Ofwat: Strategic Priorities

– in the House of Commons at 2:24 pm on 9th June 2022.

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[Relevant documents: Environmental Audit Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2021-22, Water Quality in Rivers, HC 74, and the Government response, HC 164. Letter from the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, dated 21 October 2021, concerning the consultation on the draft Strategic Priority Statement for Ofwat.]

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before we start the next Backbench business, may I remind everybody that anybody who wishes to take part in this debate, and indeed in any debate, should be here for the opening speeches, for a substantial part of the debate itself and for the entirety of the wind-ups? If you cannot do that, please come to see me in the Chair to have your name taken off the list, and then just intervene.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 2:42 pm, 9th June 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Government’s strategic priorities for Ofwat.

I wish to begin my remarks by placing on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this opportunity to hold an important debate and in particular for its tolerance. The interventions of the Easter recess, the Prorogation and the recent Whitsun and jubilee mean that it is some two months since my fellow signatories, my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman and my hon. Friend Danny Kruger, and I first submitted our application for this debate. I am pleased to see them both in their places today, and I hope that they will have an opportunity to contribute.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

I thought the Environmental Audit Committee’s report was a model of its kind. I noted in particular that it created this context of identifying a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, slurry and plastic. Does my right hon. Friend feel that the Government’s response adequately addressed that issue—both on the sewage side and on the wider phosphates issue?

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

My right hon. Friend tempts me to rewrite my speech from scratch. First, I thank him for his comments about our report, which was a significant body of work and the first such report of consequence for a number of years. The Government response to our 55 recommendations was one of the most positive responses to any of the reports that our Committee has prepared in the time I have served on it. We made 55 recommendations and I believe only five were rejected by the Government; the others were either accepted in whole or in part. So I think the Government have moved quite a long way in addressing these concerns, but my right hon. Friend will recognise that solving this problem is going to take decades, not days. I know that the Minister will address that in her remarks.

I was just going to thank my colleagues on the EAC for embracing and sharing my passion for the issue of improving water quality as we conducted our inquiry. We published the report in January and it made specific recommendations for the strategic policy statement on Ofwat, which provides the context for today’s debate. I will discuss that shortly.

Having been tempted by my right hon. Friend to praise the Government, or potentially not to do so, I would like to take this moment, while I am in a generous mood, to thank the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow. I am pleased to see her in her place, responding to this debate, and I thank her for her personal commitment to this vital issue of improving water quality over the past two years. In particular, I thank her for driving her officials to work with me to amend the Environment Act 2021 and put into law many of the core elements of my private Member’s Bill, which the pandemic prevented from being debated. I am very grateful to her and I would like the House to be aware, from me, that she has moved the Government a very considerable distance on this issue.

There is no doubt that over the past two years there has been a massive awakening of public interest in the state of our rivers. The introduction under this and the previous Conservative Government of event duration monitors at water treatment plants and storm overflows and the annual publication of their findings since March 2020, has brought to public attention the appalling degree of sewage routinely spilled into our waterways by all water companies involved in the treatment side of the business.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Health and Social Care Committee

I congratulate my right hon. Friend for his extraordinary campaigning on this issue, which has changed the entire debate. Although I recognise that the Government are spending £3 billion on schemes to prevent sewage overspills, does he know that in my constituency, in the River Wey, we have had nine overspills in one village and 12 in Godalming, that in Bramley we have had overspills and that we have had 76 in Chiddingfold? Does he agree that this is totally unacceptable and that much more needs to be done?

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

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for introducing the next comment in my speech, which was to highlight precisely the volume of spillages that these monitors have revealed—not just in his local river, but right across the country, in all catchments. All water treatment plants are obliged now to have event duration monitors. They are obliged to have them but not all have installed them—or at least not on all the storm overflows. I believe there are about 22,000 overflows and about 20,000 have the monitors on them, so this number will continue to increase until they are all being monitored; I will come on to discuss that in a moment.

My right hon. Friend has described the particular challenge in his river system, but he will be aware that the aggregate number showed that there were 372,533 spill events, lasting 2,667,452 hours, during 2021. Every Member of this House will have access to those figures and can look them up. I commend to them The Rivers Trust website, as it has made this information very accessible. It is very easy to find where a facility is being monitored and what spillage events have occurred in the previous year.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

Not many in the House will have been able to attend the reception for World Oceans Day, where I congratulated Surfers Against Sewage on their 32 years of work trying to make sure that our seas are safe as well. Our seas and rivers are intimately connected.

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

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am rather concerned that my speech has been leaked to other Members of the House, because the Father of the House has just pre-empted my next sentence. He is absolutely right: it is appropriate that we are having this debate on the day after World Oceans Day. Of course, the devastating effect of the spillages impacts the receiving waterway, and gradually impacts the oceans as the rivers flow into the seas around us. This has a differing effect depending on the severity of the spillage, but the effect is routine, not exceptional.

Water companies were allowed to spill discharges so that they did not back up through the drainage system into people’s houses and on to our streets. The whole purpose of the licences was to allow such an opportunity in exceptional circumstances. What is so apparent from all this information is that it is routine spillages that are causing so much damage to our rivers and our oceans.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

Sewage discharges, at least in the River Wye, on which my right hon. Friend’s report brilliantly focused, are only 25% of the problem. Phosphate leaching from fields is more like 65%. Does he feel that the Government have set an adequately ambitious target in saying that 80% of this phosphate should be reduced by 2037? I wonder whether we should go faster than that.

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

My right hon. Friend is right to refer to other polluters. If we take a look across the country as a whole, we will see that it is roughly evenly balanced between pollution from water treatment plants and storm overflows and pollution from agriculture. In the Wye, pollution is particularly prone to come from agriculture. As he knows, I am one of his parliamentary neighbours and our waterways along the whole of the Wye and the Lugg catchment are very affected by intensive poultry farming and the phosphates that it generates through spreading litter on the fields.

The Government need to join up their support mechanisms for agriculture. Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity through the environmental land management scheme to redirect support in a way that meets not only the objectives to ensure viable agriculture in this country, but other objectives of the same Department—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I would like to see a more joined-up approach, so that we can use the mechanisms that exist, such as the sustainable farming incentive, the environmental land management scheme system and the farming rules for water to ensure that we are not only helping farmers to generate and maintain a viable business—I should declare an interest as a farmer and a recipient of the basic payment scheme at the moment—but improving our waterways. My right hon. Friend was absolutely right to raise that issue.

Sewage discharges at the scale that I have mentioned must stop. Campaigning groups up and down the country, with which I have been working, have recognised that for some time—from national organisations such as the Rivers Trust, which I have mentioned, the Angling Trust and Surfers Against Sewage, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, to individual catchment campaign groups such as Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, which gave powerful evidence to our Committee. All have been focused on raising awareness and urging the Government to take action to compel change in the behaviour and performance of water companies, and they are right to do so.

This is why the strategic policy statement for Ofwat is so critical: it is the primary mechanism through which the Government, via the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, are able to influence the economic regulator, Ofwat, to refocus the prioritisation of capital expenditure for the next five-year pricing period—from 2025 to 2029—of the water companies in England, which are responsible for the treatment of sewage and other waste water.

The latest strategic priority statement for Ofwat was published on 28 March, when we had originally sought to hold this debate, having previously been laid before the House in draft for the statutory 40 days. This document is therefore the critical point of influence and the device through which we in this place can persuade the Government to reprioritise Ofwat to compel water companies to act to reduce pollution of our waterways for which they are responsible.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s point about Ofwat, but there is also another issue here relating to the planning system. We find that some of the water companies are not statutory consultees for large-scale new residential developments, and those residential developments can have a vast impact on the amount of surface water run-off at times of heavy rainfall. Moreover, new developments can impact on existing sewerage networks, which, historically, can often be very inadequate. How important would he consider that to be as a part of tackling this issue of sewage discharge into rivers?

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

Again, my hon. Friend has made a point that I was intending to make in my speech. In fact, it is my final point. I have something specifically to address that in a request to the Minister when we get there. He is absolutely right: development puts pressure on the water treatment works without requiring developers to contribute to improving that infrastructure.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Mr Dunne, could you please face the front of the House, so that your wonderful voice can be picked up by the microphone and your words everlastingly put into Hansard?

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

I do apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will address you, as I should do.

I was just saying how heartened I have been to be involved in a campaign over the past two years with so many people from across society and the political spectrum who are engaged in trying to restore our rivers to a healthy and natural state. Some people have called for the issue to be solved overnight; of course, in an ideal world we would all like that to be the case, but it is simply not deliverable.

We need to introduce a degree of realism into the debate, because otherwise we find people out there in the wider community believing some of the very unfortunate propaganda that has been used for party political reasons on this debate—not today, but during the course of these discussions—to try to make out that, for example, Conservatives are voting in favour of sewage pollution. That is completely inappropriate and a disgraceful slur, given the work that has been done by Conservatives, with others.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

It is not my intention to go into a party debate, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a real need to ensure that Ofwat accounts for its actions? Does he agree with the suggestion that some have made that there should be annual reports against the priorities for Ofwat to his Committee?

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

I would like to say to the hon. Lady that my remarks about people misinterpreting what is being done do not apply to her. She has been a doughty champion on this issue; she has led debates in this House and we have had good cross-party discussions. She makes an interesting point: there are already five-yearly reviews, but whether that should be done more frequently is an interesting question, and maybe the Minister might like to respond to it in her winding-up speech.

Moving on, the pressures on the drainage systems have been developing over six decades, as investment in water treatment infrastructure and drainage systems underground has not kept pace with development above ground, as my hon. Friend Dr Poulter has pointed out. It is also exacerbated by pollution caused by others—both farming practices, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire described, and run-off from highways and other hard standing—so I accept that it is not exclusively the responsibility of water companies.

