With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 45, and Government amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendment 65, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 66, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 67, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (e) in lieu.
Lords amendment 94, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 95, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 46 to 63, 71 to 74, and 91 to 93.
As we turn to amendments focused on the protection of nature, I would like to remind the House of some of the significant changes that the Government have made to the Bill since its introduction, which I hope hon. Members support. We have extended the requirement for biodiversity net gain to cover nationally significant infrastructure projects, which ensures that new nationally significant infrastructure projects, such as new roads, railways or airports, must contribute to our vision of a nature-positive future. That will also enable the Government to extend net gain to major projects in the marine environment once a suitable approach has been developed.
We have added a power to increase the period for which habitat must be maintained beyond 30 years across the whole net gain policy. The Secretary of State must keep under review whether the period could be increased. We have made it a legal requirement for the Government to produce guidance on how local planning authorities should have regard to local nature recovery strategies.
I turn to storm overflows. All the detail that I am about to outline demonstrates an absolute commitment to tackling the environmental harm caused by storm sewage overflows, on which we have taken significant action. Lords amendment 45, the majority of which has been put forward by the Government—I urge hon. Members to look at it—introduces an entire new chapter to the Water Industry Act 1991 on storm overflows to address that. It places a statutory requirement on the Government to produce a plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and their adverse impacts before
The Bill already places a duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis, so this is available and accessible to the public. Crucially, the Bill also introduces a statutory requirement on sewerage companies to produce drainage and sewerage management plans, in which they will fully assess their network capacity and adopt a strategic approach to planning. This will deliver a resilient sewerage system addressing current and future risks and issues, such as population growth and climate change over a 25-year period, because we all know that those things are affecting this system.
I certainly support the direction of Lords amendment 45. However, I want to ask the Minister why she is omitting lines 7 to 14 of the original amendment introduced by the Duke of Wellington in the other place, which would put a legal duty on water companies to take immediate action to tackle sewage pollution and so forth. Why has she taken some of the teeth out of this amendment?
I hear what the hon. Member says, and for once I am really pleased that she almost supports what we are doing. I am outlining what we have put into the Bill since it was last here to demonstrate how we will be reducing the harm from these sewage storm overflows. The cumulative impact of all this will be to actually address the issue that we all so want to address. Crucially, we will have sewerage management plans in which water companies will have to explain and detail how they are going to be delivering a resilient sewerage system. We expect those plans to include considered actions for reducing storm overflows and their harm in line with the ambition set out in the Bill.
As there is a lot of concern about this on both sides of the House, can the Minister give us some encouragement about what pace of change we can look forward to under her proposals? I think people want some reassurance that this is going to be tackled quite soon.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that, and honestly, people are coming up to me left, right and centre about this. I feel as strongly about it as everybody else, so I am so pleased we have got this into the Bill. I have to say that a lot of it is thanks to working with my right hon. Friend the Member for—[Hon. Members: “Ludlow.”] I have been to Ludlow, but I have a lot of data in my head! I think my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne would agree that we have worked unbelievably constructively to get what was going to be in his private Member’s Bill into this Bill, which is absolutely the right thing to do. I hope we are demonstrating that this is happening quickly. For example, we are requiring water companies to put in monitors above and below every storm sewage overflow to monitor the data. They will have to start that right now, because the sewerage plans coming forward in the Bill are already under way.
The Minister will know that I am one of the people who keeps talking to her about this, and I pay tribute to her for all the work she has done on it. Yes, there are all these duties to report, to produce plans and so on, which is great, but should there not also be a duty on the water companies to actually do something, rather than just to report on what they have or have not achieved? If amendment (a) to Lords amendment 45 succeeds, will she consider whether it is possible to have a more tightly drawn, concise and effective duty on water companies?
We have been speaking about this. I hear what my right hon. and learned Friend is saying, and I am listening. I am going to say that there is a dialogue, but I will leave it at that. However, there is so much more that will help with this issue, and the wider issue of water pollution, than what is in this Bill. I think he would agree that there are a lot of water issues to be dealt with that the water companies will be held to account for. One of the very strong things we are doing, which is not in the Bill, is producing our draft policy statement to Ofwat, the regulator. For the first time ever, we have put at the top of the agenda that it will have to get the water companies to address storm sewage overflows. I think we would all agree that they are necessary in an emergency, but they have been used far too frequently. I hope by all of this we are demonstrating what are doing, and that is why I am taking so long going through it. It has not started right now—well, not all of it—but when it does start, it will make a huge difference to the progressive reduction of harm.
As has been said, it is great to hear about these plans, and we have been hearing about them for some time. Once we set aside all the blurb and the peripheral extraneous issues being outlined, are there any targets or deadlines? When will all English rivers be sewage free?
I would argue that it is not blurb. The way we direct such changes is through policies such as these, and they will start to happen immediately. Water companies are totally aware of the policies, and through such measures we will cut down on harmful sewage storm overflows. Under the Bill we must also set a range of water targets. We have set up the storm overflows taskforce, which will report early next year on what the target should be for elimination. We will also have targets in other important areas of water quality, including phosphates, nitrates, waste water—all those areas are important and will be tackled. That is coming down the tracks imminently.
The Minister is bringing in a fantastic Bill, but it is sad that we are not implementing the measures that my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne brought before the House in his private Member’s Bill. They would have made it illegal to have sewage discharges after a certain date. The question “when?” is the right one, and the balancing argument is about how much it would cost, and how much it would add to consumers’ water bills. Does the Minister have that data? Do we know how much would need to be invested in each water area, and how much that would impact on bills, so that we can quantify how long it would take to do at a reasonable pace? That is what we need to know. Perhaps there will be a compromise on this issue, but at the moment I am afraid I am likely to follow my right hon. Friend into the Lobby in support of the Lords amendment.
I thank my hon. Friend. This is an important issue and we have thought about it. The Government will come back and report on the costs and benefits; we are doing a whole analysis of that. As an approximate estimate, to get rid of or eliminate storm sewage overflows would cost between—these are very wide figures—£150 billion and £660 billion. One must consider the cost of bills, because there will be an impact on those. That is why I made the point earlier that a lot of other areas in connection with our rivers and our water are really important. We must also deal with those, and it must be proportionate. My hon. Friend is right, and we will soon have the data from our storm overflows taskforce, and from our duty to report on what the cost benefits would be of completely eliminating storm overflows. Such things are used far too frequently, but they are also an emergency measure that should potentially always remain, just in case we have to deal with huge floods.
Another area of work that needs to be done—we are doing it—involves levelling up and what was MHCLG but is now DLUHC, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities,. It is about sustainable development and what we do with drain water, all the rest of the water, and separating out our systems. This is a cross-departmental issue, and we are tackling some really important matters in the Bill.
The Bill also requires us to set and achieve at least one target in the priority area of water. Our policy paper, which was published in August 2020, set out the objectives for the water targets we were considering. Those include reducing pollution from agriculture, waste water, abandoned metal mines, and reducing water demand. All those issues are significant to the whole area we are talking about.
Outside the Bill, we have committed to undertaking a review of the case for implementing schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in England. That schedule would set mandatory build standards for sustainable drainage schemes on new developments, which so many people have been calling for. Those are not mandatory at the moment, but to really have an effect, they need to be. We are reviewing that and, based on what we find, we will be working with DLUHC on that very issue.
