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Column 1303physically unable to enter their premises. Such things are intolerable and must stop. The sooner that the Bill gets on to the statute book and stops such practices the better it will be not only for people in my constituency, but for people throughout London. Again, I warmly welcome the Bill. I have heard a number of proposals from hon. Members on both sides of the House for ways in which it could be strengthened in Committee. I am especially attracted by the proposal to tighten up the penalties. The idea of confiscation of lorries is certainly a good one. I believe that those who are convicted of fly tipping should not only lose the wherewithal to continue to do so, but should have to pay the full cost of the removal of the rubbish and the restoration of the area and, indeed, pay compensation. On this occasion, I believe that in Committee we will be vying one with another to see who can impose the strongest and most stringent penalties on fly tippers.
I know that the Minister will welcome the Bill, but I ask her to tell the House what will happen to the London Waste Regulation Authority, which is based in county hall, if the hideous, absurd and obscene proposals go ahead for the conversion of county hall into a hotel. That authority does an excellent job, under difficult circumstances, and its future should be clearly spelt out by the Minister.
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : It gives me great pleasure to be the last but one speaker in this debate to offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) on bringing forward the Control of Pollution (Amendment) Bill. No one was more pleased than me when I heard that my hon. Friend had drawn No. 7 in the private Member's ballot, lottery or raffle, as it has been called, but-- like the hon. Member for Southwark, Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--I had a tiny tinge of regret that I had not had the opportunity to bring forward such a Bill. When I heard that my hon. Friend had chosen this subject, I was delighted, and I was even more delighted to know that I would be at the Dispatch Box to ensure that the Bill gets on to the statute book.
It is quite strange that this Bill has the full support of all hon. Members who have spoken today. Perhaps the only item of contention was the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) about what will happen to the office premises of the London Waste Regulation Authority when other proposals are put forward for county hall. I hope that the Government's new-found commitment to environmental and green issues will ensure that only the best office space is available to the LWRA so that it can carry out its valuable work in the capital city.
The Bill does not simply have the support of all hon. Members who have spoken this morning. It also has the support of waste regulation authorities and the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that she has been able to persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment that every clause in the Bill should receive the Government's full support.
Column 1304I also welcome this debate because it follows the most important debate in the House yesterday. I want to relate my comments to the important issue of waste management and disposal and the much-needed duty of care, for which we have been waiting for some considerable time. It is no coincidence that the first step towards getting that urgent legislation, the need for which has been shown clearly by all hon. Members today, has been taken by the Opposition.
During this debate we have heard many details about the implications in the Bill for local government. I was grateful for the comments from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) who spoke in his capacity as the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. He referred to new information and told us that in one London borough there is 1 million tonnes of dumped waste. The LWRA and the local authorities must find the resources to clean up that great public health problem. It is not simply a problem for every inner and outer London borough, it affects the whole of the country.
When the Government address the many wider issues which lead on from our narrow discussions this morning, I hope that they will pay proper attention to the way in which we dispose of refrigerants and CFCs. I hope that we shall learn how the Government will deal with the 13 per cent. vacancy rate among funded posts for environmental health officers. Instead of simply rate capping local authorities which are trying desperately to deal with these vital public health issues, the Government should seriously consider how local authorities and environmental health officers can be properly resourced to carry out their vital work.
I remind the House that we are considering controlled waste. Such waste is defined in the Control of Pollution Act 1974 as : "Household, industrial and commercial waste."
The 1974 Act states that :
"All such wastes may only be deposited on licensed waste disposal sites."
Although the full report from the Select Committee on the Environment will not be published until 8 March, I was grateful for the fact that the Select Committee has made its comments as they affect this Bill available now. However, we do not need those comments for us to understand the real need to take urgent action in the Bill. All conscientious Members, and all hon. Members who have spoken today are conscientious Members, are only too well aware of the real dangers to public health which arise fom waste problems. We all feel despair when we see large amounts of rubbish and building rubble dumped indiscriminately. Nowhere is safe. Local beauty spots, children's play areas and even main arterial roads have been used and are used as opportunistic dumping grounds by unscrupulous operators who are anxious to make fast money and a fast getaway.
