HC Deb 04 February 2000 vol 343 cc1401-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pope.]

2.32 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

May I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise in an Adjournment debate the issue of wheel clamping on private land?

First, I wish to make absolutely clear my support for the right of landowners to protect their land from unauthorised parking. They often have commercial or other interests that can be adversely affected by unauthorised parking. In the case of hospitals, doctors' surgeries and so on, unauthorised parking may well constitute a serious risk to the public.

It is unreasonable to expect landowners to have to use the courts to sue for trespass when dealing with the problem. They should have the ability to control parking, but equally the public must be protected from an industry that has more cowboys than a John Wayne western.

Hon. Members may think that Harrogate is one of the last places where a war on clamping should be waged. Let me assure the House that any individual with a mobile phone, a strong arm, a menacing look and £50 for his first clamp can operate anywhere and take a slice of this estimated £150 million business.

Imagine the scene: two senior citizens set off for an evening at Harrogate theatre. The weather was bad, so they parked close to the theatre in private space owned by a friend and colleague. The performance of "Don Giovanni" was superb, but the evening was somewhat spoiled by the shock of their returning to their car only to find that it had disappeared.

A notice on an adjoining property referred to National Parking Controls—NPC—and a mobile phone number. The senior citizens rang but, alas, their car was already on a journey to Leeds some 20 miles away. It could be returned to Harrogate provided that the sum of £75 for clamping and £190 for towing—a total of £265—could be produced within the hour. With help from their friends, the money was obtained and, miraculously, after it was paid over, the car was on its way not to Leeds, but to a local council car park where the clampers and their two tow trucks were parked. NPC, it seems, uses a public car park without authority to park the cars that it clamps for being parked illegally. That is rather like a scene from "Trigger Happy TV" with Dom Joly.

That is not an unusual story. NPC has been operating in Harrogate for some months. It usually pounces at night and the number of cases continues to escalate. Despite a vigorous campaign by the Harrogate Advertiser and the local council, NPC continues to mine a rich vein.

Such tales are not uncommon elsewhere in England. Clampers in Doncaster threatened to hold to ransom a three-year-old girl until her mother collected £60 from the bank. Clampers on scrap land in Sheffield demanded a female motorist's gold tooth as payment. A hearse with a body in the back was clamped outside a church. Clampers demanded sex from a young woman who was unable to pay a fine late at night. Two weeks ago, a paramedic vehicle was clamped while attending an incident in Lancaster.

The system of extortion, intimidation and blackmail by unregulated clampers can seemingly go ahead unchallenged by the current law. That is not so in Scotland, where in 1992 the Lord Justice General said that an activity as sensitive to abuse as wheel clamping requires careful regulation under law". He judged wheel clamping on private land to be extortion and theft. As a result, pirate clamping is now outlawed in Scotland; the industry is properly regulated and full protection is afforded to landowners and motorists.

In England, no such regulation exists. Indeed, a Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Arthur and another v. Anker on 30 November 1995 made it clear that wheel clamping of a vehicle without authority on private land and its release only on payment of a fee was neither tortious nor criminal, provided that the motorist had seen, and therefore consented to, the conditions on clamping displayed on an appropriate sign and that the release fee was reasonable, easily payable and resulted in prompt release.

That judgment, unlike the judgment in Scotland, merely muddied the waters. What constitutes an adequately displayed notice? What is a reasonable fee? How is it possible easily to pay the charge late at night? In my view, a charge of £265 to regain one's car is unreasonable and extortionate, and to demand the money, often with menace, constitutes blackmail as defined in section 21 of the Theft Act 1968. The police, however, are reluctant to become involved, and there are few occasions when the Crown Prosecution Service has prosecuted a damper for behaviour that in other walks of life would warrant arrest.

At present, the only recourse for an individual is to pursue a civil court action. One of my constituents did just that. She argued that the dampers' signs were too small. NPC was then ordered to pay back the £190 towing fee plus legal costs of £130. Needless to say, five weeks later, NPC has not paid a penny.

The answer, however, is not to encourage a host of individuals to take civil action but to legislate to deal with the problem once and for all. Statutory regulations must be introduced quickly. Clamping companies must be registered, and if they operate without a licence they should face criminal prosecution. Fines, including on-the-spot release fees and towing and storage charges, should be standardised and brought into line with existing fines for on-street clamping.

