Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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Sue Doughty: It is my understanding—I stand to be corrected if the Minister has more recent information—that only 70 per cent. of councils report incidents to Flycatcher and it is not fully implemented across every council. Can he give us more news on that?

Mr. Morley: Flycatcher is relatively new and does not yet have 100 per cent. involvement. However, it is being rolled out and developed, and we are confident that we will achieve 100 per cent. involvement. In fact, I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that we have 99 per cent. participation in Flycatcher from local authorities, which is pretty good as it has been and is still expanding.

The Chairman: Order. May I bring the Minister back to clause 41?

Mr. Morley: Certainly. I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Taylor. I was responding to the wide-ranging debate that we have had, but you are right that we must return to the clause.

10.15 am

There are two points to bear in mind about how magistrates apply the provisions of the clause. First, we sponsored a very successful conference on environmental law in November, which considered training and ticketing magistrates and possibly having specialist magistrates courts to deal with environmental issues, because concern has been raised that some fines have not reflected the seriousness of the offence. Secondly, the Committee might like to know that we are working with magistrates to ensure that they are more aware of the impact of environmental crime. A guidance pack entitled ''Costing the Earth'' has been issued by the Magistrates Association to assist in dealing with environmental cases, and we welcome that initiative.

I assure the Committee that the clause is very important in establishing the level of fines and punishment.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend the Minister concludes, will he make it absolutely clear that serious fines will be a deterrent in urban fringes? He has talked about a database and deterrents through fines, but will he also confirm that
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the clause is part of a package of measures and that the Environment Agency is putting more resources into this area?

Mr. Morley: I can confirm that this clause is part of a package of measures, because we are not prepared to tolerate environmental crimes, which are serious, damaging, and an issue of quality of life. We need to address the problem through a range of measures including the training of magistrates, raising awareness of impacts, enforcement levels, working in partnership with the Environment Agency, local authorities and the police, using technology to track down and identify offenders, data capture, and the battery of measures in the Bill, which are effective and show that we are not prepared to tolerate such crimes.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 43

Clean-up costs

Sue Doughty: I beg to move amendment No. 94, in clause 43, page 37, line 35, at end insert 'and its legal disposal'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 115, in clause 43, page 38, line 20, at end insert—

    '(4) The Secretary of State shall make regulations such that where an offence has been committed under section 33 of that Act and no order is made to provide compensation for clean up costs incurred following that offence, the landowner shall not be liable for the clean up costs provided that he took reasonable steps to prevent the offence.'.

Sue Doughty: You were not able to be with us during our previous sitting, Mr. Taylor, when I had to wind up rather hurriedly to allow members of the Committee to go home on Thursday evening.

Mr. Morley: That was wise.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): Generous to a fault.

Sue Doughty: I am all heart. Amendment No. 94 is intended to ensure that we drive home the point that clean-up includes legal disposal of waste. It may be a pedantic point, but the Bill is partly about refocusing on waste and the need to do the right thing.

The problems relating to clean-up costs come back to the lack of convictions for fly-tipping, and we are worried about who is paying for the cost of clean-up. On Thursday, we started to talk about the lack of funding for the Environment Agency, which is an important point. In some of the information provided by the agency in preparation for this Committee, it highlighted some of the issues. Tackling waste crime in England and Wales costs landowners, local authorities
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and the Environment Agency £100 million to £150 million each year. The Environment Agency spends about £7 million on waste-related crime. Then we get to the interesting statistic showing that it dealt with about 5,400 waste-crime incidents in 2003, which resulted in more than 50 prosecutions. It is almost trying to say that 51 is better than none. Quite frankly more than 50 prosecutions out of 5,400 waste-crime incidents does not identify a lot of polluters who should pay for the cost of clean-up. The whole principle is that one finds the person who did it so that he cleans it up.

Instead, we have the problem that I outlined on Second Reading. Farmers and others who have waste dumped on their land will be left without a remedy. That is assuming that they report it. As I mentioned earlier, they do not always report it because they get stuck with the cost of clean-up. The Environmental Audit Committee's report found that —it has also been pointed out to me locally—some of the people at the Environment Agency who are responsible for detection, conviction and prevention are not necessarily of the highest calibre. Sadly, we are even less likely to get a conviction.

The clause says that the cost of removing the waste and cleaning up the land is recovered from the offender. If the Environment Agency is not getting convictions, how will we get the clean-up costs? The Government need to explain where the money will come from for clean-up costs. Why will nothing be done for farmers who may have been innocent and who may have done all that they can to prevent someone from backing into their fields and tipping two lorry loads of asbestos or 20 lorry loads of building waste? Farmers can shore up their defences, but if someone comes at night with a dirty great lorry or a dumper and decides to reverse in, knock the gate down and go to the other side of the field, there is a major problem. What will the Government do to ensure that the innocent are not saddled with the costs? Although the clause looks good on paper, in principle it means virtually nothing if we are not going to get the worst people convicted.

Under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, landowners and occupiers who neither caused nor knowingly permitted the incident to take place can appeal against notices served by the authorities for removal of fly-tipped waste or cost recovery. That means that the farmer has to appeal against what he should have done earlier, which was to clean up the site. He will not sit there with all that stuff when the Environment Agency is on his back to do a clean-up. In practice, as I mentioned on Second Reading and as was mentioned in the debate on the Environmental Audit Committee's report, farmers do not report incidents of fly-tipping. I see nothing in the clause that suggests that they would do so, even given the much higher fines. The clause gives them no justice. They will be landed with the problem and nothing in the clause will get a conviction and make the polluter pay.
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Mr. Ruffley: I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady's amendment and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley shares my warm feelings towards it. A number of concerns about clean-up costs have been made widely known by the National Farmers Union. For a while, it has been concerned to see provisions aimed at addressing cost recovery, but it also has concerns about the operation of the new regime. That is why the amendment may be needed.

In particular, the NFU has been concerned to point out that the identification of the true culprit behind any illegal tipping offence can be difficult. The landowner or occupier is not always the offender, but can be the easiest person for the agency or relevant officer to approach. That is in the nature of things; the landowner or occupier is a fixed person who is easy to identify, whereas more transient beings are less easy to identify.

The experience of the NFU is that many of its members have been penalised as the guilty party under section 33 of the 1990 Act. Although landowners and occupiers can appeal against notices served by authorities for the removal of fly-tipped waste, the NFU believes that they should not have to pay for the costs of enforcement, recovery and clean-up until the final outcome of any appeal is known. Could the Minister clarify the matter of the incurring of costs while an appeal is still pending in the case of a landowner or occupier who has been found guilty of fly-tipping and is subject to a costs order for enforcement and clean-up, but who wishes to appeal because they say that they are not the culprit? It would be useful to understand that matter a bit better, because it is one of the NFU's concerns.

Although we welcome attempts to recover costs from those convicted of a fly-tipping offence, it would be useful to hear the Minister's views on how many farmers and landowners are still likely to have notices served on them in cases in which they plead their innocence. Has the Minister any figures on the number of cases of farmers who are charged with illegal fly-tipping, is that number increasing or decreasing, and what is the quantum? Are there a few dozen, a few hundred or thousands of cases a year?

I close my remarks by saying that that fine organisation, the Country Land and Business Association, which is particularly effective in Suffolk, echoes the concerns of the NFU. It questions the wisdom of any extension of liability to owners who may have no control over the land in question. It feels that, at the very least, there should be a requirement for prescribed steps to have been taken by the authorities to identify a fly-tipper before the owner or occupier of the land is served with a notice. Has the Minister received representations from the CLBA to that effect?

With those points, I shall resume my seat. I give qualified support to the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

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