We have moved further; with Lords amendments 46, 47, and 74, we will require water companies to do near real-time reporting of storm overflows and water quality monitoring upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works so that we have fully transparent data. People called for transparency of data in the debate on the previous group of amendments, and we will have it in relation to the impact of those things on our waters.
The first part of Lords amendment 45, new section 141A of the Water Industry Act 1991, was introduced in the other place by the Duke of Wellington and seeks to place a duty on sewerage undertakers to progressively reduce the harm from storm overflows and to ensure compliance with that duty. We have listened carefully to Parliament and, as I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow will agree, we have moved on this matter more than anything else in the Bill. I hope that I have made clear everything that we are bringing forward.
That is not to say that we are not listening; we are. I am confident in all the things I have outlined, together with the draft policy statement for Ofwat, which states that we expect it to
“incentivise water companies to significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows.”
That is the pointer for the water companies really needing to work on this issue. I know that a group of colleagues from the Portsmouth area are banking on that. They are working with the water companies in the area on pollution issues. They have brought all the bodies together in a partnership to tackle their sewage overflow issues, and they need what is in the Bill to point them in the right direction. We have their full support, and I commend them for all the work that they are doing. There is a whole group of colleagues doing that.
We have been clear that we want to see fewer discharges of untreated sewage into rivers, lakes and seas. I am personally determined to see that happen, and I am really proud of the actions we are taking. Lines 7 to 14 of Lords amendment 45 are therefore unnecessary, and I ask the House to support amendment (a) to leave them out.
There are a number of sewage works on the River Wharfe upstream of my constituency, in the constituency of Robbie Moore—I see that he is in his place—and we both have bathing water quality issues because of that. It would be useful to know, using the example of Portsmouth that the Minister gave, how the Bill will help us unlock that with Yorkshire Water to ensure that people are not bathing, in effect, with effluent, which is what happens nearly every day on the River Wharfe.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was proud to be part of getting bathing water designation in Otley. It is the first inland bathing water area that we have designated—we have loads around the coast—and it was a great project. However, he makes a good point, and when we are setting targets for water quality, the bathing water quality issue will very much be part of that.
I turn to Lords amendment 43, which would require that pesticide use in Great Britain can be authorised only if a competent authority is satisfied that there will be no negative effect on the health of honeybees or wild pollinator populations. I am as keen a supporter of bees and pollinators as anyone else here; I garden for wildlife and I do not use pesticides. I listened very carefully to the debate on this issue in the other place, but I am confident that there is effective regulation of pesticides to avoid harm, including to pollinators. We have consulted on a draft national action plan on the sustainable use of pesticides, which aims to minimise the risks of pesticides to human health and the environment. We will publish a final national action plan for pesticides by the end of this year. Central to the plan will be support for integrated pest management. We are supporting a shift towards greater use of IPM techniques. IPM involves designing pesticides out of farming systems as far as possible and includes increased use of nature-based, low toxicity solutions and precision technologies to manage pests, all of which will benefit pollinators.
Our wider action under the national pollinator strategy includes restoring and creating habitats for pollinators to thrive, raising awareness across society so that people can take action themselves; and supporting monitoring and research to improve our understanding.
I just have a very quick question. It is important that the farming sector and the industry understand pesticides and co-operation in farming, as that happens every day. What discussions has the Minister had with the National Farmers Union, for example, to work alongside it and ensure it does not have any issues?
We work incredibly closely with our farmers. We could not do any of what we are trying to do without bringing our farmers on board. After all, they manage, own or run at least 70% of the land. Many are already doing good really work on integrated pest management. With some of our new grants we have launched for innovation and tech in particular, we will be working with them to go further down this road, especially through our environmental land management scheme, sustainable farming incentive and so on.
Our healthy bees plan 2030 sets out how we will work with beekeepers and bee farmers to improve honeybee health, and we are improving our understanding, including by supporting a national pollinator monitoring programme. Alongside all that, current pesticide legislation requires that pesticide products and their active substances have
“no unacceptable effects on the environment…having particular regard to its impact on non-target species” which includes impacts on bees and other effective pollinators such as hoverflies, moths and beetles. Risk assessments made for active substances are subject to public consultation and establish the key risks posed by pesticides. We continue to make decisions on pesticide use based on scientific risk assessment.
Turning to Lords amendment 65, biodiversity loss is a defining challenge for our generation and we must act now. This landmark Bill ramps up domestic action, including a requirement to set a legally binding target to halt species decline in England by 2030. The powers under clause 113 and 114 form an important part and support the ambition for domestic nature recovery. We will bring forward a nature recovery Green Paper before the end of the year, which will set out our approach to driving nature recovery in England. It will include consideration of the scope to amend the habitats regulations, as well as broader exploration of our approach to site designations and species protections.
In adapting our approach to nature conservation, I agree we must maintain and enhance protections. The powers have been tightly drafted and already contain strong safeguards. In exercising those powers, the Secretary of State must: have regard to the particular importance of furthering the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity; be satisfied that the changes do not reduce the level of environmental protection provided currently by the habitats regulations; and test this with Parliament and secure its approval through a vote. To be satisfied that there has been no reduction in protections, the Government have also publicly committed to consulting with the office for environmental protection and Government statutory nature advisers. We also remain bound by international nature conservation law and committed to those obligations. Therefore, I see no need for the amendment and I urge the House to oppose it.
Turning to Lords amendments 94 and 95, our world-leading due diligence measures will help to tackle illegal deforestation in supply chains by prohibiting larger businesses operating in the UK from using certain forest risk commodities, produced on land illegally occupied or used. Forest risk commodities are associated with wide-scale conversion of forest. Examples of those commodities include beef, cocoa, leather, soya, rubber and palm oil. This comes as the UK prepares to lead by example at COP26 in two weeks’ time.
Does the Minister not accept that legal deforestation is becoming as much of a problem as illegal deforestation? If it is deforestation per se of the Amazon, that is a bad thing. Bolsonaro is relaxing the rules in his country, and it is happening in other countries in the region as well, and as a result we are increasingly seeing products entering our supermarket supply chains that are linked to deforestation—there was a story last week about cheese being sold in UK supermarkets. That is bad regardless of whether the Government of the country authorised it or not.
I thank the hon. Lady and take her point, but we have to work with other Governments to bring forward our legislation. Many of these countries—Brazil is a specific example—have protections but, in many cases, are not upholding them. This Bill will have an effect, if we can demonstrate that they are not upholding their protections and our products are coming from there. That all has to be in a transparent survey, and data has to be recorded by businesses, so the onus will actually also be on them, because they do not want to be seen to be selling products that are causing deforestation. We have worked extremely hard to get that provision into the Bill and we believe that it will help to make a difference on this issue.
Given the pioneering nature of the policy, we have included a statutory requirement for a review every two years to make sure that the policy is delivering as intended and that the things that are happening, exactly as the hon. Lady suggests, do not happen. However, conducting a review after just one year of the requirements coming into force, as the amendments require, does not provide sufficient time to understand the policy’s effectiveness.
Some months ago, my hon. Friend gave very generously of her time, with officials, to talk to my constituent Jim Bettle about the timber regulations, as she will remember. Can she say when the review of the UK timber regulations is envisaged, because that neatly ties in with what she is talking about?
Yes. My hon. Friend’s constituent came specifically to talk about charcoal and those issues. We have our timber regulations already in place to deal with illegal deforestation. I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact date for any review of that, but I can get back to his office with further details, if he would like.
