The Mail on Sunday are just dipping their toes into this. We will be breaking a story in the coming weeks regarding misuse of the DVLA data base by Police forces across the country...watch this space.
Your details are sold to car park extortionists
by JONATHAN OLIVER and MARTIN DELGADO,
Mail on Sunday 09:54am 20th November 2005
Persecuted: Joyce Kennington was targeted by Creative Car Park Management, who backed down after she insisted she had done nothing wrong
The Government is at the centre of a 'secrets for sale' scandal after it admitted offering sensitive details about millions of motorists to private car parking companies.
A Mail on Sunday investigation found that more than 150 firms have been granted access to an official database of confidential information about Britain's 30 million drivers.
These car park operators, who are entirely unregulated, purchase the names and addresses of motorists who they wish to track down - and can then send them threatening letters to demand massive fines for alleged 'overstays'.
The revelations raise serious questions about the way personal information held by the Government is sold commercially.
They will also provoke fears about the possible abuse of Tony Blair's identity card scheme, which will create a powerful database of details about everyone in Britain.
The Government's Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency last night admitted it hands out drivers' details at £2.50 a time when provided with car registration numbers.
All drivers are legally required to give the DVLA their up-to-date address, although few know this information can be sold on.
Private car park companies, however, have the right to obtain this information under obscure regulations introduced three years ago and waved through the Commons with no debate.
The Mail on Sunday investigation found one company - used by the Co-op, Kwik Save and Aldi to manage store car parks - exploits the data to send threatening letters to motorists demanding fines of up to £170. This is three times the fine local authorities typically charge motorists who fail to 'pay and display'.
Creative Car Park Management --which uses a variety of front companies to conceal its true identity and earnings - uses cameras at the entrances and exits to their sites to photograph the number plates of drivers who they allege linger beyond the 'free parking' limit.
Using the information sold by the Government, the firm sends out bills - sometimes weeks later - telling motorists they will be taken to court if they fail to pay.
The secretive company even threatens to send bailiffs to drivers' homes to recover money they claim to be owed. Many motorists, fearing the firm is working alongside the DVLA, may feel they have no choice but to pay up.
The firm has been the subject of a series of complaints from drivers. Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker has been championing the cause of shoppers caught by Creative Car Park Management in the village of Polegate in his Lewes, East Sussex, constituency.
Mr Baker said: "A private company should not be allowed to obtain information about private individuals from the State. When people provide information to the Government, they do not do so on the basis that someone is going to make a profit from it.
"A huge number of mistakes have been made by the company here in Lewes, all of which appear to be in their favour. It is supposed to be free parking, but a number of my constituents have received very large bills."
He added: "£170 would be an extortionate amount to charge in Central London, let alone rural Sussex."
Motoring organisations claim there has been a boom in this form of 'ticket-less' parking fine, which has caught thousands by surprise. Since no tickets are placed on the windscreen, drivers can incur several fines before they even realise they have done anything wrong.
The DVLA said 157 private parking companies regularly apply to it for information on 'vehicle keepers'. But Edmund King, of the RAC Foundation, said: "The DVLA is behaving irresponsibly by passing on sensitive information to the wrong sort of people."
Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA Motoring Trust, said: "These companies can charge fines at what ever level they want - using personal information about motorists obtained from the Government. And there is no one monitoring what is happening."
Malcolm Heymer, of the Association of British Drivers, said: "I am appalled that the DVLA is selling this information on to unregulated private companies who demand extortionate amounts from motorists."
Under the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002, the DVLA has to provide the data assuming the companies can give 'reasonable cause' - a phrase not defined in law.
The DVLA insisted that the right of parking companies to access their database predates the 2002 regulations. However, a spokesman was unable to say exactly when the DVLA began its current practice of routinely selling data.
Flurry of complaints
Further investigation is necessary to determine when private parking enforcement companies first applied to DVLA under the 'reasonable cause provisions,' he said.
The DVLA refused to say how much money it collected from selling data. "The fee charged for information is designed simply to cover the administrative costs of dealing with the enquiries and ensure this burden is not met by the taxpayer."
The agency has a car parking code of conduct but it is purely voluntary.
The Mail on Sunday began investigating Creative Car Park Management after being alerted to a flurry of complaints from motorists who felt they had been treated unfairly.
With its fashionable name and glossy website, it appears to be a conventionally run business. It certainly gives that impression to the dozens of well-known companies which use its services.
CCPM says it monitors about 150 car parks all over Britain on behalf of retail and property companies. But its founder and owner, Gary Wayne, goes to extraordinary lengths to hide his identity.
CCPM's structure is concealed by 'shell' companies and anonymous nominee directors who play no part in the firm's management or day-today operations - a tactic that will be outlawed under the Companies Act, due to come into force in 2007.
Its registered address turns out to be an accommodation address in Mayfair where Mr Wayne pays £320 a year to rent a mailbox. In fact, the 35-year-old businessman runs CCPM from his four-bedroom, £400,000 home in Mill Hill, North London.
After initially claiming to be only a spokesman for the company, he eventually admitted to being its founder and sole operator.
He said he had always operated within the law and provided a valuable-service in preventing commuters and long-term parkers from abusing parking regulations on privately-owned land.
Signs erected by CCPM at car park entrances warn overstayers: "We will contact DVLA to obtain your details."
Referring to the car park in Polegate, East Sussex, he said: "It is for the use of shoppers to premises owned by our client who very generously allows all members of the public to use the car park for a limited time free of charge.
"However, the car park has been abused by commuters who leave their cars in the car park and then catch a train to Brighton or London.
"There is a large station car park available for commuters' use and there is no reason why they should park on our client's land - other than to avoid the station car park charges.
"Should any charge notices be issued in error, they are cancelled immediately with written confirmation sent to the vehicle owner."
Asked why he was so keen to conceal his identity, Mr Wayne said car parking was a 'sensitive issue' and added: "We wish to protect the identity and security of the senior administration of the company".
Inquiries by this newspaper, however, suggest that the group's 'senior administration' consists of just one man - Gary Wayne.
Mr Wayne's customers use him because of the convenient, no fuss service he offers. Companies such as CCPM charge their clients nothing, deriving their income from the high fines they levy on car owners.
It may come as some surprise that in the era of the Data Protection Act - the law designed to restrict access to personal details kept on databases - that the DVLA is able to sell on information about drivers.
However, the provision in the 2002 Road Vehicles Regulations giving car park companies the right to find out about 'vehicle keepers' overrides any earlier restrictions in the Data Protection Act.
The revelation will fuel growing concerns about the use of information held by Government departments. Ministers are planning a massive database of personal information about every adult in the UK as part of the planned ID card scheme.
Ministers insist access to the data will be carefully regulated - and not sold on to private companies.
However, the revelations about the way the DVLA database is exploited commercially raises fears that the much larger ID card computer could be 'raided' in a similar way.
Gareth Crossman, director of policy for civil rights group Liberty, said: "I have no doubt that once the register of personal information is in place, the number of people with access to it will increase hugely."
Monday, November 21, 2005
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