§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]12.41 am
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
The word "Rubbish" is often uttered and muttered by hon. Members when they disagree with the remarks of other hon. Members. Unfortunately, discussion of the subject in a more literal sense does not take place often enough in the Chamber. The subject of litter is not taken seriously enough and it is about time that it was. It should be given a high priority. However, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who is to reply and who has taken a positive interest in this subject, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister can certainly be absolved from any criticism in this matter. The agenda has been set to clean up our towns and make them litter-free. We now have to look at practical ways of achieving that end.
The problem of litter is self-inflicted. By and large, people are responsible for creating the problem in the first place. Dropping litter is anti-social behaviour and it is certainly not the fault of children. In Basildon last year, we launched a campaign called, "I love Basildon". The object was to say that we were creating a fine town and wished to make sure that we kept it that way. It specifically dealt with the problems of litter, graffiti and vandalism. There was an excellent response to the launch from the general public and particularly from schoolchildren. A number of them embarked on projects researching the control and eradication of litter. They have also decided to help in a practical way by carefully controlling litter within school confines and then helping with clean-up schemes in their locality.
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that only today I received two letters on this subject. The first said:We have saved an amount of milk bottle-tops to keep Basildon tidy. We do not know how many we have saved but we all hope it is over 200. We are still going to save them and we hope they will be useful to you. Yours sincerely, Mary, Karen, Jo-Anne and Emily".Those children are in class 12 of Lee Chapel primary school at the Knares, Basildon.
The headmistress of Briscoe county junior school informs me that one of her classes will clear litter from a pond as their contribution to make Basildon beautiful. I certainly applaud that.
The reason why the "I love Basildon" campaign is so important is that, as my hon. Friend probably knows, we have the largest covered shopping centre in Europe—a good litter control model for the rest of the country to follow. I have said that I intend to appear all over the town at various times of the day and evening to see at first hand the job that is being done. If I am not satisfied that it is being done properly, I shall make sure that the agencies responsible for litter control respond positively.
I mentioned the positive response from young people because I am appalled by the poor example set by those who are supposed to be their elders and betters. How often we see people walking along the road, casually dropping litter in front of their children and allowing them to do the same. It is all too common to see people walking along eating food and then dropping the paper or packaging. Chucking drink cans into areas containing shrubs or plants is also a popular pastime. Another appalling 141 example is that of people driving along in their cars, winding down windows and throwing their rubbish on to the road, whence it is then blown into the countryside.
Those people are, of course, the first to complain when their rates are increased to cover rising refuse collection costs. The nerve of some of them, dumping large, unwanted objects on our highways and byways, is limitless. Cars, furniture, carpets and the like are often dumped anywhere by people who just cannot be bothered to take their rubbish to the municipal tip.
I am delighted to say that in Basildon the Commission for the New Towns is treating litter control as a high priority and supporting the joint estate management committee in its work. Skips are sited on each estate so that residents can dispose of all unwanted rubbish, and leaflets are being delivered informing them of dates, times and locations. The JEMs are being allocated money to use as they wish for estate improvements—extra litter bins, for example. A capital fund is also provided by the CNT so that JEMs can take on major projects to improve their estates—for instance, cleaning and landscaping areas that have become neglected and consequently attract extra litter. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the JEMs on their excellent work, and to emphasise that those who serve on them are volunteers.
All that is in stark contrast to what is being done in Basildon by those who should be responsible for keeping it clean and tidy. Basildon is supposed to be a hung council, with the Conservative chairman having the casting vote. In fact it is nothing of the sort: it is a Socialist council, and has been so in all the time that I have represented the town in Parliament. Recently a Liberal councillor declared himself an independent—independent, that is, to vote overtly with the Labour party while not actually joining it. That will not wash. It is rightly seen as a cynical ploy technically to avoid the Labour party's being seen to have a majority on the council, taking control and then having to accept the consequences of its irresponsible spending policies.
If it is not a Socialist council, the suggestion is that the officers are running the council—and that clearly cannot be the case in Basildon. How else can one explain the constant barrage of anti-Government propaganda being put out on the rates? The council is good at claiming credit for things in which it had no hand, but not at accepting responsibility for its actions. It is now unfairly criticising private enterprise for the lack of litter control in the town centre. I have met the management company and I am impressed with what it is trying to do. For instance, it is installing anti-vandal litter bins and employing high-suction cleaning equipment to try to sort out the litter problem.