In simple terms, in respect of the amendments, there would be not be enough data to understand how the legislation impacts against our policy objectives in one year and businesses would just be submitting their first report on the due diligence exercise. We will instead need to focus our efforts in that vital first year on ensuring effective implementation and enforcement and making sure that regulated businesses understand and are meeting their responsibilities under this legislation. That is critical to the regulations having their intended effect.
As well as having deforestation goods enter the supply chain in the UK from the Amazon in Brazil, which is of vital importance, they are also coming from West Papua, Borneo, Indonesia and the Congo river basin, and a lot of it is legal, as my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy said. We are seeking trade deals around the world. He do we ensure that businesses and Governments understand their obligations in the trade deals to ensure that we do not have further deforestation not just in Brazil, but in other countries?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Obviously, our businesses will have an obligation under what we set in our Bill, but equally, there is a whole session devoted to this at COP26, discussing exactly the issues that he raises in the wider sphere of agriculture and forestry across the globe. I urge him to follow what happens there.
On Lords amendment 66, I am very pleased to announce that we will be taking action on ancient woodland, thanks to the persuasive arguments put forward by Baroness Young of Old Scone, who has been a champion for ancient woodland, as have many Members of this House. I also put on record the Government’s thanks to the Woodland Trust for its partnership and support in updating the ancient woodland inventory. It continues to champion the need for a detailed and up-to-date inventory of this irreplaceable habitat, which is much needed; I thank the trust for stepping in to do that work. It is music to my ears particularly, because I set up the all-party parliamentary group on ancient woodland and veteran trees with the Woodland Trust when I first came to this place as a Back Bencher. I know that the Secretary of State is also passionate about ancient woodland.
I can also announce that we will undertake a review of the national planning policy framework to ensure that it is being correctly implemented in the case of ancient and veteran trees and ancient woodland. Should the review conclude that implementation can be improved, we will look to strengthen the guidance to local authorities to ensure their understanding of the protections provided to ancient woodland.
Secondly, I am pleased to announce that we will consult on strengthening the wording of the national planning policy framework to better ensure the strongest protection of ancient woodland, while recognising the complex delivery challenges for major infrastructure.
Finally, we will amend the Town and Country Planning (Consultation) (England) Direction 2021 alongside these reforms to require local planning authorities to consult the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if they are minded to grant planning permission for developments affecting ancient woodland.
What it will mean is that, yes, there will be much more credence given to the value of ancient woodland. At the moment, ancient woodland does not necessarily win, because one can have the infrastructure, or whatever it is, if one can demonstrate that there are wholly exceptional reasons for getting rid of the ancient woodland. This approach will really strengthen the position: it is a really big commitment to ancient woodland, which is like our rainforest. We have to do something about it—and we are, which I hope will be welcomed.
Although I must ask hon. Members to reject Lords amendment 66, I hope that they will support our approach and my announcement today, which will deliver effective action to protect our precious and irreplaceable ancient woodland.
The intention behind Lords amendment 67 is to introduce additional formality to the process for entering into conservation covenants and to require such agreements to contain specific terms. There is a balance to be struck: conservation covenants must be flexible tools and straightforward to create, but they must also be robust. It is important that they are not entered into lightly or without due consideration and forethought—sounds a bit like a marriage contract, doesn’t it?
Having reflected on concerns raised in the other place, and with particular thanks to the Earl of Devon, we acknowledge that an additional layer of formality when entering into conservation covenants would provide some reassurance to landowners. We therefore propose an amendment in lieu to require that conservation covenant agreements be executed as deeds. Government guidance in this space will also be drafted to provide clear support on the relevant formalities required for conservation covenants.
I hope that hon. Friends and Members will support our proposals. I look forward to their contributions.
Before I start, I want to send condolences and thoughts on behalf of Plymouth to Sir David Amess’s family, his staff and his community. We have seen our fair share of tragedy over the summer in Plymouth, and Plymouth stands with Southend at this time.
We are in the middle of a climate and ecological crisis, and we need bolder and more urgent action if we are to address it. When this Bill was first debated in the Commons—which seems a very long time ago, because it was—I described it as bland, a bit beige, “a bit meh”, as I put it. It does make some difference; there are some good bits in there; but it does not rise to the scale of the crisis that we are facing, and it needs to. It smacks of the dreary managerialism and the pedestrian pace that have overtaken DEFRA in recent years. I want to encourage the Ministers to find more ambition and more urgency with the measures they are introducing, which is why I want to focus now on the hard-won gains from the Lords on bees, water, habitats and trees.
I bloody love bees, Mr Deputy Speaker. That was picked up by the Evening Standard when I said it at a fringe event during the Labour party conference, and I hope it is a sentiment shared by many other Members on both sides of the House. Because we all love bees, I think it worth noting that we need proper measures to protect our pollinators. I should declare an interest at this point: my family keep bees on their farm in Cornwall.
Since 1900 Britain has lost 13 out of 35 native bee species, and we risk losing more if we do not take action to protect them, in particular, from bee-killing and bee-harming pesticides. They are essential to the future of our planet, to pollinating our crops and to the rich tapestry of biodiversity that we have as a nation, but the loss of bees has become symbolic of the decline in nature in our country. Lords amendment 43 inserted a new clause to regulate pesticides, and proposed that the use of pesticides should be assessed on how they impact our pollinators. It is amazing that the impact of pesticides on pollinators is not already assessed before approvals are given. This is a simple amendment that could have a positive effect on bees, and I am disappointed that the Government do not see the value in it.
When the Bill was last here, Labour tabled an amendment to ban bee-killing pesticides, but sadly the Government whipped Tory MPs to vote against it, and I suspect that that will happen again today. The chemical approval system that Ministers seek to protect is far too secretive and not transparent enough. If it is to be robustly defended by a Government three-line whip, I urge Ministers to look more carefully at how it can be made more transparent, clearer and more environmentally friendly. I know that there is concern about this issue on the Tory Back Benches, and I encourage those Members to continue to put pressure on their Front Bench. We need to ensure that our farmers are able to support and protect their crops, but we need to protect our pollinators at the same time.
Let me now turn to a matter that shames our nation: the state of our rivers. Not one English river is in a healthy condition, not one meets good chemical standards, and only 14% meet good ecological standards. The state of our waterways has not improved since 2016, five years ago. England has the worst river quality in Europe. The World Wide Fund for Nature reports that rivers in England are “used as open sewers”, and that targets for 75% of them to be healthy by 2027 are “very unlikely” to be met. More recent research has found that the rate of unlawful discharge of sewage into waterways could be up to 10 times higher than the rate suggested by the Environment Agency’s prosecutions.
It will be impossible to have clean rivers with the pedestrian approach that Ministers are currently taking, which is why the cross-party concerns that we have heard during this debate and throughout the passage of the Bill should be taken more seriously. However, it is not only Ministers who are to blame for the poor state of our rivers; we must hold water companies responsible too. Research by The Guardian has found that raw sewage was discharged into rivers across England and Wales 200,000 times in 2019, for a total duration of 1.5 million hours. I think we would all have sympathy with the Minister’s argument that in extremis, in the event of severe weather, raw sewage discharges into rivers should be permissible, but we need to ensure that that happens only in extreme circumstances. This is a daily, regular, continual occurrence, and it is unacceptable.
Would my hon. Friend agree with me and my beleaguered constituents in Whitstable that this is not an unusual occurrence, and that it is happening more and more frequently? On the Whitstable coast, for example, it is ruining the lives of kayakers, sailors and swimmers and ruining the tourist industry. The removal of the lines in the amendment that have teeth would be a real disappointment.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. As a regular wild swimmer myself, I recognise that this is a concern not only to people who swim in our nation’s rivers but to those who value their biodiversity. I think that the Minister has underestimated the strength of feeling in this area.
