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Sewage Discharge

Volume 719: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers, inland waterways and the sea. (901329)

16. What steps he is taking to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers, inland waterways and the sea. (901342)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The volume of sewage spewed out by water companies is completely unacceptable, and the public have rightly shown their outrage. Yesterday, in my first day in office, I told water chief executives that it is not good enough, and I have instructed them to write to me formally by 21 September with a plan for how they will make significant improvements. I also met the Environment Agency and Ofwat, and I told them that they should use every enforcement power available to them to make sure that there is compliance. I will not hesitate to take further action if I do not see the pace of change that this House expects.

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting those from the Hampstead and Highgate Angling Society, who fish in all 32 London boroughs. The River Wandle has had a very bad incident of water pollution, which included human sewage, and in the past the Environment Agency itself has said that the fines meted out to Thames Water were “not sufficient”. What is the Secretary of State going to do to improve this desperate situation?

First, it is this Government who introduced the monitoring that allows us to know what is going on. Secondly, it was this Government who introduced the Environment Act 2021, which allows the Environment Agency to levy unlimited fines on water companies.

We all looked on in horror at the viral images of beaches in Sussex being destroyed by disgusting sewage overflows. I have heard that businesses in the area that are very reliant on income from tourists—from beachside cafés in Seaford to tourist hotspots in Eastbourne—have lost money because beaches were shut and people were put off swimming in poisoned water. Will the Minister demand that Southern Water compensates Sussex seaside businesses?

First, I have already set out to the House what I intend to do. Secondly, I would observe that the Liberal Democrats’ plan is simply to play politics with this serious issue. When they were in government they did not take the action that we have done now. Sadly—and this is the serious point—what they are calling for in their leaflets is for sewage to flow back into people’s homes, because that is the consequence of what they are proposing.

Since asking a question on this issue in the House on Tuesday, we now have a new Secretary of State—I welcome him to his place—but we also have a new wave of sewage warnings across the country. Over 100 beaches have pollution warnings for untreated sewage. Water companies such as Northumbrian Water in my area have paid billions in dividends for dumping filthy raw sewage on to our playing fields, our beaches and our waters, and that is having a huge impact on biodiversity and public health. I went to the River Don in Boldon in my constituency a few weeks back, and the stench alone made clear the scale of the issue. The last Minister refused to do anything about this environmental vandalism. Will the new Minister take urgent action?

First, I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s account at the end of her question. The Government have been working on this issue, and we passed the landmark Environment Act 2021. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Double) published his plan over the summer, and we set out in that plan that there will be £56 billion of capital investment to tackle these issues. Indeed, we have ruled out some of the rises that the Opposition would have liked, which have added £122 to household bills. As I set out to the House, we are tackling this.

Ripping out our existing combined sewerage infrastructure is simply unaffordable, but will the Secretary of State, who I welcome to his post, look at sustainable development systems of the sort that have been implemented to very good effect in cities as far away as China and North America, particularly as the Government look at revising their planning laws to build much-needed housing?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says. He is right that we should look at innovation from around the world to ensure that we are transforming our infrastructure, including in the water system.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position, and I am pleased with the strength of the DEFRA team. I have spoken to him this morning about flooding on the River Severn, and I have also been contacted by residents of Coton Hill about the quality of the River Severn through Shrewsbury, and some of the discharge issues that he has heard about. Will he please accept my invitation to visit the River Severn and meet residents, and hear their strength of feeling about the need for him to take action on this essential issue?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for these issues, and I welcome what he said earlier. Although I do not know what is in my diary tomorrow, I would be delighted to visit at the earliest opportunity, and for other Ministers to do the same.

The Liberal Democrats seem obsessed with my constituency, whether that is the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) this morning, or the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) yesterday. Does the Secretary of State agree that they need to be honest with people in my town of Seaford that their plan, when heavy rainfall occurs, would result in sewage backing up into people’s homes, gardens and roads, and that the Government’s £56 billion investment is the only sustainable solution?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituents and constituency, and she is right to say that although storm overflows should not be used, they are a safety valve. They stop the flooding of raw sewage back into people’s homes—that is what the Liberal Democrats are promising.

Over the summer, the Government allowed water bosses to dump sewage on 90 beaches in our coastal hotspots—the foundation of those visitor economies—affecting already hard-squeezed businesses that are barely keeping their heads above water. We hear that the Secretary of State is satisfied by a telephone call with water bosses, but does he not realise that they are laughing at him? They are laughing at Ofwat, laughing at the Environment Agency, laughing at the country, and laughing all the way to the bank. Without tougher penalties to ensure that there is a bottom line, they will not change their behaviour. Does he agree that there must be tougher sanctions, including prison sentences?

I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to be constructive, but now he is playing politics. Clearly he was not listening when I set out my plan a moment ago. First, the water companies are reporting back in two weeks, and secondly we have legislated to issue unlimited fines through a criminal process, and we will not hesitate to do more.