Clause 24 - Guidance on the OEP’s Enforcement Policy and Functions

Environment Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:08 pm on 8th November 2021.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:08 pm, 8th November 2021

I beg to move, That this House insists on its amendments 31A and 31B and disagrees with Lords amendment 31C.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Lords amendment 33B, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendment 45B, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Government motion that this House insists on its amendments 75A and 75B, Lords amendment 75C, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 85D and 85E.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am delighted to be here in the House for what I really hope will be the final time discussing the Bill, even though I have quite relished my involvement with it. It has been quite a journey, but here we are with a Bill that does so much to set us on a sustainable trajectory for future challenges: tackling air, water, and waste pollution; improving our environment on a scale never before done; and stemming the tide of biodiversity loss and restoring nature. The sum of all these parts is groundbreaking.

I turn first to Lords amendments 31C and 75C, tabled by the noble Lord Krebs and Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick in the other place, and amendments 31A, 31B, 75A and 75B, which the Government are insisting on today. I wish to put a number of points on the record in the knowledge that ministerial statements in Hansard could be drawn on by the courts as a legitimate aid to statutory interpretation in the future.

The office for environmental protection is and must be an independent body capable of holding public authorities to account for their environmental responsibilities, including through the use of its enforcement functions. That is why the Government have given the OEP a remit and powers of unprecedented breadth in the Bill. For the OEP to work effectively, it must act strategically and take action only when there is an environmental and public interest in doing so. On that point, everyone is agreed.

As the Secretary of State is ultimately accountable for the OEP’s performance and use of public funds, the Government consider that the accountability power in clause 24 is necessary to ensure that the body continues to use public resources effectively to achieve the greatest public good. However, I must be clear that the content of guidance is limited to the areas of the OEP’s enforcement policy listed in clause 22(6). It cannot be used to direct the OEP as to the content of any report it might produce or any advice to the Government. Indeed, it cannot be used as a power of direction at all. It would also be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to issue guidance on specific matters relating to the enforcement of environmental law against the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, given that there would be a conflict of interest. I do not want to be disingenuous: the OEP would be expected to have regard to any guidance issued, but it will retain the ability and discretion to make its own decisions, and will not be bound to act in accordance with the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am going to rattle on. We have one hour only, but I will respond in my closing speech as much as I can to any issues that arise.

Many in this place and the other place have previously raised concerns that the Secretary of State might be able to use guidance to preclude the OEP from investigating a broad category of individual cases or subject areas, such as a nuclear power station. I must say, unequivocally, that it is our view that the power could not lawfully be used in that way. Any guidance issued must be consistent with the duty in paragraph 17 of schedule 1 for the Secretary of State to have regard to the need to protect the independence of the OEP. Any guidance that diverted OEP scrutiny away from entire policy areas, outside of existing statutory steers on prioritisation, would not be in keeping with that duty. This is not a power that could be used simply to divert the OEP away from investigating issues that could be in some way inconvenient to the Government. The provision for guidance on how the OEP intends to exercise its functions means that the guidance will, by its nature, be on the OEP’s approach to those issues, rather than defining specific areas to prioritise or deprioritise.

The OEP will operate with a very high degree of independence, especially when it comes to making individual enforcement decisions. In exercising its discretion in individual cases, the OEP would need to have regard to all relevant factors, but must ultimately take all its decisions objectively, impartially and independently of Government. Furthermore, the Environment Bill already provides that the OEP should focus on cases that have national implications. Guidance could not be issued that went against the existing provisions, but it could instead add further detail. However, it will remain up to the OEP, within the framework provided by the Bill and any guidance, to determine whether cases that have a discrete local impact also have national implications, or for some other reason have sufficiently broad or widespread impact to be considered serious, or to be prioritised for the purposes of its enforcement functions.

It is important to note that the Secretary of State is also able to offer guidance on how the OEP should respect the integrity of other bodies and existing statutory regimes. With such a broad remit, the OEP will be able to scrutinise all public authorities, including many expert scientific bodies. This ability will be important for it to be able to take a broad view and identify systemic issues.

I am sure the OEP will be extremely effective, but it will be a relatively small body with a broad remit. The decisions of organisations such as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which employs hundreds of world-leading marine scientists, will be based on deep expertise and often highly technical scientific data. The OEP will need to be mindful of that in its own decision making when scrutinising such bodies. It is important to get the balance right to maintain confidence and integrity within existing regimes, and guidance could help to address that. We believe the power is important to ensure accountability, so that the OEP can contribute to delivering environmental improvements in the way I think we all agree it should: by acting strategically not just in the short term, but long into the future.

I can also confirm that this Government will not issue guidance to the OEP before the initial setting up of the OEP or before it has had the chance to develop its own enforcement policy. I recognise the points that hon. Members have raised, which is why the Government have previously reintroduced a provision for Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to scrutinise any draft guidance before it is issued.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope that might answer the point the hon. Member was going to ask.

