25 November 2015

Outsourcing to snake oil salesmen

A council is obliged, under the Equality Act, to make due allowance for the disabled. It (well its contractor NSL probably) couldn't give a fig, based upon the following paragraphs from a letter sent to a motorist which is now the subject of a complaint to the Chief Executive. Parking also has to reflect real life.

It is nearly always the opinion of NSL / Barnet Council that a PCN is valid but that doesn't mean it will survive a close scrutiny by Mr Mustard. The blue badge clock does not have to be displayed in a residents bay, that is a howler as one can park for an unlimited time in such a bay.

If the driver is on their own in a car and visiting, say, a disabled relative who cannot walk as far as the car then there is no choice for the driver but to leave their car in order to obtain the blue badge before helping the disabled person to board the vehicle. There is nothing in the law which supports the council's letter (which many people would take as, and should be, 100% accurate).

Don't just take Mr Mustard's word for it. Take that of Mr Hugh Cooper, a lawyer, who sits as an adjudicator on PCNs. Mr Mustard always finds him to be logical and thorough (the last argument took the unusually long time of 1h 10m with both parties quite enjoying the battle - Mr Mustard did prevail on that occasion) and this is what Mr Cooper had to say in PATAS case 2140052218 which did concern Barnet Council back in December 2013 (they have a short memory).

Mrs V does not dispute that her car was parked in this parking bay without displaying a permit. However she has maintained from the outset that she came to visit a resident in the street, and only left the car without a permit for the time it took to go to her house, obtain and complete a visitor's voucher and return to the car, a process she estimates as taking about 3 minutes. She points out that the Civil Enforcement Officer (CEO) issued the Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) after only one minute's observation, and suggests that he/she must have actually seen her leave the car. Mrs V has now produced a letter from the occupier which confirms her account.

The Enforcement Authority have insisted throughout that a permit or voucher must be displayed from the moment the car is parked in such a bay, and that no period of grace is allowed. Mrs V contends, by contrast, that it is not possible for a visitor to a resident to have a visitor's voucher already in her possession; it is necessary to go to the resident's house to obtain it, and so a short time must be allowed for this to be done.

I am perplexed by the Authority's stance in this case. It is self-evident that a reasonable period must be allowed for a visitor to obtain and complete a visitor's voucher from a resident, for the reasons Mrs V has clearly set out. Had the CEO observed the vehicle for, say, five or more minutes, then it would have been reasonable to assume that the owner was not obtaining a visitor's voucher, but by allowing only one minute that assumption could not be safely made. In this case I am satisfied that it was in fact wrongly made. I am not satisfied that the contravention occurred, and so I allow this appeal.

[I would respectfully suggest that the Authority give some thought to the instructions they give to their CEOs and to their decision-makers in relation to this issue.]

That final sentence is the usual under-stated way in which a lawyer slaps you round the face with a wet fish. Clearly the council (NSL?) have taken no notice of this decision and should Mr Mustard find himself, on the instant PCN, in front of an adjudicator with the identical argument he will be pointing out the earlier decision and suggesting that costs for wholly unreasonable behaviour are the order of the day. Something tells Mr Mustard that the case will not now get that far.

Will, though, NSL stop writing such misleading letters is his first question. His second question, now that dealing with representations is moving in-house is, will the in-house team be properly trained?

The other point is that an observation period should have been added for code 12 contraventions. It has not been. PCN are issued instantly and that is unfair.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

24 November 2015

Cllr Perry - does she care about libraries?

Back on 11 October Mr Mustard was fretting about libraries and what the council were planning to do with them in Barnet so he wrote, in his real name, to one of his local councillors. Mr Mustard has noticed that in the past whenever he wrote to either of the female councillors for his ward, it was the man, Goldenarse as he is known (copyright Mrs Angry) who always replied. This time no-one replied.

Dear Councillor Perry

I am a local resident and user of Chipping Barnet library.

I have studied the recent proposals. I don't intend to tell you what a bad idea it is to reduce library provision as that point has been made many times elsewhere but as you will gather, since I am writing to you, I am not in favour of these budget cuts. A 1% increase in council tax would eliminate the need. In the last 5 years my gas, electric, water rates, phone bill, car running costs, food etc have all increased in cost and your freezing (and a cynical 1% cut) of the council tax has therefore made a negligible contribution to my personal budgeting. I doubt you would have had more than a handful of complaints if you had increased council tax by 1% a year but we are where we are, with death by a thousand cuts.

