Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very glad to have this opportunity to ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to tackle litter in urban and rural areas. I express my thanks at the outset to all those noble Lords who have put their names down to speak in this debate, and look forward to hearing their contributions. I am particularly glad that my noble friend Lord Marlesford, who has made this very much his own subject in the past, is taking part, and that my noble friend Lord Gardiner, who has done so much to advance the cause of the countryside over so many years, is to respond.
Those of you who know me will know that I am not a natural for Glastonbury—at least not for the festival. I was having a conversation about this extraordinary extravaganza, and somebody said to me, “The people who go there are the sort of people who care about the planet”. When I saw the photographs on Monday or Tuesday morning of the enormous piles of rubble and rubbish left behind by the revellers, I could not help but reflect that we judge people by what they leave behind. It was symbolic of a problem that is very real in our towns and countries. When I go to the early service at Lincoln Cathedral on a Sunday morning, which I do whenever I am there, it is a very rare Sunday morning when I do not observe rubbish between our home in Minster Yard and the cathedral. That is not because Minster Yard is badly kept—it is most scrupulously kept—but because revellers on a Saturday evening have seen fit to deposit all manner of detritus in a particularly lovely and holy place.
Again, one thinks of so many of our country lanes defaced, the verges absolutely obliterated in some cases by all manner of nasty things. Before I moved to Lincoln, I was for 40 years, as some of your Lordships know, a Member of Parliament in south Staffordshire. I lived for some 35 years in and near the lovely village of Enville. It was rare to drive around the country lanes without seeing discarded sofas, refrigerators and mattresses that had been fly-tipped by people, frequently over a weekend, and which cost a great deal of money to remove. This detritus is a product of carelessness but, much more than that, of selfishness—and, sometimes, of malevolence.
I was very glad when the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee produced a hard-hitting report just before the end of the last Parliament—so close to the end of it that the Government have not yet got around to replying to it. I am sure that they will; maybe my noble friend will be able to tell us when. It really was a sobering report to read, referring to England—because it was specifically concerned with England—as a “litter-ridden country”. About a month later, that very attractive and important magazine, Country Life, which has delighted people for well over a century, began its campaign against litter. It described the United Kingdom as,
“one of the filthiest countries in Europe”.
The first article was illustrated by a graphic picture of Loch Long in Scotland, showing the shore of the loch completely dominated by discarded rubbish and rubble.
Some 30 million tonnes of rubbish are gathered up from our towns and cities every year, enough to fill Wembley Stadium four times over. We have to remember, too, the nature of much of the rubbish in our streets. A cigarette butt, I am told, takes 12 years to break down completely; a plastic bag takes 20. Another graphic statistic appeared in a Country Life article, which said that it is reckoned that there are,
“46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean”.
That is a terrible statistic, particularly when you think of the implications for wildlife. So many sea birds die as a result of ingesting bits of plastic. It really is a commentary on the carelessness of our age—carelessness in the worst possible sense: that people do not care.
It is not that there are no powers on the statute book to deal with these issues; indeed, there are a number. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced, again in March this year, a splendid account of what the responsibilities of councils and other public bodies are in clearing up litter and rubbish. It is an impressive document. It has been reprinted in an excellent brief that the Library has produced for noble Lords who may be taking part in this debate and others who are interested but cannot be here, of whom I know there are a good number. It illustrates that most of the powers are there but they are just not being properly enforced. So few on-the-spot fines are administered to those who discard their rubbish in the streets, very often from car windows. It is possible for people to be fined £2,500. I appreciate that that sanction cannot easily be applied to a careless child—I will say a little more about that in a moment. But we should enforce such things, and the department itself should hold councils to account for what they do.
We should also be considering anti-social behaviour orders—ASBOs—for those who deface our towns, cities and countryside in this way. We should be considering the confiscation of vehicles that have been found guilty of being used for fly-tipping. We should consider a takeaway-food tax for those who sell takeaway food and do not deal properly with what happens afterwards—there are exceptions, such as McDonald’s, which has a proud record of playing a part in tidying up the environment. There are other measures that can be taken. The call of the Commons in its Select Committee report for a national clean-up day ought to commend itself to the Government.
