Environmental Protection

– in the House of Commons at 5:59 pm on 18 July 2023.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:59, 18 July 2023

I beg to move,

That the draft Environmental Civil Sanctions (England) (Amendment) Order 2023, which was laid before this House on 12 July, be approved.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to consider the following motion:

That the draft Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2023, which were laid before this House on 12 July, be approved.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The purpose of these instruments is to strengthen environmental civil sanctions, so that our environmental regulators can apply an unlimited penalty to companies that break the terms of their permits and do damage to the environment. We are also making it easier for such penalties to be applied rather than having to resort exclusively to taking polluters to court for fines to be applied.

Rightly, the Government care about the environment, as do the public. In January, we published our environmental improvement plan, which set out an ambitious five-year blueprint for action to make our country cleaner and greener, to restore nature and to improve the state of our environment. In April, we set out our comprehensive integrated plan for clean and plentiful water. Both plans demonstrated our ambition and the action that we would undertake to have a laser-like focus on cleaning up the environment, including enabling our regulators to enforce the law effectively and efficiently.

Let me turn to the enablers that we are debating today. First, the current provision for variable monetary penalties under the Environmental Civil Sanctions (England) Order 2010 is capped at £250,000. Possible penalties are supposed to be an effective deterrent to poor performance. Unfortunately, it seems that some operators may have priced in the fact that it can be cheaper to pay the current penalty than to fix the problem and tackle the pollution. Of course, people who breach their permits and pollute can be taken to court facing a criminal conviction and be faced with an unlimited fine and the prospect of going to prison. However, we know that such investigations and court cases can take years to accomplish such an outcome. Therefore, I am clear that we must provide a strong deterrent, particularly for large operators with significant turnover.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I very much welcome these Government measures. Last week, we on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee had an emergency session with Thames Water, Ofwat and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We received strong confirmation that the regulators and the Environment Agency now have the teeth that they need to hold polluting water companies to account with unlimited fines or by stopping dividends being paid out. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Conservative Government are the first Government to take clear and strong action, and that this is in strong contrast to some of the toxic rubbish that comes out especially from the Liberal Democrats, who, I notice, are not in the Chamber today? They seem to forget that, when they had a water Minister during the coalition, they did nothing on this.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I have two points to make. First, interventions should be interventions, not speeches. Secondly, there is a lot of chirruping going on. Even if I am the only person in the House who wants to hear what the Secretary of State and shadow Secretary of State have to say, then I want to be able to hear.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about these measures. By voting for them today—of course, they also need to go through the Lords—we will give our regulators all the tools that they need and that they have asked for to tackle this situation. He is right that it is a bit of a surprise that the Liberal Democrats are absent, but there we go. We will be able to remind people that, when Parliament was voting for this legislation, the Liberal Democrats were nowhere to be seen.

Secondly, there is currently no provision under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 for variable monetary penalties. The majority of Environment Agency investigations are conducted under those regulations, and at the moment the Environment Agency is limited in its enforcement options to giving warnings, advice, guidance or enforcement undertakings, or indeed having to go the whole hog and undertake formal criminal prosecutions.

The secondary legislation that we are debating will introduce variable monetary penalties to the 2016 regulations, ensuring a comprehensive, clear, effective and proportionate deterrent within the environmental civil sanctions regime. Penalties will be based on the degree of environmental harm and culpability, as well as the size of the operator. They are calibrated to act as a proportionate deterrent and punishment, and both instruments will require the environmental regulators to update and publish guidance that sets out their methodology for determining the penalty levels.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

Last year, Anglian Water used its storm overflows in Southend West at least 13 times, which resulted in diluted sewage water being pumped into our waters for at least 24 hours, which is simply unacceptable. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that today’s measures, which I welcome, will mean that Anglian Water will face severe penalties if it breaks the rules again, and will she assure everyone in Southend and Leigh-on-Sea that we will finally have a real deterrent against it using those unacceptable practices?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is right. By giving our regulators the tools that they have asked us for, we are taking action. Of course, the only reason we know about the storm overflows is the level of monitoring, which was pretty much completely absent before the Conservative party took power in 2010. It is critical that we use our tools effectively to ensure that people who have these permits are doing the right thing. The uncapped penalties will certainly be a deterrent.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

