Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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Sue Doughty: A landowner may get planning permission for something that involves landscaping, such as a golf course, but may have no intention of constructing that a golf course. He may allow unlicensed tipping of, perhaps, construction waste, under the guise of landscaping. Does the Minister have a view about those particular circumstances?

The Chairman: Order. The clause relates to clean-up costs.

Mr. Morley: There is an issue of clean-up costs. That is a very difficult one, and yet another example of potential abuse that needs to be taken into account.

We have powers in the clause to enforce clean-up costs for those who are responsible, for those who have not secured their land, for those who have acted irresponsibly and for those who have acted illegally. I repeat that I have a great deal of sympathy with innocent victims, and in these crimes the vast majority of landowners are victims. The best way that we can help them is to have effective measures to deter such behaviour, to track the polluter down, and to prosecute and make them pay. That is how we have to deal with the problem. Hon. Members are worried that unreasonable costs will be imposed on landowners. If they are not responsible, costs will not be imposed. The way they deal with the problem will be a matter for them, and in some cases local authorities will assist them.

Mr. Evans: The Minister said that farmers who cause the waste themselves will quite rightly pay. I know of a farmer who had a dispute with a local authority and left rusting farm implements in a very visible area of his farm. He should quite clearly pay for the removal of that waste. Where a farmer also takes money, it is again quite right, because he has turned his farm into a tip and clearly that should not be allowed either.

In this amendment, we are fighting for the innocent farmers. The assurance we want from the Minister is that, under clause 43 on clean-up costs, if the farmer is an innocent victim he will not pay the clean-up costs.

Mr. Morley: I really cannot give that assurance because, in the end, someone has to meet that cost. The problem is that, if the cost fell on the local authority, then there is little incentive for those who are unscrupulous to secure their land, or to take steps to minimise waste. So it is a very difficult issue to deal with, even though I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the vast majority of people are innocent victims. We must ensure that we take steps to stop this practice. I welcome the fact that, in many cases, local authorities work with landowners in dealing with waste.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I understand the point that the Minister is making. Might he consider issuing guidance, so that some account is taken of the circumstances in difficult cases when a farmer is entirely innocent?
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Mr. Morley: It would not help in the end, because the issue is the removal of the rubbish. Responsibility lies with the people who put it there. We all know, however, that those people cannot always be tracked down. In those circumstances, it is the responsibility of the landowner. However, if they are not involved, the powers and orders that can be applied to force them to take steps—which can involve considerable cost—would not be applied. If they felt they were being unreasonably applied, there is the option to appeal against that.

I very much hope that I have answered all the points raised, and that the Committee can support the clause.

Sue Doughty: I would like to deal with these two amendments separately. We take on board the Minister's comments on amendment 94, that it is an intrinsic part of the regulations that legal disposal is part of the cost of removing waste. We will seek to withdraw amendment No 94, but I will move amendment No. 115 formally and press it to a vote.

One of my first questions to the Minister was about how we will get convictions in order to pay the clean-up costs. At present, we have a victim but no one pays the costs. The Minister was unable to say that if a farmer had taken reasonable steps to prevent the offence he would not be liable for the costs. He talked about tracking down the person who did it. We know already that the Environment Agency is not tracking such people down. West Surrey farmers made it clear that two things happen if they report incidents to the Environment Agency in the hope that it will try to convict the perpetrator. First, it gives up very early on in the chase, and secondly it tells the farmers to clean up, so they bear the costs. That is unjust. There is no natural justice in this whole approach. It is making the farmers the victims, and it is legitimising a practice that is already taking place.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Lady agree that when Ministers say that they have to incentivise farmers to make their land secure, which is covered in her amendment, they must also incentivise the Environment Agency and the other authorities to ensure that they are encouraged to track down the people who are tipping waste? If they always believe that the landowner will ultimately pay the costs of clean-up there is no incentive for them to catch these tippers.

Sue Doughty: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. That is so. When I attended a parish council meeting last week about fly tipping on Stringers common in Worplesdon, it was clear that it had given up on the Environment Agency. The agency should have installed cameras to track down those responsible for what was happening, but it was left to the local bobby and the parish council to do all that they could to identify who was doing the fly tipping. That is not adequate.

We have tried to get more funding into the Environment Agency as it will deal a lot more with clean-up. Although we may dispute whether it is £12 million or £7 million—it is an honest difference of opinion—the structure is not there to get a conviction.
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We cannot deal with clean-up costs in that way. The Minister has failed to get farmers, who are genuinely innocent victims, off the hook.

Mr. Morley: I shall make two points. I repeat that I have every sympathy with the vast majority of farmers and landowners who are perfectly law abiding and respectable. However, if the full costs of the clean-up fell on local authorities and local council tax payers, which is where it would go, what would prevent unscrupulous minorities in every walk of life from putting rubbish on their own land and expecting council tax payers to pay for its removal? In fact, there is even a possibility of making money out of such criminal activity.

Secondly, the hon. Lady referred to the funds available to the Environment Agency. The additional cost implications of this problem are enormous. I do not know whether this is another issue to go on the Liberal Democrat shopping list, but there are costs that she must take into account if she wants to be responsible.

Sue Doughty: On the first point, if something is fly-tipped on to the local authority's land—on a verge, for example—the public purse already picks up the costs. This is inconsistent.

Mr. Morley: It is the landowner, so it is consistent.

Mr. Evans: The case of the landowner who has clearly not secured his land and ends up with waste tipped on it is dealt with in the amendment. He would pay the clean-up costs. However, where it could be clearly shown that he had taken due regard to protecting the property from fly-tippers, he could not be held to blame.

Sue Doughty: That is a powerful point. Many farmers have already secured much of their land. They have problems with illegal incursions by travellers, and in many cases protection is in place. A specific group is involved. We invited the Government to allow the Environment Agency to retain fixed penalty notice fines, and they were not having any of that. We identified a source of some if not all of the costs; but no, that could not be used. We found a way of funding or part-funding the proposal, but the Government said no. We are still deeply dissatisfied with the Government response, and we shall press amendment No. 115.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment No. 94.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 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.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Division No.
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Doughty, Sue
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Green, Matthew
Ruffley, Mr. David

Ainger, Mr. Nick
Bradley, Peter
Drew, Mr. David
Follett, Barbara
Hall, Mr. Patrick
Michael, Alun
Morley, Mr. Elliot
Tipping, Paddy
Wright, Iain

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 44

Forfeiture of vehicles

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Ruffley: The clause deals with the introduction of a possible ruling by the courts for the confiscation of vehicles of those convicted of an offence under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Legislation on the confiscation of property should be dealt with sensitively and with due regard to the possible effect on the person convicted. Of course someone who is guilty of, and sentenced for, illegal fly-tipping should receive the appropriate sentence. The question is whether the sentence is always proportionate. In cases for which the criminal law provides for confiscation of property, one should consider the circumstances and whether the system makes bad people worse.

I do not think that anyone would have difficulty with the idea of the courts cleaning out the bank accounts of convicted drug dealers and confiscating such property as they had. However, it is to be hoped that any court considering making an order under clause 44 would take account of the likely effects of confiscation on the convicted person's employment prospects and livelihood. I should like to hear what assessment the Minister's Department has made in that respect. Has he considered the case of someone on the minimum wage who is convicted of such an offence? A reasonable fine may be imposed on them, but then a confiscation of property order may be further imposed. Is it enough to say that magistrates will use their discretion when it comes to the forfeiture of vehicles? People could be left out of jobs and money, and families could be affected.
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11 am

I wonder what examples the Minister can give from other areas of criminal law of the confiscation of vehicles or the tools of one's trade, albeit those of a convicted person. No one doubts that such people deserve punishment, but sometimes the punishment can have consequences way beyond the censure of the law and proportionate punishment. Can the Minister describe any analogous parts of criminal law to give us comfort that something as potentially serious as the forfeiture of a vehicle will not lead to destitution, unemployment and a disproportionate penalty on the convicted person? I look forward to the Minister sharing some perspectives on analogous parts of the British criminal justice system as it relates to forfeiture of property such as vehicles.

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Prepared 25 January 2004