HC Deb 30 October 1990 vol 178 cc948-59

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Neil Hamilton.]

8.49 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

It is pleasant to be introducing an Adjournment debate at such an early hour because, as the House knows, it gives us a rather more generous allocation of time in which to pursue cases involving justice. This is the third occasion on which I have had such good fortune. On the other two, a certain amount of progress was made as a consequence of the extra time and I hope that, when I eventually conclude my speech, the Minister's response will prove acceptable to my hon. Friends and to me.

The case that I shall raise tonight concerns the serious nuisance caused to one of my constituents and his family and I therefore feel entirely justified in raising it. The implications of the case are of considerable and wade relevance—rather wider than a glance at the Order Paper would suggest—as I shall show in developing my argument.

I am concerned about the outrageous and distressing experience of a decent man and his family and about a degree of official incompetence which would have been regarded as unimaginable—even in London—a decade ago, and which remain astonishing and unacceptable in South Yorkshire today. I have no hesitation in presenting this case tonight and in drawing certain wholly reasonable conclusions from it. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to comment upon those conclusions as well as offering the answers that I shall invite him to give towards the end of my speech. It is also important that the Minister should make it very clear that my constituent is, and should be, free from any blame and that he is the entirely innocent victim of muddle and incompetence who deserves a full apology and redress. He is a victim not only of public incompetence but of the criminal and irresponsible action of another person.

My constituent is an elderly man in his late 60s. He lives quietly at Turner close, Rawmarsh and has a happy family life. His bungalow forms part of one of Rotherham council's splendid housing schemes for the elderly, within a neat, cared-for and caring community.

Mr. Tom Chedgzoy and his wife have led good and responsible lives. They have brought up a family of six sons, five of whom survive, and theirs is a close-knit, locally centred family. There are 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and a fourth great-grandchild is due soon. Mr. Chedgzoy was originally an engineer. During the war, he served as a petty officer in the Royal Navy and thereafter he developed his own small business. When Mr. Chedgzoy retired, he settled down to live a more relaxed life with his wife in his happy community and in close proximity to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Chedgzoys had looked forward to a happy and contented retirement with the occasional clay out fishing and the occasional day's holiday at the seaside—a point that is relevant, as my remarks will show.

Mr. and Mrs. Chedgzoy have lived a quiet and contented life during the 47 years for which they have been married. It is relevant for me to point that out to show that they are good people—ordinary decent people. There are many such people in our constituencies and they form the essential spine of our national fabric. They may not have made the headlines; they may not have made millions. But this country owes a great deal to people such aS Mr. and Mrs. Chedgzoy and their families.

I have mentioned the different generations to show that Mr. and Mrs. Chedgzoy, their five sons and their grandchildren—their great-grandchildren are not yet old enough to uphold the splendid family tradition—have never been in trouble with the police. Yet in this year of grace, they have been caused distress, justified anger, severe anxiety and considerable inconvenience.

My attention was drawn to the problem in September. Mr. Chedgzoy had never written to his Member of Parliament before; he had never really needed to. He wrote to me after taking a great deal of trouble to help himself, as I shall show.

In the spring, Mr. Chedgzoy received a registered letter containing a parking ticket. Apparently, he had committed a parking offence in London. He found that astonishing. A few weeks later, he was given further ground for astonishment when yet another parking ticket arrived.

Mr. Chedgzoy contacted the authorities to explain that he had not committed the offence. He wrote to Westminster city council and returned to it the correspondence that he had received, stating that there must have been an error as neither he nor his car had been in London on the dates mentioned. In fact, Mr. Chedgzoy has the good fortune not to have visited London since around 1955–35 years ago. Certainly his vehicle was not involved in the offence because, on those dates, his vehicle was by his bungalow in Rawmarsh. The vehicle carries the registration number F997 WUY, but it is a Maestro, whereas the vehicle recorded in connection with the offence was a large blue Rover.

Following his letter, Mr. Chedgzoy received nothing from the authorities, except a card of acknowledgement stating that the information that he had sent was receiving attention.