Can the Secretary of State reassure us that any fines will be used to improve water infrastructure in the local area?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Indeed. I was planning to explain shortly how the penalties will be used. They will go into the new water restoration fund. It is my decision that that will be localised to the region of the water company that it applies to—ideally as local as possible. It certainly will not go back to the water company to fix the problems that it was having.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice Conservative, Camborne and Redruth

I understand what the Government are trying to achieve, but as the Secretary of State points out, the Environment Agency could go through due process with the courts, and there is already the sanction of unlimited fines. What will she do to protect a farmer, for instance, from unreasonable, heavy-handed fines by the Environment Agency, particularly as it now has an incentive to fine because it will keep the money for its own projects?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

On the farming laws related to water, we normally find that people are not trying to break the law deliberately, so it is about guidance and how we make the fixes, but we have to act and, where necessary—in severe or continuous cases—undertake a criminal investigation. That will always be a decision for the regulator—the Environment Agency, in this case. That is where an element of judgment can and should be applied, but ultimately we have to allow our regulator to use the full force of the powers available to it to clean our water and improve our environment.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

What will be done to force the Environment Agency to do its duty? In the lower Avon, north of my constituency, flooding across the area is affecting farmland because the Environment Agency has refused to enforce the law and ensure that the blockage at the Knapp Mill waterworks is removed.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Clearly, my hon. Friend is an assiduous constituency MP in raising this issue during our discussion about how penalties can be applied. If he would like to write to me with more details, I could ask the new chief executive of the Environment Agency to investigate the matter further and respond to him directly.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. My constituents, almost by historical accident, have the privilege of paying two water bills rather than one—one to Anglian Water and another to Essex & Suffolk Water—for different aspects of their water usage. They have seen those bills increase considerably in the last couple of years. As well as fining water companies for getting it wrong, since she mentions the regulator, can she please put pressure on Ofwat to do everything it can to make sure that those increases are, first, fully justified and, secondly, as low as practically possible?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We are straying somewhat from the purpose of the statutory instruments that we are dealing with today, but I have that same situation whereby Anglian Water covers sewerage and Essex & Suffolk Water covers the supply of water. One critical element in the price review process that we have is that Ofwat goes through a mechanism of working through with water companies what they are allowed to invest in and, as a consequence, what the bill changes could be. We have a situation where bills go up with inflation—that has been part of the mechanism so far, and there is a price review process under way, but I have listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend said.

It has always been the case that Ofwat is there to ensure that the investment that is required in our waterways and our sewerage is made, to ensure that we get best value for money. It is important to note that these SIs cover what happens when we see water companies and other operators, having had that ability to invest, breach their permits. We want to make sure that the penalties are uncapped in order to act as an effective deterrent, as I have mentioned.

Hon. Members have asked how some of those penalties will be applied. I expect that, as now, the Environment Agency will use the guidelines for environmental offences, which are published by the independent Sentencing Council, to determine the level of all variable monetary penalties. Thinking particularly of some of the very small businesses covered by the environmental permitting regime, that will also include a number of safeguards to make sure that penalties are proportionate.

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

On the subject of penalties, one thing probably annoys most of us—it certainly annoys many of my constituents—is that whatever happens, the chief executive seems to get a massive dividend. When it comes to damages and penalties, is it possible that those dividends could be retrieved and used for the betterment of customers?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The water industry in Northern Ireland is not covered by the UK Government. It is a separate system, so with the greatest respect I think the hon. Gentleman will need to follow that up with the Northern Ireland Executive when they are reformed, which I hope will be soon. However, I will also ask the permanent secretary to write to him in that regard.

The regulations apply only to England. We invited the Welsh Government to join us in making the regulations, but they felt unable to act at the pace at which we have acted. That is not to say there are not sewage spillages or other environmental breaches in Wales—there are: we know that on average there were 38 spillages from Welsh storm overflows last year, compared with 23 in England.

