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Littering and Fly-tipping

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)

I am very grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate on a subject about which I have always felt strongly. I spoke of my dislike of fly-tipping in my maiden speech on 2 July 2001, and unfortunately, despite more money being spent on clearing up litter and fly-tipping, the problem has got worse and not better.

Although the Government have reduced the deficit by a quarter in the two years they have been in office, they are still spending more than their income, which is why the £863 million spent on street cleansing in 2011 is such a huge sum. If we add the cost of cleaning the highways and railways, and the cost of removing fly-tipping from public and private land, the actual amount of public money spent on cleaning up litter in England is well over £1 billion annually. If people behaved responsibly and cared for their local areas by not littering, that money could be used to care for the needy and the vulnerable in our communities.

My argument is that we need rigorous and robust action from the Government, the police and local authorities, as well as a massive increase in personal responsibility and care for our local environment from an army of concerned citizens. I pay tribute to street cleansing staff up and down our country. They do an important and valued job, and I thank them for it, but they cannot keep our country clean on their own, which is why I wholeheartedly welcome the Daily Mail “Spring Clean for the Queen” campaign and pay tribute to the Campaign to Protect Rural England “Stop the Drop” campaign. I also note that the Country Land and Business Association says that it costs its members an average of £800 per incident to remove non-toxic fly-tipped waste, and several thousand pounds per incident if the waste is hazardous and includes, for example, asbestos.

All of us have a responsibility not to drop litter and to keep our immediate environment clean. We can all keep the area around our homes clean. Shopkeepers can clean in front of their premises, and businesses can keep their immediate environment clean as well. Public servants should also join in. When I go round schools in my constituency, one of the ways in which I judge head teachers is whether they pick up litter as they show me around their school. I have noted that the schools in which the head teachers pick up litter tend to be cleaner. If it is not beneath the head teacher to pick up litter, the other staff tend to get the message fairly quickly.

I also commend the material to combat littering produced by the Campaign to Protect Rural England for use in our schools. This work is really important. If children are not learning at home that littering is wrong, they need to be told this very clearly in schools. I was delighted to read recently that Mrs Patricia Prosser, in the village of Stanbridge in my constituency, has just been nominated as villager of the year for the regular litter-picking that she undertakes in her village. She does not have to do it, it is not her job specifically, and she is not paid to do it, but she does it because she cares about her village and her environment. All of us could well follow her example, whether we live in a town, village or city.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important issue before the House tonight. Does he think that increased penalties for those who drop litter and fly-tip are the way forward? In Northern Ireland, council officials have the authority to issue fines on the spot to those whom they observe littering. Is that the way forward, rather than letting people get away with it?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I hope that he will have been pleased, as I was, by the announcement made by the Government today that they will make it a criminal offence regularly to dump rubbish in gardens and that those who are guilty of “persistent unreasonable behaviour” and who have ignored warnings to clear away unsightly rubbish will be subject to on-the-spot fines of £100—which is higher than some of the current penalties—or a court-imposed fine of up to £2,500. All of us know how it ruins a neighbourhood to have sofas, mattresses or fridges lying around in gardens, making an area look a complete mess. It is not fair on the decent householders who have to live in proximity to such situations. I urge the Government to bring in these community protection notices as quickly as possible as they are very much needed.

Much of the litter in the UK is thrown from vehicles and I was very interested to see that some London local authorities now have the power to impose a £100 fine on the registered owner of vehicles whose occupants throw litter from those vehicles and that this has become a civil offence. Can this scheme be spread across the whole of the United Kingdom?

I understand that local authorities across the UK and not just in London can now introduce similar byelaws into their areas. Can the Minister explain how local authorities can go about this? A poll released by the AA yesterday of 8,800 of its members showed that 61% think that people caught throwing litter from cars should be punished with three points on their licence, a fixed-penalty fine and possibly a community service order. There seems to be a public appetite for taking more robust action on this issue, and when the newsreader, Alice Arnold, recently threw a plastic bottle back into the car in front of her whose occupants had just chucked it on to the road, she was rightly widely praised for her actions.

I wonder whether we could make it possible for fly-tipped waste to be taken to tidy tips for no charge. We need to make it easy for landowners, both public and private, to clear up fly-tipped waste—after all, it is not their fault it is there—and not disincentivise them from doing so. It might be helpful if the local authority certified that the waste had been fly-tipped.

