HC Deb 22 February 1988 vol 128 cc124-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

10.21 pm
Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend)

I do not intend to delay the House unduly, but I should like to raise a matter that has been raised on many occasions — the problem of litter, including litter disposal and litter as a public nuisance. Sir Rupert Speir, who represented the constituency of Hexham, was successful with the private Member's Bill on this subject. Regrettably, the provisions of his Litter Act 1958 have not been implemented and are not being implemented today. We are all aware that the Prime Minister is deeply concerned about this matter and, on two occasions in recent months, she has made the problem of tackling the nation's litter a main issue, but so far without success.

We can undoubtedly claim to be the dirtiest country in Europe. That is not much to brag about. We must recognise that litter is a national problem. Litter is basically rubbish. If people thought about litter as rubbish, they would put it in a bin or in a proper place, but they put rubbish in the wrong place and it becomes litter. Litter is a problem to every authority in the United Kingdom and it causes them great concern, as they must deal with it.

I refer the Minister to a recent study by the industry council for the packaging industry. In a series of surveys over the past years, it has concluded that the public are showing more awareness of the scale of the problem than they did five years ago. The public are becoming more aware of the worsening situation, but, regrettably, they frequently display their indifference.

As we well know, local authority staffing levels have been cut. As fewer resources are available, there are fewer people and machines to tackle the problem.

However much local authorities do, the root of the problem is the attitude of the public. Although the public show some concern about the matter, we must recognise that there is massive indifference. We have all met people from time to time who moan about litter and who are ashamed of the filth in their area, but they do not do much about it. They do not seem to protest to councillors or form action groups or write to the local papers. They just sit back in the squalor that surrounds them.

Fortunately, I represent a part of north Tyneside, which I share with the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter). We have a success story to tell. In north Tyneside, the problem has been tackled vigorously by the council. It has given responsibility to the environmental committee and the parks and recreation committee, the chairmen and officers of which have played an important role in keeping the standards in Tyne and Wear exceptionally high.

On my visit to the north-east last weekend, I could not help but notice how clean the streets were. It was a Saturday afternoon when people were shopping and the streets had been in use most of the day, but they were spotless. I was proud of Tyne and Wear, particularly north Tyneside. I was proud to see such an area, which has got rid of its dereliction problems and some of its environmental problems through the decline of coal, shipbuilding and steel. The worst aspects of those industrial eyesores have disappeared and people are tackling improvements to their environment with renewed vigour.

I should like the Minister to go to north Tyneside in a few weeks' time, where he will see a massive spring floral display which equals, if not surpasses, anything to be found in the rest of the country. It is being done by local effort and must be seen to he believed. It is really beautiful.

The council has won quite a few national competitions which have been sponsored by various organisations. Representatives of the staff on the council have come to the Palace of Westminster to receive awards and a residents' association received an award last year.

We want other parts of the United Kingdom to try to follow our example. I should like the Prime Minister to come to Tyneside, especially north Tyneside, to see what can be done. If it can maintain high standards, why cannot the capital city? It must be an amazing experience for foreigners who visit London for the first time to arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick airport, for example, which are spotless, or to arrive at one of our mainline stations where the concourses are kept at a high level of cleanliness due to the efforts of British Rail and then step outside to see litter on every street, every corner and on railway embankments, and apathy about it all. I am appalled at the filth to be found in some parts of London. We can think of areas where valiant efforts have been made, but I regret to say that other areas are a sad story.

I live in north London when Parliament is in session. Anyone who goes down Camden high street or Kentish Town road tonight will see filth and plastic bags piled up by the side of the road. Some bags are split and when the city goes to sleep, cats, rats and dogs will scratch them open, thus creating all the ingredients of a disease which could strike London.

I cannot understand why allegedly responsible people, instead of keeping the plastic bags on their premises until collection, leave them out. I dare say that the same thing can be seen within 200 yd of this building. It must be caused by a breakdown in communications between the local authorities and the public or by plain ignorance on the part of the public. I fail to see why local authorities, encouraged by the Government, do not take a more positive line and explain to people the hazards that they are creating, irrespective of the fact that the poor council refuse collectors must sweep up the mess. I should like the Minister to urge councils to educate people to keep litter indoors until the time of collection.

We have all seen the trails of litter from the entrances of the schools in our areas to the local shops where the school children buy their lunchtime trash—school meals having virtually been abolished—and, coming back after their lunch break, leave another trail of litter. Their parents would not let those children do that in their own houses. Why do they throw litter away instead of keeping it until they go home, or back to school, where they can put it into refuse bins?

The teaching profession has opted out of part of the responsibility. Teachers do not educate children and enforce standards on them. Children should be responsible for their personal litter; they should put it in their pockets or in the school litter bins. Perhaps the problem is part of the general epidemic of indifference that has struck the nation—indifference, in this case, to our surroundings.

Do people who have shops, commercial businesses or even blocks of flats have any responsibility for keeping the pavements and gutters in front of their premises in a tidy condition? If they have no legal responsibility, is it not time that we thought about the matter?

