HC Deb 12 March 1985 vol 75 cc262-77 12.11 am
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I beg to move, That the draft Immobilisation of Vehicles illegally parked (London Boroughs of Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea) (Continuation) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 25th February, be approved. The effect of the order will be to continue the use of wheel clamps by the Metropolitan police in central London for a further two years from this May. This extension is sought at the time when the whole question of parking in London and the metropolitan areas is under review. Powers for the police to wheel-clamp illegally parked vehicles in designated areas, initially on an experimental basis, were approved by the House in the Transport Act 1982. Parts of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea were subsequently designated by order as the experimental area where the police could use clamps for a period of two years from May 1983. The aim was to deter illegal parking and imrove traffic flows in an area of central London suffering from severe problems of illegal parking. We made it clear that the results of the experiment would be carefully monitored. A report by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory evaluating the first six months' experience of clamping was published by the Department in October 1984. The report provides a comprehensive description of the effects of clamping, and I am grateful to the laboratory for its work.

The report shows that the main change in parking habits after clamping began was that vehicles were left on yellow lines for shorter periods. Although the actual number of illegal parking acts remained about the same, the number of vehicles parked on yellow lines at any one time fell by about 30 per cent. in the middle of the day, and the time they were parked at the kerbside was reduced by 40 per cent. The amount of illegal parking in residents' bays in the experimental area was reduced by about 30 per cent. There was little change in parking at meters.

Traffic speeds in the experimental area were higher in the period after clamping. Despite increases in the volume of traffic compared with control areas nearby. The reduction in journey times associated with reduced parking on the street was estimated at between 8 and 14 per cent., implying an annual saving in motorists' costs of between £9 million and £15 million at 1979 prices. There was also a saving of £2 million to £3 million on fuel and wear and tear on vehicles. The TRRL report concluded that in the first six months clamping improved compliance with existing parking regulations, probably because of the visual impact of the clamp and its consequent deterrent effect upon other drivers.

Following publication of the TRRL report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consulted widely on the findings. The response showed general support for the experiment and for continuing the scheme in central London for at least a further period—for example., to establish how long-lasting the effects will be. A total of 34 responses were received from official organisations, private firms and individuals. Of these, 26 were in favour of wheel clamps being continued, at least for a further period; five were against wheel clamps and three commented neutrally.

The main points made in favour of clamping in response to my right hon. Friend's consultations were the welcome reduction in illegal parking; the improved traffic flow and safety; the easing of problems for delivery drivers; and the much improved conditions in residents' parking bays. The main points made against clamping by the five who were against it were that it was a deterrent to shoppers and damaged trade; that it impeded essential trades—for example, service engineers; that it continued obstructive parking, particularly when there were delays in declamping; that it would damage the relations between the police and the public; and that it over-penalised minor offences.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Westminster city council admits that in a great part of its area there is a substantial lack of residents' parking? When she has made the clamping scheme work, will she attend to the problems of providing off-street parking space and diverting some of the money from parking meters into providing it? It is about 25 years overdue.

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend anticipates at least some of what I shall say. The problems of parking in central London are not restricted to Westminster. I hope that they will be tackled on an even wider basis, beyond the work already being done by Westminster city council.

The TRRL research could not cover the extent to which the successful results of the experiment would persist in the longer term. That was a point taken up by several of those who wrote in response to our consultations. The Automobile Association, for example, recognised the apparent benefits to traffic movement but considered that the period over which the benefits had been assessed was too short to be reasonably certain that they would be maintained.

Powers to clamp vehicles should not be sought lightly. When we have discussed this previously, I have told the House that we must be clear about what we are doing. That is why we entered into such a large amount of research.

We have concluded that a two-year extension of the present order would be justified to enable the effects of clamping in the present area to be further assessed. We shall use the extended period which the order affords to monitor the situation further, again with the help of the TRRL.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my hon. Friend take special note of the diplomats who continue to abuse the parking system throughout Westminster, and whose cars, I understand are not clamped now, and will not be tomorrow.

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend may remember that when clamping began we changed registrations for diplomats to X and D registrations. We reduced the number of those persons who, by virtue of their diplomatic status, could avoid clamping. The problem has not been cut out altogether, but it has been reduced. No doubt we shall do better as time continues. If the experiment were extended further, that would also help. We reduced by 16 per cent. the number of vehicles exempted from clamping. The vehicles that are receiving X registration plates are eligible for wheel clamping. In the last quarter of 1984, 40 such vehicles were clamped. Action has been taken. It may not satisfy hon. Members yet, but other plans in the revision of the Vienna convention may come into effect.