Then came another bolt from the blue. Yet another registered letter arrived at Mr. Chedgzoy's address, virtually accusing him of committing yet another parking offence. At that point, Mr. Chedgzoy sought the help of the citizens' advice bureau in Rotherham. He made two visits to the Rotherham CAB office. There, he was given the good advice that he should set the matter down in writing and send the information to Westminster council and to the police. He did that. The CAB also suggested that he should write to the driver and vehicle licensing centre in Swansea. Mr. Chedgzoy acted on that advice and the centre replied informing him that F997 WUY was, indeed, his registration number and no one else's. The centre suggested that he return the notices to the authorities responsible with an explanation. Of course, he had already done that.

Then Mr. Chedgzoy received yet another registered letter, which caused him great inconvenience, for the third time. As I said, he has a bungalow near Skegness. He is an elderly, decent and responsible man and, on each occasion, he returned from holiday to deal with the registered letters that he received. For the third time, then, a few days' break was spoilt by those astonishing developments.

At this point the position had become intolerable. Mr. Chedgzoy wrote to me, and I received his letter on 25 September. I immediately wrote to the chief executive of Westminster city council. I made a mistake with the address, but I shall refer to that later. I also wrote to the Home Office and to our own South Yorkshire police authority. I found the situation incredible, and I did not wish to see our police officers placed in a position that they would find objectionable were they to receive relevant information and requests from their colleagues in London. I also contacted the magistrates court in Rotherham, because Mr. Chedgzoy had been informed that the Rotherham court had inevitably been involved: following the alleged offences, he had been awarded a fine for failing to pay the parking charge in London.

Mr. Chedgzoy had to trail to the office of the Rotherham magistrates court, where he was kindly received. I am grateful that the staff there were able to give him reassuring advice and to assist him to complete a statement that served as a disclaimer and was then sent on to Westminster. The South Yorkshire police have also sought to assist him, and an officer called on him to offer reassurance and to say that the South Yorkshire police were seeking to be helpful. I was extremely grateful for that action. At least we now know that the Metropolitan police have been informed of the rectitude of Mr. Chedgzoy's position.

I then received the first of two letters from, not the chief executive but the managing director of Westminster city council. I am not sure that I like that title; I do not regard a local authority as a business. However, given the support that has been lavished on that council by an admiring Government, I suppose that if current generosity is maintained—perhaps in the rate support grant that we imminently expect—it will be able to act like a business, because it will be declaring a dividend rather than collecting any poll tax.

That may sound a little far-fetched, but the fact remains that if my local authority—which is obviously more efficient than the city of Westminster—had received the same level of support this year as has Westminster city council, we should not have had to face rate capping because we should not have had to levy a poll tax. Indeed, Mr. Chedgzoy and I—and every other citizen in the Rotherham metropolitan borough—would have qualified to receive a payment in excess of £100 in lieu of any demand for poll tax. Instead, we have been starved of resources and poll tax-capped as well. We have had to watch Westminster city council receive the basic standard spending grant of 459 per cent. more per head than we have. The same argument applies to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) as Doncaster has had a similar experience. Several of my hon. Friends will be aware of that. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) in the Chamber, and he knows that what I have said about our local position is correct.

Not content with robbing Yorkshire in the most astonishing way over this year's local government spending, Westminster city council wants to take money from disabled and elderly pensioners such as Mr. Chedgzoy.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

I cannot understand why Westminster council, having made a mistake, did not seek to rectify it immediately. When one punches up a vehicle registration number, it takes about 10 seconds for the name and address of the owner to come up on the police computer. In addition to the registration number of the vehicle, it shows the vehicle model. A parking ticket, therefore, also shows the model. There is obviously a discrepancy in the case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), but no one in the efficient Westminster authority managed to pick that up and save this elderly gentleman some aggro.

Mr. Hardy

Yes, that is the case. I have spoken to police officers in my area who are astonished and bemused by my constituent's experience. I can confidently say that if a large blue Rover car was repeatedly parked in my constituency, and the police and the local authority had been informed that the registration number had been allocated to someone else, the police would have checked up. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, the police could have found that information within 10 seconds.

