Issue 134: 2017 12 21: Hitting The Vulnerable

21 December 2017

Hitting The Vulnerable

The increase in PCNs.

By John Watson

It is particularly disappointing, because I am something of a fan of Sadiq Khan.  He is the first Labour candidate for whom I have ever voted and I did so because he seemed moderate, sensible, decent forward-thinking and just the sort of chap who we want in British Politics, even, who knows, potential prime ministerial material.  And yet here I find his name associated with an Orwellian subterfuge in relation to the crucial issue of penalty charge notices in the Congestion Zone.

The email which I received from Tfl Communications is worth quoting directly:

“The cost of a PCN for failing to pay the Congestion Charge will rise to £160 from 2 January 2018 (or £80 if paid within 14 days). The proposed rise in the cost of a PCN for contraventions of the Red Route network will follow later in 2018, subject to a separate review by the Secretary of State.

In the past five years there has been a 12 per cent increase in the number of motorists being issued with PCNs. The rise from 1.3 million in 2011/12 to 1.5 million in 2016/17 is a clear indicator that the current deterrent is no longer effective.”

All right, you may say, what is wrong with that?  Deterrent doesn’t work, put up the penalty so that it does.  Obvious economic theory?  Well, let’s hope that Mr Khan and his cohorts really thought like that and were not deliberately delivering a dishonest message to the London public.

Have you got the flaw yet?  I expect most of you have, but for the rest, split the issues into two.  In relation to the red route parking regulations it is indeed the case that motorists may follow a risk-driven strategy so that a higher penalty should increase compliance.  But what about PCNs issued to those who enter the congestion charging zone without paying the daily charge?  What risk strategy can they be pursuing?  None, of course.  If you enter the congestion charge zone without paying the daily rate you will inevitably be caught.  Save in the most exceptional circumstances, therefore, people only do it by accident.  How can increasing the penalty charge improve compliance?  It cannot (disregarding unrealistic claptrap about it making people more careful).  The only possible justification is for Tfl to raise more money.

Now let’s look at the sort of people who end up with a penalty for not paying the daily charge.  There are two categories: the careless and the confused.  Are they to be found among the investment bankers, the professionals and the top earners?  No, of course not, people like that already have an account which records the charge automatically.  Who are they then?  A few tourists I suppose who’ve come to enjoy our great city and don’t understand the complexity of congestion charging, older people who are not particularly savvy and find the system confusing, and a few of the scatterbrained, unlikely to be at the top of the earning pile but able to fund a car, people who just about manage in Mrs May’s terminology.

How on earth did a great public authority come to the conclusion that it was right to increase the penalty charges incurred by such people?  Was there a big meeting, perhaps, chaired by the great Sadiq Khan himself with councillors and liveried flunkies in attendance?  Was concern expressed at the shortage of funds for road maintenance and did one of the flunkies, named Baldrick perhaps, come up with a cunning plan?

“Why don’t we extract more money from people who get the congestion charging system wrong?” perhaps he asked, giggling as the spittle ran down his chin.

“No, Baldrick, the public won’t like to see the vulnerable being fleeced in that way.”

“But if we framed the announcement so that it mixes up penalty charge notices for failing to pay the charge with penalty change notices for red route parking infringements, we could sort of smear the deterrence reasoning across.”

“Good plan, Baldrick, no one will spot that it doesn’t apply.  That should enable us to get more from the vulnerable without a public fuss.  When do you think we should send out the email?”

“The season of goodwill would seem appropriate” replied Baldric, smiling.

Well, maybe it wasn’t like that at all, and despite a lengthy consultation (the questions, surprise, surprise, grouped the issues together) it just floated through without too much thought as to the different categories of PCN.  Either way I hope that that charming Mr Khan was not personally involved.

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