HL Deb 19 December 2001 vol 630 cc314-34

7.14 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath rose to call attention to the problem of litter; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said

My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the problem of litter. I first sought a debate on this subject a year ago. Since then it is clear that the problem has become even more disturbing. A decade ago I recall that in the other place we were told by the previous government that the incidence of litter was reducing. It was not and it has not.

I am aware that Her Majesty's Government are concerned that the scale of litter does not help us to defend our country against a not wholly justified charge that it is the dirty man of Europe. But our country is not clean. Although there are some areas where local pride and community action have secured an impressive condition, in other areas the scale of litter is dreadful and I am sad to say that parts of my own county of South Yorkshire offer cause for disgust. Perhaps that is linked to the devastation of our economic base in the 1980s, when I recall suggesting that, although the employment effect was dire, the social corrosion that could result may be a graver consequence. That may be a factor.

However, there has been continuing economic transformation and marked advance that justifies great hope, but the litter problem is worse than ever. In the 1960s, as chairman of our local authority, I remember that we had a campaign to clear litter. Then the problem was tiny. It is widely recognised that the level of decay and litter today would have been unimaginable then. The Rotherham local authority has recently consulted the public and the result has been a clear statement and a clear expression of public opinion that the defeat of litter should command the highest local priority.

On Saturday I visited the town center in Wath Upon Dearne. The volume of litter was dreadful and worse than any I have seen before. There are many litter bins and I looked in quite a few of them. For every piece of litter in the litter bins there were at least 100 pieces scattered about near them. Many of the items of litter were strewn about in close proximity to the CCTV cameras. When the cameras were installed we had high hopes of their effect, but clearly they have not inhibited the fouling of the area.

Sooner or later common sense will suggest that, in order to defeat the problem, all available weapons will have to be deployed. Two or three years ago I recall being horrified by deliberate dumping of litter in attractive locations. I took photographs and sent some to the local authority, to the local newspapers and to the chief constable. The local authority cleared those sites that were foul and disgusting—plastic bags and bags that had burst with dreadful things oozing from them—within 24 hours. The local press published the photographs and offered supportive comment, but I had no response from the third recipient.

The public see the deliberate dumping of litter as similar to the crimes of vandalism, criminal damage and graffiti. Often they are treated as trivial offences, but their incidence today is so serious that they eat into the very heart of the public good. Such offences are expensive. There should be greater awareness of how much they cost and to what better purposes that money could be put if there were a greater degree of responsibility.

When in London I live in Pimlico, close to a local secondary school. In my years of residence there I have not encountered any litter. That is not the case elsewhere. When I was a schoolmaster there was no litter problem at my establishment because if children dropped litter they picked it up and any other pieces that lay near it. However, the situation has changed. The other day a teacher said to me that in these increasingly litigious days, teachers are hesitant to ask children to pick up litter because the parents may object. Personally, I believe that that risk should be run.

The other day I was reminded of the problem when Rotherham council advised me that the recent fixed penalty orders that the council had issued were applied in some cases to children whose schools they had visited to help in the fight against litter. Perhaps the national curriculum should include rather more complementary reference to the need for social responsibility.

But I have sympathy with the teachers, just as I have with the excellent local authority officers who are at the forefront of the battle against litter. Mr Rex Carter and Mr Robert Crosby, for example, in Rotherham must feel almost daily frustration in their efforts in this direction.

I have sympathy for police officers on the front line because the present legal position seems absurd. In practice, if a police officer sees someone drop some litter, he can ask him to remove it. If that person refuses he is unlikely to be prosecuted at the present time. In the past, if he had refused and then used obscene language in response to the policeman, he would probably have been prosecuted. But a learned judge recently described the "f" word as being in common parlance. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone would be prosecuted if he used it in response to a police officer's request to remove the litter that he had dropped. That situation is quite absurd.

The litter problem is also dangerous. We have regulations to deal specifically with dog fouling. But there are items of litter which perhaps are even more dangerous; for example, garden poisons, oil-based waste, sharp metal objects, pieces of wood with nails protruding from them and broken glass. In 1999, one of our dogs suffered quite serious and painful leg injuries. It required 30 visits to our local vet. Fortunately the dog was insured. But what would have been the consequence if a child had been injured by the same irresponsibly thrown litter?

There is the present passion of the irresponsible motorist. They may not drink and drive, but many of them drink while driving and then throw the can or the bottle from the car window. Last Sunday I walked for about 600 yards along a busy road, with fields on one side and trees on the other, and there were scores of containers of food and drink. Many of them must have been thrown from car windows. What evidence do we have of any serious response to that kind of problem? What should we do about it?

First, we need to see a determined effort to promote the case for decency, with higher priority being given to this aspect of public attention. It may have a cost, but so does the problem. Secondly, perhaps we need a specific local authority-linked national structure which can concentrate on the problem and ensure that best practices are widely known and swiftly followed and that worthwhile initiatives are nationally recognised. That is not all. Urgent attention needs to be given to the official regulations and practices. As I said, the present situation does not lead to any notable increase in the number of offences. There were far fewer convictions last year and in 1999 than there were 10 years earlier. Yet far more offences have taken place. There is a case for much greater use of fixed penalties. They involve the local authorities in considerable work and cost but can be a most useful tool of common sense. Unfortunately, I understand that the receipts from those notices have to be passed on to central government. I would rather the local authorities had them and were persuaded to use them to deal with and respond to this problem.

