( Left is a
sculpture not a picture, click to enlarge and look at finger pressure
Pictures for links, end pictures to enlarge.
As in other FREE pages available for cases on this website.
Local Government: Traffic Regulation
Moved By Lord Lucas
To call attention to the practices of local authorities in setting parking and traffic regimes, in levying penalties for violations and in the enforcement of those penalties; and to move for papers.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I must declare some interests. In the part of the motorist, I am a trustee of the Motorists Legal Challenge Fund and chairman of the London Motorists Action Group. As an impartial chairman, I chair the Enforcement Law Reform Group and, in the part of local authorities and the civil enforcement industry generally, I chair the Civil Enforcement Awards. So I have experience of looking at this matter from all sides.
This is a matter of great importance to us. Dealing with local authority parking regimes and their enforcement is one of the main ways in which citizens come up against local authorities and enforcement generally. Whether that is done in a way that makes us all happier and increases our sense of fairness and well-being or whether it is done unfairly, with an attitude to revenue that was shared by the Sheriff of Nottingham, matters a great deal to us.
The legislation was well intentioned when we passed it. Looking back at what we sought to achieve when we set up this regime, I believe that we were very much focused on the proper use of the streets, the fair apportionment of that benefit between the various users of the streets, and safety—those sort of attitudes. I do not think that money came into it, but money has come into it in a very big way over the past 20 years or so, to the point where it has come to dominate the thinking of many councils. The reason why it has come to be so prominent is that the Government over that time have failed to use their powers to curb the growth of that influence and to bring practice back to where it should have been.
In some parts of this country, there is, relatively speaking, no problem. Essex springs to mind—I wonder why—as does Manchester. There are some councils with seriously good practices, but there are many that do not have them. There is a basic principle here, set out in regulation, that the civil enforcement of parking and traffic regulations should not be run with a view to profit, but no mechanism was set up to enforce that rule and the Government have made no effort to enforce it. The result is that many councils have allowed their thinking to become dominated by money.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1401
I think that the worst example must be Camden, where the whole regime and tenor of enforcement have been designed to raise money. The council currently makes a profit equivalent to a 25 per cent increase in council tax and puts tens of thousands of its residents into the tender care of bailiffs every year. That is an outrageous denial of the intention of the law. The council is acting immorally against the social interests of its area and against our intentions when we passed the legislation.
Many other councils have been corrupted to a lesser degree. Were Westminster to look back at its practice four or five years ago, it would recognise that many things that it was doing were governed by a desire to raise funds. It has improved a great deal since then. I particularly welcome its decision to use bailiffs as little as possible. It has abolished clamping and done many other worthwhile things, although one could look at the decision to introduce mobile telephone-only parking systems as being driven more to protect and increase revenue than to be convenient for its citizens.
The Mayor of London has sent me a programme of changes that he wants to make to the previous rapacious regime. He is considering issuing warning notices rather than penalties. That “Don’t do it again, please” attitude is wonderful. It is producing a human relationship between the local authority and the people with whom it is dealing. There will be a system where you can register to pay the congestion charge automatically; all you need to do is put your details online and then you need no longer worry whether you have remembered to pay by 10 o’clock. The previous regime, certainly to begin with, was aimed at raising as much money as possible by fines. There are many other things that the Mayor of London is setting out to do, and I welcome them, although he has a way to go. Last year, 140,000 tickets were issued by the mayor in respect of loading bays. Traffic wardens are waiting for three minutes to see whether a commercial van is actually loading or unloading, when the allowance in legislation is 20 minutes. The mayor is moving in the right direction, but the authority has a long way to go.
The fundamental cause of this problem is lack of government oversight. The rules are there, but the Government need to do something to make local authorities pay attention to them. All they need to do is give the district auditor an instruction that it is his responsibility to look at this. Then the public would have someone to complain to, councils would have someone to beware of and we would see things moving in the right direction.
The worst examples of the influence of money amount to theft, if we define theft as taking what is not yours and keeping it. Many councils make honest mistakes in their signage—the way in which they sign cameras or design yellow box junctions. After a process in the court or in negotiation with the Department for Transport, they are brought to recognise that what they have been doing is illegal. They are faced with a situation in which they have extracted fines from tens of thousands of motorists, many of them their own residents, illegally.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1402
In commercial life, if a clearing bank were found to have charged too much for letters telling customers that they had gone into overdraft, you would expect such an institution to pay that money back without question and to seek out the people whom it had extracted money from and pay it back to them. Councils up and down the land do not do this. There are some that do. I offer bouquets to Sheffield, South Tyneside, Sandwell and other councils that recognise that, where they have got things wrong, they should pay the money back. However, many others do not. They hang on to that money. Indeed, Haringey has gone as far as to have a vote. The members of the council voted to keep money that they know is not theirs as if they were not told when they were young that theft was not the thing to do. So corrupted have they become in public office that they think that theft is the right thing to do as a councillor. That is not how things should go on.
The system continues because the public have no way of doing anything about it. No public authority or body will accept a complaint about this. You can go to the courts only in respect of your own ticket. The council just repays the money, so it does not owe you any more. The police, the Local Government Ombudsman and the district auditor will not accept an objection. We have tried immensely hard to get people to deal with this, to bring councils to book and to end this practice. Even government ministers have proved unhelpful.
The appeals system is another area corrupted by money. It was designed to deal with a low level of appeals. When the system was set up, we did not imagine that there would be the volume of appeals that we have now, so perhaps it was not set up with the care and attention to detail that it deserved. The structure is not independent; it is funded and managed by councils—the councils that the appeals system is making judgments on. There is no balance in the relationship between motorist and council regarding appeals. Motorists face a doubling of the payment if they lose an appeal, whereas the council suffers no penalty.
The appeals system is not allowed to pay any attention to common sense. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, lost a famous judicial review when the High Court ruled that adjudicators were not allowed to pay attention to common-sense arguments and were restricted to narrow grounds of appeal. When councils serially misbehave and keep appealing on the same point, which keeps being overruled by the adjudicator, the adjudicator can do nothing about it. He cannot set precedents. Perhaps a court that low should not be allowed to set a precedent, but it should be allowed to do something to deter councils from serially abusing the system. Abuse is what it has become.
Councils rely on the disincentive that motorists face—the time involved in an appeal and the doubling of the penalty if they lose. Motorists just shrug their shoulders and pay the fine, even if they find it unjust, and leave it at that. Councils have not been taking their duty to review properly the representations made by motorists and to make sure that the system is fair. We need a way to redress that.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1403
It is not just I who feels this way. I have an excellent quotation from the British Parking Association, which is as concerned as I am about the proper working of the system. It says:
“The BPA seeks a PCN defined by Statute plus bilateral proportionality”—
that means equal penalties on both sides—
“with Adjudication services as a mechanism for effective communication to establish ‘benchmark’ decisions which will enable fairer parking enforcement. Rationalisation in rules and regulation, consistency in the meaning of signage and disregard for trivial deviation by everyone will also support fairer parking control”.
The industry wants it and the motorist wants it; it is only the Government who are turning a deaf ear to this.