As the Secretary of State himself acknowledged before our Select Committee, the solution ultimately may require separation of surface and foul water drainage systems, and I believe the Department is currently trying to get a harder estimate of the cost of such a massive exercise. It will take enormous capital expenditure to correct the problem for good, and the work will take decades to complete, but a start needs to be made now. The SPS provides that opportunity.

I will focus my remarks now on what Ofwat should consider in its negotiations with water companies to encourage them to identify and quantify solutions. It inevitably takes time to progress solutions through the planning process before the required infrastructure construction can begin, whether through nature-based solutions or traditional mechanical and chemical systems. Much of that involves installing monitoring equipment to increase public awareness of the quality of receiving waters in real time. That was a key transparency recommendation of my private Member’s Bill and our Committee report, and it is now required to be introduced under the Environment Act. However, it merely establishes the baseline; the real spend will be incurred in the corrective measures required.

In my own constituency, Severn Trent Water has announced plans to invest £4.5 million to achieve bathing water quality status along some 15 miles of the River Teme between Knighton and Ludlow as part of their “Get River Positive” investment plan. That is obviously very welcome. The Thames Tideway tunnel will make a remarkable difference to water quality here in London. It illustrates well both the high cost and the length of time involved in delivering a transformational project to improve water quality, namely £4.9 billion and 11 years from securing planning to becoming operational respectively.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s mention of the Tideway tunnel. It is an enormously expensive project and collects a lot of the sewage from London, but not from any sewage treatment works above Hammersmith—by which I mean specifically Mogden sewage treatment works. Every time it rains more than a drizzle, Mogden and Thames Water discharge dilute sewage into the River Thames, and the Thames Tideway tunnel can do nothing about that.

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

I bow to the hon. Lady’s knowledge of her constituency and the area around it. I am informed that the tideway tunnel will take 37 million tonnes of the 39 million tonnes of sewage currently discharged annually into the Thames out of the river, so it may not affect every single treatment plant, and it is primarily coping with the north of the Thames rather than the south of the Thames, as I understand it. I will touch on how it is being paid for in a moment.

Given Ofwat’s unique opportunity to approve capital investment, it needs to focus not only on the economic impact of household bills but on the environmental impact that water companies have. With the rising cost of living, none of us wishes to see bills rising sharply, but equally, if water rates are set so low as to preclude necessary capital investment in water quality, we will simply kick the can down the road for another five years and the problem will be harder to solve and more expensive to fix.

Given that the current cost of capital is still at historically low interest rates, over a multi-decade investment cycle water companies remain well placed to fund significant capital investment. For example, the tideway tunnel, the biggest current project, is due to add only £19 per annum to household bills in London. I believe that a balance can be found as regards Ofwat’s new priority for water companies to improve treatment in addition to the necessity to secure adequate drinking supply and have low bills.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I recently hosted a meeting with the Consumer Council for Water, which is looking at the introduction of a social tariff. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that an important part of this equation for people is that everyone should be able to afford their bills but that we have to get the work done that we need?

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

Indeed. The Consumer Council for Water is a statutory consultee with Ofwat, so it will be able to make that case as part of the determination process once Ofwat is following its instructions under the SPS.

It was clear from our inquiry that there had been a lack of political will from successive previous Administrations to empower regulators to tackle pollution and improve water quality. This had not been included as a priority in previous strategic policy statements. Evidence suggested that Ofwat’s price review process had hitherto focused on the twin primary objectives of securing clean water supply and keeping bills down. There was virtually no emphasis on facilitating the investment necessary to ensure that the sewerage system is fit for the 21st century. Anglian Water, for example, told the Committee that in 2017 the Government’s last strategic policy statement, which sets the objectives for Ofwat, “ducked the hard choices”.

So in October last year we wrote to the Secretary of State to contribute to the consultation on the draft SPS. We were concerned that the draft that had been published for consultation by the Government was imprecise in its expectations, with no indication of what specific outcomes were expected and by when. We called for the next SPS to make it unambiguously clear to Ofwat that a step change in regulatory action and water company investment is urgently required to upgrade the sewerage network, improve the parlous state of water quality in English rivers, and restore freshwater biodiversity.

In February, we were pleased when the Government published the final SPS, which had been significantly strengthened following our recommendations. We had made five specific recommendations that the Government accepted and have now been incorporated in the SPS guidance. They are, first and foremost, the very welcome prioritisation of investment over lowering bills to ensure that the sewerage system is fit for the future; secondly, challenging water companies to meet a target of zero serious pollution incidents by 2030; thirdly, amending the previous wording on the use of storm overflows from being used in “exceptional” circumstances to

“only in cases of unusually heavy rainfall”; fourthly, prioritising overflows that do the most harm to sensitive environments; and finally, requiring that water companies should significantly increase their use of nature-based and catchment-based solutions. That is all new, and our Committee can justly take some credit for it.

What has become clear is that water companies now know that they need to act and they must start to do so immediately. Some are already acting ahead of the measures set out in the Environment Act to produce drainage and sewage management plans. I have been sent plans from four companies—Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water, Thames Water and Wessex Water—and I am quite sure that others have also prepared plans setting out what they are committing to do under the current and the next water industry national environment programme as part of their plans for capital investment.

I have a couple of frank questions for the Minister about whether our water company regulators are fit for purpose. With the work that I and my Committee have done, there is no doubt that both the Environment Agency, through poor monitoring, and Ofwat, through poor enforcement, have not met the standard we expect of our regulators to protect the environment of our waterways. Self-monitoring by water companies, permitted by the Environment Agency since 2010, has allowed them to discharge sewage more or less at will. The proof is that it took water companies revealing during the course of our inquiry that they might be in breach of their permits for the Environment Agency and Ofwat to announce major investigations into potentially widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at sewage treatment works. Those investigations continue, so I cannot discuss them.

Where the Environment Agency has prosecuted companies for persistent breaches, judges have started to impose more meaningful fines, but even though these fines might start to capture the attention of water company boards rather than being seen as an inconvenient cost of doing business, as previously low fines appear to have been, fines paid by water companies for breaching environmental standards go directly to the general Treasury account; they do not contribute to solving the problem. I urge the Minister, therefore, to work with Treasury colleagues to enable water company fines to be ringfenced for water quality improvement. There could be a stand-alone fund managed by DEFRA or an arm’s length body with an independent chair, or it could be left to water companies to administer based on the environmental priorities of the river or coastal system they have been found to have polluted. Instead of allowing water companies to hand back a tiny rebate to individual ratepayers, potentially hundreds of millions of pounds could be put back into environmental protection. Although we all hope that no such fines will be necessary, we must deal with the world as we find it, and we think that would be a practical step toward solving the problem.

I have another suggestion for the Government. We know that more houses must be built to meet the UK population’s needs. When development consents are granted, developers are obliged to contribute to the additional infrastructure required—roads, schools, medical facilities, or other basic infrastructure—but, as we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, water companies are not statutory consultees and local authorities have no power to require developers to contribute to any necessary water infrastructure. Indeed, the infamous right to connect explicitly removes such costs from developers. I urge the Minister to work with me on using the opportunity presented by the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which had its Second Reading last night, to put this right and to empower local authorities to require developers to contribute to meeting the cost of the infrastructure required for water and waste water connectivity of new developments, which are contributing to the pressure.

I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 3:08 pm, 9th June 2022

I congratulate and thank Philip Dunne for all his campaigning on this issue. I am pleased to have supported a number of his initiatives in this place. That said, it is extraordinary that we are still having to debate this subject—that we are having to talk about measures to prevent and reduce the discharge of raw untreated sewage into our rivers, our lakes and our chalkstreams and on to our beaches. This is just so obviously wrong and it is extraordinary that we are still having to talk about it.

Let me start with a stark contrast. England’s water company bosses have awarded themselves almost £27 million in bonuses over the past two years, despite those companies pumping out raw sewage into waterways 1,000 times a day. That, too, is obviously wrong. Liberal Democrats have demanded a sewage bonus ban to ban future bonuses until sewage dumps stop. We want to stop water company executives being paid a penny in bonuses until waterways are protected from these outrageous sewage dumps, and those bosses should be made to hand back the millions of pounds that they have already received in bonuses until they clean up the mess.

What is the scale of the problem that we are dealing with? In 2020, water companies discharged raw sewage into waterways 400,000 times, which amounts to more than 3 million hours of discharge. The longest discharges lasted for more than 8,000 hours. Just 14% of the UK’s waterways are in a good ecological condition and more than half of England’s rivers failed to pass the cleanliness tests. We have a duty to protect our natural environment, but water companies, Ofwat and, I am afraid, the Government have failed to hold water companies accountable for dumping sewage into waterways.

New analysis of Environment Agency data has revealed some shocking statistics. In the south-west, South West Water dumped sewage into local rivers for a staggering 19,095 hours last year. Across the region, it released sewage into rivers and on to beach fronts 43,484 times and for more than 350,000 hours. The data reveals that that includes raw sewage being discharged for more than 3,700 hours into the River Otter, more than 1,800 hours into the River Exe, and more than 1,400 hours into the River Axe.

The situation is not much better in the east of England in Hertfordshire. My constituency of St Albans is home to the River Ver, which is a rare and precious chalk stream. It should run clear, but last year, the volunteers of the Ver Valley Society and the river wardens took photographs at the source of the river that showed sewage, sewage fungus and plastic tampon applicators—all at the source of our beautiful river.

Shocking data revealed by the Rivers Trust shows that the sewer storm overflow at Markyate waste water treatment works, operated by Thames Water, discharged untreated raw sewage into the River Ver as many as 139 times for a total of 2,642 hours during 2021. Another wastewater treatment works at Harpenden, just up the road from St Albans, also run by Thames Water, recorded 13 spills for a total of 120 hours into the River Lea.

Where on earth is Ofwat? I think it has now been called “Ofwhere” by some environmental charities. It is sitting on its hands and simply missing in action. It has fallen to an environmental group called Wild Justice to take it to court to try to encourage it to use the powers that it already has to regulate sewage discharge.

I am disappointed that the Government have not taken on more of Opposition Members’ ideas. For example, during the passage of the Environment Act, Liberal Democrats supported an amendment to make it harder for sewage dumps to happen and to ensure that DEFRA produced a storm overflow discharge reduction plan. It is disappointing that the Government whipped against that amendment. During the passage of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment to name and shame the water companies found to dump sewage in rivers, which leads to animals being killed. Again, it is disappointing that the Government actively whipped against that amendment. My hon. Friend Tim Farron has introduced a Sewage Discharges Bill to end the sewage scandal in rivers and protect animals, and I urge the Government to support it.

As I said at the beginning, it is deeply disappointing that we even have to have this debate. Our lakes, beaches, chalk streams and rivers are utterly vital to our British ecosystems, and all of us must do everything to protect them. Despite discharges of untreated waste only being permitted in so-called exceptional circumstances—for example, after extreme rainfall—these releases from water treatment companies are becoming routine.

Water companies must work to minimise sewage discharges into our rivers and lakes, so I call on the Minister to consider a number of things. I would like the Government to set meaningful targets and deadlines for water companies to end sewage discharge. I would like the Government to introduce a sewage tax on water company profits to fund the clean-up of our waterways. I would like the Government to reduce the number of licences given to water companies permitting them to discharge sewage into our rivers.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

Does the hon. Lady share my view that one of the things the Government should closely consider is the idea of a national rivers recovery fund so that fines that have been paid can be used to remedy all of the pollution that has created them? At the moment, small fines go back into redress for pollution, but large ones go to the Treasury. My former colleagues will not thank me for it, but there is a case for a wider national recovery fund for rivers.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention, and I think that is an exceptionally good idea. I am certainly open to any idea that effectively makes these water companies cough up to clean up the mess they have made. I would happily have a conversation with him to see how we can advance such a suggestion.

In addition, I would like the Government to add members of local environmental groups to water company boards. Some of our river volunteers, certainly in St Albans, are themselves experts—they know these rivers inside out—and they should have a voice and a role on water company boards.

I would like to see Ofwat using its existing powers to tackle the discharge of raw sewage, but I also want Ofwat’s powers to be strengthened, and I will give two or three quick examples. I do think that the Government could give Ofwat the power to force water companies to make repairs and investments to reduce sewage discharge. Ofwat could have the power to ban companies from giving bonuses to their executives until this mess has been cleaned up, and Ofwat should have the power to force companies to publish the number of sewage discharges more regularly than just once a year.

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

The hon. Member may not be as familiar with the Environment Act as I am, but it is made very clear in the Act that the monitoring devices that water companies are going to be obliged to install will make information on water quality available within 15 minutes or in near real time.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I thank the right hon. Member for that intervention. I was not aware of that, and I am grateful to him for informing me. On the River Ver in St Albans, a number of our river wardens have taken part in a citizen science project in which they are regularly involved in testing the quality of the water, so I am sure many of them would be keen to take part and observe that particular set of data.

Finally, I am pleased that we have had this debate today, but I am shocked that we are still having to have it.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee 3:18 pm, 9th June 2022

I thank my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne for everything he has done. I say that as one of his parliamentary colleagues, but also as a passionate angler for the past 51 years of my 54-year life; and the other three were wasted. I am chairman of the all-party group on angling and I am chairman-elect of the Angling Trust, a position I will take over in September this year.

I agree with my right hon. Friend: I am sick and tired of water companies, and the slurry spreaders and egg farmers, pumping sewage into our rivers and watercourses. I am familiar with the Wye valley, and I share the sense of outrage of my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman at what has happened to that river and what continues to happen to that river. Ofwat needs to get with the programme. Yes, consumers want to have water priced at a level they can afford, but consumers now also want to protect the environment that they enjoy.

There was an article in Monday’s Times which said that 98% of the swimming locations in Austria—about 50 places—are of an excellent standard and meet the highest levels of quality. We would be lucky to find one place in England where it is safe to swim; in fact, there is only one place.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

My hon. Friend is so familiar with Herefordshire and the angling there that he needs no encouragement from me, but may I remind him that part of the problem with the Wye is that it crosses the border so there is an impunity in that Wales can avoid having regulatory involvement and leave the muck to come down to Herefordshire? Does my hon. Friend agree that an all-river strategy with some commissioners, as there have been since the 18th century on the Tweed, might be a solution to the problem?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

My right hon. Friend demonstrates huge knowledge because the Tweed does indeed have commissioners and that works. The Tweed has its own problems but they are not on the same scale as those of the Wye and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is currently talking to the Angling Trust and will be working with the Welsh Government to try to find a way forward.

You might not know this, Mr Deputy Speaker, but anglers are the canaries in the coalmine; they are the first to raise the alarm when there is a pollution incident. In 1948 the Anglers’ Cooperative Association was established, by a visionary called John Eastwood, to take legal action against polluters. In 2009 it became Fish Legal, and it has some fantastic lawyers who go after the polluters, and that is what we need, because I am fed up as an angler. I am going to say something that might be out of order, and you might demand that I retract it, Mr Deputy Speaker: if any high net-worth individuals want to make a contribution to cleaning up our rivers and streams, they should visit the Fish Legal website and see how they can make a donation to fund its legal work, because it does go after the polluters and it does win judgments, and those judgments go back to the angling clubs and watercourses that have been polluted.

Of course we should have a rivers restoration fund; that is what we need. It is outrageous that when a water company is fined £120 million an almost meaningless reduction is made to people’s bills—one that they would not notice—with the balance of the money invariably going back to the Treasury, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire pointed out. We should use that money to clean up the rivers and watercourses that have been damaged by the pollution.

I have little more to add to this debate. I just want to say that the patience of colleagues here and of the constituents we represent has been stretched to breaking point. The Government have made progress but something needs to happen. We must go after the polluters, be they farmers or water companies; Ofwat has to get with the programme and we have to persuade them, by law through the courts through fines, to change their practices.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:23 pm, 9th June 2022

It is a pleasure to follow so many people who are passionate when it comes to talking about water. As someone who worked for South West Water a very long time ago, I say that we need more people who are passionate about water, but we need more people who are passionate not just about sewage but the other aspects of water today. Many of those present have heard me rant about sewage for quite some time from both the Front Bench and Back Benches, and I will come on to that, but first, as we correctly focus on sewage, I want to talk about some of the other issues in the Ofwat strategic policy statement that I do not want this debate to neglect.

Water matters: every drop matters, but every drop is carbon-intensive, and we must not forget that every drop we use—every drop we waste—has been pumped and purified and treated at enormous cost, not just financial but also environmental. Water companies are tightly regulated, and what goes in their business plans is what they will be doing in the next price review period. It is therefore important that the SPS guidance is not only strict, clear and ambitious but accountable so that we can see where progress has been made and put pressure on Ofwat and the water companies to up their game if they are missing those targets.

The SPS that the Minister has released has many of the right words. I have a lot of time for the Minister not only because she is a fellow south-west MP—that automatically gets her some bonus points in my mind—but because she has fought hard on it. I must say that good progress has been made. I just want to ensure that the words in the SPS have teeth and that Ofwat has the powers to ensure that they are not just good words in a document and that we will see the transformative change that we need.

I want to talk about four areas. First, there is the absence of a strategy in the SPS to decarbonise our water industry. I would like us to have a clearer sense of what that looks like. Secondly, we need to strengthen the nature restoration part of the proposals in the SPS. I have seen in previous price review negotiations how many innovative nature-based solutions—the upstream thinking—have been squeezed out in those negotiations, especially for those companies who did not get their price review approved the first time round. We need to ensure that nature-based schemes are protected, encouraged and grown rather than squeezed out.

Thirdly, I agree with the Chair of the Select Committee, Philip Dunne, that we need a new approach to water sector regulation. I have some proposals to pitch to the Minister. Finally, I will echo concerns from across the House on sewage. It is simply unacceptable in 2022 that water companies routinely discharge tonnes and tonnes of sewage into our water courses, our rivers and our seas. It is not just about human effluent; we must equally be concerned about plastic pollution and the chemicals contained in that.

As a south-west MP, and I think the only MP in the Chamber whose water company is South West Water, I have a specific question for the Minister. We are in a cost of living crisis, but South West Water has had the highest water bills in the country since privatisation because that part of the water industry was privatised with 3% of the population and 30% of England’s coastline. That meant that 3% of the population were paying for the coastal clean-up of nearly a third of our country. The dowry given to South West Water did not pay for it, so south-west bill payers have been paying through the nose for a long time to have a cleaner environment—which we do value. The high water bills in the west country have been recognised by the Government, and that is why they provide a £50 contribution to bills in two £25 payments. However, I understand from proposals published at the last general election that the £50 payment will end during this Parliament. Will the Minister confirm whether that is still the plan? As we face a huge cost of living crisis, can we focus not only on energy bills—gas and electricity—important as they may be, but recognise how high water bills, especially in a region that has the highest water bills in the country and some of the lowest wages, are a significant accelerator of that?

