I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate Neil Parish, the Chair of the Select Committee, on hitting the jackpot so early on in our recovery from the Easter break. Next to potholes, this is one of the more popular topics on which people engage us, more than anything because of the unfairness of it—if fly-tipping takes place on their land or next to them, it becomes their problem. He is right to highlight it, and I know the Select Committee will continue to look at waste as a major topic of interest.
I will not go over the facts and figures, but we have had good contributions from the hon. Members for Angus (Kirstene Hair), for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), and from my hon. Friend Colleen Fletcher. Others contributed through interventions, which will be on the record.
Fly-tipping is a major problem. We start with people dumping stuff casually, thinking they can get away with it. That is wrong, but at the other end of the scale, this is a major billion-pound criminal business. Next to people trafficking, the drugs trade and, dare I say, a little around the meat trade—we will pass over that quickly—this is the big business of the criminal underworld. People make millions out of it, so we cannot pretend it is something to ignore.
We have heard some of the facts and figures on how local authorities are affected, and there is the implication that, with the cuts and so on, they have found it difficult to up their game, but I will concentrate for the moment on the Environment Agency, which has also faced cuts in this area. I understand that it deals with 1,000 illegal waste sites a year, taking enforcement action, cleaning up and trying to prevent it from happening again, but it has been said to me that it is a bit like whack-a-mole at the fairground—I am a great animal lover—because every time the mole is hit, it comes up somewhere else. That is because of two things: the amount of money to be made out the business, and the way we deal with it in terms of fines and action, which is far too limited nowadays.
My hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell sent me something she would have spoken about if she could have been here—she sends her apologies; she had a prior engagement—about a firm in her constituency that effectively set up a mini-incinerator, burning all the time. It took a lot of action to get it shut down. When the firm came to court, a sentence of a £750 fine was imposed for one offence—the second offence could not be prosecuted—which was reduced to £562, with £374 costs, and the director responsible was fined £199. According to her, the nonsense went on for weeks and weeks, and the penalty bears no resemblance to the inconvenience caused. That shows how limited the fines and ability to do anything are.
First, I will start with a question to the Minister—she has plenty of time to think about it. At a private briefing that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and I went to, I was surprised when she said there is no evidence of an impact on the level of fly-tipping when local authorities put charges on collections for larger items. It would be good to get some empirical evidence, because that is not the view outside this place—it certainly is not that of constituents who I have talked to. My local authority did not charge for it while next door in Gloucester city they always charged and—dare I say it—Gloucester city’s larger items seemed to find their way into Stroud district; but we now charge, and I do not understand how that has not had an impact. It may not have been that much, but there has been talk of a 7% increase last year and it is coming from somewhere. If she could tell me about that or say there is an investigation to look at the impact, that would be useful, because we must have that empirical evidence.
Secondly—I have already talked about this—the fines regime is totally inadequate for today. It is based not just on the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 but on the Environmental Protection Act, which dates back to 1990. Some of the ways to prosecute and the fines regime are therefore nearly 30 years out of date. I know we update the measures, but as much as I love seeing the Minister at various Delegated Legislation Committees on this topic, it needs to be looked at as a whole. As I have said before—I hope the Government will take this seriously—the Opposition will co-operate in any way possible to update the 2005 Act. One of the problems is that there is a lack of strategy. We need one, because it is a big criminal business at one level, and it is really annoying for a lot of people. We are therefore willing to help in whatever way we can to make that Act fit for purpose, with a new Bill.
That is important, because certainly in England the recycling rate has begun to stall—in fact, in some parts of the country it is beginning to decline. I do not see the rush to incineration as anything other than the wrong solution, but there is a real requirement to recognise the problem of waste. I get countless emails from people saying, “We’ve got to do something about plastics,” and we have got to do something about waste overall. I therefore ask the Minister to take up that offer and, through the DEFRA team, see if something can be done in the next Session.
This issue exercises not just individuals and areas but organisations. We have had excellent contributions from the Country Land and Business Association, the Local Government Association, the Countryside Alliance and the National Farmers Union—and, as always, a good paper from the House of Commons Library—which all indicate how big a problem it is and how much we need to do.
I will conclude to give the Minister an awful lot of time to respond—no doubt, she has an awful lot to say, because this is a big topic. I hope we can see this not just as ad hoc misbehaviour—bad as it is—that needs to be dealt with. We must also look at the other end: the criminal and the organised, where people are making serious money and we are not bringing them to justice. Last week, I made a trip in my area to look at some of the notorious sites. Even if we do bring individuals to justice, the fines regime and penalties are so paltry that people can build up for them as a matter of course, and they get away with it time after time. People may build genuine businesses from that—that may be good or bad—but it is not right to use illegality to get there. I hope the Minister sees this as a good opportunity to be forthright about the ways in which we can move forward. The Opposition will help the Government in any way we can.