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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) spoke for nearly 40 minutes, so I can only assume that the Whips, believing that there was a somewhat thin turnout on the Government side, had exhorted him to go long. He clearly had not appreciated that the cavalry had arrived, in the shape of the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) and the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). As some seven Members appear to wish to speak, I shall try-if the right hon. Gentleman is able to contain himself-to ensure that my remarks are as concise as possible.
I wish to focus on just two clauses-namely, 39 and 40, which relate to wheel-clamping. I have never had my vehicle clamped, but clamping appears to be one of the few growth industries under this Government. I find it objectionable that so many of our fellow citizens are being ripped off by wheel-clampers. As I have been selected to serve on the Public Bill Committee, I obviously look forward to contributing to detailed scrutiny of the all other parts of the Bill, too, but I am not clear how Members will be able to scrutinise properly in Committee and on Report a Bill of 46 clauses and a schedule in the time left before we have to dissolve for the general election, let alone how we will be able to send it to the Lords. There is thus a sense that this is all distraction politics while the Prime Minister and the Government mark time until the final rising of this Parliament on 27 March. Frustratingly, I suspect that because of the timetabling and guillotining provisions, the chances of any proper scrutiny of clauses 39 and 40, which come near the end of the Bill, in Committee is almost zero, although, as the House knows, I am an inherent optimist.
Banbury, whose population makes up about a third of my constituency, is a town of about 40,000 people. It is a good-sized town, but not a large town. In fact, it is the 232nd largest town in the UK by population. I discovered that last year on a day I selected completely at random-20 November-40 vehicles were clamped in Banbury. On the basis of the "fines" that were imposed that day on my constituents and on the basis that a random Friday in November is an average day, there is a minimum-I stress that this is a minimum-income to the clampers of £2,000 per day. If one completely ignores the so-called "towing fees"-if one assumes that those vehicles were simply clamped and people were not also charged for towing-that represents £672,000 per year to the wheel-clampers just in Banbury. However, as we all know, a considerable number of people get charged for "towing", even if their vehicles are not towed. So in just the town of Banbury, which is the 232nd largest in the UK by population, my constituents pay getting on for £1 million a year in clamping penalties.
This is an abuse of the law and it must stop; wheel-clamping has become a state-sanctioned extortion racket. It is estimated that in any one year 10 per cent. of motorists are fined or clamped by private contractors in what is becoming an increasingly lucrative industry. Paul Watters, the AA's head of public affairs, has observed:
"Private parking enforcement is big business generating millions of pounds and no-one notices and acts when the rules are broken. The public have absolutely no protection if a private parking firm acts unfairly-it is a civil matter and no-one is interested in helping... At least there is proper machinery when it comes to dealing with local authority fines."
Wheel-clamping is out of control. The number of vehicles that are clamped has risen by 75 per cent. in just the past 19 months, and 2,100 individuals are licensed to clamp, which is an exponential rise from 1,200 in March 2008 and 1,900 in April 2009. Professor Stephen Glaister of the RAC Foundation has observed:
"The figures reveal more and more people are becoming clampers because the business is so lucrative and the law surrounding it so lax...With charges for being clamped and towed often running into several hundred pounds, cowboy clampers"-
"on the lookout for motorists who leave their car in the wrong place even for a few minutes".
"The huge rise in licence holders"-
"proves the Government needs to act quickly. It has promised a cap on fees, an appeals service and a binding code of conduct. In 2010 it needs to deliver."
It is estimated that the private clamping industry is worth about £240 million a year, and there are clearly a number of rogue companies taking advantage of the public. Tens of thousands of drivers, whose vehicles are clamped on private land, can be charged anything up to £800 because the clamping companies can set whatever fees they wish. Nowadays, wheel-clamping has almost always become legalised extortion.
"lasting impression of the whole experience is not the dent to the finances but the unprofessional behaviour of the clampers.
The two 'officials' stood inches from my face in stain-covered tracksuit bottoms. Their vehicle had two broken wing mirrors, cigarette packets fell out on to the floor when they opened their...door and the documentation I was presented with looked like it had been designed at the Early Learning Centre."
"we need traffic enforcement, but like any other process where money is demanded from a member of the public it should be regulated."
Of course, if a vehicle is trespassing, clamping is not a particularly effective means of releasing that space, as has been clearly recognised by the Department for Transport and local authorities. Indeed, in respect of provisions in the Road Traffic Act 1991 and the Transport Act 2000, the guidance published alongside the Removal and Disposal of Vehicles (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2007, which came into force in March 2008, observed the following:
"Very few authorities now use immobilisation. The Secretary of State is of the view that it should only be used in limited circumstances such as where the same vehicle repeatedly breaks parking restrictions and it has not been possible to collect payment for penalties, primarily because the keeper is not registered, or is not properly registered, with the DVLA. Where a vehicle is causing a hazard or obstruction the enforcement authority should remove rather than immobilise. Immobilisation/removal activity should only take place where it gives clear traffic management benefits."
What, in reality, is happening if a vehicle parks on private land? It is a civil matter, a tort and a trespass, and the damages should be equivalent to the compensation for the damage to the land done by the trespasser-in most instances, this is zero or minimal. If the damage consists in a vehicle being parked, clamping, which obviously prevents the vehicle from being moved, increases that damage. Thus, this is little less than self-inflicted injury by the landowner. What is all too often being extracted is not the equivalent of civil compensation, but, in effect, a punishment. It has been a long-established principle of English law that one private citizen cannot legally punish another for his conduct. I suggest to the House that those who charge £200 or more to release cars that they have clamped on private land are doing little more than extorting money from innocent people.
Bizarrely, the Government are conniving in this extortion, a point that was made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). The DVLA is selling drivers' names and addresses to clamping companies. It made more than £4 million in 2008 by selling the details of some 1.6 million drivers. It has sold drivers' details to companies notwithstanding the fact that it is often aware of businesses that repeatedly double-charge drivers for parking breaches and charge inflated bills for spurious charges.
Eventually, I am glad to say, the Government recognised that this is a public mischief that needs to be addressed. The right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), when she was Home Secretary, observed:
"There are clearly a minority of clamping companies indulging in unacceptable behaviour including unclear signage and excessive fees."
"The Home Office wants to set a maximum penalty charge-likely to be £135-to stop cowboy clampers fleecing the public.
Clamping firms will also have to prove vehicles had breached parking restrictions and will be forced to make warning signs more obvious and visible".
By October, the Home Office had briefed the press that Ministers had proposed a £125 maximum charge for removing a clamp, a £250 ceiling for returning a car that had been towed away and a ban on double-charging-that is, it would not be possible to levy both the clamp removal fee and the tow-away fee. A Home Office press notice stated:
"Proposals within the bill will make it mandatory for all wheel clamping businesses to be licensed under the terms of a strict code of conduct. The code will include a cap on fines, time limits on towing cars unreasonably quickly after being clamped...Ministers are also looking to introduce an independent appeals process for motorists who feel unfairly penalised by firms and their employees."
Clause 39 takes up approximately 150 lines of the Bill, and it does just one thing. Whereas at present individuals who engage in wheel-clamping are obliged
to be licensed by the Security Industry Authority, the clause provides that businesses should also be licensed by the SIA. All it does is ensure that whereas nowadays individuals are regulated and licensed, in future businesses will likewise have to be licensed. There is no mention of a statutory code of conduct or of what would be in such a code. Notwithstanding the fact that individuals will have to be licensed by the SIA, it is clear from the exponential growth in the number of wheel-clampers and in their take that despite Government efforts to control the industry it is effectively a state-sanctioned extortion racket.
"This is a minor extension of an existing scheme".
So there are no proposals in the Bill to cap charges or to control the activities of wheel-clampers. The Secretary of State made such a fleeting reference to this subject in his speech that it was missable.
We will need to be given some real assurances and undertakings in Committee by Ministers that they are intent on introducing a code of conduct for wheel-clampers that will give motorists protection. Otherwise, all they are doing in this Bill, as is so often the case, is giving the impression of dealing with a public mischief-rogue wheel-clamping-without actually tackling it. They give the impression that they will do something, but nothing will come of it. I hope that this Bill, if it gets through, will do something to tackle rogue wheel-clampers. There is a lot more work to be done, many more undertakings to be made and a lot more that we need to hear from Ministers in Committee before Report and Third Reading if we are to be convinced that they mean business.
Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): This is a wide-ranging Bill, and I originally intended to speak about the provisions on wheel-clamping, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) just did, on antisocial behaviour orders and parenting orders, on DNA and fingerprinting and on gang-related violence. However, I must take this opportunity to refer to the provisions on domestic violence.
The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) earlier pointed out that domestic violence is often not physical. I would agree with that. The violence can be mental, emotional, psychological or sexual and will often originate not just in disputes between husbands and wives, partners and so on. Abuse can be against elders, and it can also be honour-related. Increasingly, we are seeing evidence of that in the courts.
The provisions in the Bill-this is all I want to say on this point, because a lot of what I was going to say has been brought to the attention of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) -are firmly supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers. It is ACPO's firm view, as expressed in evidence to the Home Secretary:
"In many incidents, the victim is in no fit state, physically or emotionally, to make complicated and life-changing decisions regarding her safety, residence...and the well-being of her children at the time when the police are investigating an incident or offence."
