HC Deb 02 August 1956 vol 557 cc1753-60

8.6 p.m.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

After the urgent and important debate of today, it may seem rather an anti-climax to turn to the subject of litter. After all, that is more often seen than heard in this House.

The subject was last discussed as long ago as June, 1952, when my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Mr. Russell) raised it on the Adjournment. Tonight, it is topical because litter is the occupational disease of large crowds and, just before the August Bank holiday, the litter fever is at its height. Since the last debate two important developments have taken place. As a result of experience in Coronation year, the then Minister of Works set up a Committee to consider the problem of litter in the Royal Parks, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J. Rodgers). That Committee produced its Report early last year. It is a short and interesting Report, which is well worth reading. It was a most valuable analysis of a specific and limited aspect of what is a very diffuse problem.

That brings me to the second development. Until March this year, no fewer than eight Departments were directly concerned with the subject of litter. Then, in response to many requests both within and outside this House, the Prime Minister allotted the subject to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which has now been made primarily responsible for co-ordinating Government efforts on the litter problem. Tonight is the first time that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has been seen out with his new baby. We hope the child will grow into a well-behaved adult.

A great effort has been made by the Government in past years. Since 1951, the Central Office of Information has run an anti-litter publicity campaign. A great effort has also been made by local authorities and their associations, and many other authorities and organisations. Some manufacturers try to package their products in such a way that the incidence of litter may be reduced. Many voluntary associations—which are most important and too numerous for me to mention by name—have also made a great effort.

I must refer to the wonderful work done by the "Keep Britain Tidy" Group, which has come together for the specific purpose. It is the parent association composed of many individual voluntary organisations which are well known in their own right. On top of that, a great effort is being made in the schools, in most families and by many individuals.

However, when all is said and done, it is still a moot point whether we are gaining or losing ground, whether we are swimming against an ever-growing current and not making quite enough positive progress. Certainly, without the effort being made, we should be engulfed in litter for various reasons. We are more densely populated than other countries. There has been a very great increase in movement. For example, greater motor car travel means more and more litter.

There is now a much greater litter potential. Much food is wrapped. Our very insistence upon food hygiene means more and more wrappings to be disposed of. There is also the effect of increased personal expenditure on bottled drinks, and so on. I am told that about 1 million milk bottles may disappear each day, and they have got to go somewhere. In general, a higher standard of living, as expressed in holidays, recreation and travel, adds to the problem.

There is the argument of despair, "We have done our best; we cannot do anything more about it." That is rejected on all sides by responsible opinion. It is generally agreed that we must cure what is really a shocking national habit. The arguments are conclusive. On amenity, I assume that I am talking to the converted. However, as in the case of economy, perhaps we all want it in principle, but are none too certain of making our own economies or of watching our own litter-spreading habits.

On cost, everything thrown down has ultimately to be picked up by somebody, at either public or private expense, and it certainly takes time. The estimate in respect of the five Royal Parks in London is £10,000 a year. Experts suggest that there is scope for enormous saving in such items as street cleaning. In Birmingham, for example, it costs £260,000 a year to clean the streets, and it is estimated that £34,000 of that is in respect of the picking up of litter which need not have been dropped in the streets.

There is a considerable indirect cost if one thinks for a moment of the drain on the National Health Service in respect of the tending of feet cut by bottles and tins on bathing beaches and so on. It is likewise in agriculture; animals suffer injury from the same causes.

The classic approach to the problem has been one of education in the right course of conduct, backed up by publicity and information, and assisted by the provision of more means, in the way of baskets and so on, to enable the public to dispose of litter.

That really leaves the hard core of the problem, the small, but possibly growing, number of people who, in ignorance or forgetfulness, and in some cases through wilfulness, just do not bother. They are known as "litter louts". They are important. Litter resembles the growth of bacteria; the first to arrive is the worst—because it encourages the spread and breeds rapidly, and secondly, a lot of it is spread unconsciously. I am reminded of the story of a little girl eating a toffee in a railway train pulling out of London. She made to throw the paper out of the window. Her elder sister said, "No, not now, Alice; wait until the train gets into the country."

