HC Deb 05 May 2004 vol 420 cc1465-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

8.1 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)

I am delighted to have secured this debate on fly-tipping, which is an issue that, more than many others, fills my constituency postbag. That strength of feeling is probably replicated around the country. I should like to raise several aspects of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has decided to leave du Chelsea-Monaco game to participate in the debate, so I shall leave plenty of time for him to make his comments and for the Minister to respond.

Fly-tipping is a menace to all those who take pride in their surroundings. The illegal deposit of commercial waste and general household waste—particularly larger domestic waste such as refrigerators, mattresses and garden refuse—is unsightly, to say the least, but its impact can be much more serious than that. Drums of toxic waste, asbestos sheeting, syringes and used drugs present a hazard to the public, and I have found that they have all been dumped in my constituency. Fly-tipping can damage the environment, watercourses and soil quality. It also costs a great deal of taxpayers' money. The Environment Agency estimates that there are about 50,000 incidents of fly-tipping each year at a clean-up cost of between £100 million and £150 million. Irresponsible fly-tippers cause the problems while hardworking taxpayers foot the bill. That is totally unacceptable.

I know that my constituents agree with me on this, because I recently conducted community surveys, and for those residents who responded fly-tipping was one of the top complaints. It would take me hours to describe to the Minister every situation that was mentioned in the surveys, but one local example was the mess in Abbeymead at the Coney Hill hospital site. A local campaigner, David Purchase, got that mess removed with the help of staff at Gloucester city council. It is a recurring problem, however, and I am conscious that not every neighbourhood is fortunate enough to have a David Purchase willing to take up the concerns of local residents. Nor is everyone as effective as David at getting the necessary action taken, and sometimes people have to wait too long for it.

In paying tribute to the work that David Purchase and other residents in Abbeymead and Barnwood have done on getting the trouble and mess cleaned up, I also want to ensure that fly-tipping can be tackled without our always having to rely on such doughty campaigners.

I should like to examine the steps that have been taken so far to tackle fly-tipping and consider how effective they have proved. I should also like to ask my right hon. Friend what else could be done to solve the problem. I believe that the right legislative framework has already been put in place, most recently in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which gave local authorities powers to stop, search and seize vehicles that were suspected of fly-tipping. It also introduced fixed penalty notices and higher fines for repeat offenders convicted by a magistrates court. The most serious offences, including dumping toxic waste, can result in a prison term.

The provisions are in addition to the robust powers of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 for clearing waste from land, the national database Flycapture, which was launched on 5 April, and the fly-tipping strategy, which was published for consultation on 23 February. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and I are aware of the consultation and we will urge our constituents to participate in it. They have a week or two in which to contribute because it ends in mid May. I want to ask the Minister whether the Department will accept late submissions, because many people in my constituency would be keen to contribute to the process. The measures are welcome and worth while.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

We would certainly examine the content of any late submissions.

Mr. Dhanda

I appreciate that, and I thank my right hon. Friend.

We need to ask why fly-tipping remains such a serious problem, given the legislative framework that I outlined. The reasons can be summed up in two words: "communication" and "enforcement". Although the powers are in place, too often agencies do not work together. That is certainly true of Gloucester. Too often, they do not work together to effect what they have the power to enforce. Sometimes they do not have enough incentive to do that. The manifold communication problems can be greatest locally.

The county council is responsible for waste disposal, yet the district councils are responsible for its collection. An inherent complication therefore requires effective communication to ensure smooth running of the service. The Environment Agency is also involved locally. Several examples of difficulties have arisen. My right hon. Friend explained the provisions of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 in a guidance note dated 31 March 2004, but the information does not appear to have filtered through to all the relevant local agencies. That is understandable, because it is complex.

At a recent meeting with staff from my office, an environmental officer from a neighbouring district council complained that the local authority was obliged to pass on to central Government receipts for on-the-spot fines and that local authorities therefore had no incentive to collect the money. I know that that is not the case because, in a written answer to me dated 30 April, my right hon. Friend stated that section 119 of the Local Government Act 2003 allows local authorities to retain receipts for litter fixed penalty notices. That provision came into force on 18 November last year but the officer to whom my assistant spoke was unaware of that. It is therefore important that we convey that message loud and clear throughout the country.

