My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made a very important speech, showing his ability and his detailed grasp of defence issues. He made a number of points, but he referred in particular to the defence industrial strategy. Industry is, and continues
to be, in close dialogue with the Ministry of Defence on that issue. Industry is helping us to develop the DIS update, and it was represented at a very senior level only a few weeks ago.
Several other Members made important points. My time is limited, but I shall briefly go through them. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) made a very important point about Nimrod. In the time that I have I am unable to deal with his questions, but I assure him that we will write to him as soon as possible. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) has again shown his obvious grasp of detail because of his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Defence and his hard work on that. He raised a number of issues, as he has before.
The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) is very lively on the issues that he raises, and he raises them continually. I was quite interested by the point that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made: basically, he said that when things went wrong with procurement under the Conservative Government, it was the experts fault, but when they went wrong under this Government, it was Ministers fault. That was a very interesting contrast.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) made an important contribution on modernisation and future technology. Shropshire is a great county. My grandfather served in the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) also made an important point about armoured vehicles, which I shall come on to, and the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made impassioned speeches on issues that they are very keen to take further and explore.
It is important to deal with several issues that several Members raised, rather than refer to each individual Member, but I shall say a few words first. Making sure that our servicemen and women have the equipment that they need when they need it is central to our defence effort. That theme emerged throughout the speeches today, and it is of course essential to our operational success. The Chief of the Defence Staff has said that the British forces across the board are better equipped than at any time during his 40 years of service. The servicemen and womenincluding some quartermasterswhom I meet on my operational visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the UK, tell me that they have the best equipment that they have seen. However, we can always improve that, and there is no complacency.
In the past three years, equipment to the value of £10 billion has been delivered to our armed forces. In addition to that expenditure, we have the urgent operational requirements process, which has been discussed in detail. It allows us to respond directly to feedback and requests
from commanders on the front linea key point to makeand it boosts capability where and when it is needed. We have approved about £3.5 billion since operations began. The investment has transformed personal equipment, from specially designed boots to the £29 million spent on new enhanced body armour, and it has doubled the firepower of an eight-man infantry section. The investment, as we have heard, continues to enhance and upgrade our protected patrol vehicle fleet£500 million since operation began.
We have done a tremendous amount in the past two years to ensure that commanders have had a variety of vehicles at their disposal. However, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces made clear in his speech, in reality no single vehicle is suitable for every task. We must listen to the commanders views on that.
There was some confusion about vehicles, and in the few minutes that I have left I hope to clear that up. Members referred to a number of different vehicles that are available to operational commanders. Mastiff is a heavily armoured 6x6-wheel drive patrol vehicle, based on the US Cougar that American marines use. The MWMIK, known as Jackal, is a high-mobility weapons platform based on the Supacat vehicle. WMIK, which is part of the Land Rover family, is an open-topped vehicle that provides a better situational awareness and allows greater interaction with the local population.
There are three types of Land Rover: the basic, the Snatch and the WMIK. On the question whether the WMIK will replace the Snatch, just as with the question of the Mastiff and the Bulldog, it is our intention that the arrival of the Jackal, which is the MWMIK, and the WMIK and the Ridgback, will substantially reduce the use of Snatch vehicles, other than in a number of limited roles and operational tasks that commanders want them for. However, it is important to make the point that we have available a range of vehicles which has been much increased in the past year or two.
We are continually investing in programmes to increase the protection of our vehicles against all threats, including explosive devices. We are committed to the FRES programme and to deploying that capability as soon as we can. We are working hard to increase the level of helicopter support that we provide to commanders on operations. Since March last year, we have increased the number of helicopter, including Chinook, flying hours that we provide in Afghanistan by over 33 per cent. Driving through efficiency in our logistical support has been key to this process. The cost of high-end equipment is increasing, and we must have an equipment programme that is focused and sustainable.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is expressed in very broad terms on the Order Paper but I wish to narrow down to a series of practical problems in the sphere of parking enforcement and Government guidance.
I am aware that there has been a substantial amount of activity in this field. In 2005-06, there was an excellent report by the Transport Committee. There has been a wave of Government regulation following the Traffic Management Act 2004. The Government have been very active in legislating in the past few years, and in a generally helpful and positive way, notably by introducing a single system of decriminalised penalties and by recognising that this is essentially a local function whereby authority should be devolved to local councils. In the process of introducing guidance, they have emphasised proportionality and more flexibility in how parking offences are dealt with. I am very positive about the way in which recent legislation has improved these matters.
However, there are still problems. I have brought this debate to the House because I have been alarmed by the sheer volume of casework that I am gettingand other MPs are gettingabout parking offences, often on a staggering scale and involving real horror stories. Some of them can be dealt with through the individual appeals system that has been established and now works better. Some relate to parking policy, which is a matter for the local council rather than for me and for Ministers. However, there are a sufficient number of cases where it is clear that councils do not understand Government guidance or are not applying it. I felt it necessary to bring those to the Ministers attention and thought that the best way of doing so would be to cite one or particular examples that highlight the general problems.
