HL Deb 27 March 1996 vol 570 cc1701-2

2.57 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have come to any conclusion on the regulation of wheel clamping of vehicles on private land and the legitimacy of fines imposed for the release of such vehicles; and whether they intend to introduce legislation to clarify the situation.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Government are still considering what action, if any, should be taken to regulate wheel clamping on private land. We are looking at detailed matters, such as the level of fines imposed by wheel-clampers, and whether there is a need for new legislation, as part of that consideration.

Baroness David

My Lords, I do not find that Answer exactly satisfactory. As wheel clamping has become a growth business of the 1990s, and a very lucrative one at that—it is said to be worth £150 million a year—should not some action be taken quickly by the Government? Should wheel clamping on private ground be made illegal unless clear warning is given, on a sign adequately lit, with a notice of the fine that is likely to be charged, together with the name, address and telephone number of the clampers?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is certainly one suggestion. The problem is neither so great as it was perceived when the Question was originally put nor so great as was anticipated by so many people. We know that many wheel-dampers have gone out of business, particularly the "cowboys" referred to in previous Questions. So, we are not convinced that this is quite the problem that it was. Also, there is now case law which has started to clarify what is legal and what is illegal in terms of parking on private land.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, although permission is of course required for parking on private land, has there been an improvement since my Question of 20th June in suppressing the menace of pirate clampers operating on disused or unsupervised land? Does my noble friend recall that there has been some progress in Scotland, where a judge ruled in court that in Scotland the practice is theft and extortion, as victims' cars are held to ransom for very large sums?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as I mentioned in my first Answer, we believe that the situation has much improved. Also, the situation is very different in Scotland. There is a different definition of theft in Scotland, for example. Wheel clamping on private land is effectively illegal, as the result of a ruling by the High Court of Judiciary in Edinburgh on 12th June in the case of Black and Another v. Carmichael that wheel clamping amounts to extortion and theft. However, as I said, the definition of theft is rather narrower than that in Scotland, in that Section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 requires that there must be an intention permanently to deprive. Generally, there is no such intention involved in wheel clamping.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, when the noble Baroness says that the situation is much improved, how does she know? There is no regulation in this area at all. Also, since her predecessor, Mr. Michael Jack, said that pirate clamping would be examined with all urgency, why have not the Government come forward with precise proposals?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there has been a consultative exercise. We are convinced that it is not the problem it was. Many of the cowboy organisations have gone out of business and there are not nearly as many complaints as there were. We know too that there has been some clarification through the civil courts. For example, it was established in the case of Arthur and Arthur v. Anchor that it is legal for somebody owning private land to establish a wheel clamping system. In that case there were clear signs displayed and a reasonable charge levied for the recovery of the vehicle. That kind of case is therefore helpful. There have also been cases where the court has found in favour of the person clamped, which again goes to establish the law. We believe that that clarification is helpful. Material to that is the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady David; that is, that there should be clear signs and a reasonable charge levied for the recovery of the vehicles.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, can the Minister indicate how much longer the Government will require before they embark upon any substantive action, if it is required? When does she expect the report to be available?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I cannot say when the report is to be made available. It is not being given quite the urgent attention it was because the situation is not thought to be as urgent as it was at first count. Also, wheel clamping is an effective solution to prevent people parking illegally on private land. We must think of hospitals, schools, residents' parking bays, small businesses—especially those where they are loading and unloading goods—and small hotels. It is an effective remedy against people parking on private land illegally.