customer engagement as they seek to perform their often difficult duties.
I have to make progress.
I, too, am often asked about grace periods for parking restrictions. There are procedures laid down for traffic attendants that include a built-in grace period for some of the more minor offences. For example, if you pay-and-display, a 10-minute grace period is given after the expiry of your paid time. For more serious offences, there are no grace periods. For example, tickets are issued immediately to vehicles on a zig-zag line, at a bus stop or on a clearway.
I am promoting and actively bringing forward the introduction of electronic parking payment across the whole of Northern Ireland, which will greatly benefit drivers. This facility means that drivers do not have to predict how long they need to park and how much they need to pay up front, because they can start and stop their parking when they need to and pay only for the time that is used. This will mean that parking penalties will not be issued for overstaying the pay-and-display time as long as time restrictions are adhered to. This facility currently exists in Belfast and Londonderry as well as Lisburn, Newry and Omagh, and I hope to extend the scheme to other towns across Northern Ireland over the coming months.
I recognise that some parking contraventions are more serious than others and that in London and in other parts of England, about which we have heard in this debate, a system of differential penalties applies. I am willing to consider the introduction of a similar system here, but it cannot and will not be done overnight. Therefore, I say to the House that the prayer of annulment is an issue of the day that has to be dealt with today.
I have engaged, as the Chairperson and the deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development outlined, on this issue. I attended meetings with the Committee in April this year and as recently as last week. The Department briefed the previous Committee on its plans to raise additional revenue from increased parking charges and penalties as part of its savings delivery plans associated with Budget 2011-15. Specifically, in January 2011, the Department provided written and oral evidence that indicated that it intended to raise an additional £37·5 million through a combination of an average yearly increase of 15% to existing car parking income for each of the Budget years and an increase in the penalty for parking illegally. That and on-street parking charges are what we are debating this evening.
I subsequently decided not to proceed with the on-street charges. That was the right decision. It was a popular and well-received decision in town and city centres all over Northern Ireland. Following that decision, my Department wrote to the Committee in November 2011 to set out the financial consequences of that decision and to provide an updated savings delivery plan. Let me be clear: I want the number of car parking tickets to reduce further by deterring illegal and improper parking. Increasing the penalty for a parking ticket is a measure that can help to achieve that, and, therefore, it will make parking easier for everyone.
I am conscious of time, so I will very briefly —
No, I am going to make progress.
I want to refer to comments that were made by Members during the debate. It has, in large part, been a good and reasonably measured debate. I express my thanks to the Chairman of the Committee for Regional Development, Mr Spratt. He found himself in a difficult position: he had to present the Committee’s view on the issue while not agreeing with it. That is never an easy position to be in, but he made a very balanced contribution. I am grateful to him for his support on the overall issue. That is not what I have to say to Mr Ó hOisín, who, frankly, astonished me. He almost immediately indicated that he was not opposed to the principle of an increase in parking fines, but he also said that he supported the reintroduction of on-street car parking charges. That is a huge tax on town centres, small businesses and people who are struggling to survive at this time. I wonder whether we will see a new Sinn Féin strapline on the issue: will it be “Our bay will come”? [Laughter.]
I was very impressed by the weighty contribution that was made by my party colleague Ross Hussey and the arguments that he advanced. He made the point that the ticketing system is a crucial tool in ensuring that there is proper parking and that the parking laws are obeyed.
Mr Dallat had sympathy for me; he said that he did not blame me personally. He talked about the impact on the local economy. I have made a huge contribution by not introducing on-street car parking to town centres. That is widely recognised by town and city centres and traders all over Northern Ireland. I am not cruel or mean or whatever, but I have to deal with the financial realities that are before me in the operation of the Department. All of us have to act properly and with sufficient control when we come to important or difficult decisions. I find myself having to make a difficult call, but it is done for the right reason.
I have addressed Mr Dickson’s issue about the two-tier system, and I am prepared to look at that. However, it cannot, as I have said, be introduced overnight, and, therefore, I cannot wish away or vanish away the gaping hole in my budget. I am grateful to Ian McCrea for his contribution, particularly his acceptance of the very difficult job carried out by attendants and the need for a consistent approach.
Seán Lynch rather fell into the on-street car parking issue again. I was in Enniskillen today at one of the most tremendous services that I have ever attended. It was a truly inspiring, memorable and very emotional occasion, but it was wonderful to see Her Majesty the Queen in Enniskillen today enjoying the rapturous acclaim of her people — [Interruption.]