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

Has my hon. Friend considered the proposals for a social tariff to address some of those problems?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising social tariffs. We need the proper legislative framework and nationwide approach for which I think she has been arguing for some time. We must look at how social tariff versions vary between water companies, which affects people who move between different water companies. We must also ensure that water poverty is properly understood as a key part of the cost of living crisis. Far too frequently, I find that this type of poverty, which belongs to DEFRA, is separated in Government thinking and leadership from those types that belong to the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We need to ensure that the Government look at this area holistically across all Departments and do not allow a silo-based approach. There is merit in what she suggests, and I would like to see further action on it.

One of those points which, joined up, could make a big difference is on housing retrofit. The Government’s record on housing retrofit is appalling—I think on both sides of the House we need Ministers to consistently go further—but when BEIS proposed measures to insulate homes, they related only to energy and gas reduction, not reducing water usage. Every single drop of water is expensive environmentally and financially, so that is very important. I would like the next iteration of housing retrofit policy proposed by Government to include water with the gas and electricity measures.

On decarbonisation, the SPS misses a trick. It could have gone further by insisting that water is genuinely decarbonised, rather than relying on an incredibly large amount of offset to hit the 2030 net zero target. I would like the 2030 target to be more commonly adopted, but simply buying offset and loading the cost on to bill payers does not actually deliver the carbon reduction we need. I want every water company to be an energy company, using its land to install solar, onshore wind and other types of energy to reduce the energy intensity and carbon intensity of its own operations. That should have been in the SPS and it should be in business plans, but it seems to have fallen between those. Indeed, the language on pushing or challenging water companies to, as the SPS suggests, invest more in decarbonising the sector could be a bit tighter. I would like to see in the proposals what it actually means in practice.

The proposal to halve leakage by 2050 is welcome, but the problem is that 2050 is a very long time away. I would like to see how much leakage reduction will be in the next price review period and how it can be accountable to others. The target of 110 litres a day is not enough. I would like to see us aim at 100 litres a day. Water companies around the country are achieving that, but we do not have enough water to go slow and we need to achieve that.

Nature restoration needs to go further. I want the policies in the SPS to integrate with the policies proposed for environmental land management and farm management. At the moment, they do not seem to have joined up in the way we need them to. If we are to have the bolder change we need, we need a greater level of joined-up thinking on that issue.

The Environment Agency has been raised by colleagues on the Government Benches. I am not a fan of the Environment Agency. I would like to see it go further. In the middle of an environmental crisis as we are, all too frequently it is too passive, too pastel shade. I would like to see it being a bit more “Grrr”—good luck, Hansard, in writing that one down.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I have had huge frustrations with the Environment Agency in my constituency of St Albans, but I was very alarmed to receive an email from it not too long ago explaining that cuts to its budget meant that it would not be responding to a number of urgent reports from residents about various environmental issues. Is the hon. Gentleman concerned about that as well?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am indeed, and I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We need to ensure that powers go with responsibilities and that funding, which is not there, follows. I am very mindful of the time limit you suggested, Mr Deputy Speaker.

On sewage, we need stronger, bolder measures. What customers can expect in the next price review period needs to be clearer. I would like that commitment on the bills that are sent to consumers. What is the priority? What is the transparency, so people can look into that? Without a clear timetable and a priority list for closures, I am afraid that we are not going to see the urgency we really need.

Finally, as a keen wild swimmer—I wear my wetsuit with pride when I go swimming in Plymouth Sound—we need more action on bathing water quality. Devil’s Point and Firestone Bay is a brilliant area of swim water in Plymouth, but it is not currently recognised as an official bathing water. At this very moment, there are beach volunteers on Devil’s Point and Firestone Bay recording how many swimmers, kayakers, paddle boarders and dog walkers we have on the beach and in the sea. That is a part of our campaign to have the water designated as official bathing water, meaning that there is water testing throughout the year, but especially in the key summer period, with the results published. That will give us a sense of what is in the water. I suspect we will have excellent bathing water, but when we have high levels of rain and raw sewage comes down the River Plym and the River Tamar, we will be able to understand what is in it. Is it human or is it agricultural? Then we can target raw sewage outlets for closure. That is the type of proactive measure I would like to see right around the country. That is why I want the SPS to go a little bit further. It is a good start, but I think there is more in there.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington 3:34 pm, 9th June 2022

Flooding is one of the most significant issues in my central London constituency. I want Ofwat to take a much more proactive and forceful role in holding the water companies to account to prevent flooding. We will never be able to completely get rid of the risk of flooding, but we need to do a lot more to minimise the risk.

Let me put the situation into context: on 12 July last year, my Kensington constituency suffered catastrophic flooding. The London Fire Brigade received 3,000 calls to its central control centre—the most that it had ever received in one day. The consequences were devastating. Multiple families are still out of their homes. My constituency has lots of basement properties, many of which were flooded all the way up to the ceiling. Had that happened in the middle of the night, there could have been even more appalling consequences and potentially even fatalities. Many of those properties are housing association properties where people lost everything that they owned, and many did not have insurance.

That was not a one-off event. Two weeks later, London suffered flooding again. My constituency flooded in 2018, 2016, 2007 and earlier in the 2000s. In 2007, after devastating flooding—I have a personal interest in that, because my house flooded badly—Thames Water said that it would put in a 5 km relief sewer at a cost of £300 million. That was approved by Ofwat in the 2015-20 cycle, but Thames Water never went ahead with the relief sewer. It was fined as a result, but Thames Water being fined does nothing to help my constituents, who were then flooded again in July last year. I have constituents who are terrified to go on a summer holiday this year in case their house or flat floods in July, August or September, when flash flooding is at its most prevalent. My constituents simply cannot live with the threat of flooding hanging over their heads, with the threat that they could be wiped out. People are selling their properties in my area because of the risk of flooding.

I want Ofwat to stand up for, defend and protect my constituents and insist that work is done, because the reality is that the drainage and sewerage system in London is simply no longer fit for purpose. It was built for Victorian times. We are all aware of the fact that climate change is likely to make flooding even worse. Population growth will make the consequences of flooding worse, as will urban densification. We need solutions, and we simply cannot sit back and wait for the next flooding event. I am sorry, but Ofwat needs to show more leadership on this, as does the Environment Agency.

It strikes me that so many different entities are involved in remediating flooding risk. We need much more co-ordination. Whether we are talking about the Environment Agency, Ofwat, the water companies or local authorities, they need to be working on a combined basis.

Let me give the House a few examples of anomalies. I understand, from the independent review of the flooding that happened in London last year, that the Thames Barrier was not closed. Closing it could have prevented a lot of the flooding, but I understand that that requires 36 hours’ notice even though it takes only an hour and half. Clearly we need to address that. I also understand that the Tideway tunnel, which is incredibly welcome, will be used not as a flood alleviation measure, but simply to remedy storm overflows and water quality. We need way more joined-up thinking about alleviating flood risk.

I also want Ofwat to hold water companies to account so that they regularly assess their assets and their ability to cope with flooding. There is too much sitting back and dealing with the consequences, rather than proactively asking whether systems will cope and what to do if not.

Finally, I want Ofwat to really challenge the water companies on their customer service. As Thames Water will admit, its customer service completely failed on the night of the flooding. It could not cope with the number of inquiries, so others such as Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council and Westminster City Council had to step in and help. Ofwat is the body that holds the water companies to account, and it needs to do a better job of it.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade) 3:41 pm, 9th June 2022

I thank the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, for his report and for his speech. It is a pleasure to follow Felicity Buchan, who gave a very clear description of the flooding issues in central London, many of which my constituents have also experienced in the past couple of years, particularly in Chiswick. In previous years, flooding affected much of my constituency. Thames Water is still in the process of replacing the Victorian freshwater pipes, and when they burst because they are so old, we still get flooding; it is not as bad as it used to be, but we are not out of the woods. I thank her for raising those issues.

For many years as a councillor and for the last seven as a local MP, I have been dealing with Thames Water, particularly in relation to its management of the Mogden sewage works in Isleworth, Britain’s third largest sewage treatment works. From the many emails and messages that I have received from constituents, I know that people are rightly frustrated with Thames Water and with Ofwat, which is supposed to regulate our water companies.

The worst local impact of Mogden was the flooding of the Duke of Northumberland’s river with raw undiluted sewage in January 2021. The flood occurred after a break in a brick wall separating the river, which is a freshwater stream, from the Mogden works’ main incoming sewage pipe. The inlet sieve into the works was blocked with silt, and the incoming sewage pipe, which is over two metres wide, filled to the top. When the incoming foul water had nowhere else to go, a weakness in the roof of the intake burst and poured into the Duke of Northumberland’s river running alongside it. That small river was subsumed by sewage that flooded into homes, gardens and two parks in Isleworth. It would have been far worse if an affected resident had not coincidentally known the holder of a key to the sluice gate into the Thames. Opening it relieved the pressure on the Duke of Northumberland’s river before the fire service could get there, and long before Thames Water worked out what had happened.

The flood had a devasting impact, especially on local residents who had sewage water flowing into their back gardens and in some cases their homes. A number of people also wrote to me to rightly express their worry about the impact on the wildlife in and around the precious Duke of Northumberland’s river. I was very concerned to discover that two months after the flood, there were still debris and sewage waste in and around the river and the river banks.

A small group of great volunteers work to keep the river tidy, but it is not fair or right to expect them to have to clean up afterwards. Local councillors, such as Councillor Salman Shaheen, have been persistent in pushing Thames Water to clean up the mess.

More than a year after this disaster, Thames Water has not yet started the inquiry that it promised us, although it has admitted that it still does not know the reason for the silt build-up that blocked the main inlet to the works, and I did manage to get it to admit that such a situation had not featured in its risk register; it certainly will now.

However, this is not the only recent disaster originating from Mogden. We now know, thanks to the Select Committee, that in October 2020 Thames Water pumped 2 billion litres—2 billion, not 2 million—of untreated sewage into the Thames in just two days. That is shocking, but it is part of a growing trend. In 2020, 3.5 billion litres of untreated sewage entered the Thames from Mogden—seven times as much as was dumped in 2016, just four years earlier.

As I have already pointed out, the Tideway tunnel starts downstream of Mogden, so it will not take these discharges. Not only are the discharges a gross environmental crime; they affect many people’s leisure activities. In our part of west London, the Thames plays a huge part in many water sports, such as rowing, kayaking and paddleboarding. Residents walk their dogs along the Thames. Should they really be expected to do so while it is full of sewage?

I wish I could say that these were the only negative experiences that my constituents have had with Thames Water, but there are ongoing and long-running issues involving Mogden sewage treatment works. For years, residents of, in particular, Isleworth and parts of Hounslow have all too often experienced the foul pong of poo wafting around locally, and have also had to put up with the mosquitoes that breed in the stagnant water there and then come out and bite.

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

Does the hon. Lady agree that rather than new technology, new data and new mindsets, what is needed to reduce the difficulties involving waterworks is a rehaul of the system to include communities and secure their buy-in? Does she agree that that would require a financial contribution from the water companies as well?

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade)

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I shall say more about resident engagement shortly.

To be fair to Thames Water, it has made efforts to deal with the smell and the mosquitoes. It is currently working through a programme of upgrading parts of the works, which should reduce some of the smells, and it has contracted specialists to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Neither nuisance is as bad as it has been during the time I have represented those residents. Nevertheless, councillors, residents’ representatives and I feel that we have to keep up the pressure through the Mogden residents liaison group that Thames Water convenes.

Other issues, apart from Mogden, have affected my constituents. There has been localised flooding: dirty water has shot out of toilets or out of inspection covers in their gardens. In some cases Thames Water have acted quickly and responsibly, but that has not always been the case. Residents have been passed from pillar to post when trying to obtain help and support, and an acknowledgement from Thames Water.

This takes us back to the wider issue of the culture of these privatised water companies. Billions of pounds are being paid out in dividends, but I wonder whether we are seeing the investment in crucial infrastructure that is so badly needed. Between the 1990s and the 2020s, Thames Water has seen a £6 million decrease in annual investment in waste water. That underinvestment is simply not fair to our constituents, who face the impact of it at first hand.

It is not just Thames Water, however. Analysis has found that the investment in waste water management has been slashed by £520 million. Like the DEFRA Committee, I was concerned to see a proposal that Ofwat should incentivise water companies to improve their environmental performance. Surely it should be doing that anyway, because it is the right thing to do.

There is a wider issue, beyond the environmental protection of our rivers. What role will Ofwat play in ensuring that new developments have the water infra- structure they need? Additionally, the Rivers Trust has raised the importance of ensuring that Ofwat plays a role in relation to climate change and net zero, as my hon. Friend Luke Pollard also helpfully explained.

My increasing fear is that as an MP I am seeing more and more examples of various regulatory bodies—whether it is Ofwat, Ofgem or the Financial Conduct Authority—that just do not seem to be acting with the urgency needed not only to protect consumers but to tackle the big issues facing our country over the next few decades. I sometimes wonder whether it is a deliberate policy of this Government to downplay the importance of regulators. Does this stem from their libertarian wing? All of us, particularly our children, feel that the planet and ourselves and our future generations lose out when the role of regulation is downplayed.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

I hear what the hon. Lady is saying. I have a lot of respect for the Environment Agency, but I also listened closely to what her colleague Luke Pollard said. I feel that the Environment Agency does sometimes shy away from taking on the polluters and holding them to account. I hope that it will hear this debate and that when organisations or businesses are found to be polluting our rivers, they will be held to account and pay a penalty.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade)

The hon. Member is right, and I should have included the Environment Agency in the list of regulators in my speech. As I was saying, the role of regulation is too often downplayed by this Government. Ofwat cannot and should not be a silent partner when it comes to the adequate management of sewage treatment works, the cleaning up of our rivers and waterways and the protection of residents from the after-effects of floods.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West 3:51 pm, 9th June 2022

I start by welcoming the Government’s strategic policy statement for Ofwat. This is clearly an important step in the right direction. Water companies in this country desperately need to change. The current safeguards on water companies are simply not good enough. The aspect that I would like to focus on today is the real need for water companies to improve their day-to-day environmental performance and enhance water quality.

In Southend, we have seven miles of award-winning beaches. Westcliff and Chalkwell already boast blue flag, five star status and attract more than 7 million visitors every year, so having clean water off our beaches is vital for our new city to thrive and prosper. Of course, it is not just in the summer months that the water is used. It is now used all year round and we have famous groups of female swimmers such as the Bluetits Chill Swimmers.

Sadly, Anglian Water is simply not doing enough. It continues to make use of Victorian sewer systems and uses storm overflows to dump raw sewage into the estuary far too often. Last year in Southend, raw sewage was pumped into the sea 48 times for more than 251 hours. That is the equivalent of more than 10 days. That does not include the sewage dumped further upstream, which also impacts on Southend.

One storm overflow in Canvey spilled 121 times for a total of 23 days, and one in Dagenham spilled for the equivalent of an outrageous 72 days. It is shocking that 39 million tonnes of sewage are dumped into the Thames every year. That is the equivalent of 3 million London buses. This dumping of raw sewage is having a disastrous effect on our environment, with 98% of water sampled by Thames River Watch last year found to contain traces of coliform bacteria caused by the presence of faeces in the water.

For 1,000 years, Southend West has been home to a thriving fishing industry. Pumping sewage into the water could lead to E. coli in our shellfish, which would be absolutely devastating for the Southend cockle industry. I welcome the fact that the Government have placed a clear duty on water companies to progressively reduce the use and impact of storm overflows; have now asked water companies to clearly demonstrate how they are going about that; and are calling for water companies to be far more transparent in reporting when discharges do occur.

In particular, I greatly welcome the fact that, under the Environment Act, water companies will now be required to monitor the water quality both upstream and downstream of storm overflows in real time, all the time—instead of just between May and September as they do at the moment. There should, obviously, be real punishments for companies that consistently fail to monitor water quality levels or meet targets.

We must completely end the use of storm overflows in this country. The Government have set a target of zero serious pollution incidents by 2030. Any use of storm overflows leading to sewage discharge should count as a serious pollution incident. There can be no excuse for pumping raw sewage into our waterways, and any company guilty of using them in that way must face real and heavy punishments.

However, we must also tackle the root causes of sewage discharges. A good place to start would be to ban non-flushable wet wipes. These block pipes, and seriously contribute to the use of storm overflows. The Conservative Environment Network is calling for all manufacturers to be obliged to follow Water UK’s “Fine to Flush” standard for wipes, which means that they do not contain plastic and they break down quickly in our sewers.

Finally, punishments on water companies should not increase the cost to the consumer; they must fall instead on the company bosses. A good place to start would be to ban bonuses for company directors whose water companies do not meet their targets. It is not acceptable that last year, the chief executive officer of Anglian Water received an extraordinary £2,074,647 in pay and bonuses—up 62% on the previous year, despite the company’s profits falling by 2% and the outrageous levels of sewage being pumped into our waterways.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

That is fine; I will intervene now. What my hon. Friend is suggesting, I think rightly, is that those environmental targets placed on water companies should trump financial targets. If that is what she is suggesting, I think she would have the support of the House this evening.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

Absolutely correct. I thank my hon. Friend, but I will still conclude.

In conclusion, I welcome the steps that the Government are taking to improve our waterways. It must now be the absolute priority of the water companies to put those into practice, stop pumping sewage into our rivers and permanently improve the quality of our water.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes 3:58 pm, 9th June 2022

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne for securing this debate, and for all the work that he does to champion the cause of English rivers. I do not think that anyone in our country, except possibly the Minister, has done more to preserve, enhance and defend the health of our rivers—not even the Duke of Wellington deserves our thanks in the way that my right hon. Friend does. I am pleased to have helped sponsor the debate.

I echo every point that has been made about the critical state of our rivers and the absolute imperative that we have to act, and to go further. My constituency of Devizes in Wiltshire has a number of rivers that are suffering. In particular, the Hampshire Avon site of scientific interest is suffering increasing phosphate loads every year, which is a complete disaster for the river’s health and biodiversity and for the soil, but it is also a disaster for people whose health is affected and for the wider economy because it stops development.

A brake on inappropriate development in our rural areas is a good thing in many ways, and Wiltshire Council has rightly paused development permissions periodically because it has to mitigate the phosphate pouring into our rivers, but it is harmful to getting the housing we need in our area, so we have to do something. The simple fact is that the offsetting by developers is inadequate, as they cannot possibly offset enough to cope with the phosphate loads going into the rivers.

Many hon. Members have said that investment, particularly in sewage treatment works, is essential. We have to build infrastructure that can cope. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow made the point very delicately that, historically, the overriding focus of the mandate under which Ofwat operates is to bear down on the rates that people pay for their water. That focus on price is ultimately unsustainable. Luke Pollard is correct that this is not the moment to be anticipating or calling for price rises in people’s water bills. However, in the long term, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow is right. I welcome the strategic policy statement that allows for investment in infrastructure that ultimately feeds through into prices. That is the only way to finance this work.

I echo my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker in saying that, when companies are fined for sewage discharges, the money should not just go to the Treasury or to meaningless little reductions in bills. It needs to go into restoring the landscape, because the best sort of sewage treatment, as I have seen in Wiltshire, uses nature-based solutions not big concreate infrastructure. We need green and grey kit.

