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 156.



  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    // TheGrassAintGreener
    I lobby for orange overalls and extended community work picking up litter and dogs mess for serial offenders. Who's with me?//

    It would be discriminatory against the Litter Dropper Syndrome sufferers, and those communities for whom litter dropping is the cultural norm.
    So ideally, I'd agree with you, but.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    It's easy to say that now, but when you're on a train without a paper you'll change your mind, you don't want to dig through the bins to find something to read!

  • Comment number 153.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Newspapers on trains are great as they are read by so many people. At the end of the line the train company clears them away fro recycling etc. What's the problem? It's good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    I also despair at how many respectable looking commuters are quite happy to abandon their papers on train seats rather than in the bins provided in trains for this purpose...

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    This is just another effort by the goverment to shift responsibility onto the tax payers concience which seems the norm for today.
    If we pay our council taxes we expect the services to be provided,not this sly and underhand method of keeping yourselves in a job.
    Stop treating the electorate as if they're thick !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    "Offenders get choice, pay £1000 fine, or do 20 hours of community litter & dog poo cleaning"

    OK then, no problem with that. But exactly who is going to arrest these litter-droppers, who is going to pay for the extra millions in court costs, and who is going to supervise these community crews?

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    @81 Howsyourview

    It isn't just parents not teaching their kid's basic manners. . . . . . A lot of people I see throwing rubbish ARE the adults!

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    The government has obligations and a duty of care to the citizens who employ it to administer the country on their behalf, and yet these are still not spelled out in sufficient detail whilst they are quite happy to talk about the rights and obligations of the citizens. Interesting, no?

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    A General Life Rule: Try to leave a place tidier then when you found it. This behavior is particularly appropriate in places like picnic areas where others also come to enjoy pleasant surroundings. Take a plastic bag with you on trips to put your own rubbish in and other rubbish that you might find in the area. Pass this life rule on to others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    The Bloke
    "..Councils are generally wasteful "
    Correct - that is why they are still over staffed and sitting on reserves of £16bn, with very generous budges, austerity does not apply to them at all. Watch out they also employ people to keep a register of "trouble makers" and your bin is being sifted right now by their army of staff and outsourced partners!

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.


    The trouble is not dropping litter in their own enviroment. The worst offenders are WHITE VAN DRIVERS, those half educated PUNKS just throw their rubbish out of the windows. In Singapour, they would get a good Flogging.


  • Comment number 143.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    If everyone took their civic duties and responsibilities seriously there wouldnt be any litter to pick up in the first place!

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Bring back deposits on bottles.

    I'd also like to see scrapyards pay (£2 per bin bag for example) for drink cans as they do in the U.S.

    Both would cut down on littering, and would lead to more recycling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Part of what makes us British is surely our "right" to ignore our obligations?

    Anyone who's bought a house on an estate in the past few decades has likely signed a contract including a schedule of obligations regarding niusance, obstruction, conducting a business,ball games and all the rest, but woe betide anyone who tries to remind them of the standards of behaviour they have agreed to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    // Little_Old_Me

    Here's a dare for you - name me one Council official anywhere in the country who gets paid more than their private sector equivalent.....//

    How dare you? Does anyone say that nowadays?

    Anyway, Councils are generally wasteful and crap. Even if they are running a big org, bosses don't take risks or responsibilities, or innovate. Anything goes wrong, it's someone else's fault..

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    I still pick up litter in the street and out of hedges, drop it in a public bin - or more often these days someone's kerbside collection container, or my own if I have to. The street is 'my free country' and I feel obliged to my fellow owners.

    I have stopped swooping on litter at railway stations. Picking up railway litter feels like tidying up a stranger's house uninvited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    121.The Bloke - "....cut down on council waste and high salaries......"

    Agree with 121 - Councils are squandering millions on high salaries- Councils do not have to compete to earn their "revenues", or "sell" their "services". Money comes to them regardless of the complexities of the real commercial world, and they are wasting it on paying each other very high salaries!


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