HC Deb 20 May 1960 vol 623 cc1739-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

4.8 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Prentice (East Ham, North)

In raising the question of the Litter Act and its enforcement I have two purposes in mind. One is to draw attention again to the chronic problem of litter in this country, to make a few comments, and to invite the Parliamentary Secretary to make his comments, if foe wishes. The second is to suggest a rather more effective use of the powers of prosecution under the Litter Act.

As I left home this morning, I set out upon the tack of counting the pieces of litter between my home and the railway station, a distance of about half a mile, but I soon gave up in disgust. As usual, there were literally hundreds of bits and pieces of paper, cigarette cartons, match boxes, bus tickets, and so on. That is the sort of experience one has in most streets in all our towns. The situation exists not only in towns, but in the countryside and on our beaches. One finds some of our best beauty spots, particularly at holiday times, defiled by litter louts who leave their rubbish around. It seems to me to be a very deeply ingrained habit of the British public to behave in this respect rather worse than the people of most other countries in the world.

However, for some years there has been a dedicated movement of a minority trying to campaign against this and trying by a process of education to induce the British public to adopt better habits. In recent years this movement has received considerable impetus. It received an impetus from the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy group in 1954. That has done excellent work. It received impetus from the passage of the Litter Act in 1958.

My own impression, on which I should like to hear the comments of the Parliamentary Secretary, is that the Act has led to some improvement. There was an impression during last year that, during holiday periods, there was rather less litter than in previous years in many of the open spaces. That is an achievement, if one considers it against the background that the packaging of goods has been increasing, that there are more wrappings around things and, therefore, more litter to throw away now than there was a few years ago. A great deal of progress has been made, I believe, with the provision of litter bins. There was a useful Adjournment debate on this subject last December in which the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) took part.

Then there is the particularly hopeful sign this year of a campaign in schools, a campaign organised, I believe, by the Keep Britain Tidy group. There has been a considerable response by local education authorities throughout the country. The message "Keep Britain Tidy" is being brought into the schools. This is excellent, because it is teaching children at an age when they are still impressionable the importance of this subject and teaching them good habits.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that we need to use the rather more drastic powers of the Litter Act in order to get results more quickly. If progress is being made now under the Litter Act, it is still too slow, and the good work which is done in schools among boys and girls can be frustrated if they see their parents and older people in the community generally behaving in a way which is contrary to what they are learning at school.

I think that for that reason it was absolutely right that the Litter Act, 1958, laid down that it is an offence to drop litter in open places and that for this offence people are liable to be fined up to £10. This was necessary at a shortcut, because, although the education of the young is important and will prove worth while in the long run, it is a measure which can operate only in the long run, and the country should not wait till then to try to deal with this problem more drastically.

I believe that there have been over 2,000 prosecutions under the Litter Act, but it still seems to me that the majority of the people carry on as though the Act were not on the Statute Book at all. It is my impression that millions of people break this Act every day, some of them, perhaps, because they are not aware of the Act and do not realise they are committing an offence. There are others who do realise that it is an offence. If someone asks them about it they may answer, "Yes, we know about this." Nevertheless, they have a habit which they find it difficult to break —or they have not tried hard enough to break it—of simply dropping cigarette packets and so on when they have finished with them. I have been in the presence of hon. Members of this House who helped to pass the Act when they have dropped cigarette packets in the streets of Westminster. That is one example of how the Act is broken every day.

My plea, therefore, is for wider use of the power of prosecution, and, above all, for the use of the maximum penalty for cases in which this offence occurs, in order to make people conscious of the fact that it is an offence—so conscious of it that they will mend their ways.

There is one real difficulty. This is an Act to be implemented by the local authorities, and one difficulty is that if an official of a local authority in plain clothes speaks to an offender on the street and asks the offender for his name and address it is more than likely that he will receive a rude answer and not get the name and address. There is no practicable method of forcing the offender to give his name and address. This is the same difficulty faced by the ordinary citizen who, under the Act, can effect a prosecution or commence the proceedings for one. I personally have not had the courage, deeply as I feel about this, to go up to an offender on the street and ask him for his name and address in order to prosecute.