We also intend to use the two-year period to continue to review possible ways of improving mobility and parking arrangements in central London. My right hon. Friend and I are keen to try to improve conditions, not just for motorists, but to make London more accessible to all road users, residents and businesses. More generally, we want to see all our cities working efficiently. Traffic is their life blood and if their arteries become clogged, the cities do not function.

We need to devise better arrangements for the future — more positive arrangements than merely punishing those who flout the rules. We want to see the capital city thriving. Improved mobility and legal parking are essential to this. That takes up the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin).

The Select Committee recently reported on road safety. One of its recommendations was that central and local Government should consider more positive action to enable motorists to park legally. That is something we are keen to do. Indeed, as we said in our 1983 White Paper on Policy for Roads in England: Improved enforcement must be accompanied by a sustained and imaginative examination of the scope for providing improved parking facilities to meet the needs of road users". On-street parking is largely a matter for local authorities, while for off-street both the private sector and local authorities have a part to play.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), the then Secretary of State for Transport, asked Parliament to approve the clamping powers in 1982, he asked the Greater London council to review the supply of parking in central London, and the GLC passed the request on to the inner London boroughs. Westminster city council responded by instigating a detailed street-by-street review of yellow lines in its area. As a result it has identified nearly 1,400 extra on-street spaces which can be created by converting yellow line to parking bays. Westminster council is now embarking on a further survey to establish the scope for increasing parking spaces still further by means of minor highway alterations or by converting parallel-to-the-kerb parking to diagonal parking where that can safely be done. A new 360-space car park has recently opened at Cambridge Circus, and Westminster council has plans to increase off-street parking further.

Not long ago I had discussions with the London local authority associations—the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the GLC, the London Boroughs Association and the Association of Local Authorities. The meeting was at their request, to consider a range of parking and enforcement issues. I am to meet them again shortly to consider with them how best we can rationalise the use of road and pavement space. But all the associations urged that meanwhile the wheel clamps experiment should be continued since it has shown real benefits in reducing illegal parking and improving traffic flow. The fears expressed by some hon. Members during the passage of the clamping powers in 1982—for example, about likely damage to the relations between the police and the public—have, I am pleased to say, proved largely groundless. To a great extent, this reflects the careful and sensitive way in which the police have exercised their clamping powers.

Several Hon. Members


Mrs. Chalker

I shall give way in one second. Wheel clamping has on the whole been accepted. I know that there are exceptions and that hon. Members have stories brought to them from time to time, but on the whole, the way in which the matter has been handled has not been as fearful as some hon. Members anticipated.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will my hon. Friend tell me why on earth, when she has given such an excellent report of how the experiment is working, objections to it are small, and it has undoubtedly helped in the area where we are during the week, she is continuing it only in time and not in space? Why does she not extend it to the rest of London?

Mrs. Chalker

I was extremely tempted to extend the scheme more widely. However, I have discovered that caution can sometimes be a good friend when deciding on fairly large changes in parking, as we are envisaging for London. I certainly wish to improve the position for motorists and all those who seek access. We have sought a further experiment. It is up to other local authorities to apply to the Secretary of State if they wish the area to be extended to include their areas. We would not be unwilling to do that. However, we are keen to ensure that the whole of parking for the future is examined thoroughly now, which is why we are extending the experiment for a further two years. It will not prevent us from taking other steps in the meantime, if local authorities wish those steps to be taken.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

My hon. Friend mentioned the relationship with the police. Will she examine the gap that can arise between the time that a person has gone to the police pound and paid his fine and the time that the clamp is taken off? I have heard reports from my area of people having to wait for four hours to be declamped. That does nothing to help the police, and it does not remove the vehicle which should not be there. I believe that that area should be examined closely.

Mrs. Chalker

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to say that there are what I would call exceptions. The period of four hours is certainly an exception. In general, I should be surprised if the majority of motorists had to wait for more than an hour. I have had reports of two-hour waits at very busy times. But in considering the entire parking problem in London, and the relationship between clamping vehicles that are illegally parked but not obstructing traffic and having to tow away vehicles that are obstructing traffic, the Home Office and my Department will be taking into account the way in which the teams are working and the manpower that they need to operate the system.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

If I understand the law correctly, the Secretary of State can extend the area at the request of the authority concerned. Has the Department of Transport received such requests either from the Greater London council or from any other local authority?

Mrs. Chalker

There have been no formal requests to extend the area from any local authorities. There was some discussion at one of my many meetings about parking with a metropolitan area in the north, but that was not followed up with a formal request.

