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2.30 pm

Mr. Greg Knight: I hope that I am not developing early signs of schizophrenia, but I have been puzzling since our debate started about why, on the amendment paper, I am referred to as "Gregory" next to the new clauses to which I have put my name and "Greg" next to the amendments. Perhaps someone could enlighten me about that before we conclude our proceedings.

I support new clause 1. There is a need for a code of practice, compliance with which should be compulsory—it should be a mandatory code. It is needed because widely varying practices are currently applied to decriminalised parking enforcement contracts from one council to another. Existing guidance from the Department, which I understand is issued under circular 1/95, is not proving to be as helpful as many Conservative Members had hoped. The circular is largely ignored by several local authorities, and I am told that some councils are not even aware of its existence.

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In case after case, the monetary gain from parking penalties is too much of a temptation for many councils, and they prefer to maximise their revenue at the expense of fairness and justice. I was listening to a local radio station in my car as I drove south down the M1 on my way to the House yesterday. I was astonished to hear someone from Leicester city council saying that the council had to increase the parking charges in the city of Leicester by far more than the rate of inflation because its revenue from the issuing of parking tickets had dropped. The radio interviewer seemed rather baffled as to why the council wished to penalise law-abiding motorists who parked in parking bays and paid their fees because the rate of revenue gained from those who ignored the law had fallen. The council has given the game away. Many local authorities introduce such measures as a purely revenue-raising exercise.

A mandatory code of practice would require local authorities to ensure that enforcement standards were uniform throughout the country. I believe that it would reduce the number of appeals made on tickets issued in borderline circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, the adjudication service would have clear instructions as to what was, and what was not, reasonable.

I would also hope that a code of practice would completely remove some of the dubious practices that currently exist in some parts of the country, and I wish to inform the House of several examples of such practices that have been brought to my attention since the Bill started its parliamentary progress. First, in some areas, a penalty charge notice is issued within one or two minutes of the expiry of the time purchased. Secondly, vehicles are sometimes clamped before the statutory 15 minutes has expired. I believe that 15 minutes is far too short a time anyway, because clamping adds to the delay suffered by the motorist and the inconvenience caused. It also puts a further £60 or so on top of what is already an extremely high charge.

Thirdly, vehicles are towed away from a parking bay within the first hour of overstay even though they clearly cannot be causing an obstruction because they are in a parking bay. The power to tow vehicles from parking bays should not exist unless it is clear from the effluxion of time that a vehicle has been abandoned. Fourthly, I am told that in some local authorities, authorised removal vehicles cruise around looking for offending vehicles. The Minister should condemn that practice because although it contravenes his Department's guidance, it happens on the streets of some of our cities.

Fifthly, traffic wardens do not wait to satisfy themselves of whether a vehicle is being loaded or unloaded. A case was recently brought to my attention in which a solicitor was visiting his in-laws and unloading a piece of furniture from his car. The solicitor was amazed to observe from the house window a traffic warden who approached the vehicle and started to write a ticket without delay. With the presence of mind that one would expect from a member of the legal profession, he took out a video camera and videoed the incident. When the local authority refused to withdraw the ticket, he took the matter all the way to court and won his case by producing evidence that the traffic warden had not satisfied himself that the vehicle was being unloaded.

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The sixth complaint that has been drawn to my attention is about cases in which a penalty charge notice is issued for a so-called out-of-parking-bay offence even though the vehicle extends just over the bay lines. Does the Minister approve of such behaviour and, if not, will he tell us what he intends to do to bring about an end to the practices? If new clause 1 were to become law, it would cope with all the grey areas that I mentioned.

Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his good list. Has he come across the practice in some London boroughs of having one-armed-bandit parking ticket machines that do not tell people how much money they must put in to trigger extra minutes? People put in a reasonable amount yet discover that they have bought no extra time at all and that even more must be put in. There are machines that swallow money for time outside the hours in which parking restrictions are imposed, but people are not warned of that or given a refund. There are also machines that offer no change. Are not all those things akin to theft?

Mr. Knight: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Proper signing and notices are essential so that motorists know what is required of them. One wonders why the notices are inadequate. Perhaps that is deliberate—as I think he and I suspect—so that more revenue may be raised from the motorist.

We often hear that we are a tolerant society with a fair system of justice, but those practices are a blot on our otherwise well-earned reputation for fairness. They are driven by the greed of local authorities, not by justice. I frankly find them offensive because they are a means of raising money from those members of society who are in the main law-abiding, yet are identified by local authorities as a soft touch.

What makes matters worse is the fact that our fines and parking charges in general are already among the highest in the world. If my right hon. and hon. Friends will forgive me, I shall commit heresy by citing figures in euros. I think that the House will find the figures interesting. In Vienna, the maximum parking fee is Euros0.87 per hour. In Brussels, the maximum parking fee is Euros0.50 per hour, and in Barcelona, the maximum fee is Euros1.20 per hour. In Amsterdam, the maximum fee is Euros2.50 per hour, and in Paris, which is the nearest of our European partners' capital cities to this island, the maximum parking fee is Euros3 per hour. However, here in the UK, in London, the maximum parking fee is Euros8 per hour. I do not regard that as justice. The situation is not equitable or fair, and the Minister should examine it.

One can add to that the fact that most of our European Union partners impose fairly modest fines for breaches of parking regulations. Fines for parking offences ranging from Euros25 to Euros50 are the norm throughout the EU. However, in the UK, fines—perhaps I should call them stealth-tax fines—of between Euros100 and Euros130 are imposed.

Looking at these figures, the House can see how great is the injustice on the poor, long-suffering British motorist.

A report in The Times on 7 March revealed that

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It went on:

The report also reveals that, although 500,000 tickets were issued in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the police are responsible for issuing tickets outside those cities, and they issued only 157,000 tickets. That indicates that the police are operating as we would expect—in a quasi-judicial way—in issuing tickets when they feel that that is fair, yet in some, not all, decriminalised areas where wardens operate, those wardens see this as a money-making exercise.

The new clause is an attempt to stamp out those indefensible injustices, over which the Government continue to preside. Let the Minister accept the new clause, and if he resists it let him explain to the House how he intends to guarantee to the motoring public fairness and equity in the operation of our parking systems. The unfair brow-beating and money-grabbing persecution more suited to a banana republic than to the United Kingdom really must cease.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who repeated a phrase that he used in Committee: he said that he was involved in the fight-back campaign for middle Britain. I can tell him that if the unlikely day comes when he gets somewhere near to getting back into government, he will be doing as we are doing—fighting on behalf of the whole of Britain.

We fully intend that guidance will be issued to local authorities undertaking civil enforcement of traffic contraventions. Part 6 provides for putting civil traffic enforcement by local authorities on a consistent national basis. All authorities, whether in London or outside, will be given the same powers. It is important that authorities that exercise those powers should do so as consistently as possible across the country, and that requires nationally applicable guidance.

I am not sure that I would go as far as the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who I know to be a strong Europhile. I do not know whether those views are entirely shared by those around him. I do not want Euro-standards for fines or any matters to do with taxation, even though I am a luke-warm Europhile.

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