The only ultimate pressure which can be brought upon the litter lout is some form of control or deterrent. There is a growing feeline that there is a lagging behind in the effectiveness of the sanctions, which thus impedes the all-important process of education. The present control by local authorities and certain organisations such as the National Trust is through byelaw procedure. There is great confusion over byelaws. They are made under many Acts of Parliament. There appears to be no uniformity, and so there is a somewhat patchwork effect. It may fairly be said that they are not working well and that they are uneven and uncertain. I would ask my hon. Friend whether it is a lack of the will to use the means, or whether the means itself is now inadequate. I doubt whether sufficient facts are at present available to enable a final judgment to be given on that point.

Also, there appears to be no effective control of litter left by members of the public on private land, for example by users of rights of way, private or public; by the dumping of rubbish, which is a prevalent habit, particularly at night, on empty plots of land; and also—a very important case—by the throwing on to private land of litter from laybyes on main roads. The latter problem is one upon which the Country Landowners Association is in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Association has, I understand, today submitted photographs of what is happening for transmission to my hon. Friend. Clearly, some policy on that specific point will be needed with the new road programme.

We are, therefore, faced with a grave and growing social problem which requires investigation. The independent organisation, P.E.P., is, I understand, conducting research into the problem. I hope the Ministry will be at pains to collect all possible information and take the problem seriously. That would please the many local authorities and their associations which have written to me to express their concern. They are anxious to work out a continuing and firm policy with the Ministry, and I hope the Minister will consult them.

We are on the eve of the holidays. We want people to enjoy themselves, but in their enjoyment they should think of those who come after them. The trouble today is that our pageants are substantial, and I am afraid that when the revels end on Monday night a substantial wrack will be left behind. Litter does not vanish into thin air.

Other countries pay a great deal of attention to this problem. I do not belittle what has already been done, but, like road traffic, litter is a growing menace. I am very glad that my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend have been put in charge of the Government effort in this direction. We look to them to show that the Government are no less anxious to clean up the ground than the air.

8.19 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill), who has done a great service in raising this matter.

As my hon. Friend has said, the problem does not seem to get any better. August Bank holiday will probably show that to the full in most of the Royal Parks and many of the other open spaces round London. I sometimes think that the House does not set a very good example in the matter of litter. It is a little better today than on some occasions, but I wish that we could set an example by not throwing papers on to the Floor—screwing them up and leaving the Chamber in an untidy state. It is a thoroughly bad example to the public as a whole.

There are only two ways, I believe, of solving the problem outside. One is, as my hon. Friend has said, much greater education on the subject. The other by the police fining people. I believe that action of that kind is the only way to stop some people from being careless, probably completely unconsciously. Only this morning, when I was held up in a traffic block in Oxford Street, I saw the driver of the car ahead casually throw out a cigarette packet. It contained a few pieces of paper and they came out as well. It was simply carelessness.

Until we can check that sort of thing by some kind of police action I really do not see any hope of greatly improving the situation, which is thoroughly bad and certainly needs improving.

8.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. Enoch Powell)

I should like to begin, in discussing the subject which my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) has put before the House, with the legal aspect, and the legal powers which are available. It is true, as he said, that they consist almost exclusively of byelaws and regulations made under Acts of Parliament, but it is extraordinary how far those byelaws already extend.

Byelaws against litter, made under the Local Government Act, 1933, are already in force in 59 counties, 58 county boroughs, 223 non-county boroughs and 25 Metropolitan boroughs. It will, therefore, be clear that they cover the vast majority of the country. They relate not only to highways in the narrower sense of the term—roads and streets—but also to what is described as roadside waste on the edge of highways, to all kinds of public open spaces, and to waters and streams abutting upon roads and open spaces.

In addition to this scope of byelaws made under the Local Government Act, 1933, there are separate byelaws which cover, or can cover, a whole range of other property. The regulations for the Royal Parks are, of course, well known to us. The National Trust makes its own byelaws for its own properties and, as a matter of fact, under those byelaws, imposes a penalty which is higher than the normal. The Forestry Commission has power to make byelaws relating to the land in its occupation. Finally, there is power to make byelaws under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949, which would cover Nature Reserves, National Parks and land to which access is allowed to the public under that Act. There are, therefore, very considerable byelaw powers already widely in operation in regard to streets, open spaces and land to which the public has access.

