Clause 46 - Power to search and seize vehicles

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm 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)

We come to another new power in the Bill which has some merit. The Local Government Association has come out in favour of the immediate seizure of vehicles in which people have been caught fly-tipping. It seems that the current system allows perpetrators to escape with the tools of their trade, thus allowing them to commit further offences. I hope that the new powers will support the sharing of information and intelligence made possible by the new flycatcher database, and will help local authorities, the police and the Environment Agency to apprehend commercial fly-tippers. As has been said, the agency estimates that there may be about 50,000 fly-tipping incidents a year, which cost authorities £100 million or more to clean up. We must do all that we can to tackle this significant problem.

Although the Conservatives are generally happy with the thrust of the clause, I have some points to raise with the Minister about the powers to search and seize vehicles. As section 34B of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 makes clear, an authorised officer   of an enforcement authority, or a constable, may seize a vehicle and its contents but, notably, only a uniformed officer may stop a vehicle on the road. I wonder in how many incidents the perpetrator is apprehended while making a getaway after the illegal fly-tipping has already taken place. In such circumstances, according to the clause, only a uniformed officer would have the power to stop the vehicle.

At one level, I understand why the power to stop a vehicle when it is being driven along the road is restricted to uniformed officers, but it would be useful if the Committee had a better understanding of what consultation went on with which bodies. Obviously, the police were involved, but were there any discussions about having a wider power to stop vehicles, not one restricted to uniformed officers?

Following on from that, my second question is whether there is scope for provision to be made for the Environment Agency and other authorised officers to have wider powers. People will normally try to get away after fly-tipping: they may see an official-looking person striding along with a clipboard about to apprehend them, at which point they will decide to leg it, even if they are halfway through committing the offence, and will get into their car and be in the process of getting away. According to the clause, in those circumstances it would be impossible for a non-uniformed officer to intervene, other than taking down the registration number. I should like some further explanation from the Minister on that point.

What consultation did the Department conduct to arrive at what is quite a narrow power for a uniformed officer, albeit one that is not extended to other authorised officers? As I said, in most cases the people committing the offence will be in the process of getting away and driving down the road, rather than sitting quietly in the passenger seat with the ignition turned off, waiting to be apprehended by an agency officer. The position would be clear if they were; it is not when someone is trying to make an exit.

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

I can certainly explain the Bill's drafting. There has been full consultation, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, with the LGA, the Home Office and those with an interest in the Bill, such as the police. Generally speaking, it is well established that the police often work with the Environment Agency and local authorities when they suspect that a crime may have been committed or as part of normal enforcement.

The agency has, for example, been carrying out a number of high-profile spot checks, whereby the police set up a roadblock, because as uniformed officers they have the power to stop vehicles. The police then inspect the vehicles and the waste licences, to ensure that they are in order, and then, because they are police, check for road traffic offences to do with tax, insurance, condition of tyres and so on. Such enforcement exercises have been very successful and I am keen to encourage the agency, the police and local councils to continue with them. 

Another example, which the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, is where an agency or local authority officer sees a van or other vehicle leaving a scene and has reason to suspect that a crime has been committed. In those circumstances, the officer would phone the police in the normal way and they would send a mobile response unit to stop the vehicle. It would be difficult to give powers to stop moving vehicles to the agency or to local authorities, because of all the problems that go with them. Such powers are more appropriately left to the police. That shows that enforcement is a partnership issue, with the police working alongside other agencies. Such practices are quite well established and have been successful. The measures in the Bill will reinforce the effectiveness of that partnership approach.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Opposition Whip (Commons)

Have there been any discussions about, for example, giving powers to community support officers to stop vehicles on the highway? The important point behind my question is that although I absolutely take on board what the Minister said—that in practice the agency will mount operations in close collaboration with the local police force, where it has the requisite intelligence—equally, we all know that the police are stretched. That is true not only in my constituency but in those across the party divide, in other counties and in other constabularies. None of us can ever say that we have enough police. It will probably never be true, under any Government of whatever political persuasion, that everyone thinks that their area is adequately policed and has enough policemen and women.

It is in light of that that I ask whether the important work of preventing, deterring and apprehending those engaging in illegal fly-tipping might be done not only by uniformed police officers stopping vehicles on the highway, as the clause states, but by community support officers. I want to tease out from the Minister whether that has been considered. It is not always possible to ask police forces to make uniformed officers available every time a vehicle is trying to get away. Were community support officers at any stage considered as adequate replacements or substitutes for uniformed officers in those cases?

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

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that matter is within the Home Office's remit and concerns the measures that introduced community support officers. There was considerable discussion about what range of powers would be appropriate for their training and abilities. What the hon. Gentleman is asking for—a power to stop vehicles on a highway—would have wide implications, and would have to be considered by the Home Office. I am sure that it was considered in the discussions about support officers, but the hon. Gentleman should address his questions to the Home Office.

Question agreed to.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.