Clause 18 - Extension of litter offences to all open places

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 20th January 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The clause extends the offence of dropping litter, contained in section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, so that it applies to all local land to which the public have access, and to all uncovered land to which the public do not have access, regardless of ownership. That includes land covered by water. So the offence extends to dropping litter into bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes, and coastal areas down to the low water mark. There will continue to be an exemption for people dropping litter on their own land or with the permission of either the owner-occupier or the authority controlling the land. The clause will remove an anomaly that the public have wanted to be removed, and will simplify the work of local authorities and others in relation to litter, which can be a problem in many areas.

The question might be asked: why is this change necessary? The answer is that the current law sends mixed messages. For example, although it is an offence to drop litter on a public footpath, it is not an offence to throw it into a neighbouring garden. We want to   close the loophole, thereby making it an offence to drop litter anywhere and sending a clear message that dropping litter is unacceptable. That message is strongly supported by local authorities, the police, companies affected by litter and the general public.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. He pre-empted a question, but it was not the question that I had in mind. My question is not why is the clause needed, but who will enforce this extension of the offence? We support tackling the dropping of litter anywhere in the open air in an area of a principal litter authority, regardless of ownership, as well as in water, such as rivers and lakes. A pond in Rawcliffe overflowed and caused substantial flooding in autumn 2000, and part of the reason for that was litter. Such a scenario would be covered by the provision, which is very welcome.

We want to know who will enforce the extension of the offence and how it will be resourced. Will it be a discretionary power or an obligation on the local authority? Taken together with other clauses, it is a substantial increase in what the Government are asking local authorities to do.

Proposed new subsection (4B) sets out the definition of the land in respect of which a person may give consent. Does the clause relate exclusively to publicly owned land? What is the position in relation to privately owned land? Is it the Government's intention that different conditions should apply? The clause does not state it but the explanatory notes tell us that there are a number of exceptions to the offences, set out in section 89 of the 1990 Act, which are being amended. I understand that consent may be given only in relation to a watercourse, lake or pond if the same person owns all the surrounding land.

In the Vale of York, land belonging to different owners surrounds ponds or lakes. On the Thornborough henges, which we hope will be saved as they date from Neolithic times, the land is owned by at least two, if not three, different landowners. After it has been quarried, some of it will become a lake and the land will remain in the hands of those landowners. How will the clause apply in such circumstances?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 10:00 am, 20th January 2005

I support the clause. Dropping litter is unnecessary and desecrates the environment. I welcome the action that is being taken, which gives a clear signal that society will not put up with litter. I am delighted that the proposal is being extended to watercourses.

In London, I live near the Limehouse basin, and I never cease to be amazed by what floats past in the river and the canal that lead into the basin. People finish what they are consuming and, because they feel they have no ownership over the packaging, they throw their plastic and glass bottles and fast food containers into the water. That is completely unnecessary. A huge expense is involved in cleaning up the rubbish, which is extremely dangerous to wildlife   in and around the water. I hope the Minister will say how the clause will be enforced, so that what it intends can be delivered.

I assume that there will be a clear, exact definition of litter. People feeding the ducks throw bread into the brook in front of my home in Ribble Valley. That is clearly not litter and I hope there will be no confusion about it, but the wrapping is a problem, as now and again it is thrown into the brook.

It is not only youngsters who drop rubbish onto streets and into watercourses. I am amazed that adults, too, seem to have no sense of responsibility. I hope the Minister will say how we can get the message about civic responsibility across to the public.

Finally, we must all play our part in ensuring that there are more litter bins on streets and in the countryside. Many of the bins can be sponsored by private firms. They seem only too happy to play a socially responsible role. In some areas, there seems to be no litter bins at all. I hope that in trying to promote the clause the Government can do something more proactive to ensure that the public have an opportunity to dispose of their litter. However, in the final instance, if there are no litter bins, the public must take their litter home with them.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman highlights something that is not specific to the clause but underlies a lot of what we are doing in the Bill. We are providing legislation that enables local authorities and others to undertake the enforcement that is necessary when other things fail. He is right to suggest that members of the public must use litter bins responsibly. As he said, where litter bins are not available—sometimes it is not because the local authority has not provided them, but because of security reasons—individuals have to play their part by taking their litter home.

We have a sense of the pubic distaste for the way in which the environment is degraded by petty incidences of people chucking away cigarette packets or sandwich packaging, and of the way in which a place becomes dirtier and feels more abandoned in those circumstances. The Bill therefore strengthens, extends and simplifies what can happen so that local authorities are much less constrained by bureaucracy when they carry out their current powers and duties. We spent quite a lot of time preparing the way for the legislation and consulted the organisations that want to make a difference.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about how we need to encourage people to behave responsibly. We sponsor ENCAMS specifically because it develops campaigns that can be used by local authorities and voluntary organisations to engage the community. I spent time recently with Thames21, the charity that was encouraged, as part of national initiatives, to look at the Thames. I can endorse the hon. Gentleman's experience. I have done litter picks with young people on the banks of the Taff in Cardiff. Seeing the extraordinary range of detritus and rubbish that is found in the Thames brings home just how much stuff ordinary members of the public dispose of in a way that degrades the environment for the rest of the   population. He rightly raises that point as an underlying theme that runs through much of the Bill. However, we will probably not have time to speak about it at any great length.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I asked about a definition of litter. Some people think that as long as it is biodegradable, such as an apple core—

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. May I stop the hon. Gentleman there? If he looks at the Bill, he will see that he will have an opportunity to explore that when we debate clause 27.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Thank you, Mr. Forth. I simply say that I look forward to discussing it when we get to that point.

Ponds and watercourses are not easy to deal with. We spent quite a lot of time during the consultation looking at definitions of streams, still water and so on. We thought it necessary to try to make progress on that without extending the Bill to include entirely new powers or responsibilities for local authorities or others.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked how the change will be enforced. There is no change in that regard: as at present, enforcement will primarily be a matter for local authorities, the police and people such as police community support officers. We expect the extended offence to be used mainly to stop litter being thrown on to private land—for example, gardens—from land to which the public have access. Anyone with an area at the front of their house that adjoins the street will know that those who dispose of cans or any other form of litter—I shall not go into the definition of that—frequently chuck them not only in the street, but over a hedge or into a driveway. I am sure that members of the Committee are nodding at this point.

Such behaviour is clearly antisocial. Whether the litter lands on a drive, on the pavement or in the road depends on the intentions, or lack of them, of the person throwing it, and is often a matter of luck rather than anything else. There has been an anomaly and the provision deals with it by offering clarification. That shows the application of common sense, which is why I look forward to the clause becoming part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I have been asked to seek one point of clarification. The clause provides for the extension of litter dropping offences to land to which there is public access. Is it the view and intention of the Minister that that weakens proposals set out in the clean neighbourhoods consultation of July 2004? In the consultation, it appeared that the offences would be extended to all land, without caveat. The Bill, however, appears to exclude land to which the public do not have access, which includes boarded or fenced-off land adjacent to railways that are maintained on behalf of London Underground by, for example, Tube Lines. Clearly, it would be beneficial if that caveat were removed. Will the Minister clarify whether what I have described is the Government's intention and exactly how the Bill will apply in that regard?  

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am happy to confirm that the hon. Lady is wrong. The answer is no.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.