“One of the most important pieces of legislation coming forward under the Government is the Environment Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. This takes massive steps to improve our environment as well as helping us all to live more sustainably.
This is ground-breaking legislation and it is good to see this government taking these steps in areas that have long been neglected.
Two weeks ago we voted on amendments from the House of Lords to the Environment Bill, as well as on further Government changes to better protect our environment, including protecting our rivers from sewage pollution.
One of the amendments which I voted against was the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, which called for all sewage being put into waterways to immediately be made illegal. There were no costings attached to this amendment, it was just a statement, which I am sure we all agree with in principle.
There are 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.
Water companies have an existing 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 the Environment Agency and OFWAT have failed to use their existing powers, which will remain, to enforce that duty over the last 30 years.
Part of existing plans are that DEFRA will be providing improved strategic guidance to Ofwat, which is already due in January 2022, to require increased spending from water companies on water treatment over the next five years and beyond.
The Government cannot fix 60 years of under-investment from governments of all political persuasions overnight with a blanket ban on sewage discharges - however much campaigners and we might wish.
The latest Lords amendments to the Environment Bill have now come back again and I have voted in favour of Government Amendments that strengthen the measures in the Environment Bill to address sewage discharges by enshrining existing proposals in the Bill into legislation, to ensure there is a legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of sewage discharges, in particular to reduce the impact of sewage discharges on the environment and public health, which is important for wild swimmers. The Government amendment passed tonight goes further than the previous Lords Amendments proposed.
It is progressive and forward-looking for this Government to bring in the Environment Bill, but it is important that every step we take is practicable and deliverable.
It is upsetting but not surprising to see those with political agendas seek to hijack these progressive plans for their own agendas. Along with many other colleagues, myself and my office have had a barrage of abuse on social media and by email accusing us of among other things, voting to allow more sewage to be dumped into our rivers and seas, and blaming us for all subsequent releases, when in fact what we did was the opposite.
Those people who have taken up these issues either have not read or understood the proposals, or have chosen to deliberately misrepresent the situation, because we have not been able to immediately deliver the end outcome that I am sure we all want to see.
I remain an enthusiastic supporter of doing all we can to clean our waterways and seas and am committed to doing all we can to sensibly and realistically achieve this aim.”