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Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 3 May 2023

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

I have secured this debate today because I really hate litter. It disfigures our parks, pavements and streets; it damages our beautiful countryside and harms our environment; it is a disaster for our oceans and waterways; and it costs hundreds of millions of pounds to clear up. It seems to get everywhere—it has even, on occasion, been present in this very Chamber. As I revealed to a shocked audience in a Westminster Hall debate in 2018, I found a discarded Crunchie wrapper just feet away from where I stand now, so it a universal problem that needs tackling.

On a more serious note, one of the most disturbing impacts of litter is on wildlife. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals receives hundreds of calls every year reporting the harm done to animals and birds by carelessly discarded items—suffocated by plastic bags, entangled in plastic can holders, trapped in cans or injured by sharp edges—and who could fail to be distressed and moved by the pictures we have seen on our TV screens of marine life choked on plastic or drowned by discarded fishing gear?

Government figures from 2018 indicated that every year more than 150 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans and 1 million birds die from eating it or becoming tangled up in it. There are other figures indicating that the problem may be even worse. The situation is intolerable and we must take action.

Litter problems intensified during lockdown, when dumping food and drink packaging in parks seemed to reach epidemic proportions. I found it depressing to see Oak Hill Park in my constituency strewn day after day with Costa Coffee cups. During lockdown walks, I also noticed that the rubbish at the roadside of the A1 where it passes close to my constituency was appalling—feet deep in some places. I am sure all Members of this House are aware of the grave harm caused by fly-tipping, the most extreme form of littering. It has been a particular problem in St Albans Road in High Barnet but, regrettably, it occurs on many streets and in many open spaces in my constituency. This blight on our communities must be tackled, and I know Ministers are determined to do so.

Change is on the way. In 2017 the Government published England’s first ever national litter strategy, setting out how they planned to deliver the aim of substantially reducing littering within a generation. The Environment Act 2021, which I was privileged to present to this House, paves the way for important action on the matters we are considering in this debate.

First, it will allow digital tracking of waste, providing important new ways to hold to account those responsible for disposing of our rubbish. Secondly, it contains new powers to tackle fly-tipping. In my time as Secretary of State, I was privileged to help set up in 2020 a joint unit bringing together law enforcement agencies, environmental regulators, His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the National Crime Agency in the war against fly-tipping and waste crime. Thirdly, the Act will pave the way for extended producer responsibility. EPR is a scheme to ensure that the companies that produce plastic packaging meet the full cost of disposing of it. The goal is to incentivise a reduction in the volume of packaging used and ensure that more of it is recycled. EPR will also create a new income stream to help local councils deal with the cost of disposing of rubbish and tackling litter.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that packaging producers will need to pay around £1.2 billion a year in EPR charges, which will go to councils. I want the Minister to assure the House that that important scheme is on schedule and that it will mean more council staff out clearing up our streets, funded by the companies whose omnipresent packaging makes up such a large proportion of irresponsibly discarded rubbish—especially food outlets. The Government said that they wanted the scheme to start in October. Will that happen? If not, when will it be implemented? A commitment to EPR was made back in 2018. Let us get it done.

I make the same simple point about the deposit return scheme for drinks containers. That is another crucial part of the Environment Act, and it should significantly reduce the number of bottles and cans that are thoughtlessly discarded. I acknowledge that there are complexities here. The mess that the SNP has made of its DRS in Scotland shows that we need to take care and get the scheme right on a technical level. In particular, it is important that we resolve the VAT issue that has arisen, and I hope that the Minister will confirm how the Finance (No. 2) Bill proposes to do that. A deposit return scheme would be popular. It is a manifesto commitment, and many other countries have been operating such schemes for years. DRS projects have been very successful around the world in incentivising a responsible approach to disposing of drinks containers. Let us get this done; let us make DRS happen.

I thank my right hon. Friend—my very good friend—for allowing me to intervene. I seem to recall that when I was a child, which was quite a long time ago now—[Interruption.] You are nodding sagely, Mr Deputy Speaker. One of the things that we used to get extra pocket money for was picking up bottles and taking them back to the store. I seemed to get quite a good income stream from that. It would be very nice if that sort of scheme were reintroduced. Does she agree?

