[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with the current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 582336, relating to the discharge of sewage by water companies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley, and it is an honour to be leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. The petition calls for an outright ban on water companies discharging raw sewage into watercourses. Personally, I think a lot of our constituents will be shocked to hear that it is currently legal for water companies to do this. How can it be okay for multimillion-pound businesses to absolve themselves of the responsibility for ensuring that our rivers and streams, and ultimately our seas, are free of harmful sewage?
I pay tribute to Ferry Harmer, who started the petition after seeing Feargal Sharkey raise some of the issues around the state of our rivers on the TV programme “Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing” last year. I also thank the 111,434 people from around the UK who have taken the time to sign the petition, especially the 186 people from Gower who have signed it. I have had nearly 150 constituents get in touch with me about this issue in one way or another. That demonstrates the strength of feeling about this issue, which has featured recently in the news. When I spoke to Ferry, it was clear he is a man of real passion and determination. He spoke about the petition and told me that 41% of fish species are in decline in British waters. A third of species are in serious decline, including iconic fish such as salmon and trout.
Through my research, I have discovered astounding facts about the state of our rivers and waterways. Some 39 million tonnes of sewage were discharged into the River Thames alone in 2019—that is one river in one year. Last year, raw sewage was discharged into our waters more than 400,000 times, which is quite an incredible figure. This has now become an emergency for our waterways. Not a single river in England is in a healthy condition, not a single river meets a good chemical standard, and over 85% do not meet good ecological standards. Frankly, it is not good enough.
I am fortunate to represent arguably the best coastal community in the UK. The coast around Gower is popular all year round with families and tourists, and a growing number of local wild swimming groups took off during lockdown. It is the only contact that people have with the outside world, and it has been a saviour for so many people. The well-known Mermaids and other groups know that Gower has some of the best surfing in the UK. I will do anything I can to protect our vital ecosystem, seafood production economy and thriving tourist economy. I know that this is a devolved matter, but as I noted in a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time, this a UK-wide issue. What work is the Minister doing alongside the devolved Administrations, and what commitment can she give to do so, because these waterways, whether in England, Wales or Scotland, are all intertwined and all end up somewhere?
If sewage goes into our rivers and waterways, it will ultimately make its way to the sea, and even into our food chain through seafood and fish. I know we are all supposed to encourage recycling, but even I think that is going a little too far. The Government are failing in their duty of care here. The state of our waterways has not improved since 2016, despite ministerial claims that they are cleaning up their act. What is even worse, the unlawful discharge of sewage could be up to 10 times higher than the rate of prosecutions by the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency is responsible for monitoring and enforcement of water quality breaches, but it has fallen foul of the Government’s cuts; its funding has been slashed by 63% since 2010. Simple measures such as the number of points at which samples are collected have been cut by more than 40%. How can we continue to monitor the health of our rivers if less data is collected?
The Government’s response to the petition mentions that
“water companies have agreed to make available real-time data on sewage discharges from storm overflows at designated bathing waters all year round from this year. This data will be made available to help surfers, swimmers and other recreational water users to check the latest information and make informed choices on where to swim.”
Who does not want to check the amount of human waste, used sanitary products and anything else people have flushed into the water before they go for a swim? That is not a delightful thought. Let us not forget the words of the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who back in 2018 told the Environmental Audit Committee that divergence from tough EU rules would be an opportunity for the UK Government to implement unquestionably tougher restrictions. He said that
“being different can sometimes mean being better”,
and that leavers did not automatically advocate for divergence out of a desire to lower standards. However, owing to Brexit, we have seen a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers and an increase in red tape, which has led to chemicals not being available to fully treat wastewater before it is discharged. What is more, the Government have granted permissions for the discharges to take place.
I am not here only to outline the increasing problems that the Government are exacerbating, because I have received suggestions of things that the Government could put into place to reverse some of the damage. To clean up our waterways, we need a fully funded and resourced action plan. We need targets for water companies and serious consequences when they break the rules. One way of doing that is to increase the environmental reporting requirement for water companies. I call on the Government to improve their plan to introduce annual reports, such as by making them quarterly reports. With more regular reporting and a system that allows for this, we can see where there are problem areas and react much more efficiently.
Does my hon. Friend also think there should be a requirement on water companies to report that information to their consumers, perhaps in the form of formal consumer committees of each water company, so that that company is more likely to be held to account by the very consumers who suffer from this dumping of sewage?
That is key. Accountability is needed. If we are to move forward, those consumer committees that my hon. Friend speaks of are exactly what we need: a practical solution in order to move forward.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce measures to reduce sewage discharge from storm overflows, but unfortunately this does not go far enough. The Government must eliminate sewage discharges. That is why Labour voted in favour of the Duke of Wellington’s amendment calling for exactly that. The Government’s aim of publishing a plan on this by September 2022 is just not good enough. Let us have that plan in place early next year. This has been dragging on for far too long, and there is no reason why we cannot have a strategy sooner.
If Ministers are serious about reaching the targets for cleaning our rivers, lakes, streams and seas, they must have a fully-resourced action plan for monitoring water quality and holding companies to account. However, there are also high-tech solutions that could be employed immediately. Ferry mentioned a system called HYBACS—hybrid activated sludge process—which does not sound absolutely delightful, but is cheaper and more effective than the system that companies are currently using. That sounds like a pretty obvious thing for the water companies to put in place. Where there are capital expenditure issues, it must fall to the Government to ultimately step in and protect the waterways. Natural mitigations can also provide solutions to this problem: reintroducing beavers, building more reservoirs and increasing tree and hedgerow planting.
The Minister has plenty to answer from my contribution, but I would also like to know how many water companies have been fined by the Environment Agency. How much have they been fined? When did the Minister last meet with the Environment Agency to discuss this?
I bring my contribution to a close by asking the Government to be bold in doing the right thing and getting our rivers and streams cleaned up. They should listen to the advice of experts: beef up the Environment Agency’s powers and keep pushing water companies to take responsibility, not just for those who signed the petition, but for everybody living in the United Kingdom.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and to have the opportunity to debate this important issue. I must start by saying that the Government’s new Environment Act 2021 goes further than ever to help to reduce water pollution in our rivers and seas, now and in the future. In many ways, it directly addresses a number of points that the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) has raised in today’s debate.
However, an orchestrated campaign on social media left many thousands of our constituents—people who really care about the quality of our water and river pollution—being bombarded with misinformation. The hon. Member has been very constructive in her contribution to this debate, as I am sure other Members will be, but I hope that the debate will ensure that the true facts are on the record—facts, not fiction.
