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18 Jan 2007 : Column 367WH—continued

18 Jan 2007 : Column 368WH

It seems that when there is no strategy, there is no sensible use of discretion. That difficult area is dealt with quite well in the report. If there is no discretion, there is essentially no favouritism, no kerbside persuasion, no corruption and no bribery or bias, but it can also generate public ridicule and outrage. I can add to the tales of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who illustrated how that can happen with his example of the veterans who found on their return from a Remembrance day procession that they had received tickets. In my constituency, a wedding car parked outside the town hall received a ticket, and care workers making necessary calls have been fined for their trouble. I shall view with great interest the outcome of the Manchester experience, not simply in terms of how many appeals there are—I would expect there to be fewer—but in terms of general compliance with parking regulations in Manchester.

One thing worse than there being no discretion is there being no discretion and no explanation of people’s rights or how they can appeal or protest. If discretion can be operated only at office level and not on the streets, which is how some people claim things should be done, that should be made clear on the streets. People should be informed that there is an appeal system and of what they can do when they do not get a sensible or satisfactory response. There is certainly a need to penalise the parking authorities that do not use their discretion sensibly. That message to the adjudicator comes through in the Select Committee report.

Having a clear strategy leads to a sensible approach to pricing, which is crucial to the success of any parking system. When a parking system was first introduced in my constituency in the 1990s, there was wholesale uproar at one stage. There were people marching through the streets and, believe it or not, people outside the town hall demanding my resignation. When the prices were adjusted to fit in with what people wanted and a sensible parking regime and set of tariffs were produced, much of the initial hostility died down. I do not say that there is no hostility today, but pricing could be controlled better if people knew what they were trying to do with it.

Clear strategy is also crucial to evaluating the performance of outsourced contractors. We heard about the Manchester case; in my constituency we use the British Legion. There has to be an end to any growing fine-chasing culture. Perhaps we should start to develop the role that very few traffic wardens have as ambassadors and helpers: people who help the system to work better rather than simply enforcing those who cannot understand or who abuse the system.

The report recognises that the enforcement process is becoming ever more sophisticated. Cameras are now used to settle issues that were previously settled through long and somewhat tedious correspondence, but technology does not always bring benefits. My son recently received a form from Transport for London stating that a car like his, which was said to have his registration plate, had not exited from a yellow box in time. When we looked into the matter, we found that both he and his car were in Runcorn on that day. They were surveyed by CCTV, so there could be no doubt about it. We contacted TFL, using the sophisticated
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system, and thought that the technology would take notice of our reasonable and rational representations. My suspicions were confirmed, however, when he was told a few weeks later that his fine had been doubled because he had not paid it. Clearly, the computer had not taken the message even if the person on the other end of the phone at TFL had heard it.

The immovable fact remains that the wardens who enforce the regulations are dealing with humanity in the raw, which it is not always pleasant. I do not think that it has been mentioned so far that wardens put up with enormous amount of abuse from the public and receive occasional threats of physical violence. That is why training—another theme that was picked up well by the Select Committee—is crucial. Clearly, one needs a lot of judgment when clamping down on something like blue-badge abuse. One wants to deal with the person who leaps spryly out of their car having used someone else’s badge, but one does not want to confront someone who has a genuine and valid reason for using a badge—someone who has a disability that they are trying to deal with.

How does one give traffic wardens that real professionalism and help them to deal with the problems that they confront on a day-to-day basis? One answer that seems to be being tried in some areas is to make them look ever more like a military force and to parade them around in twos wearing quasi-military uniforms. A better answer, which is in the report, is to give them proper, professional training. I hope that the report is a big step towards there being a professional, fair, well managed service.

I conclude on a different note. We have discussed overlapping police and council systems and adjudications. Sometimes they work seamlessly, but I am aware of cases in which councils have taken over and the police have absented themselves from every traffic issue, even when they are the only people who can resolve certain issues. I also know of people in my constituency who park cars that are for sale on the highway, and that is blatantly on the wrong side of the law. Parts of that problem should be solved by the police and parts by the local authority, but it is very difficult to get the integration needed to address what is a relatively straightforward problem.