A wide range of the entire community was there, and all enjoyed the service. I did not receive a parking ticket, and, maybe if I had, I would have sought the royal prerogative of mercy.
Mr Beggs and Mr McCallister rallied strongly to my defence, and nearly lost me votes as a consequence. They expressed the fundamental views that, in essence, it should be the polluter who pays. That is the basis of this, and perhaps it is wrong or unfortunate that, since 2006, there has not been a graduated increase here. Sometimes, it is popular in politics to not introduce charges, but I think people can deal with increases as long as they are given to understand them and as long as they are applied fairly and with an even approach. Waiting six years to do this has served up some of the problems with it. I cannot be faulted for that, because I was not in office for all those six years.
While Mr McNarry was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, he stood on a manifesto that supported the non-introduction of on-street car parking charges. It was a pledge that, rightly, we honoured when we took ministerial and departmental office, and, as I said earlier, it was the right decision. As a consequence of that decision, we were faced with a hole in the budget because of the previous Sinn Féin budget delivery savings plans. I had to deal with that, and that is one reason why I am bringing forward the proposals. [Interruption.]
We are in the real world and in real politics, and we are running a Department that ultimately has to wash its face.
Finally, I say to all Members of this House, particularly those who are inclined to support the prayer of annulment — I say this respectfully — to be careful what you pray for, because there are severe consequences of not introducing the charges. A prayer against the increase could mean further increases to existing car parking charges, which, in effect, penalises motorists who obey the rules as opposed to those who flout them. It may mean a reduction in front line maintenance activities; for example, less frequent grass cutting, longer response times for the repair of street lights and a reduction in the frequency of the inspection and repair of potholes on rural roads.
I do not want to be in that situation, and I do not want to be forced to look at those possible consequences. I want to bring forward and continue to look at the issue in a mature, responsible way, and I want to continue to work with the Chairman and the members of the Committee. The Deputy Chairman is about to make his valedictory speech to this Assembly, and he is going to oppose me on this issue. I join with others in recognising the contribution that he has made to the Committee and wish him well for a successful engagement at Westminster, taking his seat and rejoining the Commonwealth, and all the great benefits that Westminster will bring. [Laughter.]
On a serious note, it is flawed logic to promote and support this prayer of annulment, and I ask the House to reject it.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This is indeed my last contribution to the House as a Member, and it is an honour to do so in my capacity as Deputy Chair of the Committee for Regional Development. It is also an honour to have served under such a fine Chairman as Jimmy Spratt, and I say that with all sincerity. At the outset, I thank the Chair and my Committee colleagues for their humour and hard work and their dedication to the Committee. I also thank the Committee Clerk and his staff. I added that bit in myself, Paul. I echo the Chair’s comments that it is unusual to see the Committee divide as members are genuinely united in their opinions on how we get the best for the North in transport, roads, rail and water. This was most evident in our recent visit to Brussels in respect of the TEN-T negotiations.
I will try to curtail my comments as much as possible, because I am aware that other business has to be heard in the House. As a member of the Committee for Regional Development, I voted for this prayer to be brought to the Floor of the House. As Deputy Chair, I hope that I will reflect the opinions of all members of the Committee, but, at the same time, I will indicate that the Committee position is as delivered by a majority of its members. I will refer to the Chair of the Committee’s introductory factual remarks about how we arrived at this position. This was not an easy speech for the Chair, particularly given his personal views on the charges. As would be expected of our Chair, those introductory remarks were honest and accurate. As has been heard, the majority of Committee members respectfully beg to differ with his comments as a Member of this House.
The Committee remains unconvinced of the motives for introducing these increased charges, and it called for a strategic review of car parking. The Minister has not explained why, after an initial significant reduction in penalties when the scheme was introduced in 2006-07, there has been a steady increase in the number of tickets since. Why is this the case? What research has been undertaken to explain that? If the research has been undertaken, why has it not been presented to the Committee or the House?
The Committee sees these increases as purely and simply to raise revenue. Although we acknowledged that no specific targets are defined in the contract, it must be acknowledged that, often, the policy is made up of what is not said, rather than what is in writing. In this instance, the enforcement organisation is placidly being instructed to raise an additional £2·5 million a year in ticket revenue. That is between 27,000 and 55,000 additional tickets each year. Surely, this will erode whatever little bit of discretion the wardens or redcoats have. I wholly agree with the Chair’s suggestion for a dual tariff and published protocol, and this has been echoed by a number of Members in the debate. Such an action would bring a level of reassurance to the public, and I fully endorse calls for the Minister to review those areas urgently.