The fact is that there is nothing new in this Environment Act that creates a right for water companies to dump raw sewage in our water courses. For the first time, the Act creates a statutory duty at the most accountable level of all—the top of Government—to better monitor water quality upstream and downstream of our sewage works, to reduce discharges from storm overflows, and to have clear plans on how to eliminate storm overflows completely in England, and those plans must be in place not at some distant date but in a year’s time. Those are real improvements.
The Act also establishes a new duty for the Environment Agency to publish storm overflow data annually, and water companies will have a duty to publish real-time storm overflow information too. That is quite different from what we saw in the social media disinformation campaign, which created such heightened concern and probably led to today’s debate.
Those are real improvements that matter in my constituency, because we are home to a rare north-flowing salmonid chalk stream, of which there are only 200 in the world. The Loddon springs out of the ground in Buckskin, in the centre of Basingstoke, in my own village of Mapledurwell, and in the surrounding fields. By the time it reaches the sewage works in Chineham, where discharges occur, only two or three miles away, it is still little more than a stream.
In 2006, a water cycle study was undertaken by the local authority to model the impact of large-scale house building, of which Basingstoke has undertaken a great deal in the last two decades, on the River Loddon. Since for more than a decade, I have been working with the Environment Agency and Thames Water to ensure that there are improvements and protections for the quality of our river and that the right measures are in place at our sewage works in Chineham. Indeed, it has one of the toughest consent levels in the country for phosphates. In 2015, some successful lobbying meant that new technology was trialled at the Basingstoke plant rather than it happening somewhere else.
We have been doing a great deal, but we welcome the extra measures in the Act to go further. Some aspects of the river have improved, but others have not. The Minister can help with some of those things, but others she simply cannot. For example, there has been a significant increase in the local crayfish population in the Loddon, which has tipped the river into poor status not because there has been an increase in pollution, but because the crayfish eat the eggs of the course fish. That kind of detail is often lost in social media campaigns, which can misrepresent the information that the Environment Agency gathers. I am interested to know what work the Minister will do to educate local councillors and schools on such information.
The new Act also provides the opportunity to tackle storm water discharges, which is incredibly welcome. Let us be clear: if those discharges did not happen, the storm water would simply flood homes and businesses, which would be completely unacceptable. The measures in the new Act mean that plans must be developed to reduce storm water and, eventually, eliminate it.
That is important for me locally, because in April 2020 an almost unprecedented amount of rainfall led the Loddon to experience 40 overflow events. There was insufficient space to store the quantity of storm water, so it had to be released into the river. The situation is unpredictable—there have been only two such events this year—but we need to ensure that future problems with increased rainfall can be dealt with.
A significant contributory cause of the problem is that house builders have an automatic right to connect rainwater drainage to the sewage system. I will focus on that for the Minister. The Government need to bring into force schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which removes developers’ automatic right to connect rainwater drainage to combined sewers, which can put additional storm water pressure on our sewage works’ capacity. What plans do the Government have to tackle that piece of legislation, which is still unenacted?
Overflows in Basingstoke are also caused by high levels of groundwater infiltrating the Thames Water network. Thames Water will work on that through a scheme to reline sewers from 2025 to 2030, plus two upgrades at the Basingstoke sewage works to increase capacity. I am concerned, however, that because Thames Water has done a significant amount of work on the issue already, it does not see Basingstoke as a priority for future investment.
The Act requires a plan to be in place to make improvements at every stage. I stress to the Minister that it cannot be right that a river such as the Loddon, which is little more than a stream as it runs past the Basingstoke sewage works, as I have pointed out, is subject to the same national storm water overflow rules as much larger bodies of water. Will she set out how plans to reduce and eliminate storm water overflow events can take into account the different size of water courses involved? The Loddon may have one of the lowest number of overflow events in the Thames valley, which makes it less of a priority for Thames Water, but it is a small tributary to the Thames when it receives overflow water in Basingstoke.
I pay tribute to the Minister’s work on the issue of water quality, on which she has made so much progress, and it is fitting that she should be responding to today’s debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley; thank you very much for calling me to speak. I am hugely grateful to the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for not just securing the debate, but making an excellent start to it. I am sure that Members will forgive me if I focus much of what I say on the situation in my communities—the English lakes in Cumbria. We are probably the wettest part of England. Storm overflow is a daily thing for us, and we need to keep those lakes topped up, so we do not complain. We do complain about the water companies taking advantage of that in order to justify overflows that I think none of us would consider in any way acceptable.
Windermere, the largest lake in England and the reservoir of last resort for Greater Manchester, contains three designated bathing areas, which are of a good standard. I do not want to make the case that Windermere is an open sewer or anything like that; of course it is not. Nevertheless, on 71 solid days last year, United Utilities dumped raw sewage into that lake, and that is utterly unacceptable.
If we look at the other issues affecting phosphate levels in the lake, we see that perhaps a quarter to a third of all the phosphates in the lake are coming via septic tanks. There is a complete lack of registration and regulation of septic tanks, and no help for those people who have them. If we talk to people in the Environment Agency, who do a great job on the ground in Cumbria, they will say that the only way they know where the septic tanks even are is by a process of elimination, because they know what is on the mains and therefore what is not. That is not acceptable; we need to ensure that there is a proper system of registration, regulation and help for people with septic tanks, so that we can preserve and protect our lakes and the quality of them.
It is not just the lakes in south Cumbria that struggle and see the water companies take advantage of the permission that they effectively have to dump sewage into our waterways. The River Kent at Burneside, the Kent and the Gowan at Staveley and the Kent at Wattsfield in Kendal have seen sometimes catastrophic emissions. And in the likes of Burneside and Staveley, it does not even take much of a storm—not even a huge downpour—to see terrible raw sewage on the streets in those beautiful lakes villages. That is not acceptable.
We have to look at what the Government are willing and able to do to ensure that water companies do the right thing to keep our waterways clean and at a level that we would consider acceptable. I hear what has been said about the Environment Bill. I am massively sceptical about the Government’s amendment at the last minute. It does indeed take the Duke of Wellington’s wording about progressively reducing harmful emissions, and the duty on water companies. And there is a timescale for a report, but there is no timescale for improvement and there are no volume references when it comes to improvement, either. How much sewage is acceptable, for example? I can tell the Chamber that 40% of the phosphates in Windermere are down to United Utilities. Will 39% be acceptable, after five years—two years? These are the things that leave people sceptical about the amendment that the Government made last week, providing good cover for Conservative Back Benchers and a free rein for the water companies to effectively carry on doing what they have already and always been doing.
The hon. Member for Gower asked really important questions about fines that the water companies have paid. I submitted a written question to the Minister and I am very pleased that she answered a very similar question. The answer to the question of how many water companies in the last four years have been prosecuted and fined is that there have been 11 successful prosecutions in four years. Four of those prosecutions were for less than £50,000. In the north-west of England, there has not been one single prosecution since 2018. United Utilities nevertheless was guilty of five of the 10 longest discharges in the last year. We are seeing here a pattern of water companies being allowed to get away with murder and not being held to account.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene; he is making a very important point about enforcement. On Friday of this week, Thames Water will appear in court—I will not go into the details, for obvious reasons—for a case that it has taken the Environment Agency five years to bring to court. It had known that it was serious enough to require prosecution. Why does it take it so long?
I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention and for his work in this area highlighting this issue. We have much to be grateful to him for. The point that he makes is absolutely right. We can have policies, but what good are they if they are not enforced or the water companies can factor into their spending plans that a fine of perhaps less than £50,000 is a small price to pay when they are able to dish out to their shareholders £2 billion in dividends each year?
I am absolutely proud of the English lakes and of our waterways. We have glorious lakes, rivers and streams in our community, and I want to keep them clean, but at the moment the water companies have permission to take advantage of the fact that they are allowed to have these emissions, and they are not being held to account via the legal process.
I would like the Minister to reflect on the issues raised today and to tell me what plan she has to help us in the Lake district to ensure that the best visitor attraction in the country, and the biggest outside of London, is kept clean and pristine, and something that we can all remain proud of.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing, on behalf of the Petitions Committee, this really important debate; it is great to see so many Members in Westminster Hall for a debate on such a significant topic. Indeed, for me, cleaning up our river system by improving the water quality in our streams and rivers is incredibly important. In my constituency, we have the River Wharfe, which is the only river in the UK to have secured bathing water status so far.
I am very proud that, after decades of inaction, this Government are the ones who are doing something about this issue. Many people who signed this petition will have done so in advance of the Environment Bill securing Royal Assent last week. During discussions on this issue, many falsehoods have been put across by the media and—I have to say—by Opposition Members, who have used the many debates in recent weeks as an opportunity to capitalise on falsehoods in many arguments that have been put forward. I will use this debate as an opportunity to set the record straight.
Members in this place have never voted to allow water companies to pump sewage into rivers; what we have done is vote for a piece of legislation that will go to much greater lengths than we have seen before to clean up our rivers. With the Environment Bill securing Royal Assent last week, we have voted to put a duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory drainage and sewage management plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage systems over the next 25 years. Of course, we have also voted for a power of direction for the Government to direct water companies in relation to their actions in these drainage and sewage management plans. The Government will also have the ability to use their power of direction if those plans are not good enough, which is a powerful tool.
We have also voted for the Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows—something that we are all incredibly passionate about in this House, because too often we have seen sewage getting into the river system by storm overflows not working correctly. Now the Government have the ability to put more pressure on water companies.
We have also voted for a requirement for the Government to produce a report setting out the actions that should be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions. Both publications are required before 1 September next year. We have also voted for a new duty to be placed on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis. Furthermore, we have voted for a new duty on water companies to publish real-time information on storm overflows. This will mean that it is absolutely clear how often storm overflows are being used, which will aid enforcement, because—I emphasise this—in my view the Environment Agency has not been strong enough in holding water companies to account; and yet we have voted for an Environment Bill that will do that. In addition, we have voted for a new duty to be placed directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works.
In July this year, the Government set out, for the first time ever, their expectation that Ofwat, the regulator in charge of monitoring both the water companies and the Environment Agency, should incentivise water companies to invest significantly to reduce the use of storm overflows.
I was proud to serve on the Environment Bill Committee, and I was delighted to see the Bill become law, and it is great to see that so many people across the country are so passionate about this issue. Cleaning up rivers is vital to us all, but it was deeply disappointing to see Opposition Members not vote for any of the mechanisms or measures that I have outlined in my speech. The Opposition make a lot of noise on this topic, but the Government act and, thanks to the Environment Act 2021, we may finally begin to stop sewage discharge getting into our rivers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing this important debate and for her speech, which I very much agree with.
The Rivers Trust has shown that there have been multiple sewer storm overflow incidents in the city of Salford, centring on the River Irwell and the Manchester ship canal. Last year, as we have heard, water companies dumped raw sewage into England’s rivers and seas 400,000 times, so it will take more than regulation to fix the problem. Indeed, the water industry has been regulated since it was privatised in 1989, and fining many water companies millions of pounds has demonstrably not affected their behaviour. Yorkshire Water and United Utilities have even tried to claim in court that they are not public authorities and should not have to publish data on sewage.
As a result of privatisation in 1989, our water and sewage are now run by nine regional private monopolies that are owned mostly by private equity. Since privatisation, water bills have increased by 40% in real terms. Eye-watering new research from the University of Greenwich shows that the water and sewage companies have paid shareholders a total of nearly £17 billion in dividends from 2010 to ’21—an average of £1.4 billion a year.
Over the three decades since privatisation, the privatised English water companies are estimated to have paid out £57 billion in dividends to shareholders. That is almost half as much as the money they have spent on upgrading and maintaining water and sewage systems. Worse, six water companies were found to be avoiding millions in tax, and the Financial Times has reported on the huge debt piling up in the water industry, which confirms that our water bills are rising to pay for huge shareholder pay-outs, not to invest in infrastructure. The truth is that privatisation of our water industry was wrong, and it has been a complete failure for the British public.
The good news, however, is that bringing water into public ownership would pay for itself within about seven years. After that, it would save the public purse £2.5 billion a year. That money could be invested in infrastructure to stop sewage pouring into our rivers, lakes and seas, as well to reduce leaks to save water and cut bills. The new public water companies could be democratically controlled, transparent and given a duty of care to take care of our environment, to clean up our rivers and seas, and to do everything they can to tackle the climate crisis. There is no excuse not to do this.
In Scotland, water is already in public ownership. In Wales, it is not for profit. In the past 15 years, 235 cities in 37 countries have taken their water into public ownership. I am sure we all agree that it is unacceptable for raw sewage to flow into our rivers and seas. If we are serious about tackling that ecological scandal, I stress that we must bring England’s water companies into public hands.
This year, Southern Water was fined £90 million for pumping raw sewage into the sea. To take the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), that was not a quick prosecution; it covered 2010 to 2015. This summer, there was raw sewage on the beaches of east Kent—devastating for holidaymakers and dreadful for the tourism industry. Inland, I have no doubt that sewage was going into our chalk streams also. That has to stop.
It will come as no surprise that I have been in regular contact with Southern Water about the issue. Indeed, I met the chief executive, Ian McAulay, and his engineer only last week to discuss possible ways forward. Notwithstanding the motion before the House this evening, it is clear that there is not a quick fix, and nobody should try to pretend that there is.
