Leading Article: Clamping down on racketeers

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The Independent Online
EVEN when conducted by the police on public highways, wheel clamping is a blight that inhibits the free flow of traffic rather than facilitating it. When practised off-street by unregulated private operators, it is a menace, albeit a profitable one.

If Arthur Daley had genuinely entrepreneurial instincts, he would close his second- hand car lot and concentrate on wheel clamping cars parked without authorisation on private property. All you need to set up in this often seedy business is a minder or two, a mobile phone and perhaps pounds 100 to cover the cost of a couple of clamps. Customers are captive in the most literal sense: their cars are immobilised until they pay whatever ransom is demanded, however extortionate, and the impounded vehicles are finally released.

Companies with private car parks should be able to warn off people tempted to park without permission, and to seek redress from those who persist. But, as things stand, a fly- by-night operator may approach the owners of, say, wasteland behind a row of shops, suggesting that he should clamp cars unlawfully parked and split the fees generated.

Under such a system it is in the interest of landowner and clamper to entice motorists on to the property and then to entrap them, rather than to warn them of the dangers they face. Moreover, the minders customarily demand cash in hand. It is thus easy for them to evade tax. And those drivers who wish to contest the clamping charge are merely given a mobile phone number. It is a situation in which women and the elderly feel particularly vulnerable. Yet the police are unwilling to intervene unless a breach of the peace seems imminent. Such laxity encourages violence.

Yesterday the Home Office published a discussion document examining a range of options, from leaving things as they are, through regulation of clamping companies to outlawing the practice except when carried out by the police on public highways. The tone of the paper suggests that the department's preferred option - perhaps as a result of pressure from the Department of Trade and Industry - is to avoid regulation and to rely on imposing greater responsibilities on landowners for the behaviour of the clamping companies that they employ.

It is reasonable to call landowners to account for the activities of people empowered to act as agents on their behalf (just as it is right to impose responsibilities on those who employ bouncers, bodyguards or security guards). But this should not exonerate the clamping companies. They should be licensed and bonded, and their staff should be vetted to ensure that they are not employing people with a record of fraud, intimidation or violent crime. There is a need for regulations concerning the circumstances in which immobilising other people's cars is permitted, as well as a legally defined tariff of charges for the release of vehicles.

Those clamping companies that attempt to act outside such rules should be deemed guilty either of theft or of extortion and attempting to obtain money with menaces - as they are already under Scottish law.