§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]9.30 am
§ Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)
My purpose in seeking a debate on fly tipping is to remind the Government and the House of the scale and seriousness of the problem, to draw attention to factors that are likely to increase the dimensions of the problem and to propose a number of specific remedies, which I hope will be considered for urgent action.
I pay tribute to the work of the officers of the Environment Agency in the Thames region west area, in particular the manager, Mr. Innes Jones. My request for this debate arose from a visit that I paid earlier this year to the agency offices near Wallingford in my constituency, and from site visits that the agency organised for me where fly tipping was going on around the city of Oxford. I also thank my local branch of the Country Land and Business Association, which first got me interested in the subject by drawing my attention to the costs that fly tipping imposes on private farmers and landowners and the injustice that it represents.
All hon. and right hon. Members will be uneasy about the recent increase in litter along Britain's highways and byways. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on 7 May, the Minister for the Environment recorded that there are no centrally collected data on the extent of fly tipping, but that a provision in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill now before Parliament will require the Environment Agency and local authorities to collect data and submit annual returns. That is welcome, so far as it goes. However, the Minister was able to report that the Environment Agency has been operating a national incident recording system for the past two years. In the light of that, it is believed that there are about 50,000 fly tipping incidents each year that impose clean-up costs in the order of £100 million a year.
The independent consultancy Marcus Hodges has examined the current impact of fly tipping on landowners. It concluded that fly tipping on agricultural land in 2002 cost farmers £57 million. That figure is high, but it is quite believable because, on 4 March, the Minister told the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that a recent report on fly tipping on agricultural land estimated that about 600,000 tonnes of waste was deposited on farms in England and Wales in 2001.
Of course, cleaning up is not cheap. For instance, the local authorities in my county of Oxfordshire recently had to spend some £12,000 on putting to rights a single lay-by in the north of the county. The National Farmers Union tells me that, in response to a recent survey, 46 per cent, of its members said that they were spending 254WH between £500 and £1,000 a year removing fly-tipped waste, and one farmer reported the cost of one incident to be £30,000.
§ Mr. John Horam (Orpington)
I am glad that my hon. Friend instituted this debate, because it is an important topic. I apologise that I shall have to leave after a short time to chair the Environmental Audit Committee.
Is my hon. Friend aware that fly tipping is now so rampant that people are dumping waste on ordinary suburban streets in outer London? Huge mounds of waste are being dumped by fly tippers in daylight on the outskirts of London. It is hugely inconvenient, and the cost of cleaning it up is large.
§ Mr. Jackson
Yes, I am aware of that, and I shall go on to say something about its impact on charity shops, which have become a favoured locale for the dropping of waste, which is often dumped in the middle of the high streets of many towns.
So much for the scale of the problem. On the basis of the data that I have given, I think that all hon. Members will agree that the amount of waste involved, the number of incidents and the annual cost of cleaning up are already unacceptable. Unfortunately, deficiencies in the statistics mean that I cannot produce hard numbers to demonstrate that the dimensions of the problem are increasing, although the Minister may be able to shed some light on the issue in his reply. However, there are anecdotes aplenty, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) referred. The Association of Charity Shops tells me that there has recently beenan exponential increase in the dumping of rubbish at charity shops"—something that it describes as fly tipping by stealth. To add insult to injury, charity shops are obliged to pay for that rubbish to be removed as commercial waste, even though most of it is of domestic origin.
One indicator may, however, serve as a proxy for an estimate of the rate of increase in fly tipping. I mention it because it points towards a more effective way of dealing with the problem, and I shall return to that at the end of my speech. The indicator in question is the number of persons who are convicted annually of fly-tipping offences under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. On 9 December 2002, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), supplied a series of figures from 1991 to 2000. In 1991, just after the Act came into force, four people were convicted of fly tipping. The number rose to 18 the following year. Subsequently, it has risen steadily, from 104 in 1993, to 317 in 1999, and 393 in 2000.
Clearly, one factor is the increasing activity of the Environment Agency and local authorities. However, another important factor is simply the increase in fly tipping. We must all recognise the basic fact that the incentives to fly-tip have increased as a wholly foreseeable consequence of Government policies. I do not say that to attack the Government, whose broad approach to waste disposal I support. However, they must anticipate the inevitable consequences of their polices, and they have not been very good at that in this area.
255WH The biggest factor behind the increase in fly tipping has been the introduction and gradual escalation of the landfill tax since 1996. It has increased the cost of waste disposal to businesses, including construction businesses. I strongly support the tax, which should be escalated even more rapidly than the Government propose. I also believe in the diminution of our national reliance on landfill disposal. However, it is simply realistic to recognise that the landfill tax gives unscrupulous businesses a financial incentive to transfer to others the increasing cost of disposing of their waste.
On top of that, there is the increasing impact of recycling targets on the collection of all kinds of waste by local authorities. Again, I strongly support the policy, but it is simply realistic to recognise that it increases local authorities' sensitivity about the waste that they collect. It also increases the complexity of the way in which householders and businesses must present waste for collection, as well as the charges for disposing of waste in general and some kinds of waste in particular. All of that gives unscrupulous or merely thoughtless people an incentive to shift the cost of disposing of their waste on to others by fly tipping it.
Britain's approach to the disposal of waste is being transformed by successive waves of European Union directives on landfill and packaging, as well as on the disposal of fridges, electronic equipment, cars, tyres and hazardous wastes. As those new laws take effect, one inevitable consequence will be that the cost of disposal rises, and the incentives to fly-tip will inevitably increase. Let me repeat that the directives are leading us in the right direction, and I would not urge the Government to be slow in implementing them—even if that were an option, which it is not. However, I do urge Ministers to act with greater urgency to deal with the inevitable consequences of their policies. In particular, I urge the Government to bear in mind their responsibility to ensure that alternative methods of disposal are available as landfill sites are closed, especially sites for the disposal of hazardous wastes. The Environmental Audit Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, drew attention to that problem, which I also raised during Prime Minister's questions because I believe it to be of such importance.
In a recent answer to me, the chairman of the Environment Agency said that some 400 of approximately 1,400 landfill sites across the country are already being closed, and that the number will increase over the next three years. It has been reported in the specialist press that the agency has indicated that from July 2004 the number of landfill sites for the disposal of hazardous waste—roughly 20 per cent. of all waste—will fall from 184 sites to only 14, and that my own Thames region will be left with no site at all for the disposal of such waste. There is a real risk that the lack of local opportunities for waste disposal will precipitate a step increase in the amount of fly tipping as the sites close, and that that will include increasing amounts of waste designated as hazardous.
I was glad to see that the Minister told the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) that the Government recognise that fly tipping is "a growing antisocial problem", and that they are 256WHcurrently considering bringing forward changes to legislationthat willdo more to empower both local authorities and the agency to deal with fly tipping".—[Official Report, 24 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 88W.]I hope that the Minister will tell us how his consultations are going, what issues he is considering and, above all, the Government's time scale, as this problem is urgent.
My shopping list for legislation includes several suggestions. Should we amend section 59 of the 1990 Act to allow clearance cost recovery from any producer or previous holder of waste who has failed in their duty of care? Should the Government do more to make businesses aware of their duties under the law? Is there a case for extending a duty of care to householders, so that they will be held responsible for the clearance costs of the fly tipping of their waste if, for instance, they have failed to use a registered waste carrier or to obtain and retain a waste transfer note, or would such a change in the law be inappropriate, as the Environmental Services Association has argued on the grounds that the Litter Act 1983 is sufficient?
Perhaps we can do something to make it easier for the Environment Agency and other enforcement agencies to trace unregistered vehicles. I am told that much of the business end of fly tipping is carried out using such vehicles. Making it easier to trace their ownership will help to tie down the business involved. Can we improve the definition of waste to make it easier to secure convictions? The enforcement authorities currently have to prove that the waste was household, commercial or industrial. If the defendant refuses to be interviewed, he can simply walk into the court and claim that the waste came, for example, from agricultural premises, and the case against him will fail.
The Government must also do something about the increasing injustice of the rising cost to farmers, landowners, charity shops and private individuals of disposing of waste fly-tipped on their premises. Before a local authority will take on the cost of clear-up, the occupier has to be able to prove that the waste is not his and that he did not knowingly permit it to be deposited. That is too high a hurdle. The law should be changed so that if the occupier can establish that he has taken reasonable steps to prevent fly tipping, the local authority should be required to clean up the waste.
Can we not introduce a fixed penalty system of minor offences? Such a system would enable them to be dealt with more quickly, and the fixed penalties would impose a greater penalty on minor offenders than the current written warning letter. What about increasing the levels of fines, many of which have remained unchanged since the relevant legislation came into effect? Can we improve the guidance to magistrates on the appropriate way to handle these offences, and make it a topic in the training offered to magistrates?
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but he may not have heard the Minister say "Absolutely" from a sedentary position a moment ago when my hon. Friend proposed that fines should be increased. Does he take great encouragement from that? We look forward to hearing from the Minister.
§ Mr. Jackson
I do take encouragement from that. I hope that the Minister will also give an affirmative 257WH response when I suggest how the fine income should be used, but for now I shall concentrate on the role of magistrates courts. If fines are impracticable, such as when an offender claims to be unemployed, could more use be made of community service orders? Action along those lines would improve the legal framework within which fly tippers can be more effectively pursued.
I have another suggestion, which gets nearer to the heart of the problem. The fundamental problem is not the legal framework, although that could certainly be improved, as I have suggested. Rather, the problem relates to the means and resources for enforcement. Let me juxtapose two sets of figures that I have already put before the House.
In a written answer, the Minister recorded that there wereapproximately 50,000 fly-tipping incidents each year"—[Official Report, 7 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 715W.]In another written answer, which I have mentioned, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, recorded that 393 individuals were convicted of fly-tipping offences in 2000. Let me repeat those figures: there were 50,000 incidents, and 393 people were convicted. The clear conclusion to be drawn must be that enforcement of the law against fly tipping is not sufficiently effective. Quite simply, not enough resources are being put into that work.
Of the series of recent written answers on this issue from the Minister for the Environment, the most pathetic is that which he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) on 21 November 2002. Perhaps with pride—or perhaps not—the Minister stated:The Environment Agency has purchased £120,000 worth of surveillance equipment that may be used in covert surveillance operations to identify fly-tippers attempting illegally to dump waste"—[Official Report, 21 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 284W.]Let us compare that £120,000 with the £100 million annual cost of clear-up that the Minister records in another written answer.
On that point, I should like to refer to my experience on a visit to the Environment Agency's enforcement operations in my constituency. Those are effective so far as they go, but they are far too limited in scale. In the western area, there are funds to operate no more than four covert cameras at one time, running 24 hours a day, as they need to do. However, the evidence from those cameras enables the agency to refute the all-too-common "I gave it to a man in a van" defence. Such evidence also makes it unnecessary to persuade reluctant witnesses to come to court to testify.
There are many other detection and deterrent devices of proven value, which could be made more effective with a greater commitment of manpower than the agency and the local authorities can currently afford.
§ Mr. Gray
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Although there are obvious and sensible uses for closed circuit television in enforcement and prosecution, does he agree that there is a risk that that will only shift the fly tipper along to the next farm, which does not solve the problem?
§ Mr. Jackson
I have discussed that matter with the enforcement people, who say that the psychology of fly 258WH tipping is that people see a site and use it. If it is cleared up, they may return, but if it is repeatedly cleared up, they will abandon it and perhaps go elsewhere. The enforcement people's experience is that surveillance cameras are very effective, and I think that more use should be made of them.
Other things could be done if more resources were available. Registration of carriers could be more effective. Another example is roadside checks on carriers, which is obviously manpower intensive. The placing of "stings" is another example. I believe that that has been tried successfully in Birmingham. It involves placing "trackers" in the waste that illegal operators pick up from vulnerable old people. They often make an exorbitant charge for that and then simply fly-tip the waste. If there is something in the waste that enables them to be identified, so much the better, but that is a manpower-intensive operation.
I conclude by suggesting what should be done to improve enforcement. On 24 November 1995, I introduced an Adjournment debate on speed enforcement cameras. Based on experience in the Thames Valley police authority, which covers my constituency, I put on record evidence of the effectiveness of speed cameras in reducing accidents and saving lives. I proposed that some portion of the fine income produced by speed cameras should be reinvested in increasing their numbers and improving their operation. The debate was an early shot in what was a protracted campaign to persuade Whitehall, especially the Treasury, to see sense in the matter. I am glad to say that in the end, after a number of years and the unnecessary loss of life, the Treasury dogma about hypothecation was put to one side and my proposal was adopted.
I therefore make another proposal in the same vein: let the Government take the necessary action, which does not involve primary legislation, to enable local authorities and the Environment Agency to recoup the cost of enforcing the laws against fly tipping from the income that is derived from fines for fly tipping. The case for doing so is even stronger than it was in respect of speed cameras, which has been conceded. There can be no question in this case of the same sort of objection, which reasonably exercised Transport Ministers, that motorists might resent the camera system as a revenue-raising device.
The Government have an excellent policy, which it inherited from the Conservatives, that is summed up in the slogan "the polluter pays". My suggestion is to make the polluting fly tipper pay directly, through the fines imposed on his activities, for the cost of extending and making more powerful the means of enforcing the law against those activities. I commend the proposal to the Minister. I hope that he will make it part of his current policy review and that it will not take as long to persuade the Treasury to adopt it as it did to persuade it to accept the need for speed cameras, because the problem of fly tipping is acquiring an immediacy and urgency that the Government should not underestimate.
§ Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)
First, I apologise for coming late to the debate. I managed to lock myself out of my office.
259WH I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on securing the debate on a subject that is uppermost in the mind of most Members. In the past few months, I have been carrying out a detailed survey of my constituents in Mitcham and Morden. The result shows that people's two principal worries are crime and environmental quality of life issues such as graffiti, abandoned cars and fly tipping, which are the priorities for nearly two thirds of my constituents.
Fly tippers vary from the unscrupulous Mr. Bigs of enviro-crime, who seem to think that it is our duty to pay to pick up their commercial waste, building rubble and even hazardous chemicals, to individuals who would rather dump their mattress on the street corner than telephone the council's bulk refuse service. The Environment Agency estimates that fly tipping could cost local authorities as much as £150 million a year.
Fly tipping is one of the council's top priorities in the borough of Merton, and it has set a target for clearing 93 per cent, of fly tips within one day. There has been a 36 per cent. increase in the incidence of fly tipping in the past year and more than 85 fly tips are reported each week. Merton's fly tipping budget will increase by 20 per cent. next year and cost council tax payers nearly a third of a million pounds, which is a significant amount for a small London borough. However, it does not cover the aspect of the problem about which I receive the most complaints: fly tipping in back alleys that are jointly owned by private householders who do not feel that they should have a personal responsibility for clearing the rubbish dumped at the back of their houses by small builders and people trying to get rid of tyres.
I therefore suggest a cost-effective, low-cost way of getting rid of the problem—rolling out a national alley-gater scheme in which residents get together with the local authority to block off the back alley. Residents contribute part of the cost, and the council or voluntary sector group involved can help.
One such scheme was carried out in the Pollards Hill ward in my constituency, which has one of the highest levels of fly tipping and of crime generally. It was a huge success, and the pay-off was enormous. Neighbours spoke to one another, the amount of money collected from residents always exceeded what was needed because it was seen as giving good value, the council's contribution was small compared to the benefits for local residents and people on community service constructed the gates. The scheme was cost-effective and much appreciated by local residents.
I believe that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office should work together to come up with such a scheme, because the other pay-off is that it drastically reduced the number of domestic burglaries. Indeed, a couple of years ago in a Wimbledon ward in the borough of Merton, an alley-gater scheme brought about a 65 per cent. reduction—again, a small scheme with a big effect.
Last October, I tabled a ten-minute Bill on waste management licensing whose main aim was to give local authorities the power to combat fly tipping. I was astonished to discover that they did not have the power to ask small businesses or high street shops whether they had valid trade waste removal licences, even though the 260WH council tax payers had to pay to clean up the waste if they did not. I am pleased to say that, due to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, that is no longer the case. We should ensure that local authorities are fully aware of their new powers.
I am pleased that the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which is being considered in Committee, will introduce fixed penalty notices for fly tipping. That will make it quicker and easier for councils to take action, and the scheme will provide them with some modest help by allowing them to keep the fines to offset their costs. However, an awful lot needs to be done. For instance, out of 4,361 cases reported in Merton last year, only 1 per cent, resulted in sanctions being taken against the perpetrators, even though the council spent more than £75,000 on enforcement. The result is that 99 per cent. of fly tippers get away with it. That is a local statistic of the type sought by the hon. Member for Wantage.
Unfortunately, local authorities still do not have the power to seize vehicles involved in fly tipping, nor to see their waste carrier licences. Only the Environment Agency has those powers. As I said when introducing my ten-minute Bill, giving those powers to local councils would encourage better co-operation between the councils and the agency, which could help with enforcement of the rules. However, most important is the fact that it might lead to an increase in the number of successful prosecutions and to some really tough punishments that would act as a genuine deterrent.
I want to see more powers being given to local authorities to deal more efficiently and effectively with fly tipping. My constituents in Mitcham and Morden are angry about antisocial crimes such as fly tipping that blight the streets and open spaces around their homes. I hope that the debate once again raises the profile of an important matter and that the Government continue to listen. Through initiatives such as the alley-gater scheme, we might be able to reduce the incidence of dumping. However, environmental crimes such as fly tipping should not be tolerated, and environmental criminals should be made to pay for the misery that they cause to my constituents and to people throughout the country.
§ Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
I am delighted to take part in the debate. It is important to establish that fly tipping is a rural and an urban problem. It involves not only the countryside, but, as we have already heard, affects all our constituencies, whether town or country. Fly tipping sends the most terrible signal about how people view an area. It contributes to lawlessness, and sends the message that the area is not cared for and that anything goes. That detracts hugely from the quality of life of those who live in areas where fly tipping is a frequent menace.
The cost of clearing up fly tipping is enormous. The Environment Agency's figure of £150 million has been quoted, but I doubt whether it captures all the costs to local authorities, the police and the other responsible agencies. I shall give a brief example.
I was talking to a gentleman who runs a building business, part of whose remit is to clear up fly tipping on behalf of local councils. He told me that it costs £3,000 261WH a month to clear up the lay-bys on either side of a dual carriageway on the way to Westoning in Bedfordshire. That is just north of my constituency, so it falls in Mid-Bedfordshire district council's area. The gentleman knows that cost because he bills the local authority, and the figure of £150 million is probably an underestimate. The waste of taxpayers' money, when we all know that there are vital services that could use it, is horrendous. The Government need to focus on that.
I have thought long and hard about this issue, and I mentioned it in my maiden speech. I have a number of different suggestions and solutions that I would like to put to the Minister for further consideration. I am sure that he views the issue as seriously as we all do. The gentleman to whom I spoke used to take waste away from building sites, but he was almost being run out of business because he was competing against fly tippers. Being a resourceful fellow, he developed the other half of his business, which is clearing up fly tipping. He is managing to hang on in there, and he has made a very practical suggestion, which I would like the Minister to consider.
When those in the building trade apply for their road tax licence, they should also be asked to show an operator's licence. As they are illegal businesses, many of those engaged in fly tipping do not possess an operator's licence. If they were asked to show one when they bought their road tax, that would cut off some of that activity at source. I commend the suggestion to the Minister. Perhaps his officials can look into it further and liaise with the other relevant Departments.
Can the Minister clarify whether the local authorities and the police have the power to seize vehicles that are engaged in fly tipping? Last Friday, at half past 6 in the morning, I went out with my local chief superintendent on an operation to try to clear up fly tipping. He did not know whether his officers have that power, which is quite worrying, and he asked me to find out. Do local police forces have that power under the antisocial behaviour legislation? The police can seize vehicles that are involved in antisocial behaviour. Does fly tipping qualify as antisocial behaviour? I certainly think it should, and I hope that we can make progress on that point.
The ability to identify a vehicle and tie it to a specific owner is vital. Our constituents, the police or a local authority are sometimes lucky enough to see the number plate of a vehicle involved in such activity but, because of the way that cars are bought at auction and the way that they can change hands without the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or other official bodies knowing who owns it, it is difficult to link the vehicle with the person responsible. That is an area where the Minister needs to link up with other Departments if we are to tackle this successfully.
We have heard about increasing the fines for fly tipping, and the Minister gave a nod to that suggestion earlier. I hope that we increase the fines massively. I hope also that the people who are caught suffer and regret having done it. There were 50,000 incidents, although I suspect that there were a lot more, but only 393 convictions in 2000. Most people get away with it. We must introduce that element of fear and worry to the mind of the would-be fly tipper so that he thinks, "If I get caught, it will be too costly and too awful. The fine 262WH will be huge, and I will lose my vehicle. I cannot contemplate that, so I will dispose of my waste legitimately."
I am convinced that we must increase the number of covert operations by local authorities and police to catch fly tippers. I know how many cameras my local district council has, and I wish there were more. Those cameras are deployed, but there is an onus on police and local authorities to involve the public as well. The public can be the eyes and ears of the police and local authorities, gathering; the information and evidence that will lead to convictions. Fly tipping is often done very late at night in lonely and isolated spots where there are no people around, so it is difficult for the police and local authorities to get the evidence that they need. For that reason, we must involve the public in helping us to get that evidence.
I am concerned that it is too difficult in many cases for small builders or landscape gardeners to dispose of their waste at tidy tips. No business, however small, can go to a tidy tip and dispose of its waste for free. There are bars on the entrance to many tidy tips that prevent larger vehicles from entering. Part of the solution to the problem is to make the legitimate disposal of waste easier. Perhaps we should think again for the sake of the small jobbing builder or landscape gardener who is trying to get rid of hedge cuttings and the like, and who wants to do so legitimately. We should make that as easy as possible. It should be free, because we are paying more in clear-up costs than we would to take more material in a legitimate way.
I hope that the Minister will liase very closely with the other Departments involved. I had it in mind that a Home Office Minister would be present, because I consider fly tipping to be a serious crime. I am delighted to see the Minister for the Environment here, however, and I hope that he will assure us that he is involving his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, because I understand from the police that the primary responsibility to prosecute lies with local authorities. I hope that he will also liase very closely with his colleagues in the Home Office, who are responsible for criminal justice. The problem requires a joined-up approach.
§ Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on securing this debate. It is very timely, and its subject will find resonance up and down the country. He has not only secured the debate, but has come up with a list of common-sense measures that I hope the Minister for the Environment will shamelessly plunder and incorporate into early legislation. Those measures deserve to be enacted.
I was also struck by the sensible and constructive input from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). The use of alley-gaters might be a little harsh, but the idea is extremely innovative. Likewise, I was impressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Many of the points that he made apply to my constituency.
Fly tipping not only pollutes the environment, but unfairly imposes costs on law-abiding landowners and farmers. The countryside is an obvious target for the 263WH illegal disposal of waste, whether it is household rubbish, food and drink containers, or much larger disposals. The Country Landowners Association has given a staggering figure of more than £50 million for the cost to agriculture of this problem. The National Farmers Union estimates that 67 per cent. of farmers situated next to urban fringes were affected last year by fly tipping. In a recent survey, the Local Government Association found that 94 per cent. of local authorities had experienced incidents of fly tipping, with 20 per cent. recording more than 1,000 incidents. In 2001, the Environment Agency responded to 3,774 incidents of fly tipping. Since Labour came to power in 1997, the Environment Agency has convicted 1,361 individuals and businesses of illegally dumping waste, which is only a fraction of the number engaged in the activity.
Fly tipping is a major blight on the Government's already fragile waste policy. We are slowly making strides towards improved direction and regulation of the legal disposal of waste, but without a properly thought out and efficiently policed system to crack down on fly tipping, the illegal disposal of waste that it represents could run out of control. As with other areas of the waste hierarchy, isolated action is not part of a holistic approach to the issue; it results in waste being displaced from one area of activity to another. Fly tipping is being diverted into illegal activity, as the figures confirm.
If the lack of, or difficulty in, enforcement leads to no deterrent to breaking the law, better and more progressive environmental legislation that is designed to improve our quality of life and to enhance the countryside will not work and Britain will be a worse place in which to live. The current division of responsibilities between local authorities and the Environment Agency—that depends on the type of waste dumped and its location—has led to inadequate collection of data on fly tipping and an inefficient response to the problem.
I welcome the statement by the Minister in which he said:?The Government are currently discussing with the Environment Agency the potential for setting up a national recording system for fly tipping, which would record this type of data from both the Agency and local authorities in England."—[Official Report, 20 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 873W.]My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage said that there was a plethora of inaccurate and unreliable statistics that made it difficult to gauge the seriousness of the problem. It is likely that the data underestimate rather than overestimate the problem. The LGA recently found that 84 per cent. of local authorities believed that they did not have sufficient powers to deal with fly tipping, and that 97 per cent. supported a change in the regulations. In the light of such figures and the clear demand for a change in the law, I hope that the Minister will tell us what progress is being made towards the implementation of a system that will provide an accurate picture and reliable database to inform future policy development.
The picture may be blurred, but there is no doubt that the problem is getting worse, and my experience in my Bexhill and Battle constituency is that it is getting worse fast. Rother district council has seen a sharp rise in fly 264WH tipping of materials such as tyres and abandoned cars. There were 130 cases in 2002, whereas there were barely a handful in previous years.
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, the problem is not confined to rural areas. Between July and December 2002, Leeds reported 1,884 incidents of fly tipping, which cost the council £250,000 to clean up. That prompted Simon Firth, the Environment Agency's team leader for Leeds, to say:Fly tipping is both an economic and environmental blight. It is antisocial, looks terrible and can attract vermin.The proliferation of vermin often goes unmentioned. However, in January 2003, the Daily Mail highlighted the issue, reporting that Scotland's rat population has increased by a quarter in just four years, largely as a result of fly tipping.
§ Gregory Barker
Yes, since devolution. It is clear that broad changes are needed. The Environment Agency dealt with only 3,774 fly tipping incidents last year; the majority of incidents were processed by local authorities, which are ill equipped in terms of legal status to do so. As I said, local authorities overwhelmingly believe that the system needs an overhaul. We need to arm our local authorities with new and coherent powers.
The Select Committee on Environmental Audit, of which I am a member, recently produced a report, entitled "Waste and Audit", which confirmed that the number of illegal disposal cases had mushroomed since the late 1990s. I particularly commend the report's comments on fly tipping. In point 21, we noted:The Environment Agency has recently applied to DEFRA for additional funding to support a Fly Tipping Abatement Task Forceat a start-up cost of £14 million, plus £1 million annual running costs. In light of the cost of cleaning up, that is a small-beer solution. We strongly recommended that DEFRA gives the application urgent and sympathetic consideration.
§ Siobhain McDonagh
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that local authorities might be better placed to do that work than the Environment Agency, because they are under greater pressure from the local population to deal with the problem? Most of our constituents consider that it is the responsibility of the local authority.
§ Gregory Barker
I agree that responsibility must rest with locally elected and accountable councillors. However, there is a need for a coherent national policy and a national strategy to ensure that laggards conform, as not all local authorities are up to best practice. The Environment Agency is best placed to make the concerted effort that will ensure that that is done and that there is uniformity of implementation and application of environmental legislation.
Our other point was that:Both the Environment Agency and local authorities need more defined responsibilities and improved powers to combat the growth in fly-tipping.265WH We recommendedthat DEFRA takes the opportunity presented by the Anti-social Behaviour Bill to address the weakness in the anti-fly tipping regime.It is clear from everything that we have heard that the number of prosecutions for fly tipping, and the fines imposed, are insufficient to cope adequately with the problem, especially when companies decide that it is more economic not to comply with environmental law than it is to comply with it. The average fine imposed for fly tipping is gradually increasing, but it is still far short of the maximum that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 allows. We need greater powers to tackle persistent offenders, and more effective imposition of fines at the point of sentence.
Complaints about the inaction of local authorities and the Environment Agency regarding fly tipping are ultimately a reflection on the Government. I know that the Minister is committed to trying to do more, and that budgets cannot be stretched as far as the Government would like. Because of the waste-related costs imposed on local authorities and environment agencies as a consequence of new regulations, local authorities' budgets are already strained; they have competing priorities other than just responding to fly tipping. As always, we come back to the issues of priorities and funding. This year, in particular, local authorities see their budgets stretched and their priorities questioned more than ever.
The issue can be solved only by improving the myriad ineffectual and sometimes burdensome regulations. We should not stop there but should look at ways of improving public education. We need new regulation plus proper implementation and guidance, or we run the risk of achieving the opposite effect and harming the environment that we are trying to protect.
§ Andrew Selous
I have listened to my hon. Friend with great interest. So far as public education is concerned, would he agree that schools, particularly primary schools, could play an important role? Schools could do more to educate the next generation to take litter seriously. Children might then badger their parents to have a better attitude, and people might have more pride in ownership of their areas. That might be a way of tipping the balance.
§ Gregory Barker
I wholeheartedly agree. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend to the report that the Education for Sustainable Development Sub-Committee of the Environmental Audit Committee is preparing. It is considering ways in which sustainable development can be promoted through education.
As on so many other matters of environmental concern, the Government's record has fallen short of their ambitious rhetoric. I know that the Minister remains personally convinced of the need for action and his sedentary comments this morning have been encouraging. However, he must not be left isolated in a sea of Government indifference, surrounded by those whose interests and commitment lie elsewhere.
§ Sue Doughty (Guildford)
I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on proposing this topic for consideration and all hon. Members who have spoken so far on their thoughtful contributions.
Fly tipping is not a nuisance—it is a crime. We have heard a lot about the increasing problem of urban fly tipping and the fact that people do not even seem to be sufficiently ashamed of themselves to do what people used to do, which was to drive into the countryside where they were not seen. Instead, people just drive round the corner and hope that they are not recognised. That creates a big problem.
We have heard a lot of statistics, which I do not propose to repeat just for the sake of their appearing in press releases. However, the figures that the Government issued in connection with an answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) received included a table with some significant figures. For instance, 380,000 tonnes of construction and demolition waste were dumped in 2001—we have already discussed same of the problems to do with that—and there were 118,000 tonnes of cars. That is a real problem. Although we are rightly concentrating on remedies, we must also consider causes. There is still a problem with the end of life vehicles directive, whereby people must pay to dispose of their cars. However, the poorest people who own a car at the end of its life are the hardest to trace. Such people may have bought that car in the pub and it might not be registered.
There were also 5,600 tonnes of furniture. That was probably fly-tipped by individuals, because not everyone who buys a bed gets one from the top of the market where people also pay for someone to take the old bed away. If people are short of money, they do not do that. However, the figure represents the equivalent of 82,000 double beds dumped in 2001.
§ Sue Doughty
I sincerely hope not.
On white goods, the Minister will be relieved to know that I am not going to use the F-word in this debate and that we have struck out all references to it. However, there is still a problem. There is also the problem of uncleared dumps growing. There is a psychology to the process: people pile on rubbish, and then they continue to pile rubbish on rubbish.
I am concerned that farmers are being increasingly affected in my constituency, which is served by two local authorities. Farmers there make no money whatever, but they have to pay for things to be taken away all the time.
§ Mr. Jackson
Does the hon. Lady support my proposal, on which I hope the Minister will comment, to change the law, so that if a landowner or private individual has taken reasonable steps to prevent fly tipping on his property, he will not be held responsible for the cost of clearing it up?
§ Sue Doughty
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, which I shall come to shortly. It is an important consideration. I am most sympathetic to his thoughts on the matter, because we need to find a solution.
267WH I wish to repeat something that the Liberal Democrats have said before and with which the Conservative party might agree. We must bear in mind the lack of a coherent waste strategy when considering the underlying causes. Although I am happy to give the Government credit for introducing certain activities to build up the waste strategy, that strategy is still like a jigsaw. We all know what it is like when one tries to do a great big jigsaw without having the picture, especially when one gets to the sky. I am not even sure that there has been any blue-sky thinking—we are just feeling our way and seeing what fits and docs not. Many of the comments that have been made support that view.
I know from written answers that the Government are concerned to get things quickly into place. We need full consultation on important subjects like this. However, when Cabinet Office guidelines for consultation and partial regulatory impact were published on 17 February, only nine days were given to consider the impact of legislation that included consideration of fly tipping. We would usually be given about 12 weeks for that. Given the complexity of the debate, one can understand why we would want the full 12 weeks. After all, if the Government have waited for six years up until now, 12 weeks to ensure that the consultation is conducted reasonably seems fair.
We accept that the current system for dealing with fly tippers is inadequate. Average fines are short of the maximum permitted, although they are increasing. We are also concerned about how magistrates deal with the problem generally. We need the Government to give clear instruction to the courts on imposing strong, punitive fines to overcome the problem of the economic solution to rubbish disposal—that it is cheaper to fly-tip than it is to dispose of the waste in the correct way. As has been mentioned, organised criminals—the only way to refer to such people—quietly take large amounts of money for removing rubbish and then simply dump it.
We are also concerned about the Anti-social Behaviour Bill and what the Government are doing. We do not know the real scale of the problem. We know how much has been measured, but we do not know what the unmeasured scale of the problem is. Some of the Bill will deal with the problem in part, but we are uncertain about the provisions for waste on private land—a problem that many farmers have—and for having to deal with the cost of the waste.
Fly tipping is a blight for farmers. It creates a lot of work for them, costs them a lot of money and often causes damage as fence gates are demolished to accommodate the waste. Livestock are often injured, and hazardous waste and poisonous materials are left lying around. It is important to recognise the costs of clearing and repairing.
We welcome the measures in the Bill to extend the powers available to the Environment Agency and to waste collection authorities. We hope that they will bring some benefit. However, those powers must be backed up by resources. We are concerned about what local authorities are doing, about the role of the police and about funding. We also have concerns about the Environment Agency.
§ Mr. Jackson
I speak as a member of the Conservative party, so will the hon. Lady comment on my suggestion 268WH that income from the fines should be used to help to pay for the costs of enforcement? The key issue is enforcement, which requires more expenditure and greater resources.
§ Sue Doughty
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his idea, which is worth considering and consulting on. Fines are an extra source of income, and ensuring that the facilities were in place to deal with waste would be a very good way of spending them. They would also help to meet the cost of bringing prosecutions and putting the damage right. Much more thought needs to be given to how that can be achieved.
If, as the Government have estimated, local authorities choose to use the powers available to them under the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, the cost could be more than £20 million in the first year. Where will that money come from? Will it come from already hard-pressed Government funds, gradually from fines, or will there be some pump priming first to set up the schemes? Some information would be useful. My fear is that if the problem is left to the council tax payer, especially in the south-east of England where our councils are already hard pressed, it will understandably not become one of the councils' top priorities.
We have a problem with fragmentation and how we deal with individuals or with organisations, how we deal with different sorts of waste and with the roles of the Environment Agency, the police, the local authority and the collection agency. There is a clear need for a coherent strategy; roles and responsibilities should be fully defined and publicised to all concerned, so that there is a simple understanding as to what to do in the case of a given problem. Perhaps we should have a central organisation, such as a national helpline running 24 hours a day, that would give advice as to what to do and whom to contact, or pass on information to the appropriate body.
At the moment, if the rubbish is on public land, one organisation deals with it. However, if it is on private land, the owner deals with it. Parish councils get stuck with it, and parochial church councils get stuck with it when it is in churchyards. They do not have the money to keep on dealing with it. They often rely on volunteer labour, and find such problems insurmountable, especially in rural areas. Fines must be punitive.
We need to think more about landowners, who bear the cost of clearance. Whether somebody collects rubbish from their land or they take it away themselves, it is wrong to expect landowners to pay for disposal when they arrive at a transfer station or landfill site. In such cases, it is easy to establish that they did not cause the problem. If rubbish is sitting in a street, it is easy enough to prove it, to report the problem and to make an appointment to collect it. Farmers do not collect construction waste, and I am sure that the residents of Merton and Morden do not pile up their rubbish immediately outside their backdoors.
§ Sue Doughty
If they do, they can be dealt with locally. My suggestion is not a loophole for the sinners to get through; it is a way of dealing with a problem.
This is an urgent problem to which we would like the Government to apply joined-up thinking so that we do not—as is the case with so much waste management 269WH legislation—get a bit of a prod here and a bit of a prod there in response to a directive without considering the underlying causes and the possible remedies. We mentioned fixed penalties earlier, but I am worried about their use under the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. Should they relate to the size of the crime, the nature of the material and the ability to pay? Is it different if a poor person dumps a car or somebody who could afford to pay for it dumps a lot of rubble? I hope that the Minister will consider all the points that have been made. There have been some strong messages about the different activities that could take place. The overwhelming point is that we need an answer that does not pick off little areas, but provides a coherent strategy for the whole problem.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
It is a pleasure to reply to this important debate on behalf of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, lest the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) should be under any misapprehension. It is unfortunate that only one Member from her party has been able to attend, and I am glad that five Members representing Her Majesty's loyal Opposition are here, although one had to go off to chair the Environmental Audit Committee, which does such a good job.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on having done an outstanding job in bringing this important matter to the attention of the House, which is in unanimous agreement on the scale of the problem and how unattractive it is. It affects farming, all our lifestyles and tourism, and it is an aesthetic outrage in many parts of the country. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and others have reminded us, it is not merely a matter for the countryside. It is an aesthetic and environmental offence in many urban and suburban areas.
The National Farmers Union tells me that 67 per cent. of farms on the urban fringe report a fly tipping problem. That compares with 25 per cent, in truly rural areas. The closer one gets to towns, the bigger the problem becomes, for obvious reasons. I am certain that, as one moves into towns, the problem is large, but less obvious—it is hidden in back alleys, as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden reminded us. We are unanimous about the fact that it is an evil, that it is getting worse and that society and the Government must do something about it. However, we seem to be slightly less unanimous on the causes of fly tipping and the solutions.
We do not know the size of the problem, although anecdotal evidence suggests that 50,000 instances occurred last year. We know that the Environment Agency responded to 3,774 of them, but that resulted in only 300 prosecutions. That shows that 49,700 were not prosecuted, and the latter figure is the more significant. The 300 prosecutions may have been of major cases, but many businesses and all sorts of people are taking part in this distasteful practice, and they are getting away with it scot free. Indeed, in 1991, as much as 556 cu m of household waste was collected, presumably from private householders. That is equivalent to the contents of 2,500 wheelie bins—quite a lot, but none the less a relatively insignificant amount compared with the large 270WH quantities that we know are to be found in the countryside. People are severely affected by it in all sorts of ways.
Fly tipping comes in different forms. We know about household waste, of which there is quite a lot, and we are becoming increasingly concerned about vehicles and tyres, but the end of life directive will make things a great deal worse. The scrap merchants—an old fashioned expression—say plainly that car dumping will be a much bigger problem than dumped fridges. I apologise for using the F-word, but I shall return to the subject in a moment.
Car dumping will become an extremely large problem as a result of the end of life directive. The British Metals Recycling Association predicts that the number of illegally dumped cars; will triple to about 750,000 a year as a result of the directive. That may be an exaggeration, as the association has to make a case and will want things to sound bad, but when driving around my constituency in Wiltshire, or Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage is only two stops down the motorway from me, and the Minister knows Gloucestershire well—one sees large numbers of dumped and burned-out cars in the lay-bys.
The problem particularly affects the countryside. We are very concerned about the effect of the end of life directive, but other directives are in the pipeline. We are worried about the ozone depleting substances directive. As the Minister knows, it deals with fridges, which are a huge problem for my constituency. More asbestos regulations will be made soon, but a lot of asbestos is being dumped with builders' rubble, as are soil and supermarket trolleys—"you name it, we dump it." All sorts of people are doing it, and it will get worse.
Those of us in the countryside are extremely concerned about the animal by-products regulations. In Wales, there is evidence of unscrupulous farmers dumping carcases with the ear tags removed, and we may well see more of that unless the Government get their act together. They should set up a sensible system to remove carcases from farms, and bring it into operation quickly.
Leaving aside all those carcases buried on farms or disposed of by knaekermen, hunts alone disposed of 400,000 carcases last year. However, most hunt incinerators are about to become too small, in that they will not achieve the temperature that, from towards the end of the year, will be required by the European Union. The hunts will therefore have real difficulty in dealing with those carcases. What will happen to the 400,000 hunt-collected carcases and the large number of carcases disposed of on the land?
A small number of farmers have signed up to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs scheme for the collection of carcases. Most responsible farmers would not consider so doing, but is there not a risk that irresponsible farmers and traders, as well as some less responsible members of the agricultural community, may be forced to dispose of their carcases improperly?
§ Mr. Gray
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have only a few moments to respond and I want to deal with a few more points.
271WH The disposal of carcases is a worry, and the Minister might want to respond on the question. It is a huge problem and we believe that it will get worse. The Government are, of course, doing much to put it right, but we believe that they are not doing sufficient. Some useful suggestions have been made today as to what they might do.
First, the Government must think much more carefully about unwanted and unforeseen side effects of European directives. We have seen that with regard to fridges and cars, and we are seeing it with regard to carcases and animal by-products regulations. All those measures are laudable, but sometimes they have unforeseen side effects, to which the Government pay insufficient attention. This country tends to gold plate European directives, which we must avoid doing. We must not be at the forefront of implementing the directives coming from Europe; we must be somewhere in the middle. We should conform, but not excessively. Sometimes we go a little too far down that track, which has unfortunate side effects.
Secondly, we must think about green taxes. The landfill tax, which the Conservatives introduced, is eminently laudable and sensible. We must reduce landfill, and the tax is a good way to do that. Incidentally, we must also reduce incineration. However, if a landfill tax were increased to a level at which it became truly uneconomic for anyone to use landfill and that had an effect on behaviour—at £35 or £40 a tonne, people would say that they could not afford to use landfill—the effect on fly tipping would be enormous. The Government must recognise that.
A balance has constantly to be struck between the level of the landfill tax and the consequences that it has elsewhere in the countryside. We must not have the equivalent of a fridge mountain in relation to the landfill tax. It is a question of finding a level that dissuades people from dumping things in landfill unnecessarily, but that makes it economically possible to use landfill.
I am concerned that the skip hire price in the UK has doubled this year, which is an enormous increase. People do not use skips because of the cost of the landfill tax. That is good from an environmental standpoint, but people may wonder what is happening to all the stuff that used to go into skips. Most of us in this Chamber know where it is going. Therefore, green taxes must not be counter-productive.
Several Members have referred to the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which presents the Government with an opportunity to deal with some problems that have been raised in relation to fly tipping. They must do so carefully, however. It would be useful if the Government clarified the muddle over the roles and responsibilities of the Environment Agency and of local authorities, which are not clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, it is not clear who is responsible for paying for the removal of fly-tipped waste from public or private land, There might be an opportunity to sort out that problem through the Bill.
We like the proposal for a fly tipping abatement taskforce, which was made by the Environmental Audit Committee in particular. It seems to have quite a lot to recommend it and quite a lot of what the Committee 272WH suggested is sensible, but we would like additional measures to be introduced. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked about identifying offenders. Action could be taken, whether through the vehicle licensing authorities or others, to identify vehicles and CCTV could be used, perhaps in urban or suburban areas more than in rural ones. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden talked about that.
In the moment or two remaining, I want to commend a proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage that makes eminently good sense. In Wiltshire, we are making good use of the ability to hypothecate the money from fines resulting from the use of speed cameras. Like it or lump it, Wiltshire will shortly be covered by those yellow boxes, because the county council is to recycle the funds raised from the fines to introduce speed containment measures. As my hon. Friend proposed, the same principle could be applied to fly tipping. If the local authority recycled the fines, that would be a good use of the "polluter pays" principle, as he says, to improve enforcement standards and prevention in the county.
The Government could and should be doing quite a lot of things, but we have concerns about their approach to European directives, which we believe they may be excessively enthusiastic in applying. There are unfortunate side effects to some directives, as the Minister knows to his cost, and the word "fridge" is probably written on his heart. There has been a failure on occasion to spot those inadvertent side effects. That applies to the end of life directive and the animal by-products directive, which could have serious effects on fly tipping. We ask the Government to pay particular attention to them.
Even at this late stage in the legislative year, the Government should consider introducing a new clause on fly tipping to the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. Fly tipping is a huge problem for farming, tourism and all of us who enjoy the countryside. We believe that the Government can do something about it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage on taking the opportunity to introduce the debate. I hope that the Government have listened very carefully to what he had to say.
§ The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)
I entirely agree that it has been an excellent debate. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) was absolutely right to raise such a major national issue. He addressed it in a balanced, fair and reasonable way and made many helpful suggestions that I am keen to pursue. My only disagreement is that I fear that the problem is even bigger than some hon. Members believe, and I should like to go further than many suggested.
The Government agree that it is necessary to take further action on a major scale to tackle fly tipping. Litter and fly tipping are major problems. They have undoubtedly got worse in recent years. Such acts are unacceptable and must be stamped out. The principle that the polluter pays is one in which we all believe. That must be done and be seen to be done.
Many changes are being made to how we deal with waste. We need to recycle more and dispose of less. The hon. Gentleman was fair in saying that he agrees with 273WH much Government policy, but he also said that we need to recognise that directives could have an adverse effect. He is quite right that we must close down as far as possible the unintended side effects of what are otherwise sensible and proper policies.