The size, number and format of warning signs should be standardised. Motorists should be free to pay by cash, cheque or credit card, and be given a reasonable period in which to find the money. Cars should be towed away only if they are to be stored in a secure compound, and the address given to the motorist involved. There should be an appeals procedure and clamping companies should be able to operate only where the landowner is registered and licensed.

What is surprising is that everyone—including, I am sure, the Minister—agrees, particularly responsible private security firms. It is not a party political issue; it is one of commitment. In 1992, the Conservative Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), promised to look into pirate clamping. In a letter to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), he said: Urgent consideration is now being given by the Government to this issue". In February 1993, the Home Office produced a consultation paper called "Wheelclamping on private land", but no action followed.

In July 1996, the Regulation of the Wheelclamping Industry Bill was presented as a private Member's Bill by my noble Friend Baroness Maddock, supported by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), who was a Transport Minister in the present Government. On 26 August 1996, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), now the Home Secretary, took up the cause in a press release entitled "Labour to clamp down on cowboy wheelclampers". The press release states: Across the country, innocent motorists—including many women—have been tyrannised by cowboy wheelclampers who charge extortionate fees and at present operate effectively outside the law. In government, the Home Secretary appeared equally committed. On 15 July 1997, speaking to the British Security Industry Association, he promised A crackdown on clampers and cowboys", adding that Proposals for regulating wheelclamping must be simple and effective. Two and a half years later, there is no legislation. We have had yet more consultation and another White Paper, "The Government's Proposals for Regulation of the Private Security Industry in England and Wales", which was published nearly a year ago. The White Paper is quite specific about wheel clamping, stating in paragraph 5.11: The operation of wheelclamping firms could be dealt with by the use of statutory regulations/codes of practice recommended by the Authority. That refers to the Government's main proposal, which is to set up a private security authority to regulate all the activities of private sector security firms, including clampers. I fail to understand why the Government have chosen that route; perhaps the Minister will explain.

Given the urgency of the problem, which has been admitted by the Home Secretary both before and after Labour entered office, will the Minister explain why the Government have chosen to create yet another new authority? Why not amend the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to cover wheel clamping? That would be a simple procedure. Why not legislate within the new Transport Bill, using local authorities as the regulatory bodies? That was clearly an option when the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions introduced the transport White Paper; it remains an option, because that Bill is still in Committee.

Have the Government considered using other existing legislation covering local government miscellaneous provisions to give statutory powers to new regulations? I ask that because it is to the local authority, or local police, that disgruntled motorists go when they have problems. Motorists and landowners are familiar with those bodies: they already see them enforcing parking controls, so an extension of local authority functions rather than the creation of a new body would appear logical.

Given that the Government appear determined to crack this nut with an extremely large hammer, will the Minister give a date when the private security authority Bill will be put before the House? If not, will he confirm that, despite his commitment to the hon. Members for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) on 17 January, at columns 550–51 in Hansard, there is absolutely no chance of legislation being introduced within the lifetime of this Parliament? If so, will he accept a private Member's Bill on the subject?

Despite all the promises of the past seven years, my constituents and those of many right hon. and hon. Members will continue to suffer at the hands of these modern-day highwaymen. Furthermore, landowners, who have a right to safeguard their land, will continue to be castigated as rogues for so doing. The Government have conceded that there is a problem; the public want a solution, as does the legitimate industry. The solution is relatively straightforward. The question is, when will the Government act?

2.43 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for raising this issue. It is one with which I am sure many of our constituents will have ready empathy. We recognise the strength of feeling of those who have suffered being clamped. I am only too aware of the disreputable way in which some—but by no means all—clampers go about their business. It is bad enough that they clamp people's cars without there being any warning signs and charge outrageous release fees, but there are even cases in which drivers have been threatened with violence. That is totally unacceptable.

Having said that, everyone has to respect the property of others, and there are those who will not do that. Owners of land must be able to take action against those who park on it without their permission; in my view and that of many others, wheel clamping—or at least the threat of it—can be an effective means of dealing with irresponsible parking. However, wheel clamping must be carried out in a reasonable manner. I stress the word "reasonable". There must be warning signs of a reasonable size, and the release fee must not be extortionate. There must certainly be no threat of violence attached to seeking the release fee.