The new regulations sit alongside the freedom that we have given Ofwat to link water company dividends to environmental performance. As I have referred to, the fines and penalties will be reinvested in local water improvement schemes through our new water restoration fund, while the water company will pay the polluter penalty and will have to fix the problems at no cost to the bill payer.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s very timely regulations. This Thursday I am meeting the Environment Agency, along with two of my local angling societies, the Royal Tunbridge Wells Angling Society and the Dorset Arms Angling Club. Southern Water regularly pollutes the tributaries of the upper Medway, causing great damage to the natural environment and to those angling societies. Will the fines that are to be levied be available to the angling societies to restore the stocks of fish in which they have invested, which have been destroyed by those breaches by Southern Water?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is the intention that the penalties will be put into the water restoration fund and used primarily in that local area and certainly not beyond the boundaries of the water company involved. If that is persistent, I would expect the Environment Agency to tackle the situation. It may be such a severe case that it merits criminal prosecution, but what we are doing today is enabling the Environment Agency, and indeed other regulators, to act much more swiftly to apply penalties that are a strong deterrent. I should point out that these new changes apply to all industries that operate under the environmental permitting regime, so the strengthened deterrent will also apply, for example, to waste site operators.

The regulations show that, yet again, this Conservative Government are taking action to improve our environment. I commend the regulations to the House.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:15, 18 July 2023

The only reason we are here today is that, after 13 years, the country we love, and the quality of life for millions of working people, are suffering from the Tory sewage scandal. As a direct result of the Government’s actions, raw human waste was dumped across our country for more than 11 million hours, resulting in 1.5 million sewage dumps—more than 800 every single day.

Millions of water customers—our constituents—have paid their hard-earned money in good faith for their waste water to be treated properly. Instead, they see the places that they care about—the places where they have put down roots and invested their families’ shared futures—being polluted. Those sewage dumps go into the sea, where people swim; into the canals, along which people cycle and walk their dogs on the towpath; into the rivers, where people fish or canoe; on to the beaches, where our children and grandchildren build sandcastles; and, of course, into our leisure and beauty hotspots, where hard-working local businesses rely on tourists to come flocking in numbers.

On 14 October last year, I asked the Government what assessment had been made of

“the economic impact of beach closures as a result of sewage pollution on coastal businesses”.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Trudy Harrison, confirmed that her Department had not made such an assessment. Can the Secretary tell me today whether her Department has finally worked out the economic impact of sewage discharges on those businesses—yes or no?

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is scaremongering by Opposition MPs about the level of sewage being discharged, and that some of us have outstanding bathing water on our beaches because there has already been significant investment? It is important to recognise the difference between combined sewer overflow and the alternative to it running out to sea; less than 5% is contaminated water. Is it rushing up through people’s front rooms?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Nuance and facts do matter in this type of debate, but the facts speak for themselves, frankly: going by the Government’s figures, there are 800 such discharges each and every day. As we see right across the country, including in my own region, beaches are completely closed off to members of the public, and that has a material impact on the businesses who rely in good faith on tourists coming. That is the lived experience of people there, and we should not decry that either, so let us get the balance right and accept that this issue needs to be addressed.

A responsible Government would undertake an economic impact assessment to truly understand the impact of the problem, but the order itself states that an economic

“impact assessment has not been produced for this instrument as no, or no significant, impact on the private, voluntary or public sectors is foreseen.”

That feels to me as if the Government have their head in the sand.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a great deal of debate at the moment not just about the Government’s spending plans but about those of His Majesty’s official Opposition. Everyone knows that preventing any discharges of any kind would involve the investment of hundreds of billions of pounds. As the Secretary of State has already made plain, the Government are committed to spending billions as it is. If Labour thinks that we are not doing enough, how much more money would it spend on this that we are not already committed to? Give us a number.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will check the voting record later, but we presented our plan to Parliament, and Members had the choice to vote for or against it. That plan would have seen sewage discharges ended by 2030. We believe, and the evidence says, that that could be done with the money that is currently being derived from dividends. That is how it would be funded, and that would mean bill payers were protected. I am disappointed that the Government did not support that, but we are where we are.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

Perhaps he could tell us, as it is his plan, what the figure is?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If the right hon. Gentleman is excited at this point, he is going to get even more animated shortly, so he should bear with me.

What we see today is not just the result of Government inaction or an industry too focused on short-term dividend payouts, above the long-term interests of the country. More than that, it is about a system of regulation that is not just ineffective but a clear part of the problem. All the failings we see in the sector have built up in plain sight of Ofwat, as the financial regulator, and the Environment Agency—debt piling up, dividends pouring out, sewage being dumped, water leaks leading to supply shortages, and at least one water company now on the financial cliff edge. These water companies have not acted under the radar; they have done it all in plain sight, all allowed to get completely out of hand and all signed off.

