HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc538-40

(" . In the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, after subsection (1) of section 104, there shall be inserted—

"(1A) When a person authorised under subsection (1B) below finds on private property a vehicle which has been permitted to remain at rest there in contravention of any warning signs, he may fix an immobilisation device to that vehicle if he is authorised to do so by the Secretary of State.

(1B) The Secretary of State may authorise a person to immobilise a vehicle in accordance with subsection (1A) above.

(1C) Before the Secretary of State authorises an applicant, he must be satisfied that the applicant fulfils the following requirements, namely—

  1. (a) that he is of good repute, and
  2. (b) that he is of the appropriate financial standing."").

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 406 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 421. Amendment No. 406 raises the issue of wheel clamping. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, has since tabled a far more superior and carefully drafted amendment. My only question is, why is the Minister dithering so much?

I turn to Amendment No. 421. The Committee will be aware of a wide variation in the level of security offered by public car parks. Some are inherently secure while others are not. Presently, there is no indication on the standard road sign for a car park that it relates to a secure car park. However, there is some understanding about what standards are required. The public need to know whether they are being directed to a secure car park or one operated by Mr Arthur Daley. What is the Minister doing about it? I beg to move.

Viscount Simon

I shall not accuse the Minister of dithering. I shall be much more expansive but I suppose the result will be the same.

The intention of Amendment No. 416 standing in my name is simple. It is to regulate those people who clamp motor vehicles on private land. There are those who operate companies which can be applauded and who abide by a code of conduct but there are others, generally called "cowboy dampers", who charge huge amounts of money, often without the knowledge of the owner of the land. It is the latter who would benefit from regulation.

Perhaps the Committee will permit me to give a partial chronological history of the Denver Boot, as it used to be called. After it became apparent that cowboy dampers were causing problems, in 1992 a Scottish court ruled that private clamping was unlawful and a year later the Government published a consultative document setting out measures to control clamping on private land.

In 1994 an attempt to insert an amendment in the Criminal Justice Bill to outlaw unscrupulous clamping was overruled. In 1995 an English court determined that private wheel clamping was lawful within certain parameters. In 1996 a Private Member's Bill was presented in the other place to regulate private wheel clampers. On 15th July 1997 the Home Secretary in a press office release stated: It is essential that cowboys and cheats that besmirch the industry's name are weeded out". Last year, a White Paper was published on the proposed regulation of the private security industry. So the intention to address the problem of wheel dampers has been with us for some years and there is overwhelming support for its regulation—but nothing has happened.

Since the introduction of the wheel clamp in this country, tens of thousands of people have fallen victim to cowboy wheel clampers who have in many cases extorted outlandish sums of money in often questionable circumstances. To this day many wheel clamping acts are probably unlawful. I hope the Committee will forgive me for digressing slightly when I cite the case of a disabled couple of pensioners on income support who, according to a recent edition of the Sunday Times, had their car towed away by Waltham Forest Council or its contractors for parking during a weekend in a bay used for council workers during the week. As I said, that occurred on a Sunday. The couple were charged £170. Their appeal against the charge, via the Sunday Times consumer champion, failed. Therefore, it is not only the private operators who charge what appear to be excessive amounts in dubious circumstances. I have on two occasions spoken with someone who works for the council's chief executive but I have heard nothing further. Therefore, I assume that that example is accurate.

I wonder whether any Members of the Committee watched the television programme a few days ago which showed a company in, I believe, Harrogate clamping vehicles within a few seconds of the driver getting out of a car. As I recall, the clamper charged £75 for releasing the clamp and appeared to be enjoying his employment. Although that company has, I believe, been forced to stop its activities in relation to wheel clamping, many like it are still operating. It is for that reason that I address this problem.

The British Parking Association has announced a new code of practice which covers clamping on private land. Excellent! However, I doubt very much that that will stop the cowboys from continuing their abhorrent trade. It has been said that landowners will not want cowboy dampers to operate on their land. But the owners of the land simply want people not to park there and they will not worry about the status of the dampers. This trade has been getting away with extorting huge sums of money from unsuspecting motorists for a long time. It is now time to address the problem.

Lord Whitty

I recognise the problems. The noble Earl asked me what. I am doing about them. I am not doing anything but neither am I dithering. My colleagues in the Home Office have the matter well in hand. My noble friend Lord Simon referred to the Home Office initiatives. The Home Office will produce firm proposals to regulate the private security industry, including particularly the clampers, and will introduce legislation, as they say, as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

The Home Office generally gets its Bills, as we have seen in the course of the past week or two.

Those proposals will tackle directly the question of criminal activity and the whole basis of cowboy operations within the clamping sector. It will be a condition of acquiring a licence that the applicant will not have previous convictions for criminal offences and will operate according to the new requirements. Therefore, the matter is in hand and I hope to see the proposals come through the system very soon.

My noble friend Lord Simon also tabled Amendment No. 421 but did not speak to it at great length. There are reasons why that amendment is defective. However, the national Secured Car Parks scheme is now in operation and the revision of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions is already in hand. Together, they should meet the concerns behind that amendment.

I ask noble Lords to withdraw the amendment.

Viscount Simon

I thank my noble friend for his interesting remarks. I am somewhat confused by the term "parliamentary timetable" or whatever it was that he said. However, I assume that that will mean "sooner rather than later". I shall riot move my amendment.

Earl Attlee

From what the Minister said, it appears that we need to stop the Home Office rather than the Minister from dithering.

I should like to mention one of the difficulties in relation to clamping. Clearly we must eliminate the criminal element but we must also be careful to avoid over-regulation. I shall read carefully what the Minister said about the traffic signs. I hope that it is good news. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment, subject to the usual conditions.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 407:

After Clause 256, insert the following new clause—