HC Deb 22 December 1964 vol 704 cc1195-206

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John Silkin.]

11.0 p.m.

Sir Rupert Speir (Hexham)

I am glad to have an opportunity before the House rises for the Christmas Recess of drawing the attention of the House to the working of the Litter Act. Since I was eventually successful—I say "eventually" because it took three Sessions to pilot the Litter Act on to the Statute Book—in getting that Act on the Statute Book, I have, deliberately, seldom raised this subject in the House. I mention the fact because my name has been invariably linked with the passing of the Litter Act, although I have had the pleasure of sponsoring three other Bills in the House, all of which were a great deal more complicated than the Litter Act, and I fear that it may be thought that I have litter on the brain.

I have tried not to be too much of a fusspot and not to be an extremist on the subject of litter. Certainly I do not want to see Britain going to the extremes which I believe exist in the Soviet Union where one can be fined if one has a dirty car. I always think that if one exaggerates one's case one is inclined to weaken it. But I fear that there is very little danger of exaggerating the litter problem in a great many parts of Great Britain at the moment. I feel that as the Act has been in operation for over six years, it is perhaps time that we examined its working, to see whether it is working at all and to see how the police, the courts and the local authorities are doing their respective jobs.

I ought, perhaps, to declare an interest in that not only was I the sponsor of the Litter Act but I am also a Vice-President of the Keep Britain Tidy Group. That is a group which has been living financially on a shoestring for the past 10 years. It has done the most valiant work in trying to keep Britain tidy and clean and a beautiful land in which to live. The group was originally formed in 1954 on the initiative of the National Federation of Women's Institutes. It is an all-party, or perhaps I should say a non-party, group, privileged to have the Queen Mother as its Patron, the Princess Royal as its President, and the noble Lord, Lord Attlee, as a Vice-President. We have a most excellent chairman in Lady Brunner, who, when she is not devoting all her energies to trying to keep Britain tidy, is, I believe, doing her best to get more Liberal representatives in Parliament—and in some respects there is room for that. The group also has a most enthusiastic and energetic secretary, and, I need hardly say, an underpaid staff.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, if he cannot do or say anything more than Parliamentary Secretaries can usually do or say in debates of this kind, that at least he should undertake to try to persuade his Department to look at the absolute pittance which they reluctantly dole out each year to help the finances of the Keep Britain Tidy Group. I do not think that their contribution has averaged more than about £2,000 a year. On one occasion it went up to £5,000, but the average is about £2,000 a year. After all, the work which this group does, in so far as it discourages the scattering of litter in the streets and roads of Britain, saves the ratepayers vast sums of money, for the collection of litter is an exceedingly costly business. It is estimated that it costs £13 million a year to clear up the litter in the streets of England and Wales and that it costs more than £100,000 in Brighton alone to remove litter from the streets and beaches. I hope that we can expect from the new Government at least a new broom.

This is a brief debate and I must not speak for too long. I regard this as the opening shot in a campaign to start to turn the heat on the litter lout. To put it in a nutshell, I do not think that anyone could possibly suggest that in Britain today we are taking the anti-litter campaign anything like seriously enough.

The National Benzole Company, which has been extremely generous in its financial contributions to the Keep Britain Tidy Group, has collected some startling facts and figures. Last year, for example, no less than 6,000 car owners dumped unwanted vehicles on public highways. About 30,000 television sets were thrown onto one open space and 30 tons of scrap and rubbish were removed from one lay-by in Essex. Three truck loads of litter are removed from Waterloo Station daily, and 6½ million milk bottles disappear every week. Every night of the year 30 litter bugs dump the equivalent of four lorry loads of refuse in the Borough of Kensington. Last year the average man threw away four times his own weight in rubbish.

Although the Litter Act has been in operation for six years, Britain remains a rather "scruffy" country. In fact, we are in the running for becoming one of the dirtiest countries in the world, and I agree with Dr. Beeching who is reported as saying the other day that the British are a "filthy people".

