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 176.

    Samxool - I can see we have a new idiot trolling the boards.

    Firstly, it's called caps lock, turn it off, it makes you look even more of an inconsiderate oaf than you already are.

    Secondly, do you REALLY think people are going to want to pick up your rubbish? hopefully they will and then throw it through your bedroom window in the dead of night.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    I pick up litter that has been dropped close to my house because litter attracts more litter. Usually it is fast food containers on Saturday mornings. Unfortunately, even if the culprit was there, remonstrating would risk abuse or worse and I probably wouldn't do it unless I was in the garden with a spade of fork in my hand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Picking up litter does have its plusses, on picking up a pile of rubbish including a cigarette packet I was delighted to find £10 inside! I have a couple of very nice pint glasses collected from the common out side my house. Being 10 mins drive from the nearest town thats how long it takes to eat a burger drink a lager & sling the rubbish out of the window.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    "Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk."
    Travis Bickle

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    As a responsible dog owner I tend to end up picking up the mess created by other people's dogs, as my pooch has the habit of depositing on top of an existing heap. I guess he's doing his bit as a good citizen..

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    @ 156. samxool

    ...that's a staggering opinion, thank goodness we have freedom of speech!

    Imagine the effect if children were taught not to drop litter but happily pick it up if they see it - a much more caring, responsible and cleaner world.

    We need to take responsibility for our planet and not hide behind "Well, it's not mine".

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    How about getting the 'Special' constables to pick up litter? Then we'd know they were good for at least something.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Some people just really don't care about their town/city (unless you insult it). Littering in my opinion is as bad as spitting, I cringe when I see people do it.

    I hate throwing away stuff that can be recycled in public bins too, it'd be great if they could have more public recycling bins but the minority would just abuse/misuse them too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Walking to work one hot summer's day and witnessed a young woman throwing a food container out of her car window. She had to stop in the heavy traffic so I picked the litter up and threw it back through her open car window. She was livid and threatened to report me to the police for assault. I was worried for a few days as I could just imagine being reprimanded for being a responsible citizen!

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    // Dr_Ads
    "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?//

    Valid questions, but it's also a valid point. Why knock it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Yes, I'll pick up litter - if the person responsible isn't about. Otherwise I'll invite them to correct their knuckle-dragging behaviour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    @148 stereotonic

    I know, hence why i said these kids grow up, carry on doing the same and pass it onto their children. I'm fully aware of how adults are also included into the guilty party

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    @ 156.
    samxool - well- it is our world, our country...what if everybody would think like you do?
    Guess it isn't your business cause it's not your own environment.
    The keyword is responsibility!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    People have a 'right to their own opinions'? 'Free speech'? Really?? Are we living in the same country?

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    I pick up other peoples litter on my street. What we should be doing is putting prisoners to work so they can give something back to society, much like they do in the USA. Instead of sitting in their cells playing their PlayStations and watching TV they should be made to wear orange suits and taken out to pick up litter, remove graffiti, chewing gum off the pavements etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    2 things re litter. When I walk my dog I take plastic bags and collect litter. samxool is right. He shouldn't have to collect his own litter, and the rest of us should respect that some people need to be looked after by the rest of us. Thats why we pay taxes, so these people are cared for in our society. Don't get cross with him, just have a bit of empathy for his condition.

  • Comment number 160.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    Like one has already written: how weired are people who take the time to pick up their dog poo but then leave the full bag hanging on fences or from a bush. Also putting the cigarette ends down- we always take bags with us and collect our litter- everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    I do - for purely selfish reasons. I feel happier living in a nice environment, it's such a small thing to do and if we all did it, it would be so much better for everyone and our taxes could be more productively spent elsewhere

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    156 samxool

    ...haha seriously? Don't drop it in the first place then you won't have to pick it up!

    Also council tax is for emergency services and other things, shall we have the police pick up litter instead of arrest criminals?


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