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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Derek Conway

†Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
†Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
†Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
†Paisley, Rev. Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)
†Riordan, Mrs. Linda (Halifax) (Lab)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Thornberry, Ms Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
†Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
†Woodward, Mr. Shaun (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
†Wright, Mr. Iain (Hartlepool) (Lab)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

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Thursday 7 July 2005

[Mr. Derek Conway in the Chair]

Draft Traffic Management (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Traffic Management (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. The purpose of the order, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16 June, is to transfer the powers for parking enforcement in Northern Ireland to the Department for Regional Development, following the decision of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to withdraw from this activity. The order would introduce provisions for decriminalised parking enforcement, broadly in line with those already in force in Great Britain by the enactment of the Road Traffic Act 1991. It would also introduce provisions for the civil enforcement of other traffic contraventions in line with those enacted in part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004.

The order is about dealing effectively with and reducing illegal parking, which is a significant problem in Northern Ireland, particularly in its towns and cities. I was shocked to learn from a report of the Northern Ireland Audit Office in December 2000 that illegal parking reached a level as high as 94 per cent. in an area within half a mile of Belfast city centre. Indeed, it is not unusual for illegal parking to be at nearly 50 per cent. in areas in the city centre. This is not acceptable for road safety, traffic management, economic and social reasons.

I am pleased to report that, by and large, the public agrees that parking on double yellow lines blocks roads, causes traffic jams and creates road safety hazards. Those who responded to our consultation supported the proposals to introduce new measures to deter illegal parking, including powers to clamp or tow away vehicles in certain circumstances. This transfer of powers is intended to lead to less congestion, traffic moving more freely on our roads and improved road safety.

In practice, I expect it to benefit a wide range of ordinary people, including commuters and pedestrians. I am particularly pleased to report that the proposals have been especially welcomed by disabled drivers, because in future it is more likely that the parking bays on our public roads reserved for blue badge holders will be rid of vehicles that have no right to be there.

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The proposals will mean goodbye to the traffic wardens and hello to the new traffic attendants. What differences will people notice? Well, some things will not change. First, the faces are likely to be the same: the men and women who are now traffic wardens working for the police, and car park attendants working for Roads Service, are likely to be the traffic attendants in future. The difference is that they will be working for a specialist enforcement company contracted to my Department and will be concentrating solely on enforcing parking restrictions. They will be able to bring their existing high standards of professionalism to the new job and, by focusing solely on enforcement, they will have greater success in reducing the number of people parking on yellow lines, hogging parking bays and getting away without paying.

I make no apology for warning those who continue to park on double yellow lines, or who do not pay for their parking, that they are more likely to be caught and more likely to be hit in the pocket, and the very persistent offenders may even end up with their vehicles clamped or towed away. If that is what it takes to rid our streets of thoughtless, selfish or dangerous parking, we are prepared to do that.

An added benefit—Members will no doubt be pleased to hear—is that the proposed new system will not only be more effective than the present one, it will be more efficient and more economic. While the estimated savings are modest, we will nevertheless be able to reduce the drain on the public purse of administering and operating parking enforcement. I am confident that as a result of the proposed new scheme we will see fewer people running the risk of parking illegally, and our town centres and neighbourhoods throughout Northern Ireland will be safer and better places for that. The traffic management, road safety and economic benefits are clear.

2.34 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. It is the first time that I have had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship. I would usually use the word “pleasure”, but I do not think that any of our duties will be particularly pleasurable today because of the tragic events in London.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) often points out how unfortunate it is that we are effectively running Northern Ireland through statutory instruments. In his absence, I should add that dealing with parking brings it home to us how cumbersome a method of government it is. I hope that progress can be made. I do not think that we will have any objections to the order in principle, but I want to make a number of points and ask a few questions.

The fact that it decriminalises what appears to be relatively minor offences has to be welcomed. I also welcome the extension of the blue badge scheme to Northern Ireland. That is entirely appropriate. I am sure that the response to my questions will be that it is the same as in Great Britain, but it does not meant that
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everything is perfect in Great Britain. When we introduce new legislation, even if it exists in other parts of the UK, it is entirely appropriate that we question whether it is right.

As a general principle I have a problem with penalty notices in the sense that it reverses the burden of proof that we all thought was a cornerstone of English law. We are guilty until we can prove ourselves innocent under this kind of scheme. It is difficult to design it in any other way, but the acceptance of guilt is on the basis of information given, or record produced. That is perhaps unfortunate.

I understand that the rights to immobilisation will occur after 15 minutes of the ticket being issued, which seems extremely quick. I accept that it will not always take place in that period of time but the fact that it can is rather draconian. I may have missed it, but I am not quite sure who will fix the level of charge for the release. I understand that it will be the Department although I am not sure if the order is specific in that sense.

It is clear that the Department decides on the fee for the recovery of a removed vehicle, but I also understand that removal can take place 15 minutes after the issue of the notice, which, considering the inconvenience and expense, seems perhaps hasty. In terms of successful representations to the Department, I understand that fees could be returned, but what about compensation when someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to get a car back or remobilised when it was not done in the correct manner? Will any compensation go the other way?

