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factual
FACE THE FACTS
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Face the Facts
Transcript : Face the Facts - 10 August 2007
FACE THE FACTS

Excel Parking Services

Presenter: John Waite

TRANSMISSION: Friday 10th August 2007 1230-1300 BBC RADIO 4
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Waite
A couple of months from now, companies that run Britain's car parks will be operating for the first time under a new code of practice - designed, in its own words, to "raise standards in a sector which has…..suffered so much from rogue traders….and a poor public image." And one of those who played a leading role in drawing up that code is the man behind the Sheffield-based company, Excel Parking Services Ltd. Which runs car parks the length and breadth of Britain; for councils and NHS Trusts, supermarkets and retail parks. But, as we'll be reporting, many people, including MPs, think the phrases "rogue traders" and "poor public image" could apply to Excel.

Meale
I'd never heard of them before and I don't really want to hear of them again, they seem like a dastardly organisation who really are just in the business of collecting money. The sooner they've gone out of my constituency the better.

Waite
This week, we'll hear some of the hundreds of complaints about Excel from motorists up and down the country. From Surrey to South Yorkshire, and from Chesterfield to Cleveland. How the company sent out demands for £100 payments to people who'd never received a parking ticket in the first place. One woman says she received her first demand for payment two years after her alleged parking transgression. Others say they received a parking ticket despite having clear evidence they had parked their cars legitimately. And many tell us that when they've complained about their treatment to Excel, they've been ignored. Instead, all too often, the demands for money continue, as do threats of legal action and letters from debt collectors.

Following his retirement, Eddie Johnson has become a regular visitor to his local JJB Sports Centre in Middlesbrough. It's on a retail park, and the car park, run by Excel Parking Services Ltd, is free of charge - provided you don't leave the retail park, and don't stay longer than four hours. Eddie's routine visit there 18 months ago, however, is one he won't forget.

Johnson
Went into the swimming pool for my usual swim where I go about once a week and I was horrified - I'd only been in the pool three quarters of an hour and was confronted with a notice on my windscreen asking me to pay £40 and this would go up if I didn't pay within seven days.

Waite
Why what had you done?

Johnson
I'd allegedly walked off site.

Waite
But you'd been swimming.

Johnson
I'd been swimming and I showed the parking attendant my swimming trunks, which were dripping wet and my damp towel.

Waite
What did he say?

Johnson
And he said we thought we saw you walking off site. Look, he said, I'd advise you to appeal.

Waite
And appeal Eddie did. He wrote to Excel's head office in Sheffield, and received a reply that was not good news.

Reading: Excel Letter
On the day in question a parking attendant witnessed the driver of the vehicle walking off site. Therefore, the Parking Charge Notice was issued correctly. Whilst you may not have intentionally breached the regulations the fact remains you were in contravention of them.

The company insisted that Eddie Johnson pay the £40 charge within 12 days, or face a £100 fine, followed by possible court action if he refused. Excel would only cancel the ticket if Eddie could somehow prove that he had indeed been swimming. Which he could because swipe card records at the leisure centre showed he'd entered at 9.16 a.m. The parking ticket indicated he'd been seen walking off the site at 9.20. So either Eddie had changed, swum, showered and got dressed again all within four minutes - or Excel had made a mistake.

Johnson
I rang up, this lady said - your evidence must have got lost in the post. And so I said - right I'll send it in again, I've got another copy. And I sent it in again. And still they did not rescind the ticket.

Waite
In fact, there are actually three kinds of so-called "tickets": Fixed penalty notices that are issued by the police and traffic wardens and Penalty Charge Notices which are issued by local authorities and both of which involve a breach of the criminal law. And then for commercial companies, like Excel, enforcing parking on private land, what are called "Parking Charge Notices", which, as lawyer Conrad Murray explains, carry less legal weight.

Murray
People who get a parking charge notice haven't committed an offence but they often think they have.

Waite
So on what basis do private parking companies claim that a motorist owes them money?

