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Sewage Discharges: East Devon

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

1. What steps her Department is taking to help reduce sewage discharges in East Devon constituency. (903648)

My hon. Friend will know, regrettably, of the poor environmental performance of South West Water, with the second highest number of pollution incidents in the country. That is completely unacceptable for his constituents, and South West Water can, and must, do better. Meanwhile, it is subject to an ongoing criminal investigation led by the Environment Agency, which must be allowed to run its due course.

The Conservative party and Government have brought in the toughest ever crackdown on sewage spills. We are holding failing water companies to account, including the one-star rated South West Water, which was fined £13 million last year, and rightly so. Does my right hon. Friend agree that South West Water must clean up its act and our water?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. South West Water continues to be a poor performing company, which is unacceptable. That is why I called in the worst performing water companies at the end of last year, including the chief executive of South West Water. Those companies must take urgent steps to significantly reduce their pollution incidents, and we will ensure that they continue to be held to account. That is why I have asked water companies to provide individual reduction plans for each of the combined sewer overflows.

Sewage discharged into the River Otter flows through east Devon and my neighbouring constituency. The Government have adopted a Liberal Democrat amendment to the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill, which will make water companies produce costed, time-limited plans to stop sewage discharges before they can borrow taxpayers’ money. Although I am pleased that the Secretary of State and her colleagues have adopted my amendment, I wonder why they did not think of it themselves.

I do not think it is the intention of the UK Infrastructure Bank to be investing in the water companies —that is not expected to be its purpose. The amendment—dare I say it?—was perfectly nice, and of course the Government were happy to recommend it. This is important. It has been an ongoing issue for some time, and Liberal Democrat people have been water Ministers as well. We need to face these issues, and the fact that stuff has not been tackled. I am pleased that this Conservative Government are getting a grip and making a much harder effort to ensure a reduction in sewage pollution incidents.

The Environment Secretary first said that it was not a priority to meet water bosses, and then she said that it was and that she really did care—or words to that effect. She then said that she would come forward with a plan and big fines, but there were no plans and no fines. She then said that there would be a plan, but that the water companies will do it, not the Government, and that there might be fines, but only if the water companies agree to that. We now discover that Ofwat has watered down the rules intended to hold water companies to account, actively removing any reference to the consideration of local communities and local economies. On a scale of one to 10, how does the Secretary of State rate her Government’s record on ending the Tory sewage scandal?

I have great confidence in the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who continues to meet water companies, as do I. If the hon. Gentleman goes back and looks at the record of the Labour Government, he will see that they failed to deal with the urban waste water initiatives. The European Commission contacted them, took action against them, and took the Labour Government to court for failing to deal with sewage. That is what happened; that is the real history. When the Conservatives and the coalition Government came into power, we started working on leaks and making strategic policy statements, and we started the monitoring. None of that happened under a Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman can spew out as much rubbish as he wants, but the reality is that the Labour Government did nothing about it. This Conservative Government are fixing it, making it harder, and that is what we will continue to do.

Oh my God. I have confidence in the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is doing a good job in very difficult circumstances to try to make progress, but I do not agree with the Environment Secretary passing the buck to a junior Minister, which is not on. Ultimately, those at the top take responsibility. It is high time the Secretary of State did just that.

I am proud of the Labour Government’s record. We had the cleanest water and the cleanest air since the industrial revolution. That is the Labour record, and it is a scandal that it was not built on further. The abuse of water does not stop there. Let us hear from the North East Fishing Collective, which had the door slammed on it on the scandal of crustacean die-offs on Teesside. It is concerned that livelihoods, jobs and generational pride have been impacted by the Government’s indifference:

“The entire fishing fleet in Hartlepool is finished. There’s no business left. They failed us when we begged them to listen, so now we will have to fight”.

I ask the Secretary of State, for the second time, to rate her Government’s performance on the water scandal that is polluting our country.

The hon. Gentleman should withdraw his earlier comments, because he has, perhaps unintentionally, misled the House. I hope he has the grace to withdraw.

Leading scientific advisers reviewed the crustacean die-offs, and it was published to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the House. We understand that a novel pathogen is the most likely explanation for what happened in the north-east. I continue to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, and I take this matter very seriously, but I am conscious that, unlike the Labour Government who in their responses to the European Commission denied that there was a problem and were successfully taken to court, this Government have continued to act and will continue to do so.