HC Deb 03 February 1993 vol 218 cc449-56

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

11.58 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the problems associated with wheel clamping, and I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) is here, because he initiated a debate last July on this subject, to which I want to refer.

On 26 June last year, the Automobile Association sent a letter to members which read as follows: Wheelclamping cars parked on private land and demanding money for their release, recently outlawed in Scotland, is spiralling out of control in England and Wales. The Automobile Association is currently pursuing an incident in which the extortionate sum of £240 was demanded for the release of a car. This is only one of many such cases of wheelclamping blackmail. I understand that there are now more than 1,000 wheel-clamping firms in action, affecting every part of the country.

Almost eight months ago, a debate was introduced, as I mentioned initially, by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West, who, I trust, will be making a contribution tonight. This is what the Minister said in response to the debate, the self-same Minister who is sitting on the Treasury Bench tonight: 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 … 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. Later, on the question of the Scottish court decision, the Minister said that it had 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. Lastly, the Minister said, 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."—[Official Report, 16 July 1992; Vol. 211, c. 1260 and 1262.] That was eight months ago, and yet the subject has been examined by the Home Office urgently. I wonder how many years it takes when the Home Office looks at a subject at its normal pace. If this is urgent, it must be years before it concludes a routine examination.

I wrote to the Minister on 18 December last year, and I received a reply dated 20 January this year. Again, the Government said that they are giving urgent consideration to this issue, as a result of the cases of abuse brought to our attention and the considerable public concern that has been expressed over recent months … In addition, we have sought expert advice as to the extent to which current legal provisions might be sufficient to deal with the problems associated with wheel clamping … We now plan to carry out a public consultation exercise on a range of options that has been identified. We are working as rapidly as possible to agree within Government the text of a detailed paper to form the basis of that wider consultation. In view of the lapse of time, the Home Office seems blithely unaware or uncaring of the dangers that wheel clamping creates. This is the law-and-order Government who have done nothing while a menace to ordinary, decent people grows. I want to quote some examples of these circumstances and situations.

I received a letter from a vicar in my constituency in which he said, Recently I discovered the horrors of being clamped. Apart from the total inconvenience, I was very concerned about the implications of it all. And so say all of us.

Over a few weeks I had parked on a piece of waste ground for a few hours. About 20 cars used this site, which had the remains of a petrol kiosk and has been used for a long time. Once blocked off, it had a ?by custom? entrance established. My concerns are these. It is obviously in the clamping firm's interest to do their job in such a way that they catch people. I note on their form that I am described as a Customer. I cannot believe that it is proper for policing to be carried out by someone who has an interest in this way. The signs were cleverly placed. Once clamped they were obvious, unchallengeable, but I could also see that they were in places where the driver's eye on entrance would not think of looking. I avoid places where clamping signs are in evidence. A simple chain and padlock would have sufficed, with a sign at the entrance. I was trapped, so that they made their money. They did well—most of the other drivers were caught too. The description of the ticket as a Parking fine also concerns me. Surely the Courts alone have the right to levy fines? Why can a private company do this, without legal process? The size of the 'fine' is in my view very high. Out of all proportion to a Parking Ticket, for instance. Who sets this figure, might it be £75 next month? I really am concerned that we seem to have another force of law and order here that seems to be outside the Courts' jurisdiction. I have many more letters, but I do not have time to quote the whole range. The letters I am quoting happen to be from Bradford, which is the area I represent, but I have letters from all over the country. The fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West is in the House demonstrates the widespread nature of this plague which affects so many people.

This letter is from a man who lives at Hipperholme. He visited the Alhambra theatre in Bradford which I should have thought was a fairly harmless occupation. He wrote: I, therefore, found an area of what I took to be derelict land near the University, some half a mile away, and parked, along with about ten other vehicles. It was derelict land. We are not talking about developed land or land on which cars are being used and an obstruction is being created; it is derelict land. The letter goes on:

