Home Page

Column 607

House of Commons

Friday 23 June 1989

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


London Assessment Studies

9.36 am

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich) : I beg leave to present two petitions on behalf of my constituents. The first is from Nunhead Action on Road and Rail, signed by representative members of community groups including Nunhead Residents' Association, the Peckham Society and South Circular Alert, who are all concerned that the road assessment study proposals now being considered will destroy open spaces and the lives and homes of their communities.

The second petition is from the Camberwell Society and is signed by 1,000 or more members, who also express their anxiety about the new road proposals and the view that if bigger roads are built, they will only attract more traffic--a view that I heartily endorse.

To lie upon the Table.

Column 608


9.37 am

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : I beg to call attention to the growing and unacceptable problem of litter ; and to move, That this House welcomes the Government's commitment to taking decisive measures to tackle the problem of litter ; urges all those responsible for land in cities, towns and countryside to take account of widespread public concern at littering and discharge effectively their responsibility to keep that land free of litter ; calls for urgent new measures to discourage littering, to assist those who are already taking seriously their responsibilities and to ensure that those who do not are obliged to do so ; and supports the Government's proposal to place a duty on local authorities to keep their areas clean and to publish a code of practice.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) for the opportunity to raise an important issue this morning. I regard the litter problem in this country as being a non-party policitical issue that cuts across the political divide. However, I was bitterly disappointed that on two occasions my non-contentious, non-political Control of Litter (Fines) Bill was objected to by two Labour Members. When in future I hear Labour supporters claiming that they care about the environment and about litter-related problems, not only will I take their remarks with a pinch of salt but half the salt in Siberia.

I shall not dwell on the past but will look to the future and try to analyse what constructive measures can be taken to eliminate the litter problem, which is becoming such a blot on our landscape. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has rightly expressed her disgust at the state of our towns and countryside, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment has won widespread praise for the vigour with which she tackles the problem and seeks to find relevant solutions that will meet the problem. Their concern is reflected by worries expressed throughout the country about declining standards of cleanliness in public places.

A recent Department of the Environment poll showed that almost 75 per cent. of people surveyed are worried about litter. Similarly, a poll by FDS Market Research revealed that 76 per cent. of British people think that there is more litter about now than there was 10 years ago. Sadly, Britain is in danger of becoming the dustbin of Europe.

Our inner cities and towns are riddled with litter abandoned by thoughtless, selfish litter louts. Our countryside also suffers from the dumping of litter, and the sides of motorways and major roads are a national disgrace. No longer is our nation a green and pleasant land. Fast food packaging, crisp bags, disposable drinks cans and cigarette stubs mar our environment : we are a nation that wallows in filth.

Why are we such a dirty nation when so many people express genuine concern and disgust at the sad state to which we have reduced ourselves? I believe that there are three answers. First, it is a question of attitude. Recently I visited Japan to study its litter laws, and was amazed to be told that the main thrust of that country's actions to deal with the problem was related to attitudes, rather than taking the form of a battery of laws and regulations. I was astonished by this revelation. Not only are Japan's streets infinitely cleaner than ours, but we could not possible rely on the attitudes of individuals. The attitude of the average

Column 609

person in this country is clearly entirely wrong and negative. Stand in any high street or drive behind any car and it is the same dismal story--people thoughtlessly abandoning their litter on the pavement or spilling it out of car windows.

It is just as amazing that few people who witness such spectacles have the courage to speak to the culprits, not only to tell them what they think of such actions but to try to chivvy them into picking up their litter. There seems to be complete apathy and lack of interest.

We need a complete change in attitude, and I believe that most of that change can be brought about by parents. Just as children are told from an early age that it is wrong to steal or lie, so they should be instructed not to drop litter. As a second step, parents should educate their children and lead by example. Sadly, however, the current initiatives in schools will probably mean that the children will start educating their parents rather than the other way about.

Another way of quickening the pace of changing attitudes is to alter the general perception of the problem, just as smoking has changed in the public's perception from a harmless, glamorous habit to an anti-social and disgusting one. People should not turn a blind eye, but should go up to those who drop litter and tell them exactly how selfishly and anti-socially they are behaving. It will be a long process, but that is no excuse for doing nothing.

Secondly, legislation has a key role to play. Laws encourage cleanliness and establish a deterrent against the more slovenly and selfish members of society. In his "Notes on Paris", Baudelaire wrote :

"Everyone's washing pavements. Even when it is pouring with rain. It's a national obsession."

