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Sewage Pollution

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 6 September.

“As a Cornish MP, I have long been aware of the challenges created for our aquatic environment by storm overflows. When I became Secretary of State in February 2020, I instructed officials to change the strategic policy statement for Ofwat to give the issue greater priority.

This is the first Government to set a clear requirement for water companies to reduce the harm caused by sewage discharges: we have set that in law through the Environment Act 2021. We are taking action now on a scale never seen before. Water companies are investing £3.1 billion now to deliver 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025. This will deliver an average 25% reduction in discharges by 2025.

We have also increased monitoring. In 2016, only 5% of storm overflows were monitored. Following the action of this Government, almost 90% are now monitored, and by next year 100% of all storm overflows will be required to have monitors fitted. This new information has allowed our regulators to take action against water companies. The Environment Agency and Ofwat have launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water companies ever, at more than 2,200 treatment works, following the improvements that we have made to monitoring data. That follows 54 prosecutions against water companies since 2015, securing fines of nearly £140 million.

Water companies should consider themselves on notice. We will not let them get away with illegal activity. Where permits are breached, we are taking action and bringing prosecutions. Under our landmark Environment Act, we have also made it a legal requirement for companies to provide discharge data to the Environment Agency and make it available to the public in near real time: within an hour. This is what Conservative Members have voted for: an Environment Act that will clean up our rivers and restore our water environment; that has increased monitoring and strengthened accountability; and that adds tough new duties to tackle sewage overflows for the first time.

The Government have also been clear that companies cannot profit from environmental damage, so we have provided new powers to Ofwat under the Environment Act to modify water company licence conditions. Ofwat is currently consulting on proposals that will enable it to take enforcement action against companies that do not link dividend payments to their environmental performance or that are failing to be transparent about their dividend payouts.

Yesterday, I laid before Parliament the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. The plan will start the largest investment in infrastructure ever undertaken by the water industry: an estimated £56 billion of capital investment over the next 25 years. It sets strict new targets for water companies to reduce sewage discharges. Designated bathing waters will be the first sites to see change. By 2035, water companies must ensure that overflows affecting designated bathing waters meet strict standards to protect public health. We will also see significant reductions in discharges at 75% of high-priority sites.

Water is one of our most precious commodities. Water companies must clean up their act and bring these harmful discharges to an end. I commend our storm overflow report, which was published yesterday, to the House.”

My Lords, the former Secretary of State talked about the importance of monitoring, but simply knowing about this filthy practice will not stop it. Recent figures show a massive increase in the amount of sewage dumped by water companies, with the Environment Agency data suggesting a stunning 2,553% increase over just five years. This week, we have seen storms and heavy rainfall across the country, with that rain expected to overload our sewage system and force releases into coastal bathing areas and rivers.

If this is a government priority, why is it taking so long to sort out and when will this practice be banned? Can we expect any announcements from the new Secretary of State and, if so, when?

I understand that my right honourable friend, the new Secretary of State, Ranil Jayawardena, has met representatives of water companies today, on his first day in office. If it was not today, it will be tomorrow. It is an absolute priority.

The noble Baroness talks about monitoring as though it is part of the solution. She is absolutely right—it is—but, as a Water Minister more than a decade ago, I was stunned to realise that we knew about only 5% of storm overflow. That is now 90% and, by the end of this year, we will know about every one and they will be able to be monitored in real-time by individuals, NGOs, politicians and local residents, which will make a huge difference.

We have published our storm overflows plan, which has ambitions to radically reduce storm overflows. She asked when that will be ended. It cannot be ended. Our sewage system has been created around storm overflows since Victorian times, but it can be dramatically reduced and its impact nullified in many areas.

Does the Minister recognise that huge amounts of these sewage discharges are not storm overflows but discharges made in the course of general practice and not as a result of storms, which is what the overflows are supposed to be there for? Does he think it right that, at the time of these scandalous discharges into our rivers, lakes and coastal waters, water companies have made £2.8 billion in profits, provided £1 billion in dividends and given top executives 20% pay rises and 60% in bonuses? When are the Government going to get a grip on this and act against this filthy greed?

