Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Parliament discuss unfair parking practices

Yesterday the sorry state of affairs of the parking industry was discussed in Parliament.

Edited highlights follow.

Although it was made clear that most car park operators operate in a fair manner, predatory practices were discussed and the rogues and charlatans of the industry, including big players such as ParkingEye and Excel Parking, were singled out for their sneaky and underhand tactics.

Kevin Foster: Most, but not all, operate good-quality car parks at a reasonable price and use methods of enforcement that are perfectly fair and reasonable. However, some need to be tackled

...what stuck out about those two car parks [managed by Premier Park and Premier Parking Solutions] was that the number of complaints I was receiving about them far exceeded the number of complaints I was receiving about the entirety of Torbay Council’s parking enforcement

Issues raised with me included everything from unclear signs to bad lighting. There was a day when a particular letter or number was not working on the keypad, which meant that everyone with that particular letter or number in their registration found themselves getting a letter a few weeks later

Many of them cover the suspicion that automated number plate recognition systems are used as an opportunity, first, to fine people after they have left and, secondly, to make the process easy. For example, someone who drives in, waits to see if there is a space, drives out and ends up getting a fine would not get that fine if there were manual enforcement, because someone enforcing tickets would see that that person was waiting. Likewise, barrier systems do not let a car in the car park unless there is a space. This system is a kind of invisible barrier that can become a nasty trap that the driver finds out about later.

We got rid of the cowboy clampers in the last Parliament. The suspicion is that the cowboy clampers have now become the cowboy finers and cowboy invoicers

Adrian Bailey fell foul of the well-known Cormwall operators tactics of photographing at such an angle that the valid ticket is not visible.

 I was quite astonished because my ticket was on the dashboard, but then I realised what had happened. I have a Honda Civic and the dashboard is split-level: the ticket had slid under the ledge at the front and was not visible from the front. Well, I took the ticket and very indignantly went to the attendant, who said, “Oh, you can appeal.” So I did.

Within four hours, I was appealing online. I got a response and some photos, which basically dismissed everything I said. There were two photos—one taken from the front of the car, in which the ticket was not visible, and the other from the passenger-side window, in which where the ticket was could be seen with difficulty. Had that photo been taken from the driver’s side, the ticket would have been perfectly visible and readable.

Again, it points to a culture and philosophy that is designed to catch people out and make the most money out of perfectly human mistakes, despite the fact that an individual on every other criteria will have demonstrated that they not only accept the principle of paying, but have done their personal best to conform to the conditions that preside over the process.

Smart Parking operate a scam where they accept invalid registrations, as reported by Kirsten Oswald.

Kirsten Oswald: My constituent, Steve Mostyn, parked in the Clarkston car park. He paid his 50p and was a bit surprised to receive a penalty charge. It appeared that he had keyed in a digit wrongly; the number he had keyed in did not actually appear in the DVLA database—that registration number did not exist—but the company still fined him

Steve Double explain how ParkingEye and Smart parking are ruining the tourins trade in Newquay.

As has been said, that situation damages the reputation of Newquay and many other holiday areas where such parking firms operate. I believe we need to take action. Many of the hard-working businesses in places such as Newquay are owned by families who go out of their way to welcome tourists. They go the extra mile to look after them well, which is why tourists keep coming back to those places. Those parking firms damage the reputation of those areas and other people’s businesses. They do not damage themselves, because they hide behind anonymous PO boxes. They are faceless organisations that do not face the public.

I am therefore more than happy to name ParkingEye and Smart Parking as the firms operating in Newquay in that way. They deserve to be named because of their refusal to respond to me as the local Member of Parliament

Graham Jones explains that cowboy operators rip off the public, damaging holiday resorts and town centres. He explained how Excel trapped motorists by hiding the change to car park terms behind trees.

