Monday 15 November 2021
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 323926 and 575620, relating to road traffic offences for fatal collisions.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. E-petition 323926, started by Louise Smyth and Helen Wood, with the title “Tougher sentences for hit and run drivers who cause death”, opened on 20 July 2020 and closed on 20 January 2021, and received 104,324 signatures. It states:
“The maximum penalty for failure to stop after an incident is points and a 6-month custodial sentence. Causing death by careless/dangerous driving is between 5-14 yrs. The sentence for failing to stop after a fatal collision must be increased.
Our sons, Matt aged 25 & Paul aged 23, were both killed on their motorbikes just 9 months apart. Both drivers fled the scene. We are not the only families to have suffered this tragedy or endure unjust sentencing. We at the Roads Injustice Project want the laws changed as we feel they are both outdated and unfair. Tougher sentences are needed for the life sentence we have to deal with every single day from the loss of our son’s due to the actions of somebody else.”
On 28 August 2020, the Ministry of Justice responded to the petition, saying:
“It is wholly irresponsible for drivers to fail to stop and report an incident. However, the offence of failing to stop should not be used to punish an offender for a serious, but not proven, offence.
We were very sorry to read of the deaths of Matt and Paul; our sympathies are with their families and friends.
Failure to stop and report offences are often referred to as ‘hit and run’ but this is not an accurate reflection of the offence. The offence is designed to deal with the behaviour relating to the failure to stop, not to provide an alternative route to punish an offender for a more serious, but not proven, offence.”
E-petition 575620, started by Leanne Saltern, with the title “Ryan’s Law: Widen definition of ‘death by dangerous driving’”, opened on 2 March 2021 and closed on 2 September 2021, and received 167,470 signatures. It said:
“The offence of causing ‘death by dangerous driving’ should be widened to include: failure to stop, call 999 and render aid on scene until further help arrives.
A hit & run driver left my brother Ryan in the road & he died. Hiding for 36 hours, charged with failure to stop, the driver received a suspended sentence/fine. Failure to stop/careless driving offers lighter custodial sentences & focuses on fines/suspensions. Drivers should STOP, ring 999 & render AID until help arrives. If they do not they should face charges for death by dangerous driving. The Law should require this & aim to reduce the number of hit & runs & roadside deaths. With this definition, a minimum 10 years-max life sentence, citizens would be better protected.”
On 24 March 2021, the Department for Transport provided a response identical to that given by the Ministry of Justice, apart from this sentence:
“Ministers are aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Ryan Saltern and extend their sympathy to family and friends.”
The DFT added:
“The Government takes this issue seriously. The Department for Transport is looking into the issue of such incidents of failure to stop resulting in death or serious injury, and exploring whether there are further options that can be pursued.”
It is no surprise that those in favour of a change in the law say that there is a perverse incentive for a driver who is under the influence of drink or drugs to leave the scene of a traffic collision, thereby avoiding a drink and drugs test by the police. If they hand themselves in to the police later, they cannot be tested because of the time that has elapsed and are likely to avoid a more serious offence or penalty.
I met the petitioners virtually last week and listened to their heartbreaking stories, which reduced me to tears. I cannot image the pain they have gone through and are still going through. They have come to Parliament today. I met them again this afternoon and they are in the Public Gallery this evening. I cannot pretend to understand the depth of their grief, but I commend their courage and tenacity in wanting something good to come out of their grief.
On 29 August 2018, 25-year-old Matt Smyth left his girlfriend’s house at about 3 am. He was heading home on his motorbike on the A1307 when he was hit by a delivery van that pulled out of a side junction into his path. The driver stopped briefly at the scene but then drove off, leaving Matt lying in the road. A passing HGV driver found Matt about 25 minutes later. The driver who had collided with Matt came to a stop a few miles up the road and telephoned his employer. He told his company that he had hit a deer and his van was damaged, so it could not be driven. The company arranged for him to be sent a new van and he continued on his delivery round before going home to bed.
The police caught up with the driver, Mr Ricardas Taraska, later that day when he was still asleep in his bed. Mr Taraska was charged with causing death by careless driving and failing to stop after a collision. The prosecutor said that it was inconceivable that the driver did not realise that he had hit a motorcycle, because Matt was thrown on to the van’s bonnet and the driver had to manoeuvre around Matt’s body and motorcycle.
Mr Taraska was sentenced to 14 months, of which he served only five months, and he was disqualified from driving for 31 months. The judge said that it was a “grossly irresponsible act” not to stop, and that driving around Mr Smyth’s body and the wreckage of a motorcycle was inexcusable. On the morning that Matt was killed, he had been due to attend his first midwife’s appointment as a father-to-be. Matt never lived to see his daughter, who is now two and a half years old. Matt’s father was also tragically killed in similar circumstances 18 years ago while he was driving his motorcycle.
Matt’s best friend, Paul, was 23 years of age when he was killed nine months later. Paul left for work on 24 May 2019 at 6.45 am on his daily motorbike drive to work. He was hit by a Range Rover that pulled out in front of him. The driver, Mr Cooksey, got out of his vehicle and lit a cigarette. A witness at the scene spoke to Mr Cooksey and noticed the smell of alcohol on his breath, but he ran away and hid behind some trees before walking to Cambridge train station. There, he got into a taxi to go to a pub in Romford, where he lived. He drank eight pints of lager before handing himself in to the local police station that evening, and he could not be breathalysed because he was intoxicated. Paul was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr Cooksey had been disqualified from driving the previous month, and had previous convictions for drink driving and driving while disqualified. He admitted drinking heavily the evening before until about midnight and said that he was driving his car at about 5 am, but that could not be proved because he had left the scene, and he continued to drink until he handed himself in to the police. The judge said that the driver was “devious and untrustworthy”, with
“a bad record for driving offences that have resulted in disqualification and even prison sentences”,
“No sentence…will ever reflect the loss of a human life”.
Mr Cooksey admitted failing to stop at the scene of the collision and was found guilty of causing death by careless driving, causing death while disqualified from driving and causing death while driving uninsured. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment—he will serve half, or less—and banned from driving for four and a half years. Paul’s family told me that they have not been the same since he was killed. His family are living a life sentence, but the criminals on our roads are not punished in accordance with their crimes.
Our loved ones need to be recognised as human beings, not wing mirrors or bits of metal damaged in a road traffic collision. The hit and run, or leaving the scene, sentencing guidelines were put in place many years ago. They need updating to encourage drivers who have caused a collision to stay and get the help needed for the victim, potentially saving the lives of hundreds of victims on our roads every year.
Ryan Saltern, a postman, husband, and father of young children, was killed in the early hours of 28 July 2019 while walking along the single-track B3267 to a party. He was hit by a driver who did not stop. Ryan’s body was dragged beneath the car and he died of catastrophic injuries. The driver made no attempt to stop, and Ryan was subsequently left in the road to be discovered by the next passing vehicle. The forensic investigation proved it was the failure to stop that caused the injuries relating to Ryan’s death.
The driver, Mr Wayne Shilling, was identified some 36 hours later after being reported to the police by his own father. A blood test proved negative for alcohol because of the time that had elapsed, and it was too late to conduct a toxicology test. Mr Shilling admitted to failing to stop and failing to report an accident while he was driving home from a carnival, at which witnesses said he had been drinking. Mr Shilling told the police that he felt a slight bang and did not realise that he had hit anyone, but the collision was found to have punctured his car’s radiator.
Mr Shilling received a sentence of four months—suspended for 12 months—and he was disqualified from driving for 12 months, given an evening curfew for four months and ordered to pay a £207 victim surcharge and prosecution costs. Ryan’s family believe that the law protects not the victim of crime, but the criminal, and that it is a total injustice to Ryan. Although Mr Shilling chose not to answer questions leading up to and at the trial, he admitted at the coroner’s inquest to drinking four cans of alcohol before hitting Ryan. He has never displayed any remorse whatsoever to Ryan’s family, and he taunts them.
Ryan’s family believe that when a driver hits a person, they should stop, ring for help and remain on the scene, rendering aid when possible, appropriate, and necessary, and as instructed by emergency services. When a driver does not to do this, they should be considered a dangerous driver and a minimum sentence should be set, ultimately encouraging drivers to stop after a collision. Stopping at the scene will help to save lives and identify those who have genuine accidents, as opposed to those who leave the scene to protect themselves. There are many more cases like Ryan’s, with drivers escaping justice by not stopping at the scene.
I also met virtually with Alison Hernandez, who is the police and crime commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and the road safety lead for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. Alison launched a strategy in 2018 to create the safest roads in the UK. A 2020 APCC road survey received 66,266 responses from across England and Wales, and 81% of respondents believed that road offences required more enforcement.
This is not the first time that these life and death issues have been debated in Parliament. On 8 July 2019, the former Member for Warrington North introduced a debate on e-petition 236952, “Violet-Grace’s Law – Life sentences for Death by Dangerous Driving”, in memory of four-year-old Violet, who was tragically killed when a stolen car was driven at 83 mph in a 30 mph zone. Violet’s nan was with her and suffered life-changing injuries. The driver and his passenger did not attempt to help Violet and her nan; they fled from the scene. There is evidence that they had to step over the bodies of Violet and her nan, lying in the road, when they got out of the stolen car. The driver not only fled the scene, but fled the country and went to Amsterdam. When he eventually returned, he and his passenger were sentenced but served less time in prison than Violet was alive. For people to have confidence in the law, it has to protect the innocent, punish the guilty and deter further offences. However, families believe they have not had justice with the imposition of unduly lenient sentences.
The offence of causing death by dangerous driving was not introduced until the Road Traffic Act 1999, but even then there were widespread complaints that the Crown Prosecution Service often charged people with the lesser offence of careless driving, because it was felt that doing so was more likely to lead to a conviction. In 2003, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was increased from 10 to 14 years. The Road Safety Act 2006 introduced the offence of causing death by careless driving, and of causing death by driving while unlicensed, disqualified, or uninsured. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 introduced the offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, which is punishable with a sentence of up to five years. The Criminal Courts Act 2015 introduced the offence of causing serious injury by driving while disqualified, which is punishable by four years’ imprisonment and a fine.
In October 2017, following a consultation in which 70% of respondents thought that the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving should be increased from 14 years to life imprisonment, the Government announced that they would do so when parliamentary time allowed. A one-clause Bill would have had widespread support across the House and from the public, but the Government failed to find any parliamentary time. Nearly three years later, on Tuesday 21 July 2020, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), introduced a Bill to amend the Road Traffic Act 1988 to increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving to life imprisonment, and for connected purposes. She said that
“dangerous driving is an all too familiar phrase”
that does not reflect
“the tragedy and devastation of lives that lies behind it.”
She told the House about her constituents, saying that
“19-year-old…Bryony Hollands died at the hands of a dangerous driver—a driver under the influence of drink and drugs. He was sentenced to eight years and served just four years in jail…Ciara Lee’s husband Eddy was killed on the M4. The driver responsible was sentenced to just 22 months”.—[Official Report, 21 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 2039.]
She also spoke of 13-year-old Max Simmonds, who was hit and killed by a driver who was under the influence of drugs. The Bill was short, specific, and targeted. It would have allowed judges to retain the discretion to decide the appropriate length of sentence, as well as providing greater scope and enabling more severe sentences. It would have done the Government’s work for them.
The latest statistics provided by the House of Commons Library show that the current law does not cope with these offences. In 2020, there were 2,467 prosecutions and 1,889 convictions for failing to stop or report a road traffic accident; the most common sentence was an average fine of £289. A small number of people received custodial sentences, the average being 3.6 months. In 2020, there were 184 prosecutions and 154 convictions for causing death by dangerous driving; the most common sentence was immediate custody, with an average sentence of four years and seven months.
In September 2020, the Government produced a White Paper. Clauses 65 and 66 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill propose increasing the maximum penalties for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs, and for causing death by dangerous driving, from 14 years’ to life imprisonment, and they create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. That Bill is currently going through Parliament.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) moved new clause 20 in the House of Commons on 5 July 2021. It proposed a maximum sentence of 14 years where a driver fails to stop and exchange details or to report the accident to the police in cases where they knew or ought reasonably to have known that a serious or fatal injury had occurred or might have occurred. The then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice said that
“more work needs to be done to identify that class of driver who manipulates the system and evades responsibility in a way that clearly outrages the community and offends the wider public.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 675.]
On 8 November, at Committee stage in the House of Lords, the right hon. Lord Paddick moved amendment 161, which had wording very similar to that of new clause 20. Lord Paddick stated that six months may be appropriate when someone drives off after scraping the paintwork of someone’s parked car, but not when someone is left dead by the roadside.