Draft guidance will need to be laid before both Houses for 21 days. During that time, either House will be able to review the guidance and make recommendations or resolutions to which the Government must respond. Select Committees, such as the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee, may also wish to take the opportunity to scrutinise the guidance, and Ministers would be obliged to respond to them in the usual manner.

I turn now to Lords amendment 33B on environmental review, tabled by the noble Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and the Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu that I am tabling today. On environmental review, the key area of debate has been the remedies available in the event a breach of environmental law if that is confirmed by the court. At the heart of the issue has always been the fact that through environmental review the OEP will have the ability to bring cases to court outside standard judicial review time limits, potentially long after the decisions in question have been taken. For that reason, the Government have maintained that bespoke provision is necessary to ensure certainty and fairness for third parties who have acted in line with decisions made by public bodies, and to protect good administration.

The OEP may pursue cases for enforcement action only if it considers that the conduct in question would constitute a “serious” failure to comply with environmental law. Clause 22(7) states that the OEP must have regard, among other things,

“to the particular importance of prioritising cases that it considers have or may have national implications.”

The OEP will have discretion to interpret those criteria, setting out its approach in its enforcement policy, but it follows, in the Government’s view, that cases which have only a local concern, for example most individual planning and environmental permitting decisions, are unlikely to have sufficiently broad or widespread impact to be prioritised. The OEP could pursue such cases if it considers they are indicative of a broader or more systemic issue or failure, or if especially serious harm has or may result from the potential failure. The OEP, for example, could consider it in relation to the destruction of a nationally important population of a rare and protected species, but it should not be the norm.

However, we have listened to and carefully considered the views and concerns raised in this House and in the other place, and agree it is important that the protections are balanced with the need to prevent or mitigate serious environmental harm. As such, I am pleased to be able to propose an amendment in lieu, which strikes that important balance. In introducing it to the House, I must repeat my earlier acknowledgement that ministerial statements in Hansard could be drawn on by the courts as a legitimate aid to statutory interpretation in future. The amendment will ensure that a high bar is still set for the granting of remedies where third parties may be affected. This is set out in condition A of our amendment. But, critically, it will also provide that, even where condition A is not met, if the court is satisfied that it is necessary in order to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or human health, and there is an exceptional public interest reason to do so, the court will be able to grant a remedy. This is set out in condition B. It gives the court discretion to undertake a real and meaningful, albeit weighted, balancing exercise. It means that there would no longer be a blanket prohibition on the granting of remedies where third parties are likely to suffer substantial hardship or prejudice.

In the rare cases where third parties may be affected, however, I would like to illustrate how this provision could operate with an example. Potentially, on an environmental review, the court could rule that an environmental permit had been granted to a factory operator with such inadequate conditions that it was unlawful. If the court concluded that condition A was not met, because substantial hardship to the factory operator would be likely to result from quashing the permit, it would turn to condition B. If, in the absence of a quashing order, it is likely that the factory would continue to release harmful air pollutants with serious impacts for the health of the local population, the court may conclude that it is necessary to grant a remedy in order to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or human health. At this point, the court would need to weigh the public interest in preventing serious harm against the public interest in preventing substantial hardship occurring to the third party. In order to grant a remedy, the court would need to be satisfied that the public interest in preventing this serious harm substantially outweighed the interest in preventing hardship, thereby constituting an “exceptional public interest reason” to grant the remedy.

In such cases, where severe damage to the environment or people’s health could occur or continue if no remedy was granted, the court may choose to grant a remedy. Given the types of serious cases that the OEP is likely to bring, we consider that this test strikes the appropriate balance. I have every faith that it will do so and that the amendment will therefore be a valuable addition to the OEP’s enforcement framework as a whole. I hope that the amendment provides reassurance that the Government are thoroughly committed to protecting against environmental harms through the OEP’s enforcement functions, and that the House will support it today.

I turn to what I believe most people are waiting for: the issue of storm overflows. I hope that colleagues will bear with me while I set out our position, because I believe that this is extremely important. So many people have spoken to and contacted me constantly about this whole process and I will take questions at the end, if that is okay, because we are so tight for time.

I have been clear that the frequency with which sewage is discharged from storm overflows into our waters is absolutely unacceptable. It is a credit to my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne and the campaigning of many others that the phrase “storm overflow” is now used 47 times on the face of the Bill. However, I recognise that many hon. Members wanted to see more, and I am pleased to have tabled a further amendment that says that water companies “must” secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from their storm overflows. In this legal drafting, the word “must” means that we are placing a direct legal duty on water companies to do this. That is really crucial. Water companies will have a simple choice: reduce sewage discharges or face the consequences—that is, strong enforcement action.

