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Combined Sewer Overflows

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023

With the usual courtesies, I welcome the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) to his place.

I restate that I have always been clear that the current volume of sewage discharged by water companies is totally unacceptable, and they must act urgently to improve their performance so that they meet Government and public expectations. I confirm that the Department, the Environment Agency and Ofwat have received the information notices and will, of course, comply with their requests. We do not agree with the Office for Environmental Protection’s assessment of our compliance with the law, and the House should note that the OEP itself has said:

“We recognise that a great deal is already being done to tackle the issue of untreated sewage discharges, and we welcome the intent of Government measures such as the Plan for Water and storm overflow targets, as well as commitments to increase investment.”

The public are rightly disgusted by sewage discharges from storm overflows, and so are the Government, which is why we have taken more action than any other Government on the issue. I remind hon. Members that the European Commission took the Labour Government to court in 2009 for breaches of the law. Subsequently, we have started the construction of the Thames tideway tunnel, which is due to be completed next year. It is taking a decade to construct.

However, a decade ago, the Conservative-led Government took action and started requiring the monitoring of storm overflows. That work will be completed by the end of this year. It is owing to that that the scale of the problem has been unveiled. I note that in Wales, which is run by a Labour Government, discharge occurrences are much higher—38 times a year for outflows versus 23 in England.

The Environment Act 2021 included new powers and responsibilities, which increased understanding. Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. That led to some of the action that we are taking.

We have been repeatedly clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable. They must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority. We are holding them to account, and that is also true of our regulators. I remind the House that active investigations, including an active criminal investigation, of water companies are under way.

We welcome the opportunity to set out the scale of the action that the Government are taking. No Government in history have done more to tackle the issue. Last year, we launched the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. Our strict targets will lead to the toughest ever crackdown on sewage spills, and we require water companies to deliver the largest ever infrastructure programme in water company history.

I am therefore happy to answer today’s urgent question, but I say, yet again, that the Conservative Government are cleaning up the mess left by a Labour Government, and we will get on with the job.

Nothing more graphically illustrates 13 years of failed Tory government than the tide of raw sewage swilling down our rivers, into our lakes and washing up on our beaches. The Conservatives cut the Environment Agency’s budget in half. That led to drastic cuts in monitoring, enforcement and prosecution, which led to a drastic increase in illegal discharges, trashing nature, damaging tourism and putting kids’ health at risk.

This Government are up to their necks in a sewage crisis of their own making. And now, in an absolutely unprecedented move, the Office for Environmental Protection tells us that the Government may have broken the law themselves in allowing all of this. It identifies possible failures to comply with environmental law by the Secretary of State’s own Department, the Environment Agency and Ofwat.

This Government have broken the entire regulatory system. They enabled this scandal, but did we hear a word of apology just now? No, we did not. There was only complacency. Labour wants severe and automatic fines for every illegal discharge to pay for a tougher regulation and enforcement regime. Why will the Government not do that? We want mandatory monitoring of every outlet so that the public know where the discharges are happening. Why will the Government not agree to that?

Can the Secretary of State tell us which Ministers signed off what the OEP calls

“a misinterpretation of the law”

to allow more frequent sewage discharges without risk of sanction? That is a Government-sanctioned green light to pollute. Was it her? What action will she now take to put an end to this appalling situation, bring the water companies to heel and clean up our waterways? Will she publish the correspondence between the OEP and her Department if she has nothing to hide?

Finally, if the Secretary of State’s Department is found to have broken the law, will she do the right thing and resign? The Prime Minister would not tolerate raw sewage in his private swimming pool, so why is he happy to treat the British countryside as an open sewer?

The risk for the hon. Gentleman is that he has already soiled his own reputation by failing to acknowledge that the investigation that led to that court case, which is referred to in the information notice, took place under a Labour Government. On Sky last night, I believe it was a former Labour Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who basically said that he knew sewage discharges were happening, and what did the Labour Government do about it? They did not do anything. In 2006, they set out a consultation basically allowing self-monitoring by the water companies. Frankly, the Labour Government did sweet FA and we are cleaning it up now.

Let us have a look at the timescale that has been mentioned for the situation that led to the ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Things have not been done in Wales, where there is a Labour Government, so there is no change in policy there. Meanwhile, the Conservative Government have got on with imposing unlimited penalties on water companies. That is why so many powers were put into the Environment Act 2023, and regulators are now using them. There was hardly any monitoring in 2010, thanks to Labour—the Scottish National party does not have a leg to stand on either—and it was the Conservatives who got the monitoring going. Where Labour has weakened monitoring, we have increased it.

On the assertions that the hon. Gentleman made about budgets, he should be aware that the purpose of the permits, and of the fees that go with the permits, is to pay for those regular inspections. Government funding, which we increased last year, is used when enforcement action needs to be taken, and that includes taking companies to court. That is why there is an active criminal investigation under way now.

Frankly, it was the Conservatives who got the monitoring going and unveiled the scale of this, while the Labour Government looked the other way. I have no confidence in the plans that Labour has put forward. We are already getting on with many of the actions that it talks about, and that is why we will sort out the mess that the Labour Government left behind.

Can we be more moderate in the language that we use? I do not think that it has been appropriate, and hopefully we will hear no more of it.

I call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

We all understand the long-term challenge of storm water overflows where heavy rainfall is inundating the system. Over time, we will see more storm water tanks, such as the 4 million litre tank that Yorkshire Water installed in Scarborough, but there can be no excuse for discharges when the weather is dry. Some are down to human error or to mechanical failure, but many are down just to under-capacity in the system. As we address the problem, can we focus on the dry discharges and ensure that investment goes where it will have the most effect: where the most concentrated sewage goes into waterways?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out some of the investment that is under way, but the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which I anticipate will receive nearly £60 billion of investment from the water companies, will prioritise where the biggest issues are. I think that is the right thing to do. I am also mindful of other potential environmental responsibilities, particularly in areas of conservation. We will continue to ensure that, as part of the plan, we get on and get into the detail. We are already doing quite a lot of work with the water companies, holding them to account and ensuring that they get on and spend the money.

Along with the water companies, one of the main sources of water pollution in the south-west is the minority of livestock farmers who put silage, run-off from silage and slurry into local waterways, yet the Government have radically cut the number of inspections and there have been hardly any prosecutions. Why?

The right hon. Gentleman is a former Minister in DEFRA. I am not aware of what inspections were done when he was in office. What I do know is that we increased funding for farm inspections; my understanding is that there were about 4,000 last year. The approach is targeted. Sometimes farmers are not doing it intentionally. We are helping in different ways, including by increasing the funding for slurry infrastructure. Through the environmental land management schemes we are increasing incentives to help with things such as barrier strips and buffer strips so that stock is kept further away. We are actively working with farmers. We want them to be able to do the right thing. Enforcement is undertaken—he will be aware of a recent case in Herefordshire—and we will continue to allow our regulators to make decisions on criminal investigations independently, rather than the Government dictating them.

I welcome the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this area. Despite what has been said today, we have to recognise that this is the first Government to take the bull by the horns and actually do something about illegally discharged sewage, which has been happening for decades. I have witnessed it myself. I have recently been speaking to Southern Water about a river that my constituency happens to be near. Although I recognise that Southern Water is doing its very best to do small trials around land drainage, frankly it is not doing enough quickly enough. Will the Secretary of State outline the powers of the Environment Agency that she is strengthening in order to fine companies such as Southern Water, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) said, are using opportunities in dry weather to dump sewage where that really should not be happening?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that we have taken action and given powers to the regulator. A very successful prosecution happened; I believe Southern Water was fined £90 million in a recent case. We need to continue to work to get effective action. I have complete confidence in the Environment Agency in getting on with the detailed work that we need to do to ensure that the water companies stick to the law, and we continue to strengthen the law, including through the unlimited penalties that this House voted for. Actually, I think it was only Government Members who went through the Division Lobby to pass those penalties.

The Secretary of State will know of the concerns from her own mailbag, as I certainly do from mine. My constituents are in touch with me week in, week out with concerns about the River Lune or the beach at Fleetwood. My constituents and I would like to know what steps the Secretary of State will take to ensure that when water companies break the law they will be punished and brought to justice, and will not do it again?

I am conscious of the breakdown near Fleetwood earlier this year. To give some credit to United Utilities, it worked at pace to try to fix the mechanical failure that had happened. We now have legislation that allows the Environment Agency to apply unlimited penalties. She will be aware that a live criminal investigation by the Environment Agency is under way against water companies. It will then be for the courts to decide the scale of the fines. We will continue to ensure that penalties are applied and clearer instructions are given. We have had discussions with the Environment Agency. We need to get the problem fixed, but water companies should not try to do this on the cheap, and think that it is cheaper just to pay a penalty than actually sort out the problem.

I sat on the Bill Committee for the Environment Act 2021, which created the OEP. I also sit on the Environmental Audit Committee, which interviewed the now chair of the OEP. It was Government Members who introduced the OEP, enabling her to do this work to find out the scale of the problem. When the report refers to the Government, it is not being party political; it is referring to all Governments for the past 20 years or more. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to keep looking at these reports, ripping off the plaster that we have started to rip off, and holding to the fire the feet of all the polluters that caused these problems in the first place?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we left the European Union, we recognised the need to have suitable scrutiny, which is what is in place. Clearly the OEP has not come to a conclusion about breaking the law. That is why it has asked for more information. That is its right and entitlement. That is what we legislated to allow it to do, and we will continue to comply with that. Meanwhile, it will not distract us from getting on with our plan for water and holding water companies to account.

