Agency inspections slide, while fines remain static

The number of inspections of industrial processes and licensed waste sites carried out by the Environment Agency slumped to a new low last year. Prosecutions for waste and pollution offences showed little overall change, but the Agency is scarcely making headway in its efforts to persuade the courts to impose higher fines for environmental offences.

Until recently, inspection and prosecution data were published routinely by the Agency and its predecessors in their annual reports. Last year, however, they were relegated to the Agency's website, and this year they dropped out of the frame altogether - apparently because the Agency's efforts to explain what it does with its resources are now concentrated on indicators of the outcomes of its regulatory work. The organisation has also stopped publishing inspection targets in its corporate plans.

Nonetheless, the inspection and prosecution data remain an important part of the picture, and the Agency provided the figures for 2002/03 on request - although some of the data sets are incomplete.

The figures show that the overall number of inspections carried out by the Agency has dropped by about a third since its early days. Last year saw further reductions in inspections in all but two of its dozen or so waste and pollution regulation activities (Table 1).

The biggest change in absolute terms occurred in inspections of licensed waste sites, which were down by more than 10,000 last year. A footnote to the data says that this was "attributable to increased workload to prepare for...risk-based inspection programmes" using the Operator and Pollution Risk Assessment rating methodology.

Inspections of industrial processes under the IPC and IPPC regimes were 12% below the 2001/02 level last year, and are now running at barely half the rate in the Agency's early days. In one region, the Midlands, there were just 231 inspections last year compared with 895 in 1999/2000.

Some of the continuing decline may be attributable to the move to risk-based inspection. But other factors - including permitting backlogs, recruitment difficulties and the impact of last year's reorganisation - are also keeping inspectors out of the field. The impact of permitting backlogs cannot, however, be gauged because the Agency was unable to supply data on numbers of permit applications, reviews or decisions for last year.

On prosecutions, the Agency had a seemingly successful year, with a new high of 702 successful cases. The data supplied to ENDS show only 15 acquittals, giving an impressive prosecution success rate of 97.9%. Prison sentences were imposed in six cases, all involving waste offences, with five being in the Midlands.

The statistics show a continuation of recent trends (Table 2). Prosecutions for water pollution offences have declined by almost 20% since 1998/99, while waste prosecutions increased by more than 60% over the same period and accounted for 70% of last year's total. Very few prosecutions or, indeed, formal cautions feature in either the IPC or radioactive substances (RSR) regimes.

Although the Agency netted more cash than ever before in fines during 2002/03, the average fine per successful prosecution inched up by just 1%. Meanwhile, average cost awards by the courts dropped by 25% - so that the average offender was left £382 better off than in 2001/02 (Table 3).

Convictions for IPC or RSR offences continue to attract the highest fines (Table 4). However, in real terms the average fine per successful waste prosecution last year was, at £2,873, scarcely above the £2,534 imposed in 1999/2000. Fines in water pollution cases showed a somewhat greater increase from £6,219 to £7,942 over this period.

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