Paris and other major European cities require people by law to keep the pavements in front of shops and houses clean. Every morning, and again in the afternoon, elderly ladies can be seen along with staff of retail outlets, scrubbing down the pavements in front of their homes and shops and making their contribution to keeping the law.

In West Germany people can be prosecuted if the streets in front of their houses are grubby, or even if their house fronts are not up to standard. In Australia litter droppers can be fined up to £240 on the spot. Something must do done in this country to strengthen existing legislation and to give local authorities real powers--powers that they are crying out for--to enforce anti-litter legislation. The major anti-litter legislation- -the Litter Act 1983--is a national joke. It is ineffective because it is rarely used, and it is rarely used because the police are far busier carrying out more important tasks in combating crime : not unnaturally, the enforcement of litter laws is fairly low on their list of priorities. Even when litter louts are charged, the law is so complex that it is difficult to secure a successful prosecution. To prosecute successfully involves first seeing the offence being committed and secondly proving that the offender intended to drop litter. It is difficult to obtain evidence, and the derisory fines imposed by magistrates do not help. The difficulty of enforcing the legislation is highlighted by the number of prosecutions between 1983 and 1988. They amounted to a mere 5,901, in a country with a population of over 50 million. Taken on a county or police-authority basis the figures are even more depressing.

Column 610

In 1987 the county with the best record was Cumbria, with 296 prosecutions ; the next highest figure, however, was 88, showing a drop of more than 200 in a single year. Greater London, with a population of between 7 and 8 million, boasted a figure of 18 prosecutions in that year, and in my county of Essex only 39 people were prosecuted. Of the 42 shire counties, 27, or about 65 per cent., prosecuted fewer than 40 people. Seven areas, including London and Merseyside--two places where it might be argued that the problem is at its greatest--prosecuted fewer than 20 people, and Cambridgeshire prosecuted only nine.

The punishments meted out by magistrates were equally depressing, thus establishing a general feeling that people can commit offences almost with impunity. Even if they are caught and successfully prosecuted--which, as those figures show, is fairly unlikely--the punishment will be very minor. The maximum fine under the 1983 Act is £400 ; the average fine actually imposed is £32.

The 1987 figures highlight the problem. In that year 1,628 people were fined a total of £57,407, an average of £35 per person. The majority of those--962--were given an average fine of only £19, while 475 were fined an average of £41, 154 were fined an average of £86 and only 37 were fined over £100, with an average fine of £183. Those figures show that no deterrent is being built up. I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister should have a quiet word with the Lord Chancellor and encourage him to make known to magistrates the maximum fines under the 1983 Act, and to point out tactfully that the present level of fines is unacceptably low and is not helping to solve the problem. People are treating the fines as a joke, and will continue to offend with impunity.

The 1983 Act should be amended so that merely dropping litter becomes an absolute offence without the requirement to prove intent. However, but more must also be done on the legislative front to reinforce existing laws. I certainly do not advocate the repeal of the 1983 Act. We should keep it on the statute book, but should bring in further legislation to give local authorities the powers that they need and want to enforce the law effectively. Another way in which the Act should be strengthened is the removal from the police of the powers and requirements to enforce the Act. The police do not have the time to enforce it. They are overburdened. It is more important that they should reduce the level of serious crime rather than have to enforce the Litter Act. That power should be given by law to local authorities. They want it, and because they want it they will ensure that it is used to maximum effect.

Local authorities should also be allowed to give designated officers the power to impose on-the-spot litter fines. The example of Westminster city council shines like a beacon. It has shown the Government how to tackle the problem. Last year, by private legislation Westminster city council secured the right to allow designated council officials to impose on-the-spot fines, or issue fixed penalty tickets. Dozens of local authorities are carefully watching the Westminster experiment. They desperately want the powers that Westminster has taken for itself by means of private legislation, but the only way in which to obtain them is to introduce a private Bill, which is time consuming. Each local authority would have to use the private Bill procedure, which would cost a not inconsiderable sum of money. The Government could get round the problem by introducing legislation that would automatically give to all local authorities the power to use the legislation, if they so wish.