Many people had fears about clamping at the beginning, and I understood those fears. But what has happened is that central London residents—as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) said—have been able, for the first time in several years, to park in the spaces set aside for residents in London. A private survey carried out after the first five months of the experiment showed that the majority of motorists in London believed that wheel clamps were not only desirable but a necessity. That finding shows the distance that we have come since the scheme started.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Are the fines sufficiently large to enable the police to speed up the removal of vehicles? The basis of the problem is the removal of the vehicle, not just the clamping of it.

Mrs. Chalker

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's anxiety. The police are considering ways of speeding both operations, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). We accept that clamping is a drastic measure — just as towing away is a drastic measure—and that once people have paid their fines, they want to get their cars back. But what has appeared from the first two years of the experiment is that the law-abiding motorist is helped to get about more easily, because the anti-social minority who flout parking regulations are deterred by this measure.

One thing that follows on what my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) said is that the Government intend that clamping should pay for itself, as other things should pay for themselves. The present declamping fee of £19.50 is based on an estimate of costs that was made before the start of the experiment in 1983. We have reviewed the charge in the light of operational experience as well as the charge for vehicle removal. It is likely that the charge for clamping will have to be increased from 19.50 to £25 and the removal charge by a broadly proportional amount. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be consulting on the new charges proposed. The fee to be charged is not part of the order, and will be covered by a subsequent order coming before the House.

If the House and the other place approve the order, the traffic authorities will be able to apply to my right hon. Friend for the use of the wheel clamps to be extended by order to other areas. As I said to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), we have not received a formal request for the use of clamps outside London. Should any come to me, I shall consider such requests on their merits in the light of the traffic and the parking situation in the areas concerned.

The continuation of the powers for another two years will help us to assess the true value of wheel clamps. It will also enable us to try to find better methods of enforcement, better ways to help motorists and other road users to go where they need to and better ways to make sure that they pay for the space that they use when they get there.

In the meantime, we have to continue to give the police the tools to enforce the law. We have found that clamping is of assistance. I am sure that it will continue to be so, and I ask the House to approve the order.

12.31 am
Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I shall not detain the House for long. Indeed, I reminded the Minister a little earner this evening that I was the author of the amendment on wheel clamps that she approved in 1982. The hon. Lady will remember that she and I were members of the Committee which considered the Transport Bill in 1982 and debated the problems of illegal parking in the capital. It was clear that the fines being imposed were no deterrent at all to people who left their cars hanging round Chelsea, Westminster and elsewhere. Therefore, it was important that we considered alternative methods at that time.

I considered in some detail the experiences that were gained in the United States when the method of wheel clamping was first introduced. As a result of that, in 1982 I tabled an amendment to the Transport Bill in Committee. I asked the hon. Lady, who was the Minister in the Department of Transport at that time, whether she would consider favourably the possibility of an experiment on a limited basis over a limited geographic area of the capital for two years to wheel-clamp the cars of motorists who parked illegally. I am grateful to the Minister that she has taken that on board.

It was paradoxical that the two people who were pushing for the measure, apart from the residents of London in the affected areas, were Sir Kenneth Newman, the chief of the Metropolitan police, and my comrade, Mr. Dave Wetzel, chairman of the Greater London Council transportation committee. With a combination of forces like that, I suspect that the case is irresistible. Sir Kenneth Newman and Dave Wetzel pressed me to table the amendment in Committee for all the reasons that the Minister has enumerated. Both they and I felt that this would be one of the most effective deterrents to illegal parking in the centre of the capital.

I recall that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), who frequently tilts at conventional windmills, disapproved of the idea and voted against it. If he has an opportunity to speak in this debate, he may say that he intends to oppose it tonight. For my part, and that of my hon. Friends — [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"]—who are elsewhere in the building, we shall not press the matter to a Division because the experiment has been successful in helping to deter illegal parking in the capital city.

The Minister pointed out that there had been a 30 per cent. reduction in illegal parking in the area covered by the order. The result, as she pointed out, had been a better running speed and flow of traffic through those areas. It was clear that fines alone were no deterrent to some people.

I am not sure whether, and if so how many, Conservative Members travel by tube. Those who do will be familiar with an LRT advertisement which depicts a tube train with a wheel clamp attached to it, with the slogan below, "That'll be the day." Of course, tube trains will not be clamped, but that advertisement gets the message across to people who park illegally, who do not consider the people who live in the areas where they leave their cars, and who are rich enough, having parked illegally, to pay the fines.

The clamping experiment has been successful and the Opposition will not oppose its reintroduction for a further two years. I hope that at the end of that period the Minister will evaluate the statistical evidence and make clamping a permanent feature of our capital city. Tonight we—the Government and the Opposition—are showing that we are determined to deal with those who flout the law and park illegally.

