Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations are a single composite statutory instrument which applies to both England and Wales but is made by the UK Government in relation to England and by the Welsh Government in relation to Wales. The Welsh Assembly is due to debate the regulations on 6 March. These regulations will strengthen the regulators’ arsenal to deal with non-compliant activity at waste sites by providing them with a further two powers: the power to restrict entry of persons and further waste to the site, and the power to require the removal of all waste at a non-compliant site.
Your Lordships are aware that, to minimise waste, our aim is to have a more circular economy so that resources are used more efficiently and kept in use for longer. A well-functioning waste industry, operating within a regulatory framework and in accordance with environmental permits or registered exemptions, is essential to achieve this. A small number in the industry hamper resource efficiency, damage the environment and seek to gain profit illegitimately by operating outside the regulatory framework. Ensuring that the regulators have a full range of enforcement powers is essential to bear down on that non-compliant part of the industry to ensure that waste is managed properly with no damage to the environment or to local communities.
Over the past 25 years, the nature of the waste industry has changed and government action has been needed to meet the challenges. As well as ensuring that the regulators have robust powers, since 2014 we have given the Environment Agency an additional £60 million for waste enforcement, and have recently published a consultation on proposals to tighten up the waste permitting and exemptions regime.
The two powers before your Lordships today are technical in nature. The development of these regulations included a public consultation in both England and Wales with a range of organisations, including various parts of the waste industry, the regulators, local authorities, householders and NGOs. The regulations insert new sections into the Environment Act 1995. It is a power just for the Environment Agency. If a waste site currently stockpiles more waste on its site than its permit allows, the Environment Agency is able to restrict access in certain circumstances. This can be done only in order to remove waste that is causing a serious pollution risk and only after giving a waste operator five days’ notice. This clearly limits the agency’s ability to act quickly to stop further waste entering a site and does not put the onus on the waste site operators to be responsible for waste on their site. The agency can also revoke a permit and close down a site, therefore restricting access, but it is not always proportionate to close down a waste site immediately if it does not comply with its permit.
This first new power will therefore fill this gap. The Environment Agency will be able to act immediately to restrict access by locking the gates or barring access to stop more waste coming on to a site. The Environment Agency will be able to issue an immediate restriction notice for up to 72 hours where there is a risk of serious pollution to the environment or harm to human health as a result of the waste on the site and action is necessary to prevent the risks continuing. The Environment Agency will also be able to apply to a magistrates’ court for a restriction order for an initial period of six months when there is a risk of serious pollution to the environment or harm to human health, or when an offence, such as a breach in permit conditions, has been committed which is resulting in pollution. No legitimate waste operator should fear the introduction of this new power. It has been drafted in a proportionate way and includes a right to appeal a restriction order within 21 days of the order being made. Access will remain restricted pending the determination of the appeal.
The regulations also introduce new sections into the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The second power will be available to the Environment Agency and local authorities in their capacity as waste-collection authorities, because both the agency and local authorities are responsible for different aspects of waste management regulation under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. As with the previous power, the Environment Agency and local authorities’ ability to require the clearance of waste at non-compliant sites needs strengthening. Currently, the Environment Agency and local authorities can require an occupier or a landowner to remove only waste that has been illegally deposited at a non-compliant site; for example, waste not deposited in line with the conditions of a permit. We are therefore extending the scope of the current power to enable the Environment Agency and local authorities to require operators or landowners to clear all the waste at a non-compliant site, so no waste is left at the site. The power will not be applied retrospectively and will include a two-month transition period. Like the previous power, we think it is proportionate for operators and landowners to have the ability to appeal. Giving the regulators these two additional powers will bear down on the non-compliant part of the waste industry with rigour, as part of our quest for a healthy environment for future generations. That is why I commend the draft regulations to your Lordships. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed introduction of this waste enforcement SI. There are many SIs coming down the track and a great deal of detailed and complex information for your Lordships to get their heads around. It is estimated that there are currently around 600 illegal sites operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Environment Agency already has the power to shut down illegal waste sites due to the damage they cause to their surroundings.
In 2016, the Environment Agency prosecuted 110 businesses and individuals for offences related to illegal waste sites. In some cases, landowners caught by this illegal activity were unaware of it taking place. Illegal waste sites are a blight on communities and undermine legitimate landfill operators. It is to be welcomed that the Government have listened to concerns raised by businesses and local communities and are taking action to tackle this crime—a crime which not everyone in society will recognise, but doubtless it goes towards the ever-increasing crime figures, which are regularly published.
In 2015, waste crime cost the English economy more than £600 million. This included lost landfill tax revenues and clean-up costs. It creates severe problems for people who live or work nearby, with odour, dust, litter, vermin, fly infestations, pollution and fires blighting lives. These criminals undercut genuine businesses that dispose of waste responsibly. The new powers introduced for the Environment Agency to lock the gates or block access to problem waste sites to prevent thousands of tonnes of waste illegally building up are very welcome. The powers will also enable the Environment Agency to force operators to clear all the waste at a problem site, not just the illegal waste, as the Minister has just said.
I have consulted with my local waste authorities and they report that there is little or no problem in Somerset with either waste sites operating without a licence or in breach of their licence. That is good news, but it would appear that the north of England and London are the worst-hit areas. During 2016-17, more than 850 new illegal waste sites were discovered by the Environment Agency. While an average of two illegal waste sites are shut down every day, they continue to create problems for local communities and businesses, as well as posing a risk to key national infrastructure. In 2013 a fire at a waste site in Stockport resulted in the closure of the M60 and three weeks of disruption to traffic, residents and businesses.
I am grateful to the Minister for sending me the sentencing guidelines for the offences committed by these environmental criminals. I found them most interesting. The range of classifications gives due consideration to whether the offence was deliberate, reckless, negligent or of no culpability; in other words, those who deliberately and knowingly flout the law and cause the most harm to the environment can expect the penalty to be severe, whereas those who find they are the subject of a breach of the law through no fault of their own, and little harm ensues, will be penalised at a much lower level. The range of fines, from £100 to £3 million, gives plenty of scope to the Environment Agency to ensure that culprits, both unwitting and serial offenders, realise that they cannot continue to flout the law and pollute the countryside.
However, I am concerned that the extra £30 million over four years that is to be made available to the Environment Agency to tackle waste crime, in the form of illegal sites and misclassification of waste, may not be enough. That sum sounds a lot but equates to only £7.5 million a year. Given the scale of the problem in recent years, I am not convinced that this sum will be adequate. I seek assurance from the Minister that sufficient resources will be made available to the Environment Agency to enable it to carry out its new legal duties to the degree that we all wish to see. That apart, I am happy to support this very important statutory instrument.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing these regulations and for our earlier meeting to talk through the proposals, which I found very useful. We support these new powers: obviously, they will help tackle illegal activity at waste sites and will be an important additional tool for waste regulation and collection authorities in tackling the growing menace of waste crime. As we know, this takes many forms, from fly-tipping by builders and illegal dumping on farmland to large-scale criminal activity involving illegal sites and operators misclassifying waste to evade millions of pounds of tax, and so on. It is definitely time to take action.
Diverting waste from landfill, and increasing our capacity to store, sort and treat it for recycling and recovery, has to be an essential element of a future circular economy based on the waste hierarchy. If it is done well, it will bring economic and environmental benefits. In that context, the majority of waste sites play within the rules and understand their responsibilities. Unfortunately, there appears to be a sizeable minority of sites which seem to take pleasure in stretching the rules or operating completely outside the legislation. Not only is this illegal but it creates an unfair advantage over the more responsible operators. As the Explanatory Notes make clear, illegal waste sites can cause pollution to the environment as well as endanger public health. They pose a risk of fire, water pollution and other irritants such as odour, litter and fly infestations, which can cause misery for nearby communities. All too often, it is left to public bodies and owners of land to clear up the mess.
The recent Environmental Services Association Education Trust report, Waste Crime: Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret, estimates that waste crime costs the UK £560 million a year. The Chief Fire Officers Association estimates that the cost of dealing with fires at waste sites across the UK is around £16 million a year. By any measure of cost-benefit analysis, it makes sense to crack down on the gangsters who are creating the problems in the first place, rather than leaving it to the public purse to clear up the mess. So these measures to restrict access to sites and to enforce clean-ups, as well as to fine and in more serious cases to jail those involved, have to be welcomed.
In this context, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, he referred to £60 million for waste enforcement—the noble Baroness mentioned £30 million, but I am pretty sure the Minister said it was £60 million. Either way, I reiterate the noble Baroness’s question. Is the Minister convinced that that is enough to give the Environment Agency additional resources so that it is able to use these powers quickly and effectively, so that communities will see real benefits? It does not seem a great deal if it is spread across the whole of the waste enforcement role, over a number of years.
Secondly, what plans do the department or the Environment Agency have to publicise these new powers to the public, so that the public themselves can become the eyes and ears of the regulators and report suspicious behaviour more quickly? I think I read in the Explanatory Notes that no additional resources were being set aside for communications, but I would have thought that that was an essential part of extending these powers.
Thirdly, is the Minister convinced that the courts will recognise the enormity of many of the clean-up costs and be prepared to set fines which will truly act as a disincentive for illegal operators? It does seem that many of the people involved are repeat offenders. Again, like the noble Baroness, I am grateful to the Minister for sending through the sentencing guidelines, which I found very interesting reading, but they are dated July 2014. It seems to me that if we are serious about enforcement, maybe we need tougher penalties to act as proper deterrent. We know that so far there has not been sufficient deterrent. Is there a case for reviewing and updating the sentencing guidelines to make sure that they truly become a deterrent?
Finally, what can be done to help legitimate owners of waste sites avoid becoming victims of crime? It is often difficult to identify who is doing the illegal dumping, and whether it is being done covertly or overtly with the support of the owner of the land or whether it is something that they themselves are a victim of. I know that the noble Lord talked about this when we met earlier, but will these regulations help the many thousands of farmers each year who are victims of illegal dumping? Obviously, some of them are landowners; others, as we know, just find fly-tipping on their land when they were never intending to operate waste sites in the first place. Either way, they are being left to pick up the cost of clean-up from their own resources. Can the Minister guarantee that the farming community will not be caught by these new powers, particularly when farmers are the innocent victims of crimes by others? Will proving who created and caused the illegal waste in the first place be an issue?
There are a few questions there, but I very much welcome these measures and hope that, at the end of the day, the Environment Agency has enough resources to make a real difference to people’s lives.
My Lords, I am most grateful for the endorsement of these regulations by the noble Baronesses. As I said, we so want to enable the Environment Agency and local authorities to act more quickly, but we also want to ensure there that is no adverse impact on compliant waste businesses. Clearly it is important that landowners are vigilant in leasing land to responsible waste operators and that these measures are part of a range to tackle all forms of waste crime. Indeed, the focus of our forthcoming resources and waste strategy is on preventing, detecting and deterring waste crime.
I was pleased to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that the situation in Somerset is good, but I am conscious of the cost to the economy. That is why, when we consider spending on waste crime and the enforcement yield, it is interesting to note that there is a £5 benefit to society for every £1 spent by way of investment. On resources, let me repeat that since 2014 we have given the Environment Agency an additional £60 million for waste crime enforcement work up to 2022. We gave the Environment Agency £30 million in the 2017 Budget, which brings the total spend on waste crime to £25 million a year. Of course, as a responsible Government we always need to ensure that we keep these matters under review, but the Environment Agency now has extra resources—we recognised the need for them—to address this problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was also right to say that the penalties involve imprisonment and a range of fines depending on the severity of the crime. When we had our meeting I was able to outline some of the detail, which demonstrated that there are actually a number of people who are in prison for quite a considerable period.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, was absolutely right to say that we need to tackle waste crime not only because it is an assault on local communities and the environment, but because of the very considerable evasion of tax. That is why in 2015 the cost of waste crime in England was more than £600 million. HMRC estimates that around £100 million of landfill tax revenue is lost each year through the misdescription of waste and other evasions. Not only Defra but a number of other departments are keenly interested in this issue, and I suspect that that may be one of the reasons why there has been additional resource because it is important that we take action.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, was also right to talk about “the minority” and the advantage that they are taking in causing pollution, fires, odours and vermin infestations and generally making the lives of those in communities around these sites unbearable, so we need to address that. That is why a number of points have arisen about awareness. I understand that the Environment Agency takes a sophisticated intelligence-led approach which involves local residents and businesses having direct communications with the agency. I also understand that aerial drones are now being used quite widely as part of surveying land for illegal waste activity. That is an interesting use of drones, for instance.
The noble Baroness also highlighted how we deal with the repeat and persistent offender. That is why we want to deal with the core of people who are behaving badly and causing such problems. We are taking these extra powers in order to be able to take immediate action so that communities have this proliferation of waste. Indeed, we can insist and require that all waste is removed.
The noble Baroness also raised a side issue to this issue, but it is hugely important. She referred to landowners who have to deal with fly-tipping. I should perhaps express a personal interest in that on my farm people arrive and leave rubbish and waste. It is extremely distressing and extremely costly. I have not had a major incident, I hope, but I know that it is extremely aggravating.
Separate to these regulations because they are about the Environment Agency and the waste sites that have been mentioned, we are conscious of the need to do more about fly-tipping. That is why, in the consultation we have just published, we will give local councils the power to issue fixed penalty notices to householders who pass their waste to a fly-tipper. That is because two-thirds of fly-tipping incidents involve household waste. We are also giving local councils in England the power to issue fixed penalty notices for small-scale fly-tipping. For instance, more than 56,000 fixed penalty notices were issued against fly- tippers in 2016-17. That is a frightening number of people who received these notices. What on earth were they doing in blighting their communities with their waste?
We are doing a number of things on littering from vehicles. A Member of our House did much to pioneer this work. I know he was frustrated by the length of time it took to secure this advance, but I am pleased that we have ended with a positive result. We have also recently strengthened the powers of local councils to search and seize the vehicles of suspected fly-tippers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, was right to highlight the cocktail of problems that face people, communities and the countryside—including the matters for which these two additional powers to enable more speedy action have been introduced—and the great problems that landowners, public and private, up and down the country face with people who are behaving criminally and badly. Whether it is fly-tipping, waste or litter, we need to do all we can to transfer words into action. I know the noble Baronesses often say, “There are a lot of fine words from the Minister but what we want is action this day”, but no one could be more keen than I am to achieve better results in deterring and confounding those who undertake waste crime. That is why I commend these two extra powers to the Committee.