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Water Company Performance

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on what measures can be deployed to ensure water companies are performing adequately.

First, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for bringing the matter of ensuring that water companies are performing adequately before this House. I think we all agree that this is an incredibly important and serious issue. I have been clear that water companies’ current performance is totally unacceptable and that they must act urgently to improve to meet Government and customer expectations. The British people expect better and so do this Government.

We have committed to deliver clean and plentiful water, as set out in the environmental improvement plan, and we have set out clearly how water companies must deliver that. First, our strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the water company regulator, sets out four clear priorities for water companies to protect and enhance the environment, deliver a resilient water sector, serve and protect consumers, and use markets to deliver for our customers.

Secondly, we have set new duties, through the Environment Act 2021, on water companies to monitor their overflows and set new legally binding targets to restore our precious water bodies to their natural state by cracking down on harmful pollution from sewers and abandoned mines, and improving water usage and households.

Thirdly, the storm overflow reduction plan, launched back in the summer, requires the largest investment programme in water company history and builds on the existing statutory duties. Water companies already have a statutory duty to provide a supply of wholesome water under the Water Industry Act 1991 and associated water quality regulations. They must ensure the continuation of their water distribution functions during an emergency.

I will begin by addressing my right hon. Friend’s concerns, because she has been in touch. I appreciate the lengths to which she has gone to hold her own water company to account, particularly over the supply interruptions experienced by Southern Water’s customers following multiple emergency incidents back in December 2022. A more recent incident last week led to approximately 15,000 Southern Water customers being off supply for an extended period, as she will know. Although some supply interruptions cannot be avoided, the repeated failure to properly ensure customers’ continued water supply is totally unacceptable. I will be meeting with Southern Water’s chief executive officer to understand how it plans to address its failings.

The Government and their regulators hold water companies to account in a number of ways, particularly through transparent reporting and performance. As the economic regulator for the water industry, Ofwat tracks performance against performance commitments, which are set at the start of the funding cycle.

The current performance commitments were set for the cycle from 2020 to 2024 and include pollution incidents, treatment works compliance and supply interruptions. Ofwat assesses performance against each of those metrics annually and ranks the companies in the water company performance report according to whether the metrics have been achieved. It reported that five water companies were extremely poor. The Secretary of State and I met them to hold them to account and to make it clear that we need further progress—

Order. We are now a minute over—we are on four minutes. Can you do the conclusion to help us out? Just pick the last sentence.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to be clear that where water and sewage companies are found to be breaking the law, there will be substantial penalties. We have increased all our measures on those penalties, and we are looking at whether we will go ahead with the £250-million cap that has been proposed. We will be consulting on that shortly.

Water companies’ performance is not just about finances and Ofwat must not just be an economic regulator. It is about customer satisfaction, consistent supply, treating waste water, investment in networks, and making sure that our constituents have a clean drinking water supply all the time. In addition to compensation, customers need there to be better ways to hold water companies to account for significant outages, such as the three that we have seen in southern Hampshire in just five months, each of which lasted for days.

There is the ignominy of being in the Ofwat category of “lagging behind”, but that does not seem to have improved Southern Water or Thames Water, which have been in that category for two years running—shame does not appear to be effective. There are poor customer satisfaction ratings, but what do they change? There is a requirement to produce an action plan and targeted improvement plans, but by when, and what are the penalties for not delivering on them?

My constituents have gone without water to wash with, to drink, to cook with and to flush the loo with for days on end, with poor and in some instances misleading communications and without access to bottled water stations in my constituency. The only one was accessible on foot only, but water is really heavy to carry. They want significant fines for failure to supply, in the same way that there are significant fines for pollution. They want a requirement for emergency and back-up supplies to be available when parts of the network go down. Is it acceptable that if one part of the Otterbourne water supply works in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) is out of action, there is no provision to bypass the problem and continue supply?

