Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I like self-regulation if we can give people access to it. I hope that the Minister will find a way of doing this, because it would be an easy remedy to the problems which my noble friend illustrates.

6 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, on securing the time for this debate and on his excellent introduction to it. He covered pretty much all the points that need to be covered.

I declare an interest in that, a few weeks ago, my husband was parked for four hours, for which he paid, in a car park in Exeter. Although he was fined and not clamped, his letter to Premier Parking Solutions, which is managed by Valley Enforcement Limited, makes some of the important points that I would have made, and I am grateful to him for having done the homework, albeit unintentionally, for this debate. He wrote:

“Your sign warns of penalties for overstay; but £100 for a very short overstay after a five hour period of paid for parking seem to me to be grossly disproportionate, and if it was to be enforced at that level then it should be backed by very prominent signage. What is the basis of this charge, and is it backed by a statutory order? If so where can I inspect such an order? I can find no trace of it in the public domain. If I am satisfied that it is properly legally enforceable, then of course I shall pay. If it is not, then I shall offer you a nominal sum in damages for my overstay of say £10 and then dispute any demand for further payment in Courts. I have copied this to the Environment Director at Devon County Council and the Leader of the City Council as this kind of practice could seriously damage Exeter’s reputation as a tourist and business destination”.

Funnily enough, my husband is a Devon county councillor and an executive member of the council’s Strategic Planning, Regional and International Affairs Committee. That is relevant, because he is very concerned about the reputation that towns get, and these sorts of practices are sometimes unfairly blamed on the local

13 May 2009 : Column 1079

authority and not on the private operator who is committing these abuses. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred to my noble friend Lady Walmsley, who had to go to extraordinary lengths to prove how unfair the system was. She did the public a service in doing that. There is a widespread feeling, as the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, that the hardworking individual who tries to do their best to be law abiding is at a significant disadvantage in every way because this is not regulated or taken seriously.

The Government will complain about the lack of time in which to do something about this, but there is plenty of time this evening as the House will run out of business very shortly. I remind the Minister that just a few weeks ago we in this House considered a statutory instrument to update the legislation on the SIA, so it is possible to do something. The Government have been aware for some time that when the SIA was introduced in 2001 it was not given the necessary powers to limit these sorts of activities and that there is not even a code of conduct. Those issues could have been addressed in the SI that we were talking about recently.

The scale of the clamping industry is enormous. I gather it is in the region of £240 million a year, so this is not just small beer. It is something that I should have thought the Government would be very anxious to get to grips with, given its effect on individuals. I would particularly like the Minister to comment on the role of the DVLA in all this. Should it actually co-operate with the private companies operating in a most unsatisfactory way—or even if they were operating in a satisfactory way, should it co-operate? Do Her Majesty’s Government have a policy on this? Does the Minister feel that it is satisfactory?

The Government themselves could do a large amount to resolve the situation, but some of it is what other speakers have mentioned: the fact of the signage; the fact that very often the private car park operators try to make their car park look as like a public one as possible, I would say in order to deceive people, so they think that the same rules apply, when in fact they do not.

What would the Liberal Democrats do? For some time now we have had a firm policy that was documented in our Fast Track Britain. In that publication we say:

“We will tackle abuses of power, poor standards and unfair appeals procedures in relation to car parking. We will regulate the parking system and increase confidence in Local Authority Parking Enforcement by creating an ‘Independent Parking Complaints Authority’ act as a regulator for all car parks over 10 spaces and be responsible for policing the standards for all parking facilities and decriminalised parking enforcement—including appeals processes, adequate lighting and public safety provision, disabled parking provision and adequate signage of fines. The IPCA remit will include applications for the blue badge scheme and the implementation and management of this scheme. The IPCA will recognise those car parks meeting the required standards by awarding a kite mark. The IPCA will replace the Traffic Penalty Tribunal which does not tackle private car parks, and it will be funded by a levy on all car park operators”.

I commend that policy to the Minister and I urge him to find parliamentary time to take forward the suggestions made in this debate because it is a serious issue for all of the individuals who have been so unfairly treated—people who have had their cars towed away, people

13 May 2009 : Column 1080

who have had to deal with clamping which causes trauma and puts them to enormous expense, and people who have been faced with fines that can be set at a level and then arbitrarily increased with no oversight from anyone.

6.07 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, on obtaining this debate. It touches on an issue which is of great interest to many members of the public, as we know from the number of letters that have been written and other contacts that have been made, as well as to many Members of this House, those who have spoken in this debate and the other place.