I am asking all the fast food outlets in the town to sponsor litter bins, and the management company to play a looped tape welcoming shoppers to the town centre and asking them not to drop litter. I am also asking for similar action to be taken in another shopping centre, in Laindon.
In the battle against litter, I will accept no defeatist talk. There are those who question the use of litter bins, on the grounds that they are not used or emptied. They ask why we should plant young trees or shrubs, which will be vandalised. They ask why we should display signs showing the penalties for dogs fouling the footpaths, because the owners take no notice of them and the dogs seem unable to read them. If we adopt that sort of attitude, Parliament 142 itself will become unnecessary and eventually anarchy will result. There is much that we can do, and the Government and the keep Britain tidy campaign are doing a great deal.
The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) had hoped to be here tonight; unfortunately, they are in Strasbourg on Council of Europe business. The hon. Member for Wallsend, who last raised the subject a year ago, has campaigned vigorously to cut down litter in this country, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East.
I should be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister thinks about the City of Westminster council campaign to tackle litter. A constituent has written to me to say that he thinks Basildon needs an enforcement patrol similar to the zone improvement patrol in Westminster. He says that he is a founder member of the team, and adds that with a combination of education, persuasion and, if all else fails, prosecution, the team has made a great impact on the city. After covering an area for two weeks, a great improvement has been noted, and I am informed that since the launch of the team in July 1988, more than 70 people have been taken to court and another 250 are awaiting court proceedings.
That experience encourages me to support fines for litter offences. My hon. Friend will know that many local authorities, including Bournemouth, are watching the implementation of the Westminster Act with great interest because they are poised to introduce private Bills seeking similar powers. But so many private Bills would clog our legislative process. Primary legislation is necessary to enable the authorities to implement their schemes.
I do not suggest that punishment is the whole answer. I lay even more stress on a public awareness and education campaign being launched. I hope that it will include television advertisements about beautiful litter-free Britain. We must also extol the virtues of recycling and tell people that there is money to be made out of rubbish. The Basildon Waste Paper Company is prepared to purchase rubbish. I am encouraging voluntary organisations in the constituency to take advantage of that offer to boost their funds. I know that the local scouts will do so. The cash incentive will lead to an overall improvement.
My hon. Friend the Minister may be interested to know that the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment is extremely concerned about the litter problem and has made some useful observations that are worth airing. It says that it has been shown repeatedly that members of the public are often ready to add to existing piles of litter when they would be reluctant to be seen as the first offenders. In other words, the council believes that frequency of clean-up is essential.
The packaging council believes that if we are to tackle litter effectively, a properly organised litter collection by local authorities is paramount. Bins must be large enough and emptied sufficiently frequently so that they do not overflow. Domestic refuse must be collected on the appointed day so that rubbish bags are not left in the street to be overturned and the contents scattered by scavenging animals.
Clear lines of responsibility for cost-effective litter control should be established within local authorities, which would include a proper analysis of local sources of litter so that resources can be concentrated where they are most needed. The packaging council also supports a vigorous and continuous public education campaign.
143 Packaging represents a statistically smaller proportion of litter than is usually realised; its visual effect is disproportionately large. Packs that are designed to stand out on supermarket shelves obviously stand out in hedgerows. The organisations to which I have referred would like to lend their support to Westminster city council's fixed penalty system.
I am proud to be British. I am proud of my country and I am certainly proud of the Government. Tomorrow, I am launching in my constituency a campaign that will be called Buy British in Basildon. I am sure that 1992 will provide splendid opportunities for us all. I want visitors to Britain to leave with a good impression of how clean and tidy we all are. We should all feel guilt and embarrassment when we drop litter. The solution to the problem lies with the British people, and I am confident that we can cure it.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on raising an extremely important issue at this late hour. No one could rightly describe his remarks as rubbish. He has made an encouraging and informative contribution to our discussions on litter. Many of his remarks will be echoed as I reply to the debate. For example, he has shown a determined and optimistic approach. He believes that we must harness many different groups within society if we are to tackle the problem, including the business community and the voluntary sector. We must encourage a higher public profile and analyse carefully the sources of litter. We must take a rigorous and thorough approach to refuse collection generally.