Three hours later, at about 10.15 pm we returned to our car to find that it had been 'wheel-clamped'. Had I not first noticed a nearby vehicle had been 'wheel-clamped' I would never have been alerted to the fact that my own vehicle was also 'clamped' and I would have attempted to drive off and presumably damaged my car. There was no notice or sticker on my car window to draw attention to the 'wheel-clamp'. I eventually found a small faded notice, nailed to a fence, outlining the fact that 'wheel-clamping' took place in that area. I rang the first number on the notice from a nearby phone box to find that it was 'not available'. The second number was a mobile phone number which seemed to gobble up my dwindling supply of change. All they were interested in was how I was going to pay their £50 charge before they would release me. I had little cash, no cheque book and no bank cards on me. To say I was getting distraught is an understatement. I could only think of getting my wife and children safely home. Fortunately my wife had a bank card but had to go a considerable distance to locate an appropriate Cash Dispenser. A woman was forced to wander the streets of Bradford late at night. She was close to a spot where an especially vicious rape had taken place a month before. It is a frightening prospect for people when faced with clamping late at night. The writer says: There was no notice visible anywhere on the land and nothing near the exit to alert me … Surely better signing should be made a legal requirement … Surely if whoever owns the land doesn't want people on it, they should take steps to chain or barrier it off at such times. 3. The obsession of the firm (West Yorkshire Outdoor Security Services) for full payment before releasing me was frightening. They refused to invoice me. The whole approach is surely tantamount to blackmail and extortion. I was made to feel that if I didn't or couldn't pay my children, wife and I would have been left stranded. Also, these firms seem able to make whatever charge they choose … Are they really a legitimate business or cowboys making an easy picking? Are they registered with anyone or outside the law? What role does the landowner play in all this? … Surely, this is a practice that should be highly discouraged. I emphatically agree.

I have another letter from a woman whose name I am able to give. Betty Sinclair visited Bradford last year. She says Theatre-going in Bradford last year, a woman friend and I parked behind Alhambra on a patch of waste-ground which has always served as parking in the evening. When we went back to the car after the performance we found it clamped, a notice on the windscreen, and a number to ring which I recognised as a post-code for Preston, Lancashire. We rang it. The call was transferred and a couple of minutes later, two rough and threatening characters turned up with an alsation in a clapped-out Cortina estate. They refused to unclamp the car unless we paid £50 on the spot, and told us that if we refused the car would be taken away and it would cost £200 to redeem it. The alsation was released and jumped at us, we were frightened (not a nice place for two unescorted women at that time of night) and my friend, who had a cheque book on her, paid up. If I'd been on my own without my cheque-book and not carrying £50 in cash, I would have had to leave the car. I gave the men an earful, they were aggressive and abusive, and told us what they were doing was providing security for the owners of the waste-land! That same evening they clamped six cars on that little patch and raked in £300 in about half an hour! The name on the leaflet was West Yorkshire Outdoor Security Services. The following day I rang the police in Bradford, who told me that they were aware of this firm's activities, shared my view that it was highway robbery, and told me to carry a hack-saw in the boot of my car next time! However, they were, in fact, acting within the law. There are numerous other cases. A woman's car was clamped within two minutes of her leaving it. In another case, the car was clamped while the driver stood by. One heavily pregnant woman was forced to pay £50 late at night, and another was forced to seek a bank till in that self-same seedy area.

West Yorkshire Outdoor Security Services leave notices which say either, "Parking Penalty" or "Parking Fine", or give a warning of prosecution if the wheel clamp is damaged.

A private prosecution took place on 22 December last year, when Irving William Crowther was convicted of causing criminal damage to property under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Mr. Crowther used an angle grinder on the clamp when his car was clamped outside a public house in Queensbury, and he pleaded guilty and was fined £80 plus costs of £35. My entire sympathy is with Mr. Crowther and not with the magistrates, who seemed to endorse the action of that nefarious group of scoundrels called West Yorkshire Outdoor Security Services.

While Michael Patrick Sadler, the director of West Yorkshire Outdoor Security Services of Penwell Lawn, Leeds can bring a private prosecution, the police sit on their elbows and do nothing. It is no wonder that there is a crime wave, and people are concerned about the standard of operation of the law.

The other director is Mario de Rome, and the office address is 217 Manningham Lane, BD8, although that is also the address of Falcon Business and Mortgage Services. In a short film on ITN recently, one of the directors was seen interviewing a woman, accusing her of falsely using a disabled person's badge. When she pointed out that her father was blind, that the white stick in the car was his, and that she was anxious to get away and meet him, the response of one of the directors was that her father should be driving the car. So much for the standard of conduct and humanity of these rapacious scoundrels of the enterprise culture.

The Home Office should take action now and recommend that the police take action under the Theft Act 1968. If a car is towed away for the purposes of the person taking the car, it is a crime under that legislation and the police should prosecute.

All efforts to establish the law in the civil courts have failed in England because the companies have repaid the £50, or whatever levy was made, before the case came to court and so no decision has been made.

Breach of the peace is also a crime if threats are used. If they are and they are reported to the police, instead of being indolent, they or the Crown prosecution service should prosecute.

The law was used very adventurously and differently during the miners' strike. If the wheel dampers were picketing miners, they would face all sorts of charges. The police did not sit on their elbows then.

While the Home Office makes recommendations, it could simply ensure that the law in Scotland extended to England and Wales. In Scotland, private clamping is illegal, and I very much fear that the consultation process that the Home Office says that it is embarking on will take months to complete. I hope that it will not take a robbery or murder of a man, or possibly a woman, or the rape of a woman, wandering the streets at night to look for a bank till to pay these people, before the Home Office takes such action. The fear of such a tragedy was expressed in many letters. I read some of them and there are many more.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) has written with similar stories to the Home Office. He asked me to say that he fully shares my concern. If a tragedy occurs, it will be wrapped firmly round the neck of the Home Office, which seems too indolent and slow to take what should be important and urgent action.

12.13 am
Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) for allowing me to intervene in this debate. I shall be brief because I want the Minister to have time to explain why his Department has been dragging its feet, and hopefully to make a statement about the public consultation that we have been promised for so long.

As my hon. Friend made clear, the issues are fairly stark. On the one hand are the interests of the landowners, some of whom have a genuine problem. Some are trying to deal with a minor inconvenience and some are just plain greedy. In addition, there are the clamping companies. Some of them try to operate with standards of some sort, but many—the majority, I suspect—are just cowboys and pirates. It is quite clear that none of the clampers has any interest in or motive for an attempt to solve the problems that are associated with parking. They are dealing with the symptoms rather than with the problems.

On the other side are the millions of motorists, some of whom, we all admit, park carelessly. But many are just in difficult circumstances—often they do not see the signs—yet they are treated as second-class citizens. It is quite clear that, in that balance, we should be on the side of the motorist. Clamping amounts to harassment. It causes inconvenience and, as was graphically pointed out, possibly danger. In addition, the cost is considerable. It seems that the minimum is £50, and the record—held by Hebden Bridge—is still £240. In the Scottish courts, clamping was aptly described as extortion and theft. One could not find a better description. In Scotland it has been banned since the summer, with no ill effects. As the Minister is aware, the ban has given rise to no particular parking or traffic problems. But the motoring organisations and English Members of Parliament are still receiving complaints about the excesses of clampers in our part of the country.

Having looked at the issue, I have come to the conclusion that a simple ban, as in Scotland, is the most effective means of dealing with it. The Home Office may take a different view. It may believe that we should regulate either clampers or sites. If that is what it believes, it should make the situation clear. The matter should be put out to public consultation at an early date. As was outlined very clearly by my hon. Friend, the Home Office has been dragging its feet for months. This has gone on far too long. Public consultation should be started this month. I hope that the Minister will be able tonight to make an announcement to that effect. The Home Office should ask for speedy replies and should take action before the summer is out. The cowboy clampers have had a free ride for too long. It is time to drive them out of town.

12.17 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I should like, first, to pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) made in his concluding comments. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we shall be issuing our consultation document within a month. The reason for my making that point is that I wish to repudiate the charge that both hon. Gentlemen have put before the House—that we have been dragging our feet in this matter.

It is only right that I should pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) for securing this important debate and for putting forward, with his usual passion and Yorkshire bluntness—and very properly so—on behalf of his constituents and other Bradford Members, his views about the problems that have been experienced with wheel clamping. I deal with a great deal of correspondence on this subject from hon. Members, members of the public and many organisations. Having read those letters very carefully, I understand the real human fears of individuals arising from some of the actions of so-called clampers. That is why we have been working hard since this matter was last raised in the House to devise a consultation process to deal with these issues.

In the previous debate, I said that we would look urgently at the matter. I think I am right in saying that at that time we had not concluded what the way forward was. The hon. Member for Warley, West knows from our conversations that I looked at the matter urgently, and I came quickly to the conclusion that a consultation exercise was the right way forward. The hon. Member for Bradford, South is a man of analysis and care in the preparation of his evidence. I think that when he looks at the consultation document he will see that this is not an easy and straightforward matter.

Not unnaturally, hon. Members are driven by the very real human stories put to them by those affected by so-called cowboy clampers, but in the devising of solutions there is a maze of complexity in dealing with the law, particularly in England and Wales. I hope that in the remaining minutes at my disposal I shall be able to point out that, as a first step, we started to seek counsel's advice. We considered carefully how the law in this area was framed.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South mentioned the Automobile Association. That organisation is one of many to which we have listened very carefully in the preparation of our consultation document. We have, as all Governments have, the difficult but proper task of balancing the needs and problems of landowners in protecting their land in respect of parking problems and the difficulties caused by so-called cowboy operators. I do not underestimate the problems that many of our citizens have encountered over such operations. In seeking to encapsulate the problem, we have to decide whether we are dealing with "problems associated with wheel clamping on private land" or with "the problem of wheel clamping on private land". Should we impose a blanket ban or seek to develop good practice? Those are some of the issues that we have been considering. Within the month, we shall produce a consultation paper. Sadly, I realised when composing the consultation paper that there is no easy off-the-shelf answer to the problem. The consultation document presents, in a balanced and carefully argued way, a number of possible ways forward. I look forward to the contributions of both hon. Members when they make their views known for the purpose of the exercise.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South talked about cowboy operators. There are some legitimate companies in the industry which try to work to certain standards and make their terms of business clear. They have contacted us because they realise the difficulties that the cowboy element causes to their industry. I say most sincerely that I appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, particularly in relation to the vulnerable. He cites the example of a lone woman who may have thought that she had parked her car legitimately, but had actually parked it on private land. She may not have seen the notice, and may be left in a difficult personal position. I take such matters seriously, and they will certainly be to the forefront of my mind when I consider the outcome of the consultation process. The Government agree that we want bad practice to be stamped out.

The Government's first concern was to establish the applicability of the law in this sphere. I repeat the point that I made to the House in the earlier debate: the law on the subject is a maze of possibilities—there are no certainties. It is impossible to say exactly whether an English court would take the view that the activity—or parts of it—were legal under English civil or criminal law. That perhaps explains some of the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman in relation to police prosecution.

Although the courts have heard a number of cases with some application to the general issue, there has not been a test case which could be compared with last year's judgment in the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland as an examination of the basic legality of wheel clamping on private land. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are different legal codes north and south of the border, which begs the question of the simplicity of the solution that he offered to the House.

As hon. Members have suggested, there are a number of offences and civil wrongs which might be applicable to wheel clamping, depending on the circumstances. They include criminal damage, interference with a vehicle, taking without consent, theft, blackmail, trespass and conversion. It is impossible to predict what the courts might decide in any given case. The hon. Gentleman—I think in correspondence—has accused me of condoning criminal activity through inertia". There was a flavour of that in what he was saying this evening. I repudiate that claim because, if there were a clear criminal activity involved, the police and the courts would be able to ensure that the offending parties were appropriately dealt with. But the position is not so clear cut.

I mentioned that we had sought counsel's advice on the matter because of the lack of clarity. That advice will form part of our consultation document and it shed some light on the problem. I shall not go into all the detail now as it will be included in the consultation paper, but I shall say something which I hope will be helpful to those hon. Members who have participated in the debate.

It appears that legal action against landowners and wheel clampers is more likely to succeed if the consequences for a motorist of parking on a piece of land are not advertised clearly, and the landowner and wheel clamper act unreasonably in the manner of their operation or in relation to the fees demanded for the release of vehicles. That guidance goes to the heart of many of the cases eloquently described by the hon. Gentleman. Although there is no certainty and each case will be decided on its facts, I suggest that some of the more extreme practices of wheel clampers may well be found to be unlawful under present civil and criminal law. It may be worth reminding the House that where wheel clamping leads to assaults, intimidation, or a breach of the peace—what might be termed mischiefs on the margin—the law already offers protection.

However, it is also apparent that the present law may not always deal easily or sufficiently rapidly with such abuses as the late night clamping of cars owned by vulnerable motorists.

I have been challenged about what we have been doing about all this. I hope that I have given the House a flavour of the complexity of this issue. It has genuinely taken time to gather legal opinion, without which we could not have framed a consultation document which tried to deal with this problem in a way that offered real solutions. That has been our intention throughout.

We have also had to weigh up the interests of land owners. For some of them, wheel clamping may have been an option that has worked to protect their interests. Chaining off land may not be an option, but they need to think about their responsibilities if the clamping operations that they have employed have gone wrong or caused danger or distress. We have to remember their interests in the matter too.

Equally, we must remember the problems faced by motorists, who should not be unreasonably deprived of the use of their vehicles. Matters of public safety will have to be taken into consideration, too. The consultation document will cover banning the practice, alternatives to clamping, self-regulation of the industry, statutory regulation, and the penalties which might be used. Will controls lead to an outbreak of towing away or blocking? Would solving one problem lead to the creation of another? All this will be included in the paper. I think that within a month hon. Members will have an opportunity to take the matter forward.

Mr. Cryer

How long will the consultation period be? My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and I are anxious that the process should be reasonable but as brief as possible, so that action may be got under way.

Mr. Jack

The total period involved will be four months. I hope that hon. Members will make their contribution to the process, and I look forward to hearing what they will have to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.