We know that Ofwat already has the power today to issue unlimited fines, to curb dividends and to stop the debt mountain getting even higher. The chair of the Environment Agency spoke out against the previous £250 million cap proposed by the Government, saying at an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee hearing just a few months ago:

“The previous Secretary of State suggested that the limit on penalties should increase from £250,000 to £250 million. That is a number that I believe to be higher than should be given to us for a penalty that we can impose.”

He went on to say:

“My personal view is in the £10 million to £25 million range.”

That is the chair of the agency that these powers are being handed over to for unlimited fines. In there lies the truth—watering down the threat of action and watering down the consequences, too.

Rather than going further than what was previously announced, what we see in practice is the Government going backwards, now suggesting penalties just of between 5% and 10% of the cap previously mooted. The Government know that this is not an answer to the Tory sewage scandal and, more than that, the water companies know full well that it is not either. They know it is not even business as usual. I am concerned about the very likely consequence that we will see even less money being taken in penalties and fines, as the regulator moves away from using its criminal powers to civil powers, with grubby backroom deals being struck in favour of the water companies. There is also the risk, as we have seen in the case of Thames Water, that even where water companies are found to have deliberately frustrated and misled an investigation, criminal powers to hold individuals to account are not used.

Regulators under pressure to demonstrate that this cut-price policy is delivering the goods, matched with a lack of capacity and political will to undertake criminal investigations, could well mean that offenders are let off the hook. Water bosses are already given a “get out of jail free” card, and now they will not even see the inside of a courtroom—that is what this will do. What safeguards will be in place to ensure that there is full transparency on financial penalties, to rule out cut-price discounts or dodgy deals in backrooms? Given what has come to pass, will the Secretary of State use this opportunity to give notice to the regulators that the watchdogs themselves are now being watched?

The Labour party presented a Bill to the House on 25 April that would have ended the Tory sewage scandal by 2030. That Bill proposed four crucial measures to reduce sewage discharges while ensuring that no further burden was added to household bills. First, it would have set a legal requirement for the monitoring of all sewage outlets and penalties if companies failed to monitor. Secondly, it would have introduced automatic fines for sewage dumping. Thirdly, Labour’s plan would have implemented a legally binding target to reduce dumping by 90% by 2030. Finally, it would have required the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for the reduction of sewage discharges and, importantly, regular economic impact assessments. That is a plan—that was Labour’s plan—but the Tories blocked it. They marched through the Lobby to make sure it would not get time to be debated in this House.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Labour’s plan, let alone not being fully costed, would have tripled the bills that householders had to pay and would have seen sewage backing up in people’s homes? That is the reality of Labour’s plans; they do not want to admit it, but that is the reality.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Government Members seem to be under the misapprehension that our costings for the manifesto are in line with contract awards for personal protective equipment. They absolutely are not. We are of the opinion—the industry says this, as do the regulators —that our plan is affordable within the envelope of money that is currently being taken out for shareholder dividends. If shareholders can find £72 billion of our money to go out in dividends, they can find the money to fix the system and put right the wrong.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will make some progress.

Since we presented that Bill to the House for debate, 40,000 sewage dumps have taken place. Labour’s plan would have ensured that polluters pay the moment they start dumping sewage, not months or years after the event, with investigations and lawyers needed to make a ruling. As such, I ask the Secretary of State whether her Department has considered the potential benefits of introducing automatic fines for sewage dumping. Does she agree that that would save regulators time and money, and do the right thing by bill payers and the environment?

It is not just the coastline that is suffering from the Tory sewage scandal: sewage, unfortunately, is closer than many believe. Our national parks, lakes and rivers—the arteries of our nation—are being sullied by Tory-sanctioned sewage dumping. This is not just an environmental crisis, or an economic one for our coastal businesses: it is about whether families can live decent and fulfilled lives.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee

The hon. Gentleman describes a very long-standing problem. Does he have evidence to suggest that the problem was any less during the years before 2010, when the Labour party was in office?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very proud of Labour’s record of leaving the cleanest air and water since before the industrial revolution. What the data says—dump by dump, outlet by outlet, beach by beach, lake by lake, river by river—is that, year on year, the problem is getting worse under the Tories, not better. It has all been sanctioned by the Tories.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will make some progress, if I may. This is all about whether families can live decent and fulfilled lives in the places where we live, where we work and where we holiday together—where families create memories, forge bonds and strengthen relationships by enjoying the beauty that our country has to offer. It is moments like those that make life worth living.

