HC Deb 26 April 1989 vol 151 cc936-8
3. Mr. Greg Knight

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any plans to change the penalties currently available for breaches of discharge consents into rivers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

The maximum penalties that may be imposed by magistrates for offences under section 32 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 are fines not exceeding £2,000 and terms of imprisonment of up to three months. On indictment in the Crown court there is no limit on the fine that may be imposed, and terms of imprisonment can be up to two years. Penalties for pollution offences are kept under regular review but there are no immediate plans for increasing them.

Mr. Knight

Is there not a good case for making farms and businesses which break the law and pollute rivers pay the cost of cleaning them up? Does my hon. Friend agree that one current problem is that water authorities are both gamekeepers and poachers? Should not the whole House warmly welcome the establishment of the independent National Rivers Authority as the only effective way of clamping down on those who unlawfully pollute our waterways?

Mr. Moynihan

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's remarks about the effectiveness of the National Rivers Authority. At present, water authorities are empowered to recover the cost of work to prevent or to remedy pollution. We firmly believe in an extension of the principle that the polluter pays.

Mrs. Clwyd

Is the Minister aware that one of Britain's worst industrial polluters is the so-called smokeless fuel plant in my constituency owned by British Coal? Is he aware that twice in the past three months that company has been found guilty of, and fined for, discharging pollutants into the river at six to nine times the permitted level? How does the Minister intend to get British Coal to clean up its act? Is he aware that according to the Welsh Development Agency the existence of the works is a major disincentive to bringing new jobs into the worst unemployment black spot in the whole of Wales?

Mr. Moynihan

As the hon. Lady knows, I am unaware of that particular case and would not have responsibility for it as it is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. However, giving due courtesy to the hon. Lady's question, I will bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Ward

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the reasons why both business and agriculture continue to discharge pollutants into rivers, apart from the fact that they do not economically care very much, is that when they are hauled before the courts the fines are so small—nothing approaching the £2,000 to which the Minister referred—that they are not effective? Does the Minister agree that until the courts impose realistic fines, the poisoning of our rivers and harbours will continue?

Mr. Moynihan

The Government agree that fines should he at a deterrent and not a nominal level. That is why my right hon. Friend the former Lord Chancellor urged magistrates to impose fines for pollution offences sufficient to act as a deterrent. I accept my hon. Friend's point and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has again drawn the attention of magistrates to the need to impose realistic fines for water pollution offences.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

Does the Minister agree that it is not only the level of fines that is important but the frequency of prosecution? Is it not a fact that many polluters take a calculated risk that it is cheaper to pollute a river and risk a rare prosecution and a small fine than to invest in controlled pollution prevention? Is the Minister aware that his concern on this issue is not taken seriously in the light of the Government's decision to exempt from prosecution many sewage treatment plants which are in breach of their consents? When can we expect some consistency from the Minister on the principle that the polluter should pay?

Mr. Moynihan

The hon. Lady will continue to have total consistency from the Government when it comes to the importance of upgrading sewage treatment plants. That is why we are putting £1 billion behind that programme by 1992. I totally refute the hon. Lady's initial premise. It is obviously important to make sure that programmes of remedial treatment are put in action and agreed with the Department. That is the first and foremost priority and it will be reinforced by the National Rivers Authority.

Mr. Allason

Is my hon. Friend aware of the very grave disquiet in South Devon about the Hope's Nose outfall, and has he seen the latest photograph of the discharge of untreated sewage, even if the photograph is three years old? Does he agree with me that it is unacceptable to have untreated sewage pumped either into our rivers or into the sea?

Mr. Moynihan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the facts about the picture published recently to the attention of the House. He will be aware that the Government share his concern that we need major improvements. That is why we are committing substantial capital expenditure towards achieving the very improvements that he and the House seek.