Caroline Nokes – 2020 Speech on Private Car Parks

Below is the text of the speech made by Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, in the House of Commons on 2 June 2020.

It feels like groundhog day. This debate has been scheduled, I believe, perhaps as many as four times, but events repeatedly knocked it off course. Today, however, we are finally back in the Chamber physically with a full day of debate, and I have the chance to finally bring to the Floor of the House the long and tortuous case of a single parking ticket.

My hon. Friend the Minister need not look panicked that I am expecting him to do something about a specific parking ticket—the matter is now resolved—but I wish to draw to his attention the fact that my constituent, Mr Guy Hindle, was bullied by a succession of organisations over a period of some 20-plus months over a six-minute transgression. As Mr Hindle happily agrees, this is not about his experience. He is a resilient individual—very much so—and he eventually negotiated a payment of just £15, when at one point £247.62 was being demanded from him. It is about shining a light on what he refers to as the sharp practices of the wild west of parking services. It is not just my constituent who refers to private parking as the wild west. He is in great company. I tracked down some commentary from my hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was a Minister at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; he referred to it—private parking, not the Department—as the wild west, too.

This case is a litany of bad behaviour. My constituent parked for a mere six minutes outside Vets for Pets in Southampton and did not see any signage regarding the charge for parking, so he was surprised to receive a penalty charge notice. He informed the company, Premier Park, that he intended to defend himself, preferably in court proceedings, because he regarded the £60 charge for a six-minute stop as unreasonable. He heard nothing more until June the following year—2019—by which time the matter had been passed to Premier Park’s legal representatives. Remember the original offence, if one can call it that, happened in March 2018. Then followed a succession of increasingly threatening letters mentioning county court judgments, and each letter and every telephone call my constituent made to Premier Park or their legal representatives made it clear that there would be many more letters—and so it proved. All along, my constituent was responding, “Take me to court. I have amassed a dossier of evidence. I am prepared to defend myself. I believe I have a good case.”

Finally, in January this year, my constituent received confirmation that Premier Park would commence court proceedings unless my constituent was happy to agree to mediation. This was the first time that mediation had been mentioned. The original offence was in March 2018, and here he was, in January 2020, and suddenly the offer of mediation was made.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing this case to the House. She is not the only one who has had run-ins with private car park firms. Indeed, the one she talks about ranks high in my mind. I fought a number of cases against it, and I have to say that ultimately I won them all. Does she ​agree that in the times we are facing, the privately run car park sector should show the same flexibility as our council car parks by removing charges and forestalling following through on any contraventions until we are past this very difficult time? Now is not the time for anyone or any private car park to profiteer or take advantage. We have to help our constituents and those individuals who have been held to be in the wrong for these contraventions.

Caroline Nokes

I will make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, I have a most excellent staffer who for the last 10 years has described herself as my office expert on parking charges. She cringes somewhat when into the email inbox pops yet another case, but as I tell her, she has a 100% track record so far and we are very proud of her.

On the points the hon. Gentleman made about private parking charges at the moment, I am conscious that in Test Valley borough, half of which I represent as the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, the borough council waived parking charges right at the beginning of the pandemic and has since extended the free parking period. There are some challenging questions ahead, because as we move forward post pandemic, we want to see our high streets recover and to assist that recovery. I think the Chancellor and the Department have come up with some amazing and really important packages, but I have no doubt that the income from parking that councils have forgone has been a huge cost to them. They will need to find ways to make up that loss, but my plea to them is to show a spirit of tolerance and support for the shopkeepers and to allow our high streets to recover gently from this difficult period. The immediate reimposition of parking charges as lockdown ends would be a retrograde step. I was delighted to see the Minister nodding during that intervention, in which a really important point was made.

As my constituent said to me, had mediation been offered to him early in the proceedings, he would have taken it—it would have been the sensible thing to do. Instead, however, he kept responding to Premier Park, “No. I’ll see you in court.” The company kept responding, “We’ll take you to court,” or rather, “We’ll send you more letters threatening to take you to court. We’ll get increasingly aggressive. The charges will go up and up. We’ll employ a succession of different legal representatives until you don’t know which one you’re trying to deal with.” But two years on, the offer of mediation was made, my constituent accepted it and they settled on a sum of 15 quid, which I do not think is bad going.

What worries my constituent and me is the repeated bullying tactics: the threats of legal action, which are then not followed up for many months—in this case 20 months—the alarming threat of county court judgments, which we know have a devastating impact on people’s credit rating, and the threatening assertion that there will be lots more letters like that one.

I am conscious of the most excellent piece of legislation introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), which came into force in March 2019 and paved the way for a single code of practice for private parking, giving drivers greater protection through a new appeals service. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local ​Government and occupying a similar portfolio to the Minister, championed the issue on behalf of the Government. This sort of code could have made my constituent’s life much less of a misery.

More recently, back in November 2019 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government appointed the British Standards Institution to work with consumer groups and industry to write the first ever compulsory code of practice for private parking firms to

“restore common sense to the way parking fines are handed out…crack down on dodgy operators”

and

“introduce a new independent appeals service”.

I know that is correct, because I lifted it from the press release I found on gov.uk. The code was also to ensure that a mandatory 10-minute grace period, which already applies to local authority car parks, be extended to all private parking services.

I take my hon. Friend the Minister back to the precise period my constituent parked for: six minutes, which is four minutes less than the minimum grace period suggested. I am prepared to concede that my constituent’s supposed six-minute transgression happened before the excellent private Member’s Bill and before the Secretary of State appointed the British Standards Institution to write the new compulsory code, so maybe it is not reasonable to expect a member of the British Parking Association to apply 2019 standards to a 2018 offence—notwithstanding the fact that it was Premier Park itself that dragged the whole matter out for 20 long months—except that the British Parking Association voluntary code of practice already referenced a 10-minute grace period.

Returning to the crux of the matter, the previous Minister with this responsibility, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), in response to a written question indicated that the British Standards Institution was contracted in December 2019 to develop the new code. It was tasked with convening a group of key stakeholders to write it, and there was to be a full public consultation within six months. The final code would be developed this year.

I do not wish to hassle the Minister and try to hurry the process along, and I absolutely acknowledge that covid has got in the way of many things, but this year is ticking by very quickly. My constituent and, indeed, those of other hon. and right hon. Members who have returned to this Chamber time and again to discuss private parking services need the code. I argue that the parking industry also needs it, and it is more than a year since the excellent private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire.

Will the Minister this evening in this much delayed debate therefore please give us an update on progress and an absolute commitment that, exactly as was said in February, the code will be developed this year and introduced? Will he reassure me and my constituent that the 10-minute grace period or transaction period, which allows a driver to enter a car park, establish the charges and then decide whether he wishes to pay them or whether they are far too high for his taste and he wishes to leave and go elsewhere, will be included? That could have saved my constituent 20 months of harassment and pain.​

That grace period should be a crucial part of enabling drivers to make informed choices in future. That is what this is all about: allowing drivers to make informed choices and giving them a bit of leeway so that they can decide whether that is actually where they wish to park. I learned from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire that there might be many good reasons why parking charges are not advertised outside a car park, such as it being in a conservation area where there might be restrictions on signage. We should give drivers the opportunity to go into a car park, have a look and then potentially leave.

I conclude by asking the Minister to make that assurance, to give us an update on when this code is coming and when the public consultation will happen or whether it has already happened and to give us a sense of progress and a sense that this matter is in hand and will be dealt with.