Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): Let me make it clear at the start that we welcome the Bill. All the evidence that we have seen suggests that the penalties are not strong enough to deal with problems such as fly-tipping, graffiti and the sheer volume of rubbish on our streets. In several Adjournment debates, the House has discussed how to deter people from committing environmental crimes. We know that action is needed. Although the Bill has drawbacks, the problems can be dealt with in Committee, resulting in an improved Bill.

We have to get across to people the message that they share responsibility for the appearance, the feel and the safety of our communities and that environmental crime matters. However, the Bill jumps around—in some ways, it is a dog's breakfast of a Bill, the result of the Government's failure over the years to consider whole
10 Jan 2005 : Column 62
systems for legislation. Now, we are left to tidy up. We have had a slew of legislation on tangential issues. The Waste and Emissions Trading Act 2003 was introduced solely to deal with reducing biodegradable waste, but it could have done so much more: it could have covered littering, fly-tipping and many of the other issues dealt with in the Bill. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which the Bill would amend, could have dealt more effectively with graffiti and fly-posting. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is to be dealt with in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, rather than in a planning Bill. I get the feeling that we are taking the populist approach of giving people what they want ahead of the general election, but we know that people are asking for much of what is in the Bill, so while we regret that many of the issues have not been dealt with before, we will support the Bill that includes them.

We want clean and safe communities. It is essential that there is much better management both of the big problems, such as fly-tipping and the damage it causes, and of the smaller, more mundane problems of littering and chewing gum that cumulatively spoil our environment. When a neighbourhood is littered, when graffiti is present and where fly-posting is rife, the area is degraded and degenerated. When we fail to dispose correctly of the products that we have used or no longer require, we have a mess on our streets, in our rivers and in our countryside.

The Government have a mess on their hands now. Total municipal waste increased by 19 per cent. between 1997 and 2003. We are at the bottom of the European recycling league and municipal waste is continuing to increase. Our streets are littered with more abandoned cars than ever before: in the past two years their number has increased by 37 per cent. to more than 300,000 a year. The amount of high-level radioactive waste has increased by 9 per cent. and no one knows what we are going to do with batteries. Fly-tipping continues to increase—by how much we do not know. Last summer, I forecast that fly-tipping would increase as a result of DEFRA's last-minute approach to the provision of facilities for hazardous waste, but the Government say that it has not—their figures do not show an increase. I went back to the people who were reporting the increase—the farmers on whose land lorry-loads of asbestos have been dumped. They tell me that, if they report the matter and the perpetrators are not caught, the authorities charge the farmer for tidying up, so they say nothing. There is a slew of unreported waste littering our commons, our farms and our countryside. It must be dealt with, which is another reason why we support the Bill.

I have met farmers who have repeatedly been stuck with the problem. Even if they have seen someone dumping waste on their land, the Environment Agency has not had the resources to follow up on detection so that it can secure a conviction and penalties. Under the Bill, the Environment Agency will continue to face a shortfall in its resources for detection. Getting a conviction and penalties is great, but detection is extremely important.

Mr. Drew: Does the hon. Lady accept that some landowners—only a few—abuse the system? Waste is brought in and they do not ask too many questions
10 Jan 2005 : Column 63
about what is being tipped. We need the Environment Agency to be more proactive about enforcement. Does she share my hope that the Bill will achieve that?

Sue Doughty: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point and one with which we must deal. There is a difference between people who are willing to litter the countryside or have their land used in that way and those who are innocent victims of others who arrive at night, dump stuff and disappear, to leave others with the cost. I am worried about the Bill requiring owners to clear their land if they were not responsible for the litter or the dumping.

It is amazing that the Tories are not supporting the Bill. They say that it

That is flawed thinking. Does the Opposition's amendment mean that it does not matter that streets look like tips? Does it mean that people should have to tolerate mess day after day? Does it matter that not enough is being done about abandoned cars? Do the Tories think it acceptable that someone living in a private house should set up a car dealership and park cars along the road to the detriment of the entire community? That is being allowed in Guildford, and nothing is being done to eradicate the problem. I am astonished. Do the Tories want fly-tippers to keep the means by which they commit their crimes and not have the vehicles that are being used for that purpose seized?