The public debate in which we have all been participating about environmental problems in recent months has focused largely on the serious threat to our future on the planet that is posed by damage to the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect and climatic change. Much of this was initiated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her address to the Royal Society. It is hard to think, however, of an environmental subject that affects us more directly and more regularly than litter. It is an issue in which the ordinary citizen has an essential and central part to play.
Without the co-operation of ordinary people, no Government, no local council and no environmental pressure group will make any headway in the battle to clean up our streets, and it is an important one for many reasons. Dirty streets in our major cities create a dreadful impression on tourists from abroad. It is hard to return from a holiday in Britain with a positive view of Britain if one has been confronted throughout by piles of rubbish in every street. Shopkeepers, for example, have a direct interest in ensuring that the areas around their stores are kept clean. People can easily be put off shopping in an area that is covered with filth.
Perhaps most important of all, concentrations of rubbish in some of our bleakest inner-city council estates can play a large part in depressing the morale of those who have to live or work in that environment.
Like my hon. Friend, I take litter very seriously. We have a beautiful country in which we should be able to take pride. The countryside and the townscape are just as much 144 a part of our heritage as are historic buildings and the royal parks and palaces. They deserve and need the same amount of protection from pollution and litter.
The evidence of our own eyes is sufficient to show that standards are certainly not improving, and may sometimes be falling. The Royal Fine Art Commission's report, "A New Look for London", graphically illustrates the disgraceful appearance of many parts of our capital city.
What we can and must do is to encourage a climate of opinion in which litter dropping is seen for what it is—offensive, boorish and selfish behaviour. That is why we must ensure that our children start life by understanding their responsibilities as future citizens of their country. I welcome the fact that schoolchildren in my hon. Friend's constituency have so enthusiastically joined his "I Love Basildon" campaign. The experience will remain with them throughout their lives, and I have no doubt that they will go on to set a good example to their parents. But it is not just a matter for teachers. We cannot expect children to behave well if their parents set bad examples. Schools must play an important part in the process, as they do in my hon. Friend's constituency.
That is why I am especially delighted that the Tidy Britain Group, with which we work closely and which is our agent in the litter campaign, has an education programme for use in schools. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science is gathering information from Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools on the severity of the litter problem there. I urge headmasters in every school to work with us in ensuring that their pupils understand the importance of showing respect for their environment. I was especially impressed by a recent example of that: the initiative of a headmaster in a Windsor school, who encouraged his pupils to tidy the premises at the end of each working day. There are many similar examples throughout the country.
I make it clear that I fully recognise the responsibilities of the Government to help to create a cleaner Britain. We intend to carry them out vigorously and effectively.
The Tidy Britain Group acts as the Government's agent in litter matters. It is a voluntary, non-profit making registered charity that was started more than 30 years ago and has developed professionalism and expertise in litter problems. As a sign of how much we value the group, the Government nearly doubled its funding for this year and will more then double it again next year. The group has set up 27 projects, with the assistance of additional grant, in which different approaches to litter problems are being undertaken and assessed. The projects fall under five broad headings: transport, commercial areas, local government, tourism and special events. Many of their lessons are similar to those learnt in Basildon.
The objective of the projects is to enlist the support of all sections of the community through the development of civic pride. The projects are at various stages of development. I am happy to report that there is widespread support for them not only in principle, but in practical, active commitment and in financial backing. Nearly £4 million has been pledged in cash and kind to support the projects, which is an extremely encouraging augury for the future. The important task is to complete the formal assessment of which experiments have worked well and which have not. We shall receive those reports in the next few months. The objective then will be to develop as soon as possible the most promising approaches. The Department will make available additional funding to the 145 group over the next financial year so that we can press ahead in drawing lessons capable of wider application and building on successful contracts.
Local authorities have a vital role to play. I was sorry to hear my hon. Friend's remarks about his local authority. They are, of course, litter authorities and there is power under the Litter Act 1983 to levy fines of up to £400. Many local authorities are already pursuing community environment programmes in co-operation with the Tidy Britain Group. Those programmes involve many sectors of the community in cleaning up their areas. Local publicity is used to help attain the objective of keeping them clean.
