I am delighted to introduce more important environmental legislation to the House. The Litter Pollution Bill, 1996, is an important part of the anti-litter initiative Action Against Litter which was activated just over a year ago. The essential purposes of the Bill are to put in place a wide ranging legislative charter for action against litter, to spell out clearly what occupiers of property must do to keep their property free of litter and to set out the powers and duties of local authorities for preventing and controlling litter.
It is important that local authorities have adequate statutory powers to undertake the task of litter prevention and control. Their existing powers were conferred by the Litter Act, 1982. However, weaknesses in this legislation have gradually come to light and it is now opportune to restate litter legislation comprehensively, to sharpen its focus and to broaden the legislative and regulatory instruments available for combating litter. Before outlining the principal features of the Bill, I would like to set out some background factors.
Litter is one of the most persistent environmental problems of our time. It is an urgent and visible problem affecting Ireland's towns, countryside and beaches. Litter is an unfashionable issue, even in environmental terms. Solving the litter problem does not yet command the idealism or the supportive public response which have been so effective in addressing other environmental challenges.
Litter undermines and challenges the credibility of other policies and measures for protecting the environment. It is running down shopping and business areas. It is taking from the amenity of housing estates and open spaces. Litter is damaging efforts to promote tourism, conservation and heritage protection. It is hurting the Irish economy because it compromises our ability to attract and consolidate commercial development. Litter is also hurting our environment.
To quantify the extent of the problem countrywide my Department commissioned a national litter survey to provide an accurate assessment of the incidence of litter. This survey was conducted in October 1995 at various locations throughout the country and was designed to establish a detailed breakdown of the composition of litter and to identify and classify types of littered locations.
The main findings of the survey were that very few of the places inspected were either totally free of litter or grossly littered. However, over 80 per cent of sites surveyed were found to have significant amounts of litter. The incidence of litter was quite prevalent and is particularly likely to be found near fast food outlets, automatic bank telling machines and, unfortunately, secondary schools. This survey has been circulated to all local authorities and will serve to give factual guidance for targeting local initiatives.
Shortly after I took office as Minister for the Environment I indicated that a more urgent and aggressive approach to litter prevention should be promoted. This is why the Action Against Litter initiative has been mobilised to combat litter in a radical and effective way. The initiative is built on four main foundations: improving local authority performance, including more effective enforcement against offenders; reforming, updating and streamlining litter legislation; promoting public awareness and education and developing effective partnerships with commercial and voluntary interests to combat litter. To drive this initiative, a new anti-litter unit was established within the Department of the Environment with a dedicated budget in support of the campaign.
There are a number of key players in the Action Against Litter initiative. The Department of the Environment is responsible for driving and co-ordinating the initiative at central level but the contribution and involvement of local authorities is crucial. The public rightly looks to local authorities to prevent and control litter, provide good street cleaning services and enforce litter laws against offenders. Some local authorities are making an effort but clearly there is considerable scope for improvement. There is much to be done because overall national performance is uneven.
I have already requested local authorities to move litter prevention and control up the scale of their priorities and as a first step to prepare their own litter abatement plans for tackling the problem. The preparatory arrangements for these plans should involve consultation with business and community groups. I am happy that over 40 authorities have completed their litter abatement plans while other authorities are currently in the process of finalising their plans. Local authorities generally agree that their litter control programmes need to be stepped up. I am confident that in the current year and in future years we will see a significant improvement in the prevention and control of litter by local authorities.
It is important that we place a strong emphasis on promoting anti-litter awareness across all sections of the community. To begin the task of overcoming the large deficit in public awareness of the effects of litter my Department mounted a public awareness campaign last year to give the public a wake-up call on the issue of litter. This multi-media campaign is being continued this year and is designed to bring about change in public attitudes and, more importantly, behaviour towards litter.