We should move to a system of adjudication where there is a proper tribunal for which the scales are level and which is the guardian of common sense and, indeed, of government guidance. The Government issue guidance to local authorities on what they should do. One of their clearest bits of guidance is that cameras should not be used to enforce parking regulations, except where it is dangerous for wardens to operate. There are 150 cameras, mostly in quiet streets in Westminster, and the Government have done nothing about them. If it were possible for such matters to be taken into account by the adjudicators, such drifts from the proper practice could be brought up.
While we are hoping for a system that I suspect is some years away, we now have a system that should be enforced. We have a clear system of regulation of lines and signs, which are meant to make it possible for motorists to know what rules apply to them in any instance. However, the system is in chaos. Local authorities have widely disregarded it. The concept of controlled parking zones, which were meant to apply to a single street, has been stretched for miles. Travelling around London, you are meant to know from a sign stuck at the side of the road somewhere that you are moving from one borough to another and the rules have been changed. But the signs are not right anyway. I do not believe that a single CPZ in the whole of Westminster is properly signed. The concept needs radical review.
Still, while that is the law, it should be enforced. The Government have the power, under Section 70 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, to enforce these regulations and ensure that local authorities are properly signed and, if they are not, to go in, change the signage and bill the local authority. Have they taken any such action? No.
As I said, legislation came with good intentions. There was in the making of it a failure of prediction. Well, even economists fail to predict sometimes, and 20 years is a long time ahead. Things have gone wrong and abuses have grown up. The Government have had the power to do something about them but have done nothing. We need a simple system of bringing accountability to local authorities—not major changes, just little things that would allow the balance to be reset and the direction of travel to be reversed.
I think back to when I was young and we could sing happy songs about “Lovely Rita meter maid”. That may not be impossible in the future. I gave an award to
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1404
Tunbridge Wells last year for its work in training and improving the role of traffic wardens, which is heading in exactly the right direction. Many of the things that Boris is doing in London have that trend, too, but to be effective and to get where they should they need government support and action. That is what I am looking for. I beg to move.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for initiating the debate. I shall deal with the issue under two headings: first, the difficulties facing all road users who want to park, especially in London; secondly, the difficulties facing disabled people with blue badges.
There are two general problems. First, particularly in London, where the boroughs are so close, parking controls vary from one borough to another. It is simply not possible, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, to know in which borough one is. People are not as conscious of boroughs as are local councillors, who are attuned to elections and so on. Those who are not local councillors are not aware that they have moved from one borough to another and the control system has changed.
Secondly, there is very poor signage of what is required of people when they want to park. It is sometimes simply not possible to discover what the control is for a particular bit of road. One can walk or drive around to see what it might be. My plea, which runs through a lot of what I want to say, is that there should be proper signage so that motorists can know what the rules are. Of course, the problems in London are much starker because it is all too common for those of us who drive to move from one borough to another.
I shall outline one or two difficulties. The new system of having to use mobile phones to park has difficulties, particularly for those who do not have mobiles or who are deaf and cannot easily manage them out in the street. I am not clear what the position is on yellow lines. I understand that the only way to know about them is to look at the parking meter hours and, outside those hours, one can park on a yellow line. However, residents’ parking may be controlled differently and extend longer than the parking meter hours. In parts of Westminster, I think that the parking meters stop at 1.30 pm on a Saturday, but the residents’ parking goes on until 10 pm. The yellow lines are okay to park on from 1.30 pm, so it is confusing. I have had people come to me and ask, “Are we allowed to park here?”. I am not an official; I just happen to live, when I am in London, down a particular road in Westminster so I tell them what the parking situation is there. It should not be up to me; there should be proper signs. The situation is even more confusing as regards double yellow lines.
Parking meter hours vary from borough to borough but they also vary within a borough, sometimes from street to street. So, again, one has to stop and see whether one is controlled by the parking meter or whether one is able to park there anyway. In some instances the residents’ spaces are available for people who also pay; in others they are not. In some the bay
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1405
changes from one to another without a perceptible difference so that one thinks that one is in a resident’s bay when one is actually in a parking bay.
There is a further difficulty that varies from borough to borough. If one happens to need a plumber or a builder to do work in one’s home, in some boroughs one can get a parking permit for that. In Westminster, one cannot, so it is very hard to get a plumber or a builder because they do not like being there as they know they will have either to move their car at intervals when the meter warden comes, or they will have to pay a fine from the money that I pay them for doing the plumbing or building work. The situation is a bit of a shambles, frankly, but I do not think that it would be difficult to straighten out.
As regards the difficulties facing blue badge holders who need to drive from one borough to another, I was totally baffled about the rules but I discovered a very helpful booklet, Blue Badge Parking Guide for London, published by the PIE Guide organisation, which helpfully sent me a copy of the London and national guides, which I received this morning. They are jolly useful but I wonder how many people know about them. It is not appropriate to ask noble Lords to put their hands up, but I bet that very few people know these things exist. They are a mine of useful information but you cannot expect everybody with a blue badge to have the guide by them all the time, even if they know it exists, and to work accordingly. However, I commend the guides to all blue badge holders, especially in London where they are certainly invaluable.
The headings on the front of the London guide cover hospital parking, accessible toilets, location and duration of stay for all blue badge bays and a clear guide to parking rules for all London boroughs. These are invaluable bits of information which I had no idea was publicly available until I received the guide this morning. The PIE Guide shows four types of blue badge parking bays: unlimited ones; ones with a three-hour control; ones with a four-hour limit or the rather vague ones which state “Please check signs locally”. Again, variations occur across and sometimes within boroughs; for example, where there are disabled bays only, where there are pay and display bays permitted for disabled people, resident bays which disabled people can use, and where there are single yellow and double yellow lines. Four boroughs, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and the City, differ from the rest of London, and it is extremely confusing, particularly as many people may want to park or move about in those areas.
A couple of years ago I wrote to Ken Livingstone when he was mayor. He agreed with me about the confusion across the four boroughs. His reply stated:
“However, to change this either requires the boroughs themselves to adopt this policy—
the policy being to have a uniform system—
“or legislation to be passed. In this respect the Government is critical to delivering these much-needed changes. I am aware that the Mobility and Inclusion Unit of the Department for Transport is currently co-ordinating an investigation into this matter, which I hope will result in the necessary changes being made”.
I appreciate that there are other difficulties with blue badges such as the amount of fraud in connection with them, and that there have to be tight controls. I
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1406
am not arguing against that. But sometimes wardens can be a little insensitive. For example, I was told that a person wanted to take a blue badge holder to hospital by car. He stopped the car, went into the house to collect the blue badge holder, who needed help, and by the time they got out of the house he had received a ticket. The council concerned refused to accept that the penalty did not have to be paid. That was not a particularly sensitive way of approaching things and such conduct leads to ill feeling. It seems very unfair, when someone can demonstrate that they have a blue badge and they were getting it out of the house at the time, that the penalty was imposed only a couple of minutes or so later.
The issue arises not just in London, although the difficulties are more acute there. Even in other local authorities, for example, where there are local authority car parks, it is not possible to know whether a disabled bay is the only one that a blue badge holder can use, or whether a blue badge holder can use another bay without paying, or whether they are simply treated as though they did not have a blue badge in the other bays. It means that one has to stop, inquire and find out. Sometimes the signs are clear and sometimes they are not clear.
