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Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab): I very much welcome the opportunity to debate the activities of private wheel-clamping companies, particularly in Doncaster Central. I also very much welcome the fact that this is, as I understand it, the Minister's first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I am utterly confident that when she hears my arguments, she will make it one of her missions as a Minister to take up the ideas that I am about to put forward.
I first became involved in the issue 14 years ago, when I realised the extent of the misery and distress that rogue wheel-clamping companies were causing, not only in Doncaster Central, but in other parts of Yorkshire-and, for that matter, in hot spots around the country. Just how appalling some of those companies behave has been highlighted by both the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club, which have received literally thousands of complaints from their members. I would like to thank Edmund King-now at the AA-for all the help that he has given me and other Members of the House in our campaign to outlaw unacceptable practices.
The media have also recognised how outraged the public are about the problem. There are countless stories of truly unacceptable practices by some companies. I want to thank the Doncaster Free Press for the campaign that it has been running with me to highlight how vulnerable elderly people, young mothers with children and, frankly, people who can least afford it are being stung for large amounts of money. I say "stung" because many such companies use every trick in the book to get round the legislation as it stands.
The Doncaster Free Press and I have received endless complaints from local people about a company called Park Rite, which operates in Doncaster. The company has concealed signs covered with minute writing, so that it is impossible to read that a particular location is a private car park, and it charges extortionate fees, often by charging two or three times for the same parking transgression-once for clamping and once for towing away, and then again for storage. There are complaints about the company's refusal to have a proper appeals procedure, using mobile phones that are not answered and demanding cash only. Park Rite accepts no other form of payment, such as cheques or debit cards, which has led to people being frogmarched to cash points, with the clampers standing over them to make sure that they come up with the money.
The Free Press and I launched a petition to call on Park Rite to change the way in which it was operating. We were supported by two local companies, Cooplands and Weldricks Pharmacy, and we received a huge amount of support. I had one meeting with the company, to try
to reason with it and ask it at least to join the British Parking Association, so that it would need to adhere to the association's code of practice. As far as I am aware, it has not done so. Since then, it has been impossible to pin it down to another meeting. This epitomises the attitude of some of these companies: they are completely unaccountable for their actions, and they leave people frustrated and angry about the way they are treated-or, not so much treated as bullied.
Of course we should not have a parking free-for-all, and of course private landowners need to protect their land, but we all know that that is not what is happening. This is not about keeping car parks free for specific users; it is about luring motorists on to private land to get as much money out of them as possible. It causes endless problems for the local police, who have to spend their time explaining to worried motorists that their car has not been stolen, but that it has been clamped and towed away.
One of my constituents whose car was clamped had just had both his hips replaced. He was told that his car would not be released unless he handed over £100 in cash. Not having that kind of money on him, he had to walk into the centre of town to withdraw the money from the ATM. On his return, he was confronted with a further demand for £55 to cancel a towing vehicle that had been ordered while he was away. He had to go back into town to collect the money. This was on a Sunday night in February, when we were experiencing some of the coldest temperatures for a generation. He said that there were four notices in the car park, all of which were printed in small black and white lettering that would not have been legible in the dark to anyone who lacked outstanding eyesight.
Another sorry tale involves two of my constituents-ladies in their 60s and 70s-who were fined £250 each to release their vehicles. Again, a lack of clear signage was the issue. The women also found that, when they called the number, there was an out-of-date answerphone message telling the caller to read the back of the parking ticket for information on how to appeal. However, the tickets that they had received had no information on clamping or appeals, or information about the time at which the cars were clamped. When they came to see me, they said that they had felt threatened by the man who had clamped them. He was not wearing a uniform and his vehicle was unmarked. They were also told by the man on the telephone that, if they failed to pay the fine by 4 pm, they would have to pay another £100, and that he would not accept a cheque. In her own words, one of the women said of the incident:
"I am a pensioner, and to be bullied, over the telephone...is very intimidating. The stress and anxiety caused, having to obtain money, hire a taxi and locate the whereabouts of the vehicles left me bereft and traumatized."
I have campaigned for tighter control of these companies over several years, along with a number of other Members of this House, some of whom are here tonight. I am grateful to them for their support. We made progress under the Labour Government, first by setting up the Security Industry Authority in 2005, then through the licensing of individual clampers. Unfortunately, that did not solve the problem. It became clear that the only way to guard against rogue practice would be to ensure that the private clamping companies-not just the clampers
themselves-had to be licensed, had to conform to a strict code of conduct and had to be subject to an independent and fair appeals process.
