There is to be a vote on the Lords Amendments later today. However, due to personal circumstances which I informed the whips of a number of weeks ago, I am not available to be in the House of Commons this evening. I am pleased that this legislation is coming back to the House with Government support.
The Government will also be introducing its own amendment on the discharge of sewage as part of today’s proceedings and I understand this will receive support from both the Duke of Wellington and Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP.
The Duke’s original amendment was taken from Philip Dunne’s Private Member’s Bill.
It is both disappointing and counter-productive that we have seen the levels of vitriol in the public discourse, particularly social media, following the previous vote on this issue. Legislation is a process and amendments from the Lords are regularly taken on by the Government after some minor tweaks, having been initially rejected.
As part of this process Mr Dunne has been in discussion with Secretary of State George Eustice and Environment Minister Rebecca Pow to consider the text of the Government Amendment in Lieu, which had been referenced by Lord Goldsmith, seeking to ensure there was a legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of sewage discharges. This is what the amendment provides for, requiring water companies to reduce the impact of sewage discharges on the environment and public health (the latter being new and important for example for wild swimmers or canoeists).
The reason this will work as part of the Environment Bill, contrary to the claims of campaigners, is that it dovetails with the existing provisions in the Environment Bill for each water company to produce a statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plan every five years, which will set out how such reduction in sewage discharges will be achieved and funded. There is also a power of direction for government to direct water companies in relation to actions in those plans if they are not good enough.
Campaigner claims that the amendment weakens existing legislation are wrong. The water companies have an existing Section 94(1)(b) duty to treat sewage “effectually”, which has existed since 1991, and the new amendment does not replace nor override this duty.
The problem has been that EA/OFWAT have failed to use their existing section 18 powers (which remain and which provide the enforcement mechanism for this new duty) to enforce that duty over the last 30 years.
I hope that the publication of DEFRA’s new strategic guidance to Ofwat, due in January 2022 will require increase capital expenditure on water treatment during the next five year pricing period, 2025-2029.
We cannot fix 60 years of under-investment overnight with a blanket ban on sewage discharges - however much campaigners and we might wish.
It might be helpful to offer one example of the scale and timeframe which can be involved in the largest sewage infrastructure schemes:
Thames Water got planning consent for the Tideway Tunnel in 2014, construction commenced in 2016, completion into service is due in 2025. This is costing some £4.6bn, will be paid for by adding £19 per annum to each household bill in London. It will remove 37million tons of sewage out of the 39million tons legally dumped into the Thames by Thames Water.
I do hope this clears up some of the misconceptions from the last few weeks.
25th October 2021
Some constituents have contacted me about the Environment Bill votes. The reality about the vote is somewhat more complex and nuanced than has been alleged.
I am pleased that Ministers have amended the Environment Bill to help crack down on the pollution in our rivers, waterways and coastlines, to better tackle the harm that overflows cause.
I voted for amendments 46 to 48 regarding sewage overflows, which passed during Wednesday’s votes. These amendments tackle storm overflows through a new requirement for water companies to monitor the water quality impacts of their sewage discharges and publish this information, with the Secretary of State able to require publication of this information. This monitoring will drive action by water companies to reduce sewage discharges which do the most harm, to better protect the environment and public health. Water companies will also be required to publish near real-time information on when their storm overflows operate so the public are properly informed.
I also voted FOR parts of amendment 45 which introduced a duty requiring the Government to produce a plan for the reduction of both storm overflows and their harm as well as a duty to publish a report considering the costs and benefits of eliminating overflows entirely which will inform decision-making in this area. Potentially leading to the end of sewage overflows all together. Both actions are required before 1 September next year.
The Government will also undertake a review of legislation which would require Sustainable Drainage Systems to be constructed to higher standards on new developments, reducing the pressure on the sewage system.
Concerns have been raised that section 141A, tabled by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords, was removed from Amendment 45. Section 141A sought to place a new duty on sewerage undertakers in England and Wales to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.
This all sounds admirable, and indeed is something I support in principle. However, this amendment came with no plan as to how this can be delivered and no impact assessment whatsoever. The cost of implementing this, according to estimates announced by the Minister would be between £150 billion and £660 billion. The public finances are stretched already and £150 billion is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together, and £660 billion is well above what has been spent combatting the Coronavirus pandemic.
In extreme weather conditions the choice has always been between expelling sewage into waterways, something none of us want but sometimes must happen. Or allowing sewage to back up though drains onto our streets, into our homes and businesses, which is even more detrimental to public health.
Between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £3.1 billion in storm overflow improvements to reduce sewage discharges to our waters. This includes £1.9bn investment on the Thames Tideway Tunnel super sewer, as well as £1.2bn of other investment throughout England. £144m of this is new, additional investment as a result of a call to action from the Storm Overflows Taskforce.
All discharges by a water company require a permit issued by the Environment Agency. I know that these permits include necessary conditions which ensure discharges only occur under strict permitted conditions. Where discharges occur outside of these conditions, the Environment Agency investigates and takes appropriate action, which includes enforcement action if necessary. This action has resulted in more than 48 prosecutions against water companies in the last six years.
Most recently, Southern Water was fined a record £90m, the largest ever imposed on a water company, after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage into rivers and coastal waters. I would like to assure you that the Environment Agency will continue to take enforcement action against water companies which cause serious harm to our environment.
Therefore, I hope this explanation indicates that I fully support the highest standards of environmental protection and that the Government continues to raise standards and takes effective action against polluters.
There has been a significant amount of disinformation regarding these votes on the Environment Bill, with a lack of understanding of the legislative process and what it means to vote against an amendment. If an amendment is flawed, or unworkable, I cannot vote for it, even if I support its overall aims. I have always tried to be a pragmatist, and as a Member of Parliament I have a duty to ensure legislation is as clear and effective as possible.