Ofwat has said that it will push the “lagging behind” companies, but how hard, and what is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs doing to make sure that that happens? What is the penalty for not delivering on improvement plans? Last year, only 68% of the forecast improvement moneys were spent. At what point will DEFRA step in and recognise that the current situation is not working for the companies, the regulator or the poor customer?

We heard last week that there were plans to “water down” excessive fines, but a record £90 million was levied on Southern Water a few years ago, and that was not enough to convey the message. Rather than fines, can we therefore ensure that money is levied to force investment in the network, because current performance suggests that, so far, it simply has not worked?

I thank my right hon. Friend for reiterating the situation that we have just witnessed with Southern Water, which was completely and utterly unacceptable, particularly following the incidents in December. I have communicated with the chief executive and I am asking again for an urgent meeting as a result of the situation last week.

My right hon. Friend raises some pertinent points about holding water companies to account. She knows that there is a system whereby water can be credited back to the billpayers, and I urge that that will be looked at and followed up. She also asked about the action plans for different companies. The Secretary of State and I had the five worst-performing water companies in before Christmas to talk about their failures, including leakages. We are taking swift action against them: they all have to produce an updated action plan to say what they are doing.

We have done a great deal to ensure that there is enforcement, which is critical, because everybody wants water companies to be held to account for what they do. The Environment Agency already has powers to issue unlimited fines through the criminal courts, but that can take a long time, as my right hon. Friend knows. It also needs data, but because of all the monitoring that the Government are doing, we are getting more of that, so we will be able to take more enforcement action. DEFRA is currently consulting on plans to raise the cap on fines and to make it quicker and easier to issue fines when we know things are not working correctly.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this urgent question. She, like many of us, is absolutely sick and tired of the impact that sewage discharges are having on our streams, rivers, seas and local economies. They are devastating whole regions and devastating our coastlines. Frankly, we are here again with the same old excuses and the same old promises for action getting drawn out, but there is no action behind it. The water companies know they can laugh all the way to the bank because the Government will not take action, and the regulators know that the Government will not take action because they have taken away the capacity to take action from the regulators.

All the while, it is local people who are suffering—whether that is people being able to enjoy their local beauty spots and to take a walk down the river, or that is coastal businesses that are reliant on seasonal tourism to provide jobs and livelihoods to people. They are affected, not the Government, and what do we see? This year alone, when the Bank of England and the Government are telling hard-working people to rein it in and stop asking for pay rises, the water bosses are asking for 20% increases in salary. There is not a single thing the Government have said—in the environmental improvement plan or in anything said at the Dispatch Box—that sends out the message that things will be any different, and the water companies know that. They have already banked £66 billion in dividend payments and more will follow.

Labour does not want to sit on the sidelines and witness our country being turned into an open sewer. We set out at the Labour party conference in September a position that would clean up the water industry in this country, deliver value for money for consumers and bill payers, and finally work in the national interest, so when on earth will the Government get on and deliver Labour’s plan?

It is so easy to just stand there with no facts and no detailed information, and level an attack. I agree, as does the Secretary of State, that sewage in water, unacceptable leakage and so forth are not to be tolerated, and that is why we have set so many actions in train—more than ever before. We are taking more action than any Government have ever before on the water companies.

Do not forget that, since privatisation, the water companies have made a huge investment—billions of pounds of investment—in improving our water company infrastructure. Because of our new storm overflows discharge reduction plan, they are now committed to £56 billion of investment up to 2050, and £7.1 billion of that is already under way, including the Thames Tideway super sewer. A great deal of enforcement action is already taking place. Just in 2021, £121 million of fines were meted out to water companies. Because of the very detailed investigation now under way by Ofwat, the regulator, and the EA, we have more and more data and information to pinpoint where permits are being contravened and where water companies are not taking the actions they should be, and enforcement will follow. We are now consulting on a potential figure of £250 million to make sure we have a realistic and sensible fine that will really do the job in holding our water companies to account.