Education is important too. It is essential that we promote understanding by young people from an early age of the degradation caused by litter. To approach this task in a structured way, educational materials for schools have been specially prepared for my Department by one of the specialist teaching centres. These materials have been circulated to all first and second level schools in the country and I am pleased that responses to a recent questionnaire sent to schools confirm that the issue of litter is now being enthusiastically addressed in our schools. I also expect that the new curriculum for primary schools will embrace environmental issues more comprehensively for the future and I would hope that primary education of young people would develop a greater anti-litter awareness in young people. The cost of funding the public awareness campaign and educational measures is being met from the Department's Vote and a provision of some £400,000 has been made for this purpose in the current year.
Government and local authorities cannot provide a litter free environment on their own. One of the main features, therefore, of Action Against Litter is to develop the involvement of the private sector and voluntary interests in the fight against litter. Environmental initiatives, such as Action Against Litter, give businesses in particular the opportunity to prove themselves as good corporate citizens. The emergence of the Irish Business Against Litter movement demonstrates this point well. Consumers relate better to companies which demonstrate strong environmental credentials and performance.
It is important that we should be able to measure progress under the Action Against Litter initiative. It is intended, therefore, to establish a system of performance measurement that will monitor the state of cleanliness and assess progress by local authorities in achieving the objectives of their programmes under this initiative. The Department intends to develop and activate an external monitoring process which will be brought into place next year.
I would like now to comment on some of the main provisions of the Bill. A more detailed commentary will be found in the explanatory memorandum which has been circulated with the Bill. I remind Senators that the Bill repeals the Litter Act, 1982, but restates and strengthens some of the basic provisions of that earlier legislation.
Section 6 sets out an important requirement on the occupier of property, if it is a public place or visible to any extent from a public place, to keep the property free of litter. In addition, where a property or premises faces onto a public road and is within the confines of a speed limit area, the occupier will be required to keep free of litter any footpath or pavement between their property and the roadway. This requirement applies to all speed limit areas except where the general 60 miles per hour or the 70 miles per hour motorway speed limit apply; it is designed to cover properties in all built up areas. I believe the provision is necessary to tackle the problem of litter and to ensure that responsibility is taken by individuals for maintaining a litter free local environment.
In section 6 also, in addition to the duties of occupiers, a duty is imposed on the owner of a house that is let in flats or bedsits to ensure that the curtilage of the house is kept free of litter. This provision is being included in response to requests from local authorities, particularly Dublin Corporation, which have encountered difficulties with refuse and litter being left to accumulate for days outside houses let in flats.
Section 7 imposes an explicit duty on local authorities to keep public roads free of litter as far as practicable. Roads are a known resting place for litter and it is appropriate to state a clearer obligation on road authorities to maintain good litter management arrangements.
Section 9 contains a new power for local authorities to issue a notice to the occupier of a littered property, which is visible from a public place, to clean it up and take specified measures to prevent a recurrence. It will be open to a local authority to take action and recover the cost involved in the event of an occupier failing to comply with the terms of a notice. I would like to see this provision being actively availed of by local authorities to demonstrate seriousness about tackling heavily littered sites where litter has been allowed to accumulate over long periods.
Sections 10, 11, 12 and 13 relate to the duty of local authorities to draw up litter management plans for their functional areas. Such plans are essential to guide and support a more systematic approach to litter prevention and control. The adoption of these plans is a reserved function of elected councils but the Bill also requires local authorities to consult with local interests on their intended proposals at the preparatory stage.
Section 15 sets out obligations for the operators of mobile food outlets in relation to litter control in the vicinity of their business. This provision has been suggested by a number of local authorities. It will also be open to local authorities to frame additional requirements for mobile outlets by way of special notice.
Section 16 provides local authorities with a new power to take stronger action against the operators of premises whose business activities have a particular tendency to create litter. The types of premises on which additional requirements can be set are set out in subsection (9); this list may be extended by regulations to include other classes of premises. The need to impose additional requirements on these types of premises is a matter to be judged by individual local authorities having regard to, and knowledge of, local circumstances.
The obligation being imposed on an occupier under this section can extend to an area up to 100 metres from the person's premises. By agreement with the local authority, an occupier of property may be relieved of the obligation directly to implement litter control measures by making a financial contribution to the local authority. A notice from the local authority imposing additional obligations must first be served in draft form to allow for comments on it. A confirmed notice may be appealed by the person affected to the District Court.
Sections 17 and 18 are designed to create a more structured litter management regime for events which are likely to be attended by large numbers of the public. Inevitably, litter is created at well attended events, such as major concerts, sporting occasions or, as we saw over the weekend, St. Patrick's Day parades. The Bill authorises local authorities to serve a notice on the organisers or promoters of major events requiring them to take specific measures to prevent or limit litter creation and, ultimately, to provide for its removal.
A notice under section 17 may also require a bond to be lodged with the local authority as security against the taking of required measures. A local authority may also afford organisers or promoters the option of making a financial contribution to the local authority in lieu of taking direct measures. This contribution must be applied by the local authority to litter prevention or removal at the relevant event. In other words, it is not designed to be a funding mechanism for local authorities to make windfall gains.
A local authority may also act to remedy any failure by a person to carry out the requirements of a notice; and it may recover its costs in doing so. Promoters of events will, in future, have to take greater responsibility for litter prevention and control before, during and after events.
A new provision in section 19 will prohibit the placing of advertising material on windscreens of cars and other vehicles. There is no hesitation in proposing this measure because placing advertising leaflets in this manner is well known to be a major cause of litter. In addition, local authorities will be able under section 21 to introduce by-laws at their own discretion to prohibit or regulate the handing out of advertising leaflets in streets.
Section 22 is a new provision imposing a duty on the person in charge of a dog to clean up if it fouls in certain public places, such as on the street or footpath, on a beach or in a park. Apart from environmental considerations there is a health imperative in relation to the provision because of the danger of children contracting the disease of toxocariasis.
Sections 23 to 28 deal with the important issues of enforcement and penalties. The maximum fine for an offence under the Bill is being increased from £800 to £1,500 and there is also a maximum penalty of £100 for each day that there is a continued contravention by a convicted person. The on-the-spot penalty remains unchanged at £25 but may be varied in future by regulations. All the proceeds from fines will now go to local authorities as opposed to the Exchequer which currently enjoys the benefit of such fines. Local authorities will also be able to ask the courts to award costs against a convicted person in respect of the expenses incurred by local authorities in investigating, detecting and prosecuting offences. I am confident that this change will act as an incentive to local authorities to tackle realistically and I hope enthusiastically enforcement more effectively in future.
Enforcement of on-the-spot fines against litter offenders has proven to be problematic in the past for local authorities. It is now proposed that in addition to litter wardens, members of the Garda Síochána will also be empowered to issue on-the-spot fines. It is not intended that gardaí will take over the role of issuing on-the-spot fines. It will be desirable that this remains primarily with local authority litter wardens. I hope to see more litter wardens being appointed by local authorities. However, there are circumstances where gardaí on street patrol could very usefully penalise transgressions of our litter laws. It is important that the power to carry out that action should be vested in them as well as in litter wardens. The fact that the public will know that a member of the Garda Síochána is empowered to issue such on-the-spot fines will act as a further deterrent.
It will also now be possible for litter wardens to call on the assistance of the Garda where they believe they might be obstructed from carrying out the duties imposed on them under this Bill. This will strengthen the standing of litter wardens. I am confident that local authorities will become more involved in active litter enforcement once the new Bill is enacted.
Section 29 of the Bill allows the Minister for the Environment to issue directions and guidelines in relation to carrying out the provisions of the Bill. When the Bill is passed, it is intended to issue comprehensive guidelines to local authorities in relation to the provisions of the Bill and their duties under the Bill.
The introduction of the Litter Pollution Bill is an important milestone in environmental legislation. I look forward to hearing the views of Senators who, from their practical experience, will no doubt have valuable perspectives to bring to bear on this matter.
Litter is a difficult and urgent environmental problem. It has proven to be a persistent, difficult and thorny issue to resolve. The solutions necessary, however, should, in general, be much less complex for litter than for other environmental issues. What we need above all is a more widespread public recognition of littering as a socially unacceptable activity. Action Against Litter will continue to be promoted to increase this awareness and to achieve our common objective of a litter free Ireland.