Amendment 4

Environment Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 21st June 2021.

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The Duke of Wellington:

Moved by The Duke of Wellington

4: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert “, in particular water quality;”Member’s explanatory statementThe purpose of the amendment is to require the Secretary of State to include the cleansing of rivers as a priority.

Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Crossbench

My Lords, this amendment in my name—and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for adding her name to it—has one simple purpose. I wish to persuade the excellent Ministers—in this House the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and in the other place Rebecca Pow—to acknowledge as a priority the importance of cleaning the rivers of this country. The Government have repeatedly stated that this generation should be the first to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it. This vision has almost unanimous support, I am sure, in both Houses of Parliament and in the country as a whole. The main target is, of course, to reach a state of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and I understand why this is the overarching ingredient in policy-making.

There is so much in the Bill which I support. In Clause 1(2), the Secretary of State must set long-term targets in respect of air quality, water, biodiversity and waste reduction. Part 5 is devoted to water, and contains clauses on resource management, drought planning, and drainage and sewerage management. Since the Bill arrived in this House, the Government have tabled their own amendments on sewerage management, which I welcome but will attempt to strengthen through amendments later in the Bill. But Chapter 1, which we are debating today, is entitled “Improving the natural environment”, with the subheading “Environmental targets.” My proposal is that the Government set a target for improving the natural environment of our rivers.

I am grateful to the Minister for a meeting last week with a number of Peers, mainly from the Cross Benches. From that meeting, I understand that there is doubt about the appropriateness of the European standard of good ecological status, in which case I suggest to Ministers that they establish a new United Kingdom standard and have a target for progressive percentages of rivers to reach that target in five years, in 10 years, and finally for 100% of rivers to reach that target in 15 years. Ministers have stated that they want to be ambitious, to set high standards and to lead the world by example. That being the case, we must not allow untreated sewage to be discharged into our rivers over 400,000 times or for more than 3 million hours during 2020, as reported by the Environment Agency.

I read again the highlights of the 25-year environment plan published by the Government in 2018. Although “clean and plentiful water” is listed among the environmental benefits to be achieved, there is no specific reference to the elimination of the shocking level of sewage discharges. That is my point: while we strive as a nation to reduce carbon emissions to zero, improve biodiversity and clean the air we breathe, we cannot continue to accept that raw sewage is discharged into rivers, harming all aquatic wildlife and imperilling the health of human beings who swim in or enjoy the rivers.

I fear that the apparent unwillingness of the Government to make this a priority is the great cost involved in converting our drainage and sewerage infrastructure. In other parts of the Bill there will be an opportunity to debate how this could or should be paid for. I do not believe that most members of the public are aware that, in the 21st century in a developed country such as ours, raw sewage is still being discharged into rivers every day. I think most people would expect the Government, in their new Environment Bill, to make it a priority not just to reduce but to eliminate these discharges. That is the purpose of my amendment and I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to support the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in his amendment. On the face of it, this does seem an omission, given that clauses from Clause 83 onwards deal specifically with water quality, yet it does not appear as a specific target.

I declare my interests in the register and that I co-chair the All-Party Water Group. I worked for five years with the water regulator for Scotland—WICS, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland—and I have co-authored two reports on bricks and water which deal with water issues specifically in relation to housing. I am also vice-president of ADA, the Association of Drainage Authorities. Drainage boards have a specific role to play, being responsible for ensuring that lower-lying watercourses of below either eight metres or eight feet—I cannot remember which—flow as smoothly as they should.

Amendment 4 is commendable, and I congratulate my noble friend the Duke of Wellington on bringing it forward. Of course we should aim to have the best water quality, and to ensure that we have clean rivers, that—where possible—farmers can farm less intensively, and that we meet the highest domestic and international water quality standards, as well as seeking to improve our soils. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said, we must have a level playing field to ensure that we are not just improving watercourses in this country but ensuring that products grown on less regulated land and soil do not have a free pass to come into this country through trade agreements.