I suppose, therefore, that the main job must fall on the police, but here we face a real difficulty. The police forces have many other things to do which they might reasonably consider to be more urgent. Many police forces are under strength and therefore might not want to be bothered with this.

I suggest that there should be a careful liaison between local authorities and police forces to plan special swoops on offenders. If in a town on a particular morning the police went out and picked up twenty offenders it could be done pretty quickly with very little police time wasted, but twenty cases coming before the magistrates at once and receiving publicity would be a sharp reminder to the public. The reminder could be repeated, if necessary, from time to time.

One could carry the idea further and envisage on August Bank Holiday a sudden police raid, with motor bikes roaring, on a beauty spot where people were gathered to picnic. The operation should be carried out if possible complete with television cameras so that there should be the utmost publicity. This may sound melodramatic, but this matter needs to be publicised if the impact on the public is to make any difference.

In the literature circulated on the subject by the Keep Britain Tidy group and by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government not much attention has been paid to the prosecution powers. This may be a deliberate decision and I should like to have the comments of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on this point. Circular 15/60 issued on 31st March refers to various ways in which local authorities can promote campaigns this year, but it makes only a passing reference in the fourth paragraph to the power of prosecution in relation to the dumping of unwanted articles in fields and on wasteland. It does not ask local authorities to make a vigorous use of the power for general offences.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary say whether the Government will encourage local authorities to use this power more vigorously and whether the suggestions I have made of special swoops and blitzes on offenders will be taken up so that a maximum impact can be made? It might be suggested that I am being a little harsh. When I made this suggestion on a television programme a few weeks ago some people in my constituency reacted in that way. They said that I was going a little far.

They thought that it would be hard on offenders who would be picked up when they saw that other people did the same thing and got away with it and that therefore injustice would be involved. But we have to make up our minds whether this is an offence against the law or not. If it is not an offence, the Litter Act should be repealed. That Act was passed deliberately by both Houses of Parliament less than two years ago. It has the support of the local authority associations. Those authorities, the Government, and all concerned should see that it works properly.

The Litter Act stated rightly that this is an offence and it provided for fines to be imposed. People are far too complacent about the dirty, untidy and sometimes unhealthy state of our streets and open spaces. This is an instance, among others, of a matter on which the country should aspire to higher standards of citizenship. This may be encouraged by emphasis on education, but I think that use should also be made of the powers deliberately put into the Act. Offenders should be prosecuted so that people may be aware that this is an offence and so that national habits in this respect may be improved fairly quickly.

4.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Honsing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

The hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) has made a sympathetic, constructive and balanced survey of the position, and I am grateful to him. As he said, publicity is the essence of this attempt to change a national habit. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) led the way in this campaign to try to quit the country of the national litter habit and throughout the proceedings both sides of the House stressed education as the most important part of the campaign, although, of course, the law is also involved under the Litter Act.

If we are to rely on education as well as the law, we can do it only if the public have sympathy with the campaign. Despite the evidence that the hon. Member for East Ham, North saw for himself this morning, the cleaning of the town and countryside is a popular objective. This is witnessed by, for instance, as the hon. Member described it, the dedicated work of the Keep Britain Tidy group and of the number of groups which it has managed to collect all over the country, as well as the constant evidence of public zeal. Local authorities have been active in the campaign and so also, I am glad to say, has industry, both public and private. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has lost no opportunity to stress his interest and his desire to lead the campaign.

The Litter Act is limited to the dropping of litter in the open air in places to which the public has access without payment. As the hon. Member has said, anybody—any person or local authority or the police—can prosecute under the Act. The Act provides for a higher level of maximum fine than was provided in byelaws before the Litter Act was passed—that is, £10.

Since the Act came into force in the summer of 1958, there have been more than the 2,000 convictions of which the hon. Member spoke. To the end of last year, there were no fewer than 2,632 convictions. In most of those cases, a solid fine was levied and not just a nominal one. The trend of convictions is also interesting. In 1959, the conviction rate rose from 351 in the first quarter to 721 in the fourth quarter. Judging so far as we can from what statistics are available, it is interesting that fish and chip paper seems to be one of the most popular items of litter.

