Car Wars: High cost of an encounter with the clampers: Release fees demanded by car parking 'enforcers' are seen by many as extortionate. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
The ruthless activities of private clamping companies are causing the sort of anger that was provoked by highwaymen in the 19th century. Honest citizens asked to stand and deliver as much as pounds 240 for a few hours' parking on someone else's land feel they have been robbed, although the operation is perfectly legal.

Graham Ervine, 29, a financial adviser with the Prudential Assurance company, parked his white Ford Fiesta on private land at Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, and had to pay pounds 210. He was lucky - Ronald Houghton was charged pounds 240 after parking his black Ford Escort for a few hours in the same place.

Mr Ervine parked behind the premises of Jackson Rugcraft Ltd on 14 May and failed to notice warning signs. He returned to find his car had been removed and then saw signs placed in the car park by West Yorkshire Outdoor Security saying that cars parked without permission would be clamped and charged a pounds 50 'penalty' plus pounds 80 for towing away.

Mr Ervine said: 'I was told that if I did not pay pounds 240 within 24 hours there would be further costs of pounds 110 a day and if I did not pay up within 28 days they would sell the car. I was very frightened so I paid up.'

He was given a breakdown of the pounds 210 bill. On top of the pounds 50 clamping charge and pounds 80 removal fee there was another pounds 80 for administration and pounds 30 for storage. When he objected that his car had only been removed by them an hour before it was agreed to waive the storage fee.

Michael Sadler, who runs West Yorkshire Outdoor Security with his partner Mario de Rome, said: 'I can't tell you our business address. People who think they are aggrieved might try to damage the property.' He said that the company ran its clamping operation from about 100 sites in Bradford, Leeds, York and Halifax. He said the costs were high because removal of the vehicle had to be done by a contractor. The pounds 80 administration fee had to cover the cost of having two men on call until the car was returned to its owner - the second man is necessary to take the delivery driver back again.

However, estimated costs obtained by the Independent come to about pounds 40 in all, compared with the pounds 190 charged by Outdoor Security on top of the pounds 50 clamping fee.

The pounds 40 estimated costs are made up as follows: pounds 25-30 for removal, pounds 2.50 a day for secure storage, and about pounds 10 for a minicab fare. Richard Jackson, a director of Jackson Rugcraft Ltd, who arranged his company's contract with West Yorkshire Outdoor Security, refused to comment.

Money is not the only issue with the private clampers: people are equally distressed by their rigid insistence on clamping and on payment regardless of circumstances.

Jackie Matthews' five-year-old son, Tristan, became ill on Easter Saturday and her doctor asked her to bring him to his surgery in the centre of Salisbury, Wiltshire. Her husband Peter, 44, an art lecturer, dropped them at the surgery and went to park behind. An unmarked van moved in front of his car, trapping him, and a man dressed in T-shirt and jeans said he would clamp the car if he was not given pounds 45.

'I returned carrying my son in my arms to find them arguing,' said Mrs Matthews, 44, a charity worker. '

'My son was crying hysterically because he had a high fever and headache and just wanted to get home to bed.'

Reluctantly the clamper produced identification when the Matthews insisted and they paid pounds 45 to get away.

The Salisbury clamper, who was operating a franchise from Clampdown security, has since lost the franchise because of a series of irregularities. Paul Heaven, director of Clampdown, said: 'We terminated the franchise because of a catalogue of events. We do not block cars in and demand money and all my employees wear a uniform with a badge. If a person is still with their vehicle we just ask them to leave.'

However the shameful catalogue of uncalled for clamping by various companies across the country now includes the case of a pregnant woman who was made to walk miles in Slough, Berkshire, to obtain money before a clamper would release her car, a man who was hemmed in and clamped in Slough while his car engine was still running, a police car and a pensioner's moped clamped in Darlington, and an AA rescue van clamped while trying to assist a member.

The AA and the RAC are pressing the Government to introduce regulation of private clampers. They are asking for legislation that specifies prominent warning notices which must be illuminated at night, charges no more than necessary to cover running costs of the service and not to exceed the fee for clamping on public highways, and a minimum time for release of clamps.

John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley West, who has taken the matter up in the Commons, said: 'Normally we require due process before a person is made to forfeit money. The private clampers are acting like police, court and jury all rolled into one. A way to regulate and license operators is badly needed.'

Michael Jack, Minister of State at the Home Office, has used the term 'parking pirates' to refer to clampers. Mr Jack is examining the problem with urgency and is expected to produce proposals ready for the reopening of Parliament when Mr Spellar intends to introduce a 10-minute Bill.

(Photograph omitted)