Defra warns against a “blanket zero-tolerance” approach to issuing litter penalties

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) urged councils in June this year (2022) to be “targeted and proportionate” when using litter enforcement powers as it today (26 August) publishes its latest litter strategy update.

The letter, sent from former Environment Secretary Jo Churchill, cites enforcement guidance, which advises on best practice for litter enforcement.

Ms Churchill also references “worrying” reports which suggested some councils were using private contractors, incentivised on the level of fines issued.

The letter states: “The [litter enforcement] guidance makes clear that in no circumstances should enforcement activity be considered a means to raise revenue. Any perception that enforcement activity is being used intentionally to generate income is likely to undermine the legitimacy of the enforcement regime in the eyes of the local community, which in turn may diminish the deterrent effect.”

It goes on to state that a blanket “zero-tolerance” approach when issuing penalties is unlikely to be “targeted and proportionate” as set out in the guidance.

I would find it very hard to accept any authority could set a future budget which assumed income from fines

In particular, enforcement action should not be taken if it would be disproportionate to the offence, for example against “accidental littering”, the letter states.

Ms Churchill stated: “I would find it very hard to accept any authority could set a future budget which assumed income from fines. This would be to predicate your future budget on the assumption that littering offences would be committed.”

In the accompanying litter strategy update, Defra said the Environment Act, which passed int law in November last year (2021), gives the department powers to further promote proportionate and responsible enforcement.

It states: “Specifically, it will allow for our enforcement guidance to be placed on a firm statutory footing and enable us to ensure that enforcement powers are used with a high degree of professionalism by providing powers to prescribe conditions that must be met by enforcement officers. When we come to exercise these powers, we will consult local authorities to understand any new burdens that they may face.”

The update also states that Defra will undertake a research project which considers the effectiveness of the different enforcement options available to local authorities, the barriers they face in implementing these and any further research needed.

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