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The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of what a concern the issue is to members of the public, and we all have quite large postbags on it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the Governments direction of travel, if I may use that phrase, and for the Governments desire to see parking policies used positively. Good parking policies should be about helping to keep traffic moving, so that people can get to work, to the shops and to businesses, but not obstruct, for example, emergency vehicles. As he said, since 1991, there has been a move towards local authorities enforcing their own parking enforcement policies and not being reliant on the police. As he also said, the issue is also about recognising the part that local democracy plays in ensuring that councils are accountable to their electorate for making their parking enforcement policies, as well as for how they are run. We now have about 255 English authorities, including all those in London, taking on this responsibility.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that central Government need to get the framework of regulations and guidance right. He is also right to say that local authorities need to adopt policies that are acceptable to their population and meet the needs of their area, and to enforce them fairly, reasonably and legally. Councillors, who are accountable to the local electorate, should ensure that that is done, and will have to explain themselves through the electoral process if there is dissatisfaction with the way in which a council is carrying out its parking policy.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points, which I shall cover in a moment. He did not mention clamping on private land directly, but it has been a
matter of great concern to me as a constituency MPI have been pursuing the matter for about 10 years. As a Minister, I am having discussions with the Home Office to determine what else we need to do about it. In our recent guidance, we said that councils should use clamping as a last resort. The hon. Gentleman mentioned some cases in his constituency, and I shall deal with the issues that he raised in a moment. When a parked vehicle is causing an obstruction, clamping it is not particularly helpful, as it reinforces the obstruction rather than removing it. To be fair, some councils are increasing their use of towing away as an option, in order to remove such obstructions. They need to get the balance right between the two options for dealing with those difficulties. It is up to the councils to decide how they do that, but it is important that they should be sensitive to the implications involved.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about whether pursuing an appeal would render someone liable to costs, and he was right to say that we need absolute clarity on this. Any appeal is free, and costs would be payable only if the appeal were found to be frivolous or vexatious. I will look into whether that guidance is clear enough, however. In March, we introduced regulations to create a greater degree of consistency in the appeals process, and we have issued guidance to local authorities on the wording on penalty charge notices. I will look into how they are now being phrased and come back to the hon. Gentleman to tell him how we are making that point clear.
On the issue of cameras and disabled badges, cameras have been used in London since about 2000 under local legislation. The Departments statutory guidance states that cameras should not be used where they would be unable to detect permits or badges. I can give the hon. Gentleman further information on that, if it would be helpful. We recognise that that could be a problem, which is why we have phrased our guidance as we have.
With regard to the possible confusion over whether a council is able to exercise discretion, the issue is again covered in the Departments statutory guidance. Councils are able to exercise discretion; indeed, I should emphasise that authorities have complete freedom to cancel a penalty charge notice at any stage in the process. Our statutory guidance has reminded councils of that.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that his constituents had had their vehicles towed away, so let me clarify that this happens where there is an obstruction. In the particular case he mentioned, he said that it happened too close to a junction on the main road. If vehicles are obstructing the highway, however, councils need the power to remove them. If the hon. Gentlemans constituent felt that this action was unfair, he could have appealed against the decision.
When it comes to dissatisfaction over controlled parking, as constituency MPs we are well aware that there are always two sides to a dispute and we can sometimes get caught in the middle, but the council must consult on a proposed controlled parking zone. If people object, the local authority must consider holding an inquiry, which will give people the opportunity to explain why they think the proposal would present difficulties or, on the other side, why they support it.
Let me deal finally with some of the hon. Gentlemans points about transparency and whether people understand how a councils parking policies are carried out, what it
does with the revenue and so forth. Part of the guidance makes a strong recommendation that local authorities should publish an annual report of their parking policies. The hon. Gentleman rightly went through all the different processes and means by which members of the public can challenge councilsfrom making an appeal and looking at the accounts to see how the money has been spent right through to going to the ombudsman.
We have seen quite of lot of press coverage about incentives in contracts. The statutory guidance makes it very clear that we believe unreasonable incentives should be discouraged. The incentives should be based on delivering transport objectives, such as keeping traffic moving and ensuring that there are no obstructions rather than on factors such as over-zealous parking attendants, who are resented by people. There has been
a lot of press coverage of such incentives, but actual evidence has, frankly, not been so forthcoming.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this is a very controversial issue. We have tried to ensure that we have policies that allow central Government to look at best practice and advise through statutory guidance. It is up to us to continue to work with local authorities to ensure that policies are in place that meet our transport objectives while also emphasising that local councils are accountable to their electorates for the policies they pursue.