I make a plea that the four London boroughs could co-ordinate with the other boroughs so that there is a uniform system. I see the noble Baroness shaking her head; she has experience of this that we will hear about later on. It is extremely difficult. If the four inner London boroughs say that they are under more pressure for parking, at least those four could have a co-ordinated system. My main plea is on behalf of blue badge users. It really is very difficult for them to know what the system is. It could be made clearer. For example, the PIE Guide, which helpfully indicates the length of time that a blue badge user can stay at a particular place, shows that within yards there are unlimited parking zones, three-hour parking controls and four-hour parking controls. It is very difficult. One does not know what they are, and they are not always indicated clearly.
The other difficulty that I want to mention is hospital parking. If the blue badge parking bay is a three-hour or four-hour bay, that is normally fine, if one leaves a disabled person at a hospital, but the outpatient clinic may last longer than four hours and therefore they incur a penalty. It is jolly difficult and it is confusing. I make a plea on behalf of blue badge users that the system be clarified; it would be fair to them and make a lot of sense.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for initiating this debate and for enabling us to debate issues which, while not exactly on the top of everyone’s agenda of very important things to discuss, nevertheless form a kind of daily backdrop while people are trying to go about their business. It is certainly something that leads to high levels of irritation and anger.
I was thinking the other day about when I was a child in the early 1960s, and I remember the excitement when someone in our street got a car. They were the
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1407
first person in our street to have a car, and it was unusual then. I gather that there were about 9 million cars on the road in the early 1960s; 40 years later there were 32 million cars on the road, and the number is higher today. Managing that sort of demand and the conflict between different groups—residents and commuters, shoppers and delivery vehicles, workers looking for long-term parking and shoppers who want to be somewhere for a short period of time, people who are on foot, and so on—is a job that falls to local authorities. It is not easy.
As a member of a highway authority for 14 years, and as chair of the Local Government Association transport committee, one of the things that I learnt is that, of all the tools available to a local authority, parking policy is by far the most effective way of managing traffic and doing something to resolve these conflicts. There are all sorts of reasons why a local authority will put parking restrictions in place; perhaps to keep traffic flowing smoothly, to manage the amount of traffic that comes into an area, to reduce safety hazards and obstructions, to deal with issues where people cannot park close to their own home unless a zone is in force. They are not supposed to use on-street parking as a way of raising revenue. However, it is interesting because, despite the anger of the noble Lord, I am not sure why we should see it as robbery to charge for a rare commodity. We charge for all sorts of things, and there is a legitimate debate to be had about charging for parking.
I feel very strongly that there is not a role for central government in micromanaging the way in which local authorities either use parking as a tool for traffic management or the way that they go about their business; that way madness lies. However, the noble Lord is right to say that the legislation is far too complex. Councils have to provide their own documentation to comply with the law. The noble Lord talked about one side of the coin, which is the very real anger and distress felt by motorists who are caught out by unfair practices, but it works both ways. A lot of people create sometimes dangerous situations through parking badly, and they get out of the fines that they should pay by the use of technicalities, “appeal busters” and people like that. I urge the Government that, for both sides of the argument, it is essential that they look at stripping out unnecessary legislation to make the law easier for people to understand and easier for councils to enforce.
Issues of enforcement cause the real anger. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talk about a blue badge holder. We have all heard the stories about hearses, milk floats and dustcarts being ticketed. You shake your head and ask how on earth these stupid things can happen. Local authorities have told me that where stories are in the press about this sort of thing, they are usually followed by an increase in incidents of aggression toward the enforcement officers. There is an effect.
One aspect of this is the law of unintended consequences. Enforcing on street parking used to be the responsibility of police and traffic wardens, and off-street parking was managed by local authorities. Since the 1991 Act, some 200 councils have taken on
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1408
powers to take over enforcement. There are merits in one body enforcing on and off-road parking, not least that fines are kept locally and do not get sent off to the Chancellor. However, parking enforcement, like most other local authority services, was outsourced as part of the compulsory competitive tendering drive introduced by the Conservative Administration. I do not intend to enter into a debate about the pros and cons of outsourcing, but what is clear is that when you outsource, performance management of contracts is more complex in some areas than in others.
When there is a tender for, say, emptying the bins, it is relatively straightforward. Councils will set clear targets as part of the contract—percentages of bins emptied on a certain day, cleanliness of streets and so on. However, when you outsource parking enforcement, it is not so simple. How do you measure success? In the early days, the most commonly used method was pretty crude. You simply got brownie points for issuing tickets. That led to a culture of issuing tickets no matter how absurd and distressing it could be. Employees were sometimes incentivised to do that. All the opprobrium rightly fell onto the heads of the local council, and the contracting company had no stake in being reasonable.
I am glad to say that we have moved on since then. The British Parking Association has developed a model contract which measures success against a range of indicators, rather than on the crude number of tickets issued. Success is largely based on outcomes; for example, how high is compliance? How does the department feel about extending that approach to a national framework for enforcement? There is no doubt that good local authorities view enforcement in a positive light as part of the bigger picture, and guide contractors accordingly.
For example, Transport for London last year suspended enforcement at a number of locations where the level of violations was high, to determine why this was the case. Quite often it was due to unclear signage and road markings. I agree with the noble Lord that it is essential that there should be a fair deal between motorists and local authorities so that people who deliberately transgress are punished but most people have a fair deal and understand exactly what is required of them.
A further issue concerns me. I suppose that I am asking noble Lords’ indulgence, because this is a personal issue, but it demonstrates a greater problem. I refer to the use of bailiffs by outside agencies and the way in which they go about collecting money. When I moved to a property in north London some 18 months ago, along with the property I inherited the parking fines of the previous occupant. Even in these benighted times, people regularly move house. However, the two local authorities and Transport for London, which were imposing the fines, were quite unable to deal with the fact that someone had moved house and had not said where they had gone. It took me a total of 18 months to resolve the issue in a saga of lost documentation, phone calls, prevarication and being pushed around. I could bore your Lordships with it for hours but I will not.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1409
The final straw came when bailiffs arrived. I had not realised that bailiffs have a right of entry to your home even if you are not there, and I had not appreciated that the Government had changed the law in that regard. It is a highly dangerous situation. The people involved may not be around, and if, heaven forbid, someone does not have a good grasp of English or is old, it will be utterly terrifying. It occurred on this occasion because the contractor dealing with the issue had lost three sets of documentation.
In the end, I resolved the matter in a way that is not open to many people. I telephoned the council leader, told him that I was a Member of your Lordships’ House and said that, if he did not sort it out, there would be trouble. By that afternoon, 18 months of problems were resolved. What people who are not Members of your Lordships’ House are to do, I am not sure.
I feel so much better for getting that off my chest. However, a question arises here about how the organisations to which enforcement is outsourced deal with these matters. I do not think that councils have a proper handle on how the work is done, and that, unhappily, leads to distress for those involved. It is also very bad for the reputation of the council, it creates a climate of hostility and it is extremely expensive for the local authorities.
Finally, I urge the Government to resist any clarion calls to micromanage what local authorities do. However, a look at the legal framework to see whether it would be possible to make it less complex so that it is clearer to local authorities and motorists what the deal is would be welcomed by everyone.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for raising this matter. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for offering a possible way forward for Members of your Lordships’ House who might find themselves in difficulties in these matters.