My 31-year-old daughter, Jennie, was hit by a car just over 100 yards from my house 13 months ago. The driver drove off, came back to look at the scene, and drove off again. My daughter died nine days later. The driver received a 12-month custodial sentence for careless driving but is now appealing that sentence, as it is, I think she believes, disproportionately hard. Does my hon. Friend agree that at the very least —the very least—sentencing guidelines need a full, thorough and substantial review, to assure families left bereft that justice is done?
I thank my hon. Friend—my dear friend—for his intervention. Sometimes words are not enough to express what you must be going through and what you have been through. I completely agree—completely agree.
Lord Paddick moved provisions including a new subsection of section 170 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, to cover hit-and-run collisions, and mentioned the petitions that we are debating this evening. He said that they highlight the inadequacy of the existing legislation. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb spoke in support, calling hit-and-runs a menace and saying that judges should have available a range of sentences to reflect the severity of the offence and that there should be a lifetime driving ban for a hit-and-run driver fleeing the scene—a cowardly thing—and trying to escape justice. As she said, it is a life-and-death situation for the person who has been hit.
Responding for the Government, Baroness Williams of Trafford gave the standard response that we have heard so many times this evening. She said that her
“ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport understand the concerns that have been raised”
and are “exploring options”, including
“the available penalties and how the offence operates as part of long-term and wider work on road safety.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2021; Vol. 815, c. 1557.]
It was on that basis that Lord Paddick withdrew his amendment.
The petitioners, and many more families who have lost loved ones in road traffic collisions, do not want any more warm words and empty rhetoric from the Government. They want the law to be changed. I have read a portfolio compiled by Leanne Saltern that features hundreds of families who have contacted her after losing a loved one in circumstances similar to those of the petitioners. It made me cry. No sentence will ever make up for the tragic loss of a loved one, and families have been constantly told that reform will be introduced when parliamentary time allows.
The time is now. Will the Minister urge his Government to change the law, as set out in the petitions, and will he meet the petitioners and other families in order to give them the opportunity to be heard? They must be heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am pleased to be called in this extremely important debate, which I have been anticipating for quite some time, and I congratulate the Petitions Committee on securing it.
I pay tribute to Ryan and Ryan’s family, who are in the Public Gallery. Ryan lived locally to my constituency in Cornwall with his wife and son, and I believe he worked in Truro as a postman. I also thank the more than 270,000 people who signed the petitions, including nearly 4,000 people in my constituency. I believe that something like 14,000 people across the Devon and Cornwall police area have signed the petition.
As we have heard, Ryan was killed in a road incident in which the driver left the scene and did not report it for 36 hours—in fact, he did not even go in of his own accord at that stage. The driver had been seen drinking that evening and later admitted to failing to stop and failing to report the accident. As we have heard, the punishment was woeful. There is no question but that the punishment did not fit the perceived crime, which led to the campaign by Ryan’s family. They have been campaigning for tougher sentences for those who fail to stop and report an accident, and they set up the petition calling for Ryan’s law, whereby the definition of death by dangerous driving would be widened.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) has been working incredibly hard on this issue and that he will agree about the need for change. We have been working towards increasing the sentencing range for failing to stop and report an accident. Both he and I have had meetings over the past few months with Transport Ministers, as well as the former Secretary of State for Justice, to discuss Ryan’s law specifically. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall is present and, like me, awaits with interest the Minister’s update on this matter.
In addressing representations around the specific law change on Third Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill back in July, the then Lord Chancellor said that his
“ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport are working to explore options with my officials about how these offences will work in the wider context.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 675.]
Since then, however, I know that the Department for Transport has been working on an options paper and has highlighted the complexity of the area, which has brought up issues that will require further investigation in order to fully assess the potential impact of any legislative changes. I know that the Department for Transport has been seeking external views, to ensure that any changes are done correctly as part of a plan for a wider call for evidence on road traffic matters.
I appreciate the meetings and the work that the Minister, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Transport have given MPs such as myself and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, and I understand the complexities around the specific law change demand. However, we have heard, and will no doubt continue to hear, tragic cases such as Ryan’s where the punishment does not fit the crime. I read Ryan’s petition. It took me some time. I was incredibly moved by the number of stories similar to Ryan’s; it is emotional to read. I am sorry to say that this is not an unusual situation, however shocking these stories are. I am afraid to say that they are all too common.
We must do something positive while we have the opportunity. We just cannot keep the status quo, which leaves grieving families such as Ryan’s and others bereft of justice. We are better than that. I hope that we are better than that as a whole society—I know that we are better than that as a Government. I hope that the Department is genuinely actively considering and working towards this vital law change to ensure that those who fail to stop and report an accident properly face a punishment that fits the crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the petitioners who brought this subject to Parliament for debate, which reflects a growing concern in the country and, indeed, the House about how, increasingly, when it comes to road crime, the punishment does not fit the crime. Offenders all too often get off with a paltry fine, a suspended sentence or a ridiculously short driving ban, if they get a ban at all, while the loved ones of the victims are left devastated and grieving for the rest of their lives.
The debate is particularly timely because the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is going through the House as we speak, which gives the Government an opportunity to address these concerns and put right these injustices. However, I am afraid to say that, so far, I have seen little evidence, apart from warm words, that they are serious about doing so. They recommend a number of changes to some of the penalties, which may go some way to addressing some of the historical concerns around road safety and road crime, depending on how they are implemented, and may deal with some of the most egregious road crimes. However, they do not do anything to tackle the much larger number of fatal and serious injury cases that do not always attract the headlines but treat as careless driving what is actually dangerous driving and are over-reliant on prison sentences rather than driving bans, allowing offenders all too often to escape a ban by pleading exceptional circumstances, as well as severely limiting the sentences for causing serious injury, rather than death.
In my view, the Government could easily do three things—I hope they will—to go a lot of the way to addressing some of the concerns of the families here today and more widely. First, they could bring forward the full review of road traffic offences and sentences promised nearly eight years ago—not the partial review referred to in the House of Lords last week, not the limited proposals in that Bill: nearly eight years ago, we were promised by the former Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), a full review of road traffic offences and sentences. We need that. I ask the Minister where it is.
Secondly, as we heard, the Government could address the scandalously low maximum sentence for hit and run. I do not think that many people out there realise that the maximum sentence for hit and run, or leaving the scene of an accident, is six months in jail. As we heard from Lord Paddick in the other place, that might be appropriate for scratching somebody’s car but not for leaving somebody seriously injured or dying in the road, often with the motive of getting off being tested for drink or drugs or getting away with the crime altogether.
I have not heard a convincing argument from the Government as to why they cannot adopt my amendment to considerably increase the sentence for that offence. If there is one, I would like to hear it. I do not accept the argument that doing so would offer a way of prosecuting people unfairly for accidents that they were not responsible for. Leaving the scene of an accident, or a driver leaving someone who they know is probably seriously injured or dead, is a serious enough offence in itself to warrant a longer sentence than six months. We heard some tragic cases, but there are many more cases that we do not hear about. The number of hit-and-run cases has increased exponentially in the last 10 years, and we have to do something about that.
Thirdly, I hope that the Government will look again at how, far too often, drivers get away without a driving ban by pleading exceptional circumstances. One case that sums that up well is that of cyclist Lee Martin, who was killed by Christopher Gard in 2015. That was the ninth time in six years that Gard had been caught using a mobile while driving. He had been convicted six times, fined and sent on a driver retraining course, but he had escaped a ban by pleading exceptional circumstances before going on to kill Lee. He should have been disqualified.
In the last 10 years, 80,000 cases have occurred where road criminals should have received a ban but were let off after pleading exceptional circumstances. Courts have accepted as exceptional circumstances the need to do the school run and the effect a ban might have on a relationship—that brings the law into disrepute. The Government should do something about it. Again, I tabled an amendment to the Bill in Committee that would do that, but they have not accepted it. I implore them to look at it again when it comes back to the House of Commons.
In many cases, a driving ban is a more appropriate punishment than locking in prison someone who does not pose any danger to the public except when they are on the roads. We do not use driving bans nearly enough in this country and we do not have long enough bans when they are used.
The Government are in danger of missing an historic opportunity to use the Bill to address some of the dreadful injustices that we have heard about, and the many others that we have not heard about. To be behind the wheel of a vehicle is to be in charge of a lethal weapon. For far too long, our laws and courts have treated driving as a human right rather than a privilege to be earned and, if needed for others’ safety, to be taken away. I hope that the Government will think again and not squander that opportunity.
I was going to say that it is a pleasure to speak in the debate, because it is a pleasure to speak, but it is a very emotive subject, as other right hon. and hon. Members have said. I am aware of those in the Gallery who have experienced something that we will try to put forward for them and hopefully illustrate with words. I thank the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), who spoke about his personal experience, and the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for setting the scene appropriately and, importantly, with the right mood.
I thank the Petitions Committee for the opportunity to have the debate and all those who took the time to sign the petition and allow us to debate a worthy topic. I will try to give a Northern Ireland perspective on the debate, because what has happened is replicated across the whole great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I recently read some documentation from the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland. It stated:
“Over the last five years, 56 people have lost their lives here due to ‘excessive speed having regard to the conditions’. Many, many more have been seriously injured…Every 1 mph reduction in average speeds causes, on average, a 5% reduction in collisions. This could be”—
and clearly is—
“the difference between life and death.”
For too many families, there will be an empty chair at the Christmas table this year, and a spot in many hearts that will forever feel empty. We do all we can to fight cancer, diabetes and heart disease—things that are difficult to control—yet deaths that are preventable and that simply should not happen seem to be accepted. That is why we look to the Minister, as the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said, for legislative change. That is what we hope the debate will achieve.
This debate highlights the preventable nature of some deaths. Where there is fault, such as someone repeatedly checking their Snapchat on their phone, as has been referred to, and making no effort to stop driving, there must be consequences. In the past, the right hon. Member for Exeter tried to introduce legislation, and he referred to that. I very much support what he said, and I challenge anyone in Westminster Hall, or outside, not to support it as well. It is legislative change that is needed, and it is legislative change that will make the difference. The right hon. Gentleman summed it up well. The amendment to which he referred would be appropriate and a substantial move in the right direction.
When I read the premise of this debate, my heart ached for the families. I express my sincere sympathy to Matt’s, Paul’s and Ryan’s families. I also express my admiration for the steps that have been taken to prevent other families from suffering the same torment and to save other families from knowing that their loved one was hit and then abandoned. We have heard specific examples, but there have been many others. I absolutely support the families in their efforts to prevent other families from feeling what they have and to ensure that the message is clear: people cannot run away from an accident; they must face it and take the consequences.
In this place, when we legislate, we all know that the sentence should equate to the seriousness. I believe that we need to legislate more firmly for the message to be clear. However, we must get the changes right. I note that the briefing by Cycling UK states:
“Indeed, there are reasons to fear that the Government’s overall legislative package could well prove counterproductive”—
the Minister, in his reply at the end, can give his thoughts on what Cycling UK says—
“by creating a much stronger incentive for drivers facing prosecution for causing death to argue that their driving was merely ‘careless’”
and therefore not dangerous,
“while simultaneously making it easier to do so by creating a new offence of causing serious injury by ‘careless’ driving. The introduction of causing death by ‘careless’ driving in 2008 led to roughly a halving in the number of prosecutions for causing death by ‘dangerous’ driving, even though the definitions of ‘dangerous’ and ‘careless’ driving had not changed. We fear the proposed new offence could have a similar effect.”
I fear the same.
With great respect to the Minister, I think those are the questions that the families, and we as right hon. and hon. Members, need answers to. We are not putting the Minister on the spot, but I beseech him to respond in a way that the debate and the mood of the debate demand, reflecting the seriousness of the situation and the responsibility of the Government and himself to respond.
To finish, it is clear that any changes must ensure that prosecutors have the ability to make the punishment fit the crime and not overcomplicate the system. With respect, I look to the Minister to outline how this House can achieve that goal. Too many lives are gone, with too much hurt, too much pain and not enough acknowledgement in law. That has to change. I support the petition that the hon. Member for Neath introduced and ask for meaningful legislative change to be the result of this difficult and emotionally draining debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on presenting the petition on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I pay tribute to everyone who has lost their life in tragic circumstances and to their families, some of whom are present today.
Road safety and reckless driving are huge problems in my constituency of Keighley and Ilkley. I receive endless correspondence from constituents wanting to bring these issues to my attention. We hear too often that Keighley’s streets are being used as a racetrack, and the consequences of dangerous driving can be catastrophic. Reckless driving can prove fatal, so I welcome the opportunity to discuss the tragic consequences of reckless driving in my constituency and across the UK.
