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Viscount Simon: I shall not accuse the Minister of dithering. I shall be much more expansive but I suppose the result will be the same.

The intention of Amendment No. 416 standing in my name is simple. It is to regulate those people who clamp motor vehicles on private land. There are those who operate companies which can be applauded and who abide by a code of conduct but there are others, generally called "cowboy clampers", who charge huge amounts of money, often without the knowledge of the owner of the land. It is the latter who would benefit from regulation.

Perhaps the Committee will permit me to give a partial chronological history of the Denver Boot, as it used to be called. After it became apparent that cowboy clampers were causing problems, in 1992 a Scottish court ruled that private clamping was unlawful and a year later the Government published a consultative document setting out measures to control clamping on private land.

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In 1994 an attempt to insert an amendment in the Criminal Justice Bill to outlaw unscrupulous clamping was overruled. In 1995 an English court determined that private wheel clamping was lawful within certain parameters. In 1996 a Private Member's Bill was presented in the other place to regulate private wheel clampers. On 15th July 1997 the Home Secretary in a press office release stated:

    "It is essential that cowboys and cheats that besmirch the industry's name are weeded out".

Last year, a White Paper was published on the proposed regulation of the private security industry. So the intention to address the problem of wheel clampers has been with us for some years and there is overwhelming support for its regulation--but nothing has happened.

Since the introduction of the wheel clamp in this country, tens of thousands of people have fallen victim to cowboy wheel clampers who have in many cases extorted outlandish sums of money in often questionable circumstances. To this day many wheel clamping acts are probably unlawful. I hope the Committee will forgive me for digressing slightly when I cite the case of a disabled couple of pensioners on income support who, according to a recent edition of the Sunday Times, had their car towed away by Waltham Forest Council or its contractors for parking during a weekend in a bay used for council workers during the week. As I said, that occurred on a Sunday. The couple were charged £170. Their appeal against the charge, via the Sunday Times consumer champion, failed. Therefore, it is not only the private operators who charge what appear to be excessive amounts in dubious circumstances. I have on two occasions spoken with someone who works for the council's chief executive but I have heard nothing further. Therefore, I assume that that example is accurate.

I wonder whether any Members of the Committee watched the television programme a few days ago which showed a company in, I believe, Harrogate clamping vehicles within a few seconds of the driver getting out of a car. As I recall, the clamper charged £75 for releasing the clamp and appeared to be enjoying his employment. Although that company has, I believe, been forced to stop its activities in relation to wheel clamping, many like it are still operating. It is for that reason that I address this problem.

The British Parking Association has announced a new code of practice which covers clamping on private land. Excellent! However, I doubt very much that that will stop the cowboys from continuing their abhorrent trade. It has been said that landowners will not want cowboy clampers to operate on their land. But the owners of the land simply want people not to park there and they will not worry about the status of the clampers. This trade has been getting away with extorting huge sums of money from unsuspecting motorists for a long time. It is now time to address the problem.

Lord Whitty: I recognise the problems. The noble Earl asked me what I am doing about them. I am not

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doing anything but neither am I dithering. My colleagues in the Home Office have the matter well in hand. My noble friend Lord Simon referred to the Home Office initiatives. The Home Office will produce firm proposals to regulate the private security industry, including particularly the clampers, and will introduce legislation, as they say, as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Whitty: The Home Office generally gets its Bills, as we have seen in the course of the past week or two.

Those proposals will tackle directly the question of criminal activity and the whole basis of cowboy operations within the clamping sector. It will be a condition of acquiring a licence that the applicant will not have previous convictions for criminal offences and will operate according to the new requirements. Therefore, the matter is in hand and I hope to see the proposals come through the system very soon.

My noble friend Lord Simon also tabled Amendment No. 421 but did not speak to it at great length. There are reasons why that amendment is defective. However, the national Secured Car Parks scheme is now in operation and the revision of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions is already in hand. Together, they should meet the concerns behind that amendment.

I ask noble Lords to withdraw the amendment.

Viscount Simon: I thank my noble friend for his interesting remarks. I am somewhat confused by the term "parliamentary timetable" or whatever it was that he said. However, I assume that that will mean "sooner rather than later". I shall not move my amendment.

Earl Attlee: From what the Minister said, it appears that we need to stop the Home Office rather than the Minister from dithering.

I should like to mention one of the difficulties in relation to clamping. Clearly we must eliminate the criminal element but we must also be careful to avoid over-regulation. I shall read carefully what the Minister said about the traffic signs. I hope that it is good news. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment, subject to the usual conditions.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 407:

    After Clause 256, insert the following new clause--


(" . In section 37(5) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, after the word "medical" insert "or religious".").

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 407, it may be convenient if I speak also to Amendment No. 408. Section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act prevents unfair discrimination by taxi drivers against blind travellers and, possibly deaf

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travellers using a guide dog. The legislation has been on the statute book for some time. There is no associated secondary legislation. The Minister has said that he is consulting. When will he finish that consultation?

Amendment No. 407 would provide the option of exemptions on religious as well as medical grounds. Amendment No. 408 is fairly brutal, providing that Section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 should come into force on 1st April next year. When will the Minister implement that most important piece of legislation? I beg to move.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: On behalf of my noble friends, I support the amendment. My noble friend Lord Addington has been a doughty fighter for the rights of disabled people, including their right to proper access to transport. It would be a great advantage if disabled people could be sure of always being able to take their guide dog with them when they use a taxi.

The only problem might be that ordinary hire cars, which are often used by disabled drivers, might not be covered. Nevertheless, it would be a valuable step in the right direction.

Lord Whitty: The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, rightly says that the proposals on consultation, which I announced in the House only last week, cover taxis. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 does not cover private cars.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked how soon we were going to enact Section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act. My answer is, sooner than his amendment would. The consultation suggests a date of 1st March 2001, whereas his amendment says 1st April 2001. The consultation announced last week, which had been delayed, has been distributed. That meets the intention of Amendment No. 408. We are almost there.

I do not understand the argument behind Amendment No. 407, which would allow exemptions for taxi drivers on religious as well as medical grounds. That sounds like a pretty wide exemption. Religion is never defined in legislation. The amendment could lead to spurious applications. We have checked and we are not aware of any specific religious objections, so we do not think that a religious exemption is appropriate. I hope that the noble Earl will withdraw the amendment.

Earl Attlee: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. The last thing that I want to do is delay the implementation of Section 37 of the Disability Discrimination Act, even by one month.

I tabled the amendment to add religious grounds to medical grounds in case there might be a problem. I am glad that the Minister says that there is not. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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[Amendments Nos. 408 and 409 not moved.]

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