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Points of Order

3.32 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you prior notice. It concerns 11 straightforward, factual questions tabled by me on 12 November and which related to Treasury involvement in decisions on Railtrack, to which the spectacularly unilluminating reply from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was:

Given the code of practice on access to Government information, the resolution of this House of 19 March 1997 that Ministers should comply with it, and the fact that most of my questions do not concern the detail of internal opinion, advice, recommendation, consultation or deliberation, but simply the dates of discussion and attendance at meetings, is not the Treasury's refusal to answer those questions an insult to Parliament, a breach of the code and a justification for a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will know that I am not responsible for ministerial answers. That is a problem for the Minister, not for the Speaker.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hear what you say, but Members regard you as a key guardian of the interests of the House. On behalf of a constituent who has experienced rising insurance premiums, I tabled a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about insurance premiums since 11 September. I asked the Chancellor what representations he had received from other bodies on that matter, to which I received the reply:

What expectations can hon. Members have that Ministers will answer their questions?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman must be persistent with Ministers. That is the best advice I can give him.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to hon. Members who want to speak further on that point of order that I have made my views clear.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I intrude a little further? Although I understand precisely when you say that you cannot control ministerial answers, surely the Chair is right to issue guidance to Ministers that questions should be properly and fully answered.

Mr. Speaker: The Government issue guidance to Ministers, not the Speaker.

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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last week, I raised with you the report of the parliamentary ombudsman, which stated that

Following my point of order, I went to the Table Office and tabled a series of questions to the Deputy Prime Minister, who, according to the Government, is responsible for the central secretariat which is

Every question I table is transferred. How can I get the Minister to answer the questions, Mr. Speaker? Could you please advise?

Mr. Speaker: I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman, but in the end it is not a matter for the Chair.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that these matters are not going to be pursued. I have made my case and I certainly cannot keep pursuing the matter.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Of course, I accept everything that you have just said, but could you perhaps give us some advice? I ask for your guidance on holding the Executive to account. If we cannot rely on rulings from the Chair, could you please tell us where we should go and how we can hold them to account? It is a simple question.

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Lady must keep at Ministers. That is the best advice I can give her.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that there is a resolution of the House, which was passed in 1997, with regard to the duty of Ministers to make full and candid answers. Would you please advise the House what it can do when there is a manifest breach of the resolution of the House—as there frequently now is?

Mr. Speaker: Knowing that the resolution is there, the right hon. and learned Gentleman must persist. Other Members must persist. That is the best advice I can give in the circumstances.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Of course, we welcome your guidance and indeed respect it, as ever. You have told us, quite rightly, that the Government are responsible for the answers—or lack of answers—that Ministers give. But, Mr. Speaker, you are the custodian of the relationship that must exist between the Government and this House of Commons. I am not asking for an answer now, Mr. Speaker, but I ask you to reflect on how you believe you can guide the House further to make effective both the ministerial code and the relationship that should exist between the House and the Government. It would appear to have broken down completely, given the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). We should welcome your further guidance,

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Mr. Speaker, perhaps after further reflection, on what we can do other than repeatedly putting questions and repeatedly failing to receive answers from Ministers.

Mr. Speaker: I have some sympathy with what hon. Members have said. The right hon. Gentleman is right—let me reflect on the matter and I shall come back to the House.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I hope that it is not further to the previous point of order, because I think that I did not make a bad reply to the shadow Leader of the House. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) should quit while he is ahead.

Mr. Jack: I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, about the status of the contents of "Erskine May". In your process of reflection, may I ask you to consider the advice therein, particularly as it reflects on the contents of questions?

Mr. Speaker: I shall consider that matter.

21 Nov 2001 : Column 322

Litter and Fouling of Land By Dogs

3.38 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): I beg to move,

The last time I led a debate on this subject in the House was at 5 o'clock one morning—an Adjournment debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) when he was a Minister. I am pleased that today he is a supporter of the Bill.

Litter is pollution, and I include dog fouling under the heading of litter. It is pollution in its most basic, common and widespread form. It has a very simple cause: people drop it, or permit their dogs to drop it, as a result of laziness, thoughtlessness, carelessness, plain disregard or sometimes even loutishness. It is very visible and it spoils the built and the natural environments. It is also a health risk.

Litter includes rotting material, broken glass, jagged metal, dangerous objects and cigarette ends, all of which can be picked up by young children. Worst of all, dog dirt can transmit toxocariasis to children, which can damage their eyesight, liver and lungs. About 100 children a year contract the disease in that way.

Litter pollution has a much simpler solution than most other forms of pollution. It does not take catalytic converters, international protocols, European directives, an integrated transport policy or a climate change levy to tackle it. The answer is simple—do not drop litter. Unfortunately, the long-standing culture in our country is one in which we live and walk about in litter. We try not to put our feet in dog dirt. We pay others to clear the whole lot up, and then moan that it is not all picked up.

We pay a total of £400 million a year in council tax for litter to be picked up. My council has to spend more than £500,000 a year and rubbish still accumulates in certain corners. What a sad way to have to spend money, and we must surely be mad if we carry on like this.

We have laws against dropping litter and dog fouling, both of which are offences, with maximum fines of £1,000, or even £2,500 in certain circumstances. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 placed statutory duties on councils and introduced fixed penalty fines of £25. The Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996 put dog fouling on the same basis as litter, but the law is not being enforced.

In 1996, in England and Wales, there were only 626 prosecutions in magistrates courts for littering, resulting in 468 convictions. By 1999, the figure had fallen to 501 prosecutions, with just 390 convictions. In 1999–2000, only 2,970 fixed penalty notices for littering and 1,538 for dog fouling were issued—this in a country of 56 million people. That low figure is not because not much litter is being dropped.

In my county of Suffolk, there seem to be only about five or six convictions a year, and in my district of Waveney, there have been no recent prosecutions and no fixed penalties for litter at all, with just one recorded fixed penalty for dog fouling since the 1996 Act came into force. Why is the law not being enforced? The answer is obvious: councils simply do not have the means to do so.

21 Nov 2001 : Column 323

At the moment, councils have to return all the revenue from fixed penalty fines to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, although it amounts only to about £70,000 a year in total across the country—a measure of how little enforcement goes on. The average court fine is only £90, and, of course, those fines go to the Home Office.

Although 98 per cent. of councils have appointed dog wardens, that amounts to only one or two people in most cases. Only 47 out of 474 councils employ litter wardens—again, usually only two or three people. That is hardly an army, armed with fixed penalty notices, that can realistically tackle the millions of litter droppers and the 5.4 million dog-owning households that produce 1,000 tonnes of faeces daily. In addition, it costs councils £500 to take a prosecution to court.

People are concerned about the problem. As many hon. Members will know, such local quality of life and clean street issues are those most frequently mentioned when we knock on people's doors. A Tidy Britain Group survey two or three years ago on people's attitudes to local environmental quality issues found that dog fouling, at 80 per cent., and littered streets, at 60 per cent., were right at the top of the list. Those same concerns regularly fill the letters page of my local paper, the Lowestoft Journal.

Down the years, we have had campaigns—many led by the Tidy Britain Group—and we now have more litter bins in the country than ever before. We also have bins for doggy bags. However, the sad conclusion is that, when it comes to litter, education does not appear to work—and I say that as an ex-teacher. In fact, some of the most littered places I have seen are school playgrounds.

Certainly, people such as the driver of the Renault Clio, with the registration S627 WOR, whom I saw on 8 October at a roundabout near Beckton in east London, are beyond educating. Sitting in a traffic jam, I watched him lob a huge bag of McDonald's debris out of his car window. As we were stuck in traffic, I stepped out of my car, picked up the rubbish and asked him whether he would take it home or to a bin. I thought for a moment that I might have succeeded as he accepted it from me, but he just threw it out the other side of his car as I walked back to mine. The only answer for such people is to apply the well-established principle of making the polluter pay, thereby handing out a deterrent to other litterers.

21 Nov 2001 : Column 324

The Bill would require councils to retain the revenue from fixed penalty fines for the specific purpose of enforcing the litter laws. Councils would then be able to—and, indeed, would have to—employ the wardens necessary to tackle the problem. We would change the culture relating to litter. Fixed penalties can work; a high proportion of those actually issued are paid.

The Bill involves that old friend of the Treasury—hypothecation. There are precedents. Councils finance the enforcement of residents parking schemes from the fines dished out. It is the same with off-street parking, and we are now using the fixed penalty fines for speeding detected by cameras to set up more cameras. We spent years trying to educate people to wear seat belts and crash helmets, but it was only when we introduced laws that were enforced did people change their ways. It could be the same with litter.

The Bill would make the polluter pay. It would cost the Government virtually nothing, and we could spend much of the £400 million a year litter clear-up bill on more constructive things.In April, the Prime Minister said the Government were minded to go down that route. I offer this Bill as a suitable vehicle.

The Bill would be popular. Last night, Meridian television carried out a telephone poll. It received the biggest response ever with almost 6,700 calls, 97 per cent. of them in favour of my proposals.

Litter will continue to blight our environment only for as long as we permit it. Let us get serious and enforce the law of the land, so that we can have cleaner streets, cleaner communities and a cleaner country.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bob Blizzard, Siobhain McDonagh, Mr. Alan Meale, Lawrie Quinn, Joan Ryan and Mr. Jonathan Shaw.

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