I definitely agree with my right hon. Friend. That is why I felt the need to bring this debate to the House. I want to seek the Minister’s views on this matter, and find out what more he and his Department can do given the examples that I and other hon. Members have outlined.
I have been trying for many months to secure this debate. It is incredibly interesting that, since I let it be known publicly that I had applied for a parliamentary debate, I have finally seen some activity by the Environment Agency. [Interruption.] I know; it is rather curious. It seems that the threat of a parliamentary debate does wonders for getting things sorted—small wonders at least—but this should never be the case, and this matter should never have been escalated to the Floor of this Chamber.
As I have said, the Environment Agency has finally fined one of the major culprits in this on-going saga: Niramax Group Ltd received a fine of £26,000 in January. However, it is frustrating that the Environment Agency clearly made this out to be a victory for it and local residents, yet, as its own press release stated, the specific issue with Niramax had been going on since April 2015. That was nearly three years previously, so it is hardly a victory. It is safe to say that I was flabbergasted by this announcement and stunned that, after so many years of back and forth with the Environment Agency, it had finally pulled its finger out and done something constructive and punitively necessary to sort out the many breaches that have occurred for far too long.
However, in the words of one of my constituents, Mr Kirkland, following this announcement:
“Although the Environment Agency have brought a successful prosecution it has taken an unacceptable amount of time and done nothing but confirm the inadequate regulation of these and other waste operators in the area. There has been nothing done by the Environment Agency regarding the disgraceful and neglectful disregard of the littering laws by the same companies and the main road routes taken by their lorries are some of the worst roadside littering I have ever seen.”
He went on:
“They should be made to pay for our hundreds of phone calls and hours spent complaining to the Environment Agency and the council, and we must now have grave doubts as to the honesty of any such companies who will—
we have no doubt—lie through their back teeth to keep their permits.”
As you can appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, my constituents feel that it is now time for regulatory change and for the enforcement powers of the Environment Agency to be bolstered so that such situations never happen again. My constituents have put up with this for far too long. I therefore want to know from the Minister what it plans to do to look into all the cases involving Teal Farm and to learn from the failures that my constituents have had to endure for far too long.
It is only right and fair that my constituents should be able to live a happy and comfortable life in their homes, not see their lives blighted incessantly by the failures and disregard of businesses operating in the area, and that when such episodes take place, they should have the fullest confidence that the agencies, which they pay for through their taxes, will do all they can to ensure that violations are dealt with swiftly and punitively, with on-the-spot fines for any breaches that occur.
I am therefore calling for increased powers for the Environment Agency, so it can actually do the job that it is there to do, and can issue on-the-spot fines to environmental offenders. After all, environmental litter officers can issue on-the-spot fines to the public for littering and dog fouling. Surely the problems that Environmental Agency officers deal with in regard to such companies are just as troublesome—perhaps even more so—and they should face the same penalty action. There should not be any disparity in our approach to litter louts—be they individuals or businesses.
I would like to gauge from the Minister what support there is in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for conducting a strategic review of charges and fines to businesses that breach environmental permits. It is important that penalties are commensurate with the type of business put under the microscope, but also that they reflect the scale of the incidents that occur, often on a regular basis, as in the cases I have outlined.
Alongside the idea of reviewing fines, I want to hear more from the Minister about the scope for time limits on business permits—perhaps three to five years—and about making them renewable only if businesses are fully compliant with their permit mandates and there have been no breaches at all during that time. One way for the Environment Agency to monitor any such breaches would be to have on-the-spot fines, which I have already mentioned, to penalise businesses immediately.
Another way would be to introduce a “penalties on your permit” system, not dissimilar to fixed penalty notices for motorists who are caught speeding, which could be used as part of the review of businesses’ environmental permits when they are up for renewal. Currently, when such a facility is up for sale, the licence the Environment Agency grants is automatically kept with the land and sold on by default. This is a very easy way for unscrupulous companies to obtain a licence. Does the Minister agree that that is wrong?
I do hope that the Minister will look into all of this carefully, and will respond with assurances that I can take back to the residents of Teal Farm. I want to bring my speech to a close, but I have one further point to add. It is pertinent as it relates to the application for a waste gasification plant in my constituency. If successful, this will lead to a huge increase in HGV traffic to and from waste processing plants, and I fear—given what I have set out today—that it will bring the inevitable litter and congestion. Having written to the Minister about the safety of this plant, I have received letters reminding me that the body ultimately responsible for monitoring the site’s safety is none other than—you’ve guessed it—the Environment Agency.
I hope that the Environment Agency will live up to its promises, and that I have given the Minister some food for thought about the solutions I and my residents in Teal Farm feel could be implemented. I know that Governments do not necessarily like new regulations, but on this issue I think hon. Members would say that I have—and I hope I have—made the case for them tonight.