I have often talked in your Lordships’ House about the importance of citizenship and community service for our young people. I would like all of them, when they leave school, to have done some community service and to be given a citizenship certificate, which underlines not only their rights but their responsibilities; and one responsibility that we have to inculcate into the young is care for the environment. I should very much like to see the Government place a real emphasis on this issue; this would mean my noble friend talking to our noble friend Lord Nash and others. If there is to be a moral and a message from this brief debate, it ought to be: “Don’t fling it, bin it”. We need to inculcate this attitude into people of all ages, but particularly into the young, who can often be the best disciplinary influence on careless parents.
I am glad to have had this brief opportunity to introduce this subject of great importance, and I very much look forward to your Lordships’ contributions.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. He is a decent, civilised man who cares desperately about the qualitative dimensions of life in Britain. He is right to have drawn attention to the scale of the challenge. Litter is not limited to the countryside; it is there in cities as well.
I live in one of those beautiful valleys of England. Just like the noble Lord, if I stroll up the lane that goes past our house, I pull rubbish out of the hedge. I can return home with a black sack full of rubbish. It is appalling. One thing that strikes me is that so often people say, “Something should be done about it”, rather than start by saying, “Could we do something about it?”. I find it very interesting that people give immense attention to the care and beauty of their own gardens, but if they step out of their gardens and into the lane beside their homes, they do not even think of picking up unsightly bottles or waste that has been thrown away.
Of course, we all have a responsibility. It is not a matter of political doctrine. In any kind of society that challenge would arise. In our little London flat, we have a basement entrance, and we are constantly picking up the rubbish that has been casually thrown into our basement by passers-by. Do not let us think that there is a social division about this. So-called yuppies, upwardly mobile people, are just as likely to do it as anybody else. There is an issue here, I believe, about style. There is almost a style in discarding your rubbish. If you are in a car and the window is open, you flick your cigarette. If you are crossing the road and you are having a last puff, it is almost ballet to watch the last few puffs and then throw the cigarette away. There are things like that. But I am so glad that the noble Lord emphasised the responsibility of food and drink producers and suppliers, because they should take very carefully the example of those who have a responsible approach and not, by their means of packaging or whatever, aid and abet this process.
Sometimes, of course, it is carelessness. Down this lane that I have described, we have the coast-to-coast cycle trail. Sometimes there are people there enjoying the beauty of our valley, not realising, as they think, “This is just a small bit of rubbish we’re discarding here”, what that accumulates into being—and, indeed, that it endangers the beauty of the valley.
The points that the noble Lord raised are very important, but we have to look behind it all. The issue has become more challenging because we live in a society in which consumerism has eclipsed citizenship and people are almost thinking of the countryside as something beautiful that is just a consumer good, not as something that is part of their responsibility as a citizen. With great respect to the noble Lord, I do not think that it is just about teaching about responsibility to the countryside. It is a matter of emphasising the whole concept of citizenship and what it involves.
We live in an age of profound acquisitive individualism, selfishness and greed. If we are going to get that right and get the issue of litter right, we have to have other values. I have never had a doctrinaire stand against the market, but the market is simply not enough in these spheres. We have to have other absolutes which must be there in our approach to society, education and government. It is essential. Without them, we are lost. This issue is desperately urgent, but it is a symptom of far deeper issues and challenges in society.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for bringing this very important subject to our attention this evening. I recognise that the noble Lord’s question is about litter and that there are distinct definitions for litter, fly-tipping and detritus in the code of practice issued under Section 89(7) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. I hope that the Minister will be tolerant when I digress occasionally from litter to fly-tipping, for both are obnoxious. I will also concentrate on rural rather than urban areas, for it is these with which I am most familiar.
I am frankly appalled that, as a nation, we seem to have become inured to the sight of vast amounts of paper, cardboard, plastic, bits of clothing, cans and bottles of all descriptions that litter the sides and central reservations of our major roads and motorways. Equally, lay-bys and railway embankments are the repository for old sofas, mattresses and bags of litter. Some of these are the responsibility of the Secretary of State, although I am not sure whether this relates to transport or Defra—perhaps the Minister will clear that up—and others are the responsibility of local authorities. Fortunately, these eyesores are not so obvious at this time of the year when Mother Nature does her best to hide them under verdant spring and summer growth, but the autumn and winter reveal all. As a frequent traveller on both road and rail, I sometimes feel ashamed to be British. What visitors to this otherwise beautiful country must think of us, I dread to think.
