The Environmental Audit Committee has expressed concern that the Environment Agency is under-resourced and failing to adequately investigate “large levels of non-compliance” with the F-gas regulations.
The Audit Committee’s report, UK Progress on Reducing F-gas Emissions, published today, calls on the government to enforce the existing F-gas regulations and use its procurement power to promote products with a lower global warming impact.
Among the points in a hard-hitting and wide-ranging report, the committee says it has heard concerns from industry and others that the Environment Agency – the body with responsibility for policing the F-gas regulation – was not adequately resourced to ensure compliance with the regulations.
Industry witnesses reported non-compliant items and activities being advertised online, highlighted UK ports as being a potential weakness in the regime, and that those flouting the regulations put businesses that did comply at a competitive disadvantage.
“We were disturbed to hear from industry and others that they suspect large levels of non compliance. We are concerned that the Environment Agency does not have the adequate resources to tackle this problem,” the committee reports.
Only one prosecution
The report also questions the low number of investigations. The Environment Agency said it had received 44 tip-offs since 2015 and monitored social media sites, such as Amazon and eBay. DEFRA noted that over the past 12 months the Environment Agency’s online surveillance had led to the removal of 198 banned products from sale and contact with 56 retailers that were not advising their customers of the requirement to hold certification when purchasing HFC refrigerants.
There has also only been one prosecution – and that from a company openly reporting its own breach of the regulations. In 2013, Schneider Electric was fined £3,000 after reporting the release of 15kg of SF6, an insulant used in high voltage switchgear.
Last month, the Cooling Post raised concerns at the amount of refrigerant being offered on the internet by vendors seemingly not requiring purchasers to hold F-gas certification. To compound the problem, much of the product was being supplied in illegal disposable cylinders. The Environment Agency was asked by the Cooling Post whether it was aware of this and whether it knew if these products were being sold by quota holders. The Agency failed to respond.
Incredibly, the Cooling Post also found vendors on eBay offering CFC refrigerants. When the Cooling Post pointed this out to eBay the items were promptly removed.
“The low number of investigations and the single prosecution for a self-reported breach since the beginning of 2015, when the current F-gas Regulation came into effect, do not inspire confidence,” the Environmental Audit Committee reports.
“DEFRA and the Environment Agency should publish plans for monitoring non-compliance, especially on social media sites, and how they will ensure with HMRC that there are no weaknesses in the F-gas regime now and after the UK leaves the EU. Online sellers have the tools to end environmental criminality on their platforms. They should use them,” it says.
While the recently introduced civil penalties of up to £200,000 were likely to deter non-compliance and make prosecutions far easier, the Environmental Audit Committee expressed concern that prosecutions would be difficult without a properly resourced regime. In addition, it questioned the government’s decision not to retain more criminal sanctions, which would have added to the deterrence effect for non-compliance, especially for the worst offences. Only the deliberate release of F-gases remains a criminal offence.
“We recommend that the Government reviews the effectiveness of the F-gas compliance regime annually, indicating the actions it is taking, the resource it is assigning to such activities, the number of investigations carried out and the number of successful prosecutions achieved,” says the report.