Calls for NI to improve waste crime enforcement

The Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) has recommended the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) enhance its enforcement and regulation activity and develop a ‘more rigorous’ approach to dealing with offenders involved in waste crime in Northern Ireland.

Calls for NI to improve waste crime enforcement

The call was made today (21 May) by James Corrigan, Deputy Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, following the publication of the CJI’s independent review of the work of the NIEA’s Environmental Crime Unit (ECU). Northern Ireland’s Minister of Environment, Mark H Durkan, invited CJI to undertake the independent review of the ECU’s compliance with, and use of best practice in investigation, following a ‘sobering’ report into widespread illegal dumping.

Report details

A Review of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s Environmental Crime Unit’ looks at how the ECU tackles waste crime, such as fly-tipping, serious organised waste crime, and breaches in compliance, and found that while it has ‘delivered considerable gains with evidence of capability and capacity, as well as positive outputs in terms of convictions and financial confiscations’, there are a ‘range of underlying issues’.

Chief amongst these, the report states, is the ‘absence of a clear strategic assessment of waste crime in the NIEA’, which could ‘impede the overall effectiveness of the management of waste crime’.

Although the Department of the Environment (DoE) is said to be developing a strategy for combating waste crime, and another for ‘effective working relationships with councils’, both were ‘still in development’ at the time of inspection, and as such there was a ‘weakened assessment of threat’.

The CJI noted that there was also ‘little recognition’ of the risks of unauthorised waste disposal at closed landfill sites and of illegal gypsum disposal. The latter was said to be ‘potentially significant’ given that there is only one licensed recycling facility for Northern Ireland based in Downpatrick.

Inspectors noted that although the NIEA was in the midst of a structural ‘reshuffle’ to enable increased resource efficiency and better regulation of residual waste streams at the time of their inspection (the body was creating a ‘Waste Division’ comprising the ECU, a new Resource Efficiency Division, Waste Management, Water Management, the Drinking Water Inspectorate and the Information Unit), there was a risk that ‘the importance of enforcement could be diluted’.

Other findings included:

  • inconsistency in the approach to enforcement across various divisions within the NIEA;
  • a lack of strategic coordination of efforts to provide a coherent analysis of the range of significant waste offending streams and their individual risks;
  • protracted communication and decision-making systems within the unit;
  • a failure to appoint staff with relevant skills (i.e. those with strong investigative experience); and
  • overpopulation of higher-grade roles within the unit.


As such, the CJI suggested that the NIEA and ECU could undertake a range of actions to improve enforcement, including:

  • review ECU strategy to reflect a balanced focus on strategic objectives that: are aligned to departmental and agency strategies; are performance focused; and are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely;
  • develop guidelines for levels of enforcement action that complement the Enforcement and Prosecution Policy and support staff in decision-making;
  • ensure that there is clarity of approach and consistent messaging which removes ambiguity;
  • implement clear guidance on the rationale for prioritisation of investigations, their inclusion and/or linking to priority operations/investigations and their subsequent management;
  • conduct a strategic assessment of the waste sector in Northern Ireland, including illegality in the regulated and non-regulated sectors (and incorporating the risk of transfer of waste from and to Northern Ireland);
  • fill vacancies from candidates with specific core investigative skills and bring in a learning and good practice system;
  • introduce an alternative operational structure reflecting the need for multi-disciplinary team working;
  • examine the feasibility of a single waste/pollution reporting mechanism and a single incident and enforcement database; and
  • bring in a formalised system of the investigative review of all enforcement files by a competent manager at intervals.

The report concludes: ‘The ECU has delivered some significant gains in its relatively short history… While there are clearly some areas to be addressed and central to this are co-ordinated strategic analysis linked to a waste crime strategy, the ECU continues to be a valuable part of the overall response.

‘The concerns leading to this review have not been revealed as calculated systemic issues. While there are undeniably opportunities to embed good practice, the findings of this review are clear that no issues of premeditated malpractice were seen. Ethical conduct was not questioned by anything seen during the review, even if on occasion there was a lack of understanding of some processes. However, there remains opportunity to revive, renew and reinvigorate the ECU and to reinforce its position both internally and externally.’

‘Compliance with the law is the priority of the ECU’

Releasing the report earlier today, Corrigan said: “This review found the work undertaken by staff within the ECU is contributing to securing convictions and the confiscation of money linked to waste crime. This type of activity is positive, but it must be supported by strong regulation and enforcement. Criminals and illegal operators must be in no doubt that compliance with the law is the priority of the ECU and a key objective of NIEA and the DoE in tackling waste and other environmental crime.”

He added: “Strong partnerships across the DoE and its executive agencies and with other law enforcement bodies through the Organised Crime Task Force are critical to the success of future enforcement action.                                                                                                            

“While inspectors accept that enforcement is costly, doing the same or even less is not a viable option for the DoE, as ineffective enforcement will impose enormous liabilities in the form of clean-up operations, EU sanctions and risks to public health.”

‘Environmental crime is not a victimless crime’

The report has been welcomed by Durkan, who commented: “The impact of environmental crime on daily life here should not be underestimated, it is not a victimless crime. It threatens our world-class surroundings, our quality of life and our economy.

“That is why, on taking up office, I asked for a root and branch review of all of NIEA’s functions.”

He welcomed the CJI’s recommendation for a ‘more rigorous’ approach to dealing with environmental crime offenders and said that the department already has a business plan in place to “build strong partnerships with other law enforcement agencies to get tougher on those who damage our environment and heritage”.

Durkan added: “I accept all the report’s recommendations in principle and, subject to some issues of resourcing, look forward to helping drive these forward, in partnership with our stakeholders.”

Read ‘A Review of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s Environmental Crime Unit’.

Related Articles