Page last updated at 06:19 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 07:19 UK

Call to clamp down on the car-clampers

By Kathryn Edwards
BBC News, Birmingham

Car clamped
It is not an offence for clamping firms to demand to be paid in cash

"I was absolutely horrified," said Jeanette Grant.

"I was eight months pregnant, disabled, and here was this car clamper threatening to take away my car."

Ms Grant said she would never forget to leave her disabled blue badge out on display again.

After stopping briefly at a car park in Northfield, Birmingham, to get some food she returned to find her car had been clamped.

"I just hadn't seen the sign saying you had to pay to park," she said.

"I showed the attendant my blue badge which would've made me exempt and apologised for not having it on display.

"But he wasn't interested. He said I needed to pay 250 in cash or I could face having the car towed away.

"He knew I was disabled and I was obviously heavily pregnant, but there was absolutely no sympathy there."

She said she believed the clamping firm only agreed to back off once she got BBC Radio WM involved.

Neil Eustace
Councillor Neil Eustace said he got "dozens" of complaints each day

Since January 2007 trading standards officers in Birmingham have received more than 650 complaints about clampers.

And now city councillors have had enough.

The authority's Public Protection Committee has written to the government demanding that car-clamping by private firms be made illegal throughout England.

Most of the clamping in Birmingham takes place in private car parks and areas of wasteland in Digbeth, much of which lies unused ahead of the massive Eastside development planned there.

However, reports have come in from across the city.

Trading standards said it was actually "very rare" for a wheel clamp to be put on a car.

Instead, the vehicle would usually be towed away, leaving drivers paying 390 to have their car released - rather than 150 to have a clamp removed.

Birmingham City councillor Neil Eustace said he received "dozens" of e-mails from people each day telling of their clamping experiences.

We will listen to people's cases and we regularly waive fees
Car-clamper Walton Wilkins

"It's about demanding money through menaces," he said.

"A lot of them can be quite nasty and something needs to be done. I'd like to see clamping banned altogether, but at the very least I'd like to see local authorities given the control themselves to regulate their local clampers."

City council staff have calculated that one clamper who tows away three or four vehicles a day will generate about 400,000 for their employer in a year.

In May, a 27-year-old boss of a car-clamping company which operated throughout Staffordshire and Worcestershire was jailed for four years for taking thousands of pounds unlawfully from motorists.

Rebecca Meakin was blackmailing drivers by giving them minutes - or even seconds - to pay up to have a clamp removed before their vehicles were towed away.

'Wrong business'

However, some of those who run clamping companies said they were being treated unfairly.

Walton Wilkins's company Midway Park operates in car parks across Birmingham and the Black Country.

"You only ever hear one side of the story," he said.

"If I was out to make money, I'm in the wrong business as my company actually made a loss last year, and I don't know where the council gets its figures from.

"We will listen to people's cases and we regularly waive fees. Today, for instance - there was a man who had been receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and got back to find his car had been towed.

"After speaking to us we made sure he wouldn't have to pay a thing."

Rebecca Meakin
Rebecca Meakin was jailed for four years

Clamping is already illegal in Scotland, where the definition of theft includes anyone who immobilises a vehicle.

However, in England the clamping or towing away of vehicles is only seen as a temporary measure and so it remains legal.

It is also not an offence for firms to demand to be paid in cash only.

The government's Home Affairs Committee has been asking all local councils for their experiences of clamping before it decides what action to take.

The licensing requirements for clampers are regulated by the Security Industry Authority (SIA).

However, Birmingham's councillors have pointed out that the SIA is powerless to determine several important factors, including how much can be charged to release vehicles, the minimum length of time before which a vehicle can be towed away and what warning signs should be displayed.

And so unless there are any changes to the way clampers operate, people like Ms Grant will be steering away from private car parks.

"It made me feel bad about human nature," she said.

"The whole thing was just so nasty."


SEE ALSO
Car clamping woman sent to jail
22 May 08 |  England
A wheel clamper, and proud
05 May 04 |  Magazine

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