With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 54, in
clause 75, page 45, line 5, leave out '15 minutes have' and insert '1 hour has'.
No. 81, in
clause 75, page 45, line 18, at end insert—
'(5A) Nothing in those regulations shall exempt a traffic officer, a local traffic authority or any person employed by or acting for them from liability to the owner of a vehicle where the affixation of an immobilisation device has caused any damage thereto.'.
Amendments Nos. 53 and 54 would change the time that must expire before wheel-clamping can take place from a 15-minute to a 60-minute minimum. Amendment No. 81 would make it clear that the person who did the wheel-clamping was responsible for any damage caused to the vehicle as a result.
I tabled the amendments in the knowledge that they differ from the guidance that the previous Government issued in 1995. I was not a Member of the House then but, as I understand it, in the decriminalised parking enforcement guidance, 15 minutes was regarded as the minimum period before wheel-clamping could take place. Since then, however, enforcement by some local authorities has become rather unreasonable. If a vehicle is not obstructing the highway—that is already excluded—but is parked by a meter and has overstayed its time, why should it be clamped so quickly, with the consequence of a substantial penalty and, perhaps, substantial delay for its owner or user?
There was probably no parliamentary debate on the original insertion of 15 minutes in the 1995 guidance. However, this debate gives us a chance to think that through and to consider whether and how it can be made compatible with the rules relating to the removal of vehicles. Increasingly, vehicles are removed when they are parked in parking spaces in breach of the regulations and they are certainly taken away to the pound in breach of the guidance that was set out. If the Minister, in the context of the debate on clause 75, has any views on that, I would welcome them. If a vehicle is taken away from the location where it was parked, it has been immobilised as far as the owner is concerned. That quite often takes place now when the vehicle has been in the location for less than 15 minutes, let alone an hour.
There is one point that could usefully be added to my hon. Friend's persuasive argument just in case the Minister has not yet been 100 per cent. persuaded. The Bill is about traffic management and obstructions. Fortunately, I have never been wheel-clamped, but I have watched the process. If there is anything that clutters up the road for a while, it is people turning up in a large van, getting out equipment and generally shuffling about to put wheel clamps on. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether research is being done as to how long it normally takes before someone whose car has received an overstay ticket comes back, realises what he has done and moves on. I should have thought that whereas some people could not care less and are prepared to stay there all day because they are content to flout the law, others quite often overstay by a few minutes when the period of 15 minutes is clearly indicated. In the past, it has been realised that one can overstay by five or 10 minutes here or there. I simply wonder how many people do not come back until more than an hour later.
If the Minister wants to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, he needs to be able to give us the information that I have requested. Otherwise, he would do everyone a favour by stopping these vehicles parking, as they usually do, right in the middle of a carriageway while someone's car is clamped when it is parked next to the kerb.
I am becoming fascinated by how the hon. Member for Christchurch is distancing himself from his past. He will recall that this 15-minute grace period was provided in section 70 of the Road Traffic Act 1991. He told us this morning there was detailed scrutiny of that Act in Committee, and I am sure that there was. I was not a Member of the House at the time, so I do not know, but he may even have defended this.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The clamping of vehicles has incurred a penalty charge and is used as an additional sanction by some authorities to deter unlawful parking. It is especially useful in areas like London where demand for parking is particularly high. I can tell the hon. Member for Christchurch that in this Government's fight-back for liberal Britain, his amendment would reduce the effectiveness of the enforcement, thereby reducing the turnover of parking spaces, which in turn would reduce people's access to parking, especially where demand for spaces is highest.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the effect of the amendment, which would favour those motorists who abuse parking restrictions and penalise the honest motorist, such as people who want to drop off an elderly aunt or a vulnerable disabled relative, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said. Those people may not find parking spaces because someone is hogging the space, to the detriment of other road users.
The hon. Member for Christchurch asked if we knew how long people stay after their parking time has expired; I am not aware of any research into that. However, if there were lax enforcement, we could be sure that the spaces would be filled all day, every day, by those who park to the detriment of honest, decent people who want to park legally and in consideration of other road users.
As time goes by, I get slower at spotting some of the absurdities that come flowing across the Committee Room. I wonder if I understood the Minister correctly? Did he say that if we were to accept the amendments, more people would be stuck in spaces that would therefore not be available to other people? If that is so, could the Minister tell me how clamping a car creates a parking space?
It creates a serious disincentive to leaving a car in a space for a long period. It does not have the effect at that particular moment, but the thought of being clamped is a heavy disincentive to people who might overstay their time in a parking bay.
I thought the Minister might say that. As I said, I have not been clamped but I know people who have. In London, if someone overstays their time by 20 minutes and arrives to find their car clamped, they have to go across the city, stand in a queue for a while, talk nicely to somebody and pay their money. After they have twiddled their thumbs for a bit, someone turns up to remove the clamp. How does that create additional spaces?
I stand by what I said a moment ago: it creates a disincentive to people to overstay. Generally, few people overstay because of the fear of being clamped. If we allowed people to stay as long as they wanted, all the spaces would be filled by the inconsiderate people who grab the spaces first, to the detriment of a large number of others, especially vulnerable people or those who cannot walk very far. Such people may want to park in a certain space but they are blocked by fit and able people who cannot be bothered to move their car at the appropriate time.
In respect of amendment No. 81, the enforcement staff responsible for clamping already have a duty of care to vehicle owners. Regulations under clause 75 will not seek to undermine or limit that duty. We expect enforcement staff to take great care to ensure that a vehicle is not damaged as a consequence of being immobilised. If the owner of a vehicle believes that that duty has not been observed, the matter can be considered by the courts under existing legislation. I hope that in the light of that clarification, the hon. Gentleman will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I will seek leave to withdraw the amendment at the end of this debate, but I want to put it on the record that local authorities have behaved unreasonably in many cases although standards have been laid down with the best of intentions. The Minister has not addressed my concern, and I can understand why, as it is not necessarily within the context of the clause. I am anxious about people having their vehicles removed when they have been parked for only a short period, but I accept that on a
strict interpretation of the clause, that is probably out of scope. There is a real problem there.
The Minister will know from having read about some of the cases that have been the subject of adjudication in London that the London local authorities thought for a time that it was perfectly reasonable for there to be a period of four hours between payment of the penalty and release of the clamp. It needed an adjudicator to decide that that was thoroughly unreasonable. That is an example of the way in which some local authorities have been behaving in a high-handed and totally counter-productive fashion. The consequence was that when someone returned to their car a few minutes after the time had expired, the car, instead of being moved, was on the highway occupying a parking space for up to five more hours. I hear what the Minister says, but I hope that he will look at that problem. At the moment, clamping does not seem to be the subject of any control at all. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 75 ordered to stand part of the Bill.