I do indeed agree. For many years, that kind of scheme was a feature of life in Britain, and I know that many would like to see its return. That is one reason why I have raised it in the debate.

There are other ways in which Government policy could step up the campaign against litter. More could be done to enforce the law in that area. Clearly, financial penalties should be issued only in appropriate and proportionate circumstances, but they are an important tool in the box for achieving the goal of litter reduction. There have been welcome steps forward on enforcement. Fines have been increased and rules clarified to make it more straightforward for councils to issue them. The Government have also changed the law so that if there is evidence of litter being thrown from a car, the registered keeper of the vehicle can be liable for a fine. It is no longer necessary to prove that they were driving the car at the time.

However, there is a strong case for greater use of cameras in enforcement. There are about 11,000 automatic number plate recognition cameras around the country to monitor vehicles and track stolen cars and movements by criminals. Why can we not use them to catch a few litterbugs as well? Prompted by my constituent Phil Little, I raised that in a parliamentary question two years ago. The Minister at the time responded that ANPR cameras are not suitable for use in that way. I find that hard to understand. When the use of cameras can be the basis of fines for so many traffic offences, why not for chucking rubbish of a car window?

I welcome the news that the Department for Transport will soon trial the use of CCTV to capture evidence of people littering or fly-tipping in lay-bys. It is good to know that National Highways is at last looking at whether automatic number plate recognition can be used to catch litter offenders. I also welcome last year’s announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of £450,000 for CCTV, ANPR and rapid deployment cameras at hotspots to reduce unlawful dumping of rubbish and to provide evidence to identify the offenders responsible for it. I genuinely welcome the fact that my plea for the use of litter-cams two years ago seems to have been heard, but I emphasise that we need to see tangible progress on the trials and pilot schemes, especially on our road network.

Roadside litter can cause serious accidents, and collecting it can be hazardous. As dedicated campaigners such as John Read of Clean Up Britain point out, there are some truly appalling litter hotspots on our strategic road network. Cameras are part of Mr Read’s 10-point plan to tackle the problem, including greater use of dashcam footage. I too believe that cameras could be a powerful new weapon in the war against litter. Let us start using them.

I come now to action against commonly littered items. I am proud to have been the Secretary of State who extended the plastic bag charging scheme, which has seen their use drop by over 97% in major supermarkets and so must have reduced the number of bags littered, but let us go a step further and ban disposable barbecues as well. They are a fire hazard and can cause injury. It is truly appalling that people simply leave them behind after a day out, and tragic that they are left on some of our most beautiful beaches and our greatest beauty spots. Even a farm in my constituency has had to contend with this problem.

Can we have more concerted action on chewing gum? I welcome the establishment of a chewing gum taskforce, bringing together producers to invest £10 million over five years in cleaning up gum staining and encouraging responsible disposal. The reality is that chucking this stuff away is a truly vile and antisocial thing to do. It does significant damage, including getting matted in the fur or feathers of animals and birds. Can we learn from other countries in taking a really tough approach to the scourge of littered chewing gum?

What will Ministers do to ensure that tobacco companies take responsibility for the fact that cigarettes are by far the most frequently littered item in the country? Even as the number of smokers continues to fall, any litter-picker will tell us that if we look at the ground in more or less any public place on this island, we are likely to spot a cigarette butt somewhere close by.

Another key means of cleaning up Britain and keeping it free of rubbish is behaviour change. Over the years, many of my constituents have told me how important it is to push out effective communications to convince people of the simple message that they must take their little home with them and put it in a bin. I know that Keep Britain Tidy runs some very effective DEFRA-funded campaigns, such as its “Keep it, Bin it” campaign, but can we do more? What about a new litter awareness course, as advocated by Policy Exchange in its “Litterbugs 2.0” paper? The national speed awareness course is widely recognised to play an effective role in changing people’s attitude to speeding by educating them about its consequences. We should consider adopting the model in this context, too.

Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on plans to use so-called geofencing at roadside litter hotspots, to drive anti-litter messages to the devices of people physically in those locations? Behaviour change messages aimed at commercial drivers, including overseas lorry drivers, are also important. The rubbish that collects around some truck stops shows that driver education is needed. It is also vital to ensure that loads are secured properly, so that rubbish does not blow off and become litter. A constituent of mine, Julian Dench, who came to see me recently to discuss these issues asked that more research be done into who is responsible for littering and why they do it. I ask Ministers what research is being carried out, particularly on how to persuade children and young people not to drop litter.

