South West Water: Brixham Contamination

– in the House of Commons at on 20 May 2024.

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Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement on South West Water and Brixham’s contamination.

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

On Monday 13 May, South West Water was notified by the UK Health Security Agency of cryptosporidium cases in the Brixham area. South West Water undertook monitoring from Monday evening into Tuesday, with the results on Wednesday morning identifying crypto in the Hillhead distribution area. A boil notice was issued for customers on Wednesday 15 May to cover both the Hillhead area and the Alston area. I know that has caused considerable concern and disruption to the local community.

To date, UKHSA has identified at least 46 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium but, given that symptoms may take up to 10 days to emerge, obviously that number may continue to rise. Two people have been hospitalised. Two bottled water stations were initially opened on Thursday 16 May, and in my call with the chief executive on Friday, I requested that a third be opened and the hours extended, both of which then happened effective from Saturday.

I also raised concerns with the chief executive, including those shared with me by my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about inadequate compensation. That was raised to £150 for residents in the Alston supply area and has now gone up to £215 for those continuing to be affected in the Alston area. A helpline has been established for businesses and I requested that it work with local MPs to streamline the process. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries visited the community on Friday.

Some 16,000 properties were initially subject to the boil notice, but 85% of them—32,000 residents in 14,500 properties that receive their water from the Alston reservoir—have now had the boil notice lifted. Not only have all the tests on the Alston reservoir been clear, but South West Water says that the positive test of the valve supports its contention that the most likely cause is downstream of that reservoir. If that is the case, those 85% of residents were never subject to any water issues and the boil notice was applied on a precautionary basis. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that there will be ongoing concern, so daily testing of that water will continue for the foreseeable future.

The Hillhead reservoir has now been drained, cleaned and refilled. A flush of the network, which aims to remove traces of cryptosporidium detected in the system, was started this morning. We are working with South West Water and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, recognising the ongoing disruption to the remaining 15% of residents. I know that South West Water will want to comply fully and in a timely fashion with the investigation of the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister with responsibility for rivers, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Robbie Moore, for their extraordinary co-operation over the past week. I have wanted for nothing from them, and they have done an extraordinary job. I thank them and their team for being on hand at a moment’s notice to liaise with me and with the local organisations in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Kevin Foster.

In Brixham the anger is palpable, the frustration is apparent and the sheer inconvenience that has been put on residents by South West Water is absolutely abhorrent. I have spent the past week and weekend delivering leaflets that South West Water should have been delivering —it has failed to update residents on the situation before them. I have spoken with residents and businesses about compensation and the reputational damage suffered by Brixham, one of this country’s finest coastal communities.

Last week, South West Water was accused of making people ill, not by an organisation, but by Tanya Matthews in a Facebook post. That post received 1,200 responses in which people identified common symptoms, yet South West Water did nothing. For 24 hours, people were still able to drink the water and South West Water continued to say that there was no problem. The reason 46 people are ill—and that is most certainly an underestimation—is the time period in which they were able to go on drinking the water.

Of course, it is welcome news that the Alstom reservoir has been cleared and independent monitoring and verification has been undertaken by the UK Health Security Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, but it is still wholly unacceptable that the 8,000 residents in the Hillhead reservoir area are still dependent on bottled water and cannot trust their water systems. In the 21st century, that is a totally unacceptable position for us to be in. South West Water and its management carry the responsibility for it.

I welcome the fact that we have three drinking water stations in Churston, Broadsands and Freshwater Quarry, and that 500,000 bottles have distributed—the teams on the ground have done an extraordinary job, and we should applaud them—but I have four questions for the Secretary of State. Can UKHSA and the DWI continue to provide independent monitoring over the coming weeks and months to ensure that there is confidence in the drinking water supply? Will there be an investigation into South West Water’s handling of this matter? Why, when the compensation is being upgraded, are people still paying their water bills? Finally, the damaged reputation suffered by businesses and the community of Brixham needs to be addressed, so will the Secretary of State hold South West Water to account?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is quite right to express the huge local concerns. He and I have spoken multiple times a day since this issue arose, and he has been extremely effective in raising the concerns of those he represents.

