HL Deb 14 May 1971 vol 318 cc1601-10

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, anxious as I am for the health of other noble Lords, following the long and arduous night and day, I shall naturally be as brief as I can in introducing this Bill, although I do not think one could possibly emulate the brevity of the Second Reading in another place, which took approximately 11 seconds. The purpose of this small and simple Bill is one which I trust will commend itself to the House. As the Title of the Bill suggests, it is designed as a further small vehicle for the improvement of the physical environment of these Islands and for the preservation of our amenities; and if it succeeds, it will, I submit, be another arrow to be fired against the continual war on pollution.

The House will recall that the first Litter Act passed into law some 13 years ago, in 1958. That Act set out, for the first time, to try to tackle and curb the ever-increasing problem of the growth of litter. It laid down that any person could in future be prosecuted for dropping litter in public places, and that if a case was proved the maximum penalty a magistrate could impose was a fine of up to £10. The main purpose of the 1958 Act was to act as deterrent against any wanton "litterbugs" destroying the amenities by tossing empty cans and bottles into public places. However, by 1967, the problem of the larger forms of litter—such items as old bedsteads, mattresses, prams, bicycles, cookers, old television sets and, of course old car bodies—was beginning to create a further menace. Under the Civic Amenities Act of that year, further deterrent measures were introduced to deal with this form of deliberate dumping. A penalty of up to a maximum of £100 for the first offence was introduced.

Despite these two deterrent measures, and the invaluable efforts made by various voluntary bodies, particularly the "Keep Britain Tidy" group, the problem of litter has swollen disturbingly. Indeed, students of the problem put this down to a change in pattern of life; to the increasing use of packaging and to the increasing sales of the non-returnable bottle, and, of course, to the welcome increase in the number of people making use of the countryside. If one were to cite one example, it would he the historic New Forest which, as the House will know, is enjoyed year by year by many thousands of people. The litter and rubbish picked up annually in the New Forest amounts to something like 25,000 milk bottles and simply hundreds of tons of rubbish.

The problem of the increasing amounts of litter is accentuated by a trend towards an increase in what I would describe as dangerous litter. Dangerous litter is not, in fact, described specifically in the Bill, but is exemplified by the broken bottles that are left on beaches, or in streams and ponds. As the House will realise, this is a very lethal form of litter, often causing very serious injury to both humans and animals. Another dangerous form of litter is caused by the thoughtless disposal of old medicine bills, which can prove a very serious hazard to children. Again, particularly in the country, one thinks of the discarded polythene bags, which can so easily cause the death of cattle.

If one were to ask why we need a new Litter Bill now, the simple answer would be that under present-day conditions gaps have appeared in the 1958 Act—gaps which have given this legislation a less deterrent effect than it originally had. This short Bill before the House to-day is designed to remedy this situation. Under Clause 1 the maximum fine on prosecution and conviction is raised from £10 to £100, which brings it in line with the penalty under the Civic Amenities Act. Under Clause 1(2) the court is required to have regard to the question of danger—that is, the danger inherent in the nature of the litter. The court must, of course, consider all the circumstances, but it is the intention of this subsection that the court would be able to impose a higher penalty on conviction if danger was involved.

Clause 2, which deals with publicity, reaffirms the local authorities' powers to publicise, advertise and generally get across to the public the message of the increase in the maximum fine. An active policy of publicity by local authorities is a most vital part in the success of the deterrent value of this Bill. The House will note that publicising is specifically mentioned in the Long Title of the Bill. Clause 3 cites the Title of the Bill, the date on which it will come into operation and the extent of its powers; and the House will see that it covers England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.

In summary, the Bill takes another small step to try to control the growing problem of litter. It is amending the existing legislation by basically raising the penalties into line with those already provided under the Civic Amenities Act. Its main value will be to act as a stronger deterrent against those thoughtless citizens who, either knowingly or unknowingly, spoil for others their very precious environment—a spoliage which, I would suggest, this crowded country can ill afford. My Lords, this Bill had a swift and untroubled passage through another place, as I have already said. I commend it to the House and I trust that it will receive a favourable reception.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Kinnoull.)