In the middle of the Tory cost of living crisis, households are being hammered from every angle, with rocketing food prices—again, straight to the door of the Secretary of State—soaring energy bills and crippling mortgage rates. When it comes to people’s water bills, the public are paying for a service that is not being delivered. That is being felt across the country, including in recent weeks on the doorsteps of Uxbridge and South Ruislip and Selby and Ainsty. I can tell the Secretary of State that people are not buying her party’s excuses. They want a better Britain, and that starts with treating our country, the public, and businesses with the respect they deserve.

Labour could vote against these measures. It is true that they do not go far enough; that they carry a significant risk of actually weakening enforcement; and that there is little evidence that we will see the change needed. However, we will not allow the Government that excuse. If a vote does come, we will vote for the measures, for one reason only: to prove that, for all the talk of action, in the end, nothing will change until we get a change of Government, because only Labour will end the Tory sewage scandal.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover 6:29, 18 July 2023

The title of these statutory instruments is “Environmental Protection”, but they should perhaps properly be named as the continued protection of the over-mighty quangos of Natural England and the Environment Agency. I am concerned to see that no additional powers or extension of their powers are given without their also being fundamentally reformed, together with a modern, fit-for-purpose water regulation structure, and I have made that case before in this place.

I understand that the purpose of these regulations is to change the balance of costs and fines for water-based pollutions so that the natural market drivers will make it less expensive to comply with investing in upgrading infrastructure, rather than to pay the cost of pollution. If a water company gets an eye-watering, attention-grabbing fine, the investors and managers will be pressed to take action. I understand that the intention is that no consumer will pay, either by increased charges or decreased investment. Furthermore, I understand that arrangements will be made to keep the value of fines for investment in the particular region affected.

I know that the Secretary of State and the Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow—are personally deeply committed to this issue. They have led the way in this House with groundbreaking legislation and action. However, it has been my experience of Ofwat, Natural England and the Environment Agency that good intention may not translate into effective delivery, and I would like to expand on that.

Tackling sewage has been one of my primary pieces of work as the Member for Dover and Deal. It is an issue I care about very deeply, because repeated sewage flooding into people’s homes is incredibly damaging, and devastating for those affected. They find themselves constantly on alert for flood warnings, with carpets and possessions damaged or destroyed, and back gardens watered by things other than rain, while insurance premiums soar and houses are difficult to sell. That is why repeated sewage flooding is subject to specific regulatory intervention.

One of my earliest challenges has been to address decades-long sewage flooding in the town of Deal, and in Albert Road in particular. I did all the things that MPs normally do. I met residents, wrote letters, spoke in this place, met Ministers, asked Ofwat to use its regulatory enforcement powers, and met the chief executive of Ofwat to make the case, but none of that moved the dial. Why was that? Because, when I finally managed to get out of Ofwat what was going on, it would not use its regulatory powers because there was not an agreed solution.

At the heart of the problem was a traditional Bazalgette system, or the combined surface water and sewage approach that we have had in our country for a very long time. That system applies in one part of Deal, but not in the rest, and it was not physically possible to separate out the combined system within the historic structure of the town, even if it were financially viable to do so. Every party involved following every sewage issue—from the highways authority to councils, the drainage board and the water company—each had a different technical report and view, and each of them put responsibility for solving it on the other.

Pretty much my whole career has been one of problem solving in one form or another, and I knew a bit about water infrastructure and regulation because I carried out a year-long research programme into it before I came into this place, so I decided to do what I would do if I was not an MP. I picked up the phone to the chief executive and asked to meet. I put forward a proposal to set up a joint taskforce that was chaired by the then chief executive, Ian McAulay, and me as the Member of Parliament. Southern Water agreed to fund a top expert team, led by Doctor Nick Mills and Rob McTaggart, to work out what was possible.