Turning back to the specific amendment from the Duke of Wellington, we have redrafted it to ensure that it has proper legal effect and there is more effective implementation, and we have gone further in places. I have had much discussion with the Duke of Wellington —I greatly respect and value that—and I would like to clarify a number of points. This amendment places a clear legal duty on water companies to deliver improvements —something that the Duke particularly pressed for. Indeed, ours is a stronger duty than in his wording. Our amendment will ensure that they have to take the necessary steps relative to the size of the problem. We have taken the “progressive” reduction wording from the Lords amendment. “Progressive” means that water companies must continue to take action even after the next price review period and even after they have achieved a significant reduction and tackled high-priority sites, as required in the draft policy statement to the regulator, Ofwat.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will not take any interventions, because I just want to get this on the record, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind—I know that he is passionate about this whole environmental issue.

I am aware of some wildly inaccurate claims that have been circulating online for the past so many days that we are somehow legalising the dumping of raw sewage—we are not. Our amendment goes further than the Lords amendment by legally specifying that “adverse impacts” includes impacts both on the environment and on public health—for bathers, canoeists and so forth. Enforcement was a key part of the Duke’s amendment and our version goes further, because it will dock in with the existing enforcement regime in the Water Industry Act 1991. Ofwat can issue enforcement notices that can direct specific actions or fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover, running to millions of pounds. If we do not see sufficient progress from water companies, Ofwat and the Government will be able to take enforcement action, and we will not hesitate to do so. Not only that—under other provisions in the Bill, the OEP will be able to take enforcement action against the Environment Agency or Ofwat or, indeed, the Government, should it feel that any of us are not adequately discharging our duties.

There has been much debate about the costs required to eliminate sewage discharges from storm overflows. Last week, the Storm Overflows Taskforce, which I set up, published research on this issue. It estimated that the complete elimination of sewage discharges through storm overflows in England, which many are calling for more broadly, is likely to cost between approximately £350 billion and £600 billion. That could mean up to £1,000 on bills every year. There are important discussions to be had about the best way to address this important issue while protecting bill payers, and this very morning, I called the CEOs of all the water companies in to a meeting. They assured me that they recognise the need for urgent action. We must see better performance from them and I will be watching the progress closely, as indeed, will the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I would much very like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow and the Duke of Wellington for their tireless efforts on this issue. Today, I am asking the House to vote in support of the Government: you will be voting directly—

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker—that is a pity. My fault—I got carried away. Today, I am asking the House to vote in support of the Government, and this means a vote directly to clean up our rivers, lakes and seas, with greater protection for our waters than ever before.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Here we are again—it is 648 days since the Environment Bill was first introduced to Parliament and we are still here debating it, trying to get bolder action from Ministers on the environment, climate and nature. Ministers, I am afraid, are still dragging their heels in not introducing the bold action that we need—particularly against the routine discharge of raw sewage into rivers—still favouring a weaker watchdog than they should be.

In the middle of a climate and ecological crisis and at the very time that the UK is hosting COP26, this is generational injustice in action. We need to see bolder action. There was no mention from the Chancellor in the Budget of climate or nature. In fact, there were cuts to domestic flying duty, coupled with the Prime Minister flying from Glasgow to London on a private jet. I am sure that the Minister will have joined me when we came back from COP in travelling by train, rather than flying, and the Prime Minister should have done so as well. It is a wrong, bad, outdated message to say, “Do as I say. Don’t do as I do”, but I am afraid that that is what we are used to. It sets an appalling example for the world that the Prime Minister did not take the train instead of taking the plane, and it is up to us here to sort that out.

Britain is, again, the dirty man of Europe. Not one English river is in a healthy condition; not one meets good chemical standards.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Member will no doubt be aware that I am seeking water bathing status for the Thames along Port Meadow. One reason why that is so important is the dire state of our rivers: none of them is chemically sound. The illnesses that my constituents have reported, when they just wanted to get into the river for the sake of their mind and body, are atrocious. Does he agree that this is a national issue that is not adequately addressed by the amendments, and we need to go further?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:30 pm, 8th November 2021

As a keen wild swimmer, I want bathing water quality in our rivers to improve massively, not just for swimmers but for the natural world, so I support the hon. Lady in her efforts.

Water quality in our rivers in England is not good enough. In the past year alone, raw sewage was discharged into UK rivers and seas more than 400,000 times. The Government’s response was to whip their MPs to vote against an amendment that would have stopped raw human sewage pouring into our precious rivers and seas. I am afraid that the message that that vote sent was a poor one.

Then came the rightful public outcry, which shamed the Government into a U-turn after days of digging in their heels. They have now adopted much of the amendment that they voted against, which is welcome, but they have not adopted it all. I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for their time speaking to the Opposition about the issue, and I am grateful for the Minister’s words today putting our concerns on record, but I have to say that publishing an amendment at 5 pm last Friday did not really build trust, either among Members on both sides of the House who wanted to see the detail or among the stakeholders who were looking forward to scrutinising carefully what the Minister had to say.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Trust is paramount for the communities up and down the great rivers of this country, as Layla Moran mentioned. Reading is downstream from Abingdon; London is further downstream. We are all deeply concerned about the state of our rivers. Although the Government have given some concessions and have listened to some extent, the way they have behaved still leaves a lot to be desired. The public remain deeply concerned about the issue.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I believe that the public are seriously concerned about what has happened in the House over the past few weeks. They have been alerted and awakened to the volume of raw sewage discharged into their rivers and seas; they want faster and bolder action from Ministers now that they are aware of this absolute outrage in our environment. That is why we need to build trust again.

