HC Deb 26 June 2003 vol 407 cc1198-200
21. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

How many successful prosecutions there were in respect of environmental offences during 2002. [121687]

The Solicitor-General

There were 795 prosecutions by the Environment Agency in 2002, resulting in fines totalling £3.6 million. There are 50 Environment Agency prosecutors working across eight regions; they work with other agencies, such as the Health and Safety Executive and English Nature.

Mr. Heath

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General. Will she pass on my thanks to the Home Secretary for making good his assurance to the House that he would amend the Criminal Justice Bill to provide better regulation of the trade in endangered species?

Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that many environmental laws are difficult to prosecute under owing to difficulties of definition, difficulties in the sentencing and arresting procedure, or difficulties of distinguishing between corporate and individual offenders? Is it not time for a review of environmental law, perhaps in one of the many legislative vehicles that come from the Home Office or the Department for Constitutional Affairs?

The Solicitor-General

I will pass on the hon. Gentleman's thanks to the Home Secretary. I think that he is referring to the amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to increase the penalty for endangered species trade offences. That would make those offences arrestable, which deals with one of the issues that he raised.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the difficulty of prosecuting environmental offences. We should be clear about the fact that not only do such offences cause people costs, they can also endanger health through water pollution, fly tipping and the like.

There are problems of definition, especially the definition of waste. There are also problems in courts taking such offences seriously, with the right level of sentencing. However, as the hon. Gentleman may know, the theme of the Magistrates Association conference last year was sentencing for environmental offences. The criminal justice system and people in general are waking up to these problems. People must stop committing environmental offences and we are on the case. I work closely with the Environment Agency prosecutors.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

In welcoming the work of the CPS on these matters, will my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that, when cases are not seen through to prosecution, the complainants and witnesses who support the prosecution are told that it is not going ahead and are given the reasons, so that members of the public who try to co-operate with the prosecuting agencies and help them are kept informed of what is going on?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is nothing worse for a victim than to learn only when they open their local newspaper that the case against the person who had committed an offence against them has been dropped. They may not even read it in the paper, but hear of it from a neighbour or someone living in the area. The CPS is addressing that, with a new programme of direct communication with victims and witnesses. When charges are dropped or downgraded, the CPS lawyer responsible will write to the victim to tell them. That initiative is long overdue, but we should do more and build on the direct communication programme to ensure that victims who support prosecutions, in the public interest, are properly looked after by the criminal justice system.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does the Minister accept that the abuse of public places by those who get rid of their chewing gum on pavements, pedestrian areas and market squares is an environmental offence? How many successful prosecutions are brought against those people, who despoil public places to the great inconvenience of so many members of the public? This is a real issue; what can be done about it?

The Solicitor-General

I do not know whether what the hon. Gentleman is referring to really comes within the definition of environmental offences or whether it would better suit antisocial behaviour legislation, but I will undertake to look into it and write to him.

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