Ban on £250 penalties to end great British parking rip-off

Ban on £250 penalties to end great British parking rip-off

Parking companies face being banned from “clobbering” motorists with penalties of up to £250 after a Times investigation unearthed claims of widespread abuse by some operators.

Ministers are expected to outline plans in the new year to cap the amount of money such companies can charge and restrict access to a government database of vehicle records that allows them to pursue motorists for cash.

The disclosure will raise fresh concerns over the system operated by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), which gives parking companies access to a database containing the address of car owners.

The service — which companies pay the DVLA £2.50 a time to access — enables them to pursue motorists with demands for unpaid parking tickets and to launch court proceedings if penalties remain unpaid.

Access to records has rocketed particularly since 2012 when the government banned companies from clamping cars on private land, which was previously seen as a huge money-spinner for enforcement companies.

Parking companies — including those maintaining car parks for shopping centres, retail parks and hospitals — can legitimately issue motorists with tickets for overstaying. Most companies charge between £85 and £100 under the code of practice set by the British Parking Association, the biggest trade group representing the industry, although The Times found at least one that issued penalties of up to £250.

An analysis by the RAC Foundation shows that parking companies made 1.735 million requests through the DVLA for keepers’ details in the first six months of 2015-16, excluding more than 500,000 made by the operator of the Dartford Crossing. Extrapolated for the year, it would be equivalent to 3.47 million, up from little over 3 million a year earlier and just 272,215 a decade ago — a 13-fold rise. In total, it means some 16.13 million records have been sold by the DVLA since 2006-07, netting the organisation £40.3 million in charges from parking companies.

Oliver Morley, chief executive of the DVLA, defended the scheme: “We take our responsibility to protect information extremely seriously and we have robust safeguards in place to ensure data is used correctly,” he said.

However, Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation and former director-general of roads at the Department for Transport, said: “With the DVLA on course to hand over a record 3.5 million sets of vehicle keeper records this year alone, alarm bells should be ringing . . . The volume of tickets being issued looks like a clear sign that something in the system is broken. Perhaps this is the time for a public inquiry into an industry that, in some people’s eyes, has become a licence to print money.”

The Times has learnt that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is preparing to introduce new legislation to regulate the industry. A strategy paper will be published in the new year to regulate off-street parking on private land.

Almost 600 parking companies and local councils have been barred from obtaining motorists’ records in the past decade after being accused of abusing the system.

A DCLG spokesman said: “Excessive fees put people off driving to high streets and damage local retailers and businesses. That is why we have been consulting on the way private parking operates and will report back shortly.”

New measures under consideration include:

•Capping the size of penalties issued by parking companies, possibly bringing them into line with fines handed out by local authorities, which are limited to £50 for common car park violations, rising to £80 in the centre of London;

•Imposing greater restrictions on access to the DVLA database, limiting it to a smaller number of operators;

•Forcing all operators to meet the same code of practice on clear signs in car parks and tickets, while preventing them using aggressive bailiffs to chase up unpaid fines;

•Giving all motorists in private car parks a 10-minute “grace period” when they overstay, which local councils already have to provide;

•Provision of the same transparent appeals process to enable drivers to challenge penalties.

Fees charged before you find a space

Case study

Motorists are being caught out by car parks that start the clock ticking the second they drive in — and effectively charge drivers to find a space and buy a ticket (Graeme Paton writes).

One driver told The Times that she spent ten minutes circling a car park to find a space before reading the operators’ sign and paying using her mobile phone.

Jude Ramoutar, 52, said she paid for two hours and returned to her vehicle after one hour and 58 minutes.

However, Ms Ramoutar, a school special needs supervisor, received a penalty demand for £100 a few weeks later, with the car park operator claiming that she had overstayed by ten minutes. She had been captured on camera, which counted the time that she had spent circling the car park searching for a space and paying as part of the service.

The incident on September 24, at West Street car park, Southport, Merseyside, which is operated by ParkingEye, is now the subject of an appeal.

Ms Ramoutar said: “The whole process took some time. I made sure I was back in time and left. But then I got a letter telling me I’d overstayed by ten minutes and owed them £100. I was completely shocked; it just never occurred to me that I could be charged for trying to find a parking space.”

ParkingEye said its terms and conditions were clearly displayed.

However, it is not an isolated case. Last year a man fought — and won — a similar case in the civil courts after being handed a £100 penalty for circling a car park without having first stopped and bought a ticket.

Dave Hotchin spent half an hour looking for a space without success before driving away from Fistral Beach car park in Newquay, Cornwall, in May 2013.

However, he received a demand for £100 on the ground that he had been caught without a ticket by an automatic numberplate reader. ParkingEye, the operator, began court action to retrieve the money.

However, a judge dismissed the claim, ruling that the 31 minutes that Mr Hotchin, from Altrincham, Greater Manchester, had spent driving around the car park did not qualify as “parking”.