It is an issue that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of problems within this area, and I am glad to say that we are beginning to address them. It was also good that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, pointed out that that we need some regulation of private space, such as where there is a doctor’s surgery and a supermarket close by. I can think of things such as rugby matches when spaces being filled are actually for other purposes, so it is quite right and appropriate to have a method by which people can ensure that their private land is not used if they do not want that to happen and, if they are willing to let other people use it, they should have some control. It is absolutely right that we should do something about this in primary legislation; we intend to legislate as soon as possible in the next Session.

The role of the Security Industry Authority is to regulate the private security industry in Great Britain under the Private Security Industry Act 2001; it reports to the Home Secretary. The 2001 Act requires the compulsory licensing of individuals undertaking designated activities. Under the Act, any individual in England and Wales involved in immobilising vehicles on private land—the noble Earl referred to these people as vehicle immobilisers, VIs—with a view to charging a release fee must hold a licence issued for the purpose from the SIA. This requirement also applies to anyone involved in blocking in or towing away vehicles for the same purpose, and to those who collect the fee. Directors, managers and company owners also require a licence, which is known as a “non-front line” licence. Licensing by the SIA will be extended to Northern Ireland on 1 December 2009. This does not apply to Scotland, which has separate laws on this issue.

As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, it is important to make it clear that the SIA is not involved where the owner of a vehicle which has been clamped or removed from private land disputes the justification for that action. Unless some criminal action is alleged it is a matter between the vehicle owner and those responsible for the clamping or towing. This has been touched on by a number of speakers and it is one of the problems. One feels at the mercy of these people and it is extremely difficult to get something done. I have been involved in an interesting debate with someone who tried to charge me on this sort of occasion. This is a very real issue.

The SIA licence requirement for individuals was aimed at excluding criminals. Of course, criminals have been involved. There have been cases where criminals

13 May 2009 : Column 1081

have been caught and taken through due process of law for their involvement. There has also been unacceptable behaviour by individuals. However, while it has gone some way to ensuring good practice, it has been made clear by other speakers and the noble Earl that there remains a significant level of bad practice among some vehicle immobilisation businesses. I thank the noble Earl again for this debate because I certainly had not put my eyes on this issue and looked at it in any detail. I have found that quite useful.

At the request of Ministers, however—it was announced by my honourable friend Vernon Coaker in February 2008, more than a year ago—the SIA completed a feasibility study into regulating businesses in the industry. On the basis of its proposals we launched a public consultation on 30 April, to which reference has been made already. We want to curb the unacceptable practices of some businesses, over which the individual worker will probably have no or perhaps little control, such as exorbitant release fees, which a number of speakers have touched on. We need to put some balance behind that, and set some principles and top lines on what can be charged. On inadequate signage, to which reference has been made already, sometimes not only is the signage inadequate and it is unclear that one has to pay anything, but people are lulled into thinking that they can park for no or little fees. That is wrong as well and needs to be looked at. The noble Baroness referred to her husband and to parking in Exeter. I did not realise that these things happen in the West Country. I understood that they do in London, but it is terrible if it goes on down there.

Immediate clamping and towing away is unacceptable. If a person is two or three minutes over their time, suddenly being clamped or towed away is absolutely inappropriate. We need to look at that. The fact that wheel-clampers do not identify themselves is not correct and is not allowed. They should identify themselves, but sometimes they do not. Indeed, that was the main thrust of my debate with a gentleman on this issue. Nor should people be lured to park where they will be clamped.

Our preferred option is compulsory membership of a licensing scheme for vehicle immobilising businesses. A third party accrediting body would be contracted by the SIA to decide whether each company which applied for a licence met the scheme’s requirements. The SIA would remain as the regulator. The accrediting body, or bodies, would decide whether a business which applied for a licence met the requirements for qualification. It would also be responsible for monitoring all licensed companies to check their compliance with the scheme’s requirements. Failure to comply could result in the SIA removing the business’s licence or taking other action to secure compliance.

The noble Earl and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, talked about the DVLA. I understand that there is a concern here. This is really Department for Transport business, but, as I understand it, the DVLA has always taken the view that disclosure of data where there is a breach of civil or contract law is fair and reasonable. Tracing people who do not comply with the conditions for parking on private land is regarded in most

13 May 2009 : Column 1082

circumstances as a reasonable cause. However, there are strict rules. For example, before being granted electronic access to DVLA records, a company must be a member of a DVLA-accredited trade association, and abide by its code of practice. The only trade association currently accredited for the private car park industry is the British Parking Association.