Certainly, there have been years of lack of investment in the infrastructure, and it will take a lot of money and engineering to get this right. More importantly, it will take a great deal of co-operation—a point that has been made to me that we all have to understand. This is not just the responsibility of the water companies. It is the responsibility of Highways England, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Environment Agency, Natural England and Ofwat. Unless and until all these bodies start working together, we will not solve the problem.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made the point that we are building houses and connecting them to sewage. The volume of water coming off the roofs of housing, going down drainpipes, then into gullies and the sewers, is monumental. We are building more and more houses without the sewage and water infrastructure to handle what we are putting into the system. We have to separate out rainwater from sewage; we can do that.
I do not know of a single house being built with a grey water tank, for example. We are throwing all that water away. Very few houses have water butts. There is barely a yard of tarmac on the road that is porous, if there is any at all. In other countries, roads are porous. Why are they not porous in the United Kingdom? I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that, yes, we have to hold the water companies to account, but we also have to ensure that the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government play their part, as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, if we are to pull all the strands together and have a co-ordinated approach that looks to the future, and if we are to build us the houses, roads and drainage systems that we need for tomorrow, not for Victorian England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing the debate and responding to the 111,000 people who signed the petition, 144 of whom were from Weaver Vale.
My constituency is rightly named after the River Weaver, which cuts straight through my community and has played an incredibly important role in my patch for centuries. After its canalisation in 1732, it became one of the most important commerce routes in the north of England through the transport of salt going right back to Roman times. That commerce led to the creation of the world-famous Anderton boat lift, and the renowned ICI works, now Ineos-Inovyn and Tata Chemicals, which is still a vital employer and led to the industrial expansion of Northwich.
Today, the River Weaver is a haven for wildlife and recreation activities, and it is arguably our greatest natural asset. Without the River Weaver, there would be no Weaver Vale. It is vital that we do everything we can to protect the river for future generations. That is why my constituents and I are disgusted that last year, raw sewage was regularly pumped into the River Weaver and the River Dane at an alarming rate.
The Rivers Trust reported that in 2020 alone there were 1,341 spills from storm overflows, amounting to a whopping 5,786 hours of spills, which is 241 days. Sewage discharges not only make river water unsafe for local people to swim in, but also damage the habitats of a range of species that use our waterways. The people of Weaver Vale want our local rivers to be free from raw sewage, so that our river systems can thrive; ecosystems depend on that.
Last week, I asked my constituents to contact me with their views on this matter, and there was an overwhelming response. Constituents such as Debbie Graham and Diana French argue that pumping raw sewage into our rivers is outrageous. It once again shows how profit is put before health and the environment. They call for tougher regulation of utility companies such as United Utilities. They were under the impression that their bills ensured that rivers were cleaned up. How about taking the shareholders and directors out of the equation, and investing the surplus—that £57 billion that my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) referred to—in our waterways?
The recent Government-inspired amendment is nothing short of the “Blah, blah, blah” that came out of COP26. To put it bluntly, a vague statement of progressive reduction is talking crap, while giving the green light to more crap in our rivers and communities.
I was intending to intervene, but if I have a couple of minutes, I will take advantage of them.
The petition that the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) spoke to—I apologise to her for not being here for her speech—was stimulated by some of the campaign groups with whom I worked when I introduced my private Member’s Bill in 2020. It reflects, as Members have said, the widespread growing awareness of, and horror at, the state of our rivers as a consequence of the uncontrolled dumping of sewage in river systems by water treatment works and the water sewage system, which has been overwhelmed for a variety of reasons. I want to touch on two areas where it is really important that we take things forward, now that the Environment Act has become law.
I completely disagree with the description that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for whom I normally have a lot of time, gave of the amendment that was finally made to the Bill. He is simply wrong. The Act will lead to a progressive reduction in sewer discharges, and that will be enforceable in the way described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and as I described in the closing stages of consideration of Lords amendments.
I want to touch on two points, one of them raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We will have a planning Bill before us before long. It has to include measures for the proper separation of surface and foul water systems for new developments. Water running off hard standing in all new developments across the country can, through the right to connect, be connected to foul water drainage systems. That is what leads to an overwhelming quantity of water causing problems in the treatment works, which have not been expanded to cope with development over the last 60 or so years. It is a problem that successive Governments have contributed to by not investing enough in the infrastructure of our drainage systems.
The right to connect needs to be dealt with by our having the subsystem to require separation by developers. They should be required to contribute to the capital costs of infrastructure works under the ground; at present, they are not. They have to contribute to the connection charge, but not to the capital for works that would allow full separation for new developments, which is essential.
Finally, I encourage the Minister—I pay tribute to the work that she did to improve the Environment Bill, particularly as it went through the Lords—to adjust Ofwat’s priorities. She has the opportunity to encourage Ofwat, through its forthcoming strategic policy statement, to focus not just on leakage and keeping bills down, but on keeping sewage out of our rivers by investing more in the treatment network for which our water companies are responsible.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on her introductory remarks. As has been said, England has the worst river quality in Europe: 0% of rivers meet good chemical standards, and only 14% meet good ecological standards. We heard how raw sewage was dumped into rivers more than 400,000 times last year. I pay tribute to campaigners such as Surfers Against Sewage for the role that they play with the ocean conservation all-party parliamentary group. They have been pressing on this issue for a very long time. I also pay tribute to the indefatigable Feargal Sharkey.
I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that we had on the Environment Bill measures, other than to say it is very disappointing that the Government have repeatedly failed to back efforts by the Lords to protect our waters. I suspect that we will hear more from the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson on that.
I would rather not, because I have only a few minutes, and the right hon. Lady has already spoken.
I will talk about the local situation, but first, I want to express concern about reports that raw sewage spills in Honiton are threatening the first wild beaver colony to live on an English river for 400 years, which is part of a trial approved by the Minister’s Department. I hope she will agree that it is wonderful that beavers are being reintroduced into our natural environment, and I am very concerned about the threat to them.
In Bristol, particular issues have arisen recently. Conham river park is a popular wild swimming spot for local residents, and the—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying before I was very rudely interrupted: I wanted to talk about particular local concerns. I pay tribute to The Bristol Cable for doing an excellent report on the problem, from which I will quote fairly extensively. There are two areas in Bristol where it seems to be of particular concern. One is the Conham River Park; this is a popular wild swimming spot, and one of my staff went—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I will give up on trying to talk about Conham River Park for a moment and talk instead about Warleigh Weir near Bath, which is another popular swimming spot. Multiple cases of sickness have been reported in swimmers there. In one of the most recent incidents, which took place a week ago, a storm overflow 4 km upstream had started releasing raw sewage into the Avon. Data since then—as I said, The Bristol Cable is reporting on this issue—show that sewage was dumped from the overflow 67 times last year. In total, Wessex Water, which I think covers the Minister’s area as well, released sewage into the natural environment more than 14,000 times in the first eight months of this year. It has to be said that Wessex Water has denied that this would cause swimmers to fall ill. It has suggested that it was agricultural run-off, wildlife or whatever, but I would argue that sewage bears a fair part of the responsibility. The Conham Bathing Water group has carried out tests and found that, at their worst, E. coli levels were over 20 times what the World Health Organisation deems to be a sufficient level for people to go swimming.
We know that the cost of changing the sewerage infrastructure would be massive and would be added to bills, but the problem has got too bad for us not to seize the initiative and act. The Environment Agency has recently given the green light for water companies to dump even more sewage into the rivers due to Brexit-related chemical shortages. As has been said, we need a properly resourced Environment Agency and long-term, legally enforceable targets on water quality. This situation cannot just be allowed to slide. I am not quite sure what the process is, but the campaigners at Warleigh Weir and Conham River Park are campaigning for designated bathing water status. Does the Minister have any advice on how they can achieve that? How will she ensure that rivers in our area are suitable for swimming in?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing the debate and for her opening remarks.
I am really pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate on behalf of the 140 residents of Dulwich and West Norwood who signed the petition to ban raw sewage discharges, and the thousands of others in my constituency for whom this is an important issue. As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I pay tribute to our Chair, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), for his commitment and work on this issue over many months.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the River Windrush in Oxfordshire, where a group of local residents have come together as Windrush Against Sewage Pollution in order to take action on the impact on the ecology of the river of Thames Water’s frequent discharges into it. I pay tribute to them for their work, which has been instrumental in the struggle to hold water companies to account for the damage that they cause to health and the environment by discharging raw sewage into our rivers. Windrush Against Sewage Pollution has engaged in citizen science over several years by monitoring the water quality and ecological diversity of the River Windrush. Through such data gathering, the group is able to understand the impact of raw sewage discharge and has discovered that raw sewage discharges are underreported, going undetected by the Environment Agency in as many as 96.5% of cases. All the evidence points to the inadequacy of the Environment Agency’s action on sewage discharge.
On the same visit, we went to a Thames Water treatment works that discharges into the River Windrush. That revealed further issues with the water treatment and monitoring regime that I want to highlight. Specifically, in addition to the problem of frequent undetected and unsanctioned discharges of raw sewage, water companies are not required to measure or treat many substances that are harmful to the environment. Among them are microplastics, which are present both in river discharge and in sewage sludge, which is spread on the land for fertiliser, thereby potentially entering the food chain; antibiotics, at a time when there is a huge race against growing antibiotic resistance; and hormones, which have an impact on the reproduction of fish and other aquatic life.
We have a monitoring, treatment and enforcement framework for wastewater treatment and discharge that is simply not fit for purpose for the serious environmental challenges we face. At the same time, water companies are also failing to invest adequately in their clean water infrastructure. Across my constituency, where ageing water pipes are put under additional strain by hilly topography, there are serious water leaks and bursts every single week. I have been pressing Thames Water for years to invest in the pipe replacement that we need to secure a reliable water supply for local residents and stop the terrible waste of drinking-quality water that occurs whenever there is a leak.
I am pleased that in response to that pressure, the level of investment in my constituency has increased, but we are still far from a plan to replace all the pipes that need replacing. Thames Water still has a serious problem with the quality of its workmanship. Almost without fail, as soon as replacement works finish in my constituency, a new leak occurs because the workmanship is so poor. There have been two such instances in the last three weeks—it happens all the time.
We face a climate emergency and ecological crisis. Nature recovery is a vital part of our response to climate change, and river water quality is critical. Privatised water companies are not fit for the task. They already face competing priorities—the need for investment in both clean water and water treatment infrastructure—and are trying to face in those two different directions at the same time. They also have to face in a third direction: to deliver the returns for which they are under constant pressure from shareholders. That is not a responsible way to run such critical infrastructure, and it simply is not working.
We need the water industry returned to common ownership so that it can focus on delivering functioning clean water infrastructure and be part of the solution to the challenge of nature recovery. Our rivers and communities cannot wait any longer.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on opening the debate. I want to underline in particular the figure that she used: 39 million tonnes of raw sewage was dumped in the River Thames in 2019. As someone who loves walking by the Thames, occasionally swimming in it, and certainly canoeing on it, that figure gives even me pause for thought.
The contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) were very powerful in their critique of the ownership of water companies. Since privatisation, there has been a 40% real-terms hike in bills, almost £60 billion in payments to shareholders, and more than £50 billion in debt loaded on to water companies to make those payments to shareholders.
One of the problems with the argument made by the right hon. Members for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), and by the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), is that it glosses over the issue of ownership and, in particular, the fact that annual investment in water supply infrastructure was lower in 2018 than in 1990. That rather suggests that there has been, for some time, a serious question mark about whether our privatisation is delivering.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to defend my remarks. I made no remarks on the subject of privatisation. As he has raised it and accused me of having done so, I ask him whether he recognises that the amount of capital investment by the water companies in the 10 years prior to privatisation was half the amount invested in capital treatment works in the 10 years post-privatisation.
The right hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me. I was concentrating on other things in the 10 years before privatisation—I am not quite that old. If he shares the Opposition’s concerns about the quality of performance of the privatised water companies, I welcome that.
I recognise that the Minister is not likely to give a commitment today to bring the water companies back into public ownership of one sort or another. I will therefore suggest a third way. We could maintain pressure on water companies to bring down the amount of sewage dumped in our streams long after the news cycle has moved on to other issues by giving the consumers of water companies more power, perhaps in the form of a requirement that any increase in bills—or if the Minister were willing to be radical, any increase in the salary of the chief executive and board—has to be approved by the consumers of that company. There should be a water users consumer committee for each water company, with real power to hold to account the board of that company. At the moment, only two committees, without any substantive powers, cover the whole operation of the English water companies. They are clearly not having much impact. I urge the Minister to take away the need to give consumers more direct power over and say in the operation of the water companies on which we all rely.
So long as I am either up or down, I am okay; it is getting up and down that is the problem. Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Paisley. I express my appreciation of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for opening this important debate. Water companies are polluting our bathing waters, rivers and beaches. I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise concerns expressed to me by my constituents.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) spoke of storm overflow events. We are told that combined sewage overflows are used in extreme weather conditions. However, in 2020, water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England more than 40,000 times. Illegal dumping stems from water companies being allowed to self-report such spills since 2010. We simply cannot permit privately owned water company monopolies to police themselves. Professor Peter Hammond, visiting scientist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, told Ministers:
“The evidence suggests that in the last decade, ‘early’ dumping of untreated sewage to rivers has been at least 10 times more frequent than EA monitoring and prosecutions suggest”.
