HL Deb 18 March 1985 vol 461 cc329-38

3.6 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th February be approved. [14th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order will continue the police powers to clamp illegally parked vehicles in central London until May 1987. Your Lordships will recall that the wheelclamp powers were introduced at the request of the police to provide them with an additional tool to combat illegal parking. This, in central London in particular, was seriously impeding traffic flow and making it difficult for lorries to load and unload goods and for law-abiding motorists to find a legal parking space.

Your Lordships will also recall that when the wheelclamp powers in the Transport Act 1982 were under consideration in this House we made provision for an initial, two-year experiment in an area to he designated by order. My right honourable friend the Member for Guildford, the then Secretary of State for Transport, subsequently designated an experimental area consisting of parts of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. The area chosen was one where the problem of illegal parking was causing most concern. The experimental order expires on 15th May, and the approval of both Houses is needed if the police powers are to be continued.

As many of your Lordships will know, the Transport and Road Research Laboratory was asked to undertake a "before and after" survey of the effects of clamping. The laboratory's report examined the first six months' experience of clamping, and was published in October 1984. The TRRL report concluded that, following the introduction of clamping, compliance with parking regulations improved. The time taken up by illegal parking on yellow lines fell by 40 per cent. and that in residents' bays by 30 per cent. Traffic speeds increased, with implied annual savings in motorists' costs of £9 million to £15 million at 1979 prices, plus savings of £2 million to £3 million on fuel and wear and tear on vehicles. The laboratory thought that the reductions in illegal parking were probably due to the visual impact of the clamp and its consequent deterrent effect on other drivers.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport consulted widely on these TRRL findings and the response was substantially in favour of continuing the use of wheelclamps in central London for at least a further period, so as to assess the effects over a longer period of time. Of 34 responses from individuals, firms and official organisations, 26 favoured continuation at least for a longer period, only five were against clamping, and the other comments were neutral. The responses to my right honourable friend's consultations very much welcomed the reductions in illegal parking with the consequent easing of problems for delivery drivers and for residents, and the improvements in road safety and traffic flow.

However, concern was expressed in some of the responses about the effects on trades such as service engineers; the possible deterrent effect on shoppers; the severity of the penalty; the fact that an illegally parked car might be present for longer as an obstruction if clamped than it would otherwise; and the possible damaging effect on the relations between the public and the police.

Your Lordships will recall that several of these factors were debated when this House was considering wheelclamps in 1982 during the passage of the clamping powers. Particular fears were expressed then, for example about the harm which might be caused to relations between the public and the police. I can reassure your Lordships that the fears have proved largely groundless. The police have carried out clamping with care and sensitivity, and it is doubtless largely due to this that clamping has on the whole been accepted by the motoring public without the dire effects that some people predicted three years ago.

Your Lordships may also recall that in our 1982 debates much concern was expressed that clamping should be used against persistent offenders and against diplomats. It would not he appropriate for the police to concentrate solely on persistent offenders, as they must deploy their resources where this will produce most benefit in terms of traffic conditions. However, many such motorists have in fact been clamped as outlined by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport in another place last Tuesday.

As regards diplomats, it was very disappointing when we had to suspend clamping diplomatic vehicles because of legal advice that this was in fact contrary to the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. The Government therefore urgently reviewed the problem of the number of diplomatic vehicles in London and my noble friend Lord Elton announced changes in the system of special "D" and "X" registration plates designed to reduce the number exempted from parking regulations. Immunity from clamping is now restricted to vehicles with "D" registration plates and these are limited to those diplomats with full immunity; the number of "D" plates issued has also been curtailed both for cars used officially and for diplomats' private vehicles. Those not entitled to full diplomatic immunity, but only to immunity when on official duty, now receive "X" registration plates and are liable for clamping. Forty such vehicles were clamped in the last quarter of 1984.

More generally, however, the Government remain concerned about the number of fixed penalty notices cancelled on grounds of diplomatic immunity. This is being taken into account in the current review of the Vienna Convention, its operation and enforceability, and as a result it is hoped to tighten up measures to deal with parking offences by diplomats.