The Minister knows that the River Mersey flows through the middle of Warrington—she has been to see it for herself—and I was struck recently by the comments of a local resident who reminded me of the pink film that used to exist on top of the river. Much has been done to clear up our rivers. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is absolutely right that water company dividends are directly linked to their performance in providing services to their customers and in cleaning up our rivers?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. In 2019, transparency became much more critical in Ofwat’s holding the water companies to account, because it had to agree, in the price review, how much they should be spending on infrastructure to provide clean water and to ensure the supply. Ofwat has now been directed to ensure that water companies can demonstrate that payments to bosses and so forth are linked to environmental performance.

Does the Minister agree with the almost 209,000 voters who have signed a petition started by my constituents, SOS Whitstable, calling on the Government to at least consider renationalisation of the water companies? Profit-driven, largely foreign investors do not prioritise the cleanliness and economy of British beach communities or the way of life in constituencies such as mine? If the companies were answerable directly to the taxpayer, they might start to act at last.

The hon. Member forgets that since privatisation £120 billion has been invested by the water companies in the critical infrastructure that we need not only to provide clean and plentiful water but to ensure the supply, so I do not agree with her that we should be renationalising them. What we do need to do is hold them to account where they are doing wrong, but also enable them to continue to invest the £56 billion they are now required to spend to deliver our future water system, with our growing population and the demands of climate change.

The use of storm overflows is completely unacceptable, but does the Minister agree that the best way to tackle that is through enhanced monitoring, requiring a record £56 billion investment by the water companies, and the use of significant fines and criminal prosecutions? Does she also agree that the water companies should be in no doubt that they are in the last-chance saloon and that they and regulators must be held to account to deliver major improvements for our constituents?

I thank my hon. Friend for those sensible points. To be honest, it is because of the monitoring this Government have put in place that we now know what is going on. Under the Labour Government there was virtually no monitoring at all: in 2016, some 5% of storm sewerage overflows were being monitored; that figure is 90% now, and by the end of the year it will be 100%. We will also have to monitor upstream and downstream of every sewerage overflow outlet, so we will know exactly what is going on, and unacceptable behaviour will be acted upon.

Water bosses are actively allowing more pollution, because they know it is cheaper to pay the fines than to put in the investment, mend the leaks and stop the sewage. When will the Minister introduce the higher fines of £250 million that the Environment Secretary has pooh-poohed, and take the Environment Agency’s advice to put directors in jail if they fail? Will she give an undertaking that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will not get rid of all the protections from Europe, so that we do not have even more stools in our rivers and on our beaches?

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening earlier, he would have heard me say that we are consulting on plans to raise the cap on fines to £250 million, to make it quicker and easier to tackle enforcement. That will be a significant step, along with all the other measures we are taking, which I have clearly outlined, to hold the water companies to account.

The Minister knows the importance of water quality for my beautiful constituency of Southend-on-Sea and that the use of storm overflows has been completely unacceptable. I welcome the Government’s actions to ensure executive pay and dividends are linked to environmental performance, but she will know that the chief executive of Anglian Water earned £1.3 million last year, including a bonus of £337,651. I have asked him repeatedly for meetings but have still not got a date; will the Minister meet the CEO of Anglian Water with me so that we can understand his plan to stop storm overflows being used in Southend West?

My hon. Friend is a tremendous campaigner for Southend and I would be happy to meet with her and the head of Anglian Water to push that forward.

We have seen £2.8 billion in water company profits, £1 billion in shareholder dividends, and a 20% rise in executive water company pay, 60% of which has been in bonuses—in my book, bonuses are for doing a good job, not a terrible one. Meanwhile in Cumbria, the River Eden at Kirkby Stephen has had 101 days of sewage outflows, Swindale Beck at Brough has had 115 days, the River Eea at Cark and Cartmel has had 252 days, and Windermere lake at the heart of the English Lake district has had 71 days. All of that, outrageously, is legal. When will the Government force the water companies to clean up not only their act, but our lakes and rivers too?

