Private wheel-clamping 'may be a criminal act'

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WHEEL-CLAMPERS who charge large sums to release cars immobilised on private land could be committing the criminal offence of demanding money with menaces, a Home Office minister told the Commons yesterday.

The Government is urgently examining what can be done to curb the questionable enterprise of 'cowboy clampers' in England and Wales after the recent finding of the Scottish Court of Justiciary that private wheel-clamping amounts to 'extortion and theft'.

Likening the clampers to 'modern-day highwaymen', John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley West, said some were offering profit-sharing schemes to landowners. There were cases of cars being deliberately left on waste land to entice others, which were then clamped. Release charges were 'outrageous', ranging from pounds 50 to a record pounds 240 in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. 'The car clampers are judge, jury and court bailiff all rolled in to one and all at the same moment,' Mr Spellar said. 'We cannot allow these outrages to continue throughout the summer.'

But the Government's response is unlikely to be so prompt. Not only is the legal position unclear, but also the Home Office does not have hard information on how widespread the problem really is.

Michael Jack, Minister of State at the Home Office, told MPs he shared their frustration and repeatedly assured them the matter was under urgent consideration - 'including the question of whether any action is needed to prohibit or to regulate the use of wheel clamps on private property'. It was 'unfortunate' that neither the civil nor the criminal law had been tested on the broad issue, he said. 'It seems that in certain circumstances, the courts might find that wheel-clamping on private land amounts to a criminal offence or civil wrong.'

Under Scottish law it is not necessary for a charge of theft to prove an intention permanently to deprive an owner of his property. South of the border it is. However, Mr Jack said other elements of the Theft Act 1986 might be relevant, notably Section 21 on making any unwarranted demand with menaces.

'It would be for a court to determine, but it is possible that a court would find that an offence had been committed if, for example, a demand for payment was made against the threat that the vehicle would otherwise continue to be immobilised and, particularly, if the fee was deemed to be excessive - even more so if no notice had been displayed warning drivers of the risk of clamping.'

Turning to civil remedies, Mr Jack said fixing a clamp could amount to the civil tort of trespass to goods, although any damages recoverable would not normally be substantial unless there was physical damage. Refusing to return a vehicle unless a fee was paid might also be actionable as an act of conversion.

Mr Jack thought many of the complaints concerned the manner of the clamping as much as the clamping itself. 'The posting of clear warning notices and a sensible approach to the level of fee and the manner of its collection are exactly the kind of issues which are likely to be high on the agenda of future discussions.'