Why East Ayrshire is wrong to criminalise naughty school pupils – Martyn McLaughlin

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The criminalisation of pupils who litter is a crude ineffective solution to a stubborn problem, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

With around 15,000 tonnes of litter dropped every year, the constant battle to keep Scotland beautiful can at times seem like a futile endeavour.

The size of Scotland's litter problem is alarming but fining school children is a step too far, says Martyn McLaughlin (Picture: Scott Louden)

The size of Scotland's litter problem is alarming but fining school children is a step too far, says Martyn McLaughlin (Picture: Scott Louden)

In the face of such a scourge – the equivalent of 50 pieces of litter dropped per person – it is understandable that a gnawing frustration might give rise to unconventional solutions.

One such initiative is about to get underway in East Ayrshire, an area of Scotland specked with natural beauty spots and great rolling expanses of moorland and forests.

These attractions, regrettably, seem not to have the desired effect of instilling in some of the area’s youngest inhabitants a sense of civic pride. Now, they are to pay the price.

Soon, any school pupils found littering in their high school grounds face the same £80 fixed penalty notice handed out to adults across the country.

The children themselves will not have to stump up. Instead, their parents will be responsible for paying the fine. And should a pupil sign up for and attend a supervised litter picking session, the penalty will be waived altogether.

The architect of the scheme, Sally Cogley, who represents the Rubbish Party on the local authority, believes it is a “no brainer” and will make a lasting difference in the area.

She was elected two years ago, mere months after founding the party in order to focus on the problem of littering and waste in the area.

Understandably, Ms Cogley is excited about the national interest that has been shown since the scheme was announced, noting that “East Ayrshire will be doing something that has never been done in the UK before”. It is unlikely to have occurred to her that the reason for that may not be due to her ingenuity, but simply that, with the best will in the world, she has struck upon a crude and ineffective idea.

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There is a wider debate to be had about the efficacy of fixed penalty notices in changing behaviour, particularly among young offenders, but the decision to roll out the New Labour culture of on-the-spot fines to our schools invites several specific problems.

The most obvious one is that playgrounds should not be places where children receive formal criminal sanctions for misdemeanours. This is not to trivialise the issue of littering, but rather to acknowledge that discipline can – and should – take other forms, such as a teacher or a parent reprimanding a child.

It is also difficult to see how the extent of the fine will induce parents to take greater responsibility for the actions of their children. Hitting them in the wallet will likely only increase tensions in households that are struggling to make ends meet.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. For all its rural splendour, East Ayrshire has plentiful pockets of poverty. Indeed, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, nearly a third of the area’s data zones are among the 20 per cent most deprived parts of Scotland. Unemployment sits well above the national average, with youth unemployment an especially stubborn problem.

Against such a backdrop, it is hard to see how fixed penalties will do anything other than cause more harm and resentment.

In any case, is there not a question to be asked as to whether a school should become a quasi-policing authority in the first place?

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Instead of nurturing children and identifying any underlying factors behind their bad behaviour, the region’s secondaries will be compelled to mete out the same punishment as traffic wardens would to a drivers found idling with their engines on. Scotland’s education system fulfils many varied duties, but surely this should not be one of them?

In pushing through the fixed penalty notice initiative, Ms Cogley is doubtless acting with good intentions, and the very fact she was elected – a surprise result which, pleasingly, ensured the Rubbish Party command more council seats than UKIP – indicates the community at large wants to see more done to tackle littering.

If that is the case, perhaps Ms Cogley and her supporters could ask East Ayrshire Council just how seriously it takes the issue. It issued only 38 fixed penalty notices for littering last year, and just 36 for fly tipping. Granted, it can be difficult to identify who is responsible for such offences.

But even when there are strong cases to be made, the council appears reticent to pursue them.

A series of freedom of information requests by The Ferret found that between April 2015 and March last year, East Ayrshire was among a host of local authorities seemingly content to issue fixed penalty notices to those who despoil their communities, yet failed to see the matter through.

It handed out a total 327 fines over the period for littering, dog fouling, and fly tipping. Only 180 were paid, and a mere 28 of those fines that were outstanding were referred to the courts for further enforcement.

Is that symptomatic of the financial challenges in local government? Most probably. Is it a sign of an ineffective enforcement regime? Quite possibly.

What is clear is that the blight of litter must be met with a considered, multifaceted solution which puts education and prevention at its heart.

Leftfield alternatives such as patrolling playgrounds may set precedents and guarantee headlines, but they are gimmicks at best.