Code of Practice for Private Parking

Baroness Randerson Excerpts
Monday 28th March 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the introduction of this code of practice. I have long been a campaigner for the motorist in this and other areas and have served my time in the courts as a defendant against parking operators, so I am delighted to see this legislation reach the borders of becoming effective.

None the less, I wish that the Government had recognised that this is a difficult area, and that preparation should be included in this to amend in the light of the way that things turn out in practice. Otherwise, we will be waiting again for a chance of primary legislation before we can do anything about it, and it has taken a long time to get to this point. However, here we are, so I ask my noble friend—I do not expect him to reply in detail today, but I hope to have correspondence with him or his colleagues—whether we can set things up so that enough data is collected for us to tell quickly what is happening.

The data that I would particularly like to see collected is, first, on the volume of parking charges. That will be the best indicator of how parking operators’ business models are changing. If we see a lot more parking charges being issued, we will know that something is not working. It would be a big alarm signal if the result of this code was to push operators towards a financial model that was dependent on parking charges. We ought to be seeing the volume of parking charges coming down. This ought to be the key bit of information that is being collected and reported to the department, and not casually at the end of a year. Such information ought to be coming in monthly, once the system is up and running, so that problems can be caught early and understood early.

The other big indicator I hope the Government will look at is the volume of county court judgments relating to parking issues. It is really important what happens to parking charges. What percentage are paid and what percentage are appealed? How are they chased up? What happens in the end? How are those percentages changing? If we see an increase in the number of county court judgments, that indicates that we are seeing operators moving outside the code. In other words, they are judging that the conditions of the code are so strict that their best option is to operate entirely outside it.

It is entirely possible to do that, because if you are operating a park outside the code and go around sticking parking charge notices on people’s windscreens, about 30% of people pay them and another 20% appeal, which means the parking operator immediately knows who they are. Then there are vans with company names on them, and databases outside the DVLA collected by leasing companies and others and made available—quite how legally I do not know, but they are available—so that a parking operator outside the code can count on not a bad return on issuing parking charges.

That will show through in county court judgments because, without being able to collect through debt charges, there is none the less a way for unregistered operators to collect through solicitors who are able to obtain remuneration from the courts. To my mind, those are the two key indicators I would like to see the Government having regular information on and not, as is foreshadowed to the introduction to the code, waiting for a couple of years and then starting to look at what is happening.

There are other areas where I hope the Government will also collect data. What is the volume of appeals based on producing blue badges late? What are appeals based on? What is the pattern of appeals and what are their outcomes? What does that tell us about what is going on? How are the keeper/owner questions being resolved in general, in particular on railway land where the Protection of Freedoms Act does not apply—as it does not in some other circumstances too? What is happening in areas where tariffs exceed penalties, where it is in the motorists’ interest not to pay because they end up paying the penalty, which is less than the tariff that they would have incurred anyway?

What practice is evolving on grace periods? How are they set and how is that changing? What percentage of operators are offering remote additional payments so that, rather than being done with a parking charge, you get a text saying that you are about to go over and asking if you would like to pay some more? What is evolving in payment methods? How much is becoming digital and how much are we enabling people to pay in different ways? How is this all working with—I know cross-ministerial boundaries are difficult—the national parking platform, which the DfT is evolving in Manchester? What is happening in the pattern of the parking offer? Are we seeing movement away from payment-per-hour to having to buy a whole day in order that the revenue of the parking operator is increased? Are we seeing increased use of parking barriers?

This is a complicated area with a wide range of operators in it. We need to sort out how we are going to approach it quickly and clearly. We need to define what is legitimate, to play the role of the shepherd keeping our flock safe from wolves, and, at night, counting our sheep. I beg to move.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, in principle I am very much of the same view as the noble Lord in supporting this code of practice, because there surely is plenty to improve in the operation of private parking. As he outlined, the key question is whether the code is fit for purpose and strong enough, as well as, of course, the issue about review once we have more information.

The tackling of this problem started in the Protection of Freedoms Act. That might surprise quite a lot of people because it is not an obvious topic for an Act about freedom, but it includes a section on the recovery of unpaid parking charges and the limits on powers to remove and immobilise vehicles. That was an important area of public concern about the use of excessive power by some parking companies and, in some cases, very sharp practice.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has criticised the code’s lack of an impact assessment. Since this will have an impact on thousands of companies and millions of drivers, it is surprising that there is no formal impact assessment. The big question is how that lack of an impact assessment can be defended.

The Government apparently spoke to three companies and the British Parking Association. They predicted an apparently massive impact on the industry, which seems unlikely to me and, I believe, to the Government. If it will have a massive impact, that suggests that things are very much awry with the way the industry is being run at the moment, if it is saying that it will not be possible for it to run well and fairly within its current cost structure.

It is important to bear in mind that we are talking not just about fairness to drivers. Drivers are also people who run businesses, so the unfair organisation of private parking has a huge impact on the economy.

Of particular importance is the single appeals process. I very much welcome that concept, and the idea that there will be limits on additional charges levied on motorists. Many motorists, particularly those who travel around the country a lot, find the whole process very complex. One will not be surprised that trying to appeal a parking charge is a complex process designed to discourage one. The guidelines are welcome because parking operators are judge and jury to their own charges, so a single appeals process will be very welcome.

I also welcome some kind of concept of a standard grace period, and ask the Minister how that will be advertised, because there is talk of having a different grace period for different types of car park. The idea that someone might go in, park and be allowed only five minutes is, of course, completely unrealistic—if there is a queue to pay for parking, or if the person has three young children in the back of their car who have to be taken out and sorted into buggies, and the day’s goods and chattels taken out as well. It is important that there is clarity on that.

I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has drawn our attention to the complexity of this and the inadequacy of the powers to review the provisions of the code. With modern technology, the problems of exploitation of the data are going to get only worse and more complicated to deal with, so it is important that there is a thorough review in a short period of time.