HC Deb 16 July 1992 vol 211 cc1257-64 12.31 pm
Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

Although this is not my maiden speech, I should like to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Peter Archer, now Lord Archer of Sandwell—an honour richly deserved and widely appreciated, and worthy of a man who is held in the highest regard in this House, his constituency and throughout the country. I have often heard that he will be a hard act to follow, and I can only reiterate those sentiments.

I sought this debate because it is now self-evident that the problems created by wheel clamping on private land have, in the classic phrase, increased, are increasing and ought to be diminished. The cowboy dampers must be stopped. We cannot allow these outrages to continue throughout the summer, which is why we need to debate the subject here today before the summer recess.

I am pleased to see the Home Office Minister in his place. We missed our hour-and-a-half debate at an ungodly hour last seek. It is important that this subject is in the remit of the Home Office, because that is where the major decisions will have to be made.

I have already received a helpful letter from the Minister for Roads and Traffic, who highlighted two main reasons why we need a decision on this. The first is the increasing number of reports on the disturbing incidence of private clamping and the occurrence of outrages. There have been reports in the press, a campaign is being run by Today, and the matter has been raised elsewhere in the media, including "That's Life" and notably the Ed Doolan programme on Radio West Midlands. I should also like to pay tribute to the work being undertaken by the motoring organisations, the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club. They have been campaigning on behalf of their members—not only on individual cases, but on the wider general issue.

Another reason that has made the subject pertinent for debate today is a recent decision by the Scottish courts. They have held that wheel clamping vehicles on private land and demanding a release fee is, under Scottish law, illegal extortion and theft. No one could have put it better. That is why I and more than 80 Members of the House have signed an early-day motion on wheel clamping. That is why I have a 10-minute Bill scheduled for when the House reassembles. Before then, I hope that the Minister can tell us of some progress in his discussions with other Departments and announce some action.

I accept that the Minister's task is not an easy one and that, undoubtedly, there are careless, thoughtless and dangerous parkers. The question is, what is the appropriate remedy? The car dampers are not normally the landowners—the work is sub-contracted to them—but they are the judge, jury and court bailiff rolled into one. They perform all those tasks at the same time.

It has been difficult to get this matter resolved in the courts. The AA and the RAC have taken up a number of cases on behalf of their members, but in every instance, either the money has been paid back before the case has come to court, or the dampers have gone out of business. The motoring organisations believe that some of them re-emerge somewhere else in a different guise to carry on the same business—M. Mouse wheel dampers become D. Duck wheel dampers. The motorists have never been recompensed for their frustration and inconvenience.

It is especially unfortunate that no case has come before the courts, because the legal opinion sought by motoring organisations suggests that even under current legislation wheel clamping is potentially unlawful in England and Wales, especially as it is rare for a parked vehicle to cause damage to the land. Some of the so-called legal backing for private clamping draws its authority from the old laws that enabled landowners to retain animals that had strayed on to their land and eaten their grass and crops. I know that some cars may be described as gas guzzlers, but that is taking things too far.

The nub of the issue is, what is the problem that private clamping—according to legal opinion, that is trespass on a vehicle—is supposed to solve? It cannot solve the problem of obstruction, because immobilising a vehicle must be the most inappropriate way of doing so. It comes down to the use of the land for parking. There may be problems with parking near offices and hospitals, but what about waste land? If owners want to restrict access to that land and charge for its use, they should erect a barrier or fencing. I am sure that the Minister would agree that we cannot tolerate land being leased or sub-contracted to clamping firms for the sole purpose of holding up a motorist and profiting from him by extracting a fee. The more they clamp, the more they make.

The Conservative party has always set great store by motivation and incentive. It should consider how those qualities work in this instance, because the basic incentive of the wheel damper is to make the parking problem worse and to extract more money. That money is not spent on trying to solve the problem. His sole purpose is to get fees from those who park on certain land. It has got so bad that, in many places, cars are left deliberately on waste land so that other drivers are enticed on to it. They are then trapped and have to pay a release fee. I understand that some dampers are even offering profit-sharing schemes to landowners. They are constantly on the lookout for new sites. I am sure that the Minister would agree that that is a scandal.

It is worth considering some of the cases which have excited public interest in recent weeks and which have led to increasing demands from all sides of the House for some redress. Just this week a driver who found himself in a dead end went on to rough land to turn his car. He was immediately blocked in by a wheel clamping firm and his car was clamped while the engine was still running. In another case, someone picked up a friend from a station and dropped him off at a hotel. He parked on an empty bit of land in front of a disused shop opposite the hotel just long enough to put the friend's bags into the hotel and to emerge to go to a meeting. That car was clamped. In another case someone parked in front of a hotel on part of a private roadway, just as he had done many times in the past five years. When he left the hotel, he found that his car had been clamped. The hotel apologised and said that the firm was causing great inconvenience to its guests. It eventually managed to track down that clamping firm. Someone else parked on vacant land next to a coach station and left his car for a couple of minutes to see if a coach had arrived. In that time his car was clamped.

