The shocking truth about council fines
It used to be relatively straightforward: criminals were the bad guys who ripped people off and ruined lives; the rest of us were decent law-abiding citizens.
But a rising tide of new rules, a system of civil infringements and spot fines, and an explosion in the number of wardens and enforcement officers, are pushing increasing numbers of us onto the wrong side of the law.
Last year councils made around £400 million from minor rule infringements. So what are these crimes that deserve so much attention from the authorities?
Driving offences are big money-spinners. Speeding fines alone earned councils £100 million last year. But while no one would argue against dangerous speeding, the problem is that many fines seem to be for rule infringements that are not risking harm to anyone.
For example, Barbara Faber, a 65-year-old retired administrator from Bedfordshire, says: "I got a speeding ticket from a camera in an industrial estate which is like a ghost town at the weekends.
I was annoyed, because an empty industrial estate shouldn't have a limit of 30 miles an hour, let alone a camera."
But the car doesn't even have to be moving to mark you out as a criminal. Last year, councils made £330 million from parking fines.
Peter Roberts, chief executive of Drivers' Alliance, says: "Parking enforcement has become a massive money-making industry and we are seeing unscrupulous and target-driven enforcement of parking laws where the penalties far outweigh the offence."
Certainly the interpretation of parking rules seems to indicate it's all about the money.
It emerged earlier this year that councils were giving parking tickets to people who paid and displayed more than one ticket. The rule exists to stop people getting two tickets and outstaying the maximum period.
However, it also allows wardens to give a ticket to someone who has simply failed to clear their dashboard for a while. But there are ways you can fight back.
You can claim the contravention didn't occur – for example, if signs were wrong or if you were loading. You can claim you have been overcharged, or that there has been an infringement of procedures.
There are a number of websites set up to help you through the process, including trafficpenaltytribunal.gov.uk.
If you're fined for displaying too many tickets, John Vigus, a penalty charge expert and author of A Courier's Guide to Parking, says: "You need to visit your council and ask for the Traffic Regulation Order.
"For the loophole to exist, it has to be explicitly written in this document by the council. If it's there, sadly, you have to pay up."
For speeding fines, there are again grounds for appeal – for example, if you weren't speeding, you weren't driving at the time, there wasn't proper notice of the speed limit or the speeding vehicle on camera was misidentified.
Aside from driving offences, spot fines are a major money-spinner. These were introduced in 2004 for minor offences, and made councils £12 million last year. Littering is a key source of cash.
In Edinburgh, for example, the council has doubled the number of litter wardens and seen a massive increase in the number of £50 fixed penalty notices handed out, with well over a thousand in the last year.
These fines can easily overstep the mark: last November 26-year-old Vanessa Kelly was fined £75 for feeding ducks in a park in the West Midlands with her son Harry.
To contest a spot fine, you will have to write to the council involved, although the authorities say they will only hand out fines when the offence has been witnessed by a warden, and therefore they will only overturn the fines in 'exceptional' circumstances.
It's no excuse for littering, for example, to say there was no bin handy or the nearest one is too full, as they argue you can always take your litter home.
You can also be fined £50 or £80 for anti-social behaviour such as swearing in public or public disorder. So anyone who has ever just missed a bus and expressed their displeasure loudly is now a criminal.
Meanwhile, Hull City Council started fining cyclists who ride on the pavement £30. And in Camden, north London, failing to keep your dog on a lead carries an £80 penalty.
These fines are irritating in themselves, but what most grates with many taxpayers is that while the authorities are busy handing out fines, many will no longer attend the scene of a crime, such as a car break-in, because they claim they're too busy.
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, says: "Police priorities are increasingly being warped by revenue-raising and box-ticking, which is diverting them from the job of catching real criminals."
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