Throughout the months of my constituent's experience, no one had done that. The result is that he has received a succession of registered letters bearing the unfortunate news that he has been committing offences. I wonder whether it is an exercise by the local authority. Having robbed South Yorkshire in rate support grant, Westminster council now aims to make money from our people as individuals. I do not believe that such an experience could be repeated in my constituency or in the constituencies of any of my hon. Friends present in the Chamber tonight.

In his first letter, the managing director of Westminster wrote to ask me whether I could provide the relevant references so that the matter could be considered. He offered an assurance that the matter would not be referred to the court in Rotherham. I provided a reference for the managing director. However, Mr. Chedgzoy had written to Westminster council many weeks before telling it about the position. While the card of acknowledgement had been received, no one had taken any notice, even though someone was fraudulently and probably frequently displaying the wrong number plate in Westminster. That is serious, partly because my constituent's complaint and the information were obviously unheeded. However, that is not unusual. The same authority wrote to me to say that I had made no payments on my poll tax when I had made my payments. I do not like to pay the poll tax, but I certainly do not like paying it to an authority that then tells me that I have not paid it. When Mr. Chedgzoy contacted me about Westminster's deficiencies, his request for help did not fall on infertile ground.

The managing director of Westminster had assured me that the matter would not be referred to the Rotherham court, but it had already been referred there. That was bound to happen because Mr. Chedgzoy had been fined in London, but lives in Rotherham. Therefore, he was placed in the ignominious position of having to report to the police court. As I have already said, no one from Mr. Chedgzoy's family, not one of his sons or his grandchildren, has had such an experience. My constituent did not like that.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

This is a very interesting story, particularly when we consider that Westminster council was held up as an example of an efficient council during the local council elections a few months ago. Has my hon. Friend given any thought to what this exercise will cost the ratepayers of Westminster?

Mr. Hardy

It is bound to cost the ratepayers of Westminster a great deal. As I develop my speech, my hon. Friend will hear me state that I suspect that the cost involved could be even greater than he might imagine at the moment.

I received a leaflet through my letter box in London the other day stating that Westminster council is the best guarantee of a low community charge and efficient local services. We know that the council has a low community charge, but it also lacks efficient local services if the experience of that pensioner in my constituency is anything to go by.

Mr. Redmond

I am at a loss to understand why the managing director did not take the appropriate steps to rectify the matter when he first received a letter from ray hon. Friend's constituent. Given that the council has acted so inefficiently and has obviously cost the poll tax payers of Westminster a great deal of money because of that inefficiency, should not the managing director resign and, before he resigns, send a letter of apology to my hon. Friend's constituent and rectify the distress, worry and anxiety caused to my hon. Friend's constituent out of his own pocket instead of it being paid for by the poll tax payers in Westminster?

Mr. Hardy

I do not share my hon. Friend's last sentiment. I shall refer to a second letter from the managing director in a moment and my hon. Friend will understand then that I am responding to his intervention.

I called to see Mr. Chedgzoy at his home two or three weeks ago. I was astonished to learn that despite my representations, he had been given cause for further and infuriating distress because the previous day a registered letter had arrived informing him that he had committed yet another parking offence. I was very angry about that because I had already pursued the matter. I had assumed that that might have led to some proper and intelligent consideration. Mr. Chedgzoy acted properly and responsibly throughout. He acted on the advice of the citizens advice bureau. The local police had certainly taken helpful action, yet the grinding wheels of official incompetence had produced yet another grievous error.

A few moments after I arrived at Mr. Chedgzoy's home, the local community constable, PC Greatorex, called to add a word of assurance that the South Yorkshire police were seeking to be helpful. Mr. Greatorex, the present community constable in Park Gate and Rawmarsh, like his splendid predecessor PC Armstrong, maintained his duties in the most commendable way. Mr. Greatorex called to give an assurance to that elderly couple that they should not have cause for anxiety. I suspect that Mr. Greatorex was almost as cross as I was to learn that yet another ticket had arrived the previous day.

