Car clamping firms face legal curbs: Ministers have put forward six options, Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
THE Government has backed away from proposals to make wheelclamping on private land illegal in England and Wales, even though it is illegal in Scotland.

Yesterday the Home Office issued a consultation paper putting forward suggestions on how to deal with the growing number of complaints about 'cowboy' clampers who charge extortionate amounts for release fees or threaten to tow cars far away. The law is unclear about the rights of motorists and some have tried to get the fee back in the small claims court, with some success where signs have not been properly displayed.

The paper puts forward six options and ministers are genuinely undecided about what to do. However, they are known not to favour making wheelclamping illegal because they feel this would take away an important right of landowners to protect their property.

The other options are self-regulation, clarifying the law, regulation, licensing of wheelclamp operators, and licensing of land. The paper suggests that clampers might be made to wear uniforms, ensure there is a 24-hour release service and not to clamp disabled drivers.

Gary Taylor, chairman of the 17-member Association of British Parking Enforcement Companies, welcomed regulation: 'We would like vetting of directors of clamping companies, licensing and an independent arbitration service for motorists who feel they have been treated unfairly.'

In Scotland wheelclamping was outlawed by a decision of three appeal court judges last June. They decided that immobilising a vehicle and demanding a fee was theft. This has further confused the situation south of the border as many motorists wrongly believe it is also illegal in England and Wales.

Ministers are thought to favour placing more onus for the control of clampers on the landowner rather than statutory regulation which runs counter to the Government's ethos of removing controls.

The consultation paper only refers to clamping on private land. Currently, clamping on public roads is restricted to central London, where the release fee is pounds 38, but is due to be extended from July to the rest of London where boroughs want it and possibly towns such as Coventry, Wolvehampton, Leeds and Manchester which have all expressed an interest.

The complaints about 'cowboy' clampers are legion. According to the Home Office document, there is a wide range of abuse.

Fees: Charges are mostly between pounds 50 and pounds 100 but a man in Yorkshire was charged pounds 240 for leaving his car parked on private land in Hebden Bridge.

Cash demands: Many clampers refuse to accept anything but cash. Clampers have made demands for all kinds of goods to be left with them while the cash is found ranging from a woman's gold tooth to a TV or video set from a clamped motorist's home. One clamper even allegedly told a woman to leave her child with him while she got the money.

Threats to tow vehicles away: Several motorists claimed that clampers threatened to remove their vehicles to distant parts including 40 miles from Slough to Fleet or from Nottingham to Sheffield.

Instant clamping: A man in Slough was blocked in by a wheelclamper's van and clamped while his engine was still running. Another in Salisbury was trapped after he dropped his wife and sick child off at a surgery behind which he was going to park.

Removal of signs: Motorists have claimed that they have been lured on to land without signs and signs were put up after they had parked.

Waiting time: People have had to wait for up to 12 hours to be unclamped and many firms refuse to release vehicles outside normal office hours.

Failure to inform: Some clampers do not notify motorists about how to get their car released.

The clampers admit that some complaints are legitimate but say that many are made up. As one put it: 'It's no skin off their nose to ring up the press and give them any story, but I have no doubt there have been some abuses'.

Leading article, page 18