Sewage Disposal in Rivers and Coastal Waters - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:22 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 1:22 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, it has been a good debate, with some divergent views. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and apparently the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, for bringing this here. I disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who thinks that this is the wrong time to have this debate. We should have this debate every single week, all the time that we are sitting, until the Government actually respond to the fact that we have given a devastating analysis of what is happening. They have to respond to this. They should do what we say—that is what I think. Perhaps the next Government will understand a little better the expertise that your Lordships’ House brings to debates like this. However, I liked the noble Earl’s idea about sewage being an asset. I genuinely had not thought of that before, but other countries use sewage—sometimes raw sewage—as an asset. Perhaps we should think along those lines too.

What irritates me is that we have a Victorian sewage system but do not have a Victorian road system, though both were developed at a similar time. That is because the road system is updated every year: when a new development is built, a new road network is built to go with it. However, there is no such event for the sewage system when we have new developments. There has been continuous investment in roads, but there has been very spasmodic investment in sewage treatment. Obviously, road and rail tend to grow with population, but not as much as they would if we had Green voices in government—I stress that to the other political parties here.

It is now households that are expected to pay for our sewage system, and I do not see how that is workable. I cannot remember which noble Lord it was, but somebody talked about greed, and that is at the root of the problem we have. I disagree completely that privatisation is ever a good thing; I just cannot see it. Again and again, we see that rapacious companies and shareholders damage the companies they are running, so why on earth would we privatise any more? They make big profits and do not plough them back, which is why we have the problems we do at the moment. So I am definitely in the society of admirers of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. I loved his solutions, and I hope that they have gone properly into Hansard so that the Government can take them up at the next opportunity, whenever that is. Perhaps it will be after the next election.

There are two overall solutions to this: either we take the water companies back into public ownership, or the Government use some of these ideas—for example, about not paying out shareholders until investment plans have delivered the changes that are needed. As I am sure everybody in your Lordships’ House does, I want clean rivers and clear water flowing and encouraging the fragile and very precious ecology of all our chalk streams. I want water that is healthy enough for children, adults, local wildlife and even dogs to be able to paddle or swim in. I want to be able to swim in the Thames without getting gastroenteritis, which is what happened to me last time. I do not think that these are big expectations. We think of clean water as a basic human right, just as clean air ought to be. If our water system is in a bad state, the rest of the environment is in a bad state as well.

I want to focus on one aspect of the potential side-effects on human health. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, mentioned this, and I think somebody else did as well. Apart from the obvious health threats from raw sewage in our waterways, it also encourages the spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms and antibiotic pollution, which is incredibly serious. When they release this sewage, the water companies are not only increasing the amount of resistant bacteria in our environment but guaranteeing that they will stay there, because the untreated sewage is laden with antibiotics that allow bacteria to survive.

We need clean water as a human right, just as we need clean air. I have wanted this, along with many others, for the last 30 years, and I am shocked that the Environment Agency has only just realised what a state our rivers are in. I do not understand where it suddenly got this idea from. But if you think about the amount of public outcry there has been about the raw sewage dumped all over our landscapes, you might begin to understand that perhaps the Environment Agency is waking up. I would argue that the monitoring system has completely failed to deliver clean water and clean air because the Environment Agency is not fit for purpose, and neither is Defra. They all need to be scrapped and replaced with something more robust—something that actually holds these organisations and companies to account.

As for Ofwat, it has prioritised short-term consumer interests while losing sight of the longer-term and much bigger picture. I am glad that Ofwat and the Minister have new enforcement powers. The Ministers’ power of direction makes it their personal responsibility for setting the pace of change, and any delays are really down to the Government not driving things forward. Your Lordships’ House has done our best here. We can be very proud of pushing this agenda—for example, the amendments from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, which were huge fun to be associated with. Even when he watered them down, I was still very happy to give my support to them.

Without systematic change and rigorous monitoring, the investment programme will not deliver change. It will continue to be a screen behind which senior managers get larger bonuses, as ever, for delivering larger profits. This is a really bad system. Is the Minister happy with water companies raising water bills, or borrowing large amounts of money that will be loaded on to future water bills, while shareholders get their usual dividend payments? Essentially, is he happy that these organisations keep paying out when they are not actually spending money on investing in the infrastructure? Do the Government think it is fair that ordinary people pay extra while the shareholders get their usual cut of the profits? I just do not understand how this makes economic sense. Will the Government consider delivering a moratorium on shareholder payments until long-term investment is delivered? This has been a devastating analysis. I do not understand how anybody could listen to this debate and not feel that we have got things drastically wrong.