Large contractors evade their duty of care principles by subcontracting responsibility for building rubble removal to smaller firms which, in turn, offer attractive rates to cowboys to get rid of the rubbish without too many questions being asked.
When I was a local councillor I watched a wagon full of rubble being dumped onto a site which had just been acquired by a local authority for new house building. I had called out the police and local environmental health officers in my capacity as a councillor, but I could do
Column 1305nothing to stop that lorry which in the process of dumping its rubble broke a main gas main which was just below the surface of the water. Everyone must be aware of how serious is the problem and how urgent is the need for action.
Rather than incur costs at waste disposal sites and the costs for fuel to get there, it is far more remunerative for people to dump rubbish. There is a pattern of fly tipping in inner London boroughs which ring large development sites in the City and in Docklands. Even the Secretary of State's backyard may not be immune from the fly tippers and I am sure that he appreciates that.
Once established, a pile of builder's rubble often proves to be an attractive magnet for other unscrupulous tippers of more hazardous wastes. In Lambeth, blood-contaminated hypodermic syringes, drugs and dangerous medical and toxic wastes have been found partially hidden on such sites. Apart from the general eyesore and public health hazard, the sites may become a dangerous play space for children. We must bear the public health implications in mind.
Regrettably, some local householders may add to the rubble by dumping old furniture, bedding and domestic waste. That combination of harbourage and food supply attracts colonies of rats, which are found in increasing numbers all over the country. I urge the Government to be consistent in their policies on waste and the prevention of pollution. It is our experience that the lack of maintenance of the whole infrastructure of public sewers is causing rats to leave the sewers to go to these sites, where there are huge problems with accumulated rubbish caused by fly tipping and cowboy operators.
The unscrupulous practice of fly tipping with its chilling lack of concern for the environment and the health and safety of the community leads to justifiable public outrage. It has been estimated that there are 1 million tonnes of fly-tipped rubbish in one borough alone. The information available before this debate, before we had the advantage of the information from the Select Committee, was that 1 million tonnes were dumped in the whole of inner London. The real figure is 1 million tonnes for one borough. That problem must be addressed.
The cost to London for removing the accumulated dumped rubbish is at least £5 million per annum. Faced with those facts and the way in which they have been highlighted in recent television reports, people are rightly demanding action to deal with the scandal. The Bill will introduce major new powers to provide the strength of purpose to combat what has become a national disgrace.
Every hon. Member, regardless of political party, has a duty to constituents and the country as a whole to combat this anti-social practice of tipping. The problem was outlined so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford and it has been well documented. The Government should have closed the loophole in the Control of Pollution Act 1974 long ago. But at least they have an opportunity to do that now.
The Bill is in two parts. The first part contains new enforcement conditions to register carriers of controlled waste together with the power to stop vehicles to determine whether the registration details are in order. If guilty of an offence, a fine of up to £2,000 may be payable. That new initiative, while useful, is not the sole answer to the problem.
Experience has shown that there may be difficulties in bringing a successful prosecution, and as hon. Members
Column 1306have pointed out today, magistrates impose inadequate fines. I agree that we should all do what we can to influence magistrates and stop them handing out derisory fines, as they have in so many cases. Stricter supportive measures are required, which are set out in part II of the Bill which authorises the stopping, removal and detention of the vehicle involved in the illegal dumping of controlled waste. Although he is not in his place at the moment, I was very pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, she will tell the House that she is in favour of the impounding of vehicles--which is crucial--and say that in Committee she and the Secretary of State are prepared to go further. The Opposition would have produced stronger proposals had we been sure of the full support of the Government. The Bill is constructive and positive and we wanted to ensure that everyone would support it. I hope that it will reach the statute book.
The justification for the most stringent punitive action is that the crime of illegal dumping, with its heavy emphasis on quick profit risking damage to the environment and to public health, necessitates immediate and positive sanction. Without the horsepower of their wagons the cowboys will be unable to operate.
