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Leading Article: Make the polluter pay the full price

THE ENVIRONMENT Agency's attempts to bring corporate polluters to book is being undermined by the leniency of the courts towards guilty companies. The average fine is a piffling pounds 2,000 per tonne, although Wessex Water (1997 profits pounds 130 million) discharged 1 million gallons of raw sewage into a Dorset marina on last year's August bank holiday and was fined only pounds 5,000 with pounds 500 costs. One may well ask: `What's the point?'

The judiciary should realise that for multi-million pound organisations, being taken to court is simply a cost-benefit analysis like anything else. Unless the fine is big enough to threaten the company's profitability and share dividends when the subject pops up at the next board meeting it will quickly be passed over with just a rueful shake of a few greying heads.

The basis on which the fines are worked out needs to be looked at again. Instead of finding a company guilty, adjourning for 20 minutes, then producing a figure which sounds impressive to the local press but is actually plucked from thin air, magistrates should be given new guidelines.

To make the polluters pay properly (and make sure it doesn't happen again) the engineering reason why the incident happened in the first place should be looked at. Even the most trivial of human errors can be guarded against with a sufficient level of investment and, if the humans at that company are in the habit of making errors, perhaps this is the basis on which the fine should be worked out. Thus an overflow of sewage can be guarded against by building a back-up tunnel at a six-figure cost and the result would be a fine that is both punitive and deterrent. The benefit of any doubt should be given to the environment, not to the company in the dock and the legal maxima for pollution fines at magistrates court should be removed.

A princely mistake

SO PRINCE Harry is following his brother to Eton. The most disappointed man in this scenario is Eric Dawson, headmaster of Sir William Romney school in Tetbury, Highgrove's local comprehensive. "In neither case did the family come and look round the school," he tells The Independent sadly. "We have a new humanities block, a swimming pool and a sports centre." And worse, the Prince of Wales declined to live out the middle-class fantasy of choosing from 10 family palaces in order to get his sons into his state school of choice. Definitely a missed opportunity to modernise the royal family.