New clause 30 - Zero waste strategy

Part of Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 10th April 2003.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 3:45 pm, 10th April 2003

The problem is not that the law reduces the potential for significant or big fines, but that the magistrates will not use them. The magistrates court can impose a fine of up to £20,000, although even I do not suggest that it should be more than that, except for very serious offences. I have asked how many £20,000 fines have been imposed in the past few years for littering or spreading waste on the highway, but I think that the figure is virtually nil. Magistrates are simply not using the powers that are available. If they think that the fine should be more than £20,000 for a very serious offence, they can find the offender guilty and pass him to the county court, which is allowed to impose up to two years' imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. The powers are there; the issue is the judiciary's commitment to use them.

I have examined various ways of dealing with the issue. I have been in regular touch with the Home Office about the work of the Sentencing Advisory Panel, which is studying guidelines on the appropriate penalty. I have had a meeting with the Magistrates' Association. We have issued new guidelines. I have written articles in the magistrates' journal. I am at a loss to know what more to do to push people.

The hon. Member for Lewes may be saying—he is reading my mind again—that we should have a minimum penalty in legislation. If I said so, I should immediately be told that the lawyers insist that that is not appropriate, because it does not take account of mitigating circumstances. One must therefore leave judges with some flexibility.

One can have a maximum penalty, but neither I nor the hon. Gentleman want that—I want higher penalties that act as a serious deterrent. I think that he will have to leave me to pursue the matter in the Government. I can give him an absolute assurance that I will not give up on it.