If I might say, the hon. Gentleman is a fine one to talk. I believe the water Minister in the coalition was a Liberal Democrat: what exactly did he do? It is this Government who are taking action now on the water companies. This Government introduced the storm overflows reduction plan and, in addition to that plan and all the requirements it puts on the water companies, just this week the Secretary of State has asked that a plan be submitted for every single storm sewerage overflow, with water companies’ proposed actions clearly outlined.

Before Christmas, some 20,000 of my constituents were without water—last week, thousands were—and this clearly stems from a chronic lack of investment in infrastructure by South West Water, despite its balance sheet showing an ability to do so. Six weeks later, we have the same issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) has organised a meeting with the chief executive later, but one word not elaborated on is “compensation”. Will the Minister contact the CEO to press that point, and will the Government up their game not by asking water companies to invest in infrastructure but by forcing them to do so?

There is a clear compensation scheme, as my hon. Friend will know, and that will be being looked at by his water company. I urge him to press for that. If he wants my involvement in ensuring that that is properly understood and followed, I am happy to do that.

The same greedy water companies that are dumping sewage into our rivers and increasing people’s bills, ripping the public off, have handed out more than £50 billion to shareholders since privatisation. That is the reality. Is it not time that we had our water back in public ownership, rather than empty words from the Minister?

Clearly I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The water companies have invested billions of pounds since privatisation—£120 billion—and they will invest a further £56 billion up to 2050. That investment has already begun and Ofwat is going through the water companies’ new plans to agree what is necessary in the next price review. We must remember that what comes out of our taps is considered the cleanest water in Europe. We must also be mindful of the cost to bill payers. We have to balance a clean and plentiful supply of water with holding our water companies to account, while enabling customers to be able to afford the bills.

In Edgware ward in my constituency we have had a large number of new housing developments without a single improvement to the sewerage system. As a consequence, during heavy rain raw sewage comes out of the manhole covers on to the streets. Will my hon. Friend have a word with the planning Minister to ensure that before developments take place sewerage systems are improved to cope with the additional housing?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about housing supply and the suitability of our water supply system. I have been in close communication with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about all those related issues, which is why I am delighted that we have agreed that sustainable urban drainage systems will now be mandatory. That will make a great difference to our water system. Similarly, the amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will enable the upgrade to tackle phosphates produced by waste water treatment systems—after all, sewage comes from us—and make sure that what goes back into rivers is clean, so that we can have the clean water that we all deserve.

People in Lancashire know that we are lucky to live in an area with so many beautiful river walks by the River Wyre and the River Lune, but they are no fools—they can see their water bills going up as are the profits of companies such as United Utilities. At the same time, we are seeing higher discharges into our beautiful rivers. Can the Minister explain why she thinks the current system appears to be working just fine?

If the hon. Lady had been listening, I did say that pollution—which is a range, not just sewage but phosphates, nitrates and pollution from old mines—is unacceptable, and that is why we have set all the targets through the new environment improvement plan, with a trajectory for making the changes that we need. It is also why we have signalled through the regulator that performance and payment must be linked to environmental performance.

Can my hon. Friend assure me that more will be done to give out accurate information when water companies invest in making improvements and to ensure that campaigners have that information, rather than the Opposition’s fiction? Bathing water quality on beaches in North Devon is improving, following millions of pounds of investment, and our overflow usage halved last year and will continue to improve because of the work the Government are doing through our world-leading Environment Act 2021 and the storm overflows discharge reduction plan.

I thank my hon. Friend for that and I could not agree with her more. She is a strident campaigner for the beautiful environment in which she lives, and our bathing water status should be commended—72% of our bathing waters are classed as excellent and 94% as good. It is an extremely good record and we should be proud of it.

