HC Deb 16 March 1972 vol 833 cc887-95

9.28 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I beg to move Amendment No. 9, in Clause 1, page 2, line 12, leave out '£400' and insert '£5,000'.

The Chairman

I suggest that it will be convenient for the Committee to discuss at the same time the following Amendments: No. 10, in line 13, leave out 'six' and insert 'twelve'.

No. 13, in Clause 2, page 4, line 15, leave out '£400' and insert '£5,000', and No. 15. in Clause 3, page 5, line 25, leave out '£400' and insert '£1,000'.

Mr. Dalyell

This is a probing Amendment, the basis of which is to discover why the Secretary of State has chosen the sum of £400. Will it be enough? It might at first sight seem no deterrent.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for tabling this Amendment because it gives me an opportunity to make perfectly clear to the public and local authorities the reason why the Government have inserted these figures.

I came to the conclusion that this was a crime which deserved the maximum penalties in that potentially it could result in the death of children and others. I took the view that people who irresponsibly dumped toxic waste—cyanide and such substances—deserved the maximum penalties.

In looking at the way in which this should be operated, one obviously took advice from the Government's legal officers as to the basis on which the penalties should be imposed, on the assumption that one wanted to deal very toughly with these people. The facts related to me were under the Criminal Justice Act, 1967, it was decided that the maximum penalties on summary conviction, as tried in the magistrates' courts, should be £400, with a maximum prison sentence of six months. The House decided this on the basis that if we were to impose heavier penalties than these, it was right that they should be taken in a court where there was a judge and jury and the appropriate means of heavy penalties being imposed.

9.30 p.m.

Therefore, we inserted in the Bill penalties of the maximum level under the Criminal Justice Act, 1967, that is, £400 fine and a maximum prison sentence of six months. But we then went on to say that this was a crime that should in many cases be taken to a higher court where, in terms of the fine the penalty would be unlimited, and the period of imprisonment would be five years.

I would certainly hope that when the courts consider penalties they will consider that it is vital to the public that people are fined to an extent that makes it a considerable financial disadvantage to them to have committed this particular felony. This is why, when a case goes to the higher court, there can be unlimited fines and five years' imprisonment. But if we are to impose massive fines and five years' imprisonment, it is right that this should be done by a court with a judge and jury and the various legal advantages of such a process. The reorganisation of the courts will mean that this will be a quicker process than in the past, and there is a great deal of indication that nationwide this is now becoming a factor.

Since that date, there has been one exception to the rules of the Criminal Justice Act, 1967. That was under the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1971, when a penalty of £50,000 was imposed under that Act. But in the debates on that Act it was agreed that that unique action should be taken purely because of the impossibility of retaining in this country the captain of a ship who had been guilty of an offence for a trial by indictment. For that reason, the House decided to make available a much stiffer penalty through the magistrates' court.

On a Measure of this type, which is a temporary expedient before more major legislation, it would be a mistake to change the whole basis of the Criminal Justice Act in terms of people who one does not have to fear will immediately travel abroad.

In terms of the demand for penalties, I believe that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) and myself are in complete accord. We want to see very severe penalties and prosecutions on indictment for the bad offenders and to see that they are financially embarrassed and punished in this way; and, when the situation is appropriate, that the officers of the company or the individuals concerned are subject to very substantial prison sentences.

It is in that spirit that we suggested the penalties contained in the Bill.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

We are all at one, especially after what the Secretary of State has said, on our desire to inflict the highest possible maximum penalty—that is what we are talking about—on anyone who contravenes the basis of the Bill. But there are one or two factors which are rather left over, honestly left over, for the more substantive legislation when that comes. Thinking aloud on the matter, if I read the Bill correctly—the Secretary of State will recall that I have said that I did not practice in the criminal courts and must therefore not be held professionally negligent if I am wrong—it seems that the Bill gives the person who is charged the right to go for a summary conviction rather than for trial on indictment. Therefore, if anyone knows that he is liable to be found guilty, he will go for the £400, which is chicken feed in comparison with what one could expect elsewhere. If that is so, this matter needs tightening up very considerably. If it is said that an unlimited fine or a fine of£50,000 is too much, the answer is that the court will not impose that fine. We are talking about maxima.

I appreciate that the Bill has come in a hurry. It is welcome and, perhaps, as all parties would agree, overdue. We are glad to see it, but I wonder, whether a little "marker" can be made to this for the future, so that we have a maximum rather than what looks a bit like a minimum.

