Cracking Down on Waste Crime report: greater transparency is needed

Waste crimeAndy Drysdale/Rex Features
By Neil Parpworth

The Environment Agency was established under the Environment Act 1995 and plays a central role in ensuring that environmental laws are complied with. Presently, it is the principal environmental regulatory body in England and Wales, although this will change as from 1 April 2013, when the Natural Resources Body for Wales commences operating. Thereafter, that body will perform the functions previously performed by Environment Agency Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales.

The Report

In July 2012, the Agency published its first evidence-based report on waste crime. The report, Cracking Down on Waste Crime, sets out the key events and statistics for the year 2011-12. In the foreword, the Chair of the Agency, Lord Chris Smith, notes that “serious waste crime is big business”. He does not seek to justify his assertion, perhaps because the truth of the remark cannot be denied. In a number of recent prosecutions for waste offences, the scale of the offending has been considerable, as has the scope of the profits which may be gained by operating outside the law. In R. v. O’Donnell [2011] EWCA Crim 3006, where the Agency’s analysis of a site revealed that somewhere between 66,000 and 70,900 cubic metres of waste had been unlawfully deposited, it was estimated that the potential economic benefit to the appellant of operating outside the environmental permitting regime had been approximately £3m. Despite successful prosecutions, some offenders remain undeterred. The scale of the problem of unlicenced waste sites is evident from Lord Smith’s observation that “for every eight permitted sites, there is one illegal one”.

In the present context, “waste crime” essentially amounts to three forms of criminal activity: the operation of illegal waste sites; the illegal export of waste; and the illegal dumping of waste. Although it is a problem which affects both urban and rural areas, it is evident from a map of England and Wales reproduced in the report that the greatest concentration of waste crime is in areas of higher population density and key motorway links. Illegal waste sites are stated to be a “top priority” for the Agency. By the end of March 2012, the Agency was aware of 1,175 such sites.

In 2011-12 the Agency spent some £17.4m on tackling waste crime, which amounted to approximately 6% of its total budget for environmental protection (£297m). In an attempt to be one step ahead of those who commit waste crimes, former police officers and police support staff now constitute a “significant proportion” of the Agency’s employees. As a result, it has “adopted the principles of police work” and uses “intelligence and offender profiling to target” its activities. This is an interesting revelation. Historically, environmental offences have sometimes been regarded by the courts as quasi-crimes involving conduct which is not comparable to more traditional criminal offences, such as assault or theft. In part, this impression has been reinforced by the fact that environmental offences are investigated and prosecuted by the Environment Agency rather than by the police.

The Agency “stopped” illegal activities at 759 sites. This involved either their closure (670 sites), a move to legal compliance under the authority of a permit (28 sites), or the operation of an exemption from the permitting regime (61 sites). It should be noted, however, that these positive developments are partially offset by the identification of further illegal waste sites with the result that there “has only been a slight downward trend in the total number of illegal waste sites”.

There has been a steady increase in the number of successful prosecutions for waste crime since 2009. In that year, 258 successful prosecutions were brought. This figure had increased to 280 in 2010 and 335 in 2011. More information would have been useful.

Total fines for waste offences have ebbed and flowed during the three years. In 2009, the total fines were £1,016,158. In 2010, this figure dropped to £942,967. However, in 2011, it had increased by just over 80%, to £1,700,032. A similar pattern emerges in relation to the highest fine imposed for a waste offence during each of the three years. In 2009, that figure was £75,000. In 2010, the figure was £50,000, whereas, in 2011, it stood at £170,000. Custodial sentences for waste offences were stable in 2009 and 2010 (six and five, respectively). However, in 2011, 16 custodial sentences were imposed. The report offers no explanation for what amounts to a significant increase.

Cracking Down on Waste Crime contains some interesting information and its publication is to be welcomed. It has laid the foundations both in terms of style and format for subsequent annual publications, and for the possibility of comparisons to be made over time relating to the Agency’s record on the investigation and enforcement of waste offences. Assuming that comparisons are made in the future, it would be helpful if the Agency were to offer some analysis of any significant changes which the statistics may highlight since it is uniquely placed to have an insight on such matters. Bald statistics such as the fact that there has been an increase in the number of successful prosecutions from one year to the next only invite speculation which has the potential to be misplaced. Further enlightenment from the Agency would make the successors to Cracking Down on Waste Crime even more valuable publications than this first evidenced-based report.       

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