Why is this? The answer is partly because this is a densely populated island and partly, no doubt, because we are now living in a wrapping-age—when everything comes to us packed in paper or polythene, in cartons, cans or bottles. But that is really no excuse for scattering litter about in public. Nor do I believe that there is any excuse for the authorities—in the form of the police, the courts or the local authorities—ignoring the provisions of the Litter Act or implementing it so half-heartedly.

I may be wrong, but I believe that the overwhelming mass of the population supports the provisions of the Litter Act and are keen to see the Measure implemented. After all, the Act is the law of the land; yet the police are not enforcing it—at least, nothing like adequately. There are now about 2,500 successful prosecutions a year, but I understand that nearly all of them are initiated not by the police but by local authorities. I also believe that in some areas, including the Metropolitan police area, the police are reluctant to prosecute.

Why should this be so? It is against the law of the land to scatter litter, so why should the police be allowed to turn a blind eye to these offences? I appreciate that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary does not answer for the Home Office, but he does represent the Government and I urge him to consider this aspect of the matter and agree to discuss it with his colleagues at the Home Office. It simply cannot be in the best interests of good Government for an Act of Parliament openly and flagrantly to be broken in the presence of the police and for no action to be taken. The Keep Britain Tidy Group informs me that its members have had several reports of policemen watching litter offences being committed and yet taking no action. If we are to have any hope of keeping Britain tidy, this attitude must be changed, and changed by the Government.

There are those who would advocate that the system, common on the Continent, of fines on the spot should now be introduced here. As we now have traffic wardens, with their parking tickets, this is not such a novel and revolutionary proposal. The Government ought to be giving serious consideration to its possible introduction, more especially if the police authorities take the line that they cannot spare the men or the time to operate the Litter Act.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have some positive suggestions to make. I accept the fact that much of the responsibility for implementing the Act must devolve on the local authorities. I also agree that the local authorities must pander to the public, and provide plenty of suitable litter bins, and ensure that they are cleaned out at regular intervals—because there is nothing worse than an overflowing bin. The local authorities must also be encouraged to offer, and to make public that they do offer, a free service of refuse collection. That is particularly necessary for dealing with the problem of bulk litter. In the end, if Britain is to be kept tidy, we must look for greater support and encouragement of the anti-litter campaign from the central Government which, by and large, must mean the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Would it really be too much to ask the Parliamentary Secretary that his Department should consider, some time next summer—perhaps at the start of a Bank Holiday—launching, or helping to launch, a national Keep Britain Tidy week? I would be most grateful if the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would give this idea, and the other ideas I have put forward, the most careful and sympathetic consideration.

11.12 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon (Wells)

I support with all the force at my disposal every word that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Sir R. Speir) has just spoken. The state of our streets and highways and other public places is becoming a scandal. Not only do we have paper to contend with, but far more durable things. People forget that modern wrappings, composed very largely of plastic materials, last much longer in the weather they are almost indestructible.

There are also the very solid bits of hardware which my hon. Friend mentioned, the motor cars, the television sets, the old stoves and other bits of household paraphernalia with which the countryside is littered. It is not only the countryside—we find this even in some of the small gardens in the squares of the City of London. I have the very doubtful privilege of living in the Royal Borough of Kensington where, as my hon. Friend has just said, some of the streets are a positive disgrace.

I am well aware that at the present time in the big cities, and in London particularly, there is the very grave difficulty of a great deal of street-side parking. If there are rows of motor cars along the sides of the streets, it is quite impossible for those responsible for street cleansing to get the job properly done. I suggest that local authority street cleansing and refuse collection teams should be as one. Much of the lack of effective street cleansing results from its being done by individuals with very little supervision, and without the proper modern equipment.

If we had teams of men—and women, if necessary; women are very often much better cleansers than men—going round, properly equipped, and if the police were to see to it that cars were cleared from the streets in rotation so that proper cleansing could take place, and if, just before the cleansing operation took place there was collection of garbage, so that we did not have cleansed streets being littered with garbage as is so often the case, we would see some improvement in the streets of our cities.

I want particularly to stress the problem of garbage collection. It is apparent, not only in London and Kensington, but in Somerset, in the country, where I also live, close to my constituency, that much of the blame rests with those who are supposed to collect and deposit garbage into vehicles. Naturally, this often has to be done on windy days and loose sheets of newspaper and other light material is easily blown out of dustbins, but little or no attempt is made to clear up the mess as they go along.

This is the Ministry for local government, and if a proper direction were given about street cleansing and a clean method of collecting garbage, we would see a great improvement. It is all very well to leave this problem to voluntary effort, but it is time that the Government—which has the necessary legislation—took a hand in seeing that we keep Britain tidy.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I welcome the opportunity of supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Sir R. Speir) because the question of litter has long been on my brain, too. Litter on the brain does not matter; what matters is that litter is on our streets and highways. I support my hon. Friend in saying that it is up to the Government to take a good deal more action in this matter.

In two minutes I can only make six suggestions. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut. Commander Maydon) said, there is first the problem of hardware deposited on our highways and byways. I referred to this matter in an Adjournment debate on 15th May last and I beg the Minister to read what I then said as reported in the OFFICIAL REPORT, columns 779 to 787, for that day. I suggested that scrap dealers should be licensed; that the penalties for leaving this litter on high roads should be increased because at present they are derisory; and, thirdly, I suggested that local authorities should cooperate in effective methods of disposing of useless metallic junk, as is done in the United States and on the Continent.

Then, secondly, there is the urban problem. I also live in Kensington. Often the streets of Kensington and Chelsea look as if a paper-chase has just been held in them. A minority of people are responsible for this nuisance. Local authorities could help by having litter boxes placed, not on alternate lamp-posts, but on all lamp-posts, which could be emptied by scavengers. My hon. Friend suggested that people who drop litter should be fined on the spot. I finally suggest that, because a minority of parents fail to bring up their children properly, instruction should be given in schools making it clear to children that it is anti-social and unselfish to deposit litter in the streets and in the countryside.

11.19 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

It is a great pleasure to me to take part in this debate which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Hexham (Sir R. Speir), because, although I have not been associated with him on matters concerning litter I was concerned with him on matters affecting noise and I know the skill and devotion with which he gets these pieces of legislation on to the Statute Book.

It is very natural that he should want to look at the working of the Act six or six-and-a-half years after it came into operation. I agree with him that the experience, on the whole, has been disappointing. It seems to me a pity that it has not been more effective in keeping up with the understandable growth in litter for reasons which the hon. Member mentioned—the growth in the use of wrapping and package materials, and so on.

I agree with the hon. Member, and it cannot be too much emphasised, that litter is costly and dangerous. It is not simply a question of bullying somebody for dropping a cigarette paper from his pocket. A great deal of damage is done to animals and injury is caused to children at the seaside. A great deal of inconvenience is caused to and much expense is incurred by local authorities as a result of refuse disposal and cleansing services having to do extra work. We are at one in emphasising that this is a serious problem which should be taken seriously.

When the hon. Member rebuked the Government for giving merely a pittance to the Keep Britain Tidy movement I was inclined to intervene to say that I did not need to stand in a white sheet over that. It is only fair to say that support of the movement is only part of the Government's expenditure. The C.O.I. and my Department do other work in co-operating in propaganda and educational work. The Keep Britain Tidy movement is excellent. I am not for a moment decrying it, but it is an entirely voluntary body. The figures which the hon. Member gave were rather like the figures which my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Sydney Silverman) was discussing yesterday when it was pointed out that if one man got a sentence of 22 years and another one of four years and one said that the average was 13 years it did not help very much.