Those cases highlight one of the main problems—the rapid response of the wheel dampers. In many cases it appears that they watch land, ready to clamp anyone who parks on it. Some clamping firms advise their employees to get the money and to get the clamp off as quickly as possible because they do not want to discourage other people from parking.

I have been told about an hon. Member who, at 3 o'clock one afternoon, parked on land behind a trade union office and had his car clamped. He telephoned the clamping firm and was told that it would cost £50 to have it released. He said that he had to attend an urgent advice surgery session and needed his car immediately. The firm replied that for one of its staff to attend and release the car within two hours would cost another £50. Fortunately, the hon. Member knew enough to get the local police to deal with the matter, but he had to call the police twice to get the clamp removed. There are some disgraceful cases.

It is interesting to note the way in which the attitude of the police, and even of the Government, has changed in the matter. A year or so ago the police regarded it as essentially a matter between private citizens. Now, many police authorities and chief constables are becoming increasingly worried about the abuse that is occurring and the difficulties that they are having to face in the matter. That change of attitude should be noted generally.

A particularly worrying case involved a woman who parked her car on some waste land near a theatre in a town with which she was not familiar. At about 11 o'clock at night she came out of the theatre to find her vehicle clamped. I was informed by telephone today of a similar case in London. The lady who parked on some waste land was told that it would probably be a couple of hours before her vehicle could be released. Would we want any member of our family to be on waste land in an unfamiliar town waiting for a vehicle damper to turn up? We should not subject people, particularly women, to such treatment.

I was told of the amusing incident of an AA emergency vehicle which went on a breakdown call-out. The engineer could not find the vehicle, stopped to investigate on foot, and found on returning to his vehicle that it had been clamped. At least the AA was able to get one of its recovery vehicles to lift the clamped van on board, take it to the depot and have the clamp removed. That story highlights the absurdity of what is happening.

The charges are also outrageous, £50 a day being the going rate. If one does not have the money and must go and get it and return the following day, the charge is £100. That seems to be the bottom rate, and in many areas it can cost much more. The record that I have is £240 at Hebden Bridge. Lord Ingham may wish to go to Hebden Bridge, but that is a high price to pay for a visit.

I have information about a health visitor whose vehicle was clamped while she was visiting a convalescent patient. The stories are legion. Similar cases have been drawn to the attention of hon. Members in all parts of the House, and I am pleased to see in his place the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), who hopes to take part in the debate to lend support to my case. This is a widespread issue and it is getting worse.

The Scottish courts have ruled that wheel clamping is extortion. I am not a legal expert, but I am advised that under English law the offence of blackmail is close to extortion, as is the law of trespass, operating not just against the vehicle owner but against the damper. The Home Office has sufficient legal experts to study the problem and reach the right answers.

I hope that before we rise for the recess the Minister will announce firm action against these modern-day highwaymen and will take action against cowboy dampers who are causing misery to motorists, our electors.

12.43 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I strongly support the case made by the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), and I am grateful to him for allowing me to take part in his debate. We are united in our view that the practice of wheel clamping on private land should be regulated by law.

The media have given wide coverage to some abuses that have occurred. There are widespread examples of wheel clamping firms which, frankly, have been trying to get away with murder by charging motorists extortionate sums to have their cars unclamped or to retrieve them when they have been removed. In the few cases where victims have challenged the charge in court, the firm has generally accepted defeat, ungraciously or otherwise, so that there are no judicial decisions which could provide guidance to motorists. Cases in which victims have fought back are undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg. No one can know how many people have paid large sums without seeking to assert their rights.

I support the view that motorists are at least entitled to full information about the consequences of parking on private land without permission. Maximum fees should be laid down in regulations, and arrangements must be made for clamps to be removed within a reasonable period. Those whose vehicles are clamped should be informed what action they need to take to have their cars released.

In the past, the Government have been complacent about the issue. That is demonstrated by the response, in November 1990, to the RAC by the then Minister for Roads and Traffic, when he said: there is no obvious role for central government involvement". There is a need for central Government involvement and for the law to be changed. As the hon. Member for Warley, West said, there is a case for wheel clamps to be used on vehicles parked on private land, but the need for the practice to be controlled is at least as great on private land as it is on the public highway.

