DEFRA hits back against waste crime claims

The government has reacted strongly against the findings of the National Audit Office that it had failed to properly address the damage wrought by waste crime, claims which have been echoed by Labour and the Environmental Services Association (ESA).

An illegal waste dump in woodland The government says it is cracking down on waste crime. Photograph: Environment Agency

In a report published earlier today, the public spending watchdog found that official figures significantly underestimate the number of illegal waste sites, fly-tipping, involvement of organised criminal gangs in the sector and the scale of unlawful exports.

ESA executive director Jacob Hayler, said the findings “illustrate perfectly why the waste sector is viewed as a soft target by criminals”

“Strong and timely enforcement by regulators is vital to tackling this issue and, while we understand resource pressures and the impact of Covid-19, it is disappointing to see that the number of prosecutions has dropped considerably while the incidences of waste crime have continued to rise,” he added, noting that investigations are taking longer and longer to complete.

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon joined the criticism of DEFRA, describing the NAO’s report as “a damning indictment of the Government’s negligence in tackling waste crime in England, letting criminals off the hook and leaving a financial and environmental burden on our country”.

Such words appear to have stung, with the combined press office serving DEFRA and the Environment Agency (EA) delivering a response that ran to six pages – a tenth of the length of the NAO’s report.

In it, Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan admitted that waste crime was rising, and responding to it “is not an easy fight”.

“This is why we have created a robust new strategy which is intelligence-led, collaborative and high-tech, focusing on combating the worst criminals. We now share intelligence on criminals with our partners, resulting in more than 2,500 illegal waste sites being shut down permanently in the last three years,” he added.

Resources and Waste Minister Jo Churchill confessed that waste crime is estimated to cost the economy “an astonishing £924m per year” in England alone.

Aside from forming the Joint Unit for Waste Crime, the government’s actions to crack down on waste crime include:

  • Consulting on fundamental reforms to the waste carriers, brokers and dealers regime, intended to make sure that those who transport or make decisions about waste are competent to do so.

  • Planning to introduce mandatory digital waste tracking, replacing the unwieldy paper-based waste transfer notes system, which is vulnerable to fraud. The destination of waste exports will have to be disclosed before it leaves the country, which should deter lawbreaking.

  • Most recently, consulting on plans to ban local councils from charging to collect DIY waste and reviewing the use of booking systems for amenity sites, which have driven a market exploited by crooks.

  • Providing extra funding to the Environment Agency, allowing it to employ more frontline staff, including specialist environmental crime officers and financial investigators.

  • Planning to consult on banning the export of plastic waste to non-OCED countries by the end of this year. In a recent speech, Bevan said that all forms of waste export should be banned.

  • Introducing fixed penalty notices for smaller-scale fly-tipping in 2016, and for householders who hand waste to unlicensed waste carriers. Local councils and the EA are also able to seize and destroy vehicles used for fly-tipping under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

  • Providing capital funding of £450,000 to several councils to install CCTV or take other measures to tackle fly-tipping.

  • Obtaining a jail sentence last year against a man who failed to pay a £350,000 confiscation order related to his illegal dumping of waste on a County Durham Farm.

  • Arresting five people last year as part of an investigation into a gang dumping thousands of tonnes of waste at sites in the Midlands. Drugs and firearms were also found.

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