I am afraid to say that a fatal accident happened near Eastburn, right on the boundary of my constituency, only a few months ago, resulting in the tragic death of George Lewis—a nine-year-old boy. It was a hit-and-run incident and the driver—a 49-year-old man—fled the scene, later turning himself in at a police station, where he was arrested. That nine-year-old boy died at the scene, and the person he was with was also hit and injured. Earlier this year, there was another collision in my constituency, on the Addingham bypass, which sadly took the lives of two more people. These crashes were the result of reckless, dangerous driving.
Instances such as these and those mentioned by other hon. Members show the importance of addressing these issues and the sentences that are necessary following these fatal collisions. We must ensure that sentences for reckless driving do justice to any victim of such horrific incidents and their families. That could also provide a proper deterrent to make people think more carefully about driving dangerously in our communities. The petitions we are debating call for tougher sentences for hit-and-run drivers who cause death and for widening the definition of dangerous driving, and I wholeheartedly support both those notions.
It is important to widen the definition of dangerous driving so that it includes failure to stop after involvement in a traffic accident. The fatal incident in Eastburn that I mentioned was a hit-and-run incident, and it is absolutely right that those who leave the scene after being involved in a car crash face tougher consequences. We must strengthen the sentences for those convicted of dangerous driving, so that we take note of those who leave the scene after the crime, as well as failure to report the incident. After all, who knows what the consequences would be, or what better circumstances would prevail, if the driver did not leave the scene and reported the incident straightaway, ensuring that provision can get there quicker? The current punishment of six months’ imprisonment or a fine is not strong enough, and it absolutely needs to change. It is paramount that we address the issue.
Reckless driving is a huge problem in Keighley and Ilkley and across West Yorkshire and, as I have mentioned, it can lead to tragic results. Hit-and-run drivers are cowards trying to flee responsibility. They are cowards for not facing up to the consequences of their actions. Justice is needed for the families of the victims, and strengthening the definition of dangerous driving and the punishments for those who commit the worst crimes is essential. Ultimately, changes to the law will help prevent such tragic circumstances, and I stand with those campaigning to make that happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship in this important debate, Mr Rosindell. I thank the Petitions Committee, and I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for her powerful speech introducing the debate. I thank the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed the petitions and particularly the families who have come here today, who are sitting in the Gallery. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), who was so brave in describing his tragedy. His experience and the experiences of our constituents bring home what an important issue it is. It is a cross-party issue.
I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking. In 2017, when we were still the all-party parliamentary cycling group, we published a report on justice and the legal system, which made a number of recommendations about changing the law. Some of those recommendations were subsequently incorporated into law, but more can be done, as I will discuss shortly.
Three years ago this month, I led a debate in Westminster Hall on this very topic. We had a useful response from the then Minister with responsibility for transport, who repeated his announcement that the law was changing, and I congratulate the Government on the changes they have made. We thank them for increasing the maximum sentence for dangerous driving from 14 years to life and for increasing the sentence for careless driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol from 14 years to life. The Government are bringing in a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, with a maximum sentence of two years.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done to encourage more people to cycle and walk, using covid emergency legislation. They have brought in funding and regulatory changes that make it safer to walk and cycle in those areas where local authorities have used that funding and regulatory change, particularly in areas that have created more space for cycling. However, we will not get more people cycling until or unless the conditions on the road not just feel safe, but clearly are safe. The same goes for motorcyclists, who are proportionately among the most frequent victims of road traffic incidents.
I also thank the Government for bringing in revisions to the highway code. Those revisions, about the hierarchy of road users, are supported by many organisations that represent vulnerable road users. There is now an expectation placed on the vehicle driver, who is driving a potentially dangerous metal can weighing several tonnes at speed at people on bikes or motorbikes, walking or in buggies. That is good, but we need improved messaging about the revisions, because I do not think most drivers, possibly even most police officers, are aware of them.
I thank Living Streets, British Cycling, Cycling UK and the Road Danger Reduction Forum for providing Members with useful briefings and statistics, all of which bring home the importance of this issue. Every time road safety has been discussed in this House, Members from all parties have taken part, and today we have heard from the hon. Members for Keighley (Robbie Moore) and for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We all have experiences of incidents where justice has not been done for the victims of road traffic collisions and their families. There is still more work to do to get that to change.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is currently going through Parliament. I thank the Members of the House of Lords for taking some amendments forward, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter for his amendment to the Bill when it was in this House. We will discuss these matters again on consideration of amendments. We need to clarify the distinction between careless and dangerous driving. Driving should be deemed careless or inconsiderate if it involves a breach of the highway code that causes inconvenience, intimidation or danger to another road user, and it should be deemed dangerous where a breach would lead to a driver being failed automatically if they drove in that way during a driving test.
We also need to ensure that the maximum custodial sentences for causing serious injury do not fall vastly below those for causing death by equally bad driving, while strengthening the role of driving bans for offenders whose driving has clearly caused danger but who are not obviously dangerous persons. We have heard examples today of repeat offenders who are clearly dangerous and who need to be imprisoned to ensure public protection. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, there are others for whom a driving ban would be sufficient punishment because they are not otherwise dangerous people.
We need to strengthen the penalties for those who continue to drive while banned; align more closely the offences and penalties for causing death and serious injury while under the influence of drink or drugs with those for causing death and serious injury while driving while disqualified; and create a new offence for causing serious injury while under the influence, with a maximum sentence of five years. We also need to increase to two years the maximum sentence for opening the doors of vehicles in a manner that results in death or serious injury. A woman died in such a situation on Chiswick High Road in my constituency many years ago.
I want to address another point that I do not think has been mentioned today but which we raised during our 2017 inquiry. A number of people get off and avoid a ban—or successfully appeal against one—after receiving 12 points or more, which should result in an automatic ban. To make an analogy with a serious house burglar or someone who carries out an assault in the street, they do not get off and avoid their sentences because they need to go to work or look after their children, so why should somebody who causes serious injury through dangerous or careless driving be let off a driving ban? I agree that a driving ban should be used more, but it should be imposed more by the judicial system.
Safer roads mean that more people will walk and cycle. That will reduce congestion, improve health, reduce pollution and improve the economy because those vehicles that need to be on the road will be able to get to their destination faster. Our sympathy has to be with all those who have lost a loved one through death by dangerous driving. We in this place can act on that sympathy, and offer more than just words, by strengthening the law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
Last Thursday in my constituency a three-year-old girl was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a zebra crossing. The 24-year-old man who was driving fled the scene but was arrested later. On Sunday 29 August my next-door neighbour, a 61-year-old bus driver, was struck by a car while walking to work. The car had been stolen and had false plates, and it was being driven by a 20-year-old. Last week he received a sentence of three years and eight months. My neighbour did not need to go to work that day. He only went because he donated all the money he earned on a Sunday to charity. Ghulam Nabi was 61 years old. The dangerously driven car had been stolen—no insurance—and the driver fled the scene. It was only after police released the CCTV images that he handed himself in. Had that not happened, I believe that he would never have handed himself in. If we look at the crime committed and the sentence given, we see that there is no comparison. A three-year-old girl, crossing a zebra crossing with her mother last Thursday on Reddings Lane in Tyseley in my constituency lost her life to another reckless driver. At what point do we say, “Enough is enough”?
These tragedies are examples of fatalities due to reckless driving in the UK, which is a growing concern not only for my constituents but in every constituency across the UK. In both examples the drivers fled the scene, failing to demonstrate any concern for the victims. Such callous behaviour warrants serious punishment under the law. Measures need to be brought forward to help to stem the rise in reckless driving. Every year, road traffic accidents claim over 1,700 lives, with many more injured. Imagine 1,700 lives being taken in another way. There would be uproar. That is 30 to 35 lives being taken on a weekly basis, yet the punishment does not seem to match the crime.
Equally, I believe that councils need more resources to adapt the street scenery in a way that is safe for pedestrians, children and cyclists, and encourages motorists to automatically reduce their speed. We cannot provide 24-hour policing on these roads, so we urgently need to address the issue of street scenery, which can only be done through Government providing resources to councils, and also punishing the culprits of these callous and senseless acts, where people flee the scene and show no remorse for their actions. Not only do we need tougher measures to encourage safer driving; the repercussions of killing someone through reckless driving are currently nowhere near adequate. Sentencing for hit and run drivers must be toughened, and in my view the offence of causing death by dangerous driving should be widened to include the failure to stop, call 999 or render aid on the scene until further help arrives.
This is a plea from everyone in the room. There has not been a single contribution that I can disagree with today, whether it was about constituents in Keighley or any other constituency that has been mentioned—or indeed from those who were unable to make it here and put their cases. It is a plea to the Minister: this needs to be addressed with seriousness, and doing so will receive support from Members on both sides of the House.
It is a pleasure as always to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I am sure you will agree that we have heard a powerful and emotional debate, in the best traditions of the House, with first-class arguments used by hon. Members who have raised the issues so far. My heart goes out to those in the Public Gallery, and to my good friend the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), for the most tragic circumstances that they have found themselves in; because that is what the petitions before us today deal with.
It is really difficult to imagine how hard it must be to deal with the grief of losing a child or sibling in this way and still feel that justice has not been served; because it is the concept of justice that is at the heart of these petitions. It is perfectly acceptable for all of us to have differing opinions on what justice is. For some, it is the right punishment for those who have committed a harm to another; for others, it is the chance to get answers and to hear an explanation, or an apology. Of course, it can be a combination of both those things, but the fundamental principle is that the perpetrator of the crime is held to account. And the understandable frustration in the petitions arises from the feeling that neither of those concepts is fulfilled when a person flees the scene of an incident.
As we have heard, the Road Traffic Act 1988 deals with failing to stop or report an accident, and with dangerous and careless driving offences, which are the two fundamental types of offences engaged in instances of hit and run. As both petitions suggest, there is a gulf of disparity between the sentencing guidelines for failure to stop after an incident and those for death by dangerous or careless driving. As we have also heard, the former has a maximum six-month custodial sentence, while the latter has a maximum custodial sentence of between five and 14 years.
The Government have reiterated in their responses to the petitions that failure to stop offences are more often than not low-level traffic incidents, such as the clipping of a mirror or the scuffing of a bumper in a car park. However, on occasions where the failure to stop or report an accident relates to an incident that leads to the death or serious injury of another person, it can be an aggravating factor in the sentencing decision.
The question that we are considering today is whether that situation is good enough. It is a question that has gathered interest in recent years, as hon. Members have said, first with the consultation for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and then with the amendments to that Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), which would have created a new offence of failing to stop or report accidents where the driver knew that the accident had caused serious or fatal injury, or where they ought reasonably to have realised that it might have done so. I hope that the Government will consider the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment in the Bill Committee. He will certainly have my support for it, as he does for many other amendments he tables in the House.
It is the disparity between sentencing for failure to stop or report an accident and that for causing death or serious injury by carless or dangerous driving that has led hon. Members to suggest that there is a perverse incentive for people to flee the scene of an accident. This has been said before and it has been said again today. As hon. Members have explained, if a driver under the influence of drink or drugs kills someone and remains at the scene, the likelihood is that they will be tested, charged and prosecuted for that offence. However, if they flee the scene and have time to sober up, and there is no other evidence of careless or dangerous driving, they can be prosecuted only for the minor offence of failing to stop or report an accident. We really must deal with that situation in the future.
Just two months ago, on 11 September, 18-year-old Aidan Pilkington was struck by a car and killed on Crow Road in Glasgow. The driver of the car fled the scene. Aidan was about to move to Dundee to attend university and he was so well loved by his friends that they kept a daily vigil for over three weeks at the spot where he was killed. To date, an arrest has still not been made and the driver—whoever they are—remains out there, on the roads, in the knowledge that at 2 am on 11 September they struck a bright, well-loved young man and ended his life. Could it be that the driver was under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, or was driving a vehicle that they had no right to drive? That is something we really need to deal with, and I have the support of hon. Members who seek a change in the law.
The Scottish Government and Police Scotland are committed to reducing road deaths by half over the next 10 years. That is an ambitious target, but such commitments are required in order to make our roads safer for us all. Deaths and serious injuries caused on our roads can often be prevented, and it is our duty to ensure that we do all we can to improve driver behaviour and educate road users. The new road safety framework of Scotland sets out a vision for Scotland to have the best road safety performance in the world by 2030.
In conclusion, although the current measures go no way to achieving justice for the families who have tabled these petitions, what is happening in Scotland may go some way to ensuring that we prevent such tragedies. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on how the Government are looking at education to improve driver behaviour, and answering the calls for tougher sentencing and new laws to address the points raised in these petitions.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell.