Murray
They basically do it under contract law which essentially they would attempt to enforce by putting a sign up in a supermarket car park or on a piece of private land and what that actually should do is lay out the actual terms under which you park there. By parking there you would enter into a contract whereby they in theory could charge you for parking because of the breach. That would mean going for enforcement through a civil court, it wouldn't go to the magistrates court.

Waite
And Eddie Johnson is determined to go to court, to challenge his parking charge notice from Excel. Still refusing to pay, he's now received several letters from a debt collection agency. So, he's threatened with a £100 penalty plus another £139 for the costs of pursuing him. He plans to turn the tables, though, when he has his day in court.

Johnson
I've had a lot of my time devoted to this and I shall be claiming costs in the court and I'm convinced if there's an independent adjudication, which the county court would give me, not an appeals procedure of the parking firm's own staff, I am convinced that I will win the case.

Waite
Eddie feels he must go to court because there's no independent complaints system for dealing with private parking companies. Not even in the upcoming new code. Private companies, in effect, act as judge and jury when complaints are made against them - unlike cases where people contest parking tickets issued by the police or local councils. And it's the process that operates in those cases, according to Sheila Rainger of the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, that should have been extended to bring private parking companies under its remit.

Rainger
The system for council tickets or police tickets works really well, you have to go back to the council, first of all, and make representations and the council has a duty to receive those, consider them and give you a judgement. If you're not happy with the council's judgement on its own ticket you can then apply to the Parking Appeals Tribunal Service or NPAS - the National Parking Appeals Service - depending on whether you live in London or outside London and a judge from that service will actually hear your argument and the council's argument and actually come down and make a decision as to which person ought to be the winner. Compare that to the private system, you don't get an independent hearing, if they turn your appeal down there's nowhere else to go.

Waite
The new code says parking companies should provide a disputes resolution procedure that functions in a "fair and reasonable manner". But "fair" or "reasonable" is not the way Eddie Johnson says Excel has treated him. Rather ironic, perhaps, as the committee which drew up the new code was chaired by no less than the managing director of Excel, Mr Simon Renshaw-Smith. His role, hailed in the code's forward.

Reading: Code of Practice
We are particularly grateful to our members who formed the special interest group to develop and produce the code. I'd particularly like to mention Simon Renshaw-Smith from Excel Parking who chairs this group….

And there's an honourable mention, too, for other members of the so-called Special Interest Group.

But in order to chase up unpaid parking tickets, private parking companies need access of course to motorists' details, lodged with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. And there have been concerns that this information had perhaps been too widely available before.

So, a year ago, the then Transport Minister, Stephen Ladyman, announced that any company wanting access to DVLA data would have to sign up to an approved trade association with an enforceable code of conduct. The code of conduct, as we've heard, that the British Parking Association is ushering in and which will provide a dedicated BPA official who will ensure compliance. So, from October, should they consistently fail to comply, car parking companies could face expulsion from the association which would mean losing precious access to the DVLA and all its motorists' details.

Sheila Rainger from the RAC Foundation again:

Rainger
You can imagine now that with automatic number plate recognition technology one person can monitor quite a large number car parks, it's a very economical way of enforcing parking restrictions. There's not even a person staffing that car park physically, there's simply someone doing it through CCTV and using technology. If they weren't able to get the name and addresses of those motorists they believed were contravening the regulations that business model would not survive.

Waite
Excel Parking Services has access - perfectly properly - to the DVLA database. And uses the information the agency provides to pursue errant motorists. But it's how long Excel can take to follow up alleged parking infringements, that staggers some people we've heard from - and how much it can cost if you challenge the company.

Phone Call
Thank you for calling our central ticket office enquiry line. Please be aware that this line is a premium rate line and calls are charged at 50 pence per minute...

Waite
That's the message you get if you call to complain or query a parking charge issued by Excel. The number printed on the back of their charge notices. It's a premium rate number; there is a cheaper, standard landline listed, too - but that's for payments only. So it was the premium rate number that Alison Hazlehurst called after she and her husband received a £100 demand from Excel Parking Services. A demand which referred to their supposed parking contravention at Kingston Hospital in Surrey, back in 2002, and one which had taken Excel all of two years to issue. Incredulous, Alison was a good deal quicker to respond, though, she says, it cost her to get nowhere.

Hazlehurst
I phone them up and it was a premium rate line and I was just on hold, no one wanted to speak to me and I was thinking this is costing me more money here. If I was in the wrong and like I had a parking fine I would have paid it straightaway and now they're getting more money out of me, not even to listen to my problem.

Waite
Well, when we spoke to the British Parking Association, we were told that it's new code in October will ban the use of premium rate phone lines.

Reep
Excel issued 552 fines in 20 weeks on a car park that I think it possibly takes a hundred cars.

Waite
That's Elizabeth Reep whose offices look out on to a small car park on Market Hill in Bawtry in South Yorkshire. Where, up until five years ago, parking had been free. But then the council brought in Excel to run the car park. And Elizabeth says she watched in horror as driver after driver ended up with a ticket. Unfairly, or so she thought, because the signs at the car park weren't clear enough about the change. So, Elizabeth decided to seize the initiative.

Reep
I actually had luminous yellow signs made up and printed that legally or illegally I hung from lampposts and as I put them up unfortunately Excel were taking them down. I did actually at one time get given the permission that I could leave a few of mine up by the local authority but only for a short time.

Waite
More official signs were later erected at Market Hill and things have now improved. But, back in 2003, 40 Bawtry motorists who'd refused to pay parking tickets were taken to court by Excel. Which had to withdraw its case on the day of the hearing after a judge ruled that an error on Excel's parking tickets meant the prosecution was flawed.

But 40 motorists in Bawtry is as nothing compared to what happened in Mansfield in Nottinghamshire where complaints about Excel Parking Services Ltd reached fever pitch. For seven years the company has been running the Portland Retail Park car park with few - if any - problems, that is, until September last year.

Portland Retail Park is right next to Mansfield Town's football ground, and on match days some spectators would take advantage of the free two hour parking facility which is supposed to be for shoppers only.

To put an end to this, Excel stopped using parking attendants and started using what's called an automated number plate recognition system. Where CCTV cameras logged motorists' number plates as they entered and left and where charge notices were issued through the post rather than stuck on to a windscreen. But issued through the post, in many instances, sometimes months later and to all too many drivers who angrily denied they'd parked incorrectly.

So angry in fact that a small army of aggrieved motorists turned to their local MP, Alan Meale - who recalls the scenes in his constituency offices as ...

Meale
Complete chaos, that's the real thing that occurred. Here we had more than a hundred of my constituents who were suddenly faced with demands dropping on their carpet months and months after an event which they'd supposedly overstayed their place and the whole of the office for almost two weeks was full of people coming in and out all the time saying I've had these parking tickets, I wasn't there, I was there but only an hour. Quite remarkable really because some of them were sent out without any previous notification at all and they were saying you've not only been fined but you're being fined again because you didn't pay it in time.

Waite
So for many of them this was the first time they'd even known they'd supposedly contravened a parking regulation.

Meale
I was ridiculous - they'd never even received a notification letter.

Waite
Some drivers were so incensed that they organised a protest march on the retail park. Indeed complaints were running so high that the retail park's letting agents, Knight Frank, sent a letter to their tenants saying they regarded Excel as "guilty of poor and ineffective administration of the parking management system". And adding:

Reading: Knight Frank Letter
We have made it quite clear to Excel that their actions in deciding to send out large numbers of Parking Charge Notices late followed by full charge notices, is totally unacceptable and must never be repeated.

Waite
When we spoke to Knight Frank, the company told us that it's gone even further and given notice to Excel Parking Services that its current contract will be terminated. Which still leaves the mystery of why so many parking charge notices had taken so long to be sent out to all those Mansfield motorists whose parking time-keeping apparently had been so lacking. Something MP Alan Meale took up with Excel.

Meale
They said it was all a backlog, I mean that isn't a good enough reason in itself and they also said that quite a lot of mail had been lost in the post. I just don't think it's possible for that to occur, letters must have been going missing every single day for a number of months, it's not practical, it's not possible.

Waite
Well when we turned to the Royal Mail for an explanation as to why large numbers of parking charge letters had apparently gone missing in the post we were told:

Reading: Statement from Royal Mail
Royal Mail has no evidence of any of these mailings entering our system and we have no record of being contacted by the sender about these postings.