Last year, New York city council introduced such measures as part of a package to improve the city's image and boost civic pride. As a result, 175 vehicles were impounded. Together with other action such as the removal of graffiti from New York subways, the city is beginning to improve its environment and reverse the downward spiral of inner-city decay. The adoption of a similar positive action here will lead to a cleaner city and a firm commitment to putting environmental issues back on the agenda--an objective which the Government claim to share with the Opposition, although the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I hope that the Minister will agree that if part II of the Bill is not perfect, any adjustment can be made in Committee. It is clear from the speeches we have heard this morning that many competent hon. Members will contribute to dicussion in Committee.
The Bill will receive virtually unanimous support from the public and from all responsible sectors of industry and commerce. It will counteract public concern about the inability of the authority to get to grips with the increasing problem of fly tipping. Good publicity about the Bill's intentions will ensure co-operation throughout the country. I have no doubt that lorry drivers in London and throughout the country who engage in such illegal activities will hear our proposals on their citizens' band radio and will be quaking in their seats, alarmed at what will be in store for them if they continue their anti-social behaviour. However, as has been pointed out, responsible contractors who accept their obligations will benefit if the Bill eliminates irresponsible cowboy operators. The House will be aware that the chairman of the Road Haulage Association's environmental and waste management committee is greatly in favour of such measures. Last year he called for more punitive measures to deal with the problem and counteract the feeling of inadequacy among enforcement officers in using existing legislation.
I hope that in Committee the Government will take note of the need to impound vehicles and the need for the regulations to be as stringent as possible. I hope that the Government will also take note of the implications for local authority services. Mention has been made of local authorities providing city amenity sites, and we have heard
Column 1307about the excellent public protection committee services provided by the former Greater London council. However many London boroughs and local authorities provide free collection of household waste and there is no reason why those services should not continue as they will not be affected by the Bill.
I urge support for the Bill. It gives us the opportunity to give public servants, constituents and honest contractors the legislative support that they need to stamp out fly tipping. The Opposition put care for the environment at the heart of all our policies, and it is not a coincidence that we have introduced the Bill. I look forward to hearing an undertaking from the Minister that we can proceed with all provisions in the Bill without further delay.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) not only on her good fortune in the private Member's ballot--hon. Members have been truthful in acknowledging that they have been tinged with envy at that--but in her excellent judgment in selecting the problem of fly tipping as the area where she hopes to leave her mark on the statute book.
The Bill has been promoted by a woman and the spokespersons for the Government and the Opposition are women and you, Madam Deputy Speaker are present. Perhaps there is so much enthusiasm for the subject because of our desire to do things in a practical and effective way. However, I shall leave such sexist remarks for the time being. With an increasingly industrialised economy, with economic growth, inevitably wastes are produced which are costly to deal with. The Government are committed to ensuring that all wastes, whether toxic and difficult, industrial, domestic, or really relatively inoffensive, are properly catered for in our communities. It is the Government's intention to undertake a major reform of our waste disposal law. That Bill will be introduced as early as possible during this Parliament. The groundwork for reform has been thoroughly prepared by a series of announcements and consultation papers on waste disposal law over the past three years. As a result, we are now bringing together a clear, coherent package of measures. We believe that that package should command the general support of industry, local authorities and, above all, the public. It is essential that the general public should have full confidence that our arrangements for dealing with wastes of all kinds are properly and professionally regulated and enforced.
Clearly such matters take time and consultation is important. Often an initial solution to such offensive and appalling problems is discovered to be wrong when all the various interests have been consulted. It is absolutely clear that many hon. Members who have spoken today, many of them representing London constituencies, have given evidence of the offensive nature of fly tipping, which is an absolute scourge on the environment. It is not an innocent
Column 1308matter ; it is a complex, sophisticated crime in which very large amounts of money change hands. None of us should underestimate the seriousness of the problem.
Many hon. Members involved in the former Greater London council have spoken, clearly resurrecting a long standing concern. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was concerned about the accommodation of the London Waste Regulation Authority--perhaps that was a legacy from his previous responsibility. He will be pleased to know that discussions as to its future accommodation are progressing well and there should be an announcement about its alternative accommodation. I know that the LWRA will appreciate his concern on its behalf.