For too long, cowboy private car parking companies have operated with impunity. Many have reasonable practices, but a considerable number operate in a way that is not conducive to holiday resorts, as several hon. Members have said, or to town centres, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) mentioned, and that is certainly not in the best interests of motorists or the community in general. Without any substantial legislation or regulation, those companies have been free—to be fair—to rip off car park users and charge bogus fees. In my view and that of the British public, it is time to act. The reality for far too many motorists up and down the country is that people are duped into false charges and harassed by firms that, as has been mentioned, somehow manage to get hold of personal information, whether through the DVLA or other sources.
Eastgate is a big retail park in Accrington. Back in 2012 much anger and frustration was caused for hundreds—I mean hundreds—of people when its private car park operator, Excel, misled them about its parking charges. I recall having to deal with that as the local MP for week after week. Excel changed the three-hour parking limit to 90 minutes without any clear warnings. The firm announced its new policy on signs hidden behind trees on the edge of the car park. It then issued hundreds of fines to shoppers, with demands for immediate payment or even higher fines once they had understandably failed to spot the notices. Some disabled people were also caught out by the changes, and they threatened court action with the help of the National Motorists Action Group, which was very helpful—I would recommend the group to anyone fighting pernicious private parking companies which operate such voracious policies.

He also explained how cowboy operator ParkingEye use poorly constructed machines to extract fees from the elderly who find them hard to use. 

Another cowboy private company has already been alluded to by Members, and a more recent issue is that of the new buttons on the machines in some car parks. I have had several complaints about a company operating such machines. For example, an elder constituent told me that he had been fined and he had lost his appeal. He is fortunate that he has an appeals process, although he did not win it. He is 81, I think, and he had to bend double to see the buttons. The screens and buttons are at a low height and, on a sunny day, he was unable to bend down sufficiently to enter the information accurately. He tried and, most of the time, succeeded, but on the occasion in question he put the wrong digit in. He explained that he had paid for his time in the car park—he had the ticket—but the company was not interested. He was forced to pay the fine.

He also explained how ParkingEye could make extra money when their machines were not working

One lady could not buy a ticket from the machine at that car park because it was broken. She still ended up with a fine, even though she left a note on her windscreen to say that the machine was broken.
He also explained how the operators try and con motorists into thinking they have statutory backing

Passing off is a massive issue. People turn up at car parks run by private companies to see a yellow and black zig-zag all the way around a cellophane or plastic envelope stuck to their windscreen that is simply passing off as a statutory notice. It is not a statutory notice, and it is not a fine—it is a charge. There is no clear distinction. The Minister ought to look at that, because those little yellow and black bags that appear on people’s cars intimidate them and do not give them the necessary legal information.

Sarah Wollaston explained how Premier Parking Solutions use machines which do not work properly to rake in extra charges.

There are highly unreasonable practices going on. We have heard many Members give examples. In my area, Premier Parking Solutions, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay referred, has a particular problem with its machines, which is affecting many individuals, particularly when number plate recognition is used in combination with a requirement to enter the vehicle’s number plate manually. In many cases, the machines do not record the first number of that registration plate
The issue of the fees the DVLA charge was discussed. The DVLA had previously informed parliament that it provided data to parking companies at a loss, charging £2.50 for a process which costs £2.80.

She also explained how the appeals process is bogus and does not work properly.

The other problem we have is the disincentive to appeal, because those who appeal have to pay a higher charge if their appeal fails—and fail it will. I have a series of clear cases from individuals who can demonstrate—I suggest to the Minister it is beyond any reasonable doubt—that they have legally parked, fully paid the correct amount and left within the required time, but who are still being hit. If they carry through the appeal process, they find they get nowhere. If they then refuse to pay, they are hit with a series of harassing letters and ultimately receive letters from debt recovery agents, which has an impact on their credit rating. That practice is wholly unacceptable, and intervention from Members of Parliament does not make any difference, either.

Drew Hendry points out that industry self-regulation is not working, and that the level of charges is too high.

The current system has been built on the flawed premise of industry self-regulation, enabled by the provision of data from the DVLA. We are sharing DVLA data with companies whose practices, as we have heard from hon. Members today, are simply outrageous. I agree that it is right to call out companies such as Smart Parking, which has been mentioned several times and operates in my constituency too.

People are being charged excessive fines, and the tactics used to collect the debts are intimidation and threat, albeit through the written word. That is still intimidation and it is still unacceptable.

There are also machines that are difficult to use for reasons of height, and so forth. Perhaps when it is dark, or because it is necessary to bend down or conditions are not good, people press a zero instead of an “O” or vice versa. The hon. Gentleman talked about what reasonable behaviour would be, and it is certainly not reasonable behaviour to impose unreasonable fines without a real appeal process.

It is not just a question of the unreasonable behaviour and bullying—because that it what it is. The fines are also disproportionately large compared with what might be imposed through a public sector car park, for example. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, among others, said, that damages the reputation of our towns and cities, and areas that people visit for enjoyment.

Daniel Zeichner points out that the appeals process is falling apart.

The voluntary regulation system for the private parking sector is falling apart, so I am bound to ask the Minister what he and his colleagues are doing about that

Mr Rees Mogg commented on the DVLA.

These codes of practice are marvellous, but the problem that has been established in this debate is that they are not followed, and the DVLA is complicit in that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Andrew Jones, finally admitted that the DVLA had been deceiving Parliament all along, and that the service did not operate at a loss. Previously the DLA had informed Parliament that the cost was £2.0 per access, and they charged £2.50.

There have been a few questions about costs. I can confirm that this is priced on a cost recovery model, so it is neither subsidised nor run at a profit.

He also commented:

That independent appeals service must be free to the motorist. The outcome of the appeal is binding on the parking company but not on the motorist, who can continue to dispute the charge. 

This of course is false. The IPC operate an appeals service which charges motorists £15 and the result is binding on them.

In addition, the Government Internal Audit Agency carries out detailed audit visits on the DVLA’s behalf and undertakes more in-depth checking of individual cases to provide further assurance that requests have been submitted for genuine reasons and there is reliable evidence to back up the request. 

This of course is misleading. The audit visits happen about once every 2 years, and check 50-100 charges for photographs and wording. No attempt is made to check contracts, signage, suitability of parking machines or any other of the predatory practices used. It is therefore a rubber stamping exercise and nothing more. The only time abuses have been found out is by the investigations of independent bodies.

He then reiterated the status quo.

Many Members have mentioned constituents’ complaints regarding bad practice and motorists who feel they have been unfairly treated by parking operators. There are several routes for redress should an operator fall short of the standards expected. The first is the company’s initial appeal process, which it is required to offer under its code of practice. There is also the independent appeals service, which is free to motorists. I have already mentioned the need for an operator to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice in order to retain its membership of an accredited trade association. If there are breaches of the code of practice, the trade association is there to investigate and ensure that action is taken. Without membership, there is no access to DVLA data.

As everyone but Mr Jones is aware, this system flatly does not work, is widely abused by the parking companies and is falling apart.

As Kevin Foster put it

The concern of many is that the industry is able not only to mark its own homework but to choose the marker.

There was one ray of hope from Andrew Jones.

The concern lies in the code of practice and its enforcement. That is where the next actions will be, and I will take those actions forward from today’s debate.

Happy Parking

The Parking Prankster


  1. Did anyone say anything nice about the PPCs?

  2. Patrick Trouserfire always had a kind word but I understand he has left to pursue other interests

    1. He would only have skirted around the subject, paying it a bit of lip service, now he's no longer the organ of the BPA. He might have preferred the meeting to have been held in-camera where he could have exposed far more, shone a light on it, so to speak!

  3. So where do you write to get a complaint to the Government Internal Audit Agency?

  4. Does anyone else agree that it is a national scandal that Parking Eye is cited in Parliament as being one of the cowboys, and yet PE's parent company is Capita, who are contracted perform a massive amount of outsourced work on behalf of the Government? They should be stripped of that contract with immediate effect!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Nothing will be done, its all swept under the carpet now.

  7. Nothing will be done, its all swept under the carpet now.

  8. The whole private parking situation summed up in 2 sentences: "We got rid of the cowboy clampers in the last Parliament. The suspicion is that the cowboy clampers have now become the cowboy finers and cowboy invoicers"

    1. [aimed at the MPs discussing this]: No Sh*t, Sherlock?