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Water Companies: Sewage Discharge Monitoring

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to require water companies to monitor the volume of sewage discharged into water courses and not just the frequency of such discharges.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. The volume of storm overflow discharge is not directly proportional to its harm as the concentration of sewage in discharges depends on the volume of rainwater it is mixed with. Therefore, we have taken a more effective approach to place a duty on water companies in the Environment Act to directly monitor the impact of discharges on water quality upstream and downstream of overflows. This monitoring system will identify harm from storm overflows and ensure that water companies are held to account through enforcement action.

I thank the Minister for that response, but the Environment Agency has already said that there has

“been widespread and serious non-compliance with the … regulations.”

How can it be expected to act if water companies do not have to measure the intensity of polluting sewage being discharged. Of course there is a cost, but we have always known that more investment is essential to tackle this problem. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee has already recommended installing these monitors, so why are the Government siding with the water companies against the interests of the public, who are rightly outraged at this ongoing scandal?

The Government are very much not siding with the water companies. The level of storm overflows into our rivers is totally unacceptable. That is why we are publishing on 1 September this year our storm overflows plan, which will give details of how we will monitor this. We have measures within the Environment Act which give new legally binding targets and measures which we will bring into force. We have the 25-year plan commitment and our strategic policy statement for Ofwat, which gives a very clear direction. We also have our requirements to the Environment Agency on enforcement, which will hold water companies that break the law to account.

My Lords, as the Minister has just said, the Government recently published a draft of what they describe as the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. That draft was published and consultation was invited. In that plan there is a target of reducing discharges of sewage over the next 18 years by only 40%. Does the Minister agree that the public expect a much more ambitious target than that?

The public are right to feel very strongly about this and we try to reflect that in the priority we give to this. The target will be to concentrate on bathing waters and special environmental waterways, such as chalk streams. They will be the Government’s absolute priority and by 2035, under our plans, we will have eliminated nearly all outflows into those waterways.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that if he introduced Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, the amount of discharge would be immediately reduced? What plans have the Government got to do so?

From memory, I think that Schedule 3 refers to water companies being statutory consultees. I am very happy to follow that up with my noble friend in the near future.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that last year South West Water discharged raw sewage into rivers and beachfronts 43,000 times over a period of 350,000 hours, including for 3,709 hours into the River Otter in Honiton, for 1,872 hours into the River Exe in Tiverton, and for 1,482 hours into the River Axe in Axminster? Will the Government end this scandal by imposing a sewage tax on water company profits to fund necessary upgrades, and will they ban water company bosses claiming bonuses until that is done?

I think that was a very good choice of geography. The noble Lord will accept that this is an absolute priority for this Government. People who live in that part of the world, in places such as Tiverton and Honiton, are right to want a Government who will clean this up, but who have a plan to do it without raising their bills to unaffordable levels. That Government are this one.

We have better policies than Labour, do not worry.

I am really sorry to hear that these volume monitors are so expensive, but let us remember that the water companies are not short of a penny or two. For example, Liv Garfield, the CEO of Severn Trent, has just been paid £4 million a year; Anglian Water has just today paid shareholders a £92 million dividend; and of course £72 billion was paid out in dividends by water companies, while also raising bills by 31% and cutting investment in infrastructure by, in some cases, almost 40%. These are all facts and figures from Feargal Sharkey, and I thank him very much. Can the Minister tell me how much these volume monitors cost?

I cannot tell the noble Baroness precisely. I can tell her that, 11 years ago, the then Water Minister was quite stunned to discover that we knew of only 10% of sewage outflows into rivers. He required all water companies to identify them and, by the end of next year, we will have identified 100% of them, with real-time monitors, so that the public will know. I know who that Minister was, because it was me.

My Lords, the Minister has just said that he found out about this 11 years ago. What have government and the regulator been doing since then? Quite frankly, I think the regulator needs sacking and the Minister needs sacking. Perhaps if he brought my good friend Feargal Sharkey in as a regulator, things would happen.

The noble Lord is not the only person who refers to Feargal Sharkey as his friend. He is someone I know and worked with when I sat on the board of River Action, which was set up to clean up rivers such as the Wye, part of which is ecologically nearly dead. That is why there is an absolute priority in my department and in this Government to make sure we are making these changes and restoring our rivers.

My Lords, have my noble friend or his department seen any assessment of the impact on rivers or consumers if, as some in this House want, the water companies were nationalised?

I have. An independent piece of research said that water bills would be considerably higher if we had not privatised all those years ago. We know that if water companies were in public ownership, the heads of those utilities would have to sit in the queue behind the health service, education, the police and all the other priorities of public spending, and our environment and water customers would get the crumbs at the end of the queue.

My Lords, as somebody who drinks water from Scottish Water, I am pleased to tell noble Lords that it is of excellent quality, our water bills are very reasonable, and the water is owned by the people who use it. I would like to follow up the question from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, because I do not think the Minister gave him an adequate answer. It is not good enough to say that the Government are prioritising one type of water over another when by the time most of us here will be long gone, we will still have only a 40% reduction in sewage in our water.

I very much hope that I and the noble Baroness are spared until 2035, so that we can see that priority waters—those for public bathing and those which we mind desperately about, such as chalk streams and other very special environmental ecosystems —are prioritised. That is what we are intending to do. Our ambitions are both high and achievable.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the River Wye, yet the rivers in the west of England are largely polluted through industrial chicken farms. Can the Minister enlighten the House on what regulation the Government might take to stop this form of pollution?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that the problem does not just exist with water companies. Agricultural activities in certain parts, particularly the Wye and Usk catchment, are detrimental to water quality. We have to make sure that, for the phosphates that are run off from the chicken and poultry farms in that area, there is more join-up to protect waters. This is not just an agricultural issue; it is also a planning issue. There is an added problem, in that that river catchment runs across Welsh and English boundaries, and so we have to work with the devolved Government as well.