Polluters face unlimited penalties as government toughens legislation

The cap on civil monetary penalties that can be handed out by environmental regulators is set to be removed
The cap on civil monetary penalties that can be handed out by environmental regulators is set to be removed

Polluters face the prospect of unlimited financial penalties under new tougher legislation announced today by the 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.

The move 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.

The government said this would ensure regulators have the right tools to drive compliance across a range of sectors, including agriculture.

Defra 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 added: “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."

There are provisions in the Sentencing Council guidelines that 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.