Use ASBOs to deter environmental crime Agency urges

Anti-Social Behaviour Orders should be used to prevent environmental crime, the Environment Agency said this week.

Publishing its annual 'Spotlight' report on the environmental performance of businesses in England and Wales, the Environment Agency said that criminals are exploiting the public and profiting illegally from dumping and other damaging activities.

The first ASBO for environmental crime was awarded in 2004 to prevent the owner of a skip and plant hire business from repeatedly burning skips full of rubbish instead of disposing of the waste legally.

"It is encouraging to see the courts using a wider range of sanctions against environmental crime," said Barbara Young Chief Executive of the Environment Agency. "Restricting the ability of some persistent offenders to operate may be the only way of protecting the public and the environment from risk. The public damage to reputation of a jail sentence, a community service order or an ASBO may also act as a more effective deterrent than a fine that represents little more than back-pocket cash to many of these environmental profiteers."

Despite this, financial penalties were still the most widely used sanction in the courts last year, with chemical firm Sevalco receiving the highest fine of £240,000 in 2004. On the whole though, the average fine was £8,500, hundreds of pounds less than last year.

In addition, 20 company directors were charged with environmental crime and environmental offenders clocked up three years' worth of jail sentences and nearly 7,000 hours of community service.

For the first time, the Spotlight report reveals the name of the parent company and stockmarket listing name of any company mentioned in the report, acknowledging the growing influence that companies environmental performance can have on reputation and financial profitability.

Prosecutions and fines were shown for household names such as Pizza Express (£75K), Gatwick Airport (£30K), and Barratt Homes Ltd (£15K).

Water companies were shown again to be repeat offenders in the pollution stakes, with four firms - Thames, Southern, Anglian, and South-West - named in the top 10 cumulative fines category. (see related story).

The number of serious pollution incidents caused by the waste industry went up by 27% while those caused by farming rose by 11%, the report shows. It is estimated that last year, around 100,000 incidents of fly-tipping involved waste from businesses and at least 30,000 major incidences were from businesses themselves doing the dumping.

Overall, Baroness Young said the results were very encouraging, but warned against complacency.

"We will continue to come down hard on those businesses or individuals that put the environment at risk," she said. "The Environment Agency only directly regulates a small proportion of the businesses in the UK. Our key challenge is to reach all businesses and change environmental behaviour throughout the supply chain - a chain that runs from supplier to producer to customer, use and ultimately disposal. We want to see better use of resources and businesses make environmentally responsible choices about the other operators they use."

Predictably, the talk of tough action and harsh penalties was met with dismay by the business community. The CBI released a statement saying that with environmental regulation "becoming ever more demanding" a distinction should be made between deliberate offenders and those businesses which make "a genuine mistake".

Whether the repeated pollution of watercourses or the dumping of waste on public land constitutes a "genuine mistake" in this view is unclear.

The Forum for Private Business similarly reacted with horror, saying it was "shocked and dismayed" at such an adversarial approach.

"A civil action involving a fine or penalty is the right punishment for these types of offences. The antagonistic relish of the Environment Agency's statement reflects an unreasonable desire to blacken the name of business," FPB's Chief Executive Nick Goulding said. "ASBOs are used to control yobs who terrorise our communities, but to use them against business is completely over the top."

Environment campaigners however, felt the Agency's proposals were an essential way to minimise environmental damage. Friends of the Earth's Corporate Accountability spokesperson, Craig Bennett said:
"We welcome the Environment Agency's proposal. ASBOs would be a good way of highlighting a company's anti social behaviour but it is essential that companies that commit environmental crimes are also prosecuted in the courts and given strong deterrents. This report highlights the fact that far too many UK companies are damaging the environment and treat low fines as a legitimate business expense."
"Bringing in robust company law is the only way to make companies take their social and environmental responsibilities seriously. The Government has a real opportunity to do this over the next year as part of the Company Law Reform Bill."
By David Hopkins




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