I then made a suggestion that did not wholly delight Mrs. Chedgzoy, for I said that it might be best in future to put all those things in the basket, and that, one day, Mr. Greatorex, as the community constable, could come around and arrest Mr. Chedgzoy. I said that I hoped that he would make sure that that was in my presence and that I would then accompany Mr. Greatorex and Mr. Chedgzoy to the police station, where I could vouch for him. The result would have been that a substantial suit for wrongful arrest would follow. However, Mrs. Chedgzoy was somewhat put out by the suggestion and took the view that she was not going to have her husband arrested after 47 years of decent, good married life. I resisted the temptation to press the suggestion further.

However, as I said, I received a second letter from the managing director of Westminster council. It also causes me some concern. He said: In fairness to the city Council,"— obviously, I wish to be fair to the city council; the Government have been more than fair to the city council and to its parking enforcement contractors— the fraudulent and illegal use of false number plates is not something of which we could have been aware. Had that been said after the first offence, the remark would have been reasonable. After the second offence, it might have been forgivable, but after the months since Mr. Chedgzoy mentioned the offence, it was not really a justified comment. The managing director went on to say: I am sure you would agree that it would be entirely inappropriate for the City Council to become involved in what has now shown itself to be a crime. Someone surely must be concerned that an individual is parking his car in Westminster, using my constituent's number plates, getting my constituent into trouble, and evading responsibility for his actions.

Mr. Redmond

I am sure that we shall get from the Minister a satisfactory explanation of why the parking ticket was sent to my hon. Friend's constituent. The traffic warden who looked at the registration plate would also have checked the tax disc. The registration number on the disc would have been different from that on the number plate. That would not be possible unless the owner altered both things. I should hardly think that he would fork out for a tax disc. Will my hon. Friend comment on that point?

Mr. Hardy

My hon. Friend is quite right. I find the matter completely incredible, and so do my constituents. The managing director went on to state: We must leave the various police forces involved to apprehend the owner of the bogus F997 WUY". I should have agreed with him if he had said that months ago, but at least we can be relieved that he says: I am copying this letter to Superintendent Hotson at the Paddington Green Police Station, to whom I have already spoken, so that his officers are alert to the problem. Splendid. Well done. What a pity that that action was not taken a long time ago.

It may sound as if I am extremely critical of the owner of the large blue Rover, but those of us who do not spend all our time in London have considerable sympathy for the people who have to travel round this city. The owner of the large blue Rover may have reached his wits' end and found that the various bus routes and underground lines that he would have to use to reach Westminster are unreliable and unpleasant, as well as expensive.

Last week I had to attend a meeting in Farringdon of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which should be a straightforward underground trip on the Circle line from Westminster. However, on that occasion, as on the two previous occasions when I have had to travel to the same place, I was unable to complete my journey. Those of us who have to travel to King's Cross station to get a train when we leave this city should be given a medal every time we use the Victoria line. Our wives who have to meet our trains should get them as well because we frequently miss our trains as that line is so unsatisfactory. Although the owner of the large blue Rover bearing the fraudulent number plates may well have acted with a sense of despair, he should have realised that he was collecting parking tickets, but that a pensioner in my constituency was receiving them.

I have spoken at length to my local police force to find out what happened. It might interest the Minister if I gave him some figures. If the Metropolitan police sent information to the South Yorkshire police in Rotherham, to Chief Superintendent Wain or to Superintendent Sellars and their colleagues, telling them that a car with false number plates was parked in any part of the C2 division, which serves my constituency, or in C3 division, which serves the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley, our police would be on to that information with remarkable speed. However, similar speed has not been shown in this case.

I am not making any false claims because, despite the tight resources and the serious economic problems facing my area, and although we have had 2,525 crimes in the C2 division of the South Yorkshire police this year, our detection rate is running at 61.86 per cent. I would wager that the Minister would not care to provide the figures for the Metropolitan police detection rate when he replies to the debate. Of course, he could reduce the figure for offences in London by the number that my constituent is supposed to have committed, which makes me wonder how reliable the figures are.

There is a further cause for concern. If the owner of the large blue Rover with fraudulent number plates has got away with this offence since the spring, I wonder how many more people have tumbled to the fact that all they need to do is to find out the registration on the number plates of pensioners from, say, Pontefract, Doncaster, Rother Valley, Penistone or Barnsley, who do not come to London frequently. They can then continue in their criminal irresponsibility. It is time that the police were asked to do their utmost to catch someone who is involved in doing that, because it can cause a great deal of distress to perfectly decent people, as in this case.

I wonder whether this case is unique. The other day, before I had Mr. and Mrs. Chedgzoy's permission to raise their case and to mention their name—I have never used a constituent's name in public without first securing permission—a journalist asked me their name and address and I said that I was extremely sorry, but that until I had seen Mr. and Mrs. Chedgzoy I could not give it. The journalist said that he thought that he knew of the case anyway. I said, "I am surprised if you do, but tell me." He said that on the previous evening he had been having a drink with a solicitor friend, who had said, "I think that I am acting for Mr. Hardy's constituents," but he was not. Mr. Chedgzoy did not employ a solicitor. I respect that journalist's confidence and I shall not reveal my sources, but it seems that there is another case involving defective number plates. Someone else telephoned me the other day to tell me that her husband had had a similar experience.

I wonder whether some of the wide boys of London have worked out a marvellous dodge to save their fares on public transport and evade paying to park their motor vehicles. Perhaps the Minister has an opportunity to nip a crime in the bud and thus assist the Metropolitan police in reducing the crime figures before we have a general election. Certainly in my constituency we should love to fight an election on law and order. That also goes for the constituencies of my hon. Friends who are here this evening.

The Government bear a heavy responsibility in the matter. In the past year or two I have noticed a number of cases in which letters from my constituents to Government Departments have gone astray. I have also noticed that several Departments take a long time to give a reply, let alone a satisfactory one. When I wrote to the Home Office Minister on 25 September giving the details of the case, I expected to receive a rather swifter response than I did. After all, I was telling the Minister about an injustice—a case in which great distress had been caused to an elderly person, someone had acted fraudulently and that elderly person had been caused a great deal of inconvenience. That elderly person has a splendid record and he deserves a great deal better. I still have not had a reply from the Home Office but I look forward to hearing from the Minister this evening.

Mr. Chedgzoy is certainly not a yuppie. He is an ordinary, decent south Yorkshire man who has never caused any problems. He has paid his way, paid his taxes, earned his living and brought up his family decently. He has never been in any trouble. He certainly does not have the yuppie values. Indeed, the man with the large blue Rover is probably more likely to be a yuppie than Mr. Chedgzoy. However, the fact remains that there has been profound injustice and appalling incompetence. The Chedgzoy case shows that things are simply not good enough. I hope that the Minister will make his innocence clear and express a real regret for the experience that Mr. Chedgzoy suffered and the distress that he was caused.

The Minister should also advise Westminster city council of the case. Here I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, who suggested that Mr. Phillips, the managing director, should pay out of his own pocket. My hon. Friend would never allow an officer to bear responsibility for something that went wrong in Doncaster, although he probably would not allow anything to go wrong in Doncaster on this scale. My hon. Friend would accept that the authority appointed the man and should pay the compensation. I firmly believe that that is appropriate.

Mr. Chedgzoy has had three holidays spoilt. He had to travel to Rotherham. He is disabled. He and his wife have been caused so much distress that earlier this year one of their sons offered to pay the charges and the fines and have done with the matter because he observed the sadness that it was causing to the family. He did not want his parents to have to put up with any more aggravation or horror. The Minister would be entirely justified in telling the council that it should do much more than offer the personal apology that the managing director, Mr. Phillips, offered.

I am sure that Mr. Chedgzoy will accept Mr. Phillips's apology, but the council has a greater obligation. I hope that the council will not stuff any more silly leaflets through my letter box proclaiming that it operates an efficient local service when the Chedgzoy case demonstrates clearly that there is a great deal of inefficiency and incompetence in the council, which has created the sadness that I was happy to raise tonight.