I have seen a project sponsored by Wessex Water, to its credit, on land owned by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. It is a reed bed that processes foul water, and it is very inoffensive. I would hardly call it infrastructure, because it is a field with a lot of reeds growing in it—it is a swamp. It does not smell, and it looks perfectly nice. A person walking past would hardly notice it, but the water flowing out of the reed bed and into the river on the other side is cleaner than the water flowing down the river itself. It enhances our environment when we have good nature-based infrastructure.

I end with a tribute to some people in Wiltshire who have inspired me to take up the mission of cleaning up our rivers. Anglers such as Tom Putnam, a constituent who got in touch with me, and David Bromhead are concerned about the state of the Hampshire Avon. I thank Charlotte Hitchmough, who leads Action for the River Kennet, which is an outstanding charity—I have been out planting trees and supporting its work. And I thank Gary Mantle of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.

This might seem a little totemic, but we have amazing volunteers on all our rivers, which is great, and we have lots of water companies, businesses, developers, councils and others. What we really need is river-based co-ordination. Rather than great national, regional or catchment-based policies, why do we not appoint some kind of river god or warden for each river? It should be a volunteer who does not work for the Government and does not necessarily have any power but who has the authority to co-ordinate the voluntary efforts along each river. People think in terms of rivers rather than counties or even water company areas. We could authorise individuals—I have some people I would nominate for the Kennet or for the two Avons—who would take that responsibility to champion the cause of the river and intermediate between power and all the other volunteers who work there locally.

I wish to end on a point I have made in speeches about rivers before. I feel a special responsibility to rivers because I represent Morgan’s Hill, a beautiful spot just north of Devizes. A drop of rain that falls on Morgan’s Hill could end up flowing out west along the Bristol Avon and into the Atlantic, south along the Hampshire Avon and into the English channel or east along the Kennet, into the Thames and out into the North sea. Morgan’s Hill is a hydrological dividing point that waters the whole of southern England, and I feel a particular responsibility to the rivers that flow out of this district of Wiltshire.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

May I say how lucky that drop of water is if it flows through the Hampshire Avon, one of the finest rivers in this country? It is a blessed drop of water.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

It would be very lucky, except that it would get loaded with phosphate on the way, and that is the challenge we have to mitigate. Equally, the Kennet and Bristol Avon are glorious rivers, and we have a responsibility to try to clean them.

I really do pay tribute to the Minister for the work she does, as she is an indefatigable champion of water health and our rivers. I am also very pleased with the spirit of this debate. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, who could have laid into the Government, as he used to do on the Front Bench, but instead paid tribute to the Minister for her commitment on this cause. So I think we are all in the right place.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage 4:06 pm, 9th June 2022

It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Danny Kruger. I want to speak in support of the strategic priorities that Ofwat has been given, as I think they are right, from protecting and enhancing our environment to using markets to better deliver for customers.

It frustrates me as a point of principle that I cannot change my water supplier. I can change my gas, electricity, broadband and mobile phone suppliers, but I cannot change my water supplier. That is a problem, because whenever we have a monopoly, the chances are that the quality of what it does not will not be as good as when there is genuine competition. That makes regulation especially important. Regulation is important in all areas, but in a scenario in which there is only one choice for regions of the country, it is especially important, as we have heard this afternoon, that that job is not being done effectively enough. So I support what the Government have said to Ofwat: it should push water companies to be more ambitious in what they do to protect the environment; it should push them to do a better job on customer service and how they handle complaints; and it should be better promoting competition. I agree with all those things.

Thanks to the Government’s Environment Act 2021, we will have annual reports on storm overflow data; we will have these companies pushed to reduce the harm of this; and by 2030 they will have to show how they are going to achieve zero serious pollution incidents. All of that is very important at the macro level of what is going on in the country as a whole.

However, like a lot of us, I will look at what is happening locally. There are three areas in which I will look at the role of Ofwat, as well as at that of the Environment Agency and others. Some of them have been touched on, because this is going on in other people’s constituencies. The first is this issue of releases of sewage into the water, and Members would expect me to start there. In 2021, Thames Water released sewage into the waterways around Oxford for more than 68,000 hours. I do not represent Oxford—I am an Oxfordshire MP—but those waterways are flowing through my constituency as they are through the constituencies of every other Oxfordshire MP and plenty of other constituencies beyond that. What Thames Water did is completely unacceptable and totally against what it should be doing according to its licence. This should be a rare occurrence with very heavy rainfall, but it is anything but that.

The second, related issue is to do with housing. We have had huge numbers of houses built in my constituency. The largest towns have grown by huge percentages population-wise—the biggest one by 42% in 10 years, and the second by 59%—but the infrastructure has not improved. We want Grove station reopened, improvements on the A420 and A34, more GP appointments and so on. But as other Members have mentioned, we also have the issue of the water and waste connections that go to these new developments, some of which are huge. Thousands of people are moving in there. There are two estates in Didcot, one built and one being built, and 18,000 more people. These are big-scale developments, and, too often, what happens is that these systems are not built strongly enough in the first place, and they are easily overwhelmed. Those costs are then very often passed on by management companies to the people who have bought those homes, which is a subject for a separate debate. Again, this should not be happening, and we must get a lot better at tackling it.

My third issue is a much more local thing. I do not think that any other Member who has spoken in this debate is facing it in the same way. For 30 years, Thames Water has been proposing to build a massive reservoir in my constituency. Despite the fact that that proposal has existed for 30 years, Thames Water is still unable to show why it is needed, why it is better than the alternatives, what the environmental impact will be, and what the cost is likely to be. We know, thanks to GARD—the Group Against Reservoir Development, the dedicated local campaign group—that some of the assumptions that Thames Water used when it tried to make the case about water demand and so on are wrong. We know from Thames Water’s own website that 24% of the water that it supplies leaks, which leads to many of my constituents saying, “Well, actually, perhaps we wouldn’t need this reservoir if you fixed your leakage problem.”

When I think about Ofwat and its big strategic priorities, I am specifically looking at this proposal. As a stand-alone regulator, it should be holding Thames Water to account and getting it to answer the big questions that we are posing about the proposal. It should also do so through RAPID—the Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development, which is the alliance with the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, and about which we have not heard much this afternoon—to make sure that Thames Water cannot behave, as many people feel that it is behaving, as though this is an inevitability. It seems that, whether or not Thames Water can answer our questions, it will just build the thing, but there is, understandably, very strong resistance to the proposal. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. These are the right priorities for the Government to have set, but, as we have heard this afternoon, Ofwat will have to do a lot better to persuade all of us and our constituents that it is doing them to the highest standard possible.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:13 pm, 9th June 2022

I sincerely thank Philip Dunne for all the work that he has done on this issue. He has done so as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I, too, served, spending much of my early years here with him on the Committee—in fact, today marks the fifth anniversary since I was elected—through his private Member’s Bill and through his significant campaigning on issues of sewage. He opened the debate in his typically stylish way.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate—a Committee on which I also served as a Back Bencher. I know the vital role that it plays in allowing important subjects to be aired in the House. I also thank all the Members who have taken part in this last piece of parliamentary business this week.

We have had a broad range of excellent contributions. Sir Charles Walker is a doughty defender of anglers and the need for clean water for angling. He will be pleased to hear that I have met the Angling Trust. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard, whom I was with in Plymouth just last week, called for greater accountability on the SPS and the need for more powers at Ofwat, and his points were well made. He is right about the lack of a clear plan for decarbonisation and nature restoration, and I commend him on his ambitious campaign to get Devil’s Point designated an official bathing water spot. Maybe one day I will be able to bathe in it with him. [Interruption.] In wetsuits—I hope people will not read too much into that.

Felicity Buchan made an important contribution on flooding, which, due to climate change, will be ever more frequent unless more action is taken, especially on upland catchments. My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury gave an account of Mogden sewage treatment works discharging into the Duke of Northumberland’s river—one of too many such horrific events.

Anna Firth made a good point about the need to ban wet wipes. We already had a Bill that my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson attempted to get through the House, and hopefully we will see it come back to this place again. Danny Kruger made a good point about nature-based solutions; I saw a similar project to the one he described on a reed bed in Norfolk by Anglian Water and Norfolk Rivers Trust, and we need to see many more of them. David Johnston made a good point about new housing creating huge strain on the infrastructure dealing with sewage.

The fact is that our rivers are dirty. They have been dirty for too long, and they have got dirtier. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we need them cleaned up. The Victorian sewage system was implemented because the Thames had become so toxic that the Prime Minister of the time, Benjamin Disraeli, could no longer stand to be in the Chamber during the “Great Stink” of 1858. He said the Thames had become,

“a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”.

Outside Parliament now, the heirs of Bazalgette are creating the super sewer, which will reduce sewage overflow into the Thames in central and east London—although not in west London past Hammersmith, a point my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth made. However, it is the only such project in the UK. When the House passed a motion declaring an environment and climate emergency three years ago, that should have challenged the water industry and the Government to undertake radical change. We can no longer accept being the dirty man of Europe.

It is fair to say that the Government have started to move on this, although they have been brought to it reluctantly, and in no small part due to campaigning of the right hon. Member for Ludlow and the screeching public outrage when Conservative MPs were whipped to vote against an amendment calling for the end of raw sewage discharges. We need more power in the hands of consumers so that they can understand what is happening in their communities.

Let us recap the water industry numbers so that we can see where there is space in the system for solutions. The water companies in England collectively invested £1 billion less in real terms last year than they did in 1991. In the past 11 years they have added £19 billion in dividends to shareholders. That is the financial leakage.

Then there is the water leakage, with 229,000 litres in 2021 and, as we know, hundreds of thousands of sewage dumping events. In 2020, there were just shy of 400,000. In the same year, the average household in England saw £62 of their bills go as dividend. Daisy Cooper made a good point about water company bosses receiving bonuses while those dumping events take place.

