New laws or just enforcement?

The Cabinet’s announcement that it was implementing a new law governing littering and environmental management to ensure that homeowners “take responsibility for cleaning the gutters in front of their homes” was another classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing and the difference between laws and enforcement.

Politicians love to make laws. It gives the appearance that they are in tune with what is going on and are doing something. In this case, there is an attempt to craft a perception that those in authority are listening to the pleas of the citizenry to clean the gutters so that when the precious rains fall, they are not victims of clogged drains and the associated health hazards. The Cabinet briefing eloquently states “While many homes discharge kitchen water and bathwater directly into public gutters, those sources feed grass, moss, and other unwanted vegetation that block the flow of the very water which is discharged.” It then states that the new “law will therefore compel each occupier of the residence fronting on a public gutter to keep that gutter clear of Vegetation.” Sounds great doesn’t it? And to make it sound even greater, the Cabinet notes that “even in developed countries where resources are plentiful, the law requires each homeowner to keep his sidewalk and gutter clean,” and “The laws of Antigua and Barbuda will shortly require the same of all those homeowners and tenants that occupy homes with gutters or frontage.”

It kind of gives the impression that we are finally catching up with the developed countries, except, we already have a law on the books that talks to the responsibility of homeowners to clean the gutters in front of their house. It is called The Litter(Amendment) Act, 2004. And as you can tell by the title of this editorial, it is 14 years old. In the amendment of Section 12 of the principal Act it repealed subsection (1) and substituted the following — “(1) The owner, occupier or person in control of any premises shall be responsible for keeping such premises, the side walk and any gutter or drain adjoining the premises clean and tidy at all times.” Seems vaguely familiar in wording to the proposed new law, doesn’t it?

It goes further. Part 2 states, “Where a litter prevention warden considers any premises, the sidewalk and any land adjoining such premises to be unsightly, or a public health hazard or seriously detrimental to the amenities of the neighbourhood by reason of litter, the litter prevention warden may issue a clean up order to the owner, occupier or the person in control of the premises that is the subject of such order as set out in Form B of the Schedule.”

The problem, as far as we can see, is enforcement. As with all of our litter related issues, there is little to no enforcement. This leads us to a question that we have asked before, “if there is no enforcement, is a law really a law?” This may seem a bit philosophical but it is a genuine question. Why spend time and money (and good intentions) crafting laws to protect and serve society if no one enforces those laws? This is one of our pet peeves and it becomes even more frustrating an issue when it is mated with another one of our pet peeves, littering!

One would have suspected that when the topics of gutters and sidewalks were raised, the first question would have been, “what do we have on the books to deal with these issues?” From there, the 2004 Act would have been discovered and the issue of enforcement would have been identified as the deficiency. Instead, a new law has been suggested that would likely rely on the same litter wardens to do the same enforcement, in the same way, as already dictated in the 2004 amendment.

We recognise that all of this was probably done with good intentions but where is the Attorney General’s office in researching the matter for Cabinet and providing the sound advice that is required? Where is the Ministry of Health’s input on the matter? Beyond having a vague memory that the law had already been passed, all it would have taken was a search on the Government’s website that hosts the laws of Antigua and Barbuda (legalaffairs.gov.ag.) A search for litter yields a few results but the first is the original 1983 Act and the second is the 2004 amendment. It was that easy. If you want to go a bit further, open the 2004 amendment and search for the word “gutter”, and voila. Literally, a few keystrokes!

So, what is next, an entirely new Act or another amendment? Or, can it not be a case of enforcing the laws that are already on the books by funding an active and efficient team of litter wardens that can do more than gutters and sidewalks but can attend to enforcing the existing laws that are there to maintain the beauty of our bit of paradise? We suggest the latter.

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