I am very pleased that the Petitions Committee managed to secure a slot for this important debate, fittingly at the start of Road Safety Week. I hope that we have been able to do justice to the topic this afternoon, for the sake of the families and friends of victims of driving offences, particularly the families and friends of Matt, Paul and Ryan, some of whom are here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on a thorough exposition of the reasons behind the petition and why a change in the law is needed, and on going further and meeting the families and friends. It is really important—I say this as a former member of the Petitions Committee—that we do justice to the petitioners, which is not always the case in these debates. I hope that they feel we are at least speaking up for them today. It cannot have been easy for them to relive their personal tragedies in pursuing the petition, but I understand they felt compelled to do so to try to ensure that others do not have to go through the same hellish experience. My hon. Friend commended their courage and tenacity, and so do I.
Some people might recall the case of Kevin Duggan, who was killed in 1998 by a drink-driver. Anyone who has grown up in Luton, as I did, knows the Duggans. There are an awful lot of them. They are a big Irish family. Kevin’s father, Declan, campaigned for the law to be changed four years later to give doctors the right to take blood samples from unconscious drivers, because in the case of Kevin they were not able to do so. That shows how tenacity, of which he had huge amounts, and campaigning can pay off. I urge the petitioners to continue, because we have to do better. As we have heard today, far too many lives have been lost in road traffic accidents. In far too many cases, drink-driving is involved.
In 2019 it was estimated that between 210 and 250 people were killed in accidents in Great Britain where at least one driver was over the drink-drive limit. As the Labour spokesperson, I want to assure the petitioners that road safety is a priority for us. We have supported increasing the maximum penalties for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink and drugs from 14 years’ imprisonment to imprisonment for life. We have also supported the introduction of a new offence of causing serious injury by careless or inconsiderate driving, fixing a gap left by previous legislation, which would set the maximum penalty for the offence on indictment at two years’ imprisonment.
I do not want to dwell too much on the contributions made by other speakers today, because it is important to allow the Minister time to speak. Rather than reiterating specific asks from the petitioners, and particularly from Cycling UK, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) more than did justice to, I want to ask about the full review of the road traffic offences framework that was promised in 2014 but never happened. I have pressed Ministers on that. They failed to provide a timeframe for the review, so will the Minister clarify whether a review will still go ahead and when? As my hon. Friend the Member for Neath said, the time to do it is now. There can be no excuse for further delay. Unfortunately, when it comes to road safety, at the moment the Government are steering us in the wrong direction.
Last week the Department for Transport introduced changes to driving tests, including the removal of the requirement to take a separate test to tow a trailer. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) campaigned on that after the death of a young child in her constituency.
The Labour party recognises the urgency of the need to expand testing capacity in the light of HGV driver shortages and the consequent damage to UK supply chains, but we are concerned about the safety implications of such changes. If they do go ahead, they should be temporary.
In the last week or so we have seen a damning report by the Select Committee on Transport on smart motorways. The shadow Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), and I have met the families of some of those involved in deaths attributable to the lack of a hard shoulder. It is clear that the botched roll-out should be paused until appropriate safety measures are in place so that no other families have to go through the grief that they have experienced.
Lastly, as we have heard, cyclists are especially vulnerable road users. I will not go into detail, but cycling campaigners have raised concerns about the lack of deterrents for drivers fleeing the scene after collisions with cyclists; the inadequacy of sentencing; the car dooring offences; and the ability of drivers to defend their actions by labelling them careless rather than dangerous. I hope that the Minister will address those concerns and set out what consideration the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Attorney General have given to strengthening legal protections. I would like to know in particular what recent discussions have taken place between the Department for Transport and the other Departments that I have mentioned.
I know that many victims of driving offences will be listening closely to the Minister’s response, so I hope he will offer some reassurances that the matter is a priority for the Government. At the moment, as we mark Road Safety Week, it does not appear to be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for opening this petitions debate relating to road traffic offences for fatal collisions and to specific concerns about the offence of failing to stop and report.
I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken with such passion about families in their own constituencies and across the UK, many of whom have been fighting for justice for some time following what has happened to their loved ones. I thank in particular the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), who spoke movingly about the death of his daughter.
I reassure all Members that the Government take road safety seriously. It is at the core of the work of the Department for Transport, especially as we are working so hard to boost walking and cycling across the UK. Many of the cases that have been mentioned have, tragically, involved pedestrians or cyclists.
More than 1,000 people in my Lancashire constituency of Leigh have signed the petition on Ryan’s law. Will the Minister give those people assurances that the Department is looking at both clarifying and strengthening the law on this matter?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point—I hope he will bear with me, as I will come to that in more detail. Like other hon. Members, I know the strength of feeling in my own constituency, where dangerous driving is a top concern for residents.
Let me be clear: any death or serious injury on our roads is unacceptable, and our deep condolences go to victims and their families. My ministerial colleague Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the Roads Minister, has met families of victims of similar incidents, as well as MPs who are campaigning for their constituents, including my hon. Friends the Members for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory).
We understand the tragic circumstances that have led to the petitions and to the concern that, in some cases, something is perhaps not working with the law. Although we must do all we can to improve the safety of our roads, we must also be careful that we do not make any rash decisions that could ultimately make things worse, or create other unforeseen effects, in a rush to resolve problems with the way in which the law currently operates.
I will start by turning to the current offence of failing to stop and report. In the case of failure to stop and report, we know that in a small number of cases the failure to stop may be related to an event that leads to death or serious injury to another person, but we must not forget that in the vast majority of cases convictions for failing to stop involve low-level traffic incidents such as hitting a wing mirror on a narrow street. It is only in an extremely small number of cases that there may not be any other evidence to connect the death or serious harm with the driver who failed to stop, meaning that the only offence that they have committed is that of failing to stop and report.
I understand the concerns that have been raised about the matter, which has previously been brought to the attention of my Department. However, increasing the maximum sentence for failing to stop and report, even in a limited scope where there has been a serious or fatal injury, cuts across the basis for that offence. I must stress that the offence of failure to stop and report is designed to deal with the behaviour relating to the failure to stop; it is not provided as an alternative route to punish an offender for a more serious but unproven offence. Increasing the custodial sentence so that it is comparable to sentences for causing death by careless or dangerous driving, or including it in one of those offences, would represent a massive uplift in the potential sentence, for an offence that I remind hon. Members requires no evidence of a causal link between the failure to stop and the death or serious injury.
It must be remembered that where there is evidence that a driver has caused harm, there is already a range of other offences, including causing death by serious injury or dangerous or careless driving, with which the driver can be charged. In those cases, courts can treat the failure to stop as a factor that adds to the overall seriousness of the offending. That can result in the offender receiving a higher sentence. Where there is evidence that the driver knew about the incident and took steps to avoid detection, they can be charged with perverting the course of justice—a common law offence that already carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
It is unwise for Ministers to comment on prosecutorial or judicial decisions. I was reading this week about a case just outside my constituency where somebody who had failed to stop was charged with death by dangerous driving. We need to look at the suite of options for the charging authorities. Simply strengthening the failure to stop and report offence may not be the most effective way of ensuring the justice that I know many families are seeking to achieve.
That is something that the Department has been looking at, and that Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, has been talking to families about. We are keen to see more evidence on the reasons behind failures to stop and report such serious incidents. As I have said, it is clear that the majority of incidents that are treated as a failure to stop and report are low-level motoring incidents; however, we need to gain more evidence on the most serious cases.
In some of the cases cited today, drivers said that they felt they hit a fox or a deer. Various other people panicked. A range of justifications have been used. Whether they are true justifications or not, it is important that we understand the situation more. The University of Leicester carried out some research in 2017 on behalf of the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, but we have to build the evidence base to ensure that whatever we do to reform the offences does not have unintended consequences, but strengthens the law and gets families the justice that they deserve.
Linking death or serious injury with a failure to stop as a cause, however well intentioned, could risk creating an unfairly severe offence. The law already imposes severe penalties for vehicle owners who cause death or serious injury, but a clear causal link needs to be provided between the driver’s behaviour and the outcome. The proposals in the e-petitions essentially equate the seriousness of a failure to stop with culpability for causing death or injury. I repeat that that would create serious anomalies with other offences, which could result in potential injustices.
I want to be clear, however, that the Government are not dismissing the concerns that have been raised. We are aware of the traumatic effects of such incidents, which we have heard so eloquently expressed by Members from all parties today. We agree that there might be something wrong with the law as it stands; it may not be working as well as it should in this area. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate from what I have already said that this is a very complex area, and any change in the law should fit within the current driving offence framework. Officials from my Department have been exploring options that could be pursued in this area. They include, but are not limited to: the available penalties; how the offence operates; how the offence is dealt with in the sentencing guidance; and the potential for a new offence as part of a longer term and wider approach to road safety. I am sure that officials will consider the points raised by Members from across the House in the debate today as part of their considerations of that offence. As the next step, the Department is considering conducting a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act. Although details are still being worked on, I expect this will include failures to stop and report as an offence.
Could the Minister possibly address the question of where the full review of offences and penalties has reached? Is that what he was talking about? He seems to be suggesting a call for evidence on just a few areas, but we were promised a full review. Could he also say something about the use of exemptions to get off bans; is that involved in this call for evidence? It is an egregious problem.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Government committed to carry out this review of road traffic offences in 2014. A review of the most serious offences was carried out in 2017; the outcome of that review has fed into the measures that we are bringing forward as part of the police, crime, sentencing and courts Bill that was referred to by a number of hon. Members. Baroness Vere is looking at that and seeing how we could potentially go further. The further call for evidence would seek to build on the measures that we have already identified, and are bringing forward as part of the Bill—that would be in addition to the steps we have already taken.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for what they have said; their contributions are being listened to by officials in the Department for Transport and across Government. This is an area that we have to get right. I especially pay tribute to the families who have come here and taken the time to share their stories with right hon. and hon. Members.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their valuable and emotive contributions to this very important debate. The Minister has heard agreement that road traffic offences and sentencing for fatal collisions need to be fully reviewed and changed now, to strengthen sentences and close the loophole that allows drivers who run away after hitting and causing serious or fatal injuries to escape punishment.
The Minister is a magnanimous man, and I appreciate that, as he says, his Government are taking the issue seriously—as they should. Please, no more warm words or delays; we need change now. Justice must be done for victims and their families. It has been an honour and a privilege to meet the petitioners and represent them in this debate. I urge the Minister to meet the petitioners and listen to them directly—they must be heard.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 323926 and 575620, relating to road traffic offences for fatal collisions.
Water Companies: Sewage Discharge
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with the current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 582336, relating to the discharge of sewage by water companies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley, and it is an honour to be leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. The petition calls for an outright ban on water companies discharging raw sewage into watercourses. Personally, I think a lot of our constituents will be shocked to hear that it is currently legal for water companies to do this. How can it be okay for multimillion-pound businesses to absolve themselves of the responsibility for ensuring that our rivers and streams, and ultimately our seas, are free of harmful sewage?
I pay tribute to Ferry Harmer, who started the petition after seeing Feargal Sharkey raise some of the issues around the state of our rivers on the TV programme “Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing” last year. I also thank the 111,434 people from around the UK who have taken the time to sign the petition, especially the 186 people from Gower who have signed it. I have had nearly 150 constituents get in touch with me about this issue in one way or another. That demonstrates the strength of feeling about this issue, which has featured recently in the news. When I spoke to Ferry, it was clear he is a man of real passion and determination. He spoke about the petition and told me that 41% of fish species are in decline in British waters. A third of species are in serious decline, including iconic fish such as salmon and trout.
Through my research, I have discovered astounding facts about the state of our rivers and waterways. Some 39 million tonnes of sewage were discharged into the River Thames alone in 2019—that is one river in one year. Last year, raw sewage was discharged into our waters more than 400,000 times, which is quite an incredible figure. This has now become an emergency for our waterways. Not a single river in England is in a healthy condition, not a single river meets a good chemical standard, and over 85% do not meet good ecological standards. Frankly, it is not good enough.
I am fortunate to represent arguably the best coastal community in the UK. The coast around Gower is popular all year round with families and tourists, and a growing number of local wild swimming groups took off during lockdown. It is the only contact that people have with the outside world, and it has been a saviour for so many people. The well-known Mermaids and other groups know that Gower has some of the best surfing in the UK. I will do anything I can to protect our vital ecosystem, seafood production economy and thriving tourist economy. I know that this is a devolved matter, but as I noted in a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time, this a UK-wide issue. What work is the Minister doing alongside the devolved Administrations, and what commitment can she give to do so, because these waterways, whether in England, Wales or Scotland, are all intertwined and all end up somewhere?