The point that I want to draw to your Lordships’ attention and raise with the Minister relates to the congestion charge administered by Transport for London. I do not object in principle to the congestion charge, although I am not sure that it is as effective as some people maintain. I suspect that it does not raise as much money as some claim because the costs of administering the charge, with all the electronic equipment required to register cars going in and out of the zone, are no doubt considerable. However, I strongly object to a system which does not allow a proper challenge to what I maintain was an incorrectly levied charge, as happened to me last year.
I confess that on two or three occasions I have failed to pay the congestion charge, and on those occasions I have hastened to pay the penalty. You need to hasten to do so because, if you do not, the charge goes up. Therefore, I immediately ring up with my card details and pay. It is my practice to pay the congestion charge on a regular basis using my debit card. I ring the relevant number, talk to the relevant person and give the details of my car and my card, and normally all is satisfactory.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1410
However, on one occasion last year, I did just that only to receive a penalty notice a week or so later claiming that I had not paid the charge, although I had clear evidence that I had. My bank statement showed that the charge had gone through my account on the relevant day, so I wrote to Transport for London maintaining strongly that I had paid and that therefore the penalty notice was out of order. After a delay of several weeks, that was dismissed as being irrelevant. I was told that I had probably paid for a different day or perhaps a different car. I have only one car, so it could not have been that. Nor could it have been a different day because, if it had been, there would have been a different charge. If you fail to pay on the day in question by, I think, 10 o’clock at night, the charge goes up from £8 to £10. The amount that had gone through my account was £8, so it must have been the day in question.
I took legal advice and hired lawyers, who advised me to lodge an appeal. The outcome three or four months later was that case was dismissed. The wording from the adjudicator was precisely the same as that from the official at Transport for London who had rejected my initial representations. I do not believe that the adjudicator paid the slightest attention to my representations; he simply mouthed what he had been told by Transport for London.
Who are these adjudicators, who I am told are appointed by the Lord Chancellor? What are their qualifications and how many are there? How many appeals against alleged wrong application of the congestion charge were there last year, for example? How many appeals were allowed and how many were disallowed? If the adjudicators simply repeat the information given to them by Transport for London it is not a proper appeal procedure. It is a travesty of justice and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, will give some clear answers to the shortcomings of the appeal process on the congestion charge by Transport for London.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am pleased to speak in the debate and am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for tabling the Motion. I remind the House of a recorded interest as an adviser to NCP Services, which is active in this field. I am also grateful for the brief from London Councils in this respect, but I speak for neither of those bodies.
I shall say a few words on overview, compliance and economy of the system. I agree with many of the objectives of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but differ on the conclusions. The system has matured considerably over the years. While there has been quite a learning curve for some local authorities—for instance, Westminster—most local authorities are more balanced, thoughtful and proportionate in how they go about their business. I draw a contrast with what the system was like before we had civil parking enforcement. There was no effective enforcement system because the police gave it such a low priority that parking was not enforced. Local authorities have done a much better job than was done by the police.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1411
Previous speakers have drawn attention to the objectives of the system, which are relatively complex because parking and traffic management enforcement is about improving safety, reducing congestion and rationing scarce space on the road that is used and required for a variety of reasons. I shall come back to that later when I speak about compliance. The objective of most local authorities ought to be, and I think is, to get compliance rather than enforcement. That is what the Government should be doing generally on any regulation. They want to maximise voluntary consent rather than to have to enforce sanctions against non-compliance. The measure of a good system is the extent to which it manages to motivate and maximise compliance rather than to have to use heavy handed and usually costly measures to enforce it.
If we look at compliance on the systems that are captured within the terms of reference of the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, we get a variable picture. Red route compliance used to be the worst. The joke was always that the safest place to park in London was on a red route because nobody bothered to comply. That has fortunately changed and there is a more effective compliance regime. Bus lanes are a nice example, where we have seen substantial improvement in compliance through having an effective enforcement and detection system. By and large people now obey bus lane restrictions and the system works well. The congestion charge, which clearly has notable massive failures in practice, has a relatively high compliance level. In that respect it is working. Parking is a pretty mixed picture, in that effective compliance with penalty charge notices—which of course is not the same as compliance with parking regulations—varies between about 50 per cent and 75 per cent between local authorities.
Let me say a few words about where there is a need to focus on better compliance for the future: foreign vehicles, blue badge, persistent evaders and perhaps just a word on bailiffs in passing, although I do not want to speak for them. Most people are aware that there are not effective sanctions systems for foreign vehicles. We know the law—after you have been here for six months, you must pay the road fund licence—but, by and large, if you have a foreign vehicle you can drive around London without paying the congestion charge, you can usually avoid paying the vehicle excise charge, you can park wherever you like and there is not an effective set of sanctions. It is a difficult problem technically and legally for both the Government and local authorities to introduce an effective compliance system on foreign vehicles, but clearly we must get round to doing it. It is perhaps not quite as urgent as it was; the movement in the exchange rate with the euro and the reduction in our economy may have deterred the number of foreign vehicles in the UK, but those problems will return. We need more work by government to get an effective enforcement system.
On the blue badge, I agree with my noble friend Lord Dubs that it is an important system. The Government produced its blue badge reform strategy in October, which contained steps in the right direction, but we should recognise that there is substantial fraud. The benefits of having a blue badge, whether legitimate
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1412
or fraudulent, are considerable; therefore, there are incentives for people either to make fraudulent applications or, perhaps more commonly, to use a legitimate badge when they should not—often in the mistaken belief that the blue badge gives you the right to take the car anywhere you like, which it does not. I fear that this debate brings out the Daily Mail in all of us, and I am not sure that I can resist the temptation either. I have the enjoyment at the weekend of living in St Albans by the cathedral. We walk up to an historic little street full of boutique shops, expensive jewellers and clothiers—a very nice street but very narrow with double yellow lines on either side. Usually no one is parked there, except that almost every weekend there is a gas guzzler or an expensive BMW parked with a blue badge on display. Out of it usually leaps some rather fit looking chap with no one else in the car and, half an hour later, off he drives.
I am teasing the House, but there is more blue badge evasion going on than there ought to be and local authorities need to treat it more seriously, even though it is difficult and expensive to do so. It needs stamping out, not just to punish those who are avoiding fines but out of a basic sense of fairness, so that the rest of us know that those who are fiddling the system get caught and coshed.
Persistent evaders are a similar category. Getting effective systems to tackle them is not simple, but it matters if we are to have broad confidence in the system as fair and reasonable. A small number completely take the system for a ride. Again, we have seen some progressive measures by government in changes to legislation and the scheme being piloted by five London boroughs and TfL. If we think about London and what will be an effective system, an individual borough enforcing persistent evasion measures by itself does not make a lot of sense because a persistent evader will park in quite a number of authorities to flout the law.
Therefore, in principle, there is a need for London Councils as a body or London councils collectively to set up some form of collective database to allow them to detect a persistent evader wherever he is in London. Secondly, they need, when they have detected the persistent evader, to enforce against him for all the fines for all the authorities, where they are identified. Lastly, they need to be able to take a sanction against someone who is found with a vehicle, wherever it is, if it has a sequence of persistent evader penalty charge notices, not simply to do so when it is parked illegally. That is rather like saying that you can catch a burglar only when he is committing another burglary. We need clearer, tougher and better systems to deal with persistent evasion. There may be a role for London Councils in that respect, although I am sure that it would not welcome me saying so.