There is a way through this, however. There is a route that could result in progressive improvement in the reduction in the number of raw sewage discharges, that could simultaneously collect the required data and that could protect our environment without big increases to bills, with appropriate investment and a sense of urgency from Ministers. There is a route for that, and I suspect that further compromises will be necessary on this point when the Bill returns to the House of Lords and then comes back to us. I do not think we are yet done with this.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the key is to focus the big water companies on this issue? They have significant resources; they are large, wealthy businesses. Many people use our rivers, including many residents in Reading who live next to the Thames, the Kennet and the Loddon who are affected by this and very concerned about it. We are downstream of a number of effluent emissions, and people want to see real action from Thames Water.
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly good point. People want to see action. This is not something that concerns only politicos; the public want to see proper action as well. We need to put pressure on the Minister to do the right thing, and I am afraid that more pressure will be put on her on a cross-party basis. What she has announced is a step in the right direction, but it does not reach a compromise that is acceptable. We also need to put pressure on the water companies. Water companies such as Southern Water have presided over huge amounts of discharge into our natural environment, but it is not just those companies. Southern has had an enormous focus as a result of its huge fine for deliberately venting sewage into the sea, but we need every single water company to step up. To achieve that, we need pressure from the companies’ shareholders to do so and also pressure from Ofwat.
Ofwat needs to prioritise action to deal with raw sewage outflows into our rivers much more in the business plans. If it is not incentivised or required to do that, it will not do it. That is the power the Secretary of State and the Minister have over water companies under this privatised system. They have the power, but they are choosing not to use it to put in the investment that we need. That is why we need to see further improvement on this amendment, and I suspect that there will be further improvement on it, but I would also encourage the Minister to find a good answer to the question that was posed by my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi:
“When will all English rivers be sewage free?”
That seems a simple question, and our constituents want to know the answer. If she cannot provide the answer, we must recognise that there is a bigger problem here that we need to look at.
Turning to habitats, I am proud that the British people have an ambition to protect the environment. All of us are here reflecting the views of our constituents who want to see more action to protect the environment. Not everyone knows how much carbon is emitted from their community on a daily basis, but we all recognise how many trees there are and the volume of the birdsong chorus in our communities. Nature matters. Dr Andy Purvis from the Natural History Museum has said that the UK has
“led the world in degrading the natural environment.”
We only have half our biodiversity left as a nation; we have lost an awful lot of species and habitats and we cannot risk losing any more.
The habitats regulations, which are the first line of defence in providing strict protections for the UK’s finest wildlife sites and endangered species, are so important, yet clauses 113 and 114 essentially give the Secretary of State the freedom to do what he likes with those regulations. He is required only to “have regard” to the need to enhance biodiversity when making changes, but “having regard” is not sufficient when we are in a climate and ecological emergency. That is why we are seeking to protect Lords amendment 65, which would ensure that powers to amend these regulations did not weaken their important environmental protections and could be used only for environmental improvement. I struggle to understand why anyone would not agree with the case that the Lords have made on that.
The public want to see us protect our forests and woodlands, and they want to see us plant more trees. The Climate Change Committee, the independent body set up to advise the Government, has been clear that we need to raise our current 13% forest cover to 17% by 2050 if we are to have any chance of meeting our climate goals, but we know that the Government’s slow, pedestrian and managerial approach to tree planting means the target will not be met until 2091. Their action does not match their soundbites, as it must if we are to hit our climate goals.
Planting more trees in England is strongly supported by the public, by business, by local councils and, looking at their press releases, by Ministers as well, so why are Ministers failing to plant sufficient trees? It is not because they do not enjoy enough support, it is not because the public will not support further measures and it is not because the public will not support further spending on this, so what are the obstacles and inhibitors that stop Ministers from delivering more trees? We need to see further action on tree planting by mobilising more of the power of the state to get this done.
On an issue where there is cross-party and full public support, we need Ministers to do better than they are at the moment. England is being left behind in the UK’s family of nations when it comes to tree planting, and we are being left behind on the global stage, too. If Ethiopia can plant 5 billion trees a year, including planting 350 million trees in a single day on
Although we should be planting more trees, we must also be careful of losing trees, which is why Labour supports Lords amendments 94, 95 and 66. We know that deforestation, legal and illegal, is increasing alarmingly across the planet, but we also know that, far too often, we measure the impacts only within our own nation. Our global consumption and global supply chains must be taken into account if we are to prevent deforestation. Allowing illegal deforestation to become legal deforestation is a “get out of jail free” card that does nothing to get our planet out of trouble, so we need to see further advances. I am glad the Minister is making progress on certain commodities that come from stressed areas, but I encourage her to go further and do more.
Briefly, could the Minister ask the Financial Conduct Authority to issue new guidelines to financial institutions on deforestation risk? No British bank should be bankrolling deforestation internationally.
I have a simple question for my hon. Friend, following on from what my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy said. How do we differentiate between illegal logging and legal logging? There is no such mechanism known to humankind, so it is a farce, frankly, to say that we will ban illegal logging and allow legal logging in the Amazon rainforest.
My hon. Friend raises a good point, and it is why we need firm action not only from the Government but from the supply chain. We also need enforcement of our high standards, which must not be undercut in any trade deals. Food and produce produced to lower standards abroad must not undercut domestic industries or our environmental and animal welfare standards.
I thank Labour peers, Cross Benchers and peers from other parties for their work on this Bill. Until the votes earlier, the Bill was in a much better place than it was at the start. I deeply regret that the Government are whipping their MPs to remove many of those improvements, and I hope Conservative Members will consider what further pressure can be put on Ministers to improve the Bill.
On the important issue of river sewage, I want to work on a cross-party basis with Ministers to find a better compromise. I do not think what we have just heard will convince Opposition Members or Conservative Back Benchers, but there is a route through this, and that is firmer action and a clear timeline as to how we will address this problem.
It is a great pleasure to be in the Chamber physically to discuss the Environment Bill, which the Select Committee I am privileged to chair considered in pre-legislative scrutiny. I share the pleasure of the Minister and the House that, at last, this Bill is at the point of concluding its passage.
I will confine my remarks to Lords amendment 45 and Government amendment (a) thereto. I do so because the origins of much of the work, as the Minister has been generous to admit—the Government amendments and amendment 45—stem from the private Member’s Bill I was fortunate to be able to introduce to this House before covid struck.
As a consequence of the pandemic and its impact on the parliamentary schedule, this is the first opportunity I have had since February 2020 to discuss the subject of that Bill, because we never got to Second Reading. Therefore, it is of immense pleasure to see many of the points raised by me. I had support across the House. Some 135 MPs were kind enough to express support for the campaign that non-governmental organisations got together to support my Bill. We had the support of about 20 different campaigning groups, which helped to craft the Bill and to gain support from members of the public. We had close to 95,000 people at the most recent count, but at the time of the Bill about 45,000 people expressed support for it.
One thing that happened during covid was the enforced extra leisure time that people up and down the country had. Luke Pollard, who speaks for the Opposition, described his own joy of wild swimming. It was a new-found joy for many people, including members of my family, during lockdown. They were finding the rivers and waterways of our country a suitable place for recreation. They would not have expected them to be as adversely polluted as they have been. This has been a result of many factors, but, in particular, sewage over the past decade or so.