If sewage goes into our rivers and waterways, it will ultimately make its way to the sea, and even into our food chain through seafood and fish. I know we are all supposed to encourage recycling, but even I think that is going a little too far. The Government are failing in their duty of care here. The state of our waterways has not improved since 2016, despite ministerial claims that they are cleaning up their act. What is even worse, the unlawful discharge of sewage could be up to 10 times higher than the rate of prosecutions by the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency is responsible for monitoring and enforcement of water quality breaches, but it has fallen foul of the Government’s cuts; its funding has been slashed by 63% since 2010. Simple measures such as the number of points at which samples are collected have been cut by more than 40%. How can we continue to monitor the health of our rivers if less data is collected?
The Government’s response to the petition mentions that
“water companies have agreed to make available real-time data on sewage discharges from storm overflows at designated bathing waters all year round from this year. This data will be made available to help surfers, swimmers and other recreational water users to check the latest information and make informed choices on where to swim.”
Who does not want to check the amount of human waste, used sanitary products and anything else people have flushed into the water before they go for a swim? That is not a delightful thought. Let us not forget the words of the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who back in 2018 told the Environmental Audit Committee that divergence from tough EU rules would be an opportunity for the UK Government to implement unquestionably tougher restrictions. He said that
“being different can sometimes mean being better”,
and that leavers did not automatically advocate for divergence out of a desire to lower standards. However, owing to Brexit, we have seen a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers and an increase in red tape, which has led to chemicals not being available to fully treat wastewater before it is discharged. What is more, the Government have granted permissions for the discharges to take place.
I am not here only to outline the increasing problems that the Government are exacerbating, because I have received suggestions of things that the Government could put into place to reverse some of the damage. To clean up our waterways, we need a fully funded and resourced action plan. We need targets for water companies and serious consequences when they break the rules. One way of doing that is to increase the environmental reporting requirement for water companies. I call on the Government to improve their plan to introduce annual reports, such as by making them quarterly reports. With more regular reporting and a system that allows for this, we can see where there are problem areas and react much more efficiently.
Does my hon. Friend also think there should be a requirement on water companies to report that information to their consumers, perhaps in the form of formal consumer committees of each water company, so that that company is more likely to be held to account by the very consumers who suffer from this dumping of sewage?
That is key. Accountability is needed. If we are to move forward, those consumer committees that my hon. Friend speaks of are exactly what we need: a practical solution in order to move forward.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce measures to reduce sewage discharge from storm overflows, but unfortunately this does not go far enough. The Government must eliminate sewage discharges. That is why Labour voted in favour of the Duke of Wellington’s amendment calling for exactly that. The Government’s aim of publishing a plan on this by September 2022 is just not good enough. Let us have that plan in place early next year. This has been dragging on for far too long, and there is no reason why we cannot have a strategy sooner.
If Ministers are serious about reaching the targets for cleaning our rivers, lakes, streams and seas, they must have a fully-resourced action plan for monitoring water quality and holding companies to account. However, there are also high-tech solutions that could be employed immediately. Ferry mentioned a system called HYBACS—hybrid activated sludge process—which does not sound absolutely delightful, but is cheaper and more effective than the system that companies are currently using. That sounds like a pretty obvious thing for the water companies to put in place. Where there are capital expenditure issues, it must fall to the Government to ultimately step in and protect the waterways. Natural mitigations can also provide solutions to this problem: reintroducing beavers, building more reservoirs and increasing tree and hedgerow planting.
The Minister has plenty to answer from my contribution, but I would also like to know how many water companies have been fined by the Environment Agency. How much have they been fined? When did the Minister last meet with the Environment Agency to discuss this?
I bring my contribution to a close by asking the Government to be bold in doing the right thing and getting our rivers and streams cleaned up. They should listen to the advice of experts: beef up the Environment Agency’s powers and keep pushing water companies to take responsibility, not just for those who signed the petition, but for everybody living in the United Kingdom.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and to have the opportunity to debate this important issue. I must start by saying that the Government’s new Environment Act 2021 goes further than ever to help to reduce water pollution in our rivers and seas, now and in the future. In many ways, it directly addresses a number of points that the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) has raised in today’s debate.
However, an orchestrated campaign on social media left many thousands of our constituents—people who really care about the quality of our water and river pollution—being bombarded with misinformation. The hon. Member has been very constructive in her contribution to this debate, as I am sure other Members will be, but I hope that the debate will ensure that the true facts are on the record—facts, not fiction.
The fact is that there is nothing new in this Environment Act that creates a right for water companies to dump raw sewage in our water courses. For the first time, the Act creates a statutory duty at the most accountable level of all—the top of Government—to better monitor water quality upstream and downstream of our sewage works, to reduce discharges from storm overflows, and to have clear plans on how to eliminate storm overflows completely in England, and those plans must be in place not at some distant date but in a year’s time. Those are real improvements.
The Act also establishes a new duty for the Environment Agency to publish storm overflow data annually, and water companies will have a duty to publish real-time storm overflow information too. That is quite different from what we saw in the social media disinformation campaign, which created such heightened concern and probably led to today’s debate.
Those are real improvements that matter in my constituency, because we are home to a rare north-flowing salmonid chalk stream, of which there are only 200 in the world. The Loddon springs out of the ground in Buckskin, in the centre of Basingstoke, in my own village of Mapledurwell, and in the surrounding fields. By the time it reaches the sewage works in Chineham, where discharges occur, only two or three miles away, it is still little more than a stream.
In 2006, a water cycle study was undertaken by the local authority to model the impact of large-scale house building, of which Basingstoke has undertaken a great deal in the last two decades, on the River Loddon. Since for more than a decade, I have been working with the Environment Agency and Thames Water to ensure that there are improvements and protections for the quality of our river and that the right measures are in place at our sewage works in Chineham. Indeed, it has one of the toughest consent levels in the country for phosphates. In 2015, some successful lobbying meant that new technology was trialled at the Basingstoke plant rather than it happening somewhere else.
We have been doing a great deal, but we welcome the extra measures in the Act to go further. Some aspects of the river have improved, but others have not. The Minister can help with some of those things, but others she simply cannot. For example, there has been a significant increase in the local crayfish population in the Loddon, which has tipped the river into poor status not because there has been an increase in pollution, but because the crayfish eat the eggs of the course fish. That kind of detail is often lost in social media campaigns, which can misrepresent the information that the Environment Agency gathers. I am interested to know what work the Minister will do to educate local councillors and schools on such information.
The new Act also provides the opportunity to tackle storm water discharges, which is incredibly welcome. Let us be clear: if those discharges did not happen, the storm water would simply flood homes and businesses, which would be completely unacceptable. The measures in the new Act mean that plans must be developed to reduce storm water and, eventually, eliminate it.
That is important for me locally, because in April 2020 an almost unprecedented amount of rainfall led the Loddon to experience 40 overflow events. There was insufficient space to store the quantity of storm water, so it had to be released into the river. The situation is unpredictable—there have been only two such events this year—but we need to ensure that future problems with increased rainfall can be dealt with.
A significant contributory cause of the problem is that house builders have an automatic right to connect rainwater drainage to the sewage system. I will focus on that for the Minister. The Government need to bring into force schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which removes developers’ automatic right to connect rainwater drainage to combined sewers, which can put additional storm water pressure on our sewage works’ capacity. What plans do the Government have to tackle that piece of legislation, which is still unenacted?
Overflows in Basingstoke are also caused by high levels of groundwater infiltrating the Thames Water network. Thames Water will work on that through a scheme to reline sewers from 2025 to 2030, plus two upgrades at the Basingstoke sewage works to increase capacity. I am concerned, however, that because Thames Water has done a significant amount of work on the issue already, it does not see Basingstoke as a priority for future investment.
The Act requires a plan to be in place to make improvements at every stage. I stress to the Minister that it cannot be right that a river such as the Loddon, which is little more than a stream as it runs past the Basingstoke sewage works, as I have pointed out, is subject to the same national storm water overflow rules as much larger bodies of water. Will she set out how plans to reduce and eliminate storm water overflow events can take into account the different size of water courses involved? The Loddon may have one of the lowest number of overflow events in the Thames valley, which makes it less of a priority for Thames Water, but it is a small tributary to the Thames when it receives overflow water in Basingstoke.
I pay tribute to the Minister’s work on the issue of water quality, on which she has made so much progress, and it is fitting that she should be responding to today’s debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley; thank you very much for calling me to speak. I am hugely grateful to the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for not just securing the debate, but making an excellent start to it. I am sure that Members will forgive me if I focus much of what I say on the situation in my communities—the English lakes in Cumbria. We are probably the wettest part of England. Storm overflow is a daily thing for us, and we need to keep those lakes topped up, so we do not complain. We do complain about the water companies taking advantage of that in order to justify overflows that I think none of us would consider in any way acceptable.
Windermere, the largest lake in England and the reservoir of last resort for Greater Manchester, contains three designated bathing areas, which are of a good standard. I do not want to make the case that Windermere is an open sewer or anything like that; of course it is not. Nevertheless, on 71 solid days last year, United Utilities dumped raw sewage into that lake, and that is utterly unacceptable.
If we look at the other issues affecting phosphate levels in the lake, we see that perhaps a quarter to a third of all the phosphates in the lake are coming via septic tanks. There is a complete lack of registration and regulation of septic tanks, and no help for those people who have them. If we talk to people in the Environment Agency, who do a great job on the ground in Cumbria, they will say that the only way they know where the septic tanks even are is by a process of elimination, because they know what is on the mains and therefore what is not. That is not acceptable; we need to ensure that there is a proper system of registration, regulation and help for people with septic tanks, so that we can preserve and protect our lakes and the quality of them.
It is not just the lakes in south Cumbria that struggle and see the water companies take advantage of the permission that they effectively have to dump sewage into our waterways. The River Kent at Burneside, the Kent and the Gowan at Staveley and the Kent at Wattsfield in Kendal have seen sometimes catastrophic emissions. And in the likes of Burneside and Staveley, it does not even take much of a storm—not even a huge downpour—to see terrible raw sewage on the streets in those beautiful lakes villages. That is not acceptable.
We have to look at what the Government are willing and able to do to ensure that water companies do the right thing to keep our waterways clean and at a level that we would consider acceptable. I hear what has been said about the Environment Bill. I am massively sceptical about the Government’s amendment at the last minute. It does indeed take the Duke of Wellington’s wording about progressively reducing harmful emissions, and the duty on water companies. And there is a timescale for a report, but there is no timescale for improvement and there are no volume references when it comes to improvement, either. How much sewage is acceptable, for example? I can tell the Chamber that 40% of the phosphates in Windermere are down to United Utilities. Will 39% be acceptable, after five years—two years? These are the things that leave people sceptical about the amendment that the Government made last week, providing good cover for Conservative Back Benchers and a free rein for the water companies to effectively carry on doing what they have already and always been doing.
The hon. Member for Gower asked really important questions about fines that the water companies have paid. I submitted a written question to the Minister and I am very pleased that she answered a very similar question. The answer to the question of how many water companies in the last four years have been prosecuted and fined is that there have been 11 successful prosecutions in four years. Four of those prosecutions were for less than £50,000. In the north-west of England, there has not been one single prosecution since 2018. United Utilities nevertheless was guilty of five of the 10 longest discharges in the last year. We are seeing here a pattern of water companies being allowed to get away with murder and not being held to account.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene; he is making a very important point about enforcement. On Friday of this week, Thames Water will appear in court—I will not go into the details, for obvious reasons—for a case that it has taken the Environment Agency five years to bring to court. It had known that it was serious enough to require prosecution. Why does it take it so long?
I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention and for his work in this area highlighting this issue. We have much to be grateful to him for. The point that he makes is absolutely right. We can have policies, but what good are they if they are not enforced or the water companies can factor into their spending plans that a fine of perhaps less than £50,000 is a small price to pay when they are able to dish out to their shareholders £2 billion in dividends each year?
I am absolutely proud of the English lakes and of our waterways. We have glorious lakes, rivers and streams in our community, and I want to keep them clean, but at the moment the water companies have permission to take advantage of the fact that they are allowed to have these emissions, and they are not being held to account via the legal process.
I would like the Minister to reflect on the issues raised today and to tell me what plan she has to help us in the Lake district to ensure that the best visitor attraction in the country, and the biggest outside of London, is kept clean and pristine, and something that we can all remain proud of.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing, on behalf of the Petitions Committee, this really important debate; it is great to see so many Members in Westminster Hall for a debate on such a significant topic. Indeed, for me, cleaning up our river system by improving the water quality in our streams and rivers is incredibly important. In my constituency, we have the River Wharfe, which is the only river in the UK to have secured bathing water status so far.