It is quite true, as my hon. Friend said—and here he pointed to a very real problem—that these byelaws do not cover private land, other than land within the scope of the categories which I have mentioned. The only remedy which the owner or occupier of private land has is at common law, if there is damage attributable to the throwing or leaving of litter, and clearly it is a very difficult matter both to apprehend the culprit and to prove the damage. My hon. Friend is quite right in saying that, in that respect, private land is in a very different situation from public open spaces and from the highways.

There has been evidence of a recent growth of attention to the powers available to the authorities. While full statistics are not available, the evidence of Press reports shows that these byelaws are being used more widely. In a sample of three recent days, taken at random, there were reports of no fewer than six prosecutions under the litter byelaws in three of our counties; and in the same three days there was news that a further county borough—Croydon—was applying to make a new litter byelaw. I think it would be premature, therefore, to come to the conclusion that the byelaws do not afford scope for considerably tighter preventive and punitive action, and that the tendency is not towards greater interest in those powers, and a greater use of them.

The question may be asked, indeed, whether, until we have much more experience of the working of the byelaws against a background of increased public interest in the prevention of litter, it would not be premature—as premature as it would be out of order in this debate—to consider legislation. This increase of prosecutions is only one symptom of what, I believe, is a growth of interest in the prevention of the litter nuisance.

There are many other symptoms, of a more constructive character, of that growth of interest. I think that it is not too much to claim that a contribution has been made to this change by the Government's own litter campaign, which has been in operation, as my hon. Friend said, since 1951; hitherto organised by the Central Office of Information and now to be the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. The budget on which this campaign has been conducted has been, by Governmental standards, a very modest one—something in the range of £1,500 to £2,000—but that figure gives no indication of the scope which is achieved, in practice, by the Government's campaign.

I refer to the indirect, the voluntary results which the campaign stimulates, and which are the really important ones. It has its repercussions in the Press, on the wireless and in television. It has its effect, as my hon. Friend mentioned, on the inscriptions which manufacturers may be induced to put on packages of the goods which they sell. The campaign has been maintained in co-operation with the local authorities, who, after all, have the main duty of enforcement in this matter, and it has stimulated interest on the part of schools, education authorities and voluntary bodies.

I believe that it can, therefore, be claimed that, on a very modest financial basis, the Government's campaign over the last five years has had appreciable and, I hope, cumulative results. I would join with my hon. Friend in referring to, and in praising, the effort of the "Keep Britain Tidy" Group, promoted by the Federation of Women's Institutes. I imagine that in few parts of the country, certainly not in my own, has it not been possible recently to read the local Press for many days running without coming across instances of the activity of that group and of the activities which it has stimulated.

The Press generally have been taking a gradually increasing interest in the question of the litter nuisance. By the crude standard of column inches devoted to the subject, which does provide some means of judging Press interest, the statistics that I have show an increase from 1,100 column inches on the subject in 1952 to 14,000 in 1955; and at the rate we are going this year the total will be at least 20,000 for 1956. That is very marked evidence of increasing public interest, and no doubt this debate itself will make its own contribution to swell the publicity and the attention devoted to the subject.

All this is evidence of the most important change, the most important movement, and that is the awakening of public opinion and of public conscience in this matter. What we are seeking, whether we seek it by positive methods of education, interest, instruction or propaganda, or by the negative methods of prohibition and punishment, is a change in social habit.

In the Report of the Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J. Rodgers), to which my hon. Friend referred, I was very much struck by these words: Changes of habit of the kind we are considering have not been unknown in recent history. Fear of tuberculosis among the general public a generation ago led to the growth of a public opinion which condemned the habit of spitting in public places, and it has virtually disappeared. That is both very true and, for us concerned with the subject tonight very encouraging.

I do not believe that it was entirely, or perhaps mainly, fear of disease which contributed to the disappearance of that unpleasant habit; it was the growth of a public opinion against it, of a public conscience against it, and we shall only really successfully get the better of the litter menace as public opinion and public conscience against litter grow.

All the Measures which my hon. Friend has mentioned and to which I have referred are contributions, but only contributions, to this sole and simple solution. I think that we might take comfort from the thought that the growth of public interest in the litter menace is real evidence of a growth in public opinion against litter and in the public conscience which will eventualy end this social menace.