Mr. Peter Walker

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's whole attitude.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I endorse what the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) said but I accept the reasons given by my right hon. Friend. It is very important that companies in particular should be really caned. A fine of £400 might be a lot for an individual, but for a company it is chicken feed. It is essential that all guilty companies should not be subject to the summary process but should be tried on indictment, when they could face an unlimited fine. I hope my right hon. Friend will keep a close eye on the matter and make sure that we do not have a gross abuse of the system.

Mr. Dalyell

In view of the assurances that the Secretary of State has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

I beg to move Amendment No. 23, in page 2, line 35, after 'to', insert: 'and in accordance with the terms of'. This is largely a technical Amendment. Its purpose arises from the fact that certain offences would benefit from the exclusion under the Clause of any action already specifically permitted under existing enactments. But plainly it is not sufficient to exclude that action solely on the grounds that it is taken pursuant to enactments; what matters is that it should be in accordance with those enactments.

That is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack). If my Department had not anticipated him I should gladly have accepted his Amendment. But I hope he will accept that his purpose is met by the words of our Amendment and that he will feel able to support it.

Mr. Dalyell

The Amendment is absolutely clear to us, and we welcome it.

Mr. Cormack

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. The Amendment is important, and the matter is slightly more than technical. For example, farmers may legitimately use strychnine, putting down poisoned worms to poison moles. That is the method allowed, and it is generally properly done, but examples have been brought to my notice, not necessarily in my constituency, where it has not been properly done and as a result pets have died. It is quite a serious matter, so it is absolutely right that the Amendment should be made, and I am delighted with what my hon. Friend said.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I first apologise to the Committee for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I was delayed across the way, and unfortunately I was not able to have the pleasure of moving my first Amendment. Therefore, with your permission, Sir Robert, I should like to deal with a number of points now.

Like every member of the Committee and every person in the country I have come across, I am in favour of the principle of the Bill and all that it contains. But I do not think the Clause goes far enough. Obviously, I shall not oppose it for that reason, but I should like to say why I think the Minister could and should take action to strengthen the Clause, perhaps on Report or later. Technically I must say that I am opposing the Clause, but the Committee will understand that I say that only for the sake of debate, and not because I oppose it in the strict sense of the word.

Clause 1 provides a prohibition on the deposit of waste on land or the causing or permitting of waste to be deposited on land where it is poisonous, noxious or polluting and where its presence on the land is liable to give rise to an environmental hazard.

But the Clause does not go far enough, because there is no reference to the presence of danger which is more important than the presence of an environmental hazard and I should have thought that a reference to danger could have been inserted in the Clause. The danger I have in mind is that caused by the dumping of waste which I believe should include the dumping of derelict vehicles which are left on the roads, particularly in areas such as the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) and my own constituency. I have the dubious honour of representing an area which was the worst bombed during the last war. To this day we have many areas of waste land which we call bombed sites. They have not been cleared for a number of reasons which are not relevant to this discussion, but for the last 27 years they have been regular dumping grounds for all sorts of rubbish, substances, waste and all that is mentioned in the Clause.

The derelict vehicles may be cars or lorries and to some extent they cease to be vehicles because the wheels are removed and they become articles within the classification of the Clause. They are waste of a "poisonous, noxious or polluting" character. Certainly they are noxious to the local residents. They are also a danger because when these vehicles are vandalised and left in a derelict state their fuel tanks often contain petrol.

9.45 p.m.

I speak of fact. Unfortunately, six children have suffered accidents in my constituency through explosions from these vehicles. They have been mutilated and suffered damage for life. Children see vehicles abandoned for months and they play with them. They sit in the driver's seat and pretend to drive and they play about with the works. That is a normal thing for a child to do. After a time they get fed up and find this play not exciting enough. Then they discover that there is a petrol tank and they take out matches to see how much petrol is in the tank. They do not understand, as adults do, that to strike a match to see if there is petrol in a tank is a hazard.

They do not appreciate that although they cannot see petrol in the tank there may be fumes and vapours and by the time they discover this the tank blows up. They are taken to hospital and they tell their parents that they never realised the danger. A poor boy or girl naturally would not realise that to use a match to examine whether a petrol tank is empty or not is dangerous. I should like the Clause to be strengthened to include leaving derelict vehicles on land—and "land" must include roads and streets. The Civic Amenities Act is not being implemented. Enforcement is not properly or adequately carried out.