Let me return to the plight that faces our capital. I am fortunate enough to be a member of the Council of Europe, and to see quite a few of the European capitals. I blush with shame when I compare London with the cleanliness of Paris. I note one significant difference. Paris uses water to clean the streets, with hydrants connected to hoses. The rubbish is swilled down the streets to a collecting point. It is a clean and efficient method which saves labour, and also helps to remove any refuse left by dogs. I cannot understand why, when we are so close to a river the size of the Thames, water cannot be harnessed to clean our streets as it is in Paris and other cities.

We must think hard about finding solutions to the problem. In many areas, there is a lack of civic pride. That pride has been dented for a variety of reasons. At one time, people were proud of their cities, towns and villages. Now there is an indifference which I find rather sad, having spent many years on a local authority.

There is also a lack of national pride. We are indifferent to graffiti and litter. We must restore to people's minds the idea of improving their surrounds and conditions. We might give traffic wardens the power to impose on-the-spot fines on litterers. They could combine the jobs of traffic warden and litter warden.

There is no doubt that attitudes must be changed. If there is a return to civic pride, there will be a sense of cleanliness as a nation and then there will be a better response, for example, in tourism. The tourists will return and notice with pride that London has something going for it—that it is smartening itself up and cleaning itself up. If London sets an example, the rest of the country will follow suit. North Tyneside has set the example. I ask the Minister to give an assurance that the matter will he given immediate and urgent study.

10.35 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

It is some time since the House had an opportunity to debate a topic—litter —which affects us all, whether we live in cities, small towns, villages or the countryside. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) on his choice of subject.

We all recognise how unsightly and offensive litter is and how it makes our surroundings less pleasant and, in some cases, even dangerous. Apart from the obvious impact that litter has on our environment, it also costs every one of us money, with public resources having to be expended on clearing up the mess. What makes this situation so appalling is that litter is unnecessary. It does not occur naturally; we create it ourselves through thoughtless actions and careless habits. With consideration and care, it could be avoided.

The Government certainly share the widespread public concern about this issue—a concern which is reflected in my Department's postbag. Quite apart from the natural repugnance all of us feel about living in an untidy environment, it is unpleasant to learn of comments made by visitors from overseas, and by those returning from overseas, which contrast the state of our streets and countryside with those of other countries. The hon. Member for Wallsend referred to such comments. Although I cannot accept that Britain is the dirtiest country in Europe, I agree that we should be the cleanest, and that is the Government's objective.

The problem is not one that the Government alone can solve. The role of the Government in relation to the litter problem is twofold: first, to ensure that the right legislative framework exists to tackle the problem—I think that we have achieved this—and, secondly, to create a climate of opinion in which to foster a change of public attitudes. The question we must ask is: why do people who are clean and tidy in their home become insensitive and inconsiderate in public places? Perhaps it is a feeling that it is someone else's job to clear up the mess— a feeling that "they", whether Government, local authorities, British Rail or whoever, should do something about it.

The ultimate remedy lies in the hands of each individual member of the public—use litter bins, or take rubbish home. In short, do not create litter. That is easy to say but less easy to bring into effect. There are two essential approaches: one via legal constraints, the other via persuasion and education.

Under the Litter Act 1983, it is an offence to drop litter in the open air — with a penalty of a fine up to a maximum of £400. There are about 1,600 prosecutions a year. We have tightened up the law to make enforcement more effective by making it an offence for a suspected litterer not to give his name and address to a police officer on demand. Nevertheless, given the very great pressures on the police, there are problems with enforcement.

For this reason, we are particularly interested in the progress, and, if it is enacted, the eventual operation of the Westminster City Bill, which contains a power to introduce fixed penalties for litter. The city council proposes to use its 50-strong multi-purpose inspectorate to help enforce the measure, under which offenders will be asked to pick up the litter they have dropped. Any who refuse to do so will be issued with a fixed penalty ticket, to be paid within 14 days. The Government have given this Bill a fair wind and, if it is enacted, we shall monitor its operation closely with the council. If it is successful, it may prove to be a suitable model for wider application.

In addition, there are various powers that local authorities, in their capacity as litter authorities, can use if they wish. This is important since, although the problem is often described as a national one, it does vary from locality to locality. Thus, local authorities may, if they decide to give the matter appropriate priority, appoint litter wardens for their areas. A number have already done so.

Mr. Garrett

Will litter wardens have the same powers as traffic wardens? Will they have the power to impose on-the-spot fines?

Mr. Chope

No. We have considered the use of traffic wardens to enforce the Litter Act 1983, but the traffic warden service is already hard-pressed nationally to cope with its existing responsibilities to support police efforts to enforce road traffic laws. There is strong pressure for better enforcement of parking restrictions to reduce accidents and to keep traffic moving. It would not be sensible to add to that burden.

On-the-spot fines are often mooted as a simple and effective way of enforcing litter legislation. However, there would be major difficulties — for example, accounting for cash collected; the risk to the police or anyone else carrying substantial amounts of cash; and dealing with offenders who do not have funds available on the spot. For those reasons we have rejected those ideas. As I said, Westminster city council is seeking to obtain legislative approval for a new approach.

I should like to think that a significant role will also be played by competition for street cleansing when the Local Government Bill becomes an Act. One of the first effects of competition will be to make local authorities set out very clearly what work they want to be done in this service, as in the other services concerned. Clarity of purpose can have nothing but beneficial effects on results achieved.

The second main effect will be to increase the efficiency with which the work is carried out. Perhaps, with more money available as a result of such efficiency gains, the authorities with the worst litter problems will then be able to step up the standard of litter cleaning.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the London borough of Camden. As he will probably know, it is one of the highest spending councils in the country. Despite its high levels of expenditure, it does not seem to be able to cope with the problem of litter, which I am sure most of its residents would regard as a high priority. It is a question not of councils not having the money but of them not giving sufficient priority to resolving the litter problem and not running their refuse collection and street cleansing services as efficiently as many of them could.

The need for voluntary local efforts brings me to the second prong of our approach to the problem. The Government have, for a number of years, supported the Tidy Britain Group, a registered charity formed under the original name of Keep Britain Tidy. In the current year, the group is receiving a grant of £570,000 from the national taxpayer towards its objective of promoting the prevention and control of litter. The group also obtains sponsorship from private sources, and it organises competitions, such as the "Beautiful Britain in Bloom" competition, which is financed by Barratts and the Kentucky Fried Chicken awards and trophies.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, North Tyneside metropolitan borough council has been particularly successful in this competition. The council has reached the finals of the Kentucky Fried Chicken competition every year since its inception, and it won it in 1978, 1983 and 1986. I am pleased to add my congratulations on such efforts. I am sure that many members of the Government, given the opportunity, would be happy to visit North Tyneside and see what gives it such an advantage in those competitions.

The main activities of the Tidy Britain Group are concentrated in two main sectors. First, it has devised a comprehensive litter abatement programme — the community environment programme—which is focused on district and borough councils and trains local authority officers in techniques of litter abatement, by enlisting public support, working with local industry and commerce and with voluntary organisations. I understand that 113 local authorities have so far formally adopted the programme, that 19 are considering its adoption and that nine have partially adopted it. We give every encouragement to local authorities to take up the group's community environment programme. It is inevitable that the results of this approach will take time to come through, but we are encouraged by the results so far.

The second aspect of the group's activity concentrates on education. As part of its education programme, the group has produced a range of learning kits for use in schools, and a youth action pact for youth group activities.

They have proved particularly valuable. They have the twofold benefit of obtaining practical results for today as well as offering a sound investment for society for the future. In addition — I think that it can rightly be considered as part of the educational effort—the group and my Department have co-operated to make a number of short promotional films that we hope the television companies will pick up and use to encourage a more responsible attitude towards litter prevention.

I do not underestimate the role of members of the teaching profession. I am not sure that all schools adopt the attitude of the one at the end of my garden. On a summer's day, after the children have spent a morning in the playground, the head teacher goes out to the playground and says, "Before you go back into school, you must clear up all the litter in the playground." Many of the playgrounds of the schools that I have seen are filled with litter. That is not setting the right example for children at an impressionable age.

The Tidy Britain Group has, at our request, reviewed its strategy and approach, and we are considering with it how to achieve greater effectiveness.

Local authorities clearly have a major part to play, and I hope that others will adopt the same approach as North Tyneside, to which I have already referred. The priority and resources that authorities choose to devote to litter abatement and clearance are for them to decide, but I should like to encourage them to work with the Tidy Britain Group, local businesses and local voluntary groups to tackle the local problems and to promote civic pride.

Business interests can play a major role. For example, the growth of the fast food industry has brought its own litter problems. Customers are not always as responsible in disposing of food and drink containers as we would wish. The Take-Away Food Federation (UK) Ltd. is therefore to be congratulated on the production of a booklet entitled "Less Litter, Better Business", giving guidance to proprietors of such establishments about the proper disposal of the potential litter that they create.

Drawn up in conjunction with the Tidy Britain Group, the booklet covers such matters as the provision of posters and signs in the premises carrying the anti-litter message, and the provision of litter bins and litter patrols by staff. Adoption of such measures by more proprietors, along with the Tidy Britain Group message on containers, will add to the efforts to educate the public about litter.

A great deal has been and is being done to deal with this unpleasant and unnecessary problem. We, and all sectors of society, must continue to seek ways to strengthen and reinforce our efforts. The Tidy Britain Group has been invited to take a fresh look at its activities and to show how a new impetus can be achieved. We are always ready to receive ideas and suggestions on how the problems can best be tackled.

The hon. Member for Wallsend, in initiating this debate this evening, has made a valuable contribution towards increasing public understanding and awareness. He made it apparent that it is basically a matter of common sense, and there has not been sufficient common sense applied to it by enough people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.