§ IMMOBILISATION OF VEHICLES ILLEGALLY PARKED, ETC
Lords amendment: No. 69, in page 58, line 3, at beginning insert
Subject to sections (Exemptions from section 51) and (Initial experimental period for immobilisation of vehicles) of this Act
Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 70 to 74, 90, 91, 75, 76, 93 and 94.
§ Mrs. Chalker
These amendments concern the vexed question of wheel clamps. When it was suggested on Report that wheel clamps be introduced, there were many requests that we should be careful to ensure that they could be operated only with local consent, full consultation, and so on. This group of amendments fulfils all the demands made on this issue from both sides of the House at all earlier stages of the Bill.
The amendments ensure that local authorities are involved in deciding the limitations on the use of wheel clamps in any area, while the Secretary of State retains discretion not to agree to an area suggested by a local authority. The designation of an area in which wheel clamps may be used must be by statutory instrument, so the House can always debate the matter. All the designations will be dealt with by the negative resolution procedure, except for those covered by subsection (6) of the new clause in amendment No. 76, in which it is proposed that an initial experiment be confirmed. We have arranged that that should be subject to an affirmative order so that it has the positive support of both Houses of Parliament before it comes into operation. Finally, the amendments give the Secretary of State power to revoke an order subject to parliamentary resolution.
Those were the safeguards sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) and many others. I hope that in the Lords amendments we have met all the points of concern.
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)
I hesitate to cross swords with my hon. Friend, but I should not like it to be thought that the amendments remove the objections so forcefully expressed on earlier occasions. I shall not rehearse my objections to clause 51, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as that would probably be out of order. As I said in Committee, I find it obnoxious, and I believe that it will exacerbate the difficult relations between motorists and the 951 police. Moreover, I believe that three of the Lords amendments are especially likely to make an already undesirable clause—what might be regarded as an anti-motorist clause—a good deal worse.
The first such amendment is No. 70. In our previous discussions we had always understood that the operation of immobilisation devices would be carried out directly by police constables. We are now told that "another person" may be authorised. That means that the immobilisation may take place away from the direct immediate supervision of the police constable concerned—unless there is to be a person walking around with a separate police constable for fixing each device. It will therefore be arbitrary. Some motorists will feel aggrieved because they find that their vehicle has been immobilised not by a policeman—a person who probably commands their confidence and respect—but by some other person who claims to be authorised. That will not be acceptable to motorists.
Lords amendment No. 73 fails to deal with another objection that was raised in Committee. It has so far never been stated that clause 51 deals with wheel clamps. The clause refers to an "immobilisation device", which might be some device other than wheel clamps to prevent the vehicle from being driven. No proper assurance is given that a device will not be used which might affect the operation of the engine, the steering or the gearbox. That is a dangerous loophole. If the clause is about wheel clamps, why does it not refer specifically to wheel clamps? In its present form, it is obnoxious to motorists.
Lords amendment No. 75 refers to another point that was raised in Committee—the question of parking at approved parking meter spaces. A person may overrun his time. If one is held up, one may not get back in time to put money in the meter or, more properly, to move the car. However, the fact that the meter shows that the money has been spent does not of itself prove that an offence has been committed. One could normally go to court and seek to show that one was innocent of any such offence. It is now suggested, however, that if the police constable or the person authorised by him suspects that no money was put in at the beginning or that the time has run out—the only way that he can know that is because the meter registers a penalty—he can punish the motorist there and then, without any jury, magistrate or other opportunity for the motorist to defend himself. The police officer or the person authorised can put a clamp on the wheels, thereby immobilising the car and allowing the motorist no chance whatever to explain the circumstances. No doubt if it is a genuine case, the person who immobilised the car will be very sorry, but that is not satisfactory to the motorist who was held up for a short time and could not get back to his vehicle. There is no way, other than by noting that the meter shows a penalty, that the person immobilising the car can know that an offence appears to have been committed.
I know that I am a lone voice crying in the wilderness on this subject, as very few people speak up for motorists these days. We are a deprived group. I am proud to be a motorist. I believe that someone should speak up for motorists against the planners who are attempting to make our lives a misery. The amendments make a bad clause worse. I am sorry to find my hon. Friend not only putting them forward but doing so with enthusiasm.
§ Mrs. Chalker
I am always speaking up for motorists, to the great annoyance of many of my officials. I drive many times a week and I always seem to come back to the office complaining about and asking the reason for something that I have found that I reckon is wrong. I assure my hon. Friend that this Minister at least is always speaking up for motorists, and I know that my colleagues do likewise. My hon. Friend is therefore not alone and I shall join him in speaking up for motorists. However, I must also speak up for those motorists who wander round London trying to find a parking space. It was suggested in Committee, where my hon. Friend was as vociferous in his objections as he has been today, that something must be done about the grave problems, especially in central London but not only there, caused by people who park illegally and break the law.