I would like to address one issue that my noble friend the Duke of Wellington referred to—untreated raw sewage being spilled into our watercourses. I would like to pose the question: why is that happening? It is happening because water companies are being placed in an impossible position. They are obliged to connect to major and smaller developments—to provide clean water and to collect wastewater and sewage coming out. We increasingly see that water companies are obliged to connect, even when they are placed in a situation where they may not be deemed able to do so.

I draw attention to the fact that we are seeing increasing amounts of surface water. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; it was identified for the first time in any significant way in 2007. I am drawing on the experience of Sir Michael Pitt, who was asked by the then Labour Government to write a very comprehensive review of how we should adapt to this new form of surface water flooding. Many of his recommendations have been implemented but many have not.

Subsequently, I am tabling amendments which will address the specific point of raw sewage. One way of dealing with it is to end the automatic right to connect to major new developments. This was called for by Sir Michael Pitt. It will address the specific problem of sewage outflow, particularly where combined sewers overflow and cause a public health issue in many cases—where the sewage overflow goes into existing developments and those residents have to leave. I believe we have asked too much of water companies, without giving them the wherewithal to address this, either through the quinquennial price review, or by allowing them to do whatever they choose to connect—sometimes against their better judgment—to major developments.

A way of addressing that is to ensure that water companies are given the same statutory right to consultation as has now been extended to the Environment Agency. Since the Environment Agency has been granted that right, we have seen the number of houses prone to flooding that are being built significantly reduce. Similarly, I hope we can see that water companies are not placed in an impossible position when it comes to major and significant new housing developments, particularly where they may be built on functional flood plains or land prone to flooding in the shorter term.

I entirely endorse the comments and remarks of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in moving this amendment about the importance of maintenance. We have to differentiate between the maintenance of major and minor watercourses, ensure that local authorities have the budget and resources to do the maintenance they are required to do and that the Environment Agency oversees it. I pay tribute to the work of those local drainage boards and landowners who are often responsible for doing the regular and very necessary maintenance on minor watercourses.

This might seem a small amendment but it is very significant, and I hope my noble friend the Minister will look favourably on it, and on the later amendments we will consider in due course. I support Amendment 4.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 4, so ably moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and congratulate him on the work he has been doing on this important issue. I do not have significant amounts to add, but I believe that, as my noble friend the Minister said, this is a chance to radically improve environmental policy. In particular, the areas outlined in the Bill, such as air quality and water per se, could be enhanced by adding the specific requirement to take account of improvements urgently needed to water quality.

The Government have already said that they proposed to publish a plan by September 2020 to reduce sewage discharges into our rivers and waterways. I am obviously supportive of that and of placing a duty on water companies to publish annual data on storm overflows and set legally binding targets for water quality. However, it is likely that those issues will be dealt with in a more long-term timeframe than one might have hoped, given this landmark Bill.

I particularly point to the issue of human health, as well as the health of aquatic life, which has been so endangered by the ongoing discharge of partially treated and untreated sewage into our waterways. I believe that every few days, if not every day, some kind of discharge could pose a threat to those who might wish to swim in or use our waterways, which are a wonderful feature of our country.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree to meet groups of interested Peers from across the House, who would like to understand better how we might be able to enhance water quality more rapidly and to discuss the responsibility of water companies themselves to pay for such improvements—and not just to report or reduce such discharges but to eliminate them altogether.

We will return to these issues later in Committee, but I should be grateful if my noble friend would confirm that he would be willing, over the course of Committee and before Report, to have a detailed discussion on what progress we might make to protect those who want to enjoy swimming in our rivers and children who may wish to play in them. I would like to discuss how we can make sure that rivers are fit for human and aquatic life in the future, and, as we have an opportunity to set our own regulations, to make sure that they are strengthened in practical ways that will identify improvements in the measurement and management of the quality of our water.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 4:00 pm, 21st June 2021

My Lords, I support the sentiment of Amendment 4 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, but water quality is not the only issue to do with water. I would not want that to be to the particular focus, because with increasing climate change and growing demand, water quantity is also important.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, is rightly exercised about sewage pollution into our rivers, as is the Minister. I look forward to saying more when we debate Amendments 161 and 162 on reducing and eliminating sewage discharges into rivers, which importantly go into detail on the programmes and actions needed to get this to happen.