On bailiffs, it is important to recognise the risks of such a tough enforcement system. Clearly there are dangers of abuse. Most local authorities employ bailiffs as part of this system. Those that have never done so have often found that the level of evasion and abuse has gone right through the roof. However, sensible authorities use bailiffs only as a last resort rather than
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1413
early on, because there are much more sensible ways of trying to get compliance. Bailiffs are a heavy handed mechanism, rough justice and expensive.
I will not talk about compliance and enforcement because time is tight.
On economy, one thing has not been raised so far in the debate but needs to be looked at by government and perhaps by local authorities generally. An ignored part of the system is back-office functioning. At present, most local authorities operate like cottage industries and do their own back-office processing. There is substantial evidence that there would be substantial economies of scale if they could set up shared service centres with modern technology and modern data processing. They could take out substantial costs if they did so. A cautious estimate is that taxpayers across London would pay £10 million less a year if such a system were in place. One reason why local authorities do not do so is that statutory guidance has mixed up two things. First, it says that you should not be judge and jury in a case. In other words, those who enforce the penalty should not judge the appeal. That is absolute common sense. However, it then says that as a consequence local authorities should do all the processing in-house. That goes completely against the thrust of government policy on shared services and economies of scale. I urge the Government and London Councils to look at that again.
I have said plenty and my time is up. All I mark in conclusion is that I wish that the enforcement of littering was as effective as the enforcement of parking penalties. We would have a cleaner and better society.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I declare a couple of interests: first, as joint president of London Councils—I, too, am grateful for its briefing; and, secondly, as a member of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames for 20 years until 1998. I will say a word about Richmond in a moment. I thought that I might have to declare another interest—failure today to pay the congestion charge after many attempts—but it was a technical problem with my phone and not at the other end.
Local authorities are now very aware indeed of the reputational aspects of dealing with parking enforcement and traffic regimes. Many of us are going down the anecdotal route just a little in this debate. I recently had the experience in Westminster of writing a perfectly straightforward letter to explain that I had been ticketed when I was paying at the machine. To my great pleasure, I received a letter back from Westminster very promptly saying, “Of course we have cancelled the ticket”. I was told that Westminster was on a charm offensive as regards parking, but, however it justified the approach, it was the common-sense approach and very different from some experiences that I and other noble Lords have had.
My noble friend Lady Scott has referred to the balancing of interests. I am sure that all your Lordships have encountered the attitude, “This is my stretch of road. I have a particular entitlement to park outside my own house and to behave in my area as I want”, without appreciation of the fact that there are often
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1414
more cars than can fit into a residents’ parking area in which all the residents park at the same time. There are often calls for controlled parking zones followed by concern about what happens just across the boundary of any given zone. Some authorities are showing imagination. For example, some apply very short periods of restriction in the middle of the day, which catches—I repeat, catches—commuters who would otherwise leave their cars near a station for the whole day. That is a very good approach. It allows parking for those who want to use local businesses for as much of the day as possible.
I am perplexed by the suggestion that borough boundaries are relevant. There are so many different arrangements within any given borough that it is not necessary to know which borough you are in. However, a lot of the street furniture and signage requires one to be a contortionist to see the restrictions. For those parking anywhere in Westminster and paying by mobile phone, it is very difficult to see the telephone number that has to be keyed in. Where the street furniture is less intrusive—in my borough of Richmond, this has been done fairly successfully in some new controlled-parking zones—and there is lower-level signage and better design, the restrictions are easier to see and much less offensive.
Complying with the provisions should not be complicated, as noble Lords collectively seem to be saying. It is quite difficult to know when bus lane restrictions apply. My experience is primarily in London. You have to look both at the road surface and at the signs, and you have to clock them instantly. I believe that a small number of bus lanes in London operate for 24 hours and do not allow taxis to use them. Consistency in the use of bus lanes would be helpful, provided it is in the local interest. On loading restrictions, perhaps there could be more dual use of loading bays for a short period. Some local people say, “Well, I have heard that if you leave your boot open, the camera will accept that as the fact that you are loading rather than shopping”. There is a lot of confusion about this.
I am very proud of my local borough, which is introducing a second scheme to relate vehicle emissions to parking restrictions; the first covered residents’ parking. The borough recently introduced proposals to relate parking charges to vehicle emissions. This is not about money-raising but about awareness-raising. The borough will not charge more across the board but reduce the amounts paid by the lowest-emitting vehicles. It is an admirable use of the technology available and DVLA data as well as a very proper way of drawing of attention to the consequences of high emissions.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, used strong language. However, he was careful not to refer to “every local authority” but to “many local authorities”. I do not speak as an apologist for local authorities. I think that the role of your Lordships’ House is to speak for the citizen, and I want to do that. However, I would like to counter some of the noble Lord’s points, although I cannot deal with all of them in the time available.
The noble Lord said that many of the schemes are used to make money. As my noble friend said, it is unlawful for that to be the objective. Given the interest
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1415
that the noble Lord declared at the outset of his remarks, I am rather surprised that he has not succeeded in challenging what he describes as an unlawful objective. Objectives can be different. When the congestion was introduced the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, quite deliberately did not allow registration, so that one could pay automatically on entry. He wanted individual payments made on a daily or weekly basis to be part of the deterrence.
The noble Lord talked about CCTV. Members on these Benches have an instinctive dislike of the over-use of cameras, but it has to be said that local residents will often point to a specific, discrete local problem and say that having a camera would be the solution to it.
In 2005, the Greater London Assembly, of which I was a member at the time, undertook to look at parking issues and raised in particular matters of proportionality. Given the time, I will simply quote from the conclusion to the executive summary of the subsequent report which, I am happy to say, was chaired by my honourable friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, who at that point was both a Member of the Commons and a Member of the Assembly. The summary stated:
“The committee hopes that this pace of progress [in various areas] can be accelerated. There is nothing to gain from a system which allows authorities to impose a penalty on a citizen without that citizen being fully aware of the reasons for that penalty and having absolute confidence that the fine is being imposed fairly, efficiently and transparently”.
That is quite right; and, of course, one of the remedies available to a citizen who is dissatisfied arises at the next election.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for initiating this debate. I notice that most of it has circulated around London and not much has been said about circumstances outside the capital. It is clear where we all spend the best part of our week. The matters that he and other noble Lords have raised are those which strike a chord in any councillor’s ears, so I shall start by declaring an interest as a member of a London local authority. I would say that every single issue is one that either passes our postbags or straight through our heads on a regular basis because little in the eyes of both London residents and those coming into the city strikes harder than parking and parking regulations. Indeed, nothing irks people more than falling foul of the regulations.
My experience is largely confined to London. I try not to park a car in a town outside London because doing so always causes me enormous angst and I end up becoming more cross than I like to think. But I can pass on many anecdotes, personal and received, even from London. Although I do not want to trouble noble Lords with personal experiences, one incident that struck a chord was the account of the mobile phone system here in Westminster. That caused me to give a wry smile since on the first and, I have to say, the last time I used it, I was left uttering some very unparliamentary language having parked and then not being able to access the system properly. I am sure
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1416
that it was their fault and not mine, but nonetheless I had to drive off in some fury at not being able to park where I wanted.