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

The hon. Gentleman is making an impressive speech and I am grateful for his kind comments about our serving on the Committee together. On the matter of dividend payments, is he aware that many of the water companies’ capital structures mean that payments made as interest on the significant loans they take out to invest in their businesses are structured by way of dividend payments to inter-company subsidiaries and accounts? Therefore, the gross amount of dividends does not actually reflect dividend payments to equity shareholders, but includes interest payments.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think the figure I quoted was just dividends to shareholders, but I will check on that. I understand the point the right hon. Gentleman makes. We need to de-duplicate that data.

The Rivers Trust has a brilliant website with an interactive map that allows people to zoom in on where they live and see where raw sewage is being discharged. It is disturbing to see how close to many of our communities this discharge is taking place—even directly on to children’s playing fields. We need a plan for raw sewage discharges that considers not only storm overflows, but a creaking sewage system. There is routine discharge of raw sewage into rivers and seas, not in the event of extreme weather from combined sewer overflows but as a result of daily discharges. The fines levied against companies include the £90 million fine for Southern Water, but we are still seeing discharges by Southern Water—for instance, in Whitstable, affecting the fishing and tourism industries. This just shows that the system is not working. I agree with comments by Members on both sides of the House about delays in prosecution. Ministers need to make sure that the Environment Agency puts real emphasis on bringing further prosecutions. The level of fines is not yet producing a change in behaviour in water companies and stopping raw sewage being routinely discharged. The word “routinely” really matters, because it means that it happens every single day. While we have been debating, the water companies have been routinely discharging raw sewage, not because of extreme weather in the past hour but because of a sewerage system that cannot cope with the level of demand being placed on it and the lack of investment in it. I will resist the temptation to slip into a speech on sustainable urban drainage, which we can pick up on another time.

The Environment Act 2021 sets out changes to the way that raw sewage will be reported on and the need for plans. It did not set out a timetable for when the scandal of raw sewage discharge would be brought to an end, nor did it set out any interim targets. The Ofwat strategic priorities also fail to give that clear direction. We need to delve into the workings of the water industry. That will influence the changes for water companies in the next pricing period, but what changes are happening right now? They know that they do not have to invest in the same way until the next pricing period, because Ofwat sets the pricing controls and the investment strategies. Although many water companies fell foul of the business plans in this period, I doubt that we will see a huge surge in action to close raw sewage outfalls and investment in the treatment period until the next price period. The challenge is what we do about it now, and that really matters. What we discharge into our rivers is not always easily seen. We need a clear plan to understand how much will be stopped, how much will be properly treated, and how much will be carefully looked after in future. Water companies discharged raw sewage into England’s rivers 372,533 times last year—a slight reduction on the previous year. Taking the past three years together, raw sewage was discharged over 1 million times for a duration of over 8 million hours.

The Government’s storm overflows discharge plan has been rightly criticised for its lack of urgency. Mark Lloyd, the chief executive officer of the Rivers Trust, said:

“I’m disappointed that this plan lacks the urgency we so desperately need. This plan is going to need strong input from civil society and NGOs like The Rivers Trust if it is going to outpace the twinned climate and nature crises we’re currently facing. We want to have rivers where people and wildlife can thrive, but the target timelines in the plan are far too slow—I want to see this in my lifetime!”

I do not know how old the CEO is, but that is probably a considerable length of time.

Data released by the EA show that the 10 water companies covering England were releasing raw sewage into waterways for hundreds of thousands of hours in 2021. The 372,533 spills were recorded only on those overflows where event duration monitors were in place—just 89%, so the actual figure is considerably higher. More than 60 discharges a year from an overflow is considered too high and should trigger an investigation. On average, 14% of discharges from the 10 water companies passed that limit. In one event last year, 8.7 million gallons of raw sewage discharged into the River Calder above Wakefield, and the fine was just £7,000. Water companies in England are under investigation by the regulator—Ofwat—and the EA after they admitted that they may have illegally released untreated sewage into rivers and waterways. The investigation will involve more than 2,200 sewage treatment works, but any company found breaching its legal permit is liable to enforcement action, including fines or prosecutions. Fines can now be up to up to 10% annual turnover in civil cases or unlimited in criminal proceedings, and I welcome that.

The SPS states that Ofwat should

“enhance the quality of the water environment”.

However, last autumn, beaches around the Tees estuary and along the coast in North Yorkshire saw a huge rise in dead and dying crabs and lobsters. Dogs were also found to be falling ill after being walked on the beaches. In January, the Government launched what they called an “investigation”. In February, they put out a press release announcing that the mass death of sea creatures and the dog illnesses were caused by an algal bloom. The Minister and I have an association going right back to when I first got elected, and one thing I learned from her is that it is always good to be appropriately dressed for debates, which is why I have worn this tie today. I notice that she is dressed in a very algal-bloom green, so I am not sure whether she is going to refer to this issue in her closing remarks. The Government claimed that there had been a rapid increase in the population of algae that can release toxins into the water and affect other wildlife, but no data or evidence was published.

An algal bloom occurring in October or in February ranges from unlikely to impossible, as blooms require high temperatures and clear water, and the sea off Northumbria and the Tees is cold and turgid. Also, no bloom was noticed by the local fishing community, so they and anglers commissioned an independent investigation by a marine pollution consultant, Tim Deere-Jones. Using freedom of information requests, he found that the Government had based their judgment that it was algal bloom on only satellite data. More astonishing, he also found that levels of pyridine, a toxic pollutant, in crabs caught in the north-east and tested by the Government was 74 times higher than in crabs caught in Cornwall. Will the Minister now bring together agencies including Ofwat and the Environment Agency, as well her own Department, to get to the truth of the matter?

The strategic policy statement is not just about protecting the environment and the stability of the industry; it is also about protecting consumers. The Government claim that their No. 1 priority is the cost of living crisis, but social tariffs are a postcode lottery, with no consistency between companies in the financial support offered to consumers and no legal minimum. The Government have not even imposed a statutory duty on water companies to provide that support or on Ofwat to require it. The Government have set the weakest possible framework. Average water bills rose by 1.7 % to £419 in April 2022, but there is significant regional variation, with the average bill rising by 10.8% in one water company area. People are struggling, and for many households a water bill can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:26 pm, 9th June 2022

I stand here not in my algal bloom dress but in what I think of as my biodiverse dress. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne on securing the debate and thank him very much for all the work that the Environmental Audit Committee did during its inquiry into river quality. It is a very popular Committee of which both the shadow Minister, Alex Sobel, and I are former members. When the Committee comes out with a report such as this, it makes one sit up and take notice.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking such an early intervention, but as she has mentioned the Committee’s popularity, it would be remiss of me not to point out to the House that, as a result of the election of our right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, there is a vacancy.

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

I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out the opportunity to do a little canvassing.

The report from the Environmental Audit Committee is extremely comprehensive. As my right hon. Friend said, we took careful note of it and took on board a great many of the recommendations made, which shows what a role a Select Committee can play when it is working constructively and well, and we are singing from the same hymn sheet of wanting to improve the quality of our water. We are taking extremely strong action on that agenda and this Government will not stand still. I expect to see change and to see it happen very quickly, and judging by the consensus on both sides of the House today, I believe we all share that view. This Government will not hesitate to take action if the measures we put in place do not happen.

I made water quality a priority when I became an Environment Minister. As the Environment Bill went through, we really strengthened it, with lots of input from Members on both sides of the House. We now have some really strong measures to tackle the unacceptable situation that has come to light. I make absolutely no bones about that. It is this Government who have, for the first time, set out in the strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the regulator, that water quality is a priority and the regulator must hold water companies to account for delivering affordable, secure and resilient water services. This Government have also made it crystal clear that water companies must significantly reduce the frequency and volume of discharges from storm sewage overflows, to the point where the Environment Act 2022, which is an exceedingly weighty tome, now has six pages on tackling storm sewage overflows alone. If hon. Members and hon. Friends have not looked at it, they should do. We have set out a plan that will revolutionise how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade)

I thank the Minister for referring to the Act, but for the purposes of Hansard and the debate, can she say exactly where the stormwater will go if it does not go into the sewage works because the sewage works are overflowing into the river courses? What are the proposals for the excess flows into sewage works, because that is why they are discharging dilute sewage into water courses?

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

That would be a very long answer—I could write to the hon. Lady with all the detail in the Environment Act, because the whole system is geared up to reduce the sewage going into the pipes in the first place. The clean treated water from sewage works does get released back into the water course, which is why it is important to set targets on a whole range of aspects to do with water; we are not just talking about sewage and how that gets treated. Ultimately, that water goes back into our water courses and channels, which is why it is critical to look at every angle of it and every source of pollution, not just sewage, to stop that going into the water in the first place. All the measures that we have put in place will tackle that from all sides, but I am happy to send her more info on that if she would like.

What we are doing with the storm overflows plan is a game changer that will overhaul our whole sewerage system to tackle those overflows. We heard some great criticism, if I might say so, from Daisy Cooper on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, but they voted against the amendments in the Environment Act that will improve water quality. Those amendments require the water companies to invest more in improving the infrastructure to prevent all that sewage pollution occurring, so it is a pity that they did not support them.

The hon. Lady mentioned a lot about monitoring, but she seems unaware of all the monitoring procedures and reporting procedures that are being put in place, such as the event duration monitoring, which was picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow. I urge the hon. Lady to look at what is being put in place, much of which is already starting. Indeed, all event duration monitoring will be in place by next year—it is happening now and it will happen increasingly. We are working on that and all the measures to make sure that it occurs. Water companies will also face strict limits on when they can use overflows, because they must eliminate the harm that any sewage discharge causes to the environment.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

The Minister will be aware that our concern is that we should be banning those companies from allowing raw sewage into our rivers, not just asking them to reduce the amount. Where we have 2,300 hours of raw sewage discharge, reducing it by one hour does not achieve a huge amount. She has talked about the measures that she has been trying to take to encourage companies to invest, so does she agree that a sewage tax is precisely the kind of measure that her Government should consider?