One district council's environmental officer was not permitted to attend an Environmental Agency training day on fly-tipping solely because she is not an employee of the agency. I would welcome my right hon. Friend's comments on that. I have spoken to Environment Agency employees, who also find that a remarkable state of affairs. It is easy to resolve: the agency should permit relevant officers from local authorities to have access to its training. That is common sense.

In addition to the communication problems, there is little incentive to enforce the law and prosecute those guilty of fly-tipping because often it is not cost-effective to do so. For example, I am advised that it could cost up to £2,000 to bring an offender to court, but that would rarely be worth while if the eventual fine were only £50. Surely the penalties must be greater to make the costs worth bearing.

I have described some of the main difficulties and their causes. I would now like to suggest ways of solving some of the problems. I can assure my right hon. Friend that any help that he can offer will be strongly welcomed by Gloucester city council. Under the leadership of the Labour council leader, Mary Smith, the city council is getting on top of the problem of fly-tipping, and it is keen to get tough. In its manifesto for the forthcoming local elections, Labour in Gloucester pledges to enforce on-the-spot fines for those who drop litter in the city centre. The council will continue the bulky collection service recently introduced in local neighbourhoods and increase the use of partnership clean-ups in conjunction with local communities. I, along with many other MPs, know that those clean-ups are very useful. I recall recently being up to my knees in rubbish with Mary on the Matson estate.

Gloucester city council's tough approach to fly-tipping is part of a wider strategy to deal with related issues such as abandoned cars. Operation Dodger, Gloucester's joint initiative involving the police, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the city council, has been successful in removing more than 2,000 abandoned vehicles from the city's streets in just two years. Regular street cleaning, graffiti removal, dealing with fly-posting, and the introduction of community support officers have also contributed greatly to the appearance of the city centre, but I would be the first to accept that there is a long way to go. I know that the city council recognises that the measures that have been taken are not enough, and that combating fly-tipping must be one of our priorities, because of some of the recent problems that we have had.

I would appreciate my right hon. Friend's comments on how we can improve communication and enforcement, to ensure that the hard work of the Labour Government and Labour-led Gloucester city council brings results at local level. The right powers are in place. What steps can my right hon. Friend take to improve communication between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and local authorities to ensure that they are properly and effectively enforced?

Will my right hon. Friend consider extending the duty of care regulations imposed under section 34(5) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to occupiers of domestic property with respect to household waste produced on the property? It is getting to the stage where prosecution and imprisonment are necessary to deal with those who spoil our communities in this way. If that measure applies to other forms of waste, perhaps it is time that it applied to household waste as well.

The tough new antisocial behaviour laws are good news in the battle against fly-tipping, but the toughest part is making sure that there is strong enforcement. The people of Gloucester have put up with the nuisance of fly-tipping for far too long. I want us to go beyond on-the-spot fines and to start prosecuting those responsible for fly-tipping household waste in the same way as we prosecute those responsible for tipping toxic waste. After all, it is all poisonous to those of us who have to put up with it.

8.13 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Hasellhurst)

Order. Before I can call the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) in a half-hour Adjournment debate, I need his assurance that he has the permission of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) I and of the Minister to speak.

Mr. Drew

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall use just a couple of minutes to reinforce the comments of my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to him and to the Minister for giving me this space to say a few words.

Without in any way casting aspersions on the good people of Gloucester, I would like to point out that the problems of fly-tipping do not necessarily remain within the boundaries of the city. Fortuitously, one of my constituents, Mrs. Liz Hall, a resident of Harescombe, called a public meeting on 20 April—at which there were representatives from Harescombe, Haresfield, Brookthorpe, Edge and Painswick—to discuss the very problem to which my hon. Friend has alluded. They discussed the measures that are already in force. Subsequently, I wrote to them about the consultation, and I hope that they will send their comments, either via me or directly to the Minister. Notice was taken of what the Flycapture campaign, which the Government have already launched, was capable of achieving—the use of antisocial behaviour orders and so on—but the main call was for greater co-ordination. Clearly, there was some difference of emphasis between the two authorities, Gloucester city and Stroud district councils, about what measures were being used. From my experience of the Waste and Emissions Trading Act 2003, I know that greater co-ordination and consistency of action is at the heart of what I hope the Government will do as a result of the consultation.