One only has to walk past some of the schools in my constituency to know that the problem of litter is, I am afraid, sometimes linked to children and young people, although I am sure that the majority would not indulge in this conduct. I therefore welcome the eco-schools programme funded by the Government, which includes litter as well as wider issues around sustainability, waste and recycling. We all know that in recent years, there has been a huge wave of concern about the environment among the younger generation. We must find a way to capitalise on that and explain that one of the most tangible and instant ways in which children and young people can safeguard our environment is to take their litter home and put it in the recycling bin. That is a message that I try to take to all the schools I visit, especially when I receive questions and points from students about plastics pollution in our oceans, as I almost invariably do.

That brings me to the topic of marine litter. As was shown so clearly by the BBC’s “Blue Planet” and, more recently, “Wild Isles” series, we have a plastics crisis in our oceans. We must stop the appalling outflow of plastic and other rubbish into the sea—we cannot let it continue. I know that the Government are putting a huge amount of effort into that goal, and the EPR and DRS schemes I mentioned earlier in my speech should provide further help once they are operational, but much of this problem comes from other countries, so only truly global action will fix it.

I pay tribute to the work that Ministers have done on the international stage on this issue. The UK can truly be said to be a global leader in ocean protection, with 38% of UK waters in marine protected areas. The Government also played a crucial role in establishing the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance to lead international efforts to tackle plastics pollution, and helped secure commitments on protection of the marine environment at last year’s COP15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal. Together with our overseas territories and dependencies, we in this country are responsible for one of the largest marine estates on the planet, and working with those territories we have introduced protection zones covering over 4 million sq km. That is quite an old figure; the current one may be greater. I believe it is reasonable to say that no other country in the world is doing more to stop litter polluting the marine environment.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to the street cleansing staff in Barnet and other areas who are working for councils across the country on the frontline of the battle against litter. So, too, is the army of volunteers who turn out to pick litter in their community. I have had the privilege of joining many such groups over the years, including—to mention just a few—Green Beings High Barnet, the Barnet Society, the Dollis Brookers, the Pymmes BrookERS, and most recently the Barnet residents association. The Great British spring clean and the Great British beach clean see those kinds of groups head out all over the country to tidy up their communities, many of them supported by the high streets community clean-up fund. I thank all those volunteer groups, and I thank Keep Britain Tidy, which does so much to make those litter picks happen.

As I have said many times in this Chamber, all of us who are privileged to serve here should strive to protect the natural environment—few tasks should be more important to any Member of this House—and combating the scourge of litter is an important part of doing that. It can also play a crucial role in levelling up our country and restoring pride in our towns and cities. Litter is an eyesore that blights our communities and damages our global reputation, so let us do everything we can to prevent it, so that we can safeguard this beautiful country that all of us are lucky enough to call home.

I myself have gone out and picked up litter throughout the Ribble Valley, and I thank the volunteers who I saw a couple of weeks ago who went out picking litter throughout my constituency. I want to say that there is a simple solution: do not drop litter. It is not rocket science.

I could not agree more with your wise words, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I join you in thanking the volunteers in your constituency, as well as those in Chipping Barnet and right across the country. It feels appropriate to mark that sense of volunteerism that we excel at in this country. I know that the Big Help Out is a fundamental part of this coronation weekend, and I will certainly be involved in judging the best dressed house in my village of Bootle, perhaps making a number of enemies and fewer friends. The planting, painting and renovating and the picking up of litter that we do right across this country are testament to our fantastic community spirit, and it was a joy to hear about that today. It is perhaps inspired by the well-spent youth of my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and his part in street cleansing, which was lovely to hear about.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) not just for securing the debate, but for the work she has done as a Back Bencher and perhaps even more importantly when she led the great Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where she served as Secretary of State. It was a pleasure to chat to officials today to learn of their experience of working with her. They reminded me that she brought the Environment Bill, now the Environment Act 2021, to this House. I had the great pleasure of being able to publish the environmental improvement plan on 31 January. It is a spin-off—a kind of five-year review of the Environment Act 2021. I thank her for all her hard work.

