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Litter And Fouling Of Land By Dogs Bill

Volume 402: debated on Friday 4 April 2003

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Order for Second Reading read.

12.40 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Litter is a very important issue. I obviously think so—it is the second such Bill that I have introduced in the House—and so do my hon. Friends who support the Bill, many of whom supported the previous Bill. I am delighted that we have arrived at Second Reading.

Not just hon. Members but the public at large think that it is an enormously important issue. All hon. Members who have gone round their constituencies knocking on doors and talking to people will know that many more people are concerned about litter and dog fouling than are concerned about other important issues such as the five economic tests for the euro. When I introduced the first Bill, one of the television stations did a poll and found that 97 per cent. of people supported the measure.

Litter is unsightly. It spoils neighbourhoods and all parts of the country. We know that it is a health risk and dangerous, particularly to children. It affects urban areas, rural areas, concrete paved areas, the paths that we walk on and the lovely open spaces that we treasure.

Another reason why the Bill is important is because we are not very good at dealing with the issue. The current culture of this country is that people drop litter in volumes but that we tolerate it. We spend most of the day walking around in the litter and spend a fortune—about £450 million a year—trying to have it cleared away and complaining that it is not all cleared away. I am not sure how much dog fouling material is cleared away, but I am told that about 1,000 tonnes a day are dropped; there is a thought for midday on Friday.

The problem is that we do not enforce the laws. We have had laws for many years. People can be fined, but I think only about 3,000 fixed-penalty fines a year are issued for litter and 2,000 for dog fouling. At the moment, all the revenue is passed to central Government. I understand that that amounts to only about £70,000 a year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that for those of us who have the privilege of representing seaside resorts, it is a particular problem? Many visitors do not have respect for the local environment. The Bill has great support in Scarborough and Whitby, particularly among the seaside communities, which I am sure wish it well.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that. I am sure that the wonderful beaches of Scarborough are marred by litter and dog fouling, as is the beach at Lowestoft, officially the best beach in England.

The problem is that we have not tackled the issue and have made no progress on it. The central contention of the Bill is that only enforcement will work; that is the essence of the Bill. Education, campaigns and saying, "Let's have more bins" will not work. By allowing local authorities to retain the revenue from fixed-penalty fines, we will provide an income stream for enforcement.

That will enable councils to take action and engage them in taking action. We must change the culture that I spoke of a few minutes ago. That culture also exists within councils, which are more geared to clearing up than enforcing the law. The benefit of enforcing the law is that we make the polluter, not the poor taxpayer, pay.

The response of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, as it was when I first proposed such a measure in 1999, was not supportive. It referred to the perverse incentive, a legal nicety whereby the person prosecuting should not stand to benefit from the prosecution. That may be true in legal schools, but our constituents would surely believe that there should be every incentive to enforce the law in this respect. I am delighted that the Government have changed their mind and that clause 117 of the Local Government Bill, now in the other place, contains the central provision of my Bill.

There are, however, one or two differences between my Bill and the Local Government Bill. The main difference is that in my Bill, the local authority must use the money raised to enforce the litter and dog-fouling laws, but the Local Government Bill makes provision for the local authority to use the money for any of its functions. I can understand the in-built incentive to use the revenue for enforcement, because further revenue will be gained from enforcement. I can also understand why, in theory at least, there may come a time when it will be clean everywhere, so there would be no point in pouring money into enforcement. However, I stress that that will happen in theory rather than in practice and that, even with the measures in my Bill, it will take some time to achieve it.

I am worried that some local authorities might settle for a low level of enforcement and then stop, or divert the money into more bins. If so, we would become a bit cleaner, but still fall way short of what most people would like to see. Even worse, some local authorities might not bother to take up the new powers and the revenue stream. As I said, we have to change the culture of local authorities, otherwise we could end up with postcode litter enforcement, with some authorities doing a much better job than others.

