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Waste Industry: Criminality and Regulation

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022

[Relevant document: e-petition 582702, Review the Regulation of Odour Management and Landfill Sites.]

Before we begin, I remind Members to observe social distancing.

Before I call Aaron Bell, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings between Mathew Richards and the Environment Agency. The Speaker has agreed to exercise the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow full reference to those proceedings as they concern issues of national importance. I am aware that Members may wish to refer to criminal legal proceedings during the course of this debate to illustrate concerns relating to illegal waste activities. All Members should be mindful of those cases that remain contested or may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should refrain from making references to any active court cases. This is particularly so in respect of criminal matters where discussion of the cases is likely to be prejudicial to any forthcoming hearings or trials. The sub judice resolution has not been waived in relation to any live criminal cases connected to Walleys Quarry.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered criminality within and regulation of the waste industry.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the many Members attending today for their time and engagement on this important topic. I have a lot to say, but will try to leave space for everybody else. I also welcome the Minister to her place. I welcome the engagement we have had since she took up her role late last year. I thank her Department for supporting that engagement. Her recent visit was incredibly well received in Newcastle; I am grateful that she took the time to understand the nature of the problem I have in Walleys Quarry, and to hear personally from affected members of the community, including schoolchildren.

The key point I am here to make is that the current nature and scale of waste crime in this country is beyond the capacity of the Environment Agency as a regulator. The regulatory regime is no longer fit for purpose for two main reasons: the changing nature of the crimes being committed and the failure of the Environment Agency to keep pace and act with sufficient robustness and force against them. It has sadly become a regulator that is no longer feared, but is mocked, with criminals able to carry out offences under its nose.

Let us be clear: waste crime is not victimless. It threatens the environment and human health, and undermines investment, growth and jobs within the legal waste and resources sector. For the 2018-19 financial year, the Environmental Services Association estimated the cost of waste crime to be £924 million in England, and it will be more than £1 billion by now. Waste crime significantly reduces the viability and competitive advantage of legitimate businesses, which are being undercut by criminals. That creates unfair competition and ultimately burdens the taxpayer or the landowner who has to step in when criminals walk away leaving abandoned and toxic sites.

As the House knows, I have repeatedly raised the issue of Walleys Quarry. We have an infamous smelly problem on our doorstep in Newcastle-under-Lyme. It has made it all the way to the Court of Appeal—and perhaps even to the Supreme Court—in the case of Richards v. Environment Agency, which you referred to, Sir Gary, in your precursory statement. I do not wish to rehash the full story again. It is on the record and the Minister knows it well by now.

I will briefly mention that, since the last time I spoke about this matter in the House, the hydrogen sulphide emissions have this year risen back up to levels not seen since May of last year, when they were at their peak. Residents are reporting—I have smelled it myself—that the stink is well and truly back, and very much present in their day-to-day lives. It is an ongoing problem, making some vulnerable people ill, affecting people’s mental health, and making thousands miserable and affecting their quality of life.

The borough council is now concerned that the Posi-Shell capping, which was mandated last year, has failed and there are now increasing fugitive emissions from the site. Together with the county council, it believes that the EA’s normal regulatory approach has run out of road and is seeking a new approach. I believe that the Minister should have on her desk a letter from Councillor Alan White, the leader of Staffordshire County Council, making exactly that point and asking to meet her to discuss the matter. I hope she will be able to accommodate that.

I want to focus on how Walleys Quarry shows the flaws in the current regulatory environment. As a precursor, I will briefly tell hon. Members the story of a company called Atlantic Waste. Over the winter of 2003-04, the Environment Agency received many complaints from local residents about odour coming from King’s Cliffe, a waste site near Peterborough run by Atlantic Waste. The agency was concerned about inappropriate deposits and treatment at the site, and decided to investigate. That investigation revealed that several hundred thousand tonnes of waste had been deposited above agreed levels, and the height of the waste threatened to make the landfill unstable.

Instead of complying with that investigation, Atlantic Waste’s chief executive, Adrian Kirby, and its marketing director, Adam Share, did some investigating of their own. They hired a detective agency, Active Investigation Services, under the guise of concerns about break-ins. That detective agency accepted Atlantic’s proposal to tap phones and hack into computers. It hacked into residents’ computers by sending them emails with attachments purporting to contain the results of tests undertaken on the landfill.

When the police began investigating that agency, they found a complex web of staff, associates and clients involved in illegal activities. That detective agency had fitted devices to telegraph poles and roadside junction boxes all over the UK, and listened in to more than 1,000 calls. Following that investigation, Adam Share and Adrian Kirby were arrested. Each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause modification of computer equipment and conspiracy to intercept communications unlawfully. Adrian Kirby received six months in jail; Adam Share received three.

A handful of years later, Adam Share, now a convicted criminal, was appointed to RED Industries Ltd. Under Mr Share’s control, RED Industries took over Walleys Quarry landfill, in Silverdale in my constituency, the very same landfill I have brought to the attention of the House over and over again. It is incomprehensible that a man with that history would ever be allowed to operate a waste site, yet that is the bizarre and troubling world in which we find ourselves. That would not be allowed in the football business, where there is a decent, fit and proper person test. Yet in the waste industry, it seems that nothing could be done to prevent a man with a proven disregard for the law, for the regulator and for residents from assuming responsibility for an environmental permit.

In a letter to me dated 6 May 2021, Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the EA, confirmed that, in the case of an application to transfer the permit, the regulations require that the EA consider

“whether the prospective new owner is likely to comply with the permit conditions”.

In considering that, it may take into account management systems, technical competence, compliance history, financial competence and any “relevant” convictions, which they are allowed to take into account. That does not include spent convictions but, even if Mr Share’s conviction had not been at that point spent, it was not apparently relevant, despite the EA itself being a victim of his previous crime.

We must have a better fit and proper person test if we are to avoid criminals entering the waste industry. The rehabilitation of offenders is a noble goal, but it cannot override good sense and the public interest. People with a track record of disregarding the regulator cannot be allowed to simply bide their time and re-enter the industry a few years on.

Walleys Quarry has also taught me a lesson about the problem of perverse incentives in the current regulatory regime. Landfill tax was introduced very successfully by the Conservative Government in 1996 to disincentivise landfill and encourage the switch to more sustainable waste management. It has worked: the amount of waste going to landfill has decreased by over 50%, and household recycling has increased by over 70%. However, the consequence of the incentives that the landfill tax creates has been to increase the attractiveness of the waste industry to organised crime, and we know that there are very few barriers to entry in that business.

Landfill tax fraud often consists of falsifying paperwork relating to the classification of waste in order to pay less or zero tax—for example, labelling active waste as inactive, or hazardous waste as non-hazardous. Organised crime groups and repeat offenders can deliberately and routinely evade significant amounts of landfill tax by misdescribing waste. To illustrate the problem, from April 2021, the rate for inactive waste is only £3.10 per tonne and the standard rate is £96.70 per tonne. That differential of nearly £100 per tonne results in enormous profits for the businesses involved. Businesses that routinely mislabel waste can rack up millions of pounds of illegitimate profits, robbing Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs of an estimated £120 million a year. The regulatory regime is inadequate in the face of such incentives.

Compounding the problem, there appears to be insufficient scrutiny applied to the operations and accounts of those companies that regularly declare high levels of inert—that is, the £3.10 a tonne—landfilling. This is not really an economic crime: fraudulent misdescription can have significant impacts on the environment, wildlife and communities. Major air quality incidents can be caused by misdescribed waste containing plasterboard or other high-sulphate waste entering landfills that lack the specialist measures required. Hazardous waste that is misdescribed as non-hazardous could have a very significant impact on the health of people and the local environment.

That has a direct bearing on the situation at Walleys Quarry. In evidence presented as part of the recent Court of Appeal case Richards v. the Environment Agency, a representative of the EA explained that the increased level of hydrogen sulphide—the eggy smell—coming from Walleys Quarry landfill was most likely the result of gypsum-containing high-sulphate waste being deposited in that landfill, contrary to the permit. That can have occurred only as a result of some part of the waste chain mislabelling that waste, or the waste not being properly separated from other waste. There is either fraud or negligence somewhere in the chain.

Several people have contacted me to make specific allegations about illegal activities at Walleys Quarry landfill. I will, of course, keep them all anonymous, and I am aware that we need to follow due process because there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the allegations. However, I am keen to put on the record some of the longest-standing, best-evidenced allegations, some of which I and the Environment Agency have been aware of for nearly 12 months. The EA informs me that any investigation might take multiple years, and I feel that my constituents deserve to know the true scale and nature of the problems that have been reported to me.

In February last year, I was contacted by an anonymous individual who alleged that the current operator was using the site to bury hazardous waste outside its agreed permit. I was told that that activity increased dramatically during lockdown, a period during which the EA ceased many of its normal activities. Employees who would have been involved in this activity were named, but I will not name them here. According to the anonymous source, the order to bury that hazardous waste came directly from Mr Adam Share, who is the company’s chairman and owner; from Mr Nigel Bowen, the company’s CEO; and from Mr Jon Clewes, the technical operations director. There have been other, less specific allegations from multiple other sources. Many whistleblowers have come to me. I have passed all the allegations on to the Environment Agency.

The House may be aware that on 20 January this year, I raised concerns about so-called lawfare in a debate in the Chamber led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). I referred to attempts by The Guardian to publish an article about Walleys Quarry. I have been aware since November 2021 that it has been attempting to publish a story about the true scale of the issues at Walleys Quarry in my constituency, based on insider testimony from whistleblowers and backed up by emails from within the company. It has thus far been prevented from publishing by legal threats made by RED Industries against the newspaper.

With the permission of Rachel Salvidge, a journalist who has had the courage to pursue the story in the public interest, I will read the allegations that she has been seeking to publish:

“Hazardous waste, including arsenic, rat poison and zinc, has been tipped at a Newcastle-under-Lyme landfill, which is now a subject of a criminal investigation.

The Guardian has seen internal emails discussing the practice at Red Industries, the operator of Walleys Quarry Landfill. A whistleblower, a former senior executive at Red, has alleged widespread illegal behaviour at the firm, and has accused the regulator, the Environment Agency, of being ‘asleep at the wheel’.”

She continues:

“the whistleblower has provided the Guardian with emails which appear to show that hazardous material is routinely dumped at Walleys to save the company money.

In October 2019 Red’s compliance officer emailed colleagues about a shipment of cavity wax from a car manufacturer: ‘Is this for ATM or do we have another route in mind?’ This cavity wax is hazardous and organic, and should be shipped overseas to a company called ATM in Holland, which breaks it down into safer waste, but this process is expensive. In the emails, Red’s group commercial manager replies ‘Walleys TFS’.

According to the whistleblower, this is an internal code for sending hazardous waste to Walleys that should be safely shipped overseas. As a result, the former senior executive said the cavity wax was secretly dumped at the landfill. Another email refers to ‘everyone’s favourite Walleys TFS route’ for the cavity wax.

The manufacturer of this cavity wax warns the material is ‘toxic in contact with skin’ and ‘toxic if inhaled’. Dr Cecilia MacLeod, an expert in contaminated land from the University of Greenwich, said exposure to components in the wax ‘can cause issues with development and can also cause dermatitis and breathing difficulties’.”

The article continues:

“In July 2020 the group commercial manager emailed colleagues about a waste shipment of spent bullets containing hazardous levels of arsenic and zinc. ‘What do you reckon to this shit show of a material—sounds like a wash and Walleys TFS to me’—again, the whistleblower says, using the internal code ‘Walleys TFS’ to divert the hazardous waste to Walleys landfill.

Another email chain discusses a large shipment of rat poison. A Red employee asked ‘Are you able to accept this to landfill, or would it not be suitable?’ Their manager responded ‘Work your majik’, and the shipment was sent to Walleys landfill, the former senior executive said. The rodenticide is highly toxic as it can be fatal if swallowed, breathed in or if it comes into contact with skin.”

She continues:

“A former Red employee told The Guardian ‘We used to take advantage of the fact that the EA were stupid. It’s not difficult. When the EA came to inspect we didn’t worry, we just made sure that all the stickers looked nice. They weren’t chemists, so you could always hide things.’

Only solid waste is permitted at Walleys landfill, but The Guardian has seen evidence that Red has also been tipping hazardous paint. In July 2020 a Red compliance officer emailed colleagues about a ‘paint route’. The shipment was ‘coming as haz and they are priced £200/tonne...we haven’t got the money for any TFS’.

The former senior executive told The Guardian, ‘This material is hazardous so Walleys would not be permitted to accept it, but in reality this is where the paint tins are going.’ The manufacturer of this paint warns: ‘This product is classified as dangerous... Exposure to component solvent vapour concentrations...may result in...respiratory system irritation and adverse effects on the kidneys, liver and central nervous system.’

A former Red subcontractor has also told the Guardian how paint was concealed in other legitimate material: ‘They’d mix it with cement to try and thicken it up...and load it into a skip and tip it like that.’

MacLeod described the pollutants as a ‘horrible cocktail’ and said that Red might think that mixing paint with cement would stabilise and solidify it, ‘but not all the volatile organic compounds get locked up...they’re still there and you will have respiratory problems if you take these things in’.

A former senior executive at Red sent some of these emails to the Environment Agency in May 2021, along with testimony of Red’s alleged lawbreaking. In December, the EA announced a criminal investigation into Red.”

I thank Rachel Salvidge for providing me with that information.

Investigations of the public record show examples of staff at RED Industries demanding that the wording of compliance assessment report forms issued by the EA be changed, and the EA acquiescing. To paraphrase my constituent Dr Michael Salt, a nuclear scientist who has volunteered a significant amount of time to the “Stop the Stink” campaign, “If I said the same to the Office for Nuclear Regulation, they’d have something to say about it.”

The Environment Agency is a regulator with no teeth that inspires no fear and in which I cannot have confidence. There are clearly serious failures here, for which the Environment Agency must account. In the light of these revelations, I must ask that the operator’s permit be suspended while the allegations are fully investigated. The EA’s current approach has not worked if the only explanation it can find for why we are, once again, seeing exceedances of the World Health Organisation odour annoyance limits is the cold weather. If there are such serious issues with its handling of such a sensitive case, how can anyone have confidence that it is handling more routine issues appropriately?

Another area that the Walleys Quarry experience has taught me needs reform is the bonds that permitted operators must hold. They are staggeringly insufficient in the eventuality that an operator walks away from a landfill or goes bust. I am aware that many constituents are joining a class action against Walleys Quarry. If it is successful, it would almost certainly make the company go bust, and there are not sufficient bonds to account for that. Surely, walking away from its responsibilities should not be a “get out of jail free” card. The bonds need to reflect the actual risks involved.

The cost of doing bad business is not high enough. The fines when people are found to have breached the rules are too mild to be a proper deterrent. I refer to some other recent cases as examples. In November 2019, a company director was fined £1,272 for abandoning a Shropshire waste site. Clearing the site cost £45,000. In July 2021, a man was fined £1,000 for dumping waste in south-west London, plus £500 costs and a £100 victim surcharge. The clear-up and associated costs to the landowner totalled in excess of £100,000. Those are simply not sufficient deterrents.

On funding for the regulator, I note the recent articles on the front page of The Guardian, but I have personally been repeatedly assured by the EA that there is no issue relating to costs or resources in the regulation of Walleys Quarry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on making such a strong case on behalf of his constituents who have been affected by this case. On a broader point, one of the challenges that the Environment Agency faces is being able to collect and collate the right information to bring an effective prosecution or take action against offenders. I can think of a similar case with different circumstances in my constituency, where there have been those kinds of challenges. What would he ask the Minister to do to support the Environment Agency in bringing together the right information in such cases to challenge them?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Clearly, the Environment Agency needs more powers. I have reassured my constituents that there is no financial pressure, but I am not convinced that more money would necessarily solve the severe cultural problem within the Environment Agency. It does not need more money if it is too weak to use it. I accept that it has perhaps been subject to the same legal threats as The Guardian, campaigners and myself, but, as a regulator, it must be stronger and act in the public interest. If funding is the problem, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must address it.

Finally, I expected to come here to push for other policies, but I am pleased to note the recent significant consultations launched last month by DEFRA on the carriers, brokers and dealers regime and on developing a central digital waste tracking service, which would address concerns that there is no comprehensive way of tracking waste. I would like to briefly touch on other types of waste crime, but I will let others speak more about them. At the lowest level, something that is rife in everyone’s constituencies is fly-tipping. Recently in Newcastle-under-Lyme, there has been fly-tipping off Watermills Road in Chesterton, but I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who I understand wants to speak about that.

Another area is illegal waste dumps. I know that other hon. Members might want to pick up on that, but I must put on the record my concern about how these are being policed by the Environment Agency, too. For the past decade, constituents in the north-west of my constituency have had to suffer through an organised illegal waste dump at Doddlespool farm. Fleets of lorries have travelled from far afield to drop their loads of waste at the site to avoid paying the landfill tax. The lorries have blocked roads. There have been fires, rat infestations, and waste has spilled out, potentially contaminating watercourses and the food chain.

The EA took court action in 2017. The landowner was required to remove the waste or face further court action. He was also hit with a £6,100 court bill—again, inadequate—yet the waste has not been removed five years on. I cannot comment further on the present situation due to sub judice rules, but it is evident that the fine was not a serious enough punishment to make the landowner change his ways. I am conscious that I have taken a long time. In conclusion, we need to look thoroughly at the problems within the current regulatory regime and at the scale of criminality in the sector, and I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Order. Colleagues, nine people wish to speak and the wind-ups begin at 5.10 pm, so you have two and a half minutes each.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing the debate. He has summed up the situation well.

I have been involved trying to expose this issue for the last 10 years, along with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). Everyone knows what is going on. They know about the lack of regulation, the low threshold for getting into the industry and the involvement of organised crime. HMRC itself in its tax gap report recognises that some 22% of landfill tax is not being paid, although it actually put a profit warning on that. The Environment Agency knows not only what has been lost in tax revenues, but that the clean-up costs will fall on the taxpayer. Everyone knows that the matter involves organised crime. I have raised it for the last 10 years, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will allude to that as well. We have explained all this to the Government, but there seems to be inaction in respect of getting the agencies together.

The Environment Agency is not capable of addressing the matter. It may be good at cuddling newts and protecting forests, but it is not good at having an enforcement attitude. HMRC is frankly a disgrace, and I will give an example of why I say that. I got involved in the matter because of a company in the north-east called Niramax. I only had to look at the directors of the company to see something was wrong. Organised criminals—one of them is in prison for murder, and the police told me that his associates had convictions and were involved in a whole host of organised crime—suddenly got involved in waste management. They bought a landfill site in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, which I know he will talk about, and one or two in the north-east. They then set out to undercut legitimate businesses. Talking to people in the waste industry, there is no way they could pick up that waste for the amounts they charged.

It ended up with Operation Nosedive, which HMRC instigated in 2014. HMRC raided the premises and claimed £78 million was to be reclaimed. That was suddenly halted in 2020. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and I asked why it had been halted and we were told, “No, no. You can’t look into this because it is HMRC.” The National Audit Office has done a very good investigation that showed HMRC spent six years and £3.5 million of public money, but there were no convictions and there was no outcome.

Everyone knows what the problem is, but there has got to be action. I say to the Minister, I do not want more initiatives about fly-tipping and this, that and the other; I want co-ordinated action between the agencies that have the powers to crack down on this.

The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has made half the case, from my point of view.

In my constituency, over 10 years ago, a company called City Plant took over an existing site. It broke the rules time and time again throughout the first five years, and eventually ended up in the court. It got a slap on the wrist, and broke the rules time and time again thereafter. It still seems that City Plant is up to its old tricks. Residents today report a mix of materials being brought on to the site, which is not what has been agreed and is a repeat of other examples. They report noxious odours across the entire area and the destruction of their enjoyment of life, because of the pursuit of illegal profits.

As the right hon. Member said, the people benefitting from the weakness of the Environment Agency are not small-time crooks. They are hardened criminals at the heart of the criminal underworld. He mentioned Niramax, which we have already heard about. The majority shareholder he referred to, Neil Elliott, is serving 15 years for murder. An associate, Shaun Morfitt, previously a part-owner of Niramax, is currently serving 18 years for drug trafficking offences and, prior to that, served over six years for a vicious machete attack. These are the sort of people we are dealing with.

Tax evasion in this industry is enormously costly. The right hon. Member gave the figure of £78 million, but I think the expected bill went up to £158 million. Some 14 individuals were arrested, yet the outcome was nothing but a few thousand pounds paid over. We need to know why this has happened, and why the state has no teeth in the protection of the lives of ordinary people and the collection of proper taxes from these criminals in these unpleasant industries.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing this debate. I thank him for performing his duty to his constituents in the way he has fought this campaign. I am sure that they are very pleased that he has a good grasp of the issue, and I congratulate him on that.

As I always do in these debates, I want to quickly give a Northern Ireland perspective on the criminality and what is happening to us back home. In my constituency of Strangford, not a week passes without illegal waste management and waste disposal activities taking place, whether it be deliberate misdescription of waste, illegal dumping, waste burning or fly-tipping. They are incredibly important issues for me.

Just last week in DEFRA questions, the Minister kindly responded to a question on fly-tipping, which I thank her for. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs concluded that there were 306 illegal waste sites, using £600,000 of taxpayer’s money. As other hon. Members have illustrated, this is an industry where loads of money seems to be changing hands and there are advantages for those involved.

DAERA also stated that 16,000 tonnes of waste tyres were discovered, 30% of which were sent to unknown destinations. Some 22.5% of Northern Ireland’s waste crime fines were for illegal dumping. Local councils, which have a responsibility, say the lack of scrutiny around people paying fines is due to disruptions from the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has created lots of issues for us all. As we are now coming out of the pandemic, perhaps things will improve. I hope the Minister can indicate that to us. Criminality in our waste industry must addressed through further regulation, and we cannot expect any improvement without it. It is time to disrupt illegal activities by arresting suspected waste criminals and bringing them to justice. I look to the Minister to outline the steps that will be taken.

The comments made today show that there is still more work to be done. The Minister gave a commitment to work with the devolved institutions last Thursday, and I am hopeful that more can be done. There is always more we can do to tackle this issue, and the figures given today support that claim. There is no reason for anyone in today’s society to damage the landscape and ruin some of the most precious beauty spots we have across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this vital debate secured by my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell). He has made a strong and clear case for the need for more action to tackle the blight of criminal activity in the waste industry. This appalling activity is putting tens of thousands of lives at risk across the country.

In my constituency, I have been fighting for a lasting solution to one such waste crime, which had the potential to be a national disaster. Yet, as the site in question is being cleared, up and down the country unscrupulous criminals are filling warehouses or plots of land next to residential properties and littering our countryside with waste that presents a real threat to the health and safety of surrounding communities.

I wrote to the Prime Minister and multiple Departments last year to highlight the urgency of clearing a site that has been a significant risk in Stoke-on-Trent Central since 2014, and I am delighted that my campaign has resulted in clearing the Twyford House site of an excess of 30,000 tonnes of illegal and combustible commercial waste. I thank the Minister for her support in making that happen, so that the danger that has been there since 2014 can finally be removed.

My hon. Friend’s tireless work to tackle the environmental disaster at Walleys Quarry landfill is an example to us all. Although the quarry is in his constituency, the consequences of the activities at that site are suffered by my constituents too, and I have also been persistently raising their concerns with the Environment Agency and Ministers. The pace of progress to resolve the problem has been a frustration to us all. Does the Minister agree that there is a clear need for the separation of regulation and enforcement authorities?

The current approach to the regulation of more than 180,000 waste carriers, brokers and dealers is leading to record levels of crime, which may well spike later this year when the increased cost of red diesel will mean many looking to cut corners to make savings, for example through the use of exemptions codes. It is a sad fact that waste crime is more lucrative on the basis of risk-to-reward ratios than human trafficking or drug dealing.

This is not a victimless crime. Public health and public safety are dependent on stopping the serious waste industry criminals. We must have better regulation and tougher sentences.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing this debate and for his speedy gallop through the problem, as well as his relentless campaigning on Walleys Quarry.

People up and down the country take pride in their towns and streets. However, fly-tipping is an illegal and unacceptable antisocial act that continues to blight communities across the country. In my constituency, fly-tipping takes place daily and costs the local authority thousands of pounds every year to remove the waste. Local residents will often contribute to the crime unknowingly, paying what they believe to be a reputable waste disposal business in good faith, only for their items to be disposed of by being illegally dumped.

I am pleased to report that Darlington Borough Council, Conservative-led since 2019, has been delivering for local people. I take this opportunity to praise it for its hard work. It has been taking action on the issue of fly-tipping and working hard to tackle a problem that had been neglected by the previous Labour administration, but more can be done. So much depends on local people reporting incidents of fly-tipping or reporting those involved.

We should also be looking at simple but effective deterrents, such as the installation of bollards to prevent vehicles from driving down alleyways, to stop them dumping waste. I am pleased that the Government have recognised the problem posed by fly-tipping and have provided local authorities with enhanced enforcement powers to tackle this crime. I am also delighted that the Government have empowered local authorities that are also waste collection authorities to search and seize vehicles. I can report that vehicles have been seized in Darlington in the last year where they have been suspected of involvement in illegal fly-tipping.

The removal of waste is a commonplace everyday task that many of us deal with. People should not have to be fearful of being taken advantage of by criminals or having their towns blighted by illegally dumped waste. While I am pleased to see the Government taking action to empower local authorities to deal with this issue, more still needs to be done. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to what more can be done to encourage a culture of actual enforcement and proper prosecution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I appreciate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) securing a debate on this important issue. Waste industry crime is extremely serious. The cases that have been referred to today from around the country are causing untold misery for people, particularly when there are public health issues or issues for farmers. It is costing the taxpayer around £1 billion a year.

In my patch of Stroud we have a wonderful waste management company called Smith’s. Its reach as an organisation is so strong that it actually does much to combat poor environmental practices, supporting thousands of businesses in the south-west—it deals with festivals and all sorts of things. We know that this work can be done really well. However, the true scale of waste crime is difficult to quantify. The Environment Agency estimates that 18% of all waste—enough to fill Wembley Stadium—is illegally managed, so we want to see greater action and enforcement.

In Stroud, around 900 instances of fly-tipping are cleared locally per annum. I have reported this myself, and Stroud District Council does a good job of responding, labelling and making sure that it is pulling in this horrid waste dumping. However, that should not fall on the council. We need education, penalties and deterrents. The front page of our local paper, Stroud News and Journal, recently referred to an unlicensed waste collector causing additional difficulties. I realise that this is happening to local authorities around the country, but this particular chap received a court fine of over £1,400 from Cheltenham magistrates court. I thank Stroud District Council and the police for dealing with that, but also the papers for showing that court actions are going ahead and people are being punished.

I want to thank my rural crime team in the police for all that they do to help farmers. Farmers are often at the sharp end of dealing with horrible fly-tipping. They are usually already struggling for cash, so it is a difficult thing for them to deal with. I am grateful to the Minister for all that she does; I know that she is very committed to this issue. I am grateful to all colleagues today for describing such a range of problems that fall under the banner of waste crime. It is clear, listening to colleagues, that our Government bodies are struggling here. I look forward to learning more about improvements in legislation, regulation and enforcement for this nasty and expensive public health hazard.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I commend my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) for securing this important debate and for his continued work standing up not just for the people of Silverdale but for those in wider north Staffordshire who are affected by Walleys Quarry. I want to highlight the great work of another neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) in starting to clear the Twyford House site in Etruria of 30,000 tonnes of commercial and illegal waste.

This is a serious issue. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) when he talks about fly-tipping. It is blighting Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, whether that be in Goldenhill and Sandyford, Burslem Park estate or the alleyways of Tunstall. The scumbags who continue to litter in our local area need to be brought to heel. We need to make sure that they are sent out in high-vis chain gangs, litter picking and cleaning up their community. It is simply unacceptable that those people who obey the law, do the right thing and love the local area that they live in should have to suffer because of a mindless minority of morons.

Sadly, the blight of the waste industry is continuing to spread. The latest case in north Staffordshire involves the landfill on Porthill Road in Longport. It is affecting the constituents of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke in particular, and locals are already having to deal with the disgraceful way in which Price and Kensington Teapot Works has been allowed to rot by its rogue landlord. In nearby Burslem, people recently saw a key part of mother town heritage, the Leopard pub, go up in flames, and now residents are having to live with the disgusting smells coming from the landfill on Porthill Road in Longport.

Staffordshire Waste Recycling Centre Ltd is digging up Stoke-on-Trent’s past at the landfill, seemingly digging for materials. It has never had permission to do that, yet the company has now applied for retrospective planning permission to work on the landfill—something that I and the residents of Longport, Middleport, Dale Hall, Burslem and the surrounding area are absolutely opposed to. I will shortly be making clear my objection to that application in a letter to Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for their support on Walleys Quarry. I have received complaints about this landfill from my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme. I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said in the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) last week, and I want him and his constituents to know that I stand with them.

I could not be more grateful to my hon. Friend. This is why we are a tour de force in north Staffordshire, walking around at every opportunity like some sort of north Staffordshire mafia, which I am proud to be a part of.

The company has also repeatedly breached its permit at the neighbouring site, where it does have permission to operate. Many incidents were reported at the site in 2021, including four in the run-up to Christmas. A site visit by the Environment Agency on 21 January 2022 found multiple breaches of permits, including the storage of too much hazardous waste on the site, as well as the storage of scrap metal, which the permit does not allow.

I am encouraged to have learned from the Environment Agency that it will carry out further inspections this week and has engaged with the company to get it to sort out its operation. The Environment Agency and Stoke-on-Trent City Council will also have a joint meeting on Thursday to discuss the problems at the site. I look forward to receiving an update early next week on the outcome of those investigations and the meeting.

When the people who run waste sites fail to keep them safe and manage them in a way that is inconsiderate to their neighbours, it has a huge impact on people’s physical and mental wellbeing, as well as the feel-good factor of a place that we proudly call home. We need to make sure that these companies can be properly controlled and brought to heel when they do wrong.

I thank colleagues for their co-operation in keeping to time. We turn to speeches from the Front-Benchers; the first two have five minutes each.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I commend the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) for securing this really important debate.

It is clear from everything that has been said by Members across the Chamber that illegally dumped waste is a massive scourge that is blighting communities across the UK, with huge environmental, social and economic cost. Indeed, as our Justice Secretary and chair of Scotland’s serious organised crime taskforce, Keith Brown, said recently, this is not a victimless crime. Waste crime causes pollution and increases public health risks. It places enormous strain on legitimate operators, and serious and organised waste criminals have a considerable impact on the economy of all the nations of the UK.

Every year in Scotland, 250 million easily visible items are dropped as litter, and an estimated 26,000 tonnes of material is fly-tipped. According to research by Zero Waste Scotland, at least £53 million of public money is spent on addressing that.

Is the hon. Lady aware that operators get around Scotland’s zero waste strategy by transferring waste over the border, much of it to the north-east? That has been raised with the Scottish Government, but nothing seems to be being done about it.

I am going to talk about a co-ordinated approach that all four nations of the UK can take to address those sorts of issues. I will also go on to mention a programme aired by BBC Scotland last night, “Disclosure Scotland”. I highly recommend that all Members look at it, because it focused on waste criminals heading over the border to Scotland, which is the exact opposite of what the right hon. Gentleman said. Of the £53 million I mentioned, I believe that it costs Scottish councils £11 million to remove waste from council-owned land alone.

A high proportion of individuals and organisations involved in illegal waste dumping are also associated with other organised crime, including violence, drugs, weapons and money laundering. Last night’s episode of “Disclosure Scotland”, which can be found on iPlayer—it is entitled, aptly enough, “Dirty Business”—exposed the scale and severity of that waste criminality. It highlighted a wide range of illegal activities, from man with a van fly-tipping and waste being burnt in a drum, to much larger-scale operations such as enormous illegal landfills and, increasingly, abandoned lorry trailers overflowing with waste that is simply left to rot.

The programme showed investigations by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, including on a site where a criminal gang had buried large amounts of waste, which released harmful gases and liquids as the deposit degraded. Some of that waste was brought from outwith Scotland by the gang and is believed to include hazardous clinical waste from hospitals. The programme revealed that threats and intimidation have been made against landowners who refuse to allow waste to be buried on their land; others spoken to by the BBC were too scared to go on the record.

I believe that the majority of viewers—and, indeed, those listening to this debate—will have been shocked by those activities. They show that waste criminality goes far beyond small-scale fly-tipping. That is why Scotland’s serious and organised crime taskforce, chaired by the Scottish Justice Secretary Keith Brown, has made waste crime a top priority. The Scottish Government and their partners on the taskforce will use every means at their disposal to stop such illegal practices and ensure that those who dump waste illegally are held accountable. Although offenders risk criminal convictions, fines of up to £40,000 and/or imprisonment for 12 months, only a fraction of those responsible are prosecuted.

As we have heard today, criminals operate across borders and with similar methods. Collaboration and intelligence sharing across the UK is extremely important. The joint unit for waste crime, established in 2020, already brings together law enforcement and environmental protection agencies from across the UK. The Scottish National party wants to see that built upon via the introduction of mandatory electronic waste tracking and a UK-wide database of registered brokers—another recommendation of the independent review—which will make it easier to find these culprits and ensure they are brought to justice. I am sure the Minister will speak about that shortly.

Viewers of last night’s programme will have been completely shocked by the huge amounts of waste revealed —waste that, for far too many of us, is out of sight, out of mind. Across the UK, particularly since the UK has been prevented from exporting much of its waste by other countries quite rightly tightening their rules on imported waste, we are starting to drown in waste. It is essential that we find means of dealing with it much more effectively.

Scotland has committed to building a circular economy, meaning that we reduce demand for raw materials. We want to support and make the system fairer for those operating legally whose businesses are being drastically undercut by criminals. We support the UK Government’s plans to introduce waste monitoring. The consultation on the proposals to ensure that they work for Scotland will be of great importance to us. We certainly look forward to the outcomes, with our preferred outcome being for mandatory electronic monitoring. It is imperative that we work together to root out waste crime and bring perpetrators to justice.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this afternoon, Sir Gary. I am very grateful to lead for the Opposition in this debate, and I would like to acknowledge the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) for calling it.

At the outset, I pay tribute to all the campaigners in north Staffordshire working to stop the stink at Walleys Quarry in Silverdale. I think of people such as Helen Vincent, Dr Michael Salt, Dr Scott at Silverdale Practice, Nat and Angela Wint, Graham Eagles and Steve Meakin, Councillor Amelia Rout and Councillor Sue Moffat. I also think of William Cross, Sian Rooney, Tom Currie, Lauren Currie, Dr Ian Sinha and, of course, Rebecca Currie and youth Matthew. Those people and many more, such as Adri and Colette Hartveld, want to be able to lead their lives, raise their families and breathe the air around them in safety.

I know from my visit to Silverdale and the discussions I have had with local residents how much stress, concern and fear is caused by the hydrogen sulphide emissions emitted from the site, as well as the effect that waste-related issues have on people’s lives. I want to acknowledge all the other campaigners who care and want change desperately.

I also acknowledge the tireless and passionate work of local councillors in that community. On my visit, I was joined by a number of councillors, including Andy Fox-Hewitt, Dave Jones, Gill Williams, John Williams and Adam Jogee, who works in my team. The issues there are real and harmful, and the Government need to act now. If the Minister will not take my word for it, I ask her to reflect on the fact that in just one week in June 2021, the Environment Agency received 1,207 complaints from residents across Silverdale, Clayton, Westlands and the wider Newcastle-under-Lyme area. That strength of feeling surely speaks for itself.

As pointed out by Commons Library staff in their helpful briefing ahead of this debate, the true scale of waste crime is difficult to quantify, but it is

“estimated that 18% of all waste is illegally managed, equating to approximately 34Mt (megatonnes). This is the equivalent of enough waste to fill Wembley Stadium 30 times.”

That is a shocking statistic and it must prompt the Government to act.

The impact of waste crime is widespread, with adverse effects on individuals, businesses, public services, the environment and the economy. Indeed, the Environment Agency’s 2021 report stated that waste crime costs the economy in England an estimated £1 billion a year—a 55% increase since its last estimate in 2015. The problem is real. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on the work of the joint unit for waste crime, which has been mentioned. It would be helpful to know the scale and frequency of engagement between agencies and with the devolved Administrations, the reach and scope of the unit’s current work, and any plans for the coming period.

Fly-tipping and illegal waste dumping blights communities across England, and this Government have to get a grip nationally and locally when it comes to ensuring that local government has the resources it needs to keep our communities green, clean and waste free—an ambition that many residents in Newcastle-under-Lyme want and deserve.

I am grateful to colleagues in both Houses of Parliament in recent weeks and months for raising waste-related issues through a range of written parliamentary questions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), the noble Baroness Jones of Whitchurch in the other place, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has spoken eloquently in today’s debate. Indeed, in June 2021 my right hon. Friend asked about

“the adequacy of the Environment Agency’s surveillance powers”.

In response, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said that there had been no assessment of the adequacy of those powers. I ask the current Minister whether that remains the case. That is in addition to the questions asked of the Minister and DEFRA by Government Members.

It is clear from what is happening in communities such as Newcastle-under-Lyme that waste has a huge impact on the lives of many people across the country. In the last 10 days, the Government have set out two new consultations in relation to tackling crime. I wish those consultations well, but, more importantly, we want to see swift action. I would like the Minister to address in her closing remarks the approach to landfill and incineration, because we need an open and honest discussion about how we tackle waste, and we need to know where the Minister is on these issues. The scourge of waste crime across England is a task that we must all work together to address. I look forward to working with the Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and all colleagues to address these issues, and to protect and clean these green and pleasant lands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing this debate and on the determined way in which he has championed this issue in the House. Indeed, all the neighbouring Stoke MPs have really got to grips with waste in their area.

As soon as I became a Minister, it was clear to me that Newcastle-under-Lyme was top of the list of places I should visit. I thank my hon. Friend and members of his community, including Dr Salt and others, for welcoming me and talking so frankly about the impact that Walleys has had on their lives. They were also constructive about how we move forward to reduce landfill and ensure that people can live their lives in the areas that they choose to be in, without being blighted by its effects.

My hon. Friend has always taken care to articulate the views of his residents. The Environment Agency continues to bring about the work needed for a long-term solution at Walleys Quarry, and both he and I will watch the situation closely. The hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) referred to the large number of issues reported last year, and we have seen a spike on one of the monitors up to those sorts of levels again recently. I reassure my hon. Friend’s constituents that I get those weekly reports and examine them in detail, because it is important that we are rigorous in ensuring that where we need to challenge, we have the right data. That goes to the points made by all hon. Members, including my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), about ensuring that we have the correct data so that people can proceed to enforcement and so on, because they can challenge on the basis of accuracy.

I do not disagree with that, but does the Minister not find it remarkable that in 26 years of the landfill tax, HMRC has not had a single successful prosecution in connection with it? The only initiative that I am aware of is Operation Nosedive, where HMRC spent six years looking at it and £3.5 million of public money, and got nowhere. This is not about new regulations; it is about using the tools we have already got.

