Thursday, 22 January 2015
Vehicle Clamping Bill 2014 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Vehicle Clamping Bill 2014 addresses the commitment in the programme for Government to legislate to regulate clamping. The impetus for this commitment stems principally from public concerns about the activities of some clamping operators and the extent to which clamping may be carried out in a less than fair manner with no obvious consistent or transparent recourse to appeal against perceived abuses. The issues of greatest public concern relate to the frequent absence of appropriate information signage for motorists, the level of clamp release charges applied and the lack of a clearly identifiable and accessible clamping appeals process.
Section 101B of the Road Traffic Act 1961, as amended, provides for the clamping or relocation or both of vehicles unlawfully parked on a public road. A member of An Garda Síochána, a person appointed in writing by a local authority or a traffic warden can carry out the act of clamping or relocation.
However, there is currently no regulation of clamping activities carried out on private land. The legal issues surrounding the situation where a clamp is placed on a vehicle, in circumstances other than those provided for in existing legislation relating to the public road and certain State agencies, primarily relate to the manner of the contract between the owner of the land or car park and the car driver or vehicle owner. No account is taken of the need to regulate clamping activities in the broader public interest, nor do such circumstances carry with them the same transparent safeguards for motorists as apply to clamping activities carried out under statute. It is appropriate, therefore, that clarity be given in legislation to this situation in order to protect the rights of citizens and property owners alike in relation to an activity which has become an increasing feature of urban life in Ireland.
In December 2011 my predecessor, Deputy Leo Varadkar, presented a discussion document to the then Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht in which he set out the principal issues to be addressed, together with proposals on the shape of appropriate legislation, on which he invited the committee's views. The committee responded in a comprehensive report which contained a number of recommendations, the majority of which have been taken into account in the Bill.
A number of options for proceeding were contained in the discussion document. For example, the question was posed as to whether the primary focus of the legislation should be on those individuals or companies undertaking the clamping activity or, alternatively, if the circumstances surrounding the activity of clamping a vehicle should instead be regulated. The issue of whether related activity of relocating vehicles should be regulated was also raised. The broader issues of who might regulate, how regulation might be funded, the setting of maximum clamp release charges, the provision of an independent appeals process and other relevant matters were also outlined for the committee's consideration.
The joint committee invited a number of representative stakeholders to make oral presentations to it or submit written submissions for its consideration. The stakeholders who presented at the hearings or made submissions to the committee included local authorities, representative bodies in the sector, AA Ireland, representatives of the clamping industry, business organisations such as Chambers Ireland and Retail Excellence Ireland, the Irish Patients Association, Dublin City Council's independent parking appeals officer, the Irish Property and Facility Management Association and officials from my Department. The hearings and submissions raised some important and interesting matters and, after due consideration, the committee formed the view, as part of the options for reform, that any legislative proposal on clamping should ensure harmonisation in the processes and procedures involved, regardless of where clamping took place, be it on public roads or private property.
Most of the core suggestions arising from the main areas of concern identified by the joint committee have been provided for in one form or another in the Bill. They include the designation of the National Transport Authority, NTA, as regulator of clamping activities; the setting of maximum permissible clamp release charges on private lands; an obligation to provide clear and prominent signage in areas where clamping is operated and the establishment of a two-tier appeals process. The Bill does not provide for the registration and licensing of clamping operators. Although the provision of such a measure was outlined in the original general scheme of the Bill, following detailed consideration of the issues involved, including extensive consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, a different approach was decided on and is set out in the Bill.
It was felt a compulsory licensing and registration regime for clamping operators, complete with the associated requirements and stipulations attaching to such a regime, would not, in terms of cost and practical effectiveness, represent the most appropriate manner of addressing the issues of public concern which had been represented to my Department. In the final analysis, the introduction of a statutory licensing regime was deemed to be excessive and too costly to implement, both for the taxpayer and clamping operators. Owing to the relatively small number of sizeable parking enforcement and clamping operators in existence in the country, the public would have been hit on the double in the establishment of such a regime. It could have ended up subsidising what might have been, in essence, an economically unsustainable licensing regime, while at the same time having to pay increased clamp release charges imposed by clamping operators who chose, as part of their business model, to increase such charges to offset licensing fees imposed by the State. It was decided that the issues arising would be more appropriately addressed through the statutory regulation of clamping activities, irrespective of the location in which they were carried out. In choosing to regulate the activity of clamping, rather than licensing the person or company carrying out the activity, the provisions of the Bill will cater for all scenarios in which a vehicle is clamped, whether by a local authority, a State body, an individual or a contracted party such as a clamping operator on public or private land.
In policy terms, it is not the aim of the Bill to determine in what places clamping should or should not take place. Neither does it set out to decide parking policy. Bodies responsible for parking areas, be they local authorities in respect of public roads, State agencies in relation to their parking areas or owners of private lands, will continue to determine parking policy and appropriate parking controls. The Bill sets out that if clamping is used as a means of parking control, its provisions must be complied with. It is entirely reasonable that landowners can deal in a fair and cost effective manner with nuisance parking. For example, on the parking of cars all day in a shopping centre to the obvious disadvantage of other customers or in apartment complexes to the inconvenience of residents, the owners or managers involved should have the right to take reasonable action. However, the manner in which clamping activities are carried out needs to be proportionate and consistent. There is a clear need to establish broad rules governing these activities and the manner in which these rules should be complied with. Local authorities have a responsibility to ensure effective traffic management in towns and cities, as well as to facilitate the optimum use of finite parking resources on the public road. However, while the use of clamping as a parking enforcement mechanism is highly effective, the rights of landowners and the responsibilities of the State should not be exercised to the detriment of the individual motorist. These competing rights and responsibilities should at all times be exercised in the interests of both the individual citizen's rights and the good of society as a whole.
Bearing these issues in mind, I am proposing in the Bill to regulate clamping wherever it takes place. Irrespective of where clamping activities are carried out, the Bill provides for the regulation of such activities in a non-discriminatory and proportionate manner across the public and private sectors. In essence, it aims to provide a balanced regulatory framework within which clamping operators may operate, while also protecting motorists from any disreputable practice. As well as regulating clamping activities, the role and responsibilities of those persons or bodies that engage clamping operators are addressed. Under the Bill, landowners or persons responsible for places in which clamping is operated will be obliged to provide appropriate signage in accordance with regulatory requirements, as well as providing for a statutory appeals process.
I will outline the main provisions of the Bill which is in six Parts. Part 1 deals with technical matters such as the Short Title and commencement, definitions and interpretations of terms used, the laying of regulations and orders before the Oireachtas and matters relating to regulations made by the NTA. It also allows for other places where clamping is carried out under statute to be brought within the ambit of the Bill.
Part 2 contains many of the recommendations suggested by the then Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht relating to the regulation of clamping activities. I am confident that this Part’s provisions will address the regulatory requirements that need to be put in place for the operation of clamping activities on private land.
Under section 10, persons responsible for enforcing the law or rules applicable to parking in a particular place where clamping is operated, referred to as parking controllers, will be obliged to provide prominent regulatory advisory signage which clearly indicates that clamping activities are in operation and detailing the clamp release and vehicle relocation charges that apply. A parking controller who fails to provide regulatory signage commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a class C fine of up to €2,500.
Other than on the public road where the Minister will retain responsibility for regulatory signage under section 95 of the 1961 Road Traffic Act, the NTA, as regulator, will make regulations with respect to clamping signage, including its location, information content, dimensions and design, symbols to be displayed, as well as the number of signs to be provided in a particular place. Under section 14, the NTA will be conferred with regulatory powers to set the maximum clamp release and vehicle relocation charges. It will be able to prescribe the maximum clamp release and vehicle relocation charges that may be levied in non-statutory clamping places such as private car parks and car parks associated with shopping centres, retail parks, sports stadia and so forth. Where no maximum charges stand prescribed by the NTA, the Bill provides that the default clamp release charge will be €100 and the vehicle relocation charge, €50, or such other amounts as may be prescribed by the Minister following consultation with the NTA. A person who imposes or attempts to impose clamp release or vehicle relocation charges greater than the set maximum charges commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a class B fine of up to €4,000.
In statutory clamping places such as at State airports and railway stations the bodies responsible will be obliged to have regard to the recommendations made by the NTA in setting their charges. The Minister, after consultation with both the Minister for Justice and Equality and the NTA, will continue to prescribe clamp release charges on the public road.
The Bill makes provision to enable the NTA to regulate the actual physical processes involved in clamping. The principal day-to-day clamping processes that may be regulated include the period that shall elapse before a vehicle may be clamped and the maximum clamp release time after payment of the appropriate charge. The NTA may establish codes of practice under this Part for the purposes of providing practical guidance on clamping matters. It is envisaged that standards of general behaviour, performance of duties and the conduct of clamping operators in the carrying out of clamping activities and their interface with the general public will be at the centre of any such code of practice.
Part 3 makes provision for the establishment of a complaints procedure to address issues of perceived misconduct by clamping operators in the discharge of their duties, as well as providing for a two-tier appeals process to hear appeals against incidents of clamping or vehicle relocation. Although some clamping operators have put in place appeals processes to cater for such instances on private land, there is no uniform approach and the Bill addresses this issue. Under these provisions, a person whose vehicle has been clamped or relocated may appeal, in the first instance, to the parking controller responsible for enforcement of the parking rules in that place. Where the person is not satisfied with a determination made at this stage, he or she may lodge a second-stage appeal to an independent clamping appeals officer appointed by the NTA. A parking controller who fails to put appeal procedures in place commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a class B fine not exceeding €4,000.