My hon. Friend objected to the fact that amendment No. 70 refers to "another person". He is taking an unrealistically wide view of the further confirmation provided by the words "under his direction", because the constable on duty must always be in charge and supervise the uniformed vehicle removal officers to whom the phrase relates. It is they who at present assist in the removal of the entire car. There would simply not be enough trained police officers to do what is a very skilled job, but which nevertheless does not require an extensive knowledge of the law provided that the people involved are under the supervision of a police constable. I must therefore reject my hon. Friend's complaints about amendment No. 70.
Mr. Ronald W. Brown
The hon. Lady should at least take one point made by her hon. Friend, as it has considerable merit. Although I favour the concept of wheel clamps, there is a danger that this will be used as an easy recourse by the authorities. I argued at a recent seminar that a whole range of regulations and activities can be used by the authorities to stop illegal parking. I hope that this will not become an easy way of solving the problem rather than using the existing armoury of actions that could be taken.
§ Mrs. Chalker
I very much sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman said. I believe that we should use our parking laws properly and enforce them better, but that requires more traffic wardens, and they are not easily found. I am told by the Home Office that for quite a long period there have been shortages in the number of traffic wardens. Until recruitment improves even more than it has in the past 18 months, there will still be problems in central London. There ate, additionally, areas in central London where it does not seem to matter how many traffic wardens are walking around. Motorists still quite openly flout the law. The only deterrent that has been considered—4i is something that we should try—is the wheel clamp or vehicle immobilisation device.
My hon. Friend asked why we call it a "vehicle immobilisation device" rather than a "wheel clamp". At present, I cannot think of anything other than a wheel clamp that could be used. My hon. Friend is naturally cautious about the suggestion, but any vehicle immobilisation device must be of a type approved by the Home Secretary, which is a safeguard. I know that my hon. Friend is thinking of developments in electronics. I can understand why he has that kind of fear. However, there will have to be ministerial approval for any device to be 953 used, and I am sure that the words would not be extended to other than wheel clamps without considerable debate in the House.
Amendment No. 75 is a new clause which does three things. First, it protects the holders of the disabled persons' orange badge from the possibility of having a wheel clamp put on their car, which is something that all hon. Members wanted.
Secondly, it provides a sanction for abuse of the exemption by able-bodied people, similar to that provided by the Disabled Persons Act 1981. We should have been content to rely on the protection against abuse in that Act but for the fact that the first use of the wheel clamps will be in central London, where the orange badge concessions and, sadly, the offence of abusing them do not at present apply.
Thirdly —this is where my hon. Friend was misled by the length of the amendment—the new clause provides an exemption in that wheel clamps may not be used where a vehicle overstays for up to two hours on a meter. The exemption does not cover vehicles parked at suspended bays or bays that are not authorised for use—those with yellow hoods. It does not apply when the police can establish that the meter has been fed since the initial payment. There has to be proof of feeding the meter, which is illegal.
I am aware that meter feeding in London is far too common and significantly reduces the use of meters for short-stay parking. That is why special reference is made to it in this clause. The two-hour exemption runs from the point at which the initial charge expires. It is not an offence to make use of unexpired time when parking at a meter. In such cases the two hours exemption will run from the expiry of the time available at the meter at the time of parking. In other words, when one comes to the end of the two hours, the end of the time available on the meter, there are two hours during which the wheel clamp would not operate. I hope that answers my hon. Friend's point.
I regret as much as anybody that we cannot get everyone to abide by the existing parking laws without going to this deterrent device. Unfortunately, the way of the world is such that something has to be done in London. With the safeguards now in the Bill, I hope that my hon. Friend will be prepared at last to give the Bill another try to see whether we can help all those people who spend so much time and fuel finding parking spaces in London.
§ Mr. Stott
I wish to place on record my appreciation for what their Lordships have done. It was I and my hon. Friends who raised the issue in Committee, and the Minister said that she would go away, look at the problem, come back and legislate. The pressure to do something about the problem in London came from the GLC, under both Conservative and Labour control. It brought pressure to bear on the House, as did the Metropolitan Police, to do something about the awful problem of illegal parking in London.
Illegal parking in the nation's capital is a scandal. People are regularly flouting the traffic law. Clearly something had to be done, in a limited way, to try to prevent anything more happening. I am pleased to say that the safeguards built into the provisions are the ones that we originally wanted. They go a long way to allay the fears 954 of my hon. Friends and myself about the extension of this provision. If the Minister does not have a friend in the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), she has one in me. I am grateful for the Lords amendments.
§ Lords amendment agreed to.
§ Lords amendments Nos. 70, 71, 72, 72A, 73, 74, 75 and 76 agreed to.