Column 611

I am confident that the legislation would work and would help to solve the problem. Westminster city council has been given the power to designate local authority workers and officials as people who have the power to issue fixed penalty tickets to litter louts. Between 50 and 60 people have been designated as able to use that power. That is in addition to their existing work. Many of them also check building regulations and scaffolding. No additional employees would be needed, thus leading to a greater burden on ratepayers. The litter work would dovetail with their existing functions. I suspect that in the case of certain smaller local authorities--including, possibly, Chelmsford borough council--there may be a problem. They do not employ as many staff as Westminster city council, so they might have to take on additional staff. However, I do not believe that community charge payers in the smaller local authorities would be averse to paying for additional staff, provided that their streets and town centres were cleaned up.

If Westminster officials see that people are dropping litter, they have the power to go up to them and ask them to pick it up and either deposit it in a rubbish bin or take it away with them. If they meet with a refusal, they have the power to issue a fixed penalty ticket, in just the same way as traffic wardens issue parking tickets. A person who is given a fixed penalty ticket has two weeks in which to go to a magistrates court if he disagrees and thinks that he should not have been issued with a ticket. Either he can contest it in court, or he can pay the fine. Such a power is badly needed by all local authorities.

Early results in Westminster show that it is an effective power in the war against litter. Between April 1988 and April 1989, 727 people were approached in Westminster, and 723 of them either picked up their rubbish and deposited it in a rubbish bin or took it away with them. Four of them were issued with a ticket. The first successful prosecution took place two weeks ago. Somebody was taken to court under the Litter Act, having been issued with a fixed penalty ticket, was fined £40, and £35 costs were awarded against him.

Some may argue that the fact that only four people were issued with fixed penalty tickets is minimal, but that is to miss the point, because the other 723 people who dropped litter in Westminster picked it up. When they are next in Westminster I am quite sure that they will think twice about dropping litter again. If local authorities used the power properly, they would build up a reputation for being hot on litter, in just the same way as London has a reputation for being hot on people who park their cars illegally and then find that their cars have been wheel-clamped. People do not like having to spend relatively large sums of money on getting their cars back. Similarly, they would not like to suffer a penalty for dropping litter. If local authorities were known to be hot on little louts, people would think twice before discarding their empty fag packets, sweet papers or fish and chip packaging. That is the crux of the matter.

Cash dispenser wall units in banks, which are such a boon to people on Sundays when they have no money, are also a nuisance. Time after time the little slips of paper that come shooting out are abandoned. At the end of the day the pavement around any bank is awash with them. Banks realise that this is a problem and they are taking steps to counteract it by installing litter bins near dispensers. Sadly,

Column 612

however, for far too many lazy people it is just too easy to drop the slip rather than to walk a few feet and deposit it in a bin. Food outlets, banks and retail shops should be made responsible for keeping the pavement outside their premises litter free, just as businesses in European cities have to take on that responsibility. Yesterday I received a letter from the Retail Consortium. It said that it believes that this is a valid point and that it is trying to encourage its members to get their staff to keep the pavements in front of their premises clean. Sadly, however, legislation is needed so that businesses are required to do that. Public-spirited companies and businesses are prepared to do it, but far too many of them either do not think about it, or they cannot be bothered, or they think up every excuse under the sun for not doing it because, they say, it will increase costs and therefore prices to the customer, or they will have taken on additional staff. That is nonsence but they will not see it like that until it is staring them in the face and they have to do something about it.

A good case can also be made for extending the legislation to the owners of private dwellings. They, too, should be made responsible for keeping their front gardens and the pavements outside their front gates clean. It is not just the Government or local authorities who should be made responsible for keeping our streets, towns and countryside litter free. The Government and legislation provide important leads, encouragement and deterrence, but all of us, as responsible citizens, must play our part. There would be moaning and complaining and barrack room lawyers and wide boys would try to think up every excuse under the sun as to why the legislation would not work. They would say that it is an infringement of civil liberties and they would trot out all kinds of other rubbish. But that is not necessarily true. Such initiatives should be given a chance to work, because after a number of years, when the problems have been dramatically reduced, people will welcome the fact that their pavements are much cleaner and they will wonder why on earth they had not taken the initiative years before. The moaning and groaning will be long forgotten because there will have been an improvement to the environment in which we live and that will be welcomed.

I welcome the possibility that the Government will place a duty on local authorities to keep their areas clean. The publication of a strict code of practice would ensure that positive action results in cleaner streets, roads and countryside. Obviously I cannot anticipate any announcement that my hon. Friend's Department may make and the battery of initiatives and powers that it may suggest to clear up the problem, but I hope that it will announce that provision. Local authorities should have a greater duty to keep their streets clean. I know that some excellent local authorities spend a great deal of time and money on rubbish collection and road sweepers, but other local authorities fail in that respect. I believe that all local authorities should look again at the practices and procedures that they employ to keep their areas clean. Some of them are failing in that duty and they need prodding by central Government to ensure that they raise their standards. I suspect that a code of practice is the only way to achieve that as individual ratepayers and community charge payers will have the right to appeal to a court to make sure that their local authority fulfils its duties.

