MPs reveal concerns over planned sentencing guidelines

23rd July 2013

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The House of Commons justice committee has warned that draft sentencing guidelines proposing bigger fines for environment offences may cause confusion

In response to the Sentencing Council’s consultation on its draft sentencing guideline for environment offences, the committee has voiced concerns that the proposal could be applied across a wider range of offences than intended by the council and may cause inconsistencies in sentencing.

The proposed guideline has been designed for use by magistrates with the aim of increasing the level of fines for environmental offences and ensuring greater consistency in sentencing. It covers waste management, permit and nuisance offences under sections 33 and 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990; regulations 12 and 38 of the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010; and section 1 of the Control of Pollution Act 1989, which account for 60% of environment crimes that appear before magistrates’ courts.

However, MPs on the justice committee argue that the guide is also likely to be considered by magistrates when sentencing other environmental offences, such as those under the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations 2007 and the Control of Major Accidents Hazard (COMAH) Regulations 1999, where no sentencing guidance currently exists.

They also warn that the guidance is likely to be used by magistrates in considering health and safety breaches, particularly where an incident gives rise to both environmental and safety charges. The MPs cite the 2005 explosion at the Buncefield oil depot as an example of both environment and health and safety offences arising from the same incident.

Under the council’s proposals fines of £2 million could be issued for the most serious environment offences, a total larger than those imposed generally for health and safety offences connected with fatalities.

In a letter to the council, the chair of the committee, Sir Alan Beith, warned: “We are concerned that a discrepancy could be created with sentences for health and safety offences in particular, and that this discrepancy would be difficult to explain to the public.”

The committee concludes a broader guideline outlining general sentencing principles covering all offences that cause environmental harm, rather than guidance on specific environmental offences, would be a better approach to adopt. However, the MPs acknowledge that it would have taken the council a lot longer to develop such guidance, and recommend that the draft guideline is amended to include a caveat acknowledging that it covers an area of law that overlaps with other offences.

Another concern raised by the MPs is the use of turnover to define the level of penalty a guilty organisation should receive. The committee argues that such an approach could unfairly penalise those firms with high turnovers and small profit margins. They recommend that the council clarifies that other financial information should be taken into account when appropriate, and urges the Magistrates’ Association to ensure that magistrates are adequately trained to understand financial documents.

The committee also criticised the guideline’s advice on custodial sentences for individuals, stating that the starting point of a 12-week prison sentence for offences undertaken deliberately, or for those which cause serious environmental harm, was “disproportionately high”.

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