Southern Water agreed to this approach, provided I could convene the other statutory bodies to take part with the same degree of commitment to solve this long-standing problem, and that is what is happening. Six months’ work has led to 12 months’ work, and it is now one of the pathfinder projects, bringing hundreds of thousands of pounds of new investment to Deal—more than £500,000 to date, with more committed expenditure—and bringing in innovation in “slow the flow” work right across the town of Deal. Work is ongoing on technical engineering solutions and environmentally based solutions, which are the so-called nature-based solutions.

We are determined to see the programme through in order to tackle long-standing flooding and be an early adopter of the elimination of sewage outflows. There will be a showcase to Parliament in the autumn, and I very much hope that Ministers and Members who are interested, and who are perhaps speaking in today’s debate, will come and see how we are approaching this.

What matters to our constituents is what works, and what works is technical solutions to technical problems. That has been my experience on the ground, and it is also the expert advice on this issue from the Institution of Civil Engineers. It has advised that the water regulatory framework needs updating, that there needs to be better testing and assessment of the nature-based solutions, and that nature-based solutions need to be better incorporated into the planning system for the built environment.

Who has not been in the room, and who has not been part of the solution? That is either the Environment Agency or Natural England. That matters because these new mega-fines will be imposed by bodies that have no ideas, and no role in solving these issues. The fines will be imposed on water companies, without requiring other relevant and necessary parties to come to the table and work through proper technical and deliverable solutions for the benefit of our communities. The fines could be imposed on water companies that have already agreed an investment strategy to tackle this issue, including the cost to the consumer, and agreed to by their own regulator, Ofwat. There is a clear disconnect in what is being discussed today.

Although one must hope that the agencies will act responsibly, holistically and sensibly, current evidence does not support that. Natural England’s first moratorium on house building was imposed in June 2019. Since then, bans on new builds have spread to more than a quarter of England’s local authority areas, affecting around 145,000 homes across 74 local authority areas, from Cornwall to the Tees Valley, and a further 41,000 fewer homes are expected to be built each year until a solution is found. That solution will not be found in Natural England.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

My hon. Friend is right to bring up the problems for house building from the nutrient neutrality programme. Does she agree that the way to solve that problem and reinforce the Government’s welcome efforts to prevent pollution lie within the water industry itself, and with better treatment of sewage, so that we achieve nutrient neutrality without the slightly blunt instrument that Natural England has chosen to use over the past couple of years?

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments, because he is absolutely right. Blunt instruments will not solve the issues that are blocking house building in our communities, and we have not seen a solution from Natural England that will bring those solutions forward. He is correct to comment on the failure of water companies to invest, which has contributed to this issue, in addition to the root cause of agricultural run-off in river pollution. It is estimated that all existing development—residential, commercial and the rest of the built environment—contributes less than 5% towards the phosphate and nitrate loads in our rivers. That means that occupants of any new homes built would make a negligible difference to that issue, yet it has an enormous cost and impact on the communities where those new homes are not being built.

While those much-needed new homes with their negligible impact are blocked by Natural England, the Environment Agency is allowing farmers to pollute with high-nutrient fertilisers, which are themselves a source of nutrient polluting problems. Planning permissions continue to be granted for high-intensity poultry units, for example, resulting in the absurd situation where a developer may be forced to buy a pig farm and close it down, in order to get permission to build homes, only for the now cash-rich farmer to open another new pig farm just down the road. While the rich farmer gets richer, the small and medium-sized enterprise developer goes bust. A delegation of SME builders brought their case to Downing Street this month. The large developer Redrow has just announced plans to close its offices in the Southern and Thames Valley region, which is one of the areas affected by the nutrient issue.

The Secretary of State is aware that I and many other colleagues are gravely concerned about the proposed approach of keeping Natural England in control, as currently set out in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. That continues to put immense uncontrolled power over the shape and delivery of our homes and communities with an unelected, unaccountable, single-purpose quango in Natural England.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

As the House may know, it is not often that my right hon. Friend Damian Green and I agree on much, but on this he is absolutely right. Natural England is becoming an over-mighty regulator, and it is referred to directly in the regulation that we are debating. Does my hon. Friend agree that it should stay in its lane, do what it does well, and not keep trying to expand its empire into areas where it is not best qualified to judge?