I said earlier that in the 1960s I knew that students in schools in my area had to pick up litter from the site where they had thrown it. That leads me to suggest another change. Community service orders serve as an alternative to custodial sentences. The courts should not have the right to issue automatic custodial sentences in cases of this kind, but they should have the right and power—and exercise that power to require offenders against the environment to spend significant time and trouble clearing up the areas that they have harmed. That would greatly encourage people who give dedicated service to the communities and care for their environment. Certainly they are not encouraged by the present situation when fines are around £84 per offence, whereas in 1993 they were £115. The fines have not even kept pace with the level of inflation while the problem has intensified quite severely.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 was quite a step forward, but both that Act and the consequential orders could usefully be reviewed. I accept that the department's code of practice is excellent, but it may not provide quite as much of the answer or encourage the adequacy of response that we need.

I deal now with my two final points which are urgent and serious. I received a notice the other day—other noble Lords in London may have also—to say that if I wanted to dispose of a refrigerator it would cost me between £20 and £30. That is not unreasonable. I know that retailers will not accept old refrigerators and that local authorities have to pay at least £20 to dispose of them when they have been dumped. But already refrigerators are being dumped because of that charge. The risks associated with the recycling of old refrigerators are serious. But so is the risk of a child getting fast inside a dumped refrigerator and dying.

Last week there were four dumped cars within a mile of my home, each having notices attached to them. That was the second weekend that two of them have been there. The new regulations are very desirable and will make a difference, but, so far as concerns pre-2002 cars, not for quite a time. The present position is absurd. The cost to a local authority of disposing of a dumped car may be as much as £138.

In my metropolitan area of a quarter-of-a-million population, 39 cars were dumped in 1999-2000, 206 in 2000–2001 and we expect over 500 in the present financial year. If a dumped car is seen to be of value and has a tax disc, the local authority has to wait 21 days before it can remove it from the side of the highway; it has to wait 15 days if the vehicle is on private land; and if the vehicle does not have a tax disc, it has to wait seven days before it can remove it. If the vehicle has no value and has no tax disc. it can be removed. That means that dumped cars are quite often left in vulnerable places where they are a nuisance and a hazard. I believe that more urgent action is necessary.

The principle underlying our environment policy is and must be that the polluter should pay. The public understand that; so should the polluter and the penalties should be relevant. We need to apply those penalties in order to secure the improvement needed. That effort should be maintained so that one day when we sing or recite the words, "green and pleasant land", we are not offering a mere parody. I beg to move for Papers.

7.28 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, we owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, for starting this debate. It is an important subject. The most interesting part of the debate will be the Government's reply. We shall listen closely to discover whether they are a government of action and joined-together policies, or whether this is one of those debates to which they merely produce a defensive brief saying that they recognise that there are problems but they are dealing with them.

Let us hope that we get some innovative thinking and specific replies to the points that we raise. If points that we raise are not answered in the Minister's speech, I hope that at least a letter will be placed in the Library in reply to each of them, which we can then use for our next debate, if necessary.

Litter is a disgrace, and an unnecessary disgrace. Life is full of disgraces that are difficult to deal with. Litter is not one of them. There are two solutions to litter: first, not to throw it down; secondly, to pick it up. Let me deal with the two in order.

First, let me deal with not throwing litter down. Let me follow the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, about education. Teaching about litter should be specifically included in the curriculum of every school in the country—private or public. It should be a specific part of social responsibility. I would go further. All children at some stage in their time at school should go out on litter-picking parties. First, they would find out how satisfying it is to pick up litter. Secondly, it would make them more intolerant when they have left school of those who discard litter.

Secondly, I have a specific suggestion to encourage picking up litter. Many years ago, in Oregon in the United States, a law was introduced whereby most food containers—cans, bottles and cartons—were returnable. They were returnable in that when anyone who picked up a discarded food container he could get a few cents when he took it to a shop. That has meant that when the affluent discard containers, the less affluent pick them up. They take them to a shop—it can be any shop—and the shops are under a legal obligation to pay so much per container.

Oregon is one of the cleanest states in the United States. I strongly recommend a visit to those of your Lordships who have not been there. The returnable container law has spread to many other states. That is why the United States is surprisingly clean—certainly in comparison to this country. I offer that as a specific suggestion, and hope that the Minister will respond— perhaps by saying that the Government are already considering it and that it is to be contained in a future Bill to be presented to Parliament.

I admit that there is a cost to making packaging returnable. It adds to the cost of the product. However, to coin a phrase, that is a price well worth paying.

Let me turn to the question of penalties. I agree with what the noble Lord. Lord Hardy, said. Of course there should be much wider prosecution. Closed circuit television is an obvious weapon to use. Community service is the ideal solution for those convicted of littering. It is tailor-made for it.