In line with recommendations made by the Oireachtas joint committee, the Bill gives the NTA the power to put a procedure in place to consider complaints from members of the public about the discharge by parking controllers of their responsibilities, as well as about the conduct and behaviour of clamping operators.
Part 4 provides the NTA with the necessary legislative powers for enforcing compliance with the Bill’s provisions and regulations made under it. In particular, it makes provision for the appointment of authorised persons by the NTA and the specifying of their powers of investigation. It provides for the issuing of directions by the NTA to parking controllers and clamping operators in respect of their compliance, or otherwise, with the Bill’s provisions.
This Part also provides for the taking of proceedings by the NTA regarding the commission of an offence under the Bill. The Bill allows the NTA to operate a fixed-payment notice system for some offences committed by parking controllers or clamping operators. Similar to the fixed-charge processing system under road traffic legislation, the NTA will have the power to issue notices to alleged offenders seeking a payment of €250 within 28 days. Where payment is not made in that timeframe, an additional 50% payment will apply for the following 28 days. A person who receives a notice will, of course, be entitled to defend his or her position in court if he or she so wishes.
To emphasise the robustness of the powers of authorised persons under this Part, it will be an offence to obstruct or impede a person authorised by the NTA to investigate compliance with the Bill or knowingly give false or misleading information to such a person. This offence is liable to attract on summary conviction a class A fine not exceeding €5,000.
Part 5 provides for the application of equivalent regulatory provisions in the Bill to the public road. This is in line with the commitment to ensure the regulation of clamping activities provided for in the Bill is harmonised across all areas. As I stated previously, the Bill will regulate clamping activities, irrespective of where they are carried out, be it on private land, the public road or land belonging to or occupied by statutory bodies.
Part 6 provides for the amendment of various existing statutory provisions relating to the clamping of vehicles on land belonging to, or occupied by, CIE, the Railway Procurement Agency, State airports and harbours. The intention of these amendments is to bring uniformity to existing statutory provisions.
Through its various stages of drafting, every effort has been made to ensure provisions are put in place in the Bill to address the issues of greatest public concern with clamping activities. Chief among these are the setting of maximum clamp release charges, the establishment of an independent appeals process and the provision of appropriate advisory signage in areas where clamping is operated. In the early stages of drafting the Bill went through the consultation process with the Oireachtas transport committee which culminated in an initial report from the committee. That model of putting together legislation is to the benefit of the legislation and builds on the work committees do. The Bill’s focus is on how the activity of clamping is regulated. The breadth of that focus provides space in which many issues can be dealt with which are of concern to those whose vehicles have been clamped or those involved in the clamping business.
The final point is an issue of which I am very much aware and which became clear when I took this Bill through the other House. This is the balance that needs to be struck between the rights and responsibilities of people who are clamped, people who own public or private spaces and the companies who are involved in clamping. Legislation always has to strike a balance between the issues of rights and responsibilities. I believe this legislation, in the way it has been drafted, does this and I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for setting out the background to this legislation. Fianna Fáil, for its part, supports this long-awaited Bill, which will finally provide the legislative framework for the clamping of vehicles on public and private land. The legislation will ensure that all clamping activities are carried out in a fair and transparent manner and will protect motorists, legitimate clamping companies and, in particular, landowners, who in many cases find themselves having to deal with the difficulty of illegal parking which is causing an obstruction to their businesses or the activities of others.
The Bill introduces consistency to the clamping regime for the first time, whether the clamping is on public or private land. As the Minister has stated, legislation is already in place governing clamping on the public road and on land occupied by certain statutory bodies. However, this Bill will also regulate clamping on private property. It sets up a new regulatory regime which is balanced, adequate and a proportionate response to the issue that arises. It does not seek to overburden those who will ultimately pay for the system and this is positive. In the past, we tended to set up agencies that became almost self-fulfilling and required an extensive amount of money to maintain. Often the focus of what that entity might ultimately do was lost.
It is very clear that the approach taken by the Minister's predecessor - having the consultation on the heads of the Bill at the outset, allowing people from a committee perspective to address their concerns, listening to the various stakeholders, the people who would ultimately be affected by the introduction of the legislation, allowing all of us in a collective way to put our best thoughts together and feed that back to the Department officials and trying to come up with a comprehensive solution to a difficult problem - is a model for the future. I have always been a strong advocate of our Parliament having a much greater role in the development and passage of legislation. It is a source of concern that there has not been that level of political reform which accepts that it does not matter from where a good idea comes. It is not enshrined in the hands of the Government to have to come up with all aspects of legislation. People are elected here for their abilities by the citizens of the State. It is worthy and right that Members, regardless of their party affiliation and people of none, get an opportunity to feed into legislation. Often, the difficulty from a Government point of view, when it brings a Bill to the House, is that it is the combined wisdom of the Minister and his officials and they do not like to take amendments because it impacts on other elements of the legislation. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, its officials and the Minister have been very good at recognising that one should engage with stakeholders in the early stages and listen to people's views before becoming entrenched in the heated political battle, if that is to be the case. This way one ends up with legislation which has a broader acceptance and resolves many of the problems that often happen at a later stage. That is very welcome.
I am also conscious that for the senior civil servant involved in the development and drafting of this legislation, Mr. Maurice Treacy, this will be his final piece of legislation. He is retiring shortly and I wish him well. I wish to recognise in this House his abilities and the fastidious manner in which he goes about his work in order to ensure that the great detail is covered. He is one of the stalwarts of the Department and we wish him well. I will not be complicating his life on this particular Bill in any shape or form because it has the distilled wisdom of all in this House and hopefully we can get it passed relatively quickly.
The Minister rightly identified that the Bill seeks to address and balance the rights and responsibilities of all concerned. This is hugely important. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes people park in inappropriate places inadvertently. We do not want to over-penalise them. There are others who are serial offenders and we need to send them a message. There are people whose property rights are impacted in a very negative way by the actions of others. It is right and appropriate that there is a balancing exercise. That is why the appeals mechanism that is in place is one that requires the operator or the owner, in the first instance, to set out the first line of defence. They have to explain and to review the decision that was taken. Then there is an independent appeals process. The National Transport Authority, NTA, is the appropriate body to deal with this. I am happy that this part of it is sorted.
I am pleased that there is a cap in terms of what someone can charge. There were some outrageous practices, particularly in apartment complexes and other private properties, where, in essence, it was an effort by the owner to abuse the position they had as owners of the property. People were parking in places where there was no nuisance created or the owners had a site that was subject to people parking on it and the owners were abusing this situation by charging ransoms for unlocking people who parked there, inadvertently in some cases. The Minister will be aware of some of the issues concerning tourists, in particular in tourist destinations, where the unsuspecting tourist parked his or her hired car, not knowing the local situation. Someone would then look for a ransom of hundreds of euros to declamp the vehicle. The clampers were watching for someone to park and jumping on it straight away. This sent out a very negative image of Ireland. It is right that we deal with this.
Vehicle clamping in public spaces is in force in the majority of cities in Ireland. The services are operated in those cities by private companies on behalf of the local authority. The employees of the vehicle clamping company are entitled, as the Minister said, to clamp and declamp vehicles and to issue clamping notices where vehicles are in violation of the parking regulations. The number of vehicles clamped in Dublin, I understand, in 2013, on public land, was 56,285. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has stated that clamping is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that parking laws are respected in urban areas. I agree with that. Some of the fixed penalties do not act as a deterrent to the same extent. Some people will get caught and they will pay, but there is nothing like the nuisance - I know it well - of returning to your vehicle and finding a yellow clamp attached to it. In many cases, it is the ultimate signal and encourages a change of behaviour.
Clamping services are also common on private land, in car parks of hotels, hospitals, universities and shopping centres. This is to discourage long-term parking at the expense of staff, customers and, in particular, clients. Clamping on private property is currently not covered by legislation. The legality of clamping on private property has always been unclear. There has been some concern about this, because of the inherent property rights of landowners and their recognition in the Constitution. I hope this legislation is successful in addressing this concern. If it is not, and someone seeks to test it in the courts, one would wonder what can be done ultimately. I hope it will stand the test of time because it is a very considerable nuisance.
Emerging out of the passing of this legislation, and this is why I am pleased with the methodology in place, the encumbrance will be placed on the person who owns the land to manage the clamping, rather than licensing clampers which would not have been a good practice. A sort of bounty hunter system would have been created which would not work. I am hopeful that we will see the emergence of car park management companies that will do this in a structured and coherent way and that we will not have the type of fly-by-night operation I was concerned about had we gone down the road of licensing.
I realise some of the larger parking management companies provide these services in a structured and controlled way and hope that is what will emerge as a solution to this problem, but it remains to be seen how the owners of the various properties will proceed. The larger supermarkets manage this issue well and generally have an effective system in place. However, in some smaller apartment complexes there are operations which may happen to use ransom strips and so on which could become problematic. At least now we have been left in a situation where there is a recognised cap and the ability of a person to appeal is perfectly clear.