I am very proud that, after decades of inaction, this Government are the ones who are doing something about this issue. Many people who signed this petition will have done so in advance of the Environment Bill securing Royal Assent last week. During discussions on this issue, many falsehoods have been put across by the media and—I have to say—by Opposition Members, who have used the many debates in recent weeks as an opportunity to capitalise on falsehoods in many arguments that have been put forward. I will use this debate as an opportunity to set the record straight.
Members in this place have never voted to allow water companies to pump sewage into rivers; what we have done is vote for a piece of legislation that will go to much greater lengths than we have seen before to clean up our rivers. With the Environment Bill securing Royal Assent last week, we have voted to put a duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory drainage and sewage management plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage systems over the next 25 years. Of course, we have also voted for a power of direction for the Government to direct water companies in relation to their actions in these drainage and sewage management plans. The Government will also have the ability to use their power of direction if those plans are not good enough, which is a powerful tool.
We have also voted for the Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows—something that we are all incredibly passionate about in this House, because too often we have seen sewage getting into the river system by storm overflows not working correctly. Now the Government have the ability to put more pressure on water companies.
We have also voted for a requirement for the Government to produce a report setting out the actions that should be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions. Both publications are required before 1 September next year. We have also voted for a new duty to be placed on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis. Furthermore, we have voted for a new duty on water companies to publish real-time information on storm overflows. This will mean that it is absolutely clear how often storm overflows are being used, which will aid enforcement, because—I emphasise this—in my view the Environment Agency has not been strong enough in holding water companies to account; and yet we have voted for an Environment Bill that will do that. In addition, we have voted for a new duty to be placed directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works.
In July this year, the Government set out, for the first time ever, their expectation that Ofwat, the regulator in charge of monitoring both the water companies and the Environment Agency, should incentivise water companies to invest significantly to reduce the use of storm overflows.
I was proud to serve on the Environment Bill Committee, and I was delighted to see the Bill become law, and it is great to see that so many people across the country are so passionate about this issue. Cleaning up rivers is vital to us all, but it was deeply disappointing to see Opposition Members not vote for any of the mechanisms or measures that I have outlined in my speech. The Opposition make a lot of noise on this topic, but the Government act and, thanks to the Environment Act 2021, we may finally begin to stop sewage discharge getting into our rivers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing this important debate and for her speech, which I very much agree with.
The Rivers Trust has shown that there have been multiple sewer storm overflow incidents in the city of Salford, centring on the River Irwell and the Manchester ship canal. Last year, as we have heard, water companies dumped raw sewage into England’s rivers and seas 400,000 times, so it will take more than regulation to fix the problem. Indeed, the water industry has been regulated since it was privatised in 1989, and fining many water companies millions of pounds has demonstrably not affected their behaviour. Yorkshire Water and United Utilities have even tried to claim in court that they are not public authorities and should not have to publish data on sewage.
As a result of privatisation in 1989, our water and sewage are now run by nine regional private monopolies that are owned mostly by private equity. Since privatisation, water bills have increased by 40% in real terms. Eye-watering new research from the University of Greenwich shows that the water and sewage companies have paid shareholders a total of nearly £17 billion in dividends from 2010 to ’21—an average of £1.4 billion a year.
Over the three decades since privatisation, the privatised English water companies are estimated to have paid out £57 billion in dividends to shareholders. That is almost half as much as the money they have spent on upgrading and maintaining water and sewage systems. Worse, six water companies were found to be avoiding millions in tax, and the Financial Times has reported on the huge debt piling up in the water industry, which confirms that our water bills are rising to pay for huge shareholder pay-outs, not to invest in infrastructure. The truth is that privatisation of our water industry was wrong, and it has been a complete failure for the British public.
The good news, however, is that bringing water into public ownership would pay for itself within about seven years. After that, it would save the public purse £2.5 billion a year. That money could be invested in infrastructure to stop sewage pouring into our rivers, lakes and seas, as well to reduce leaks to save water and cut bills. The new public water companies could be democratically controlled, transparent and given a duty of care to take care of our environment, to clean up our rivers and seas, and to do everything they can to tackle the climate crisis. There is no excuse not to do this.
In Scotland, water is already in public ownership. In Wales, it is not for profit. In the past 15 years, 235 cities in 37 countries have taken their water into public ownership. I am sure we all agree that it is unacceptable for raw sewage to flow into our rivers and seas. If we are serious about tackling that ecological scandal, I stress that we must bring England’s water companies into public hands.
This year, Southern Water was fined £90 million for pumping raw sewage into the sea. To take the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), that was not a quick prosecution; it covered 2010 to 2015. This summer, there was raw sewage on the beaches of east Kent—devastating for holidaymakers and dreadful for the tourism industry. Inland, I have no doubt that sewage was going into our chalk streams also. That has to stop.
It will come as no surprise that I have been in regular contact with Southern Water about the issue. Indeed, I met the chief executive, Ian McAulay, and his engineer only last week to discuss possible ways forward. Notwithstanding the motion before the House this evening, it is clear that there is not a quick fix, and nobody should try to pretend that there is.
Certainly, there have been years of lack of investment in the infrastructure, and it will take a lot of money and engineering to get this right. More importantly, it will take a great deal of co-operation—a point that has been made to me that we all have to understand. This is not just the responsibility of the water companies. It is the responsibility of Highways England, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Environment Agency, Natural England and Ofwat. Unless and until all these bodies start working together, we will not solve the problem.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made the point that we are building houses and connecting them to sewage. The volume of water coming off the roofs of housing, going down drainpipes, then into gullies and the sewers, is monumental. We are building more and more houses without the sewage and water infrastructure to handle what we are putting into the system. We have to separate out rainwater from sewage; we can do that.
I do not know of a single house being built with a grey water tank, for example. We are throwing all that water away. Very few houses have water butts. There is barely a yard of tarmac on the road that is porous, if there is any at all. In other countries, roads are porous. Why are they not porous in the United Kingdom? I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that, yes, we have to hold the water companies to account, but we also have to ensure that the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government play their part, as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, if we are to pull all the strands together and have a co-ordinated approach that looks to the future, and if we are to build us the houses, roads and drainage systems that we need for tomorrow, not for Victorian England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing the debate and responding to the 111,000 people who signed the petition, 144 of whom were from Weaver Vale.
My constituency is rightly named after the River Weaver, which cuts straight through my community and has played an incredibly important role in my patch for centuries. After its canalisation in 1732, it became one of the most important commerce routes in the north of England through the transport of salt going right back to Roman times. That commerce led to the creation of the world-famous Anderton boat lift, and the renowned ICI works, now Ineos-Inovyn and Tata Chemicals, which is still a vital employer and led to the industrial expansion of Northwich.
Today, the River Weaver is a haven for wildlife and recreation activities, and it is arguably our greatest natural asset. Without the River Weaver, there would be no Weaver Vale. It is vital that we do everything we can to protect the river for future generations. That is why my constituents and I are disgusted that last year, raw sewage was regularly pumped into the River Weaver and the River Dane at an alarming rate.
The Rivers Trust reported that in 2020 alone there were 1,341 spills from storm overflows, amounting to a whopping 5,786 hours of spills, which is 241 days. Sewage discharges not only make river water unsafe for local people to swim in, but also damage the habitats of a range of species that use our waterways. The people of Weaver Vale want our local rivers to be free from raw sewage, so that our river systems can thrive; ecosystems depend on that.
Last week, I asked my constituents to contact me with their views on this matter, and there was an overwhelming response. Constituents such as Debbie Graham and Diana French argue that pumping raw sewage into our rivers is outrageous. It once again shows how profit is put before health and the environment. They call for tougher regulation of utility companies such as United Utilities. They were under the impression that their bills ensured that rivers were cleaned up. How about taking the shareholders and directors out of the equation, and investing the surplus—that £57 billion that my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) referred to—in our waterways?
The recent Government-inspired amendment is nothing short of the “Blah, blah, blah” that came out of COP26. To put it bluntly, a vague statement of progressive reduction is talking crap, while giving the green light to more crap in our rivers and communities.
I was intending to intervene, but if I have a couple of minutes, I will take advantage of them.
The petition that the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) spoke to—I apologise to her for not being here for her speech—was stimulated by some of the campaign groups with whom I worked when I introduced my private Member’s Bill in 2020. It reflects, as Members have said, the widespread growing awareness of, and horror at, the state of our rivers as a consequence of the uncontrolled dumping of sewage in river systems by water treatment works and the water sewage system, which has been overwhelmed for a variety of reasons. I want to touch on two areas where it is really important that we take things forward, now that the Environment Act has become law.
I completely disagree with the description that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for whom I normally have a lot of time, gave of the amendment that was finally made to the Bill. He is simply wrong. The Act will lead to a progressive reduction in sewer discharges, and that will be enforceable in the way described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and as I described in the closing stages of consideration of Lords amendments.
I want to touch on two points, one of them raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We will have a planning Bill before us before long. It has to include measures for the proper separation of surface and foul water systems for new developments. Water running off hard standing in all new developments across the country can, through the right to connect, be connected to foul water drainage systems. That is what leads to an overwhelming quantity of water causing problems in the treatment works, which have not been expanded to cope with development over the last 60 or so years. It is a problem that successive Governments have contributed to by not investing enough in the infrastructure of our drainage systems.
The right to connect needs to be dealt with by our having the subsystem to require separation by developers. They should be required to contribute to the capital costs of infrastructure works under the ground; at present, they are not. They have to contribute to the connection charge, but not to the capital for works that would allow full separation for new developments, which is essential.
Finally, I encourage the Minister—I pay tribute to the work that she did to improve the Environment Bill, particularly as it went through the Lords—to adjust Ofwat’s priorities. She has the opportunity to encourage Ofwat, through its forthcoming strategic policy statement, to focus not just on leakage and keeping bills down, but on keeping sewage out of our rivers by investing more in the treatment network for which our water companies are responsible.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on her introductory remarks. As has been said, England has the worst river quality in Europe: 0% of rivers meet good chemical standards, and only 14% meet good ecological standards. We heard how raw sewage was dumped into rivers more than 400,000 times last year. I pay tribute to campaigners such as Surfers Against Sewage for the role that they play with the ocean conservation all-party parliamentary group. They have been pressing on this issue for a very long time. I also pay tribute to the indefatigable Feargal Sharkey.
I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that we had on the Environment Bill measures, other than to say it is very disappointing that the Government have repeatedly failed to back efforts by the Lords to protect our waters. I suspect that we will hear more from the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson on that.
I would rather not, because I have only a few minutes, and the right hon. Lady has already spoken.
I will talk about the local situation, but first, I want to express concern about reports that raw sewage spills in Honiton are threatening the first wild beaver colony to live on an English river for 400 years, which is part of a trial approved by the Minister’s Department. I hope she will agree that it is wonderful that beavers are being reintroduced into our natural environment, and I am very concerned about the threat to them.
In Bristol, particular issues have arisen recently. Conham river park is a popular wild swimming spot for local residents, and the—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying before I was very rudely interrupted: I wanted to talk about particular local concerns. I pay tribute to The Bristol Cable for doing an excellent report on the problem, from which I will quote fairly extensively. There are two areas in Bristol where it seems to be of particular concern. One is the Conham River Park; this is a popular wild swimming spot, and one of my staff went—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I will give up on trying to talk about Conham River Park for a moment and talk instead about Warleigh Weir near Bath, which is another popular swimming spot. Multiple cases of sickness have been reported in swimmers there. In one of the most recent incidents, which took place a week ago, a storm overflow 4 km upstream had started releasing raw sewage into the Avon. Data since then—as I said, The Bristol Cable is reporting on this issue—show that sewage was dumped from the overflow 67 times last year. In total, Wessex Water, which I think covers the Minister’s area as well, released sewage into the natural environment more than 14,000 times in the first eight months of this year. It has to be said that Wessex Water has denied that this would cause swimmers to fall ill. It has suggested that it was agricultural run-off, wildlife or whatever, but I would argue that sewage bears a fair part of the responsibility. The Conham Bathing Water group has carried out tests and found that, at their worst, E. coli levels were over 20 times what the World Health Organisation deems to be a sufficient level for people to go swimming.
We know that the cost of changing the sewerage infrastructure would be massive and would be added to bills, but the problem has got too bad for us not to seize the initiative and act. The Environment Agency has recently given the green light for water companies to dump even more sewage into the rivers due to Brexit-related chemical shortages. As has been said, we need a properly resourced Environment Agency and long-term, legally enforceable targets on water quality. This situation cannot just be allowed to slide. I am not quite sure what the process is, but the campaigners at Warleigh Weir and Conham River Park are campaigning for designated bathing water status. Does the Minister have any advice on how they can achieve that? How will she ensure that rivers in our area are suitable for swimming in?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing the debate and for her opening remarks.
