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British Government u-turns on sewage penalties for water companies following backlash

Last week, MPs rejected placing a new duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into English rivers.

An activist protests at Downing Street against raw sewage dumping in the rivers and seas around the UK.
An activist protests at Downing Street against raw sewage dumping in the rivers and seas around the UK.
Image: Tayfun Salci

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT has u-turned by deciding to put legal duties on water companies dumping raw sewage in rivers across the country despite whipping Tory MPs to vote down similar proposals last week.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the Environment Bill “will be further strengthened with an amendment that will see a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows”.

The department said the amendment it would bring forward in the Commons would be “very similar to amendment 45”, which peers have been debating in the House of Lords.

The announcement comes after campaigners, including Surfers Against Sewage, said they were disappointed that 268 MPs – against 204 – disagreed with proposals to amend the bill to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers and demonstrate reductions in the harm caused by the discharges.

Sewage can be pumped out of the sewerage system and into rivers through combined sewer overflows – otherwise known as a storm overflow or release valve. The overflows are designed to release excess water following heavy rain or a storm to stop sewage backing up into homes.

Failures to reduce sewage discharges ‘unacceptable’

Huw Merriman, Tory MP for Bexhill and Battle, told BBC News on Tuesday: “We cannot have sewage being put into our seas. Our seas are unclean and unhealthy to swim in, and people’s lives are blighted because, when they see heavy rainfall, they then worry about sewage coming into their households.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said earlier today: “We completely agree that the current failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is unacceptable.”

The spokesman added that the amendment put forward “remains un-costed”, but “the initial assessments are over £150 billion and that would mean that individuals – every one of us as taxpayers – paying potentially thousands of pounds each as a result.”

Downing Street said that, as a result, “it’s not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers without understanding the trade-offs and the bills that would be involved”, but “tougher legal duties” are being placed on water companies and “we will continue to listen to MPs who have legitimate concerns”.

The u-turn

But this evening, the UK’s Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Earlier this summer, the government published a new strategy for Ofwat mandating them to progressively reduce the discharge of sewage from storm overflows in the next pricing review.

Following a debate in the House of Commons last week during the final stages of the Environment Bill, today we are announcing that we will put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause.

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MPs who voted against the amendment have been coming under fire from campaigners and Defra, which said it was unacceptable that raw sewage was put into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times in the last year.

The Shadow Defra secretary, Luke Pollard, said: “People are right to be upset at the dreadful state of England’s rivers. Not one English river is in a healthy condition and there has been zero improvement since 2016.

Pollard added: “It should not have taken a public outcry for this Government to take the scandal of raw sewage being discharged into our rivers seriously.

“Having spent the past few days defending their position, this screeching u-turn will do little to convince the public that the health of our rivers, rather than the health of Conservative polling, is at the forefront of ministers’ minds.

“The Government still has no clear plan and no grip on the issue of raw sewage being pumped into our seas and rivers.”

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