Mrs. Bottomley : I am sure that the LWRA has no wish to prolong the long, drawn-out battle that the hon. Gentleman has waged for many years. The officers of the LWRA have a responsible, difficult and taxing job and we want to see them settled and established in a place where they can do that job properly and effectively. I pay tribute, with other hon. Members, to the work of the LWRA and to its professional approach and dedicated attitude, particularly to fly tipping. Recently, I spent a day visiting a number of sites with members of the authority and with its distinguished chairman. I was enormously impressed by the efforts made by the LWRA to co- ordinate a plan of action with the police, local authorities and public. The establishment of the hot line is an important ingredient because, when it comes to enforcement, adequate evidence is vitally important.
The illegal dumping of waste is a costly matter. It is estimated that in London, about 1 million tonnes of waste have been illegally dumped, costing the London waste regulation authority and London boroughs up to £35 million a year to remove. The Government strongly share the hon. Lady's wish to tackle that problem.
Before going on to discuss this Bill within the context of the Government's overall strategy of waste management, I shall make clear where the Government stand in relation to those proposals. We are able to give an unequivocal endorsement to the earlier parts of the Bill covering the registration of carriers. It forms part of the package of measures the Government hope to implement. It has been supported by the Select Committee on Environment and many others. I appreciate the remarks made by the Committee's Chairman, and his consideration in making a preliminary report.
As to part II of the Bill, while wishing to see greater, more effective enforcement, the Government have considerable reservations about the suggested means of achieving that desirable end, and feel that they are not the most effective means of dealing with the problem. We believe that the proposed powers in relation to stopping, removing and detaining vehicles require further detailed consideration in Committee. I appreciate the efforts made by the hon. Lady to establish co-operation, and the consideration that she has shown. We are all united in our commitment to getting the legislation right, so that it is effective and fair.
Column 1309that aspect will be further considered in Committee? Judging from the comments of many hon. Members, they feel that the Bill will be unworkable if the most stringent sanctions possible cannot be brought against those responsible for illegal dumping.
Mrs. Bottomley : It is our intention to bring forward comprehensive proposals for dealing with waste regulation generally. Our intention is that they will meet with support and co-operation from all parties, not only in the House but in the waste disposal industry and local authorities. Any system of regulation requires enforcement, and it is our intention to consider that aspect carefully and in detail. Later, I shall say more about the difficulties that arise. Enforcement raises broad questions of our whole system of criminal justice, police powers, and the procedures available in relation to matters such as road traffic offences. It is a detailed and complex subject requiring proper consideration.
Mr. Boateng : I see the dead hand of the Home Office dampening the Minister's environmental zeal. I do not doubt that her heart is in the right place, but I have heard those words before. We know that once the Home Office gets its hand on any issue, things suddenly become very difficult.
Mr. Boateng : Will the Minister do everying in her power to ensure that the punishment fits the crime? Does she acknowledge that, until now, the penalties imposed on the cowboys concerned have been derisory by comparison with the gains they make from their illegal activities? Will the Minister give an undertaking that such penalties as ultimately emerge will be of a stringent financial nature?
Mrs. Bottomley : If I can get a word in edgeways, I will give the House many assurances. I shall say more about penalties later, but particular aspects of impounding are not the same as penalties. Provided that the House gives the Bill a Second Reading, which I am sure it will, we shall be able to spend longer considering every aspect in Committee.
Within our own proposals, we believe that measures can be taken that will effectively ensure that the increasingly criminal and sophisticated crime of fly tipping is properly dealt with and that some of the worst perpetrators of that deplorable activity are no longer able to escape without redress.
Today's debate gives a useful opportunity to set out the Government's policies on waste disposal, and to discuss fly tipping in that context. I shall explain what the Government will do to improve the law and to reform the authorities that enforce it. Part I of the Bill effectively forms an advance piece of that main legislation. In making proposals, it is essential that environmental controls command public confidence. The existing waste regulation system has too frequently failed that test, and evidence of that has been given by hon. Members today. Sometimes, public impressions are unfair and too readily affected by a few isolated but well- publicised waste disposal incidents. When the waste disposal industry is good, it is often very very good. But when it is bad, it is horrid. The public is right to demand that the worst should be brought up to the standard of the best. Only then will public confidence be fully restored-- and that is the Government's objective.
