Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Environment Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 4:15 pm, 9th November 2021

My Lords, I will speak to Motion C1. I know enough about military strategy to know that where a Duke of Wellington does not lead a forward manoeuvre, it may be unwise to try to advance when he is not leading. So I am very mindful of the views of the House, and other noble Lords will speak before I decide whether to press Motion C1.

The point he made, which I think still holds, is that, although there has been movement on the part of the Government, in two key respects—the scope of the duty on water companies and the timescale in which it is intended to be met and in which we are intended to see improvements—the amendment that the Government have moved is unsatisfactory. I think there is general recognition in the House that we are not talking about a minor matter. We are talking about 400,000 discharges of raw sewage into Britain’s rivers in the last year alone. All the evidence is that the number is increasing, not reducing. We are not moving in the right direction; we are moving in the wrong direction and indeed, because of the impact of Brexit and the supply chain problems and all of that, and the shortage of relevant chemicals, the Environment Agency has issued formal advice exempting water undertakings from having to meet their prior conditions.

The noble Duke’s first amendment referred to taking “all reasonable steps”, which would imply a short timescale, and my amendment refers to

“a period specified by the Secretary of State” in which defined objectives are to be met. My question to the Minister, which I think will be of great importance to the House since there is no reference to any timescale in his amendment, is: in what timescale does he envisage that there will be significant reductions in sewage discharges?

The second issue relates to scope. The noble Duke’s amendment put a direct duty on water companies to improve the performance of sewerage systems to get at the heart of the problem—inadequate sewage treatment facilities to reduce discharges of raw sewage. Now, the Government’s amendment refers to reducing

“the adverse impact of discharges”,

which is an indirect duty and does not require at all, necessarily—but certainly not in a defined timescale—significant improvements in the performance of sewerage systems. I ask the Minister why the Government are so focused on the indirect impacts—which we accept are important, and the noble Duke referred to that—rather than a direct duty on water companies to improve the performance of their sewerage systems?

A final point of some significance is: who can enforce this duty? Because, as everyone has accepted, without enforcement the duty will probably go unfulfilled. Philip Dunne—to whom we pay tribute and who has done great work in the other place on this issue—in his speech yesterday referred to his continuing concerns about enforcement, particularly in the context of a cut in the Environment Agency’s staffing and budget of two-thirds in the last 10 years, which has dramatically reduced its capacity to enforce or indeed even to inspect—and of course, unless you have inspected, you cannot enforce.

The noble Duke’s amendments would have given any individual or body corporate the power to enforce or to bring enforcement action or legal action because of the non-fulfilment by a water company of the duty. I think in particular of local authorities. Of course, it is local authorities that best know what is going on in their area and have the professional staff who are able to make assessments. Under the Government’s amendment, only the Secretary of State and defined state institutions can hold water companies to account for the enforcement of their duties. That is a very significant limitation on the noble Duke’s amendment.

So my third question to the Minister is: why are the Government not prepared to allow local authorities and non-state bodies, many of which are highly expert in this area, to bring proceedings against water companies that are not fulfilling the duty that is now set out in the Government’s amendment?

To me, these are three very significant issues: timescale, the scope of the duty and enforcement. In all three respects, the Government’s amendment is wanting at the moment. It does not lead me to have any expectation that the noble Duke’s aspirations, which we all share, will actually be fulfilled, because the timescale for meeting these objectives could be inordinately long. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords, and in particular of the Minister at the end of the debate, before I decide whether, even if the noble Duke himself is retiring from the field, others of us might feel that it is in the public interest that we should attempt to advance none the less.