As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, pointed out, there are plenty of legal provisions to fine litterbugs—but first catch the offender. Fly-tipping is usually carried out at night and it is difficult to detect the offenders. According to the ENCAMS—Keep Britain Tidy—survey, it costs an average of £800 to clear up each incident on private land. Defra estimates that it costs private landowners £150 million a year. Out of 852,000 reported incidents of fly-tipping reported last year, there were only 2,000 convictions. How do you catch and give an on-the-spot fine to someone hurling litter from a car travelling at 70 miles per hour on a motorway, or even stop a lorry with an insecure load dispersing litter over a considerable distance? There are too few policemen to impose the law, and too few citizens who can be bothered to report perpetrators, though I note that two individuals were fined £4,500 between them in Bedfordshire last Monday as a result of reports from members of the public. In this instance fines, or the threat of a fine, clearly did not work.
How can we change littering behaviour? First, we need to clear up the worst areas, as is outlined in part 1 of the code of practice. We must stop hiding behind dubious health and safety rules as an excuse for doing nothing. If an area is clean and tidy, the tendency to drop litter must be reduced. When I was young, we used to be confronted by signs that ordered: “Take your litter home”. I recall anti-littering campaigns in schools. As the floor of my car sometimes demonstrates, the lessons that I learned when young have never been forgotten.
I wonder just how many know about Keep Britain Tidy and what it does. If it is to be effective, its profile needs to be raised. I agree that there have been periodic reminders—Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, was seen picking up rubbish in a London park—but there needs to be a concerted campaign to highlight some of the awful damage caused to wildlife and farm animals that might ingest or get trapped in litter dumped on roadsides or in fields; to highlight the cost to local authorities and individual landowners of clearing up behind dirty, lazy people; and to prick the consciences of those who deliberately defile our countryside with their rubbish. For example, could use be made of the overhead signs on motorways to remind people that litterbugs are offenders as well as offensive? There are working parties of young volunteers who clear our beaches. Could not the same be done for other areas where littering is bad, so long as there are sufficient safety measures and supervision? If the volunteers are local, they will take a pride in their patch and want to keep it as nearly pristine as they can.
There needs to be a culture change so that, like the Japanese, Scandinavians, Germans, Austrians and Singaporeans, we learn to appreciate our environment. While the Government can provide some incentives, I wonder whether the Minister agrees that it is up to every one of us to play our part. Will the Government look at what happens in these other countries with a view to adopting some of their successful practices?
My Lords, my noble friend has done very well to secure this debate because the subject needs debate and action. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Litter is quite unnecessary and is therefore inexcusable, but the Government are much to blame. I shall give an example. Whitehall knows little and cares less. Ministers were pathetic during the coalition Government. I hope that with a Tory Government we will get something better done.
I shall tell the House a little anecdote which illustrates the difficulties of dealing with Whitehall on such matters. From 1995, I campaigned for an electronic record of all firearms similar to the long-established vehicle licensing system at Swansea. The Home Office said it was unnecessary and too expensive. In February 1997, with all-party support, I got an amendment to the Firearms (Amendment) Bill for that purpose. The Home Office opposed it, but the late Emily Blatch, who many of us loved and who was the Minister, rang me to say it was a good idea and she would accept it. It became part of the Act which came into force in October 1997. The Home Office was having none of it. It set out to sabotage it using the usual “Yes Minister” techniques. I persisted over many years with the support of a series of Home Office Ministers in this House. Those on that roll of honour include Lord Williams of Mostyn, the noble Lords, Lord Rooker, Lord McNally and Lord Bassam, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, and my noble friend Lady Anelay. Eventually the Home Office gave way after 10 years. The complete system that I wanted, linked to the police national computer, went live on 22 September 2007. It works extremely well—I check with the police from time to time to make sure it still does.
Now we have another “Yes Minister” game about littering from vehicles. I introduced a Private Member’s Bill to stop up a loophole which means that in general it is impossible to fine people for throwing litter out of a vehicle, which is a criminal offence, unless you can prove who is responsible. My Bill, which made the keeper of the vehicle responsible so that it was much easier to enforce, had its Second Reading in July 2013, with great support on all sides of the House, but the Government, in the shape of the Home Office and Defra, opposed it.