9.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I was sorry to learn of the problems encountered by the constituent of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). I can appreciate that this must have been a distressing series of experiences for him. I can understand why the hon. Member has taken the trouble to raise the subject this evening, and done it in a typically thorough, lucid and wide-ranging way.

I have had inquiries made with the Metropolitan police, the South Yorkshire police, Westminster city council, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to try to determine how this upsetting series of events occurred. I hope that I will be able to offer some illumination to the hon. Member and his constituent.

It may be useful if I first explain briefly the mechanics of the fixed penalty system. After a fixed penalty notice, or parking ticket, is issued, the recipient has 28 days initially in which to pay or, if he disputes the offence, to request a court hearing. If no payment is received, the police find out who is the registered keeper of the vehicle from the records at DVLA. They then send a "notice to owner" to that person.

A person who receives a "notice to owner" can pay the penalty, request a court hearing or complete the statutory statement in the notice that he was not the owner of the vehicle and provide any information he has about who did own it if he has recently bought or sold it. If no reply is received to the "notice to owner", the penalty is automatically increased by 50 per cent. and registered as a fine for enforcement by the local magistrates court. The court may use all its normal powers to enforce payment of the fine.

These procedures seem to have been properly followed in Mr. Chedgzoy's case, although the situation is complicated. I was trying to follow the hon. Member's speech closely, but it did not shed light on the complication that Mr. Chedgzoy had received penalty notices both from the Metropolitan police and from the Westminster city council.

I know that a fixed penalty was issued by the police to a car bearing the same number as his vehicle. No payment was received. The police established that that number was registered to Mr. Chedgzoy. They issued a "notice to owner" but again no reply was received. I accept, although I am not certain of this because it is the dates that matter, that Mr. Chedgzoy may have already been in communication with the Westminster city council. The Metropolitan police, for whom I am able to speak in this place, registered the penalty as a fine with Mr. Chedgzoy's local court.

The court then sought to enforce payment of the fine. At this stage, Mr. Chedgzoy exercised his right to make a statutory declaration that he had no knowledge of the fixed penalty in question—the one in question here being the one from the Metropolitan police. This had the effect of cancelling the fine, for such a declaration is the safeguard provided for causes such as these.

The police have now managed to establish what lay behind the events. It appears that another vehicle carries the same number as Mr. Chedgzoy's car and has parked illegally. Therefore, it should have been the one to bear the fine. The Metropolitan police have traced the other vehicle and its driver. The vehicle, which has a registration number differing by only one number from Mr. Chedgzoy's car, was involved in an accident in early part of the year. A garage undertaking repairs replaced the front index plate but made an error on one digit, with the result that the front plate bore the registration number allocated to Mr. Chedgzoy's car. The driver did not notice the mistake until it was pointed out by police; he is now rectifying it.

Mr. Hardy

I am fascinated by the information, but I have a question. Did the owner of the car with a misplaced digit on its number plate receive parking tickets that were addressed to my constituent, or did he not notice that he had been receiving parking tickets for his inaccurately digited number plate since March or April this year? I find that an incredible explanation.

Mr. Lloyd

As I understand it, he had paid a number of parking tickets, but not all the tickets that had been issued on his car. The police tell me that they could not investigate sooner because they had no reason to think that anything was amiss until Mr. Chedgzoy wrote to them at the end of September and subsequently provided full details earlier this month.

Mr. Redmond

When a parking ticket is made out, it is normal practice for the traffic warden or whoever makes it out to check that the vehicle excise disc is valid. That being so, the number on the excise disc would have been different from the number on the plate, so someone slipped up badly, causing a lot of pain and grief to the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy).

This is not good enough. The Minister has been pouring out all this information in my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate and seemingly everything is suddenly light and clear, but month after month this sort of incompetence has caused a hell of a lot of grief to an old lady and gentleman.

Mr. Lloyd

It has indeed caused a lot of grief, as the hon. Member for Wentworth has explained. I am explaining that the Metropolitan police did not know that there was a problem of this nature until September. Certainly there should have been a check to determine whether the vehicle excise licence number and the number on the front plate matched. There was a difference of one digit, and being a fair-minded man, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) will understand how a one digit difference might not have been noticed.

