`.—(1) Any person who carries on business as a car park operator in the area of a local authority without being registered for that area by the authority shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.
(2) For the purposes of this section a person carries on business as a car park operator if he carries on a business which consists wholly or partly in the provision of parking spaces for motor vehicles in areas and premises reserved for that purpose and for which he makes a charge.
(3) In this section ``registered'' means registered in a register established and maintained by a local authority under subsection (4); and cognate expressions shall be construed accordingly.
(4) Every local authority shall establish and maintain a register for their area of persons carrying on business as car park operators in that area.
(5) The register shall, subject to any requirements that may be prescribed, be in such form as the local authority consider appropriate.'.—[Mr. Chidgey.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. The new clause deals with the registration of car park operators. We are dealing with vehicle crime, and car parks are at the hub of such crime.
The new clause is designed to raise standards in car parks. The Committee may not realise that motorists at present have no consumer rights at all in exchange for paying a parking fee to enter a car park. Case law, which has been established for more than 50 years, since before the war, is very clear on the point: the payment of a parking charge is the purchase of a licence to enter private land, and that is all. The car park's owner is under no obligation whatever to try to prevent theft of or from cars in the car park.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's proposals, but would he not accept that case law exists that states that a contract is entered into when the car park is entered? National Car Parks will often have terms and conditions that must be agreed before a contract is engaged in. The contract is undertaken between the owner of the car and the car park company as soon as the barrier is lifted and the owner enters the car park.
That may be the case, but the terms and conditions set out at the entrance to a car park are those imposed by the car park owner on the car owner. The new clause would impose obligations on the car park operator. It has been established in case law over more than 50 years that the person driving the car into the car park purchases no more than a licence to park there and has no protection whatever. Many, if not most, car park operators in Britain do not provide even basic levels of security in their car parks, so it is hardly surprising that 25 per cent. of car crime occurs in car parks. That is significant because, on Second Reading, the Home Secretary said that he hoped to reduce car crime by 10 per cent.—that was the Prime Minister's target—yet 25 per cent. of that car crime is neglected by the Bill as it stands.
Car crime drops dramatically when a car park operator introduces anti-vehicle crime measures, especially when the operator decides to develop the car park to secured car park award standards. The fact that car parks are not included in consumer protection regulation is an anachronism. Motorists and car owners, like other consumers, have the right to expect high levels of protection. It could be argued that consumers may have to go to court to prove that they are right, that they can simply claim from their insurance companies for the loss suffered, or that car park operators could insure their car parks against third party claims—but those arguments miss the point.
Motorists parking in car parks have no rights at all. It is pointless for them to claim against the operator because, uniquely, the law is wholly on the side of the service provider rather than the consumer. The new clause would not place the total liability on car park operators for the protection and security of cars parked on their property. We propose instead a means by which we would place an obligation that the operator take reasonable measures to protect motorists' property in exchange for the parking charge paid.
As far as I can see, the only obligation in the new clause is that a car park operator be registered and that the local authority maintain the register. The hon. Gentleman began to say that he wants car park operators to take reasonable steps to ensure that the car is protected while parked, but I see nothing of that in the new clause.
The purpose of the new clause is to open the debate on the issue of the significant amount of car crime that takes place in car parks. It would make it a requirement for car park operators to register with local authorities. I hope that Ministers will take that point seriously so that, at a later stage, regulations could be developed to state what was required of operators for them to be placed on that register. We are trying to engage Ministers in debate on the important issue of the high level of crime that takes place in car parks.
I apologise for having had to pop out during the hon. Gentleman's presentation of the new clause. I understand what he is saying about the incidence of crime in car parks, but can he explain to what extent, if at all, he feels that car park operators are themselves culpable and that the problem would be diminished by registration?
I believe that the statistics show that car park operators are, in the main, ignoring the recommendations for developing car parks to secure standards that the police and the AA, among others, have promoted and advised on.
We do not suggest that car park operators should be entirely liable and responsible for cars in their car parks. However, we propose that an obligation be placed on operators to take reasonable measures to protect motorists' property in exchange for the parking charge paid. A reasonable measure would be defined as a standard equal to the secured car park award. The AA currently administers the secured car parks scheme on behalf of the police. The scheme has been in operation for more than five years.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham, so far, of more than 10,000 car parks, fewer than 700 have achieved secured status. With 25 per cent. of car crime taking place in car parks, that is a matter of great anxiety, and Ministers should take it extremely seriously.