I then introduced an amendment to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2014. The Civil Service opposition was maintained. However, I got backing from the Home Secretary, my right honourable friend Theresa May and the then Defra Secretary my right honourable friend Owen Paterson. On 20 January 2014 my noble friend Lord Taylor accepted it, and the power to make the regulations for the purpose was inserted in the Bill at Third Reading on 27 January 2014. The Bill received Royal Assent in March last year. Since then the “Yes Minister” game has started again. Defra officials have told CPRE, which has been hugely helpful to me in this matter, that they are still not convinced that what is in the Act is needed and they propose further research.
I had a letter dated 14 November 2014 signed by Dan Rogerson—then a junior Lib Dem Minister at Defra but an election casualty in May—explaining that they had, “unfortunately not been able to let the contract ... for the scoping study in July 2014”, but were “taking steps to retender the scoping study in the next few weeks”. Since then absolutely nothing has happened—radio silence.
I hope that my noble friend will have a word very soon with my honourable friend Rory Stewart, who is now the Minister responsible, and tell him that I am not a quitter. I shall continue to press this, if necessary throughout the Parliament, until what Parliament has decided is enacted. I am not going to accept this Civil Service obstruction to the will of Parliament and to the needs of the countryside on litter.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for putting this Question about a topic which has long been on the agenda and will not go away any time soon unless they listen to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, who might get some action going.
The problem has got worse since the use of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials multiplied due to industrialisation and commercialisation throughout the world. I have seen idyllic tropical beaches spoilt by mounds of plastic bric-a-brac thousands of miles away from its place of origin. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a giant garbage patch where many thousand tonnes of plastic rubbish revolve in a slow whirlpool or gyre, causing great harm to marine life. This rubbish mostly originates from the land, blown from landfill sites or thoughtless dumping. I have been saddened to see many rural roadside hedges and verges in the UK heavily contaminated with plastic bags and other non-degradable rubbish. Removing it is labour intensive and expensive for local councils. Local volunteer groups do a valiant job but only scratch the surface of the problem.
I want to concentrate on a specific form of litter—cigarette stubs. We all know how ubiquitous they are. Despite the level of smoking dropping significantly in the last decade or two, nearly 6,400 tonnes of waste are still caused annually by smoking. This mainly consists of cigarette filter butts which take 10 to 15 years to biodegrade. Some 1,400 tonnes are discarded on streets and footpaths and must be picked up and disposed of by local government street-cleaning services. On the whole they do this unpleasant job efficiently; they deserve our thanks. Some councils, while clearing up the cigarette rubbish, use strategies to discourage smoking, including deterrents and incentives. In the City of London, for instance, if a street environment officer sees you dropping a cigarette butt, you will be issued with a fixed penalty notice and now with a “Quit Here” card with details of your local stop smoking service. If the smoker then follows this up and succeeds in quitting, they are given a £20 Boots voucher. Wandsworth was planning to pilot a similar scheme last year, together with pocket ashtrays promoting local stop smoking services.
These schemes have not yet been evaluated but they are surely a step towards eliminating the problem at source. There are other similar schemes around the country which the Minister may be able to tell us about, but no central government funding is earmarked for this, so councils will now find it difficult to fund any anti-smoking messages which could be displayed on bins for cigarette end disposal in busy shopping streets, for instance. This was not done in Middlewich, where 32 butt bins were mounted on walls around the town last February. The sting in the tail is that the £5,000 cost of installing these was borne by Japan Tobacco International, which used the publicity as part of a corporate responsibility deal. Naturally, there were no anti-smoking messages on those bins. This form of activity by the tobacco industry is against the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Its guidelines make it clear that government endorsement of tobacco industry corporate responsibility activity, which could include activity relating to litter, can be used to create a more credible profile for the industry and its policy positions.
I hope the Minister can say that the Government will strongly discourage this form of funding for local authorities and instead step in with assistance in mounting these health messages. In effect, funding from the tobacco industry is a form of Faustian pact, considering the lethal nature of its products.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on stimulating this debate. I cannot remember how many times I have said to my wife over the past 12 months, as we have been driving through the English countryside, that I must promote a debate in the House on litter. I am clearly too slow off the mark and delighted that the noble Lord got there before me. I also express my thanks for the very helpful briefing pack on this topic.
