Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bercow: I am shocked by the example that my hon. Friend cites. I wonder whether he might choose to refer that important issue to the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal).

Mr. Luff: I shall carefully consider that characteristic suggestion from my hon. Friend.

My constituent has sent an invoice for the repairs to the company, but he used the address of the Worcester trading standards office, rather than his own, for fear of recrimination. He says that Worcester trading standards office advised him to

It is a pleasure to be able to comply so comprehensively with a constituent's concerns.

Earlier this week, I received a very good reply from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is temporarily not present on the Treasury Bench, and my constituent will receive a copy of it tomorrow. I am pleased with what the hon. Gentleman says about the provisions on such incidents, but he adds:

28 Mar 2001 : Column 1014

For example, to return temporarily to foxhunting, we envisage that its codes of conduct will have statutory force and we specified some of the matters that should be included in those codes. I commend that course of action to the Minister. We should specify what the code of conduct should say about the greatest abuses. I am sure that the authority will take care of such matters, but we are here to act for constituents from whom we have heard horror stories.

Ms Rosie Winterton: We should consider the fact that if too much is laid down by Parliament, we may not be able to overcome some of the on-going problems. Some cowboy wheelclamping companies now adopt different methods, such as taking photographs of cars and sending out notices demanding penalties. It is important to be able to vary the code of conduct easily, without having to return the matter to Parliament.

Mr. Luff: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I obviously was not explaining myself clearly, and I apologise to her. I am saying that certain matters so obviously need to be encompassed in the code that they should be specified. We must ensure that the authority imposes a ceiling on charges and a complaints procedure.

I am not a lawyer; I do not understand the provisions of the Human Rights Act, and so on, but I think it sensible to allow the authority to insist on certain provisions. I certainly do not suggest that we should draw up a complete list; I am saying that it should at least state that a code of conduct should be established, dealing with such issues as the authority thinks fit, but including X, Y and Z. There is a strong case for ensuring that such issues are included.

I have spoken for 35 minutes, which is longer than I intended to when I rose, but these issues are important not only for my constituents--as employers, employees and as victims of cowboy wheelclampers--but for the general public, who want the security industry to offer the level of competence and security that they have a right to expect, but which has not been offered until now. I am sorry that the Conservative Government did not get around to resolving their own internal conflicts, which I discussed at the beginning of my speech, and I am glad that this Government have done so. They have fewer qualms about regulation than we do, but I commend them on the Bill. I hope that they will consider the detailed issues that I and other right hon. and hon. Members have raised, and that the Bill will reach the statute book at a relatively early date--notwithstanding the guillotine motion, which we shall debate later.

6.45 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), I am member of the GMB, but that is not especially relevant to what I wish to say. I have not seen many of our wheelclamping colleagues at GMB branch meetings in Luton; it is possible that they are not even members of the GMB, so what I say will not offend fellow members.

28 Mar 2001 : Column 1015

I commend the speech made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), especially the last part of it, in which he emphasised the importance of the police, who are unarmed and on the streets of Britain. We should be proud of them. Although there are always problems in policing and patrolling the streets of any country and any city, the police in Britain do a good job, often in difficult circumstances. They are often understaffed, and I shall deal with that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) said that particular qualities are required in the security industry. Police officers possess exactly those qualities. That suggests that there might be a case for extending, rather than restricting, the areas in which the police operate. I should not wish to see a creeping privatisation of the police force. Indeed, my constituents would prefer their streets to be patrolled by police officers, who are accountable to the police authority and the Home Office, rather than by private sector organisations. People might expect a Labour Member to make those comments, and I shall continue to hold that view.

Mr. Luff: I commend pages 83 and 84 of "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead", from which the hon. Gentleman will see that the Government have rather different plans.

Mr. Hopkins: I listened with interest when the hon. Gentleman was reading that document. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench will be aware that my constituents are keen to have more police on the beat and that, however the Government have done, we still need more, and they have a good case. There could be a little less trouble on the streets if we had a few more police. I shall certainly continue to write to my hon. Friends asking them to provide the resources so that we can have more police, especially in Luton, North, and, in equity, elsewhere in the country.

I very much welcome the Government's decision to regulate the private security industry and to take steps towards filling a gap that has existed for far too long. The Bill deals with a range of activities that we deride as "cowboy", but that is sometimes a slur on cowboys. I shall cite some examples from my constituency later.

