MPs speak out on environmental crime

"Environmental compliance barely registers with far too many businesses and why should it when they know their illegal actions are likely to remain undetected and largely unpunished?" Peter Ainsworth MP, chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, said at the launch of its second report on corporate environmental crime.

“We have heard examples of just about every possible corporate environmental crime and heard almost every explanation and excuse as to why the crime was committed,” he continued. “The truth is that crimes against the environment are perceived – wrongly – as victim-less and therefore a low priority.”

“Unless and until the government sends out a clear signal to business that failure to act on statutory environmental obligations will result in detection and punishment, then there is little hope of any progress. Fundamental to this is the commitment of sufficient resources to the Environment Agency, in particular, to enable them adequately to police all businesses with environmental obligations.”

The MPs said that without realistic, long-term funding the Environment Agency has little hope of tackling corporate environmental crime.

“While the Agency is making headway with those business sectors it regulates, it is clear that the vast majority of those businesses committing environmental crimes fly under the Agency’s radar. SMEs are responsible for up to 80% of all pollution incidents and more than 60% of the commercial and industrial waste produced in England and Wales; yet research has shown that between 70%-75% of SMEs are unaware of their environmental obligations,” the report said.

The Committee is supportive of further exploration of alternative methods to ensure compliance, whether through the greater use of the lifestyle provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 or the creation of a civil penalty.

The MPs found that communication of policy, new legislation and regulation was patchy. Of particular concern was the quality and timeliness of guidance being produced by the government, most notably with regard to the adoption and implementation of EU directives.

In the case of the EU Landfill Directive, businesses were still waiting for guidance three months before the deadline for implementation despite the government having five years’ warning.

“This is wholly unacceptable and the Government needs to act quickly to address this problem if it is to avoid exacerbating the damage caused to the environment by businesses acting in ignorance,” according to the report.

Ongoing problems in London due to its antiquated sewage system also vexed the committee members. Thames Water, responsible for the London region, claims that the system – built in Victorian times – cannot cope with modern demands. The committee expressed concern that changes in weather, with the South East becoming wetter, and extensive new development are exacerbating the problem, as demonstrated last summer when over 600,000 tonnes of sewage entered the river.

The MPs called for urgent action to be taken by DEFRA to remedy this “legitimised pollution” and for a speedy decision to be taken on the question of a new sewage tunnel under London.

By Rob Bell

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