I am really pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate on behalf of the 140 residents of Dulwich and West Norwood who signed the petition to ban raw sewage discharges, and the thousands of others in my constituency for whom this is an important issue. As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I pay tribute to our Chair, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), for his commitment and work on this issue over many months.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the River Windrush in Oxfordshire, where a group of local residents have come together as Windrush Against Sewage Pollution in order to take action on the impact on the ecology of the river of Thames Water’s frequent discharges into it. I pay tribute to them for their work, which has been instrumental in the struggle to hold water companies to account for the damage that they cause to health and the environment by discharging raw sewage into our rivers. Windrush Against Sewage Pollution has engaged in citizen science over several years by monitoring the water quality and ecological diversity of the River Windrush. Through such data gathering, the group is able to understand the impact of raw sewage discharge and has discovered that raw sewage discharges are underreported, going undetected by the Environment Agency in as many as 96.5% of cases. All the evidence points to the inadequacy of the Environment Agency’s action on sewage discharge.
On the same visit, we went to a Thames Water treatment works that discharges into the River Windrush. That revealed further issues with the water treatment and monitoring regime that I want to highlight. Specifically, in addition to the problem of frequent undetected and unsanctioned discharges of raw sewage, water companies are not required to measure or treat many substances that are harmful to the environment. Among them are microplastics, which are present both in river discharge and in sewage sludge, which is spread on the land for fertiliser, thereby potentially entering the food chain; antibiotics, at a time when there is a huge race against growing antibiotic resistance; and hormones, which have an impact on the reproduction of fish and other aquatic life.
We have a monitoring, treatment and enforcement framework for wastewater treatment and discharge that is simply not fit for purpose for the serious environmental challenges we face. At the same time, water companies are also failing to invest adequately in their clean water infrastructure. Across my constituency, where ageing water pipes are put under additional strain by hilly topography, there are serious water leaks and bursts every single week. I have been pressing Thames Water for years to invest in the pipe replacement that we need to secure a reliable water supply for local residents and stop the terrible waste of drinking-quality water that occurs whenever there is a leak.
I am pleased that in response to that pressure, the level of investment in my constituency has increased, but we are still far from a plan to replace all the pipes that need replacing. Thames Water still has a serious problem with the quality of its workmanship. Almost without fail, as soon as replacement works finish in my constituency, a new leak occurs because the workmanship is so poor. There have been two such instances in the last three weeks—it happens all the time.
We face a climate emergency and ecological crisis. Nature recovery is a vital part of our response to climate change, and river water quality is critical. Privatised water companies are not fit for the task. They already face competing priorities—the need for investment in both clean water and water treatment infrastructure—and are trying to face in those two different directions at the same time. They also have to face in a third direction: to deliver the returns for which they are under constant pressure from shareholders. That is not a responsible way to run such critical infrastructure, and it simply is not working.
We need the water industry returned to common ownership so that it can focus on delivering functioning clean water infrastructure and be part of the solution to the challenge of nature recovery. Our rivers and communities cannot wait any longer.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on opening the debate. I want to underline in particular the figure that she used: 39 million tonnes of raw sewage was dumped in the River Thames in 2019. As someone who loves walking by the Thames, occasionally swimming in it, and certainly canoeing on it, that figure gives even me pause for thought.
The contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) were very powerful in their critique of the ownership of water companies. Since privatisation, there has been a 40% real-terms hike in bills, almost £60 billion in payments to shareholders, and more than £50 billion in debt loaded on to water companies to make those payments to shareholders.
One of the problems with the argument made by the right hon. Members for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), and by the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), is that it glosses over the issue of ownership and, in particular, the fact that annual investment in water supply infrastructure was lower in 2018 than in 1990. That rather suggests that there has been, for some time, a serious question mark about whether our privatisation is delivering.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to defend my remarks. I made no remarks on the subject of privatisation. As he has raised it and accused me of having done so, I ask him whether he recognises that the amount of capital investment by the water companies in the 10 years prior to privatisation was half the amount invested in capital treatment works in the 10 years post-privatisation.
The right hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me. I was concentrating on other things in the 10 years before privatisation—I am not quite that old. If he shares the Opposition’s concerns about the quality of performance of the privatised water companies, I welcome that.
I recognise that the Minister is not likely to give a commitment today to bring the water companies back into public ownership of one sort or another. I will therefore suggest a third way. We could maintain pressure on water companies to bring down the amount of sewage dumped in our streams long after the news cycle has moved on to other issues by giving the consumers of water companies more power, perhaps in the form of a requirement that any increase in bills—or if the Minister were willing to be radical, any increase in the salary of the chief executive and board—has to be approved by the consumers of that company. There should be a water users consumer committee for each water company, with real power to hold to account the board of that company. At the moment, only two committees, without any substantive powers, cover the whole operation of the English water companies. They are clearly not having much impact. I urge the Minister to take away the need to give consumers more direct power over and say in the operation of the water companies on which we all rely.
So long as I am either up or down, I am okay; it is getting up and down that is the problem. Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Paisley. I express my appreciation of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for opening this important debate. Water companies are polluting our bathing waters, rivers and beaches. I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise concerns expressed to me by my constituents.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) spoke of storm overflow events. We are told that combined sewage overflows are used in extreme weather conditions. However, in 2020, water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England more than 40,000 times. Illegal dumping stems from water companies being allowed to self-report such spills since 2010. We simply cannot permit privately owned water company monopolies to police themselves. Professor Peter Hammond, visiting scientist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, told Ministers:
“The evidence suggests that in the last decade, ‘early’ dumping of untreated sewage to rivers has been at least 10 times more frequent than EA monitoring and prosecutions suggest”.
I represent a coastal community in County Durham’s only section of coastline. In Durham’s current 2025 county of culture bid, the east Durham heritage coast should be a jewel. Unfortunately, despite the stream of press releases from Durham County Council’s Conservative coalition leadership declaring various environmental and ecological emergencies, repeated concerns about sewage discharges on the east Durham coast seem to have been ignored; we have seen excuses, inaction and a failure to protect public health. The lack of interest in protecting and promoting clean water on the east Durham coast by the council is a scandal. Residents using the safer seas and rivers app, pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and promoted by the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), will realise that there have been 113 pollution alerts for the County Durham coastline so far in 2021.
Durham County Council deflects any inquiries to the Environment Agency. However, anyone watching recent interviews by Environment Agency spokespeople would be forgiven for thinking they were water company representatives rather than a public regulator.
Combined sewer overflows should be a safety valve used sparingly and only in extreme weather conditions. Instead, legal and illegal dumping of sewage seems to be standard practice and, indeed, the Government are complicit in this situation arising. I have called consistently for this essential public asset to be brought under public control. Ministers need to explain to the public why they value the private monopoly interests of water companies over the health, welfare and wellbeing of the public.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing the debate on the petition signed by 111,000 people—257 from my constituency. There is something disgusting about this: hundreds of thousands of raw sewage discharges knowingly released into our rivers every year. Some are because of storm overflows, but only some of them. Some, to my mind, are quite deliberate because it is simply cheaper to do it that way, and the water companies think they can get away with it.
It is true, as Government Members have said, that there are big infrastructure needs in our water industry—I absolutely understand and accept that. The £57 billion that has been paid out to shareholders and in dividends over the past few decades could have gone an awfully long way towards stemming the leaks of fresh water and providing a better infrastructure system as well.
It is worth thinking about what is included in the waste that ends up in our rivers. Yes, it is sewage. It is also plastics, chemicals, bleach—a whole lot of stuff. When it goes into the rivers, it ends up in the sea with all the foul pollution that results from that. I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) before we came in and he said, “What about the rivers in your constituency?” I said, “Well, actually there aren’t any because they have all been culverted and put underground many years ago.” I have no idea how bad they are, but I suspect very bad because nobody ever sees them and they appear somewhere in the Thames a bit further on. However, many other people in many other places see it all the time.
We should pay tribute to some wonderful people who have done great work in trying to clean up our rivers: those who regularly voluntarily monitor water quality in our rivers, those who campaign to end the culverting and canalisation of rivers so that we have a more natural environment and flood plains, and those brilliant people—particularly on the north coast of Cornwall— who formed Surfers Against Sewage, which has been so successful in drawing attention to the filth that is in our seas.
We have to ask ourselves a question. I have been in the House long enough to remember when water was privatised. I voted against it and opposed it all the way through. I think of the glory of the Metropolitan Water Board and what it achieved on flood control and flood prevention, and the huge investment it put in. That is now owned by a series of fly-by-night hedge funds. To anyone trying to get hold of somebody who actually owns Thames Water, I say, “Good luck. You might or might not find out about them.”
The argument for public ownership of our water is irrefutable. Before someone on the Government side decides to call me a neanderthal from the 1960s, ’70s, ’50s, ’40s or whatever for wanting public ownership, I simply say that the public ownership I want for our water industry is genuine public ownership. It is community controlled. It means the involvement of local authorities, water workers and people who are concerned about our environment and, yes, local businesses in those areas, so that we improve our water and river quality and all the rest.
There is also a big role for local authorities in planning. I say to them, “Create more porous spaces. Don’t pave over everything.” Indeed, it is perfectly possible even in heavily-urbanised built environments—for example, my constituency is the smallest, most urbanised place in the country—to create more porous surfaces, which means that the water flows directly into the ground and improves the water table rather than forcing sewage into our rivers, which causes all that pollution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing this debate.
For several years, Whitstable, in my constituency, has suffered from the effects of sewage leaking—or, in actual fact, being dumped—into our seas along a beautiful stretch of the east Kent coast. More than 111,000 people clearly feel as angry about this as the nearly 900 constituents in my area who have signed this petition do. In a seaside town, it should go without saying that so much of our everyday way of life revolves around the sea. We have a fishing industry, swimming groups, sailing and paddleboard schools, and, of course, tourism—the heart of our economy. We should not just have to get used to these increasingly frequent incidents that keep us away from our beaches. Not only are we unable to swim or sail, but basic everyday things such as hanging our washing, opening our windows—including in my office—and walking the dog are impossible on the worst days.
One of the loveliest aspects of living in such a beautiful part of the country is that, during the pandemic, our daily exercise was a walk around Whitstable harbour, taking the dog up to our local coastal nature reserve or just jogging along the seafront, and maybe picking up some locally caught seafood on the way home. Instead, we are now often avoiding a dip in the sea or a visit to the beach hut in case bits of human waste float past us. Instead of good, fresh, healthy sea air, our children have been gulping down lungfuls of foul-smelling polluted stuff that contains plenty of potentially toxic bacteria. No wonder my constituents have had enough.
In the summer I held a public meeting so that residents could demand answers and action from Southern Water, the company that is responsible for our water works and paid by us, for us, for the safe removal and treatment of waste. In July this year, Mr Justice Johnson handed down a record £90 million fine to Southern Water for thousands of illegal dumping incidents. That was just the latest in a list of fines dating back to 2007. One has to ask why, despite these frequent and increasingly huge fines, essentially nothing has changed. This is the greatest sewage scandal in this country since the great stink of 1858, which forced our predecessors in this place to take action and build the first public sewers. Could it be that a profit-driven private company such as Southern Water would rather pay fines than invest in expensive but completely necessary upgrades to the sewage infrastructure that would stop these incidents happening altogether? The damage to my community’s health, wellbeing and way of life is of far greater cost than that paid out by a private company. No wonder some of my constituents are now refusing to pay their water bills; they understandably feel that they have paid more than enough already.
I echo my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), and others, in their view that companies responsible for providing these services should be publicly owned and controlled—not primarily driven by making money for shareholders. Instead of swimming with sharks in the Cayman Islands, we need to enable my constituents to swim in clean waters.
Following the summer public meeting, I have continued to meet with Southern Water, as the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has done. Individually, their representatives are good people who are willing to engage with groups such as the great Save Our Seas in Whitstable, and other Whitstable activist groups. It is the wider corporate attitude that urgently needs to change. We want to be able to swim, eat our shellfish and breathe healthy air. That should be something that we take for granted, instead of having to protest about it on a weekly basis.
This has been a good debate so far, and one that has reflected the strength of feeling in all our communities, no matter which party represents them. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for opening this debate in such a coherent and clear way. A lot of people feel strongly about this topic, including the 207 people from Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport who have signed the petition, and that is testament to the campaigners, who have raised this issue for quite some time. I am grateful to Ferry Harmer, who organised this petition, but also to campaigners from Surfers Against Sewage, to Feargal Sharkey, to wild swimmers the nation over and to people who just think that this is not right; there are many of them. We are living in a climate and ecological emergency, and that matters, because it challenges us to do things differently from how we have done them before. That is one of the reasons why the sense of outrage about river pollution—river sewage—has been so intense.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who said that facts are important. I agree with her in that respect, and I think the facts of river pollution are sobering. Not one English river is in a healthy condition, and not one meets good chemical standards. England has the worst river pollution in Europe. There were 400,000 discharges of raw sewage into our rivers and seas last year. These are scary facts, but—
Does the hon. Gentleman not regret some of the misinformation that drove so much fear and anxiety among our constituents, particularly the suggestion that the Environment Bill enabled raw sewage to be pumped, for the first time, into rivers and seas? That is factually not correct. Does he agree?