Column 1310We must carry the industry with us. Enthusiasm for tough environmental laws preoccupied with bashing the industry is no substitute for a system that works. No system of legal controls will work in practice unless it has the consent and co-operation of most of those who have to abide by it. That means that we must take into account the contribution of industry when deciding how to safeguard and improve the environment. Responsible industry--and that is most of industry --welcomes high environmental standards. As has been said today by many hon. Members, responsible contractors have nothing to fear from a proper system of registration and enforcement. It is often the criminal element that undermines the efforts of the responsible element and makes its cost margins almost untenable.
Mr. Frank Cook : The Minister countermands her own statement. The responsible sector of the industry does not need the measures in the Bill. It welcomes them, and penalties are unnecessary for it. Responsible operators will gladly conform to whatever requirements are made, and it is in their interest to do so. Penalties are required only in respect of the criminal element.
Mrs. Bottomley : The hon. Gentleman surely appreciates that the Bill is not only about penalties but registration. We are anxious to ensure that the registration system does not make life so difficult for responsible contractors that they feel alienated by it. It is important to have an effective registration system that is tolerable and manageable. I reiterate that the responsible sector of the industry has everything to gain. Responsible operators, who behave in a law-abiding and effective way, are among those most outraged by abuses of the present arrangement.
When I spent a day with the LWRA, I visited Docklands, which is the biggest building site in Europe. I had the opportunity of talking to an official there responsible for waste removal. On that site, an embryonic system of waste regulation has been introduced, by which chits are issued and must be returned as evidence that waste has been taken to a legitimate and licensed site. That is one example of the way in which responsible contractors are on our side. We are anxious to continue consultations and to behave in a way that meets with general agreement.
Mr. Simon Hughes : The general view of residents in Docklands is that the combination of the local authority and the Docklands corporation is not dealing with the problems caused by the construction industry. Pollution often spills into the roadways and pavements. There are complaints about noise pollution. Enforcement and self-regulation are not working. I hope that the hon. Lady does not hold the view that people are generally happy and that things are satisfactory ; they are not. There are great problems associated with construction, particularly in an area such as Docklands.
Mrs. Bottomley : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is why we support the registration of carriers on a statutory basis. I hope that I can manage to talk about some of the other measures that we are considering to improve and update waste management generally. We believe that there is a firm and proper place for regulation which is enhanced, more comprehensive, and deals with more of the loopholes. I hope that it will meet with the hon. Gentleman's approval.
Column 1311Many firms are taking a lead on environmental improvements. Industry, local authorities and Government together must work out a legal framework that ensures the highest practicable environmental standards without imposing excessive costs for overly bureaucratic burdens. That objective underlies our package of waste reforms. The Government's reform of waste disposal law will build on the present system laid down in the Control of Pollution Act 1974, which was a pioneering measure at the time. The principles in that Act have stood the test of time, in particular the idea of disposal site licensing by local authorities. The Government plan legislation on two fronts : first, to tighten and extend the existing controls and, secondly, to reform regulatory authorities.
I hope that the hon. Member for Deptford will agree that fly tipping is a manifestation of a system of waste disposal regulations and supervision that has gone wrong. The act of fly tipping must be seen within the chain of waste production and disposal. That is why I should like to examine some of the proposals in more detail. Last June, the Government announced the main elements of tightening and extending controls. Controls and legal responsibility over waste should extend throughout the life of the waste. From the original producer to the ultimate disposer, all who handle or treat waste should share a responsibility for its safe and proper disposal. As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, the key measure will be the duty of care. Anyone who produces or holds waste will be under a statutory duty to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe and proper disposal of waste when consigning it to someone else. No longer will a producer be able to give waste to the first person appearing with a tipper truck at the factory gate. If he does, and that waste turns up illegally dumped, the producer will be liable to prosecution.
In regard to some of the sites that I visited in the east end, the London Waste Regulation Authority knew precisely where the waste came from, but, unless the fly tipper could be seen in the act of fly tipping, it was not possible to take action against the producer. When we introduce a duty of care on the producer of waste, he will be liable when waste can be traced back to him, which is sometimes a much easier job than catching somebody in the act of fly tipping, which may take all of two minutes, with an effective band of supporters with car telephones or radios keeping guard.
