Clause 41 - penalties on conviction

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 25th January 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons)

This is an important clause, creating increased penalties on conviction for the unlawful disposal of waste. The clause proposes to increase the maximum fine on summary conviction from £20,000 to £50,000, and to increase the maximum term for imprisonment on conviction for the unlawful disposal of non-hazardous waste to five years.

The Opposition welcome action in the clause to curb the unlawful disposal of waste, as do all those who suffer the ill effects of this ghastly, antisocial and often dangerous practice. We hope that the new penalties in the clause will be a deterrent. However, we are worried that the penalties will be unenforceable because the courts will think that the penalties are a tad too draconian and will not be so willing to convict or to impose the maximum sentences.

The need for what, on the face of it, seem draconian penalties is understandable. I understand that Ministers have taken that route because this illegal practice is on the increase. It is regrettable that there is no fine-grained, detailed national data on the scale of fly-tipping, but I believe that the Government have acknowledged that there is evidence that it has increased in recent years. To understand the need for the serious increase in the penalties, we need to understand that it is a policy response to a burgeoning problem.

The scale of the problem can be gleaned from Environment Agency prosecutions and anecdotal evidence at local authority level.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Does my hon. Friend believe that it would be helpful for the Minister to tell us exactly what advice he has been given by the courts, the police or the Environment Agency in setting the fines as high as they are? I am not saying that the fines are not appropriate, but I want to know what advice was received.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend anticipates my point. Like him, I do not necessarily oppose the level of the fines. We need to test the proposition and understand what advice was received and from whom it came that   led the Minister and his ministerial colleagues to set the penalties at these high levels. My hon. Friend's question is very much the point, and I will reiterate that before I sit down.

The Environment Agency collects information on prosecutions that it has handled, and it has noted a 19 per cent. increase in levels of prosecution in England and Wales between 2001 and 2002. In the calendar year 2002, there were 252 prosecutions for fly-tipping, resulting in total fines of approximately £228,000. From January to October 2003, there were 210 prosecutions, totalling fines of £225,000. Prior to that, the number of successful prosecutions relating to a variety of waste offences rose significantly from 141 in 1999, to 225 in 2001—a 60 per cent. increase. The trends that the Environment Agency is recording show that the problem is on the rise.

Many local authorities are also noticing and recording more incidents of fly-tipping. In 2002, the London borough of Lewisham counted 13,600 incidents, which cost more than £500,000 to clean up. That figure was 50 per cent. higher than in 2001, which in turn was 50 per cent. up on the year before that. That is an example of an inner-city area in which fly-tipping is one of many challenges and problems, but this antisocial and illegal practice also takes place in rural areas such as my constituency.

When I first became the Member of Parliament for Bury St. Edmunds in 1997—by the skin of my teeth, in that dreadful year for the Conservative party—one of the first things I noticed was how clean and tidy it was and that there were virtually no instances of fly-tipping in any parts of the town. Over the past year or so, in Eastgate street—an attractive part of an attractive town centre—there have been cases of fly-tipping, with prams and all sorts of rubbish left lying around what was formally waste ground and public land. From anecdotal evidence, it seems that more examples of fly-tipping are occurring in councils up and down the land—not just the Lewishams but places such as the beautiful, pastoral idyll that is Bury St. Edmunds town centre.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley made a point about the higher level of fines and the higher maximum term of imprisonment. It is important to know whom the Minister has consulted in setting these fines. Why have they risen from £20,000 to £50,000 rather than to £30,000 or £40,000? Why has the maximum term of imprisonment been increased? Has he spoken to prosecuting authorities or any of those responsible for the exercise of the judicial process, rather than simply the Environment Agency?

Are magistrates using the existing legislation and the fines and maximum sentences to the full? It does not make much sense to pass stricter penalties if the existing penalties are not being used in all their force and majesty by magistrates or higher courts. Any statistics that the Minister has on the existing regime and how it is being utilised would help us to understand how effective the clause might be.

Does the Department have an automatic procedure for reviewing the utilisation of new criminal penalties? Could it carry out a review after a year to see whether   the new penalties were being utilised by the courts? Many laws are little used. For example, there are powers to impose orders on parents with unruly children: the law is there, yet the magistrates courts simply do not use it. Unless the Department reviews how the new regime is working, the law will be seen to be an ass. The powers will be there, but they will not be utilised. A bad set of new penalties will be passed in the clause. None of us want to see that happen. We are all in the business of passing good law. I hope that the Minister will answer my three questions on the important point of increased penalties.

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

I welcome you back to our Committee, Mr. Taylor. It is always interesting having two Chairmen. I am grateful to both of you for ensuring that we proceed at a reasonable pace.

My main concern about the clause is that the penalties must be set at a level that will act as a deterrent. One of the things that emerged clearly from the Environmental Audit Committee report on environmental crime and the courts is that magistrates are reluctant to fine up to the current level. Little account is taken of the profits that accrue from the crime. If we are to have hard penalties that deter people, we must ensure that the courts have guidelines.