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, raw sewage was dumped in Britain’s rivers and seas more than 770,000 times. That is almost 6 million hours of pollution discharge. But, as we have heard, the pay of water company executives increased by a fifth, on average. Will the Minister force water companies to invest those profits into urgently upgrading the outdated sewage infrastructure—not ask them, not require more plans, but force them to do it? Will she look again at bringing the companies into public ownership so that money is properly reinvested, not siphoned off to shareholders? She does not seem to understand why people are so angry when water companies are swimming in cash while the rest of us are swimming in sewage.

I have said constantly that it is unacceptable that storm sewerage overflows have been used in contravention of permits. Let us not forget, however, that they were put there for a reason by the Victorians: heavy rainfall and sewage all goes down the same pipe and could back up in our loos, so storm sewerage overflows are there as an emergency precaution. It is clear that they have been relied on too much by water companies, and that is why the Government, having put in the monitors and got more data, can step in. We have launched the storm sewerage overflows reduction plan and the water companies are now committed to so much funding to put all the overflows into the correct operating position, concentrating first on areas near bathing waters and our wonderful protected sites and then all the others. There is now a clear plan of action against which to hold the companies to account.

The River Tame in my constituency is cherished by all the residents who live along it. The Tame valley is the jewel in the crown, but unfortunately the river is subject to regular pollution from several outlets, including chemicals as well as sewage. What more will the Minister do to work with United Utilities and—more importantly—to get the Environment Agency to tackle those companies that use the Tame as an open source to pollute?

The hon. Gentleman raises not only the issue of sewage but a whole range of issues. That is why the Environment Agency operates a permit system, why it has powers to take action to enforce, why we are looking at stronger enforcement through increased fines, and why we set targets under the Environment Act to tackle not just sewage but chemicals and the run-off from old and abandoned mines and to clear up whole stretches of rivers. I think—we met about this—that that applies to his particular area. It will take time—we cannot pretend things will happen overnight—but in fairness there is now a clear plan when under other Governments there was not.

The Minister may be aware that Thames Water is considering plans to draw out water from the river at Teddington in my constituency in times of drought and replace it with treated sewage. That can cause all sorts of havoc with ecosystems if it is not monitored and regulated properly. She will appreciate that my constituents and I have little faith in regulators when Thames Water is currently losing a quarter of its supply every day through leaks and avoiding fines because the targets set for it are just not strong enough. Will she look at strengthening those targets so that companies are more liable to fines and at cracking down on the eye-watering bonuses executives are raking in, which is forcing them to look at these sorts of damaging river abstraction plans when they should be fixing leaks?

The issue of leaks is important. We are tackling it and water companies have targets to cut leaks. In the 2019 price review, they had to cut leakage by 16% and reduce bursts by 12%. If they are not seen to be reaching their targets, Ofwat imposes penalties on them. Three companies are currently paying back £150 million because of leaks and supply cuts. So there is already a system in place and it needs to be adhered to. Water is a precious resource and we need all the water we can get, which is why it is so important to tackle leakage and not just tackle environmental performance in terms of bonuses. I agree with the hon. Lady that bonuses should be linked to environmental performance, and that is what we have directed Ofwat to do.

As the Minister will know, Cornwall is often at the coalface of the fight against sewage. When we had a leak in St Agnes a few months ago, one issue we found was that the investigation did not take place immediately and there was some ambiguity as to whether it was sewage or run-off. Can the Minister explain to the House what we are doing to ensure that when there is a problem we get the data as quickly as possible so that there is no further ambiguity?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. I think the incident she refers to turned out to be one of not sewage but soil. That is another issue we face and we now have targets to reduce soil sediment run-off. We do not want all that soil in our water; we need soil on the land because it is so precious. She is absolutely right about having the right data. Now, because of the increased monitoring that the Government have set under way, every storm sewage overflow will be monitored by the end of this year. It is a phenomenal project that has happened at great speed, ramping up over the last few years. It will provide us with the clear data we need, as well as monitoring upstream and downstream. Real-time monitoring will come into play. That is what we really need, so we can go on to a website, look at our home area and say, “That storm sewage overflow should not be emitting. It is not heavy rain. We have not had a massive downfall. It should not be emitting.” We will be able to go on there and truly hold the water companies to account.