Last year, the Keep Britain Tidy group circulated 367 local authorities, of whom 279 replied, asking what, in their view, had been the effect of the Litter Act. Ten local authorities said that there had been a marked improvement; 28 said that there had been some improvement; 25, that there had been an initial improvement; 69 said that there had been little effect and 94 said that there had been no improvement.

Despite that slight balance in favour of no improvement, however, it is encouraging to find that 202 local authorities have had to install extra litter bins and, even more important, 64 local authorities have been forced to arrange extra refuse collections from their bins. That is the sort of evidence we want.

The general impression, therefore, is one of improvement. This is not vitiated by the obvious flagrant failures on, for instance, Derby Day and the occasion of Princess Margaret's wedding, when we all read of the amount of litter that excited crowds had left in Central London. It is not only that excitement makes people forget the Litter Act, and, perhaps, other things, but there is safety in numbers. In a large crowd, nobody sees who drops the litter, but a great sea of litter is revealed when the people have gone.

The only answer, I think, is not that local authorities can cover such areas with litter bins—there would be no room for anything else—but that people must think about litter when they set out for the day and either provide themselves with a bag in which to carry it or, if they cannot reach a litter bin at once and have failed to carry a bag, to carry their litter with them until they find a bin.

The hon. Member asked a number of questions. It is true, as he said, that the Act provides no power to require the name and address of an alleged offender. Nevertheless, the number of convictions shows that somebody, in large numbers, has the courage to identify offenders. I do not think that I can properly comment on the hon. Gentleman's suggestions about the police. First, the police are a matter for the Home Office, and, secondly, it is, as I know the hon. Gentleman will realise, normal to leave decisions on these matters entirely to chief constables. Nevertheless, it is open to local authorities to consult chief constables about any co-operation they may desire, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's speech will be widely read. I cannot say any more about that.

Mr. Prentice

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether I am right in thinking that most of the prosecutions so far have been brought as a result of police action?

Sir K. Joseph

I have not the statistics to enable me to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The statistics available do not give that information.

The hon. Member suggested that my right hon. Friend had omitted all mention of the powers under the Act in his last circular. It is not normal for my right hon. Friend to stress that he wants to see these powers exercised. His job is to remind people that they exist. In circular 15/60 there is the sentence: If the offender can be traced, action under the Litter Act may be appropriate. I do not think that it would be proper to go further than that.

What are the prospects at the moment of keeping up the impetus shown by the trend of statistics in 1959? The Keep Britain Tidy group, which is behaving most admirably in this matter, has launched a strong 1960 campaign, which strikes me, on reading it, as most workmanlike and practical. It stresses the educational aspects. As the hon. Gentleman said, the emphasis this year is on work in schools.

The group has the co-operation of my right hon. Friend and all Government Departments. There are a number of examples of public and private enterprises co-operating with local authorities as well. The Government are distributing well over 100,000 posters, and the Federation of British Industries has aranged for 1,000 hoarding sites to be made available for large posters—I hope that these will not conflict with my right hon. Friend's interest in advertising vis-à-vis outdoor amenities—and London Transport and British Railways are showing Keep Britain Tidy symbols. Some new short television films will soon be ready. The essay and poster competitions for children have been held. Only last week my right hon. Friend presented badges to children who are members of school committees, and he was able to stress at that ceremony the importance of continuing the work.

It is also important that litter bins, whose increase is vital to the success of the campaign, should not themselves offend the visual scene. I am glad to repeat that the Council of Industrial Design is sponsoring a competition for the design of litter bias. Therefore, this side is covered as well.

My right hon. Friend has stressed that it is necessary to look at not only little bits of paper and cigarette cartons, but the dumping of old cars and bedsteads —litter on the grand scale. Circular 15/60 invites local authorities to consider whether their present procedure is sufficient. The fact is that everyone can help by joining one of the local Keep Britain Tidy groups and playing an active part in the campaign as well as a more passive one by their own example and showing their interest to their own local authorities. Above all, the schools can do a great deal. We must hope that the young will educate the old.