In two years from now, when the experiment has run for four years, Parliament should make this a permanent feature of our means of handling illegal parking. At that time we may be in power and a Labour Minister of Transport will take that step.

It may also be possible to extend clamping to areas outside London. The Minister said that other authorities had not made such a proposal to her. However, if it became a permanent feature of our way of life in London, authorities outside the capital might wish to follow suit.

As I said, the experiment has proved successful and has done what it was intended to do. It has done what I intended my amendment to do. I am grateful that the Minister accepted my amendment on that occasion and that this legislation was enacted. I assure her of our total support tonight for its continuation.

12.39 am
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I did not like the idea of wheel clamping when the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) first raised it some years ago. I did not like it when the Minister introduced the order two years ago and I have heard, read and seen absolutely nothing in the intervening period to make me change my mind.

I do not argue that wheel clamping is not effective. The same arguments used to be put forward for public hangings, which were very effective — not that I am saying that my hon. Friend is suggesting that for illegal parking — but the idea that if the punishment is draconian enough it will be effective cannot be sustained when one is looking for ways of enforcing the law as fairly as possible as between individuals, while at the same time impinging as little as possible on their normal activities. We should ensure that if they break the law they accept their punishment, but we should not make a disaster out of what is a misdemeanour.

We are talking about parking on a yellow line, staying a little too long on a parking meter or nipping into a shop to get a packet of cigarettes and leaving the car in a bay that is reserved for residents. I do not condone any of these things and I do not do any of them, although I keep my car in Chelsea. However, I understand that there may well be many occasions when a law-abiding motorist is kept longer than he expected waiting to pay for goods in a shop or to pick up a passenger at a station and does not get back to the meter before his time expires; or he may be driving round waiting to pick up his wife with all the shopping or to collect his children from school. I stay in Sloane Square right opposite a school which is a great source of parking problems. Should a man leave small children wandering about the school because he cannot wait on a double yellow line?

There are reasons for these misdemeanours. There is no criminal intent. They are caused by the normal everyday decisions that motorists have to take.

If the culprits were subject to an equal penalty, I would not be delaying the House tonight, but the penalty is not equal as between individuals. In the first place, the time it takes to get a car unclamped varies enormously, and it also varies greatly in its importance to the individual concerned. One person may simply have been doing some shopping and is going home, and it is inconvenient to have to wait. The Minister says it will be perhaps only two hours, not four, but two hours can cause great inconvenience. There are people who have urgent appointments, or have to meet other forms of transport, or have business to do. For them this punishment is far more serious. It is the unfairness in this to which I strongly object.

There is also the problem of the cost. If one overstays one's time on a meter and a traffic warden discovers it and puts a sticker on the windscreen, the fixed penalty has to be paid within a certain time. There is time to ensure that sufficient funds are available. It is true that the cost of paying the fine and having the vehicle unclamped is not enormous by present-day standards, but many people are running motor cars on a shoestring, on a tight budget, because they need their cars for domestic or business purposes. The burden of the cost varies enormously as between individuals—the wealthy to whom it is just a nuisance and others who find it a grave burden.

I therefore suggest to my hon. Friend that she has introduced a system which is inherently unfair and will only be made more unfair if she increases the charges as she has suggested. If this scheme is so good and so popular, why has no other London authority suggested taking it up? The scheme is imposed from above. It has not been requested by local authorities. It has certainly not been requested by motorists. Motorists feel that they are a type of game for which there is no close season. They believe that the Department of Transport should ease the lot of those who are using all transport systems, including the motor car, for which they pay a great deal. Wheel clamping is no way to improve the system within acceptable cost limits.

If we vote tonight, I shall vote against the order. If we do not vote, I shall vote against the order when it comes before the House next time to express my disapproval.

12.45 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I think that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) is in the minority — but we shall see. The reason why he is in the minority is that he starts from the wrong premise. There is a fairness in the system. It is that any motorist with a private motor vehicle who goes into the two boroughs in the heart of our capital city knows that he is at risk if he breaks the parking laws. He can be dealt with in a variety of ways. We are discussing one of those ways.

The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), who introduced an amendment in the last Session of Parliament, acted on the presumption that we needed a bigger deterrent. I share that view. I am sure that we need a bigger deterrent elsewhere, and not just in the two boroughs.

