My Lords, those last three questions from the noble Baroness are very relevant to this debate, and I hope the Minister is able to answer her in the normal way.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for introducing this important debate. For me, it is particularly interesting, as for much of my life I have lived in Keswick in the Lake District, an area greatly damaged by environmental events and climate change. I recount the story of when, as a boy, I would stand as part of a crowd on the deck side counting the salmon leaping as they fought their way up and over the waterfall on the River Greta in Fitz Park in Keswick. I have not seen salmon there for years. I recall that it was the same on the River Cocker in Cockermouth and on the Derwent as it flows into Workington. I put it all down to climate change and environmental damage, again including flooding.
Over the years, I have found myself repeatedly in conflict with the water industry, in particular with the former North West Water, primarily over that flooding but also with the Environment Agency over algae blooms. As a local MP, I secured improvements to Keswick sewage works, which was contaminating Bassenthwaite Lake, but problems remain in the Lake District with algae blooms proliferating in a number of areas, including lakes.
The water industry carries a workforce which employs some of the finest and most experienced environmentalists in the land, but its expenditure programmes rarely reflect the real concerns that stand behind many of the decisions it has to take if it is to comply with public expectation. The problem is not only one of resource in terms of investment programmes; for me, the real problem is the lack of transparency over the selective and inadequate monitoring of sewage outfalls. I recognise that the Environment Act 2021 lays down stricter monitoring requirements on the publishing of accurate data on overflows, but I am troubled by the timeframe set out in the current consultation.
Let me quote from the Library article. Under “Timebound targets included”, it states:
“By 2050, water companies can only discharge from a storm overflow where they can demonstrate there is ‘no local adverse ecological impact’ … This target must be achieved for most … storm overflows spilling in or close to high priority sites. These sites include sites of special scientific interest, special areas of conservation … eutrophic sensitive areas and chalk streams.”
I ask: why 2050? That is nearly 30 years away. The document continues—I am quoting again from “targets”:
“By 2045, all ecological harmful discharges in or close to high priority sites must be eliminated.”
The Lake District is a very high priority site. Again, I simply cannot understand the delay. Why not speed up the whole process in environmentally sensitive areas such as the national parks?
A cynic would argue that the Government are ducking and weaving over sewage discharge problems because they fear damaging water company profits and, I suppose, ultimately pension funds. How else can they justify the 8,500-hour leak at the Sedbergh plant, the Budds Farm treatment plant leak and the Embleton leak in my former constituency? They are but a few from a long list to which the noble Lord, Lord Oates, very wisely referred in some detail and which are a product of a combination of water company profit protection and slack management, both accidental and on occasions deliberate.
For the purposes of attending Parliament, I live in Maidenhead in a flat on the towpath overlooking the Thames. I am ever conscious of damage to the riverbed arising out of effluent discharge from what I am told are storm overflows upstream. It is not unknown for those who swim in the river to contract respiratory conditions or infections out of—whatever you want to call it; I shall not use the term—effluent contamination.
The Daily Mail’s consumer correspondent, Sean Poulter, recently reported a hitherto little reported incident where Southern Water was fined £90 million for deliberately pouring sewage into the sea off the Kent and Hampshire coast. We also have reports of norovirus contamination of oyster beds, again blamed on sewage pollution. I am told that one company has paid a staggering £290 million in penalties since 2010, but, more worryingly, Southern Water is alleged to have paid £126 million in penalties and payments following a series of failures in treatment operations and, more importantly, for deliberately manipulating performance data. I am told that there is a whole list of companies which have similarly been subject to discharge failure penalties.
The scandal of illegal underreporting by licensed facilities requires scrutiny by government. The Environment Agency is reported to have clear evidence of massive underreporting of outfall failure. In almost every case, someone, somewhere, will have taken a decision to breach licensing approvals, and they will know they are breaking the law. My own view, perhaps a desperate one, is: prosecute the water company executives—they are responsible for these decisions—and threaten them with custodial sentences. They should be prosecuted where it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that they have authorised illegal sewage discharges and agreed either the falsification of data or a decision to hide adverse data on discharge levels.
Levies or fines on water companies do not work, as they place the burden of penalty for malpractice on the back of both shareholders, who without institutional support are powerless at annual general meetings, and water companies themselves. If you want action and progress, go for the directors. The reporting failures will cease immediately. Deceit will be replaced by proposals for action. The threat of prosecution will concentrate minds. It will lead to a new emphasis on transparency, greater accountability and a far more informed public debate on the way forward.