In her speech and in earlier remarks, the Minister has cited a figure of more than £600 billion, but the maths is disputed, to say the least. It is not sufficient to say, “To deal with this properly will cost £600 billion, but to deal with tinkering around the edges will cost hardly anything on the side,” and pretend that those are fair options to choose between. We need a much bolder approach, with honesty and clarity rather than threats about bills and about how the process works.

We also need to look at how to build trust with the public again, because they are very concerned. I share the Minister’s concern about fake news online and do not wish to see wildly inaccurate claims made, so such a large figure needs to be backed up with clear evidence. I have tabled a parliamentary question asking the Minister for the working behind it; I hope she will be able to confirm the answer in due course.

Labour wants a stronger amendment. The Minister’s amendment in lieu of the Duke of Wellington’s amendment is confined to storm overflows rather than addressing the sewerage system as a whole—a really important point. There is no specific duty on Ofwat or the Environment Agency to ensure compliance, but there should be. We need to focus on reducing harm, rather than just on the adverse impacts. The amendment in lieu looks like the Government looking busy without making a real difference, so I want to set out three things that I hope the Minister will confirm today that could make a difference.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

We all want to clean up the rivers. Could the hon. Gentleman give some idea of the timetable and cost that he thinks would be appropriate?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Funnily enough, that is a point that I was going to refer to the Minister, because there is no timetable—a really glaring hole in what has been published today. A progressive reduction in discharges sounds all well and good, but I would like to progressively reduce the amount of cake I eat, and yet there is a big difference between doing that over a day and doing it over a year. I am a big fan of cake, as some in the House may know.

Let us get down to the detail. There are three things that I would like the Minister to confirm; otherwise, I fear that we will not be able to support her amendment. First, will she commit to reviewing the scale of fines so that water companies that continue to routinely discharge raw sewage face higher penalties?

Secondly, Labour wants the guidance in the strategic policy statement for Ofwat to be super-strengthened so that there is a clear direction to water companies to target the most polluting discharges now, with a plan to address the rest urgently against a clear timeframe. Progress by DEFRA, Ofwat, the EA and water companies should have proper parliamentary scrutiny annually via the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, or potentially the Environmental Audit Committee.

Thirdly, will the Minister set out in detail what she means by “progressive reduction”? That means answering two very simple questions: by when, and how much? If that cannot be set out, it is just spin. I fear that water companies could say, “We are meeting our progressive reduction with these two tiny projects over here,” and not set out a clear commitment. By when and how much will discharges be progressively reduced?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will keep going, just because of the pressure on time.

It is not just the Opposition who have concerns. Water UK and water companies tell us that they have concerns about the Government’s amendment and favour the Duke of Wellington’s. Green groups, environmental groups, angling groups, fishing groups and swimming groups also say that they favour the Duke of Wellington’s amendment over the compromise amendment, so there is widespread concern.

There is a lesson for Tory Back Benchers from the sewage vote and from what happened last week with parliamentary standards and corruption. It is now a brave Tory Back Bencher who will listen to their Whips on unpopular votes, because after dragging their MPs into the gutter, the Government are likely to U-turn a week later and make them look foolish. However, let us be clear about the agency that each Member of Parliament has. The last vote on sewage was a disaster for the reputation of many Members of this House. They knew what they were doing: they were putting the party Whip ahead of the environment, and voters will judge them on it. Doing it once was a mistake; doing it twice is a pattern that voters will recognise and will vote on accordingly next time round.

It is vital that we rebuild trust on the issue. The sewage scandal has been a shameful episode for the Government. There is real cross-party desire to make our approach stronger. I would be grateful if the Minister set out whether she will support the three elements that I have outlined so that we can support her amendment; if we do not get that reassurance, I am afraid that we cannot.

Labour wants the OEP, instead of being a lapdog, to be a strong, robustly independent watchdog. The Minister has tried to put reassurances on the record that the Government will not seek to frustrate the OEP if it needs to hold them to account and take enforcement action against Ministers. In the past week, however, we have seen exactly what happens when the rules no longer suit the Government, so we want them in the Bill—not just a statement from the Dispatch Box that may or may not be used in future court cases, but clear rules in the Bill.

What the Minister set out about having regard to the guidance is welcome, but the experience with budget-setting powers and with the Electoral Commission, where Ministers have threatened a public body on receiving bad news from it in another investigation, is a bad precedent that needs to be removed.

