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2.43 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for raising this issue. It is one with which I am sure many of our constituents will have ready empathy. We recognise the strength of feeling of those who have suffered being clamped. I am only too aware of the disreputable way in which some--but by no means all--clampers go about their business. It is bad enough that they clamp people's cars without there being any warning signs and charge outrageous release fees, but there are even cases in which drivers have been threatened with violence. That is totally unacceptable.

Having said that, everyone has to respect the property of others, and there are those who will not do that. Owners of land must be able to take action against those who park on it without their permission; in my view and that of many others, wheel clamping--or at least the threat of it--can be an effective means of dealing with irresponsible parking. However, wheel clamping must be carried out in a reasonable manner. I stress the word "reasonable". There must be warning signs of a reasonable size, and the release fee must not be extortionate. There must certainly be no threat of violence attached to seeking the release fee.

To some extent, as the hon. Gentleman recognised, case law has already enshrined those principles--differently north and south of the border, as is to be expected in different jurisdictions. In 1995, in the case of Arthur and Arthur v. Anker, the Court of Appeal adjudged that clampers had acted legally, as adequate warning signs had been displayed, the release fee was reasonable, and there was a reasonable method of payment.

The judgment of the Court of Appeal provided useful guidelines to courts faced with similar cases, but only in broad terms. It did not define a general standard for the size of signs, or what a "reasonable" release fee might be. That leaves the motorist who is aggrieved by having his or her car clamped on private land with only limited practical means of redress. Unless the behaviour of the clamper is quite outrageous, the motorist may well be uncertain of his or her rights, and may be dissuaded from going to court by the potential cost of legal fees.

The industry is poorly regulated. We recognised that when we published the White Paper "The Government's Proposals for Regulation of the Private Security Industry in England and Wales" last year. I was responsible for the publication of that document, and central to it was our recognition of the need to ensure that it would no longer be possible for anyone with a van and a clamp to set up as a wheel clamper.

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All that clampers have to do is tell the landowner that they will, for a given fee, clamp anyone parked on his or her land. They can then subsequently clamp at will, and the driver has little redress against them or the landowner. That is clearly unacceptable. The aim of our proposals is to protect the public by ensuring basic standards of probity across the private security industry. We are determined to eradicate undesirable elements from the industry, including cowboy wheel clampers.

I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will see some merit in the proposed private security industry authority. It is designed to have a holistic approach to the challenges faced by the private security industry, rather than relying on ad hoc responses, however well founded the sense of grievance that motivates them.

The authority will have as one of its duties the responsibility of licensing individuals in the private security industry, including those involved in wheel clamping. Managers and directors of security companies will also need to hold a licence. That will be a valuable tool at the disposal of the community in ensuring a properly regulated private security industry. It has been welcomed by responsible operators.

It is also proposed that the authority would have the responsibility of producing or endorsing standards and codes of practice for the industry and, where necessary, of making recommendations for statutory regulation. In the case of wheel clamping, the White Paper specifically acknowledged--as the hon. Gentleman recognised--the importance of ensuring that statutory regulations or a code of practice were in place to govern the operation of wheel clamping firms.

We are currently considering how best to take forward the White Paper in the light of considerable interest. We received 180 responses to the paper. I undertake to the hon. Gentleman that we will shortly make known our conclusions.

We have made clear our intention to introduce legislation to regulate the private security industry as soon as parliamentary time allows. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, and he knows that I cannot tell him exactly when the legislation will be introduced. However, I stress that the Home Office is completely committed to it. It has to compete with several other

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important and necessary measures which have been urged on us. We are determined to crack down on the unsavoury activities of some of those involved in wheel clamping.

The cases that the hon. Gentleman outlined this afternoon give an accurate flavour of what our fellow citizens have to endure. A night at the opera, especially an opera as uplifting as "Don Giovanni", should not be ruined by such an unpleasant event. I hope that the fate of the wheel clampers will mirror that of Don Giovanni in the last act. Perhaps that is an uncharitable sentiment, but it is entirely justified in the light of the experiences of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

We look to the private security industry authority to develop the codes of practice. We want the codes to take account of those that already operate successfully in the industry. We have therefore an opportunity to put in place a voluntary code of practice with the industry. Considerable progress is being made on that. It will address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, for example, standardising fines, ensuring a range of options--cash, cheque, credit card, Switch--for payment, and a proper appeals procedure.

The British Parking Association is co-operating with the Government to produce a draft code of practice, which it intends to circulate for comment shortly. The consultation will extend to motorist and parking organisations so that the final draft represents the interests of both groups.

I warmly welcome the initiative to find practical measures now, which the responsible majority of clamping operators support. We can thus ensure that the interests of the owners of private land are protected by an effective, proportionate and professional service that deals with unauthorised parking, that the harm and damage perpetrated by cowboys is exposed, and that the full weight of public opinion is brought to bear against them.

That is only a beginning, and we look towards a regulatory authority, a system of licensing and sanctions, which will build on the code of practice. Irresponsible and fraudulent wheel clamping will thus become a thing of the past.

The debate, albeit short, at the instigation of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is a welcome step forward towards that conclusion, which cannot come soon enough.

Question put and agreed to.

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