To emphasise the point, I should like to discuss the case of one town that was plagued by high levels of vehicle crime in its car parks during the mid-1990s—and presumably for some years before. The local council, working with the police and the AA, implemented a policy of improving its car parks to secured car park standards. The salient and telling point is that in 1995 thefts from vehicles in those car parks were 38, and thefts of vehicles 34, but in 1999, with the secured car park regime in operation, there were no thefts from or of vehicles—a significant difference if ever there was one.
It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that that astute and effective policy was introduced by an award-winning local council, my own, Liberal Democrat-controlled council, Eastleigh borough council—
Mr. Bercow rose—
I did not for one moment believe that I would be able to continue my presentation without arousing the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm and interest. No doubt he will find an explanation in his own mind of why the scheme was so successful. I await his intervention with bated breath.
I fear that on this occasion I shall disappoint the hon. Gentleman, as I did not want to make a partisan point, and I shall ignore that comment. I was interested in, and rather struck by, his comment about the small proportion of operators who are compliant. I was going to ask him whether, as far as he is aware, it is only the larger operators that are compliant. In other words, is a financial factor involved?
I misjudged the hon. Gentleman, who makes an important and thoughtful point. I shall answer his question as best I can.
The statistics currently available do not distinguish between large and small operators. However, a cost is involved—that of closed circuit television cameras and better lighting and policing. Perhaps that is why car park operators are not subscribing voluntarily to the scheme. However, I must point out again that 25 per cent. of vehicle crime takes place in car parks. The cost of that must far outweigh the cost of basic measures to improve security. It is clear from the statistics that the car industry will not embrace the secured car park scheme without Government action. Why should it, when motorists are queueing to pay to go in, even though they know that criminals are allowed to go about their work with no interference—and perhaps no interest—from the car park owner?
The new clause would place a reasonable obligation on car park operators to bring car parks up to secure parking standards and would make inroads into tackling the quarter of all vehicle crime that currently takes place in car parks.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh on tabling the new clause. Although, for a couple of reasons that I shall give shortly, I do not believe that it should be included in the Bill, the fact that it has been tabled is important. The Minister has listened patiently and politely—and, I am sure, with great interest—to the hon. Gentleman's arguments. It is a sobering thought that less than 7 per cent. of all car parks meet the requirement. At present, the number of trains running is severely diminished. I have to drive to and from Lichfield every weekend instead of taking the train from Lichfield Trent Valley. I am relieved that at least the House of Commons car parks are among the 7 per cent.
One of the problems of the new clause—I accept the spirit in which the hon. Member for Eastleigh presented it—is subsection (5), which states:
The register shall, subject to any requirements that may be prescribed, be in such form as the local authority consider appropriate.
It is another of the blank cheques to which I object so strongly. Nevertheless, it highlights the real problem of vehicle crime: so much of it is committed in car parks. As more and more people have access to more and more cars, more and more people need to park them, especially when public transport is not up to the standard that we should like, and it is more important that vehicle crime be diminished by having reasonable standards. I invite an intervention from the hon. Member for Eastleigh to outline briefly what he would like subsection (5) to contain—is he thinking of closed circuit television?—and why.
One must remember that the AA secured car park scheme set out the measures that one should take to achieve the standard that is recognised by the award of a plaque. To be precise, I am in favour of CCTV; clear, effective lighting within the car park, the access to it and the lift areas; good visibility; and regular checks by parking attendants—all of which will improve standards.
A survey has shown that as a result of improvements in the car parks in the town that I mentioned earlier—which happens to be in my constituency—to the standards that we are discussing, customer satisfaction with the car parks was, from memory, 84 per cent. and feelings of safety when using them was over 90 per cent. Let me put that into perspective. I know the car park well. It is a multi-storey building close to the railway station. Before the improvements, it was well known as an area to be avoided. It was a question of not only whether to park one's car there, but whether to enter it at all, such was the feeling of insecurity and danger. I hope that I have helped hon. Members by talking about the measures that can be taken and their effect on the patronage of car parks—in Eastleigh, on one that was usually left empty.
That was a very helpful intervention. The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point, not only about crimes against the car and its contents, but about the fear of crime against the person. All members of the Committee will know of many car parks that people feel unhappy and uncomfortable about going into at night, especially when they are badly lit. Will the Minister outline some of the provisions of the AA secured car park scheme and say whether, in different legislation, the Government would be minded to adopt all those provisions?
I was surprised to learn from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) would not be speaking this morning. I should have thought that the matter would come more under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions than of the Home Office. Perhaps I can tempt him to intervene at some point or to make a statement. He is nodding in the negative.
It is worth noting that, although the Under-Secretary intends to be silent, he earnestly assured me in the Tea Room last night that he had devoured the proceedings of last Thursday afternoon in readiness for his silent attendance today. Is my hon. Friend aware that I share his concern about the all-embracing and factual character of subsection (5)? Does he agree that it would be helpful if the hon. Member for Eastleigh would explain whether registration under the new clause would carry a fee?
Yet again, my hon. Friend raises an interesting, valid and pertinent point. In inviting the hon. Member for Eastleigh to intervene on me—I thought at one point that he might intervene on my hon. Friend, who was intervening on me—to respond to that point, will he also comment on whether the scheme would be self-financing? What dissuaded him from including the provisions of the AA secured car park scheme in subsection (5) instead of having such an all-embracing, catch-all subsection?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Chairmen of Committees rarely like to have interventions on interventions, but I am more than happy to be patient on such matters.
I am very grateful, Mr. O'Brien. I feel that I have presented the new clause in sufficient detail to give the Minister an understanding of my views, and I hope that I shall not need to detain the Committee longer with a winding-up speech. Does the hon. Member for Lichfield think it reasonable that the payment of a fee should cover the costs of administering the scheme as we have discussed it in other parts of the Bill? Now I have forgotten the other point that I wished to make in response to the hon. Gentleman, who will no doubt guide me.
I am not sure whether that is a correct answer, but it is understandable. The hon. Gentleman has not given an estimate of how much the registration fee might be. He will know that any such fee is bound to be passed on to the clients of the car park, and that car parking charges are already high, especially in London. Although I welcome the principle behind the new clause, I am concerned that the consequential cost of registration and the provision of closed circuit television would raise those charges considerably higher.
While I was saying that, it occurred to me that if car parking were safer and less payouts had to be made, there might be a slight reduction in car insurance premiums. However, that might be wishful thinking, and I suspect that it would be optimistic to expect a reduction there.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the level of administrative charges on car park registration should be no different from those for registration of salvage operators? The cost of that registration would be more than repaid to car park operators by the fact that their car parks would become the most sought-after and patronised in the area.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Gentleman should accept the logic of his own powerful point? The hon. Gentleman asserted that the registration costs should be no greater in this case than they would be for motor salvage operators, which implies that he has some idea of what he thinks those costs should be. That would somewhat obviate the need for subsection (5), which permits the very flexibility that could result in widespread differences in fees. If he knows what the costs should be, why can he not guarantee that they would be uniform across the country?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the costs of administration would, quite simply, be the costs of administration, so they would naturally vary between car parks? The principle is that one should be able to predict what the charges would be from the detail of the Bill and the regulations that follow from it. The hon. Gentleman questions the concept of choice, saying that all car parks must be registered, but there would be a choice between parking one's car in a secure car park or in the street.
I agree with the latter point, but on the former point, the cost of the administrative charges would differ from authority to authority. One would naturally expect that Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities would have higher charges. However, I do not want to make a party political point, so I move on rapidly.
The Minister will no doubt say that he does not want the new clause to be incorporated in the Bill. I understand why he might say that. However, would he like the first paragraph of the Labour manifesto—which we all know will refer to the success of the dome, as that was a pledge made by the Prime Minister—to be replaced by a commitment to introduce legislation such as that mooted by the hon. Member for Eastleigh? It is typical of the hon. Gentleman to suggest such sensible legislation, as he is one of only seven Members who are chartered engineers.
Will the Minister explain why one in four vehicle crimes is not dealt with in the Vehicles (Crime) Bill? My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh said that 25 per cent. of all vehicle crimes occurred in car parks; that includes local authority, commercial, supermarket and hospital car parks. Given the importance of the Bill, why has such a significant aspect been left out?
I do not want to be parochial, but I draw the Minister's attention to the underground car park in the centre of Derby; he should go there if he wants to see a good covered car park. I recently had cause to use it, and I have never seen such an excellent car park. It is well lit, clean, attractive, and the security is perfect. That car park is not the responsibility of a Liberal Democrat authority. That is my point. I would like to think that councils of all complexions take car crime seriously.
If the Minister cannot take on board the excellent new clause, and the excellent case made for it this morning, will he at least consider those arguments outside the Committee? Many motorists would welcome legislation that made car parking safer. In response to the hon. Member for Lichfield, I must say that I believe that car owners would be a lot happier to pay to park their car where it was secure than pay slightly less and run the risk—a one-in-four risk—that someone will nick something or even take the vehicle.