We are out to change a national habit to make us into a tidy nation just at the time when, as the hon. Gentleman said, the packaging revolution is making it ever more important. In this campaign, publicity is even more important than, perhaps, fines, but fines help publicity because reports of prosecutions make news and make people think. I like very much the story of the man who was so outraged by receiving a summons for a parking offence that when the policeman gave him the slip of paper he tore it up and threw it in the gutter, and the policeman at once issued him with another summons under the Litter Act.

Publicity is our main weapon. The Litter Act provides an ancillary weapon. Inasmuch as publicity is the main instrument of the campaign, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's speech, and, I hope, my answer, will help forward the objective that we all have.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

The whole House will feel that my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) has rendered a very valuable service to the nation by raising this subject today. We are encouraged by the sympathetic response of the Parliamentary Secretary. All of us realised when the Litter Act was passed that its enforcement would depend very largely upon the backing and the support of public opinion. We may also say, as the Parliamentary Secretary himself claimed, that substantial progress has already been made.

The Litter Act has contributed substantially towards raising the standards of public opinion and public conduct. It has been notorious for a long time that this country has fallen a long way behind most continental countries, the United States and, notably, Russia— where standards are very high in this respect—in our treatment of litter. As the Parliamentary Secretary has said, enforcement of the Act depends very largely upon the backing of enlightened public opinion.

It is all very well for Parliament to pass an Act, but enforcement is difficult unless it has public opinion behind it. I am convinced that the experience since the Act was passed shows that public opinion is very much behind it. The very passing of the Act has done a great deal to educate public opinion about the importance of cleanliness and the avoidance of litter. I am very glad to hear the assurances that the Parliamentary Secretary has given about the steps which his Department and the Home Office are taking.

Everybody knows that practice varies considerably between one local authority and another. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to continue with the propaganda programme which he has indicated, because I am convinced that it will require a continued stimulus from the Government, backed by local authorities, to enable the whole nation to derive the maximum benefit from this Measure. I hope that in particular we will continue to stimulate such local authorities as have been backward in this respect by reminding them both of their powers and of their responsibilities under the Act.

A great deal can be done to educate the public by the provision of litter bins and receptacles, in adequate numbers and in appropriate and agreeable forms, because that would bring home to the nation the desirability, and, indeed, the necessity, in the interests of public health generally and of the appearance of our streets and thoroughfares, of keeping litter off the streets.

I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that it is essential that the powers of prosecuting offenders should be exercised. That has, obviously, a salutary and deterrent effect. It also serves to reinforce such other measures of publicity and propaganda as can be be carried out. I was glad to hear the Parliamentary Secretary emphasise, as did my hon. Friend, that there is no need under the Act to leave the initiative to the police. In this, as in all other respects, all citizens have a duty to see that the law of the land is enforced. It is a mistake to think that a citizen is entitled to rely solely on the police to prosecute offenders.

One cannot emphasise too often that under our common law every citizen, not only the police, has a right as well as a duty to take the appropriate measures if he sees the law of the land being ignored. I very much hope that this debate will do something to promote further this valuable campaign for improving the cleanliness of our thoroughfares.

4.35 p.m.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)

I wish to take up one point made by the Parliamentary Secretary. He mentioned the poster campaign and posters pro- vided by the Federation of British Industries. I hope that he will bear in mind the importance of not defiling by the inappropriate use of posters the countryside which he wishes to clear of litter.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that many of us, and certain organisations outside the House, including the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and similar bodies, which, I am sure, he would wish to include in his tribute, were a little disappointed by the new regulations introduced by his right hon. Friend. We are worried about how the voluntary code dealing with "clutter" will be observed by the advertising industry.

This latter matter is part of the wider problem of amenity in the countryside and the towns. If public standards of taste and behaviour are debased by the indiscriminate use of posters, and so forth, there is an effect on the other side of the problem. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will watch very carefully the use of his propaganda and see that it does not defeat its own ends.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock.