My Lords, I speak to Motion C, introduced by the Minister.
Members of both Houses of Parliament and the public have become increasingly aware during the passage of this Bill that our rivers, of which we are so proud, are being despoiled every day by sewage discharges, both legal and illegal. The BBC and national newspapers have carried so many disturbing stories and even Ministers have learned to what extent our aquatic environment is being continuously mistreated.
I thank the Government for tabling in the other place the amendment in lieu, which the House of Commons passed last night by a large majority. I also thank Rebecca Pow, the Environment Minister, for discussing the amendment with me last Thursday and I thank several Ministers and the Secretary of State for various meetings which we have had in recent weeks.
Since this House passed the cross-party amendment on
“a duty on sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged”,
there has been considerable public support for this wording. Even Water UK, the industry body which represents the water companies, put out a statement the following day that MPs should back the Lords amendment to strengthen the Environment Bill. I was surprised by this as I had assumed that the water companies would oppose my amendment, but they want the Government to go further. Specifically, they want the Government to instruct regulators—I assume that means Ofwat—to authorise investment in sewers. From the Minister’s words when moving the Commons amendment, it appears that the Government will be giving suitable directions to Ofwat. The government amendment requires by law that the water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges. I particularly welcome the reference to “public health” in the new amendment.
Part of the problem at the moment is that there are very few prosecutions. My original amendment would have required the Secretary of State and the regulators to exercise their powers of enforcement. The Government have chosen to reword this. Now, the duty on the water companies is enforceable by the Secretary of State and others, and I was pleased to hear the Minister in the other place, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, state that Ofwat and the Government will not hesitate to take enforcement action and are able to fine water companies up to 10% of their annual turnover. In addition, the office for environmental protection will be able to take enforcement action against the Government, the Environment Agency or Ofwat if it feels they are not adequately discharging their duties.
I cannot disguise my concern that the new government amendment is weaker in certain respects than my own, but the Minister’s statement last night and the noble Lord’s from the Dispatch Box this afternoon have greatly strengthened the amendment. It is interesting that both in the other place and here the Ministers have specifically said that they wish to put a number of points on the record in the knowledge that ministerial statements in Hansard could be drawn on by the courts as a legitimate aid to statutory interpretation in future.
I regret that I cannot support Motion C1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. Although it is worded very similarly to my amendment from last week, the Government’s amendment takes on so many of my points. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that they have been pushed to this point by strong opinions in both Houses of Parliament and in the country. In fact, it is surprising that Governments of both parties have allowed the pollution of our rivers to continue for so long and to such a degree.
As a result of improvements to this Bill, Parliament and the public will be better informed about sewage discharges, and the Government will have the power and, we hope, the will to take action. It will be a measure of the success of this part of the Bill if these discharges are dramatically reduced in the near future. Ministers are now required to report to Parliament on progress, and I know that we will want to hold Ministers to account on this matter.
Pollution of our rivers by sewage is a national embarrassment; I hope that these clauses in this Environment Bill will bring it to an end. I conclude with this thought: our children and grandchildren will surely be surprised that we allowed this revolting state of affairs to continue for as long as it did.