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Halton Borough Council (20 013 951)

Category : Transport and highways > Parking and other penalties

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 30 Nov 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B and Mr C complained the Council did not send them parking charge notices or tell them these were outstanding. They said the Council wrongly sent bailiffs to their property causing them stress and upset. There was no fault by the Council, Merseyflow or the enforcement company.

The complaint

  1. Miss B and Mr C complained the Council did not send them parking charge notices or tell them these were outstanding. They said the Council wrongly sent bailiffs to their property causing them stress and upset.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  3. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered:
    • Miss B and Mr C’s complaint and the information they provided;
    • documents supplied by the Council;
    • relevant legislation and guidelines; and
    • the Council’s policies and procedures.
  2. Miss B, Mr C and the Council had the opportunity to comment on a draft decision. I considered their comments before making my final decision.

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What I found

Mersey gateway bridge and Local User Discount Support Scheme

  1. There are powers under Part III of the Transport Act 2000, as amended by the Local Transport Act 2008 to create road user charging schemes and impose penalties. The relevant Regulations are the Road User Charging Schemes (Penalty Charges, Adjudication and Enforcement) (England) Regulations 2013 as amended by the Road User Charging Schemes (Penalty Charges, Adjudication and Enforcement) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2014. The Mersey gateway bridge is one of these schemes. Merseyflow administer the charge system for the bridge for the Council.
  2. A Local User Discount Support Scheme (LUDS) allows eligible residents to pay an annual £10 administration fee and cross the bridge for free. This is not an automatic right but is an entitlement that residents may apply for. Under the terms of the LUDS scheme residents must renew their LUDS account yearly.
  3. Councils have powers to issue Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) to people if they do not comply with parking and moving traffic rules. If someone fails to pay to cross the bridge and is not part of the LUDS, Mersey flow will send a PCN to the customer. There is a sliding scale of penalty charges for customers who don’t pay their crossing on time. This starts at £20 plus the original charge fee and increases over time if it is not paid.
  4. After 45 days Merseyflow will register the debt with the County Court. It will add court fees to the debt and send the customer an Order of Recovery.
  5. If, after a further 21 days, the customer has not paid, the debt will be passed to Merseyflow’s enforcement partners.
  6. When the debt is passed to an enforcement company there are two stages:
    • Compliance stage: The enforcement company must send a notice of enforcement giving the customer a minimum of seven clear days to pay before a visit can be made. The debtor can make a payment proposal following the Notice of Enforcement. The enforcement company adds a compliance stage fee to the debt.
    • Enforcement stage: If the debtor does not pay during the compliance stage or they default on a payment arrangement, the enforcement company will pass their account to an individual enforcement agent. The agent will visit the customer’s property to take control of their goods. At the time of the visit, an enforcement fee is added to the debt.
  7. In 2014 the Ministry of Justice produced national standards for enforcement agents.
  8. The Council has an escalation panel which considers cases where individuals incurred considerable debts from crossing the bridge or had mitigating circumstances.

What happened

  1. This chronology includes key events in this case and does not cover everything that happened.
  2. In March 2019, Merseyflow sent Mr C two reminders that his LUDS was going to expire in April 2019. It told him how he could renew his LUDS account.
  3. Mr C did not renew his LUDS account. In April 2019 his account automatically reverted to a prepay account. Merseyflow sent him a low balance and a negative balance notification. It explained he needed to add credit to his account to avoid being issued a PCN.
  4. Between September 2019 and December 2020, Merseyflow sent Mr C 41 PCNs for using the Mersey gateway bridge without paying the charge.
  5. For each parking charge Merseyflow sent him the following:
    • Parking charge notice
    • Charge certificate
    • Order for recovery of unpaid penalty charge
  6. The PCNs included a picture of his car using the bridge and the date and time of the crossing. The letters told him how much he owed and how to pay. The letters included information about how to appeal the PCN.
  7. The charge certificates contained details of the offense and explained how to pay the charge. The letters explained if he did not pay, the debt would be registered at the County Court and Merseyflow would ask it to issue an order for recovery. It advised him if payment was still not received, it would instruct enforcement agents to collect the outstanding debt.
  8. The orders for recovery told Mr C how much he owed and how to make a payment. It also told him how to make a witness statement to the Court if he had paid, not received or appealed the PCN. The order was clear that if he did not pay, his possessions could be removed and sold to pay the charge.
  9. For the debts passed to the enforcement company, the company sent Mr C a notice of enforcement. The letter told him how much he owed and how to pay. It advised, “You must pay the total amount you owe, or phone us to discuss your circumstances, by the date and time below. We may be able to offer a payment plan.” It told him if he did not pay, an enforcement agent would visit him and may remove his belongings to sell.
  10. The enforcement company sent Mr C reminders for each debt before the deadline for payment elapsed. This letter told him if he did not make a payment or contact the company, an enforcement agent would visit, and more fees would be charged.
  11. In October 2020, an enforcement agent visited Miss B’s property because it had not received payment and Mr C had not contacted it to set up a payment plan. They paid around £700 to the enforcement company during the visit. Mrs B said she was pregnant when this visit took place and the distress negatively impacted her and her baby.
  12. In total, Mr C paid around £800 to Merseyflow and £700 to the enforcement company. As of January 2021, Mr C’s outstanding debt was around £2500.
  13. Miss B emailed Merseyflow and asked if it could reduce their debt as they were Hatton residents when the PCNs were incurred.
  14. In January 2021, the escalation panel considered Mr C’s case. The panel decided Mr C would have been eligible for the LUDS during the period the PCNs were incurred. The panel made him a settlement offer based on him paying the road user charge for crossing and any enforcement fees he had incurred. It offered to lessen his debt from around £2500 to £200. The panel then considered the amount Mr C had already paid to the enforcement company and agreed, as a goodwill gesture, to write off the debt.
  15. Miss B asked the Council to refund the money Mr C had already paid. She accepted the PCNs were issued correctly and explained there were mitigating circumstances. She said she was pregnant at the time the charges were incurred and Mr C was made redundant because of health issues.
  16. The escalation panel considered her request in March 2021. The panel found all the PCNs were served correctly, and enforcement procedures were followed. The panel agreed Mr C had already benefited from his outstanding debt being written off in January 2021. It decided not to refund the money Mr C paid to Merseyflow or the enforcement company.

Response to enquiries

  1. The Council advised the enforcement company had no record of Miss B telling it she was pregnant and destroyed video footage of the visit after 45 days in line with its policy.

Analysis

  1. I found no fault with how Merseyflow, the Council and the enforcement company processed Mr C’s PCNs, or the action they took to try to recover his debt.
  2. For each charge incurred, Merseyflow sent up to three pieces of correspondence to Mr C. For each debt passed to the enforcement company, it sent him a further two pieces of correspondence inviting him to pay the debt or contact the company to discuss his situation. This correspondence was sent to the correct address and included the necessary information.
  3. I have no evidence Miss B told the enforcement company she was pregnant prior to an enforcement agent visiting her property in October 2020. Therefore, I cannot make a finding about whether the enforcement company took appropriate action given Miss B’s pregnancy
  4. The escalation panel took account of all the relevant information and its decisions were based on the professional judgement of its members. Its decisions to write off Mr C’s outstanding debt and not to refund money he had already pay were ones they were entitled to make. I found no fault in how these decisions were made.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and do not uphold Mr B’s complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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