We want the Bill to be better. There are good things in it, but on the whole it is just a bit “meh”: it does not reach the scale of the action we need for the scale of the crisis we face. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister set out whether she will support the three things that I mentioned. If not, I am afraid that Labour will not be able to support her compromise amendment on sewage and will vote against it so that we can secure a vote on the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, which is far superior.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am very conscious of time, so I will be brief. I rise to discuss Lords amendment 45 and the Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 45B. I thank the Minister for the time that she and the Secretary of State have taken to engage with me and with the Duke of Wellington in relation to his amendment, which I supported at the last stage. I particularly thank the Minister for her clarification today that the Government amendment in lieu places in the Bill a clear duty on water companies to reduce the impact of sewage discharges. That issue was at the heart of my private Member’s Bill and is included in her amendment.

What the Minister’s amendment adds, which was not in my private Member’s Bill or, frankly, in the Duke’s amendment, is the commitment to include a reduction in harm to public health, which will be of great benefit to the increasing numbers of people who use our rivers for swimming, canoeing and other activities that involve actually getting into the water, rather than just touching it with a fly or a leaded weight to catch a fish. The public health impact is something that we should not forget.

There have been comments about how effective the Minister’s proposed enforcement regime will be. I think that locking the enforcement regime into the existing Water Industry Act regime is potentially a more effective method than the one proposed in the previous Lords amendment. Of course there will have to be enforcement, and one of the big problems that we have had with the Environment Agency over the last 30 years is that its powers have not been rigorously enforced. I strongly encourage the Minister, as she engages with the consequences of the spending review, to urge the agency to increase its enforcement efforts in respect of the water companies.

There have also been comments—a few moments ago from Luke Pollard, with whom I have also engaged on this matter, and from outside—to the effect that the concept of a progressive reduction could be trivial. The hon. Gentleman gave some examples. I think that that is to fundamentally misunderstand how the amendment will lock into the other measures in the Bill. Before my private Member’s Bill emerged, the Government had already indicated that they would introduce for the first time in statute a requirement for sewerage undertakings to produce a drainage and sewerage management plan to last five years. Every five years, it would be updated. Within that plan, there is a requirement to reduce the impact of the activities on the environment.

The proposed new clause locks the duty into those plans, and the plans are subject to a Government power to rewrite them if the Secretary of State of the day does not believe that they are good enough or go far enough. So there is, in my view, a clear link between the amendment and requiring water companies to make a progressive reduction in sewage discharges of materiality. That seems to have been missed by many of the commentators who have been complaining about whether the Bill has teeth.

In addition—as the Minister said—to this set of requirements on water companies, the office for environmental protection will have the power to investigate poor behaviour on the part of companies that do not meet their statutory duties in the Bill, which include a progressive reduction in sewage discharges and their impact. It will be able to consider whether the Environment Agency is doing its job in regulating the companies’ progressive reduction of those discharges, and, as we have just heard, it can also investigate Ofwat.

For all those reasons, I think that the Bill provides a clear direction to water companies that they must reduce sewage discharges, which, as Members in all parts of the House agree, have got to stop. I will be supporting the amendment.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will not speak for very long. I am aware—as always—that the Bill is largely concerned with English environmental matters, as environment is for the most part devolved to Scotland, and I have to say, thank goodness for that! The Lords amendments serve to highlight some of the progress that Scotland has made in environmental protection.

In respect of the amendments on the OEP, I should point out that we have already established an independent governance body in Environmental Standards Scotland, which is fully independent of the Scottish Government and answerable to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government were happy to support it, because they know that true independence of regulators is a vital part of their role.

It seems to me that the UK Government’s reluctance to accept independent oversight is one of the main causes of delay to the implementation of the Bill. It strikes me as incredible that one of the cornerstones of environmental protection in England, post Brexit, is an issue still being argued about by this Government. It exposes the fact that our departure from the EU leaves us all very vulnerable to this Government, any future decisions that they might make to slash regulations, and subsequent environmental backsliding. It is also disappointing to note that the Government have resisted calls to take really strong action through the Bill, such as implementing the World Health Organisation’s standards for air quality, which we have done in Scotland. Let me also record again my utter dismay that the Government inserted an amendment via the House of Lords, the intent and outcome of which I still deplore. UK Ministers ignored the express wishes of the Scottish Parliament as detailed in the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 on a devolved issue, and cut those wishes down.

Let me turn to the amendments on sewage. Water is an area very clearly devolved to Scotland. Scottish Water is a statutory organisation, accountable to the Scottish Parliament. It is owned, if you like, by the people for the people, and that is the way the Scottish people like it. Although we have our own problems with outdated Victorian sewer systems struggling to cope with the “once in a hundred years” events that now seem to be occurring every two to three years, the fact remains that any profits made by Scottish Water are invested in the services and infrastructure of Scotland’s waterways rather than the pockets of shareholders, and that Scottish Water does not carry the stratospheric levels of debt carried by English water companies—and that is the way the people of Scotland like it too.