Excel stopped using the automatic number plate recognition system at the Portland car park last February, but not before the cameras had generated yet another spate of £100 demand letters which people received out of the blue, and, once again in many cases, some months later. Indeed, MP Alan Meale has established that the company issued an astonishing 3,000 tickets in a matter of a few months.

Meale
And I checked on what the normal ratio of tickets were prior to that and it's something like 38 in a particular time period. Now I've talked to the owners of the shopping complex in Portland and they said all they wanted was people not deliberately abusing the situation and taken up customer car parking, they didn't want more tickets issued, they wanted less people parking illegally.

Waite
What do you make of Excel?

Meale
I'd never heard of them before and I don't really want to hear of them again. I mean they seem like a dastardly organisation who really are just into the business of collecting money.

Waite
Some of Mansfield's disgruntled drivers contacted a legal advice website run by Conrad Murray. But, he told us, they only represent about one in five of all the complaints he receives about Excel. Far more, in fact, than any other parking company.

Murray
We had 354 from Excel, that was between January 1st and June 1st this year, we only had 41 for all the other parking companies, the private parking companies, put together.

Waite
So that's nearly 900% more website hits about Excel. And I mention percentages because that's what another MP, this time the member for Bassetlaw, John Mann, thinks lies at the heart of Excel's approach. A conclusion he drew after he was called in to help some of his outraged constituents.

Mann
There is no basis for what Excel are trying to do in large numbers of cases that I've seen that people are disputing. What they seem to be doing is doing it on percentages. If they threaten people with debt recovery agencies they think that people eventually will pay up and some people do.

Waite
Not Mark Openshaw from Derbyshire, though. He was issued with a £40 charge at the Markham Road car park in Chesterfield for staying longer than the permitted hour. Excel alleged that he'd arrived at 1015 a.m. Whilst Mr Openshaw was able to produce a receipt showing he was buying petrol four miles away just minutes later. Even so Excel refused to cancel the charge, and increased it to a £100 because he didn't pay. Mark remains defiant and hasn't heard from Excel since the start of the year.

In Bradford in West Yorkshire, an employee at the Forster Square Retail Park got a £40 ticket from Excel - even though workers are exempt from charges. Excel says she was not on an "approved list" and so her charge - now £100 - has to stand.

So what does the man who runs Excel, its managing - indeed sole - director (salary last year, over £450,000), Mr Simon Renshaw Smith, have to say to all the complaints we've heard today? And how does he reconcile the poor public image his company has with some people, with the upcoming code of practice which he helped draw up and which is dedicated to removing rogue traders and the industry's "poor public image". A new code of conduct, with which, on past performance, his company Excel Parking Services Ltd. would have some difficulties complying. Like:

Reading: Code of Practice
When the reply from the DVLA is received, the parking ticket must be posted to the keeper as soon as possible but no later than 28 days after the date of the alleged contravention.

Not some months, as has happened on occasion with Excel. Also, the new code stipulates that private parking companies:

Reading: Code of Practice
... ensure that owners and drivers issued with parking tickets will not suffer through excessive charges, poor quality service, or excessive administrative procedures ...

Again something its critics would level at Excel. And how about the new code's fundamental requirement, that:

Reading: Code of Practice
The operator should act reasonably when dealing with members of the public who have contravened local land or car park regulations and endeavour to resolve any complaints quickly and amicably.

Not exactly how the people we've heard from today would characterise their treatment by Excel. Well when I spoke to its managing director, Simon Renshaw-Smith, he was adamant that he had checked the company's files - and all the individuals we've featured on the programme have indeed contravened parking regulations, and so are required to pay their charges. So what about the more general point - that when aggrieved motorists try to raise their concerns with Excel, they're ignored.

Renshaw-Smith
We can't accommodate for everybody's detailed wishes, all we can do is process the parking charge notices hopefully in a timely manner. That doesn't always work because of backlog, because of IT issues etc., however, every single ticket that we issue we have a full process to make sure that that ticket is closed down either through payment or through a void or cancellation. Sometimes it does take a long time.