I continue to be appalled at the volume of litter on the side of highways in rural areas, on city bypasses and on the streets of our towns, and at the increase in fly-tipping and its impact on the farming community and the resources of local authorities to deal with this unacceptable situation. I became even more alarmed when I read the very helpful briefing notes provided for this debate. The statistics are stark indeed. Fly-tipping is increasing by about 20% annually and the cost of clearance by local authorities is obviously increasing by an equivalent amount. To make matters worse, prosecutions are falling by 9% annually so the problem is increasing at an alarming rate and prosecutions decreasing at an alarming rate. This can only lead to a crisis situation.
When we have overseas friends staying with our family, I find myself embarrassed at having to apologise for the litter on our roadsides. Some friends of ours moved from South Africa to live permanently in Britain a few years ago, and I asked them about their first impressions of our country. Their response was that they were really surprised at the amount of litter. How dreadful is that?
The opening words of the CLG Select Committee report are very impactful:
“England is a litter-ridden country compared to most of Europe”.
Our deep concern about this issue in this House this evening is shared by others. The president of CPRE warned earlier this year that the countryside is sinking in litter. He is quoted in a Guardian article as saying:
“Without urgent action, the generation that follows us will find the beauty of England submerged in garbage ‘too thick-strewn to be swept up’, just as Philip Larkin prophesied”.
I could not have put it better myself.
We cannot stand by and allow this situation to continue to get worse and worse. I applaud the efforts of Keep Britain Tidy and of the amazing groups of volunteers who are making a real difference. There are 671 registered voluntary groups —and I suspect many more which are not registered—that care about the appearance of our countryside, towns and cities and take precious time out to clean up the mess others leave behind. I was hugely impressed with the example given in the report of a five and a half-mile section of the A46 where five workers took 17 days to collect six tonnes of litter. We cannot quite match that density in Northumberland, but our farm boundary abuts a mile of highway and I personally collect at least five large bin bags of rubbish every year from the roadsides of that mile; five large bags per mile in rural Northumberland, and every single piece of rubbish thrown out of a vehicle window. The statistic that shocked me the most in the report was that 25% of people admitted that they drop litter. I cannot believe that 25% of people have admitted to doing this. Now, I know we should not stretch statistics too far but if we discount children, around 15 million people in Britain admit to dropping litter. This is a national disgrace.
What is the solution? There are three possible actions. First, we need another high-profile campaign, building on the Country Life campaign referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to raise awareness of the issue and to help persuade the 15 million people I referred to earlier to stop dropping litter and throwing it out of their vehicles. Secondly, this needs to be supported by much higher penalties. It is a joke that the maximum fine allowed in courts is £2,500 but the average penalty is just £140, and the “on-the-spot fine”, the fixed penalty notice, is only £75 on average. These are not serious deterrents. They take this seriously in Singapore, where the first offence carries a fine of 1,000 Singapore dollars, which is about £480. I am not suggesting we adopt Singaporean laws, but the deterrent works. We need to get serious about penalties for littering and fly-tipping and double if not treble the penalties. Finally, we need to encourage volunteering. We need 10 times more voluntary groups to support those who give so willingly of their time to clean up England.
A co-ordinated response on all these fronts is going to be required if we are to restore the beauty of our country and especially our countryside, so that we can be proud of its appearance once again. I hope the Minister is taking note.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Cormack, because a cause espoused by my noble friend is a cause espoused with passion. The problem of litter, refuse and fly-tipping, as any local councillor knows, often arouses more passion than the European Union or anything else; it is a matter of real concern to many people. At the very beginning of my speech I pay tribute to what I regard as the unsung heroes: the street cleaners. I live in London, and without them this place would be engulfed in a mountain of rubbish. As many noble Lords have said, many thousands of people—including myself and, I imagine, everyone speaking in this debate—spend part of their time in their locality or street picking up rubbish, going through the countryside with a black bag and filling it up. Therefore a lot of people in this country do a great deal to try to repair the horrors caused by litter.