Column 613

Local authorities could and should do more to review the frequency of street cleaning and rubbish collection, espcially in shopping areas. They should also ensure that there are sufficient litter bins in public places and that they are emptied frequently. All too often litter bins are cascading with litter that has not been collected. Sometimes black dustbin liners remain on the streets for too long before being collected. They get damaged and litter spews out all over the highway and the pavements. If local authorities are worried about the provision of litter bins in towns, villages and cities they should do more to involve local business men. Local business men should be encouraged to sponsor the placing of more litter bins in the high street. Retailers will welcome the opportunity to spend money on more litter bins, and, as a quid pro quo, no one would object if they put their names on the sides of the bins as a form of advertising so that people know that the entire community, including the business community is involved in solving the problem. It is important to harness public good will towards combating litter. I do not think that any hon. Member from any political party, can underestimate the depth of feeling and the magnificent work that many people do throughout the country to try to address the litter problem and persuade people to behave in a cleaner, more social way. Sadly, until relatively recently, they were like an echo in the dark. They were considered by some to be a minority special interest group--the litter nuts who banged on about a single issue. They had no success and it was a waste of time. I pay tribute to their perseverance and their dedication. They were not litter nuts, they had identified a problem that many politicians have recognised far too late. At least politicians now recognise the problem, but only due to the dedication and work of those people.

Far too many people are litter louts. It seems to be ingrained in the British subconscious. But there is another brighter side to the coin. Up and down the country many public-spirited people are prepared to help by going out on litter picks and by going to schools, talking to children, highlighting the problem and trying to make them appreciate what will happen to our environment if it is allowed to continue. They try to enthuse youngsters so that they can play their part and educate their parents out of their anti-social behaviour. Those people have spent many long, thankless hours seeking solutions to the problem.

In Chelmsford, we are fortunate to have an ad hoc "Cleaner Chelmsford Committee" led by the former mayor of Chelmsford, Councillor Phillip Firth and comprising councillors, business men and concerned individuals who have done much sterling and recognised work over many years to try to address the problems in that town. Their efforts are reinforced throughout the country where, in other local authority areas, town and villages, concerned individuals have grouped together to do something rather than simply to moan about the problem. National organisations such as Keep Britain Tidy are doing tremendous work by highlighting problems, publicising the need for action and trying to co-ordinate individuals and the private sector. All that is going on at a subconscious level, below Government through individual initiatives which are appealing to

Column 614

people's sense of civic pride, almost shaming them into changing their habits and doing something positive to clean up.

That approach can be extended from private groups into the education system. I welcome the anti-litter campaigns in our schools that have been initiated by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher). It is important to get youngsters actively involved and interested in the subject and so that, one hopes, that will lead to a change in attitude and as they grow up they will instil in their children that one does not drop litter.

More should be done to encourage the recycling of rubbish. Sheffield, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) knows a great deal more, is engaged in an exciting project involving central Government, the local authority, industry and volunteers, with the aim, over the next three years of showing that there are better ways of using rubbish than merely throwing it away. I believe that that project plans to cash in on up to 50 per cent. of the city's 250,000 tonnes of annual domestic waste output. It is an ambitious project and I wish it success because it will encourage other local authorities to expand their modest plans for recycling, through bottle banks and waste recycling programmes. If there is a success story in one part of the country and it is shown that local authorities can make money out of rubbish it will be a great incentive for other areas to follow that example or to expand their own projects to maximise the benefits which, we hope, will come to Sheffield.

Similarly, manufacturers have a role to play. I welcome that fact that one of the major soft drinks manufacturers in Britain is looking into ways of redesigning cans of soft drinks because those irritating ring pulls are always thrown away and create litter everywhere. It is looking at ways of redesigning those cans so that the spikes, for want of a better word, remain stuck to the can. Perhaps manufacturers could reconsider, on a purely voluntary basis--the Government cannot direct through legislation-- reintroducing the old refundable deposit system for bottles and cans. I remember when I was a child that it was a source of extra pocket money to collect the bottles, take them back to the retail outlet and receive perhaps an old tuppence or threepence. If that was reintroduced, it would encourage people to save their bottles rather than just abandon them. The individual would get money back and the material from which the bottles or cans are made could be re-used. Manufacturers should give that serious consideration.

Manufacturers should also ensure that more take-away food is packaged in bio-degradable material. Most hon. Members will accept that one of the most depressing sights in our towns is the litter outside the fast food outlets at about 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock at night. Fish and chip papers are strewn all over the street together with hamburgers, fried chicken and so on. Rubbish is just abandoned everywhere. Manufacturers could and should do more to look into the use of bio-degradable packaging for fast food. It is excellent that Kentucky Fried Chicken is in the process of changing its methods so that shortly 80 per cent. of its packaging will be bio- degradable. Also, Wimpy is to be praised because it too has moved away from plastic packaging to bio-degradable packaging. That is a step in the right direction but far more manufacturers and fast food producers could move in that way.

Column 615

Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam) : Does my hon. Friend agree that a condition of planning permission should be that people who are given fast food agencies--I accept that they are a good way of obtaining staple food--have to agree to a litter-cleaning clause so that they have to employ people to clean around their area? Will he also consider flyposting and graffiti, which I also think of as a form of litter?

Mr. Burns : My hon. Friend's first point is extremely valid. If the Government were prepared to introduce rules and regulations to make retail outlets, fast food outlets and banks responsible for the pavement outside their premises, I hope that we would not have to go so far with the planning legislation. However, if it is felt that making retail outlets responsible for the pavement would not be enforceable, it would be worth looking into the planning aspect to see whether the problem can be tackled in that way.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's point about graffiti, which I also see as a form of litter. I should like to see greater parental control. I suspect that much of the graffiti is done by young children in their early or mid-teens who, at 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock at night should not be allowed to wander our streets bored out of their brains and taking aerosol cans to walls because they have nothing better to do. They should be under their parents' control at home. Greater parental control would see a reduction in the problem. Also, if people are caught flyposting or spraying graffiti on walls, they should be made to clean it up. They would find that a particularly unpleasant job and would not want to repeat it in a hurry.

The current litter problems are totally unacceptable. Once the situation has deteriorated to a certain level lethargy and apathy take a grip and it is much more difficult to improve matters. If people are used to living in filth and litter, instead of trying to do something about it they will accept it, become immune to it and contribute to it. If they are walking down a street which is covered in litter, they will not bother to make the effort to throw their rubbish away in a bin or take it home with them. Therefore, it is difficult to pull people out of their lethargy. We have to ensure that action is proposed to improve the problem and give further enthusiasm to those who are concerned and want to find a solution. Also, people who complain about the problem at present would see that improvements can be made and they will become enthusiastic and everyone will make a conscious effort.

I welcome the Government's commitment to tackling the problem and I look forward to the announcement in the Queen's Speech and the publication of the green Bill. The Bill is widely and eagerly awaited. I am confident that the work being carried out by the Department of the Environment will result in concrete proposals which will meet the expectations that have been raised. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, if we bag it and bin it, we really will win it.

10.17 am

Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on bringing the subject of litter to the attention of the House. There is no doubt that he has been tireless in his efforts to try to persuade the House to take the matter seriously. The

Column 616

hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett), who unfortunately could not be here today, has also made many speeches on the subject of litter. There is some irony in the fact that the hon. Member for Basildon should follow the hon. Member for Chelmsford. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford will be aware of some modest rivalry over the county town of Essex. Of course, Chelmsford is the county town but, over the past few years, since the Liberal party has taken control of the district authority, there has been a deterioration in the general well-being of the environment in Chelmsford. It was that which prompted me to say that perhaps we should break away from the tradition of Chelmsford as the county town and move it to Basildon, which has undergone many improvements in the past few years. However, I believe that the political balance in Chelmsford has been somewhat redressed and on recent visits to Chelmsford I have noticed some improvements.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that there is not one member of the Democrats or SDP present? At local level we have to put up with bits of paper being pushed through our doors saying that they are against litter. They are in favour of sunshine and people behaving themselves, but, above all, they are against litter. Surely the representatives of those parties could have organised themselves so that at least one hon. Member would be present today.

Mr. Burns : It is extremely interesting that the Democrat Benches are completely empty. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for that is that in Chelmsford and throughout the nation the lights are going out for that party?

Mr. Amess : My hon. Friend's remarks are most apt. Liberals keep putting bits of paper through letter boxes saying that they are opposed to litter. Today is a golden opportunity to debate the subject in the House, but not one Social and Liberal Democrat Member is present.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in a debate with a cross- section of young people. It clearly emerged that they were concerned about environmental issues. They raised with me issues such as lead-free petrol, the Amazon rain forests, the ozone layer and all sorts of other environmental problems. My raising the subject of litter was a hoot. They said, "Who's bothered about litter? Cans and bits of paper do not matter." Following last week's substantial vote in favour of a party that has expressed concern about our environment, the problem of litter should be No. 1 on the list of priorities. It is within everyone's power to do something about it, but it is symptomatic of the problem that insufficient young people take it seriously enough at present.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, litter is a nationwide problem, although I am sure that some Opposition Members would say that the north and midlands are tidier that the south. However, that probably has something to do with the general split of the population.

I do not wish my remarks to be construed as an attack on the people who try to keep our streets, highways and byways clean. I applaud the work of dustmen--as, no doubt, SLD members would were they present--and those who sweep our streets. They have a rotten and difficult job.

Column 617

They cannot keep up with the amount of refuse that is chucked on the ground by people who take it for granted that someone else will pick it up.

The problem of litter should be at the top of the agenda and the political debate that we are enjoying. I shall briefly tell hon. Members how we are tackling the problem in Basildon.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment responded to an Adjournment debate at the end of January and is therefore only too well aware of what we are trying to do in Basildon, but other hon. Members may be interested to learn about our general approach. Last year, we launched the "I love Basildon" campaign, which was a public declaration stating that we are building and creating a fine town and that we wish to keep it that way. We are tackling the problems of litter, graffiti--which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick)--and vandalism. On a cross-party basis, the community is working together to ensure that our town is the cleanest in the country. None of our ideas is original ; they have all been tried before. Local businesses and fast food chains are sponsoring litter bins, and we are installing anti-litter bins.

We are trying something in Basildon that has not been tried before. Tonight, unannounced--although I suppose that I am announcing it now--I am going on a midnight patrol through the town to see at first hand what is going on. I shall ask young people of 13, 14 and 15 why they are standing on street corners, perhaps creating some sort of disturbance. I am sick to death of people saying that they are bored. It is different if someone is not well or is having a breakdown, but how people in 1989, with all the problems that we face, can say that they are bored is beyond me. There are many activities to occupy all minds, regardless of age. I shall be going on my midnight patrol tonight to find out about vandalism and to tackle the problems of graffiti and litter.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I applaud the hon. Gentleman's initiative. I hope that nothing ill befalls him when he is patrolling around at midnight. Is it not a rather odd time to be patrolling, or was the hon. Gentleman just using a catchphrase? If people are hanging around on street corners in Basildon at midnight, I suspect that it will not be because they are bored but because they are up to no good. It might rebound on the hon. Gentleman when they find out who is asking them questions.

Mr. Amess : I shall tackle the problems regardless of the consequences. The hon. Gentleman is right ; I was using a phrase, because the patrol will begin at 9 pm and finish at midnight. I should probably have some difficulty in seeing litter at midnight.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : My hon. Friend's announcement of his unannounced visit will interest everyone. A man in my constituency is a great contributor to various causes. He is a very nice man and I am not trying to belittle him, but if a list of donations to a cause is shown he always takes me to it and says, "Do you see where it says anonymous'? That is me."

Column 618

Mr. Amess : I do not have an appropriate answer to my hon. Friend's intervention, but I thank him for making it.

Basildon is holding a front and back garden competition to decide who has the nicest garden. The general purpose is to highlight our aim of making Basildon as attactive as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said that there is money to be made out of rubbish. How right he is, and we shall certainly make money out of rubbish in Basildon. We have an excellent company called the Basildon Waste Paper Company and local businesses have invited Scouts, Guides and others to do what was always done in the past--to collect newspapers, cans, can rings and other refuse, with all the proceeds going to local charities.

Basildon has the largest covered shopping centre in Europe. I am trying to encourage the people who run it to play a looped tape that will welcome people, thank them for shopping in Basildon and entreat them not to drop their litter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said that litter should not be a party political subject. Unfortunately, politics is slightly involved in Basildon because there is a never-ending argument about who is responsible for cleaning up a green. Basildon has a new town commission, a district council and falls under the control of Essex county council. I am not bothered who clears litter ; I just want Basildon kept clean and tidy. We should not fight over who will earn brownie points for cleaning up the place, which is why I am calling on the Guardian Angels. I know that there is some controversy about the Guardian Angels, whose logo quotes the words of Edmund Burke. It says :

"All that is required for the triumph of evil is that good men remain silent and do nothing."

I am not prepared to become involved in the argument about the merits of what the Guardian Angels have tried to do, but the House may be interested to know that the Guardian Angels have a branch that is prepared, free of charge, to try to clean up areas. I am inviting them to come to Basildon to clean up some areas about which constituents have written to me. We contacted the appropriate authorities, but nothing happened. In one part of London, the Guardian Angels have issued on excellent traders' charter, and local businesses have rallied round. I applaud the efforts of the Guardian Angels, and if they can clean up Basildon, I would welcome it. Those who know Basildon well will have noticed the signs saying that Basildon is a nuclear-free zone. I do not want to become involved in the U-turn on nuclear energy in which the Labour party has engaged, but I believe that there should be big signs at the entrances to our town saying, "Welcome to Beautiful Basildon." I want everyone in Basildon to be proud of the area in which they live. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford that we need a national solution to the litter problem. I praise the Government's efforts to clean up our highways and byways. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wants the problem to be taken seriously. I applaud the efforts of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign and Project 2000 and last week's announcement on what we will do to educate people to read signs so that their dogs no longer foul footpaths. We must be positive about the issue and get people to take it much more seriously.

There are two sides to tackling the problem--education and penalties. Through the national curriculum we must

Column 619

ensure that little children are educated on the subject. That is why I was pleased to receive this morning a handwritten letter from schoolchildren in Basildon, saying :

"My friends and I at Lee Chapel Primary school have collected these milk bottle tops in response to the appeal to keep Basildon tidy. We do hope that this effort will go some way to make this possible.

Yours Sincerely

Mary, Karen, Jo-Anne and Emily."

The letter was accompanied by a beautiful drawing of one animal saying to another,

"I wish they would keep Basildon tidy".

That is a profound message.

We must ensure that young people are educated so that they can embarrass their parents and stop them dropping litter. Yesterday, I was driving behind someone in a brand new BMW who must have had pots of money. He pressed a button so that the electric window came down and then calmly chucked out cigarette ends and packets and crisp bags--that from a supposedly well-educated member of the public. Who does he think will pick up the rubbish?

I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said about the project in Westminster. I am delighted that one of my constituents is working on it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford is aware of the zip patrols which highlight particular areas in Westminster and have been very effective. It is sad that we must resort to the tactics of imposing on-the-spot litter fines. Those efforts are necessary until the effects of radical changes in education are felt.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford on giving the House the opportunity to air our litter problems. I hope that the House and the nation will take this matter seriously so that, in years to come, we will be proud of the Government's achievements and will have ensured that Britain is the cleanest country in the world. 10.34 am

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : I, too, warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on initiating this imporant debate. Nothing does more to damage a community's morale than litter scattered about and the dirt that it causes. I remember when, as a young national service man doing basic training, a sergeant-major picked up a colleague's spoon from a pile of litter. He said, "Do you see this, soldier? What is that?" The soldier said, "It looks like grease." The sergeant-major replied, "Yes, it is grease. Grease draws dirt. Dirt kills soldiers!" That was one of the most dramatic pieces of discipline that I have ever seen. I have always remembered that sequence of thought--grease draws dirt, dirt draws germs and germs kill people. That is why litter is such a serious matter. That is why my hon. Friend has done the House such a service in introducing this important debate.

The thoughts of the House will be with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) tonight following his announcement of his unannounced visit to the street corners of Basildon. We wish him well in his noble endeavours. I hope that the friend who always tells me about his anonymous donations will not be hurt if I say that he sometimes asks, "Do you think that you could announce at the next meeting that I made another anonymous donation?" Anonymous kindnesses should be flushed out and announced. Likewise, my hon. Friend's unannounced visit should be known. It will be awaited with great interest.

