Litter fines: what a load of rubbish

It is primitivism to make a spectacle of litterers.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

One new hobby I’ve taken up this year is picking up litter in my hometown in east Kent. There are three reasons for this. First of all, I think individuals, rather than the incompetent state, should take charge of a community’s affairs. I grow tired of those who are over-reliant on public authorities – the kind of people, as Alexi Sayle once observed, who moan: ‘I went to the toilet last week and the council still haven’t been round to flush it.’ Rather than pose preposterously in a Guy Fawkes mask in Trafalgar Square, what better way to declare one’s actual, genuine anarchism than to pick up other people’s mess? It’s not very romantic, but it’s more authentically anarchist than any Sex Pistols song.

Secondly, this new pastime furnishes me with a wonderful feeling of smug self-righteousness, by conspicuously shaming others for their anti-social behaviour. But most of all, I’ve taken up this activity because, like the territorial pissings of graffiti taggers, litter disgusts me aesthetically.

Nonetheless, I was still horrified to read earlier this month in the East Kent Mercury that two people have been handed fines of £230 and £500 for dropping litter – a cigarette butt and a parking ticket respectively. This seems outrageously disproportionate, especially when you consider that so many breaches of the law – smoking cannabis, using your mobile phone while driving, not buying a ticket before using national rail – rarely receive any sort of punishment or fine whatsoever.

This is not a new development. In January last year, the BBC programme Inside Out revealed that the number of litter fines issued by English local councils had rocketed from 727 in 1997 to 63,883 in 2012. Encouraged by cash-greedy contractors who receive a commission, equally avaricious councils had issued on-the-spot £80 fines for trivial transgressions, for dropping a bank card, nut shells, a pen, orange peel, an apple core and a banana skin (the latter three being biodegradable). Some people have been penalised for dropping objects by accident, or even when in the process of picking them up. A mother has been fined because she dropped her child’s crisps while others have coughed up for the heinous transgression of feeding ducks.

In these days of cutbacks and austerity, you might argue, who can blame councils for cashing in by taking to task litter-bugs? And in keeping with the adage ‘if you don’t do the crime, you won’t do the time’, surely such punishments ‘send out a message’ that throwing litter is wrong?

Well, for a start, such draconian methods don’t work and aren’t universally applied (there’s still as much litter on our streets as ever – the two lead letters in the current East Kent Mercury address this nuisance and the council’s ineptitude when it comes to clearing it up). And second, when the top brass at so many ‘broke’ local councils miraculously manage to pay themselves vast, six-figure salaries (Kent County Council’s highways director’s salary is £111,302), it transgresses the modern, civilised principle that justice should be proportionate not punitive. Punishment should fit the crime.

As the Manifesto Club’s Josie Appleton wrote in her 2012 report The Corruption of Punishment: How Litter Fines Became a Business: ‘Fines are not being issued in the public interest, but as a money-making operation for cash-strapped public authorities, and for their growing army of private contractors.’ The notion that penalisation should serve as a deterrent, or a convenient source of revenue, is the hallmark of a backward and corrupt society.

In pre-modern societies, you have your hands chopped off for theft, or you are stoned to death for infidelity. In pre-modern Europe, public executions were intended to serve as a spectacle and a warning, and the prospect of a one-way ticket to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread was similarly designed to cow the people of eighteenth-century Britain.

In the pre-Victorian era, it was common for officials such as gamekeepers, custom officials and tax collectors to raise their salary from fees or fines. Only with the enactment of the Enlightenment in the late-nineteenth century and the emergence of a modern police force, and the notion of rational proportionality, did there emerge the concept that the punishment should fit the crime.

The return to ‘sending out a signal’ is retrograde, much like the gradual drift in recent years to give victims of crime a say in the punishment of perpetrators. Last week, the UK justice secretary, Chris Grayling, announced plans in which vandals could be ordered to pay compensation to their victims. This is another backward step. The whole point of modern impartial justice is to depersonalise it and thus prevent vendettas and a culture of revenge. The protracted hounding this month of a footballer who has already served his allotted punishment for a rape conviction is merely part of a wider, worrying development.

Modern justice is predicated on the separation of powers, on the understanding that the police do not decide punishment. That’s for the judiciary to decide, based on rules laid down by the executive. But Grayling also wants to give police the power to issue fines of up to £150 for anti-social behaviour, rather than issue cautions. In effect, we are drifting towards a Judge Dredd model of justice.

The justice system should be blind, impartial, proportionate. Unreasonable punishment brings the whole notion of state justice into disrepute. Criminal justice should be focused on due punishment, not avarice, and punishment, where we do entrust its deliverance to the state, should not breed terror, but penance. Such litter fines are part of an authoritarian drift towards irrational primitivism. What a load of old rubbish.

Patrick West is a columnist for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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