Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Meacher: I accept that, and I share the hon. Gentleman's outrage. I am extremely keen for action to be taken. My view remains, however, that that will not happen without litter wardens or environmental wardens—call them what you like—on the ground. They can detect people dropping packaging, and they can follow up incidents, checking the source and taking appropriate action.

Of course, there is a cost problem associated with that, but the Government's policy is that the money from the penalties imposed on those who commit litter and, I think, dog-fouling offences can be recycled. For the life of me, I cannot see why more local authorities do not take up the opportunity that that policy would provide. We are piloting nine local projects to put people in such roles, and we are seeing what the consequences are. They remind me of parking wardens in Westminster; they are a source of considerable extra money and they deal extremely effectively with a serious social nuisance. The powers to take such steps are there, and we must ensure that they are used.

3.45 pm

The Anti-social Behaviour Bill takes forward several important proposals to deal with fly tipping—believe it or not, that is where we started half an hour ago. They include extending to waste collection authorities—not the Environment Agency—the power to investigate incidents of unlawfully deposited waste. They also include the power to stop, search and seize vehicles that authorities suspect of being used unlawfully to deposit waste—a power currently available only to the Environment Agency. That is a modest but not insignificant extension of the powers of local authorities, which I welcome. We are considering what further measures

Column Number: 243

may be needed, and we intend to announce details later this year.

Norman Baker: Does the Bill allow for an increase in fines for fly tipping, particularly for businesses? When the Minister talks to the Magistrates' Association, will he draw to its attention, if he has not done so already, the relative costs of a fine—where people are caught and successfully prosecuted—and of depositing waste legally? Some of the fines that are handed out are less than the landfill tax.

Mr. Meacher: The problem is not that the law reduces the potential for significant or big fines, but that the magistrates will not use them. The magistrates court can impose a fine of up to £20,000, although even I do not suggest that it should be more than that, except for very serious offences. I have asked how many £20,000 fines have been imposed in the past few years for littering or spreading waste on the highway, but I think that the figure is virtually nil. Magistrates are simply not using the powers that are available. If they think that the fine should be more than £20,000 for a very serious offence, they can find the offender guilty and pass him to the county court, which is allowed to impose up to two years' imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. The powers are there; the issue is the judiciary's commitment to use them.

I have examined various ways of dealing with the issue. I have been in regular touch with the Home Office about the work of the Sentencing Advisory Panel, which is studying guidelines on the appropriate penalty. I have had a meeting with the Magistrates' Association. We have issued new guidelines. I have written articles in the magistrates' journal. I am at a loss to know what more to do to push people.

The hon. Member for Lewes may be saying—he is reading my mind again—that we should have a minimum penalty in legislation. If I said so, I should immediately be told that the lawyers insist that that is not appropriate, because it does not take account of mitigating circumstances. One must therefore leave judges with some flexibility.

One can have a maximum penalty, but neither I nor the hon. Gentleman want that—I want higher penalties that act as a serious deterrent. I think that he will have to leave me to pursue the matter in the Government. I can give him an absolute assurance that I will not give up on it.

Mr. Anthony D. Wright: May I just tell my hon. Friend that there might well already be opportunities for the local authorities to reduce the amount of fly tipping? For example, two years ago my local authority limited the free collection of bulky items to two from each household, which has led to a fivefold or sixfold increase in the incidence of fly tipping. That has created a massive problem in my constituency. There are already issues for local authorities to address outside the law and opportunities to take the initiative, rather than have requirements forced on them.

Mr. Meacher: I very much agree with that. It is sensible to allow people some measure of flexibility so that they can get rid of bulky items, by refusing to collect them, for example. Alternatively, one could impose a charge of £10 for the removal of bulky items,

Column Number: 244

which is what the Liberal Democrats did one year ago in Oldham, where, for the time being, they have a majority of one. That was unwise, because despite the increase in income, which is difficult to measure, I suspect that there has been a disproportionate loss in terms of people leaving around large bulky items or fly tipping. One should work with the grain of people who wish to comply with the law, and not put too many obstacles in their path.

