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Untreated Sewage: Discharge into Waterways

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 28 October 2021

1. What steps he is taking to help ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and inland waterways. (903864)

I have been absolutely crystal clear that the amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers is unacceptable. We have our Environment Bill and our strategic policy statement which, for the very first time by any Government, directs the regulator to ensure that water companies tackle sewage discharges, so we are right on it. We have strengthened the Environment Bill to get a new duty on water companies to progressively reduce discharges. Last week, we voted through six pages of measures to stop raw sewage going into our watercourses.

Despite bizarre assurances that the Government have been working on their U-turn for weeks, it was the public outcry about sewage being pumped into waterways that forced a change of mind by the Government. In Gower, the number of people enjoying the sea and swimming in Caswell bay and Langland bay has increased, as many Members know, especially during covid. What work is the Minister doing to work with devolved Governments to ensure that the whole United Kingdom is protected for people to swim and enjoy?

Yes, it is a beautiful part of the world. We have to remember that water issues are devolved, so water companies are working in their own ways, but it is absolutely right that they need to work together across our borders. We are at pains to make that clear. Indeed, there were measures in the Environment Bill to highlight the fact that partnership working is so important. All the measures in the Bill will make a significant difference to any of this pollution going into the river. I remind her that a fifth of the pollution is from sewage, but four fifths is from agricultural pollution and waste treatment works. We are also working on very strong measures on this issue, not only through the Environment Bill, but through the farming rules for water.

I am grateful to the Minister and Secretary of State for meeting me and concerned colleagues earlier this week on this issue. Only a few days ago, we had a discharge into the Walney channel. For the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister please lay out the fact that the amendment we are putting forward to the Environment Bill will drive down discharges such as this and increase penalties and liabilities on water companies that are acting irresponsibly?

I thank my hon. Friend for coming to the meeting earlier this week to explain what is a very complicated picture. It has to be tackled from so many angles, which is why I mentioned agriculture just now—it is not just one source. We have the measures in the Bill and the six pages of measures we added to improve reporting, monitoring, duties and governance to check on the actions that water companies are taking. Those are in the Bill, but this overarching new duty to direct water companies to progressively reduce sewage will make the real difference. It puts into law what we have already directed Ofwat, the regulator, to do.

Days from COP26, I must tell the Minister that the episode with raw sewage has not done Britain’s reputation going into that conference any good. The Government whipping their own MPs to vote against an amendment to end the routine discharge of raw sewage does nothing to build confidence and has rightly sparked a public outcry. Raw sewage is being routinely discharged today, right now and every single day throughout COP26. When the Minister talks about progressive reductions, can she say how much raw sewage will be progressively reduced each and every year? Importantly, when will this disgusting practice come to an end?

I want to make it clear that a lot of what we have heard in the social media storm has been whipped up, and there are a great many untruths flying around. We all spoke last week, after all the tributes to dear Sir David Amess, about a better form of government that is more respectful. Actually, I would like us to pick that up, because a lot of people have not seen it over this issue. The amendment, as it was worded by the Duke of Edinburgh—[Interruption.] Sorry, I will correct that right now. The amendment of the Duke of Wellington, with whom I have had many meetings, would have legally bound Ministers to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged from overflows, eliminating them. That would have involved the complete separation of the sewerage system. We have data, which I believe will be published today, that shows that that could cost between £300 billion and £600 billion. We had to be mindful of that. The hon. Gentleman asks when these things will start happening. They are happening already. Some £3 billion is already being spent by the water companies to stop sewage going into our rivers. The measures in the Bill will further add to that.

Order. I say to the Minister that I recognise her passion, but we are 10 minutes in and we are on question 1. We are not going to get very far. If she can speed up her answers, it will help me. We now to come to a question from Kate Osborne, who is not here, so I expect the Minister to reply on that basis, then I will go to Ian Byrne.