In addition to taking careful note of the results of the consultation, will the Minister say how he envisages taking forward that co-ordinating role to include not just different district authorities but, in the case of Gloucestershire, the disposal authority, which is the county council? We must bear down on this serious problem, to give notice to my constituents that enforcement can be much more effective and to ensure that communication is more effective.

8.16 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) on securing this debate, and congratulate him and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on packing an awful lot into a short period. This is an important issue, and I am pleased that it has been highlighted in the House tonight.

Issues such as fly-tipping, litter, graffiti and fly-posting matter to Members of Parliament and councillors because we know that they matter to our constituents. They are part of a continuum that is important in any local area. We know that people want to live in places that are clean, green and safe, and the three elements are linked. I am glad that some of the points that I want to make in response to the debate will be strongly supported by colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office, who share the view that that continuum must be tackled comprehensively by central and local government.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester talk about local initiatives in Gloucester. In my experience, the city and the council have always been at the forefront of crime reduction and of trying to tackle the problems that attend any city centre. The Local Government Association shares the Government's view of the importance of these issues.

Illegal disposal of waste, or fly-tipping, whether of industrial or casual domestic material, is an antisocial activity that pollutes the environment and reduces the amenity value of local areas. The Environment Agency estimates that fly-tipping costs authorities and landowners between £100 million and £150 million a year to clean up, in addition to the damage to local communities, on which it is more difficult to put a cost. The Environment Agency dealt with 5,000 incidents in 2002, which was nearly a 20 per cent. increase on the previous year. The Government agree fully that there is a need for further action, and we are taking action on a number of fronts.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to measures to tackle fly-tipping in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which were commenced on 31 March 2004. They include: the power for local authorities to investigate incidents in more detail; the power for local authorities to stop, search and seize vehicles suspected of being used for fly-tipping; and the power for the Secretary of State to issue statutory directions to formalise the division of responsibilities between the Environment Agency and local authorities. That introduces the sort of coherence to which both my hon. Friends referred in their contributions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned a local authority official who was unaware of a change under section 119 of the Local Government Act 2003 that allows local authorities to keep receipts from litter fixed penalty notices. I find that surprising, because all these issues are dealt with in information and guidance packs that we have sent to all local authority chief executives in England. It has been possible to download the pack from the DEFRA website since November 2003. Perhaps it should not be surprising, however. A lot of changes are taking place, and it is difficult for all local authority officers to keep abreast of everything. Given what my hon. Friend has said, I shall write to chief executives again stressing that the information is available and emphasising the need for it to be disseminated at all levels in local authorities—not just to officials dealing with these issues directly, but to district offices or information outlets where people may need the information in order to address problems raised by people approaching local authorities or, perhaps, citizens advice bureaux.

I have also sent all Members an information pack produced specifically for MPs by ENCAMS—Environmental Campaigns—which outlines a series of local environmental quality issues and ways in which they can be tackled locally, either through local authorities or by means of voluntary effort. Perhaps we could all share the task of disseminating information and encouraging people to take advantage of the available procedures, whether statutory or voluntary.

Information was also issued to many local authorities by ENCAMS through its people and places network, to the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management through its electronic mailing network, and by the Improvement and Development Agency's network. It has been possible to download the information through the DEFRA website since 31 March 2004, and the IDeA Knowledge website is also available. We launched a joint initiative to make the information available, but obviously it is useful only if people know where to find the information. I hope that my hon. Friends and others will draw this to the attention of their local authorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester asked whether we would extend the duty of care regulations made under section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to occupiers of domestic property with respect to household waste. The section imposes a duty of care on businesses to secure a waste transfer note whenever waste is transferred, which must be kept for two years and can be inspected by the agency and local authorities when they investigate fly-tipping incidents.

Section 34 does not currently apply to householders, but it is a criminal offence, under section 33 of the 1990 Act, for a householder to dispose of household waste outside the curtilage of his or her property other than in accordance with a waste management licence. A review of section 34, setting out the framework of the current duty of care regime, began in March this year. Its terms of reference are being finalised, and I shall ensure that it considers the issue of householders and household waste.

