Coalition hits the pause button on civil sanctions

The move will delay environmental permitting offences which were due to come in under the new regime in April

The government has announced a review of the civil sanctions regime, the new suite of powers to enforce the law without going to the courts.

As a result, the Environment Agency will not be able to use these powers for offences under the environmental permitting regulations from 6 April, as had been planned. Secondary legislation enabling this was due to be laid before parliament and the National Assembly for Wales this month.

“Ministers have indicated that they now want to agree a cross government position on civil sanctions for England more generally before measures in specific sets of regulations are taken forward,” said an environment department (DEFRA) statement to stakeholders.

A departmental press officer confirmed that Natural England’s planned consultation on its sanctions policy has been delayed (ENDS Report 421, February 2010).

Some other regulators also have the powers at their disposal. The Renewable Fuels Agency made its first use of them in December (ENDS Report, January 2011).

Sources close to the discussions suggested the move was driven by Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Office minister for government policy. As part of his drive for regulatory simplification and cutting burdens on business, he is apparently unconvinced about the need for the complex regime. But this is “the result of a misunderstanding", suggested one source in industry.

The Cabinet Office said: “The government is considering the way in which civil sanctions are used more generally.”

It is unclear if the review poses a serious risk of the regime being be scrapped. Before last May’s general election, the Conservatives indicated strong support. The Labour government had planned to extend the regime to duty of care, waste carriers and brokers, emissions trading and reservoir safety offences.

The review will not affect the agency’s powers to use sanctions for a wide range of other environmental offences, at least for the time being. It gained these in January but has not yet made use of them (ENDS Report, November 2010).

DEFRA's statement says the government plans to lay the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 before parliament in the spring. The Welsh Assembly is due to approve them a little later, due to forthcoming elections.

The regulations should enter force on 1 October, with or without the sanctioning provisions. They were consulted on in the summer (ENDS Report, August 2010).

Although the main intent was to enable financial penalties and so-called enforcement undertakings to be used for permit breaches, the draft regulations also included changes to permitting exemptions and rules on burning waste-derived fuel.

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