‘Polluters must pay’ says Environment Secretary, as unlimited penalties unveiled

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New laws will scrap the cap on civil penalties and significantly broaden their scope to target a much wider range of environmental offences

Those that pollute the environment will face unlimited penalties under new legislation announced by the UK government.

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 government consultation which received widespread public support.

This will offer regulators a quicker method of enforcement than lengthy and costly criminal prosecutions – although the most serious cases will continue to be taken through criminal proceedings.

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. 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 – from energy and water companies to waste operators and incinerators – to greater account.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said:

“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.

“It builds on action being taken right across government to stand up for our environment – tackling pollution, protecting delicate ecosystems and enhancing nature.”

Minister for Environmental Quality and Resilience Rebecca Pow said: 

“By lifting the cap on these sanctions, we are simultaneously toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. This will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and harm our rivers, seas and precious habitats.

“This was one of the measures set out in our Plan for Water earlier this year. I am proud to say this government has acted swiftly so that this will now be enshrined in law, further strengthening the power of regulators to hold polluters to account.”

Environment Agency Chair Alan Lovell said:

“We regularly prosecute companies and individuals through criminal proceedings, but these new powers will allow us to deliver penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce, even though the most serious cases will continue to go to court.

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“That should be an important deterrent – boosting compliance across a range of sectors, driving down pollution and safeguarding the ecology and prosperity of our natural world.”

There are clear provisions in the Sentencing Council guidelines that will 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.

As set out in the government’s Plan for Water, future environmental fines and penalties from water companies will be re-invested into the government’s new Water Restoration Fund. This fund will deliver on-the-ground improvements to water quality, and support local groups and community-led schemes which help to protect our waterways. River catchment groups – bringing together local NGOs, councils, government agencies and farmers and working together in catchments across the country – will benefit from this funding.

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