I also wonder whether it is possible to increase the fines for littering. I understand that in Los Angeles the fine for dropping litter is $1,000 and that it is vigorously enforced by the police. People do not tend to drop litter in that city, and unsurprisingly it is much cleaner than many British cities as a result. Do the Government plan to increase fines? Does the Minister believe that more police officers should be involved in enforcing the penalties? I understand that, at present, the issuing of fixed penalty notices is mainly done by local authority officers and police community support officers. Does the Minister think that there is scope for all police officers to join the front line of the fight against the litter louts?

We need to take every opportunity to tell the public that littering is offensive and wrong, and will be punished. I am pleased, therefore, that the Highways Agency is trialling anti-littering signs on its electronic gantries across motorways in three areas. I would like this initiative rolled out across the whole UK.

In many European countries, plastic bags are simply not offered at supermarkets. Customers can either buy a permanent bag for a few euros or are given a brown paper bag. Unsurprisingly, those countries have many fewer plastic bags littering the countryside. Plastic bags do not biodegrade easily and consequently remain as litter for very long periods. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s plans to vastly reduce the number of single-use plastic bags being used in the UK?

Some other countries also have deposit refund schemes. Do the Government believe that such schemes could be introduced in the UK? I understand that the CPRE has done some research in this area and believes that such schemes would make a difference and could be introduced at no cost to the Government. What assessment have they made, then, of how successful these schemes are in other countries?

All Members care for our country and want to make it a better place. We all have a role, therefore, in trying to make Britain a country in which there is less litter. The amount of litter throughout our country is symptomatic of how people view their country and their local community. If someone litters, it means they do not care about their immediate environment or the impact their actions have on others. Litter is about personal responsibility and whether we, as citizens, care about the country we live in. As we approach a moment of great pride in our country’s history, celebrating the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, I hope that we can all—those in authority and individual citizens—play our part in making this country one that has far less litter and fly-tipping in it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on bringing this matter to the House and on continuing his long-running and cogent campaign. I share his phobia of litter and fly-tipping. Without wanting to sound sanctimonious, I will tell the House that during the election campaign, so concerned were my supporters about litter that we took a day off campaigning to pick up litter in the otherwise fairly tidy town of Newbury. The issue goes to the heart of what we feel about our communities, our sense of place and this country.

My hon. Friend referred to his constituent, Mrs Prosser. I am sure that we can all think of Mrs Prossers in our constituencies who, unthanked and unrewarded, do amazing work, because they have pride in, and mind about, their community. As a society, we have to find a better way of rewarding and thanking people such as Mrs Prosser for their wonderful work.

The simple fact is that Mrs Prosser and others should not have to undertake such activities, but at least while they do have to I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in congratulating her and all those in my constituency who clear litter from the verges on the valuable work they do.

I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend and thank the volunteers in his constituency who do that, and I resent, in almost equal measure, the people with such little regard for our communities and countryside that they throw the litter in the first place, thereby requiring those volunteers to perform the selfless act that he describes.

Let me set out to the House the Government’s plans for good-quality local environments and the actions that we are taking to tackle littering and fly-tipping. We know from repeated public surveys that the appearance of local neighbourhoods matters greatly to people, ranking alongside or above concerns such as global climate change or rising fuel prices. Poor quality environments can destroy neighbourhood pride and create a climate of fear and neglect. These are therefore important issues, and it is right that we take a close interest in addressing them. Local authorities are on the front line of dealing with littering and fly-tipping. They have the duty to clean up public land and the powers to take enforcement action to fit local circumstances. Although most fly-tipping on public land is handled by local authorities, the Environment Agency also has a role in investigating large fly-tipping incidents, in particular those involving hazardous waste or organised crime. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire said, on private land the responsibility for dealing with fly-tipping rests with the landowners—often at great cost to them and their businesses—although many local authorities offer advice, guidance and, in some cases, help.

I wonder whether the Minister could address the problem of different local authorities having different responsibilities. In my area, Somerset county council has shut a number of local recycling centres, leaving the district councils as the level responsible for dealing with fly-tipping. That transfers the cost from the county council’s budget, but means that district councils have to deal with an increasing problem. Indeed, they are left having to charge, through council tax, which seems most unfair.

I understand that all local authorities, like the Government, face difficulties and have to set priorities. If we are to be a truly localist Government, we have to leave decisions about priorities to be taken locally. In areas with unitary councils there is less misunderstanding on the part of the public about who is responsible. When I was a district councillor, people were always blaming the county council for things that were my responsibility, and vice versa. I know that this is a difficulty in areas with two-tier local authorities, but I understand the point my hon. Friend makes.

The charity Keep Britain Tidy carries out a survey for DEFRA each year, and this year the 10th report was produced. It provides an opportunity to look across the changes in the last decade and highlights the fact that litter levels are not much better than when the survey was first carried out, in 2001, with 15% of areas deemed “unsatisfactory” for litter. Yet since that time, the costs to local authorities of sweeping the streets, including dealing with litter, has risen by hundreds of millions of pounds, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire said, to little short of £900 million.

DEFRA and the Environment Agency host the collection data on fly-tipping, through the Flycapture reporting system, which helps to provide evidence of the nature and scale of fly-tipping and allows decisions to be made locally and nationally on the best interventions to tackle the problem. Fly-tipping continues to have too great a detrimental impact on the local environment. In 2010-11, there were 820,000 fly-tipping incidents in England. Although that is a reduction compared with the previous year, this is in part due to changes in reporting practices by some authorities. The true figure is likely to be considerably more, as it is recognised that many incidents, particularly those on private land, go unreported. We also know that a lot of fly-tipping involves domestic waste, which can ordinarily be collected by local authorities or taken, as has been said, to civic amenity sites.

So what can be done to make real inroads into the persistent levels of litter? The Government’s commitment in this regard is clearly set out in the coalition’s programme for government. We aim to reduce litter as part of our drive towards a zero-waste economy. Changing the attitude and behaviour of those who drop litter and casually fly-tip is essential, which is why the Government are committed to working with Keep Britain Tidy, businesses, local authorities and community groups on their “Love Where You Live” campaign. It appeals to all sectors of business and across all sectors of society, and support is coming from Wrigley, McDonald’s, Network Rail, Coca-Cola, Waitrose and many others. Businesses can contribute in many ways: by supporting the campaigning effort; by carrying their message to customers, staff and others; and, directly, through changing the design of their products, packaging and services to reduce the possibility of litter from the outset. The “Love Where You Live” campaign holds promise in being able to attract widespread support to capture the public’s imagination and inspire civic pride, especially in this year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and the London Olympic and Paralympic games.

I am very short of time and I must answer the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, but I will certainly give way at the end if I have time.

I, like my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, welcome the Daily Mail’s “Spring Clean for the Queen” campaign to encourage clean-up events for the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

I know that littering from vehicles is a particular problem for local authorities. In March, the Secretary of State met businesses, trade associations and local authority representatives to look at what more can be done to tackle this. There was great enthusiasm for voluntary action and for innovative ideas coming forward from business, including carrying branding and anti-litter messages in vehicles, in outlets and in communications with customers and staff to raise awareness of the issue. I was interested in what my hon. Friend was saying about the Highways Agency, because there is much more we can do, working with it.

Changing attitudes and behaviour is key. Much can be done through voluntary approaches to tackle littering from vehicles, but the Government’s mind is not closed to the regulatory route if that will work. London boroughs will soon start using powers under private legislation to issue a civil penalty against the registered keeper for littering. We want to see how that works in practice—to see if it helps to support behaviour change efforts elsewhere. If it works well, we will consider applying the approach more widely across the country.

The CPRE proposal for implementing a bottle deposit scheme has been mentioned. As part of the review of waste policies in 2011, the Department undertook a full analysis of the costs and benefits of implementing such a deposit system, based on the CPRE’s report “Have we got the bottle?” Although such a scheme may increase recycling rates for the materials covered and reduce litter, the estimated costs of running such a scheme are very high; they are much higher than alternative measures that could achieve the same aims. Taking that into account, it was decided not to take forward this option for the time being and instead to concentrate on other ways to increase recycling and address litter.

My hon. Friend mentioned bags. Concern about single-use carrier bags has also been raised frequently with my colleague Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who leads on this issue. We share the concern about the effect that those bags have on the environment, and about the increase in their distribution. We are looking carefully at all options to make sure that we further reduce their usage, and we are paying close attention to developments in Wales, where a 5p per bag minimum charge was introduced in October last year. The Welsh Government are currently evaluating their policy, and we will consider our position on carrier bags further following the evaluation of that scheme in July.

Let me deal with other issues that my hon. Friend raised, particularly the action we are taking against fly-tipping. The Government’s review of waste policy in England, published in June 2011, set out a range of measures to tackle fly-tipping. The approach advocated in the review is to make it easier for businesses and others to do the right thing with their waste, while also ensuring that the sanctions available act as a real deterrent to those responsible for waste crime.

A major area of concern is the cost incurred by public landowners for clearing up fly-tipping on their land where local authorities are not under any obligation to act. We do not have an accurate figure for fly-tipping on private land or for clearance costs, as landowners are not required to report them to Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire says, however, the Country Land and Business Association estimates that it might cost their members, or landowners across the country, in the region of £50 million to £100 million a year to dispose of fly-tipped waste.

This issue was highlighted in recommendations made by the Farming Regulation Task Force in 2011. We are working towards the development of best practice on the prevention, reporting, investigation and clear-up of fly-tipping through the National Fly-tipping Prevention Group and the taskforce implementation group. The aim is to allow local solutions that will free landowners of much of the “hassle” associated with clearing fly-tipped waste from their land. We are also looking at developing a partnership approach between landowners and local authorities that will encourage clearance of fly-tipped waste and the adoption of measures to improve local environmental quality. We will be presenting our approach at a ministerial summit to be held with key stakeholder groups later this summer.

As for sanctions for fly-tipping, these include stronger powers for the Environment Agency and local authorities to seize vehicles further to investigate suspected involvement in fly-tipping, as well as revoking the registration of waste carriers who repeatedly flout the law. While the penalties for fly-tipping are sufficient—up to a £50,000 fine on summary conviction—we want to ensure that the levels of fines and sentences handed down by the courts act as a deterrent. We have provided evidence to the Sentencing Council, which is considering producing a separate sentencing guideline for magistrates on fly-tipping. I am now happy to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), if he still wishes to intervene.

If the offer is still on the table, I will; I am grateful to the Minister for sweeping me up in his remarks. He rightly says that public attitudes need to be changed. Does he agree that the flexible attitude of some councils to supporting volunteers is to be commended? In my Tamworth constituency, Streetscene, the street cleaners, offer volunteers bags, litter pickers and gloves, and come back at the end of the litter-picking exercise to take the bags away. Is not that sort of positive flexibility to be commended?

It certainly is. I commend those sorts of schemes, which I have seen happening elsewhere. There is also good partnership working to be had between parish councils, town councils and higher tiers of local authorities where equipment can be shared and know-how and guidance can be supplied to volunteer groups and communities that wish to carry out their own spring cleans. This is clearly to be welcomed.

What about people who put their waste out for collection incorrectly? This is a matter of concern. Hard-working people, who already have enough worries, should not face the threat of being punished for innocent mistakes such as putting their bins out an hour or two early. It can be a problem when that is wrongly labelled as somehow similar to fly-tipping. That is why we want to change the law so that only the small minority whose behaviour causes problems for their neighbours and harms the local environment as my hon. Friend described will be punished; we want to make the fines more proportionate. As a first step, we are changing the law to reduce the level of fines under the current fixed penalty notice regime. These changes are due to come into force on 30 May. We intend to make longer-term changes, including removing the current criminal sanctions, as parliamentary time allows.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of sanctions. He is right that littering is an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The litterer can be prosecuted in magistrates courts and can on conviction face a fine of up to £2,500, as well as getting a criminal record. As an alternative to prosecution, local authority enforcement officers can issue a fixed penalty notice of between £50 and £80; it can be set locally, and is soon to rise. So there are sanctions, and they do hurt the perpetrators of this crime—for it is a crime.

Underlying all that, however, is the need for us as a Government, and, perhaps, us as a society, to view the problem as a culture of littering which has been allowed to develop and which we see regularly in some corners of our constituencies. It requires education in schools, it requires education of the adult population, and it requires a true partnership between those who love and respect their communities—and who constitute the vast majority—and the inconsiderate minority who are apparently happy to see their communities trashed. I am a great believer in the “broken windows” theory of policing, and dealing with littering is at the heart of that. I hope that what I have said tonight provides clear evidence of the Government’s commitment to tackling the blight caused by litter, fly-tipping and waste.

I should be grateful if the Minister would return to whether local authorities throughout the United Kingdom can now follow the example of London authorities. Has the Localism Act 2011 given all our councils the power to make byelaws similar to those being made in London to deal with the problem of litter being thrown from vehicles?

Yes. Under the neighbourhood planning scheme and the Localism Act, authorities elsewhere in the country will be able to do what is being done in London, and I expect that to prove very welcome.

I think that this is an ideal issue for Members to discuss. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire and others who have remained in the Chamber to take part in the debate have demonstrated that it is possible for us to show real leadership and, together, to remedy a problem that has become much too prevalent throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.