Let me be absolutely clear: this is a devolved area, and the amendment clearly states that it concerns English water companies. I think it important to remind the House that there is clear blue water between the situation in England and that in Scotland. Although, as I have said, we in Scotland have our own problems with ageing systems that require large-scale investment in the face of the climate crisis whose real effects we are starting to see in our communities, and no one is suggesting that the situation in Scotland is perfect—indeed, I am certain that this is one of the first issues that Environmental Standards Scotland will look at—the principle that our water services remain in public ownership is hugely important, and this Government should remember that.

While water is currently exempt from market access principles in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, delegated powers granted to Ministers in that legislation mean that they can, with very little trouble to themselves, change that situation almost at the stroke of a pen, and with no real reference to the opinions of devolved Governments or, indeed, this Parliament. UK Ministers could submit devolved policy areas to market access principles despite current exemptions, and regardless of the views of the people of Scotland on the matter. Now it is up to the parties of successive UK Governments since privatisation occurred ultimately to explain to the people of England their actions in choosing to place their precious water systems in the hands of profit-driven corporations.

Let me end by saying that if UK Ministers at any stage try to open up the Scottish water supply to market access, the howls of outrage and fury from the people of Scotland will be heard even as far away as this place. I warn the Government of that now.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

Order. I hope that the next contributions will be very brief indeed, because we can only keep the debate running until seven minutes past eight.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

It is a pleasure to speak about these Lords amendments.

I welcome the Government’s progress on the Office for Environmental Protection. I think that its independence is better protected than it was before, but that is something of which we must be very conscious. I believe that it will be very effective under Dame Glenys Stacey, and I think that the Secretary of State will work with her, as will Ministers, to ensure that it is indeed independent. It must have enough resources to be able to continue its work. I hope that it will prevent a great many cases from going to court. We will ultimately need a judicial system to make it work, but I hope that the new system and the new body will bring about many conclusions on environmental problems, and a good deal of advice so that cases do not end up in the courts for years.

I will be very quick, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I want to welcome the work that my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne has put into the outflows amendment, and also the work done by the Duke of Wellington. Together, they have negotiated extremely well—dare I say it—with the Government, and what the Government have now come up with is absolutely right.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

As the hon. Gentleman knows, if we do not accept the Wellington amendment, we will all have to wear Wellington boots to avoid the stools while we are paddling. But does he agree that we also need on-roof water capture with water butts, upstream water capture, and downstream and water processing plant capture so that we can take the pressure off the sewerage system when there is flash flooding, and sort out this problem without immediate massive investment in the sewers?

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thank my hon. Friend—I will call him my hon. Friend—from the Select Committee. As he rightly says, we need to capture more storm water and rainwater, because it is unfortunately getting into the sewers and causing these outflows. That is an important point. The water companies have to ensure that they recompense their shareholders, but having done an enquiry in previous Parliaments, I know that we have to apply a lot of heat to those companies to ensure that they put the investment into curing the problem of outflows. We also have to ensure that the Environment Agency and Ofwat use their teeth on those companies to make that happen.

I believe that we can do this. There is a great deal of cost involved, but those companies need to concentrate a lot of their resources on these issues to ensure the quality of the water we bathe in, the rivers that we fish in and those that we want to swim in. Like Luke Pollard, I also do a bit of wild swimming. I swim in the River Parrett, so I will probably end up in the Bristol channel one day. But seriously, I believe that we will clean up the water but we must put pressure on the water companies. What the Minister has said is welcome, and I know that the Secretary of State will also put pressure on them. I will stop there, because I know that many hon. Members from across the House and from Devon and Cornwall and across the west country want to speak on this issue.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

I will now put on a time limit of three minutes so that we can get as many people in as possible. If people could speak for less than three minutes, that would be absolutely great.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I want to thank everyone in my constituency who has written to me about the Environment Bill during its long progress. It has been a long time coming, but I will be brief. I would also like to thank those in the other place who have put up a good fight and improved the Bill. I am disappointed that, despite all the wrangling, the debates and the evidence, there is still an enormous gap between the Government’s rhetoric on the environment and this Bill, which simply does not go far enough. While all the eyes and hopes of the world are on Glasgow and COP26, the Government are doing all they can to resist introducing concrete protections, leaving our environment as a bargaining chip for new trade agreements that would undercut Britain’s environmental standards. They cannot have it both ways.

I am disappointed that the Government have refused to include World Health Organisation air quality targets in the Bill. There is much unfinished business here, on trees and on single-use plastics, and I must include wet wipes in that. The Office for Environmental Protection was meant to hold Ministers to account on their green policies, but the simple truth is that the Government’s preferred OEP will lack independence and will not be able to hold Tory Ministers to account in the way that they have promised. That is why we had such tortuous explanations of how it will work in the opening statement: the Bill is simply not clear enough and does not go far enough. I therefore urge colleagues to support Lords amendments 31C and 75C.