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to take up much time on this Bill, but there is one kind of litter about which I should like to ask the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. It is poisonous litter, which may cause pollution. It may be that I am out of order in raising this question on this Bill, but I think it worth mentioning when one realises what is happening to seas like the Baltic Sea which is getting absolutely choc-a-bloc with pollution. It is not only solid in the winter, but it is thought that it will be solid in the summer. Clause 1(2) deals with danger to animals; but I think that specific mention should be made of poison waste and, maybe, poisonous chemicals applied to the land.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I feel somewhat like Casabianca, the boy who stood on the burning deck Whence all but he had fled". As so many of your Lordships have been here through the night, I do not blame those who have fled. I have stayed on as a courtesy to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. In days gone by, when I had a house in the country, his father was often my guest at the annual point-to-point luncheon which I used to hold in my old rectory. It would be rather a pity if a Bill of this kind which will bring about social improvement for the benefit of the population as a whole, should be moved by him in the absence of an audience.

I do not know the views on the Bill of the various local authority organisations. They should welcome it, but I do not know whether that is so at all. I should like to hear from the Department of the Environment. Presumably, one of the three noble Lords, steadfastly staying on on the Front Bench opposite, will be able to tell us.

I have the advantage of living in a little spur which runs down into the middle of Epping Forest. I have a gate leading into the forest, and on a summer evening I like to wander into those sylvan glades. I shall not be able to do that this summer because of your Lordships' indulgence in all-night sittings. Whenever I go out there, I find old bicycles, old motor cycles, sidecars, plastic bags full of all kinds of material, and old mattresses. If the cattle that graze in that forest attempt to devour any of those articles, it will be to their very serious disadvantage. The noble Earl has mentioned the New Forest, and I have mentioned Epping Forest. There are scores of similar beauty spots in the country. It is a scandal that people should come out in their motor cars at night and unload all this refuse, some of it very dangerous, into the beauty spots, with the result that places are disfigured and danger is caused to animals.

I have a minor criticism of the noble Earl's Bill. It does not specify what constitutes "dangerous litter". I am afraid that the spokesmen for the Department may want stated something more specific than is contained in the Bill. I am wholeheartedly in favour of the proposal, and I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, I support the noble Earl who has moved the Bill. He has supported me in the past, and I so often find myself in agreement with his views. I feel a great pleasure that there is to be a much more severe penalty for litter which is dangerous and poisonous. Much of the stuff which gets left about is poisonous not only to animals, but to birds and to fish, and I hope that these are included in the terms "animals".

I know that the Bill relates to the waterways, of which both he and I are fond. The amount of oil, for example, which is carelessly dumped off our roads into rivers and canals, and the quantity of other poisons which can he put into rivers in the same way, are serious matters. Recently a very small quantity of a poisonous chemical poisoned hundreds of miles of one of Europe's greatest waterways, the Rhine.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a Jew words from this side of the House, and to pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for introducing the Bill. It is heartening to see that it has been supported from the Benches behind me. Late nights seem in no way to impair the debating power of the House, and we have had a short, but good debate.

I look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, particularly on the points raised by my noble friends Lord Nunburnholme, Lord St. Davids and Lord Leatherland. I was interested in Lord Leatherland's remarks on the definition of dangerous litter. It struck me, when I read the Bill, that this is not defined. Possibly there are good reasons for this, and we look forward to hearing what the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull has to say about that.

As the noble Earl said, the Bill had an untroubled passage through another place. I suspect, and I hope that it has the support of the local authorities. Perhaps the noble Earl will reassure us on that. I am sure that the Bill is very necessary. The increased fine brings the penalty into line with what is required because of the falling value of money. As the noble Earl said, litter, and the irresponsible behaviour of a small section of the public, are cause for concern, particularly in beautiful parts of the country. Litter is a great problem, especially when it consists of indestructible packaging. I expect that this matter has the attention of the Government, but it is becoming one of the great problems of our civilisation that while our packaging becomes more and more efficient for selling the product, it becomes more and more difficult to dispose of when it is no longer required. We support the Bill from this side of the House. I hope your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, at this late hour, we are most grateful to my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for explaining so clearly and concisely this simple, but useful, little Bill. The Litter Act, 1958, was passed some 13 years ago, and it has been a matter for regret that in spite of that legislation, reinforced by the Civic Amenities Act, 1967, there has been a continued decline in the litter habits of the public at large. As the population increases, potential litter droppers increase, too. The problem has also grown with improved standards of living and greater use is made of packaging. More people are travelling into the countryside and to the coast, not least because of the encouragement given to country parks and picnic places.

In the long term, we must look to the main problem of finding methods of educating and persuading people to realise that to drop litter is to everyone's detriment. In this I should like to acknowledge, as did my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, the enthusiastic war which the "Keep Britain Tidy" group are carrying on up and down the country, in schools, with lectures, in village halls, and in town halls. I support every word he said.