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I am struggling to think of those lanes where Natural England does things well. An overhaul of these quangos is required, because they are now making decisions about community policy and economic matters without any of the accountability and balance that Ministers would have over these issues. I thank my right hon. Friend for making those points.

Moving on, the water restoration fund is where all these mega fines will be put. The Department’s press release in April 2023 refers to some £141 million in fines that have been collected since 2015. They currently go to the Treasury but will now go to the new water restoration fund. It seems that £140 million in the fund is clearly not enough, so we now have an unlimited amount—perhaps billions of pounds of fines—that will be available for, as set out in the press release, community-led projects. I have visions of an army of green wellies wading through rivers, removing non-native and invasive species, picking up nets and unblocking blockages that would cause barriers to fishes’ natural movement in rivers, as the Department’s press release mentions.

However, the Government already have a proper water regulator, although it needs reform, for the industry. It needs to be the body driving through the change needed to deal with the historical Bazalgette-style water engineering. That change can only happen with big-ticket investment and complex technical solutions. It is not one for the green welly brigade or the orange Just Stop Oil brigade.

To conclude, will the Secretary of State look again at the relationship between Ofwat—the water regulator—the Environment Agency and Natural England in relation to this matter? I have set out a case for the reform of those bodies. In relation to today’s statutory instruments, higher fines will not in themselves lead to solutions. The only solutions to this issue will be detailed, complex, technical and professional, such as those we have pioneered with the Deal Water Action Taskforce with Southern Water, and also those set out by the Institution of Civil Engineers and the National Infrastructure Commission. By failing to keep big quangos in check, I am afraid that DEFRA is responsible for a substantial fall in house building in this country. It is vital that does not happen to investment in our water companies too, and that we see better regulation, effective working and technical solutions delivered on the ground and in the waterways for the benefit of our communities and constituents, and for the natural environment.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford 6:42, 18 July 2023

I want to make only a few brief points. First, the purpose of these regulations is to strengthen the civil sanctions available for environmental regulators in England, including Natural England and the Environment Agency, in order to provide a greater deterrent against environmental offences for operators. A number of colleagues on this side of the House have already expressed concerns about the extent to which those regulators are perhaps expanding their remit—we might call it “remit creep”, for want of a better term—and not necessarily making the best possible decisions as a result. In that context, will the Secretary of State look again at the remits of those regulators, in particular Natural England, and enter into a conversation, perhaps over a cup of tea, about whether they are going beyond the remit that Parliament gave them? As they are mentioned in the regulations today, I take the opportunity to make that request.

Secondly, I notice from the Order Paper that both these statutory instruments—the House has agreed to take them together—have not been cleared by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Before anyone gets overly excited, that is not unknown—there are sometimes good reasons for why they have to be brought to the House before the JCSI has had an opportunity to scrutinise them—but it is slightly unusual. When the Secretary of State replies to the debate, perhaps she could explain to the House why that is the case. I am sure there is a perfectly legitimate reason, but it might be helpful for her to get that on the record.

Thirdly, I can report that I have had quite a lot of emails from my constituents about sewage discharges. People in Rayleigh and Wickford are just as concerned about this issue as anyone else, and no one wants to see sewage—particularly if it is untreated—being discharged into our rivers, our estuaries or, indeed, the sea. On that, I suspect we could achieve unanimity across the House. However, as I intimated in my intervention, there are already billions of pounds going in from the Government to try to reduce those discharges as far as is practically possible so that they would occur only in periods of the most exceptional rainfall.

In fairness, I gave the shadow Secretary of State, Jim McMahon, an opportunity to tell the House how much money Labour would spend on this issue above and beyond the billions of pounds that the Government are clearly committed to. [Interruption.] Well, he did not answer my question.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

No, he did not. Perhaps there is a reason why. On 25 April, the Daily Express reported, “Tories humiliate Labour as they’re forced to abstain on their own anti-sewage debate”. Under the by-line of Christian Calgie, its senior political correspondent, the story stated:

The Labour Party was left humiliated by the Government in the House of Commons this afternoon …Labour MPs ended up refusing to vote in favour of reducing sewage discharge. It’s claimed a senior Labour MP was overheard saying ‘We’ve been made to look like’” twits.