If the right hon. Member had waited for the rest of my sentence, she would have found that I agree with her about certain bits of that assessment, because on this issue we need a debate that is based on facts. It is important that we get to the facts. The fact is that our rivers are dirty. They have been dirty for too long; they have been dirty for the past 11 years. It is a fact that we need them to be cleaned up— [Interruption.] That is true, and it matters.
When the House passed the climate and ecological emergency motion, that should have changed our approach. I am very glad that it changed the approach of the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who has been an incredible champion of cleaner rivers. I have enjoyed our conversations about how we encourage the Government towards a better place, and I am glad that they have moved in that direction.
However, there is still more to do, and that is why we can no longer accept being the dirty man of Europe. It is fair to say that the Government have moved on this, although it is important to note that they really did not want to. That was partly because of the screeching public outrage when Conservative MPs were whipped to vote against a motion that called for the ending of raw sewage discharges. I am not a fan of abuse on social media. I am not a fan of the nasty side of our politics, and I recognise that Members from all parties in the House have been subject to some pretty horrendous stuff recently, including over the issue of sewage. We need a debate on the facts, but with more urgency than we have seen for quite some time.
Today’s debate has been a good one, with some fantastic contributions from both sides of the House. I will talk briefly about several of them before I return to my speech. We need to challenge disinformation wherever we see it, and one of the best ways to do so is to place more information in the public domain. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) said about the need to put more power into the hands of consumers so they can understand what is happening in their communities. I have been promoting a brilliant interactive map on The Rivers Trust website to any parliamentary colleague who happens to talk to me about sewage—and to those who do not—which allows people to zoom in on where they live and see where raw sewage is being discharged. It is disturbing to see how close to many of our communities this discharge is taking place. It is not happening far, far away; it is happening in all our communities. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the point about rivers being locked away in concrete tubes, but that does not stop the sewage emerging at some point.
It is important to understand what is happening. We need consumers to understand it so that they support greater investment. The Minister has used a variety of figures over the past month about how much it would cost to address raw sewage discharges. I look forward to hearing where those figures came from, because I have still not had the workings-out. However, there will be a cost to this process, and I think there are a variety of options about where the money should come from.
I have a huge amount of sympathy for the argument that many of my Labour colleagues have made today about using shareholder dividends, and holding water in the public interest in the public sector with genuine common ownership. There is enormous potential in looking at that method. However, I look at the party that is in power now and say, “Where is the plan?” We need to have a plan for raw sewage discharges that considers not only “storm overflows” but a creaking sewage system.
In discussing the compromise amendment to the Environment Bill, the Secretary of State was careful in his use of words and talked about “storm overflows”. I commend the Bill writers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for using that term and enabling a focus on one part of a sewage system that is broken, while omitting the rest of it. There is routine discharge of raw sewage into rivers and seas, not in the event of extreme weather, from combined sewer outflows, but as a result of daily discharges. The fines levied against companies, including the £90 million for Southern Water, show that this system is not working. I agree with the comments on both sides of the Chamber about delays in prosecution. I encourage the Minister to look again at the budget that the Environment Agency has been given, and to ensure that there are no further cuts to that budget and that there is a real emphasis on it bringing further prosecutions.
I also want higher fines for water companies, because it is clear that the level of fines are not yet producing a change in behaviour in water companies and stopping raw sewage being routinely discharged. The word “routine” really matters, because it means every single day. While we have been debating, the water companies have been routinely discharging raw sewage—not because of extreme weather in the last hour, but because of a sewerage system that cannot cope with the level of demand being placed on it, and the lack of investment in it.
The Bill that we have passed in the past week—the Environment Act 2021—set out changes to the way raw sewage will be reported on, which are welcome; and it set out the need to produce plans, which I hope will be welcome, although I want to see what they look like. However, it did not set out a timetable for when the scandal of raw sewage discharges would be brought to an end. Nor did it set out any interim targets—a sense of direction. I think that, in a very meaningful way, every Member here today wants to see an end to raw sewage being discharged into our seas and rivers, but we need a clear timetable in order to hold any Government to account, to see how their performance is going.
We also need to delve into the workings of the water industry. The right hon. Member for Ludlow is right when he talks about the need to strengthen Ofwat and the SPS guidance that the Minister is preparing. That will influence the changes for water companies in the next pricing period, but what changes are happening in this pricing period? What changes are happening right now in water companies? They know that they do not have to invest in the same way until the next pricing period, because Ofwat has set the pricing controls and set the investment strategies. Although many water companies fell foul of the business plans in this period, I doubt that we will see a huge surge in action to close raw sewage outfalls and invest in treatment until the next price period. The challenge is what we do about it now, and that really matters. What we discharge into our rivers is not always easily seen. We need a clear plan to understand how much will be stopped, how much will be properly treated and how much will be carefully looked after in the future.
I hope that the Minister will be able to set out a clear timetable, because the people who signed the petition and the people in all our communities want action to be taken. They want it to be taken against a timetable. They want it to be measurable and demonstrable. They want to hold to account the people who are responsible for it, to see whether they are doing what they have been told to do and what they promised to do and, if not, what the consequences will be. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.
It is, as ever, an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this heated debate, and those people who signed the petition. Although I really respect the strength of feeling—the passion—in the petition, I want to say at the outset that I believe it was probably started when the social media campaign was whipped up. I am sorry, but a lot of misinformation was indeed spread, so we need to get over that and ensure that it never happens again.
I do understand the passion about this issue, which I think we all share. Quite frankly, I am personally also horrified by a lot of what we have seen. That is why I am so proud that, as an Environment Minister, I have made water quality a priority; indeed, so have this Government. As was so eloquently said by a number of Government Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), we now have a chain of actions that will deal with this. Many of them, of course, are triggered through the world-leading Environment Act. I was sorry, whatever the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), says—I do, as he knows, have great respect for him—that our Labour colleagues did not, in the end, vote to make that law to get water companies to reduce harm from storm sewage overflows. The tables were turned, and for that I am sorry. I think we need to get over that, too, and we all need to move on—
So I am not going to take an intervention on that.
I will also say that the issue is devolved. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing the debate. As she knows, it is for individual Governments to have their own powers, although Wales joins a great many of the powers in the Act.
I thank the hon. Lady for that; we are at pains to work with the devolved Administrations, because water does not have boundaries. I increasingly want to do exactly that, so I hand out an offer to do more. On misinformation, although I am not defending the quality of our rivers, it is comparable to that of rivers in densely populated areas of Europe.
The storm overflows system is an old Victorian plumbing system, which in many cases is not fit for purpose given our growing population, climate change and the frequent heavy extreme weather incidents that we are getting. Many hon. Members have made reference to the fact that the whole system needs improving.
I have been clear that storm sewage overflows, which are supposed to be for emergency use, are used far too frequently, which is absolutely unacceptable. I have said that frequently. We are the first Government to take decisive action on storm overflows through the Environment Act. I established the storm overflows taskforce to look into the issue and to inform us. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who did great work on the Bill Committee, for recognising that.
The petition calls for the elimination of storm overflows, which is a commendable ambition.
The Minister said at the start of her remarks that she thought the petition had probably been started in response to the social media campaign. To clarify, it was started more than six months ago and indeed, the Government published their response to it on 5 May.
I thank the hon. Lady for clarifying. As I said, I share the passion of the people who signed the petition, so I am not arguing about that.
The petition calls for the complete elimination of storm overflows. We need to look at how possible that is and what the function of overflows is in emergency situations. We need to look at the whole issue in the round. The recently published storm overflows evidence project report shed some light on that and the costs that we are looking at. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport keeps asking about that, but he can read all about it in an independent survey published on gov.uk. It highlights that the cost of complete elimination would be between £350 billion and £600 billion.
When we are looking at all those things, we also need to consider all the other things that we have to deal with in terms of water, such as phosphates, nitrates and soil in the water. Several right hon. Friends rightly referred to that and how complicated the picture is. We are dealing with it, as we need to.
Work is under way on that timeframe to reduce and potentially eliminate overflows. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) made some interesting points about consumer involvement and bringing the public along so that they understand what we are doing. Water companies consult consumers but, of course, that does not change their obligation to meet their requirements and regulations in law.
That is where the Government’s direction to Ofwat, the regulator, is important. We have just produced our draft strategic policy, in which we flagged the issue of storm overflows and reducing the harm for the first time. We also put the environment at the top of the agenda. I am sure we all share the view that that is the right thing to do.
The issue of enforcement has been raised several times. Action is taken and must be taken, but I understand the frustration about how long it can take. The Southern Water enforcement took years, but the fine was £90 million, which sent a clear message. Thames Water has also had some significant fines, but it is now spending £4.4 billion on the Thames Tideway Tunnel. That will be a game changer, rightly treating sewage that goes into the Thames. We have seen progress, although that is not to say that we do not need to go a great deal further.
We have seen some action. The shadow Minister keeps asking, “What is happening now?” There is some action. Yes, we need more, but through the taskforce we instigated a call for action that is happening right now. Importantly, water companies are spending £144 million in additional investment on storm overflows in the period 2020 to 2025, on top of the £3 billion they are already spending on the environment.
Can the Minister square these two challenges? She has told us that it is going to cost us £660 billion, but also that if water companies spend £144 million now, that is sufficient to deal with it. Those are two very different extremes. Why is more not being spent now? How is such a paltry sum supposed to deal with a problem that just moments ago she said could cost £660 billion?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman is really listening to what I am saying. What I said is that the water companies have taken some action now to start to invest in some of the facilities that they need. I did not say that they were doing everything that they needed to do, but my point was that they are not waiting until the next price review.
I mentioned the strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the regulator, which is crucial. Just last week, we set out on a legal footing in the Environment Act a statutory requirement for water companies to progressively reduce the harm from sewage from these overflows. The Act refers to harm not just to the environment, but to “public health.” That is something new that we added that was not even in the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, and that I think all hon. Members here will welcome, especially those who have bathing areas in their constituencies. All credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, who mentioned the bathing area in Keighley being the first inland bathing area.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about Warleigh Weir, which I know because lots of my school friends used to go swimming there when I was at school in Bath. I am horrified at the data she gave and I would be interested in hearing more about that. If she wants to apply for a bathing water quality safety test, it is clear how to do that. Indeed, we write to local authorities every year to ask if they have an area they would like to put forward. I am happy to help progress that, if it is at all possible.
In the Environment Act, of which I am very proud, there are so many things, including a whole page of duties, plans and monitoring. The hon. Member for Gower mentioned the important need for data, which she is absolutely right about. To really tackle these issues, we have to know what is going on. We do not need to wait for ages. We can start, but we still need the data. There are timelines for monitoring and reporting, and a system that holds water companies to account if they do not do the right thing. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for all the work that he has done. He fully understands the data issue, which is so important. Crucially, every water company now has to produce a sewage management plan—they did not have to do so before—and that will help.
Water companies have been mentioned so much that last week I called them in—I mentioned this on the Floor of the House—before we thrashed out the final amendments. I read the Riot Act to them about the need, and the expectation, for them to do better. We need to work with them to make sure that that happens, and we have been very clear that if we do not see action, we will take enforcement action. There are clear enforcement powers through the EA, which issues the permits; through the regulator and through Government in the new power in the Environment Act; and ultimately through the Office for Environmental Protection, so the system is now in place.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Members. We share a concern about water quality. Water is the stuff of life. It is precious. It is our lifeblood, as is soil—another of my favourite subjects. It is our duty to look after it. I will conclude by saying that it is a very complex issue, and my right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Basingstoke have talked about the need to pull together other Departments and talk about the building requirements. We are indeed carrying out a review on the sustainable drainage systems, as set out in schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which will include the right to connect. It is really important that we pull all those things together.
I do not often agree with the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), but he is absolutely right about semi-permeable driveways and membranes. I am a gardener, and I have talked about that issue forever.
The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) should visit the living lab at Salford University, which is amazing. What it shows people about greywater harvesting, underwater tanks and green walls is brilliant. It is in her constituency, and I have visited it.
On that note, I hope I have made it clear that the Government are taking the issue very seriously. The measures are in place but there is, of course, more to do.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 582336, relating to the discharge of sewage by water companies.