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12 Dec 2007 : Column 137WH—continued

I hope that I can save my hon. Friend the Minister much time by congratulating the Government on their recent record in tackling the menace of chewing gum. I hope that he will spend more time on the future than on the past. He will not need to dwell too long on the Government’s excellent Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which defined chewing gum as litter. That has allowed for the issuing of fixed penalty notices to people who spit out their gum or otherwise
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park it antisocially. However, it would be most helpful if he gave us some idea of the use to which local authorities have put this power. How much money has been collected in on-the-spot fines and what contribution has that made to offsetting the cost of cleaning up chewing gum that has been badly disposed of? I would be most grateful if he wrote to me on that subject.

I also acknowledge that the Government have created the wondrously named chewing gum action group, which brings together chewing gum manufacturers, the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, ENCAMS, which runs the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign, the Improvement and Development Agency, and Departments. Perhaps my hon. Friend Minister can reassure the House that this action group is still in being and say whether and how departmental representation has been affected by the recent Government reorganisation. The action group certainly has plenty of issues to chew over. I hope that this issue has not been parked nicely in the long grass so that people feel that, because there is an action group, no serious long-term practical action needs to be taken.

The chewing gum action group’s main initiatives so far have been concentrated on education, publicity and advertising campaigns in which a number of local authorities have been pilots and partners, including, I am glad to say, my own city of Nottingham. In exchanges in the House and the other place, Ministers have cited some welcome local successes from those campaigns. On 2 November 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who was then an Under-Secretary in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but is now the Minister of State, Department of Health, informed my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) that

Earlier that year, on 25 February, he informed the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) of even more dramatic success in Preston—a 76 per cent. reduction.

Such successes from education and advertising are highly welcome, but they still leave a vast and intractable problem of chewing gum pollution in every local community. My own city centre in Nottingham is so befouled with gum that one imagines that people there are perhaps not so susceptible to Government advertising as the good people of Preston. The same applies to the centre of London. One has only to walk outside the precincts of the House to see a site of world heritage significance despoiled by chewing gum. Even when the chewing gum is removed, it still leaves a stain. Even after an expensive and time and labour-intensive process, it still leaves that tell-tale mark, unlike a recycled product, which would ultimately be washed away from sight. Even the Houses of Parliament, located in the middle of London, have that problem.

Ministers have suggested that no fewer than 91 per cent. of our country’s high streets are affected by chewing gum and that each local authority spends an average of £13,000 a year clearing it up. That average contains massive variations. Some local authorities agree that they are spending at least £200,000 a year
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and some, astonishingly, were spending nothing at all. I do not believe that the average expenditure is anything like enough to counteract the damage to the public realm from chewing gum litter, let alone to mitigate the cost to private individuals, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of society.

As Baroness Masham of Ilton mentioned in another place on 31 October 2006, chewing gum regularly gets stuck in the grooves of wheelchairs, pushchairs and prams. To that one might add that bullies often stick chewing gum in the hair of their victims and that chewing gum can harm and even kill wildlife and pets. The New West End Company representing Bond street, Oxford street and Regent street says that £5 million has been spent in the past five years in those three streets alone on removing 330,00 deposits of chewing gum in the area—and it says that it is getting worse.

Business, commerce and ordinary members of the public—pedestrians, mothers with children—are all well aware of that problem and of the high financial and social cost that this habit is levying on people. The clean-up costs are falling on those who fall victim to the problem, rather than the polluter paying. The “polluter pays” principle—those who bring in the substances that create deficits, whether in environmental or quality of life terms, should do something about it—is, for some reason, strangely absent from this area. I hope that the chewing gum action group is not in the pocket of those people who are happy with the current situation and are all for the quiet life.

I hope that this debate gives my hon. Friend the Minister inspiration, if it is needed, and courage, which is not needed by him, to tackle this question seriously. I have raised many important issues in Adjournment debates over several years. The subject of this debate might not be regarded as one of the most important, but there has been more public and media interest in it than in some of the heavier issues on foreign affairs, the long-term welfare of children and the development of early intervention policies in our country. It has struck a chord, so I hope the Minister appreciates that there is a great deal of sympathy with the idea of positive action in relation to manufacturers.

The manufacturers can marshal many arguments, particularly in hole-in-the-corner action groups and Whitehall committees, but I ask the Minister to tread warily around the issue—no pun intended—so that he does not fall foul of it in public opinion terms. From my experience in the past 24 hours, during which the media barely let me have any sleep—either last night or first thing this morning—I can say that public opinion is strongly attuned to the issue of our public spaces being fouled and of individual quality of life. I hope that those comments help the Minister when he negotiates a more sensible arrangement than the one that the manufacturers are getting away with.

The costs caused by chewing gum will be with us for a long time. They might be relieved, but they will not be eliminated. The industry needs to be gently nudged towards the biodegradable chewing gum option, which is clean and green. If the industry invested more money, it would be seen as a strong good-will gesture from it and an indication that it takes the issue as seriously as do my constituents and other members of the public.

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I am concerned that chewing gum manufacturers simply do not have enough financial motive to make the sustained investment in research and new technology that is needed to bring biodegradable gum on to the market. On the contrary, they have every motive to keep chewing gum a cheap and cheerful product that competes with other eye-catching, low-cost confectionery at point of sale and in vending machines.

We have been in similar positions before, however. Unleaded petrol? How outrageous! What a terrible imposition it would be on the oil and petroleum-producing industries. Now, it is second nature, and there are more types of unleaded than of leaded petrol. So the solution is achievable and, despite all the outrage that will greet any proposal from the Minister, I suspect that as soon as the solution becomes common practice we will wonder why we did not adopt it before.

Chewing gum creates a by-product that is both extremely obnoxious and extremely easy to dispose of—as easy as spitting. At any given moment, thousands of people are chewing gum across our country. It is simply impossible to reach them all before they elect to get rid of their gum. We cannot hope for total success from deterrence by fines and penalties or persuasion from advertising and education. Some people never care what happens to their waste gum, and others who might want to dispose of it in a socially acceptable manner may not find any convenient means of doing so. It is very easy to walk for 10 minutes or more in central London and other cities without finding a litter bin.

That is why I hope that the Government will reconsider the possibility of a special tax on the manufacturers of chewing gum. I am taxed for the clean-up, as are you, Mr. Benton, together with every council tax and income tax payer, but the manufacturers are not—not directly, at least. Ministers in both Houses have so far gone along with industry lobbying and resisted the taxation proposal. On 31 October 2006, Lord Rooker told the other place that the case for a tax had been

With respect to my noble Friend the Minister, he is attributing far too active and subtle a conscience to antisocial gum chewers. They have no conscience at all when they choose to dispose of their gum. The only way to deal with them is to deter them from chewing gum at all, and the best way to do that is through taxation.

Chewing gum is a pollutant and we should cut its consumption by telling producers that they have a choice: continue to have their product foul our pavements and our lives—in which case the polluter must pay, and a special tax should be levied on them—or be relieved of any duty to pay tax, provided they meet stringent criteria decided on by the Minister and the Government for a proper programme of researching, implementing and producing a biodegradable gum. That would satisfy everybody. The producers would not pay any tax, gum chewers could still chew gum, and people like you and me, Mr. Benton, could walk the streets without fear of
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the consequences. There would be no detrimental effect on our tolerance of how gum is disposed of, nor any of the accompanying dirt and disease.

I hope that the Government take that proposal seriously. I do not expect the Minister to say, here and now, “Yes, we will introduce a tax next week.” I hope, however, that, in his own subtle, governmental and civil service-speak, he will make it clear that the options have not been closed off, that it is now time for chewing gum manufacturers to come to the table and get serious, and that there could be longer-term consequences if they do not.

The Government are fighting and doing well in a serious war against chewing gum and the resultant pollution. I hope, however, that they will abandon their policy of unilateral disarmament on taxation, and I look forward to the Minister’s assurance that they will keep this powerful weapon in their armoury. If my experience in discussing the issue far and wide over the past 48 hours is anything to go by, I can guarantee that the Minister will find tremendous public support for any attempt to get the manufacturers to cease their current approach and join the battle against chewing gum and its polluting effects on the city streets of our nation.

4.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate and on highlighting the practical issue of litter from chewing gum. He has told us how interested the media are, which reflects people’s concerns, and has given many good examples of how chewing gum affects people’s lives, such as in its effects on wheelchairs and prams, and on wildlife. He mentioned bullying too.

If I may, I shall start with a statistic. The local environmental quality survey of England for 2005-06 found chewing gum litter in 96 per cent. of primary retail and commercial sites. That is no surprise to us, so my hon. Friend is right to acknowledge chewing gum as a curse and scourge of every town and city centre, including the area outside the House.

Chewing gum deposits are not only an annoyance for the unsuspecting user of public transport and for pedestrians; they are also unsightly. My hon. Friend is right that they can be time consuming and expensive to clean up, often requiring specialist equipment. Stains remain for a long time.