Perhaps some guidelines might be drawn up on what procedures might be expected for an appeals process. I imagine the National Transport Authority will come forward with some guidelines for its officers in this regard. Some particular examples have been brought to my attention relating to lands owned by CIE around some railway or DART stations. In some cases a person had failed to get a ticket from the ticket machine because it had malfunctioned. I know that in the past vehicles have been clamped or people fined for not having a ticket in these circumstances. Obviously, ticket machines do not operate all the time and there will be periods when they are broken. Such issues need to be clarified in terms of what constitutes a legitimate appeal. Other cases have involved people with disabilities or elderly persons who were unable to operate particular equipment. We need a comprehensive set of guidelines to assist the appeals process in order that people will know in advance the heading under which they might seek to make a valid appeal or have an appeal upheld. Obviously, that is a matter for the NTA and I have every expectation that it has the necessary expertise to treat the rights of both sides involved in a balanced and proportionate way.
I thank the Minister for continuing the process set in train by his predecessor. It has followed a methodology involving everyone in Parliament not only in the passage of the legislation but from its inception when the heads of the Bill were produced with a non-partisan and interactive approach. This bodes well for future Governments that adopt such methodology. It will ensure we can proceed with legislation in such a way that by the time we enter the Chamber most of the issues will have been ironed out.
I wish Mr. Maurice Treacy all the best and thank him for the service he has provided for the State during his time as a senior civil servant.
I welcome the Bill, like many citizens who have been the victims of rogue clampers and a process which has been seen generally to be rather frustrating to deal with and often too rigid in application. In particular, I commend the process by which the Bill has been developed. It began at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications as the work of a cross-party group for the most part and such a process is to be encouraged.
Clamping is and has been a major thorn in the sides of many workers and residents of larger towns and cities for many years. When legislating in this way, we should always be willing to go back to basics and ask, whatever about the best way to administer clamping, whether clamping is the best available option. It is an imperfect tool that can be used with a wide range of measures to avoid parking congestion and the problems, big and small, that can arise as a result.
On the face of it, clamping can seem to be a bizarre measure, since it involves immobilising a vehicle to promote a more free-flowing and fluid parking environment. However, it has clearly been shown to be an effective deterrent against irresponsible and illegal parking. It is effective, therefore, for several reasons. It works by prompting a fear in motorists not only of a fine but also of the nuisance, frustration and embarrassment caused in being clamped. This double effect works to deter those of modest means, as well as those for whom a small fine would cause no concern. The effectiveness of causing this fear of inconvenience requires clamping to be administered in a way which is fair and seen to be so. This makes the regulation of the system under which cars are clamped central to its success as a deterrent, as well as its longevity as one people will tolerate. Ordinary people must be satisfied that they are not at risk of having their vehicles clamped if they follow the rules and avoid, as much as possible, causing disruption to the flow of traffic or risk to safety. Under this system there is a genuine need for fines and clampers to operate effectively when people act irresponsibly. This arises in most cases when a car is clamped, but we should bear in mind that clamping is not always the best option, even in some of the cases I have cited, since it could potentially increase or prolong risks caused by irresponsible parking.
Furthermore, we should bear in mind that mistakes are not only made by motorists but also by clampers. Therefore, it is important to have a process by which those who believe their vehicles have been wrongly clamped can appeal a fine and seek recovery of costs incurred. I appreciate the inclusion of a two-stage appeals process and know that this will be welcomed by the driving public. Where a private company has been found to have unfairly clamped a car, a local authority should be able to fine it for the disruption caused. This would serve to deter such clamping in the future.
These issues bring into question the fundamental problem of clamping being administered by a private company because profit will always be the motivator. While profit may be best made by providing the best service for the contractor, since the local authority is the contractor, this might not always be the path chosen by the clamping company. It may see revenue from fines as a motivator or take the view that meeting quotas in respect of clamping or fines is more important than administering the system laid down by regulations effectively. Local authorities should be directly responsible for clamping and fines, as they are best placed to run a clamping system that is fair and in the best interests of the community.
The clamping sector is potentially a lucrative market for those who put profit above procedure. In Dublin city last year a total of 56,601 clamps were placed on cars. This is equivalent to approximately 155 per day and represents an increase on the 2013 figures. A total of €4.2 million was made from clamping fines alone last year, six times more than the amount collected in the city in parking fees. This illustrates the importance of providing proper parking facilities for motorists. Clampers should operate within a culture that does not encourage clamping for its own sake or financial gain. The only merit of the practice is discouraging drivers from parking illegally. In some cases it may be better not to clamp a car, despite an infringement, in the interests of allowing traffic to flow as freely as possible.
There should be a campaign to raise the level of public awareness of the type of parking that will result in clamping. Where offences are most common, signage explaining the potential for offending should be posted. There is confusion among the public about where and when a vehicle can be clamped. Thankfully, the Bill brings clarity in formulating clear regulations for public and private property and lands.
The measures included in the Bill to tackle the problem of rogue clampers are important. They will help us to create a driver culture in which motorists will expect fair but firm treatment in parking.
I understand the arguments in favour of the operation of clamping at hospitals, but the practice should be considered with great care. Clamping is only useful when it does not increase or potentially increase the level of disruption or risk, but that is very much a possibility in a hospital setting. Clamping should not be allowed to impede the use of hospitals by emergency services where a vehicle that should be removed is clamped.
A long-term patient who has a car clamped should be given some recognition. Although an infringement cannot be ignored, certain conditions may be recognised as relevant or "complicating" to a case. I will seek to amend this at a later stage.
It is important to set maximum and minimum charges for both public and private clamping in order to end the private practice, particularly among management companies, of setting their own clamping fees. I welcome new rules with regard to signage and the clarity given to both private and public clampers. The exemption of emergency services vehicles gives greater clarity for those performing essential duties. Proper training and best practice with regard to interacting with people in a tense atmosphere should be provided as a matter of course.
I reiterate my belief that clamping should be outlawed in hospital environments. Other means should be employed to manage parking because people have been caught up in emergency situations only to come out and find that their cars have been clamped or their parking ticket has run out. I have seen that happening at Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown and found it very upsetting. The appeals mechanisms are welcome and the inclusion of an independent appeals officer after the first port of call for an appeal has been exhausted is very welcome.
I welcome the Bill and commend the process by which it was developed. I would encourage the Minister to use such a process more often and to urge his Cabinet colleagues to do the same. The Minister has stated that he hopes to continue to develop legislation in this way, which I welcome. I also wish to thank the Oireachtas committee and officials from the Department for their work on the Bill. This has been a very good example of how the Opposition can operate alongside departmental officials and the Government in delivering what I believe is a reasonably good Bill.
It is an indictment of the situation that this is the first time we are discussing vehicle clamping regulations in this House. What we have had on the ground, in many areas, is some companies operating like extortion rackets. Clamping firms are patrolling the streets, trying to ensnare and entrap unsuspecting motorists. This is an area which needs to be regulated and controlled and while I welcome this Bill as a move in that direction, I am not sure that it fully addresses the situation. That said, I welcome the fact that we are, at last, discussing the area of regulation.
However, we cannot discuss regulation in a vacuum and must do so in the context of the companies providing the service. Deputy Wallace and I have met the clampers who carry out the work for Dublin City Council on a number of occasions. As a result of financial pressures and the huge amount of money that can be made from this activity, those workers were being put under unbearable pressure to achieve targets for fines and clamping, which completely stood on its head the principle of what vehicle clamping should be about. If that is the case with a body that carries out work for a local authority, how much worse must the situation be in the private sector?
How are these regulations going to be enforced? The Bill provides the NTA with the power to oversee and enforce this legislation but how much additional resources will the NTA be given to do this? The NTA would be far better off spending its time trying to get people out of cars and onto public transport by developing a comprehensive public transport system in the cities around Ireland. That would take the pressure off the parking situation while also contributing to a reduction in our carbon emissions and so forth. The NTA should not be spending its time acting as an adjudicator in the money-making racket that clamping has become. While I welcome some regulation, I would prefer to see a situation where we are either greatly restricting the ability of clampers to engage in their activity or even banning clamping outright.
We must step back and look at why clamping and parking charges were introduced in the first place. The motivation behind it was the need to moderate driver behaviour. That was what it was supposed to be about - to ensure free flow. It was to stop the person who was so brazen and who blocked the yellow box or parked on the double yellow line, causing an obstruction. Clamping gave the power to remove the obstruction and allow free flow and I do not think any right-minded person would disagree with that in principle. It was a valuable contribution in the public interest and was very important in the context of health and safety and so forth.
However, that ethos - or the excuse given to introduce clamping - has been stood on its head. Parking fines and clamping are now a lucrative business. In essence, what they represent is part of the process of the privatisation of public space. Clamping is a lucrative money-spinner for the local authorities - against the backdrop of huge cutbacks to their budgets - and for other more unscrupulous individuals as a fund-raising mechanism for themselves. This scenario is not just confined to Ireland. In Britain last year the transport committee of the House of Commons examined the area and found that councils were exploiting parking fines in order to raise revenue illegally. That was the finding of British MPs. The RAC found that the surplus generated from these activities - on-street and off-street parking under public control - was almost €600 million per annum. It became a source of funding which the councils relied on for their other activities.