I declare an interest as a former chief executive of the Environment Agency. I think it is quite clear that, although it has brought only 174 prosecutions over the last 10 years, there could have been more than 2,000 breaches in that period and a vastly greater number of legal discharges under the current regulations. That is a source of considerable public concern.

In support of the considerable work done by the Environment Agency and the water companies, I should say that river water has improved dramatically over the last 20 years. We should not relax in that, because the current situation is totally unacceptable. Nevertheless, a major amount of river water has been cleaned up. Most of our waters were completely dead and highly polluted 20 years ago and they are now in a much better state, but we still have more to do.

We had EU regulation to rely on in the past, which was needed to drive the Government to do something about exactly this problem in the River Thames, by creating the Thames super-sewer. At that stage, we had the dirtiest river of any capital city in Europe. I am delighted that action was taken, but it needed the full weight of environmental regulation coming from Europe and a considerable and hefty programme of fining of the Government to get action taken. We need to ensure through the mechanism of the Bill that we move forward and tackle this running sore—if noble Lords will pardon the phrase. I welcome the creation of the storm overflow task force and look forward to its findings. I look forward to debating the government amendment to tackle this issue and strengthening it in the appropriate place in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is right to talk about the Thames. I remember the Thames half a century ago, when I first came to Parliament, and what an utter disgrace it was. But that should not lead us to be in any way complacent. Although my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering referred to this as a small amendment—and it is in terms of words—it is absolutely crucial. Unless we clean up our rivers, the Environment Bill—the Act, as I am sure it will become—will fail. It is as simple as that.

Not so long ago there was a great campaign about our coastal waters, and there is still much to be done. One of my most vivid memories of the other place was an Adjournment Debate at 10 pm one night, introduced by the late Sir Reggie Bennett, about swimming off the coast. I remember he said, “Mr Speaker, you cannot swim off the coast, you can only go through the motions”. I fear that that is the case with many of our rivers today. I hope the Minister will endorse that it is crucial that we get this right, because how clean our waterways are will be a test of the success of the Environment Act.

We have some glorious rivers in this country and some wonderful chalk streams. I think one of the saddest pictures that I have seen in the last 12 months was of a stretch of perhaps the loveliest river of all, the Wye, which had been so contaminated by the effluent from intensively reared battery chickens—something else we need to tackle. We are all in debt to my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, not only for bringing this amendment forward but for introducing on the very day of Second Reading, his own Bill on cleaning up our inland waterways.

This is a vital issue, but I cannot sit down before saying what a joy it is to see my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern in the Chamber. We have seen him many times appear on the Zoom screen, and it is wonderful to have him here in person among us.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, I think we can count that as the best joke of the Environment Bill Committee so far, so I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for that. I had not intended to speak on this amendment, so all I shall say is that this is a very important issue. It is probably dealt with more specifically and better later in the Bill, but I very much support the thoughts of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend the late Lord Ridley of Liddesdale would be as disappointed as I am that, last year, no English river met the highest chemical standards and only 15% of UK rivers were rated as having good ecological status. That was not the intention when we privatised the water companies in the 1980s. But the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, was absolutely right to say, notwithstanding what I have just said, that the rivers are in a great deal better condition now than they were 30 years ago—and the water Act of the mid-1980s was responsible for that. The rivers would be of better quality now if the National Rivers Authority had continued in existence by itself and not been merged with the Environment Agency. That part of the Environment Agency has not been nearly as effective as it was when it was a single authority.

This is a hugely important issue, and we shall come to it in some more detail. I totally agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said. The issue of water is much wider than just water quality; it includes the whole water environment, abstraction and pollution. To prioritise water, as this Bill does, and then to talk particularly about water quality, defeats the object that the Government are trying to achieve, which is to raise the quality of water across the board. Therefore, although I support the principle of what the noble Duke is trying to do, I hope that it will be dealt with at a later stage rather than at this stage.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I take everybody’s point about the fact that this amendment does not quite measure up to everything that we want from it, but it is a really good start. And I think that this is an issue that we will defeat the Government on. In all my talks with Conservative Members of your Lordships’ House, they have mentioned how concerned they are about rivers; a lot of landowners are massively concerned.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, about sewage and water companies. It does her credit that she is so sympathetic towards them but, quite honestly, they make a lot of money and they should be clearing up their own mess. If they cannot take on these contracts, they should not take them on—or they should dig bigger holes to bury the sewage, or whatever it takes. When it comes to cost, we should look at the businesses that make money out of our rivers and our sewage, and we should make them pay.

I shall go back to my speech now. Basically, the issue of water pollution is very much underserved by this Bill at the moment, so I urge the Government to pick this up and run with it, because it is something that they will lose on. The truth is that many of our rivers, lakes and water courses in this country are still filthy and polluted. It is something that the European Commissioner rightly took us to task on—the Government have repeatedly lost legal challenges on the issue. For that reason, it is also one of the big environmental risks of leaving the EU system of environmental laws. The Government could have a convenient opportunity to quietly end their long tradition of losing court battles on water pollution simply by ditching those rules altogether or subjecting them to the jurisdiction of a toothless regulator.

We know that water is life. We cannot do without it and, if we pollute it, many things die, including humans. Water pollution has a long-lasting and pervasive impact on our lives and the natural world around us—it is not always easy to clean up. Most people do not even know how polluted our water is. I have had gastroenteritis from swimming in the Thames; I thought that I was high enough up the Thames for it to be clean but, apparently, it was not.

The Government have to understand that it is not just about chemicals that we should not drink going in; that is only a tiny part of the picture. For example, the River Thames floods with human sewage multiple times a week and also has some of the highest recorded levels of microplastics in the world. It is long overdue for the Government to get a grip on water pollution. Quite honestly, this amendment is a good little start, and I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, on this. I look forward to him toughening up future amendments on sewage.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative 4:15 pm, 21st June 2021

My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as in the register, particularly in relation to this amendment, as the president of the Colne Valley Regional Park, where we have had a lot of issues over water quality and the streams. Over the weekend, I was asked to join the advisory board of River Action UK, to replace, I think, my noble friend Lord Benyon, who as a Defra Minister cannot hold that position. I look forward to joining that group and working on this.

This is a very useful debate on a subject close to my heart, and I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and my noble friend Lady Altmann, on supporting him and signing the amendment with him. We have a lot of problems—and, as we have heard, they are not just around water quality, though we do have a real problem with that. We have heard about sewage discharge and run-off, and we have heard about the River Wye and the run-off from battery chicken farms. Those are all incredibly important and worrying things. But we also have problems around abstraction. The problems of abstraction and river quality have affected us locally in the Colne Valley, with the aquifer that has been compromised, seemingly, by HS2. As I said at Second Reading, that has only recently been admitted and made public—thanks, particularly, to a local campaign.

We also have an issue around Heathrow, which is not mentioned very often. I can remember many years ago, when I was the MP for the area, being asked to have a look at where the settling pools are. The run-off comes from washing aircraft with very highly toxic chemicals to de-ice the planes, and it goes into the settling pools just on the edge of Heathrow. Unfortunately, from time to time, they overflow in times of excessive rain and flow into local river courses. I understand from a recent discussion I had that that is no longer happening—but these are always risks, and things that we do not always think about.

The problem of sewage has been mentioned. We have had problems whereby a hotel or housing development has been misconnected and sewage has run, untreated, straight into our local rivers. It is also worth mentioning that before she was a Minister, the Minister in the other place, Rebecca Pow, raised with me the question of where hairdressers put all the chemicals that they use in their basins. She referred in particular to ladies’ hairdressers, I think—as noble Lords can see from my appearance, I am somewhat hirsute and not too bothered about hair; I just get a quick trim. These are all very important issues.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has just said, we are aware of the state of the water in rivers, but actually it does not matter how far up the Thames you go because any river can have these sewage discharges. What concerns me is the wild swimmers, kayakers, fishermen and, as happened locally last weekend, children in low-level water filling up their water pistols—they are more like water sub-machine guns these days—and firing them happily at each other, probably ingesting some of the water. It would be no surprise to me if some of them come down with gastroenteritis or even worse. I hope that that does not happen.