To some extent, as the hon. Gentleman recognised, case law has already enshrined those principles—differently north and south of the border, as is to be expected in different jurisdictions. In 1995, in the case of Arthur and Arthur v. Anker, the Court of Appeal adjudged that dampers had acted legally, as adequate warning signs had been displayed, the release fee was reasonable, and there was a reasonable method of payment.

The judgment of the Court of Appeal provided useful guidelines to courts faced with similar cases, but only in broad terms. It did not define a general standard for the size of signs, or what a "reasonable" release fee might be. That leaves the motorist who is aggrieved by having his or her car clamped on private land with only limited practical means of redress. Unless the behaviour of the damper is quite outrageous, the motorist may well be uncertain of his or her rights, and may be dissuaded from going to court by the potential cost of legal fees.

The industry is poorly regulated. We recognised that when we published the White Paper "The Government's Proposals for Regulation of the Private Security Industry in England and Wales" last year. I was responsible for the publication of that document, and central to it was our recognition of the need to ensure that it would no longer be possible for anyone with a van and a clamp to set up as a wheel clamper.

All that dampers have to do is tell the landowner that they will, for a given fee, clamp anyone parked on his or her land. They can then subsequently clamp at will, and the driver has little redress against them or the landowner. That is clearly unacceptable. The aim of our proposals is to protect the public by ensuring basic standards of probity across the private security industry. We are determined to eradicate undesirable elements from the industry, including cowboy wheel clampers.

I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will see some merit in the proposed private security industry authority. It is designed to have a holistic approach to the challenges faced by the private security industry, rather than relying on ad hoc responses, however well founded the sense of grievance that motivates them.

The authority will have as one of its duties the responsibility of licensing individuals in the private security industry, including those involved in wheel clamping. Managers and directors of security companies will also need to hold a licence. That will be a valuable tool at the disposal of the community in ensuring a properly regulated private security industry. It has been welcomed by responsible operators.

It is also proposed that the authority would have the responsibility of producing or endorsing standards and codes of practice for the industry and, where necessary, of making recommendations for statutory regulation. In the case of wheel clamping, the White Paper specifically acknowledged—as the hon. Gentleman recognised—the importance of ensuring that statutory regulations or a code of practice were in place to govern the operation of wheel clamping firms.

We are currently considering how best to take forward the White Paper in the light of considerable interest. We received 180 responses to the paper. I undertake to the hon. Gentleman that we will shortly make known our conclusions.

We have made clear our intention to introduce legislation to regulate the private security industry as soon as parliamentary time allows. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, and he knows that I cannot tell him exactly when the legislation will be introduced. However, I stress that the Home Office is completely committed to it. It has to compete with several other important and necessary measures which have been urged on us. We are determined to crack down on the unsavoury activities of some of those involved in wheel clamping.

The cases that the hon. Gentleman outlined this afternoon give an accurate flavour of what our fellow citizens have to endure. A night at the opera, especially an opera as uplifting as "Don Giovanni", should not be ruined by such an unpleasant event. I hope that the fate of the wheel dampers will mirror that of Don Giovanni in the last act. Perhaps that is an uncharitable sentiment, but it is entirely justified in the light of the experiences of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

We look to the private security industry authority to develop the codes of practice. We want the codes to take account of those that already operate successfully in the industry. We have therefore an opportunity to put in place a voluntary code of practice with the industry. Considerable progress is being made on that. It will address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, for example, standardising fines, ensuring a range of options—cash, cheque, credit card, Switch—for payment, and a proper appeals procedure.

The British Parking Association is co-operating with the Government to produce a draft code of practice, which it intends to circulate for comment shortly. The consultation will extend to motorist and parking organisations so that the final draft represents the interests of both groups.

I warmly welcome the initiative to find practical measures now, which the responsible majority of clamping operators support. We can thus ensure that the interests of the owners of private land are protected by an effective, proportionate and professional service that deals with unauthorised parking, that the harm and damage perpetrated by cowboys is exposed, and that the full weight of public opinion is brought to bear against them.

That is only a beginning, and we look towards a regulatory authority, a system of licensing and sanctions, which will build on the code of practice. Irresponsible and fraudulent wheel clamping will thus become a thing of the past.

The debate, albeit short, at the instigation of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is a welcome step forward towards that conclusion, which cannot come soon enough.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o 'clock.