However, let me tell the Minister a story of a friend of mine who was the chairman of a magistrates' bench in south London. She was asked—admittedly some years ago—by the chief probation officer of her court not to award so many community service orders. She was told, "Please, Mrs Stewart-Roberts, do not award so many community service orders, because there are not things for people to do". My friend said, "I find that strange. This is a pretty grubby part of London. What about picking up litter?". The probation officer drew himself up and said, "Mrs Stewart-Roberts, that would not be in accordance with the dignity of our clients". Imagine that! That is totally the wrong philosophy.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that it is not the sort of attitude that she would endorse. If people have discarded litter, it is absolutely the ideal thing to make them pick up litter. It is a suitable penalty to meet the crime. I had an amusing experience not long ago. I was talking to some senior police officers and suggested that community service orders be used for collecting litter from roads. One senior officer was rather worried by that. He said, "That might be dangerous because people could be sucked into the road by a heavy vehicle passing". I said, "I do not think that that would happen if they were properly chained together". There was a silence: he was not sure whether I was joking.

We must face up to the need for proper penalties. I remember that not long ago the Prime Minister made a speech about graffiti and said that people would be set to scrub it off. The speech received a lot of publicity; it was a good speech. But how many of your Lordships have seen people scrubbing off graffiti? Within a few hundred yards of the Palace of Westminster, on Lambeth Bridge, there is always graffiti on the pillars. That is unacceptable and unnecessary.

Let me turn to the obligations to clear litter on roads. As I understand it, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and local authorities have contractors whose responsibility it is. I am not saying that that is the best way to do it, but that is how it is done. Contracts are given to contractors to clear litter. How come, then, that the roads are filthy with litter?

Since I entered your Lordships' House, I have on several occasions tabled Questions for Written Answer listing roads that are particularly dirty. Usually, I find that I receive an Answer saying it has been drawn to someone's attention, or a letter is sent from the regional director, or whatever. A few weeks later, when I go along that road, the road is cleaner. But it should not be for a Member of Parliament to have to table a Question about a particular road—although, given that it seems to work, I encourage your Lordships to do so. Next time you are on a road and you find it filthy, table a Question for Written Answer giving details of the road. You will get an Answer and may get results.

But I go much further. There is a contractual obligation for picking up litter and public money is being spent, but the service is not being provided. The National Audit Office should investigate the terms of the contract and how the contracts are monitored and report to Parliament to do something about it. The present situation is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Finally, picking up litter is a satisfying opportunity. When my children, my wife and I go on holiday, we normally start by cleaning up wherever we are—a beach in Cornwall, Greece or wherever. It is great fun. Litter attracts litter. If one picks up litter, there will be much less litter for quite a long time. That is a fact. I do not know why it is the case, but it is.

I am chairman of my parish council—that is in the Register of Members' Interests. That is the most important position that I have ever had and ever will have. All the Marlesford parish councillors have litter pickers—which are inexpensive to buy. We each have a bit of the parish to keep clean. That is easy, fun and thoroughly satisfactory.

I got involved in the political process for one reason only: it infuriated me to see things that needed to be done and were not being done. That is why I went into politics. That is why, in a matter as simple as this, which the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, has rightly brought to our attention, we need action now. I should like to feel that if we have another such debate in a year's time, we shall be able to praise the Government on their progress.

7.38 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, on securing this debate and express my admiration for his perseverance. I remember him telling us in great detail about litter problems when we debated the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and on many other occasions.

Wrapping in plastic has transformed our lives. When people go out nowadays, whether they are housewives or not, they no longer have to take a basket, a gunny sack or anything like that. They go to buy their goods and are given the necessary bags or whatever to take them home again. I must express an interest in the subject, first, as a resident of a scenic area who has to spend time picking up litter that has been left from people's shopping expeditions. Perhaps I may point out to my noble friend Lord Marlesford that in my area school children used to go out picking up litter but it has now been ruled as dangerous because of the risk of infection. Therefore, in my area no school children go out picking up litter, only those who do so voluntarily.

I also express an interest as a farmer who in some ways creates the litter which people accuse those in the countryside of harbouring. Plastic has transformed the lives not only of ordinary people in the street but of the farming and horticultural industries. It has the ability to keep out moisture and air. However, if I order five tonnes of feed for the sheep in the fields, I also receive 200 plastic bags. If I make silage, it is either bailed or sheeted in plastic and when travelling around the country one can now see fields covered in strips of plastic. I hope that I shall be forgiven for saying that as commercial enterprises are involved not all the plastic is tidied up the way it should be. Given our coastal maritime climate, a certain amount of it can be scattered around the countryside.

Thanks to research undertaken by the Library, I discovered that the National Farmers Union told a sub-committee of the other place that the industry generates 81,000 tonnes of plastic waste per annum. Agricultural wrapping used to be easily disposed of when it was either hessian bags or sisal twine—they could be buried or left to rot. But the present advice on plastic disposal is either to bury it on the farm or pay for it to be carted away and buried somewhere else. That would remove the great bulk of the waste that is difficult to keep track of.

The Government, when they saw the problem coming, tried to impose a levy on the UK manufacturers of plastic in order to finance a fund to collect and dispose of it. The problem was that as soon as the extra cost hit our plastic manufacturers, the agricultural trade found it could buy much cheaper plastic elsewhere. We were then flooded with cheap plastic from overseas. The suggested financing system fell on its face.

Currently the odd do-it-yourself scheme can be found whereby hauliers making empty return journeys will, for a donation, pick up a package of plastic and take it to a processor. The problem is that current technology for creating anything of further use is so poor that it is not economic for the processors to collect the plastic for themselves. The process available does not produce a product of any quality and therefore there is a lack of finance.

That might seem a small issue when DEFRA tells us that this country was required to dispose of 29 million tonnes of waste in 1999–2000. But the disposal of plastic is also a problem as regards municipal waste. Currently we recycle only 11 per cent of municipal waste and 80 per cent of it goes into landfill. Like our farm plastic, it is merely buried in the ground.

The problem for the Government is that we are tied into the European Commission's landfill directive, 1999/31/ED, which will require us to recycle three times as much of our waste as we do at present. I was pleased to see that the Government have a proposal for a waste recycling action programme. Some public relations person has done a good job because the acronym is WRAP. However, if we are to have any chance of meeting the target, the Government must be sure that enough of the landfill tax which is presently being raised goes into research to produce the most beneficial methods of disposal.

A few weeks ago it was reported on the BBC that Downing Street advisers say we face fines from the European Union of up to £500,000 per day if we do not meet the target that is given under that directive. So it appears to be an issue which the Government cannot afford to ignore and it would greatly help the litter problem.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, the problems associated with litter are familiar to everyone. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, for introducing the debate today. Litter is not just unsightly; it increases the risk of accidents and can present a serious health risk. People say that they feel less comfortable in a littered area than in a clean area. There is no doubt that litter is a serious problem.

It is also an expensive problem. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that it costs around £370 million a year to remove litter from our streets, waterways and open spaces. It costs £2.5 million a year to remove rubbish and litter from our beaches alone. It costs a further £5 million to remove shopping trolleys dumped in rivers and ponds.

The removal of litter is vital in ensuring that communities are clean, safe and attractive places to be. I am pleased to see that the Government have introduced a number of measures this year to help local authorities keep streets and open spaces clean, including the introduction of street wardens.

However, I must confess that I was rather concerned by the recent MORI poll, whose results suggested that the British public believe that Britain's towns and cities are dirtier than those in the rest of western Europe. Thirty-nine per cent of respondents said that litter was a contributory factor in making them feel uncomfortable in Britain's streets. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, could outline what progress has been made thus far in improving the overall cleanliness of communities around the UK as a result of the "three-pronged attack" announced in March and of other more recent measures.

In other surveys of the British public's attitude towards litter, results have suggested that tougher enforcement of higher fines would be the biggest disincentive to those tempted to drop litter. Eighty-three per cent of people questioned in the MORI survey said that they had some knowledge of the law with regard to littering. Presumably the imposition of tines commands widespread support. I wonder!

I should be interested to learn whether the Government plan to increase the fine on those caught dropping litter from the current £25 fixed penalty. Fines can be doubly effective in purely economic terms. They can deter people from dropping litter and free up resources to tackle the existing problem.

The cost of the problem is set to increase markedly over the next few years, with tougher targets placing new demands on local authorities. I wonder whether the Government consider increased fines as one way of helping to meet these targets.

Ensuring that litter is collected frequently enough to keep streets and open spaces clean is the first phase of the litter problem. The second is its disposal. The Government rightly have accepted a tough challenge in the form of the EU landfill directive. We have already heard a certain amount about that today. Under the directive, Britain is required to reduce the amount of biodegradable household waste disposed of in landfill from the present level of 85 per cent to no more than 35 per cent by 2020, compared with 1995 levels. In addition, as has also been pointed out today, we have been warned that tough financial penalties could result from non-compliance.

If we consider that the amount of waste emanating from Britain is growing by 3 per cent per year, the implication is that we will have to double our waste disposal capacity by 2020. If we also consider that around 54 per cent of commercial and industrial waste and 83 per cent of municipal waste is currently managed by landfill, it is clear that the EU target is an extremely tough one to meet. The proposed reduction in waste going to landfill is most welcome, but it is far from clear how we can achieve that reduction so quickly by using other forms of waste disposal, without a radical improvement in other facilities.

The taxes imposed on those using landfill is one way in which the Government are seeking to reduce the proportion of waste being disposed of in this manner. Do the Government envisage any further increase in landfill taxes in order to help local authorities direct resources into other means of waste disposal? Use of such revenue would seem to be the only way in which recycling and composting facilities can be brought up to scratch.

We should bear in mind the targets for value recovery announced in May 2000 in the Government's waste strategy. Britain's current recycling performance does not compare favourably with that of some other European countries. We recycle only 6 per cent of household waste, compared with 18 per cent in Germany, 28 percent in the Netherlands and 42 per cent in Switzerland. Incidentally, the United States records an impressive 24 per cent. Members of the public, businesses and local authorities appear to be of one mind on the subject of recycling, but can carry out their good intentions only if they have sufficient resources to do so. I should be most grateful to the noble Baroness if she would give your Lordships some idea of the Government's plans to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to help improve Britain's recycling record. Of particular interest would be the provision of an efficient doorstep service for the collection of recyclable goods. As the option of landfill becomes less viable, it seems sensible and desirable that value recovery should become the guiding principle in the future of waste disposal.

Fly-tipping presents a further problem. It is immensely frustrating for landowners and local authorities when large items are disposed of illegally on their land. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, mentioned the problem of discarded refrigerators, to which we shall return tomorrow. Landowners and local authorities have to pick up the bill for ensuring that the items are disposed of properly. There is evidence to suggest that fly-tipping is on the increase. While the Government have expressed their commitment to helping local authorities enforce the littering laws, at present it seems that the authorities are bearing the additional financial burden of fly-tipping. The DTLR Select Committee has suggested increased fines for such "environmental crimes", but of course those will be effective only if local authorities are able to enforce them.

Finally, I welcome the Government's pledge to be the "greenest government" ever. Good luck to them; they will certainly need it in order to go some way towards fulfilling that pledge if Britain is to avoid heavy financial penalties in the future. But confronting the problem of litter is not only about avoiding penalties. It is a ubiquitous problem and commands a high degree of consensus. The challenge lies in devising a suitable means of reducing the enormous amount of waste generated by Britain and removing some of the energy available from that waste. The removal of litter is one very obvious issue in the context of a much wider problem.

I look forward to hearing more about the ways in which the Government will build on the progress that has been made so far. They will have to become much swifter in order to keep up with the increasing amount of waste that is being generated by the day in Britain.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I am speaking tonight on behalf of the Front Bench but I am sitting on a Back Bench. That is only right and proper because almost certainly I shall say something with which the Front Bench would disagree.

This is an extremely important subject and one which has been extraordinarily well expressed by the noble Lord who moved the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. He has had a long interest in the subject. He touched on the core of it when he spoke of his experience as a schoolmaster, where it proved both necessary and effective to convince young people of the good they would do if they took the attitude that waste should be tidied up and, further, that they too have a responsibility not only for picking up rubbish but also for not creating it. In many foreign countries a much better attitude is shown towards the problem. I recall seeing a group of Czech schoolchildren: they were unwrapping their sweets and then carefully tucking the wrappers into their pockets. As I have said, attitude is extremely important.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, made a good point about forcing manufacturers to pay. There is no question about that. Let us take the example of milk cartons. It is far cheaper to buy plastic milk cartons because they are non-returnable and, unlike bottles, they do not need to be washed or steamed. The Government are quite right to impose a penalty to be borne by the packagers of milk, given the lower costs of production. Similarly, the noble Duke quoted remarkable figures about the amount of plastic material used on farms. He had done his homework, which I never do. It is a problem that one can see all over the countryside. A strong case can be made for the manufacturers, whether or not they are based abroad, to bear the costs of collecting such material.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, put his finger on the problem when he said that recycling is way below par in this country. We need to do something about it. When one goes into a shop, plastic materials are poured out in all directions. The situation is ludicrous. A better system of collection is needed. In my local city of Dundee the authorities have been trying hard, with some success, to arrange the separation of waste in order to do something with it. All those points are enormously important.

Another area in which we are making no progress—I should like the Minister to comment on this—is incineration. The incineration of waste can supply both heat and power and is a very economic method of dealing with the material. However, it has failed in the main because of the attitude of local citizens, who strongly oppose incineration plants because in the past the machinery was of doubtful quality. But we need to look again at the proposal.

The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, rightly has been complimented on bringing forward this subject. It is only a pity that more noble Lords have not taken an interest.

Let me finish by reflecting on what led me to take part in the debate. The reason is quite simple. Earlier today I walked down Whitehall from the Farmers' Club—which has a great many distinguished residents from this House—to the Palace of Westminster. Everywhere I looked I could see discarded paper cups and lids, shreds of paper and so forth. The scene was an absolute mess. After lunch I walked along Whitehall once again and the pavement was a little better. But I was shocked beyond measure when I looked at the statues of three great men, Field Marshal Alanbrooke, Field Marshal Slim and Field Marshal Montgomery, and saw that they were surrounded by leaves, newspapers, lids and cartons. It has been that way for a long time. The Ministry of Defence could at least clean around these heroes of our time in the way that we clean up the leaves in our gardens several times before winter.

This is a subject of enormous importance and the Government should take it seriously. We should all follow the example of the noble Lord and raise the issue again, because obviously there will not be the progress we desire.

8 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, for this timely opportunity to highlight the problem of litter. For the second time today I declare an interest—one that we all have—in that I am against litter. Fortunately for me, this is not only a farming problem but a much more general one; we are all concerned about litter. I am sure that we have all experienced the dumping of various materials other than litter along our roadsides and in our gateways. Items such as sofas and burnt-out cars get dumped on a regular basis.

The debate is timely because the problem of litter is always worse where large numbers of people congregate in holiday or festive mood. We are coming up to that time of the year again. Should anyone doubt me, I suggest that they ask some of the people who have to clear up after big events and festivals such as the Town and Country, Glastonbury or Silverstone, or those who have to bin the aftermath of any major sporting contest, be it Premiership football or a Test Match.

I cannot believe anyone would dispute my assertion that litter is a problem. As other noble Lords have suggested, it affects our safety and that of our children. It impinges on the success or otherwise of our tourist initiatives; and it costs an enormous amount of money to control.

The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, said that even where litter bins are provided people dump litter in the street. He also reflected on the need to teach our children about the problem. I am sure he is right.

Perhaps I may remind the House about the "Keep Britain Tidy" campaign, which I believe is held in April each year. If it is not, the Minister will put me right. We could probably make more of that week in highlighting the problem of litter. Certainly my family have been involved in such campaigns. My noble friend Lord Marlesford referred to that issue and to the importance of encouraging schoolchildren to keep Britain tidy. He also suggested that community service orders should include a requirement for people to collect litter, particularly where they have disposed of it.

My noble friend the Duke of Montrose highlighted an aspect of the problem which I suspect the Minister has not considered—that is, the greater use of plastic by farming communities. It is a problem. I know that farmers would appreciate any help the Government can give in the recycling of plastic, which is, on the whole, heavy plastic.

My noble friend Lord Glentoran spoke about the demands on local authorities and the ways in which they manage to deal with waste.

We applaud the European Commission's efforts to control the amount of packaging material used to cover non-perishable items and its ruling on the disposal of certain white goods, notably fridges and freezers. When, however, will the Government use their position "in the vanguard of European thinking" to persuade their continental colleagues to force manufacturers of gum products to pay for the regular cleaning of all public tarmacadamecl or concreted walkways.

I pause for a moment to reflect that if Lord Long was still in the House, he would surely have spoken in the debate. As many noble Lords will remember, he was a champion for disposing of the dreadful gum product which is deposited on our walkways.

Will the Government find a way to prohibit the production of mass produced, intentional litter? By this I mean all the loose material which is added to newspapers and magazines; pamphlets, and so on, which are delivered by the Post Office, unaddressed and unfranked; and all the advertising bumf that we get through our doors on a regular basis. Do we really need, for example, when we buy an electric appliance, a thick booklet which tells us how to use it in a dozen different languages? All we need is a booklet printed in the language of our own country. Have the Government raised that matter with the European Commission?

Moving from the roads to the railways, now that the Government have taken over from Railtrack, will they insist that whichever institution takes control in the future it will give an immediate and on-going priority to its responsibility for cleaning the tracks, the stations and marshalling yards? Having served on a transport committee, I understand that the removal of litter from marshalling yards and stations is the responsibility of Railtrack; the train operators are not allowed to move it. It is a very strange situation where the company responsible for removing litter from stations is not doing so. Yet the litter in stations gives a dreadful impression to those coming to visit a particular area, he it in a city or in the country.

As I travel around the country—which I do quite a lot—I notice that private companies such as B&Q and Tesco, to name but two, seem to help in the collection of not only paper but of clothing, shoes and textiles, whereas most municipal bodies do riot. Can the Minister explain why?

Can she also explain why, over and over again, I read of councils, trialling the doorstep collection of newspapers or the kerbside uplifting of garden rubbish"? Surely there need be only one or two trials followed by universal implementation of a scheme? When will the Government ensure uniformity of uptake—or do they believe that each council should decide for itself?

Several noble Lords referred to fly tipping. We all agree that this is a disgusting, dangerous and unnecessary practice. Gateways, side roads, lay-bys, field entrances and public paths are constantly blocked by cut-down leylandii, old furniture, household rubbish and unwanted toys. I have been told recently that an old greenhouse—with broken concrete and glass, rotten wood and shards of pottery—was found on a pathway used by children to reach a playground. Surely it costs far more for the council to trundle around to collect it than to concentrate on the perpetrator who is tipping illegally. Are the Government considering siting CCTV cameras in known dumping hot-spots, or perhaps considering the use of mobile speed cameras? These would all help in this regard.

A particular aspect of litter that has long concerned and puzzled me—it has not been raised by other noble Lords—is the dumping of used hypodermic needles. I believe that in Edinburgh, for example, the drug clinics operate a needle exchange system. To get a new, sharp needle, you have to hand in an old, blunt one. I also understand, however, that obtaining needles privately is relatively easy but relatively costly. These kinds of needles are then used, reused and abandoned wherever addicts congregate. The needles are dirty, rusty and covered in bugs, and they are a great danger to children. Will the Minister consult her counterparts in the Department of Health, the DTI and the Home Office to ensure that hypodermic needles are rendered unavailable to Joe Public, with severe penalties for anyone caught supplying them?

The whole issue may be likened to a system of interlocking vicious circles. Someone discovers the power of the printed word, so people and companies produce more and more of it; someone else realises that the distribution of this material will be big business, and therefore it is incorporated and companies start to offer this kind of service; and then, before you can say "Jack Rabbit", here we are going the full circle again and producing more and more.

I want to touch briefly on the Environmental Services Association. In its Annual Statement 2001–2002 the chief executive's report states: The UK also has the capacity to generate over 500MW of electricity from non-hazardous waste, in facilities operated to the highest standards and tightly regulated by the Environment Agencies". Later the report comments on a speech by Mr Dirk Hazell at the Environmental Services Training and Education Trust conference: Noting the lack of progress in turning 'aspiration in the National Waste Strategies into practical achievement', the main body of Mr Hazell's speech dealt with the policies of the Government over the previous year: not only were the National Waste Strategies still largely unfunded, but there had also been, in a General Election year"— sadly— lack of political will and focus". The report continues: He was also critical of the Government's decision to exclude energy from waste from the Renewables Obligation, which was to all intents and purposes a stealth tax on incineration equivalent to £9 per tonne of waste and being 'not obviously consistent with the commitment to energy from waste in the National Waste Strategy"'. Perhaps the noble Baroness will comment on that in her reply.

We have talked about several different aspects of waste, and I touch on another. Again, the noble Baroness may be surprised, but I believe that I should raise the matter. I believe that the Government have accepted that last year's outbreak of swine fever was probably caused by a waste sandwich being carelessly thrown away. That waste sandwich devastated the pig industry. The foot and mouth disease this year was brought into the country by someone, somewhere, undefined. The Government's reluctance to hold a public inquiry into the foot and mouth débâcle is beyond comprehension—even more so since the European Commission is looking into the possibility of establishing such an inquiry.

At a conference on 12th December, addressing some 450 delegates, the Food Safety Commissioner, David Byrne, said that new measures were essential. He said that more resources would be provided to stop illegal imports and contaminated meat. But on previous occasions when I have challenged the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, about the control of imported food, he has suggested that this is a European matter. Again, I refer the House to the item at Question Time today.

The control of legal and illegal imports of meat rests firmly with the nation state. What extra resources do the Government intend to make available at all ports of entry? Has the number of inspectors been increased since the outbreak? And has legal action been taken against anyone caught bringing unauthorised meat into this country? In answering those questions, will the Minister tell the House how many prosecutions were brought during the same period last year for clearing up areas where people have been caught dumping general rubbish, litter or heavier amounts of rubbish?

I conclude on a lighter note. It is almost Christmas. I was pleased to see a piece in the press headed: Are you dreaming of a green Christmas? 'Do your bit' for the environment and reduce the UK's three million tonne festive waste mountain". The article stated that British families will enjoy their Christmas festivities and that, eating, drinking and giving gifts are likely to create over three million tonnes of festive rubbish …predicts the 'are you doing your bit?' campaign …Six million Christmas trees; 4,200 tonnes of aluminium foil; 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging"— we are back to that— 80,000 tonnes of old clothes and other waste textiles; 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper (enough to cover an area larger than Guernsey)", will be generated this Christmas. The mind boggles.

Much of this need not end up in the waste bin. We produce more than 29 million tonnes of general household waste each year, and more than half of that can be recycled. So this Christmas, everyone can do their bit for the environment.

For example, cans and bottles, paper and jars left over from festive celebrations can often be recycled. Many councils now offer doorstep recycling facilities. But there is more that we can do.

We are in the run-up to Christmas. Again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, for introducing the debate so well and I thank my noble friends and other noble Lords who have spoken. It raises a very important issue. I hope that not only will noble Lords have a happy Christmas themselves, but that they will also remember that we, too, can "do our bit" to make this a green Christmas.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath for introducing this important debate. I wholeheartedly agree with him: as the Prime Minister noted in a speech he gave in April, in isolation a small amount of vandalism here or graffiti there may seem trivial, but the combined effect can seriously undermine the local quality of life—a point recognised by all speakers. The failure to tackle small-scale problems can lead to environmental blight and more serious crime.

I pay tribute to schools such as Pimlico School, which—as my noble friend Lord Hardy recognized—patently do a detailed job in encouraging young people not to drop litter in the community. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. The only slight hesitation I have is that, during my years in local government chairing an education committee in a large authority, I did not come across a single school where this subject was not tackled in its own way, both at primary and at secondary level.

Since the introduction of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it has become the responsibility of local authorities to enforce environmental legislation with regard to antisocial behaviour and environmental crimes. The Act provides local authorities with powers to take action against those who drop litter. They may employ litter wardens who can issue a fixed penalty fine. The first point I make to noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Hardy, who raised the issue, is that if that money is not paid within 14 days the litterer can be prosecuted and, if convicted, face a maximum fine of £2,500.

In response to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and my noble friend Lord Hardy, the Government are increasing the fixed penalties. The fixed penalties for litter and dog fouling will be increased from £25 to £50. The changes will come into force ill April 2002. Of course, under the devolution settlement, this applies in England only.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, raised the question of local authorities keeping the money. Currently, under Section 88(6)(a) of the Environmental Protection Act, local authorities are required to surrender the proceeds from fixed penalty notices. Under the local public service agreement pilot initiative, the department has agreed to a pilot trial for five local authorities, in which grants will be paid equal to the fixed penalty notice fine income that they collect. The current local PSA pilot runs from April 2001 until March 2004. We intend to extend the scheme on a voluntary basis to other top-tier authorities, county councils, unitary metropolitan districts and London boroughs over the next two to three years.

At this point, I want to pay tribute to the work of parish councils. Often, action by parish councils at local level and in the local environment can encourage children to see this as a local issue and part of their community—especially if the adults are, as the noble Lord was, taking great steps to improve the local environment for those children.

It is clear from the debate that the public need assurance that local authorities care about the environment. A large number of neighbourhood warden schemes are being set up by local authorities. The Home Office has recently tabled a series of reassurance outcomes papers with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation. At local level, schemes are currently being piloted in which wardens work closely with community police officers, who will act as beat managers, helping to direct and co-ordinate the operations of the many agencies working in an area to combat crime and disorder.

Under the pathfinders scheme announced by my right honourable friend Michael Meacher in March and to which the Government have committed £1 million, we are seeking to identify innovative approaches and promote existing best practice in local environmental wardening. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, agrees that the best in local government is that which develops at local level to meet local circumstances.

I understand the concern that my noble friend Lord Hardy and others have raised about the problem of dumping and fly tipping. The important issue of refrigerators was raised. The penalties for fly tipping are already potentially severe—up to live years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine if convicted in a Crown Court. I am sure that my noble friend will be gratified to know that we have just announced a £6 million support package to help local authorities provide safe storage and disposal of unwanted household fridges until the means of removing CFCs before disposal can be put in place.

Fly tipping and the dumping of items such as fridges are major problems, but the scale of the problem recognised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and others is even greater when it comes to the cars that litter our streets, foul our environment and damage our rural lakes. With the decline in the scrap metal market and difficulties in getting rid of worn tyres, that has become a major problem. We have carried out a review of the current legislation and come up with options to reduce the notice periods used by local authorities and to improve the accuracy of the vehicle register, which is an important part of tackling the perpetrators.

A joint DEFRA and DTLR consultation exercise was launched on 31st October. I have a copy of the document for any noble Lords who wish to see it. Those who share the Government's concern on the issue will be pleased to know that the consultation period does not end until the end of January 2002. Following that, we intend to produce regulations in the spring. Those who wish to write in with their views on this important issue still have time to do so.

There are other major items, such as the problem of fast food litter, which causes great unhappiness, because many such items end up in the areas that cause concern to noble Lords. In response to the query of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I point out that in March my right honourable friend Michael Meacher called on the heads of the fast food industry to work with him to develop a voluntary code of best environmental practice. The code must be based on best practice for preventing and clearing up litter. We want a real commitment to minimising packaging and supporting the recycled and environmentally friendly use of materials. We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that this is an important issue. We have made it clear that if a voluntary code does not show a marked improvement, we shall take action.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about Railtrack. Under the DTLR code of practice on litter and refuse, Railtrack has a duty to keep its land clear of litter. Areas accessible to the public should be cleaned within hours. Areas not accessible to the public are cleaned within weeks or months, depending on whether the land is trackside or depot. I shall take up the noble Baroness's point about such litter not only being an eyesore, but ending up being dispersed elsewhere. We all know about the problem of security and the difficulty of not being able to provide litter receptacles on stations.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and my noble friend Lord Hardy referred to CCTV. Local authorities have the power to use CCTV. The main barrier to using this method of enforcement is the availability of the cameras and the cost of using the technology. We hope that increasing the fixed penalty notices for littering offences and allowing top-tier local authorities to retain the fines will encourage them to use new technology more effectively.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to landfill tax. The Government have announced that landfill tax will increase by £1 a tonne every year up to 2004.

The importance of the programme involving local authorities has also been mentioned. More than 30 local authorities are working in 10 consortiums developing best environmental practice, dealing with litter, graffiti, fly tipping, fly posting and related issues. They will report back next October.

As the noble Lords, Lord Mackie and Lord Marlesford, pointed out, many acts of graffiti are carried out by young people. Successful measures are important in that area. The subject is covered by police school liaison officers during regular visits to primary and secondary schools. There are many action groups, including more than 1,201) youth action groups in England and Wales. Many of them have tackled issues such as graffiti. We support the idea of youth action groups and are looking, together with the DfES, Crime Concern and Neighbourhood Watch, to develop such groups into the wider community.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, raised the issue of agricultural waste, particularly the disposal of farm waste plastics. That key area of discussion will be included in the soon to be released consultation document on agricultural waste. The publication of the paper was delayed, initially by consultation with the NFU and more recently by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The consultation paper will be released early in 2002. We wish to discuss with all concerned—the NFU, the Country Landowners' Association and a wide range of organisations—the best way to tackle this recognised problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, raised the issue of other member states. For too long, we in the United Kingdom have lagged behind much of Europe and America in managing our waste. The waste strategy 2000 is designed to change that. We also have targets under the EC packaging directive and we are determined to meet them. They are staged—particularly the recycling targets, which are material specific—from 7 per cent, in 1998, to 18 per cent, in 2001. Local authorities have the power to require householders to place certain types of waste, such as recyclables, in different containers. Although I note that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, believes that that power which is given to local authorities should be a duty, I believe that we have to work with local authorities as they develop their own schemes. Nevertheless we recognise the importance of the issue.

Many local authorities provide separate points to collect and exchange used needles for new ones. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will be aware of the sensitivity in localities where some people feel that providing a needle exchange is encouraging drug abuse. However, I note the importance of the point.

In 1999–2000, 87 per cent of local authorities recycled cans—to the tune of 13,000 tonnes—and 97 per cent of local authorities recycled paper and card. It has been a major contribution in addressing the waste issue. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, I am pleased that so many local authorities are offering recycling facilities. I too dream of a green Christmas, and I am pleased to be able to tell her that more than 250 councils are offering Christmas tree recycling facilities.

I am not able to answer all the questions in detail; indeed, I have slightly over-run my time. Community service orders are used in tackling litter. The very best groups such as those running the Keep Britain Tidy campaign use community service orders as part of an overall package. They can play a valuable part in addressing the issue.

8.32 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, convention does not allow me to reply in detail to noble Lords' speeches. However, I should like to thank noble Lords for their significant and supportive comments and their kind words. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Farrington, whose speech should command very careful attention. I should also like to echo the seasonally relevant words of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, by wishing all noble Lords a very happy and unlittered festive time. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.