On the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Dennis Tan

Mr Speaker, I support the amendments in the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill. However I do have some concerns with the new proposed Section 17A which creates a presumption that the owners or tenants of the property are responsible if any refuse or article is deposited, dropped, placed, thrown, scattered or spilled in or into a public place from a residential flat (ie under section 17A(1) for the current section 17(1)(a), (d) and (f)) unless they can prove that the act was committed by another person, that the owners or tenants were not present at the flat or they are able to provide the identity of the offender within 14 days (ie under section 17A(5)).

The proposed amendments will also apply to section 17(1)(g) for any ash, hair, feathers, lime, sand, waste paper or other substance that is carried by wind in a public place (ie under section 17A(3)) and also spit or mucus (ie under section 17A(4)).

While I can understand the intention of the authorities to make it easier for the  enforcement especially with rising number of high rise littering cases and the amendments may help to make prosecution easier, I am concerned that the presumption of guilt on the part of owners or tenants may place these persons in a difficult position to clear themselves even if they were not ultimately directly responsible for the littering, spitting or disposing acts.  

I would like to give a few examples.

Firstly, as regards the Bill making a lived-in landlord or landlady being responsible for their adult tenants if the latter were to commit an act of high-rise littering, there is an issue of fairness. Is this really desirable given that the tenants are grown adults and it may not be practicable to expect a landlord to be able to require the obedience of an adult tenant?

A landlord or tenant who was either not at home or even if he was at home, he might be asleep or working and had no idea whether his tenant or family members had littered. And if he had tried asking and no one wanted to own up, would it be fair for an owner to be made responsible and be punished in such circumstances?

Many lived-in owners who rent out rooms may be seniors and may not be the best persons to impose themselves on their tenants in this regard.

What if an owner or lived-in landlord, landlady or tenant has reasons to fear an occupier of the flat? This can be a tenant, co-tenant or even a family member? The owner may have cause for concerns that such a person may become abusive or intimidating.

What about parents who do not wish to inform on their children?

What if two unrelated tenants of a public rental flat are confronted with such a complaint? Unless one owns up readily, one can imagine how such a complaint with the presumption of guilt will cause distress to the household.

This new law will put such owners or tenants in a spot vis-à-vis other tenants or family members. They may end up taking the blame themselves as passing on the allegation to the other persons may subject him or her to some of form of threat or abuse and going to the police may not always be a desired cause of action for a loved one.

Will the authorities exercise some form of discretion not to prosecute owners or tenants who might be put in a spot by the new law? If so, will the minister explain how this may work so that there will be sufficient clarity as well as certainty?

The prosecution under the new proposed provisions would envisage not just complaints made by a third party who has witnessed litter being thrown down. NEA would often have installed cameras after receiving feedback and the cameras would have taken down video footages of littering acts. Let me take this opportunity to also ask a few questions about NEA’s use of cameras to carry out surveillance and cameras.

Mr Speaker, I understand that between 2019 to 2021, NEA investigated an average of 29,700 high-rise littering feedback instances annually, which is an increase of about 77 per cent compared to the average of 16,800 high-rise littering feedback instances annually from 2016 to 2018. 

Over the same time period, NEA has also deployed an average of 2,400 cameras annually and conducted about 1,500 enforcement actions annually against persons caught for high-rise littering.

I note from the cases I have encountered that NEA may not always install cameras after each complaint. May I ask the minister whether there must be a minimum number of complaint or feedback received on a particular unit or culprit or is there any other criteria before a camera is installed?

May I also ask whether cameras will be installed for multiple feedback received on persons who spit in public on a regular basis for example spitting along the common corridor or void decks of HDB blocks or from the windows of their unit?

May I also ask the minister whether he can share with the house what are some of the challenges encountered by NEA with the use of cameras particularly if such challenges restricts more ready usage of cameras following each complaint and whether there are any plans to increase deployment of cameras to deter high rise littering, even with the proposed amendments in this Bill we are now looking at.

Mr Speaker, notwithstanding my queries and concerns, I support the Bill. 

Delivered in Parliament on 6 February 2023