Expert waste firms, large waste producers and those producing difficult waste will be expected to check rigorously on what happens to their waste after it leaves their hands. That will mean selecting the best means of disposal, appointing a reputable contractor and ensuring that all the waste reaches its intended destination. They will be burdens on industry, but they amount to no more than many responsible firms already undertake.
The Government do not intend the duty of care to be inflexible or onerous. The steps which it is reasonable to expect will depend on the size and expertise of the firm and the danger posed by its waste. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) referred to the various types of waste and the way in which the duty of care will work. It will be set out in a code of practice to accompany
Column 1312legislation. Domestic householder's waste will be exempt altogether. For ordinary small-scale producers of waste from commerce or industry, the code of practice will require little more than that the waste should be consigned to a responsible destination. Such a destination might be the local authority or a properly licensed disposal site. It might also be a middle man--someone who will transport and, possibly, sort the waste before consigning it for ultimate disposal or for reclamation.
It is essential that producers have some means of knowing to whom they may give their waste to discharge their duty of care. That is why we welcome the establishment of the register of waste carriers ahead of the rest of the legislation. The hon. Lady is rightly and properly bringing forward the measure as a way of dealing with fly tipping, but it has a broader significance so that the duty of care can be introduced with all possible speed when the legislation reaches the statute book. It will provide a control over all those involved with waste between the producer and the ultimate disposal site. Carriers on the register will be identifiable and traceable by the producer who gives them waste and by the waste regulation authorities trying to stamp out illegal disposal. That is the context of the proposal which forms part I of the Bill.
As well as putting new controls on producers, holders and carriers of waste, the Government's intended legislative package will tighten the existing controls at the disposal end. We believe that the existing system for local authority licensing of waste disposal sites is the right one. Local authorities already have wide powers to set conditions on these licences and to enforce the conditions. The Government have recently issued updated detailed advice on site licensing. I hope that authorities will use their licensing powers in the future more thoroughly and vigorously than some have in the past. The council is the licensing authority, and it is up to it to write comprehensive licences and then to enforce them.
Many of the individual cases that come to my attention about certain incidents are a result of the waste disposal authority not exercising its present powers. We recognise that there are a few gaps and weaknesses in licensing powers. We are acting to fill them. It will be made more straightforward to prosecute waste disposers who breach the conditions attached to their licences. Authorities will be able to vet applicants for disposal licences. Only those with a clean criminal record in respect of pollution offences, with sufficient funds to operate and complete a site and with the appropriate professional qualifications will qualify for future disposal licences. Hon. Members have referred to some of the more complex materials that may be included in waste. It is essential that people appreciate that dealing with a site is not just a matter of digging a hole in the ground and throwing everything in. We need proper professional qualifications, scientific analysis and study, and a sophisticated approach.
We shall also be giving local authorities more power to enforce the long- term safety of waste disposal sites. There has been justifiable concern about the threat of gas building up or leachate pollution at completed landfill sites. Once again, good practice and modern technology are essential in waste management.
Local authorities and Government are working closely together to tackle these problems and make sure that existing sites are safe. Beyond that, we need to ensure that future sites do not pose a hazard. We shall empower
Column 1313authorities to impose conditions on waste disposers which require continued monitoring and care of sites for many years after completion until the site is safe. Licence holders will not be permitted to surrender or evade these obligations, and local authorities will be under a clear duty to police them.
We are proposing also to take fresh powers to deal with another matter of public concern, and that is the international trade in waste. It is not particularly material to the hon. Lady's Bill, but it is another--
Sir Hugh Rossi : The Minister's remarks are extremely interesting and important, but they have little relationship to the narrow point of the Bill, which is fly tipping. My hon. Friend is anticipating my Select Committee's report, which I am not allowed to discuss, as to do so would be in breach of the privilege of the House. She is able to declare the Government's position on my paper before the House has had an opportunity to read it.