I did not want to introduce a partisan element to the debate—[Interruption.] No, no, but having heard the shadow Secretary of State’s speech, in which he did that, I thought it was only fair to reply in kind. I hope that when the Secretary of State replies to the debate, she will try to get elucidation from him on why Labour had this big Opposition day debate, made a big thing of it, briefed the press, told the country and then abstained. There must be some reason. If he is too embarrassed to tell the House of Commons, perhaps she can oblige.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Did my right hon. Friend also note that, as the shadow Secretary of State talked about the passion with which Labour feels on this subject, not one single Labour Back-Bench MP was present, and that while the Government Benches are now almost full, just two Labour Back-Bench MPs have appeared, probably because they want to get warm?

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful observation. The passion on the Labour Back Benches has almost doubled in the last 15 minutes. The Whips have obviously been around the Tea Room and said, “It’s looking a bit thin at the back there, boys and girls. You’d better get in there quickly.” So now—I want to be accurate—I count seven Labour MPs in the Chamber. Am I short-changing anybody? No. As for the abstention —[Hon. Members: “They’re coming in now.”] Oh, crikey. Keep going; we could be in double figures in a minute.

As for the abstention on 25 April, it is admittedly unusual to table an Opposition day motion and then abstain on it; that is not an everyday thing. Because the shadow Secretary of State said that Labour was so passionate about it, I can only assume that it was a passionate abstention. Labour felt so strongly that it deliberately chose one of its Opposition day debates to raise the issue, and then passionately abstained in person, as someone once famously said. If there is a really good explanation for that, I look forward to hearing it from the Opposition. In fact, I will allow—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Could I gently try to connect the hon. Gentleman’s speech with the motion before the House?

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

In the interests of equity, I was allowing the shadow Secretary of State to intervene on me. Perhaps he could connect it? He does not want to intervene to explain why Labour abstained on its own motion. Going, going, gone. In that case, perhaps the Secretary of State could help to elucidate, because the Labour party, clearly, is incapable of explaining its own policy. On that point, so as not to detain us further, I conclude my remarks.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:50, 18 July 2023

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for the wide-ranging contributions to the discussion of the regulations that we are bringing forward today. Across the country, people want to see an end to pollution and want polluters to pay. That is why we are bringing forward these proposals. My right hon. and hon. Friends are right to ask, what have we heard so far from Labour? Frankly, His Majesty’s loyal Opposition continues to mislead the public again and again at the Dispatch Box, but not the House because the Government and Back Benchers know that they are talking a load of the proverbial.

There is no doubt that beaches have been cleaner than they were under Labour. We know that through statistics, because Labour did nothing about it. When we came into office, if there had been a version of Labour’s famous “There is no money left” note lying at DEFRA’s door, it would have said, “You’re being sued by Europe because sewage is being discharged and we have done nothing about it.” That is what Labour did. The Labour Government knew what was happening and they did nothing to stop it. For the avoidance of doubt, water policy is devolved. If Labour had a credible plan it would use it in Wales, but it does not, and we are seeing on average more sewage discharges there than in England.

I am also concerned that the Opposition continues to accuse our civil servants of bad behaviour. I encourage Jim McMahon to stop the practice of blaming civil servants. Going on about grubby backroom deals and suggesting that our regulators would try to do that is a disgrace. I will apologise on his behalf to our civil servants and regulators. I do not accuse our civil servants of grubby backroom deals—that is behaviour I associate with the Opposition.

The Government voted for Labour’s motion on 25 April. It is Labour who ran away embarrassed and exposed, because we were already doing what Labour was putting forward—it was already in legislation and under way. Labour seems to have forgotten that water policy has been devolved to the Labour Government in Wales. An element are clueless, and an element are accusing civil servants of potentially doing grubby backroom deals. The Government will continue to clean up the mess that Labour left behind.

Let me be clear: we are not here to be apologists for water companies; they need to clean up their act and cover the costs. It is up to water companies to make sure that they direct any profits they make from billpayers’ hard-earned money into improvements. These regulations are what our regulators asked for. That is why we are backing our regulators to help restore the environment. I commend these regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Environmental Civil Sanctions (England) (Amendment) Order 2023, which was laid before this House on 12 July, be approved.


That the draft Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2023, which were laid before this House on 12 July, be approved.—(Thérèse Coffey.)