I did not come into politics to stand up and talk about crap. I am not going to use that word again, but I have become something of an expert on dealing with human effluent in this country. It is not a particularly comfortable place for me and I do not want to have to do it for the rest of my life, but at the moment I am finding that there is a great deal of interest, inside and outside this place, in how we ensure that we do not treat the arteries of nature, which is what our rivers are, as the cesspit of humanity. The measures that the Minister has taken up with alacrity from my Bill are all moving in the right direction to take steps to reduce the discharge of sewage into our rivers and thence into our oceans.
I wish to start my specific remarks by paying tribute to the Minister for the work she has done in picking up my Bill, persuading her officials that this was important to her and therefore making progress when the Bill got to the Lords in the way that she has described to us this evening. She wanted to support my private Member’s Bill when it was first introduced, but at that point in the parliamentary cycle the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had a legislative load of unprecedented scale. It had the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Environment Bill and all the Brexit statutory instrument legislation, and said that that was the reason why it could not at that time get behind my Bill. The Minister has personally delivered these changes, and I want to acknowledge that and thank her for doing so.
Equally, I wish to put on the record my thanks to members of the other place who have also grappled with this issue closely, particularly the Duke of Wellington. I am pleased to tell the Chamber that it is the Duke of Wellington and not the Duke of Westminster, as he is frequently referred to in that place in these debates, who picked up the primary clause of my Bill, the duty on water companies not to discharge sewage and to progressively reduce harm and improve the sewerage system. That is the amendment he put before the House and the Lords decided to bring back to this House. I accept, having discussed this at considerable length with him and with the Minister, that that amendment is not perfect and things could be done to improve it, but it does reflect the core of my private Member’s Bill. Although I agree with everything else in Lords amendment 45 and will vote for it, I am not in a position to vote for Government amendment (a) to the Lords amendment because, as others in the House have expressed quite well, we need to ensure that water companies feel that provision is there in statute to compel them to pay attention to the issue. The water management plans are a good idea, but they do not have statutory force and could be changed. I do not think this Minister would do anything other than bear down on water companies in respect of this issue, but it may have less priority under another Minister.
Is there a possible compromise? The Minister said that the regulator could set and enforce targets and extract penalties; would that be a way forward? Could we get the Minister to come up with some tough regulatory targets that fall short of the absolute guarantee of a legal statement?
There will be targets—there are water-quality targets in the Bill anyway—and the Minister referred to the guidance that she is on the point of finalising for the next pricing review period for Ofwat. My Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee, is currently conducting an inquiry into water quality, and we will make some recommendations to strengthen that guidance, so there are tools that can be used. That does not, though, get away from the fact that in my view there should be a primary legislative duty on water companies, to persuade them to treat this issue with sufficient seriousness.
People, including my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin, have quite reasonably asked what the proposal would cost. Last week, our Committee heard evidence from Thames Water, which is currently investing in the largest capital treatment-works programme in our lifetime. It is a £4.6 billion investment, the purpose of which is to take away 37 million tonnes of sewage, out of a total of 39 million tonnes spilt legally into the Thames by Thames Water. It will have a huge impact on the reduction of the amount of sewage that is legally spilt into the Thames. The cost will be an increase of £19 per household in the bills of Thames Water’s water-rates payers in London. That illustrates quite well that, although the costs of improving the network are going to be significant —possibly huge: the Minister gave a range that is even bigger than the amount the Government have spent to combat covid—it will take decades.
When we asked the Secretary of State about this issue last year, when he appeared before our Committee for a different inquiry, he acknowledged that we will not deal with the problem of exceptional spillages out of water-treatment plants until such a time as the drainage system completely separates surface water from foul water. There are something like 200,000 km of combined sewers underneath our streets and fields. While they are combined, it provides the opportunity for water-treatment plants to be overwhelmed by excessive rainfall. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, made the point that it is meant to happen only on an exceptional basis, but it absolutely is happening routinely. We discovered that information after the Government put pressure on the water companies to introduce event-duration monitors, which they have now done across almost all the network. That is giving rise to the information that The Guardian is collating that shows that the completely unacceptable spillage of sewage into rivers is routine. It has to stop. That was the intention behind my private Member’s Bill and is the reason why I continue to talk about this subject ad nauseum. I am much looking forward to the day when this Bill receives Royal Assent and I can get on to other matters.
The Question must be put no later than six minutes past 7. Colleagues can see that there is a lot of interest, so will they please show some time discipline?
These amendments are almost entirely focused on English environmental matters, and many Members, as you have noted, Mr Deputy Speaker, wish to speak from English constituencies, so I will make this contribution short.
Lords amendment 43, while laudable in its intentions, inappropriately constricts the powers of Scottish Ministers in a devolved area. Although I absolutely support its general aims, those decisions should properly be made by the Scottish Government and Parliament and not by this Chamber or indeed the other place.
In closing, I wish to acknowledge the shadow Minister’s comments about tree planting in England lagging behind the rest of the UK. In 2019, more than 80% of the UK’s tree plantings were delivered by Scotland. I urge the Government to listen to colleagues on these Benches and get a move on.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate today as I have I sat on the Environment Bill Committee and, as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, was part of the water quality inquiry. Because of time limits, I will restrict my remarks to proposed new section 141A of the Water Industry Act 1991 in Lords amendment 45.
May I say more widely that there is a lot to be proud of in this Bill and, as we come to discuss these finer matters, we should not take away from the hard work that has taken place over the past few years? I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary State, my constituency neighbour, on all the hard work that they and their Department have done on this. It has taken a lot to get cross-party agreement, and, during the Bill Committee, we were never in disagreement on the direction of travel; it was always on the semantics of what needed to happen and where. That says a lot about this Parliament.
As we have heard, steps have been taken in the Bill, with sewerage undertakers being required to produce comprehensive statutory drainage and sewerage management plans, setting out how a company will manage and develop its drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning period and how storm overflows will be addressed through those plans.
The Government have amended the Bill on a number of occasions to respond to Members’ concerns on storm overflows. Amendments to the Bill at Committee stage in the other place would require the Government to produce a statutory plan, as we have heard, to reduce discharges from overflows and the harm that they cause and to report regularly to Parliament on progress. Further amendments were made on Report, which will place new duties on water companies, requiring them to report overflows in real time. We have heard about this, too, and it is already starting to happen. None the less, it beggars belief that this has not been happening routinely for years and that we have had to rely on voluntary groups, as we found out in our inquiry, to do a lot of this monitoring work upstream and downstream. It is really welcome that the water companies will now be compelled to do this from now on.
I look forward to the Government being required to publish a report before
However, the Government could go further. I am constantly pressed on this matter by Surfers against Sewage, which is based in my constituency, and by a large number of passionate constituents, and I share their frustrations. Without the legal duty, there is nothing to compel water companies to take immediate action to tackle sewage pollution, which could mean that our rivers continue to decline indefinitely and irreversibly. The cynic in me understands why the Government cannot commit to this at this stage. It is my opinion—and it is only my opinion—that were the provision put in the Bill, the water companies would be compelled to say that, as the Government have put it in the Bill, they have to pay for the infrastructure upgrade. To pay for it, therefore, we either have to put up taxes or put up bills. That is a conversation that must happen down the line; it is not right to compel the Government to do that right now. That is the only reason why I am supporting the Government on this matter at this time, but they should be reassured that I will be pressing DEFRA again and again to make sure that we get this matter absolutely right.