It seems that a hugely imaginative step is being proposed. It is one that the Environmental Audit Committee recommended, as did other bodies. We can start to see some remedies taking effect. If we are to have more building in the south-east on brownfield sites, we need to manage the waste that will be produced. Construction waste must be better managed and we must introduce legislation to deal with that issue, but the Tories oppose that approach. Will they be happy when construction waste continues to appear on farmland, in quarries and on commons? Is that what they want? They do not want to deal with fly-tipping on farmland, even though the National Farmers Union supports the Bill. Are they no longer talking to farmers?

The Local Government Association, which is chaired by the Tories, is backing the Bill. As I have said, the Tories are not doing so in the House. The Tories do not want spot fines for those who drop chewing gum on the streets, yet councils face enormous costs in clearing that nuisance. Westminster city council—I think that it is Tory run—spends £90,000 a year on removing chewing gum. There are 300,000 pieces of gum in Oxford street, but nothing is being done to change the disgusting habit of throwing used chewing gum on the streets. It seems that that is what the Tories want. Their approach is opportunistic. They are running after a bandwagon that is missing.

Dr. Whitehead: In pursuing the hon. Lady's puzzle about why the Conservatives are opposing the Bill, can she offer us any explanation? Was it Christmas? Was it a decision taken immediately after a long Christmas lunch? Has the hon. Lady any view on the matter?
10 Jan 2005 : Column 64

Sue Doughty: The hon. Gentleman tempts me but I will not go along that route. It is a question that requires a few moments in the early morning while we lie awake worrying about the matter. It is something that can be questioned. I am not sure about the reason.

I am worried that the Tories are not proposing anything to sort out the mess. Rural policy is wider than restoring fox hunting. The problem with environmental crime is poor management. Fly-tipping in the countryside is being left for landowners to sort out. There is a lack of management.

Dogs are out of control and present a nuisance. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said—he is no longer in his place—it is not a matter of urban versus rural. It is an issue that affects us all. If we are to get tough on crime, we must not walk away from environmental crime that ruins communities.

The Bill deals with what is obvious and visible, but it wills the end without the means. We want to ensure that funding is available to local government. It is clear that it will need pump priming. I accept that there may be savings in the end but there must be a realistic beginning. I was interested when the Secretary of State touched on that topic. I look forward to hearing more about it in Committee.

We are faced with increased mountains of hazardous waste. The door is wide open for cowboys and we need to do more to tackle the problem. There are only minor penalties on conviction for those who spoil our environment. Perhaps we are all in agreement that they are too low. They do not provide an incentive to stop the man in the white van agreeing to remove rubbish and then dumping it as soon as he can. They do not do much to stop fly-posting or anything to deal with the litter associated with street handouts. It is clear that the penalties need to be increased if they are to present real incentives.

As the Environmental Audit Committee said, we also need to ensure that courts are prepared to impose real fines and not opt for the lowest penalty when the issue comes to court.

The Secretary of State suggested that owners should limit access to sites subject to fly-tipping. We need to ensure also that when that is done a periodic review is undertaken. When alleys are gated off in urban areas or lanes in the countryside, there should be full consultation to ensure that access is still available to farmers and that they are not penalised.

The Bill could do much but it has weaknesses. There is the fixed penalty system. Who is handing out the fines? Are there opportunities for appeal? What is the position of persistent offenders? The garage to which I have referred—it was a private house a few years ago—constantly exceeds the number of cars that are permitted to be parked on the road. That situation is factored into its costs. A fine of £100 is probably not sufficient in those circumstances.

Will councils employ private contractors? If so, how will they be managed? In my constituency, and I am sure in many others, car clampers have come to work on behalf of councils. They have been predatory and disgraceful in their way of working. They have extracted penalties equivalent to a week's wages. There seems to be little opportunity of appeal and I want to ensure that people are entitled to justice when issued with fixed penalties.
10 Jan 2005 : Column 65

We have problems with parish councils that become litter authorities. I am not criticising the larger parishes that are successful and hold elections for their members but there are too many parishes where the members are unelected. I would not want an unelected parish council to have the powers that are proposed. If we want quality parish councils, we want elected parish councils.

Next Section IndexHome Page