The Government have just launched a consultation that seeks views on the DVLA making keeper data available, whether electronically or manually, only to parking enforcement companies that are members of an approved trade association. We need to look at that area carefully within this consultation, because there is clearly something wrong if fines and so on are put out as if they come from the DVLA. That absolutely must not be allowed.

The noble Earl talked about partial impact assessment; this is a draft, and we need the comments received during the consultation to help refine the costs and benefits. The detail will be decided after that consultation; any inputs will be gratefully received, because there are some important issues here. The information received during the consultation will be taken into account.

I think that I have touched on how the proposals on business licensing, which the noble Earl specifically asked about, differ from the current arrangements. To run through them again, the issues, which we will decide on after public consultation, include: excessive penalties for releasing clamped cars; impounding cars unreasonably quickly; inadequate signage; an effective appeals process, which is important and has been touched on, and luring cars into car parks by any means.

The noble Earl also asked whether the Government could require local authorities to license private parking. Even if they did, it would require some business standards to be imposed. The real question is: who is in a position to do that, or has access to the necessary expertise? There is a danger that local authority licensing might just impose a layer of bureaucracy; that is something we need to look at in the consultation, as it might not be the right way ahead. There would also be the possibility of local authorities having competing and differing priorities at local level, depending on circumstances. I imagine that Twickenham would be very different from say, Wargrave, out in the Thames Valley.

The noble Earl specifically asked how the scheme will be enforced. Our preferred option is that businesses failing to comply with their licence conditions will be subject to sanctions. Exactly what those are, we will have to decide in the context of this consultation. The SIA will have powers to revoke or suspend a company’s licence if it is found to be breaching the conditions. There will also be specific criminal offences connected to working without a company licence or breaching licence conditions. From what has been said, people probably feel it is important that we can achieve that to get control. The detail of those offences will be determined as part of this consultation process.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley asked again about clampers. I touched on that and if clamping happens at night people sometimes feel intimidated. They cannot prove who has done it and do not know if they have a

13 May 2009 : Column 1083

licence. It is clear that clampers must wear the licence when doing that, although the chap I had a discussion with was not, and that any licence-holder who collects a fee must provide a receipt, showing the location, the date and their own name, signature and licence number. If someone suspects that a person involved in immobilising or towing vehicles does not possess a licence or is failing to follow the rules they should report it to the SIA, as it is a criminal offence. I quite understand what the noble Earl was saying; if a single woman is parking somewhere, it is sometimes quite difficult to ascertain those things. However, that is probably about as far as we can go, as it is a criminal offence which would then have to be taken through due process of law.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, mentioned bailiffs, which is, of course, a matter for the Ministry of Justice. As I understand it, the details are being developed but an appeals process will be introduced. He also asked about the appeals process; it is part of the consultation, and I touched on it before. The scheme will prohibit employees or representatives from engaging in unacceptable practices, make them more accountable and require a transparent appeals system. The scheme should also include general and sector-specific licence conditions. We will have to be clear on what is laid down because these are not easy areas.

My message is this: we take this issue seriously. Perhaps we have taken too long to react, although we started the process a year ago last February. It is something that needs to be focused on and any input into the consultation will be extremely valuable. I hope that, with the consultation and the legislation which will be introduced in the next Session, we can take a good step forward. It is a worrying issue and sometimes leads to quite difficult situations, as I discovered myself. I hope that we can move it forward.

St Helena

Question for Short Debate

6.20 pm

Asked By Lord Jones of Cheltenham

Lord Jones of Cheltenham: My Lords, I am grateful to the business managers for allowing this debate at short notice. While the quantity of contributors is not great, I am confident we shall hear comments of great quality from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who is to speak in the gap, my noble friend Lord Shutt and the Minister. I must declare an interest as one of the officers of the All-Party St Helena Group chaired by Bob Russell MP. Like him, I am one of very few parliamentarians to have visited St Helena. I did so in 2003 as a member of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation accompanied by John Smith MP and Anthony Steen MP, while valuable administrative and seafaring assistance was given by Paul Jackson, the deputy secretary of the CPA UK Branch and a former commander in the Royal Navy.