I am sure the Government are well aware that the public are really upset about this issue. In my constituency people are very much disgusted by it and they do not see a market in operation. We had a 67% increase in discharges locally in the River Avon and River Leam. In Worcestershire, there was an increase of 80,000 tonnes of discharge into rivers which led to a £1.5 million fine for Severn Trent Water. Yet the chief executive got a 27% pay increase to £3.9 million. Can the Minister confirm whether chief executive pay is index-linked to discharges?

I am not going to disagree with the hon. Gentleman that the discharges are unacceptable, but I would also like to say that it is because of what the Government are doing and because we have made this such a priority that it has come to light—a great deal more than it did under previous Governments. We are taking action. It is now a top priority through all the measures we have in place. The strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the targets in the Environment Act and our storm sewage overflows reduction plan—all that cumulative work—will take us on the trajectory we genuinely want and need. We still have clean and plentiful water coming out of our taps. We should not underestimate the fact that that is what the water companies are also delivering.

The fact is that every two and a half minutes people can smell sewage and see the sewage in their rivers and on their beaches, yet water companies are laughing all the way to the bank. The best we can get from the Minister is that we now monitor it. It is pathetic, isn’t it, after 13 years of Tory government?

I clearly understand the concern among the public. I count myself as one of them. I have said many times, as have other Ministers, that sewage in water is unacceptable. But let us not mislead; let us get our facts straight. As I said earlier, 72% of our bathing water is classed as excellent and 94% is classed as good. That is a tremendous record that has been achieved under this Government. It has improved year on year and will continue to improve. All the actions the Government have put into place will tackle the issues the hon. Gentleman talks about. They will tackle unacceptable pollution all round, and that is what we need. It is about not just sewage but getting the right infrastructure in place—the £56 billion the water companies will be investing, required by this Government, and all the other measures, not least working with farmers on the pollution they cause, through our new slurry infrastructure grants and so on. A comprehensive and holistic programme is now in place, which was not in place under previous Governments.

Labour’s plan to clean up the water industry would include cutting sewage discharges by 90%, mandatory monitoring of outlets and automatic fines for discharges. Will the Minister enact it, for the benefit of Portsmouth people, with immediate effect?

There is already a comprehensive system of enforcement. As I said, we are now consulting on the £250 million potential cap and what might be the realistic cap, to really make a difference and put a stop to unacceptable pollution incidents.

The current arrangements are clearly not working. Last month, I asked the Minister if she thought that water regulation was fit for purpose. She replied:

“Yes…but many tweaks and improvements”

are needed

“to ensure that it is working properly.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 702.]

Let me give her another opportunity to answer the question. Does she really think that the current system of regulation for the water industry is fit for purpose?

We have a regulator. Its job is to regulate the water companies. The Government sent a very strong policy statement to Ofwat to direct the water companies on a whole range of measures, not least putting the environment at the top of the agenda but also enabling the supply we need for the future population, so we can all have the clean and plentiful water we deserve. We now have an extremely comprehensive plan in place to deal with that.

As the Minister knows, Wolvercote Mill Stream in Oxford became the second river in the country to get designated bathing water status. Can she therefore understand our frustration when the official designation for 2022 was poor and over the Christmas period 676 hours—nearly an entire month—of sewage was discharged upstream in Witney? Can she seriously say, in light of that, that she and the Government are doing enough? Why will she not set even stricter targets, especially in areas with bathing water status? Can she give a cast-iron guarantee to our community that we will not lose bathing water status because of lacklustre action by the Government?

As the hon. Lady will know, I visited that site, and indeed I even paddled in the water. She knows full well that the system we have introduced will help to clean up bathing water areas such as hers, and the monitoring that we have introduced both upstream and downstream will deliver the change that we need.