The Minister responsible for this area, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is unfortunately unable to attend the debate, so I have the pleasure of responding. If I am unable to answer any of the more technical points in her portfolio, I will endeavour to ensure that I or she writes with further details.

Let me state unequivocally that this Government are absolutely committed to tackling the scourge of litter. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet referenced the importance that schools place on that, and the eco-schools programme is a fine example. Certainly when I visit primary schools and ask them what they think is the most important thing to help nature’s recovery, they say, “Stop litter.” They have seen the David Attenborough documentaries. “Wild Isles” is a fantastic example, and they absolutely appreciate what plastic pollution does to nature, both on land and in the sea.

Let me go through some of the actions we are taking on multiple fronts, as we said we would in our litter strategy. They include supporting local councils, which are often best placed to tackle local issues such as littering. For example, we have developed and shared best practice on the provision of litter bins and supported that with £1 million in grant funding, which has helped more than 40 councils purchase new litter bins. Councils are responsible for taking enforcement action, and in recent years we have bolstered their powers by introducing penalties for the keeper of the vehicle, as my right hon. Friend said. It is now possible that the keeper of the vehicle from which litter is thrown will suffer a penalty. In doing so, we have made it clear that councils are free to take action based on camera footage, including that supplied by members of the public, as long as councils are satisfied that the evidence meets the relevant standards, so I think that we have been listening.

I know that the Government take this issue seriously. Can the Minister confirm that ANPR cameras can be used to capture an image that can be the basis of a fine for littering?

I would like to write to my right hon. Friend with the absolutely correct information, but perhaps I can reassure her by the commitment of £1.2 million that we have provided to more than 30 councils to help them purchase equipment to tackle fly-tipping. Nearly all the projects are utilising CCTV in some way, including one focused on identifying offenders using AI technology in combination with ANPR cameras, which I know— because my right hon. Friend is absolutely insistent—is a very sensible idea. We are also starting to see some positive results from these grants. In Durham, for example, the county council has seen a reduction in fly-tipping of over 60% in the areas where CCTV was installed on existing lighting columns. Case studies will be made available in due course so that others can learn about the interventions that were most successful.

The Government’s new antisocial behaviour action plan sets out how we will go further by supporting councils to take even tougher action against those who seek to degrade our public spaces. This includes significantly raising the upper limit on fixed penalty notices to £1,000 for fly-tipping and £500 for littering and graffiti. Alongside these increases, there are new measures to help councils and others to carry out more enforcement activity. This includes funding to support police and crime commissioners, working with councils and others, to target enforcement in the areas where antisocial behaviour is most prevalent. Initially, the Government will support 10 trailblazer areas, scaling up to hotspot enforcement action across all police forces in England and Wales in 2024. Under the action plan, a new approach called immediate justice will be introduced to make perpetrators repair the damage they have done. They will be forced to pick up the litter, clear wastelands or clean up graffiti within as little as 48 hours of being caught. This will start in 10 places before being expanded across England and Wales in 2024.

Furthermore, DEFRA is working in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy. I pay tribute to it, because the Keep Britain Tidy campaign is incredibly well known and very successful across the country. I also pay tribute to the chewing gum producers for establishing the chewing gum taskforce. In 2022, the taskforce provided funding of £1.2 million to help more than 40 councils clean gum off pavements and invest in long-term behavioural change to prevent gum from being dropped in the first place. The first year of grants saw some fantastic results, with behavioural change projects reducing gum litter by over 35% on average. The taskforce is running a similar scheme in 2023 and, in total, gum producers will be investing up to £10 million over five years in the taskforce.

I know my right hon. Friend wants to see roadside litter tackled robustly. It is absolutely infuriating to see bags of fast food packaging, sometimes bagged up into a carrier bag, tossed out of a vehicle, and I find them on country walks. I just wonder what goes through people’s minds when they behave like that in our countryside. I absolutely share my right hon. Friend’s despair at those kinds of acts, which are blighting our countryside. So I am very pleased to be working with National Highways, which is working with Keep Britain Tidy, to fully understand who litters and why littering occurs from vehicles. Using the insight from the research, National Highways will be carrying out targeted behavioural change interventions. It is also collecting evidence of littering across the network and working with litter authorities to encourage prosecution.