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

Of course, we are hoping not that sewage discharges will be reduced by one hour, but that they will be reduced pretty much all the time, unless there is an absolute emergency. That is what the storm sewage overflows are there for and that is why they were put in in Victorian times, but they are simply not fit for purpose. That has come to light particularly through the investigation that the EA instigated, which is how we discovered lots of water companies putting up their hands and saying, “Actually, ooh, we’re not adhering to our permits.” We are now on their case, as are the EA and Ofwat the regulator, as a result of that detailed investigation. Certainly, there is a whole raft of measures that will tackle that.

Water companies also need to play their part in reducing nutrient pollution in rivers, which was mentioned by a few colleagues. Through our landmark Environment Act, we propose to set a legally binding target to reduce phosphorous loadings from waste water by 80% by 2030 against the 2020 baseline.[This section has been corrected on 15 June 2022, column 4MC — read correction] That target will provide a legal driver to require water companies to further reduce phosphorous in the water environment, which will protect rivers and our precious habitats. We are also supporting farmers to reduce the nutrient pollution from agriculture.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow mentioned that all of our policies in DEFRA and, I would say, even more widely across Government—for example, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities forms part of this through its housing policies—need to link up. However, I believe they do, because there are measures in our environmental land management scheme and our flooding policy statement that all link to the water landscape, as they need to do.

We have almost doubled our funding for the catchment-sensitive farming programme, which provides farmers with advice on how to reduce pollution. We have increased that budget to £30 million from £16.6 million, and that will cover 100% of England’s farmland, up from 40% of its current coverage, with more catchment-sensitive farming officers.

We must recognise that the water environment faces many other pressures. I was pleased that Luke Pollard widened the debate, which is so important. Yes, we have worked very closely together, and I acknowledge that he, with an understanding of the whole landscape, has been supportive of many of these measures. Climate change and a growing population, especially in dryer parts of the country, are increasing constraints on our water supply. The Government have been clear in our statement to Ofwat that water companies and Ofwat must take a long-term and strategic view of the challenges ahead. Meeting our future needs must not come at the expense of the natural environment, and that includes reducing unsustainable water extraction from chalk streams and aquifers.

We will need a twin-track approach to secure resilient water resources. On the one hand, water companies will need to invest in new supply infrastructure where it is needed, and on the other, we will need to reduce demand for water, use water more efficiently and reduce leaks. We will actually need to secure an additional 4 billion litres of water a day by 2050, and half of that will need to come from reducing demand, as the hon. Member mentioned. By 2050, we expect to see leakage halved, because that is a big part of this, and to see average daily consumption at 110 litres per person, which is actually 30 litres less on average than we are each currently using.

My hon. Friend David Johnston mentioned a potential reservoir. I will not comment on that particular reservoir, but we will need—and we are putting in place—a whole raft of such measures. We will need new infrastructure, including new reservoirs to reduce leaks, and to use less water overall. Through the Environment Act, we propose to set a legally binding target on the Government to reduce use of the public water supply in England per head of population by 20% by 2037. This will be supported by mandatory water efficiency labelling and building regulations, and water companies must play their part in helping us to achieve that target.

Delivering on these ambitions does not come without costs, and my hon. Friends will be rightly concerned. A number of Members, particularly Liz Twist, have raised the effect on the cost of living and how critical this is—and she is going to intervene on me.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I thank the Minister for giving way, and she has quite rightly picked up that I have referred to the single social tariff on a number of occasions. In February, she kindly wrote to me, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on water. Can she tell us where we are on the proposal to develop a single social tariff?

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

I thank the hon. Member, and I did write to her; that is right. Obviously, the Chancellor has already announced a whole package of measures to help households with the cost of living, and we do expect the water companies to play their part. All water companies actually have social tariffs in place, as she will know, to support customers who struggle to pay their bills, and close to 1 million customers currently receive that help. My Department is exploring other measures that we may look at to improve this whole sector. I cannot give more detail now, but we are very aware of it.

I want to refer to some of the other excellent contributions to the debate. I am so pleased that my hon. Friend Anna Firth mentioned wet wipes. Shockingly, wet wipes make up 93% of the material that causes sewerage blockages. That is partly why storm sewage overflows are used so often: they are blocked up by wet wipes which have been chucked down the loo. [Interruption.] Yes, and there are horrified looks; I am sure Madam Deputy Speaker does not do that. The cost of dealing with that to the water industry is £100 million a year. We are considering options and we have consulted on what action we might take. It is also important to remember that wet wipes contain plastics.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade)

The Minister is right about the scourge of wet wipes: they are plastic and they cause damage to ecosystems in our rivers and seas. Thames Water tells me that one of the costs to water companies is caused by the wet wipes in many of the sewers in our cities and towns combining with the fat illegally discharged into the sewerage system to create fatbergs. What is the Minister doing to stop the discharge of oil into our sewerage systems, such as incentivising caterers?

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

That is a horrible, graphic description, and we also need to make people aware that they should not pour fat down the drain; that causes huge disruption and cost. We have consulted on wet wipes: we put out a call for evidence and are now looking at what further action might be taken. Also, water companies are indeed raising the issue of illegally discharged fat.

It was great that my hon. Friend Danny Kruger talked about how wetlands and nature-based solutions are critical to cleaning up our water. We are increasingly using those solutions; the Government are encouraging that.

My hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker was as ever the angler extraordinaire—the canary in the coalmine as he calls himself—and I always listen when he speaks. Along with many others, he mentioned supporting a river recovery fund. My right hon. Friend Jesse Norman, who has left his seat, also mentioned that, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, who raised as well the idea of pollution fines going to solving problems relating to water. We are working on a holistic plan for water; it is an interesting concept, and I hear what he says on that. He also talked about development consents and local authorities having no power to include infrastructure relating to water. Again I hear those comments; that is another valid point which I am happy to discuss further with him. In short, he has raised some important points in addition to the inquiry’s recommendations and, as ever, the door is open for us to consider them.

I thank all Members who have participated in the debate. I honestly believe this is a turning point for water. We have all had enough, and water companies must put the environment first—that is what the policy statement to Ofwat says. The message has been clearly sent that Ofwat must reduce the harm from storm sewage overflows. We will no longer stand poor performance from the water companies.

Almost everybody raised the issue of the enormous salaries and the dividends taken. It has been made very clear to Ofwat that that is no longer acceptable, and it has already started measures which came through in 2019 to make information on salaries and what they are based on more transparent. I think many colleagues commented that, actually, it is great to take a dividend or a big salary, but something must be shown for it. Our water is a precious thing and, without a shadow of a doubt, we should not be abusing it. We should be cleaning it up, and that is what the Government intend to do. I thank all colleagues for taking part in this extremely constructive debate.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 4:45 pm, 9th June 2022

Very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you for calling me and for chairing our debate. In essence, every contribution from across the House has been in agreement: we have broad consensus that now is the time to fix the water quality of our rivers, and Ofwat is the mechanism by which the process can begin. I am extremely grateful to the Minister in particular for her response to comments made from across the House. I hope that her officials will read the transcript and the commitments that she made. Hon. Members, and certainly I, as Chair of the Committee, will be happy to engage with her on some of the additional points on which she responded so positively. I also thank the Opposition spokesman, Alex Sobel, who approached the debate in characteristically constructive style.

I would gently say to the sole representative of the Liberal Democrats, Daisy Cooper, in a slightly discordant way, that calling for a sewage tax and to ban sewage discharges as a legal, overnight measure reflects the lack of credibility or realism in proposals that the Liberal Democrats often make on this matter. I must say that their intervention on the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, which was to make it an offence for mammals to die from sewage exposure, was a typical example of a completely ludicrous proposal. There was no evidence that that was a problem; the Committee received no evidence on the subject whatsoever. It was political posturing ahead of local elections, and I am afraid that that needs to be called out.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Government’s strategic priorities for Ofwat.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Conservative, Newark

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wonder if I can take your advice on how I can raise an urgent matter with the Foreign Secretary and her colleagues. Earlier today, a constituent of mine in Newark, Aiden Aslin, along with another British citizen, Shaun Pinner, was sentenced to death in a show trial held at the auspices of Vladimir Putin and his Russian regime.

Both Aiden and Shaun are British citizens who happened to be fighting in the Ukrainian armed forces and were captured by the Russian army around Mariupol. Both are prisoners of war who deserve to be treated appropriately and in accordance with the Geneva convention. Instead, the Russian army put them through a Soviet-era show trial and, earlier today, sentenced them to death. That is completely unacceptable and the most egregious breach of international law. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will summon the Russian ambassador to the Foreign Office at her earliest convenience to convey a clear message that British citizens cannot be treated in that manner, and that both Aiden and Shaun should be freed and returned to their family and friends, either in Ukraine or home here to the United Kingdom, as soon as practicable.

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 thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which is disturbing to say the least. Indeed, it is horrific news for the House to receive about the treatment of British citizens at the hands of the Russian regime. He is right to bring the news to the House at the earliest possible point. I am pleased to advise him that there are various ways in which he can raise the matter formally here in the Chamber and with Ministers, the most obvious of which is to submit an urgent question, which I am quite sure will be considered carefully. At the same time, I am also certain that the Treasury Bench will take the opportunity to convey the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and indeed those of the whole House, to the relevant Ministers, in whom I have every confidence that they will act appropriately.