Water companies have dumped sewage more than 1 million times over the past three years. Now we find out that instead of standing up to the water companies, the Government seem to have been complicit in letting them break the law. Beyond the Government’s own failures, has this sewage crisis not been driven by under-investment, while £72 billion was handed out to shareholders since privatisation? Is it not time to put an end to this racket and restore water as a proper public service?

I understand that the hon. Member comes from the very left wing of the Labour party, and that that will continue to be his mantra. I understand, however, that it is not the position of his party to nationalise water, because it recognises that about £190 billion-worth of investment has gone into water infrastructure since privatisation.

Clearly the scale of what needs to be done in the next few years is considerably greater than we have seen before. At the same time, back in 2006 we had one of the biggest dividends going, and the gearing of Thames Water was changed. Frankly, the Labour Government then did not do anything about it. That is key to one of the situations that we face at the moment, but meanwhile we will continue to get on. I am confident that with the Thames tideway tunnel opening next year we will have good sewage channelling and will be able to deal with that in London. The work continues, including things such as nature-based management practices, in order to help in Yorkshire as well. I know that his water company is looking into that too.

19 July last year was the hottest day on record in the UK. Temperatures exceeded 40°C in some places during a dry spell, yet water companies that responded to a BBC investigation admitted to so-called “dry spills” of sewage that day. The Environment Secretary was reported as saying that it “does seem extraordinary”, but that the Environment Agency “is the regulator”. Given that it was the hottest day, when people were inadvertently bathing in sewage, why does the Environment Secretary wash her hands of it?

I am conscious of the investigation that the BBC undertook. The Environment Agency and the Department do not agree with its assessment of the data. That does not mean, of course, that there have not been sewage spills on dry days. That is why it is part of the investigation. It is part of fixing the problem, and we will continue to do that.

The Secretary of State knows Gill Rider from history—the chair of Pennon Group, which owns South West Water. I have heard what the Secretary of State has said, but surely the time has come to get these companies and their leadership under control. South West Water is a disgrace. It is leaking. It is treating its customers with utter contempt. Secretary of State, please sit on these companies and make them do the job that they are meant to, which is to stop this now.

Unlimited penalties are available to the Environment Agency and there is already a criminal investigation under way. I know my hon. Friend has secured a Westminster Hall debate next week to discuss it in further detail, and my hon. Friend the water Minister will reply substantially to the many detailed points that I am sure he will raise.

It was my constituent Mr Latimer who was responsible for the law change stating that sewage should only be discharged during exceptional circumstances. He knows, as we all know, that it is this Government who are actively enabling the water companies and regulators to get away with dumping sewage into our rivers and our oceans. Why will the Secretary of State not admit that under this Government, sewage dumping is no longer the exception but the rule?

Rather than just scaremongering, which is what we are hearing again from the Opposition, could we have a focus please on the quality of our waters? In Leigh-on-Sea and Southend West, the quality of our water has gone up from 76% in 2010 to 93% and the vast majority of our beaches are rated good or excellent. Will my right hon. Friend applaud the work of local group the Bluetits Chill Swimmers, run by Daniella Bee, and Philip Miller of Adventure Island, who are assisting me in having regular sewage summits with Anglian Water? We have extracted a promise from Anglian Water to eliminate 75% of use of our combined storm overflows five years ahead of the Government’s target. Is this local action not the sort of thing we should be doing—not just scaremongering?

My hon. Friend is right to praise the activity happening in her constituency, and the people of Southend should be congratulated on electing her to this House, because she is an avid campaigner for them. She recommends her part of the world for swimming due to the designated beaches, and I could do the same in my own constituency. I remind the House that when the Conservatives came in to power in 2010, only half our swimming beaches and designated bathing waters were deemed excellent, thanks to whatever happened under Labour. Now it is more than three in four, which shows the progress we have made right around the country.

I ask the Secretary of State this pertinent question: what does she say to the senior executive at Yorkshire Water, who, when I complained about the quality of the water in some of the rivers in Yorkshire, said, “Mr Sheerman, don’t you realise that there is no river in our country that is fit to swim in?” Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State’s pathetic performance today, and her use of the most vulgar language I have heard in this Chamber in all my years in this House, show that she is out of her depth, that she is incompetent and that she should resign immediately?

I look forward to the election in Huddersfield—the hon. Gentleman should look at some of his own speeches. I do not know on what basis he has made that assertion, quoting the chief executive of Yorkshire Water, but that is not the case—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can always contact me directly to give me the quotation and the source of the quotation. I look forward to receiving it, and I will take the water company’s chief executive to task if that is truly what she said.