I am proud to have the River Thames in my constituency, but we have a dirty water emergency. While the Government’s proposal is a big improvement on what went before, it still does not place a duty on the Secretary of State, as set out in Lords amendment 45B proposed by the Duke of Wellington, to tackle sewage, to tackle that plastic getting out and to tackle the killing of fish, which happens on a regular basis worldwide. This progressive reduction does not cut it with those of us on the Opposition Benches. In short, the Bill is still not fit for purpose. It has certainly improved since its First Reading nearly two years ago. I was proud to be on the Bill Committee, in which nearly 200 amendments that would have improved the Bill were tabled, but not one of them was agreed to.

We have had to drag the Government kicking and screaming just to get the Bill to this stage, and that is embarrassing when the UK is supposed to be showing global leadership on the climate emergency. There have been a lot of bold words from the Government, and I really hope to see them put into practice, but I fear that the Office for Environmental Protection will not be able to enforce everything, just as the Environment Agency has not been able to enforce everything, and that is why we have our dirty rivers. We will be cheering this on, and we will hope for more, but we are disappointed by the progress so far.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I would very much like to thank the Minister for her clarity today. I represent a constituency that has a great river running through it. It is a river that I have sailed on all my life and also swum in all my life, albeit sometimes unintentionally. This whole debate around the sewage amendment is very personal to me because I am the daughter of a boatbuilder who often used to work on boats on his creek right next to raw sewage and water scum. Nobody on the Government Benches could deny that that kind of environment is totally disgusting.

Also, this year we saw an unprecedented period in which our beautiful Kent beaches were shut because of an absolute disaster involving the dispersal of sewage from the overflows. There is no doubt that water companies pumping sewage into our waterways in 2021 is disgusting. Two weeks ago, I supported the Duke of Wellington’s amendment because I wanted the Government to go as far as they could practically go in stopping this practice. I am very thankful for the work of the Minister and of my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne and for the discussions that have gone on in these two weeks to ensure that we have been able to bring forward this amendment today. I will support the Government tonight, because I totally believe that this new duty, combined with other measures in the Bill, will be a major step towards ending the use of storm overflows.

I was disappointed by some of the comments made by Luke Pollard, for whom I have great respect. We need to recognise that this Government and these Ministers are the first to tackle the issue of sewage and storm overflows. No Government have done that previously, and I am proud that the Minister, who is so passionate about this issue, has worked incredibly hard to accommodate our worries and fears. The Environment Bill is a major piece of work for the protection and improvement of our environment. Make no mistake, these measures will cost the water companies and the bill payers, but I believe that they will bring the water companies into line so that we can stop this disgusting practice. I will be very happy to support the Minister and her team tonight.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, but I will not take too long. I want to ask the Minister a quick question. I am pleased to see what is coming forward in relation to single-use items and the conservation covenants, and I am pleased that those measures have all been passed. However, I still have a concern about the Office for Environmental Protection’s enforcement policy. Lords amendment 31 states:

“The OEP has complete discretion in the carrying out of its functions, including in—

(a) preparing its enforcement policy,

(b) exercising its enforcement functions, and

(c) preparing and publishing its budget.”

That has merit in my eyes, and I would be interested to hear the Government’s rationale as to why they believe it is unnecessary, as I believe that similar amendments were made in relation to Northern Ireland.

I am also gratified to learn that there is now a Government amendment in place for a duty to be enshrined in law to ensure that water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows. That has been lacking for many years, and I have seen the devastating effects of discharge from storm overflows on homes that merit at least this form of protection. For too many years, the water companies have been doing the bare minimum. I seek the Minister’s confirmation that more will be done to ensure that the rivers and waterways around this great United Kingdom are protected, that more will be done than just the bare minimum, and that this will be the beginning of progress. We must all take our obligation to future generations more seriously. I often say, as others do, that we leave our environment for the generations that come after us, and for the sake of my grandchildren—and my great-grandchildren, when that time comes—we must ensure that the water companies step up to their agenda.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I will be as brief as possible, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the Ministers for listening and for moving on this issue, and above all I thank my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, who was sitting next to me, for his leadership on this issue. I do not think that this could have happened without him. To be blunt, if this amendment is good enough for him, it is good enough for me. He would not support it if it were not strong.

On the Isle of Wight we have some wonderfully clean beaches, but any sewage discharge is unacceptable. In a place that is environmentally sensitive—we are a UNESCO biosphere—and that has so many amenity sites because of so many visitors swimming, having human poo on our beaches is not acceptable. The same applies in the Solent, for sailors, whether they are in the Solent accidentally or deliberately. We need to clean this up.

I also note that I know the Government are somewhat victims of their own success. It is great being lectured by the Opposition, but this groundbreaking Bill is being brought in by the Government side, and we should all be supporting it.

I have two questions for the Minister, who was kind enough to say that she would take them. First, the Government have power to push the water firms to go further, faster. Will she be willing, and will the Secretary of State next to her be willing, to use that power to ensure that the water firms understand the urgency of this situation for our waterways and our beaches?