I was going to say that there is nothing much more reassuring than having a meter in front of you and some pound coins jangling in your pocket. There are three problems with that, though: first, you normally do not have pound coins jangling in your pocket when you need them; secondly, the meter eats them without acknowledging that you have paid; and, thirdly, the meter is usually out of order. Those meters are gradually disappearing, however, and now there are nice boxes instead. Many of us feel that we benefit from something that gives you a sense that you have done something useful with your parking.
It is not just us who benefit from meters or parking machines; it is crime-ridden areas. The Metropolitan Police tell us that there are gangs galore who watch avidly as we put money into these meters so that they can smartly take it out again at a later date. Consequently, meters and parking machines are not very good value to the local authorities that have them. You can understand why other mechanisms for charging are being looked at. We are all going to have to get used to that, because the revenue loss by local authorities from meters and machines is now very high. As other noble Lords have said, the local authority needs the revenue from parking and parking enforcement to run the service. It has to be paid for, and the only way by and large that it can be is with the money the authority receives from the machines, from resident parking or from proper enforcement.
I know that parking and parking enforcement are very annoying, but, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, pointed out, anarchy would reign if these days, with the number of cars there are, particularly in London, there were not some means of ensuring that parking was regulated. You cannot have a system whereby people can just park anywhere. I know, too, from people who have contacted me about it, that Sunday parking in London—which is largely unregulated, although some local authorities are starting to regulate residents’ parking—is a nightmare, as is moving around in London. It is interesting that, maybe because of the congestion charge or maybe because people are not coming into London to work so often during the week, at the weekend the traffic in London is far greater, anecdotally and by the eye, than it is during the week. There will probably come a stage when local authorities will have to consider whether they have to enforce parking on Sunday as well in order to bring that under control.
Some boroughs are more generous than others, particularly on residents’ parking. I cite my own borough, where there is only one controlled parking zone that runs across the whole borough. As residents we are extremely fortunate—we can park anywhere. Others are not so lucky; they have very narrow controlled parking zones, and that is where a lot of trouble arises in terms of the lack of compatibility, between and within boroughs, regarding what the parking regulations are.
One of the points I want to stress most is signage. People will comply—we are not all fools; we have to live our lives, and we want to, as peacefully as possible—
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1417
but you can get apoplectic in an area where you cannot find out easily what the parking control hours are. Most of us have now tumbled to the fact that you cannot count on them being 8.30 am to 6.30 pm everywhere but that, rather, they vary and you are going to have to look. In some places it might go on until 10 pm. It is incumbent on a local authority to ensure that the information about that is easily available so that people are aware of it; otherwise it is unfair. People should not have to search around to find out what the regulations are locally.
Can parking control ever be fair? Can enforcement be fair? Local authorities must recognise that there are ways of enforcing and of not enforcing. The days of the anecdotal evidence—perhaps in reality true—of local authorities having their parking wardens hidden behind a tree at 8.29 in the morning so that they popped out at 8.30 to catch the cars that were still parked overnight must come to an end. Indeed, I think that they probably have.
We need to make sure that people want to comply, that it is easy for them to do so and that even if they are being charged through the nose for parking, as they see it, they understand. The people they deal with in the street, the councils and the appeals office must have common sense and a decent attitude. As in all service areas, being treated with arrogance and dismissiveness adds to the irritation and annoyance that people feel about the system. A great deal has to go into the training of those who are on the streets carrying out the daily enforcement, those on the end of the telephone and those who have anything to do with the people who are paying.
Let us make sure that we have a good training system so that people will accept a system of parking control. They will not accept it all the time—as soon as you come up against it, you hate it, but if you also hate the people who are at the end of the phone or not answering, the whole thing becomes impossible.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I should declare two non-interests: I have never driven a car in London, and I do not live in London, which seems unique among the participants in this debate.
The system we have has to be balanced. Any noble Lords who have been members of local authorities—there are several here—are well aware of the high cost of having an enforcement system. The good signage to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred, is expensive, particularly where it relies on paint, which has to be frequently renewed, and the staff have to have the training to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred. Training depends on two things: it costs money and it depends on the contractors not paying the lowest possible wages they can, just to get somebody on two legs, but having some selectivity about whom they choose to carry out the enforcement. You will not get one without the other.
I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, refer to buses. I am probably the only person in the House who actually rides on buses and speaks about them regularly. The biggest interference with bus operation is illegally parked vehicles; it costs the taxpayer huge
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1418
sums of money because bus routes employ more staff and more buses simply to cover less distance each year. Whatever is suggested in response to points made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, we should ensure that the fines and penalties levied cover all the costs associated with people who choose to park on the road and cause congestion. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, is absolutely right that there is a lot of scope to be had from merging data processing and not having people in various offices operating more or less on a pen and pencil basis. The system should be properly automated, as I know it can be in some places.
I do not want to prolong the debate because the day has been long enough. Perhaps the guidance wants clearing up, but I believe that it is not appropriate for the Government to take to themselves any more powers to dictate what local authorities should do. I should like some reassurance from the Minister on that point.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for promoting this debate. I have been on the Floor of this House for much of today. It shows the variety, uniqueness and strength of this House that we have gone from discussing Baby P and children’s processes this morning, through considering the future of Heathrow Airport this afternoon, to hearing anecdotal evidence about parking in London this evening.
I speak in this debate as both gamekeeper and poacher. I am a road user and have been on the receiving end of more than one fine. I have had my car clamped in Westminster. I am also the leader of one of the country’s largest authorities and therefore know the problems that large authorities face. However, I speak today from the Front Benches on behalf of the Conservative Party.
I hope that none of us wants to see a lot of detailed legislation about what local authorities should do in this respect. There is certainly a need for information and clarity on these issues—the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred particularly to information about blue badges and consistency of approach—but I hope that no one suggests detailed legislation.
My noble friend Lord Lucas made several points. Parliament should ensure that the motorist is subject to a fair system, feels that it is fair and understands it. We have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence. My noble friend Lord Trefgarne highlighted a matter about which he is extremely upset. He seemed to ask a fair question and I hope that the Minister can tell him how the adjudicating system works.
My noble friend Lord Lucas also said that local authorities make money out of parking and traffic regimes, and there is no doubt that some do. I do not like to harp on too much about my experience in Essex, but it is relevant to point out that it costs the county, working with the districts and boroughs, around £600,000 a year to enforce the system and that the income from it is less than that amount—we are actually looking at whether we can break even on it. Across the country, the whole system costs rather than makes money for local government.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1419
Several interesting points came out of the debate, one of which, reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, was that London Councils has a part to play. As the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said, all the problems that we have heard about seem to be in London, many them around Westminster or in the four local authority areas that noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about—they are four good local authorities; they have four-star ratings and are generally well received. Some consistency of information would be good. London Councils, an organisation to which all London boroughs belong, could help by promoting information across London. I accept that coverage would not always be consistent, because, as others have said, street signs and information in some areas are not as evident as they should be, but London Councils could play a big part. Nationally, the Local Government Association could play a big part. Information could be put together so that local government as a whole gives people the information that they need.
There are clauses in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, whose Committee stage in this House starts on Monday, which state that local government should give information to the public about many more things. I hope that we might all agree that a little line could go in it somewhere about information on parking. As I will be debating in Committee on that Bill, I may suggest that. A lot of the debate and discussion this afternoon has been on the lack of information about how it operates, or the consistency of the operation across London in particular.
I, too, have had quite a long day, and I do not have much more to say. However, I hope that the Minister will not go into great detail about detailed legislation. We can talk about local authorities doing their own thing, as local people want, but I hope we can move to a position where there is more consistent information and consistent operating, with fairness to the motorist and those who live and work in these streets.
Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for calling for this debate. I am in a wonderful position, in that I think I agree with everybody who has contributed. However, I shall make the curious point that I agree only in part.
There are a few things running through this debate. I do not think that anyone here is calling for no regulation in parking. We all recognise that proportionate regulation is absolutely essential to us. I say firmly that we believe—and we will discuss this next week, as has been said—in local government, not local administration. There is a price in terms of variation, and I shall touch on that later. All noble Lords have made some comment about signage and information, and that is indeed important. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made the point about the problem of confusion between boroughs, and so on. Yes, but there is a price for local government. In effective local government, there will be differences between boroughs; that is entirely reasonable.
On the blue badge point, we accept that there are some problems. At present, four central London boroughs are exempt from operating the blue badge scheme.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1420
These arrangements are in place because of specific congestion and security concerns. The Transport Committee in another place and some disability groups want us to extend the scheme to central London. Because we are uncertain of the impacts, we intend to ask relevant parties in London to gather evidence whether the parking restrictions currently placed on blue badge holders visiting central London should be relaxed. More generally—and I think everybody will agree with this—the blue badge scheme is being radically improved to provide a better service for severely disabled people. The changes include the Government’s comprehensive blue badge reform strategy, which will ensure that the scheme continues to support people in the manner that is right for the 21st century.
On hospital parking, the Department of Health guidance gives strong encouragement to consider concessional arrangements for those patients’ visitors who have to use the car parks on a regular basis.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, kindly pointed out that there are a lot more cars on the road—and there are. That is way we need proportionate regulation. Central government does not believe that this is an area for central micromanagement. There may be some opportunity for simplification but the role is a local government one. Outsourcing causes some problems, but it creates some efficiencies. We certainly take the point about signage. Outsourcing involves external firms coming in and the Government have helped the BPA create some national guidance for its members. We hope that that will start to have the appropriate effect.
On the matter of bailiffs, I think the noble Baroness’s experience has a resonance for all of us. The Government introduced the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. The reform package of measures will lead to a more highly qualified, better trained and professional industry. We hope some of the points referred to will not happen in future, or at least on incredibly rare occasions.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, raised the congestion charge. I have the harshest possible note on this, saying that it is a matter for the Mayor of London, who is responsible for setting and administrating the process. If I can say anything more useful than that, I shall write to the noble Lord.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I am afraid the Minister is not correct. No regulations have been passed by Parliament that govern the application or the operation of the appeal system. It is his responsibility, not the mayor’s.
Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I am perfectly willing to believe that the noble Lord is probably right. My problem is that I can go no further today with the brief I have in front of me.
The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, pointed out that local government involvement in traffic has been a success. Most people would agree that local government is doing a better job than the police did. He made the good point that we are looking for compliance rather than enforcement. I liked the point he made about bus lanes getting better. His compliance points were issues that trouble all of us involved in this problem. Foreign
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1421
compliance is particularly difficult. Governments throughout Europe are concerned about it, and there are discussions at European level to see if we can improve foreign compliance. We accept that blue badge compliance is crucial, and we believe the new regulations we are bringing forward will ensure it. We take the view that persistent evaders are important, and we are working to improve work on the London experiment to see if we can find better ways of tackling persistent abuse and whether there is a chance for improved national legislation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made the point that there are reputational aspects in local authorities exercising local discretion. That is right. Local government is about reputation, being compatible to the electorate and balancing interests. It is good to hear of an occasion when Westminster has got it right. I thought the noble Baroness gave a series of good examples of where local government has adapted to local needs. There is some guidance on sign heights, so the noble Baroness will not have to look up when that guidance works. Departmental guidance to local authorities has clarified the position on loading bays, and it has been welcomed by the Freight Transport Association.
I am sorry about the meters. In many ways, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, brought out the dilemmas about them. The Westminster experiment seems to have gone well, but it may not go well for an individual. I believe there is a requirement for a limited number of cash machines, but there is a dilemma, and I suspect we will go steadily down the mobile phone road as we become more used to it. It is reliable, and it does not have the problem of cash on the streets. We feel that local authorities should do their best to co-ordinate their policies across boundaries.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is not alone in riding the buses. For two years, I had the proud privilege of being the chairman of London Transport and used buses regularly to keep in touch. I am glad there has been no push back on bus lanes in this debate. People accept that the regulation that has helped buses has been sensible, proportional and balanced. We agree with the general view that staff skills are important. We also agree with the general point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that we do not want micromanagement from national government, except perhaps in some areas.
I shall make a few general points that go back to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. When we asked local authorities to manage the traffic on their roads, we asked them to do a difficult job. Some of them do it extremely well; others do it less well. Deciding what is good and what is less good is not easy.
Local authorities set down in locally made orders the procedures that drivers must follow. A traffic regulation order, or a traffic management order in London, may prohibit, restrict or regulate, et cetera. As noble Lords point out, the objective is to keep traffic moving, improve road safety and improve the environment—or all three.
The contents of the traffic regulation order and its making is wholly a matter for the local authority. However, it must be made in accordance with legal
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1422
procedures. Before an order is made, there must be consultation with the persons set out in legislation. A permanent order must be publicised in a local newspaper. Unfair or inappropriate traffic regulations should be challenged at this planning stage.
The Road Traffic Act 1991 made it mandatory for local authorities in London, and optional for local authorities outside London, to take over from the police service the enforcement of all parking. The 1991 Act helped curtail illegal parking and ensure that those who chose to break the regulations paid a financial penalty. In London, it provided the framework for legislation promoted by the local authorities to enforce certain moving traffic matters. London authorities enforced bus lanes from 1996 and measures such as yellow box junctions, banned turns and pedestrian zones from 2003. In November 2005, English local authorities received the power to enforce bus lanes.
The Traffic Management Act 2004 rationalised and strengthened the 1991 Act. Regulations were drafted to bring its parking provisions into force in the light of a wide-ranging and well informed debate, notably a review by the Transport Committee in another place.
The department was advised by an expert group that represented all sides of the parking debate—the local authorities, the adjudicators and, most importantly, the motorist and road users. With their help, the new framework of regulations and statutory guidance came into force on 31 March 2008.
That statutory guidance is a new part of the framework and stems from provisions added to the Act during its passage through Parliament. It sets out the matters to which local authorities must have regard and covers issues not amenable to legislation, such as having clear objectives and—as crucially mentioned by a number of noble Lords— informing the public. The objective of this guidance is to secure many of the changes that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, wishes to see.
Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 is not yet fully in force. The Government plan to put in place regulations that replace the current powers to enforce bus lanes and certain moving traffic matters. These regulations are likely largely to replicate those for parking. Therefore, before we proceed we need to assess the effectiveness of the new parking framework as well as that currently in place for moving traffic. I welcome this opportunity to assure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that we will consider whether any of his concerns can be addressed by the regulations and the statutory guidance.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and other noble Lords who have spoken, that enforcement must be lawful and should be proportionate and fair. Our statutory guidance to local authorities makes this clear. I differ in how any transgressions are best tackled. In this country, we have local government not local administration. The Government do not intend to change that situation where the enforcement of parking and certain other moving traffic matters are concerned. Local government—this is crucial—is every bit as accountable for its actions as is central government. Officials are accountable to councillors, and councillors are accountable to the electorate; they are not accountable to the Secretary of State or even to the Prime Minister.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1423
However, if a local authority does not comply with the law, either wilfully or inadvertently, procedures are in place to enable action to be taken. An adjudicator has the power to direct a local authority to cancel a penalty charge notice in a number of circumstances. More recently, and importantly, adjudicators now have the power to refer back to the local authority’s chief executive for reconsideration cases where a contravention has taken place but in “mitigating circumstances”. I hope that filters out some of these examples of unreasonableness. Having been a chief executive, although not of a local authority, you last thing you want is paper crossing your desk. You make sure that your people are behaving reasonably. Some wanted adjudicators to have the power to decide such cases. That is not appropriate, as it involves making policy and adjudicators do not have the democratic remit to make policy. The department’s statutory guidance will play a key role in these cases.
It is not unlawful for a local authority to fail to defend a case that has gone to appeal. Local authorities in London already pay a financial penalty if they do not deal properly with a representation, and so it goes to appeal. Nor is it unlawful to have a net surplus of income from parking. The Government have not said that parking enforcement should never make a surplus. We have said that revenue should not be an objective of parking enforcement, nor should authorities set targets for revenue or for the number of penalty charge notices that are served. Where the demand for parking is high, an effective enforcement regime may well make more money than it costs to run.
The department’s guidance says that local authorities should not continue to take enforcement action when an adjudicator’s decision has indicated that the provisions in place are not lawful. One of the most significant causes of unlawful enforcement action is when traffic signs are incorrect or not in accordance with the relevant traffic regulation order. The Government are undertaking a root and branch review of traffic signs, including those that indicate parking regulations, and the process of putting them in place. Following wide consultation that will include local authorities and road users, our objective is to enhance the system to meet the future needs of the road user.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, suggests that authorities should be made to refund any penalty charges paid when enforcement action has been taken when the local authority knows from previous adjudication decisions that the relevant traffic signs are faulty. The Government have encouraged local authorities to do this, but it is a local decision. If the authority has taken enforcement action when the provisions in place are not lawful, it may be in breach of its statutory duty. There is no specific remedy in legislation for this, but a claimant may be able to bring a civil action against the local authority for breach of statutory duty.
Legal action can, however, be expensive and there is other redress available. A member of the public who considers that a local authority has not acted properly and that maladministration has taken place can ask the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate the matter. Investigating systematic maladministration is distinct from deciding whether a correct decision has
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1424
been reached about an individual penalty notice charge. The ombudsman may not look at a matter about which an appeal to the parking adjudicator has been made. The ombudsman may look at how the service has been delivered, such as if it takes too long to do something, does not follow its own rules or the rules of law, or breaks its promises.
The Audit Commission has the ability to scrutinise a local authority’s parking management performance, and has published a number of inspection reports on individual councils’ parking services. Concerns may also be referred to the district auditor, who acts as watchdog of public finance.
We will, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, examine whether there is scope to strengthen the powers of these bodies to assess whether a local authority is acting unlawfully. If an individual has clear evidence of widespread and serious malpractice in a local authority, Ministers have said that they will raise that matter with the council leader if the individual has not been able to take action through one of the organisations whose job it is to scrutinise authorities.
We have put in place a regime for parking that should mean firm but fair enforcement, and we will do the same for the enforcement of bus lanes and certain moving traffic matters. The responsibility for enforcement will remain with local government, not local administration. Helping local authorities understand and implement the policies in that statutory guidance will be one of our key tasks in the next few years. We will do more to talk with local authorities, at the official and the political level, and spread good practice. Those whose performance is generally good—it has been acknowledged that this is true of many authorities, and many authorities are improving—can set an example to those whose performance is not quite so good. The full engagement of local elected members in setting the policies and the procedures used can bring about a step improvement in a local authority whose performance is a little lacking in some respects.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, will the noble Lord be good enough to confirm that he will write to me on the points that I raised, to overcome the—if I may say so—rather inadequate reply which he gave me a few moments ago?
Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I will certainly write to the noble Lord to cover those points to the extent to which I am able to do so.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It has been, as ever, an education for me. I am delighted to find that even those who speak from great local authority experience by and large agree with the basic points I want to make. We agree that we all want effective regulation. We do not want bad back offices or to have bus lanes not enforced. I remember that it was incredibly annoying when they were not enforced. There you were being law abiding, and the people who were not were getting a great advantage on you and risking nothing. As I say, we all want regulation to be effective.
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1425
We want it to be fair not only in enforcement but in appeal. My noble friend Lord Trefgarne was right to say that this has nothing to do with the Mayor of London; the rules that we have put into legislation are hamstringing its fairness. The structure of the appeals process is not independent. The people involved in that process are subject to limitations as regards the grounds that they consider. I refer to the elimination of common sense—as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, found out—through actions that we have taken, and for which the Government therefore have responsibility. This House and this Government should, therefore, address the matter and not the mayor, who is merely putting up with what we put in place for him. We also want a comprehensible system.
I am delighted that the Government are looking at simplifying the system. The British Parking Association’s support for that, the quote it gave me and, doubtless, what it has said to Ministers are a very good indication of how widespread the desire is for that on the part of both local authorities and motorists. To know what the rules are in any particular place will be an immense improvement and will make life better for all of us. It is a great objective and we will take great interest in what the Government do in that direction. If they are going to pay attention to the BPA on that, I very much hope that they will pay similar attention to its recommendations on bailiffs, which again have support all round the industry. We need a system of regulation which is fair, transparent and effective. The BPA has proposed one. The Government have said that they will bring forward regulations. They were promised for the summer. They were promised for October. They were promised for Christmas and still we do not have them. It is high time that the Government said, “Right, the road we are looking down is not effective. Let us go with the British Parking Association and see if we can make something that works and improves things from everybody’s point of view”.
I, too, agree that we do not want to give a lot of additional powers to government. I am not asking for that, I am asking for the Government to use the powers they have. I was very grateful to the Minister for what he said, particularly about the Local Government Ombudsman and other authorities to whom people might make representations. I can promise him a flow of correspondence on that. We have tried these routes and been unsuccessful, but from now on we will copy him on the rejection letters and expect his support from thereon. I particularly do not consider that whether you steal from people is a matter of local discretion. That does not apply to making profits on parking but to keeping money which you know is not yours. So far as profitability is concerned, Camden will say, “It may look like a duck. It may walk like a duck. It may quack like a duck but it is a potato”. But anyone who has any dealings with Camden knows how it is running that system. We need accountability. It is there in the legislation that it should not be making a profit out of it. There needs to be some way of making a local authority accountable for that. The Government are very proud of their guidance, but Westminster just says pooh to the guidance on cameras. Other councils say pooh to the guidance when it comes to taking seriously what the adjudicators say when they refer
15 Jan 2009 : Column 1426
matters back. There needs to be some way in which that guidance can be made effective. I suggest that it be made into something which the adjudicators can take into account.
As I say, I am very grateful for everybody’s contributions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.