The hon. Gentleman effectively outlined the problems that fly tipping brings, including the costs. I would add to his list the additional problems it causes of undermining legitimate business activities, creating risks to public health and safety, and damaging the environment. We all agree that it is thoroughly antisocial and unsightly, and that it degrades the countryside and urban areas.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the current lack of national statistics and our plans to remedy that in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. He asked whether we have any data to illustrate the growing problem, and we do. The Environment Agency is in its second year of recording the incidents with which it deals. It noted a 19 per cent. increase in fly tipping in England and Wales in 2002. Closer inspection of the details shows a 73 per cent. increase in London, where fly tipping is dominated by construction waste, which often contains hazardous material such as asbestos waste. The midlands and the north-east are the other hardest-hit areas. Some local authorities are also recording increases. In 2002, the London borough of Lewisham counted 13,500 incidents of fly tipping, costing more than £500,000 to clear up. That figure was 50 per cent. higher than in 2001, which, in turn, was 50 per cent. higher than in 2000. That is the scale of the problem.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the policies that he believes will lead to an increase in fly tipping. We need to understand more about why people fly-tip. Cost is certainly a factor, as is laziness, ignorance, and the procedures and practices at some civic amenity sites. There is also a hard core of professional criminals in many localities, and for them it is a matter of profit. We need to know more about the incentives, the further pressures and the general policies that have been tried by local authorities and the Environment Agency. Those policies have had some positive effect in reducing the levels, and we plan to carry out research this year that will help us to develop effective policies in future. In 2004, we plan to issue guidance on good practice to local authorities on the measures that they can take.
On the key question of what should be done, the hon. Gentleman made a great deal of the difference between the 50,000 incidents and the 319 convictions resulting from the 3,700 incidents dealt with by the Environment Agency. I agree that that is a stark comparison. The fundamental problem is identification. It is difficult to catch fly tippers, particularly if they are clever and do not leave any tell-tale details behind. Although a great deal of rubbish is dumped during the day, fly tippers also dump rubbish during the hours of darkness, and are therefore difficult to catch unless night cameras are used.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the proposed measures in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill to resolve some of the current deficiencies in legislation. If successful, local authorities will be given the Environment Agency's current power to stop, search and seize vehicles suspected of being used for fly tipping, and to investigate incidents to help them track down and prosecute those responsible for dumping waste. Yesterday I happened to accompany the chair of the 274WH Environment Agency on a visit to certain landfill sites. He told me about the success of the Environment Agency in using those powers, and the remarkable and criminal activities that were discovered as a result. Giving those powers to local authorities could substantially increase the apprehension of such people.
The Bill will also give the Secretary of State the power to issue statutory directions to the Environment Agency and local authorities on the types of fly-tipping incidents with which they should deal. The Environment Agency will deal with the fly tipping of hazardous waste and serious environmental crime, and local authorities with incidents involving non-hazardous waste. That seems to us a sensible division. Those directions will formalise the current voluntary agreement and will ensure that all local authorities take action. As I mentioned, local authorities and the Environment Agency will also be required to submit annual data returns to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so that national statistics can be compiled.
I was also asked what further measures we are considering, and I think that the hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale. We are considering responses to the consultation paper, "Living Places—Powers, Rights, Responsibilities". The responses commented on the two options included in that paper and, I am pleased to say, suggested many others. We are also discussing possible measures with the Environment Agency and the Local Government Association, and I have asked the national fly tipping prevention group, which is chaired by the Environment Agency, for its suggestions. I attended a meeting of that group recently and was impressed by the range of ideas and the enthusiasm and determination of its members. Further consideration should be given to many of those suggestions and the costs of each one identified.
During the summer, we plan to consult on the proposals and on any partial regulatory impact assessments. In the autumn, we will publish details of the proposals that we intend to implement. The changes will be made when another legislative opportunity becomes available. In other words, the Anti-social Behaviour Bill is only part of the package. We will also try to address the funding problem in the spending review process because I am fully aware that more resources are needed, particularly for enforcement. Retention of receipts is an important issue, and I should like that practice to be implemented.
The duty of care regulations were recently revised to give waste collection authorities the power to serve a notice on businesses requiring them to furnish the waste collection authority with their duty of care records. Of course, the Environment Agency already has that power. It helps waste collection authority officers to check whether businesses are transferring their waste in accordance with the law. It will also help local authorities to investigate fly-tipping incidents by, for example, finding letterheaded paper in the waste. That requires considerable effort to rummage through the waste, but it is worth it. Waste collection authorities are well placed to do that work as part of their local responsibilities.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman discussed fly tipping with one of the Environment Agency's local officers in the western area of his constituency. The officer offered some personal views on changes that 275WH could be made, and I shall comment on some of them. People who have failed in their duty of care can be prosecuted under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and clearance costs can be recovered from the person responsible for fly tipping. I am not sure what extra measures the hon. Gentleman proposes, but I shall be happy to consider the matter further if more details are supplied. There is nothing between us in our determination to stamp down on fly tipping and I will consider anything that will do that positively and effectively.
The changes that we want to make to section 59 of the 1990 Act, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, will make it more useable by applying it to landowners and by amending the current defence that anyone served a clearance notice can say he neither made, nor knowingly permitted, the waste to be deposited. He made a significant point that landowners who assert that they have taken all reasonable measures to prevent fly tipping on their land should not be liable. We are considering that, although implementing such a measure is not as straightforward as it looks.
As disposing of bulky household waste is one of the main types of fly tipping, I can understand why many, including the hon. Gentleman, want householders to be placed under a similar duty of care to that of businesses to ensure that they dispose of their waste legally. We are happy to consider such a proposal, but we must further consider the practical implementation difficulties of introducing such a system given the number of households in an area, how it would be enforced and the potentially huge additional cost involved.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) asked about making it easier for enforcement agencies to trace unregistered vehicles. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) referred to that when he could get away from his obsession with the F-word, which he mentioned at least half a dozen times. There used to be problems with unregistered vehicles, but they should be resolved by 276WH section 22 of the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002, which require the registered keeper of the vehicle to return the registration document to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency immediately after a sale.
The definition of waste was also raised by the hon. Member for Wantage. I understand that his purpose in doing so was to address the possibility of defendants abusing the current exclusion of agricultural waste from waste management controls. The Government have made clear their commitment to repealing that exclusion. We have also established the agricultural waste stakeholders forum to develop the necessary regulations and plan to consult in the autumn on a draft of those regulations.
On the critical point about penalties, I go further than the hon. Gentleman: I am appalled at how many of the fines are utterly paltry and derisory. It sends the message that it is cheaper, better and easier to evade the law than to obey it, which is the exact opposite of what it should be in a law-abiding society. I have been considering penalties for some time and whether the use of fixed-penalty notices would help to enforce the legislation.
§ Mr. Meacher
I shall come to that in a moment.
I am keen to have a substantial increase in the level of fines contained in legislation and imposed by magistrates to reinforce the seriousness of these offences, but getting that across to magistrates is often a large part of the problem. We issued guidance to magistrates last year, in which tackling environmental crimes was an important goal, and the agency offers training courses to magistrates. However, I am keen to see a dramatic rise in the average level of the fines that magistrates impose. I like the idea of community service orders, which was mentioned.
Finally, on the retention of receipts from fines, we shall discuss with the Treasury whether that is appropriate for fly-tipping offences, much in the same way as local authorities keep receipts from litter fines.