This sort of thing happens only in the poorer areas of big cities and towns, in working-class areas. One does not find it happening in the more salubrious and better parts of London. One never sees an old lorry dumped outside Buckingham Palace. Somehow or other the police or the authorities, be they whom they may, take action to have such a vehicle removed.

The Chairman

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member. While he was speaking about petrol tanks and things of that kind he was doing well, but once he gets on to lorries outside Buckingham Palace it gets a little difficult for me to find him completely in order. I am trying to help him.

Mr. Lewis

It is strange but true that tanks are in vehicles and that Buckingham Palace has a road outside it. It is also true that a petrol tank which you, Sir Robert, say is in order to speak about, can be on a derelict vehicle which may or may not be dumped outside Buckingham Palace. If Buckingham Palace is a taboo expression, I shall refer to the Palace of Westminster. That is nearer home. I can assure you, Sir Robert, that if anyone were to dump a vehicle with a petrol tank outside the Palace of Westminster it would not stay there very long. The police would move it.

But, if it were dumped in what I call a working-class area, outside an "up and downer"—a house with one room up and one room down—it would remain there, perhaps hardly allowing enough room for people to get in and out of the front door. No one wants to know anything about it. I mean no attack upon anyone but if the police are contacted they cannot do anything because they are over-worked and under-manned. The local authority says that it must be left there for such a time as will establish that it is derelict. It will take no action. The car sits there until these unfortunate accidents occur.

I would have liked to have seen some reference to "danger" as well as "environmental hazard" and I would have thought that in subsection (2) after ("semi-solid or liquid") could have been inserted the word "petrol" because petrol is a liquid. That would cover my point. Although I arrived too late to move my Amendments, the Minister could either bring in his own Amendments on Report to cover the point, or when he replies tonight he could say that he accepts this as a problem and will ensure that the Civic Amenities Act is implemented to the hilt. If he can give me that assurance I will not have to oppose the Clause.

Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (King's Lynn)

Does the hon. Gentleman also recognise that the dangers to which he has alluded in his constituency, which I know well, are familiar in the countryside too? If my right hon. Friend is to say a word about them now I should be grateful if he would refer to the hazards of fly-tipping or the dumping of vehicles in the countryside.

Mr. Peter Walker rose

Mr. Lewis

I was giving way to the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler), my erstwhile opponent. I was glad to defeat him when he stood against me, but I am equally glad to see him here temporarily. I agree that this problem is not confined to industrial areas.

Waste can include such things as old bedding and mattresses. It is environmental pollution to have an old bedstead or mattress dumped outside the front door because, unfortunately, there is a bombed site there—which is in any case an eyesore. If I were to describe some of the things that are dumped I should have to use unparliamentary language. Take the things which I can describe in parliamentary language, such as furniture and things of that sort. The hazards in the Bill and in the Clause are environmental hazards. Rats and mice and bugs and lice coming after the dumping of the rubbish and waste are also an environmental hazard.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for King's Lynn is quite right. This happens in areas such as he mentioned. I should have thought that the Minister could deal with this by saying to me that I should not oppose the Question "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill", and that if I do not vote against it he will try to be helpful; that he will give an assurance that under the existing legislation he will see that this is dealt with. If it is not, perhaps he could have a discussion with me to see what could be done.

I should like to see something in the Clause regarding helping local authorities such as my own, which have enormous expenses, by giving them some encouragement to fence in these sites. If they were to do so, the whole cost would have to fall on the local rates. If the Minister could say that he could help local authorities by suggesting that they fence them in and he would help them financially, I would not have to oppose the Question "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill". I think the answer to the question should be that he would either take new legislative action, if necessary, or strengthen Clause 1 as it now stands, or take some other action to give local authorities power to fence in these sites and help to pay towards the cost of fencing in. If the Minister could give me some help on that point I would not press my opposition to the point of voting when this Clause is put to the vote. That is of course in no way a blackmail threat to the Minister. I am just making a suggestion, and I am sure he will respond to my overtures.

Mr. Charles Simeons (Luton)

I first apologise for over-estimating the verbosity of those who have gone before. It appears that the season of verbal dysentery is over. I was preparing the points which I wish to make. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be interested in one thing only, the possible effect of potential hazards—

It being Ten o'clock The Chairman left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.

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