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Environment Bill: Government U-turn to toughen laws on dumping raw sewage in rivers

·4-min read
Protesters take part in a paddle out, organised by Surfers Against Sewage (PA Wire)
Protesters take part in a paddle out, organised by Surfers Against Sewage (PA Wire)

The Government has performed a U-turn by deciding to put legal duties on water companies dumping raw sewage in rivers across the country.

It comes after the government provoked fury from environmental campaigners and social media backlash after whipping Tory MPs to vote down similar proposals last week.

Last week, MPs voted by 268 to 204 to disagree with an amendment to the Environment Bill tabled in the Lords which sought to place a new duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers and demonstrate reductions in the harm caused by the discharges.

Many who backed the Government in the original vote were targeted online by campaigners amid shock more wasnt being done to prevent the dumping of sewage.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced on Tuesday 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 are debating in the House of Lords.

The U-turn was seen as an eleventh-hour compromise before a fresh Lords vote on Tuesday on the amendments that could have sent them back to the Commons and mounted further pressure on the Government.

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.”

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.

To stop this happening, water companies are allowed to release the rainwater, and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, into the country's waterways.

The Environment Agency has reported that, in the last year, raw sewage was discharged into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) branded "unacceptable".

The Lords amendment was defeated last week after junior environment minister Rebecca Pow told MPs the Government already required water companies to draw up plans on how to reduce discharges of sewage.

Many who voted against the amendment defended their action, saying the proposal from peers would have bankrupted the water industry by placing huge infrastructure costs of between £150 billion and £650 billion on them.

On Tuesday Downing Street said it "completely agrees" that it is unacceptable for water companies to dump raw sewage in the country's rivers.

The spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson added that the amendment put forward by the Duke of Wellington "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".

Reacting to the Governemtn U-turn Labour's shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said: "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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