Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 20 Mar 2019
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complains about how Transport for London (TfL) and its agents dealt with enforcement of the congestion charge. As a result, he incurred further charges and fees. There was no fault by TfL or its agents. It was able to take enforcement action when it could not collect the charges from Mr B’s bank account.
- Mr B complains about how Transport for London (TfL) enforced Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) he had incurred. In particular, Mr B says that TfL and its agents:
- Sent confidential information about the PCNs and enforcement to his former address, even after he had given it the correct address;
- Failed to follow its appeal processes;
- Took too long to respond to his complaint; and
- Did not send him a complaint response, but backdated this when he complained to the Ombudsman, and did not tell him that it was reissuing some PCNs and not others.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- If we are satisfied with a body’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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the information provided by Mr B. I have considered TfL’s response to my enquiries including file documents and correspondence between the parties. Both parties have had the opportunity to comment on a draft of this statement. TfL confirmed that it had no comments on the draft statement. I have not received any comments from Mr B.
What I found
- TfL administers the congestion charge scheme. This requires drivers to pay a charge each time they drive in a specified zone during certain hours. TfL offers an automated payment system for those who drive within the zone. TfL records the number of charging days a vehicle travels within the zone and then sends the account holder a bill each month and debits the amount due from their bank account in payment. This is called Autopay.
- TfL issues a PCN to those drivers that have not paid the charge. PCNs are served by post on the registered owner of the vehicle at the address held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).
- A person can challenge the PCN by making formal representations to TfL and the law sets out grounds for appeal (para 10 Road User Charging (Enforcement and Adjudication) (London) Regulations 2001). However, TfL must consider any grounds the person puts forward even if these are not those listed in the law. The person must make representations within 28 days of the PCN being served. TfL does not have to consider late representations but can choose to do so.
- If a PCN remains unpaid, TfL will send a charge certificate to the registered keeper who has 14 days to pay the PCN. If there is still no payment, TfL can register the PCN as an unpaid debt at the Traffic Enforcement Centre, and 21 days later can instruct bailiffs to collect the debt.
- Mr B had an autopay account and regularly incurred a congestion charge, which TfL collected from his bank account. However, in around May 2016, the payment failed. TfL sent Mr B an email to alert him to this but it went into his ‘junk’ folder and he did not see it. As Mr B did not take any action, TfL suspended his autopay account.
- Mr B began to receive PCNs because he had used his car in the congestion zone but no payment had been made through his autopay account. He says he went online but could not alter his card details or reinstate his account, and so could not make payments to bring his account into order. He telephoned TfL’s customer helpline but could not get through.
- Matters became more complicated because Mr B allowed someone else to use his car, between June and September 2016, while he was abroad. His friend drove the car in the congestion zone and so TfL issued more PCNs. Mr B says he telephoned TfL three times in August but on each attempt, was on hold for up to 45 minutes before getting disconnected. On 14 September, Mr B eventually got through to TfL, and was able to reinstate his autopay account. TfL advised him to make representations against the PCNs.
- On 30 October 2016, Mr B complained to TfL that it should not have suspended his autopay account so hastily, that it was so difficult to get this resolved, and that he could not make an online payment while his account was suspended. Mr B told TfL that he accepted that his car entered the charging zone but that its management of the account system was designed to make money for TfL.
- Mr B contacted TfL after the 28-day deadline for formal representations had passed and so on 18 November 2016, the TfL wrote to him asking for evidence of why his representation was late. Mr B did not reply and so it continued to enforce the debt, except one PCN which had been paid. TfL followed its normal recovery process, registering the unpaid PCNs as debts and passing these to bailiffs.
- Mr B corresponded with the bailiff and TfL. Its records show it wrote to him on 16 May 2017. TfL told Mr B that he was too late to challenge the PCNs and had given no good reason why he could not have challenged these sooner. It told him there were eight PCNs outstanding and he should pay these to avoid further enforcement and costs.
