Farming News - DEFRA: Unlimited financial penalties for environmental polluters

DEFRA: Unlimited financial penalties for environmental polluters

  • Unlimited penalties introduced for companies and individuals who pollute the environment
  • Penalties offer a rapid form of punishment compared to prosecution and can now be used for more offences, including breaches of storm overflow permits
  • Fines and penalties imposed on water companies will be invested back into waterways through the Water Restoration Fund (WRF).

Companies who pollute the environment can be hit with unlimited financial penalties from the Environment Agency from today (11th December 2023).

The previous £250,000 cap on Variable Monetary Penalties (VMPs) has now been scrapped and the range of offences they cover has been expanded, meaning the Environment Agency has more tools with which to hold the water industry, and others, to account.

The range of offences that can be punished with a VMP now include:

  • Breach of permit conditions from sites that discharge into rivers and seas - for example from sewage treatment works and permitted storm overflows;
  • Illegal discharges to water where there is no permit, such as in the event of agricultural pollution from slurry stores;
  • Illegal waste offences, such as from illegal scrapyards or unpermitted waste management facilities;
  • Permit breaches from manufacturing industries and power stations which contribute to air pollution.

The new unlimited penalties - a measure in the UK Government’s Plan for Water - form part of work to ensure there is more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement across the water system.

The changes, which follow a consultation in Spring 2023, affect all firms that have environmental permits, including water and waste companies as well as the agricultural sector and process industries. Penalties issued will be proportionate to the size of the company and the nature of the offence, in line with Sentencing Council guidelines.


Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said:

 “Polluters should be in no doubt that if they harm our precious habitats and waterways they will pay.

“By lifting the cap on these sanctions, we are simultaneously toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. These changes will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and cause pollution.

“Through the launch of the Water Restoration Fund, the money raised from penalties imposed on water companies will go towards restoring and protecting our waters. This is part of the increased investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement we are delivering through our Plan for Water.”

VMPs are designed to act as a punishment and deterrent for breaches of legislation, including environmental permits, and will be used following a thorough investigation when it is not in the public interest to prosecute. The most serious breaches of the law will continue to be subject to criminal proceedings.

 Environment Agency Executive Director John Leyland said:

 “These new powers will allow us to deliver more penalties and help us to continue to hold polluters, including water companies, to account.

“The threat of uncapped financial penalties should boost compliance with environmental laws – helping us provide stronger protection to the environment, communities and nature.”

As well as changes to the VMP system, the Government has recently taken other measures to hold polluters accountable for environmental damage. We have given Ofwat increased powers to ensure water company dividends are linked to environmental performance while the regulator has also tightened the rules on bonus payments. For 2022-23, no water company bosses in England are paying a CEO bonus out of customer money.

The funds raised from water company penalties will be reinvested in a new Water Restoration Fund, designed to provide direct investment for projects that work to improve our rivers, lakes and streams at a local level.