Mrs. Bottomley : I am saddened and disappointed to hear my hon. Friend--for whom I have had long-standing and high regard--so cynically interpret my remarks. I have held my present office for about seven months, and have been longing for an opportunity to discuss waste. Unlike some of my hon. Friend's constituents, I do not regard this subject as a load of old rubbish. It is fundamentally important and extremely interesting. It is extremely important to tackle fly tipping and rubbish, which is of much concern to people even in Eastbourne and other parts of the country. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me. I will not say any more about the Government's proposals to ban the imports of waste.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : The Minister referred to Eastbourne and other parts of the country. I note that the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland. Given that the Government intend to support the Bill, will the Minister say whether the legislation will apply to Scotland? If she is unable to respond, do her hon. Friends at the Scottish Office intend to say something about the Bill?
Mrs. Bottomley : I am happy to inform the hon. Gentleman that the Bill will apply in Scotland, where some of the waste disposal issues are different. The hon. Gentleman spoke last night about municipal waste incinerators, and we had an opportunity to discuss the Scottish position from a slightly different angle.
The Government intend to reform the regulatory authorities so that they can properly enforce the steps that need to be taken. Too often, the waste disposal officer has little status and is little known. Most hon. Members are aware of the indentity of the person in charge of their police forces, hospitals, schools and roads, but insufficient hon. Members are aware of the difficult task of the waste disposal authorities.
Local authorities have no excuse for setting a bad example. At present, most waste disposal authorities are poachers and gamekeepers. They regulate and police waste disposal in their areas but also undertake much disposal directly. There should be no suggestion that an authority favours its operations compared with its policing of the private sector. Public and private waste disposal have their good and bad practitioners. Waste disposal must be properly and effectively supervised and enforced.
Column 1314Part I of the Bill effectively provides an opportunity to put in place, in advance, a piece of the jigsaw that we anticipate. Part I will introduce the registration of waste carriers. If the proposals are implemented at an early stage, the register will be up and running before the Government's main legislation on waste takes effect. It will enable the duty of care to come into effect speedily, which will benefit the new waste regulation authorities, the waste industry and, above all, the environment, about which the hon. Member for Deptford is concerned.
One of the strengths of the proposed registration system is its simplicity of operation. The carrier will present information to the waste disposal authority and, on payment of a fee, will be registered. The only reason he can be refused registration is if he has been convicted of a waste-related offence in the past five years. There is no barrier to someone of good repute starting to make their way in waste collection. We are not creating obstacles to legitimate trade, but if at any time he commits an offence and is convicted he may be removed from the register. If he continues to carry waste when unregistered, he will be guilty of an offence. The authorities will no longer have to catch him red-handed in the act of fly-tipping. This, together with other proposals, will be an important break-through.
When the Government's legislation is tabled, the producers and holders of waste will become liable to prosecution if they use an unregistered carrier for their waste. The intention is quite clear--to starve criminal carriers of business.
The hon. Member for Deptford, explained at length the thinking behind part II of the Bill. Many hon. Members added their concern that steps should be taken to enforce the regulations and prevent the perpetrators of fly tipping being able to continue their foul trade. Part II deals with the stopping and confiscation of vehicles. Although at first sight it seems an attractive proposition, there are some serious difficulties and wider implications that will have to be ironed out fully. There are a number of problems and complex issues, which I have already mentioned. We are not convinced that this is not the most effective way of achieving this goal, but we are most sympathetic to the objectives that the hon. Lady has in mind. It must be considered within the context of the criminal justice system, police powers generally and the treatment of other offences. The Government have recently consulted on proposals to make the owner of a vehicle directly liable for prosecution unless he can show that he took reasonable steps to ensure that the use of the vehicle was legitimate. This might be a useful step forward, but practical difficulties are arising from those proposals. We hope to explore them further and will have full regard to points made by hon. Members--especially the hon. Member for Deptford-- when further considering them.
Fly tipping is an offensive matter. We are all appalled by it and determined to tackle it.
Mr. Simon Hughes : I sense that the Government are not willing, at this stage, to deal with the owner of the vehicle or the vehicle itself. The consensus is that hon. Members want urgent action to deal with the owner of the vehicle and the vehicle. It would be better if the Committee legislated to deal with those problems rather than waiting for another period of consultation and consideration, which one can never guarantee will produce a Bill in the
Column 1315next Session or the one after that. Will the Minister support hon. Members in making the Bill as strong as possible?