Local authorities are not duty bound to clean up gum, which explains some of the differing responses that my hon. Friend obtained when he spoke to local authorities about budget allocations. Nevertheless, they often feel compelled to do so, and repeated cleansing is needed to keep an area clean.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 made it clear that improperly discarded chewing gum, which is not placed in a bin, is included in the definition of litter. Furthermore, the legislation gave local authority enforcement officers power to issue fixed penalty notices to people caught littering, including those
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caught dropping chewing gum litter. The fine can be set locally and ranges from £50 to £80.

The system is bedding in well. The latest figure for fixed penalty notices issued between April 2006 and March 2007 is 43,624. I know what my hon. Friend would ask me next—how many were paid?—but I anticipate him and can say that 77 per cent. of those notices were paid, which means a total of just over £1.5 million. Obviously some people did not pay, but that is not a bad success rate.

Figures are not available for the exact number of gum-related offences, and I fear that to provide them could prove prohibitively expensive for local authority colleagues who want to focus on clearing up the mess. My hon. Friend will welcome the fact that we have reduced the number of indicators for local authorities to below 200, so that they can get on with the job rather than filling forms. However, it is clear that many local authorities are tackling individuals. The figures speak for themselves. More than 40,000 people have been issued with fines this year alone.

When it is inappropriate to offer a fixed penalty notice, or if one goes unpaid, prosecution can be taken through the courts, and last year more than 2,000 individuals were take to court. Councils are acting tough, and we need to get that message across. When enforcement is combined with increasing public awareness, the message is increasingly being heard that littering, including gum litter, is not acceptable and that it can have serious consequences, including a criminal record. All this activity should provide a strong disincentive to inappropriate behaviour and send out a clear message that local authorities have an effective vehicle for taking action against those who litter.

I turn to the central argument put forward by my hon. Friend—that of tax. He suggested that a tax or a levy should be introduced on the sale price on each packet of chewing gum. I certainly appreciate the apparent attractiveness of such a fiscal measure—as he said, it would be an extension of the “polluter pays” principle—but as my ministerial colleagues in both Houses have said, it would unfairly penalise the vast majority of consumers. I chew gum, but I do not put it on the ground. I put it in the bin. As my hon. Friend seemed to suggest, it would not do anything to change the behaviour of those who litter—those who indulge in the antisocial behaviour that he so graphically described.

Past suggestions have included levies on chewing gum sales to pay for clean-up. Although it is attractive at face value, it is very difficult to quantify, and it is not possible to target the tax on those who cause the problem.

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend the Minister is right to put the position on the record. We will be writing a manifesto for the next election. He appreciates that all things can change and that representations can be made for eye-catching public initiatives for manifestos if manufacturers of chewing gum feel complacent about the situation.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend will be aware of the structures within our party and the opportunity for input that has been set out by the Prime Minister. I am sure that my hon. Friend would want some input, and
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this is certainly something that would warrant discussion within that process.

Buying gum and chewing it is not the problem. Many people use chewing gum from time to time. The problem is dropping it on the ground. Making the product disproportionately expensive for the majority of consumers is therefore not the right answer at this time. The most effective solution is to stop people dropping gum in the first place. That is the sustainable answer. Giving up, and spending more and more money on cleaning up the streets, cannot be the way to go. We are spending too much money on that.

I understand that a non-stick, biodegradable gum is being developed. We want to see that, and my hon. Friend made a good point about it. I understand that Bristol university is developing one, and that the university is in discussion with Cadbury’s and Wrigley, which have most of the market share. It is essential that such research is funded and continues, and I shall be meeting representatives from the industry, taking the message from our debate and reflecting the interests of public opinion, which he has described.

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend the Minister is generous in giving way. I could not have said this two days ago, but given my crash course on chewing gum over the past 48 hours, I can inform him that there is a biodegradable chewing gum manufacturer in Mostyn in Wales, and that Cork university has people who are well into that sort of work. It is technically and scientifically feasible; indeed, the original gum, chicle, was a vegetable substance. There is a lot to play with if the manufacturers want to be serious.

Jonathan Shaw: I take my hon. Friend’s point. It is essential to manufacturers to have a product that sells. They want to be able to produce a gum that people enjoy. That is an essential part of the equation. As I say, I shall be meeting them and I will discuss the points raised by my hon. Friend.

I turn to the chewing gum action group. It is easy to take mirth in the group’s title, but its work is serious and it has to have a name. The one it has is probably the most appropriate. The group has been working hard, and I am grateful to officials in my Department and people from the industry for the work that they came together to do.

I shall quickly give some background for those who do not know it. The group is chaired by a senior Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs official, and it brings together key stakeholders, including the manufacturers of gum, which have provided £650,000 in funding, and others with a key interest such as the Local Government Association and ENCAMS, which runs the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign.

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