That is why the Crime and Security Act 2010 was passed. I want to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), who, as a Minister, pursued this issue relentlessly. It is thanks to him that those measures were included in that legislation. The Act introduced a requirement for clamping companies, as well as clampers, to be licensed. It also introduced a mandatory code of practice and an independent appeal system. The Act has been passed, but now we need urgent action to bring in the regulations. I know that my hon. Friend had a number of discussions about the implementation of the Act with organisations such as the AA, the RAC and the British Parking Association, so the groundwork has been done.
"We will tackle rogue private sector wheel clampers",
which I certainly welcome. I am concerned, however, that the new Government have stated that they are rather averse to introducing any new regulations, so I would be grateful if the Minister gave me reassurances on the following points. First, can the Minister confirm that the Government will definitely introduce the necessary regulations under the Crime and Security Act 2010? Secondly, can the Minister also confirm the timetable for introduction? Thirdly, can she confirm that she intends to set up an independent panel to review appeals against fines, and will it be within the time scale set out by the previous Government-by 2011? Finally, can she say what steps will be taken to remove a wheel-clamping company from the approved operators scheme if it is found to be behaving inappropriately, and how long that would take?
In the meantime, before the Minister brings in these new regulations, which is obviously going to be done quickly, I ask the Minister to ask the Home Secretary to encourage police forces in England and Wales to enforce the existing legislation that outlaws clamping without a licence. I am concerned that some unlicensed or criminal clamping does take place, but is not enforced.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the national champion on this issue-this plague that has now spread to my constituency. Is she aware that, just this morning, Farmfoods, a major retailer in my constituency and elsewhere, has distanced itself from the plague of new clampers who have arrived in Retford over the last month-totally unrequested, totally unlicensed, and grabbing money from the innocent?
I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned hard on this issue as well. This is exactly the point: unless these regulations are brought in quickly, there is a danger that some of these clamping companies will feel that the foot has been taken off the pedal and that they will somehow have an opportunity to sneak in and increase rather than decrease their activities, when it is a decrease that we all want to see. As I say, some clamping firms may have many operatives, but few licences. The licence is produced by the operative who
takes the money, not the one doing the clamping, which is probably technically illegal. If the Minister cannot give me an answer to this question now, will she perhaps come back to me in writing?
Urgent regulations need to be introduced to implement the Crime and Security Act 2010 because the public have a right to be treated humanely. The law must afford people protection. At the moment, drivers continue to be terrorised by a small but active number of rogue wheel-clampers. As I said, this is a particular problem in Doncaster, but I know that many other areas around the country are also affected. We must prevent it from happening in those other areas as well. No time should be lost in the Home Office's making of new regulations to outlaw this behaviour once and for all. I urge the Minister to do so.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lynne Featherstone): May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton) on securing this debate on wheel-clamping? It is an important debate on a very important subject, and her interest in it is well documented. I am sure that the right hon. Lady's concerns are shared by many Members, if not every Member whose constituents have encountered these abuses. I am sure that what she has told us tonight is familiar to all of us from our constituencies. I know that wheel-clamping and the related activities of blocking in and towing away continue to cause great anger. Some of the most common complaints concern the amount of release fees, inadequate signage, and immediate clamping or towing away. Having been chair of transport in London for nearly five years when I was a member of the London Assembly, I am more than well acquainted with the problems that motorists face. I also know about the pressure on parking places. While safety, traffic flow and the fair rationing of parking spaces-on which there is always huge pressure-are entirely legitimate reasons for regulation, parking controls too often appear to be about revenue-raising, as the right hon. Lady pointed out. Our mission is to ensure that we deliver a solution to the problem.
If we want people to comply willingly with parking controls, those controls must be fair and just. The right hon. Lady used two examples to illustrate how unjust rogue clampers can be-indeed, cruel beyond belief. Her story of the man with the hip replacements having to walk on a cold February night, and then being asked to do it again, seems to show the clampers verging on sadism. She went on to describe an incident in which two older ladies were each fined £250 when, in reality-as is so often the case-the issue was poor signage. Such cases seem to constitute little more than entrapment, in which rogue clampers literally set a trap. They view it as a honey pot, while we, the public, become the cash cow.
Moreover, in my experience, more often than not it is those who try hard to comply with all the rules and controls who get caught out. People who seek to park legitimately and check for signs, but see none and park, are shattered not just by the upset caused by the financial hit from the clamping-which is substantial-but by the actual experience of being clamped when they were being good and trying not to break the rules. We must not let the good guys be the fall guys for rogue clampers.
That is why the coalition's programme for partnership government, published on 20 May, included the commitment that the right hon. Lady quoted:
"We will tackle rogue private sector wheel clampers."
I hope that both what I have said-which was quite strong-and that published commitment by the coalition Government indicate our position, and assure the right hon. Lady that we are on the same side in this debate. I have seen examples of abuses of parking controls on private land in my own constituency, mostly involving poor signage but also involving abusive behaviour on the part of clampers.
At present, the Private Security Industry Act 2001 requires individual vehicle immobilisers carrying out clamping and towing on private land with a view to charging a fee to hold a licence issued by the Security Industry Authority. That has been required in England and Wales since 2006, and was extended to Northern Ireland last year. Licensing of individual clampers is designed to protect the public by ensuring that only fit and proper persons with the necessary skills and knowledge are employed. As I am sure the right hon. Lady knows, to qualify for a licence applicants need to pass an identity check and a criminal record check, and to complete an accredited training course. There are currently more than 2,200 wheel-clampers with a licence. Since the introduction of licensing, over 290 people have had their applications for licences refused because they did not meet the criteria, and 22 licence-holders have had their licences revoked.
The right hon. Lady asked some specific questions about enforcement in Doncaster. She asked me to encourage the Home Secretary to speak to the police, but it is up to individual police forces to decide what their priorities are and what to focus on. The Private Security Industry Act 2001 contained a number of specific offences to deal with people working without a licence and deploying unlicensed staff. The police do enforce that. The Security Industry Authority also has powers to do so, although it tends to focus on companies, rather than individuals. It can revoke licences, and the punishment for individuals not having a licence is up to six months in prison and/or a fine of up to £5,000.
I looked up the performance of police forces. Merseyside is one of the best performing on the issue. In 2007, Merseyside police proceeded against 200 clampers and found 157 guilty. In 2008, the last year for which I could find figures, they proceeded against 54 and found 47 guilty. In South Yorkshire, which includes Doncaster Central, in 2007, no clampers were proceeded against, so none was found guilty. In 2008, two were proceeded against and two were found guilty. I suggest therefore that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with. However, it is not necessarily for the Home Secretary to deal with it. It is beholden perhaps on all Members of Parliament in that area to speak to the police chief to point out that differential figure, which is startling.
On only one operative having a licence, the right hon. Lady is correct: it is a legal requirement for everyone involved in clamping activity to have a licence-not just those who receive the money, but those who put on and remove the clamps. The licences must be displayed and it is an offence not to wear the licence. Those in companies that supply unlicensed workers can face an unlimited fine and up to five years in prison. The police should also be acting on those cases.
Experience has shown, however, that licensing of individuals has had little impact on the behaviours which generate most complaints from the public. That is because most of those behaviours are controlled by the vehicle immobilisation businesses, and are out of the control of the individual clampers.
The Home Office conducted a public consultation last year to gather more information about these abuses. Over 500 people responded. That research showed that the public's main concerns, which had not been addressed by individual licensing, include, pretty much as the right hon. Lady annunciated: inadequate signage, including small size and poor visibility, so motorists do not know that they are not allowed to park or the consequences of overstaying; high release fees, sometimes totalling hundreds of pounds; demanding immediate cash payments and not accepting other forms of payment, such as credit or debit cards; immediate clamping or towing away after a parking ticket has expired; the lack of an effective means of contesting a charge; no place for the motorist to turn when they feel unfairly treated; lack of evidence from the clampers that the motorist had breached parking rules, such as photographic evidence or retention of records; and aggressive or intimidating behaviour by the clampers. Many of my constituents have faced such problems. Some have phoned me in tears because of seriously abusive behaviour.
The Government are committed to tackling the menace of rogue private sector wheel-clampers and are looking at all available options. I have seen articles in the media over the past few days that ask whether and when the Government plan to bring into force the Crime and Security Act 2010, which was introduced by the previous Government. The Act seeks to address these problems by requiring vehicle immobilisation businesses to be licensed by the Security Industry Authority and to comply with the conditions of a code to be set out in regulations. These conditions could, for example, limit the release fee and require the display of signs warning motorists where clamping takes place. It would also allow for an independent appeals system to be set up for motorists who have been clamped.
This new system is not in place, however. The 2010 Act received Royal Assent on 8 April, just prior to the general election, but the relevant provisions have not yet been commenced. I want to make it absolutely clear that the coalition Government response actually tackles the problems caused by rogue clampers. The Act does not necessarily solve all of the problems, however, so I am looking at all available options as quickly as possible, including those not set out in the 2010 Act.
This is the right time to consider our approach before taking any action. We should adopt an approach that is proportionate, and which balances the rights of the motorist to have access to their vehicle with the rights of landowners to use and control access to their property. Clamping should not be used simply as a means of generating revenue from motorists who have no choice but to pay. We have been clear about our commitment to tackle rogue wheel-clampers, and we will do so, but I want to ensure that our response is clear, decisive and effective.
We understand the concerns of Members and others who have made representations about wheel-clamping and want to see action. I agree that we must act. As soon as we have decided on the way forward, we will announce our intentions and we will act.