In the past year, about a dozen pilot schemes have been tried and they have taught us two lessons. Authorities such as Newcastle, Manchester and Wigan have taken their responsibilities seriously and have made a great difference. Many fines have been handed out and the revenue gained is there for all to see. Some authorities, though—we should recall that they are all signed up to public service agreements with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—have done nothing. We must therefore ensure that all local authorities take the new powers seriously.

How can we best ensure that? I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life for entering into discussions with me on that point. I understand that he proposes to use the corporate performance assessment and best value mechanisms, rather than straightforward compulsion. I should be grateful to my right hon. Friend if he would explain to the House in detail exactly how those mechanisms will work.

What guidance will be issued to local authorities to ensure that they—I was about to say "get stuck into" this, but perhaps that is not the right phrase to use—take advantage of the opportunities provided in my Bill and the Local Government Bill? They will need a kick-start initial investment will be necessary to employ the first half a dozen wardens, but it will soon be repaid by fines, which could then be used to employ more wardens.

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's explanation. In Cleethorpes, Immingham and Barton, most of the complaints about litter that I hear are from residents living near large secondary schools, who moan about crisp wrappers, bottles, cans and so forth. How does my hon. Friend envisage his Bill will work when it is young people under 18 who are littering those areas?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I think that, once we have a law that says that we are serious about litter, schools' whole approach will change. They will manage the problem in collaboration with the local authority, but in the knowledge that they have to do so.

Once a momentum gets going in local authorities, there will be an increasing army of litter wardens who can make this country cleaner. How will that cleanliness be assessed? Who will decide on the standard of cleanliness that ascertains that a local authority is fulfilling its functions?

My final question to my right hon. Friend is this: will it be impossible for a local authority to achieve the highest standard of corporate performance assessment and thus gain the flexibility to spend the fines on other things without having succeeded on the best value cleanliness standard? We must ensure that it has to meet that standard.

The Bill is part of the Government's overall agenda for stronger communities and better local environments, along with measures on abandoned cars, graffiti, and nuisance and antisocial behaviour. Dropping litter is antisocial behaviour, and the problem is that it not just a minority who do it—many people who do not consider themselves to be beyond the law in any way are in the habit of dropping litter. We therefore face a major task. Although we know that the majority of our constituents are law-abiding people who will respond to the measure, take it seriously and obey the law, they will do so only if they think that this House and the Government are serious about enforcing it.

12.51 pm

I have the honour of being one of the Bill's sponsors. It is a genuine cross-party Bill, for the reason that it makes very good sense, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on promoting it. Hon. Members will recall that when he introduced a powerful 10-minute Bill, which had the acquiescence of the whole House, he pointed out many of the facts that he has pointed out today. It is worth repeating that, as he said, £450 million a year is spent on clearing up dogs' mess. He did not comment, however, on the cost to the national health service of treating young children, as well as older people, who have been infected as a consequence of being in contact with dogs' mess.

The Bill is called the Litter and Fouling of Land by Dogs Bill because, sadly, we see dogs' mess not only on our streets and pavements, but on playing fields, where much damage is done to the health of young people. I say to the hon. Member for Scarborough and What (Lawrie Quinn) that the problem is a curse not only in seaside towns—it affects people even in towns and cities such as Lichfield, right in the heart of the country. It is very much a national problem. As the hon. Member for Waveney said, more than 1,000 tonnes a day are—I hate to use the word, but I will—dumped in the United Kingdom, and it really is foul in every sense of the word.

In Lichfield, we have two dog wardens. They do their best, but it clearly ain't enough. I like to think that Lichfield is one of the cleaner cathedral cities, but one sees dogs' mess there, too, with all the damage that it causes. Two dog wardens are not enough. Whenever I take that up with the excellent Conservative-controlled Lichfield district council, it says, "We can't afford to have any more." The Bill is a mechanism that will allow it to afford to have more. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Waveney. If the Government decide not to adopt the provision in clause 1(b), which stipulates that the money raised from fining people who commit the offence of allowing their dogs to foul is ring-fenced to pay for more dog wardens, there is a fear that councils that find themselves strapped for cash will use some, or maybe even all, that money for other projects. There will thus be no incentive for councils such as Lichfield to employ more than two dog wardens. The council needs more wardens—six, eight or 10; as many as are necessary to ensure that that curse is eradicated.

In principle, I think that the provisions already exist. The Government sensibly introduced measures whereby authorities can retain fines levied for speeding offences caught on speed cameras. Will the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life confirm that the money is ring-fenced and that it can be used only for installing more speed cameras?

The hon. Gentleman suggests that that is so. Surely, in that case, subsection (b) of clause 1 could be included in the Bill that is currently in another place. That is tremendously important, as the hon. Member for Waveney pointed out.

I do not want to detain the House. The Bill is excellent. I am probably about to tempt fate by saying that, in the past month, I have received more letters about dog fouling than about the war on Iraq. That is no bad thing; it demonstrates that people feel as strongly about dog fouling as they do about Iraq. The two issues may be very different, but they are important to people. Dog fouling affects the lives of ordinary people, in the streets where they walk and live, and where they allow their children to play. As I said earlier, the cost of collection may be £450 million a year, but what is the cost to the national health service? What is the cost to people's lives?

12.57 pm

I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on his good fortune in the ballot, on a worthwhile Bill that has resonance on both sides of the House and on the manner in which he introduced it. I am sure that the measure will receive all-party support.

The Bill is not anti-dog. Indeed, I should not want to be associated with something that was anti-dog—some of my best friends are dogs.

Perhaps.

The measure would provide balance. It is reasonable to expect people who keep pets to show responsibility and consideration for other people.

We welcome the Bill. Dog fouling is a major problem. Estimates produced by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that there are 6.8 million dogs in Britain, producing 1,000 tonnes of excrement a day. I wonder who estimates such interesting statistics; no doubt there are people who have more interesting jobs than that of Member of Parliament.

The problem causes great concern to many of our citizens, especially people out walking with their children. There are also particular difficulties for people pushing prams and for wheelchair users. They have problems cleaning dog excrement from the wheels, and it is often trailed into their homes. The Bill is about good citizenship.

Local authorities are under financial pressure due to the grant settlement and, as a result, may not accord the highest priority to the problems addressed by the Bill. I generally welcome the provision that would allow local authorities to keep fines in order to give better services.

More than 60 per cent. of authorities never prosecute for such offences. The Bill would give them a greater incentive to do so, and would ensure that people are good citizens. In 1998, 98 per cent. of local authorities employed dog wardens, but the figure has fallen to 94 per cent., which is of great concern.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It may be that a relatively high percentage of local authorities have dog wardens, but most of those authorities employ only one or two wardens. They do not do much enforcement work, tending instead to work with dog owners.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point.

However, the Bill does not address a lacuna. Under section 1(2) of the Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996, an offence is not committed on pavements alongside a carriageway unless there is a speed limit of 40 mph or less. A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has written the following in a letter:
"I am writing to you as a dog owner. I live in village where we have a few dogs roaming around without their owners and they leave their packages wherever they wish. I have been in touch with the dog warden for this area and he has told me that we have no law in this village to stop dogs from fouling the verges, pavements or play areas due to the fact we have no speed limit in this village. This byelaw stinks. I don't see why the careless owners cannot be fined or told to clean up after the dog. Would it be possible to get this byelaw changed as I think it grossly unfair that, in areas with speed limits in place, action can be taken to the owners, but villages like Condicote with no speed limit have to live with dirty dog owners? I feel that it should be a crime for dog owners, whether you have a speed limit or not. Hope you can help with this problem."
That constituent would like to know how the situation can be remedied.

Hon. Members may wonder why I am reading a letter that was sent to the hon. Member for Cotswold. It is because I am delivering his speech for him. Nothing would have prevented him from speaking on this topic except the fact that he has broken his ankle and is in his constituency. I am sure that we all wish him well.

Under Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs codes for dog fouling, citizens are expected to take names and addresses of offenders and report them. Is that really practical? Even if there are inspectors in place, unless there are a considerable number of offenders, or unless somebody is a very persistent offender and is reported, what are the chances of somebody actually being apprehended? Even then, would they be willing to give out their name and address?

What sort of priority will hard-pressed local authorities give to this matter? Will the cost of the fixed-penalty notices begin to recoup the cost of issuing them and enforcing them? Have any costing or regulatory impact assessments been carried out for this Bill? Although we support the aim of the Bill, there are a number of issues that we think ought to be considered carefully. If, as has been mentioned, this is being discussed in debates on the Local Government Bill in the Lords, there are some issues that will have to be considered carefully in order to improve this very important legislation. I commend the hon. Member for Waveney. Conservative Members support the intent of his Bill.

1.2 pm

I am pleased to be able to continue today's theme of general agreement not only between the two Front-Bench spokesmen but between those on the Back Benches and on the Front Benches. I join other hon. Members in sending good wishes to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), although I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas)—with the gentleness for which Whips are famed—suggesting that the Labour party would regard it as a lame excuse.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on his efforts in bringing this matter to the House—not only today but on a number of previous occasions. Like him, I feel strongly about the blight caused by people who do not dispose of their litter responsibly or who do not clear up after their dog. I agree that enforcement is needed, and my comments will focus on that. However, I do not want to emphasise only the negative: we should pay tribute to those who act responsibly. Many people up and down the country not only take care of their own litter but take an interest in the tidiness of their general environment in villages and, indeed, in towns and cities.

From environmental work that I promoted as a youth worker before entering this place, I know that young people respond to encouragement and leadership and are willing to go to great lengths to help in tidying the environment. It is not true to say that only enforcement will work. I commend the work of Encams—Environmental Campaigns—the organisation that is better known as the Tidy Britain campaign or group. The success of many of Encams local campaigns is significant and has involved partnership between Encams and local authorities. The answer is to inject enthusiasm into education and the encouragement of responsibility, and into the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has raised—that of enforcement. We need a balance of those two approaches. Neither is adequate on its own, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would not disagree with that. However, as I said, enforcement is necessary.

The Government are determined to tackle the problem and to reach a standard of street cleanliness that we all can enjoy. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney acknowledges that the issues contained in his private Member's Bill are the focus of considerable Government attention. Let me outline our current position on the hypothecation of the revenue from litter and dog fouling fixed-penalty notices, as suggested by my hon. Friend.

A pilot programme began in early 2001, in which three local authorities were allowed to exercise similar provisions to those in the Bill. That was achieved through local public service agreements co-ordinated by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, then at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The pilot programme allowed those local authorities to use the revenue from fixed-penalty notices for litter and dog fouling offences further to improve street cleanliness. In particular, the revenue was used to provide more bins and to give financial assistance to the litter and dog warden teams. In all cases, there was a significant increase in the number of fixed-penalty notices for litter and dog fouling offences issued in those areas.

When my hon. Friend first introduced the Bill, the Government were considering extending those pilots schemes and awaiting their outcome. As he has said, the pilot programme was subsequently extended to other local authorities applying for local public service agreements during 2002. Again, that proved very popular with the local authorities involved and, in most cases, results similar to those in earlier trials were achieved.

Building on that success, clause 119 was included in the new Local Government Bill during the summer of 2002 to allow local authorities to retain any sum that they receive from fixed penalties for litter and dog fouling offences, rather than paying them to the Secretary of State, in relation to England, or to the National Assembly for Wales. That clause states specifically for which measures the revenue from fixed-penalty notices can be used.

Authorities will have to use their fixed-penalty receipts to pay for their statutory functions related to litter and dog fouling, including that of giving fixed-penalty notices for leaving litter and failing to clear up after dogs. However, clause 119 also contains a provision for the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to make further regulations adding to the activities which a certain authority may finance using its fixed-penalty receipts.

For example, the Secretary of State could enable an authority to spend its fixed-penalty receipts on specified activities related to improving the local environment that are not carried out under its statutory functions relating to litter and dog fouling. The new regulation-making power will be sufficiently wide to give high-performing local authorities complete freedom about how to spend their receipts. My hon. Friend has taken issue with that part of clause 119, but I hope that I can persuade him that that concern is misplaced.

Let me stress that complete freedom to spend receipts would be given only where the Secretary of State, or the National Assembly for Wales, is sufficiently satisfied that the local authority's performance justified granting such freedoms and flexibilities. That is part of the wider approach being taken by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the rest of the Government, and it has been subject to considerable discussion with local government representatives. That judgment would be based clearly on an assessment of a local authority's performance.

I can understand that my hon. Friend does not want local authorities to shy away from their specific responsibilities and to use revenue for activities unrelated to litter and dog fouling when money needs to be spent on those activities—in fairness, and in my experience, nor would most local councillors. In Cardiff, for example, councillors in my constituency are every bit as keen to tackle that issue as my hon. Friend and myself.

No local authority will be given those freedoms and flexibilities if measuring their performance shows that they are not fulfilling their obligations in respect of litter and dog fouling, so there is no problem in that regard—the protection is built into the system. The Local Government Bill received its Second Reading in the House of Lords yesterday, and I am therefore very confident that those provisions will become law.

For the benefit of the House, will my right hon. Friend explain how a local authority will be judged to have met its responsibilities for cleanliness, and who will make that judgment?

I do not want to go into the detail of those mechanisms, which are being discussed with local authority associations. It is important that we get that right. I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but we should focus on the fact that local authorities must meet their obligations on litter and dog fouling. My reasons for not wishing to go into the matter further relate not only to the sensitivity of Members' stomachs as we approach lunchtime, but to the fact that such detail would pre-empt the legislation before it has completed its passage through Parliament.

I accept that the Minister does not want to go into too much detail at this stage, but given that the Government believe, quite rightly, that police authorities should be allowed to keep money raised from speed cameras, but can only use it for the provision of additional speed cameras, thus ring-fencing it, why is his Department running away from ring-fencing in the Bill?

It is not—the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The money must be used for certain purposes, but it would be inappropriate to ring-fence the sum completely and not give freedoms to local authorities which are achieving their obligations under the Bill as well as a much wider range of objectives. The approach is to lift local authorities' performance and set targets on specific issues, including the one covered by the Bill. By achieving those targets and doing what they are meant to do for the local population, local authorities earn greater flexibility in the way in which they use resources. We are not providing flexibility by saying that it does not matter whether or not they achieve things, but we are saying that if they achieve a high standard they should be given greater flexibility in their use of available resources. It would be inconsistent not to apply that to the matter under consideration when it is applied to other local authority responsibilities.

The hon. Gentleman's question enables me to set out the underlying principles with greater force. I hope that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and all Members who take an interest in this topic—I am delighted to see that many Members do so—will accept that the Government are determined to proceed in the same direction as my hon. Friend. I hope that they also accept that it would be inappropriate for the Government to support my hon. Friend's Bill because legislation that has only just received its Second Reading in another place will meet the same requirements. I hope that my explanation satisfies my hon. Friend, enabling him to withdraw the motion.

With the leave of the House, I thank hon. Members who have attended today and supported the Bill. I thank the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for supporting it as Opposition spokesman, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which he has engaged in discussion and responded to the progress of the Bill. In the light of the assurances that he has just given, I do not think that the House's time would be well spent if the Bill went into Committee, so I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.