I understand that we are not at the end of the road yet and that the Bill is yet to become law. When it does become law, people can judge the commitments and the publications of the Government—for example when we have the Government report on the costs and benefits of eliminating storm overflows. Last week the Environmental Audit Committee questioned the five chief executive officers of the water companies, including Susan Davy of South West Water, who I have met a few times to discuss upstream thinking projects on farms and so on. There was an acknowledgement and an agreement that Cornwall’s rivers are in trouble for many different reasons. At this point, I declare an interest: my husband is, and has been since his youth, a keen salmon and sea trout angler, as well as a bass charter fisherman and now a commercial fisherman for the under-10 metre fleet, but—this will become relevant in a few minutes—he does not use nets.
Salmon numbers are low and have been declining in Cornwall for a long time. I was pleased to hear the water companies and everybody else confirm that the rivers are in a poor state, so I wondered why Cornwall Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority is planning a byelaw in Cornwall to ban netting for the under-10 metre fleet purely to try to recover the salmon population. I have spoken to the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis, about how we can stop that knee-jerk reaction and perhaps do some data gathering over the next four years, before we decimate the under-10 metre fleet and make them lose their livelihoods. Netting is not the only reason that the salmon populations are being lost.
I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I will end by thanking the Department for this truly groundbreaking legislation. There is no such piece of legislation anywhere else in the world and we should rightly be proud of that. I hope that this is a starting point and that we can go further to ensure that we get everything that we want from the water companies.
Lords amendment 43 addresses a real and important issue. Although I listened carefully to what the Minister said to the House, it simply did not go far enough. We know that the decline in the population of pollinators has been serious. For example, it is estimated that we lose some £500 million-worth of Gala apples every year. If we add up the other fruits and vegetables that rely on pollinators, the economic cost is enormous. But this is more important than simply the economics of the agricultural industry, although that is important.
The decline in pollinators is also about habitat loss, as the Minister said, but the Government are not yet doing enough to restore those habitats. We also know that the impact of pesticides is real. The Minister said that the Government follow the science, but we do not have the science on this. We do not know about the impact, for example, of the joint use of products such as fungicides and pyrethroids. We know a little bit about the impact of neonicotinoids on the honey bee, but we do not know about the impact of neonicotinoids on other pollinators. We simply cannot follow the science if that science does not exist.
When we were leaving the European Union, one of the Government’s commitments was that we would maintain the ban on neonicotinoids because of the known impact. They do not simply kill honey bees directly; they also prevent the reproduction of honey bees and possibly of other pollinators, and make the nervous system of the honey bee no longer functional so that solitary bees, for example, which are also important pollinators, may simply not return home to feed their brood. We do not really know the impact of neonicotinoids, except that it is bad.
Philip Dunne made an important point earlier, when he said that Ministers come and Ministers go. I say to the Minister that an important lesson in life is this: never trust Ministers to make decisions unless we have transparency. We can respect individual Ministers, but we need a consistency of approach that outlasts individual Ministers. On the question of the protection of pollinators, it is important that we have transparency and the capacity genuinely to follow expert science—to build that scientific base, but with expert science.
Earlier this year, we saw that the Secretary of State was prepared to use the exemptions from the neonicotinoid ban to allow the use of neonicotinoids with respect to the sugar beet crop, because there was enormous pressure from the sugar industry and, to a degree, from some sugar beet farmers. In fact, the Government did not follow the science then, because the experts advised the Government that that was the wrong decision, but Government Ministers still made that decision. They were wrong; the experts were right. The funny thing is that a good number of farmers who have been made aware of that feel that they were hoodwinked by the Government. Some have said that they would not use neonicotinoids next year on the basis of what happened this year. That is important, because the reason we need Lords amendment 43 is that it allows us to move on to the basis of genuinely following the science, genuinely protecting the farming industry where that is appropriate, and absolutely guaranteeing that we protect pollinators—not just honeybees but across the piece—from the impact of pesticides and the damage they can do.
I implore Members to think very seriously about this. It should not be a partisan, party issue; it goes way beyond that. If you believe in the value of pollinators, and quite frankly our agricultural system would be destroyed without them, then please—
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech about the importance of pollinators—not just honeybees, although they are hugely important—and the economic and environmental benefits of these very valuable insects. Does he agree that it would have been better for the former Minister to have listened to a broader range of advice about neonicotinoids? Does he also agree that it would have been wiser for the Government to continue to follow the regulation from the European Union and not to try to diverge from that in this important area, and indeed others?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope that the Minister does listen. Although the Government recognised that there was no need to use the exemption this year because of the weather conditions, that may not apply next year or the year after, so we need to follow the experts in a way that they most certainly were not followed by the Government.
Amendment 43 is not partisan; it is in the interests of everybody. I hope the whole House will seriously think about supporting its retention.
There is a lot covered in this group of amendments, but in the interests of time I will limit my remarks to the three Ps of pollinators, pesticides and poo. We are beekeepers at home. As I speak, my husband is processing the honey from our seven hives in our kitchen. For reasons I have never fully understood, this seems to involve coating every single implement in said kitchen in honey, so I am quite resigned to going back on Friday evening to a kitchen that resembles the aftermath of a house party thrown by Winnie the Pooh. Wish me luck.
Starting with pollinators and pesticides, the UK already has legislation that regulates pesticides that was transferred from the EU. It takes a tougher, hazard-based approach to regulation rather than the risk-based approach that many other countries use. The Bill requires that pesticides have no unacceptable effects on the environment, having particular regard to its impact on non-target species, which of course includes all pollinators, not just bees. Amendment 43 would replicate part of this existing framework, which sounds to me like a recipe for confusion. It also seems to be jumping the gun on the new national action plan for sustainable use of pesticides, which I look forward to seeing before the end of this year.
So, on to poo. Storm overflows designed for emergencies are now being used as a daily method of sewage management. In Rushcliffe in 2020, Severn Trent recorded storm overflows at three points in the village of Radcliffe-on-Trent alone, totalling 6,854 hours, while in the village of East Leake, the sewage treatment works there discharged 58 times for a total of 715 hours. Yet Severn Trent has still not acknowledged the need for a new pumping station. I welcome the measures in the Bill that will require water companies to publish data on storm overflows both on an annual basis and in real time, especially because it took my team months to extract the data that we needed from Severn Trent.
The Bill also puts a duty on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory drainage and sewerage management plans, including how storm overflows will be addressed. Those plans will cover a minimum 25-year horizon, which is crucial, because much of the problem in Rushcliffe comes from investment in drainage and sewerage not keeping pace with development and new homes.
The Bill also puts a duty on Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows next year. I believe that is the right approach, because it acknowledges two things. First, it acknowledges that reducing storm overflows is the responsibility of a wider range of actors than just water companies. As the Rivers Trust has said, delivering a plan will require contributions from the whole of society, and in particular landowners, developers, highway constructors and homeowners, to divert surface water away from sewers. I am concerned that proposed new section 141A of amendment 45 covers only sewerage undertakers, leaving other significant stakeholders off the hook. We need a comprehensive strategy that addresses the problem from all angles.
Secondly, as implied by the first point, and as has been discussed today, this is going to cost a lot of money. Initial estimates, as the Minister said, range between £150 billion and £650 billion, and it will probably require some fundamental changes to how we do things. Neither of those is reason not to tackle the problem. I firmly believe we should do so, and the Bill makes a first, important step towards doing that, but we need to ensure that we understand the costs, the likely customer bill increases and the trade-offs against other areas that we want to see water companies investing in. While I support the aims of the amendment, and I acknowledge and thank my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne for all his work in this area and in strengthening the Bill to date, I will not be voting for the amendment tonight. We need to go further, but we need to make sure that is based on data.