13 May 2009 : Column 1084

One of the facts we learned was that no government Minister has ever visited the island. Members of the Royal Family have, and we visited the Prince Andrew School. My noble friend Lord Shutt will have more to say about educational opportunities on St Helena. The reason that no Minister has visited is that it takes such a long time to get there. Currently there is no airport and the only scheduled transport available is by the RMS “St Helena”, the last remaining Royal Mail ship in operation. Occasionally cruise liners venture near the island, but for insurance reasons their passengers are often not allowed to disembark if the swell is too great.

The RMS can transport 120 passengers and a limited amount of freight. There is no wharf on St Helena so disembarking is fraught with excitement. As a result of the difficulty of getting to and from St Helena, the island has no effective economy. As a British Overseas Territory, it is entirely dependent on an increasing subsidy from the British Treasury, the largest of any overseas territory. Over the last 25 years, the taxpayer has given St Helena more than a quarter of a billion pounds. Unless something changes, that sum will be significantly larger over the next 25 years.

Due to the lack of employment opportunities on the island, many Saints, as they like to be called, have sought work elsewhere. I met some of the 600 or so Saints in the Falklands when I visited last year. There are several hundred on Ascension Island, one of St Helena’s dependencies, along with the even more remote Tristan da Cunha. There are thousands of Saints in the United Kingdom with particular clusters in Reading, Swindon and Southampton, and we have 20 or so in my former constituency of Cheltenham. The local college, now part of the University of Gloucestershire, had an educational link with St Helena stretching back over several decades. We trained teachers from St Helena, some of whom went back to the island while others stayed in the UK, married and brought up families here. I met the Cheltenham Saints before I visited St Helena in 2003. Without exception, they wanted to go back to the island, either to retire, to settle with their families or at least to be able to spend their holidays there. With no airport that is simply not possible. Many noble Lords will know that one of the Doorkeepers along the corridor is a Saint who has not been back to the island in more than 20 years. This brings in a related issue of frozen pensions, but that is a debate for another day.

To reach St Helena it is necessary to start from Cape Town in South Africa or Walvis Bay in Namibia. There one embarks on the RMS and sails for five days. The Atlantic Ocean is a very large expanse of water. There is nothing but ocean all around. You go to bed, sleep, wake up and there is still ocean, nothing but ocean, day after day after day. Eventually you reach the island, disembark, spend 56 hours there, some of it sleeping, and then embark again for the voyage to Ascension Island, another two days at sea. That schedule is simply not feasible for tourists or those wanting to spend regular holidays there to see families and friends. With very small numbers of visitors, it is impossible to sustain a tourist industry.

13 May 2009 : Column 1085

Following the CPA visit in 2003, we had a debate on St Helena in Westminster Hall, when I said that the island needed three things: airport, airport and airport. Actually, it needs only one thing. All three of us who visited the island agreed that an airport was needed, which is something that has been talked about and consulted on for decades. A referendum among islanders showed 72 per cent in favour of air access.

It was a great delight to learn just before the previous general election that the Government had decided to build the airport. The then Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, made the announcement and I recall meeting him in a Corridor and congratulating him warmly. An environmental impact assessment was carried out and the project received a clean bill of health. Of particular relevance was the situation of indigenous species on St Helena, including the wirebird or, to give it its Latin name, charadrius sanctaehelenae. I have my St Helena National Trust wirebird adoption certificate, as I am now the proud adoptive parent of a wirebird with a unique identification number, NW44532. I hope to meet it one day.

An invitation to tender to build the airport was issued and received no bids. Another invitation to tender was issued changing the terms to include government payment for island visits. Four expressions of interest were received, two of which dropped out at a later stage. Two companies produced compliant bids to build the airport, the Basil Read Group based in South Africa, and the Italian-based Impregilo. After a long evaluation Impregilo’s was selected as the preferred bid. Then last December, the Government announced a pause in negotiations. Later, yet another consultation was announced which is ongoing. The last consultation showed undisputedly that an airport is necessary to give St Helena any chance of becoming self-sufficient financially. That is still the case so this consultation is regarded by many as no more than an expensive time-wasting exercise.

The new consultation’s options are: first, to build the airport now; secondly, to not build the airport at all; or, thirdly, to wait five years before making a decision. I understand the current financial difficulties in which Governments find themselves, but there are reports from Mr George Soros and other experienced commentators of green shoots of recovery breaking out. Hanging around for years to build St Helena’s airport makes no sense. Not building it at all will lead to an ever increasing subsidy to the island year on year, and any delay is likely to lead to an increase in the cost of building the airport and the possibility of losing potential private sector investors who are keen to develop a tourist industry for St Helena. Frankly, who would enter a new bidding round after the shenanigans of the current process?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page