The Government are keen to help local authorities and the Environment Agency to work together to deal with the problem of illegally dumped waste. The agency and the Local Government Association have agreed to a voluntary memorandum of understanding called the fly-tipping protocol, which is currently being updated and reviewed. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud agrees that involving those organisations in designing the way in which they will work is a good idea. The protocol focuses on the division of responsibilities for dealing with fly-tipped waste, and encourages the development of local agreements. We acknowledge that in the past difficulties have been posed by the boundary line and who should be responsible for what. Both the agency and local authorities are now making a genuine effort to work together and ensure that the approach is as seamless as possible.

Mr. Drew

My right hon. Friend will be aware that authorities such as Gloucestershire are in the process of letting the contract for their waste plans to private contractors. Is it not reasonable to suggest that this matter could be part of those waste plan proposals, so that we really see authorities working together? Those plans are raising lots of money, and we want to see the most effective use of them.

Alun Michael

I agree that the most integrated way of dealing with such matters is often the best, but my hon. Friend will also accept that we are working on improving the situation on all those issues, including fly-tipping. It is impossible when going through a process that involves consultation and agreement always to be at the right point when a contract is being let. I agree that, wherever possible, the legislation being put in place, or any new developments, should be taken into account, but life has to go on, and dates for letting new contracts can sometimes be a short-term obstruction.

Under powers in the Anti-social Behaviour Act, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is consulting on proposed statutory directions to the Environment Agency and local authorities that will clarify the division of responsibilities, ensuring that an effective working partnership can be maintained. Those will also ensure that members of the public know which authority deals with fly-tipped waste, and will encourage better joint working between neighbouring local authorities and among local organisations—a point that my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester and for Stroud both mentioned. I hope that that will help to overcome some of the problems to which they referred.

The Government are also consulting on a comprehensive fly-tipping strategy, and that consultation closes on 14 May. As I have mentioned, whenever we are dealing with a strategy, we hope to get all contributions in by the date set because that makes it easier for officials who have to analyse the responses so that Ministers can respond to the consultation as quickly as possible. We certainly do not intend to ignore any contributions received after that date, however, if they make new and fresh suggestions.

Mr. Dhanda

Obviously my right hon. Friend is interested in hearing from agencies, local authorities and the Environment Agency, but would he also encourage individuals in our communities to make submissions?

Alun Michael

We are always open to submissions from individuals, but they often do not have the comprehensive experience when we are developing a strategic approach. The important thing for individuals is that we make sure that there are arrangements to enable them to go to one point to get the information that they need, and to get action—whether the local authority, the Environment Agency or another body has the direct responsibility. However, if there are contributions from individuals that would help towards our strategy, we are certainly open to hearing them.

The measures being proposed have five key aims. The first is to ensure better prevention and investigation of, and enforcement against, fly-tipping and other forms of illegal waste dumping. More effort spent on those aspects can mean that less is spent on clear-up, which will result in long-term cost savings. Secondly, we want to make existing legislation more usable and effective. If problems have arisen in the use of present legislation, we want to clear them out of the way. The third aim is to extend the range of powers available in the toolkit so that the Environment Agency and local authorities can be more flexible when dealing with fly-tipping. Fourthly, we want to improve the data and knowledge base so that resources can be targeted. Finally, we aim to ensure that the Environment Agency and local authorities can do their job as effectively as possible, and to ensure that waste producers take responsibility for having their waste legally managed. I underline that point, because people often try to evade that responsibility.

Mr. Dhanda

Will my right hon. Friend undertake to write to me about my point about training and the confusion over whether the Environment Agency and the local authority can train each other's staff?

Alun Michael

I will certainly do that. In my experience, joint training is important when there is an interface or an overlap between organisations. I am sure that the problems can be overcome.

We have also funded the agency to develop a web-based system called Flycapture that will enable all local authorities to submit data easily. Often, we need the data to know which problems central and local government need to tackle together, but it can be onerous to gather the information. The system went live on 5 April 2004, with the first month's returns due by 25 May 2004. That will help us to keep more up to date on how things are developing. The agency and local authorities are required to submit data on the types and quantities of fly-tipping that they deal with, along with summary data on enforcement action taken to deal with the problem.

We are trying to link what is happening locally with what we can do nationally to support and encourage the co-ordination of action so that people at the local level, where it counts, get a better service from Government, local authorities and the Environment Agency, and we all operate as a team.

I share my hon. Friends' ambition to improve the quality of service and therefore the environment of people living in their area, and indeed in every part of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Nine o 'clock.