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Standing Committee A
Thursday 5 February 2004
[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]
Civil penalties for road traffic contraventions
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I beg to move amendment No. 196, in
page 41, line 8, leave out 'of criminal proceedings or'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 50, in
No. 129, in
page 41, line 10, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.
No. 130, in
page 41, line 15, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.
No. 131, in
No. 132, in
No. 133, in
No. 134, in
John Mann: Good morning, Mr. Beard.
I tabled the amendment partly as a probing amendment but also because of a major weakness in current legislation relating to car parking. The Road Traffic Act 1991 decriminalised parking offences and brought them within the civil enforcement system, and the clause seems to continue that. I ask the Minister to clarify whether the Government intend to continue to move towards civil rather than criminal enforcement and say whether he believes that the clause will worsen or improve the situation.
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Under section 35A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, local authorities can contract out the management of off-road parking to private car parking firms. However, there is no provision in the Act for a local authority agent to take action on the local authority's behalf. While the Act refers specifically—for example, in section 33(7)—to the use of agents to manage a car-parking facility, it does not authorise a third party to pursue action through the criminal justice system.
Throughout the country there is an anomaly. It is an anomaly that needs to be removed and one that neither the Government nor the House of Commons want to see in part 6 of the Bill. Where a local authority car park is run by the local authority, the situation is straightforward: the parking adjudicator has some authority. Where it is run by a private operator, the private operator is taking people to criminal courts to raise revenue, revenue that goes, to judge from most of the contracts that I have seen, entirely to the private operator.
The use of the criminal law by a private operator is an anomaly. A private operator of a private car park can use civil law only, and thereby pursue a civil debt. In accordance with the principles of civil penalties for road traffic contraventions in existing law and in part 6 of the Bill, the notion that such disputes should be civil disputes is right and proper. One who objects to the facts of the situation can go before a county court, with no criminal impunity possible, and argue one's case, and the issue can be resolved in the normal manner in the civil courts. However, the anomaly with local authority car parks that are under private subcontracted operation is that the private operators are using criminal law in the same way as a local authority is empowered to do, rather than civil law. That puts pressure on the individual, because the threat of criminal action entices him to pay the sum demanded by the private operator.
It is an unreasonable and irrational anomaly. I seek the Minister's response to it and his assurance that the ability of private operators to use the criminal courts to enforce debt recovery will not be possible under the Bill.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): This group of amendments is fundamental. Opposition Members have tabled a series of amendments to lead the fight back on behalf of law-abiding middle Britain, which comprises motorists and other road users who are essentially honest, decent and law abiding, but who are being persecuted and oppressed by unreasonable men and women in grey uniforms, often motivated by their local authority employers' greed or their hatred for motorists.
The best way to introduce this group of amendments in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends is to quote from a letter in the Evening Standard of Monday 2 February, written after the amendments had been tabled. The letter is headed ''War on Drivers'' and is from Iain MacMaster of Battersea Park road, London SW8, in the heart of the borough that I once had the privilege of leading. It reads:
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''The original concept of imposing fines for illegal parking, with a view to improving traffic flow and local amenities, has long been forgotten by local councils, who regard it primarily as a money-raising exercise. Indeed, they rely on the money obtained to such an extent that it would be a matter of serious concern to them if everyone parked properly, and they lost the revenue from fines.
The desperation to obtain money from motorists results in fines that are totally disproportionate to the 'offence' committed, or its impact on other drivers and the general public. A low-paid worker who has to pay out a week's wages because his car has been towed away for a minor parking infringement (£175) is entitled to wonder why a passenger travelling on the underground without a ticket is only fined £10.
Also, aside from penalties, parking charges, set by local councils without any external control, are grossly excessive, and increase substantially beyond the rate of inflation, notwithstanding that the motorists paying them are only receiving cost-of-living pay rises.
As a legal consultant to a charity that assists the socially excluded and victims of miscarriage of justice''—
I hope that the Minister is listening to this—
''I have represented many motorists, justifiably disgruntled at the wrongful issue of parking tickets, at the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service. Several of these appeals have been held before Martin Wood, the senior adjudicator, whose scepticism concerning the competence of council parking enforcement officers . . . is well founded.
Mr. Wood, whose adjudications are, in my experience, scrupulously fair and based on a detailed application of the relevant law, is in an excellent position to identify local councils' ferocious efforts to obtain money from parking and other traffic infringements with no appreciation of reasonableness or justice.
The 'war' between the motorists and councils will continue for as long as the latter sees the former only as a source of funding.''
I think that it was the Prime Minister who said yesterday that he had not put his words as eloquently as one of his Back-Benchers who put a point to him. I do not believe that the points that we are making in support of this group of amendments can be put more eloquently than in that lead letter to the Evening Standard.
John Mann: Will the hon. Gentleman comment on an anomaly? Let us suppose that we were talking about a private operator of a local authority car park. One case brought to my attention was that of a woman with cystic fibrosis who was in a wheelchair. She was unable to park in the disabled parking slot because of the gradient and therefore parked in a non-disabled space on a zero per cent. gradient so that she could get out with her wheelchair. A ticket was planted on her oxygen container—while she was carrying it in her wheelchair, while visiting her doctor. She is not able to go to the parking adjudicator, and was threatened with criminal litigation by the private operator. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the anomalies involved when it comes to taking cases to the adjudicator?
Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The example that he cites is horrendous, but unfortunately it is not unique when we are talking about what happens in private car parks where the service has been contracted out. Such things also regularly happen on the streets, where the enforcement is under direct local authority control. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. One of the amendments in this group requires that enforcement be proportionate and reasonable. Local
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authorities should certainly apply that criterion, both to offences committed on the highway and in private car parks.
Amendment No. 50 is a technical amendment. It arises from an issue brought to my attention by the AA. The amendment states that regulations shall provide that a challenge to a penalty notice
''may be made immediately the notice has been received.''
The existing rules prevent anybody appealing against an enforcement notice in the first 14 days. I am sure that that cannot have been the intention of the Government at the time. The existing rules mean that people lose the right to a discounted penalty.