Over three years from 1958 a sum of £1,500 was given to the movement. In 1961, that was raised to £2,000. In 1964–65, the organisation asked for £10,000 and it received a deficiency grant up to a maximum of £5,000. The movement asked for £10,000 for 1965–66 and it received £5,000. I know that discussions are now going on. That is the sort of fatuous remark that Parliamentary Secretaries have to make, but if I said more I should get into trouble. A sum of £10,000 would be something like 80 per cent. of the total revenue of the organisation, which for a voluntary organisation is, I think, getting rather much, but discussion is going on about the grant and I am not in a position to say anything final about it.

The hon. Member mentioned enforcement and he said that there was reluctance to prosecute. I can only say as a member of a London local authority that in my time I have had reports from the police to consider for prosecution. We are not a particularly clean borough, next door to Kensington, but we have always prosecuted in any case where the police have brought us evidence. But it is one thing to want to prosecute and another thing to get the evidence. It is not easy to obtain. People are reluctanct to snoop on others, and unless a person is actually caught committing the offence it is difficult to do anything about it. As the hon. Member said, this is really for the Home Department, but I do not want to ride out of our responsibility for an important matter.

As was said yesterday, it is true that detection is probably more important than severity of punishment. To get a higher proportion of prosecutions and people thinking that this is serious and that business is meant is more important than having heavy fines which are not enforced because no one is caught.

Mr. Longden


Mr. MacColl

I will give way if I finish in time, but I do not want to be discourteous by missing some of the points which have been put to me.

I quite agree about the importance of preventive measures. If local authorities do not provide an adequate supply of litter bins and if refuse collection is not frequent and reliable it is not surprising that litter gets scattered about and people leave things by the side of a wall and run away, which, certainly in London, is a common thing to see.

I did not quite understand what was meant by the suggestion to merge refuse collection and street cleansing into one service. In a sense they are one service, because in most places they are, I think, under the same director of cleansing.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

I meant co-ordinating the two efforts, which so often are done separately and without supervision, to have them clone together and with supervision.

Mr. MacColl

One difficulty is that most towns are lucky to get two house-to-house collections of refuse a week, whereas in most places there is, I hope, more than that in the way of a regular street cleansing service. I know how quickly a street can be disfigured in London after one good night's celebrations at the weekend. As has been said, it is important to let people feel that the local authorities are playing their part in wanting to co-operate in keeping down the spread of litter.

The question of penalties and whether they should be on-the-spot penalties are matters which would require legislation, and in an Adjournment debate it is probably wise not to trespass into that aspect. Certainly, they are matters which will be kept very much in our minds when we are considering any possible future legislation.

I quite agree that education needs to be extended. It is important to apply it not only in schools, but to adult organisations. In the Keep Britain Tidy movement, the name of Lady Brunner indicates a close parental relationship with Women's Institutes. This is clearly a case where the active participation of bodies like the Women's Institutes can be of tremendous value in long-term education.

As to the problem of the heavy and bulky refuse, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Longden) was, perhaps, a little unfair in asking me to read the earlier debate. Unless he was asking me to read another debate, I was present on that occasion and took part in it. I remember the hon. Member making the same speech, which I can hardly believe so accomplished a parliamentary performer as the hon. Member would have made twice. Probably something more than the Litter Act is required to cope with scrap cars and that sort of thing. That is, perhaps, something which should be looked at in the context of future highway legislation.

I conclude by saying that this is a matter in which I and my Department are anxious to do all we can to help. The honeymoon period is still on. We are still new in our responsibilities, but I should like to make it perfectly clear that the Government feel very strongly the importance of doing something about litter. They are anxious that the problem should be taken seriously and that everything should be done to help in education in this direction. They are anxious that local authorities should be as constructive and helpful as they can.

If it is true—of which I have no evidence—that either the police or the local authorities do not take the matter sufficiently seriously as to want to enforce the law, I am sure that that is certainly not what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State or my right hon. Friend the Minister would want.

Mr. Longden

May I say that the Hertfordshire police take the matter very seriously and that no fewer than 600 prosecutions have been undertaken in the last year, but that the difficulty is that it just is not worth their while because the maximum fine is derisory. I beg the hon. Gentleman to tell this to his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.