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LIDL SO AN SO'S

17-11-2006

ShopperLynn Hawthorne has paid the price for falling ill on a shopping trip - she's been "fined" for overstaying her welcome at the local supermarket car park. Here's the moral - either don't get sick, or never shop at Lidl again.

So far in my articles I think I have expressed opinions and been indignant about issues, but have been pretty circumspectabout ‘naming and shaming' because I've been sure the guilty parties know who they are. Butno more ladies and gentleman: the gloves are most definitely off!

I have just received a ‘parking charge notice' for an overstay on a supermarket car park.Forgetting back there 45 minutes late, Total Parking Solutions of Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, want to charge me £50.

That's if I pay within 14 days. Between 15 and 28 days, the fee goes up to £70 and if I fail to pay up, they ‘reserve the right to take further action to recover the debt and (you) may incur extra costs and interest.' Further pressure was applied by the chilling statement: We are holding photographic evidence on file to support this claim.

So how did this ‘infringement' come about? Well, I wasgoing onmy regular fornightlyshopping trip and as usual combined it with avisit to the Jobcentre next door. Unfortunately, at theJobcentre I collapsed after a stress episode resulting from speaking to some robot in Processing.I was in floods of tears and fighting for breath not checking for the time I was due to leave the car park.

Readers of my earlier piece on my Jobcentre experience will know that I've recently been made redundant and am fighting the system to get some sense out it and the pressure is taking its toll, quite frankly.

At the time that I was overstaying my welcome on the car park, I was being comforted by a floor manager, who was simultaneously berating her colleagues at the Processing Centre over the telephone, and desperately trying to regain my composure. I wasn't exactly in a fit state to realise that I'd run out of time in an unticketedparking area.

Confronted with a hefty bill, I decided to try to reason with Total Parking Solutions, P O Box 599, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, and ask them to drop the charges, given that I felt I had a genuine reason for being late. Except there is no telephone number on the bill, apart from the automated payment line. So, what next?

I decided to try the supermarket in question: Lidl in West Bromwich. My husband had already been into the store to speak to the manager, who turned out to be Eastern European with limited English and had directed him towards the lady on the till.

She said that her regular manager had been caught out three times himself and nobody seemed particularly sure who actually owned the car park, so my husband tried the Council. They rooted round and eventually provided him with the number for Lidl Customer Services.

I rang that number and eventually got through to somewhere in Scotland, after listening for what seemed like an eternity to the message that they do not provide telephone numbers for individual stores. They said they couldn't help.

I asked for the number for head office and was told that it was - wait for it, this is a killer - “ex-directory because we are a private company.” What? If they are so private, why sully their premises by letting in members of the public, for goodness sake? They are a supermarket chain, which provides cheap foreign food items for public consumption, not some top-secret military establishment. I suspect that getting hold of MI5 is probably easier! At least they have a website…..

I asked what I could do and was told that all enquiries had to be sentin writing to the regional head office in Wellington Parkway, Lutterworth, in Hertfordshire. I pointed out the timescale.

I received the demand for payment on Thursday, 16th November and I have until 29th November to pay, before the cost goes up. If any appeal is to be lodged and dealt with, I am running out of time before the heavy mob are sent in for debt recovery.

Suddenly, a ‘bill' becomes a ‘debt', with all the heavy connotations associated with that terminology. I am being forced into the position of paying up and attempting to recover the cost later, a scenario for which I cannot hold my breath.

Distinctly depressed, I re-read the parking charge notice. Interesting wording, that. It's not technically a fine because of the parking conditions: If you allow your vehicle to remain on this site for more than 1 1/2 hours at any time, you agree to pay £70 (reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days). Failure to make prompt payment may incur additional costs. We will contact the DVLA to obtain your details.

Eh? It seems that the DVLA has a Code of Practice for Private Car Park Enforcement and anybody who sets up a private car park can apply for your details. So much for Data Protection! This car park has a sophisticated camera set-up, which photographs your car on the way in and out and calculates the time difference. Any overstay alerts the DVLA, which then happily provides the company with your name and address and the make, model and colour of your vehicle.

In these days when we face identity fraud on a daily basis, I am more than a little concerned that so much information about me is so freely available. There is enough information there to at least clone my registration, if not have a very good stab at assuming my identity.

Having once been threatened with court proceedings for allegedly committing criminal damage to a disabled person's vehicle on a leisure centre car park on the outskirts of Leeds, and apparently being videoed in the process, when some schmuck falsely gave out my registration number, I am very wary of giving out any personal information at all. Looks like I don't have to bother because the DVLA will do it for me.

What also puzzles me is what a low-budget supermarket is doing employing a high-tech security system in the first place. How much has that cost? Is gathering parking ‘charges' one of the ways in which they drive down prices? And why are they so blasted secretive? No other supermarket hides behind such a protective shield, so what are they afraid of?

At the moment, I am in a quandary - pay up or fight and wait for the bailiffs. All I want is the opportunity to speak to a reasonable human being and discuss the situation rationally, being able to plead my case. Isuspect that, legally, there's bugger-all I can do about it, but I'd like the opportunity to try.

Right, you'll have to excuse me, ‘cos I'm off to shop in Sainsbury's. In the long run, it'll work out cheaper and I get Nectar points! Now, where's my lippy, because if I'm going to be on camera, I need to look my best….!

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