With regard to fishermen, I have to pay a tribute. In the Colne Valley, the Colne Valley Fisheries Consultative and its chairman Tony Booker, as well as Paul Jennings of the River Chess Association, have really pushed on this and made everyone aware of it.

There is a problem: the Environment Agency is vastly underfunded these days, I am afraid to say. I am sure that, when the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, was in charge, it had more funds and was more able to deal with some of these incidents. There almost seems to be a lack of interest now, or perhaps it is just a lack of resources, which means that it does not follow up some of these cases.

We have got to take these things seriously. I entirely understand that there is probably a better set of amendments, including the Government’s own later, but I wanted to put down a marker to show that I consider this to be extremely important. If we were sitting here in 1858, with the Great Stink going on, before Joseph Bazalgette came in with his plans for the sewerage of London, we would all be taking this a great deal more seriously.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, not down the road of the Great Stink but certainly on his references to his river experiences. I am delighted to support this amendment and thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for tabling it. He spoke eloquently at Second Reading on the issue of the cleanliness of our rivers; I was pleased to support him then and do so now with enthusiasm.

The need to keep our rivers clean, as part of environment policy, is self-evident. Persistent reports of pollution impacting on river life, killing off fish stocks, affecting surrounding lands and environments and even causing health problems to people—particularly children, as has just been mentioned—swimming in rivers are a worrying feature of our contemporary world.

Obviously, there may be implications for landowners, particularly farmers, whose land abuts our rivers—but the overwhelming majority of such people also want to secure clean rivers. If the necessary steps are properly negotiated, they can surely be agreed. The Government should not steer shy of dealing with this issue in the mistaken belief that they will face severe opposition from countryside interests.

Equally, industrial interests must not stand in the way of cleaning up our rivers. Let us reiterate without equivocation that the polluter pays principle must be applied with such force that it becomes a real deterrent. Our water companies must equally be held to account. I want to learn from the Minister what new, effective action to reduce such pollution will emanate from this Bill and who will be responsible in practice for enforcing its provisions in this regard.

As the Minister might expect, I invite him to clarify how he and his department will co-operate with the Welsh Government in relation to rivers that run across the border. Most of them run from Wales into England, but not all and, as river pollution is no respecter of political borders, we must have an agreed approach that respects the wishes of Governments on both sides of the border but also ensures that we work coherently to reduce and, we hope, eliminate the tragic pollution of our rivers.

Incidentally, I have no problem whatever with having UK, or at least GB, standards for these purposes, provided that those targets can be achieved by constructive negotiation by the three, or possibly four, Governments with responsibility for various aspects of environmental policy in Britain.

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench

My Lords, I strongly support what the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has said and many important points made by other Peers. I have only one point to make on top of the others: there has been no real improvement for so long now—certainly, not very much since 2016. In 2020, only 40% of waterways were classified as being in good health—meaning as close to their natural state as possible.

We all know that a major cause of this is sewage. In 2020, raw sewage was discharged more than 400,000 times over a period of 3 million hours, and this water, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has claimed, brings huge quantities of microplastics as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, sewage is not the only cause: some 40% comes from run-off from agricultural industries.

The point is that, since legislation was passed and the Environment Agency has been in charge and responsible for it, there has been no real improvement. This may be due to lack of proper funding, but the fact is that it has not been able to bring about any real change. We now have the worst quality in Europe, with England comparing very badly with Scotland, where 65.7% of surface water bodies are in good health. We know this—it has been repeated time and again, and the environmental Ministers acknowledge it.

The question is: how can we ensure that real change takes place soon? Including Amendment 4 is where we must start in ensuring that good quality water is a goal that we fully intend to achieve. We must use this Bill to ensure that we achieve it.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to be speaking to this amendment moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. During the past two years, many of your Lordships have raised the issue of the quality of the water in many of our iconic rivers and given very graphic examples of where pollution has been discharged, untreated, into our waterways. We have heard about chicken manure being discharged into the River Wye, previously one of the most beautiful rivers on our island. At Second Reading, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, reminded us about the discharge of raw sewage into rivers. As one of her first duties, the newly elected MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green MP, has visited the River Chess to hear from the local action group about the pollution of it.

During lockdown, with local authority swimming pools closed to the public, those who were able took to what has become known as wild swimming in the sea and rivers. I am assured that this is extremely invigorating and refreshing, but probably not so if you are encountering severe pollution on the scale that we have heard of from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. Biodiversity is severely affected by the pollution in our rivers.

The treatment of sewage is the responsibility of the sewerage and water authorities. It is not sufficient for them to claim that new housing developments have overwhelmed their treatment plants and they have no choice but to discharge sewage into our rivers and sea. We have heard recently of the public disquiet about the Government’s proposals to change the planning laws. Often, statutory consultees respond to local authorities with “no comment”, but often they do not respond at all. Perhaps this is an issue of resources, with Defra cuts to the Environment Agency filtering down to the front line. The water authorities should be obliged to respond to consultation on proposed housing developments, especially where there is insufficient capacity in existing treatment plants to cope with the current, never mind the future, demand.

All noble Lords taking part in this debate have expressed concern on the issue of water quality. The Government must take it seriously if we are to restore the quality of the water in our rivers to enable biodiversity to increase, even if it is unlikely ever to reach its former levels. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and others have flagged, we will return to this in later amendments. This is a very serious matter, as my noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, and we fully support the comments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in moving this amendment and look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30 pm, 21st June 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for his amendment and his speech today. I will speak briefly on the amendment. We will come on to a separate debate about whether the environmental targets as a whole are adequate when we consider that matter later in the Bill. We will argue that the targets should be more comprehensive, and combined with legally binding interim targets, to ensure that real progress is made in the time agreed.

In addition to this amendment, the noble Duke has tabled others later in the Bill to address the issue of water quality and the pollution of rivers. We absolutely share his objective to clean up water and prevent sewage flowing into our rivers; he has been a great champion of this. We have tabled similar amendments which would also prevent the discharge of sewage into rivers. We believe that the Government’s proposals on this issue so far are inadequate and we look forward to the debate on this.

In the meantime, I have some concerns about the wording of this amendment. First, it narrows the scope of the long-term water targets to concentrate on water quality when there are much wider concerns to be addressed, for example about the role of water companies, the supply of water, drought and flooding safeguards, and sustainable urban development protection and maintenance. These points have all been made by other noble Lords in this debate and a number have given vivid examples of the challenges we face in these areas. Narrowing it down to water quality perhaps does not achieve what the noble Duke is aiming to do. Secondly, we do not accept that the issue of water quality should be a long-term target: it requires action more urgently, specifically with regard to sewage discharge. This is the subject of our later amendments, and those in the name of the noble Duke, and we look forward to returning to it.

Despite these reservations about this amendment, I agree with the noble Duke’s overall intention and will be supportive when we get to the more substantive debate, when we will have a great deal more to say on the issue.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for tabling Amendment 4. I note the support that it has received from a number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady McIntosh, Lord Cormack and Lord Randall and the noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Wigley.

The Bill will require the Government to set at least one legally binding long-term water target. I reassure the noble Duke that this of course covers water quality. The Government are currently considering water target objectives in relation to reducing pollution from agriculture, wastewater and abandoned metal mines, as well as in relation to reducing water demand. This approach encompasses water quality, but also allows the inclusion of broader objectives, such as reducing the impact of water demand on the water environment, which I know is of great interest to numerous Members of this House, including the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. This point was echoed and made well by the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb.

