By Philip Johnston
Why are councils still getting away with highway robbery?
Do you ever wonder what happened to all those government initiatives that grab the headlines and then disappear? What, for instance, became of a promise to "curb the activities of overzealous traffic wardens who have been handing out fixed penalty fines for technical infringements".
In March 2004, this newspaper reported that David Jamieson, then roads minister, had told MPs that local councils would receive statutory guidelines on the civil enforcement of traffic offences. He made this announcement during the committee stage of the Traffic Management Bill after Tory backbenchers called on the Government to respond to complaints from constituents about the way local councils were apparently using parking fines as a way to raise money.
Unusually - and refreshingly - Mr Jamieson, who has since left Parliament, said he had been persuaded by the committee's arguments and would bring forward an amendment to put the guidance on a statutory basis, so that motorists would have some legal redress if local authorities were unreasonable in their enforcement of traffic regulations.
With most parking and bus lane contraventions now "decriminalised", giving transgressors no opportunity to defend themselves in court, it was considered important to stop councils abusing this new-found opportunity to swell their coffers at the motorists' expense. By putting the guidelines on a statutory basis, adjudicators would have to take account of "proportionality" and "reasonableness" when hearing appeals against fixed penalty fines. At present, the adjudicator must apply the letter of the law and is not allowed the discretion that would probably have been exercised by a "sensible" police officer under a criminalised regime.
The Tories called Mr Jamieson's announcement "a victory in the fightback for the motorist". Christopher Chope, the party spokesman, said voluntary guidelines had failed to curb excessive action against law-abiding motorists who were "being persecuted and oppressed by unreasonable men and women in uniforms … often at the behest of local authority employers out of greed or hatred of cars and those who drive them."
So what has happened? Nothing. Earlier this month, the Commons transport select committee announced its intention to conduct an inquiry into parking policy to establish whether local councils were "carrying out controls reasonably, fairly and accountably". It said: "Concerns have been raised over the standard of enforcement activity undertaken by some councils and contractors. In particular, there are concerns … that the surpluses raised through parking enforcement have become the main motivation for local authority parking control."
One question the committee proposes to consider is whether statutory guidance is necessary "to ensure proportionality in enforcement and proper discretion in applying measures". But is this not what the Government said it intended to issue 17 months ago?
As is often the case, a promise to do something is subsequently used to fob off anyone who continues to criticise policy. In February, Tory peer Lord Lucas introduced a private Bill aimed at bringing some sense to the parking regimes across the country and controlling the activities of parking wardens, whom he somewhat colourfully described as "a collection of licensed highwaymen who are roaming our streets … intent on robbing us at every opportunity".
He was told not to get so het up because the matter was already in hand. Lady Crawley, for the Government, said she was unable to support Lord Lucas's measure "not because we disagree with the principles behind the Bill or the idea of guidance in relation to the conduct of parking operatives - for we do not - [but] simply because it is unnecessary. That is because the Government has already taken steps to address the question of guidance on parking enforcement, and thereby on the conduct of parking attendants."
Oh really? When the Transport Department was asked last week what has happened to this measure, a spokesman said there was to be a public consultation "hopefully later this calendar year, but we don't yet have a date". Let us, charitably, assume the guidance is almost complete somewhere in the bowels of Whitehall and that the consultation begins in October. Normally, three months is given to conclude such an exercise. It would be no surprise, however, if the Government says it will await the transport committee's deliberations before putting forward proposals. That could take until the middle of next year.
Then the guidance will have to be drawn up and regulations issued, since it is intended to be statutory. That's another six months, or more if there is further consultation. If this guidance - intended to ameliorate one of the most irritating aspects of modern life and promised amid a fanfare of self-congratulatory trumpets and the tooting of horns from grateful motorists - materialises within two years of the date it was promised, there will be squadrons of pigs flying over Whitehall.
Meanwhile, local authorities continue to cash in on traffic controls that everyone accepts are necessary but that are resented when they are unreasonably applied. As an example, one camera monitoring a bus lane in south London has resulted in 5,000 drivers being fined - our household has paid three of them - in just one year because cars have to enter the lane to turn left. That will have raised at least £250,000, or more if the offending motorist has failed to pay the £50 penalty within 14 days and has had to stump up £100, which is a disincentive to appeal.
After local protests, the council's head of traffic has promised to introduce gaps in the bus lane to allow access to the roads on the other side, though only as part of a general road resurfacing scheme.
Will we all get our money back? Fat chance. But if the Government moved faster to fulfil its promises to Parliament - and listened to any sensible recommendations that emerge from the select committee's inquiry - it might be possible to rebuild the essential elements of fairness and consent without which laws will always fall into disrepute.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
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