The government on Wednesday announced new legislation to scrap the cap on civil penalties and to target a much wider range of environmental offences.
The current limit of £250,000 on variable monetary penalties that the Environment Agency and Natural England can impose directly on operators will be lifted, following a consultation,
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said this will offer regulators a quicker method of enforcement than lengthy and costly criminal prosecutions. However, the most serious cases will continue to be taken through criminal proceedings, the department added.
New powers will also enable these higher penalties to be levied as a civil sanction for offences under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, the regime under which the majority of Environment Agency investigations take place. Defra said this will ensure regulators have the right tools to drive compliance across a range of sectors, strengthening enforcement and holding all who hold environmental permits to greater account.
“Polluters must always pay. We are scrapping the cap on civil penalties and significantly broadening their scope to target a much wider range of offences – from breaches of storm overflow permits to the reckless disposal of hazardous waste,” Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said.
“It builds on action being taken right across government to stand up for our environment – tackling pollution, protecting delicate ecosystems and enhancing nature.”
The government clarified that the Sentencing Council guidelines have clear provisions to ensure the level of penalties levied are proportionate to the degree of environmental harm and culpability. These include safeguards to ensure the operator’s ability to pay, the size of the operator, and the degree of responsibility and harm, amongst others – all of which are taken into account when imposing a penalty.
The amendments to legislation will be approved by both Houses of Parliament in due course before coming into force.
The Environment Agency investigates incidents where there appears to have been breaches of environmental regulations.