Britain’s booming speed camera network is at the center of a giant ‘scam’ aimed at making ‘buckets of money’ for the Government, the boss of a leading supplier of the devices has admitted.
The sensational confession was made by the chief executive of Tele-Traffic, which supplies cameras to virtually every police force in Britain.
His unguarded comments, made to an undercover reporter posing as a prospective buyer of speed cameras, will add new weight to the public’s perception that the gadgets are designed more for making money than improving road safety.
The Tele-Traffic boss, Jon Bond, who was until a few months ago the police Chief Superintendent in charge of speed cameras in Warwickshire, urged our reporter to place an order and promised: ‘There will be so much money coming in you won’t know what to do with it.’
He and his colleagues revealed how:
So many motorists are being snared that courts are struggling to process the sheer volume of cheques sent to pay fines.
Tele-Traffic is run by former traffic police who offer to introduce customers to currently serving officers willing to give advice on the products.
The Government manipulates the speed camera system so that the Treasury rakes in the multi-million-pound profits without the cash going back to improve roads.
The Mail on Sunday posed as the London agents for an Eastern European firm keen to establish a speed camera network in their own country. We asked how the cameras operated in Britain – and the answers we received will shock many, but also confirm the darkest suspicions of millions of motorists.
The Tele-Traffic team encouraged our reporters to site any cameras they bought where they could catch ‘businessmen in the morning and school-run mums in the afternoon.’
Setting up cameras in new areas was the equivalent of having ‘a blank cheque book’, they said, guaranteeing ‘when you first set up you will have lots of offences, you will have bucketfuls’.
Britain’s speed camera system is run by more than 40 regional road safety partnerships, made up of representatives from police, courts and councils.
The partnerships are funded by the Department of Transport, which demands that each region gives target figures for the number of motorists they plan to catch speeding over the next year. If these targets are not met, then Whitehall cuts the size of its funding.
This has the effect of making the local partnership set low targets, rather than risk losing cash by falling short of predictions. And that is good news for the Government, since the system is geared so that any extra fines go to the Treasury.
Warwickshire, for example, had set a target of issuing 80,000 tickets in a year. Under the recently amended rules all the revenue from the fines goes to central government, with a portion of it returned to local authorities and to fund the road safety partnerships.
If Warwickshire only managed to catch 60,000 motorists, then the local partnership would have to make good the shortfall itself so it dare not undershoot. If, however, it fined 100,000 motorists, then all revenue from the additional 20,000 fines would disappear to the Treasury.
So although it might appear that the Government’s rules are intended to encourage partnerships – to set low targets and therefore not persecute an excessive number of motorists – the practical effect of them is to ensure that the targets are regularly broken and more, rather than fewer, motorists are ensnared.
And although it escapes any of the blame, the Government picks up all the profits.
Further, partnerships that easily overshoot their targets one year can set higher ones the next, so growing their empires.
Mr Bond claimed that the Government was so keen to increase this revenue that it announced changes to the rules last year.
Instead of fines going directly to fund the partnerships, that money will, from 2007, go direct to the Treasury. Whitehall will then allocate funds for road safety to local authorities to use as part of their general transport plan, in theory breaking the link between fines and revenue.
‘This was done so the Government wasn’t perceived to be revenue raising,’ explained Mr Bond. ‘But the reality is that the Government is actually raking off even more money than before. They are giving less money to the partnerships than they would have received through the old operation. So it’s all a scam – it’s smoke and mirrors.
‘The Treasury cannot lose and they get the cash while the camera operators are the ones who get all the criticism. Brilliant, really.’
But successful partnerships do rake in increased grants, enabling them to engage more staff, move into bigger premises and methodically expand their empires. The result is an ever-burgeoning speed camera industry in which central Government, local worthies and gadget suppliers all have a stake. But it costs the motorist millions of pounds in fines, plus immeasurable inconvenience.
Again, critics said yesterday, road safety is forgotten. The speed camera system is a scandal that is all about hitting targets, building local empires and raising money for Government.
Paul Smith, of the motorist organisation Safespeed, said: ‘This Mail on Sunday investigation has given us the first glimpse of the secret society behind the world of camera partnerships and the private firms which are picking up lucrative contracts from them.
‘In Tele-Traffic you are showing us a company which has become a virtual retirement home for police officers. I believe that now this Pandora’s box has been opened there will be more to come.’
Tele-Traffic UK supplies 97 per cent of the country’s police forces with portable laser cameras which are hand-held or set up in special roving police vans.
Mr Bond’s partners are Peter Gay, a former PC and now the firm’s customer service manager, and Mike Ricketts, another former policeman.