Column 620

Nothing does more to damage the environment than litter. We are becoming increasingly conscious of the environment. I wonder whether the House is aware that, by recycling a skipful of newspapers and other paper, 50 trees would be saved. Half the world's trees are used for pulp to make paper and other material. It is tragic if that paper is wasted. In addition, trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. We should remind ourselves every day of their positive contribution to the environment. The beauty of growing trees, even strugglers, shows the hand of God upon our environment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon implied in the middle of his speech that litter starts to become a problem in schools. It is my experience, as one who served in schools for 23 years and finally ran a school of 2,200 for seven years, that the school leadership needs to keep firm control over litter. There is nothing more demoralising than children walking about scuffing paper in the corridors, yard, playgrounds or sports fields. That happens in some schools. It happens largely because ice cream vans, crisp- selling vans and the like are sometimes allowed to park inside the school grounds without the vendors accepting any responsibility for collecting the litter that is created by the products they sell. I know from my own experience that children very much want tuck such as crisps, but I also know that the difficulties I have described often result. The vendors of crisps and ice creams often make handsome contributions to school funds. That is valuable and positive, but would be lost by my proposal, which I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider in her reply.

Would it not be possible for all ice cream vans, crisp-selling vans and other vehicles which sell such items to school children to be kept at least 100 yards away from the school gates? That is necessary for reasons both of litter and of discipline. If a school is attempting to control children during the lunch hour, as is its responsibility, there is often indiscipline with children breaking school bounds and rushing out to the ice cream or crisp-selling vans to make purchases. Either the vans must be brought into school, so that there is no question of school discipline being broken, or they must be taken right away. I would prefer them to be taken right away unless, by coming inside the school premises to sell their wares--and people make considerable sums from such sales--the sellers accept the responsibility of assisting the staff to persuade children to put litter into bins, which they should provide, and they should also clear up the area where children have been eating food.

Heaven knows that teachers have enough to do, but it would help greatly if they got into the practice of tapping the shoulders of children who drop a piece of paper and asking them to pick it up and put it in a bin. That should always be done. Schools should also have litter squads. Sometimes children drop litter and are not apprehended and told to put it in the bin. Schools should set up squads of children, perhaps defaulters, for we no longer have the cane and some sort of sanction must be found for children who misbehave. Collecting litter is not a bad sanction and I used it from time to time when I was a teacher. Children who have misbehaved could be formed into litter squads and at the end of the morning, the beginning of the afternoon or the end of the day, they could pick up any litter around the school so that it is always spotless. If schools are spotless, they are attractive. If they are derelict and strewn with litter, morale goes quickly.

Column 621

Mr. Tony Banks : Is the hon. Gentleman not wrong? Is he not encouraging the wrong philosophy by saying, as I think I heard him say, that children who misbehave should be formed into litter squads? In his initiative as a teacher, he linked punishment with collecting litter. That does not encourage and foster the attitude that the collection of litter is a matter of pride in a school. Making litter collection a sanction associates it with being punished by one of the teachers.

Mr. Greenway : The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I said that I thought the first way to induce a good anti-litter attitude in children was by teachers asking them to pick up litter. I said then that it could be a useful disciplinary procedure to form litter squads, and there have to be disciplinary procedures. It is no good saying otherwise.

Mr. Tony Banks : I did not say that.

Mr. Greenway : I myself also organised squads positively by inviting children to join squads and saying, "Come on, let's clean up the school. Look at the mess." I used to collect the litter with them. If head teachers and deputy head teachers are helping as well, although heaven knows, they have enough to do running institutions of 2,200 children, the job will be done as it should be.

It is imperative that children leave school at 16 or later dedicated to the idea that they should not throw litter in schools, on pavements, or anywhere else and that they should always find a receptacle for litter. My old grandmother, who lived to be 95 years of age, always carried a bit bag in her handbag when she became an old lady. If any mess was incurred, such as when she read a letter and wanted to get rid of it while sitting on the bus, she would tear it up and put it in the bit bag. Perhaps the hon. Member for Newham, North-West should carry a bit bag round with him.

Mr. Tony Banks : I thought that the Prime Minister was doing that.

Mr. Greenway : I am not suggesting that the bit bag would be for his speeches--or for mine. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a bit bag and it is a fair tip, especially for people who are immobile and who cannot get to a rubbish bin. If they are carrying something like a big bag, they can put the bits into it.

One must applaud the efforts of the Westminster city council in its anti- litter drive, but nationally, we must try to reach the standards of other countries, even Spain, where there is a daily litter collection. That happens in some parts of this country as well. In very hot parts of Spain, if there were not a daily collection of litter, diseases would quickly spread. We have to extend that principle to this country, even though it will cost more.

Mr. Patnick : One of the odd things about litter and waste disposal in Spain is that waste disposal is carried out by private contractors. Also, litter is collected during the hours of darkness. Would my hon. Friend care to consider those points?

Next Section

  Home Page