Before I came to the House I travelled on most days from Blackfriars bridge to the Temple where I worked. Almost every day a large car committed a parking offence and collected a ticket. It was there nearly every day, and nearly every day it was given a ticket. The driver collected ticket after ticket presumably because the driver could afford to pay for it.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North argues that the law is unfair because some can afford to pay and others cannot. The validity of the order is, with some exceptions, that it provides the only deterrent for those who can afford to pay. The risk of being caught committing some offence is great, as the hon. Member for Wigan said, but the time lag is such that an offender may never be brought to court. A foreign registered car will never be prosecuted—I do not intend to discuss diplomatic cars. Nuisances must be dealt with. People with money can get away with it.

For people who live in rural areas a car is essential, particularly if they have to travel to London. But they know the rules. People can park outside tube stations and use the underground system. Public transport is no that bad in London. It has improved and it is not too expensive. There are many solutions. One does not have to bring a car into central London and risk having to overstay a parking period.

The law has four ways of dealing with parking motorists who clog up our capital city, causing a fundamental nuisance. The first is to put a ticket on their windscreen. That is often ineffectual and often ignored. The second is to tow the vehicle away. That is considerably more inconvenient, but it does not always work. I recollect being with a cousin of mine whose vehicle was towed away when it was parked on a yellow line, although the yellow line was covered in snow. She went to collect it from the Willow walk pound just down the road from where I live to find that somebody else had collected it and driven it away, so that that is not a flawless system.

There are two other ways of immobilising vehicles. The wheel clamp is one, and there is the way that we know slightly better in my borough south of the river, which is that one removes the tyres or wheels altogether. That certainly immobilises the vehicle, and it costs more than £19.50 or the proposed £25 to mobilise it again. It teaches people that they should not park in certain places there. However, that is not the authorised way. There is now an authorised way, and there is no evidence that it is being shown to be ineffectual. Indeed, the very nature of its threat and the inconvenience to busy business men and women or others who have plenty of money and fast cars, of having to wait three hours is probably the worst penalty that they can be expected to pay.

Earlier this evening I was at a meeting in Battersea town hall with the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) on the subject of trunking. There was a mass audience representing people of all political views, and none, who had gathered together to protest against the Government's plans, if the Local Government Bill goes through, to trunk many of London's roads. They protest for the same reason that they would support the order. The increased growth of private traffic in the middle of London, not just in Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster boroughs, is a thorough nuisance to most people who are trying to go about their daily business. The range of people who are inconvenienced is enormous, but I should like to single out just one category. The old find parking in places where it is unauthorised and goes beyond the time limits, as well as parking on pavements, a blessed nuisance. Everything that can be done to make sure that the laws on parking are strictly enforced is worth while.

I have only two criticisms of the Government. The first is that after two years we should have more evidence than the six months' worth before the House. That is a bit inadequate given the resource and research facilities that are available. The second is that it is a bit of a lame step forward after a two-year experimental period in one area to be thinking only of continuing the same experiment in the same limited area. I have no doubt that if one took a random opinion poll or sample of residents in many of the central London boroughs one would find them all to be in favour.

I am in favour. On behalf of the Liberal party, I say that my party is in favour. We should go on to extend the provisions in the continuation order. I hope that the Minister will ensure that her Department assesses effectively the advantages of extending it, in consultation with the local authorities and the police. If it can be seen to reduce the nuisance caused by private traffic, particularly in our capital city, an extension of the order will be a great blessing to many people.

12.53 am
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) hinted that he would like to see a rash of wheel clamps extending throughout the country. However, it is unlikely that most authorities outside London would wish to see them, because essentially the problem that wheel clamps are there to deal with is a London problem. The problem is not so much, as he suggested, one of the lack of deterrent posed by inadequate fines for parking tickets, as the fact that in London, in contrast with every other part of the country, half the fines that have been imposed for illegal parking have never been paid. It is easy to get away without paying for a parking ticket in Greater London.

Let us look at the rest of the country. The 1982 figures for Derbyshire show that of the 22,000 parking tickets that were issued, 19,000 were paid. In Devon and Cornwall, of the 50,000 issued, 39,000 were paid. Even in Greater Manchester, over two thirds of the total issued were paid. So it is essentially a Greater London problem, where there is massive flouting of the parking regulations, because people think that they will be able to get away with it.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, it is a massive deterrent to see wheel clamps affixed to the wheels of offending vehicles. But the extent of that activity has been relatively small. When reporting on the experiment, the GLC pointed out that about 170 wheel clamps per day were affixed to vehicles by only seven teams using a stock of 300 clamps. In other words, one clamp was being affixed about every half hour, which does not seem to be enormously aggressive activity.

The chances of an illegal parker receiving a fixed penalty notice is about 1: 50. The chances of getting away with it are much greater. The chances of being towed away are about 1: 1,100 and the chances of actually being clamped are only 1: 1,800. I wonder how many people realise that. The fact that even a small number of vehicles is seen to be clamped is a great deterrent and has produced a considerable reduction in the length of time for which people park illegally.

