Clause 29 - Household waste: de-criminalisation

Deregulation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 11th March 2014.

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

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Under section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, a local authority can require by notice that householders present their waste for collection in a specified way. Householders who fail to do so can at present face a criminal conviction and a fine of up to  £1,000. It is wrong to treat someone like a criminal for making such a mistake, and the sanctions are clearly disproportionate. The purpose of clause 29 is to introduce a fairer system of penalties in England by amending section 46 of the 1990 Act. The changes provide that waste collection authorities can impose a fixed penalty if someone fails to present their household waste in the required manner. If that failure could cause a nuisance or be detrimental to the locality, such as leaving bin bags out for days on end, the intention is for fixed penalties to be between £60 and £80. Criminal sanctions will no longer be available.

Our proposals do not impose significant new burdens on local authorities. Many authorities already work with residents and educate them if they are having such problems. The clause provides clarity on the process local authorities will need to follow when pursuing civil sanctions. It also amends the law to recognise the difference between someone who makes a genuine mistake that his little impact and someone whose behaviour damages their local neighbourhood. I know that some local authorities have concerns about removing the criminal sanction. We believe that people should be supported in their efforts to do the right thing, rather than have the weight of criminal law turned on them. We are looking for local authorities to promote recycling through effective communication and through making it easier for householders to know which plastics can go in the recycling bin.

I am also aware that some local authorities would like guidance on how the harm to local amenity test should be applied. We intend to work with local government to produce advice to help local authorities implement the test competently and consistently. The harm to local amenity test will cover putting waste out in a way that causes obstruction to neighbours, impedes access, attracts vermin or is an eyesore. Introducing the test makes it clear that those are the behaviours we want to address, not because we want to penalise people who have made a minor error but because we want to defend the quality of residents’ local environments. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will be brief, because I note that the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire was taking copious notes when the Minister was explaining the case for decriminalisation, which is a subject to which we will return when we consider the new clauses.

The Minister is keen to decriminalise the matter, and we understand the purpose behind that, but will he confirm whether the Government have considered the case studies on parking, which has been decriminalised? Many of us are familiar with the huge amount of correspondence about cases where private parking companies are bringing outrageous claims against individual law-abiding citizens. Perhaps the Minister could briefly set out what impact assessment has been made in the light of that issue.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North 3:30 pm, 11th March 2014

Here we go again, with very little evidence, if any, for a legislative proposition from the Government. I will be interested if the Minister, when he winds up, can give us evidence that these powers are  being abused. I have spoken to the Local Government Association prior to the sitting today—I do not know whether the Minister has taken the trouble to consult local government himself. He talks about wanting local authorities to promote recycling, but as we know—anybody who is familiar with local government knows, anyway—councils are on the front line of encouraging recycling, raising awareness, providing information to residents and increasing recycling as a consequence. Local authorities around the country, of whichever political persuasion, have been pretty effective at increasing recycling. There are, as we know, a limited number of households that persistently fail to separate out their waste and cause a nuisance.

If the Government are serious about promoting recycling and ensuring that we get recycling levels up, I wonder why they feel it necessary to embark on this legislative change when there is no evidence that local authorities are abusing the powers that are currently vested in them. I thought that the Government were in favour of localism, giving local authorities their head and allowing them to determine the priorities on the ground. I thought that that was what they claimed the Localism Act 2011 was all about.

It seems to me, having spoken to the Local Government Association, that there are limited powers available to local authorities at the moment to issue fixed penalties for persistent misuse, and that they are used only as a last resort. Unlike the Government, who do not seem to have taken the trouble to find any evidence, I have established—through the Local Government Association —that there are, on average, two penalties issued per local authority per year. That hardly seems to me to be an abuse of those powers. It certainly does not seem to be justification for new legislation to remove them. It is another example of the Government using a sledgehammer to crack a local government nut.

If the Government want to support recycling, they ought to think again about whether the change is really necessary. Having spoken to colleagues in the local government world, I fear that it will reduce recycling and increase landfill. That will mean that pollution will go up as well, because as we know, landfill is a significant source of methane gas in the atmosphere, and methane is a far more toxic emission than carbon in its effect on climate change. I will be interested to hear what evidence the Minister has identified. The Government seem to be taking an excessive route to dealing with a limited problem in taking away the limited powers that are available to local government, which are clearly not being used in an excessive way.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I wish to touch briefly on the part of the clause that refers to section 4 of the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006, about incentives for microgeneration systems. I have just this week installed photovoltaic solar panels on my roof, and now that I am helping, in a sense, to light this room with the little power station on my roof, I am worried that the Bill states that getting rid of incentives is not a problem because of the feed-in tariffs. The Government have been threatening to reduce feed-in tariffs—indeed, they have been reduced. My own local authority was going to put photovoltaic panels on all its remaining council houses, but then the feed-in tariff was substantially reduced.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

On a point of order, Mr Chope. I may be wrong, but I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to a different clause.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

That is possible. I thank the Minister, but my concern is to make sure that we continue to incentivise microgeneration in all its forms and do not reduce the legislation that promotes it. I know what has happened to my local authority, which has decided not to proceed with photovoltaics.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Further to my earlier point of order, Mr Chope. The hon. Gentleman is still referring to a different clause.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I think Mr Hopkins has finished.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I have made my point, Mr Chope.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman might want to return to his comments in a later debate.