Waite
But if you can't deal with every individual motorist's appeal then what's the point of having an appeals system?

Renshaw-Smith
We do accommodate all appeals. The length of time that it has taken on numerous occasions isn't always as efficient as we would like. However, we've invested heavily in the systems within our business to try and run it more efficiently, that is exactly what we're doing.

Waite
How can you justify charging drivers 50 pence a minute to raise a concern or a query on that premium rate line?

Renshaw-Smith
We would rather them not call that line. We only have it on our parking charge notice, we amended our stationery some months ago so as not to advertise a premium rate line on the notice to owner and the final demand notice. We try and deter people from phoning in because we cannot process the challenge or the appeal unless it's received in writing. And that's a national - that is a national standard.

Waite
But from the British Parking Association's own code we are told when the final code comes out it'll be made clear that in undertaking a fair and reasonable disputes resolution process premium rate phone lines must not be used, so will you stop using yours?

Renshaw-Smith
We need to clarify with the British Parking Association ...

Waite
Well it couldn't be more clear than that, I've just given you a direct quote from them, that's what the code's going to say are you going to abide by it?

Renshaw-Smith
If that is what the final code states then yes of course we will.

Waite
And the BPA's code of practice, and that's the one of course you helped to draw up, also says postal tickets should be dispatched within 28 days of an alleged parking contravention, so why didn't that happen in so many cases involving Mansfield's Portland Retail Park?

Renshaw-Smith
You're talking about a code of practice that came out in April 2007, you are talking about a case now in a particular car park which goes back to 2006. So at this moment in time the code of practice we are fully compliant with - fact - that is it. We have had issues with the automated system, we've acknowledged those and we've done everything within our power to correct any issues that have been raised, making sure that refunds have been made to the appropriate individuals. We operated the site before the camera system was put in situ, we've operated that site now for seven years, we've had a very happy client, we've had a very happy commercial agent ...

Waite
Well not anymore have you?

Renshaw-Smith
No we haven't.

Waite
No because the letting agents at Portland Retail Park, Knight Frank, have told us they're terminating your contract.

Renshaw-Smith
Yes they are. Knight Frank want to have more control over the parking charge notices when they're issued and if they want to be able to cancel them at the drop of a hat then they can do. And that's the reason why we have been served notice so that a contract can be renegotiated giving Knight Frank and the owner of the site far more control.

Waite
Haven't you undermined the ethos of this new code of conduct on parking, I mean you chaired the group that drew it up and yet so many people say you haven't got your own house - Excel - in order?

Renshaw-Smith
No we haven't undermined the code of practice at all. I've been a very, very active supporter of the code, I've been striving to have codes put in place for parking enforcement for 17 years. If we're not perfect that I can only apologise for ...

Waite
Well you're far from perfect. MP Alan Meale's has told us on the programme: "Excel," and I quote, "is a dastardly company that's just in the business of collecting money."

Renshaw-Smith
Mr Meale talks poppycock. If that's the statement he's making then why doesn't Mr Meale come to my office, come and view our systems, come and be proactive rather than hiding behind the fact that he can utilise his position as an MP to degrade my company. Come and see the operation and he will think differently.

Waite
But he's not alone. John Mann, MP, says on the programme you seem to be working on percentages, spray tickets around and a percentage of people will pay up, however unjustified.

Renshaw-Smith
Not the case at all. Mr Mann and Excel Parking go back a long way and Mr Mann has utilised again his position as an MP. It all started in Bawtry when we took over the management of a car park for the town council and we were the dart board and Mr Mann wanted to be the people's champion and get brownie points from it. We are never going to be liked for issuing parking tickets but those people have contravened in the first place. If they didn't contravene we wouldn't issue a ticket - simple.

Waite
Simon Renshaw-Smith. Well for the record, all that missing mail in Mansfield, he says, Excel did manage to trace itself - and did reduce many of the charges. And when we spoke to the Department for Transport, about how aggrieved motorists in private car parks should proceed - they advise that if all else fails, drivers - and I quote - "can choose not to pay, and await independent adjudication in the local county court".
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