Fines for environmental crimes could rise

New guidelines have today (14 March) been issued to courts as part of a 12-week consultation into reviewing how environmental offenders should be dealt with.

The draft sentencing guidelines were released by the Sentencing Council (SC), a division of the Ministry of Justice, and could see larger fines introduced for the most serious offenders.

The SC announced that it hoped the new draft guidelines would mean the level of fines issued would match the seriousness of the offence in question, so that offenders ‘are hit in the pocket as well as deterred from committing more crime’. However, the SC does not outline how much fines should increase by, as ‘given the limited sentencing data available… it is not possible to quantify exactly the likely increase to current fine levels’.

The guidelines are also intended to ensure ‘consistent sentencing across England and Wales’ as SC-led research found that magistrates have a ‘lack of familiarity with sentencing these types of offences… due to the infrequency with which they come to court, as well as a lack of confidence in assessing their seriousness and pitching fines at appropriate levels’.

Fines for environmental offences ‘not high enough’

According to the SC, ‘a number of requests’ were received from several members of the waste and environmental industry, including the National Flytipping Prevention Group and the Environment Agency, raising concerns that ‘the levels of fines currently being given in the courts for environmental offences are not high enough and so neither reflect the seriousness of the offences committed nor have a sufficient deterrent effect on offenders’.

Indeed, last week four men and a company were court-ordered to pay costs totalling £106,250 for illegally exporting waste to Brazil, but had they sent the same waste to landfill, the cost of disposal would have been greater – coming in at around £135,000 – adding to the notion that ‘crime pays’.

As such, magistrates have been encouraged to use the highest fines available to them when dealing with the most serious environmental breaches and those that pose the greatest risk to health. The SC said that this was ‘likely to include corporate offenders’.

However, the fines and sentences issued for less serious offences are not likely to change, nor is the proportion of offenders receiving types of sentences such as community service, fines, discharges or prison terms.

The guidelines encompass various environmental offences such as fly-tipping, breaches of waste permits and nuisance crimes involving noise, smoke, dust and smells. Those running sites that pose a health or pollution risk are also covered.

Sentences will ‘hit offenders in their pocket’

Speaking of the draft guidelines, SC member and magistrate Katharine Rainsford said: “Offences like fly-tipping and illegal disposal of hazardous waste can cause significant damage to the environment and put people’s health at risk.

“We’re improving guidance for courts to help ensure consistent and appropriate sentences for offenders, particularly for corporate offenders who can be guilty of the worst offences.

“These offences are normally motivated by making or saving money at the expense of the taxpayer. Our proposals aim to ensure that sentences hit offenders in their pocket.”

Peter Chapman, Chairman of Magistrates’ Association‘s Sentencing Committee, echoed Rainsford’s sentiments, saying: “Offences such as fly tipping and the dumping of waste blight urban communities and picturesque beauty spots alike. With this guideline, magistrates will have the confidence to impose consistent sentences that will punish wrongdoing and satisfy the concerns of the communities who suffer from it.

“The Magistrates' Association warmly welcomes this draft guideline, which responds to one of our earliest requests to the Council.”

Welcoming the new draft sentencing guidelines for environmental offences, Anne Brosnan, Chief Prosecutor at the Environment Agency, said: ?“We welcome this review into sentencing environmental offences and support its aim to ensure that the level of fines given to offenders matches the seriousness of the offences they have committed.

“Environmental crime puts the environment and people’s health at risk, and illegal operators undercut legitimate businesses that do the right thing. 

“Clearer guidelines will be invaluable in helping the courts hand out appropriate sentences for environmental offences, and ensure that this type of offence is dealt with consistently across the country.”

The guidelines are currently in draft format, and the SC has now opened a consultation on the draft guidelines seeking feedback from members of the public, those working in the criminal justice system and environmental professionals. The consultation will be open until 6 June and feedback can be left via the council’s website.

Flytipping in the UK

The guideline consultation comes just weeks after the conclusion of a consultation period dedicated to finding ways to reduce the prevalence of flytipping in Wales. The consultation, coordinated by Welsh Environment Minister John Griffiths, involved 50 organisations, including 22 local authorities, the Welsh Fire and Police Services and environmental organisations. Details of the responses have not yet been released.

According to Chris Mills, Director of Environment Agency Wales, there were 36,000 reported cases of fly-tipping in Wales in 2011, costing Welsh authorities over £2.1 million in clean-up operations.

However, in December 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that the number of fly-tipping incidents in England had decreased for the fifth year in a row. Local authorities spent £37.4 million clearing up 744,000 incidents of illegally dumped waste in England in 2011-12, down from £41.3 million for just over 800,000 incidents in 2010-11. This constitutes a decrease of nine per cent.

Read the Sentencing Council’s draft sentencing guidelines.