Hon. Members have spoken of penalties. I share the view that many fines imposed by magistrates are inadquate compared with the great damage caused and the cost of cleaning waste sites. Magistrates have powers to impose much stiffer penalties. The maximum for ordinary fly tipping, if any fly tipping is ordinary, is £2,000. If the waste is poisonous, such as asbestos, there is an unlimited fine. Imprisonment of up to five years is available in the case of poisonous waste. The real problem is to inform the magistrates of the nature of the offence. Magistrates must deal with the facts of the case as presented to them and it is incumbent on the prosecuting authority to provide magistrates with chapter and verse on the environmental consequences of the offence and, most importantly, the costs of cleaning the rubbish away. Magistrates will then be in a better position to judge the seriousness of the offence and will be able to apply the appropriate penalties. It is important for the prosecuting authority to ensure that that information is before the court. We have heard today that many hon. Members were not aware of the scale and effects of fly tipping until they made inquiries for the debate today. Perhaps waste disposal authorities should remember that magistrates are often in no better position. Penalties are available to magistrates, but better information will help them to apply those penalties. There are signs that that is beginning to happen and in the last year, the first custodial sentence was given for the illegal deposit of waste.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) raised the question of recycling waste, and that is part and parcel of Government thinking. When proper costs are charged for waste disposal, it makes the economics involved in recycling more probable. We are promoting partnerships between industry, the Government, local authorities and other groups to help promote and enhance recycling.
I look forward to studying the Select Committee's report on toxic waste and I appreciate the contribution of its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. The Committee, with others, has given a great deal of thought to this vital subject over the years. We are committed to take powers to control and regulate waste and to ensure that that gains the confidence of the public and the co-operation of local authorities and industry. The Government's main waste disposal legislation will be brought forward as early as possible during this Parliament. Meanwhile, we welcome the opportunity the Bill gives not only to discuss these vital questions of great importance, but to put in place the register of carriers. I hope that the House will give this helpful and constructive Bill a Second Reading, so that it can be appraised in further detail and improved in Committee. I hope sincerely that we shall see an Act on the statute book this summer.
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Ms. Ruddock : I want to take a few minutes of the House's time to respond to the debate. On the question of penalties, I have been extremely encouraged by the way in which hon. Members of all parties have spoken in terms of strengthening the Bill. No one could be more delighted because I have formed a strong view that we need the penalties proposed in the Bill. If they went further, from taking the vehicles to confiscating them permanently, no one would be more pleased.
A message has gone out from the House today about the way in which magistrates already enforce the law. We are asking that, in this most serious offence which causes such distress to ordinary people, magistrates should look to the top of the scale, which allows them to impose a penalty of £2,000, and not at the bottom of the scale, as they do now.
I welcome the Government's plans as the Minister outlined them. I was aware of the consultation exercise and of the Department's interest in trying to bring forward a package of measures to deal with all aspects of waste. However, it is clear that the Government have had the opportunity to hold such consultations, draw up such reports and make such proposals for many years past. The reason I have brought forward my private Member's Bill today is that the Government have not acted. We are impatient and the people who are suffering from this manace are extremely impatient. Although I appreciate the sincerity of what the Minister said, we still do not know when the other measures will be brought to the House for debate.
I make no apology for wanting to push ahead with the serious measures contained within the Bill. I welcome the Minister's willingness to have those matters discussed in detail in Committee, but I am disappointed by the Government's reluctance to give wholehearted support to part II, although I am not surprised. I remind the House of all the comments that hon. Members have made today, which suggest that my thinking and advice that I have been given on the subject are pertinent to the task in hand.
Like the Minister, I want to comment on the presence of women as the promoter and sponsors of the Bill and the Front Bench spokespersons. Until a moment ago, we also had Madam Deputy Speaker in the Chair. Many Lady Members of the House believe that the conduct of debates and concern for the environment might be much improved if the number of women in the House were to be increased.
Mr. Tony Banks : Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, I wish to associate myself with all her comments. This has been a most auspicious debate, which has been made that much more interesting and intriguing by the fact
Column 1317that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) has been acting as PPS to the Minister. One can only assume that it is the long road back to the top again for him.