Reputable firms exist—indeed, a firm in Keighley can make a claim to that status. It is in their interest that the cowboys should not be allowed to tarnish the reputation of that type of business. Above all, motorists should know where they stand and should not go on being mugged by some extremely unsavoury organisations.

12.46 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) on raising this subject. I am glad to be able to participate in the debate. I am sorry that we did not meet at an earlier hour but the clock beat us on that occasion. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) on his contribution. He has a long and honourable tradition of interest in transport matters in this House, and I am delighted that we have had a chance to look at those issues this morning.

I, too, am aware of the considerable concerns on the subject expressed by correspondents in the press. I congratulate both hon. Members on the fact that they have drawn the House's attention to specific examples of bad practice. They have done the House and the country a service in so doing.

It struck me that many of the attitudes displayed to the problem are akin to acts of piracy. Perhaps I could add another description: we may be dealing with parking pirates. Clearly, some important issues underlie what the hon. Member for Warley, West said and I shall try to deal with them.

The hon. Member for Warley, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley mentioned motoring organisations. I was much taken by the clear advice in the RAC's briefing to Members for this debate. I am sure that those legitimate organisations which my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley mentioned will take notice of the four-point advice steps that the RAC gave. They seem to be clear, good common sense about the right way to go about the problem.

The hon. Member for Warley, West rightly drew the House's attention to those practising in the wrong way, which is at the centre of our debate. I shall do my best to respond to the many interesting points that were raised.

It is important to clarify the scope of what we are debating. The issue relates to the practice of wheel clamping properly carried out on private property. The question is whether the owner of the private property should be allowed to immobilise a vehicle parked on his land without his permission and charge a fee for the vehicle's release. Our principal concern should be to satisfy ourselves that the right balance is struck between the legitimate interests of a private landowner to protect his or her property and the rights and reasonable expectations of the motorist. The hon. Member for Warley, West said that other motives may lie behind that exercise. I have taken careful note of what he said, and I assure him that I shall look carefully into the specific points he raised.

I cannot offer a firm conclusion on some of the issues this afternoon because they raise untested areas of the law. However, I underline my assurance that the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed are being urgently considered. I shall come to further developments on that.

Hon. Members may be aware that some wheel clamping is legitimate on public roads. That activity is regulated by section 104 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and the release fee of £38 for that legitimate exercise is properly prescribed. Such clamping has made a significant contribution to solving the problem of parking in and around central London.

The hon. Member for Warley, West spoke about the Scottish judgment, which has raised the profile of the issue. The question of the legality of this activity was answered by the Scottish Court of justiciary in the negative. It found that private wheel clamping amounts to extortion and theft under Scottish law, and we are currently considering the implications of that judgment for England and Wales. The position is not straightforward. As in so many other areas, the laws of Scotland and those of England and Wales are not the same. That begs the question whether private wheel clamping in England would amount to theft.

Under Scottish law, it is not necessary for a charge of theft to prove an intention permanently to deprive an owner of his property. The essence of the offence appears to be appropriation, by which control and possession are taken from the owner. English law, on the other hand, provides in section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 that a person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.

It is clear, therefore, that the finding of the Court of Justiciary has no direct relevance to the position in England and Wales. It would be a matter for a court to determine in any particular case whether the fixing of a wheel clamp to an improperly parked vehicle amounted to dishonest appropriation, or whether it involved any intention permanently to deprive the owner of the vehicle. It would not be proper for me to offer a view on the likelihood of such a charge being sustained, although hon. Members may feel that it would be straining the meaning of the Act a little if it were.

Mr. Speller

Will the Minister ask the Department to consider whether the offence of blackmail under English law might have an impact on these cases?

Mr. Jack

I carefully noted what the hon. Gentleman said about that when he spoke about another aspect of this complex area of yet untested law. I shall evaluate what he has said, but I should now like to turn to other aspects of the law.

Theft is not the only offence that may be relevant. Other elements of the Theft Act 1968 offer a further perspective on this matter. Section 21 makes it an offence for a person, with a view to gain for himself or another, or with intent to cause loss to another, to make any unwarranted demand with menaces. Again, of course, it would be for a court to determine, but a court could find that an offence had been committed if, for example, a demand for payment was made against the threat that the vehicle would otherwise continue to be immobilised and, particularly, if the fee was deemed to be excessive. That applies even more so if no notice had been displayed warning drivers of the risk of clamping.

That brings me to the RAC advice on that matter. I am sure that the House will not need reminding that any assault against the person of the motorist or, indeed, the clamper would be an offence. The civil law may also be relevant. The act of fixing a clamp to a vehicle could amount to the civil tort of trespass to goods, which involves direct physical interference with goods without lawful justification. I understand that such a tort can be committed even without damage to the goods, although any damages recoverable would not normally be substantial unless there was physical damage.

Refusing to return a vehicle unless a fee is paid may also be actionable as an act of conversion under civil law. I am aware of at least one recent case involving that branch of the law in which a motorist was able to secure the immediate release of his vehicle. Clearly, some of the nuisance which hon. Members have described can arise if people employed by a wheel-clamping firm operate in an unpredictable or irresponsible manner. The hon. Member for Warley, West graphically described a number of such cases. If a court were to decide that a civil wrong or criminal offence had been committed, it would have to reach a decision on the facts of the case about where liability should rest.

It is clear that there is widespread and justifiable concern about the practice, but we should not overlook the real nuisance which can be caused by drivers who park their vehicles on private property without regard to any inconvenience they may cause to others. I appreciate that there is a legitimate need to prevent problems with access to land which may be needed, for example, to move vehicles on or off it. The examples cited by the hon. Member for Warley, West went further than that, and I shall consider what he said.

Owners of private property can, not unnaturally, become frustrated by people who regularly park on their land, sometimes blocking access for themselves, their families or their clients. Most of the concern expressed in the debate has been for the drivers whose vehicles have been immobilised, and the consequences that follow when they try to get their cars released. I share those concerns, but it is important to bear in mind that we are talking about someone who has parked on private property to which he has no right of access, sometimes in direct defiance of notices specifically identifying a plot of land as a private car park. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are examples involving the trade in clamping in which such strictures have not been followed—but I am glad that he raised that point.

Such actions do not necessarily give the owner of the property the right to take whatever action he wishes, however unreasonable, to deal with the nuisance. but I think that it is necessary to acknowledge that there are two sides to the issue. As the hon. Gentleman said, the owner of property may, of course, take other steps to prevent parking on his land—a barrier or a gate can be effective—but if those steps fail, should he necessarily be prevented from taking other remedial action?

If further remedial action is justified and within the law, what steps can the motorist reasonably expect the landowner and the damper to have taken? I sense from the debate that many of the complaints which hon. Members and others have brought to my attention concern the manner of clamping as much as the clamping itself. The posting of clear warning notices, and a sensible approach to the level of fee and the manner of its collection—including, as the hon. Gentleman rightly drew to the attention of the House, a regard for the particular circumstances of the motorist after his car has been clamped—are the kind of issues which must be high on the agenda for future discussions.

As I have outlined, it seems that in certain circumstances a court may find that wheel clamping on private land amounts to a criminal offence or civil wrong. It is unfortunate that, so far as we are aware, neither the civil nor the criminal law has been authoritatively tested in the courts on the broad issue. There are—as the House will appreciate—difficult legal questions here which the Government are urgently considering. I appreciate hon. Members' frustration that the situation is not clearer. Indeed, I share that frustration—I have seen some such situations for myself—but I assure them that we are considering the matter urgently, including the question whether any action is needed to prohibit or to regulate the use of wheel clamps on private property.

I shall take fully into account the examples which both hon. Members who spoke in the debate raised. If the hon. Member for Warley, West cares to provide more detailed information in correspondence with me, I invite him to do so, and it will all be considered. Once again, I congratulate him on raising the matter——

Mr. Spellar


Mr. Jack

—and before I finish my speech, I shall give way to him.

Mr. Spellar

Will the Minister tell us when the deliberations are likely to come to a conclusion, and when he will be able to make an announcement?

Mr. Jack

One of the factors which has become clear during the debate is the complexity of the untested law involved. Something which has become clear to me in my short time at the Home Office is that sometimes to act in haste means to repent at leisure. We must carefully consider the implications of what has been said. In my speech I have tried to balance the needs of the legitimate private landowner who may say, "This is causing a nuisance; I have no option but to resort to clamping," with the considerations put before me by the hon. Member. He said that people were almost turning clamping into a business so that the legitimacy argument was lost. He also said that bad practice had come as people sought to make gains.

Our task must be to consider the full implications of both sides. Private people in residential areas may have a legitimate case for saying that clamping is the best way in which to deter people from blocking the entrances to garages, for example.

The hon. Member for Warley, West highlighted another matter which is a new aspect of debate in the House. I am personally delighted that he has gone so far in highlighting it. I give him the assurance that we will look at the matter with all urgency. I am aware that we must make quality decisions in the area if they are found to be appropriate. I should like a little time to study the matter to ensure that we can examine fully the evidence put before us. Clearly the Royal Automobile Club——

Mr. Deputy Speaker