The first example relates to a constituent, a 76-year-old ladyshe did not wish her name to be publicised, so I will call her Mrs. Fwho was regularly attending West Middlesex University hospital, just outside my constituency in the borough of Hounslow, to care for her elderly husband, who had a terrible combination of stroke, prostate cancer and Alzheimers. She was therefore spending a great deal of time with him and finding it difficult to afford the cost£1 an hourof the hospital car park. One quiet Sunday morning, she parked in a nearby street, on a single yellow line. It was not a residential street, and there was no traffic, congestion or obstruction, but it turned out, although she was not aware of it, that she was committing a parking offence by parking within 10 m of a junction.
In the afternoon, somebody ran into the ward, where she was feeding her husband, and told her that her car was being taken away. She ran out of the hospital and remonstrated with the driver of the truck, who represented a company called NPC, a contractor of Hounslow council. He said that he had his job to do, that the car had already been loaded, and that she should retrieve it from the pound. She went home by taxi, obtained a set of documents, as she had been instructed, got another taxi to the pound, 5 miles away in another part of west London, and sought to retrieve her car. It turned out
that the staff of the company did not accept her documents. They said that one of the insurance documents was not what they required, although she was clearly the owner of the car and had the key, so she spent an hour and a half on the phone to an insurance company trying to retrieve information, which was eventually sent by fax.
On that wet, cold evening, this 76-year-old lady was finally allowed to take her car for the payment of £250. A few weeks later, she got a £50 fine from the council, which she paid promptly because she had read the print at the bottom, which said that if people pursued an appeal, they were liable for cost.
There were two aspects of the case that worried me and raised wider issues than the rather desperate circumstances of that particular lady on that particular day. The first is the use of clamping companies for the taking away of vehicles. I raise that because the Transport Committee, when it considered the matter two years ago, said:
The removal of a vehicle by a local authority on the grounds that it is parked illegally is a very serious matter. The Chief Adjudicator...has concerns that vehicle removal may be incompatible with human rights legislation. The Government needs to examine this issue carefully.
the view of the Department is that the powers which provide for the removal of vehicles in specified circumstances are proportionate in respect of balancing convention rights with the need to protect the safety of other road users and the general public interest.
It is clear that in this case that was not so, and there are many other comparable cases in which there is not adequate protection concerning the removal of vehicles. Given the strong comments of the Select Committee, I wondered whether anything further could be done on the matter.
A second aspect of the case is also troubling, and I have encountered it in a substantial number of other cases. It affected an elderly lady who had already suffered a great deal of financial loss, quite apart from her distress. She received a fine with a warning at the bottom that anyone proceeding with an appeal could be liable for costs. Subsequently, I took that up with Hounslow council and the Parking and Traffic Appeals ServicePATAS. They confirmed that, under Government legislation, the law prescribes what the notice must contain:
One of the requirements is that the notice must indicate the nature of a parking adjudicators power to award costs against any person appealing to him.
Clearly, that is legally correct, and shows what Government legislation requires. I did a little research as to what it means in practice, and I discovered from PATAS that of 51,484 parking appeals in 2006-07, there were only 30 successful appeals by local authorities, with an average penalty of £64. Those were in extreme cases of vexatious, persistent offenders.
We encourage parking adjudicators to be...alert to their powers to award costs. Where motorists have been unduly inconvenienced by poor council performance some financial award can help to alleviate the sense of injustice.
The Committee saw it as a way of penalising councils, not individuals, but large numbers of people are being deterred because of the wording of what is currently presented as a Government regulation. I do not know whether there is any way in which that matter can be dealt with.
My second case raises the question of discretion for local authorities in the case of offences. As an example, I have chosen a gentleman I shall call Mr. L, who also wished to remain anonymous. He was a throat cancer patient at the same hospital who went in for emergency examination, and chose to park in the same road, also on a Sunday morning, seduced by the same apparent attraction of what he thought was legal parking. He was fortunate in that his car was not taken away, but he discovered a month later that he had incurred a parking fine of £100. He was told that he had not paid the £50 fine of which he was originally notified. He was not aware of thatthese things get lost, and perhaps he was preoccupied with his conditionand he was faced with a £100 fine. He paid it for the same reason as the lady whom I mentioned: he was frightened by the warning about costs. I took the matter up with the local council and received the most extraordinary reply. It stated that it had sought legal advice, which was that:
Parking Services cannot be selective when it comes to applying legislation, otherwise it could be accused of maladministration.