There is recognition that the initial comms, the mishap with some of the leaflets and the comms about compensation are all areas that South West Water will address moving forward, having sought to take his feedback. He is right about the urgency in addressing the Hillhead reservoir for the remaining 15% of the population. That is certainly uppermost in my conversations with the relevant stakeholders.

With regard to an investigation, issues with drinking water are treated with the utmost seriousness within Government, so I can assure my hon. Friend that these issues will be looked at extremely closely. I spoke with the chief executive of the Drinking Water Inspectorate at the weekend, and I had a meeting with one of its senior leaders just before this UQ. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be a thorough investigation, as there always is with these kinds of issues, and I urge all parties, including South West Water, to co-operate fully and in a timely fashion.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Flooding, Oceans and Coastal Communities)

Another day, another example of the depths of failure to which this Government have taken us. I cannot believe that I am about to say this, but after 14 long years of Conservative rule, in 21st-century Britain, our water is no longer safe to drink. Of course, the Government will be flailing around, desperate to clasp on to somebody else to blame, but this crisis is theirs, and it is this Government who must show some leadership and take responsibility for it. They were the ones who weakened regulation, leaving our Victorian-era sewerage system starved of investment. They turned a blind eye and left water companies to illegally pump a tidal wave of raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and seas. Only last month, the Labour party warned that our nation’s health is at risk because hospital admissions for waterborne diseases have skyrocketed by two thirds since 2020. Is this an example of the Government’s plan working? Is this what they think success looks like?

And now this, as the icing on the cake of failure: a parasite outbreak in Brixham with South West Water. Some 16,000 homes and businesses have been advised to boil water before drinking it; over 46 cases of cryptosporidiosis have been reported; more than 100 people have reported symptoms; and a 13-year-old boy has been admitted to hospital. That is appalling.

Enough is enough, so today we are calling on the Government to urgently adopt Labour’s plan to put the water companies into special measures in order to clean up their water. As a matter of utmost urgency, the Government must strengthen regulations so that law-breaking bosses face criminal charges, and go further by giving the regulator new powers to block the payment of bonuses until water bosses have cleaned up their filth. With Labour, the polluter will pay, not the public.

I have one question for the Secretary of State. With contaminated water hospitalising children and record levels of toxic filth in our water systems, how much worse does the situation have to get before the Government adopt Labour’s plan to put the water industry into special measures?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Members on the Labour Front Bench like to claim that their party wants to be taken seriously as a potential party of Government, yet once again we see shadow Ministers pre-empting the investigation and trying to shift the issue to that of raw sewage. Obviously, it is for the Drinking Water Inspectorate to fully investigate this incident and the water company, but the initial information shared with me suggests that the concern is about farm contamination, not raw sewage. Of course, we need to wait for the results of that investigation, but the Labour party is just jumping to a conclusion that fits a narrative; it is not interested in what the facts suggest.

If the hon. Lady had actually listened to my statement, as opposed to pre-empting it with a question that she did not then change, she would have heard that 85% of those who were subject to the boil notice were upstream of this incident. From the information I currently have, they were not subject to any issue with their water. Because of the seriousness with which we take these issues, a precautionary notice was quite rightly issued to those residents, but the evidence presented so far suggests that there was no issue for those residents because the contamination happened downstream.

As for the wider point-scoring and political narrative, in this House there is usually a distinction between serious issues such as this one and the usual party knockabout. What the community want to hear is reassurance that all the investigations have been done, that we are getting the compensation right, and that we are getting the remaining 15% onstream—all of which, incidentally, the hon. Lady did not even ask about. She did not seem interested in those things, as opposed to the natural knockabout that she was trying to do.