There is the unsatisfactory aspect to which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) referred, that the practice of clamping is totally haphazard. One may be unfortunate enough to have one's vehicle clamped, but one is more likely to get away with it. When the teams are in action they may clamp one vehicle in five in a street. That is what causes the breakdown in relations between the police and the public. The public see a small minority of cars, perhaps including their own, being clamped, but they also see the vast majority getting away with illegal parking. There is a need to enforce the law fairly.

When I was a member of the Select Committee on Transport we conducted an inquiry into transport in London four years ago. Mr. Alan Greengross, who was then leader of the planning and communications policy committee of the GLC, pointed to the way in which clamps are used in the United States where they are attached to vehicles for which there are outstanding parking fines for five or perhaps even 10 occasions on which parking tickets have been ignored. We might consider that in this country.

Obviously there would be problems. There would have to be notification of parking tickets not having been paid either to the driver and vehicle licensing centre or to the Metropolitan police. With modern methods of communication and computerisation it should be possible for teams, when they see an illegally parked vehicle, to be able to have access to a central record to discover whether there were outstanding fines in respect of that vehicle. They should go specifically for the people we really want to get at, not the one-time offenders, but those who regularly and persistently ignore the law and then do not pay the fine. If only one driver in 1,800 is to have his vehicle clamped, it should happen to those who deserve it rather than to those who are just unfortunate.

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend wishes to develop better arrangements for parking in Greater London because many people who park in the capital find the present system incomprehensible. Few know exactly what a single or a double yellow line means. In the evening the law is ignored completely. People park wherever they can. If they were to obey the law, the west end would be crammed with cars driving round with nowhere to park.

On the whole I agree that this is an experiment with which we should persist. We need to find out more, but it should be developed in such a way that it is fairer and meets the criticisms of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, and also becomes more affective. If we were to use modern methods, we should be able to bring in much more money from fines, and pay for the increased costs that a more highly developed system would bring.

1 am

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Continuation orders are not automatic, and I found it surprising that The Standard and The Times said that Parliament had agreed to a further two year extension of this order. That was ill-announced.

I accept that a large number of cars come into London every day, and that the residents in London, of whom I am not one, find it difficult to park at certain parts of the day. I am concerned that some of these cars that are illegally parked in residents' parking bays or on yellow lines may not be moved for many hours. The wheel clamp, or the Denver boot, as it is called more colloquially, merely creates an additional and more permanent obstruction. I accept that it is a deterrent in the long run, but in the short term, when a car has the yellow clamp on it, it is left there. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is careful in all that she does in motoring matters. I would have thought that more police vehicles immediately towing away these vehicles to the pound was the quickest way to deal with the serious problem. I am not surprised that there is a shortage of clamps, because they are all being used.

I have an office just outside the House, near Westminster abbey, and I see the clamp unit vehicle leaving every morning; no doubt, when it comes back, it is empty. There is a time lag once the vehicle has the clamp fixed to it. I am afraid that my father has been subjected to the Denver clamp, and it took him four hours to get it off. He was going to Harley street for an urgent appointment with a surgeon, and he had to park quickly. When he came back, the boot was on. He accepts that he had parked in the wrong place, but four hours seems rather a long time, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be speeding up operations through the radio-control system so that in all cases the declamper machine can be brought out as quickly as possible.

I welcome the use of the clamp to force payment of unpaid fines, which can remain outstanding for many months, and sometimes years. This is more of a deterrent than the use of the clamp in illegal parking.

My hon. Friend tried to answer me about the number of diplomats who are trying to claim immunity and therefore would not be subject to the Denver boot. I am reassured that those cars with an X on their registration will be clamped, but those with a D on will not. The Metropolitan police statistics for the number of parking fines in London is incredibly high, particularly for some embassies. It would be unfair for me to name them, but we know who the offenders are. If they park in the wrong place, they should expect to be prosecuted.

I am also concerned about the foreign registration cars that tend to park all over the place. As has already been said in this important debate, those cars are escaping the Denver boot because it does not seem worth while prosecuting them. If they have parked in the wrong place, I hope that they will now be prosecuted.

