Years of campaigning by the PRA and Car Wash Association paid off last month when their chairman, Brian Madderson, was invited to give evidence to MPs on the damage unregulated hand car washes are wreaking on the legitimate trade, and the environment. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has used a wide interpretation of its brief to investigate not only the pollution caused by hand car washes (HCWs), but also the harm they cause to sustainability in terms of labour exploitation and other associated criminality.

Also appearing at the inquiry’s hearings were academics studying water use and labour practices at HCWs, and representatives from local government, the water companies and the Downstream Fuel Association (DFA), which represents supermarket groups who sell petrol.

The PRA chairman was asked to start his evidence by listing the visible signs that a HCW might be acting illegally. He said: "The trade effluent is often flowing over the concrete or the tarmac and, indeed, can be seen flowing out onto main roads.

"The second area would be signs of poor housekeeping, signs of poor safety clothing for the people doing the work and it is a cash-only environment."

He added that he had been advised by the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and others that the cash environment might also be indicative of the sale of illicit drugs or illicit tobacco, and even in one case in North Wales, prostitution services.

Asked about the scale of the HCW market, Madderson said one of the problems of dealing with it was no one had a definitive figure, but the best estimates suggested a range of 12,000 to 15,000 HCW, and that 90%-plus were unregulated.

Questioned by the MPs on how pollution from HCWs could be controlled, Madderson said: "In Scotland they have the GBR, the general binding rules, which is much more easily enforceable. If you see that the trade effluent is not going into a foul sewer drain but is going into a surface water drain you can take action immediately. In England, the Environment Agency has to prove some kind of pollution before it can take action.

"What would be really good in England, would be to have the same type of GBR as you have in Scotland because that is a real and immediate deterrent and much more easily enforceable."

Madderson also told MPs that the UK was the only country in the EU where the proliferation of HCWs had occurred, and suggested that enforcement in other countries was more robust.

The PRA chief also raised the issue of tax evasion by the HCWs, estimating it cost between £500m and £1bn a year. He called for HMRC to fund a proper study into how many hand car washes there are and where they are.

Other witnesses outlined the level of exploitation of workers at HCWs. Professor Ian Clark from Nottingham Business School said a detailed study carried out at 45 HCWs found that none were paying the national minimum wage, health and safety safeguards were not in place and the workwear of many of the workers was not compliant with regulations. He said they found tarmac that had been damaged by the chemicals used, and added: "We have a connection with the Queen’s Medical Centre at the University of Nottingham and we have talked to people there in relation to car wash operatives coming in and developing things like trench foot because their feet are soaking wet all the time, and hydrochloric acid burns."

One of the HCW sectors highlighted by Clark was supermarket car park trolley washes. He said that these tended to be third-party operations and therefore escaped the auspices of the Modern Slavery Act, because it only applies to companies with a turnover of more than £36m. However, when his team spoke to Tesco about this, the retailer had decided to ban all independent car washes from its car parks and entered into a deal with a company called Waves to operate Tesco-branded HCWs. But in his evidence, Clark also pointed out that other supermarket groups had not changed their practices, claiming it was the responsibility of the third parties to adhere to the regulations on employment and conditions.

Teresa Sayers, CEO of the DFA, said they had developed a code of practice with the GLAA, called the Responsible Car wash Scheme, and a pilot will begin in September.

Mary Creagh MP, who chairs the Environment Audit Committee, said it would hold a second hearing into HCWs on July 10, where they would be able to put the issues raised in the first hearing to the relevant regulators, and ministers.

The true cost

Written evidence from the Downstream Fuel Association identified the break-even costs for an outside wash and an "in and out" valet, when all the relevant reg-ulations were adhered to, and contrasted its findings against the charges at some HCWs.
It calculated that an outside only wash takes about 18 minutes for an average-sized car. Paying the national minimum or living wage with statutory holidays and pension contribution, and adding in the price of the materials used, rent/rates etc, comes out at a net cost of £5.73, giving a minimum breakeven price point, including VAT, of £6.88.
An ’in and out’ valet, would take 39 minutes at a net cost of £9.25 giving a break-even price of £11.10 inclusive of VAT.