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Water: Sewage

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when water companies will be required to deliver the first stage of reductions in the level of sewage discharged into rivers and the sea.

My Lords, the Government have been clear that the current number of sewage discharges is unacceptable. Water companies are already making improvements, investing £3.1 billion in the current 2020 to 2025 planning cycle. They need to do much more, which is why we have taken action in the Environment Act and in our draft steer to Ofwat. Defra will set out the level of ambition expected in due course, including in the statutory government discharge reduction plan.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I also thank his colleague the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, for his Answer to my Written Question last week, which was about the number of spillages in the lakes at Grasmere and Windermere. I had hoped for some sort of timetable—a few dates, a plan or process—but there was absolutely nothing. In fact, the Answer essentially committed only to maintaining existing levels of discharges, and therefore existing levels of pollution. When are the Government going to set a timetable that we can all see and measure the water companies against, for the whole of the UK?

I am not aware of those two specific cases but we will be reporting to this House on our response to the timetable on all the measures—the eight duties listed in the Environment Act, and specifically on storm outflows—in the early part of next year.

My Lords, under regulatory policy statement B2, issued by the Environment Agency on 15 October, the agency is granting dispensations to water companies for maintaining normal sewage treatment standards where they cannot get chemicals because of the “changed relationship” of the United Kingdom with the European Union. How many dispensations have been granted—they have to be notified to the agency—and how many sewage discharges have taken place in consequence of those dispensations?

I am full of admiration for how the noble Lord manages to find a Brexit angle on even quite a domestic matter. There is currently no disruption to the supply of water, its treatment or the treatment of wastewater. There was a contingency measure put in place but it has not been required by any water company.

My Lords, further to my question on Monday regarding a ban on wet wipes, can my noble friend comment on whether, with wet wipes being a significant cause of sewage blockages or overflows, the Government might support the Bill being debated on Friday in the other place to ban wet wipes? Could such a ban be introduced by secondary legislation through the new Section 141A, inserted by the Environment Act, to “prepare a plan” to reduce these discharges?

The Storm Overflows Taskforce is considering wet wipes because they can be a contributing factor, as my noble friend so rightly says, to the overflows at treatment works. Defra has announced a call for evidence, which will explore a possible ban on single-use wet wipes containing plastic. We will be looking closely at the Private Member’s Bill to see whether the Government and the Member of Parliament concerned can work together on this.

My Lords, the discharge of sewage contaminates the environment both with potentially pathogenic bacteria and with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and, indeed, with antibiotics. This all contributes to a reservoir of potential infection for humans and animals, and to the further evolution of antibiotic resistance. While the UK Government’s national action plan on antimicrobial resistance recognises this, there is no mandatory surveillance required for antibiotics or antibiotic resistance in aquatic environments. Can the Minister tell the House if and when such mandatory monitoring will be instigated to provide evidence-based mitigation measures?

The noble Lord raises a really important point. The Government are looking at this right across the piece as a “one health” approach across human and animal health, food and the environment. We have set up a project called Pathogen Surveillance in Agriculture, Food and the Environment, which brings together a number of agencies and departments. It contains a workstream focused on AMR prevalence in two river catchments. This work will strengthen our understanding. We are also working with the Environment Agency and the water company chemical investigations programme to make sure that we are all pulling in the same direction to tackle this very important matter.

My Lords, the amendment to the Environment Act that was brought forward by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, shows that this House can really improve legislation. I think everybody would agree with that. Rather surprisingly, I hasten to add, I had no role in this at all because I think I probably voted with the Government. Water companies have not always been at the forefront of cleaning up their own act—if you will excuse the pun. What has the initial reaction of the water companies been to this new amendment, and when are they going to start meeting my noble friend if they have not done so already?

The actions of water companies in relation to storm outflows has been brought into sharp relief by the debates around what is now the Environment Act, and other measures being brought forward by pressure groups and parliamentarians. Water companies are very seized of this and they have new responsibilities—not just through the provision of the Act, but through our direction to Ofwat and our ability to look at their plans to make sure that they comply. I do not think there has ever been so much focus on what they can do, and I do not think they can get away with the levels of sewage outflows into our rivers under the measures we are bringing forward.

Surfers Against Sewage has an annual water quality report which found that water companies have actually increased the amount of raw sewage dumped into our rivers and seas—an 87% increase from last year. The Government have now said that they have the tools to act and hold water companies to account. I am pleased that they now see that sewage discharges are completely unacceptable. The Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, was, however, about timescales and urgency. Can the Minister assure your Lordships that when the Surfers Against Sewage annual report is published next year it will show a significant decrease in the amount of sewage flowing into our waterways?

I am a great admirer of Surfers Against Sewage; it, along with Members of this House and others, has strengthened the hands of those in government who wanted to see that we have proper measures against sewage outflows. As I said in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, we will respond on the timescale as indicated, in the early part of next year. We are treating this as a matter of urgency, and we want to hold water companies to account to react quickly to the new measures we are bringing in.

Will my noble friend confirm that the water industry welcomes the amendment proposed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, as giving it for the first time the legal basis on which to make the necessary investment? Will the Government accept that the flip side to that is the regulations to be introduced under Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which will introduce natural flood schemes such as SUDS to prevent combined sewers overflowing? When will my noble friend bring these regulations forward?

I am pleased to tell my noble friend that her hour has come. The review is due to complete by autumn 2022.

My Lords, each day, hundreds of individuals swim in England’s largest lake, Windermere. In view of the recent revelations about periodic sewage disposal in the lake, can the Minister give the House a categorical assurance that it is safe for those swimmers to carry on doing so?

If the noble Lord will allow me, I will write to him with a specific technical response, because we are talking about public health and I want to make absolutely certain that he has the necessary information that the agency will provide me with.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the questions and the answers given by the Minister but remain unconvinced that much is going to change quickly—and I am really pleased that I am not a wild swimmer. Why does the Minister think it acceptable for raw sewage to continue to be discharged into our water and for water companies not to take any immediate action to prevent this? Why are shareholders’ dividends being put before water quality?

I do not speak for water companies, but I think they are taking this matter extremely seriously. My local water company, Thames Water, recently wrote to me about measures it is taking in relation to a chalk stream which it has previously polluted. I know for a fact that water companies are deeply seized of the urgency of this situation, and their encouragement to support the amendments shows willingness. We are not complacent. We will hold them to account through all the mechanisms that we can use. Where they falter, they will be fined. Southern Water was fined £90 million, the largest fine of such a kind, last year. The Government will not be afraid to continue that sort of action if required.