It is unfair that if I go into Fulham to park I shall not be liable to a clamp, whereas if I go into Kensington and Chelsea or Westminster, I shall. This seems to be the wrong discrimination. If clamping is good enough for one part of central London, it is good enough for any other.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the alternative systems that are available to deter motorists from being antisocial and parking in the wrong area in the first place. Publicity should be given to the offenders and the Government should show through the deterrent that they mean business. Those who live in London, or many of them, pay for residents' parking in the area in which they reside and they should be allowed so to park. That means that we must support the order. However, as a person who believes in the freedom of the individual, I take that view with great reluctance. I see the order as yet another intrusion into our democratic rights. Notwithstanding those comments, the order needs the support of the House, as we want visitors to come to the city. I urge those who travel by motor car to London to park fairly and reasonably and to bear in mind that those who live in London have priority over those who come to the capital to shop, deal or conduct their business.

1.6 am

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), I spoke against the implementation of wheel clamping two years ago. Like him also, I have seen nothing to change my views about the undesirability of the measure. There were not enough of us at the Report stage on the previous occasion to make it worth while forcing a vote and I feel that the same situation applies this evening.

I feel still that there is something peculiarly offensive about the sight of a wheel clamp on a vehicle. It is a rather unpleasant sign of authoritarianism. Having seen the devices clamped on cars over the past two years, my heart goes out to the owners of the vehicles which have been clamped. They pay a disproportionate penalty for the offence that they have undoubtedly committed. The cost and inconvenience is far too great when set against the offence and disproportionate to the alternative penalty of a parking ticket.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) spoke of a 1:1,800 chance of being clamped. Despite what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, it is not just or fair that the chances of being clamped or ticketed are so varied. We are talking of a lottery. So much depends on the arbitrary decision, instinct or view of the clamping unit and not on the decision of the courts.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman must accept that everyone runs the same statistical risk of his car being clamped. That is the principle of fairness. Everyone knows that he is at risk and everyone runs the same risk. The fact that the decision is arbitrary does not change that premise.

Mr. Moate

I recall that the Romans had a system of encouraging their troops which involved killing one man in 10 to encourage the others. That might be the hon. Gentleman's system of justice but it is not mine.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if motorists park according to the parking regulations, or if they use public transport, the odds on them being clamped are nil? We do not want wheel clamping to take place.

Mr. Moate

I do not think that anyone is arguing against the proposition that those who disobey the parking regulations should be penalised.

Mr. Hanley

Who is my hon. Friend defending?

Mr. Moate

I think that I and a number of others are seeking to defend a large proportion of the population.

Mr. Hanley


Mr. Moate

The problems of diplomats ignoring the parking laws, unpaid parking tickets and illegal parking are still with us and will not be resolved by the clamp. We have probably reached the limit of its effectiveness, as there is a limit to the manpower and resources that can be devoted to it, especially if its use is extended to other boroughs. We should not attach too much importance to it. If I am right, and it does not produce much more benefit, that strengthens my assertion that we have introduced an objectionable instrument that penalises motorists out of all proportion to the benefits.

I am not surprised that we are faced with the extension order. From the beginning, all the publicity and propaganda from the Ministry and the police suggested that the clamp was so beneficial that the order would have to be renewed. I am deeply sceptical of some of the statistics, and of the benefits that we are supposed to have gained. I am disappointed that this rather objectionable instrument is to continue as, I imagine, a permanent feature of the London scene. I accept that, but wish to record my regret.

1.12 am
Mrs. Chalker

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). It was remiss of me not to remind the House that his encouragement on this issue three years ago made us consider this possible answer to the problem. I accepted his amendment. If he and I agree, let alone "Yours for Socialism, Dave" and the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, something must have happened. What happened was that parking conditions in central London had become intolerable, especially for residents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) has not understood how vehicles are clamped if he believes that it results from staying a little too long on a parking meter. Motorists are allowed to stay on a parking meter for as long as they pay or for the unexpired time on arrival. Two hours must elapse after expiry of the meter time before clamping can take place. On a two-hour meter, parking can be up to four hours, and on a four-hour meter up to six hours, before clamping is permitted. That is not staying a little too long.

A delivery vehicle, or someone who has literally stopped for a couple of minutes and whose parking is commented on by the traffic warden standing by the vehicle, will not be clamped. Vehicles are clamped only when they stay on a yellow line for a long time, but not when they are causing an obstruction. If they are causing an obstruction, the police will tow them away for the safety of traffic and pedestrians. The clamp deters a more serious parking offence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) mentioned the operational aspects of clamping. In the past two years, some 77,000 vehicles have been clamped. That works out at about 700 a week. The rate of clamping depends partly on the number of staff deployed, the number of clamps available and how teams work. We have been at pains to ensure that clamping is used where it is effective. If there are obstructions, removal teams are employed.