The TRRL research on the effects of clamping could not of course predict the extent to which the welcome improvements in parking compliance and journey speeds would persist in the longer term. Various organisations who wrote to my right honourable friend took this point up and suggested that a further period of assessment was needed before any firm decison could be taken about the use of clamps on a permanent basis. The Government are mindful of the strong arguments that have been advanced both for and against clamping. Any decision on such a drastic measure should only be taken with great care. But we believe from the results so far that a two-year extension of the present order is justified. This will enable the effects of clamping to be further assessed, with further monitoring from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory.

If your Lordships' House approves this continuation order—as the other place has already done—traffic authorities will be able to apply to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport for the use of clamps to be extended by order to other areas. If any such requests are received, my right honourable friend will consider them on their merits in the light of the traffic and parking situation in the areas concerned and taking into account the resources and back-up needed; that is, the police manpower, the vehicles, the pounds, etc.

Wheel clamping has so far been shown to be a useful means of complementing existing methods of enforcement—that is, the issue of fixed penalty notices and towing away. As with vehicle removal charges, the clamp fee is designed to cover police costs. As explained by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport in another place, the present declamping fee of £19.50 is based on an estimate of costs made before the start of the experiment. The fees for both clamping and vehicle removal have recently been reviewed and as announced by my honoruable friend, it is likely that the clamping fee will have to be increased from £19.50 to £25 and the removal charge by a broadly proportionate amount. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will be consulting on the new charges proposed. The fee to be charged is not part of the present order and will be covered by a subsequent order to be laid before your Lordships' House.

I should like now to turn to the more positive side of the Government's approach. It is not enough just to punish those who flout the parking regulations. We need to see that the legitimate demand for parking spaces in central London is met and that ways are found to improve mobility in central London generally. We need to try to find better ways to help all road users go where they need to and better ways to ensure that motorists pay for the space they use when they park on the highway. My right honourable friend intends to tackle these urgent issues and encourage local authorities to adopt a positive approach to these problems.

I applaud Westminster City Council's initiative, as outlined by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport in the other place last week, in identifying nearly 1,400 extra on-street spaces which can be created by converting unnecessary yellow lines into parking spaces, and the further steps they are now taking.

The clamping powers were introduced by the Government only after the most careful consideration. It seems from the initial results that clamping has shown real benefits in reducing illegal parking and improving traffic conditions. The extension of the powers for a further two years will allow a further period of assessment before a final decision is taken. It will also enable further work to be done on ways of improving mobility in central London and new parking arrangements, as well as assessing methods of enforcement.

Meanwhile the police must be given every support in their efforts to restore respect for parking regulations. Clamping has assisted them and I ask your Lordships to approve the order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th February be approved.—(Lord Brabazon of Tara.)

3.16 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his careful explanation of the order and for the valuable information which he gave us when introducing it. An order on a subject such as this is understandable to most Members because we nearly all drive and move around London. Indeed, we must perforce come to Westminster and in the course of doing so we see the traffic conditions. Such an order gives us the opportunity to review the problems and to ask the Minister some questions, many of which he has already answered.

The problems arise in any city, but especially in London and the very heart of the City of London. Throughout London there is the great problem of just how much on-street parking should be allowed and can be allowed. I was very glad to hear the Minister's concluding remarks which he told us how Westminster City Council has identified 1,400 new parking places. That is very important. However, a number of questions arise. The major question which always arises whenever parking—both on-street and particularly off-street—is discussed, is how may people actually need to bring cars into central London every day and how much control there can be over it. That is not a criticism merely from this side of the House, which used to have the reputation—but I hope that it has not now—of being anti-motorist. It is very important to recognise that we are just as involved as everyone else in trying to get a good deal for the motorist.

I was a Member of the Select Committee which dealt with this problem and it became very obvious that the commercial interests in London were very concerned about the problem of street parking. In the old days it was merely a case of making provision for the loading and unloading of goods in the central area and also making provision for the fire brigade and the ambulance service to be able to get in and out. However, a new dimension has arisen particularly with the construction of high rise office blocks, hotels and so on. That point was brought home very forcibly by the Chamber of Commerce and by various other business interests in the centre of London. They made the point that there must be a free flow of traffic to give access to maintenace engineers because there is the particular problem of lifts. Perhaps even more important nowadays, we must bear in mind that the automation of offices is reaching the stage where there could be a very big breakdown, and maintenance and repair staff must be able to get through very quickly or a whole section of the office community will be put out of business. That could lead to great difficulties.

When the original order was brought forward a point was made about untaxed vehicles. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, on 15th December 1983 at col. 344 said: As to widening the experiment to cover untaxed vehicles, again I can say that when a vehicle is clamped and found to be untaxed, it means big trouble for the owner". Will the Minister either now or later let us know whether there has been any real advance in the tracing of untaxed vehicles since the introduction of clamping?

The Minister was slightly shy when he spoke about the difficulty of persistent offenders. When the original order was introduced we were promised that there would be a genuine attempt to look at persistent offenders. It must be very difficult and galling for the odd offender, who usually does his best always to be law abiding, to know damn well that there are certain owners of vehicles who somehow or other manage to get away with it week after week and, indeed, for long periods. Therefore, with modern communication between traffic wardens and with the police radio network, it should be possible to find persistent offenders.

All this is not to decry the clamp. It is merely to make people feel that at least fairness is being observed when the clamp is being used. I think that if people feel that the rules are being obeyed by everyone, they have little to grumble about. They know the rules before they start; we are all obeying the same rules.

One thing that is very annoying—I do not know whether the Ministry has thought of doing anything about it—is that in certain parts of London meter feeding is still very widespread. We know the streets in which it is done; people walk out and put extra money into meters. There should be some way to prevent this.

The whole problem of parking causes great frustration and great annoyance. Part of the Government's duty should be to try to convince people that while bringing a car into the centre of a city is always a hazardous business, at least there is a certain degree of fairness when they do so.

Having made those few remarks, I think that we are very much in favour of the extension of this order so that greater time may be given and the novelty will wear off. We must thank the TRRL and others in the motoring organisations for their co-operation. Both the RAC and the AA have been very helpful and reasonable in their objections. I do not always agree with them, but they have been very reasonable in their observations on this matter. We certainly give a welcome to the extension for the period which the Minister suggests, so that these bodies, and the Ministry, are able to find out more about the behaviour of motorists and the results of clamping.

3.22 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I should like to draw attention to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, about the sense of heavy-handed injustice which comes from the maladministration of the system that we have. I quite agree that there is a problem. I quite agree that clamping may be a partial solution to this problem, but at the risk of laying bare my scars I want to tell your Lordships how the system can be made to work out at the moment.

For reasons your Lordships understand, I am a bachelor who lives by himself. I do my own housekeeping, catering and cooking, and I enjoy giving little lunch parties from time to time at which my guests can consume what I have cooked for them. This entails my housekeeping, shopping, catering and so on, and ends up with a visit to your Lordships' House, I hope in time for prayers.

One day I stopped my car in a little back street called Phillimore Walk, on a yellow line, to cross the road to cash a cheque at my bank in order to go on to my little shopping centre. I drew in behind a car already there. I came back five minutes later to find the car still there, my own car clamped, and the car behind me unclamped. So I was one out of three; and the car that was not clamped was there before I was. I disarranged nobody. I was not holding up the traffic. Phillimore Walk is a little back street which does not carry very much traffic.

The instructions as to how to go to pay my fine were so obscure that, having taken a taxi to Marble Arch, I wasted half an hour wandering around the innumerable tunnels under Marble Arch station, trying to locate the place where I could pay my fine. I then asked, "When can I get the car unclamped?" I was told "We can't tell you anything about that, you must go there and wait". I said, "I can't; I am host at a lunch party". They said, "That's your funeral, not ours." I said, "When you have unclamped me can you not put a phone call through so that I can go and collect my car?" They replied, "No, we never do that. All we can do is to tell them to get a move on and unclamp you". I then said, "If you can communicate with them, they can communicate with you. Both of you can communicate with headquarters and surely you can put a call through to me to tell me that I have been unclamped." "No, we never do that", they said. This is the bureaucracy. It is their convenience, not the subject's convenience, that is consulted. They said, "All you have to do is to go and wait". I said, "I can't. I have lunch to cook."

What do you do in these circumstances, my Lords? Your civic duty, your social duty and your public duties to this House are in conflict with one another and so you just have to throw in the sponge and go home and cook lunch. Then you go back after lunch and find that you have been unclamped, but nobody has left a notice to say, "Fine paid, give him an hour's grace"—no, nothing like that. The local warden slaps a £10 fine on you straight away.

It is an old principle of what people feel to be natural justice that the punishment should not exceed the crime. When you think that that cost me £29.50 plus taxi fares, it seems too much to pay for the price of harmlessly parking on a yellow line before cashing a cheque and then driving straight away. I was not there for five minutes.

There is another point. I do not know whether I am in order, but I feel that I have the leave of the House here. The noble Lord the Minister referred to making the motorist pay for parking on the public highway. I do not know quite in what sense he meant that, but I do pay for parking on the public highway. I pay £50 a year, I think it is, to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for the right to park in the street where I live. This gives me the right to park at all hours of the day when I do not need to because I am either out shopping or attending your Lordships' House. The time I need to park is when I come home late from your Lordships' House and find that every single parking bay with a licence attached to it is occupied by somebody without a resident's parking permit. All right, one can find a way round that, but the wardens are told to take people on yellow lines first; and then "ticket" people who are wrongfully in a parking bay second. This means that the innocent who have been pushed out of the place they paid a right to park in are fined, and those who are parking in their place do not get fined.

On the occasion when I caught an early morning train after a late night session here to attend the big "thump" last year when the Central Electricity Generating Board drove an express train into a nuclear flask to see whether it burst, leaked, or whatever, I counted six cars on one side of my street and seven on the other not bearing residents' parking permits but occupying residents' parking bays. I could not shift them. I parked my car on a yellow line the night before. I had to leave it there. Of course, when I got back—a £10 fine.

The noble Lord talked about persistent offenders. In a statistical sense of course I am an offender. What else can I do? I come back from a session at your Lordships' House to find every bay I have paid the right to park in occupied by somebody who has not paid for it. I therefore simply regard the £10 fines I get as a statistical expectation. It is just part of the cost of motoring. I do not believe that is the way to instil good feeling between the motorists and the authorities who are concerned with law. I hope that I have not taken up too much time on this matter. I have dealt as decently as I know how with the noble Lord and I hope that he will report it on.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, of course I lack the culinary and many other skills of the noble Earl who has just addressed us, and I want to put to my noble friend one very simple, but it seems to me basic, point. As he explained to us, the purpose of these clamping provisions is to prevent obstruction of our streets. All of us, of course, are with him there. Obstruction of traffic in the streets of London is not only a matter of intense irritation, but also of considerable economic damage. But this particular instrument for doing so seems to me to have in it almost entertaining aspects of paradox. If the clamping is to be applied, as I assume it is, only to cars which are obstructing the traffic it is a little difficult to see why a step should be taken which makes it impossible for the owner to move the car and cease to obstruct the traffic. The purpose seems to be defeated by the action taken by the authorities.

For years we have had a perfectly satisfactory method of dealing with vehicles obstructing the traffic; that is, to tow them away. If they are towed away, as a matter of definition they cease to obstruct the traffic. But, instead of that, to use the clamp seems to be self-defeating.

I yield to none of your Lordships in respect for the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. When I was Minister of Transport many years ago I had the highest regard for them. But it seemed that the figures which my noble friend quoted are not as convincing as they sounded when he gave them in his usual persuasive way. The clamping takes quite a lot of police effort and time. We see these cars driving about London marked "Clamp Units", generally with two policemen and often also a couple of pretty police women with them, and this involves considerable effort.

If the same effort were applied simply to towing away obstructing vehicles is it not at least possible that the same saving in traffic time, and therefore economic saving, might be achieved? I still retain the gravest doubts about this experiment. It is almost self-contradictory in the way it is applied, and I suspect that it is a misapplication of police effort which could be far better applied more directly by simply removing vehicles which do the obstruction.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that for many years the City of Paris clamped vehicles there but they have now completely given it up as a bad job, I believe for the reasons which have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter? Did the Ministry consider initially, for want of a better term, the Parisian experience in arriving at their determination to experiment? If not, have they considered it in the course of the experimentation before coming to their current view upon which we are about to decide?

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I should like first of all to express my sympathy with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for the great inconvenience he has suffered, and to say how sorry I am that those directing this unit lacked the kind of second sight to realise quite the outrage they were perpetrating. I am extremely sorry to find myself at some difference with the noble Lord. Lord Boyd-Carpenter.

The noble Lord will be more familiar than I am with the problems of London's traffic. At the time that he was Minister of Transport, so far as I recollect, the job had not been totally filleted and made quite impossible. At a later stage London's traffic problems were, so far as I am aware, removed from the Ministry of Transport—the Minister being a rather vulnerable single figure—and passed over to a committee of the Greater London Council. Decency forbids me from going into the merits or otherwise of that particular body at this moment, but I am not greatly in favour of committees when it comes to enforcing laws of this kind. They are anonymous bodies, they are not particularly vulnerable to criticism, and they are not easily arraigned.

Therefore, I look with some favour upon the clamping experiment. I personally rather wish that more extensive use were made of it, not in the small by-streets to which the noble Earl referred but in large highways where quite unnecessary obstruction is caused—and they are main highways even if they are narrow. I believe that the use of this device is a considerable deterrent even though, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter pointed out, there is some temporary obstruction of the traffic as a result of the use of the device.

I hope that we shall proceed with it with some boldness, and that perhaps more extensive use can be made of it and not less. I think we have too much sympathy with those who persistently make it difficult, if not impossible, to move around the streets of our capital city.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I knew that this was going to be a fairly controversial order when I rose to move it. May I try to answer as many questions as possible which have been raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, asked about the vehicle excise duty. If the police find a vehicle during the process of clamping which has not got an excise duty licence they report the case to the department's London enforcement office, which is responsible for enforcing these licences. I have not got any figures with me about how many apply in this particular instance. If I can find them out I shall let the noble Lord know.

The noble Lord also asked about persistent offenders and the payment of outstanding fixed penalties. The police are continuing their efforts to identify persistent offenders and are considering how improved technology might help them to identify the relevant vehicles more speedily. Meanwhile, many persistent offenders have already been caught both through police efforts and because continually flouting the parking regulations increases the statistical probability that they will be clamped. As my honourable friend mentioned in another place on one day when 127 vehicles were clamped, 45 had five or more unpaid fixed penalty notices outstanding including 18 with 20 or more.

The noble Lord also mentioned the subject of meter feeding. This is something which is illegal and the wardens must do what they can to prevent it. I do not know about the particular street the noble Lord is talking about. Perhaps he would like to have a word with me afterwards and we might see if we can do something.

I fully sympathise with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in what happened to him. I am surprised it happened to him. As I understand it, vehicles left on yellow lines are supposed to get a ticket first, and a certain amount of time is meant to elapse before the clamp is attached. I can only sympathise with the noble Earl. As for illegal parking in residents' areas, the TRRL report showed that clamping appears to have cut that down by 30 per cent., so I hope it is a step in the right direction from that point of view.

My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter mentioned obstruction. The point about the clamp is that it is not supposed to be used where a vehicle is causing an obstruction. It should not be used. Those vehicles will be towed away. It is only supposed to be used on yellow lines, or at parking meters, or in residents' areas, so it should not be used where the vehicle is causing an obstruction.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend saying that if I park my car in a position where it will definitely obstruct traffic, I shall be absolutely free from the risk of being clamped?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, in that situation, the noble Lord should be towed away. Yes, he should be free from the danger of being clamped, but with 700 clampings a week I dare say that one or two go wrong.

My noble friend Lord Morris mentioned the experiment in Paris. I was not aware that they had given it up. As your Lordships are aware, this order is to renew clamping for a further period of two years so we shall see what the TRRL will come up with during that time.

I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil for his support. He said he would like to see more extensive use. As I said in my original speech, as from May, when the renewal takes place, if other authorities want to introduce it and they can satisfy us that it is necessary we shall look at that matter.

On Question, Motion agreed to.