The Government are acting resolutely on this matter. The noble Lord will know that we recently passed the Environment Act, when those who supported the then Bill voted to bring in the most dramatic and determined measures ever seen in this country to tackle this problem. Some have decided to use this in a political campaign that is 180 degrees from the truth, saying that MPs voted to allow wastewater to be dumped in our rivers. That has been happening since Victorian times.

What is happening is unacceptable. We now have the toughest regulations; they are much tougher than when we were in the EU. We will make sure not only that we reduce and, where possible, end the release of sewage into our bathing waters, rivers and oceans but that we make water companies responsible. We now have measures that this Government have brought in through the regulator to allow it to link the performance of those water companies, and how they remunerate their senior executives, with their performance in relation to what we as a Government and a society expect of them.

My Lords, I am going to write to the Minister—or whoever the Minister is tomorrow or next week—about this issue because I am afraid that what the Government are saying is complete arrant nonsense. They are responsible for ignoring the Lords amendments that would have brought in a timetable and targets for water companies. They chose to ignore them, which is why we have this mess. I have here a map from 6.30 this morning with loads of red dots, which mean illegal discharges—except the Government made them legal last month. How can the Minister stand there and say that this is not the Government’s fault?

The Government did not make anything legal. The Environment Agency permits releases of storm overflows. Where they are not permitted, they are illegal. The Environment Agency has had its budget increased and has increased its number of enforcement officers. At the moment, it is carrying out 2,200 investigations into illegal waste being dumped in rivers and is making prosecutions, such as the one that saw Southern Water fined £90 million—a fine that presaged the change of hands of that company, welcome as that was.

On the measures in the Environment Act, one amendment wanted to end the release of any wastewater into rivers. That would have cost up to £600 billion and more than doubled bills, many of them for people on fixed incomes. It is important that we balance a resolute and ambitious plan with affordability for those who have to pay.

My Lords, in the past week or two, South West Water has named 10 Cornish beaches as being unfit to swim off. I live there. It forgot my little beach in the village of Polruan, which is where I judge the sandcastle competitions every year. One day about a month ago, a great big flood of sewage came down on to the beach for several hours. It has just stayed there. People have videoed and reported it, but nothing has happened. Here we are, paying the chairman of South West Water more than £1 million to do absolutely nothing. It is time that some action was taken to clean up these beaches now.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that that is disgraceful. If it was an illegal sewage dump, which I am sure it was, that matter should have been investigated and should be prosecuted. The Environment Agency now has the resources. Its ambitions have been set not just by Ministers but by legislation that requires this practice to finish. Of course, with our current infrastructure, there are occasions when, if there is not a release of sewage in a storm, that water will back up into people’s homes. We cannot have that in a modern economy such as ours. We must make sure that we build the infrastructure. Some £170 billion has been spent since privatisation on water infrastructure. We are spending enormous sums of money in this price review period, which will rise to £56 billion in the years ahead. The sort of things that the noble Lord describes are absolutely terrible in waters that we want to be enjoyed by people and tourists. Our coastal economies need to be blue-flagged to make sure that these are things of the past.

My Lords, I must declare an interest: I am affected by the phenomenon that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention. There are a number of instances, certainly in the locality where I live, of old discharges that received consent many years ago continuing. Because they were authorised long ago, when standards were much lower than they are now, such discharges are not an attractive feature, yet the utilities company responds that they are lawful. Could the Minister look into this because it is disagreeable, to put it mildly?

I should have started by referring noble Lords to my entry in the register; I, too, am affected by this issue. It is an affront to me. I was part of a national campaign to clean up our rivers but I had to resign from it to take up this post. This is something that matters to me as much as it does to everybody.

I will take up the noble Lord’s issue. The consenting system must be updated. Frankly, some of the consents have been superseded by the fact that large numbers of new people are living in communities where the sewerage infrastructure is not up to the required standard. That is where we want this huge investment to take place. Any discharges that are consented to must be fit for the times in which we live, not the times in which they were created.