I represent a coastal community in County Durham’s only section of coastline. In Durham’s current 2025 county of culture bid, the east Durham heritage coast should be a jewel. Unfortunately, despite the stream of press releases from Durham County Council’s Conservative coalition leadership declaring various environmental and ecological emergencies, repeated concerns about sewage discharges on the east Durham coast seem to have been ignored; we have seen excuses, inaction and a failure to protect public health. The lack of interest in protecting and promoting clean water on the east Durham coast by the council is a scandal. Residents using the safer seas and rivers app, pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and promoted by the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), will realise that there have been 113 pollution alerts for the County Durham coastline so far in 2021.
Durham County Council deflects any inquiries to the Environment Agency. However, anyone watching recent interviews by Environment Agency spokespeople would be forgiven for thinking they were water company representatives rather than a public regulator.
Combined sewer overflows should be a safety valve used sparingly and only in extreme weather conditions. Instead, legal and illegal dumping of sewage seems to be standard practice and, indeed, the Government are complicit in this situation arising. I have called consistently for this essential public asset to be brought under public control. Ministers need to explain to the public why they value the private monopoly interests of water companies over the health, welfare and wellbeing of the public.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing the debate on the petition signed by 111,000 people—257 from my constituency. There is something disgusting about this: hundreds of thousands of raw sewage discharges knowingly released into our rivers every year. Some are because of storm overflows, but only some of them. Some, to my mind, are quite deliberate because it is simply cheaper to do it that way, and the water companies think they can get away with it.
It is true, as Government Members have said, that there are big infrastructure needs in our water industry—I absolutely understand and accept that. The £57 billion that has been paid out to shareholders and in dividends over the past few decades could have gone an awfully long way towards stemming the leaks of fresh water and providing a better infrastructure system as well.
It is worth thinking about what is included in the waste that ends up in our rivers. Yes, it is sewage. It is also plastics, chemicals, bleach—a whole lot of stuff. When it goes into the rivers, it ends up in the sea with all the foul pollution that results from that. I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) before we came in and he said, “What about the rivers in your constituency?” I said, “Well, actually there aren’t any because they have all been culverted and put underground many years ago.” I have no idea how bad they are, but I suspect very bad because nobody ever sees them and they appear somewhere in the Thames a bit further on. However, many other people in many other places see it all the time.
We should pay tribute to some wonderful people who have done great work in trying to clean up our rivers: those who regularly voluntarily monitor water quality in our rivers, those who campaign to end the culverting and canalisation of rivers so that we have a more natural environment and flood plains, and those brilliant people—particularly on the north coast of Cornwall— who formed Surfers Against Sewage, which has been so successful in drawing attention to the filth that is in our seas.
We have to ask ourselves a question. I have been in the House long enough to remember when water was privatised. I voted against it and opposed it all the way through. I think of the glory of the Metropolitan Water Board and what it achieved on flood control and flood prevention, and the huge investment it put in. That is now owned by a series of fly-by-night hedge funds. To anyone trying to get hold of somebody who actually owns Thames Water, I say, “Good luck. You might or might not find out about them.”
The argument for public ownership of our water is irrefutable. Before someone on the Government side decides to call me a neanderthal from the 1960s, ’70s, ’50s, ’40s or whatever for wanting public ownership, I simply say that the public ownership I want for our water industry is genuine public ownership. It is community controlled. It means the involvement of local authorities, water workers and people who are concerned about our environment and, yes, local businesses in those areas, so that we improve our water and river quality and all the rest.
There is also a big role for local authorities in planning. I say to them, “Create more porous spaces. Don’t pave over everything.” Indeed, it is perfectly possible even in heavily-urbanised built environments—for example, my constituency is the smallest, most urbanised place in the country—to create more porous surfaces, which means that the water flows directly into the ground and improves the water table rather than forcing sewage into our rivers, which causes all that pollution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing this debate.
For several years, Whitstable, in my constituency, has suffered from the effects of sewage leaking—or, in actual fact, being dumped—into our seas along a beautiful stretch of the east Kent coast. More than 111,000 people clearly feel as angry about this as the nearly 900 constituents in my area who have signed this petition do. In a seaside town, it should go without saying that so much of our everyday way of life revolves around the sea. We have a fishing industry, swimming groups, sailing and paddleboard schools, and, of course, tourism—the heart of our economy. We should not just have to get used to these increasingly frequent incidents that keep us away from our beaches. Not only are we unable to swim or sail, but basic everyday things such as hanging our washing, opening our windows—including in my office—and walking the dog are impossible on the worst days.
One of the loveliest aspects of living in such a beautiful part of the country is that, during the pandemic, our daily exercise was a walk around Whitstable harbour, taking the dog up to our local coastal nature reserve or just jogging along the seafront, and maybe picking up some locally caught seafood on the way home. Instead, we are now often avoiding a dip in the sea or a visit to the beach hut in case bits of human waste float past us. Instead of good, fresh, healthy sea air, our children have been gulping down lungfuls of foul-smelling polluted stuff that contains plenty of potentially toxic bacteria. No wonder my constituents have had enough.
In the summer I held a public meeting so that residents could demand answers and action from Southern Water, the company that is responsible for our water works and paid by us, for us, for the safe removal and treatment of waste. In July this year, Mr Justice Johnson handed down a record £90 million fine to Southern Water for thousands of illegal dumping incidents. That was just the latest in a list of fines dating back to 2007. One has to ask why, despite these frequent and increasingly huge fines, essentially nothing has changed. This is the greatest sewage scandal in this country since the great stink of 1858, which forced our predecessors in this place to take action and build the first public sewers. Could it be that a profit-driven private company such as Southern Water would rather pay fines than invest in expensive but completely necessary upgrades to the sewage infrastructure that would stop these incidents happening altogether? The damage to my community’s health, wellbeing and way of life is of far greater cost than that paid out by a private company. No wonder some of my constituents are now refusing to pay their water bills; they understandably feel that they have paid more than enough already.
I echo my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), and others, in their view that companies responsible for providing these services should be publicly owned and controlled—not primarily driven by making money for shareholders. Instead of swimming with sharks in the Cayman Islands, we need to enable my constituents to swim in clean waters.
Following the summer public meeting, I have continued to meet with Southern Water, as the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has done. Individually, their representatives are good people who are willing to engage with groups such as the great Save Our Seas in Whitstable, and other Whitstable activist groups. It is the wider corporate attitude that urgently needs to change. We want to be able to swim, eat our shellfish and breathe healthy air. That should be something that we take for granted, instead of having to protest about it on a weekly basis.
This has been a good debate so far, and one that has reflected the strength of feeling in all our communities, no matter which party represents them. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for opening this debate in such a coherent and clear way. A lot of people feel strongly about this topic, including the 207 people from Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport who have signed the petition, and that is testament to the campaigners, who have raised this issue for quite some time. I am grateful to Ferry Harmer, who organised this petition, but also to campaigners from Surfers Against Sewage, to Feargal Sharkey, to wild swimmers the nation over and to people who just think that this is not right; there are many of them. We are living in a climate and ecological emergency, and that matters, because it challenges us to do things differently from how we have done them before. That is one of the reasons why the sense of outrage about river pollution—river sewage—has been so intense.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who said that facts are important. I agree with her in that respect, and I think the facts of river pollution are sobering. Not one English river is in a healthy condition, and not one meets good chemical standards. England has the worst river pollution in Europe. There were 400,000 discharges of raw sewage into our rivers and seas last year. These are scary facts, but—
Does the hon. Gentleman not regret some of the misinformation that drove so much fear and anxiety among our constituents, particularly the suggestion that the Environment Bill enabled raw sewage to be pumped, for the first time, into rivers and seas? That is factually not correct. Does he agree?
If the right hon. Member had waited for the rest of my sentence, she would have found that I agree with her about certain bits of that assessment, because on this issue we need a debate that is based on facts. It is important that we get to the facts. The fact is that our rivers are dirty. They have been dirty for too long; they have been dirty for the past 11 years. It is a fact that we need them to be cleaned up— [Interruption.] That is true, and it matters.
When the House passed the climate and ecological emergency motion, that should have changed our approach. I am very glad that it changed the approach of the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who has been an incredible champion of cleaner rivers. I have enjoyed our conversations about how we encourage the Government towards a better place, and I am glad that they have moved in that direction.
However, there is still more to do, and that is why we can no longer accept being the dirty man of Europe. It is fair to say that the Government have moved on this, although it is important to note that they really did not want to. That was partly because of the screeching public outrage when Conservative MPs were whipped to vote against a motion that called for the ending of raw sewage discharges. I am not a fan of abuse on social media. I am not a fan of the nasty side of our politics, and I recognise that Members from all parties in the House have been subject to some pretty horrendous stuff recently, including over the issue of sewage. We need a debate on the facts, but with more urgency than we have seen for quite some time.
Today’s debate has been a good one, with some fantastic contributions from both sides of the House. I will talk briefly about several of them before I return to my speech. We need to challenge disinformation wherever we see it, and one of the best ways to do so is to place more information in the public domain. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) said about the need to put more power into the hands of consumers so they can understand what is happening in their communities. I have been promoting a brilliant interactive map on The Rivers Trust website to any parliamentary colleague who happens to talk to me about sewage—and to those who do not—which allows people to zoom in on where they live and see where raw sewage is being discharged. It is disturbing to see how close to many of our communities this discharge is taking place. It is not happening far, far away; it is happening in all our communities. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the point about rivers being locked away in concrete tubes, but that does not stop the sewage emerging at some point.
It is important to understand what is happening. We need consumers to understand it so that they support greater investment. The Minister has used a variety of figures over the past month about how much it would cost to address raw sewage discharges. I look forward to hearing where those figures came from, because I have still not had the workings-out. However, there will be a cost to this process, and I think there are a variety of options about where the money should come from.
I have a huge amount of sympathy for the argument that many of my Labour colleagues have made today about using shareholder dividends, and holding water in the public interest in the public sector with genuine common ownership. There is enormous potential in looking at that method. However, I look at the party that is in power now and say, “Where is the plan?” We need to have a plan for raw sewage discharges that considers not only “storm overflows” but a creaking sewage system.
In discussing the compromise amendment to the Environment Bill, the Secretary of State was careful in his use of words and talked about “storm overflows”. I commend the Bill writers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for using that term and enabling a focus on one part of a sewage system that is broken, while omitting the rest of it. There is routine discharge of raw sewage into rivers and seas, not in the event of extreme weather, from combined sewer outflows, but as a result of daily discharges. The fines levied against companies, including the £90 million for Southern Water, show that this system is not working. I agree with the comments on both sides of the Chamber about delays in prosecution. I encourage the Minister to look again at the budget that the Environment Agency has been given, and to ensure that there are no further cuts to that budget and that there is a real emphasis on it bringing further prosecutions.
I also want higher fines for water companies, because it is clear that the level of fines are not yet producing a change in behaviour in water companies and stopping raw sewage being routinely discharged. The word “routine” really matters, because it means every single day. While we have been debating, the water companies have been routinely discharging raw sewage—not because of extreme weather in the last hour, but because of a sewerage system that cannot cope with the level of demand being placed on it, and the lack of investment in it.
The Bill that we have passed in the past week—the Environment Act 2021—set out changes to the way raw sewage will be reported on, which are welcome; and it set out the need to produce plans, which I hope will be welcome, although I want to see what they look like. However, it did not set out a timetable for when the scandal of raw sewage discharges would be brought to an end. Nor did it set out any interim targets—a sense of direction. I think that, in a very meaningful way, every Member here today wants to see an end to raw sewage being discharged into our seas and rivers, but we need a clear timetable in order to hold any Government to account, to see how their performance is going.
We also need to delve into the workings of the water industry. The right hon. Member for Ludlow is right when he talks about the need to strengthen Ofwat and the SPS guidance that the Minister is preparing. That will influence the changes for water companies in the next pricing period, but what changes are happening in this pricing period? What changes are happening right now in water companies? They know that they do not have to invest in the same way until the next pricing period, because Ofwat has set the pricing controls and set the investment strategies. Although many water companies fell foul of the business plans in this period, I doubt that we will see a huge surge in action to close raw sewage outfalls and invest in treatment until the next price period. The challenge is what we do about it now, and that really matters. What we discharge into our rivers is not always easily seen. We need a clear plan to understand how much will be stopped, how much will be properly treated and how much will be carefully looked after in the future.
I hope that the Minister will be able to set out a clear timetable, because the people who signed the petition and the people in all our communities want action to be taken. They want it to be taken against a timetable. They want it to be measurable and demonstrable. They want to hold to account the people who are responsible for it, to see whether they are doing what they have been told to do and what they promised to do and, if not, what the consequences will be. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.
It is, as ever, an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this heated debate, and those people who signed the petition. Although I really respect the strength of feeling—the passion—in the petition, I want to say at the outset that I believe it was probably started when the social media campaign was whipped up. I am sorry, but a lot of misinformation was indeed spread, so we need to get over that and ensure that it never happens again.
I do understand the passion about this issue, which I think we all share. Quite frankly, I am personally also horrified by a lot of what we have seen. That is why I am so proud that, as an Environment Minister, I have made water quality a priority; indeed, so have this Government. As was so eloquently said by a number of Government Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), we now have a chain of actions that will deal with this. Many of them, of course, are triggered through the world-leading Environment Act. I was sorry, whatever the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), says—I do, as he knows, have great respect for him—that our Labour colleagues did not, in the end, vote to make that law to get water companies to reduce harm from storm sewage overflows. The tables were turned, and for that I am sorry. I think we need to get over that, too, and we all need to move on—
So I am not going to take an intervention on that.
I will also say that the issue is devolved. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing the debate. As she knows, it is for individual Governments to have their own powers, although Wales joins a great many of the powers in the Act.
I thank the hon. Lady for that; we are at pains to work with the devolved Administrations, because water does not have boundaries. I increasingly want to do exactly that, so I hand out an offer to do more. On misinformation, although I am not defending the quality of our rivers, it is comparable to that of rivers in densely populated areas of Europe.
The storm overflows system is an old Victorian plumbing system, which in many cases is not fit for purpose given our growing population, climate change and the frequent heavy extreme weather incidents that we are getting. Many hon. Members have made reference to the fact that the whole system needs improving.
I have been clear that storm sewage overflows, which are supposed to be for emergency use, are used far too frequently, which is absolutely unacceptable. I have said that frequently. We are the first Government to take decisive action on storm overflows through the Environment Act. I established the storm overflows taskforce to look into the issue and to inform us. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who did great work on the Bill Committee, for recognising that.
The petition calls for the elimination of storm overflows, which is a commendable ambition.
The Minister said at the start of her remarks that she thought the petition had probably been started in response to the social media campaign. To clarify, it was started more than six months ago and indeed, the Government published their response to it on 5 May.
I thank the hon. Lady for clarifying. As I said, I share the passion of the people who signed the petition, so I am not arguing about that.
The petition calls for the complete elimination of storm overflows. We need to look at how possible that is and what the function of overflows is in emergency situations. We need to look at the whole issue in the round. The recently published storm overflows evidence project report shed some light on that and the costs that we are looking at. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport keeps asking about that, but he can read all about it in an independent survey published on gov.uk. It highlights that the cost of complete elimination would be between £350 billion and £600 billion.
When we are looking at all those things, we also need to consider all the other things that we have to deal with in terms of water, such as phosphates, nitrates and soil in the water. Several right hon. Friends rightly referred to that and how complicated the picture is. We are dealing with it, as we need to.
Work is under way on that timeframe to reduce and potentially eliminate overflows. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) made some interesting points about consumer involvement and bringing the public along so that they understand what we are doing. Water companies consult consumers but, of course, that does not change their obligation to meet their requirements and regulations in law.
That is where the Government’s direction to Ofwat, the regulator, is important. We have just produced our draft strategic policy, in which we flagged the issue of storm overflows and reducing the harm for the first time. We also put the environment at the top of the agenda. I am sure we all share the view that that is the right thing to do.
The issue of enforcement has been raised several times. Action is taken and must be taken, but I understand the frustration about how long it can take. The Southern Water enforcement took years, but the fine was £90 million, which sent a clear message. Thames Water has also had some significant fines, but it is now spending £4.4 billion on the Thames Tideway Tunnel. That will be a game changer, rightly treating sewage that goes into the Thames. We have seen progress, although that is not to say that we do not need to go a great deal further.
We have seen some action. The shadow Minister keeps asking, “What is happening now?” There is some action. Yes, we need more, but through the taskforce we instigated a call for action that is happening right now. Importantly, water companies are spending £144 million in additional investment on storm overflows in the period 2020 to 2025, on top of the £3 billion they are already spending on the environment.
Can the Minister square these two challenges? She has told us that it is going to cost us £660 billion, but also that if water companies spend £144 million now, that is sufficient to deal with it. Those are two very different extremes. Why is more not being spent now? How is such a paltry sum supposed to deal with a problem that just moments ago she said could cost £660 billion?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman is really listening to what I am saying. What I said is that the water companies have taken some action now to start to invest in some of the facilities that they need. I did not say that they were doing everything that they needed to do, but my point was that they are not waiting until the next price review.
I mentioned the strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the regulator, which is crucial. Just last week, we set out on a legal footing in the Environment Act a statutory requirement for water companies to progressively reduce the harm from sewage from these overflows. The Act refers to harm not just to the environment, but to “public health.” That is something new that we added that was not even in the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, and that I think all hon. Members here will welcome, especially those who have bathing areas in their constituencies. All credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, who mentioned the bathing area in Keighley being the first inland bathing area.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about Warleigh Weir, which I know because lots of my school friends used to go swimming there when I was at school in Bath. I am horrified at the data she gave and I would be interested in hearing more about that. If she wants to apply for a bathing water quality safety test, it is clear how to do that. Indeed, we write to local authorities every year to ask if they have an area they would like to put forward. I am happy to help progress that, if it is at all possible.
In the Environment Act, of which I am very proud, there are so many things, including a whole page of duties, plans and monitoring. The hon. Member for Gower mentioned the important need for data, which she is absolutely right about. To really tackle these issues, we have to know what is going on. We do not need to wait for ages. We can start, but we still need the data. There are timelines for monitoring and reporting, and a system that holds water companies to account if they do not do the right thing. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for all the work that he has done. He fully understands the data issue, which is so important. Crucially, every water company now has to produce a sewage management plan—they did not have to do so before—and that will help.
Water companies have been mentioned so much that last week I called them in—I mentioned this on the Floor of the House—before we thrashed out the final amendments. I read the Riot Act to them about the need, and the expectation, for them to do better. We need to work with them to make sure that that happens, and we have been very clear that if we do not see action, we will take enforcement action. There are clear enforcement powers through the EA, which issues the permits; through the regulator and through Government in the new power in the Environment Act; and ultimately through the Office for Environmental Protection, so the system is now in place.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Members. We share a concern about water quality. Water is the stuff of life. It is precious. It is our lifeblood, as is soil—another of my favourite subjects. It is our duty to look after it. I will conclude by saying that it is a very complex issue, and my right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Basingstoke have talked about the need to pull together other Departments and talk about the building requirements. We are indeed carrying out a review on the sustainable drainage systems, as set out in schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which will include the right to connect. It is really important that we pull all those things together.
I do not often agree with the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), but he is absolutely right about semi-permeable driveways and membranes. I am a gardener, and I have talked about that issue forever.
The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) should visit the living lab at Salford University, which is amazing. What it shows people about greywater harvesting, underwater tanks and green walls is brilliant. It is in her constituency, and I have visited it.
On that note, I hope I have made it clear that the Government are taking the issue very seriously. The measures are in place but there is, of course, more to do.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 582336, relating to the discharge of sewage by water companies.