I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh for tabling the new clause, because it is an important debate, and I want to set out the Government's position clearly.
The Bill flows from the recommendations of the vehicle crime reduction action team, which includes representatives of insurers, car drivers and manufacturers, the police and so on. The team made a 13-point set of proposals, which make up the legislation that we are debating. It also made a series of proposals about secure car parks, for exactly the reasons advanced by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. I want to set out why we give priority to that, before addressing the particular proposals.
Good standards of design and management make a major difference to crime in car parks. Incidentally, the proportion of car crime that takes place in car parks is 22 per cent., not the quarter referred to by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. The Association of Chief Police Officers secured car park scheme, administered by the AA, is the vehicle by which that difference will be achieved. There are 825 secured car parks, but it is a major aim of the Government to increase that number substantially.
No, I will say what I have to say and give way to those who want to ask questions at the end.
The secured car park scheme dictates that car parks should meet prescribed standards set down by ACPO, the AA and others. Those standards include a good level of surveillance, which can be achieved by CCTV; secure and clearly defined boundaries, and good lighting—which the hon. Member for Colchester mentioned in his praise of the car park in Derby. There should also be good vehicle access for entry and exit, and good pedestrian access. Both types of access should be kept to a minimum, so that there are relatively few points of access. In addition, an effective level of security patrol staff is important, and there should be a customer charter and help point, so that drivers can raise matters directly. Records should be kept of crimes and customer complaints. That is a substantial range of requirements and, clearly, such a level of security will entail costs for a car park. However, a sample of the secured car parks shows that a secured car park scheme reduces crime in car parks by an average of 70 per cent., which is a very high percentage indeed. The famous example is the Wood Green car park in north London. When it was made secure, car crime in a vulnerable area was reduced by 86 per cent. In my own constituency, where secure car parks have been introduced we have found zero levels of theft from and of cars. It is an important element in the development.
I was glad that the hon. Member for Colchester made his point about Derby. Certainly, Liberal Democrat councils have been positive about that, and I pay tribute to Eastleigh borough council. However, so have Labour councils, and so even have some Conservative councils, been committed to making this happen. It is not a party political issue but a question of the competence and effectiveness of the local authority.
The Government have so far allocated £42 million to meet the costs of installing CCTV in 775 car parks, of which 457 aim to achieve secure status with the reductions in crime that are implied.
The cost point is a serious one. It is a question not simply of CCTV, with which Government can help under our current programmes, but of the other measures that I have set out which require a contribution from the operators. Here it is not so much a question of large and small, although there is an issue about large and small; it is also an issue of municipal or non-municipal . In many local authorities that run car parks there is a real issue as to how they can raise extra costs for securing car parks when they are financially under pressure. We believe that there are various devices to address that, including outsourcing the management of their car parks to professional car park administration companies. That is the major blockage that we have in increasing the take-up of secured car parks. There are issues with some of the national operators, but there are also issues with the large number of municipal car parks in this country for which the costs involved seem substantial.
To that end, we held during September-October a series of regional seminars, chaired normally by a chief constable for the region and funded by the Home Office. We invited local authorities and police from throughout the region, together with major car park operators, to try to get a broader take-up of such investment for the reasons mentioned. The Government are extremely active in carrying out that programme, for the reasons that I have mentioned.
The issue of insurance was raised. One of the reasons why we have adopted the scheme is that the Association of British Insurers is a member of the VCRAT scheme and sees all the advantages that have been set out.
There are also advantages in terms of inter-modal travellers—
Inter-modal travellers—as the jargon takes it. We must consider how to enable people better to change between car and train or whatever. One of our major CCTV awards was to London Underground for the purpose of putting secured car parks in at underground stations in the London region so that people would drive to the car park near them, leave their car securely and then travel on the tube rather than drive into the centre of London. The hon. Member for Buckingham referred to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. He and I have a strong professional relationship. We meet on a regular basis to discuss such issues because we believe that creating secured car parks where people feel confident to leave their cars or bikes will make it possible to pursue the integrated transport initiatives for which my hon. Friend is responsible. Secured car parks are an important element of that, but we have to do a great deal in rolling out the programme.
In fundamental terms, we are sympathetic to the points made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. We wish to promote an overall policy of developing the secured car park programme for all the reasons that I have stated and which he mentioned. We welcome further thoughts and discussions on that.
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of consumer legislation, which is a difficult matter. I have discussed it with some of the industries concerned. It may be of interest to the Committee to know that I and my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry are currently in discussion about re-examining the role of consumer legislation in that area. It is not an easy matter; the question of where accountability falls is not straightforward. Nor is it absolutely clear that there would be crime reduction benefits in that, though there may well be benefits to individual consumers in parking their cars. We are ready to discuss those questions.
I will give way to hon. Members who have points to raise before I sit down. For the sake of clarity, the clause deals only with registration, and not with the various other aspects that we have discussed, and that are important to the approach. I make no criticism of the hon. Member for Eastleigh, because he has raised the debate in an important way, but the registration provision will not in itself achieve the process that we have described. The burdens on business, the question of a regulatory impact assessment, and the question of fees, which the hon. Members for Buckingham and for Lichfield raised, are important aspects of any scheme. That is why we have not formally consulted on regulation of car park operators with either business or local authorities, which would be a substantial regulatory burden.
Our approach so far, guided by the vehicle crime reduction action team, has been not to legislate in this area but to roll out a voluntary programme and provide encouragement and resources. That is why I will ask the hon. Member for Eastleigh to withdraw the motion, but before I sit down, I give way to the hon. Member for Lichfield.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Among car park operators and local government, there is substantial awareness of the secured car parks scheme. I have secure car parks in my constituency. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has any in his. We measure which police authorities have a good number of secured car parks and which car parks are doing well—each has a target—with a view to discussing with local and police authorities what can be done. That is the reason for the seminars that I mentioned. We have run a substantial vehicle crime publicity programme—of which the hon. Member for Lichfield may be aware—urging people to use secure car parks. I say without irony that I am sorry that that has not come to his attention. It is always the case that more publicity would be beneficial, and I would accept that rebuke, but nevertheless I believe that we have done significantly more than his question implies.
I may have been unclear. The Minister says—rightly, I am sure—that local authorities are aware of the scheme, and he touched on the issue of individual citizens being aware. Surely if there were a recognised symbol for such secure car parks, and that symbol were recognised by the populace as a whole, there would be far greater pressure on the municipal authorities to which he referred, as well as on private operators and those who run car parks at railway stations and airports to qualify for that symbol. There is no kitemark, as it were, for the standard.
If I am a sad anorak, how much more so is the hon. Member for Lichfield? I am ready to write to all hon. Members to set out details of the scheme, so that they are familiar with the situation, and can see what they can do to raise the issues in their constituencies.
The Minister has given us the benefit of a detailed explanation of the Government's science, but I would be grateful for his response to two or three points. He told us that the Government were active in a programme of working together with the interested parties. He hopes to see results from that programme. I believe that the Minister said that 825 car parks were now classified as secure, but we are talking about approximately 10,000 car parks. It may be that only 22 per cent., rather than 25 per cent., of vehicle crime is committed in car parks, but that is still a major factor in vehicle crime. I look to the Minister to give me more information about the programme. How many of the car parks are municipal car parks that can benefit from funding from the Home Office CCTV schemes? How quickly are they reacting? What is the overall programme? How many car parks do the Government envisage will become secure over a reasonable period? I appreciate that the Minister may have to write to me on those issues, but they are important. It is easy to say blandly, ``We are on the case''—so to speak. This is a serious problem and there is a huge mountain still to climb.
The Minister mentioned that he was working with his colleagues in the DTI on amendments to consumer law. I am grateful for that. It would be not unreasonable to place a burden—if it is to be called that—on a commercial enterprise and require it to offer a proper service to customers rather than for customers to assume that they are getting a service when all that has happened is that the car park has been given a licence. I look forward to the Minister's response.
On the latter point, we will certainly report to the House when we have proposals to make. On the consumer legislation point, I say only that there are serious issues of concern about how to make it work, which the hon. Gentleman, from his experience, will understand. They are not easy to resolve so I do not suggest that an immediate resolution is possible.
We are not bland about the programme; in fact, we are extremely energetic, which is why we held the seminars that I described. We do not have a specific target, although ACPO has suggested that we should aim for 2,000 car parks in Britain having secured status over a period of time. I do not want to hide the problem that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which I addressed in my remarks. There is a real issue with some serious car park owners about how to make the investment required to make secured car park status happen. We are ready to help with the CCTV costs with substantial amounts of money, but taking it more widely is a serious issue. The suggestion that I offered in response to the hon. Member for Lichfield is a good one. I encourage Members of Parliament to take a role in their own constituencies to promote secured car parks.
I hope that the hon. Member for Eastleigh may be prepared to withdraw the motion.