Should we pick up other people's litter?

Boy putting a can in a bin

Forget the general knowledge quiz, the most interesting part of the government's new citizenship booklet is that, for the first time, it sets out our civic responsibilities.

The UK government has always been strangely reluctant to spell out what is expected from its people. Citizenship has been an essentially passive legal status involving few demands beyond obeying the law.

But this new list goes beyond legal obligation to incorporate ideas of tolerance, impartiality, social justice and civic duty. This is what it says. If you wish to be a citizen of the United Kingdom you should:

  • respect and obey the law
  • respect the rights of others, including their right to their own opinions
  • treat others with fairness
  • look after yourself and your family
  • look after the area in which you live and the environment
British passport

In return, the UK offers:

  • freedom of belief and religion
  • freedom of speech
  • freedom from unfair discrimination
  • a right to a fair trial
  • a right to join in the election of a government

So the government sees the relationship between citizen and state as, effectively, a deal. But this list is different from the principles behind Britain's post-war social contract which embedded the idea of statutory responsibilities and individual rights. This makes it clear that both citizen and state have obligations.

They are civic duties which have clearly been constructed around the idea of British values: tolerance, fair play, respect for democracy and the rule of law. But do they add up to anything?

Start Quote

Look after the area in which you live and the environment”

End Quote Citizenship list

The concept of fairness, so engrained in current political rhetoric, is given its own civic bullet-point. Politicians, though, argue about what "fair" actually means, and without explanation one wonders whether this exhortation amounts to more than the equivalent of a mother telling her children to "be nice to each other".

The expectation that citizens should look after themselves and their family appears non-controversial - but there are some who may not be able to do that. The frail, the elderly, the sick and the disabled, those who cannot work for some reason beyond their control - these are citizens who may need help from wider society. Are they deemed to have failed in their civic duty?

For me, though the most interesting item on the list of civic responsibilities is the last one. Citizens are told they should "look after the area in which you live and the environment". This, one assumes, is more than reminding people of their legal duties not to drop litter or let their dog foul the pavement. It would appear to be an active rather than passive obligation.

If that is right, this is a great day for public space. Rather than seeing the management, upkeep and improvement of public space as a job solely for the state, this new booklet seems to be saying that it is something we should all be doing.

Rather than telling citizens they must not drop litter, it seems to be saying they should pick it up.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    In return, the UK offers:
    freedom of belief and religion - Really, try wearing a Cross at BA
    freedom of speech - Really? Pull a funny face at a Foreign Footballer
    freedom from unfair discrimination - Really - Refer to 1
    a right to a fair trial - Really - Barry George
    a right to join in the election of a government - Really, Christians disenfranchised from the ballot box
    It News to Me

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Pick up litter - yes, but I never drop litter!

    What we need is people to abide by the rule: Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

    Whereas, a significant number of the population, (especially when behind the wheel of a motor-vehicle), turn into selfish, arrogant, aggressive, sociopathic monsters.

    Time for a change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Definitely a case of do as i say don't do as i do. Could we start by applying these tests to the people that make them up and the politicians that spout rhetoric about them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Its a Sad day when our politicians are trying to clean up mess in far flung countries - at our expenses..meanwhile Britians squeeky clean cities are getting rotten..bring back bobby on the beat .. bobby on the beat has more common sense..

    p.s bobby on the beat - should wear - old school Hats - not US style -Caps.. Just My Opinion
    Plus - all the NightClubs- Kebab Shops Should clean UP the Mess too

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    How about NOT parking across one's neighbor's driveway? On my 3rd home in 3rd area and always the same. Selfish, inconsiderate and lazy. Can't walk down the road. Too bad for you. How about giving citizenship lessons to those born here, starting with "treat others with fairness". Sorry, but this is actual experience.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Picking litter up? We shouldn't be throwing it down in the first place! I was walking through beautiful Chester once and a Hooray Henry lobbed a packet of fish and chips out of his open top car, I picked it all up and lobbed it back in again at the traffic lights. We are too tolerant of litterers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    In an age where people always seem to know their rights without thinking about their responsibilities, this reminder sounds like a good thing.

    I would love to think this will make a difference, but I'm not sure it will....

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Of course we should pick up litter if we are responsible, good exercise and good for the environment. But how do you square PC with 'freedom of speech'? That is unless you are free to say what you are allowed to say, which hardly equates with freedom, but does with control. Freedom is becoming an endangered species. Now back to litter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Do we really any longer have a right to our own opinion,freedom of religion,belief or speech.I certainly feel these have been seriously curtailed by the mindset of our political masters.The usual placatory nonsence from above,all gas ad gaiters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Well I pick up others litter, even taken some to the local rubbish tip. However most litter near where I live seems to b Mac D's wrappers, or Polish beer cans. Wonder who drops them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Is there any country in the world that doesn't think its residents should behave like this? Or that promises (even if it doesn't deliver) the same set of offers?


  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The worst bit of littering I ever saw (thankfully not in the UK) was a guy chucking his old CDs out of the car window. They could have injured someone. When he stopped at the next petrol station, I drew in behind him and gave him a good telling off. He did look a bit guilty and hopefully never did such a stupid thing again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I don't drop litter. I pick up other people's litter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    White chapel market ..just outside Liverpoolst in London is a joke ..either the councillor in white chapel is sleeping..or Boris Johnson cannot drive his bicycle ...the place has a market ..where rotten vegetables lay on street rotten ..squashed muddy filth lying round ..pls clean that up is a swamp where virus and diseases are created..there I said it .thanks..

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Brits do need to learn to pick their litter and dog droppings, Considering the population density in such a crowded place you would think people would just pick up after themselves. The amount of litter I have seen (ie pop/beer/liquor bottles and papers) tossed onto pavements/parks is disgusting. Setting up a deposit law and litter fines like here in Canada makes trash worth cash and vanishes.


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