Clause 38 - Failure to produce authority: fixed penalty notices

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 20th January 2005.

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Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 5:15 pm, 20th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 35, line 9, leave out from 'be' to end of line 10 and insert

'used only for the purposes of its functions under section 5 above (including functions relating to the enforcement of offences under that section).'.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 3, in clause 52, page 47, leave out from 'must' to end of line 37 and insert

'used only for the purposes of its functions under section 34A above (including functions relating to the enforcement of offences under that section).'.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The amendment comes back to my concern about the inconsistency with which we treat the Environment Agency, compared with local government. We are talking about who keeps the receipts for fixed penalty notices. On Second Reading, I mentioned that there are major problems with the apprehension and conviction of criminals by the Environment Agency. I appreciate that there will be occasions when the Environment Agency thinks it more appropriate to issue a caution than to take matters further, but the fact is that people are disillusioned with the Environment Agency's ability to cope with that. The agency itself is concerned about the costs that it will run up if it is to carry out its requirements.

Yesterday, I went to meet one of my parish councils, the Worplesdon parish council, which has had a huge amount of fly-tipping on Stringer's common. Curiously, a lot of it is not reported on the flycatcher database because the parish thinks that it is not worth it, but it may get to the point when the parish does decides to report it. I asked how many of the instances went on to flycatcher; the answer was only some, and that depended on whether the incident was handled by the warden from Surrey Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency, the police or the local authority. The reality is that the Environment Agency just is not coping with the huge issues. The provision would be consistent with local government being allowed to keep the receipts for fixed penalty notices. The Environment Agency needs the funding to help with enforcement just as councils do. It seems strange that in the agency's case the money goes back to the Government, but in the case of the council it goes back to the council.

We shall express concerns later about who is to pay the cost of the clear-up. We will end up with a compound problem, in that the Environment Agency is not funded sufficiently to do the protection and   conviction work in the first place, and is not even able to keep the penalty receipts, which may not be a huge sum but would help. Yet it is required to do the work, and farmers, the Woodland Trust and others must pay the costs of the clean-up.

The amendment is intended to enable us to scrutinise what will be done with the income from fixed penalty notices, and to draw attention to the inconsistency between provisions for local government and the Environment Agency. The need for the agency to do more enforcement work came out strongly in the evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, in its reports ''Environmental Crime and the Courts'' and ''Environmental Crime: Fly-tipping, Fly-posting, Litter, Graffiti and Noise''.

We need the agency to get on with the job. It is important that it should be able to, and the amendment is a small marker of our belief in that commitment.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have always had a great deal of sympathy with the argument that there is a case for fines to go back to the prosecuting authority as part of the funding of enforcement. There are counter-arguments, and I shall outline those to the hon. Lady.

First, the hon. Lady claims that there is an inconsistency between the way in which the Environment Agency and local authorities are treated. The argument is that the Environment Agency is an arm of central Government and is therefore funded by grant in aid. That grant in aid has gone up considerably. I thought that the hon. Lady was a bit hard on the Environment Agency. There will always be an argument about resources. No one in any Department, Government agency or other division ever gets the amount they really want. Nevertheless, the spend is rising for the Environment Agency, in recognition of its range of responsibilities.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

In general, I am a great supporter of the Environment Agency. When some people wanted its responsibilities devolved to local government I was one of those who said that its strength came from working in the way it does. However, although we know that the resources available to the agency have increased, what proportion of them is intended to go towards the detection and conviction of environmental crime and criminals?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Environment Agency is by its very nature a stand-alone agency—and that is one of its strengths. It has a board, a chief executive and a chairman. The grant in aid is a lump sum and the agency is free to make its own priorities. It is free to determine how much to allocate to its various functions and responsibilities.

The Environment Agency has also been very effective in controlling costs and reducing its overheads, which generates more funding for it and is an aspect of its freedom to determine its own priorities. The agency currently allocates about £12 million to enforcement of waste issues.

It is also the case that fines that go into the Consolidated Fund can be allocated to areas that are considered to have the highest priority. There is a strategic issue as well. I know the arguments range for and against. The hon. Lady might know that DEFRA sponsored a successful conference on environmental law and environmental review, where a wide-ranging discussion took place on the nature of environmental law. I cannot offer any more comfort than that, except for saying that this will inevitably be an ongoing debate.

It is important to weigh up the arguments for and against. However, at the present time it is felt that the Environment Agency should be funded through its grant in aid. There is a distinction between the agency and local authorities. We should also bear in mind that the powers for local authorities are permissive, while the agency has duties and responsibilities.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 5:30 pm, 20th January 2005

I thank the Minister for his thoughts. I am not without sympathy with some of the points. I appreciate that he is seeing some of the argument without necessarily being able to move across. However, I do have concerns.

When the time comes, presumably annually, that the Environment Agency discusses with the Government what its grant in aid should be, budgets and requirements are discussed and the Government say that they want it to do more of this and less of that. That would be prudent government. Although the Minister said that it is up to the Environment Agency what it does with its money, that is a little disingenuous, because anyone who is applying for a grant does not just say, ''Give me £12 million.'' They say, ''Give me £12 million, and I will spread that across the huge range of activities that the Environment Agency undertakes.''

We are returning to the particulars of who funds the Environment Agency and the concerns that have been repeatedly expressed not only by the Environment Agency—the Minister might say, ''Well, they would, wouldn't they?'', because all organisations say that they are underfunded—but by independent people,   magistrates, parish councils, wardens, and police. Not only that, but when I went to meet my local National Farmers Union, its representatives explained the major problems of hazardous waste being tipped on to their land and said that they call the Environment Agency but that unless the problem is incredibly easy to solve, it will not put in the resources.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I understand the hon. Lady's point, but in some of the examples she has given landowners should bear in mind that local authorities also have those powers and responsibilities. It is often the case that the Environment Agency is brought into matters where local authorities could do the work and take off some of the pressure.  

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I have to recognise that there is a time when people want to go home; we have been working hard today, and have covered a lot of ground. However, I hope we will be able to return to the issue later, because it is important. Although I can recognise at this stage that we will not be able to move an amendment and win it, I would be very unhappy about letting the issue go completely. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Six o'clock till Tuesday 25 January at twenty-five minutes past Nine o'clock.