To respond to some of the points that have been made, the hon. Member for Derby North challenged whether the Government were committed to localism. I do not know whether he was in his place earlier today—I believe that he was—when we debated, for instance, clauses 23 and 24. They are about giving local authorities a greater degree of control over local matters in relation to traffic, transport and so on. That is very much in keeping with the Government’s commitment to localism.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we were pursuing an excessive route by taking action to decriminalise the offence in question. However, he went on to refer to the fact that there were two penalties a year, so I am not sure how it can both be excessive and be relevant to the relatively small number of cases to which he referred.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

If it is not being used in an excessive way, it is a reserve power that local government has at its disposal in the extreme cases for which it is needed. When the power is not being used on the general public in an overly burdensome way, I do not understand why the Minister feels it is necessary to take it away. Did he consult the Local Government Association before he moved down that road?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am happy to respond to that point. We consulted on the issue back in 2012, and some local authorities requested guidance, for instance, on the point about harm to local amenity. I accept that in response to the consultation, the respondents from local authorities were not particularly supportive of the proposals, in that they wanted to keep an underpinning criminal offence as an effective deterrent of last resort. However, we also noted the experience of several local authorities that found that a decriminalised approach worked well and others that said that the vast majority of breaches were solved by communicating with householders. The hon. Gentleman referred to that, and we would all welcome such education.

One authority has stopped sending out notices and started using informal interventions instead, without any apparent increase in contamination. I think that in another contribution there was a suggestion that such a  move would lead to more contamination, but that has not been borne out by the experience of local authorities that have adopted a different approach.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

First, I should state that the relevant legislation refers to England, Wales and Scotland. In Northern Ireland it is a devolved matter, and Northern Ireland has its own system of looking at it. In his discussions with councils here, has the Minister had any opportunity to discuss the matter with the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has responsibility for local government? If so, has the good practice in Northern Ireland been considered in drawing up the clause? I am not against the idea, by the way—absolutely not, because I think it is workable—but in Northern Ireland we already have it.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am afraid I do not know whether those discussions have taken place, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman and confirm whether that is the case. I welcome the fact that he welcomes the proposal we are bringing forward.

I was going to address the points made by the hon. Member for Luton North, but I will leave that to my hon. and learned Friend to deal with shortly. This measure will not be used as a means to generate revenue. As I suggested, the value of the fixed penalty notices will be between £60 and £80, and could fall to £40, along the lines of the parking fine arrangements. We do not expect that local authorities would make money by going through the process needed to receive penalties at this level. We do not expect the amount of receipts to be significant once administrative costs incurred by local authorities are taken into account.

Questions were asked about whether people had been prosecuted. I will give the most recent figures. In 2012, 198 people were prosecuted in England for failure to comply with waste collection requirements, 152 of whom were found guilty and the average fine was £229.25. I can confirm for the hon. Member for Strangford that we have discussed the matter with Northern Ireland.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The comparison between this measure and parking measures is unfortunate, as they are used to generate income and do present a burden on many drivers. As the decriminalisation of car parking offences led to the situation we are in, will the Minister reassure us that protections and measures are in place to ensure that this decriminalisation will not lead to the ability to generate income in that way?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I can simply repeat what I said earlier. We do not expect the amount of receipts to be significant once the administrative costs incurred by local authorities are taken into account. As I understand it, I thought such penalties were supposed to be ploughed back into transport and not used as a means to generate income. Clearly, there are regular arguments in papers about whether targets are set to drive the number that are issued.

I think we have had a fairly comprehensive discussion—

Toby Perkins rose—

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

But before I complete my remarks, I will give way once more.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us, on the basis of his study of the matter, whether he expects that the fines levied will be more than under the current regime when we review the figures in a year’s time. If he does not expect them to be more, will that be a success or a disappointment?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am not going to try to second-guess the outcome of the policy, other than to say that the Government have identified the importance of not criminalising people simply as a result of making a mistake about their refuse. We welcome that. Government Members clearly do not have the benefit of seeing the future in the way that Opposition Members do; therefore, it is difficult for me to predict the outcome precisely.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 29 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 10 agreed to.