Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 25 of Session 2002-03, dated 25 June 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that urgent changes were needed to the waste regulation system, to stamp out abuses of licence exemptions by unscrupulous operators.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 25th Report of this Session, which examined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency's work in regulating waste in England. 176 million tonnes of waste are produced by households and industry in England and Wales each year and the Agency currently spends £78 million a year regulating the production, movement, recycling, treatment and disposal of waste. Waste represents a potential health risk and irresponsible handling of waste can cause adverse environmental effects such as pollution, litter, smells and unsightliness.

The Committee found that since taking over from 83 separate authorities in 1996, the Agency has become a single organisation of some 10,500 people, with a budget of £760 million. It has provided consistent and professional waste regulation across the country. The Agency is, nevertheless, still required to work within detailed guidance from the Department governing, for example, the targeting of its site inspections and the circumstances in which it can refuse a licence application, a situation which takes insufficient account of the Agency's experience and resources. The Department and the Agency should therefore consider revising their respective responsibilities, giving the Agency greater scope to implement legislation, propose draft regulations and decide operational matters to best achieve objectives set by the Department, with the Department retaining its key role in advising Ministers, negotiating with Europe and co-ordinating environmental issues across government.

Waste sites and activities vary in the hazard they pose to the public and the environment. European directives require higher risk sites and activities to be licensed while exempting lower risk activities. Current Departmental guidance and regulations, however, exempts some sites which pose risks to the environment and requires other activities such as some waste recycling and recovery activities to be licensed even though they present little risk. The Department needs to review the boundaries between exempt and licensed sites and on the basis of risk to the public and environment, simplify the licensing of sites posing an intermediate level of risk, for example by developing standard permits.

In 2000-01, significant or major pollution incidents involving waste occurred at just 218 out of the 7,700 licensed waste sites. Nevertheless, the Agency aimed to carry out some 120,000 inspections a year of licensed waste sites and activities, an average of 15 visits to each licensed site and a minimum of 4 for any one site. The Agency should carry out fewer routine inspections, substituting more in depth inspection of sites posing greatest risk. In assessing the relative risks of sites, the Agency should consider the adequacy of the operator's own compliance regimes.

In granting new licences, the Agency effectively operates a presumption, based on Departmental guidance, against refusing licences to applicants who have been convicted for environmental offences at other waste sites. This presumption can hinder the Agency's ability to make operators remedy persistent breaches of their licence conditions. The Department's guidance should therefore make clear that there is no such presumption and require operators with a record of poor waste management to demonstrate how they have remedied past deficiencies before allowing them to expand or continue their businesses.

Mr Leigh said today:

"In 2001-02, significant pollution incidents occurred at less than 3% of licensed waste sites. The Agency is, though, making far too many routine inspections and should target its work on the riskiest sites, where the operators' own compliance regimes are weak.

Worryingly there is considerable evidence that activities currently exempt from a licence pose significant risks to the environment, and exemptions are being abused by unscrupulous operators. Urgent changes to the regulation system are needed to stamp this out. The Department must also make it clear that operators with convictions or a poor record have to demonstrate clear remedial action before they are allowed to continue or expand their business."

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