Posing as foreign businessmen, The Mail on Sunday met them over dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant at a five-star hotel in the Cotswolds.
At the beginning of the meeting the Tele-Traffic team stressed the importance of speed cameras in promoting road safety. But then the trio began to speak more openly about the ‘revenue raising’, truth behind the cameras and that remained the dominant theme of the evening.
Mr Bond at least is well qualified in that respect. Five years ago he set up the Warwickshire Safety Camera Partnership, which has a website mockingly called ‘smilecamera. co.uk’. But Mr Bond admitted that during his tenure as chairman of the Warwickshire partnership the number of cameras in that county doubled and the courts were swamped with cheques from speeding motorists.
Mr Bond, who is due to address the annual conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers this week, said: ‘The beauty of the mobile units we sell is their flexibility. They will catch businessmen going into work in the morning and school-run mums in the afternoon.
‘There will be so much money coming in you won’t know what to do with it.’ Asked how Tele-Traffic could guarantee a return on the cost of their cameras, Mr Gay laughed and said: ‘You are going to get your revenue. That, at the end of the day, is not a problem.’
Mr Bond said: ‘The money will come in in buckets, a promise repeated during the course of the evening by his colleagues, who also spoke in terms of generating ‘buckets’ of money.
So much so, said Mr Bond, that the courts – which process fines and issue the points on a driver’s licence – have been struggling to cope with all the cheques. Again, he made clear that the speed camera industry was all about meeting targets rather than preventing accidents.
He said: ‘It will be too much for you to cope with. It will be too many offences – you won’t be able to cope with them.
‘In Warwickshire last year we issued 80,000 tickets when we could probably have done double that number. But we couldn’t because the courts, which handle the fines, wouldn’t have been able to cope.
‘Imagine 80,000 cheques for £60 coming through your door in a given year. They were swamped and
we are the smallest of all the speed partnerships.’
Mr Bond said that in his last year in Warwickshire he deliberately sent officers out to quiet roads when the number of fines approached the limit the courts could cope with an extraordinary story that makes a mockery of the police’s claim that speeding tickets are about safety.
‘I had to send the camera operators out to roads where they would only catch one or two people an hour,’ he said.
Tele-Traffic sells basic hand-held laser speed cameras for £3,000 and the directors told how this could be recovered from speeding drivers in just an hour. Mr Gay said: ‘Take the UK model of £60 a pop. If you buy a piece of our kit at £3,000, then operate it in a two-hour session, on an averagely busy road, you will catch about 100 drivers that’s £6,000.
He also told how Tele-Traffic was expecting approval from the DoT for a camera the company has developed which can trap motorists from almost a mile away, raking in even more cash.
Tele-Traffic’s business is not limited to the UK. Ireland has bought more than 400 laser cameras from their company – and over there, the government is quite open about using cameras to raise revenue.
Mr Ricketts said the Irish government had made an election promise to reduce stamp duty and had made it clear they would make up the lost revenue from speeding fines.
‘We have produced for them a new system to make up that revenue,’ Mr Ricketts said. ‘So they are going the opposite way to the UK Government. They are actually openly promoting speed enforcement as their revenue raiser.’
One thing Tele-Traffic appeared less open about was an alarming discovery it made last year that thousands of motorists might have been wrongly prosecuted for speeding. Mr Gay told how the son of the firm’s founder, another former chief superintendent, was caught speeding by a police officer using one of the firm’s lasers in a camera on the A14 last year.
He added: ‘We looked into it and the officer operating it had not been trained properly, which technically makes the prosecution invalid. We told them that meant every prosecution over the previous five years could also be invalid because of the absence of training. But they insisted on prosecuting him anyway.’
Despite having a news section on its website, Tele-Traffic never told the public about the ‘unsafe’, prosecutions and there is no record of any of the police forces covering the A14 making any such declaration either.
Happy that our meeting had gone well, Mr Bond and his colleagues promised that it would be ‘no problem’, for them to introduce the undercover reporters to serving policemen on the Warwickshire Safety Camera Partnership and get hold of unpublished figures for how much the Treasury is raking in from speed cameras.
Last night motorists campaign groups demanded an inquiry.
Tony Vickers, of the Association of British Drivers, said: ‘Motorists have suspected for many years that the whole system is against them – now we have the proof that it starts with the Labour Government and goes downwards.
‘While there is no evidence that any individual on the partnerships profits from this, the truth of the matter is that it is enabling certain police officers to build mini-empires which are completely unaccountable to anyone but the Treasury.’