Despite all we have heard from Labour, is it not the reality that in Government Labour did absolutely nothing on this issue, with no monitoring in place, and that it is this Government, as the OEP recognises, who are sorting the problem through the plan for water, through record investment, and through monitoring, improving waters in North West Norfolk and across the country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; he has a coastal constituency as well and will know the continuing work to improve the quality of our designated bathing waters and our waters more broadly. There have been more stringent standards applied over the last decade. We continue to work to try to improve that and we will continue to get on with the job.

The Secretary of State seems to have a weird amnesia about the past decade or so, so that there is a big leap from Labour being in government to her suddenly being in front of us today. I hope she does remember the many times, whether in the Environmental Audit Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee or the Environment Bill Committee, that I asked her about making sure the Office for Environmental Protection really had teeth, was independent and was respected by Government. I am concerned that there are already signs that the Government are trying to undermine the work of the OEP. Will she assure us that she will respect the conclusions that it comes to and act accordingly?

I will say that we set up the OEP, we will comply with the information notice it has requested and then we will see where its decision goes from that. It is important that that institution continues to have the freedom we gave it; we will continue to respect that and to comply with its notices, as set out under the statute.

The water Minister and I regularly visit a beach that has been subject to several environmental spills this August. When I checked at the site, it was a storm overflow and not a combined sewage outlet. Given that there was not enough rainfall to constitute an exceptional amount, can the Secretary of State advise me why the Environment Agency has not taken enforcement action against South West Water and all the other water companies that are spilling sewage when there are no exceptional circumstances?

I understand from my hon. Friend the water Minister that the Environment Agency is currently investigating the source of the pollution to help with its investigation.

The right hon. Lady’s Department issued a statement saying that it does not

“agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations,”

but will

“continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue.”

That seems like a contradiction to me. How does the Secretary of State plan to work constructively with the OEP when her Department’s statement demonstrates a complete disregard for environmental law?

The hon. Lady is incorrect. We absolutely respect the law—we introduced the Environment Act. We can disagree with initial assertions, but we will continue to ensure that we provide the information the OEP has requested.

I thank the Secretary of State for the renewed determination to bring about improvement—it is clear that we need it. When we voted on this issue in the House, we were given assurances that these incidents would not take place. It is clear that, while officials may not agree with this investigation, there is still a real cause for concern. How does the Secretary of State intend to alleviate those concerns and, more importantly, ensure that sewage releases are regulated and safe? I make this suggestion very respectfully: stopping the dividends to the chief executives and directors would be a method to encourage improvements by the water companies, who seem reluctant to make them.

I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman is a Member for a Northern Ireland constituency. The OEP’s remit extends to Northern Ireland, although not to the Welsh Labour Government or the Scottish SNP Government. Investigations can be undertaken—that is what we legislate for in this House—and unlimited penalties can be applied. That is true in England. We will continue to make sure that we do what we can not only to reduce these challenges, but to fix the long-term issues. We know that in London, for example, the Thames tideway tunnel has taken a decade—that is the scale of the issue. The fact that we know about the scale of the issue right now is due to the Conservative Government having taken action, while the Labour Government looked the other way.

The last time I asked about the dumping of sewage in our rivers in this Chamber, the Prime Minister agreed with me that it is absolutely unacceptable. However, the OEP’s investigation is a scandalous revelation that shows the entire water and regulatory system is broken. What does the Secretary of State think should happen to companies, regulatory bodies and Government Departments that knowingly break the law?

We set up the OEP and it has the powers, thanks to this Conservative Government, to get on with the role as it sees fit. It is doing so—it has started the investigation and asked for more information, and we will comply with that. I say to the hon. Lady, as I said at the start of my response to the urgent question, that this is completely unacceptable by the water companies. That is why we are taking action and getting on with the job. We do not need lessons from Labour, who looked away and did nothing. They are the people who were taken to court by the European Commission for failure, failure, failure—thanks to Labour.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that the Secretary of State is under great pressure today—she seems to be out of her depth in quite shallow water—but she misquoted me. In a question I asked a few moments ago, I said a “senior executive of Yorkshire Water”; I did not say “the chief executive of Yorkshire Water”. That is on the record and Hansard will show it. I want an apology from the Secretary of State.

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thought that the hon. Gentleman said “the chief executive”. I hear now that he said a “senior executive”. But the point still stands: provide the quotation, provide the source, and I will take it up with that executive and the chief executive of Yorkshire Water, because, frankly, that is not acceptable.

Thank you very much, Secretary of State, for responding to the urgent question. We will now move on.