In other words, it could not exercise discretion because that would imply acceptance that it had made a mistake. It therefore could not apologise, compensate or show discretion of any kind. That is clearly perverse and absolutely stupid.
It is a serious failing that some local authorities are not properly discharging their responsibility to use discretion in considering representations. Councils must take this responsibility seriously in order that a just outcome is reached on each occasion.
The Committee was aware of the prevalence of the problem, but there are many councils that do exercise discretion. The AA recently suggested that 50 per cent. of all informal representations were successful and charges were dropped. Westminster city council allows 50 per cent. of its cases to drop when representations are made, Camden a third and Lambeth 40 per cent.
My borough of Richmond, which used to be quite harsh, adopted a policy some time ago that any first-time offender who presented reasonable evidence that the charge was unfair or unreasonable, or that there were mitigating circumstances, would have it waived. However, the council that I contacted appears to believe, and appears to have been persuaded legally, that it has no power to exercise discretion. I wonder whether guidance and advice from the Government is required, because some local authorities are behaving very strangely.
My third example raises a different issue, and one that the Government should be aware of because it will land in their lap sooner or later. A Mr. Beauchamp was fined for parking on a yellow line. He would have been parking illegally, but he was disabled and had a disabled badge that legalised his parking. He was fined because of one of these new mobile CCTV trackers that parking departments are using, which I believe were authorised in recent regulations. The problem was that for technical
reasons, the camera could not see the dashboard, where his disabled badge was displayed. The same is true in other cases.
The local council was quick enough to realise that that was wrong and withdrew Mr. Beauchamps fine, and I believe that it is now consulting other councils about the fundamental problem that the cameras, by their design, cannot pick up cases in which disabled badges are displayed. That approach will have to be dropped, or a large number of disabled people will pursue appeal cases or be fined without being aware that their position is protected. That, too, requires clarification from the Government.
I wish to raise a couple of wider issues, not so much about how the clarification of Government guidance can help in dealing with individual cases but about how we can deal with dissatisfaction with local authorities parking policies. In many ways, that is an issue for local democracy and should remain so. There are protections through the Audit Commission if councils mishandle funding and through the local government ombudsman if they mishandle process. None the less, there are questions that are raised repeatedly and do not appear to have had a satisfactory outcome.
There is massive dissent about controlled parking zones in many urban boroughs such as mine. Councils are often caught in the middle, with some residents demanding controlled zones and others opposing them. There are bitter arguments about whether the procedures have been followed correctly and whether particular roads voted for or against the zone. It would help the residents and the council if there were a court of appeal of some kindthe equivalent of a planning inspectorthat could examine such cases impartially. We could call it a parking ombudsman. I believe that the Select Committee considered that and decided against it, and the Government have not responded to the suggestion, but there may be scope for doing something of that kind.
The argument for doing so is reinforced by the fact that there are many other sources of dissatisfaction with local schemes. Another example is that people widely assume that councils local contracts incorporate incentives to increase the number of fines. That may or may not be true, although the Committee was damning about those instances where it was. It said that incentive schemes were utterly misplaced and the Government agreed.
The problem is that nobody knows whether there are incentive schemes or not, because councils are not required by law to publish the details of their contracts or the annual accounts of their parking policies. Doing so is good practice and the Government encourage it, but there is no reason whatever why councils should disclose information about levels of fines or the process by which they are imposed. That gives added support to the principle that there should be a modest arrangement whereby a third partywe could call it an ombudsman or a point of referencewould perform a function that the local government ombudsman and the Audit Commission currently cannot perform. I leave the Minister with the thought of whether the Government have an open mind about that.
The final issue that I want to raise with the Minister relates partly to her Department and partly to the wider constitutional affairs issues concerning bailiffs. It is becoming increasingly clear from my casework that
large numbers of councils are issuing bailiffs orders at a fairly early stage in the process when people fail to pay their parking fines. Some people break the law, treating it in a very cavalier way, and they deserve to be sanctioned. However, there are many reasons why people do not pay fines, including the misdirection of mail, moving house, living in multi-occupancy flats and so on. In my experience, such people are increasingly encountering bailiffs.
One extreme case involved a gentleman from my constituency, a Mr. Cohen, who lived next door to a Travellers site. Several of the Travellers hit on the ingenious idea of registering their cars in the name of Mr. Cohens property, which resulted in a large number of fines arriving at his address. He did not pay them, of course, because the vehicles concerned were not his, but bailiffs started arriving, on several occasions early in the morning and in one case in the middle of the night.
Now that bailiffs have additional powers under Government legislation, which I believe involves the limited use of force, the phenomenon has become extremely alarming. Has the Minister, in consultation with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, considered whether there should be some limitation on the use of bailiff powers in the case of what are, after all, minor infractions of the law, because of the potential difficulty that it is creating?