I am though concerned about unstaffed libraries.

·   These mean the toilets are closed (not a problem for me personally as I live nearby) but for those further away a potential problem of being caught short.

·      No access to digital library resources and yet by their nature they could be used by the vast majority of library customers without assistance. I manage to navigate the internet on my own.

·   Extra income from hall hire but only during staffed hours. That doesn't look realistic. It would be a good idea to test the theory that an extra £20k can be generated. Will the estimate be better than the one for Your Choice Barnet? Who haven't, as far as I know, met their targets for generating income from other boroughs.

·      Hiring out car parking spaces. My experience is that of a evening Strafford Rd is often full. Why am I looking there? Because Carnarvon Rd is also full. I usually end up in Wentworth Rd. I think that the council should do a survey of a late evening to see if those spaces would be better used as residential permit spaces. Please bear in mind that many residents of Alston Rd have to move up into Strafford, Carnarvon & Salisbury roads as there is limited provision in Alston Rd.

I have looked at the Edgware pilot. It has cost a packet so far (£131,503) and it has seen 80 visits per week so it has been a virtually empty building. I looked back at earlier proposal for libraries and see that Edgware Library had 237,950 visits in 2009/10 which is 76 visits per hour. Your legacy is that you have already decimated the library service.

Don't you think that a small increase in council tax would be worth it to restore a much loved public service? I think you may have forgotten why councils exist, to serve.

Yours sincerely

Mr Mustard concludes that his councillor does not care. 

It is also discourteous of a councillor not to respond to an email from a constituent.

There are some consultations now going on which have not been widely advertised so do go along and have your say and don't let yourself be pushed to say anything different to what you really think.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

17 November 2015

The 24 hour rule

When you are parked in contravention in some sort of bay, the rule which Barnet Council have themselves written into Traffic Management Orders is that a second PCN cannot be issued until 24 hours have passed since the first PCN, as otherwise the traffic warden could stand there and just keep on issuing PCN which would be a nonsense.

Mr Mustard recently helped a man who received three PCN for not having a resident permit, whilst parked in a resident parking bay, on the following days and times:

Mr Mustard emailed the parking process manager and pointed out the 24 hour rule which clearly isn't flagged up in the hand held equipment of the traffic warden (and Mr Mustard thinks that traffic wardens may deliberately visit the scene of yesterday's conquests in order to multiple ticket the same car, as 421 has here) but that is no excuse for the traffic warden not checking the details of the previously issued PCN which are stuck on the windscreen.

This resident had trouble getting his permit issued by the system (his fault allegedly) but to then send him a permit back-dated to a month prior to the PCN dates is taking the wotsit, as clearly he was entitled to a permit but couldn't display if it hasn't been sent (now electronic) and so he can't in all fairness be issued with any PCN from the valid date onwards. Barnet Council have wisely cancelled all three PCN once Mr Mustard had a quiet word. 24 hours and 1 minute complies with the letter of the law but not the spirit as processing would have started within 24 hours.

Mr Mustard has asked for the hand held equipment to be reprogrammed (although the back office system should also have a blocking mechanism or at least one that alerts a human to look at the circumstances and confirm that a second PCN is justified for some reason).

Mr Mustard was also the victim of two PCN within 24 hours when he had his recent e-permit problem and received PCN #1 on Monday at 15:45 and PCN #2 at 09:49 on Tuesday. They were squashed as there had been a technical error with the electronic permit but the second PCN would have had to be squashed in any event even if Mr Mustard had been parked in contravention.

What this means in Barnet, as they don't tow your car away (although they may start soon for regular offenders with 3 unpaid PCN at the Charge Certificate stage) is that once you have a PCN for something you can leave your car where it is for another 23 hours without worrying. Don't try this in boroughs where they do tow or you will be another £200 down and visiting the car pound.

So, if you get multiple PCN you know what to do. challenge them.

If you are on double yellow lines, you can only be issued with one PCN if you do not move your vehicle as you are committing one continuous offence. The council's photos will prove that.

Mr Mustard rather likes the multiple PCN problems so don't be afraid to ask for advice if you need it (email).

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

13 November 2015

Does Vicky Pollard work for Haringey Council?

You know Vicky Pollard, Yeah but no but yeah?

Let Mr Mustard tell you right from the off that Haringey Council have done something sensible. They have abolished a "Pre-Debt reminder letter" that they have doubtless issued by the shed load.