However, let me divert to the topic she wanted to talk about. We have a fourfold increase in the number of investigators, so the water companies cannot mark their own homework. In this instance, the Drinking Water Inspectorate is conducting a full investigation; phase 1 has been completed, and it is now on phase 2. I have quite a list, Mr Speaker, but since you are signalling to me, I will close with the fact that the largest criminal investigation launched by the Environment Agency and Ofwat is currently ongoing.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

First, I commend my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour Anthony Mangnall for the very effective action he has taken on this issue over the past few days. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in an incident of this kind, speed is of the essence in diagnosing the problem, taking steps to remedy it, communicating with and reassuring customers and, if appropriate, compensating them? Does he believe that South West Water has shown the necessary urgency in dealing with this problem, and if not, what remedies do local people have?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree with my hon. Friend that speed is absolutely critical, first for the detection of the issue itself and the remediation of any health risk, and then in speed of communication so that there is no vacuum in which misleading information can arise. On the wider point about the speed of comms, I think this is an ongoing issue, because one of the concerns that my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) have raised with me is the impact that negative publicity might have on tourism in the area. That is exactly the sort of area I have been pushing South West Water to think about proactively, so that it can get ahead with support for comms and advertising. It should be working with the business groups on which there has been a significant impact, so that it can demonstrate that it gets it, support the business community and create processes that are simplified, streamlined and easy to access.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

The belated and pitiful offer of compensation by South West Water is somehow symbolic of the complete disconnect that the very wealthy people who run our privatised water industry seem to be suffering from, and I am afraid the Secretary of State is suffering from the same disconnect. He has given the impression that he is not responsible for the water industry and its failings over recent years. He is responsible, so please can he answer the perfectly reasonable questions from my hon. Friend Emma Hardy: why will he not make the bosses of the water industry criminally liable, why will he not put the industry into special measures, and why will he not stop these outrageous bonuses being paid to their CEOs?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right hon. Member seems to have missed what we have done. First, as I touched on in my response to the urgent question, I personally have been chairing calls with the chief executive and key stakeholders —for example, on Friday and Saturday. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, who has responsibility for agriculture, visited the community on Friday morning and has had daily contact with the chief executive. Indeed, my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall and I have been speaking multiple times a day on these issues, so the right hon. Member’s suggestion that we have not been involved just does not cut the mustard.

On bonuses, we have already taken action. We have a consultation with Ofwat on restricting bonuses, because I actually agree with the right hon. Member that, where there is serious criminal wrongdoing by a water company, bonuses should not be paid to executives. We actually agree on that point, and we are taking action.

On the right hon. Member’s third point, about prosecution, as I touched on in my answer to Emma Hardy, we currently have the largest criminal prosecution by the Environment Agency of water firms. Much to my frustration, I am restricted in some of the things I am allowed to know about that investigation, because it is a matter for an independent body—the Environment Agency. However, that investigation is ongoing and it is the largest in the EA’s history. It shows that we are prepared to get tough with the water companies.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall for securing this urgent question, and I applaud all his efforts over the past week. South West Water’s response to this crisis has left a lot to be desired. Many people in Brixham have fallen seriously ill, while hospitality and tourism businesses across Devon have seen their takings slashed and bookings cancelled. They all deserve compensation. Can my right hon. Friend outline the timescales for the ongoing investigation and when the results of this investigation will become public?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes extremely pertinent points both on compensation and on speed, which was the point made previously by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), and I think both apply. The point about compensation applies particularly to businesses because different businesses are impacted in different ways. The point about speed also applies to the investigation itself, which is why I said earlier that it is really important that South West Water—this is the signal that he and the House are sending it—co-operates fully with the investigation and in a timely manner. I know that local Members of Parliament want to be able to explain to their constituents exactly what the cause was, what the monitoring was and what action was taken, and I am sure that South West Water will have heard my hon. Friend’s points.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

In 2022, the Liberal Democrats called for a ban on bonuses for water company bosses if a company has committed criminal breaches. Last year, 10 water bosses received bonuses totalling £2.5 million, and the CEO of South West Water forwent her £450,000 bonus. The Secretary of State said that Ofwat should carry out a consultation to define criteria for a ban on bonuses, but what size bonus does he think the CEO of South West Water ought to receive later this month?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As a Minister, one has to follow the correct legal process, and the legal process for an independent arm’s-length body requires it to have a consultation. As I have said, we are already moving on that; we have already said that we want to ensure that bonuses are not paid where there is serious criminal wrongdoing. What would be more refreshing from the Liberal Democrats is an explanation for why their MPs opposed Thames Tideway, the £4.5 billion scheme that will make such a difference to cleaning up the Thames and has been in place for the past eight years. Not once has the hon. Gentleman come to this Chamber to explain why, having asked so many questions on water, his MPs opposed Thames Tideway and that £4.5 billion of investment, which will do so much to clean up the Thames.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