- In June 2017, Mr B sent TfL proof that he had been out of the country between 24 June and 30 August 2016. TfL initially said again it could not consider his late representation but then in August it decided to reissue the two PCNs that had been issued and progressed while Mr B was away so that he could pay them at the discounted rate or appeal against them. Mr B paid these.
- TfL decided not to reissue the rest of the PCNs because it had sent details of these to Mr B after he came back to the UK, and so it was reasonable to expect him to deal with these. TfL passed these to its bailiffs. TfL wrote to Mr B about this on 15 August 2017. Mr B says he did not receive this letter, but its records show it was issued on that date and sent to what it held as his registered address.
- At the same time, Mr B contacted the bailiffs again to advise that he was appealing the PCNs and that he had moved and registered the new address with the DVLA. Mr B complained that the bailiffs had continued writing to him at his former address even though he had notified them he had moved. The bailiff said it had last checked DVLA in July 2017 and at that time its records showed his former address. It did emphasise that all correspondence is sent in sealed envelopes and so those at his former address would not know that he was being chased for unpaid PCNs.
- The bailiff asked Mr B for evidence that he had changed his address with the DVLA. The bailiff would need to apply to the Traffic Enforcement Centre to change the address before it could continue with enforcement action and so would only do this once the DVLA records showed a new address. The bailiff has confirmed that it checked Mr B’s address regularly before taking action. The new address did not show on its system until October 2017.
- Mr B incurred another PCN on1 September 2017. This was sent to his former address as on that date, this was still the address held by DVLA for Mr B.
- Mr B complained to the Ombudsman. We decided that he had not exhausted TfL’s complaint process and so we asked it to investigate what had happened to the account and respond to Mr B. In August 2018, TfL told Mr B it was satisfied that the PCNs had been issued properly and he had paid off six of the nine PCNs in total. TfL decided to write off the remaining three PCNs in recognition of the amount he had already paid and the fact that he had reinstated his autopay account.
- Mr B did not receive TfL’s response letter and so he complained again to the Ombudsman. TfL sent us a copy of its letter. Mr B suspects that TfL only wrote this after the Ombudsman had asked for details.
Was there fault by Transport for London causing an injustice to Mr B?
- Mr B is responsible for making sure the autopay account works. It is very easy for a payment to miss (eg the bank card expires), but it is not fault for TfL to suspend the account if it cannot collect the payments.
- Although Mr B says he could not deal with it as he was abroad, he did pay a PCN in July and try to telephone TfL in August 2016, and so I have to assume that he knew that his autopay account was not working and that he was incurring charges. Mr B could have at that point made sure that he paid the charges as these were incurred, rather than allowing more PCNs to be issued.
- Clearly, it is not ideal if people cannot get through on TfL’s telephone helpline within a reasonable time. I have not investigated the helpline’s waiting times. However, Mr B could have used email to contact TfL and the details are clear on its website. It was reasonable to expect him to do so. When Mr B did contact it, TfL reinstated the account promptly.
- TfL reissued the PCNs so Mr B could pay the reduced rate or appeal. It was not wrong for TfL to allow those ones that had come through after he returned to the UK to proceed through the usual enforcement route, including bailiffs. Mr B was aware of all the PCN’s by then and could have dealt with these by appeal or paying them.
- Mr B says he gave TfL and the bailiff his new address. However, TfL issued a PCN to his former address in September 2017, as this was the registered keeper details still held by DVLA. The law requires correspondence to be sent to the registered address. And so, neither TfL or the bailiff was wrong to send correspondence to him at his former address in July and August.
- In addition, Mr B knew about the PCNs and the bailiff’s involvement and all correspondence was addressed to him in sealed envelopes. This means that, although missing letters and notices makes the issue more complicated for Mr B, he was still able to deal with the matter and details of the situation were not passed to third parties. This means that the impact of writing to the wrong address was limited.
- TfL’s files show it did not backdate its complaint response or take too long to deal with Mr B’s complaint. There is no evidence that TfL failed to follow its appeal complaint response
- I have completed my investigation. There was no fault by Transport for London.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman