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Fly-tipping: Penalties

Volume 681: debated on Thursday 1 October 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting me the opportunity to have this Adjournment debate. I am also grateful to the Minister for coming to the House to respond.

Fly-tipping is an issue that blights too many of our communities. It happens in cities, in towns and in the countryside. Those dumping range from selfish individuals to criminal operators, but the effect is the same: the law abiding suffer, and on private land the law abiding are made to pay. Peterborough is a proud city. My constituency also takes in the fens around Eye, Thorney and Newborough, so I see fly-tipping in all its forms, and, quite frankly, I have had enough of it. The people of Paston, Bretton, Werrington, Ravensthorpe and Millfield have also had enough.

At the 2019 election, I put tackling fly-tipping at the very top of my list of priorities. Some argued that this was a local council issue, but I make no apology for demanding action. I know that Peterborough City Council is working hard to tackle the problem, but we all need to do more to help, including the Government. I regularly report fly-tips as I walk around the streets of Peterborough, and on several occasions I have even rolled up my sleeves and cleared up the fly-tips myself.

The village of Newborough regularly has to put up with fly-tips and mess on roads and around the community. The junction of Norwood Lane and Newborough Road is a particularly bad hotspot that many election candidates visited in the run-up to the 2019 Peterborough by-election. Rubbish piles up high and many have stories of travelling for miles to dump rubbish in this spot. It costs Peterborough City Council tens of thousands of pounds to clear up, and even the Daily Mail called it the most fly-tipped road in Britain.

This problem does not stop with rural locations. In the city of Peterborough itself, we are sick and tired of people making our neighbourhoods dumping grounds. People have even said to me that seeing fly-tips, especially during the isolation of lockdown, affected their mental health. The council does a good job and often clears up after 24 hours, but people are beginning to think that this is almost a service. We need more CCTV and stricter fines.

I could talk for hours about specific problems in Peterborough, but I want to return to the overall picture and what the Government should be doing about it at a national level. There are three acknowledged drivers of fly-tipping, large and small: cost, because dumping waste means not having to pay for it; facilities, which can sometimes be difficult to access; and attitude, of the lazy and selfish who want to make their waste somebody else’s problem. I would add a fourth driver, which is acceptability. When some people regularly see fly-tips, they think it is acceptable. Almost half of recorded fly-tips occur on pavements and roads, and these are often carried out by copycat offenders.

Certain locations become hotspots where fly-tipping becomes the norm. I will refer to private land, which the figures do not properly capture, but I am talking now about the cases recorded by councils. A third of cases are classified as equivalent to a small van load, which are often little white vans of illegal operators. Another third of cases would apparently fit in the boot of a car or less. That is the description in the official statistics. I do not know whether our statisticians regard a mattress as fitting a car boot, but mattresses are definitely among the most common items dumped in my city.

When mattresses are dumped and are not removed, other people take the opportunity to add their own rubbish. The mattress is joined by a broken buggy, a dilapidated table, an old fridge, boxes and bags. As the council’s contractors will be coming anyway, why not? It beats the hassle and cost of the tip or arranging a proper collection. That is why we should alter our approach and treat fly-tipping like we do antisocial behaviour; I call it zero tolerance. Obviously innovations help, including advertising dates for bulky waste collection, and improving access to other facilities and services. But above all, we need a quick removal blitz from hotspots and proper punishments.

I want to acknowledge that the Government recognise there is a problem. I welcome previous actions, particularly the introduction of fixed penalty notices for small offences, along with the power to seize vehicles. The ability for a householder to be fined if waste can be traced back to them was an important change, and the Environment Agency has also been given more funding.

However, an emphasis on localism and local approaches must not become an excuse. It may be tempting to think that fly-tipping is now down to local authorities to combat, but what they need is the right guidance, the right support and the right tools—and those are still limited. The work to secure tougher penalties is not in place, nor is a zero-tolerance approach being promoted or resourced, so we cannot say it is just down to councils. It is not clear to me that any council has had notable success on this. The reality is that fly-tipping is with us just as much as ever, and it appears to be getting worse.

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, and I congratulate him on bringing forward this very important debate. I am sure he agrees with me and those around the Chamber that one of the pressures on local authorities has been a significant increase during lockdown of people fly-tipping because of their inability to access recycling and other centres. Does he agree, however, that the cost to local authorities such as Warwickshire—£650,000—when budgets are already under huge pressure, is just too much?

The hon. Member makes a very important point about the national lockdown and the impact this has had, as well as about the cost associated with clearing up these fly-tips, and I will come on to those specifics. The national lockdown has had very different effects and, unfortunately, life is far from back to normal. My own anecdotal evidence in Peterborough does not lead me to expect any drop in numbers of fly-tips over time; if anything, the reverse is true.

My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the attitudinal change during lockdown, as was picked up by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) as well. The people of Muggleswick, Weardale and Knitsley in my constituency have seen huge increases during lockdown. Does my hon. Friend fear, as I do, that unless we see a change to the attitudinal change driven by lockdown, we are going to see this problem persist well into the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If anything, I think the problem has got worse. A survey that sampled councils in August suggested that over half are experiencing high volumes of fly-tipped waste. The possibility was foreseen in the Government’s own pandemic guidance to councils in April, which noted the potential for increased fly-tipping, especially where collections have failed.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend while he is making progress, but in my own constituency, around Totnes and Dartmouth, we have seen a significant increase in fly-tipping. There has also been a problem with access to recycling centres, and in finding a balance in being able to allow such access to prevent people from littering the countryside and ruining our historic areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Again, my hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. In Peterborough, my experience is that fly-tipping dropped almost by a quarter when a new super-recycling centre was opened. Huge progress was made, but I fear that a lot of that progress has been lost. There is a clear distinction between clearing fly-tips and enforcement, and I hope the Local Government Association is wrong when it concludes that the unfortunate reality is that enforcement will not be prioritised at this time, and this is likely to have a long-term impact on waste management services.

Sometimes evidence is easy to find. One fly-tip on the site of a local Peterborough business was actually traced back to a Peterborough City Labour councillor not because of rooting through the fly-tip, but because of the enormous “Vote Labour” poster that featured front and centre of it. However, to their credit, the family of the councillor in question cleared up the mess personally when it was pointed out to them that that might be a decent thing to do. It was revealed that they had paid an unlicensed trader to dispose of it. Unfortunately, this is becoming too much of a business for people who would profit from this disreputable way of clearing rubbish.

One positive this year was the Budget, in which the Chancellor announced £2 million to improve the evidence about where fly-tipping happens and the best ways to deter it. I would welcome an update from the Minister on how that work is progressing.

The law makes fly-tipping a criminal offence. The sentencing guidelines were updated several years ago. They allow courts to hand out a maximum fine of £50,000 or a maximum sentence of 12 months. The problem is that this rarely happens. To date, there have only ever been a handful of maximum fines issued to fly-tipping criminals.

I fully agree with all the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. I have taken photographs of fly-tipping at the roadside where there has been a broken number plate from a car tipped with other rubbish and asked the authorities to follow it up. The trouble is that all the other demands on the police and local authorities mean that they really struggle with that. Even before the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the number of cases of fly-tipping in 2018-19 versus 2017-18, with up to 12,200 cases in Warwickshire alone.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying. In fact, a lot of this problem comes down to guidance. Councils should be given much clearer, much stricter guidance from Government in order to tackle these issues. I will mention that at the end of my speech, which I promise Members is coming soon.

Some 95% of sentences issued are fines of less than £1,000, and the most common penalty is £400. We badly need tougher sentences, not just in terms of the maximum punishments but, more importantly, in terms of those typically handed out. Sentences are not currently acting as a deterrent. I know the Government are committed to reviewing the sentencing guidelines. I appreciate that this is not directly in DEFRA’s hands, but I hope the Minister can give some reassurance that it is coming, and soon.

Although the council’s ability to hand out fixed penalty notices is limited to the less serious offences, it still managed to achieve 76,000. However, only 12,000 were for small-scale fly-tipping. That compares with 37,000 for littering and 26,000 for other offences. It comes back to the ability to catch people and the willingness to enforce. This is where the guidance needs improving. If an aggrieved constituent examines the Government’s guidance, “Fly-tipping: council responsibilities”, they will find nothing resembling the zero-tolerance approach that we need. I want to see a much tougher approach. I am sure that that view is shared by many hon. Members.

Much of this needs guidance from the centre. The guidance issued for local authorities, “Household waste duty of care: fixed penalty notice guidance”, was updated in December 2018. It encourages what it calls a “proportionate” response and says:

“Individuals should not be penalised for minor breaches”.

I understand why that is, especially when dealing with vulnerable people, but the tone and language is unhelpful. I would want guidance to reflect the language of zero tolerance, which I believe the people of Peterborough and the rest of the country are crying out for. Fixed penalty notices, as they stand, are inadequate. When the minimum penalty is just £150, many unlicensed traders, individuals and landlords will consider that a penalty worth taking a risk for. The level of fines should be considerably higher. Upping the penalties may require legislation, but I urge Ministers to consider it. In doing so, they would have the overwhelming support of the people of Peterborough and, indeed, Members of this House.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for securing this debate and giving us all a chance to raise this issue on behalf of our constituents.

Nationally, locating, managing and removing waste left by fly-tipping costs the UK economy about £600 million a year. Besides the financial costs, there is the impact it has on neighbourhoods and streets in places like Crewe. Across the Cheshire East area in 2019, there were 3,791 incidents of fly-tipping. That led to the taxpayer bearing the costs of clearing up almost 3,000 incidents. In the first half of 2020, there had already been almost 2,000 further incidents of fly-tipping.

Sadly, more than half of all the incidents across Cheshire East have taken place in Crewe in my constituency. The overwhelming majority of Crewe’s residents are proud of their town. They want to play their part in keeping their street clean and decent, and one they can be proud of. Sadly, all it takes is a small number of people to decide that they are going to put themselves and what makes their life easier first, and everyone suffers as a result. The people of Crewe have not taken this problem lying down. The local campaign group Crewe Residents Against Fly-Tipping has more than 1,700 members, and they diligently raise awareness of this problem and repeatedly report fly-tipping to the council.

That brings me to the issue of prosecution, which is just as important as the level of fine and making the most of the maximum fines available. Thanks to the local democracy reporting of the Crewe Chronicle and Chester Live, we now know that, despite those thousands of instances of fly-tipping, there were only two prosecutions for fly-tipping in Cheshire East last year. That is simply unacceptable. There is little value in having fines or raising the minimum level if prosecutions are not taking place.

I have spoken to residents who feel that they have provided enough evidence to the council when reporting fly-tipping, and again and again nothing gets done. In the long run, that leads to their not bothering to report it anymore, because they do not see the point. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline how we can ensure that local councils take the zero-tolerance approach to this issue that our residents want to see and that is fair to those who are investing their time in ensuring that their local area is one to be proud of.

May I first place on record my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for holding this debate? He has homed in on an issue that wreaks havoc in my constituency and, as evidenced by the debate, in constituencies across the nation.

Oh, I must speak frankly, Madam Deputy Speaker: fly-tipping doesn’t half get on my wick! I have absolutely no desire to talk around it. If someone fly-tips in their community, they are a criminal, and they must be treated as such. It is the epitome of selfishness, mindlessness and idleness. There is no excuse for dumping waste on other people’s doorsteps or in some of our treasured green spaces. In some cases, it is harmful to our natural environment and wildlife. In all cases, it is left to somebody else to clean it up. I know that my local authority does all it can to catch those who dump or drop and run. In the last week, my council has collected 21 mattresses from one estate.

Solving the issue is about making individuals who do not think at all to think twice. We have tough penalties at our disposal, but all too often, they are not applied. The guidance is not clear, and we need to give our councils the guidance and the structure they need to know that they can go and whack these people in the pocket. I must confess that, in the white heat of frustration about this issue, I have occasionally thought that those who fly-tip should have their dumpings unceremoniously returned to their doorsteps. However, I concede that when they go low, we should go high—and that should be high fines. Let us hit them in the pocket, making use of the £50,000 maximum fine.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe)—who wishes that she could be here for the debate—and our local campaigns that it should not be the job of the council simply to clear up the fly-tipped waste? Councils should give greater priority to going through the waste, investigating whose it is and then taking enforcement action.

Definitely. We need to make it clear to councils that that is where the responsibility lies and that, if they go to the trouble of applying big fines, we are on their side and right behind them.

I feel particularly strongly about this issue at present, given the recent efforts of communities to come together, do the right thing, be selfless, do things for their neighbours and make their communities a better spot. People have been out in the countryside enjoying green spaces more, because they have not been going to work, and it is wrong that one or two people should spoil it for the rest of us. I think about the work put in by the Thornaby community litter-picking team, who go out every Sunday morning—quite early, I might add—to do their bit to keep their community a place to be proud of. They are let down by one or two people, and it cannot go on. Twenty-one mattresses on an estate in Thornaby is just not good enough, and we need to do something about it.

A small minority are placing a huge burden on already overstretched local authorities. They cannot get off scot-free. It is not acceptable, and we have to do something about it. I really hope that today’s debate pushes the issue up the agenda. We must strive to ensure that all the agencies—local authorities, police, landowners and the Environment Agency—work together, in the knowledge that they are backed by everybody in this place, to bash out those tough penalties, hit fly-tippers in the pocket and find the solution that so many people are calling for today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) on securing this debate and raising this issue. That there is such a good turnout for a Thursday Adjournment debate demonstrates how fired up people are about this issue. My inbox demonstrates that, too; it is one of the top issues I get letters about as a constituency MP and now as the litter Minister.

I agree with all Members who have contributed to the debate that fly-tipping is unacceptable, and it is worth pointing out at the outset that it is illegal. I want to give assurances that I am committed to tackling what is basically a blight on society in every way, as has been outlined by so many so vociferously in this debate.

Of course, I sympathise with the victims of fly-tipping, plenty of whom contacted me during the lockdown, among them my own father. I grew up on a farm and he has to go out weekly to tackle incidents of fly-tipping. He recounted one again this very week, when he had to get the low-loader out and drive to a very remote track—I do not know how anybody ever found it—to retrieve another load of stuff that had been dumped there, so I certainly understand the frustrations. We all want to live in a lovely environment, and lockdown has highlighted how much we value our green space and our nature.

The Government remain absolutely committed to preventing fly-tipping, and I hope that what I am going to say will give some reassurance that measures are in place. Lots of measures have been strengthened, but there are lots more measures coming on track that I believe will help. Indeed, many of them have been mentioned by my hon. Friend, and I will touch on those shortly. Equally, however, I have discovered that, as with most things we touch in government, nothing is as straightforward as it initially appears, and it is not just a simple question of raising fines. It is more complicated than that, as I have discovered, and a lot of levers need to be in place if we really are to get to grips with this—and I really hope we do get to grips with it.

The role of central Government is very much to support local action, providing the legal framework of rights, responsibilities and powers, setting the national standards, and, where possible, making sure that the costs of dealing with fly-tipping are passed on to those responsible. I thank my hon. Friend for acknowledging that the Government have already acted. Over the past five years, the Government have given new powers to local authorities to tackle fly-tipping and strengthened those already available to them, and those include enhancing powers to search and seize vehicles of suspected fly-tippers and granting the power to issue fixed penalty notices of up to £400 to those guilty of fly-tipping and, as of January 2019 to those householders whose waste is found fly-tipped.

The levels of fixed penalty notices were set following a call for evidence, and the value of fixed penalty notices for those whose waste is found fly-tipped was confirmed during a consultation in 2018. So a lot of work went into fixing those penalties when they were raised. Fixed penalty notices provide local authorities with an efficient mechanism to hold fly-tippers to account without having to go to court, which can be time-consuming, resource-intensive and expensive.

Should a local authority take someone accused of fly-tipping to court, the sentences available to the court are severe. Upon conviction in a magistrates court, fly-tipping is punishable by a fine of up to £50,000, 12 months’ imprisonment or both, and the punishments increase to an unlimited fine, up to five years’ imprisonment or both if convicted in a Crown court. Sentences for fly-tipping offences are handed down based on the environmental offences sentences guidance published by the independent Sentencing Council.

The guidance includes, however, a requirement to consider the offender’s ability to pay. Sometimes we get the criticism that the courts are not setting high enough sanctions or fully using the penalties and fines within their powers, but there is a requirement when deciding on the severity of the sentence that consideration be given to whether the accused can afford to pay the penalty, and that sometimes leads to slightly lower penalties being imposed.

In 2018-19, 2,397 prosecutions were brought against fly-tipping offenders, which was an increase on the number for 2017-18. Of those brought to court, 2,052 were issued with a fine, which was an increase of 6% compared with 2017-18. The total value of fines issued by magistrates courts also increased to just over £1 million, which was an increase of 29% compared with 2017-18. So the figures are going up and the measures are starting to work. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough will say that is not yet enough, but we are on the right trajectory.

Those figures are really interesting and pleasing to hear, but 3,000, which is the national figure, when compared with 12,200 for the number of cases in Warwickshire, obviously represents a very small percentage indeed. I hear the points being made across the Chamber, but of course we cannot bash local authorities because they have had significant budget cuts and face huge pressures. I would like to see them do more, as I am sure the Minister would too.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but there are other measures that I believe will help local authorities, and there are certain reasons why they have been unable to tackle all the incidents he mentions.

We have previously worked with the Sentencing Council to amend sentencing guidance for magistrates, but I acknowledge that the sentences handed down do not always reflect the severity of the crime committed or the costs borne by the victim. It is for this reason that the Government committed in our manifesto to increasing penalties for fly-tipping, and we acknowledged in our waste and resources strategy that there is more to do to strengthen sentences, especially in magistrates courts.

Therefore, working with our partners in the national fly-tipping prevention group, which is chaired by DEFRA, we will continue to work with the Sentencing Council and the Judicial Office to explore ways of ensuring that the penalties handed down for fly-tipping are appropriate and proportionate to the offence committed. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough raised this issue, and we are working on the sentencing, so this is in train.

The national fly-tipping prevention group has previously published a series of fly-tipping prevention guides, which include a recommendation for private landowners to consider installing appropriate deterrence signage and CCTV cameras, in recognition of the part that such measures can play. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough for his suggestions. It is important to note that increasing the penalties for fly-tipping is not the only approach that can be used to tackle this unacceptable crime. As he alluded to, our waste and resources strategy sets out our commitment to prevent, detect and deter waste crime, including fly-tipping.

The Government have been significantly impacted by coronavirus, but my officials are working hard to deliver on those commitments. Even during the lockdown we continued working on the strategy and on the waste measures. This includes developing a web-based fly-tipping toolkit to help local authorities and others, working in partnership, to tackle fly-tipping. In Hertfordshire, such an approach, using measures suggested by the toolkit, has seen incidents of fly-tipping fall by 10% in the first year. I have been asked whether this is working anywhere, and this shows that some local authorities are being successful in tackling fly-tipping. Lots of those ideas have been copied. The toolkit is still being worked on but will be available shortly. We think that it will help local authorities, for example by allowing them to follow best practice from other local authorities.

I am aware that in some instances, where a fly-tipper is taken to court, it is felt that the penalty does not always reflect the crime. Therefore, the toolkit also provide advice to local authorities taking fly-tippers to court on how to present a robust case, because often they take them to court but still they do not get the correct fine. So help and advice is out there for the local authorities too, to go armed with the right data and so on, so that the magistrates or the Crown court will give out the correct penalty or fine.

We are aware that a significant proportion of fly-tippers are those who masquerade as legitimate waste carriers before illegally dumping their customers’ waste. We are therefore working to reform the waste carrier, broker and dealer regime, and the Environment Bill, which we hope will come to Committee very soon, will contain powers to introduce the mandatory electronic tracking of waste, which will obviously be subject to consultation. That will, among other things, reduce the ability of waste criminals to hide evidence of the systematic mishandling of waste, and deter illegitimate operators from entering the sector. It will help to ensure that waste is dealt with appropriately, reducing instances where waste is not tracked and drops out of the system, which unfortunately does happen. We intend to consult on these proposals in 2021.

The Bill, which we hope will receive Royal Assent in 2021, includes a number of other measures to help tackle waste crime. As well as granting the power to regulate for the creation of a mandatory electronic waste-tracking system, it will simplify the process for enforcement authorities to enter residential or abandoned premises under a warrant without having to wait seven days. The current requirement to wait seven days enables the evidence to be hidden, removed or destroyed, so that change will be genuinely helpful. A new power will also be introduced to search for and seize evidence of waste crime. So there is a lot going on.

The Bill will reduce costs and bureaucracy when the police seize vehicles involved in waste crime on behalf of the Environment Agency. It will do so by removing the current practice whereby that is automatically done on behalf of the relevant waste collection authority unless an Environment Agency officer is present, and it will allow the police to seize a vehicle on behalf of the regulator. It should speed up the process and make it quicker and more proactive.

In addition, the Bill will allow for the level of fixed penalty notices to be amended through secondary legislation, so the calls in this place for higher penalties could become a possibility through secondary legislation. So we are listening to all these comments.

These extensive new powers, which have been widely discussed with stakeholders, will aid us in our fight to ensure that waste criminals, such as illegitimate waste operators reliant on fly-tipping for income, are held accountable for their actions.

I am pleased to update my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough on the Budget, which allocated half a million pounds in 2021 to support innovative approaches to tackling fly-tipping. We are exploring those funding opportunities and priorities right now. We are considering the role that mobile and web-based applications and research projects could play in tackling fly-tipping. As my hon. Friend mentions, our annual fly-tipping statistics currently report fly-tipping incidents recorded by local authorities, but they exclude those incidents on private land. He makes an extremely good point, which has been raised by many other people. We are therefore exploring ways that we could plug that data gap by potentially using mobile digital apps to record information. That could be extremely useful.

Before I wrap up, I want to acknowledge the incredible pressure that local authorities have been under during the coronavirus lockdown. It has been mentioned by many people, but in all honesty, I and DEFRA have been working really hard with the waste industry to get those household waste and recycling centres open—which they have done pretty quickly, considering what had hit them. They shut down initially, but they are pretty much all up and running now. I pay tribute to the whole sector, which has worked so hard.

As you can tell, Madam Deputy Speaker, I fully sympathise with hon. Members on this issue. I recognise that there are a lot concerns. The case has been very well made. I hope it is clear that extensive action is under way to cut down on unacceptable waste. There is a lot in the waste and resources strategy and the Environment Bill, and the national fly-tipping prevention group is working on all these measures. I hope that that gives a bit of reassurance that we are trying to crack down on this problem. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough for bringing the issue to us today.

House adjourned.