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Sir Norman Fowler: It is nice of the Minister to say that I was a member of the Government, but I have not been a member of any Government since the 1980s. I was not a member of the previous Government; I was chairman of the Conservative party, outside the Government and a simple Back Bencher. However, it is common knowledge that I have pressed Ministers of both parties to get down to it and introduce a licensing system.
The problem with the licensing system that is being introduced is not what is included, but what is excluded. I raised the issue of the regulation of alarm installers with the Minister and I heard what he said. Such regulation was an aim of my ten-minute Bill and I used the example of an alarm company employed by a firm to fit a window alarm. The alarm was so useless that when the very thing happened that it was supposed to guard against and a window was broken, it was not activated. Later tests showed that a whole troop of burglars could have processed through the window without the alarm system being activated or disturbed in any way whatsoever.
The installation of alarms is a question not only of quality, but of reassuring the public. Furthermore, it is important not only that the quality of the alarm and of the installation are considered, but that the householder is given reassurance that the installer, who, by definition, has to have access to the house, is a man of some integrity.
Burglar alarms no longer constitute an exceptional defence: we need only visit towns and cities to realise that. Years ago, in the 1980s--when I was a Minister--I toured a modest private estate in Liverpool. Every house had a burglar alarm.
I was reassured by what the Minister said. I gather that the Bill takes a first step, and that it will be possible to add to its provisions if problems arise. On that basis too, it deserves support. The "step by step" approach is surely sensible, from everyone's point of view. I have one important concern, however, which may sound strange coming from one who used to be on the board of a major private security company.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said towards the end of his speech. I feel that we should be concerned about the limits of private security. We have seen a massive extension of private security operations over the past 30 or 40 years: we now see private security companies dealing not just with cash in transit, but with prisoners in transit. The Minister challenged me about opposition and government. I recall that, in opposition, the Labour party said that the legislation governing the system of prisoners in transit would be repealed by an incoming Labour Government. I see no sign of that, but I welcome the conversion.
What I do not support is the use of private security to patrol our streets. That, I think, is where a line should be drawn. Such a use of private security would take us back to square one: after all, it was the breakdown of private patrols that led to the establishment of an organised police service in the first place. It is crucial to the continuance of good police public relations for the job to be done by trained police officers--trained men and women to whom the public can turn for help, and whom they can trust.
Long ago, when traffic wardens were first introduced, it was optimistically said that they were there to help the motorist and to offer friendly guidance. I am not sure that many members of the public, especially motorists, see traffic wardens in that light today. Local authority parking attendants in particular do not come top of their list of the most helpful public servants whom they encounter. If anyone wants to verify that, I suggest that they drive around the streets of Westminster and try to park.
We should bear it in mind that in terms of relations between police and public, Britain is probably better than any other European country. That is not to say that relations cannot be improved. Some of the defects were highlighted in the Macpherson report. The police have to win the respect of ethnic minorities, just as the original police force had to win the respect of the public. I believe, however, that much of the rapport between police and public results from the fact that we have a largely unarmed police force patrolling the streets. That force is visible and approachable.
I think that it would be fatal for those good relations if we gave such a role to private security--a move at which some have hinted. It is a highly skilled job that needs not just initial training but constant training throughout life, and is basic to the continuance of good relations in this country. I hope that, as well as performing a licensing role, the new authority will keep under review what private security should and should not do. That is surely a legitimate interest for it to have.
While I welcome the Bill, I think it necessary to keep in mind the limits of private security as well as seeking a degree of regulation for its activity. I obviously regret the fact that the Bill has come so late that the prospect of its enactment is remote, but I hope it will be noted that there is now a consensus in the House in favour of proceeding
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his kind remarks, and congratulate him and his Department on the Bill. It is a credit to the Government that they have found time for it. As has been said, the last Conservative Government presented a Green Paper but failed to introduce any legislation to follow it up, despite pressure from Members of Parliament, motoring organisations such as the Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Association and, incidentally, the media.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) welcomed the Bill, but was a little less forthcoming about whether he supported any idea of encouraging Front Benchers to co-operate with the Government if a general election were called. Perhaps he might use his influence behind the scenes if necessary.
Mr. Bercow: The hon. Lady is well aware that I am but a humble foot soldier. It is not for me to seek to intervene in these matters, which, of course, fall under the aegis of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran) and others. Will she in passing, however, be as gracious as she ordinarily is and acknowledge that her hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) himself lamented the fact that the Government had been so dilatory in introducing the measure?
