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Sewage Discharges

Volume 825: debated on Monday 14 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the reasons for the delay in water companies producing plans for dealing with sewage discharges.

My Lords, in August the Government published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan to tackle the unacceptable use of storm overflows. The plan will see £56 billion of capital investment over 25 years. We have allowed water companies slightly more time to develop their drainage and wastewater management plans to incorporate the new strict storm overflow targets. Water companies remain on track for developing their plans for the next price review period and for commencement on 1 April 2025.

That is a bit odd, because the water companies have already had all the money they needed for infrastructure improvements but did not use it for that; they gave it in dividends to their shareholders. The Minister knows that I like to help the Government if they are floundering around, confused and out of ideas, so perhaps I may suggest to his department that it instructs Ofwat to ensure that no dividends are paid to shareholders or large bonuses to senior executives until further notice, until this problem is fixed and water companies stop pumping sewage into our chalk streams and rivers and on to our beaches.

The noble Baroness will be aware of the very strict new conditions set by Ofwat on water companies about how they reward their senior staff and shareholders, and of the absolute imperative, driven by the regulators and the Government, to reduce massively the effect of storm overflows. The letter that Ofwat wrote in October sets out quite clearly that:

“Company plans on storm overflows are lacking”;

there is “insufficient evidence” to support the positions that they have previously taken; and there is a “lack of ambition” and

“a lack of focus and maturity in partnership solutions.”

We are therefore giving them an extra two months, from March to May, to come up with better plans, and we will make sure that they are implemented on the original timescale as the next price review period starts.

My Lords, I shall take a somewhat harder line than the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. When there are repeat offenders, we should not condone them but punish them. Surely the water company heads should be sent to jail, not have a gentle ticking off. Is it a lack of power on the part of Ofwat or a lack of willingness to do something about it? We cannot sit by as beautiful places like Lake Windermere are polluted beyond use.

The noble Lord will be aware of some very extensive fines issued to water companies. A £90 million fine was imposed on Southern Water recently. There are 100,000 reports a year to the Environment Agency of allegedly illegal outflows. Those are investigated and action is taken. The Environment Agency has taken severe actions against them. Those fines cannot be dumped on the customer; they have to be paid for out of what would have gone in dividends or indeed in pay.

My Lords, although I thank the Minister for his answers and I am pleased that Ofwat appears to be becoming more active, does he share my frustration and that of many others in this House that there has been so little progress since the passing of the Environment Act last year in reducing storm overflows and various other sewage discharges into our rivers? This seems to continue despite the efforts of the Government. We must introduce a greater sense of urgency about this matter.

I assure the noble Duke that there is a great sense of urgency in my department. It is an obsession of Ministers; my wife tells me I talk sewage all the time, but I may have misunderstood the point she was making. There is an absolute determination to resolve this matter. We have to recognise that it is not just water companies. There are point source and diffuse pollution incidents caused by farming, individual households with poor connections, poorly maintained septic tanks and individuals pouring chemicals, paints, oils and greases down drains—which they should not do. It is a much more complex issue than just water company bashing. Ministers are prepared to give water companies a bashing where it is necessary and that is what we are doing, in incentives and enforcement. It is absolutely vital that policymakers are looking right across the piece when it comes to the quality of our waterways.

My Lords, this is not just causing devastation in our rivers—not least in our wonderful chalk streams in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in my diocese—it is also a public health issue. Noble Lords may have seen the story of Jayne Etherington, a 22 year-old who went swimming in Pembrokeshire, caught E. coli from sewage and landed up in hospital with serious damage to her organs. What does the NHS think about this as a health hazard which is affecting a significant number of people and stopping them getting exercise by swimming in the sea?

The right reverend Prelate’s question is very well linked to the point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. The urgency of these matters is reflected in the urgency with which we are intending to deal with them. I would hate any noble Lord to be of the view that some of the dates in legislation, such as the Environment Act and in other measures to control this, mean that we are going to continue to allow pollution in the belief that it is suddenly going to drop off a cliff at the end. We are tackling the most important public health areas, such as bathing waters, the chalk streams that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned and the most precious environments—some of which have overlaying international designations. It is right that we have public health to consider, but we also have the health of our natural environment. We are tackling the problems where they are worst and where we can make the most difference as quickly as possible.

My Lords, the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, talked about the lack of progress and frustration. The Minister talked about the storm overflow reduction plans, but they are not due to be completed until 2050. This is hardly “urgency”. Why do the Government seem happy to crack down more heavily on environmental protestors than they do on environmental polluters?

The noble Baroness is usually much more devastating in her attacks than that. She knows that 2050 is a date by which we hope to see the problem completely resolved. We are going to move very fast on many of the areas where the problem is greatest. As for the idea that we are going to continue to leave this to future generations, that is not the case. The Environment Act is one of the most progressive pieces of environmental legislation anywhere. It has water quality at its heart. The drainage and wastewater management plans will be reviewed again in 2027 to see if our ambitions are being fulfilled. We can change them with government direction through the water regulators, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, to make sure that we are getting this problem sorted. It is not a question of making a decision between people gluing their fingers to a road and solving this. This is a problem we can solve now, and we are doing so.

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that water running off the roads into the combined sewers is contributing to sewage going into watercourses? Will he make sure that the highway authorities are held responsible for rainwater run-off?

My noble friend makes a good point. The recent outflow at St Agnes in Cornwall, which rightly had a lot of publicity, lasted for 10 minutes, and there may have been some sewage in it. After 12 hours of rain, the vast majority was probably soil run-off from farms and run-off from roads. We are bringing in measures to continue to improve farming policy and soil management, and we are putting a lot of resources into this. But she is absolutely right that highways authorities and others have responsibilities to make sure that we look at this holistically, not just in one particular sector.

My Lords, despite heavy fines, water companies carry on discharging sewage into our waterways. Communities affected by this practice are at their wits’ end. There is a danger to aquatic wildlife and children playing close to infected water. Fines do not appear to be a sufficient deterrent. I have heard the Minister’s reassurances, but surely the timeframe is far too long to solve this noxious problem.

I would like to know when the noble Baroness thinks we should precisely say we will end this. We have had a piece of research that says that we can resolve this in its entirety if clean water is divided from dirty water—but the water flowing off our roofs and driveways is going into sewers. If we do that, it would have an impact of £800 on the average bill, taking water bills from just over £400, or more than that, to about £1,230 a year. We have to think of people, particularly those who are nervous at a time of increasing household costs, and we have to get this right. It is easy to come here and say that Ministers should be doing more, faster. We are working really hard to resolve this problem, but we have to be mindful of people’s bills.