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.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I've only been to three other European countries to date - the Netherlands, Austria and the RoI. All three were, in my experience, refreshingly free of litter. In particular, the Netherlands (which I spent three days travelling around to, ironically, look at waste facilities) where I didn't see any litter or flytipping at all. Meanwhile, the Europhobic UK is drowning in detritus. Food for thought?

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    @50 an infinitely better suggestion than the one above you, who seeks to demonise those on benefits. I say make the litter problem the problem of those who caused it, and not, as the person above you has tried to do, demonise someone else and make it their problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.


    Consider the recent riot - these people don't have respect for anyone, then why should they continue to reap the benefits of living in this country.
    I might be that they rioted because they felt they were not reaping the benefits but that others were reaping excessive benefits. "Some rob you with a sixgun, some with a fountain pen", Woody Guthri. But I might be wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Booklets don't tell us how to behave - experiences do.
    We are the air that we breathe. And by and large, we're a reciprocally tolerant lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Thoughtless dog-owners again...

    Why do so many of them go to the trouble of picking up after their dog and then hang the contents from a nearby bush in a brightly-coloured non-biodegradable plastic bag?

    Often within 15 or 20 yards of a dedicated doggy-poop bin.

    What's that all about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    We are never going to stop the dropping of litter we should just make every one who is on benefits pick it up, that way they have an incentive to get a job and we all have a much nicer place to live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.


    ..I suggest instead of fines those found to be dropping litter or not sorting out dog mess should be given a day where they have to go around the area cleaning it up

    if the supervision of this is not "cost effective" then;

    1/ a fine should be administered on top of the work to pay for the supervision and 2/ at the very least it should be seen that the long term benifits may be worth the cost

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    When I'm out and about doing a run I will regularly pick up discarded beer and soft drink cans and put them in the next available bin !

    Keep fit - keep clean.

  • Comment number 48.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Should this lead then that anyone who doesn't comply, should have their 'right' to citizenship revoked. Consider the recent riot - these people don't have respect for anyone, then why should they continue to reap the benefits of living in this country. In all honesty, this is still a good country to live in. Freedom of speech - that goes a bit far, when these comments are 'subject to moderation!:p

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    If filthy, thoughtless people didn't drop litter I wouldn't have to go outside to pick it up! Almost every day there is something on the pavement which some brainless idiot has thrown out of their car.

    It always makes me wonder what their home is like...

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The biggest offenders are motorists throwing litter from their cars. What is their problem? It is probably more trouble throwing the litter from the car than taking it home.

    Me and the council spend ages cleaning up the litter dropped in this way. People complain about the cost of Council Tax. Council Tax may well be lower if those who complain didn't drop litter in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Thoughtless dog-owners. Why do so many of them leave their dog off the leash to come haring towards you and your kids, jumping all over you (and/or them) meanwhile the owner is calling after it.

    Then, when they get up close they give it, 'It's okay, he doesn't bite'!!!

    Oh, that's nice. Can it wash my clothes?

    How about I drive at you and swerve away at the last second? Would that be okay?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr can I put this


    But if it is agreed we should may I suggest government sponsored bottom wiping days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    What a load of rubbish!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I live in Japan where schools are cleaned by the children and teachers themselves daily - even the loos.
    Our neighbourhood has a monthly clean-up session held at 8:30 on a Sunday morning and there is almost 100% attendance. Litter is practically unseen here, whether on the streets, public transport or parks.
    People in the UK need to regain their sense of civic and self-responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I was astonished when I watched a mother get out of her car and tell her child to put her litter on the side of the pavement. She was then annoyed when I challanged her and asked how she would like someone doing that in front of her front door. She then started to shout and swear at me, telling me to mind my own business.

    Is it a test of britishness? No, it's a test of good manners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    We had a spanish exchange student staying with us and he expressed amazement that people picked up litter and put it in a bin,

    While in Seville recently we were commenting on how immaculately litter free it was. Ditto other areas we visited.

    So, I suppose you cant really generalize, unless you want to have an anti-immigrant rant about east europeans of course..

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    @ 33 I dont see why your suggestion is necessary. When it comes to subverting democratic institutions, we are all covered by the same law, so any foreigner specific contract you could dream up to cover that would be meaningless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    One of my finest moments as a child was spotting the owner who was consistently allowing their dog to foul the pavement outside our house.

    I got a garden trowel, picked it up, followed them home and tossed it in their drive and, as they gawped slack-jawed, gave 'em chapter and verse.

    It certainly solved the problem.


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