I am sure that the Minister does not want to mislead the House in any way when she talks about the quality of bathing water, but Yorkshire Water has told me that there is not one river in the United Kingdom that is fit to swim in, and that is a real mess. Have her Government considered—after 13 years—adopting a plan that Labour Members discuss frequently, namely, the introduction of a golden share in these companies with two directors, so that we can actually do something about the dreadful mess that we are in?

Talking of misleading the House, I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman gets his data. Let me reiterate what I said earlier: 72% of bathing waters are excellent and 94% are good, so a great many are extremely clean and wonderful to swim in. We now have a comprehensive plan for inland bathing waters, and we have gone out to ask whether people want to present proposals for further bathing waters. There is a strict protocol applying to how they reach the right standards and whether they are classed as fit to swim in. I urge the hon. Gentleman to have a look at the details.

The scale of the mismanagement of our nation’s water resources under the stewardship of the private water companies is far greater than that of the appalling disregard for our precious beaches and waters. Sir James Bevan has warned that much of the country is now staring into “the jaws of death”—the point at which we will not have enough water to meet our needs. Last summer demonstrated just how ill-equipped the water companies are to deal with protracted periods of extreme heat. Does the Minister agree that the most effective way of tackling water insecurity is to create an integrated publicly owned water supplier serving the whole of England?

In July 2021 several hundred properties in my constituency suffered a combination of surface and sewer flooding, some for the third or fourth time in 20 years, despite these being—according to Thames Water—one in 100-year or one in 300-year floods. Last week Thames Water wrote to the affected households saying that if their properties were at low risk, medium risk or even high risk and were subject to surface flooding, they would “not require a solution”. This constitutes appalling complacency and neglect on the part of Thames Water. What is the Minister going to do about it? In the words of my constituent Brendan Smith, Thames Water needs to be “held to account”.

The issue of the surface water flooding is serious. It is all related to the ground water table coming up and influencing the whole system. It is a complicated system, and the situation obviously needs to be addressed. Thames Water is investing a great deal in cleaning up its water; as the hon. Gentleman will know, it is the company that is putting in the super sewer. That scheme, which would never have happened without the Government’s support, is a tremendous model which I believe will be copied elsewhere and will make a significant difference. However, where Thames Water has contravened its permit, it will be held to account.

Earlier this month, along with some other Members, I received an email from Pennon Group, which owns South West Water, stating:

“we wanted to provide you with the most recent information so that you are able to have an informed debate”.

Does the Minister agree that what should inform our debate is the experience of our constituents, who are seeing their bills rise and sewage flood our waterways, and does she agree that water companies should be focusing on delivering a quality service to bill payers rather than quality lobbying of politicians?

South West Water is a one-star company. It is one of the worst-performing water companies. I have had its representatives in a number of times to look at its performance, and it has a clear plan of action for its trajectory to improve. We must hold its feet to the fire in that regard. Let me also say, however, that our friends the Liberal Democrats have been spreading an awful lot of misinformation about this issue—particularly in the south-west, where I come from—and independent fact-checkers have often found many of their claims to be false.

I thank the Minister for her responses to all the questions.

Given the increased pressure on the water system as a result of the increase in the number of power showers and spa-type waterfall showers—as well as the increase in the number of homes, which I consider to be another critical factor in what is happening—it is clear that our current infrastructure is not up to scratch. How will the Minister ensure that we do not sacrifice the balance between quality, as developers who are under financial pressure owing to the cost of living are looking for cheaper options, and the bare minimum where permissible?

The hon. Gentleman has broadened the debate by talking about the water supply issue as a whole. The Government are looking closely at the issue of water efficiency, because we must ensure that we use water wisely. We have consulted on mandatory water efficiency labelling. If we use water efficiently in our homes, with the help of the correct gadgets and the correct legislation from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we will use water better, and there could potentially be a beneficial impact on our bills. We must always think about the costs to bill payers, and about enabling them always to have the clean and plentiful water that they deserve.