This is indeed about using tools. The right hon. Gentleman refers to an operation by HMRC. Obviously, I am not the Minister responsible for that, but I am sure he can take Operation Nosedive up with them. [Interruption.] Indeed, but he makes a cogent point. As several Members have said, this issue has been described as being akin to the narcotics industry. It is that insidious. It blights people’s lives and, as we have heard, raises considerable sums of money illegally in so doing. I therefore agree with everybody that we need firmer action, and I will continue to ensure that we look at that.

I am aware that the Environment Agency recently launched an investigation into the allegations of criminal activity at Walleys Quarry. I welcome any investigation where allegations of waste crime have been made, and I am sure the Environment Agency will investigate this thoroughly, knowing that we are all watching. I appreciate the importance of the investigation to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and his constituents. I am sure that he will appreciate that I would not want to inadvertently say something that would jeopardise it in any way, but my door is always open to him, as he knows.

The Government are determined to tackle waste crime, because it makes life a misery for all our constituents. Whether it is fly-tipping on country lanes—as my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) alluded to—litter in our towns or pollution from waste sites, waste crime and poor-performing waste sites undermine legitimate businesses, deprive the public purse of tax income, harm the environment and communities, and in the worst cases directly threaten health. Councils are now spending £1 billion of taxpayers’ money cleaning up after this, so it affects all of us.

We have already taken action to introduce new powers to stop illegal waste sites posing a risk, which include the ability to lock up sites and force rogue operators to clean up their waste. More widely, we have given the EA an extra £60 million to tackle waste crime since 2014, on top of the wider grant-in-aid funding that it receives from DEFRA. I would just like to offer a correction: at orals last week I said on the Floor of the House that this funding was given to the EA “in 2019—I think”. In fact, it was given in 2014, and I am happy to correct the record.

We have also set up the joint unit for waste crime to disrupt serious and organised waste crime and reduce its impact. The unit involves the National Crime Agency, HMRC, the EA and the police. We set it up about six months ago, and there were more than 30 arrests in the first 24 days, so action is being taken. The landmark Environment Act 2021 does even more, giving agencies enhanced powers to gain evidence and enter sites. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said that they are using the powers they have to seize cars and vehicles, because life needs to be made difficult for these people. Powers are there; they need to be used. We need to encourage our councils, and to that end we are bringing out best practice for councils so that they know how best to gather evidence and so on, so that prosecutions are likely to be more successful.

We will go further. The two consultations mentioned earlier outline the next steps to tackle waste crime and to support people and businesses to manage waste correctly. Electronic waste tracking ends the old-fashioned paper-based approach and gives us a modern, connected future. We will be able to track waste movements, understanding exactly who moves waste and to where. That will give us powerful new abilities to audit waste movements and to ensure that waste is disposed of correctly.

I see the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. Why does he not come and have a chat with me? He can tell me everything.

Along with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I am sick of talking to Governments that have, over the past 10 years, trotted out the same nonsense every time. We need action. I can tell the Minister a lot of ways to get around electronic tracking. These people are very sophisticated, and if we do not have an enforcement attitude at HMRC and other agencies, we are frankly wasting our time.

We will have digital tracking, extended producer responsibility, consistent collection and a carriers, brokers and dealers licensing regime to regulate the people involved in waste. That goes to the comments that have been made about appropriate people running these companies. In 2019, the Government expanded the list of convictions to be taken into account when assessing permit applications to include offences relating to organised crime and violent or threatening behaviour, as well as offences relating to fraud and tax. That was only in 2019, which I believe was after the matters mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. We need those measures, and through the new consultations we hope to build a regulatory framework that is more powerful and can hold people to account.

In Darlington, more can be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud noted that there are also good firms out there. It is important that the regulations help those good firms to carry on and deliver for us. We are bearing down on firms that act illegally, and we are doing more to crack down on this crime. We will continue to apply increased pressure. We hope that the waste carrier reforms and digital tracking will be in place by 2023-24, as long as the IT development and transition needs of businesses have been met.

It is important that people understand that the whole suite of measures, such as extended producer responsibility, will help to address issues such as mattress mountains. It also takes the will of us all, whether businesses or individuals, to check who is taking our waste away; it takes councils using the measures that we are giving them to enforce further; and it takes me ensuring that I am listening and that we are working towards more rigorous enforcement.

By tackling waste crime and poor performance in the waste industry, not only do we prevent harm and the blight on people’s lives and the environment, but we ensure that resources are properly recycled or recovered and fed back into the economy. In the long term, the Government are committed to minimising the impact of environmental waste by reducing the amount of waste created and managing it safely. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for her offer to work together on this. I take the issue as seriously as every Member here does, and I will work with all hon. Members to continue to address it.

I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate, which has been a good one. I am pleased to have got so much on the record, using parliamentary privilege at some points. I thank all three Stoke Members for the support they have given me on Walleys Quarry. I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for bringing to bear their experience in this place and their long experience with the Environment Agency. I cannot name-check everyone, but I thank everyone who has contributed. So much has been raised today that it feels as though we should have a Backbench Business debate on the subject, or even a Select Committee inquiry. I will send the Hansard for this debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I also thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). This has been a non-partisan exercise; it is not party political. I am grateful that she, too, visited Silverdale. She name-checked many of the heroes of the Stop the Stink campaign, and a lot of her councillors. In the interests of balance, I thank Simon Tagg, Derrick Huckfield, Andy Fear, Andy Parker, Mark Holland, Gill Heesom, Graham Hutton, James Salisbury and Paul Northcott—all councillors who have supported their residents, and me, in this case.

Most of all, I thank the Minister for what she said, which I am encouraged by. I thank her Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), and the Minister’s officials. They have been particularly helpful in getting access to the public register for private investigators who have been looking at what is going on at Walleys Quarry. I am grateful for everything that the Government are doing, but there is an issue with the attitude at the Environment Agency. The Minister has heard me say that before—she has heard many people say that today—and I know that she will use her good offices to try to change it.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).