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 76.

    As far as rubbish is concerned, it should by your 'civic duty' to clean up your own mess. . . . . .I mean, how difficult is it to put your Maccy D rubbish in the bin? . . . . . I'm sick of seeing it launched out of car windows for other poor souls to have to pick up

  • Comment number 75.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Of course we should pick up litter,clean up after our dogs, keep the area around our homes and businesses tidy if we want to live in a decent society.
    Why should we live at the level of the worse members of our society.
    I remember a couple of homilies my mother used, If not you then who?'
    and 'to treat people the way you would wish to be treated'
    Works every time

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Long overdue. We hear plenty of talk about peoples rights, next to nothing about their responsibilities. The theme should be 'Responsibility Before Rights'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    There shouldn't be litter in the first place at course but these things happen. As for picking other people's mess up....I can't believe what I'm reading. Sure, it would be in everyone's best interest but then what exactly do we pay high levels of council tax for?

    They won't be happy until we do ALL of the council's responsibilities ourselves but still hand over their wages once a month!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    It's not just dropping litter. We shoul dgo back to offering edlerly people, pregnant ladies etc. seats on the tube and busses, letting them go on/off first and so forth. Make a habit iof saying goodbye to your neigbour again (you don't have to start a conversation with them). They are all little things that don't cost anything but start a positive upwards spiral.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Why does freedom of belief and religion trump freedom of speech.
    Try criticising Israel (anti-semitic) or islam (islamaphobic).
    Religion is a life style choice it is not racist to comment on belief. However, it is completely wrong to mock what is in anyone's DNA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    #61 socomstu.

    You didn't "work for free". You were being paid benefit, you felt guilty so decided to give something back voluntarily, which gave you experience and something on your CV.
    Sadly though, there's still a few that would still call you a lazy scrounger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    No equal opportunities in work and education then. If this is the future 'social contract' it is very weak. One could almost attach to the "offer from the UK" - terms and conditions apply. A long way from rights and duties.

    PS See someone gratuitously dropping litter - report them to the local council.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I went to an FSB meeting last year to suggest road sponsoring as they do in the US, basically a business looks after a section of road, keeping it clean etc. They then have their name on a sign. I was shot down in flames by the local mayor - 'It's the councils job' (they don't do it round here!), and 'think of the health and safety aspect', 'you might cause an accident' etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Not all litter is intentionally dropped, some is the result of damaged bin bags and bad weather. Nevertheless, why on earth shouldn't we feel obliged to help keep our neighbourhoods tidy? I pick things up when they are on the street but near a bin - it's easier than looking at them everyday and doing nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Our group picks once a month, but there a small number of individuals (not mad....citizens) who collect as they walk their dogs, go for a run etc. Its the best thing I ever did, meeting selfless people who dont wait for the council or the "thats someone elses job" brigade, or wait for some miraculous change in our broken culture, they just DO IT. Good on the lot of you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    How about adding good citizenship courses to schools? If the parents won't teach proper behavior and respect for others, at least introduce the concept someplace in the tot's minds. Perhaps planting a few seeds will result in a woodland or a forest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.


    Many people in Brtain (motly long native Brits it has to be said) do suffer from a lack of respect for other people & things - but respect starts with self respect.

    If you have no respect for yourself you struggle to respect others. Ot is a sign of apoor upbringing - just look at how anti social bankers and Govt Ministers are.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I live in Wheatley, Oxfordshire. There is a man who voluntarily walks through the street several times a week searching for and picking up any litter. If we could all learn from his shining example then litter would not be an issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I was not demonising anyone I was on benefits for 2 years as a result of that I no how hard it can be to get any incentive to work, when You send your cv off to 150 companies a month and not getting a reply I worked for free for 2 months and I found that helped a lot.
    Just an idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    If the council stood a litter warden on the street where I lived with powers to spot fine they'll make a fortune.
    Meanwhile the sign stays put on the garden wall.......
    "When garden is full please use the ******* litter bin."
    "There's one bolted to the floor behind you."

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    We are never going to stop the dropping of litter
    Why not?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    When I walk my dog, I take a carrier bag to collect pop tins and junk food wrappers. People think I'm the local madwoman!!!! My neighbour laughs when the boast about throwing Macdonalds rubbish out of his car - he says 'it keep people in a job'. He went down in my estimation hugely at that point. I will keep collecting rubbish - we live in a beautiful country, let's look after it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Our area sits in the black hole of unadoption with neither the council nor developer taking responsibility. So, we formed a parish council, raised money via a small precept on the council tax and basically, we do it ourselves.

    It hasn't stopped the scumbags dropping it, nor has it inspired the moaners, and do-nothings to help.

    But,at least the people of goodwill have a clean place to live.


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