I will address some of the individual points that have been made. The amendment essentially relates to the outrage over raw sewage entering our waterways as a consequence of storm overflows. The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has pursued this issue relentlessly, and rightly so. To reiterate, the amendment that the Government have tabled does three things. It requires the Government to deliver a plan for tackling sewage discharge, and to report on progress, and it requires the water companies and the Environment Agency to be transparent with their data. In addition, my colleague in the other place, Rebecca Pow, said only last week that if water companies do not step up then we will use the drainage and wastewater management plans to force them to. I am happy to reiterate that commitment now. I hope that goes some way towards reassuring the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch.

In addition, the Government are already pursuing various measures to improve water quality over and above what has been mentioned. For example, the 2015 river basin management plans confirmed £3 billion of investment over the period to 2021 in England. This has led to over 11,000 kilometres of surface water being enhanced and a further 2,349 kilometres protected since the 2015 plans were published. We are encouraging best agricultural practice to prevent and reduce pollution through regulation, financial incentives and educational schemes for farmers. The shift to ELM, which has already been mentioned, is going to have a radical and profound impact on water pollution. A task force comprising the Government, the water industry, regulators and environmental NGOs is currently working to achieve the long-term goal of eliminating the harm from sewage discharge into our rivers and other waterways from storm overflows. We will, of course, take the recommendations of that task force very seriously. I hope that that also somewhat reassures noble Lords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, asked whether I would be willing to commit to a meeting with a number of noble Lords to discuss this issue further. The answer is yes, of course. I am very happy to do so and will make contact after today’s debate. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, also raised the fact that a mere 15% of our rivers enjoy good ecological status. He is right, but I want to put this in context. This is not to diminish the issue, because water pollution is clearly unacceptable, and we need to get to grips with it. However, it is worth pointing out that, to qualify for good ecological status, the waterway has to be close to a natural form. That means that waterways that have been canalised, straightened or modified—for example, for flood defences, transport or something similar—will be regarded as having been heavily modified. Those waterways cannot achieve good ecological status, no matter how clean the water is or how much biodiversity they have. It is worth putting that in context; while 16% of our waters do have good ecological status, that does not mean that 84% are in poor condition. I hope that we can get to grips with this and develop our own metrics at some point so that we can avoid confusion and have a clearer understanding of the actual situation in our waters.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, asked about enforcement. Defra works closely with the devolved Administrations on environmental issues across the board, particularly with the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, covering water quality in their respective areas.

By setting a water target that focuses on the biggest pressures on the water environment, the Government will, we hope, make faster progress towards improving water quality. Although we appreciate the noble Duke’s aims, we do not think that focusing the water target priority area on water quality alone, as his amendment proposes, will be the best way of achieving those aims. I therefore respectfully ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have participated in this short debate. Of course, I understand the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that it is not just water quality that matters but water quantity as well. A number of noble Lords made reference to the River Thames. However, anybody who watched the BBC “Panorama” programme about two months ago would surely be left in no doubt that there is still much to do to clean up that river, which is in an embarrassingly poor state. Nevertheless, I understand that the quality of our rivers generally is much better than it was 20 years ago. I was very impressed by the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Randall, who clearly understands the problem well. He referred to an event in 1858, when there was general recognition of the appalling state of our rivers and the amount of sewage going into them. It is surprising that, in 2021, there is still quite the quantity of raw, or insufficiently treated, sewage flowing into our rivers.

I very much appreciated the support of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and quite understand his point that it is necessary to have co-operation between England and Wales over the rivers that flow between the two countries, and his acceptance that it would be entirely in order to establish a UK standard. I thank the Minister for his comments, and I was pleased to hear that, in the other place, Rebecca Pow has made a further commitment that the existing regulations will be enforced where required. But I again ask the Minister to consider whether it would be appropriate to establish a UK standard. He did sort of refer to that when talking about metrics, but if he has doubts about the existing European standard then we should surely try to devise our own.

I would be grateful if the Minister would be prepared to discuss with me a way of making targets for water quality a higher priority. There are many aspects of water that need to be improved, nevertheless I am surprised that improving water quality is not yet considered a higher priority than it currently is. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Chair, European Union Committee, Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Affairs Committee, Chair, European Affairs Committee

We come now to the group of amendments headed by Amendment 5. Anyone wishing to press that amendment or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear during the debate.