It is quite clear that there are occasions when an individual is released without charge or without being placed on police bail, partly, sometimes, because the woman concerned-it is more often a woman than a man-is in no fit state to make decisions about whether to bring charges or to make the necessary decisions to react to the incident that she has just suffered. She needs the protection and time to make the necessary decisions on future steps to secure her safety and, more often than not, that of her children. I agree with ACPO and think that the provisions in the Bill are sensible. They represent an intermediate step that can help women, in particular, to deal with the situation in which they find themselves.
I want to refer to the wheel-clamping provisions. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Banbury said, but I would add that many drivers and motorists across the country would argue that it is not just wheel-clamping that is the problem, but private parking services per se. Many of my constituents complain to me that companies such as Excel-no doubt I will get another nasty threatening letter from that company as a result of this speech-fleece customers. Such companies' signage is appalling and they fine customers on the basis, sometimes, of parking slightly over a line in a parking space. The signage is so unclear that motorists do not know whether they have broken the rules or not, and the DVLA is passing on the information about these motorists to such companies. In addition, companies such as Excel offer no appeals process whatsoever when it comes to the penalty notices that they issue for so-called parking offences. I hope that the Bill can be extended to cover some of these issues. Problems with private parking provision are raised repeatedly in the media nowadays, and I hope that the Bill can be extended to do something about it. I would welcome the Minister's comments on this issue.
Let me move on to refer to the provisions in the Bill that deal with ASBOs and parenting orders. I support these provisions wholeheartedly. Many parents who find that their children end up in court to discuss whether an ASBO should be issued want to help their children but find that they are often not equipped to do so. Parenting orders are therefore an essential part of the ASBO package. There are parents who do not want any support or help in handling their children. They have a completely different attitude. For that reason, the provisions in the Bill are welcome. We need to focus in the immediate future on that hard core of parents who do not care about the impact of their children on the local community. I welcome the Home Secretary's prioritisation of that.
Parents who want to help their children keep out of trouble and stay on the straight and narrow are best helped before their children end up in trouble. The Government have done a great deal to pilot initiatives in schools in order to involve parents in their children's education-for example, through home to school liaison officers and support for adults in schools, helping them to deal with their own literacy problems and involving them in the education of their children. However, much of that piloting has not been mainstreamed, usually because the funding has been ring-fenced or temporary, and there has not been a proper evaluation of the effectiveness of such interventions and the mainstreaming of parenting support in the education system.
The provisions need to be matched by a serious analysis of how best we can support parenting within the education system. That is the best place for intervening with parents and helping them to support their children. Sure Start is based on that principle, and I am convinced that we should see that throughout the primary system and the secondary system, wherever necessary.
On the DNA provisions, I agree with hon. Members who have expressed grave concerns about the Government's movement on the European Court of Human Rights judgment. The Government have not gone far enough in responding to the judgment. For me, the very articulate speech from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who is no longer in his place, summarised the range of reasons why the Government have not gone far enough in implementing that judgment.
Someone who is innocent is innocent. I accept, however, that within the large pool of people who have been arrested for various offences there is a degree of complexity that makes it difficult to argue that one kind of person arrested is the same as another, so I disagree with the Liberal Democrat position. We need to examine more carefully the massive range of complexities involved in the pool of people who have been arrested by the police and released without charge, charged with an offence and found not guilty in court, and so on.
A young girl caught shoplifting at 13 is often taken into police custody, given the fright of her life and released without charge, with a caution, precisely because the police do not want to criminalise that young woman. At that stage, the police's view is that the experience of being arrested and put in a police cell will, more often than not, probably be enough to put that girl on to the straight and narrow. That, together with a strict word with the parents, is often seen to be the means by which the police can avoid turning her into a convict and putting her on a path to criminality in the long term.
It is a contradiction, therefore, to say that that young woman's DNA should be taken and kept on the database for X years on the basis that her arrest means that she is more likely to commit an extremely violent and serious offence in the future. The Government's argument does not relate to whether an individual who has been arrested once is likely to be arrested for a minor offence in the future-another disorder offence or another drink driving offence. The arguments have been about rape, murder and the most serious forms of physical violence.
In some cases DNA is taken from people who have been given fixed penalty notices for extremely minor offences that are not even recordable or arrestable. I find it appalling that it can be assumed that such people, or the vast majority of those who have had their DNA taken because they shoplifted as a 13-year-old, are far more likely than the general population to commit an extremely serious crime in the future. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was right to say that often people find themselves on the receiving end of a demand for DNA because they have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The building of the DNA database has often been incredibly random.
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