I will focus mainly on towns and cities. My first point is to ask, why does this matter? It matters because it affects the environment in which we live. When you see food, cans and rubbish it affects the whole mood and nature of people’s lives, and they lose pride in their neighbourhoods. It matters for health reasons. The amount of food that is dropped—chicken, hamburgers and sandwiches—attracts rats, urban foxes and pigeons, so there is a health hazard as well. We know that litter attracts litter. If you leave litter anywhere, people automatically think that that is a rubbish dump and will just put more there.
How have we got to this state? If we look at some of the reasons why, we might find some of the solutions. Firstly, there is the stigma of dropping litter, which noble Lords and the noble Countess mentioned, looking back at the past. We were told as children that to drop even a sweet wrapper was the wrong thing to do, but that stigma has gone. I ask myself, how can we begin to educate people in a new way? One of the most interesting things about schools is that when children at a very young age are taught about the evils of smoking or about what is happening to our environment, they go home and tell their parents not to smoke and to worry about climate change. Therefore we have to ask how we can use schools to educate children. I wonder about some of the ideas that are happening in some places; schools might adopt a local street and go round collecting the litter, and a local company could sponsor that activity, promoting it on litter bins or in other ways so that the school and the company gain credit for that. That would be one way in which children could actively engage in litter collection.
There is a lack of ownership. As noble Lords have said, people think that it is somebody else’s problem. One thing we could also do is perhaps to follow an example from Germany and begin to emphasise to retail and food outlets that they have a responsibility to look after their premises. Many single traders do that already—they take real pride—but a lot more could happen. I hope that the Minister will at least give me hope that he might consider that possibility.
I will end with a very strong plea—this debate has given me the chance to do that. I live in London, and many of us travel on the Underground. A huge amount of food is left on the Tube. McDonald’s may be doing many things in its retail outlets, but not a day passes when you go on to a Tube train and immediately you can smell that someone is eating a McDonald’s. They will have a grease-soaked bag, placed on seats on which people will be sitting, and there will be sandwiches, food dripping with mayonnaise—which gets all over the place. Presumably, at the end of the line, the terrific workers on the Underground have to clear it; not just the newspapers, which are left at the end of every rush hour, morning and night, but also the food, coffee, and all the rest. I end with a very strong plea for London Underground to look at this very carefully.
My Lords, I will make two comments in the gap. I declare that I am a vice-chancellor of the Local Government Association. I know that local councils take this very seriously. In fact, 73% of residents are satisfied with the way their councils deal with litter. However, they need to be even better at it. My experience as a councillor and a trainer of councillors over the years has shown that voters judge their council on the state of the streets. If the streets are messy and unkempt, they think that that is how the council is run. Therefore that is definitely in councils’ interests. I can recommend what Sutton council did. When it started off one of its campaign—they have been elected as Lib Dems year after year—they displayed a big mountain of litter, which was what they had collected in a day, and told the voters that it had cost £4 million to collect.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who set the scene very well. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said that one of the difficulties here is how foreigners see us. The committee which produced the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred, heard from an American expert in this area. I will read a few of his words. He said that Britain was,
“like a trash can … You have to go deep into eastern Europe to find it so bad. I have never seen anything like this in Japan or France. It’s obviously a cultural problem … It’s bad for the spirit to walk through filth … Why should everyone live in a teenager’s bedroom?”.
I will not even read the next, rather colourful, American turn of phrase.
There is something wrong with our priorities and in the way we behave, whether that is on the Tube, in city centres, back streets, country lanes or our motorways. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has long been a campaigner in this area. Highways England put in a lot of effort, as did the local authorities. We have very good campaigners such as Keep Britain Tidy, which has a lot of support. However, at the end of the day, we must rely on two things to improve this situation. First, we need to deter—or incentivise—people from acting in the way they do. Some of that will involve education, some of it is bringing your food box or whatever back into the shop and you will benefit from doing that, or you will be faced—there are sticks, as well as carrots—with a rather more effective fine than we have at the moment. As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said, there is a maximum level of fine for littering of £2,500, which would deter me. However, the actual fine in the courts is only £140, and the fixed penalty is £75.
