Clause 6 - Offence of using unlicensed wheel-clampers

Private Security Industry Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:45 pm on 24th April 2001.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The points that Conservative Members want to raise start with the fact that this clause was not part of the Bill when it was introduced in another place. It was inserted on Report in another place, creating a further criminal offence of using an unlicensed wheelclamper. It would help if the Minister explained exactly why the clause, which seems to be a logical follow-on from clause 5, was not originally in the Bill. It is more far-reaching than clause 5, which introduces a criminal sanction that applies to those who supply security services using unlicensed operatives. Clause 6 makes the service's end user subject to the criminal law.

The Minister and other Committee members may recall my saying on Second Reading that Conservative Members would seek assurances from the Government that the provisions criminalising those employing unlicensed operatives would be well publicised. Perfectly respectable businesses and individuals may wish to employ wheelclampers to stop the persistent unauthorised use of their parking spaces. There are, however, two sides to the coin. Respectable companies may employ apparently respectable wheelclamping companies that in fact operate in far too draconian a manner.

In contributing to debates on the issue, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central has had very much to the forefront of her mind the fact that a company may look fine superficially and have nothing untoward about it, but the activities of its operatives at the sharp end may cause enormous distress. I am thinking particularly of the sort of companies that rail operators sometimes use. I mentioned in my speech on Second Reading concerns raised by the editor of one of my local newspapers. Those concerns have continued. The editor of The Surrey-Hants Star, Mr. Alan Franklin, has been following the issue with great care. His coverage of the incidents involving a company called Security International Group, used as an operator by South West Trains, has led to further correspondence.

The other day, I received another example: a letter from Mrs. Wendy McLean of Church Crookham, a constituent of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). She has been one of the many people apparently victimised by the employees of Security International Group, even when she has had a perfectly valid ticket to use the train. It is single ladies travelling, perhaps using station car parks late at night, who are especially vulnerable to the tactics that can be used even by employees of apparently respectable companies.

The position is much worse because of charlatan companies—the so-called cowboy clampers. As someone said on Second Reading, they could even give cowboys a bad name. The hon. Member for Doncaster, Central and other hon. Members, from both sides of the House, have been concerned about the activities of cowboy clampers for many years.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Labour, Doncaster Central

The hon. Gentleman mentions the coverage that his local newspaper has given to the activities of cowboy clampers. I wonder whether the newspaper is also aware that the RAC made very strong representations to the Government for a clause such as this to be included in the Bill, to make landowners responsible for activities carried out on their land. It is otherwise extremely difficult to pin down companies that are there one day and gone the next. The land remains, and that is why the RAC wanted the clause to be included.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Lady is quite right. I was aware of the point that she made, and the RAC was not the only organisation to raise those concerns. It is understandable for us to look at such provisions in the Bill. I simply wanted to alert the Minister to the fact that it would be helpful to hear some background from him, although perhaps he will repeat what she has just said.

I would like the Minister to comment, when he winds up, on the apparent anomaly in the Bill on which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham touched in his remarks on clause 3. There appears to be a difference in the penalties. The two clauses are not absolutely alike. Although the Minister referred to that in passing, it would be helpful to understand a little more about the thinking of the Government, or that of his officials, about the different penalties.

The Minister will be familiar with my next point because it was raised on Second Reading here, and in another place by my noble Friend Lord Cope of Berkeley. It concerns the dentist who wishes to protect his surgery car park from unauthorised use by visitors to nearby shops. If the dentist were to employ an unlicensed clamper, he would be caught by the provisions of clause 6 and potentially liable to a prison term of up to five years. If that same dentist applied the clamp himself, or instructed one of his staff to do so, he would be liable under clause 3, and the maximum penalty would be six months. There is an anomaly there. Both methods could lead to criminal penalties, but there is a potential inconsistency.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I welcome the debate. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath rightly said that the clause is a result of a Government amendment in another place. It makes it an offence for an occupier of premises to permit the unlicensed clamping of vehicles on premises where such activities require a licence. Clause 3 makes it an offence to clamp vehicles, without having a licence, for the purposes of one's business or employment, or for any other reason that has a view to the motorist being charged a release fee. We do not consider it appropriate to go further than that and require a landowner to obtain a licence from the authority for the purpose of using a licensed wheelclamper under a contract for services. That would be duplicating bureaucratic controls, without any real gain for the public.

However, we do accept the need for the Bill to deter unscrupulous landowners who would be tempted tacitly to allow unlicensed wheelclampers to operate on their property. Such a temptation would be particularly strong for the owners of prime sites where the lack of clear warning signs would be likely to lead to a rich harvest of release fees from unwary motorists. The clause closes off that potential loophole, and the reason for that was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central. As well as her general campaigning efforts in respect of wheelclampers, she was studious in pressing that particular point with the support of the RAC and other organisations.

With regard to the offence under clause 5, there are three lines of defence. First, the accused may show that he neither knew, nor had reasonable grounds to suspect, that the operative was not the holder of a licence. Secondly, he may show that he took all reasonable steps to ensure that the operative would not engage in activities for which he did not hold a licence. Finally, he may show that the security services provided were supplied by a person exempted from the need for a licence under the provisions of clause 4.

As far as penalties are concerned, I can do no more than repeat what I said during discussion on clause 3. There is no new argument. It is a question of judgment, as I acknowledged, and the judgment that we have made is set out in the Bill. I urge the Committee to agree that clause 6 stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Seven o'clock till Thursday 26 April at five minutes to Ten o'clock.