December 7, 2021

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Water companies will face ‘legal duty’ to minimise raw sewage dumping in Government U-turn

A legal duty for water companies to minimise the amount of raw sewage dumped into rivers will be imposed, the Government has said, in a major U-turn.

Ministers have been taken by surprise by the strength of voter backlash to disputes in Parliament over aspects of the Environment Bill, intended to revamp environmental regulations post-Brexit.

The bill introduces some measures intended to monitor the pumping of untreated sewage into rivers, but last week Tory MPs voted to gut an amendment that sought to go further and “place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers”.

Ministers say that sewage from storm overflows must sometimes be discharged to prevent it from backing up in customers’ homes, with the cost of entirely eliminating the issue – a relic of the UK’s ageing sewerage system – estimated to be more than £150bn.

By contrast, critics say that irresponsible private water companies dump untreated sewage far too regularly due to under-investment, while Brexit-induced shortages of water treatment chemicals has led the Environment Agency to authorise companies to “discharge effluent without meeting the conditions” of their permits.

The 268 MPs who obeyed the Government whip have seen a flood of complaints from constituents on the issue.

On Tuesday, environment minister Lord Goldsmith announced a U-turn after the House of Lords voted to reject the wording supported by MPs.

Lord Goldsmith told the chamber that claims Tory MPs supported the dumping of sewage into waterways are “factually incorrect”.

But having listened to concerns, he added: “I am absolutely delighted to confirm that the Government will bring forward an amendment in lieu in the Commons at the next stage.

“It will place a direct legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of storm overflows.”

The minister said that while the Government cannot accept the original amendment as initially proposed, “I can absolutely assure members the Government’s amendment in lieu will deliver the same action, in reducing sewage discharges into our rivers.”

An activist sits on a toilet at the entrance to Downing Street to protest against raw sewage dumping in the rivers and seas around the UK
An activist sits on a toilet at the entrance to Downing Street to protest against raw sewage dumping in the rivers and seas around the UK (Photo: Frank Augstein/AP)

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the amendment will “enshrine in law” the expectation that water companies must take steps to “significantly reduce storm overflows”.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said in a release: “Earlier this summer, the Government published a new strategic policy priorities for Ofwat and the water sector asking them to significantly 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.”

Lord Goldsmith also criticised opposition figures who had sought take advantage of the issue with “misinformation”.

Addressing the former Labour minister Lord Adonis, he said: “In this debate on sewage, he has absolutely covered himself in the stuff and so shame on him.”

The bill will now return to the Commons, after peers defeated the Government by 213 votes to 60.