Although I am in the north of the county, I have been contacted this past weekend by concerned constituents. What more can be done to reassure them that this issue cannot be repeated in the north of the county, which is very proud of its farming and cattle? If this is found to be the result of a safety valve in a field, what more will be done to reassure other customers who fortunately were not affected this time but might be in future?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is not just those residents directly affected who are concerned; so too will be those in the surrounding areas. Indeed, some of the initial media reports referred to “south Devon”, which led many residents in the wider catchment to think that they might be directly affected. That is why the speed of the investigation and the work that the Drinking Water Inspectorate is doing is so critical, so that the facts can be quickly established. As I said, I spoke to the chief executive at the weekend. It has completed phase 1 of its investigation, and that work is ongoing.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

There is a crisis of confidence in South West Water. Its response has been hopeless, frankly. It has had poor communications, poor initial compensation, as every extra pound seems to be dragged out of it, and it has a record of failure on sewage. What will the Government do to help restore confidence that South West Water is not only competent and able to manage our water supply, but that the water that comes through our taps is safe for everyone to drink? How can we encourage people to have faith in the outstanding and brilliant tourist offer that we have in the south-west, which has been battered yet again by bad news because of South West Water?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the brilliant tourist offer, and there is work to do to support businesses, particularly in the hospitality trade, which will have been impacted by the reputational damage that the area has had as a consequence. I assure him that I made those points to South West Water. As I said in my statement, I have also spoken to it about compensation, which has moved, although there is further work to do, particularly with the business community. That is also why the investigation is so important, so that we get to the bottom of exactly what happened. That is important for residents who have had the disruption of the boil water notice, and for residents further afield.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

This has been a devastating event. Although constituents in Newton Abbot were not directly affected, this is an issue of trust, as my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby said. It is about trust in South West Water as an organisation—there is a long way to go before that trust is restored—but also about trust in the quality of our water, and in our regulators to hold organisations such as South West Water to account. What do Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate do to challenge the water plans that these water companies put out to test what could go wrong? What risk analysis and assessment is there? What contingency plans are put in place? Trust can be rebuilt not just through the inquiry, but by making absolutely sure that the regulators—in all their guises—have in place the appropriate testing to ensure that this sort of thing cannot happen again.

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend talks about the huge importance of the quality of drinking water. That is why we have the Drinking Water Inspectorate there, and it will be fully investigating, and it is why a precautionary approach was taken with Alston. As I have said, on the information that I have, the tests suggest it was upstream of any problem, but a precautionary approach was taken. That indicates how seriously we take these issues. It is important we get to the bottom of exactly what has happened and what has caused this incident, and the DWI is working actively to do that.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

In 2022, the Drinking Water Inspectorate found South West Water guilty, saying that the company

“did not follow best practice” to avoid and shorten events where customers report problems about the taste and quality of their drinking water. It was fined a quarter of a million pounds. It was found guilty the year after for a six-year period of illegal discharges of sewage. The CEO awarded themselves almost £2 million in bonuses and awarded £112 million in dividends. Is it not time that all bonuses, all dividends and all bill rises are suspended until our water companies sort themselves out? If they do not, they need special administration.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

It is because of the good work of Anthony Mangnall that I was able to ask that question.

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will take that steer, Mr Speaker, and direct my remarks your way. First, there is agreement on bonuses that where there is criminal wrongdoing, they should not be paid. On dividends, there is a debate with Treasury colleagues on the balance between attracting investment into the sector and taking further measures. I have also touched on the largest ever criminal prosecution currently under way with the Environment Agency. It is important that we do not pre-empt the investigation. We need to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened and who is at fault, where there is fault. I am sure that as part of that, Lloyd Russell-Moyle and Members of the House will look at what monitoring was in place, what different parties did and whether any lessons from previous incidents were sufficiently learned. Those are issues that should rightly be explored through the investigation, and that is what the DWI is doing.