With regard to the carrying out of the scheme, the Minister said that it will be the same faces even though they will be called traffic attendants. I understand that the job can be contracted out to others and not necessarily carried out in house. I am not sure how it can be guaranteed that the same faces will be carrying out the job. Given that in various parts of the Province there are great security risks, can the Minister guarantee that the scheme will be carried out in every part of the Province? That is an important question.

If it is contracted out and carried out across the Province, what checks will be made on the professionalism of those carrying out the work? How will it be ascertained that the standards are the same across the Province if more than one contractor is used? I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to answer those questions, given all the notes that are flying in his direction at great speed. I look forward to his response.

2.39 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I am glad that you are not Cardinal Conway, for the good gentleman and I had many disagreements, but he has gone on to his reward but I am still here and intend to remain as long as I can.

We have some concerns about the decriminalisation of parking offences in Northern Ireland, but it should be said—I say it to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) who has just spoken—that the matter
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with which we are dealing today was around for a long time before it came to the House. I am sure that the Minister has made himself aware of that. It is not as if we are picking something out and saying, “We’ll do this.” There has been a long discussion among public representatives and, as far as I can see, all of them realise that this is a step in the right direction.

Whether it works out perfectly is another question, and we will have to see how it works out. However, I stress what the hon. Gentleman has just said. We want to be assured that the provision is carried out in each area in Northern Ireland. There used to be parts of Northern Ireland that were no-go areas for the military and the Royal Ulster Constabulary as it then was, but some parts of Northern Ireland, unfortunately, are no- stay areas and the police cannot police them thoroughly. We want reassurance that all people abide by the provision and that the paramilitaries on either side of the fence do not gain by it and have their own parking for their own fogies, where those who pay the piper will get that service. I trust that the Minister will keep that in mind.

I do not know whether parking wardens are popular in England, because I have the privilege of being carried under police protection everywhere I go and do not drive myself, but they certainly are not popular in Northern Ireland. No one likes a parking warden; nobody likes it when he comes up, knaps the window and reminds them that they should not be here. No one likes the strong way in which he emphasises that he is the boss, saying, “Answer my questions” and “I am going to put a label on your car.”

Strange to believe, I have had many labels put on my police car, where the warden has said, “We’re not interested in whether you are a police officer, you should not be parking here.” I was parked outside a Government office some time ago, fighting a planning appeal—I had nothing to do with parking the car—and the police explained that I was inside fighting the appeal. The warden said that they did not care who was there, the fine would have to be paid. Of course, when it came to a higher place, somebody rightly put a blue line through it and the police saved the money. I am sure that the Minister will be happy about that.

That is not a pleasant job, but it has to be done. Some of the parking wardens had a lot of patience and saw that with patience and through discussion they could get the people to move on. They were, in a great way, to be commended, because they were able to carry on in very difficult circumstances.

We used to have parking meters that were, in certain areas, always broken, while in others they were always in use, so the people who parked in a certain area were always condemned to pay when those in another area were not. I remember once the police committee of the old Belfast city council excused 600 people in west Belfast from paying anything, but charged all the rest in the north, south and east of the city, and they had to pay. The courts were filled with people who said, “Why must we pay? If we had gone west”—go west, young man—“we would not have had to pay.”

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That situation has been fairly well regulated and some sort of harmony is coming out of what was impasse and confusion. I hope that this measure is successful and that we will get back to the normal laws that run in all parts of this United Kingdom, with everybody who parks wrongly and does not accept the orders of the attendant being dealt with.

I do not know what the difference is between an attendant and a warden. When I was in jail, I always thought that the warden was an attendant because he never left and we never got to do what we wanted to do, but that is by the way. I wish the measure well and I trust that the Minister will be able to give the assurances that he has been asked for and that he will keep his eye on this matter so that when he gets representations about certain matters, he will be able to take action as he feels he should.

2.45 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The Liberal Democrats welcome the order in general. There are just one or two small points that we would like to ask the Minister about. Article 3 is about the introduction of traffic attendants. The Minister mentioned that a specialist enforcement company would be employed to conduct that function and that the existing individuals who are carrying out the duties of traffic management would be transferred to that company. I would be interested to know whether they will all be transferred, what will happen to any who are not, and the duties that they will conduct. Article 3(4)(c) allows the Department to prescribe other functions that may be carried out by the traffic attendants. Will the Minister comment on what the Department might have in mind and what sort of functions are envisaged? I would just like a little more information on the issue of traffic attendants, if possible.

Articles 29 to 31 relate to adjudicators and appeals. The process looks rigorous and fair and we are pleased to see that a report will be published every 12 months on the discharge by the adjudicators of their functions. We look forward to examining those reports to ensure that the appeals procedure is fair and effective.

Article 32(4) creates the offence of failing without reasonable excuse to provide a badge when required to do so by a constable or traffic attendant. On conviction, the offence is punishable by a fine not exceeding £1,000. How does that fine compare with a similar offence in England and Wales? That seems quite a lot of money to us. Does the Minister feel that the fine is a little high in relation to other parts of the United Kingdom?

2.48 pm

Mr. Woodward: I am grateful to my officials for the many pieces of paper that they are passing to me in order for me to answer some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury—in fact, I am quite close to being swamped. The first question that he asked was about what an owner could do if he felt that a penalty charge notice should not have been issued.
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The owner can make representations against the penalty charge to the Department. If those representations are rejected, he can appeal to an independent adjudicator who will consider the case and inform the owner of his decision.

On the cost of the penalty charge, it is likely that the penalty charge in Northern Ireland will be £60. That will be reduced by 50 per cent. if paid within 14 days. At £30, that would be the same as the existing fixed penalty for parking and waiting offences.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what would happen to traffic wardens and other personnel under the new arrangements. Traffic wardens and Roads Service car-park attendants will transfer to a specialist parking enforcement company. We would expect most of them to transfer across. In order to ensure accountability in the proposed enforcement scheme, the conditions of the contract will specify the role and responsibilities of the contractor and the Department. The contract will allow sanctions to be taken against the contractor if he fails to discharge his responsibilities. The chief executive of the Department’s Roads Service is the agency accounting officer and the chief executive is accountable to the Minister in charge of the Department.

An important question was asked by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) about whether parking and waiting restrictions would be enforced equally across Northern Ireland. I can answer with a categorical yes.

How will we ensure the quality of enforcement? The contract will be with a single private enforcement company, as I said. However, the principles will be adopted from the new British Parking Association model contract. We shall adopt those principles and, critically, their key points include good quality penalty charges, reducing the number of complaints, reducing the number of appeals and reducing the level of illegal parking. It is very important to remind hon. Members that we are taking powers to clamp illegally parked vehicles, and we will primarily use them to help to recover outstanding parking debts owed to the Department by the owner. We do not intend to use clamping as a matter of routine enforcement.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury also asked whether there would be compensation for those who have had their vehicles clamped or removed improperly. The answer is that there will not be compensation, but any charges that have been paid due to improper clamping will be returned to the owner.

The hon. Member for North Antrim asked what the Department would do to prevent organisations such as paramilitaries from being involved in clamping. The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised that elsewhere during the past few weeks and it is a very important issue, which I have discussed with my officials. The Roads Service intends to appoint only one parking enforcement contractor. It will have sole responsibility for operating the clamping service.

Safeguards are built into the contract, and they are designed to prevent paramilitaries or criminal groups from becoming involved in operations. I illustrate that
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by pointing out that staff carrying out the clamping will not be able to accept any cash on the street. Other more secure forms of payment will be put in place; no cash will ever be handed over. We will stress that in our publicity campaign so that if someone demands cash from people on the street in relation to a parking offence, they will know that that person is not working on behalf of the Roads Service.

If the hon. Gentleman is also raising the issue of how we prevent paramilitaries or criminal groups from going on to the street or on to private grounds and setting up their own operations to demand money from motorists, that is a completely different situation. That would obviously be a criminal offence and the police would have to deal with such a situation if it arose.

There is no evidence to suggest that what we propose would encourage unlawful clamping. Furthermore, I would point out that Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland has been clamping vehicles for non-payment of motor tax on the streets of Northern Ireland for some years, and we are not aware of any problems relating to paramilitary involvement with that.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) asked other questions relating specifically to the blue badge scheme. I can assure the hon. Lady that those schemes are the same in England and Wales. I join the hon. Member for North Antrim in paying tribute to those who carry out such responsibilities, whether as wardens under the police service or as the new attendants. He rightly said that it is not a pleasant job, but that it is a job that must be done. When we remind ourselves of the huge volume of traffic and illegal parking, it is an important job, and it often affects safety.

Mr. Robertson: Before the Minister concludes his remarks, the only question to which he has not returned concerns the immobilisation period and the removal-of-vehicle period. I thought that 15 minutes was not very long before such draconian measures
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were taken. Will he illuminate my understanding of the issue? I am not sure about the rule in Great Britain. The rule may be the same, but, if so, it is a very short period.

Mr. Woodward: I am reliably informed by my brilliant officials that the period is the same as in the Traffic Management Act, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall write to him about that specific issue.

I am grateful for the contributions to the debate. In commending the order, I should stress that the Government’s aim is to ensure that more effective enforcement action can be taken against people who park illegally. Those who park legally have nothing to fear; they will not be fined, clamped or towed away. If people park as they should do, and let us face it, that is about respecting other people as much as anything else, this order will not see the light of day in their eyes.

By decriminalising the parking offences that we have discussed, by transferring responsibility for enforcement to my Department, and by introducing new enforcement measures that will prove more of a deterrent to those thinking about breaking the law, I am confident that we will have a more effective, efficient and economic scheme. At the same time, the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be able to focus its resources on matters of real policing.

As I said in my opening remarks, the draft order introduces provisions for decriminalised parking enforcement that have been in place in Great Britain for some years, and which by and large are working well. The road safety, traffic management, economic and social benefits have been demonstrated elsewhere in the country, and it is time for Northern Ireland to enjoy the same benefits. I therefore urge hon. Members to support the order.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Traffic Management (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

Committee rose at five minutes to Three o’clock.


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