Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Environment Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:45 pm, 9th November 2021

My Lords, I will particularly address the amendments from the Government and in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis on water quality, in Motions C and C1. First, I thank the Minister and Defra officials for their time in listening to our concerns throughout the passage of this Bill. While we welcome the government amendment to improve water quality, we must be clear that the Government did not want to include stronger provisions in this Bill to improve and protect our rivers and waterways, including from sewage discharges. We have the government amendment before us today because of the refusal of your Lordships’ House, Philip Dunne in the other place and in particular the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, to give up on campaigning to protect both our environment and public health. Once again, the Minister has been dragged back to debate this because people have been disgusted that the situation was allowed to continue. The Government truly brought the pong into ping-pong.

While the government amendment before us today does improve the Bill, noble Lords have said that they are finding it in some ways unsatisfactory, as it does not go far enough to address some of the concerns that have been raised today. The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, talked about the considerable public support for his amendment, including from water companies, which he said just want more public investment from the Government in order to improve the sewerage system. He also expressed concern that the government amendment is considerably weaker than his in some aspects. We strongly supported the Duke on this issue, and believe that his original amendment was better than the government amendment before us today, and it is disappointing that Government refused to just accept it. My noble friend Lord Adonis has now picked this up, and he clearly laid out his reasons for doing so: his concerns that discharges have been increasing; that enforcement has not been what it should be; and that this is partly down to cuts to the Environment Agency, which have reduced its capacity to both monitor and take action.

I will now draw particular attention to three concerns raised by my colleague Luke Pollard in the other place. First, on prosecutions—the noble Duke mentioned their lack—will the Minister commit to reviewing the system of fines and penalties? The current penalties clearly do not have the effect of stopping certain water companies form routinely dumping raw sewage into our waterways. Penalties must be meaningful so that they change behaviour, or they are pointless. Water companies and the regulator, Ofwat, have consistently failed to stop damaging discharges. They know they that they are currently allowed to discharge raw sewage only in exceptional circumstances, but take no notice, which is why penalties and fines must be reviewed. Southern Water had committed no fewer than 168 previous offences before being fined this summer.

Secondly, we need to strengthen the duty of Ofwat to take action, to give water companies a clear direction on targets, ensure that there is a priority to clean up the most polluting discharges, and have oversight on progress from the relevant parliamentary committees. The regulator should have environmental experts available to strengthen its decision-making.

Thirdly, can the Minister further clarify what is meant by “progressive reduction”—the timescales mentioned by my noble friend Lord Adonis? By when, and by how much? Yesterday, I attended COP 26, as mentioned by the Minister in his introduction. Much is being made there of the importance of putting nature and the environment at the centre of policy-making and legislation. We know that one consequence of climate change in the UK is likely to be heavier rainfall. Without progressive reduction being pinned down properly, we are a very long way away from seeing an end to this persistent pollution.

In yesterday’s debate in the other place, the Minister, Rebecca Pow, ran out of time to respond to these questions from my colleague, so I would be grateful if the Minister could take the opportunity to answer these points today. I also look forward to his reply to other concerns raised by noble Lords in this debate, including my noble friend Lord Adonis, and whether he can reassure the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that there will be proper parliamentary oversight and progress on ending the practice of discharging raw sewage into the waterways, because without proper oversight on progress, it will, as I said, take a very long time to change this behaviour at all.

I also look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions from my noble friend Lady Quin and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, regarding the true cost of tackling this issue. If he cannot answer these questions, can he explain why the Government are refusing to commit to addressing these very real concerns, which we have raised time and again?

Noble Lords are right: the Bill is in a better place now than when it started, and that is mainly down to concerns raised by your Lordships. But it is a shame that the Government have not been able to completely accept today’s important improvements.