As we have found in other areas, a hefty fixed penalty—or one that is properly enforced by the courts if we cannot do it entirely by fixed penalty—would be a deterrent. However, in order to enforce that, even through better deterrence, we need resources. The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, said that we owe a lot to the street cleaners. There is a big effort made, as I have said, by Highways England but the fact of the matter is that, with local authority finances being what they are, this area is being squeezed—it is not red circled, it is not prioritised from Whitehall. The resources for local authorities to engage in proper litter clearance are likely to be further squeezed.
I speak as a former member of the board of the Environment Agency, which deals with large-scale fly-tipping. Focusing on its key objectives has meant that the agency’s enforcement regarding fly-tipping and what is effectively a criminal act—a criminal gangs’ act—has been much reduced.
We need to recognise that this is a problem that affects all parts of the country and also, as somebody said, the way that you feel about walking through our cities or driving or walking through our countryside. It has a negative effect on the totality of our society and on our well-being. We need to prioritise more what is seen as a residual service, even now, within local authorities and by central government. I hope that the new, corporatised Highways Agency—Highways England—will have as one of its primary objectives ensuring that litter is removed from the highways. If it does not, other things will become more important to that new organisation.
Some deep cultural issues are involved but we can do something relatively easy about some things. Part of it is the deterrence but a lot of it is how we prioritise resources. England is a beautiful country. We have some of the most wonderful cities in the world but they are all being spoilt by the behaviour of our citizens; many of them would not be prepared to justify it to their children, or to each other, but they nevertheless continue it. We need to find a way of stopping them.
My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Cormack for raising this important topic today. I also welcome your Lordships’ contributions and I shall make sure that my colleagues in Defra consider them fully as we continue to tackle this scourge on our nation. The Government are also grateful to the Communities and Local Government Committee in the other place for examining these issues and making a number of helpful recommendations. Its report is currently being considered and the Government will respond shortly.
I say at the outset that I come to this debate with the utmost sympathy with and support for all who see this matter as being of enormous importance. I agree with the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, that it is with great dismay and shame that, when driving round our country, we see accumulations of litter next to our arterial routes and country lanes. I have indeed joined the activist cadre, having handed back a can to a driver who had dropped it at a set of traffic lights. The surprise on the face of the driver as I posted the can back into the car will remain with me for a very long time. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Marlesford would endorse this approach but I say to him: I know that he is not a quitter and nor am I. Litter of any kind, whether it is a cigarette packet or plastic bag, or the fly-tipping of tyres and large amounts of waste is totally unnecessary and an unacceptable blight on everyone’s environment. I endorse the Country Life campaign, which highlights the challenges that we face.
Fly-tipping, which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Cormack, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, is a great problem and the Government are addressing it. The Government’s manifesto set out our intention to introduce new fixed-penalty notices for small-scale fly-tipping. My remarks tonight, however, should perhaps focus on some of the actions being undertaken to address the separate, but obviously related, problem of littering. As my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, have described, this issue is selfish and anti-social. It spoils our enjoyment of the countryside, can harm human health and wildlife, makes our urban areas look run down and uncared-for and damages farming and tourism. We must resolve this as a matter of national pride. It was right of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, to remind us that this is an international scourge as well. We are all able to identify places—indeed, often much cared-for places—that are littered. I assure noble Lords that I share their frustration. Despite decades of campaigning and hundreds of millions of pounds spent every year, the problem remains.
We must get on to the front foot; there is a good deal of new and innovative work being done to try to curb this blight. Everyone has a role to play. I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, had to say—we can all do our bit and I shall certainly be considering what was suggested by my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury.
On 21 March this year, Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government sponsored the first, official England-wide community clear-up day. My noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to this—the sense of community and of doing something together, which is so valuable. Hundreds of events took place across the country. Volunteers picked up bag after bag of litter, with many new groups getting together alongside the established litter-pickers. The event attracted more than 500 community groups. These co-ordinated activities demonstrate the desire of many people in England to live in a litter-free environment, as well as their willingness to get stuck in and be part of the solution. I take this opportunity to thank them all. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury was right to acknowledge them and the street cleaners of our towns and cities. It is not enough, however, simply to pick up the litter already dropped. We, as a nation, need to change the mindset of those who drop litter, some of whom do so in the expectation that others will bear the costs and risks of having to pick it up while others appear simply to not care, as my noble friend Lord Cormack described.
Over the years, Keep Britain Tidy—to which I was pleased to hear the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, refer—has been at the forefront of some truly ground-breaking projects to encourage people to do the right thing. The charity has recently launched a new centre for social innovation to bring together its work with that of others in the field and to enable others to learn from it. I am particularly excited about the award-winning We’re Watching You project, which was funded by Defra. Based on research that showed that people behave better when they think they are being watched, this project used images of watching eyes and messages based on social norms to tackle dog-fouling. It was so successful that fouling in those areas reduced by an average of 46% and far more in some places.
I also want to recognise the Clean Essex partnership, which has shown what is possible when local government, businesses of all sizes and individuals come together. With support from the county council and Keep Britain Tidy, the partnership used advertising to get across the message that,
“littering is ‘not cool’, ‘not pretty’, ‘not smart’ and ‘not classy’”.
Last year, the Love Essex campaign achieved a 21% overall decrease in the amount of litter across the county, with a 41% decrease in branded fast-food litter. This is a real, tangible change; it can be done and it really does work. I strongly encourage other councils to learn from this example.
Another project is CleanupUK. Its Beautiful Boroughs programme helps residents in deprived areas of east London to strengthen their own, immediate community by starting litter-picking groups. Initial results are promising and the benefits are not limited to cleaner streets. Since the project began, more people in these areas report feeling safer in their communities. They are more engaged with their communities, and they feel positive that the actions they are taking will make a difference. This sense of empowerment is important. One participant said, “One person can become two, then become three—we can take on the world like that!”.
Those are some examples of what organisations, charities and individuals are doing to try to change behaviour and reduce littering and its effects in their local areas. I could not possibly mention all the work that I know is going on up and down the country, from groups of litter-pickers such as Rubbish Friends and Zilch to the businesses that have subscribed to the Voluntary Litter Code in Larkfield in Kent, but I am most grateful to them all.
While local councils and bodies such as Highways England may be legally responsible for the practical aspects of picking up litter, of course we in government also have a role. Most litter problems are local and require an approach tailored to the characteristics of the area and the community. The role of central government is to enable and support this local action: providing a clear legal framework of rights, responsibilities and powers, setting national standards and, where possible, making sure that the costs of dealing with litter issues are passed to those responsible for causing the problem.
Last year, we amended the Highway Code to make it absolutely clear that throwing litter from a vehicle is not just dangerous and anti-social but a criminal offence. More recently, we committed in our manifesto to review the case for increasing the fines for littering. Currently, fixed penalty notices for littering range from £50 to £80, with a default fine of £75. We intend to consult later this year on whether these amounts should be increased. I very much hope that noble Lords who have taken part in this debate will wish to make a contribution to that consultation.
A number of questions were raised. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, asked whether the Secretary of State referred to in Section 89 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is the Secretary of State for Defra or the Department for Transport. It is the Department for Transport. My noble friend Lord Marlesford—I understand his irritation and frustration—asked when the research on littering from vehicles will be published. This will be going to Defra Ministers soon—this year, I hope. I assure my noble friend that I will be in touch with him to tell him about progress and to alert him to the publication of the research.
The noble Lord, Lord Rea, spoke about the tobacco industry. There is no question but that cigarette litter around the nation is a pernicious problem, and we are considering the recommendations in the Communities and Local Government Committee report. I also understand that this country is a signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. As a signatory, we would not wish to include in that convention endorsing, supporting or forming partnerships with the tobacco industry.
My noble friend Lord Sherbourne and a number of noble Lords raised the question of education and asked how we can ensure that young people are best engaged. The Eco-Schools programme was delivered in England by Keep Britain Tidy and 17,5000 schools have taken part in it. I very much hope that, with the Eco-Schools international award programme helping schools to be more sustainable, there will be a continuing understanding that young people need to play their part in ensuring that the future environment is better than the one we have now.
Your Lordships will understand that there is much pressure on the public purse and that we have to avoid unnecessary expense. Therefore, we must make sure that all the resources which we undoubtedly need to use make a real difference. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made it clear that Defra is committed to delivering a cleaner, healthy environment which benefits people and the economy. Reducing litter is a key part of this—not just in delivering that cleaner environment but in encouraging civic pride and making our beautiful country even more attractive.