One of the meanest, most underhand, systems in the motoring universe just got worse in Britain where government-licensed private companies prey on the old, the infirm and pregnant women to extort obscenely large "payments" for parking on private land.

Clamping companies are hired by pubs, small shopping centres, supermarkets and other small businesses to deter the public from either parking there at all or from overstaying the time limit imposed for a visit with the threat of locking a steel shield (clamp) on to a wheel to prevent a vehicle from being driven away.

The practice was outlawed and banned overnight in Scotland, where it was ruled to be "extortion and theft" in 1992, but a weak English Labour government still condones it, gets revenue from it and essentially turns a blind eye to its excesses.

An attempt to curb the "cowboy" clampers' viciousness and intimidation was, however, made three months ago with new regulations imposed on operators to protect emergency vehicles and the disabled with rules that made clamping on private land illegal without a licence with the threat of a fine of up to £5 000 or up to five years in prison

Security Industry Association clampers must, according to the new rules:

  • Know when to clamp and when not to clamp.

  • Understand legislation concerning clamping.

  • Behave responsibly.

  • Provide effective customer care.

  • Avoid, resolve and defuse conflict.

  • Be aware that, despite being licensed, they cannot clamp or tow a vehicle if:

  • A valid "disabled" badge is displayed.

  • It is a marked emergency service vehicle in use.

    And that payment of a release fee must be recorded with a receipt.

    However, the British RAC Foundation say clampers, who have in their ranks a whole bunch of undesirables with prison records - even one who used a machete to cut off a victim's fingers - are already flouting the rules.

    But then you could argue that it's pretty pointless employing people for such work if they have no propensity for intimidation through the threat of physical violence.

    The foundation said it had warned the government that the new rules would be useless without strict enforcement (like South Africa's failure to enforce cellphone and seat belt laws) and has been proved right thanks to an undercover operation by TV company Sky News.

    A sting by a journalist who worked for a clamping company for a month exposed abuses by licensed operators and the foundation has asked - after writing to the British Home Secretary demanding enforcement - whether it is now time to ban clamping on private land.

    Scenes in the Sky News report showed:

  • A clamper telling a driver to park in a specific area, waiting until he went into a bank, then clamping him.

  • The company using an unlicensed clamper with a serious criminal record - he cut off a person's fingers with a machete.

  • Clampers accepting bribes from the public and not giving receipts.

  • Putting up "No parking" signs - then clamping cars already parked there.

    The foundation annually presents its Dick Turpin Award for the most unprincipled clamper (Turpin was a highwayman and general low-life who tortured and robbed old women in southern England in the early 1700's) reported to it by the public.

    The actions of these heroes of law enforcement and general scurvery include:

  • Demanding a woman's gold tooth or sexual favours in lieu of payment.

  • Charging £523 for clamping/towing.

  • Clamping a hearse containing a body.

  • Threatening to hold a three-year-old girl hostage until her mother collected £60 from a bank.

  • Forced a heavily pregnant woman to walk three kilometres to an autoteller to get the £75 penalty.

  • Clamped a car belonging to an elderly, disabled woman parked outside a pension office and demanded her whole pension to release her car that had been stationary for just a few minutes.

    Such are the human trash licensed by the British government to oversee "illegal" parking. Next time I need to park in Cape Town, I'm going to give the lady not only the fee but a big hug as well.