Prosecutions in decline as NRA fails to enforce policy

The National Rivers Authority (NRA) is failing to apply its prosecution policy for pollution incidents. Prosecutions for serious incidents declined last year, despite an increase in the number of such incidents. And there is also a marked variation in the prosecution records of the NRA's regions.

Figures on the NRA's prosecution record are contained in its annual report, submitted to Parliament in July and due to be published in September. The report shows that the number of pollution incidents during 1992/93 increased by 9% over the previous year to a record 32,254.

However, the number of prosecutions for pollution offences brought by the NRA declined for the first time in its four-year history. Only 435 cases were brought successfully during the year, compared with 484 and 536 in 1990/91 and 1991/92, respectively.

The proportion of the most serious "category 1" incidents which resulted in successful prosecutions also appears to have declined. Category 1 incidents are defined by the NRA as those which threaten drinking water intakes or extensive damage to wildlife.

When the NRA announced its prosecution policy in 1990 (ENDS Report 189, p 28), it declared that category 1 incidents would generally result in prosecution. Category 2 incidents would result in prosecution or caution, depending on the circumstances, while category 3 incidents would only result in a caution.

However, the NRA's failure to improve on the proportion of category 1 incidents taken to court has brought its policy into question. The proportion has never exceeded 34% and now seems to be in decline, with only 27% of serious incidents resulting in successful prosecution last year (see table ). The figures must be treated with some caution because a prosecution may be heard in the year after a pollution incident occurs, but appear nevertheless to indicate a recent decline in prosecutions.

The data show that the courts are continuing to treat water pollution offences increasingly seriously. The average fine has increased steadily in recent years after the maximum fine available to magistrates was raised from o2,000 to o20,000 in 1991.

The report also reveals that there is considerable variation among NRA regions in prosecutions for category 1 incidents. The table below shows the number of successful prosecutions in each region for category 1 incidents over the past two years.

Again, the figures should be treated with caution for the reason given above. Nevertheless, the regional variation is clear. While some regions have been taking prosecutions for about half or more of category 1 incidents, Severn Trent has done so in only a tiny minority of cases, while South West and North West appear to be taking well under half of serious polluters to court. These three regions are among the four with the largest numbers of category 1 incidents.

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