With the National Crime Agency investigating links with organised crime and drug smuggling, and raids almost on a daily basis looking for slaves among their work forces, illicit hand car wash operators were probably wondering when MPs would wake up to the problems they pose. What few were expecting, however, was that it was their appalling record of environmental carnage, which has faced minimal enforcement from the authorities, that has finally tipped the balance.
At the end of last month the Environment Audit Committee a cross-party group of MPs who scrutinise government policies over environmental protection and sustainable development announced it would hold an inquiry into hand car washes (HCW). In its terms of reference, the committee said it would be comparing the environmental impact of HCWs with that of automatic car washes. It would be looking at whether water could be used more sustainably, what chemicals are used, the regulations for hand car washes and how effectively they are enforced. And under the title of "sustainable employment practices", it also intends to look into the allegations of exploitation and human trafficking, and the cost to the public purse in terms of unpaid taxes and police investigations.
Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: "HCWs are a familiar sight throughout the UK and often offer drivers a cheaper and more convenient alternative to automatic car washes, but they may be having a damaging environmental impact.
"Oil, dirt and cleaning products are often not disposed of correctly, which could be having a significant impact on local water sources and wildlife. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commission has also expressed concerns around the exploitation of the workforce at HCWs. We are concerned about the cost to the public purse of tackling criminality, including trafficking, tax evasion and enforcement of minimum wage law.
"Our inquiry will look at the environmental impact of HCWs and ask how effective the regulations that govern them are. It will also ask the government how it is meeting its commitments under the UN Sustainable Development Goals to reduce human exploitation."
Having campaigned on the subject for years, and seen many members driven out of the car wash sector by the illegally operated competition, the PRA is delighted that its work has finally paid off. PRA chairman Brian Madderson commented: "The PRA is pleased to see the committee is holding the government to account on an industry that is in breach of several government regulations.
"We have been lobbying DEFRA repeatedly over the lack of enforcement regarding the estimated 6,500 cubic metres of chemical trade effluent produced by HCWs which pollutes local water courses. We have also met with officials from both the Home Office and the Treasury Select Committee over breaches to the Modern Slavery Act and the millions of pounds lost in tax revenues.
"The association has been working closely with Philip Dunne MP, who sits on the Environmental Audit Committee, on this issue, and are grateful for his support. We are hopeful to be invited to provide oral evidence before the committee."
Dunne responded: "I have become alarmed to learn of the widespread lack of compliance with normal good business practice by operators across the country, so welcome the chance to examine these claims to help bring bad or illegal practice to an end. I am grateful to the PRA, and specifically the Car Wash Association, for providing the underlying information on which the committee decided this inquiry should be launched. I hope they will be invited to give evidence in person to the committee in coming weeks."
He said the primary focus of the committee would be on compliance with waste water regulations to prevent pollution of waterways, but he also wanted to ensure the allegations of tax evasion and modern slavery were looked into.
The inquiry is the latest indication that the tide is turning decisively against the illegal HCW sector after years of campaigning by the PRA on a number of fronts. It has tackled the supermarkets over the gangs working in their car parks, and illegally allowing their run-off to enter surface water drains and fouling waterways.
The PRA has also been at the forefront of highlighting the involvement of the illicit HCW trade in human trafficking and modern slavery. It was one of the supporters of the formation of the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority, and this has spearheaded the current crackdown with the National Crime Agency and police forces across the UK.
Raids at sites suspected of employing slave labour have also uncovered evidence of them being bases for other criminality. After a recent raid, detective chief inspector Nicole Murphy, of Milton Keynes Local Policing Area, said: "We have carried out a number of warrants to disrupt an organised crime group.
"This group has used hand car washes in Milton Keynes, in order to act as a front to mask their criminal activity."
With the national media also highlighting the human cost of impossibly cheap car washes, the MPs’ inquiry could open up a new front in the battle to win back the car wash market for legitimate operators.
The Environmental Audit Committee is inviting submissions to the inquiry by 5pm on Friday May 18. No date has yet been set for the hearing. Full details are available at https://bit.ly/2Hq42MB