While local councils have the responsibility for keeping our public spaces clear of litter, the role of volunteer litter picking groups should not be underestimated. As I have said, and I think Members across this House will have great examples in their constituencies, they are certainly held in very high esteem by this Government. We have also supported volunteers in other ways. In 2019, the Government provided £9.75 million for our high streets community clean-up fund. Councils were able to use that one-off funding to support volunteers, for example by supplying litter pickers. I am pleased that Barnet Council, which sits in my right hon. Friend’s Chipping Barnet constituency, was one recipient of that fund.

My right hon. Friend uses the bags herself, and I am delighted that she is a cheery recipient of that fund. More recently, the Environment Agency published a regulatory position statement, which allows local tips to accept litter from voluntary litter pickers, and enables volunteers to collect litter without needing a waste carriers licence. We will continue to use our influence to support and endorse national clean-up initiatives such as Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean, and encourage as many as are willing to participate in such events in the future. Our commitments extend to reforming how packaging waste is managed, which should help to prevent litter at source.

My right hon. Friend asked for an update on our extended producer responsibility for packaging scheme. That will move the cost of managing packaging disposed of in street bins away from local taxpayers and councils, and on to the producers of that packaging, hopefully reducing it. In January, we set out policy decisions and next steps for introducing a deposit return scheme for drink containers. The implementation of that scheme is expected substantially to reduce the littering of in-scope drink containers by up to 90% in year three of the scheme. We remain committed to our delivery timetable, and will continue to manage any associated risks in a way that supports the goals of the extended producer responsibility for packaging and deposit return schemes.

This is about encouraging people to do the right thing. In 2018, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched the “Keep it, Bin it” anti-litter campaign with Keep Britain Tidy. The campaign encourages people, including young people, to dispose of their litter responsibly. We use social media to raise awareness of the impact of litter, and to encourage individuals to put their rubbish in the bin or take it home. Projects funded as part of our fly-tipping grant scheme for councils include the integration of CCTV and a digital fly-tipping awareness course for those caught fly-tipping in Durham. Once again, we have been listening to my right hon. Friend, and many of her suggestions, and the actions she undertook while in the Department, have proven positive and effective.

Since the introduction of our carrier bag charge, the number of single-use plastic bags sold by the main retailers reduced by over 97% between 2014 and 2022. That has translated to less litter. According to the Marine Conservation Society, there has been a 55% drop in plastic bags found on UK beaches since the charge was introduced, so it has been highly effective.

I thank my good friend the Minister for allowing me to intervene. One thing we have not mentioned is invisible litter such as microplastics in the ocean. Marine life consume microplastics, which, through consumption, we then consume. Microplastics kill marine life, and they may well also kill human beings. The issue is growing and growing.

We have also taken action on microbeads, plastic straws, ear buds and plastic stirrers. We will soon ban the supply of single-use plastic plates, bowls, trays, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain polystyrene food and beverage containers from October 2023. We will also ban nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas, to put an end to intimidating groups littering local parks with empty cannisters.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet raised the issue of disposable barbeques, which when used appropriately present little or no risk of harm to people, nature and the environment. They are enjoyed responsibly by many people across the nation, both at home and outdoors, and it is right that we do not unduly prevent that responsible enjoyment. However, when disposable barbeques are used irresponsibly, they can present a danger. That is why we commissioned research to understand the impact of their misuse to inform future policy in the area. Local authorities can already restrict and prevent misuse where appropriate using their existing powers. We have also explored options for tackling the littering of cigarette butts, including making the industry financially responsible for the costs of dealing with littered butts, and we are currently considering the next steps.

We are also aware of the growing use of disposable vaping products. Producers of electricals, including vapes, are currently obligated to finance the collection and treatment of those products when they become waste. We will continue to strengthen the existing obligations and consult on policies aimed at driving up levels of separate collection of electrical and electronic waste, including vaping devices, later this year.

I hope that I have demonstrated how deeply determined the Government and my Department are to tackle litter and our commitment to creating a clean and tidy public place for all to enjoy. Let me end by joining you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in your words wishing everybody here, near and far a fabulous coronation weekend. I thank my right hon. Friend for an excellent and timely debate about how we really do keep Britain tidy.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.