I should particularly like to comment on the approach, to which my hon. Friend referred, in the city of Westminster. As the House will know, it has been given the power to levy on-the-spot fines. Last Friday, I learned about it at first hand. I was greatly impressed by the commitment and determination with which it is clearing up our capital city. It is worth remembering that Westminster obtains excellent value for money. Its cost per tonne for litter collection is one of the lowest in London, comparing very favourably with neighbouring boroughs. We are monitoring the practical effects of the implementation of the Westminster scheme and we shall be looking at the results it has achieved at the end of May. We shall then consider the lessons that can be learnt and how matters should develop.
Another experiment involving local authorities is being undertaken by the Tidy Britain Group. Three counties and their district councils are drawing up, on a voluntary basis, countywide litter plans. We shall study the results of those projects closely to see whether the value of such plans justifies the effort and cost of drawing up and implementing them. We shall then be able to judge whether it would be right to implement section 4 of the Litter Act 1983, placing a duty on local authorities to draw up litter abatement plans.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this vital matter. He has provided an opportunity for us to set out Government policy. We want to do everything we can to work within the existing legislative framework. We should like to build on the good will and support of local communities and local government. My hon. Friend's experience is not unique. If individuals are committed and enthusiastic and determined that their district or constituency will be cleared up, others follow. There is great concern and enthusiasm for constructive, committed and enthusiastic schemes such as those my hon. Friend has described. I can assure the House that the Government will not hesitate to come forward with further legislation should that be seen to be necessary.
In the short term, we hope and believe that the valuable experience gained by the Tidy Britain Group will give us a clear understanding of where we should best direct our efforts and resources in the future. We shall be looking at the results of using fixed penalties, which my hon. Friend described and which are being used in Westminster. It is worth noting that, although the maximum fine for dropping litter is £400, the average fine is only £32. One of the Tidy Britain Group's schemes is to study enforcement, talking to local magistrates and the police in various parts 146 of the country about the importance of litter and considering whether it is possible to impose more severe fines.
It seems clear that success breeds success. People lend not to throw litter in clean areas. On the other hand, where a street is filthy, an extra bit of litter does not seem to matter. That is why my hon. Friend's remarks about the strategic placing of litter bins and about litter bins looking empty, attractive and available are important. There are 500 litter bins in Oxford street alone, such is Westminster's commitment to ensuring that litter is removed. When hitter bins are available, they must be emptied. Nothing is more likely to attract litter than an overflowing, scruffy litter bin. These and other lessons about the effective and efficient management of refuse collection, raising enthusiasm and a determination to tackle the problem are matters to which we, the Tidy Britain Group and, clearly, my hon. Friend are committed.
We should not leave the responsibility for keeping streets clean to other people; they may be leaving it to us. We should all take responsibility for our environment, and we should urge our friends and neighbours to do the same. It is time for local communities to declare war against the litter louts and to shame them into reforming their ways. Many communities are making excellent progress. I went on a litter pick in Farnham park, in my constituency, a year or so ago. There are myriad examples of scouts, brownies, voluntary groups, chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs working together to co-operate, assist and play their part. If the Government, local authorities and local people work with a common will, we can and we will win the battle against litter and create a tidy Britain of which we can all be proud.
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon, because many of us can follow his example. He referred to hon. Members who have also been long-standing campaigners in the Tidy Britain campaign. The Tidy Britain group has tried experiments in different areas and not only like those in Basildon, where my hon. Friend clearly faces difficulties with the largest shopping centre in Europe.
We are also looking at transport, commerce, local government, tourism and special events. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic has been particularly helpful in assisting the Tidy Britain group in some of its motorway service area projects. The group monitors its projects professionally, takes details of the project areas before the schemes start and assesses the value of the various contributions with an analytic approach to the methodologies used so that the best practice guidelines can be achieved and be generalised around the country.
There is no doubt that as we in Britain look to a future in which we can be proud of our country and of all that we have achieved, we want to take a pride in our physical surroundings. Litter is offensive, unnecessary and costly. We all have a part to play in ensuring that we get rid of this scourge once and for all.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past One o'clock.