This has also become a multi-million euro industry in Ireland, as Deputy Ellis pointed out. The five main city councils in Ireland collected almost €50 million in parking payments, including clamping, in 2013 and nationally, the figure is €115 million annually. Those figures do not include moneys raised by private operators. Tens of thousands of vehicles are being clamped in Dublin every year. Retailers and other business people in the cities have argued that over-zealous parking fines and clamping regimes are contributing to driving people away from city centres and are acting as a deterrent to important economic activity. Hard-pressed motorists would agree.
All of this is a consequence of a society which has not invested adequately in public transport. That is where the pressure is coming from. Parking fines and clamping release fees have become another stealth payment that people must pay. In some cases, they must pay to park outside their own homes. Some people are living in areas regulated by management companies, for example, and those companies are failing to provide a decent service and are in dispute with residents. As a punitive measure, the management companies are introducing clamping and denying people the right to park outside their own homes unless they pay disputed management fees. It is extortion and means that people cannot live comfortably in their own homes. It is disgraceful and should be regulated far more than what is provided for in this Bill.
Public clamping in this city has been too successful in some respects. In the early years when clamping was introduced in Dublin it succeeded in moderating driver behaviour. One no longer sees any of the ridiculous carry-on that used to happen years ago. However, because the private company to which the activity was outsourced had to make a profit, targets were built into the contract.
This was a reprehensible decision because increasing targets turns clamping into a revenue generating exercise and another stealth charge on hard-pressed motorists who are already being fleeced in other ways and would prefer in any case to use a bus or train service if public transport were available in their areas.
In recent years, clampers have been sent out to engage in reprehensible activity. Pressure was placed on them to meet targets with the result that mothers rushing a child to hospital had their cars clamped when they parked outside the hospital. Certain areas also became known as rich in easy pickings. Docking workers' wages for failing to meet clamping targets placed them under pressure to drive out to places such as Crumlin hospital at the end of their shift to victimise a few families. Unfortunately, this was the only way they could prevent their wages from being docked. Unsuspecting tourists have also been subjected to ridiculous decisions. For example, tourists who parked at the lights outside Kilmainham Gaol received parking tickets because one car tyre extended slightly beyond the white line. This practice of seeking easy pickings is the result of pressure to make profit arising from a contract negotiated by Dublin City Council. The problem is significantly worse in the unregulated private market.
I appreciate some of the measures in the Bill, for example, in respect of signage because the lack of signage in some areas is a joke. I have been clamped many times and neither I nor anyone I know who has been clamped has ever successfully appealed a clamping decision. The only time the clamping company can be reached is when a telephone call is made to have the clamp released by providing credit card details. People do not have any human contact and they never receive a genuine personal letter that addresses their grievances. This issue must be dealt with. If the appeals process is to be meaningful, it must be independent.
Cities cannot be run on the basis of private transport. I would much prefer if the National Transport Authority were to use its limited resources to develop a comprehensive public transport system for Dublin and the rest of the country, rather than wasting its time adjudicating on what has become another stealth charge on ordinary people.
I will make a few brief points on the Bill. Having been introduced for traffic management purposes, clamping has morphed into a major revenue raising exercise by private companies. This approach should be outlawed. Clamping for traffic management purposes is one thing but its use as a means of extorting money from drivers is unacceptable.
It is obscene that people returning from a hospital visit, whether to visit a patient, drop in a sample or undergo a test, often find their cars clamped because they have been delayed by a few minutes. I am sure all Deputies could relate tales of woe caused by clamping. My car was clamped on one occasion while I was dropping a sample into Connolly Hospital. I was speaking to the consultant at the entrance after he called me back and my car was clamped right in front of us. My daughter was also present. The consultant, who was a member of the board of the hospital, failed to persuade the clampers to remove the device. It is beyond belief that such practices are taking place on hospital grounds.
I ask the Minister to consider introducing an amendment to rectify a deficiency in the Bill related to private management companies, which are not covered. Private estate management companies are a scourge in Dublin West, a constituency in which much of the house building of the past ten years has taken place. Many of these are mult-unit estates have a mix of apartments and houses and residents, including - wrongly - the residents of houses, are frequently required to pay management fees. Many management companies are using clamping to get people to pay management fees. This has occurred in the Phoenix Park Racecourse estate and other estates in Dublin 15 and elsewhere and is currently taking place in Ongar. What happens is the management company holds a meeting at which it introduces a system of parking permits. Subsequently, anyone who fails to pay the full management fee is not issued with a parking permit, with the result that his or her car will be clamped outside their door. Parents who are trying to get their children to school or leave for work will then discover their car has been clamped. Does the Minister propose to do anything about this practice?
Private management companies are a burden that should never have been imposed on people, especially those living in houses. Many of them are not subject to proper regulation or accountability because they are operated by developers. It is unacceptable that people have to put up with such companies engaging in clamping. I guarantee that this will be a live election issue in many areas because if anything annoys people, it is being prevented from relaxing in their home.
Clamping was started by local authorities in cities but has since been outsourced to large multinational companies. In 2012, APCOA Ireland, one of the companies involved, had accumulated profits of €3.4 million. It is clear from where the pressure to clamp comes and it is not connected with traffic management.
I am sure Deputies will have read reports indicating that Merrion Square, at the rear of Leinster House, is the most clamped area in Dublin. All of us will have observed clampers lying in wait in the hope that people will return to their cars one or two minutes late. Many Deputies have brought guests to the House to attend a debate or for other reasons whose cars have been clamped because they were delayed by two minutes. If this practice is taking place 100 yd. from this Chamber, the Minister should do something about it.
I ask the Minister to address the issues I raise. Failing that, I will seek to amend the Bill to take account of the experiences of residents living in estates with private management companies. Many young families are feeling the strain of the property tax, management fees and, potentially, water charges and many have lost their jobs. Should they endure the practice of clamping in the areas in which they live? I think not.
I do not disagree with the Minister that clamping is a highly effective parking enforcement mechanism, provided it is practised on public roads and, occasionally, where vehicles are restricting access to a site. Clamping is, however, the only enforcement mechanism in most areas in my constituency where private pay parking is in force. The reason is that it is a highly lucrative activity.
This issue has been approached in the wrong way. We should have debated how we could design a parking system that people would accept. This would require the participation of local authorities and members of the public.
When clamping was outlawed in Scotland in 1992, landowners received a boost because ticketing was made easier. The issue was not one of enforcement but what type of enforcement would apply. England and Wales followed the approach taken in Scotland when they sought to introduce a means of regulating limited space and rewarding people for investing in the delivery of parking spaces on private land that was fair to motorists. This Bill does not take the correct approach.
I attended the briefing that was offered to Members. I knew before I asked a question on England and Wales what the answer would be, namely, that the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution.
We have a written Constitution but the right to private property is tempered by social justice in that it has to be in the common good. I do not believe what we are doing in terms of designing a parking system is in the common good. While I will not oppose this legislation, I just do not think we are going about it the right way. There is the right to ownership of private property but it is a question of how we use that private property. For example, if a person wanted to build a house and the land is not zoned and is outside an area such as a town centre, the person has to go through a process and does not have an automatic entitlement because we regulate that entitlement. There is every reason to believe we could regulate the entitlement to use or not use private spaces for parking and have a system that is designed to work.
I come across people who will avoid at all costs going into the town and village centres in Kildare because they have been clamped or have got a parking ticket for perhaps being parked for only a very short time. It is not about traffic flows; it is that the enforcement is very heavy-handed. I completely echo the points that have been made in regard to the hospitals. I am not surprised Deputy Ellis and Deputy Coppinger have referred to Blanchardstown Hospital, which is the hospital I have received most complaints about. I had a constituent who was visiting his relative but the situation got so stressful that he ended up being a patient himself. There is great pressure when people are in having tests or perhaps queuing for an X-ray and then have to run out because it is only possible to put in money for two hours. If the time goes to two hours and ten minutes, the worry for the person is whether to leave the queue to move the car. It is not as if this is bringing in money for the hospitals because, very often, the land is actually owned by somebody else and the benefit and the return goes to somebody else. It is an outrage.
The same situation arises daily in my constituency in regard to the management companies. Where someone has bought a house or an apartment in a housing estate, and the services they paid for are not being delivered and they decide not to pay the fee, they do not get the parking ticket and they then find their car is clamped - that is if they can even get in, if it is a gated development. It is not just being clamped; if the person continues the dispute, there is an extra charge added on for every day. The amounts of money being talked about are €100 or €120. However, this is not in any way connected with parking or using a limited resource and it is not about traffic management. It should be outlawed if it is not to do with that.
By-laws are another issue. I wanted two points dealt with in legislation. One is that, to take Kildare as an example, there can be two or three different arrangements in an area, whereby the local authority has pay parking and two or three different companies are managing or enforcing a particular site. The person nearly has to know who owns the land and who the enforcer is. To just put money in a meter, a person would nearly need to know the by-laws that underpin it. I believe a law that requires this kind of information is deficient. Any parking in a town or village centre environment should be subject to a set of by-laws, whether it is on private or public property, and there should be a public consultation around that. The second point is that there needs to be a change whereby by-laws can be reviewed but that this can be done in a way such that pieces of law can be taken out and reviewed, rather than the very costly and heavily administrative approach of having to review the entire set.
With regard to the payment of parking charges, tickets are issued on the street in the North and people are offered the opportunity to pay the fine within 14 days, and they pay only half of the fine if they pay within that period. This makes absolute sense because it cuts down hugely on administration and appeals and is still a means of enforcement. I was told that is not for this Bill. However, if we were talking about legislation that was actually covering the spectrum and looking at it from the point of view of what kind of parking arrangement and sanctions we should have, and in what locations clamping should be enforced, although in an entirely different way - obviously, through fines - I believe the public should have an entitlement to be included in that process. We have a supposedly reformed local government system that is supposed to have additional powers. This is one of the powers that would be very meaningful. I believe we would find that, for example, traders in many of our towns and villages would very much appreciate having an involvement in the design of something that works for them and which turns over spaces but, at the same time, is not punitive in regard to putting people off going to shop in our towns and villages. I do not think we are even at the point of talking about that.
If we are looking at this from the point of view of containment, there is no doubt there are positive aspects to the legislation, for example, the fact that people can appeal. People have come to me, having just been clamped, who do not have the €120 to pay the bill but they are not able to talk to these people. It has been my experience that, even in the most extreme of situations, they are not able to get through to the clamping company to get an answer. If that is going to change, it is certainly an improvement. However, I believe we are going about this in the wrong way and that we could do so much better than this limited approach and could have a much more inclusive approach.
This is something I have talked about at the committee which used to cover local government, arts, heritage, the Gaeltacht, transport, tourism and sport before it was divided up. The reform meant we were more efficient in covering a wider gambit but, thankfully, transport, tourism and sport went to another committee, making it a little more manageable. This is an issue that is a staple for practically every one of us here. There is a genuine issue in providing parking spaces and in having the money to provide them. However, there has to be a fair approach to how that is enforced. I think the public have to be included in the design of that because, otherwise, it creates huge resentments and does quite a bit of damage in terms of the viability of town and village centres. Obviously, this is a very limited Bill from that point of view, but I believe it would be useful for the Minister to outline whether he is considering doing something more comprehensive in regard to the overall approach to parking and the viability of town and village centres in that context.
I would like to thank the previous Minister, Deputy Varadkar, for presenting the discussion document on this Bill to the then Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 2011. This good legislation demonstrates good politics and I thank all the stakeholders who made submissions on this important Bill.
I am from County Roscommon, a county where we have no parking fees or traffic wardens, but where we face the issue of competing rights versus responsibilities. We tend to take a Mediterranean or laissez faireattitude to using a motor vehicle. Seat belts were introduced to save lives and drink driving rules were introduced years ago. Most people decided they would not drink and drive, not because that might cause the death of somebody else or themselves, but because if they were caught they might lose their licence or their insurance would increase. The introduction of penalty points had a similar effect on people's attitudes and stopped people speeding. I am one of those people whose mind was focused on safer driving following the introduction of the point system.
Driving a vehicle carries with it rights and responsibilities. Years ago, the main road to Dublin passed through every town and it was not uncommon to find traffic stopped because somebody parked a lorry, van or tractor on the main street. The attitude then was that the driver did so because he was busy, but thankfully we now have rules and regulations in place. This was certainly necessary.
Clamping is an issue, particularly unfair clamping in hospital car parks. It is good that we will now have a system in place to deal with this issue. If people feel they have been unfairly clamped, they can appeal first to the authority and if dissatisfied with the response can go to the NTA to state their case. I believe that "parking controllers", as they are called, have not always displayed signage regarding clamping prominently and people who have inadvertently parked wrongly have felt unfairly treated. I am very careful about parking and, fortunately, I have never knowingly parked in a disability space or the like.
In the past it has happened that people have been fined wrongly, and not just for illegal parking. Fianna Fáil was fined once after a presidential election for posters that had not been taken down within the time limit. Sometimes people remove posters and then replace them a week later. They then telephone the local authority complaining how awful it is that the poster is still up. This happened after the presidential election. Two signs were taken down and later erected again. Despite the fact there were hundreds of illegal signs regarding a certain hospital protest erected, Fine Gael was fined €150 because two signs from the presidential election were not removed. I agree a fine should be imposed for leaving posters up, but treatment should be equal across the board. I am always fearful of such situations arising and of people posting pictures on Facebook. Sometimes a restricted parking sign might be covered up, yet a photograph is taken of an uncaring Deputy parking in the area. We need a system in place that allows people make an appeal in cases of unfairness.
It is good to see the provision of a separate complaints procedure to the NTA. A function of the NTA will be to regulate clamping activities, which is what people want. They want citizens to work together in regard to their rights and responsibilities. Some people take advantages of certain situations, but this Bill closes that loophole. I thank the Minister and the committee for working closely together to achieve what I believe is a good Bill.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate on the Vehicle Clamping Bill and to offer my thoughts on certain aspects of the legislation. I am sure that many of us have heard some of the horror stories outlined by Deputy Catherine Murphy about rogue clampers. We have all heard about cases where barely noticeable clamping signs are strategically positioned in car parks in order to attract the least amount of attention in a bid to catch unaware motorists. We have all heard various stories about clampers prowling around hospital car parks, looking to make a profit. These individuals had free rein and could do as they liked to vulnerable people visiting their loved ones. Many of these visitors were from country reasons and that is the reason I decided to contribute on the Bill.
I am particularly pleased with the first aspect of the Bill I would like to discuss. As the former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport said last summer when the Bill was first published, "The clamping Bill will protect motorists from rogue clampers. It will ensure that clamping activities are carried out in a fair and transparent manner". I welcomed this statement back in June 2014 and I do so again now. The Bill will protect members of the public from rogue clamping by introducing a level of consistency to clamping for the first time. More importantly, it will now regulate clamping on private property, be it a hospital car park, a shopping centre or a private apartment complex.
I do not favour an outright ban on clamping because it has proven very effective in eliminating unauthorised parking, for example, where someone parks in a disability parking space. What I am in favour of is introducing a specific set of laws to govern clamping on private property, to ensure that all clampers are obeying the same set of laws and rules and there are no discrepancies between clamping companies. By enacting this legislation, we are for the first time regulating the entire industry, regardless of whether it is concerned with public or private property. This is significant for the public as it provides certainty and consistency. It is also significant for the legitimate clamping operators who have always obeyed the law.
In regard to signage, I am pleased that the Bill obliges landowners or persons responsible for areas in which clamping is operated to provide prominent signs indicating that clamping is in operation. They are also obliged to provide information on the clamp release fee and whether any relocation charges will apply. This is a good example of how the legislation acts to regulate the clamping industry. I understand the National Transport Authority will regulate for where this signage is located, the information to be provided, dimensions, design and so forth. The only suggestion I would make to the National Transport Authority is that it should ensure this signage and its location are as visible and as clear as possible. I am sure that will be done.
I mentioned at the beginning of my contribution that there are far too many examples of private car parks with little or no signage visible to alert people to clamping in a bid to catch them out and make a profit. I welcome any moves to rectify this problem. I also welcome the simplicity of the appeals system. I believe the two-tier system concept is important. For the first stage, the person must make his or her appeal to the body responsible for enforcing parking in a particular area. The fact that this appeal is free is important, as it creates a certain degree of fairness in the appeals process.
If they are unsatisfied with the result of this first appeal, they are then allowed to proceed to the second stage, where an independent clamping appeals officer designated by the NTA will examine the case. There will be a fee for lodging a second stage appeal and this fee is to be decided upon by the authority. I would like more clarity on this provision. I ask that the NTA considers a reasonable fee for any second stage appeal. An individual may well have incurred an expense of between €100 and €150 by being clamped and having to pay a relocation fee and, therefore, I would not like greater expense placed on an individual if appealing the case.
I refer to a transport issue that is not related to the legislation but that I would like addressed, which is the provision of sensible speed limits of greater than 50 km/h on national primary routes on the outskirts of villages, for example, Rathowen and Ballinalack on the N4. The Minister has received a great deal of grief from me regarding the legislation that came into effect on 8 December last, which introduced changes to the penalty point system, particularly in respect of the National Car Test. No appointment dates are available in counties Longford and Westmeath until March, April and May and this is causing untold hardship and annoyance. I would appreciate it is this issue could be addressed as soon as possible. I have received a significant number of e-mails from people following the introduction of the new regulations regarding the National Car Test service. Not alone have I received e-mails from those affected but I have also received e-mails from sons and daughters pleading on behalf of elderly parents who are fearful that they may be put off the road. The issue is causing genuine concern throughout the length and breadth of rural Ireland because an appropriate public transport service is not in place to cater for people who are disqualified or who incur penalty points. I would appreciate it if this could be addressed as soon as possible because it is a huge issue in rural Ireland.
I welcome the legislation, which brings a great deal of clarity and certainty to what was previously an unregulated system. It will greatly curtail the operations of rogue clampers by establishing a code of practice for standards and provide guidance to clamping operators and it sets out a fair process of appeals for individuals who wish to contest their case. I commend the Minister on introducing the Bill. I acknowledge the other issues I raised are not relevant to the Bill but this is an opportunity to raise issues of great concern to my constituents, which is what I have done. I would appreciate it if the Minister took them on board.
This Bill addresses the commitment in the programme for Government to legislate for the regulation of clamping. The impetus for this commitment stems principally from public concern about the activity of some clamping operators, and the extent to which clamping may be carried out in a less than fair manner, with no obvious consistent or transparent recourse to appeal against perceived abuses. The areas of greatest public concern relate to the level and variation in clamp release charges currently applied, the lack of a clearly identifiable and accessible clamping appeals process, and the frequent absence of appropriate information signage for motorists. There are also issues with the of clamping practices on private land, which needed to be examined and legislated for, and it is only right that the Oireachtas considers these matters, and legislates accordingly.
In December 2011, the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, of which I am a member, met to discuss the issue of clamping. The committee discussed a number of options that proposed to address public concerns about clamping. These options included banning clamping, whether proposed legislation should be confined to clamping activities on private property only, or to both private and public property or allowing clamping operators to self-regulate. The committee discussed the regulation of clamping activities and how this might be done. For instance, in introducing legislation, should the primary focus be on those individuals or companies undertaking the clamping activity or, alternatively, should the circumstances and requirements for the application of a clamp to a vehicle be regulated instead? The issue of whether the related activity of towing should be regulated was also considered.
The result of these deliberations was the recommendation that the NTA should be designated as regulator of clamping activities and that there should be a maximum permissible clamp release charges on private lands. In addition, it was agreed that there should be a two tier appeals process and an obligation to provide clear and prominent signage in areas where clamping is operated, as well as the establishment of codes of practice to provide practical guidance regarding compliance with regulatory requirements. It was further decided that there should be regulations concerning how clamping operators identify themselves and there should be appropriate penalties for breaching provisions of the Bill or regulations made under it. Most of the core suggestions arising from the main areas of concern identified by the committee have been provided for in this Bill, which I commend to the House.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important Bill, which was promised in both the programme for Government and the Fine Gael's election general manifesto in 2011 to address clamping issues. It has been the source of annoyance for many people who have gone toe to toe with a clamper, particularly private clampers who act without a strict set of guidelines and structure in respect of signage, an appeals mechanism and so on. I very much welcome Bill, which will mean that for the first time the regulation of private clamping operators will be put on a statutory legal footing.
The purpose of the legislation is to ensure all clamping activities are carried out in a fair and transparent manner and to protect motorists and legitimate clamping companies. It will introduce consistency to clamping for the first time, whether it takes place on public or private roads. I am happy that the Bill will establish a new regulatory regime, a simple two step appeals process, a default maximum clamping release fee for private property, a code of practice for operators, and a new requirement that signs must always be displayed where clamping is in operation.
I am aware of many cases in Athy and Newbridge in my constituency where excessive charges have been applied by clampers. Where difficulties arise, the ability of the motorists to raise complaints and have them adequately heard has been a running sore for some time. I recall being approached by a constituent who was hit with a €120 fine. The only way to have the car released was to pay the fine. The person had a valid ticket but it had fallen off the dashboard on to the car floor. The staff member who released the clamp and collected the fine said he had no way of adjudicating on the matter and the motorist would have to ring the company. He rang the company and got nowhere. Following months of frustration, he gave up. That is not good enough. If that is happening on a regular basis, the company is abusing the system. The legislation will make sure rogue companies are held to account from now on.
Under this Bill, the regulation function will pass to the NTA. Following its passage, the main areas which can be regulated by the NTA are the clamp release and vehicle relocation charges; the provision of appropriate advisory signage in areas where clamping is carried out; and the establishment of a two tier clamping appeals process. A separate complaints procedure to consider complaints from members of the public is necessary and crucial. There has been a lack of flexibility in the past in genuine cases but the companies will know there is someone watching over them and it is important that there are set rules to adhere to.
The maximum clamp release charge is also important.
Figures such as €120 plus for a clamp release are excessive. It nearly encourages a culture of trying to make as much money as possible. Another complaint I have heard is that people were not aware that they could be clamped in certain areas as there was limited signage with the operating times. Alternatively, the signage might have been slightly covered such that it could always have been said that there were signs, even though they were not that visible. There were genuine cases in which people I knew had their vehicles clamped and never thought they needed to purchase a ticket in certain areas. Persons responsible for enforcing parking restrictions in places where clamping is operated, who are referred to in the Bill as "parking controllers", will be obliged to provide signage which should be prominently displayed, indicate that clamping is in operation and provide details of the relevant charges applying to such activities. This is crucial and very much sought.
There are issues around parking in general. The Bill addresses many issues relating to clamping in private areas. There is public paid parking in many towns in south Kildare where cars can be parked on the main streets. In many respects, this system was introduced to aid local business and stop the person who either works in the town or is commuting to Dublin from parking his or her car on the street for the day and taking up a valuable space a shopper might use. It is a good idea in principle and should provide revenue for the local authority that could then be spent on local services. I know that it relates to the issue of planning and as such is as much a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government as it is for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The planning laws that allow large-scale out-of-town developments where there are ample free parking spaces in some way result in footfall moving from town centres. Some businesses will consider paid parking on streets is a disincentive to business when the system was designed to be the opposite and allow spaces for shoppers to come in to town for a couple of hours and make sure there would be a turnover of cars and traffic in the town. We are seeing viable businesses in certain towns closing or moving to larger retail units on their edge. I know that this has definitively happened in Naas. We do not want to see this phenomenon proliferate in the rest of the country. Planning should be sequential from the centre outwards and encourage and make sure town centres remain vibrant hives of activity.
I am very happy to support the Bill which has been designed to protect motorists and legitimate clamping operators. It will also penalise bad behaviour on the part of rogue operators. I accept that clamping is necessary, as it provides an incentive for people to park responsibly. Without it, we would have other difficulties. However, the variety and inconsistency of release charges applied in privately owned car parks have caused serious annoyance and are not acceptable. That is why I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Bill which is very welcome and part of Fine Gael policy. We have had a serious issue in my area with clamping, particularly in private car parks. I am in favour of car parking spaces being turned over quickly, particularly on main streets, because that is what traders in towns want. However, I have a real problem with clamping in private car parks which I have experienced on a number of occasions. As Deputy Martin Heydon said, there is a variety of release charges applied and I am delighted that we have been able to make a decision on what the maximum release charge should be.
I encourage the Minister to encourage private car parking operators to move to using the barrier method. This is not social policy; it has more to do with car use policy. I encourage private car park operators to, where possible, use a method where people pay based on the length of time they use a car park. The key factor, particularly in Naas, is that people should shop and want to spend money in the town. They should not be distracted in having to rush out to pay their car fee while they are buying an article of clothing. Sometimes they will try on four or five items of clothing and forget that the time is up. They then find that their vehicle has been clamped. As a result, they will talk to others and ask why should they should shop in the town because every time they do so, their vehicle is clamped. They will talk about how they are put under under pressure when they shop. I ask the Minister to look at whatever methods he can find to encourage more private car park operators to use a method where people pay based on the length of time they use a car park. Perhaps the rates charged might be looked at. Perhaps we might have a situation where one pays a higher rate to the local authority than if one use was to use the barrier method in a private car park. Perhaps tax breaks might be given to those who operate barrier car parking systems in order that people would not be under pressure to leave shops and rush back.
We have a good deal of out-of-town shopping centres which discourage people from coming into town centres. Deputy Martin Heydon spoke about the planning laws. Is there any possibility of increasing the local rate for out-of-town units that provide free parking spaces because they discourage people from going into the centre of town? I hope the Minister will take these two ideas on board to encourage the greater use of barrier systems in private car parks in towns in order that people will be able to spend their money not on having their vehicles released but in shops in towns.
I welcome the Bill and encourage the Minister to look at other angles. It is important that the public understand that wherever vehicles could be clamped there is consistency across the country and that the system is fair and equitable. I will be supporting the Bill and again encourage the Minister to have a look at barrier systems in private car parks to see if he can encourage their use.
I am pleased to see this Bill being brought forward and join the Minister in acknowledging the work the Oireachtas joint committee put into this issue. I am a big fan of the pre-legislative scrutiny process and note that it happened in this instance on the double, which is great. It is great to see such work being done, given the fact that members of the public and interested bodies can have an input into legislation before it is drafted and published in order that changes can be identified and made at a time when they can be made far more easily.
The Bill is not before time. I recently received a complaint from a constituent who had parked her vehicle in Cork city on a very wet evening. She did not see any sign indicating that clamping was in operation in the area or that a parking ticket was required. After she had done her shopping, she came back a little while later to find her car had been clamped. It took the company an hour and a half to come and unclamp her car at a cost of €165. It is, therefore, welcome that the Minister is restricting the charges that may be levied.
I suggest we take account of the length of time it takes to have a car unclamped. If somebody has to wait an enormous length of time, it is extraordinarily inconvenient, as he or she has to get on with his or her life. He or she may have appointments to attend and other things to do. The woman in question was picking up her daughter and they had to wait in the rain until the people in question came to unclamp the car. If a company cannot unclamp a car within a reasonable length of time, say, 30 minutes, fees should be waived. This should be a condition of policy.
The two previous speakers mentioned parking in town centres as opposed to parking in out-of-town centres. If there are major restrictions and penalties in connection with parking in town centres, town centres will die. This is happening all over the country. If clamping is added, it will further disincentivise people from shopping in town centres. The Minister has a responsibility to ensure there are adequate parking spaces in towns because being able to park is a commercial imperative.
Many businesses in our towns need places where people can park in order to do their shopping. The principle behind parking charges in towns is to encourage a turnover in the use of parking spaces, whereby people would have to move their cars after a certain period so that others can take their place. Business owners are the main offenders in this regard. They often leave their cars parked outside their business premises all day long, only to wonder why customers are not coming to them. We have to encourage business owners and their staff to avoid parking in the vicinity of main streets so that customers can park in these areas. That is common sense.
Clamping should be a last resort except in the case of people parking in disabled spaces. I suggest that the Minister should consider mandatory clamping for cars parked in disabled spaces without permits. It is the only approach that might prevent people from parking in designated disabled spaces. All of us have observed individuals pulling into such spaces, thereby denying it to somebody who needs the space because he or she is wheelchair bound or has another disability. Fines do not appear to work in these situations. The penalties for parking in disabled spaces are not strict enough but clamping would end this problem for once and for all. There is no excuse for an able bodied person parking in such spaces, except laziness. It is inconsiderate and downright mean behaviour.
The Minister referred to apartment complexes. Many of the apartment developments constructed in the recent past failed to provide adequate car parking space. The planning regulations were changed several years ago to allow for high density developments. I have encountered cases in which neighbours fell out with each other over the lack of car parking space in apartment complexes and housing estates. We need to ensure housing developments provide adequate car parking.
Does the legislation make provision for emergency vehicles, including doctors' cars, so that they are not clamped? If a GP parks his or her car on the street and rushes into a premises to deal with an emergency, is there a prospect that he or she will come out to find that the car has been clamped? There have been instances in the past where this has happened. I suggest that if a car displays a doctor's sign it should not be clamped.
The NTA and other agencies responsible for implementing this legislation should treat clamping as a last resort. If people park in dangerous places, their vehicles should be moved but if clamping becomes the norm it will be very inconvenient for everybody. There is also an inconvenience in purchasing parking tickets. Deputy Lawlor spoke about the use of barriers, which are a good idea. We might encourage shopping centres to make use of barriers so that people can park in underground carparks or designated spaces without having to worry about rushing back to put money in the meter. We need to find a balance between out-of-town shopping centre car parks and on-street parking. People will go where it is easiest to park. I have heard stories of people parking as close as they can to the door of the gym to avoid having to walk any distance. There appears to be a mentality whereby walking is regarded as an inconvenience. Perhaps we should encourage people to park a bit further away in order to take exercise. I have been trying to park a couple of hundred yards away from my intended destination so that I can take a stroll.
This is a timely Bill. I am curious about the decision not to require licensing of places where clamping might occur. We need to keep an eye on this. Locations where clamping can occur should be designated. However, if this goes overboard and clamping becomes a money making racket we may need to consider introducing a licensing regime for clamping. The Minister decided not to proceed in that direction because he regarded it as too expensive. What is the expense in sending a map and a letter to the NTA and asking it to say "Yes" or "No"? It should not be very expensive to get permission from the NTA to introduce clamping in a particular public area. If we go down the route of having local authorities make the decision on clamping, this has to be based on safety concerns and considered very carefully as a last resort. I commend the Bill to the House.
This is a Bill we have been seeking for quite a long time. Parking and clamping can have a serious impact on towns and villages all over this country. It goes without saying that when parking restrictions are applied to the extent that business ceases on our main streets, an alternative has to be found which is legal from the point of view of the person who wants to visit a shop or other commercial premises. Any such arrangement should be within reason. A person should not be able to leave a vehicle in one place all day. It is extraordinary that parking regulations have been applied so rigorously in some of our towns and villages that commercial activities have faded. That commercial activity has been replaced by out-of-town multinational corporate supermarkets which offer plenty of space. I do not know what was intended in the first place. Was it expected that the unfortunate people who were clamped for parking on main streets would repeat the experience rather than going to a location where they would not be clamped? This needs to be considered in the context of applying parking rules and regulations.
The original purpose of parking restrictions was not solely to raise money. They were also intended to regulate obstructions to the flow of traffic. That appears to have been forgotten somewhere along the way. In recent times we have heard more about the receipts from clamping. I have tabled numerous questions to ascertain the precise amounts raised through parking charges and clamping but I found it difficult to access such information. It is a sign of the times that Members of the Oireachtas are finding it difficult to access information which should be readily available.
Clearly one should not park in a no-parking area.
There may be an emergency where somebody gets ill and it may not be possible to do something. There should, therefore, be a method whereby some consideration can be given in those circumstances. I remember dealing with a case not so very long ago where the spouse of a person who was terminally ill was rushing back and forth to hospital on a regular basis for obvious reasons. On one occasion, the person parked short of a clear zone. There was no sign at the particular location from the point at which the person drove in there to say there was no parking. The car was clamped and the person had to pay the unlocking fee. I remember trying to explain at the time to the relevant authorities how difficult it was for the person who was traumatised by the illness the family was suffering and who was making an effort to visit her spouse and did so every single day. I might as well not have spoken to the people in authority at all. I would have been better off. Despite the fact that there was a very compelling reason as to why the woman's case should have been listened to much more carefully, all I got in return was a sneer. There is always another side to a story and it is not always necessary to decide that a person is guilty and that they were simply in the wrong spot. They could not even say that while it was tough luck, they were sorry that the family was in dire straits and the health of the person was not good.
I had an experience myself in the last six months. I was not parking in a no-parking zone, but in an approved car park in a certain part of this city. I made the mistake of paying the meter in full view of the clamping attendants who were in the area unclamping another car at the time. I regret that. I paid double the fee as I did not have the right change, which was fine as I was only going to be there for a short period of ten to 15 minutes anyway. At 6.01 p.m., I paid the fee. Unfortunately, the window of the car was slightly open and there was a gale blowing. It turned over the ticket which was on the dashboard. When I came back at 6.15 p.m., I discovered that I had been clamped at 6.02 p.m. How cynical one can get in a situation like that. I had to pay the unclamping fee. I remonstrated with the guys saying that they had been present when I parked the car ten minutes earlier. "Gosh no, that would have been somebody else" they said. In fact, it was the same people. I mention the case as a need for some reasonable application of the rules in situations where there are compelling, extraordinary or totally explainable reasons as to why something should occur. I am not at all suggesting that people should disobey the parking rules, but there is a need for common sense to prevail. Incidentally, while situations like the one I have just referred to are subject to an appeal, I would not advise anyone who makes an appeal to some of those institutions to hold his or her breath.
By and large, the legislation is welcome. I hope the Minister will take into account the opinions expressed by the Members which are being put forward in good faith. There is no rule that pleases everybody, nor should there be. It would not be a rule if that were the case. However, I note strongly that there may be extenuating circumstances pertaining in particular case. To a great extent, some of these situations can be addressed in advance. I ask that this be done in the context of the legislation now before us.
I thank all Deputies for the points they have made on the Bill this afternoon. I might begin with the issue Deputy Durkan raised as it was a common theme of colleagues' submissions; that is the issue of perceived unfair clamping. Deputy Durkan appears to have been the victim of such a practice that I am made to wonder whether it was a political opponent that was behind the clamping. For the time being, we will rule that out as a possibility.
Everyone raised the issue of clamping in circumstances which people consider to be very unfair. Deputies gave examples of being clamped only a minute after the parking was due to expire. I would like Deputy Durkan to be aware of section 9 of the Bill which I hope addresses the points that colleagues have raised. Section 9 provides for what are referred to at times as "grace periods". Section 9 provides that the National Transport Authority may make clamping regulations and one of the specific issues it can look at will be periods of time in which clamps have been applied or periods of time when a vehicle may be relocated. Under the section, the NTA will be given the ability to make regulations and to provide for consistency in relation to how matters like that can be dealt with so that people feel they will be treated fairly. If people are not treated fairly, they will have recourse to an independent clamping appeals officer, which the Bill also provides for. I wanted to directly answer the question put by Deputy Durkan as it is an issue that has been raised by many Members this afternoon.
I acknowledge the broad support for the Bill. I acknowledge also the fact that this is a Bill that came out of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. One can see the effect of that in the way in which people have responded to the Bill this afternoon. While not everybody supports it fully, most people on balance do. There is a very good understanding of what the Bill seeks to achieve and the methods it employs in that regard. Deputy Ellis put the very fair point to me about whether this is something I want to continue. I absolutely do. When I was in the Seanad before Christmas on the earlier part of the Bill, I took amendments from Senators which have improved the legislation. If amendments come forward here from any side of the House that will do the same, I will definitely accept them. I note, however, that it will not be possible for me to do so in respect of some of the issues some Members have raised and propose to deal with by tabling amendments. In other areas where amendments are proposed which improve the Bill, I will certainly take them.
In relation to other Bills in respect of which I would also like to take this approach, I note the legislation we will bring forward later in the year on drug driving tests and strengthening the law on driving while intoxicated with drugs. It is a new area of road safety policy that will definitely merit debate and consultation within the House as well as greater use of the committee system than other Bills necessarily require. That is certainly legislation on which I will take everybody's input to ensure that we have the strongest law possible in the area.
I will go through the different points Deputies have raised this afternoon and respond to them briefly.
Deputy Timmy Dooley acknowledged the consultation which had taken place on the Bill, consultation I have acknowledged. His main point was about the need to find a way to balance the rights and responsibilities of everybody who had been clamped or who clamped. The Bill seeks to do this. He also said we needed to be very careful not to overburden the sector with regulations or to create agencies the sole job of which would be to implement regulations. I inferred from this that he meant that sometimes doing this created a momentum that was disproportionate in dealing with the issue. That is a fair point. In the Bill we have taken the approach of using an existing body, the National Transport Authority, to try to ensure this will not happen. We have also decided to examine the regulation of clamping activity as opposed to a registration approach, on which Deputy David Stanton touched. This will strike the balance to which Deputy Timmy Dooley referred.