Mr. Lofthouse

Of course mistakes can be made, but did both front and rear plates need to be replaced?

Mr. Lloyd

The front and back plates differed by one digit——

Mr. Hardy


Mr. Lloyd

No doubt the hon. Gentleman inspects his own front and rear number plates at regular intervals, but many people do not. Being a fair-minded man, he will understand that drivers may not always check, and even if they did they might not notice a difference of one digit. Perhaps I do the hon. Gentleman an injustice; perhaps he is fair-minded but far more observant than many of the rest of us.

Mr. Hardy

I would not claim to be so observant. I might well fail to notice a one-digit difference between the plates, but I am sure that, if I failed to notice it over a period of seven months, a member of my family would have noticed it. I find the whole thing incredible. I should make it clear, however, that Mr. Chedgzoy sought to inform the authorities before September. He telephoned more than once and was assured that he should not worry: it would all be sorted out. Plainly, it was not. That suggests that in future people should rely less on the telephone and more on correspondence.

Mr. Lloyd

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman but I was not sure from his account exactly to whom Mr. Chedgzoy made his representations. Were they made to Westminster city council, or were they made also to the local police? I am merely reporting that the Metropolitan police, who issued only one of the tickets, did not know until the date that I gave, after which they made inquiries and discovered that the situation was as I have described it. I understand that only one fixed penalty was issued by the police in respect of the vehicle in question and that it was not paid. As I said earlier, it appears that some fines were paid in respect of the offending vehicle.

The other correspondence received by Mr. Chedgzoy concerned unpaid excess charge notices for overstaying at parking meters, issued by Westminster city council. I am informed by the council that those notices have now been cancelled, as the hon. Member for Wentworth said, and that it has written to Mr. Chedgzoy telling him so and expressing regret for any distress that he may have suffered.

The hon. Member for Wentworth will understand that I cannot speak for a local authority—not even Westminster city council—or comment on the promptness and manner of Westminster city council's response to Mr. Chedgzoy's communication and to that of the hon. Gentleman. However, I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks this evening to Westminster city council's attention.

The hon. Member for Wentworth suggested that Mr. Chedgzoy should receive compensation for the stress and inconvenience that he suffered. That is something for the organisations involved to consider, and no doubt they will do so when they read this debate. However, it seems clear that there was nothing improper or incorrect in the action of the police or the council, in the way that the hon. Gentleman described this evening. It is clear that Mr. Chedgzoy was the unfortunate victim of a set of circumstances beyond the control of either authority.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, and understand why he raised the case this evening. I have every sympathy with the Kafkaesque situation in which Mr. Chedgzoy found himself, and I hope that he will gain some satisfaction from knowing that the reasons why it arose have now been discovered by the Metropolitan police. They will be writing to Mr. Chedgzoy with a full explanation and to express their regret. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wentworth for raising the matter this evening, so that I could put before him and the House all the information that I have.

The hon. Gentleman referred in particular to letters that he wrote to the Home Office. This is the earliest opportunity that I have had to hear about the background and information surrounding the case and to respond to the hon. Gentleman. When a right hon. or hon. Member writes to the Home Office about a problem as unhappy and mysterious as the one described tonight, we always want to respond as soon as we have an explanation to offer. Having given the hon. Gentleman an explanation, I repeat my regret and express again my sympathy for Mr. Chedgzoy, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that his comments and my response this evening will be placed before both the Metropolitan police and Westminster city council.

Mr. Hardy

I am grateful to the Minister, who has displayed his traditional courtesy. I note that he does not feel that there has been any impropriety or incompetence on the part of the authorities. All I can say is that I certainly hope that no South Yorkshire authority ever displays the degree of accomplished competence that has been shown in this case. Until the London authorities reach the standard maintained in South Yorkshire, people like Mr. and Mrs. Chedgzoy would be well advised to wait another 35 years before setting foot in London again.