I wish to focus specifically on wheelclamping and the impounding of vehicles parked illegally on private property. I have described what has been happening in my constituency in letters to Ministers, and I have described it publicly as "legalised mugging", because it seems tantamount to that. In my constituency at least, the charges imposed are extortionate--for example, £80 to release a wheelclamp, and £150 a day for an impounded car to be released.

There are many examples from all over the country, but in my constituency a middle-aged couple were delivering clothes to a garage at the back of a charity shop when wheelclampers pounced on them. The husband was sitting in the driving seat with the engine running while his wife quickly unloaded the car boot. His car was clamped while waiting, and he was surrounded by a gang of young men, demanding £80 to release the clamp. It is alleged that, at one point, one of the young men threatened to head butt the driver. By all accounts, the gang was very menacing indeed.

28 Mar 2001 : Column 1016

In another case, wheelclampers marched an old-age pensioner to a cash machine and made her withdraw £80 from her account to pay them, despite the fact that she had a disabled person's sticker on her car. Those are just two examples, and I shall not waste time describing others, as we have heard some previously.

The Government are right to want to regulate activities on private as well as public land. In one area of my constituency, there is a small unadopted road next to a shopping centre. Wheelclampers wait in a van and pounce as soon as a car comes round the corner and parks even temporarily with the driver still in it. They leap out, clamp the car and demand £80. That has happened time and again.

My concern is that the Bill deals only with private wheelclampers, but I have written to Ministers on more than one occasion urging them to consider the possibility that the local authority could play a role in wheelclamping even on private land. Local authorities undertake some wheelclamping, and they have a right to do that. For example, my local authority employed a private wheelclamping firm to undertake wheelclamping on its behalf. However, the authority sacked the company because it misbehaved in the way that other wheelclampers misbehave. Thus even when a local authority was involved and employed a private sector organisation, the private organisation behaved badly and had to be dismissed.

Local authorities are now considering other ways to overcome the problem. They and the police wish to wheelclamp in many cases, but the small amount of wheelclamping that would take place on local authority land would not be sufficient to make it financially viable for local authorities to set up a system involving a pound and a wheelclamping team. However, if they were given responsibility for wheelclamping in general within their area--for example, they could act on behalf of the police in an agency capacity or on behalf of local residents--they would have more scope and their greater activity might enable them to set up a self-financing scheme. A reasonable charge to the owners of the clamped cars would pay for the service, and the authorities would not even have to charge the private property owner on whose land the car was parked.

I have personal experience of the problem. I live a mile or so from Luton Town football club and it is customary for visiting fans to park their cars in the road outside my house. I do not mind that; it is not a problem. However, on one occasion, a group of young males parked their car in the driveway of my house. They locked it up and quickly ran away, and I was not going to tangle with them. When they returned, they jumped into the car and drove off.

I did not know how to handle that situation, because I certainly was not going to remonstrate with four large male football fans who were rather more youthful than me. I thought that they had been a bit cheeky, to say the least, but I had no one to whom I could turn. The police would not bother with such a case; they have more important things to do. The local authority has no role, and I was not going to get in touch with a private wheelclamping firm. I might have found that they were friends of the football fans--who knows?

In that case, one would have liked the local authority to have had a role. I would have liked to have been able to ring up the council and say, "Someone has parked in

28 Mar 2001 : Column 1017

my driveway. Can you bring your service round to deal with the problem?" The local authority would then have taken charge. People would not argue with it, because it would have the staff and the resources to deal with the problem. It would also have the police to back it up, should that be necessary. I would not have been happy to use a private firm, but I would have been happy to telephone the local authority. Therefore, we should consider giving local authorities a role in the future.

Everyone else in the Chamber seems to have an idea when the general election will take place. I do not, and the Government may be in office for the full five-year term. However, it is possible that the Bill will not reach the statute book before the election--whenever that may be. If it does not, I hope that a second-term Labour Government will reintroduce it and consider giving local authorities a role. They could permit and encourage--not compel or require--local authorities to play their part.

I have spoken informally to local government officers about the problem, and they have said that, provided that the scheme operated on a sufficiently large scale, they could operate it and would be happy to do so. Indeed, I know that some private citizens and firms have asked local authorities to impose restrictions on people parking illegally on private property. Local authorities cannot do that at present, but if a new Bill gave them the appropriate rights backed by law, they could certainly assist. That would work extremely well and everyone who faced the problem of illegal parking could telephone the local authority. To me, that looks like creeping municipal socialism, but I am not averse to that. I hope that the Government will, at least, consider that possibility in future.

Next Section

IndexHome Page