Deputy Dessie Ellis was one of the first to agree with something in the Bill which other Deputies went on to acknowledge, namely, the appeals process. Like many Deputies, my car has been clamped - at least twice as far as I remember. On both occasions I went through the appeals process, which can be very frustrating, to put it mildly. Although we debate very important legislation in the House, the consequences are not always directly and immediately apparent to the people we represent. A practical consequence of the Bill will be the appointment of a clamping appeals officer in the NTA who will provide a consistent appeals process by which citizens will be able to raise cases in which they have been unfairly treated. While this is not to say everybody who goes through the appeals process will be happy with the outcome, there will be an improved process.
Deputy Dessie Ellis has said we must ensure we do not encourage clamping for its own sake, which is a fair point. He also raised the issue of the amount of money some local authorities, mainly Dublin City Council, raised from clamping. The figure was placed in the public domain recently, as Deputy Bernard J. Durkan pointed out. An interesting perspective on the figure is the fact that Dublin City Council pays a very significant amount of money, €6.1 million per annum, for the operation of parking enforcement services. Given that the income generated in 2013 was €4.3 million, the cost to the council of running the service outweighs the revenue generated from it, showing that the council sees clamping as an instrument of parking regulation, rather than as a profit making activity. The figures debunk the point which we may be able to debate further on Committee Stage.
From Deputy Clare Daly’s comments on the Bill, one would think nobody's vehicle was ever clamped because he or she had parked on a double yellow line or in an illegal manner. I might be able to exchange views with the Deputy as the Bill passes through the Dáil. Her language suggested it was a case of extortion and a stealth charge. While I acknowledge that there are practices that must be tackled and issues raised - that is why I have brought forward the Bill which we want to have implemented - the primary objective of clamping is to deal with illegal parking.
Deputy Clare Daly also made a point about the lack of investment in public transport. Just before Christmas I brought forward a Supplementary Estimate to invest €101 million in public transport, which included over €50 million for the modernising of the bus fleet for Bus Éireann and Dublin bus. I also point to the Government’s ability to fund, at desperately difficult times, initiatives such as the Luas cross city line, on which there will be an additional 10 million journeys in public transport when it becomes operational in 2017.
Recently published figures showed that Irish Rail had carried 1 million more passengers last year than in the previous year. This week Dublin Bus announced it was to hire more bus drivers. While I would be the first to acknowledge that we need to make much progress in public transport, despite the great difficulties the country and the Government have faced, we have done all we can to support public transport and there are plans in place to improve it in the future. Deputy Clare Daly argued that clamping was in place to deliver revenue to local authorities. However, when we implemented the local property tax to try to generate additional legitimate revenue for local authorities, she opposed it.
Deputy Ruth Coppinger and other Deputies emphasised what happened at hospitals, an issue on which perhaps we might touch when we discuss amendments to the Bill. She also raised the issue of private management companies, a major issue in Dublin 15, a part of the city I know very well. It is also an issue in parts of my constituency and I would like to discuss the point more with the Deputy on Committee Stage because she made the point that people were not able to relax inside their homes in some areas in which vehicles were subject to clamping by private management companies. However, clamping can and should take place only where there is illegal parking. Therefore, if people's vehicles are parked on their private property or legally on public property in a housing estate or elsewhere, they should not be clamped. I want to hear more evidence from the Deputy to understand whether the Bill could address the point.
Deputy Catherine Murphy said we needed to examine how we regulated the use of private space for parking. This should be done through the planning process. When planning permission is granted for new buildings or developments, the amount of parking space involved is examined by the local authority or An Bord Pleanála. Other parking spaces that might be available in a town or village are subject to the planning process. It is unfair to say there is no regulation of space for parking purposes because the issue should be dealt with through the planning process. The Deputy said we needed to examine how we regulated clamping, but it is the objective of the Bill to give the NTA the power to do this. She also said she supported much of what was in the Bill. If there are other areas in which she believes the Bill could be strengthened, I will be very happy to examine them on Committee Stage.
Deputy Frank Feighan raised the issue of hospitals and supported the appeals process. It will be a major improvement that will be delivered through the Bill.
Deputy James Bannon touched on the issue of road clamping, an issue about which he felt strongly and which the Bill seeks to address. He also referred to the consequences of the lack of signage and the difficulties it could create for commuters and others who were parking their cars. I agree entirely and the issue is specifically identified in the Bill as one that will be regulated.
I also acknowledge he has raised with me many times the need for sensible speed limits outside major towns and has raised with me, on behalf of his constituents, the issue of national car test, NCT, centres. This is a matter of which I am aware and on which I have responded to him.
I thank Deputy Seán Kenny for being broadly supportive of the Bill. He touched on some issues he thought the Bill would address and approved of the process through which I have gone to get to this point. Deputy Heydon noted that under this Bill, limits will be put in place in respect of clamping fees that people might face. I again revert to a point I made earlier, namely, this is an example of legislation that should have a practical and tangible effect on issues that inconvenience people as the Bill will introduce limits to make sure that people do not find themselves in a position where they are subject to charges and fines that are unfair and disproportionate. Deputy Lawlor also made the point about the need for consistency in respect of how people are treated nationally. This is why I am giving such a level of power to the National Transport Authority to deal with this issue.
Deputy Stanton raised a number of issues on which I would like to touch. He raised an issue regarding signage that was covered by an earlier contribution and again, this is a matter that will be tackled explicitly in this Bill. Having been involved in this issue within my own constituency - as the Deputy is aware, it covers much of Dublin city centre - I have seen that many of the issues raised with me refer back either to signage that is not in place at all or to signage that is present but which lacks the requisite level of detail on it. When this happens, the person who is clamped can fairly claim he or she was not aware of the limits. For example, the person may not have been aware the limits were applying on particular days or at particular times. This is something the Bill should address.
The Deputy then raised a point with me on the kinds of people for whom an exemption might apply. This may be an issue to which Members may return because under section 13 of the Bill as proposed, it prevents clamping of the following vehicles: an ambulance, a fire brigade vehicle, any vehicle used by a member of the Garda Síochána or the Defence Forces in respect of his or her duties and a vehicle that could be used by the Garda for other purposes, as well as the issue raised by the Deputy when a disabled person's parking permit is in place. These are the areas that currently prohibit clamping. I believe the issue raised by the Deputy regarding parking in places that are designated for drivers with disabilities would be covered within section 13 of the Bill but perhaps the Deputy might look at this again. If he believes the provision could be strengthened, that can be considered. As for the issue concerning doctors who are using a parking space in the course of their duties, how it might be provided for in the Bill must be considered somewhat more carefully. One factor that allows one to deal with the other duties I have just listed is the fact that many of those people have a specific vehicle that can be identified clearly. Perhaps this is a matter that can be considered on the latter Stages of the Bill. The Deputy then made the point that clamping should be used as a last resort and I completely agree with him. I hope that one consequence of the enactment of this Bill will be that this genuinely will happen. Moreover, when clamping does happen, it will be far better regulated than has been the case in the past.
Deputy Durkan made those points to which I responded at the outset and again raised the issue of how unfairly people can believe they are being treated when they are being clamped. I reiterate my hope that this Bill, when implemented, will go a long way towards addressing the issues raised by Deputies.
I raised the issue of clamping people who park in spaces designated for disabled drivers, which is a different matter to disabled drivers parking there themselves. The Minister might respond to that as it is something about which I feel strongly. Perhaps people who take a disabled parking space illegally and so forth should be clamped automatically. That would be a major deterrent to inconveniencing someone who is a disabled driver and for whom the impact of losing a space is enormous.
I thank the Deputy. I was just double-checking that point and while I will check this again for the purposes of considering the Bill on Committee Stage, my understanding is that a person who is parked in a designated parking space for people with disabilities and who does not have a permit on his or her dashboard should be clamped for so doing or should be subject to whatever sanction a member of the Garda or a local authority believes should be imposed. It should already be possible for clamping to take place under the current law. If the Deputy believes there are some way in which this can be made more automatic, for example, I definitely will consider it. I draw the Deputy's attention to section 13(1)(b) of the Bill which makes provision for where such disabled parking should take place. It provides for making an exemption if the clamping operator or car park controller believes someone might be parked on such a space for reasons beyond convenience. For example, in the case of an emergency, that could be recognised. However, someone who parks in that spot without having a permit to so do, should either be clamped or be open to the sanction the Garda or the local authority deems to be applicable.
I again thank all Members for raising these issues and I have taken careful note of the different points made. I believe that as currently drafted, the Bill will go a long way towards addressing the issues raised by colleagues. As for the main thing the Bill will not be able to do, its purpose is not to put in place parking policy, because that is the role of local authorities. However, the Bill seeks to regulate something that can be a consequence of parking policy, namely, clamping. The Bill seeks to do this in the broadest way possible by focusing on the issue of clamping itself, as opposed to how it is being done. However, I reiterate that as the Bill continues its passage through the House, it can be considered in greater detail. I am sure that when the National Transport Authority acquires the powers to actually do this, it will monitor how this is being implemented and if the authority has ideas as to how it can be strengthened, it certainly will inform the Department.