Environmental crime pays too well, committee instructs tougher measures

A House of Commons select committee has this week found that environmental crime does indeed pay and has instructed the government to adopt a much tougher stance with business to reflect the gravity of these crimes.

The Environmental Audit Committee reported that current punishment for illegal acts, such as fly-tipping and water pollution, does not deter the criminals and described current sentences available to courts as "paltry".

Commercial businesses were highlighted for deliberately flouting environmental laws, saying they are happy to take the risk of illegal action, safe in the knowledge that their punishment will most likely be slight.

The Committee stated: "We are concerned that the general level at which fines are imposed neither reflects the gravity of environmental crimes, nor deters or punishes adequately those who commit them. This is clearly unsatisfactory."

"It is clear that, given the current paltry range of sentences available, there is simply insufficient scope to properly tailor sentences to offenders," it said.

The findings come in the sixth report of the 2003/04 session, entitled Environmental Crime and the Courts. It reflects findings from last year's Environment Agency report Spotlight on business environmental performance 2002 (see related story), which called for higher fines to stop multi-million pound firms ignoring environmental laws.

Last year United Utilities, Thames Water Utilities Ltd, BP Oil (UK) Ltd, and Tesco stores were amongst the 20% of repeat offenders listed in the Agency's report on poor performers.

The report says: "The current sentencing system is just not flexible and imaginative enough to punish corporate bodies. It is disgraceful that some companies openly boast about their crimes as though they manifested some sort of commercial talent."

"The Government must adopt a much tougher stance with businesses - regardless of their size and nationality - which flagrantly flout the law," it said.

The Environment Agency's Chief Prosecutor, David Stott, told edie that his Agency was happy with the findings and hoped it would go some way to making an impact on future scenarios. He said: "The Environment Agency is extremely pleased with the Committee's report. It is hoped that with the weight of this report behind it, the Environment Agency can engage with other interested parties so as to achieve beneficial changes to the manner in which environmental crime is dealt with "

Last week edie reported on a conference held on tackling fly-tipping, an offence which constitutes 14% of all serious pollution (see ). Speakers stated that groups conducting fly-tipping were often operating much larger criminal gangs and profiting hugely from not disposing legally of waste. Barbara Young, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency suggested environmental courts for environmental crime may be one means to tackle, and suitably punish, these offences.

By Sorcha Clifford



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