One of the worrying things that we found in our investigation was that, because magistrates see these cases so infrequently, they do not get their heads around the fact that people are making real money. Fly-tipping is big business for some of these people. There are repeat offenders. They get up to all sorts of nonsense such as burying waste, tipping waste, causing annoyance to everyone else, simply so that they can make a profit. I want to know that the courts will bear that in mind. We need guidelines on sentencing and training. I hope that the Government will consider whether some magistrates ought to be more specialist in this area. At present they do everything and they are not on top of the problem. Burglary comes up week after week in a magistrates court, but fly-tipping does not. In fact, fly-tipping comes up infrequently. We need magistrates to understand the importance of the matter. We also need to ensure that the fines imposed on companies are substantial enough to have a real economic impact. The bad publicity should also have an impact. At present, we are not dealing properly with the people involved in committing those really wicked crimes, which pollute the environment, taint land and waterways and cause immense environmental problems.

I should like to hear from the Minister what steps the Government will take to ensure that the magistracy makes a much stronger assessment of the harm done, and of the frequency of fly-tipping, particularly by certain businesses or individuals, to ensure that there is a real deterrent. We wanted to see higher sentences in place, because previously there was no deterrent. When we discuss the next clause, I shall return to our concern about conviction. However, at this stage, I say that is no good having the deterrents if the courts are afraid to use them. 

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 10:00 am, 25th January 2005

Please forgive my lack of etiquette, Mr. Taylor, in not welcoming you to the Chair. That was a lapse of judgment on my part, and I apologise. It is wonderful to have you chairing the Committee.

I support the clause, despite the fact that the penalties are high. However, that reflects the seriousness of the offence that we are discussing. It is rare for me to agree wholeheartedly with everything—or with anything—that a Liberal Democrat says, but on this occasion I will make an exception. Perhaps this is another lapse of judgment.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Clearly, that will be reported back to the Whips' meeting. Illegal waste disposal is a serious crime. The hon. Lady was absolutely right to talk about the health hazards that it can cause, and about the fact that it is unsightly and can be extremely dangerous. I fear that unless we tackle the problem properly, it will increase. It needs to be tackled through deterrents—through increasing the penalties that people face if they are caught and properly convicted before a court.

We need to do something about the problem, because there is still a lot of open land around our country where tipping could take place. Fly-tipping does not just desecrate rural areas; urban areas also suffer. In urban areas, there are places where people do not go on a regular basis, although young kids might play there. People will come to know that those areas do not have CCTV cameras and that the police never go there, and will use those areas to dispose of waste illegally.

The problem may be on the increase because the costs of waste disposal are also on the increase. That increase in costs reflects, quite rightly, the environmental concerns that we all have about how much waste is produced in the UK these days. We are not just talking about hazardous waste, although I suspect that all waste, particularly unnecessary waste, could be seen to be hazardous in the climate in which we now operate. I hope that we can encourage businesses to cut down on unnecessary waste, although that is not tackled in this Bill.

As the costs are going sky high, the temptation for a number of businesses that work on the margins is to fly-tip instead of paying the costs of disposal, which could be high. They do not wish to incur those costs because every pound that they spend on waste disposal is one pound less profit for the company.

We must send the message loud and clear to those companies that that will not be tolerated, and that if they are caught disposing of waste in an inappropriate fashion they will face severe penalties. The penalties that are mentioned in the clause include a custodial sentence of up to five years, which is appropriate in the worst of circumstances, and fines of £50,000. Later in our consideration of the Bill, we shall deal with clean-up costs and the loss of vehicles. In some circumstances, the fine may be such that it puts the business in jeopardy.

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

In this welcome spirit of solidarity, I ask the hon. Gentleman if he agrees that it is much more important to send out a message to those who create waste in the first place that the costs of using a product such as asbestos or undertaking demolition work must include the legal disposal of waste? Members of the public need to understand that they cannot just say, ''I have bought something new and I don't care what happens to the old one.'' It is the lifetime costs that are important.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Again, we are in solidarity not just with the Liberal Democrats but with the entire Committee. I completely agree with the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty). There is a cost involved in the disposal of the products and packaging that people buy. There is too much packaging, and it should be more environmentally friendly; we must encourage that.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the public need to know that they have a duty when they dispose of a product—they cannot just dump it in the local tip. Many local authorities bend over backwards to discourage fly-tipping by helping households to dispose of sofas, televisions and so on. However, the clause refers principally to businesses and how they dispose of the items that they produce. They, too, must recognise that they have a legal duty in that respect. The clause is important because it sends a signal to those companies. The Minister said that there will be negotiations with trade associations, which will be made well aware of the new penalties in the Bill.

The hon. Lady also rightly mentioned repeat offenders. Someone may be caught red-handed disposing of waste illegally, and although it is not the first time that they have done so, it may be the first time that they have been caught. I hope that the guidelines will state that the court should be far more severe with a repeat offender when considering whether to impose a fine of £50,000 or a custodial sentence.

The fines and the custodial sentence specified in the clause are right in certain circumstances. We do not want businesses to think that they can gain a competitive advantage over others by flouting the law. Clause 41 sends an appropriate message to let people know that fly-tipping will not be tolerated, that it is a serious crime that will be dealt with in a serious manner, with a hefty fine or a custodial sentence. 

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

I am delighted by the cross-party unity on clause 41. I am just a bit surprised, therefore, that it has taken so long to agree it. The clause amends the penalties available for offences under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It increases the maximum available fine on summary conviction from £20,000 to £50,000, and the maximum term of imprisonment on conviction on indictment for non-hazardous waste offences to five years. That makes the position the same as that on offences involving hazardous waste. There was a disparity between the penalties, but now they are exactly the same.

The point is right that there may be very small quantities of hazardous waste but huge quantities of non-hazardous waste, which can have an enormous environmental impact. The idea of increasing the penalties—£50,000 and five years are quite substantial penalties—is to send a clear message that Parliament believes, as hon. Members have emphasised, that these are serious environmental offences. They are antisocial in relation to domestic waste and domestic fly-tipping, and they are criminal in relation to commercial involvement in fly-tipping.

It is also right that there is a deliberate policy of moving away from landfill and towards treatment of waste. All over the country, respectable waste management companies are investing in sophisticated treatment. An example is on-site soil remediation, which means that hazardous soil does not have to be moved. The recycling of building waste means that it can be turned back into aggregates and reused in building. Those are examples of what we want. Incidentally, the policy also encourages a new sector of companies, which are involved in recycling and the other services that I have described. That is expensive and a big investment for those companies, and they should not be undermined by the criminal activities of people who are simply dumping waste illegally to get the profits from that. It is environmentally damaging and it is commercially damaging to respectable companies, as we are well aware.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds asked what consultation we had undertaken on the level of fines. As part of the general consultation on the Bill, we received representations from the LGA and the Environment Agency, which were keen to see the fines increased. We also had discussions with the Home Office, which of course represents magistrates and the judiciary and which was keen to see levels of fine that would allow magistrates a wide range of options. When the crime is serious, they have the option of quite significant fines and, indeed, custodial sentences. Incidentally, magistrates take note of what Parliament puts in legislation, because it shows how strongly Parliament feels about the offence. We are therefore sending magistrates a clear message on this issue.

Deterrence is also relevant. It is important that we deter people from getting involved in the activities that we are discussing. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds mentioned figures for the increased incidence of fly-tipping, and we do not dispute that there has been an increase. That is why it is all the more   important that we have effective measures to tackle fly-tipping. I must sound a note of caution to the hon. Gentleman, however. There has long been a need for better data on what exactly is going on and the incidence of fly-tipping, which is why the Government have funded the Flycatcher database. All fly-tipping incidents are now reported, and we have a national database that gives us a much better idea of what is going on. The idea is that we have a better understanding of the problem and we identify hotspots. Despite the better data, however, it is difficult to make comparisons, so although we do not dispute that there has been an increase, we must be a little cautious about interpreting the figures.

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

It is my understanding—I stand to be corrected if the Minister has more recent information—that only 70 per cent. of councils report incidents to Flycatcher and it is not fully implemented across every council. Can he give us more news on that?

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

Flycatcher is relatively new and does not yet have 100 per cent. involvement. However, it is being rolled out and developed, and we are confident that we will achieve 100 per cent. involvement. In fact, I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that we have 99 per cent. participation in Flycatcher from local authorities, which is pretty good as it has been and is still expanding.

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

Certainly. I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Taylor. I was responding to the wide-ranging debate that we have had, but you are right that we must return to the clause.

There are two points to bear in mind about how magistrates apply the provisions of the clause. First, we sponsored a very successful conference on environmental law in November, which considered training and ticketing magistrates and possibly having specialist magistrates courts to deal with environmental issues, because concern has been raised that some fines have not reflected the seriousness of the offence. Secondly, the Committee might like to know that we are working with magistrates to ensure that they are more aware of the impact of environmental crime. A guidance pack entitled ''Costing the Earth'' has been issued by the Magistrates Association to assist in dealing with environmental cases, and we welcome that initiative.

I assure the Committee that the clause is very important in establishing the level of fines and punishment.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood 10:15 am, 25th January 2005

Before my hon. Friend the Minister concludes, will he make it absolutely clear that serious fines will be a deterrent in urban fringes? He has talked about a database and deterrents through fines, but will he also confirm that   the clause is part of a package of measures and that the Environment Agency is putting more resources into this area?

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

I can confirm that this clause is part of a package of measures, because we are not prepared to tolerate environmental crimes, which are serious, damaging, and an issue of quality of life. We need to address the problem through a range of measures including the training of magistrates, raising awareness of impacts, enforcement levels, working in partnership with the Environment Agency, local authorities and the police, using technology to track down and identify offenders, data capture, and the battery of measures in the Bill, which are effective and show that we are not prepared to tolerate such crimes.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.