The Bill we are discussing to-day seeks to introduce a much higher fine for dropping litter. It seeks to direct the court, when imposing a fine, to give regard to the question of danger. To brand certain types of litter as dangerous is an interesting psychological approach, but it is important to emphasise that any conviction under the terms of the Bill now before the House can attract a fine of up to £100. We had questions from noble Lords opposite—Viscount St. Davids, Lord Leatherland, Lord Nunburnholme and Lord Strabolgi—who all wanted to know what was considered dangerous. To give your Lordships some examples, of which the Department of the Environment have been advised, the National Trust in particular have drawn our attention to broken bottles and jagged tins in ponds, streams and rivers, causing injury to paddling children and drinking animals. If the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, takes any of the boys from his youth clubs into the canals to swim, they, too, could be affected.

The County Councils Association have drawn attention to vaporous petrol tanks, which have been abandoned from cars and which would possibly explode if accidentally ignited, because they have not been drained of petrol. The Youth Hostels Association and the National Farmers' Union have both drawn our attention to polythene bags and sanitary towels, which are eaten by cattle who die as a result. The Association of Parish Councils have told us about the point which worried the noble Lord, Lord Nunburnholme—leaking drums of cyanide poisoning the ground. One would think these things were matters of common sense, but they are happening. The National Farmers' Union have pointed out the fact of human excreta infecting cattle. This is ordinary communal human education. The Institute of Parks' Administration have told us of glass in long grass injuring picknickers and animals. Then there is acid, sulphur, oil containers, aerosols, and crates and packing cases full of nails thrown away from ships, injuring bathers. All these things have happened.

I hope that will show the wide extent to which the Bill will be applicable. The increase in the maximum fine from £10 to £100 is a dramatic one, but, if accepted, we must have in the background a code of law which is adequate to meet the deteriorating situation. So the increase is not unreasonable. There must be very few of us in this country who today do not have access to a dustbin. Litter bins are made available in towns and villages, parking places and picnic places, in the forest of the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, at Epping, and in the forest of my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, the New Forest. We must develop new attitudes towards the disposal of rubbish, whether it be used bus tickets, empty cigarette packets, glass or plastic containers, waste paper, old motor cars, factory rubbish or toxic wastes. We must develop a care for our personal and local environment. Surely we all have the capacity to feel a deeper concern about the quality of life in an environmental issue, and the capacity to despise litter strewn in open spaces, streets, buses and trains.

It is not enough to blame the litter problem on those who have created the things which we have demanded, but for which we have only a temporary use. If we are losing the will to use dustbins and litter bins, or are ceasing to care what happens to our friends and neighbours who follow us onto the beaches, picnic areas, playgrounds or public parks, and suffer injury as a consequence of our litter habits, greater efforts must be made to teach us the folly of our ways. The principle of penalties for litter dropping and rubbish dumping was embodied in the Acts of Parliament in 1958 and 1967. I am unable to say whether the higher penalty proposed in the Bill now before the House will provide the salutary lesson we appear to need. Perhaps we shall find out. I hope the House will give the Bill its Second Reading.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have been kind enough both to wait here and to speak in support of the Bill. I think the Bill is perhaps ending the day on a rather good note. If I may quickly run through the questions which were asked, in the first place the noble Lord, Lord Nunburnholme, asked whether poisonous substance was covered under the Bill. This question crossed my mind and I was advised that it was covered. If it was not covered in the way of a large leaking drum of some toxic substance, it would be caught under the Civic Amenities Act. The noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, asked about dangerous litter. I think my noble friend, speaking on behalf of the Government, virtually answered this point. As the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, may have noticed, it is covered under Clause 1(2), and the court is specifically asked to take into consideration the element of danger that has been attached to the offence.

The noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, asked whether birds and fish were in cluded under "animals". As one of the guardians of our British waterways and canals, and particularly the Regent's Canal, I know that this is something very dear to his heart. I believe that birds and fish are included under this Bill, but if I am wrong I will write to him. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, was also kind enough to support the Bill. He asked, rightly, about local authorities, and whether they had supported the Bill. I was very wrong not to have said that the instigators of this splendid Bill were in fact the National Association of Parish Councils, to whom I personally owe a great debt. Other bodies mentioned by my noble friend also supported the Bill, including the National Trust, the County Councils Association, and so on. I am very grateful to all speakers. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton, speaking on behalf of the Government, for his welcome. I hope it bodes well for the future passage of the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.