I repeat that the report is an important step toward improving parking services in this country and in opening up the debate on them, and I praise the Select Committee for producing such a good report.

3.58 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate. I begin by congratulating my neighbour the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on chairing the Committee in such a robust manner and on coming up with an interesting report that has flushed out an issue of enormous concern. This area is probably the one in which the state impacts on the citizen in the most aggressive manner—in some cases anyway. There are probably more citizens upset by this issue than by many other aspects of state activity.

We have had an interesting debate in which my hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised the real
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problem, which the Government must face, that their ambitious building programme runs parallel to an enormous increase in car ownership. Spectacular numbers in that regard apply in Basingstoke.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) made an interesting speech in which he raised the issue of liveability—a terrible word—and the more interesting question of localism and whether this issue is the domain of central or local government.

The one clear lesson of the Committee’s report is the spectacular difference in some 2003 figures. Some 7,123,000 penalty charge notices were issued in the 75 local authorities and the 33 London boroughs where decriminalised parking enforcement powers operated, whereas 1,043,000 were issued in the 313 authorities where the police have adjudication.

Large sums of money are involved, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley. We are talking about £1 billion, some 60 per cent. of which comes from charges and 40 per cent. of which comes from penalty notices. I agree that there should be a uniform regime, which should come under local government, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich suggests.

The main purpose of this colossal exercise is traffic management, road safety and managing the impact on business. I stress that there is widespread unease and anger among some of the general public, and it has not been mentioned in this debate. Handing this exercise over to local government—where it can be the policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury and benefactor—leaves the system open to abuse. It could be a system like tax farming in Bourbon France.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s report that transparency is necessary and important. I shall come to that in a moment. The public must see that, for their charges and penalties, they get a service and they buy a benefit. That point was strongly made in the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. It is extraordinary that when a local authority puts in and signs off a declaration that something conforms to central Government demands on a parking scheme, it has to conform only to the technical details—the marking, signing and various other issues.

There is no requirement for the impact on traffic, road safety or business to be part of an application. There is no audit of such things, and that is a fundamental flaw of the system. If the public saw a direct link between what they were being charged and fined for parking and the benefits, we could get round much of this public acceptance problem. The Department for Transport is surely the agency to address this. There has been talk about having a regulator, but I agree with the Government and with the Committee that that is not the right approach. This should just be a routine issue for the DFT when it receives an application for a parking scheme from a local government agency. I do not think this is treading on the toes of local government. To deal with the comments made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley, I should say that local government is in constant communication with the DFT on road schemes and trunk roads that may have been de-trunked.

A routine aspect of an application for a parking scheme should be that standards should be set for
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traffic flow, and for the impact on road safety and on business. This has not really been touched on. The Government response talked about a “communications toolkit” and, rather piously, about hoping that the local authority could

This aim should be made much clearer and it should be mandatory. There should be a clear mechanism involving Government, and an audit. The Committee said:

That is true up to a point, because the Committee should have gone a step further and considered traffic impact.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned the most dramatic paragraph—paragraph 43—in the Committee report; we learned the astonishing fact that the Committee.

I shall not read the details out again, because he has been through them and we have heard a list of things that should be in such a report, including the revenue collected and the number of penalty charges. Such a document should clearly be available to the general public.

It is not good enough for the Government’s reply to say that

It jolly well is not easy. I challenge anyone who thinks it is to go through the list that the Committee came up with.

There should also be an annual audit of the impact on vehicles, business, traffic speeds and road safety. If that were done, this exercise would be so much more valuable and acceptable to the general public, who have a strong suspicion that they are being milked. If there is only decriminalisation and no means of auditing and no central control, they may be subject to abuse.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich asked the Minister a list of questions, some of which were foxes which, had I asked them, would have been shot. I shall pick up a few points because I want to give the Minister plenty of time to reply. I was interested in the element on training and staff. What discussions has she had on that? The Government reply mentioned the British Parking Association’s sector skills strategy, which I believe has suggested that level 2 City and Guilds should be a standard across the country. Will she give us an idea about how far the Government are going on that? The reply states that the Government hope that such an approach would

Is that a realistic proposition and how long might it take to enforce?

I entirely agree with the comments that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has made about
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foreign-registered vehicles. The situation in that regard causes a grievance for many members of the public.

I turn to the question of loading. Drivers who deliver for supermarkets and other retailers have told me that there is a grievance about the problems of legitimately delivering goods. The Government’s reply was weak on this issue and on delivery times. What is their thinking on curfews and on being more flexible? The situation is ridiculous. I walk past an articulated Mercedes-Benz truck delivering to Tesco outside the Home Office at 9 am every morning. Is it sensible that a truck of that size comes into Westminster at that hour, an area being used mainly by people going to offices or, possibly, by MPs preparing for this debate?

The big question that requires joined-up government is planning, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke and for Kettering. It is extraordinary that the planning policy guidance intends to reduce parking spaces. The Government must face up to the consequences of this enormous planned increase in house building at the same time as increased prosperity. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said in her opening comments, the first thing that people want to do with their wealth is to get independence and to buy a car. There has been a sharp increase in the levels of car ownership. As we heard in some of the constituency cases that were mentioned, all this is coming together in a horrendous manner.

On the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the question of the sale of information to outside organisations has been raised with me on several occasions. I have had discussions with the British Parking Association. There was a plan to have a registered trade association, so that accredited members only could have access to information from the DVLA and purchase it. This is a fraught area, because there are concerns about cowboy operators getting and possibly misusing information. The Government promised:

Where exactly have they got to on that? There is increasingly widespread public concern on the matter.

Will the Minister comment on the accuracy of the DVLA? That is again an issue that has been raised with me on several occasions. We are told that 97 per cent. accuracy has been reached. Given that 32 million vehicles are involved, a substantial number, 320,000 by my calculations, are unaccounted for. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, the figure of 2 million uninsured cars is floating around, and I am sure it is right. Such cars probably cause a disproportionate problem. We raised the matter frequently in the amendments that we proposed to the Road Safety Bill in the previous Parliament.

Will the Minister give us the latest estimate on the DVLA’s traceability figure? How many cars does she think respectively are unlicensed, uninsured and untraceable? I look forward to hearing her replies to my questions. I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich on her Committee’s report. It would be that much improved if the link were made between parking schemes and their impact on traffic, road safety and business.

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4.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the Transport Committee's seventh report of the 2005-06 Session on parking policy enforcement. The Government welcome the report and share the Committee's view that the purpose of parking policy is to keep traffic moving. That is its first and primary aim, with the addition of improving safety on the roads. I may make myself a hostage to fortune, but I say in the presence of the my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that the Government agree with much of what the Committee said, and I shall say more about that later.

The debate has been interesting and useful because we are working on guidance and regulations, having undergone consultation, to which I shall also refer later. The debate is timely. Parking policy covers the challenges of growth, congestion and the increasing demand for road space. Those are challenges of success, which is a position I prefer. They are challenges of greater economic prosperity and people’s aspirations, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) illustrated with examples from her constituency. Car ownership is rising at a considerable rate—[Interruption.] I have a very experienced Parliamentary Private Secretary today in my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich.

The challenge for me is how to reconcile those pulls when we are in a period of economic growth. I want to make some general points before dealing with the specific points that hon. Members have been good enough to raise this afternoon.

The consultation on draft regulations and statutory guidance to implement the parking provisions in part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 was published after the Committee’s report and shared a great deal of the thinking in that report. It is all about delivering a parking system that is fair and consistent for motorists. That is important. The consultation and the Select Committee’s report made it clear that parking policy and enforcement is not an end in itself, but one of the most effective tools that a local authority has to deliver its transport strategy. That is where we should place parking—it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We want local authorities to use parking policy, controls, pricing and enforcement with the primary aim of keeping traffic moving and improving road safety, not primarily to raise money.

I remind hon. Members that our recent policy document “Putting Passengers First” introduces a major shake-up of bus policy and states clearly that parking policy is crucial to the success or otherwise of an efficient bus service in local areas, as is traffic management in general.

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