Here is the history. His client received a bus lane PCN. There is nothing in the relevant Regulations (the London Local Authorities Act 1996 as amended) that allows for a Bus Lane PCN to be challenged before the Enforcement Notice is issued (not to be confused with the Notice of Enforcement which the bailiff might send you later) and Mr Mustard was going to make the formal representations at that stage. Haringey invite earlier challenges which is probably a tactical offering as they know most people don't have staying power and so they don't then have to offer you the chance to Appeal to an independent adjudicator but do offer you the discount again as what they really want is for you to pay up. Whether at 100% or 50% both of which represent a lovely little income stream.

The Enforcement Notice did not arrive and Mr Mustard knew his reliable client had not received it as the balance had increased on the council computer from £130 to £195. He told his client the Order for Recovery would be next at which point he could rewind the process back to the Enforcement Notice. Instead, his client received a Pre-Debt reminder letter, this one in fact:

Mr Mustard was unhappy with this so he made a complaint to Haringey Council.

For brevity Mr Mustard has spared you the council's attempt to avoid his complaint about the specific PCN and the pasting he sent in return. Here is the substantive reply with comments by Mr Mustard in red.

Dear Mr Mustard

Your complaint about Penalty charge procedure not followed, our reference: LBH/*******

Thank you for giving us an opportunity to investigate your complaint. (You don't have a choice, it isn't an opportunity).

I note that you have raised concerns regarding London Borough of Haringey’s use of a pre-debt letter after a Charge Certificate has been sent to the registered keeper of the vehicle, in this case your client Mr H. (and in general for all motorists)

Our records do show that the Enforcement Notice was sent on the 21 July 2015 to the same address as to where the Charge Certificate was sent on the 26 August 2015 which Mr H clearly received. (Mr Mustard said the Charge Certificate was received but not the Enforcement Notice. Why repeat him?) The Charge Certificate clearly states if we do not receive payment before the end of the 14 day period we may register the charge as a debt at the County Court and ultimately we may pass the case to an Enforcement Agent to recover the debt. From your complaint it would seem that you must be equally unhappy and discontent with the prescribed content of the Charge Certificate, as this makes no mention of the witness procedure either and in particular no mention that your client could be sent a second enforcement notice. (Mr Mustard is grateful to Haringey for pointing out that the statutory document does not mention the Order for Recovery but that was not his complaint) Therefore your argument that the “pre debt reminder” is “procedurally unfair” must be questionable. (Not all all. The pre-debt reminder letter is as one-sided as a Mobius strip)

The statutory guidance, which the borough does give due regard to, does not state that we cannot enter into any additional communication with a debtor (indeed but if there is a statutory process with a number of pre-ordained steps then there needs to be a pretty good reason to depart from it which Mr Mustard has yet to hear.) The pre-debt reminder letter is in addition to the statutory process and is designed to allow people in a similar situation to Mr H the opportunity to avoid the penalty charge notice moving to the next stage and possibly paying an additional £7 (but not to tell them that if the process has gone wrong in certain ways that they can wind the process back). Therefore your suggestion that the Council is merely seeking to save itself £7 is incorrect s someone who simply wanted to pay the £195 and forgot has another chance (but those like his client who want to file a witness statement are being caused delay and stress whilst they wait). It’s therefore disappointing that you seem to be advocating something that may cost some people more. (One could only decide this if you have some statistics to show how many more people save £7 than needlessly pay £195)

I am sorry to hear that Mr H was upset by the receipt of the letter (who wouldn't be upset at having a debt registered against them in the County Court when they intend to fight the PCN to the end) but in general it has been found beneficial to send a pre-debt letter after the Charge Certificate (to whom? the council or the motorist?). Not only is this good customer relations practice but also experience is that a proportion of recipients will pay in response (which is why we send it. Has any research been done as to what motivated people to pay? Mr Mustard will ask). If a pre-debt letter generates a response from the owner, in accordance with best practice (what best practice?) the borough handles a response at this stage as if it were post Charge Certificate correspondence (Which is the stage the process is at so there isn't any other choice. What Mr Mustard sees all the time in response to post charge certificate correspondence from motorists is a letter from the council saying that you can't do anything now but await the Order for Recovery).

The ‘DO NOT IGNORE THIS LETTER’ heading and, I am sorry if you feel this is biased advice (Mr Mustard doesn't feel it is biased, it is biased), is merely designed to act as a prompt to encourage the registered keeper to contact the authority (the only phone number supplied is for making payment on; there is no number to discuss any possible error that may have occurred) or to make payment of the outstanding penalty charge bearing in mind that previous statutory documents had already been sent to Mr H (but not necessarily received. Mr H has written to the Royal Mail about his postal problems).

Notwithstanding the above, at the point of receiving your letter the service was already in the process of reviewing the very matter of the “pre debt reminder” (Well strike Mr Mustard down with a feather, what a co-incidence). I can tell you that the outcome of that review is to no longer use the letter (despite it being so disappointing that Mr Mustard advocated just that!). Arrangements are already in hand to discontinue it. (Not hard to not do something is it?)

We will not be cancelling the Penalty Charge Notice at this stage and our records show the order for recovery is being processed and sent out to your client today. (It has been received and will be sent to the TEC very shortly)

I hope that I have resolved your concerns to your satisfaction. (Perversely by abandoning something which the council clearly thought was wonderful, yes, in so far as no more motorists will be bullied by the receipt of the misleading pre-debt reminder letter but not in his client's case but that will be raised at London Tribunals).

A good end to the week. The Haringey PCN process is now fairer than it was.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

12 November 2015

Barnet Highways fork the signs up

Hot on the heels of Mr Mustard spotting an impossible combination of signs in Harrow, he noticed quite a few closer to home that are wrong. There are two at the junction of St Albans Rd and the High St, one outside Barnet College near Barnet Church and one in Station Rd near the Everyman Cinema (was the Odeon). There will be others at other points where a car can quite correctly pass either side of a traffic island, like this one

The left fork takes you towards St Albans and the right towards Potters Bar and although you can pass either side of the double arrowed sign it is not the correct sign as this sign indicates two choices which allow you to reach the same destination (they are usually used to indicate that in a multi lane carriageway with pedestrian refuges, that you truly can pass either side.

Mr Mustard presumes that these shiny new signs (you have seen them appearing like mushrooms all over the borough? - Mr Mustard quite likes them and they have the advantage of not needing an electricity supply so are replaced more quickly and easily after an accident) have been installed by the stupidly named Re (Regional Enterprise) Ltd, the joint venture between the council and Capita in which the council have gifted Capita a 51% majority shareholding despite its opening business all being sourced from Barnet Council to start with. Maybe they could appoint a Highways Engineer who knows their traffic signs and replace all of the misleadingly incorrect ones free of charge.

By the way Re:, the correct sign would be one which is plain.

If only Barnet Council didn't keep outsourcing services to companies that don't know what they are doing.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

10 November 2015

Harrow Highways sign fiasco

Mr Mustard had to go to Christchurch Avenue to look at a route restricted to "buses and cycles only" where a client had transgressed by driving past the blue signs that you can see below. This location is just along the road from the Harrow Leisure Centre.

Whilst standing there studying the signs with Bald Eagle of NoToMob fame Mr Mustard realised that every bus driver on the H9 route is, whilst following the route set by London Sovereign buses and which doubtless has to be agreed with the council and the police, driving straight past a "No Motor Vehicles" sign (the access is for local residents just past the bus stop, you can see their cars behind the bus stop). A bus is, of course, a "motor vehicle".

Luckily for bus drivers everywhere the No Motor Vehicles sign is not enforced. If it were the fiasco would have been spotted sooner. Isn't it amazing though that there have been hundreds of contraventions at this location and no motorist, nor the council itself, appears to have spotted the anomaly.

How can Harrow Council penalise any driver for contravening a "No Motor Vehicles" sign somewhere else in the borough when the Highways Department have in place such a sign at this location which clearly does not apply. Mr Mustard wonders if they used to be there on their own before the blue signs were erected?

Furthermore, cars can't drive more than a few yards past the Controlled Parking Zone sign and buses are not likely to stop on a single yellow to park, so they are also superfluous. The CPZ sign coming towards you is necessary (you can't see it but it is visible as you exit the roundabout) as taxis are allowed to exit the roundabout but not to enter it for a reason which is beyond Mr Mustard.

The whole buses & cycles only restriction looks to be completely irrelevant as the natural route is via Masons Avenue (although the Tchibo coffee delivery van man's satnav took him down Christchurch Ave. He had a lucky escape as Mr Mustard flagged him down and he was grateful). Mr Mustard and Bald Eagle must have been there for 30 minutes or so and that van was the only vehicle which tried to get it wrong.

Photographs of other impossible sign combinations are always welcome at this email address.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard