I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Seventh Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2014-15, on Litter and fly-tipping in England, HC 607, and the Government response, Cm 9097.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. This was the last report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government in the previous Parliament. It was produced in March 2015, and we then had a little wait. As we flagged up in the report, we were not sure whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Department for Communities and Local Government was responsible for this issue. The DCLG Minister is in his place today, although we are told that this was a DEFRA responsibility. I am sure he will sort out that confusion when he has the opportunity to do so.
Once the report was produced, the attempts to reach an agreement between the Departments continued for nine months—rather a long time, given that Select Committees normally get responses from the Government in eight weeks. Obviously there was a general election, so one might reasonably have expected a Government response by, say, July. December is a long way on from July. Indeed, the Government’s response to our recommendations took so long that I expected it to contain a bombshell. I thought we might see a proposal to increase littering fines to a level that would halve the deficit overnight, or perhaps the Government were going to be so generous as to hypothecate the total revenue from tobacco taxes to local authorities to help with their work—but no, not in the end. To be fair to the Government, they agreed with many of our recommendations, and where they did not they gave explanations. There are one or two areas that we want to push them on, to see whether we can make progress. It is difficult to understand why it took so long to produce a relatively straightforward and generally acceptable response to our sensible proposals.
In the end, litter is not an issue that we tend to have massive party political debates about, and that is not how the Committee approached it. The report was unanimously accepted by the Committee, which is par for the course—that is our general approach to things. We did not have to struggle to get that agreement. There was clear evidence, and we made clear recommendations on it.
Litter matters to the public enormously. They do not necessarily want politicians to squabble about it, but it is one of the issues that is likely to be raised with us on the doorstep. People are distressed and often appalled by its environmental impact. They are concerned about the inconsideration of the people who drop it without any thought of the consequences, and that they, as taxpayers, have to pay for it to be cleaned up. That money, certainly in the current circumstances, could be spent better on other services that are important to them. It is an issue that also gets raised with local councillors regularly, so it is right that we wrote a report and are having a debate about it.
There are some clear areas of agreement. We called for a national strategy, and the Government agreed. It will be interesting to see how that develops and what effect it has. We recommended a national clean-up day. The Government, perhaps anticipating that, got in before us and accepted our recommendation before we made it, so that is positive. We have a Clean for the Queen day this year, which we should all encourage community groups and individuals in our constituencies to participate in. Again, there is cross-party agreement on that: everyone believes it is a good thing for communities to do. It is just a pity that it has to be done and that people drop litter in the first place. Nevertheless, that is a positive achievement.
One of the initial problems we have in looking at litter—I am pleased that the Government accepted this; we now need to see what they do about it—is that we do not know how much there is, because there is no reasonable assessment. There is the “Local Environmental Quality Survey of England”—that is a bit of a mouthful; I hope we find a snappier title for whatever replaces it in due course—but the problem is that the surveys do one of two things. Some simply look for evidence of a particular kind of litter in an area, and then have a tick-box that says, “That litter is there”, without recording whether it is one, a dozen or 100 pieces of litter, so we do not know about the incidence. Others count the amount of litter, but do not distinguish between the type—so 100 cigarette butts are recorded as the equivalent of 100 plastic bags, even though it is pretty obvious that their environmental and visual impacts are different. The Government accepted that we need to think about how better to collect data and agreed with the recommendation in our report. We look forward to hearing how they are going to do that.
There was a disagreement—not a fundamental one—between the Committee and the Government about what the cost of litter clean-up is. We said it was somewhere between £700 million and £850 million. The Government said—I understand the logic of their explanation—that local government would need to sweep the streets anyway to clean up dust and dirt that is not due to littering, so the total cost of street sweeping is not a consequence of the litter that people drop. I accept that, but on the other hand no better figure is available. That is the only figure that the Committee had to work with.
Education is important, and we want schools and others to do their bit to encourage children. It will be great to see children out on the national Clean for the Queen day, because they can then start to appreciate the consequences of dropping litter and what dealing with it entails. Of course, however well we educate, some people will not want to listen and will carry on dropping litter. They deserve to be penalised. The Committee said that we should increase the rates for fixed penalty notices. Again, the Government agreed and are going to consult on the level they should be raised to. Personally, I think—and the Committee generally supports this—that the levels should be increased significantly. There has to be a real deterrent when people are caught littering.
I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee on introducing this important debate. He mentions fixed penalty notices, which I understand can potentially lead to criminal convictions if further steps are taken. Some local authorities might be reluctant to take those steps on the basis that they might criminalise young people. Should we perhaps consider making fixed penalty notices a civil offence?
That is an interesting idea. The Committee misunderstood the position—we do not always get everything absolutely right, but we try. We said that fixed penalty notices are easy because of their civil nature, but the Government corrected us and said that they are a criminal penalty. The Government should think about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, because that is an issue. If people are fined, we want to deter them and we want a process that is easier than going through the courts to get a fine. That could be looked at without reducing the intention to deter.
The advantage of fixed penalty notices is that the money goes back to the local authority. In the past, the Committee suggested that the Government should think about allowing money from other fines to go back to local authorities. The authority bears the costs, but the fines go to the Treasury. There is a disjuncture between the revenue from fixed penalty notices, which goes to the local authority, and fines, which go to the Treasury. Could we not have a more joined-up approach so that the local authorities, which incur the cost, get the returns from any action they take?
We then looked at the types of litter and tried to distinguish between them. Cigarettes are the most littered object. The problem is that many people do not see puffing away on a cigarette and then putting it out on the floor as littering—“It’s only a cigarette butt”—but it is. Cigarette butts are the most common item of litter. We had quite a discussion about that, and we were surprised when the then Minister, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), said that the Department suggested to the Chancellor that part of any extra tax on tobacco products should go to local authorities. The Department dismissed that in its response, but the suggestion was made by a Government Minister. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is nodding away because he was in the Committee and heard the evidence. I do not know whether the Government changed their mind or whether—surely not—one Government Department has a different view from another. We now understand that Ministers have different views. Indeed, we are getting quite used to that idea on certain subjects. Anyway, the Minister might like to reflect on those points.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and will commend him and his Committee on the report if I am called to speak by Mr Turner in due course. I was interested to read in the report and the Government response about the difficulty of the relationship with tobacco companies. Councils did not want to get too close to them, but they were offering to assist. Will my hon. Friend elaborate on the discussions around that? It is unclear whether the Committee reached a conclusion about embracing tobacco companies, no matter how uncomfortable that might be, especially if they are going to provide some money for the clear-up, which is a significant cost to local authorities.
We had a serious look at that and received a lot of evidence. We deliberated and came to a reasonable conclusion. The Local Government Association was absolutely clear in its evidence that it is signed up to the local government declaration on tobacco control and believes that that means that the LGA and local authorities must have nothing at all to do with tobacco companies. The view is that, because of the nature of tobacco and the need to get the message across, in particular to young people, that tobacco products kill, there should be no connection at all and that the tobacco industry should not get involved with democratically elected bodies. Indeed, I understand that the national health service takes exactly the same line nationally: no connection at all.
I was just about to say it, but the hon. Member for Harrow East got in before me—I was reflecting on whether it was appropriate, but it obviously was.
It is a difficult issue, but the Committee—most of us are generally localists—decided that we understood the declaration and the LGA’s position, and that it was up to local authorities to make a decision themselves. We also said that if they did so, they should not allow themselves to be used in any way by tobacco manufacturers to gain any advantage or engage in any promotion of tobacco products—to give any impression that tobacco was okay because the companies were making a contribution towards a public service.
A wide group of commercial companies work hard on picking up litter. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention Clean for the Queen earlier. Will he join me in praising Kärcher in my constituency? The company is committed to cleaning up “grot spots” around the country—I am glad to see that none of them is represented in this room, otherwise I would have to name and shame them. A clear set of companies are willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to the problem of litter. Bearing in mind the caveats that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, tobacco companies could join that number.
The Committee did not say that no one should engage, but we placed strong caveats on any engagement, for obvious reasons. In the end, we said it was down to local authorities to make a decision, but we also thought the Government might make a contribution from the tobacco tax levies.
The other interesting thing about our discussion on the involvement of tobacco companies was that we had two Ministers—one from the Department for Communities and Local Government and one from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—who gave us completely different evidence. They sat and disagreed with each other in front of the Committee. We had two different political parties coming up to a general election, so perhaps collective responsibility was breaking down in the last Parliament, for reasons different from those in this Parliament.
Again, in the end we said it was down to local authorities, but we emphasised over and over again that tobacco companies should in no way be allowed to pay out money as a salve for their consciences and to show that they are okay and not really the bad guys because they are making a public contribution. They are not okay; they sell a dangerous product, which the House has recognised through legislation in a number of ways in recent years, and I think we all support that. We do not want to do anything to give the tobacco companies a way into the public’s good books.
The Tobacco Manufacturers Association made the interesting suggestion that tobacco litter is not that bad because portable, fold-up ashtrays mean that people do not have to drop ash. We said, “Great! Why don’t you issue them free with all packets of cigarettes?” I have not noticed that that has happened in the months since they made that suggestion. Was it just a publicity gimmick to suggest that they are not as bad as everyone makes out? It is quite a good idea, but nothing has happened. We should encourage them to consider it again if they want to do something practical to alleviate the problem.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking about tobacco companies, and I mentioned chewing gum, but my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) just reminded me of companies such as McDonald’s. Our highways are often a litter-strewn disgrace, and while there are duties under section 89 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to keep those highways clean, there is conflict between local authorities, which have the duty, and Highways England, which is required to provide protection for local authority employees for health and safety reasons. Highways England charges for that, so highways are not being kept clean—they are cleaned only occasionally when someone complains. In my constituency, the A64 is a litter-strewn disgrace that deters the tourism that my areas relies on, yet there is no joined-up thinking about how to clean the highways. Do we need to consider that as part of the national strategy to which he referred?
I understand that this is a very long road, Mr Turner.
The Committee did consider that point, and I am going to come on to fly-tipping, which often happens on highways, in addition to ordinary littering. We considered two issues about vehicles and highways. One was about the division of responsibility between local authorities picking the litter up and Highways England being responsible for safety on the highways. We suggested that responsibility for litter be transferred to Highways England after consultation. The Government said no and that they wanted to have another look at how that might work, so I will be interested to hear more details about that from the Minister. I am not saying that the Government are wrong, but we identified a problem and made a suggestion about how it could be resolved. It clearly needs a resolution, because what we have at present is unacceptable and is not working. If the Government come up with another idea, okay, but they ought to say that if their new approach does not work, they will come back and consider whether one agency should be responsible, because that is often the way to sort things out.
There is also the question of how we penalise the offence of dropping litter from cars. As I understand it, the offence is committed by the person who drops the litter, but the difficulty is that if a car whizzes past and litter comes out of it, can who dropped it be proved? The law in London is different, because the owner of the vehicle can be charged, irrespective of who throws the litter—it is for the owner to decide. The Committee suggested that that approach should apply nationally. The Government said that there was not enough evidence that the extra powers had led to an increase in fines in London, but I still urge the Minister to have a look at that option as it seems to be impossible to determine proof outside London, because if there are four people in a car and a cigarette packet or a sweet wrapper is thrown out of it, who actually threw that? We hope that the Government will consider adopting the London position.
We carefully considered the idea of taxing chewing gum to pay for the cost of clean-up. Cigarette material might be the most prevalent form of litter, but chewing gum is certainly the most difficult to clean—it is a nightmare. In the end, we said to the industry, “Look, this is the last-chance saloon. What are you going to do to help with the cost of this and the practicalities of clearing it up? Alternatively, how about producing chewing gum that is less difficult to get off the pavement if people drop it?”
The Government’s response referred to a wonderful-sounding organisation called the Chewing Gum Action Group. We hope that it is doing good work, but we would like to hear what it is going to do and how the Minister will judge its success. If, despite its work, chewing gum is still being thrown around to the same extent, with no change in the materials used in gum to make it easier to remove, and if the industry does not volunteer to take up its share of the burden, will the Minister consider alternatives? The Committee intends to reconsider the issue—and, indeed, quite a few of the points made in our report—to determine whether progress has been made.
Another big problem is fly-tipping. All the data we have, imperfect though they are, show that litter is a problem. In our report’s summary, we stated:
“England is a litter-ridden country compared to most of Europe, North America and Japan.”
The Government disagreed and said that there was no evidence for that, probably because the figures are not available, but most of us can see with our own eyes when we go to other countries that things there look better in general. However, it is absolutely clear that the problem of fly-tipping has become worse in this country. There is no doubt at all about that, because there has been a 20% increase in the previous 12 months, as we were told in evidence.
The Government accepted the suggestion of adopting fixed penalty notices for fly-tipping to add to the range of options for local authorities so that they may prosecute more simply. Fly-tipping is a serious problem, but while a builders’ merchant ought to be taken to court for a major incident such as dumping building material in a lay-by, for a discarded plastic bag, a fixed penalty notice would be the appropriate and proportionate response. It is extremely welcome that the Government will introduce such notices.
A further concern is that as local authorities get increasingly short of cash and look for savings, they charge for taking away bulky household goods. We encourage local authorities to team up with charities—a number of organisations do this—that will take away the goods, recycle and reuse what they can, and then take to the council site what they cannot. I talked to the British Heart Foundation, which operates such a scheme in certain parts of the country. That excellent scheme involves the charity recycling much of the furniture—sprucing it up, putting it on display and selling it off—and, by agreement with the local authority, taking what it cannot sell free of charge to the local council site.
I wish that more local authorities were involved in such schemes, because they could then tell people, “There is no charge for your bulky items. This organisation will take them for free.” Items could be put to good use and recycled, and the scheme is good for the charity as well, because it will make some money. The Government also welcomed that suggestion, but it could be publicised further. Perhaps the Local Government Association will do something to get the information out to its members.
We also suggested that retailers that sold a good should take the old one away free of charge, with the cost perhaps being built into the original price of the item. The Government said that existing electrical regulations meant that a company selling electrical products had to provide disposal of the old product free of charge. The catch is that the company does not have to take it away free of charge—only the disposal is free. That is a loophole, because someone then still has to pay for an old product to be taken from the home. Will the Government consider toughening up that measure? Furthermore, those regulations apply only to electrical products, not to things such as beds or sofas, which can be even harder to get rid of. Will the Government try to find a way forward?
We also suggested improving information not only about littering, but about fine collection and penalty notices. The Government accepted that recommendation and will consider how to do that.
The report, which was considered and focused on the main issues, had a generally positive response from Government, but we did not get a totally satisfactory or complete response to some of the items, which I have highlighted. I hope that the Minister will address the issues that still need to be dealt with. In short, we need better stats and a sense of how we really get to grips with cigarette, chewing gum and fly-tipping problems.
Everything, of course, has to be seen against the background that local authorities face further spending cuts. As councils concentrate on absolutely vital statutory services such as adult social care, areas such as cleaning up litter are those that can suffer and experience reductions in spending. We do not want further problems. Local authorities ought to be imaginative, so we suggested that they look at the modern bins available. Nottingham City Council has a lot of bins that give the council’s control centre an indication of when they are available for collection. That means that someone does not have to be paid to go around emptying bins that are not full, as the council will respond when a bin is full, rather than having a rota for collection at certain times. Local authorities can therefore act to meet the challenge, but there are many issues for the Government as well. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, I think for the first time. My apologies for being slightly late and missing the introductory remarks of the Select Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), but I was at another meeting, which I was hosting.
I am one of the two surviving members of the Communities and Local Government Committee in the previous Parliament and the report we are discussing was our last one before the general election. Speaking personally, I compliment the Chair and everyone who participated in that inquiry, and all the other ones, because—as the hon. Gentleman said—we carefully considered a large amount of evidence in conflicting styles to produce a report with some comprehensive recommendations and conclusions.
We could not reach a unanimous view on one or two matters. It was not differing party views, but that some individuals in Committee had what we might describe as a more robust approach to dealing with responsibility for litter than others. I was one of them, as was the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk). We had a more stringent view of what we should do to people who deposit litter on our streets unnecessarily.
There is no doubt that the problems of littering and fly-tipping are extremely prevalent throughout the UK. Locally, they are probably the most important thing to affect individuals in how they feel about the place in which they live. It is clearly a local authority responsibility to ensure that the area is clean, but in many ways we should remember that it is people who deposit litter in the first place. If people do not deposit litter, the problem goes away.
I want to concentrate on some of the issues that came out of the Committee’s report and the conclusions and recommendations on what we should do for the future. Then I will go a bit further and start thinking about some of the areas on which we took evidence, but which did not make it into the report that I hope the Government will start to look at. The first point is that actions have consequences. For example, the legislation to prevent smoking in public buildings such as cafés, shops and workplaces—which I strongly supported even though I was not in Parliament when it was happening—forced smokers out on to the streets. Previously, they would have smoked at their desks or in their places of work, but they now smoke outside and deposit their litter as and when they feel like it either on the street or—most of them—in receptacles, if provided.
As the Chair of the Select Committee said, cigarette butts are the most littered item and, as they are not biodegradable, local authorities unnecessarily spend enormous amounts of money clearing them up. I have a potential solution that is not in the report but I promote it as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health. The Government should increase the levy on cigarettes and tobacco products by about 5% above the rate of inflation every year, which would add about 37p to a pack of cigarettes, and all of that money should be dedicated to local authorities for two purposes. The first would be to ensure that they have the funding to take forward their duties on public health to aid smoking cessation and ensure that people do not start smoking in the first place. As the number of people smoking reduced, that would help to reduce litter. Secondly, and equally, local authorities could use part of the funds to clear up tobacco detritus, which includes not just cigarette butts but cigarette packets, cellophane and the other elements in the packs of tobacco that cause littering problems.
We also know that when people see litter around, they are less likely to feel that they should not throw litter to join that on the ground. If local authorities clear up the tobacco butts, which tend to accumulate in certain areas—particularly around stations, bus stops and other buildings—and then blow everywhere, people will be less likely to deposit other items of litter. That is a particular consequence.
On chewing gum, I am of the strong view that when people have finished chewing their gum, they deposit it where they like. In fact, only this morning I was in a Committee Room where some pleasant individual had deposited their chewing gum under the table. Why people do that I just do not know. I remember people did it at school, but surely in the mother of Parliaments—
I have a very good memory. Surely that should not be the case in a Committee Room in the House of Commons. I could take you, Mr Turner, to parts of London where you will see the pavement littered with people’s chewing gum that has been splodged on the ground and it is almost impossible to remove it. It is unsightly and unhealthy, and it causes immense damage to the local street scene.
Almost the only way to remove chewing gum is steam cleaning or an equivalent. That is expensive, because it requires operatives and it is a lot of work, so few local authorities actually do anything about it. There clearly should be a tax on chewing gum and that money should be passed to local authorities for the specific purpose of clearing up the chewing gum deposited on our streets.
I also believe in the importance of educating young people. I strongly support the Clean for the Queen programme, which is an excellent programme, among others—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) will promote other aspects of taking action in particular areas. That is a great thing to do. We need to educate young people in particular about the importance of not littering on their streets.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Encouraging good habits at a young age is definitely the way forward. One of the problems in my local area is the fast food restaurant near the school: we see from the litter how long it takes young people to eat their food as they walk back to the school. They deposit it where they choose and the consequences are littered streets and concerned residents. Even worse, some young people throw it in someone’s garden. They think, “I’ve finished with this. What do I do with it? I’ll throw it in the garden.”
On numerous occasions I have told my local authority to provide litter bins on the routes between schools and the fast food restaurants. I remember an exchange with some officers who said, “We’re not going to do that, because the consequence is the litter bins will become full and then we’ll have to pay someone to empty them.” We might think, “Hang on a minute, surely it is cheaper to do that than to clear up the litter,” but logic did not prevail in that case. I think there is a semblance of a duty—we took a lot of evidence on this—on fast food restaurants to keep the place clean.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that not all fast food outlets operate with the same disregard. In my constituency, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said, McDonald’s is good. It employs people to clean up around its restaurants and it organises volunteer days for its staff to do my local park. Some fast food chains take a responsible approach to the matter.
Clearly the packaging that McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants use is a matter for them, but the consequences of packaging are not limited to fast food—there are whole ranges of unnecessary packaging. However, the point is whether we should look at duties on fast food restaurants to act in the same responsible way as McDonald’s.
In my constituency we have a perennial problem with a Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-through restaurant where people drive in, park up the road, eat their chicken and throw the bones on the floor—they literally drop them out of their car windows—for local residents to suffer. Surely we can ensure that the fast food restaurants have a duty to keep their areas clear. I leave the implementation of that to the great thoughts of my hon. Friend the Minister, but we must say, “The consequences of you selling your products are the costs of clearing up.” Let us look at some solutions to that.
I did not cover this point in my introduction, but the hon. Gentleman is right. My Committee gave specific praise to McDonald’s because of what it does and said all fast food restaurants, takeaways and so on should have a legal responsibility to clean up in their areas. The Government came back and said that they did not want a general duty, but that local authorities have powers to act under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 where there is a persistent problem. I wonder whether many local authorities use that power; I am not sure if figures are kept about that. Going down that route presumably has quite a considerable cost for local authorities. Does the hon. Gentleman think we ought to push the Government a little bit harder, to see what we can effectively do about this?
I thank the hon. Gentleman who chairs the Select Committee. We have to press the Government further on this issue, and we will clearly return to it in this term. If the Government do not take action, we will as a Committee almost certainly conclude that further action is required. If the Government do not come up with a scheme, we will suggest an alternative.
Another area of social change in this country is that we are shifting to a lot more people living in private rented accommodation. People quite frequently live in such accommodation for short periods of six months to one year and then move to another area, which may involve moving from one local authority to another. That has consequences.
As a true localist, I applaud local authorities collecting domestic rubbish as they so choose. However, if we go to any London borough or any local authority up and down the country, we will find different coloured bins for different types of waste—be it general waste, dry recycled waste, food waste or garden waste. In some local authorities, there are five different bins, all with different colours. No information is supplied to individuals living in households in the area as to which rubbish they should put in which bin, except when the local authority issues the bins.
The problem is that when people move, they may then put rubbish in the wrong bins, and it is particularly people who come from another country to live in this country—I am not blaming them for this. They want to do the right thing; they want to dispose of their rubbish. They put the rubbish in the bin that they think is the right one. They may have moved from one local authority to another, so they just use the same colour bin. However, when the rubbish comes to be collected, the bin men arrive and say, “Nope. It’s the wrong rubbish in the wrong bin,” and just leave it there and move on to the next house.
As a consequence, the bins rapidly fill up and overflow, causing rats, mice and other vermin to congregate. Worse still, particularly in shared households, what tends to happen is that people say, “I’ve got to get rid of my rubbish. What am I going to do with it? The local authority hasn’t collected my bin and hasn’t told me why. What I’ll do is put my rubbish in a plastic bag, wander down to the end of the road and deposit it on the corner.” Rats, foxes, dogs, cats and all sorts of vermin then chew the bags and the rubbish goes everywhere.
My suggestion is relatively simple. When someone moves into private rented accommodation, one of their duties is to register on the electoral register with the local authority. Surely local authorities should have a duty to issue people who move into the area and register for the first time with a simple guide to how to dispose of rubbish. It is not rocket science but, to my knowledge, that is not done anywhere in the country. Some enlightened places may do it, but the reality is that it is not generally happening. It would be so easy to do. It could be one sheet that goes out when someone registers to vote, saying, “Here’s advice on how you dispose of your rubbish.” At a stroke, we would remove quite a few of the problems that occur with fly-tipping. From what I can see, a lot of fly-tipping is a consequence of people not getting their domestic waste collected.
Another associated problem is that many local authorities are now choosing to charge for the collection of garden waste. I remember introducing wheelie bins for the first time in my local authority when I was a local authority leader. We had a great song and dance about it—“Throw all your rubbish in the bin. It’ll be collected once a week and we’ll sort it out for recycling and other purposes.” It was a great idea. For the first time, garden waste was collected, free of charge. The problem is that as local authorities then separated out the various different types of service, they cottoned on to the fact that they do not have to collect garden waste free of charge. They therefore then imposed a charge on collecting garden waste, which is deeply unpopular and is a monopoly service, because no one else provides it.
The reality is that the charges are very different depending on where they are in the country. I have done a study demonstrating that in London my own borough, which is introducing the charge from April, will have the highest level. That is a deterrent straight away to people registering for the service. People who have gardens and are therefore likely to generate garden waste will dispose of their garden waste somehow. One problem with the charge is that those people will say, “Actually, I’m not prepared to pay for a service that I think should be provided by the local authority free of charge”—and has been, by the way, for a number of years—“so I’ll find another way of disposing of it.” Fly-tipping will become more prevalent as a result.
It is certainly true that where charges have been imposed, fly-tipping of garden waste in particular has increased quite dramatically. That is a consequence of charging for services that people see as part of the council tax they pay. The Government need to look at that carefully. I take the view that the charges for such services should be kept under review, because it cannot be correct that equivalent authorities are charging very different prices for the same service. Something is going wrong somewhere when that is the case.
I understand the problem. It certainly caused a great deal of concern in my constituency when charges were introduced. The problem was that it is not the council that introduced the charge; it is Veolia, the contractor. Veolia fixes the charge and refuses to take instalment payments, so people have to pay it up front. That is a deterrent to people, particularly those on low incomes. There is a challenge when contractors—ones that make a lot of money out of this—introduce that sort of charge for the service.
That is a clear concern. It depends, of course, on the contract that has been set up between the local authority and the supplier. In London—I cannot speak for the hon. Gentleman’s area—we have done quite a detailed study of this issue, and it is local authorities implementing the charges, not contractors. In my borough, it is a direct service—it is not even being provided by an outside contractor, which demonstrates that there is a particular problem.
To reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), there was a perversity when bulk refuse charges were introduced in Tower Hamlets, in that the concerned citizens who were reporting bulk refuse were the ones being told, “You have to pay the charge for the removal of that piece of bulk refuse,” even though it had been fly-tipped by somebody from somewhere else. Tower Hamlets had to go back to free collection of bulk refuse, because otherwise citizens would not report it out of fear that they would have to pay for the removal of something that was not their responsibility.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point. That has happened in a lot of local authorities up and down the country.
I will move on to bulky waste, to which the Chair of the Select Committee also alluded. There are duties for certain items to be collected when someone buys a replacement, but I think we will all have seen beds, sofas, garden furniture and ordinary furniture just dumped on the streets and left to rot. The reality is that much of that, and mattresses in particular, could be collected at the same time as people are buying new ones. I have seen certain local authorities that routinely go around and collect mattresses that have been left in particular areas. In areas with houses in multiple occupation, landlords will turn out the beds on a routine basis, especially when there has been a turnover of people living in those properties. When there are mattresses on the street, they have to be collected and dealt with. Surely there should be a duty on suppliers, as part and parcel of the process of delivering mattresses, sofas and other items, to collect and take away the old ones and dispose of them free of charge to the individual who is buying the new product. The Government should look at that in order to reduce costs.
The other issue with fly-tipping is that it is definitely on the increase. We have to combat it in every way, shape or form. Two types of fly-tipping are of particular concern. There is fly-tipping on the public highway, which hon. Members have mentioned, along with fly-tipping on street corners and all sorts of areas of the public highway that tend to be out of sight. People just wander along and either dump their rubbish from a car or, alternatively, dump it on service roads, whether to shops or domestic properties, as access points to garages. They are often the biggest problem of all, for the simple reason that they are on private land, so local authorities will say, “Nothing to do with us; you have to pay for that rubbish to be removed,” whereas residents say, “Well, it’s nothing to do with us. We didn’t dump it there in the first place.” The rubbish then builds up and up, till it becomes a health hazard and finally the local authority has to step in, remove it and try and identify who was responsible. It is often good luck if they find anything associated with the individual who dumped it in the first place. Often that is not possible.
I suspect this will be difficult, but we will have to look at what the duties are to collect fly-tipping on private land and whether any can be passed on to local authorities or whether there is some other way of dealing with fly-tipping on service roads. I know this is of great concern to many residents up and down the country, and there do not seem to be proper regulations to control it.
To deter fly-tipping, we said we wanted to see powers to impound vehicles engaged in fly-tipping. One very positive thing that we probably ought to report—and, again, congratulate the Government on—is that they brought those regulations into force on 6 April. That was really welcome. In serious cases, a vehicle engaged in fly-tipping can be impounded and taken away, which is a really strong penalty and deterrent.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee again for making that point about a good thing that the Government have done.
All in all, this is a comprehensive report, with some simple recommendations about which most right-minded people would say, “Well, let’s implement those.” There are some dilemmas for the Government in their deliberations on fly-tipping and littering, but I would welcome the Minister’s views on how some of the ideas we have floated today can be taken forward and implemented across the country, while allowing local authorities to develop new strategies to deal with fly-tipping and littering as appropriate in their local communities. It is also about making it clear that there are duties to keep areas clean and duties on individuals to ensure that they do not dump rubbish and act in an antisocial manner.
In conclusion, it was a pleasure to work on this report. It upsets most residents across the country to see rubbish thrown everywhere. Clearly this is an area where a clean-up is necessary.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding over our proceedings this afternoon, Mr Turner, just as it is to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). It is good to see the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), in the Chamber. I look forward to their responses to the report and the Minister’s elaboration on the Government response.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee, on an excellent report. I confess that despite having read through it, I had not noticed the time gap between the inquiry and the publication of the report, and the Government’s response. I only picked that up when he commented about it in his opening remarks, and that is of interest in itself. I also read the Government response to the report with interest. I thank Allison Ogden-Newton, the chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, Rosalind Finney, the public affairs manager of the Marine Conservation Society, and Ms Pat Wharton, who leads the British Cleaning Council, for their briefings to help me to pull together some of my comments.
I should declare that I was previously a Minister of State at DEFRA and responsible for Keep Britain Tidy —I will come on to recommendation 20 in the report in a minute. I am also now, having taken over from the predecessor of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), chair of the Tidy Britain all-party group, of which he is an active member, as is the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). Perhaps the hon. Member for Harrow East will want to join us as well in due course.
I will mention a few aspects of the key issues raised by those who sent me briefings, although I will not detain colleagues for long. A national litter strategy has been raised by Keep Britain Tidy, and the Committee’s report mentions that in recommendation 20, which opens up by saying:
“The failure to make a noticeable improvement in litter levels in the last 12 years points to a lack of vigour, if not complacency, within Government over the past decade.”
Well, I take my part of the responsibility for that and apologise to the Select Committee for not satisfying it in its analysis of where different Governments have been on this issue. It is obvious from the speech made by the Chair of the Committee and the report that this is not a party political issue. We have all failed the country and we all need to do better. The Select Committee has pointed the way and the Government are clearly accepting some of its advice.
The report goes on to refer to a point that was raised with me by Keep Britain Tidy:
“We recommend that the Government create a national litter strategy for England with a clear framework for action. This must be underpinned with a coordinating role for local councils within their respective areas.”
Paragraph 50 of the Government response states:
“We will therefore seek to work with local government and relevant stakeholders to develop a national Litter Strategy ”.
If the Minister forgives me for saying so, that does sound a little weak in terms of urgency, but I am sure that he will give us a positive explanation.
One thing that I, for one, would like to see embedded in the national litter strategy is an annual spring clean. While that might not always be called Clean for the Queen, does the hon. Gentleman agree that something along the lines of GB Tidy—Get Britain Tidy—would be a way forward?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Get Britain Tidy gives more motivation than Keep Britain Tidy, because I think we all recognise that there are many areas in the country—she referred to some earlier—that are not up to the standard that we would want. She therefore makes a sensible suggestion. The Government’s announcement regarding 21 March very much goes in that direction and it will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether this will be an annual event in due course.
Keep Britain Tidy also stated that the suspension of the national litter survey is a problem. When the strategy does come forward—it is due by 2018—the latest data to use as a benchmark against it will be three or perhaps even four years old, so we are losing the ability to identify where we are against where we want to be, which will make things difficult.
I commend my local authority of Tower Hamlets which, like every local authority, is trying to deal with the problem, but experiencing great difficulty. One initiative it introduced recently, which other local authorities have also introduced, was to give every bin in the borough an identification mark so that people could use a smartphone to take a picture of a full bin with its bar code, which would automatically alert the local authority that the bin is full and should be emptied. It will be well worth noting how effective this brand-new method will be, but it is a recent technology that may help because when people are using bins that they should not be using, for whatever reason, the local authority can be notified that something needs to be done.
The Marine Conservation Society has asked whether beach and aquatic litter will be included in the survey, when it emerges. In response to previous inquiries, the Government have claimed that the marine strategy framework directive covers this issue, but the MCS says that the directive’s only measure on litter covers plastic bags, which are only one aspect of litter on beaches and in aquatic areas. Will the Minister say whether more types of litter could be included?
The second main item raised by Keep Britain Tidy, which is covered by recommendations 2, 13 and 14 of the Committee’s report, is the cost of litter and the success or otherwise of fixed penalty notices, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East. The key issues raised included the need for accurate collation of data and an analysis of the success or otherwise of such efforts. The Government response to the Committee’s recommendation—I am paraphrasing— said that the matter was noted, so it is not clear which way the Government will go. That does not deal with the question of whether fixed penalty notices are successful, or how much more successful they may be in due course.
The key point from Keep Britain Tidy, MCS, the British Cleaning Council and the Select Committee, which has already come through during the debate, is about messaging. Local authorities are doing their best, but we need a sense of national urgency regarding litter—the hon. Member for Banbury talked about this—because we all know that, compared with a lot of other countries, many parts of Britain are embarrassing and we must do better.
The Government should be commended, as the Select Committee does in recommendation 21, on national clean-up day on 21 March. We need national momentum, so that clean-up day, like Clean for the Queen, is to be commended. The hon. Lady recently held an excellent event in the Jubilee Room to promote Clean for the Queen and to spread the message to parliamentary colleagues, so she should be commended on her efforts.
Notwithstanding whether we have national initiatives such as Clean for the Queen, many local groups are active in this area. The hon. Lady cited one in her constituency, and my favourite in my constituency is the 2nd East London scout group, which goes out regularly to clean areas in the constituency, dragging parents, relatives, MPs and others along to help. That is a fantastic example of the sort of educational start to life that we want to see mirrored among all our young people.
Keep Britain Tidy raised two further issues with me: tobacco and litter from vehicles. The Select Committee spent quite a lot of time on these matters, as its Chair outlined, and that is reflected in recommendations 5, 16, 17 of the report. The Government and many local authorities—the Minister will tell me whether I am wrong—seem to duck the tobacco question because while tobacco causes damage to the human body, the Government do not seem to want to face up to the tobacco companies. My hon. Friend said there might be a way of using their financial power through such methods as the tax levy that the hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned. Their product causes the difficulty, so they should have some responsibility, with consumers of that product, to deal with it. Recommendation 5 in the Select Committee report addresses that point.
The Select Committee commented on litter from vehicles in recommendation 16. Paragraph 35 of the Government’s response says:
“A regional working group, through the Keep Britain Tidy Network of local authorities and other stakeholders, will ensure that a strategic approach to preventing litter can be achieved.”
Keep Britain Tidy has told me that clarity in the legislation would be great, but it seems that there is more work to do. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton spoke about using a civil penalty rather than a criminal penalty to make the option of levying fines, especially on young drivers, more attractive to local authorities, which might not want to criminalise young people early in their lives for an offence that is serious in terms of the environment, but more of a misdemeanour compared with many criminal offences, even though it should be punished.
The Marine Conservation Society feel that beaches and aquatic issues have not been given sufficient attention. Keep Britain Tidy supports several of the Select Committee’s conclusions. The Committee set out a number of questions and points of concern, and it has clearly done an excellent job in raising this important issue, highlighting weaknesses, identifying points of concern, making recommendations and promoting a more strategic framework.
The Government response is slightly defensive, which goes back to the Select Committee’s criticism of all Governments over the past 12 years. Perhaps we could and should do more, but given austerity and the economic situation, the Government naturally believe that resources may not be available. The issue involves the fabric of our country, however, and investment to deal with litter could have a positive effect in many different ways.
I will end on a positive note. Keep Britain Tidy reports that Clean for the Queen, the initiative that the hon. Member for Banbury brought to the House, has been signed up to by more than 200 local authorities and 60,000 volunteers. There will be 1,000 events, so it is already a success, even though it has not happened yet. I am sure the Government’s national clean-up day on 21 March will be a success, and we look forward to leadership on that from the Minister and the shadow Minister.
The Select Committee says that the Government need to become more serious about the matter. That is very much the case, and if they set an example by getting serious, I am sure that the country will respond. I am grateful to the Committee for bringing the report to our attention.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—before he leaves the Chamber—for his contribution, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), and the hon. Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) who, I am pleased to say, are remaining in their place. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee, for his eloquent introduction to this debate and for highlighting these important issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse outlined clearly some of the Select Committee’s recommendations, but you will be pleased to hear, Mr Turner, that I do not intend simply to repeat what has already been said.
Litter and fly-tipping have been, and remain, a huge problem in this country. They are a blight on England—on our roadsides, public areas and public spaces. Unfortunately, cuts to local government funding are forcing many councils to make savings by closing municipal tips, which could increase fly-tipping. The closure of the local tip in Heywood in my constituency led to great concern among residents, many of whom contacted me to share their worries that such action would exacerbate the growing problem of fly-tipping.
I welcome the Select Committee’s recommendation on penalties for fly-tipping. The introduction of a fixed penalty notice for the fly-tipping of household items, which form the bulk of the incidents, would involve the lower standard of proof required for a civil penalty. I also welcome the recommendation, to which many hon. Members have referred, that the relevant industries introduce a scheme to take away unwanted household appliances and furniture when replacements are delivered. Additionally, it is vital that councils foster partnerships with charities that are willing to collect such items free of charge, as many councils do. Just because an item is being replaced, that does not make it obsolete, and there are many excellent local charities that will find good homes for appliances and furniture that are still usable.
As many hon. Members pointed out, incidences of fly-tipping are on the increase. I am concerned that that is being exacerbated not only by councils operating fewer municipal tip sites, but by some councils, again in response to cuts in central Government funding, introducing charging for items and waste deposited at those sites. We are in a bit of a quandary. The Government want local councils to become self-financing by 2020 and are encouraging innovation to enable them to generate their own funding. Many councils will see charging for waste disposal as a method of income generation, but it must not be forgotten that that in itself could lead to an increase in fly-tipping. The hon. Member for Harrow East made a similar and very valid point in relation to councils charging for the removal of garden waste.
That is why I welcome the Select Committee’s recommendation to introduce a national fixed penalty notice for small amounts of fly-tipping, which would require the lower standard of proof required for a civil penalty. I welcome the Government’s commitment to give councils the power to tackle small-scale fly-tipping through penalty notices, as an alternative to prosecutions.
The Select Committee rightly points out that no data on incidences of litter are held centrally by the Government. I am pleased that the Government appear to welcome the idea of having access to those data and, importantly, that they say:
“we will explore ways of obtaining it without imposing an additional reporting burden on local authorities.”
I fully support the Government’s sentiment. Although they appear to be expecting local councils to do more and more with less and less, it is vital that we try not to impose additional burdens on our already hard-pressed councils. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East highlighted the long period of time between publication of the Select Committee report and receipt of the Government response, so I hope that the Minister can offer some explanation for that.
Litter is of great concern to our constituents, and it is right that the Government should be taking positive action. I am a great supporter of, and have participated in many, community clean-ups and litter-picks. I applaud the idea of a community clean-up day. Clean for the Queen has been referred to. Personally, I would prefer a clean for the community day, although in an ideal world, no one would drop litter and community groups could spend their time on activities that really do improve their local areas, such as bulb and flower planting.
The issue of cigarette litter was highlighted by the hon. Member for Harrow East. There is a real job to be done of educating smokers. Many of them seem to think that cigarette butts are biodegradable, but they are not—once dropped, they remain very much fixed until they are cleared away. I feel that a portion of the tobacco tax should go towards the cost of street cleaning to local councils, but I fully appreciate councils’ sensitivities about being seen to be endorsing tobacco companies in any way. I will be interested in the Minister’s comments on that.
Will the hon. Lady comment on the solution that I raised—a tobacco duty escalator? The money would be passed on to local authorities so that they could fulfil their duties, and that would have the benefit that local authorities would not need to have anything to do with the tobacco industry, although they would be given the money that was raised.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. The Government’s response says that they will leave it up to local councils to decide whether they wish to work with tobacco companies. That is a sensible way of dealing with the matter, but personally I do not have an issue with tobacco companies putting in funding to clear up the litter that their users create, which does not show the tobacco companies in an especially positive light. An escalator could be one way of dealing with the situation, but I appreciate that other hon. Members have different views, so I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
I am in danger of doing what I said I would not do—repeating all the points that everyone has made—but the report makes valid points. I have not yet touched on the responsibilities of chewing gum manufacturers and fast food companies. The Select Committee is not yet recommending a tax on chewing gum, but it does say that,
“this is the last chance for the industry to put its house in order.”
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, I was quite entertained by the idea of the Chewing Gum Action Group, but behind that name there is some serious work to be done, including perhaps more information on packaging about how chewing gum should be disposed of—and not in the time-honoured tradition of sticking it under the school desk. I am really disappointed to hear that that practice goes on in this place as well. There is a job of education to be done not just among schoolchildren but, unfortunately, among some people here.
We have to see the situation of litter and fly-tipping against the background of cuts to local council funding, but I hope that the report’s positive recommendations can be accepted and acted on in an amicable, cross- party manner. This issue affects all our constituents, regardless of our political persuasion. As my hon. Friend said, many of the recommendations have been taken on board by the Government, and I hope that the Minister will now comment on those areas highlighted during the debate as still requiring more work and consideration.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank the Communities and Local Government Committee for its report on litter and fly-tipping and thank the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), and other hon. Members for an excellent debate. It is one of those debates that is relatively unusual in the House, in that it is on a subject that, on balance, probably unites us more than divides us.
Littering and fly-tipping cause great concern to residents, councils and this Government. They are antisocial environmental crimes that pose risks to human health and animal welfare, spoil relationships between neighbours and their wider community, and affect the way people feel about the place that they call home. There is evidence that high levels of litter can restrict the economic growth of an area, reduce property prices and increase residents’ fear of crime. For local authorities, it is also a significant issue. It costs them hundreds of millions of pounds every year to clear litter and illegally dumped waste from our streets and public spaces. As far as this Government are concerned, they should not have to do that. Litter and fly-tipping are avoidable problems. It is simply not right that the behaviour of a selfish minority ends up blighting our landscapes while imposing costs on landowners and local taxpayers. A change in our culture is needed to get Britain back to the “green and pleasant land” that we are so renowned for across the globe.
This is about personal responsibility, which means consciously not littering, even when it is mildly inconvenient to dispose of our rubbish properly. Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. Of course there are practical ways in which the Government can help. We welcome the Select Committee’s report and agree with many of its recommendations to combat the problems of litter and fly-tipping.
Local authorities are at the heart of our communities. They deliver front-line services to the public and are vital in meeting the challenge of eradicating litter and fly-tipping. Although litter and fly-tipping are clearly problems, the majority of local authorities can be commended for the fact that they are consistent in maintaining standards. In many cases, that has even been the case during a difficult period in which local government has had to do more with less, which does not make the Government at all complacent in its determination to reduce litter and fly-tipping. We need to clean up and change people’s culture, values and attitude to their environments.
This should not be a top-down approach. The Government are committed to localism and the transfer of power to local communities to deal with litter and fly-tipping problems, which require a local approach tailored to the characteristics of the area and the community in which the problems occur. Like the rest of the public sector, local authorities have worked hard over the last five years, but they still need to be thinking innovatively about how they can make litter and fly-tipping-related savings while protecting existing street cleansing services and standards.
The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the work in Nottingham. The same has been happening in Bath and North East Somerset, where they use Bigbelly smart bins, which are electronic-type bins that tell the council when they are full. Bath and North East Somerset Council estimates that the way the bins work—the council goes out to empty them only when they need to be emptied—has saved 390 labour hours a month, which is a significant saving. I would like more local authorities to take the same sort of lead as Nottingham City Council, and Bath and North East Somerset Council. Many councils are putting in a significant amount of money. There have been a number of different estimates of that money, but we think they are probably putting about £700 million a year into dealing with litter.
As the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned, there is pressure on the provision of social care, bearing in mind that the population is getting older, yet it is important to point out that while growing old is inevitable, littering and fly-tipping are not. In the end there is a choice, and I would much rather that councils were able very easily to make the choice to put additional money into social care provision, rather than having to put so much money into the problem of litter and fly-tipping.
The Government still have a role to play, because no matter how good and innovative councils become, they need the support and the backing of the Government to tackle the problem. During the Select Committee inquiry, the Government agreed that their role was to enable local action in three ways: setting clear overall standards for cleanliness, ensuring legal powers to enable councils to take effective action, and ensuring that costs can be passed to those responsible for causing the problem. Our immediate priorities to achieve this will deliver on our manifesto commitments to review the case for increasing the fines for littering offences and to allow local authorities to tackle small-scale fly-tipping through fixed penalties as an alternative to prosecutions. That is something that a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), have raised today, and I am glad that there is significant support for that approach.
We want to work with local government and relevant stakeholders to develop a national litter strategy. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) was a little concerned about the wording in the Select Committee report, but I reassure him that we want a robust strategy to deal with litter and fly-tipping. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), and I are absolutely focused on trying to achieve a robust litter strategy and we are working very closely to do so. We want a strategy that will enable effective and co-ordinated anti-litter work across England, focusing on affordable and measurable ways to change behaviour, reduce litter and improve the local environment. That is a priority for our communities, which deserve a lasting legacy of clutter-free towns and cities, and a countryside of which we can all be proud.
We have already begun to work with producers of commonly littered items, major retailers, some of the leading charities and NGOs in the sector, and local councils. We need to do more with those organisations to ensure that we really get to grips with and tackle the problem. In addition to those immediate priorities, the Government have agreed with the Committee’s recommendation to try to make a national litter-pick an annual event.
I am delighted that so much publicity has been given to the Clean for the Queen event. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton and I have not disagreed on much, but personally I think that Clean for the Queen is a fantastic statement for us to make. However, we should not split too many hairs. The point is that on 3, 4 and 5 March, we will all come together as communities up and down the country, supporting each other to clean up those areas. I encourage any hon. Members who are not already signed up to a clean-up on that weekend to get involved. It is great to see so many hon. Members involved, and it was good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) here. She has done a lot with Keep Britain Tidy over the past few weeks to encourage hon. Members to get involved.
I note the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee about the time it took for the Government to respond to the report. I apologise for the delay. I regret that we did not reply within a more reasonable timeframe. He acknowledged that the report was released very shortly before the purdah period and the ensuing general election, and I think he mentioned that the report cuts across several Departments. It actually cuts across many Government Departments and, although our response was positive, it was not provided as quickly as usually would be the case. I hope he takes my comments in the spirit in which they are intended.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned data. That is a hugely important point. We are certainly working with an advisory group. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned Keep Britain Tidy, which is part of that advisory group alongside a number of other important organisations in the area. We are trying to bring forward a package to ensure that we collect the necessary data so that the work of our litter and fly-tipping strategy is measured in relation to its success.
The hon. Member for Sheffield South East mentioned fixed penalty notices, which I assure him we are carefully considering. Fixed penalty notices should be a last resort, but they are an extremely important enforcement tool in the box to make people think twice about dropping litter. We are carefully considering what we can do to increase penalties to ensure that fixed penalty notices are a significant deterrent. We will not impose additional penalties without properly consulting the public first, which is right.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned smoking litter, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman)—I will address his points in a moment. I agree with what the Chair of the Select Committee says about that problem. He mentioned a tobacco levy, on which the Government consulted last year. It is obvious from that consultation that if we put any sort of levy on the tobacco companies, they would pass it straight on to the end user, which we have to take seriously. Effectively, he is looking to levy an additional tax on tobacco and cigarettes that would come back to the Treasury and, through my Department, go directly to local authorities to address some of these issues. It is slightly above my pay grade to make such commitments—it is an issue for the Treasury—but his point is on the record.
I was nodding across the room to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) when the Minister said that the levy would be passed on to smokers. Ultimately, they are the ones who drop the litter. A little contribution from them towards local authority costs does not seem completely unreasonable, does it?
I will only say that there would be an additional cost to end users, who already contribute significant amounts to the Treasury in taxation. When that money comes into the Treasury, some of it goes to local authorities in relation to their duties. Some of that money, by implication, must be spent on addressing the problem. I am not suggesting that the points the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East are making should never be considered, but they are taxation matters, which should be considered carefully by the Treasury.
I will take the Minister a little further down that road into areas that he probably does not want to go into. When we get to 2019-20 and the full localisation of business rates, there will not be any Treasury contribution towards local authorities from tobacco tax or any other form of tax. Would that not be a different situation, in which there might be a need to reconsider whether there should be some Treasury contribution from tobacco tax towards the clean-up of tobacco litter?
I thank the Minister for his remarks; I am interjecting on two points. First, the cost to the national health service of smoking-related diseases is greater than the Treasury’s income from tobacco products, so the position is not balanced. Secondly, local authorities have a public duty to encourage smoking cessation and to clear up the litter caused by smoking. The issue is how they get that funding, particularly at a time when the Government have chosen to reduce funding for public health. The proposed levy is therefore a way of providing local authorities with more money to fulfil their duties.
As I have said, these are matters for the Treasury. My hon. Friend has got his point on the record today, and I am sure Treasury Ministers will be listening intently to this debate and will therefore have heard what he has said.
My hon. Friend made some interesting comments about finding chewing gum under a desk. I decided to take a pair of shoes back to my home in my constituency this weekend, and when I put them in my bag this morning there was a great big piece of chewing gum on the bottom of them. As he would expect, I was not best pleased. I appreciate exactly what he says about the challenges we face with chewing gum. The Chewing Gum Action Group has been mentioned, and its work was perhaps understated. That important group is working to address these issues. The companies that produce chewing gum are members of the group. It is important that the Government engage with those companies to ensure that we are doing all we can and that they are showing and taking a lead on ensuring that their products do not end up on pavements and floors across the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) mentioned highways. There is a pilot project in the midlands that aims to enhance joint working between Highways England and local authorities, with the aim of sharing teams and assets so that they can support each other to improve our A roads across the midlands. We are carefully looking at how that is currently working. Making the Highways Agency legally responsible for collecting litter is not as straightforward as has been said—primary legislation and complicated alterations to funding arrangements would be needed. It is important that we see how the pilot pans out before taking it forward.
The idea of fines for throwing litter from cars has been mentioned, and again we will carefully consider it through the national litter strategy and enforcement. We are well aware of the problem, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned instances where people get takeaway food and drive up the road, with the rubbish ending up in a hedge, in the bushes or in somebody’s garden. That is an important point, and it is something that we need to consider carefully.
The hon. Member for Sheffield South East mentioned the LGA, which has an extremely important role in this agenda. The LGA is part of our advisory group, and it will be an important organisation in getting across some of the messages that we need to get across to local authorities. Many comments have been made about reductions in spending, and obviously I am well aware of the challenges faced by local government. Those challenges have been managed extremely well over the past five years, for which I thank local government, but there is a critical point here. I mentioned earlier in my remarks that the issue is not just about the environment—the possible damage to wildlife and the fact that an area might look scruffy. It is a massive issue for local economies, because when an area is scruffy it is an indicator that the economy might not be doing as well as it could.
To return to the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee about full retention of business rates, which will happen by the end of this decade, I think that all local authorities will look to raise additional business rate. Other funding streams for councils that are becoming more and more important are additional council tax, widening the council tax base and the new homes bonus. It is absolutely in every council’s interest to ensure that it is doing its utmost to keep its area clean, tidy and free of fly-tipping for that reason alone. Effectively, it will become an investment to bring in additional revenue for councils.
I heard what the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said about household recycling centres, which several other Members mentioned as well. It is encouraging to see many councils working with charities that collect items, even from people’s homes. It is extremely positive when items coming into recycling sites go straight into shops right next to the site; I have a very good example of that in my constituency. Goods go on sale that many people on lower incomes can easily access, and it reduces the prevalence of litter and fly-tipping.
On the point about household recycling centres and municipal tips, as the hon. Lady called them—that is the term that I have always used; in my local area we say “going up the tip”—and on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East about councils charging for recycling of green waste and so on, it is obviously a decision for the local authority in question whether it wants to charge people to use a household recycling centre or to dispose of green waste. However, having experienced local government myself, I would say that those are services that local people expect to be provided, and they are concerned about it. As I said, in terms of the context of the change in how local government will be funded, I think that councils that do not think carefully about providing those services will meet challenges going forward in terms of generating the important income streams that they need.
When the Secretary of State came before the Committee to discuss these issues, we raised the point about monopoly services for which local authorities charge. We need to balance the cost of providing those services against the price that the local authority charges for those services. Given the wide disparity, will the Minister go back to his Department with the view that we need to review what is happening across local authorities to see whether there is any element of overcharging and profiting from such services that is then being used to subsidise other services?
That is certainly a consideration that we have made in relation to other services controlled by local authorities, such as car parking. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I would certainly be interested to hear any examples from hon. Members’ constituencies, if the type of practice that he described is going on to the detriment of local people.
I think that I have covered many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse. I welcome the initiative in Tower Hamlets and how the council is changing its thinking about emptying bins. It is halfway to the work being done in Nottingham and in Bath and North East Somerset. However, it is welcome to see a council looking differently at how it provides services and trying to innovate.
I was also encouraged to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about his local scout groups. It is important to get younger people involved in this agenda. Again, I think that we should consider it in terms of the litter strategy. My local scout groups have been very supportive. I have done a number of clean-ups in my constituency, including a river clean-up where the scouts came in canoes and helped clean out the river that runs through my constituency. Many young people are making a positive contribution in that way.
The Minister has covered the vast majority of points that I made. The only one on which I would press him is the Marine Conservation Society comment about the inclusion of marine, beach and aquatic venues in the national strategy. I volunteer with Thames21, which does fantastic work cleaning up the Thames, and the Government support it hugely. A lot of the litter is plastic bags, but obviously there is more to litter in those environments than just plastic bags. Can he assure us that marine, beach and aquatic environments will be incorporated into the national strategy?
We are considering carefully all different environments. Although some people have not been as positive about it as others, I think that the charge on plastic bags has reduced plastic bag usage significantly, by an estimated 80%. That should decrease significantly the number of bags going into our rivers and canals, and into the sea off the coastline, which must be positive, particularly given the damage that they can do to wildlife.
I will not delay colleagues any longer. I thank them for this important debate about an issue that affects many people in our communities and about which thousands and millions of people across the country feel passionate. I have sensed that when I have made comments in press articles and received correspondence from across the country. We will introduce a strong and robust litter strategy, because this Government recognise that litter and fly-tipping are antisocial, and we need to crack down on them. We are absolutely determined to get on and do so.
It has been a good, constructive and generally agreeable debate, in the sense that we agreed on most of the issues. I thank the Minister for his apology, which I accept—and I am sure I can do that on behalf of the Committee. I suspect that responsibility was not totally within his Department, as he has delicately explained with reference to the complications of getting many Departments to agree on a reply.
We started with general agreement about the need for a national strategy and the national clean-up day. We can probably see the effects of the clean-up day fairly quickly; the national strategy may take a bit longer, but I am sure that the Committee will keep a close eye on it.
The Minister was right to say that local authorities are at the heart of the whole issue. They have the responsibility for dealing with litter directly or co-ordinating the activities of others who deal with it. Our recommendations were mostly directed at Government, but generally they were about asking for extra powers for local authorities, to enable them to do their job in a variety of ways. We had generally positive responses and agreement on fixed penalty notices—their extension to fly-tipping and the increase in the level of penalties—on which the Minister said there is consultation; the impounding of vehicles used for fly-tipping; and pilots on trunk roads to look at littering from cars. All those things seem to be positive ways to move forward, and the Government have responded to the Select Committee recommendations either by agreeing to carry them out—in some cases having done so already—or by looking at how they can be carried out in the future.
There are things that local authorities can do irrespective of those issues. The smart bins that we talked about, on which there is general agreement, and engagement with charities on the collection of bulky household items are among them. Individual authorities can implement them, and can learn from other local authorities. That is at the heart of localism in the end; things may be done well in one area, and other areas say, “Yes, that’s a good idea. We will do it also.”
The Select Committee will want to return to the matter and consider various issues. In the end it is one thing to debate here, but another to get improvements on littering and dealing with litter. I am sure that we will want to keep an eye on, in particular, the serious problems of tobacco littering, chewing gum, fly-tipping and fast food, which we identified as real problems. We will be interested in the Government’s progress on the trunk road issue and littering from cars, which the Minister said the Government would look at again. In the end, to be effective the Select Committee will need better data on which to monitor performance. The Minister has accepted that and I think he has a working party looking at the question. We will be interested to see what comes out of it, because it will be crucial. Although there may be anecdotal evidence, we can only really tell whether things are improving from the data that are collected. We need better data for the future.
I think we have all enjoyed the debate. I hope we have, and that it has also been constructive and useful.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Seventh Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2014-15, on Litter and fly-tipping in England, HC 607, and the Government response, Cm 9097.