Secondly, and if I understand it rightly, can the Minister confirm that ecologically sensitive sites and amenity sites, as which the Isle of Wight’s beaches both qualify, will be given priority? I am writing to the water firms about that this evening, but anything the Minister could do to clear that up and to ensure that those amenity and ecologically sensitive sites are prioritised would be very welcome.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Planning) 8:00 pm, 8th November 2021

I rise to oppose the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 45B on sewage discharges. We need higher fines for polluters and annual parliamentary scrutiny and to define progressive reductions—how much, and by when—of sewage discharges, as my hon. Friend Luke Pollard said.

The Thames runs through my constituency; I have kayaked there, I have paddle-boarded and on Saturday I ran 26.2 miles along it. I quote:

“The real test of Government seriousness is whether they also instruct regulators to authorise investment in sewers, and end policies that make the problem worse.”

Those are not my words, but the words of the water companies on 22 October. Why were the Government dragging their feet when the water companies were encouraging them to support the Duke of Wellington’s amendment?

There has been broad support for stronger action. Yet again, the Minister quotes the £600 billion cost that she says dealing with the problem will cause, but the water companies say the cost is in the region of £13 billion to £20 billion using concrete storage tanks, or £20 billion to £30 billion more if they are accompanied by natural drainage schemes that bring wider community benefits. That compares with the £1.2 billion already being spent by industry on overflows between 2020 and 2025. This does not represent some unfeasibly large jump in effort, say the water companies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport explained that the amendment does not go far enough, so Labour will not be supporting it. DEFRA has been decimated; the Minister herself just now described the OEP as a small organisation. The Government’s approach to this aspect of the Environment Bill—in fact, all aspects of the Environment Bill—is yet another example of how they just pay lip service to the environment.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I will be brief, because I know we want to end. I thank my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne and my hon. Friend Neil Parish for articulating what I would have wanted to say, had I had longer to speak. I also thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their accessibility in this ongoing negotiation on sewage storm overflows.

This issue has been a passion of mine since childhood, when I grew up on the Yorkshire coast and swam in said sewage. Now I have the great privilege of representing two coastlines in Cornwall, as well as inland waterways, and to have been a member of Surfers Against Sewage since before I moved to Cornwall. It has been a great regret that the organisation has been at the centre of a very nasty campaign, supported by hon. Members on the Opposition side, accusing me of having voted to pump raw sewage into the oceans, which I have not. All of us in this Chamber can agree that we want to put an end to that. If anybody accuses me of that again, I would be grateful if they wrote to my office so that I can provide them with a detailed answer.

I look forward to seeing Truro and Falmouth benefit from the myriad of measures within the Bill, which I do not have time to go into. I am grateful to Members of both Houses of Parliament, of all political persuasions, for showing how well this House works and how it is possible to get the Government to move on something that is extremely important to everyone. I will leave my comments there, because I know that we are short of time.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will finish within a minute and 20 seconds, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let us just focus on the sewage, then, given that that is the time available to us.

We have, thanks to the Government amendment, now a duty on water companies to progressively reduce the amount of sewage discharged through storm overflows —but there are no targets for either volume or timescale. That leaves water companies with the power to continue doing what they do now. This amendment is something to get Conservative Back Benchers off the hook, rather than to give water companies the direction they need.

I represent the English Lake District. I am disgusted that there is raw sewage being dumped into Lake Windermere for 71 days, collectively, in any given year. This amendment will do nothing to stop that. Currently, a water company dumps 40% of all the phosphates in Windermere. If that goes down to 39%, there is no measure to say whether that is okay, so I assume the water companies will think that it is okay.

What about timescale? What if the amount goes down over five years or over 10 years? All the Government amendment does is give the Back Benchers of the Conservative party an excuse to write to their constituents and say, “There has been further movement in the right direction.” It allows the Government to let the water companies off the hook, while doing nothing at all to demand what is necessary to clean up our lakes and our rivers.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We have been two and a quarter years bringing this enormous Bill through Parliament. I want to thank all hon. Members and hon. Friends for their contributions, particularly those who have approached me personally over the past few days: my hon. Friends the Members for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Workington (Mark Jenkinson), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for Devizes (Danny Kruger), for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), for Yeovil (Mr Fysh), for Havant (Alan Mak), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) and for Watford (Dean Russell).

I also thank many others from all around our coasts, including my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). If I have left anybody out, I will be writing to them—[Interruption.] And my hon. Friend Bob Seely. Yes, we will be looking at ecological sites and bathing waters first when we bring in the storm overflows legislation. That should placate the wild swimmer from the Opposition Benches, Luke Pollard.

I have outlined in enormous detail why we should vote for these amendments—

One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 20 October).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83G).

That this House
insists on its amendments 31A and 31B and disagrees with Lords amendment 31C.

Division number 103 Environment Bill — Clause 24 - Guidance on the OEP’s Enforcement Policy and Functions

Aye: 276 MPs

No: 162 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

The House divided: Ayes 279, Noes 162.

Question accordingly agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).