Clause 44 - Forfeiture of vehicles

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 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)

The clause deals with the introduction of a possible ruling by the courts for the confiscation of vehicles of those convicted of an offence under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Legislation on the confiscation of property should be dealt with sensitively and with due regard to the possible effect on the person convicted. Of course someone who is guilty of, and sentenced for, illegal fly-tipping should receive the appropriate sentence. The question is whether the sentence is always proportionate. In cases for which the criminal law provides for confiscation of property, one should consider the circumstances and whether the system makes bad people worse.

I do not think that anyone would have difficulty with the idea of the courts cleaning out the bank accounts of convicted drug dealers and confiscating such property as they had. However, it is to be hoped that any court considering making an order under clause 44 would take account of the likely effects of confiscation on the convicted person's employment prospects and livelihood. I should like to hear what assessment the Minister's Department has made in that respect. Has he considered the case of someone on the minimum wage who is convicted of such an offence? A reasonable fine may be imposed on them, but then a confiscation of property order may be further imposed. Is it enough to say that magistrates will use their discretion when it comes to the forfeiture of vehicles? People could be left out of jobs and money, and families could be affected. 

I wonder what examples the Minister can give from other areas of criminal law of the confiscation of vehicles or the tools of one's trade, albeit those of a convicted person. No one doubts that such people deserve punishment, but sometimes the punishment can have consequences way beyond the censure of the law and proportionate punishment. Can the Minister describe any analogous parts of criminal law to give us comfort that something as potentially serious as the forfeiture of a vehicle will not lead to destitution, unemployment and a disproportionate penalty on the convicted person? I look forward to the Minister sharing some perspectives on analogous parts of the British criminal justice system as it relates to forfeiture of property such as vehicles.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 11:00 am, 25th January 2005

As has already been mentioned, there is precedent for the forfeiture of vehicles in certain circumstances, such as those involving drug dealing. Vehicles can be and are seized by Customs and Excise in cases of the smuggling of tobacco products and alcohol, but I am not sure whether there is a duty in those circumstances, as there will be in this clause, to consider the impact of the loss of the vehicle on the person who will lose it. I do not know if the clause is based on that measure, or whether, when a vehicle is seized at Dover and a conviction is subsequently achieved, the courts have to consider the fact that there will be a loss of income if the person loses the vehicle because they cannot go about their lawful business. I would be interested to know if there is a precedent and how it operates in reality. It is always useful to find that out because when Customs and Excise is very zealous, people lose their vehicles, and that may well have an impact on their livelihoods.

I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds had to say about proportionality, but the clause deals with that: it puts an onus on the courts to consider the offence, the circumstances of the person before them and the value of the vehicle and its contents in order to decide whether to seize the vehicle, with or without its contents. Under the clause, the courts have a duty to consider the circumstances of the individual.

Let us look at the example of a builder. We have talked about construction waste—clearly there is a lot of waste involved with construction, which can be quite expensive because of landfill disposal. Suppose that a builder is caught disposing of construction waste illegally in his own vehicle, which will probably contain some of the tools of his trade. Under the clause, the courts will have a duty to consider the circumstances and say, ''Well, if we seize the vehicle and its contents, the builder will not be able to continue doing his construction business. That will have a huge impact on his livelihood: it could put other people out of work and put him out of business. Therefore, we will not do that because we have been asked, under clause 44, to look at the circumstances of that particular business.'' That is one person who might, under previous clauses, receive a fine and be asked to clean up waste—or the waste would be   cleaned up and the cost would fall on him—but who would be allowed to retain his vehicle and its tools to go about his business.

Going back to something that the hon. Member for Guildford said in connection with another clause, if the person is a repeat offender, I assume that the courts will be able to say, ''Hold on, we have had this guy in front of us three or four times. Under the explanatory notes, we should try to dissuade him from continuing to do this, so despite the fact that he could lose his van, vehicle and tools, and therefore his livelihood, he is a serial offender and is using that vehicle to tip waste, and enough is enough.'' Under the duty in the clause, the court could consider the circumstances but still take the vehicle and its contents—or perhaps leave the tools for other people in the firm to use—so that that person would pay a price. That would be right for repeat offenders, because something must be done to dissuade them.

Some people must make a living out of using their own vehicle to tip waste illegally. They go around at 2, 3 or 4 am and have no due regard for people's private property. The hon. Member for Guildford mentioned that waste could be left on the verge of a road, so it is the local authority's duty to clean it up, but that should not enable people to get away with it. If someone's business revolves around tipping waste willy-nilly, they have to know that there is a price to pay and that they may lose their vehicle. If someone does that for a living, I have no qualms about them losing their vehicle to prevent them from tipping waste in future. It is a hefty penalty, but it will stop them.

I assume, having looked at the clause, that it does not deal with people who hire vehicles. The person from whom they hire it will not know that they are using it for tipping waste, so the firm that owns the vehicle should not lose it, and I assume that that is taken into account.

Mr. Morley indicated assent.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The Minister nods reassuringly. If that were the case, it would be a great worry to van renters around the country. However, if people have been using their own vehicle to tip waste, they should lose it.

If someone uses a private car—it does not have to be a van—to dispose of waste illegally and they are caught, either by the police or someone else, and convicted, I assume that that will be covered by the clause. I hope that the duty will be for the courts to say, ''Hold on, you knew what you were doing when you tied that sofa or mattress to the top of your vehicle''—it could be anything from a battered old wreck to a fairly new car—''took it to a piece of open land and discarded the waste willy-nilly for other people to pick up the costs of disposal. We have therefore decided you will pay a price.'' Whether that should happen on the first, third or fourth offence, I do not know, but we are seeking an assurance from the Minister that there will be proportionality under clause 44.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

Is not the price that we all pay because of serious, serial cowboy offenders the price to our environment? Am I right in thinking that the hon. Gentleman supports the forfeiture of vehicles in such cases?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I have no doubt that if cowboys are going around serially offending they should lose their vehicles. They should pay a hefty price: that is the only thing that will prevent them from offending in future. If they received a fine and lost their vehicle and its contents, I would have no doubt that they would not re-offend. I referred to changing the culture. We may look at these clauses again in a few years' time and say that we have changed the culture on the disposal of waste, just as we have on smoking in public places and so on. The first time that someone is caught tipping a mattress on a bit of open land, they will lose their car straight away—one strike and you're out. What I want, and what I think the Minister is trying to achieve in the Bill, is to get it into the mindset of the public, whether they are in business or private householders, that tipping is a serious offence and that offenders could not only receive a fine, but lose their vehicles. I therefore support the clause.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

May I start by saying what a delight it is to serve under your firm but fair chairmanship, Mr. Taylor? I shall not delay the Committee long, but I intervened on this point earlier in our proceedings and I want to reinforce it by saying that according to Colin Peake, the antisocial behaviour officer of Stroud district council, my local authority, this is the single most important element of the Bill. Colin tells me that what he finds most galling is that, although serial offenders know that they may be forced to pick up the waste and may suffer a fine, the one thing that they always get away with is the means whereby they were able to commit the offence. They keep their vehicle and can do it again.

As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said, it could be a first-time offender, someone just taking something out of their car boot, but I would expect everyone to consider the circumstances and proportionality. The person could have taken a number of car batteries or tyres out of the back of their car. As we all know, it is a devil of a job to get rid of those items. They are hazardous waste according to every definition, so we should feel no sympathy. We should back those who try to enforce the clause, if it is passed. Linking it to clause 46, which makes a great deal of sense, we will want the authorities to be somewhat proactive. I hope that, if materials have been dumped and they know that a vehicle in the vicinity has been seen there before, there will be an opportunity to link the measures. I know that I am looking ahead from this clause to the next one, but they are inextricably linked.

I hope that we will hold the line and send a clear message that the one thing that will really hurt those who offend is taking away their vehicle. People think that they can get away with offences, whatever the level   of the fines. Often, the offenders are people in the industry who think that it is a good way to save a bob or two. As I said, the one thing that will really penalise offenders is taking away their vehicle. I therefore congratulate the Government on the clause. They are absolutely right. From what I have been told, all the evidence from the people who are trying to enforce offences is that this clause will make the difference, so let us see it through as quickly as possible.

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

I shall not go over ground that other hon. Members have covered perfectly adequately about the importance of sending a strong message, but the Minister will recall that on Second Reading there was concern about Travellers who use their vehicles for fly-tipping. As we know, Travellers can become effective lawyers and use various defences. We are aware that occasionally Travellers use their vehicles for fly-tipping, and the vehicle that they use may be the same vehicle used for towing their caravans. On Second Reading, I asked the Government to look into how the human rights legislation would affect that area. If a Traveller said in his defence, ''I need my vehicle to tow my trailer'', what view would the Government take?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 11:15 am, 25th January 2005

I thank my hon. Friends for the strong support that they have given. The various circumstances of confiscation are covered in subsection (7). It outlines what the courts should take into account, such as the value of the vehicle, the likely financial effects on the offender, and

''the offender's need to use the vehicle for lawful purposes'', which probably covers the point made by the hon. Member for Guildford. However, the court's decision would depend on the circumstances. Someone may have been towing a caravan with a battered old transit van, but if it was not worth much, they could go out and buy another one. The court will take the circumstances into account, and must also have regard to whether

''the offender is engaged in a business which consists wholly or partly in activities which are unlawful by virtue of section 33.''

There is also the question of repeat offending. Someone who is a repeat offender would get much less sympathy from the court when deciding how the measure should be applied than others might.

The provision is effective. People try to avoid penalties, but if someone is engaged in illegal activities—some of which could be worth a great deal of money—the sanction of confiscating the vehicle is important. The provision also sends a clear message to people who are involved in domestic fly-tipping that that is not a minor issue, and that their car is at risk. I have already made that point in press notices to my local paper. It is a significant sanction, because we are dealing with significant offences. I hope that the Committee will support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.