Second Reading

Part of Crime and Security Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:16 pm on 29th March 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 7:16 pm, 29th March 2010

My Lords, my contribution to this debate will be short. I do not plan make a typical Second Reading speech, considering the broad span of the Bill, but in view of the time constraints and special circumstances of this Second Reading, I propose to focus exclusively on Clauses 42 to 44.

I speak as a former chairman of the regulator for the security industry, the Security Industry Authority, at its inception some 10 years ago. Despite having held positions on several regulatory authorities, I generally take the view that this country is excessively regulated. I suppose that anyone who works in the National Health Service these days, with its 52 regulators, is likely to take that view. My instinct, therefore, is generally to oppose any extension of regulation. However, each case has to be considered on its merits. The case for extending the regulatory framework to include wheel clamping businesses that work on private land is overwhelming. Individuals who undertake this work on private land must have a licence, but unscrupulous operators can avoid the regulatory controls simply by turning themselves into businesses, and it seems that they have no great problem doing just that.

When I was chairman of the Security Industry Authority, I received pleas from across the country on this issue from members of the public who had suffered at the hands of these unscrupulous wheel clampers on private land. The typical experience was of a pensioner or a housewife who had for years parked on a little piece of land. One day, they came back to find that their car had been clamped, or worse still towed away, and they had no idea why. They had had no idea that they could not park on that particular piece of land. The instruction on their vehicle tended simply to give a mobile phone number, and they had to hunt around this piece of land just to find information.

Wheel clamping companies are particularly careful to hide their identities. The only way to retrieve your car, once you have tracked down the information and contacted the mobile phone number, is to pay a fine. Even 10 years on, I remember that the fine could be £500 or more. If the poor individual finds it difficult to pay that fine and does not pay it over a period of perhaps two weeks, they find that the sum increases-and so it goes on. If the vehicle owner denies that he has parked on a private piece of land, he has no complaints or appeals system to which to turn; they are completely helpless.

How could this come about? Outside the regulatory system, there is no specification about signage. You can have a little piece of paper behind a tree, and no one will interfere. That really is not uncommon. Again, there should be a land line; you should be able to know with whom you are dealing, but this simply does not happen. Under regulation, a code of practice would specify the size and positioning of signs. That is a No. 1 priority. If people know that they are doing something that they should not be doing, they have a choice, but if they do not know, they certainly have problems.

The provision in this Bill for fines to be capped to a reasonable sum is also important, as is the stipulation of a time limit before which you really cannot just towusb away a vehicle. I was told about people who would hide behind a wall or literally behind a tree, wait for the poor person to park and drift off, and immediately out they would come and whip the car away; and again there are no controls. I strongly support the complaints-handling provision and the harsh penalties for any business operating without a business licence.

This clause would be self-financing. It would bring great relief and prevent considerable stress and financial hardship to innocent and often vulnerable individuals. I do not believe that there are any hidden consequences. Landowners would continue to be able to prevent unwanted parking on their land, and they are certainly absolutely entitled to do that. I hope that noble Lords on all sides of the House will be perfectly happy to see this small, but in my view important, set of clauses pass into law.