I do not intend to respond to all of the contributions in the debate, but I will make reference to some of them. Cathal Ó hOisín, quite correctly, talked about the pressure on small businesses and the effects on villages and small towns. Ross Hussey admitted to illegal parking, but said that the fines were a critical component of enforcement. He liked the idea of the Minister rattling his sabre, and I wondered where “beyond use” went to when he was talking about sabres.
John Dallat expressed appreciation for the openness of the Minister. He said that it was ordinary people who were being targeted and pointed out the difference between fines and fees. He also cited the conduct of one red coat and blamed a cruel Executive that was pushing a kind Minister. Stewart Dickson said that it was about revenue-raising as opposed to improving parking etiquette. He suggested a two-tier system and said that £60, plus discount, was reasonable, but not £90. He asked the Minister to reconsider the two-tier system. Ian McCrea said that this was a difficult issue, but supported the Minister. However, he had sympathy with some people who were fined, particularly those going to the hairdresser. [Laughter.]
Seán Lynch said that it was a revenue-raising issue and that it was coming down heavily on ordinary citizens. He said that he gets heavy representation on the issue, perhaps because his constituency office is beside a car park. He, too, admitted to illegal parking, but said that he paid his fines. Roy Beggs said that no one liked to be fined, but that some of the arguments being put were illogical. He noted that fines had not been increased since 2006. He said that if there were no car-parking attendants, towns would be jammed up. He highlighted the need for road safety and asked what the alternative was. He said that it would not affect the Minister’s budget. He also said that he was very much attached to street lighting. [Laughter.]
John McCallister took some issue with Sinn Féin. He did not want on-street parking charges and said that Sinn Féin’s position was illogical. He supported increases in the charges and dismissed other options as not being worked through. There was then quite an interruption from Basil, which caused a bit of an uproar. I thought that he was slightly disrespectful to the Committee that had tabled the motion. John then returned to his point and quite forcefully made the point that £45 was not that big a charge. It is to some people.
David McNarry made a very measured contribution and thanked the Chair for the way in which the report was delivered to the House. He said that, if the charge was increased by £30, it would have a big negative impact on ordinary people and traders. He said that the Department cannot have it both ways and asked why the £60 option was not working. He said that, if it was not prayed against, the measure would drive people out of town centres. He also said that it was, essentially, a fundraising measure.
Minister Danny Kennedy thanked Members for their contributions. He restated the Department’s position and said that there was a need for a deterrent to get drivers to park legally. He said that people who flouted the law should pay more. He said that if the statutory rule were prayed against, it would cost the Department £7·5 million over three years and that that money would have to be found by other means, which he outlined. He said that the penalty could be avoided by drivers parking legally. He said that there was training and that protocols were in place, and highlighted the fact that there will be discretion in how the charges are applied. He spoke correctly and very honestly about his dialogue with the Chair, the Deputy Chair and the Committee. I appreciate that and thank him for it. He attempted to bring forward a new Sinn Féin slogan — very badly, I must say. [Laughter.] Nevertheless, it was a genuine attempt. He said that the polluters should pay. He also said that we must live in the real world and that, if we do not accept this and pray against it, there could be further charges down the line.
I hope that I have accurately reflected Members’ views and the thoughts of the Committee. The Committee for Regional Development supports the motion.
I would like to divert for a short while, because this is my last speech in the Assembly. I want to thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank all the Speakers and Deputy Speakers — Cinn Chomhairle, LeasChinn Chomhairle and Príomh-LeasCheann Comhairle — from the time I have been here since 1998. I thank them for their courtesies and efficiencies in the way that they conducted business. I also thank all the MLAs and Ministers with whom I have worked, in my own party and others. Finally, I say to my unionist colleagues across the Floor: I am going to west Tyrone not Westminster. [Laughter.]
Mr Agnew, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Dallat, Mr Dickson, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Mr Flanagan, Ms Lo, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr F McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McDevitt, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr McNarry, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Flanagan and Mr Rogers.
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Ms Brown, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Copeland, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Hussey and Mr Kinahan.
Question accordingly negatived.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]