To conclude—hon. Members will be delighted—I agree on the importance of a strategy to deliver a more sustainable waste management system, which is why we have already developed a framework that is now in place and which we are trying to deliver. As hon. Members have heard me say—it is a boring record—the Bill is just one part of that delivery.

On the basis of that explanation and the interesting and valuable debate that we have had and on which I shall follow up, I hope that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will not press new clause 30.

Mr. Hayes: In respect of new clause 30, my answer is that I will press it, although I accept much of what the Minister said, and do not intend to speak for very long because we have had a long, wide-ranging, interesting and helpful debate.

The Minister's principal criticism of the amendments and new clauses was that they were too ambitious. However, if he reacquaints himself with new clause 30, he will have to agree that that is not so. That might be true of other new clauses and amendments—I will of course allow the hon. Member for Lewes to speak to his own new clauses. However, new clause 30 is not terribly ambitious, and is neither an insurmountable hill to climb nor an unreasonable target. To detach the Minister from his prepared text for a second, I remind him that new clause 30 says:

    ''The Secretary of State shall . . . within twelve months put before Parliament a strategy to deliver a year on year decrease in the volume of waste sent to landfill that shall be commensurate with statutory reductions in the weight and volume of waste sent to landfill as required by Clause One''.

That is, frankly, pretty sympathetic to the objectives of the Bill. Crumbs—requiring a ''year on year decrease'' is not asking the earth. Rather, it is asking for steady progress towards the targets that have been set for us and which are the driving factor behind the Bill. I see no great difficulty with that proposal—it is certainly not over-ambitious. Reporting progress to Parliament is simply a matter of proper scrutiny and an opportunity to debate the issues in the House and more widely.

The Minister talked about weight and volume and I take his point that there are difficulties and technical questions that one would need to examine closely. However, it would not be impossible to come to a sensible arrangement about volume, in which I should think a combination of technology and mathematics could be employed. I bear in mind the Minister's points on that subject, but I do not think that they are incompatible with the new clause because it is broad. It does not specify a ratio, as we did in earlier debate, but allows great flexibility; indeed, new clause 30 gives the

Column Number: 245

Secretary of State the opportunity to specify the formula that will accurately measure the significance of waste by volume against weight.

Although the vote will not take place right now, when the time comes we will press new clause 30 because it does not detract from the Bill one iota; in fact it adds to it. It would allow us to debate the matters more fully on Report. I am not sure that the Minister's principal criticisms of the other new clauses and amendments count as persuasively for new clause 30.

Mr. Meacher: Very briefly, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to press the clause to a Division, he will do so. However, I ask him two questions. First, does he have an answer to the methodological problems of measurement by volume? Secondly, the clause calls on the Secretary of State to specify a formula

    ''which accurately measures the significance of waste by volume against waste by weight.''

Why should that make any difference to the success of the strategy?

Mr. Hayes: Those are very incisive questions, and I shall attempt to answer them. The first answer was given in my explanation: the clause specifies that the Secretary of State shall make the judgment about methodological issues. I accepted the Secretary of State's concerns about the methods, and he made some telling points. However, I find it difficult to believe that it is impossible; there must be a way through it, and it is important that we find it. If we abandon any consideration of volume by simply concentrating on weight—the Minister acknowledged the significance of the issue when it was first raised on Thursday—it will not receive the consideration that it is due.

The answer to the second question is that it may be a growing problem. We do not know the relationship between weight and volume and how, or if, it affects the increase in waste. Unless we have some measurement, we will not be able to reach a conclusion about whether the challenges that we face on increased waste are principally problems of volume or of weight or both. If both, how do they relate to each other? The measurement is an attempt to assess the trend and the nature of the problem so that we can build it into the strategy. I acknowledge that the methodology would have to be examined closely and decided upon after proper consultation, scrutiny and analysis. Therefore, although I accept that there are difficulties, it would be useful to press the new clause to a Division so that we can debate those matters further at later stages of the Bill.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 10 April 2003