The final thought I offer is that although debates such as this naturally focus on what is not in the Bill, I join my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory in recognising all the great things that are in the Bill and the huge, fantastic job that the Minister has done, including on strengthening protection for ancient woodlands, the conservation covenants, the scrutiny of forest risk products in the supply chain and a legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030. That is just in the part of the Bill we are discussing now, and I think those things are worth celebrating.
I want to say very briefly that I am deeply concerned that the Government have chosen to disagree with Lords amendment 43. We recognise that there is a gap in the authorisation process for new pesticides, which does not look at the long-term impact of pesticides on bees and other wild pollinators. Others have spoken about the vast importance of bees and wild pollinators to biodiversity and, frankly, to our capacity to feed ourselves as a country. I am yet to be convinced that the Government are acting in the wisest long-term interests of our environment and our agricultural economy by refusing to accept that entirely reasonable amendment from the other place.
Like others, I am about to talk poop—not for the first time, as I am sure others would add, and nor for the last. Lords amendments 45 to 48 are a collection of reasonable amendments that seek to add pressure on the water companies and Ofwat to ensure that we do not see the dumping of untreated or poorly treated sewage into waterways and lakes without significant penalties or the possibility of local communities getting action quickly to rectify those matters.
In my community in south Cumbria, we suffered as a consequence of Storm Desmond. We saw the River Kent polluted so very badly by a storm overflow from the Wattsfield treatment works just outside Kendal, and it basically killed the entire fish population of that river. That was Storm Desmond, which, by the way, was meant to be a one-in-200-years event. I can tell the House that in a 10-year period, we had three at least one-in-100-years events. As other hon. Members have mentioned, the idea that storms are the only time there are sewage overflows is absolute nonsense and the water companies hugely abuse that loophole.
In the neighbouring communities of Burneside and Staveley, one of which is inside the Lake district and the other just outside—beautiful villages—there are regular incidents of sewage on the streets several times a year at certain points. The only answer we tend to get from United Utilities, our water company in the north-west, is that we have to bid for the next capital round for something that it is blindingly obvious needs to be done there and then. They are environmental and public health hazards. It is obvious what needs to be done, but the water company can ignore the community and kick it into the long grass. The pipes need widening, which costs money, and United Utilities knows it does not have to do it, so it does not.
I am also deeply concerned about the state and quality of the water in Lake Windermere, which is the largest lake in England and the heart of the British tourism industry as the second most-visited place outside of London. I draw hon. Members’ attention to my early-day motion 505, which deals with the issue in more detail. We had untreated sewage going into Lake Windermere for the equivalent of 71 full days in 2020. That is a place in the Lake district with 20 million visitors every year. I do not want reports; I want action. I do not want an overview to be taken; I would like United Utilities, and others who contribute to the pollution of our largest lake, to be prosecuted and mandated to take immediate action. That is not happening.
Likewise, when it comes to septic tanks, there is no regulation, no registration and no help for people with septic tanks to make sure that they comply. I want the Government to make better use of the powers that they already have and designate Lake Windermere and the Rivers Brathay, Kent and Rothay as bathing sites, which would allow action to be taken right away.
I ask myself why the Government will not accept these four incredibly reasonable amendments from the Lords. My great fear is that they want to protect the water companies more than water quality. This is the moment for them to prove that that is not the case.
The Lake district is a world heritage site. Earlier this year, we sadly saw Liverpool lose its world heritage site status, reminding us that that is possible. I do not want the Government failing to tackle water quality in the most beautiful part of Britain to be the reason we lose our world heritage site status.
There are five hon. Members seeking to catch my eye and I propose to call the Minister soon after 7 o’clock, therefore the arithmetic can be done. If everybody takes two to three minutes, they will all get in, but if not, some people will not be called. That is not up to me; it is up to all of you.
I wanted to speak on interim targets in the first group of amendments, but given the time constraints, I have saved myself for sewage. I rise to support the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, which is the most important amendment we are faced with this evening.
I acknowledge that this is a landmark piece of legislation. I congratulate the Minister on the way that she has listened and on the length that she has gone to on the sewage issue. Frankly, however, when it comes to sewage discharge, my constituents do not want another taskforce, an aspirational target, or a discretionary duty of care. They do not even want more consultation. They just want a legally enforceable obligation on our water companies to stop them routinely discharging raw sewage into our rivers and seas. That is the bottom line.
The Bill, as it is framed, does not go far enough. Without that legal obligation, water companies can still cause harm by their sewage discharges and there is no guarantee of any immediate action to tackle sewage pollution. I shall be supporting the Duke of Wellington’s amendment because my constituency has a coastline with some of the best kitesurfing in the country at Lancing, because I support Surfers Against Sewage, and because I am a coastal MP for a constituency where we have had many instances of discharge.
I am afraid that we are served by Southern Water, which is the worst offender. Although the new management have made great progress from all the illegal cases of discharge that went on, for which they have been handsomely and quite rightly fined, it is still happening too much on a routine basis. I support the private Member’s Bill brought in by my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, as did the Minister, so why are its provisions not in the Bill if the Government are serious about this?
Storm discharges are happening far too often. I understand the implications of extreme weather conditions and that, if we do not do something about it, we will have sewage popping up from under manhole covers and into people’s homes and gardens, but we should be doing more about increasing capacity to deal with those events, and I am afraid it is just not happening. We are talking not just about raw sewage, but about primary treated sewage, which is still doing a lot of harm when it gets out. This can only get worse with the huge house building pressures that we have in the south-east in particular. The pressure is going to get greater, but I am afraid that the capacity to deal with it is not increasing at a commensurate rate. The requirements on sewage companies to do a clear-up when there have been discharges are not nearly tough enough.
People have had enough of this. We are weary of excuses about learning lessons, and about how a certain company is going to do better in the future and has no greater priority. The amendment needs to send out a strong message to put water companies on no uncertain notice that enough is enough and that there will now be a legally enforceable obligation to do far more, taking all reasonable steps to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows and proactively demonstrating that they have done so. They must show that they have improved the sewerage system, with the Government and their agencies bringing all their forces to bear to make sure that they abide by that, and that when they do not, they are properly punished. That is the minimum our constituents should expect. I hope that is what the Duke of Wellington’s amendment actually achieves. It is what my right hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill would have brought in, and I urge the Government to think again about that.
I will be brief, but I will simply continue this theme about Lords amendment 45, which, as many hon. Members have said, simply does not go far enough. I pay tribute to Philip Dunne for all his work on this and for his chairing of the Environmental Audit Committee, where this has been such a key issue for us.
One of the reasons why I want to speak about this follows on from Tim Loughton, because I too have Southern Water in my constituency and, frankly, its record has been abysmal. In July, it was ordered to pay a record £90 million fine after an investigation by the Environment Agency found that it had caused almost 7,000 illegal sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015, which lasted a total of 61,000 hours—the equivalent of over seven years. What is shocking about that is that these discharges were happening not by accident, but because Southern Water knew that the penalties were not serious enough to deter it from doing it. That is the real concern. That followed its being fined £3 million in 2019 and ordered to pay back £123 million to customers to compensate for serious failings in the sewage treatment works and deliberately misreporting.
There is a major issue here. It has affected my constituency, where back in 2019, over 50 discharge notifications were issued in Brighton and Hove, whereas in 2020 absolutely none was issued at all. Essentially, the system is not working properly. We need to have the legal duty that was in the Duke of Wellington’s amendment. Without that, there is essentially nothing to compel water companies to take immediate action to tackle sewage and pollution. That legal duty is in line with the Government’s stated ambition, and I do not understand why they will not put it in the Bill.
Briefly, I also support Lords amendment 43. Others, including Tony Lloyd, have made a really powerful case for why that matters so much. I simply want to put on the record as well that I was disappointed that Lords did not uphold their previous support for protecting rural residents on the issue of the impact of pesticides on human health, because that is a big exposure problem too.
With genuine thanks to the Minister and her team, I will speak to Lords amendment 45 on storm overflows. It is not rocket science why I and many of my colleagues receive so many emails and so much correspondence about river pollution, as the thought of sewage in our rivers is revolting. I know one lady who chose to swim the length of the River Severn, which is more than 200 miles. She got to Gloucester, but ended up in hospital because she had swallowed some raw sewage. This is a health and biodiversity issue; it is about leisure and living. I can see the River Severn from my home, and we all want clean and good quality waterways.
I will keep my remarks brief. I backed the Bill of my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne. Stroud is an incredibly environmental area, and smart environmentalists challenge me all the time. Unusually, that Bill managed to satisfy the majority of people, which is because my right hon. Friend consulted campaign groups, individuals and the public. He went to water companies and tried to find wording, language and a private Member’s Bill that works. That “what works?” approach is important. Not without regret, therefore, I will be backing the amendment from the Duke of Wellington that mirrors the private Member’s Bill. I think we need that hard action in the Bill now, and to then work out how we make it work from that point. We see technology changing. A business in my constituency is working to take raw sewage and turn it into aviation fuel. We just do not know what is around the corner, but if we get the Bill in place, good things will happen, certainly for our rivers.
I want to bring the protection of pollinators from pesticides to the Minister’s attention. She has replied to that issue, and provided some reassurance. However, I am aware that my local council back home is cultivating areas of biodiversity to strengthen the bee population. We are all aware that honeybee hives and the honeybee population has reduced by some 40% in recent years, which has also affected the decline in the butterfly population. Can the Minister reassure me that work is being done to address that figure of 40%?
The Minister has reassured me about the agriculture sector and the critical input of farmers. However, I am aware that pesticide authorisation in the UK is being undertaken by the Secretary of State with the consent of the devolved nations, but that after Brexit, the UK no longer has oversight of pesticide use in Northern Ireland. Again, I highlight the difficulty of the protocol. In this House I advocate for change, but it is change that cannot apply to Northern Ireland. I understand that importance of that.
I am firm believer that we are good stewards of the wonderful creation that we have been granted, and we should make use of the beautiful world we have in the best way. That is why I am supportive of a number of amendments tabled by the Government, and others, during the passage of the Bill. I encourage the Government to reach out and educate the young people of today, who seem to know more about the environment than do the old hands and people of my generation. It is important that the children of today have something left for them tomorrow, and with that in mind the message must start in this place. This Bill is a decent foundation to begin the work that needs doing to secure the future for our grandchildren’s children, and so much for the future.
It gives me real pleasure to speak about the Bill once again, and I thank the Minister, who has worked incredibly hard to bring this hefty Bill through the House. It was a pleasure to sit on the Bill Committee. Let me use my short time to focus quickly on Lords amendment 45, which deals with water quality and storm overflow. As the Minister will be aware, I represent a constituency that contains the first river to be recognised with bathing water status in the UK. Dealing with and improving water quality is very dear to my heart. Although we have that bathing water status, that is very much the start of the process, because it is putting pressure on our utility company, Yorkshire Water, to clean up the River Wharfe. I very much want Yorkshire Water to put in that level of investment over the next five years, to ensure that our River Wharfe is cleaned up and we achieve good bathing status.
I want to highlight the very good work in the Bill that can work alongside Lords amendment 45, including Government amendment (a) to that Lords amendment and the original clause 76, which makes it compulsory for sewerage undertakers to produce a drainage and sewerage management plan to address the impact of overflow on rivers. That will come alongside legally binding targets that will, in the short term, lead to more assessment of drainage and wastewater issues. In the long term, those plans will improve the resilience of our rivers during extreme weather and guarantee a reduced risk of sewage getting into the River Wharfe through surface water flooding.
Let me finish by saying that we must use the Bill, once it is passed—I know that time is of the essence—to put as much pressure as possible on our utility companies to put in that investment. They owe it to our constituents and to the environment to clean up the river system.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It has been a heated session, but I think that shows how strongly we feel about these issues.
I will touch first on storm overflows, which dominated the session. I thank my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne for his moving and powerful words, as ever. I have great sympathy with him, because I too have been wading in effluent for quite some time now. I take what he says. We also heard vociferous speeches from Caroline Lucas; my hon. Friend Tim Loughton; my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory, who truly outlined the complexities of dealing with the storm overflow issue—it is not straightforward and there is not one answer; my hon. Friend Ruth Edwards, who was very clear in what she said; my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore); and Tim Farron.
I have listed all the things that we are doing on this issue that were not in the Bill before. This is all new. We have the statutory plan that the Government have to produce on discharges, we have the new duty on water companies to publish data on overflows, we have reporting processes, and the water companies have a duty to monitor water quality. The shadow Minister, Luke Pollard, also spoke powerfully on this issue. We have had much conversation about it, and I think we are coming from the same place, but I say to him that we also have the drainage and sewerage management plans, which will set out how the water companies will manage their sewerage systems, and the Government have been really clear that we expect storm overflows to be addressed in those plans. That is very clear in the explanatory notes.
One Member asked, “What’s happening right now?” From now until 2025, water companies will invest just over £7 billion on environmental improvements in England, and £3 billion of that will be spent on storm overflow improvements. This work is starting now, and it is really important to flag that. It is not the case that nothing is happening; there is a great deal happening, but there will be a great deal more happening as a result of the Bill.
We believe that new section 141A of the Water Industry Act 1991 introduced by Lords amendment 45 is redundant, and I ask the House to agree to our amendment (a) to leave out lines 7 to 14 of that Lords amendment. I will say, though, that we are listening. We have listened all along and we have acted all along. The Government are absolutely committed to reducing sewage in our water. Nobody thinks sewage in water is a good idea, and I hope we have demonstrated that we have been very strong on that.
Let me quickly correct something that I mentioned about ancient woodland in response to my right hon. Friend John Redwood, who is no longer in his seat. On the NPPF, in relation to policy under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, that would not bind decisions under the Transport and Works Act 1992 on hybrid Bills. I just wanted to correct that. However, I can reassure the House that biodiversity net gain will cover nationally significant infrastructure projects. That is very important.
Pesticides were talked about a great deal. We have listened carefully, but I am confident that we have got the correct existing regulations in terms of bees and all our pollinators. I hope everyone agrees that we are bringing through some very strong and exciting measures on the protection of ancient woodlands, which I announced together. I hope the House will support our amendment in lieu on conservation covenants, which will provide reassurance to landowners. We are not supporting Lords amendments 94 and 95. On Lords amendment 65, we will be publishing a nature recovery Green Paper that will set out robust protections for the future.
On those grounds, I really hope the House will support our position tonight. I thank everyone for their contributions to this debate.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 43.
The House divided: Ayes 297, Noes 182.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 43 disagreed to.
More than four and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day). The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (