The result is property and countryside blighted by fly-tipping, toxic leaks into our soil, and tonnes of waste illegally exported by the UK to developing countries.
The government’s approach to dealing with large parts of waste crime is closer to “decriminalisation” than cracking down on it, MPs have said.
The parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the Defra was not doing enough to support councils to tackle the scourge of fly-tipping, and has no plan to meet its goal to eliminate the £1 billion a year issue of waste crime by 2043.
The MPs said the current sanctions were not effective in deterring people from committing waste crimes, with the sector attracting organised criminals who regard fines for illegal activity as “business expenses”.
A report from the committee looked at the approach to tackling waste crimes, which include fly-tipping, illegal waste sites and export of waste, and evasion of landfill tax.
It warned that criminal activities around waste were on the rise, but the true scale of the problem was uncertain, in the face of under-reporting of fly-tipping and undiscovered illegal waste sites.
With the Environment Agency focused on the most serious criminals, much waste crime only gets minimal or no enforcement action, and the number of prosecutions a year has fallen 90% from a peak in 2007/08, the report said.
It warned that: “Defra, if it is serious about eliminating waste crime, has a long way to go from the current position where the approach to large parts of waste crime is closer to decriminalisation”.
The report urged Defra, the Environment Agency and HM Revenue and Customs to develop a plan for making enforcement more effective, including speeding up the courts process and considering whether sentencing guidelines need to be strengthened.
Defra was also criticised for not doing enough to help local authorities tackle fly-tipping, which is rife in urban areas and also blights rural communities, with 1.1 million reported incidents in 2020/21 and many more going unreported.
The department should set a clear national framework for tackling fly-tipping, setting expectations and promoting good practice, while allowing councils the flexibility to respond to local circumstances.
While landfill tax has encouraged recycling over recent years, it has increased the incentives to commit waste crime, and HMRC has been unsuccessful in prosecuting those who avoid paying the tax.
And the Environment Agency, which is responsible for regulating the waste sector, is not doing enough to prevent an estimated 400,000 tonnes of waste from being illegally exported each year, costing the economy £42 million, and harming the poorer countries where it ends up.
Progress to implementing action to meet the target to eliminate waste crime, set four years ago, is “slow and piecemeal”, with key measures such as digital tracking of rubbish not even at the pilot stage, the committee warned.
Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the PAC, said: “Another day, another policy headline with no plan or demonstrable progress towards achieving it, despite years of resources put in.
“The result is property and countryside blighted by fly-tipping, toxic leaks into our soil, and tonnes of waste illegally exported by the UK to developing countries even less able to cope with its indefinite negative effects.
“With growing involvement of criminal gangs, adept at evading detection and who regard the fines if they are caught as merely a business expense, a much more serious approach to enforcement is required,” she said.
Environment minister Trudy Harrison said: “We are cracking down on waste crime, which costs the economy in England around £924 million per year.
“That is why we are reforming the licencing system, introducing mandatory digital waste tracking, investing to tackle fly tipping, and supporting people to do the right thing by disposing of their waste correctly.”
Richard Las, fraud investigation service head of operations at HMRC, said: “We are committed to combating waste crime and are updating our plans and increasing compliance resource to achieve this.
“We are also tackling landfill tax non-compliance by conducting site visits, helping businesses get their tax right through early interventions, using data analysis, and working closely with other government departments.”
And he said its compliance work in the waste sector had secured £873 million in the past four years that would have otherwise gone uncollected and prevented £1.5 billion in incorrect repayment claims since 2017/18.
Emily Beament is an environment correspondent for PA media.