In this modern day and age, when a great deal of new technology is coming into this area, some vehicles have such sophisticated locking and immobilisation systems that they cannot be towed or driven away by police—they can only be clamped for a continuing offence. Therefore, some vehicles — although not causing an obstruction, as everything possible will be done to remove them — simply cannot be moved without the owners releasing the immobilisation devices. So the only way in which these owners can be deterred is by the use of the clamp.

The matter of diplomats has been mentioned by my hon. Friends. Hon. Members know that the clamping of diplomatic vehicles initially ceased after a few weeks and we worked out a system with the X and D registrations. Few people have D plates on their private vehicles. The number has gone right down. That is why the X plates mean that a vehicle parking in the wrong place can be clamped. Some 900 diplomatic vehicles being eligible for clamping may have cheered some of the lesser mortals whose vehicles have been clamped. They felt that exemption for the diplomatic corps was unfair.

Following the events at the Libyan People's Bureau in St. James's Square last year, the Government instituted a full review of the Vienna convention, its operation and its enforceability. That review will take parking matters into account, among other matters. It is hoped, as a result of the review, to tighten measures to deal with parking offences. I anticipate an outcome fairly shortly.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned fixed penalty notices. This might be a good opportunity to remind the House of legislation that this House and another place passed in 1982, which has not come fully into effect but will assist the parking problems from which many people in London suffer.

It is perfectly true that in 1982, in the Metropolitan police area, more than 2.75 million fixed penalty notices for parking were issued, of which about half were paid in the six months statutory period. Others were paid subsequently, but nothing like the 50 per cent. outstanding at the end of the six months. It is the substantial number of people who commit parking offences and then ignore the fixed penalty notices that annoy hon. Members. It is deplorable. That is why we legislated in 1982 for a change in the fixed penalty system. We have now done the necessary preparatory work, which is nearly completed, both with the police and the courts. I am sorry that it has taken some time, but it was necessary that we should be ready for the changes to be implemented in 1986. Under the new system, unpaid fixed penalties will be enforced as fines with a 50 per cent. surcharge. That will greatly assist enforcement, encouraging people to pay fixed penalty notices.

I believe that that, plus the steps we are trying to take with persistent offenders, will lead to an improved position beyond the clamping that we are discussing tonight. It is fair to say that many persistent offenders have had their vehicles clamped, but the police are continuing their efforts to find new ways of identifying those vehicles, including the use of microcomputers. I do not believe that it would be right for the police to concentrate exclusively on such motorists. Resources need to be deployed where traffic conditions are worst. Where clamping will be most beneficial it should be utilised. I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, that in some places there is as yet no clamping because they are not covered by the order while in others the team may not arrive while somebody is having a very quite and wicked half hour on the yellow line. That, I am afraid, is the luck of the draw, in one sense, because the police must concentrate their efforts upon those areas that are most congested by the illegal use of space.

The police are seeking to identify the persistent offenders. They are aided by the much higher statistical probability that the persistent offender will be clamped. For example, when 127 vehicles were clamped on one day, 45 of those vehicles had five or more unpaid fixed penalties, while 18 had 20 or more unpaid fixed penalties. Therefore, we are getting not only to the persistent offender but also to the persistent non-payer. That is exactly what, year in, year out, the House has asked should be done about parking in London, and at long last we are beginning to do it.

I know that many people would like the declamping fee to be paid at the same time as the fixed penalty. The police encourage them to do so. When the Bill was going through Parliament in 1982 the hon. Member for Wigan fought very hard for motorists to have the right to a court hearing. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North has fought for it, too. That right is retained, which I believe is correct, and the police cannot compel motorists to pay up. However, I assure hon. Members that the message is getting well and truly through.

It appears from all that has been said in this debate and from the comments of Londoners and those who are affected that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) is not judging this experiment as many Londoners who are affected by the failure to act have judged it. Of course, the Government will use modern methods and whatever is at our disposal to deal with the irritating problem of either parking in the wrong place or overstaying time on a meter. I do not believe that the £25 penalty, if that is finally agreed to following the consultations which the Home Secretary will carry out, will be seen as a disproportionate penalty for those who put their vehicles in parking bays and outstay their right to be there or who put their vehicles into parking bays provided for residents and thus deny to those residents the ability to park their cars.

A whole range of measures is needed to improve the flow of traffic and the ability of motorists to get about London. That means that more off-street parking is required and also a more sensible use of road space. The Government are dedicated to getting the balance right. The extension of clamping for two more years is but one weapon in our armoury in the battle of trying to keep London on the move and giving people the opportunity to park legally at parking meters, which is all that motorists in general ask to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Immobilisation of Vehicles Illegally Parked (London Boroughs of Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea) (Continuation) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 25th February, be approved.