Motorists with three unpaid parking tickets could have their cars clamped anywhere in the country under plans due to be unveiled by the Government within the next few weeks.
The same threat will apply to motorists who have three unpaid penalty notices imposed for failing to pay the London congestion charge.
The proposals could see parking attendants issued with handheld computers which would have access to the register of persistent offenders, or they could ring their control centre which would make the check on their behalf.
Ministers are looking to roll out London's data base of rogue motorists to the rest of England although it will be left to local authorities to pay for the scheme and implement it. The powers, contained in the Traffic Management Act, will come into force this year.
While councils are under pressure to stop clamping first time offenders, the Department for Transport wants to get tough with motorists who run up a string of parking tickets but never pay.
However, the move was condemned by motoring organisations who feared that innocent owners of second-hand cars could be clamped for offences they did not commit.
advertisementShould parking attendants come across a car with at least three parking offences recorded against it, they would summon a clamping van. The vehicle would then be immobilised until all the outstanding debts are settled. In the case of a motorist claiming the fines were the responsibility of the previous owner, the council which clamps the car could demand a bond of around ?250 before releasing the vehicle.
This would be returned if the driver was found to be telling the truth. But it would be up to the motorist to prove the car had changed hands, while the local authorities claiming the money would have to provide evidence that they had already made other attempts to secure payment. Such powers are already contained in the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill and they could be rolled out across the rest of the country.
In London the main problem is foreign drivers, who ran up an estimated ?12 million in unpaid parking fines in 2005. Although their vehicle details could be entered on the data base, local councils would still have to prove they had tried to collect the cash through the courts.
A number of issues still have to be worked out, including how the recovered money would be distributed.
A number of options are possible, including paying a bounty to the council which finally catches the rogue motorist. The rest would then be paid to other authorities who are owed money.
Other difficulties include the accuracy of data bases. Last year, in a survey in which 5,000 vehicles were stopped, police found that six per cent were incorrectly registered.
It has taken London about 10 years to set up a data base covering the capital and the Government believes that other councils could be invited to join it as it extends throughout England.
"There is a huge risk that local authorities will be using an out of date data base," said Paul Watters of the AA Public Affairs. "It is a huge concern.
"Drivers could find they bought a car thinking it was problem free and then finding they are clamped for fines run up by the previous owner. Already some of the paperwork being used by bailiffs is months, if not years, old.
"Motorists should receive proper compensation if their cars turn out to have been incorrectly clamped."
The plans were backed by Keith Banbury, chief executive of the British Parking Association. "We are talking about a huge amount of money, some people think it could be as much as ?30 million owed in unpaid fines.
"It is a lot of money to councils and the decent law-abiding motorist who does pay up is subsidising the dishonest one who doesn't."