HL Deb 29 June 1994 vol 556 cc851-3

7.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd May be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Litter (Northern Ireland) Order 1994. This order would introduce provisions broadly in line with those already in force in Great Britain from the enactment of Part IV of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

The main purpose of the order is to introduce legislative provisions which will effectively address the vexing problem of litter which adversely affects so many places in Northern Ireland, despite the substantial efforts made by district councils and voluntary groups such as Tidy Northern Ireland to minimise it. There is a need to establish standards of cleanliness for public areas and to improve their appearance. In addition, the demands of the community for tougher action against the litter problem and those who cause it should be satisfied.

The order introduces a new duty which will be imposed on government, district councils, educational institutions and the occupiers of certain lands to ensure that their lands are, so far as is practicable, kept clear of litter.

A code of practice will be introduced for the benefit and guidance of those made responsible. It will establish practical and achievable standards of cleanliness for a variety of circumstances and types of locations; and it will be concerned with how clean and tidy land is rather than how often it is swept. The code will be relevant in court proceedings.

Finally, the order creates a new offence of "permitting dogs to foul" which will attract a maximum fine of £500; increases the maximum fine for creating litter to £1,000; and introduces a £10 fixed penalty notice scheme for the offence of litter and dog fouling.

There were 61 responses to our consultation and the proposal was generally welcomed. A number of technical amendments were made to the proposal as a consequence of comments made by respondents, and the Government accepted the need to introduce a new offence of "permitting dogs to foul". In this area Northern Ireland leads the rest of the United Kingdom. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd May be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the clear and helpful way in which she introduced the order, which is on an important subject. Litter makes all the difference to people's environment. If it is there it degrades the environment; if it is removed promptly and effectively, that improves the environment.

I should like to concentrate briefly on the local government aspect of the order. It is true, sadly, that in Northern Ireland, because of the history of sectarianism and favouritism of one community to another, few powers are vested in local government, and litter collection is one. It would be appropriate therefore to ask the noble Baroness one or two questions which affect local government responsibility in that respect. I am glad that she mentioned the work of Tidy Northern Ireland, which does exceptional work.

The first of my three questions is in relation to sectarianism. Is she satisfied that there is no evidence that district councils are showing favouritism in the collection of rubbish to one community or the other? Secondly, in regard to the history of litter bins being used as repositories for explosive devices from time to time—it is for that reason that bins on the London Underground were sealed up—are the security forces satisfied that no similar provision is necessary in Northern Ireland? Finally —I am not clear about this and would welcome guidance from the noble Baroness —is there any intention to force district councils competitively to contract out rubbish collection? It would be useful to know that.

Looking forward to her responses, perhaps I may say that the process of consultation gone through on this matter by the Government is impressive and I should like to pay tribute to it. Generally from these Benches we support the order.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I too am grateful for the clear way in which this matter was introduced. It is a shocking occasion for some of us this evening. We are discussing the affairs of Northern Ireland; it is not yet 11 o'clock and there are more than five of us present. For many of us that is an interesting first.

We welcome the principles behind the order. The consultation process was effective so far as we can make out and, bearing in mind the limited powers, duties and responsibilities of local government in Northern Ireland, it is a useful corrective. Therefore, for our part we welcome the order.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, while rising to support the order, perhaps I can ask the Minister whether the other side of rubbish collection is being attended to. I refer to the finances necessary to provide the wherewithal for local authorities, and particularly education establishments, to clean up litter and rubbish that comes within their remit. It is one thing to implement a regime of sanctions and penalties; but if the local authorities and education establishments do not have the resources—which will in the main come from central government—they will be unable to fulfil those obligations.

I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that there will be no financial restrictions imposed by central government on local government and education establishments in relation to their obligations to keep the place tidy.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, in welcoming the order and the return of some power—even a minor one—to local councils, I wish only to ask my noble friend what other powers in the near future she may consider returning to local government? However, I welcome the order.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in taking great pleasure in dealing with Northern Ireland business in the House in daylight. I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this small but important debate. It is a clear order. It is a matter for which I was pleased to hear a welcome. There is evidence from the work of the Tidy Britain group that since the PA came into being there has been a 13 per cent. improvement in litter tidiness in Great Britain. We look forward to that. Northern Ireland is a beautiful country and we need to encourage the standards of appearance.

Perhaps I may deal first with the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. I too was concerned that in England we stand in railway stations looking for somewhere to put litter. There are litter bins in Northern Ireland, and the order does not change that fact. Living in Northern Ireland, I have come to have the highest respect for the police and security services. If the bins were a risk, I am sure that they would be moved.

The order does not change the issue of contracting-out. Local government arrangements will continue. In relation to the noble Lord's anxiety as to whether the work is handed out fairly and the district council administering it in an evenhanded way across the community, I can say that it is handled in an open arena. These matters are something of which everybody is conscious in Northern Ireland, and I can assure him that great care is taken in these matters.

I thank noble Lords who recognised that the consultation was thorough. In Northern Ireland the relationship between everyone in the community is close and it makes consultation that much easier and that much fuller. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, asked about finance. I understand the worries of councils regarding the cost implications of the higher cleansing standards required by the draft order. The matter was fully and carefully considered but no additional resources will come from the centre. Litter is usually generated by those who live in district council areas. But whatever the source of the litter, the benefit of clearing it is to the people who live and work there. It is appropriate therefore that the cost of its removal should be borne by the ratepayers.

My noble friend Lord Brookeborough raised the issue of the democratic deficit that exists in Northern Ireland. I can assure him that we are conscious of the need to ensure that the whole community of Northern Ireland plays as great a role as possible. The whole of our policy is aimed at trying to improve that situation. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.