Ms Winterton: I would not say that the Government were dilatory. I have campaigned for legislation such as this for a number of years, and I know that it has been important to get it right. There has been further consultation, in addition to that connected with the Green Paper. I also know that the Department has had to deal with other legislation. Let me add that after four years we have legislation, whereas after 18 years of Tory government we had none.
It will come as no surprise to Members that I intend to talk about wheelclamping. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces who is not present: obviously, he has ministerial duties to perform. Under the last Government, when Labour was in opposition, he campaigned vigorously for the outlawing of cowboy wheelclampers, and he was very helpful to me when I took up the issue. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who not only campaigned for such action in the last Parliament but ensured that it remained high on his agenda when he became a Home Office Minister. He was absolutely right to do so.
The problem of cowboy wheelclampers may be localised, as we have heard today, but when it occurs it causes incredible misery and distress. We all know--motoring organisations, among others, would confirm this--that wheelclamping can be an extremely lucrative business for anyone with a mobile telephone, a strong arm and £50 for their first clamp.
Wheelclampers have little incentive to stop people parking in restricted areas--quite the opposite. They want people to park illegally, as they would see it, because that is precisely how they make their money. They want to get people on to a given piece of land so that they can make money from them. Very many ordinary people have suffered at the hands of cowboy wheelclampers who, with their clamp-and-deliver tactics, have been described as modern-day highway robbers. Actually, I am the one who so described them, but I thought that the description was probably worth repeating. I should like to give a few examples of how they have achieved that reputation.
Only last week, I was contacted by a constituent named Jasmine Steers. She is a disabled woman who had parked outside a restaurant where she had often parked before. She had no idea that clampers were operating in the area, but was approached by some who demanded £70 in cash from her. In her letter to me, she said:
I had to walk to my bank--remember I am registered disabled and walking causes me great pain--to get the £70 that he demanded. I would have thought that any legitimate company would accept a cheque. When I got the receipt, I noted that the company operates out of a postal box address. This sent more warning flags up to the legitimacy of this firm. I quizzed the man on who his boss was and he still refused to answer my questions."
Reputable wheelclamping companies have been pressing for the industry to be cleaned up. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) said, a few bad apples can give any industry a bad name, and that applies equally to the wheelclamping industry. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) mentioned the media's role in highlighting wheelclamping problems. I should like to acknowledge the role of the Yorkshire Post, the Doncaster Free Press, the Doncaster Star, the "Ed Doolan Show", BBC and ITV and everyone else who has raised the issue, drawn attention to it and helped in the campaign to get something done about it.
I am extremely pleased that the Government tabled and passed an amendment in the other place to ensure that landowners also take responsibility for what happens on their land. Very often, those who are clamped are told by the clampers that the landowner will receive no benefit from the fine. Landowners say that, as they make no money from clamping, they are not responsible for what happens and are simply trying to protect their property. People are, however, very suspicious about such declarations. Occasionally, when people are handing over cash to a clamper, they may feel that landowners sometimes rake off some of that money. It is sometimes difficult to avoid such conclusions.
It is therefore important and welcome that the Government have introduced that amendment, to ensure that landowners have a responsibility for the way in which clampers operate on their land. The fact is that land does not move--unlike clampers, who can operate with nothing more than a mobile telephone and a PO box and who do move. The amendment will make it possible to hold landowners to account. I am grateful to the Government for listening to my concerns and those of the RAC on the issue.
My only real concern with the Bill is that there will be delay in establishing the Security Industry Authority. I wonder whether there is some way to ensure that, once the authority is established, it will be able to consider complaints that are arising now. I know that organisations such as the RAC are keen to play a part in that type of arrangement. We have to send a message now to those people that this Bill will be coming into force and that these are the expectations that the authority will have of landowners and wheelclamping companies. I should like a record to be kept of current incidents involving outrageous behaviour, so that the authority can take those complaints into account when it starts considering to whom to award licences.
My hon. Friend the Minister and his officials have listened very carefully to the concerns of the police and motoring organisations on the issue. I pay special tribute to him because he really has listened. I think that everyone has been incredibly impressed with the way he has responded to concerns and taken them on board. I know that colleagues in those organisations would like to join me in thanking him.
I hope that, regardless of whether there is a general election in the near future, the Bill will be supported by Members on both sides of the House and that we ensure it is passed as quickly as possible. It is extremely important that we have consensus on the issue. Our ultimate aim is to send to cowboy wheelclampers the message that their bully-boy days are over.