Last year I was fortunate enough to lead a Westminster Hall debate on Sewage Discharge from Water Companies. My full speech can be watched below:
I beg to move, that this House has considered e-petition 582336, relating to the discharge of sewage by water companies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley, and it is an honour to be leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. The petition calls for an outright ban on water companies discharging raw sewage into watercourses. Personally, I think a lot of our constituents will be shocked to hear that it is currently legal for water companies to do this. How can it be okay for multimillion-pound businesses to absolve themselves of the responsibility for ensuring that our rivers and streams, and ultimately our seas, are free of harmful sewage?
I pay tribute to Ferry Harmer, who started the petition after seeing Feargal Sharkey raise some of the issues around the state of our rivers on the TV programme “Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing” last year. I also thank the 111,434 people from around the UK who have taken the time to sign the petition, especially the 186 people from Gower who have signed it. I have had nearly 150 constituents get in touch with me about this issue in one way or another. That demonstrates the strength of feeling about this issue, which has featured recently in the news. When I spoke to Ferry, it was clear he is a man of real passion and determination. He spoke about the petition and told me that 41% of fish species are in decline in British waters. A third of species are in serious decline, including iconic fish such as salmon and trout.
Through my research, I have discovered astounding facts about the state of our rivers and waterways. Some 39 million tonnes of sewage were discharged into the River Thames alone in 2019—that is one river in one year. Last year, raw sewage was discharged into our waters more than 400,000 times, which is quite an incredible figure. This has now become an emergency for our waterways. Not a single river in England is in a healthy condition, not a single river meets a good chemical standard, and over 85% do not meet good ecological standards. Frankly, it is not good enough.
I am fortunate to represent arguably the best coastal community in the UK. The coast around Gower is popular all year round with families and tourists, and a growing number of local wild swimming groups took off during lockdown. It is the only contact that people have with the outside world, and it has been a saviour for so many people. The well-known Mermaids and other groups know that Gower has some of the best surfing in the UK. I will do anything I can to protect our vital ecosystem, seafood production economy and thriving tourist economy. I know that this is a devolved matter, but as I noted in a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time, this a UK-wide issue. What work is the Minister doing alongside the devolved Administrations, and what commitment can she give to do so, because these waterways, whether in England, Wales or Scotland, are all intertwined and all end up somewhere?
If sewage goes into our rivers and waterways, it will ultimately make its way to the sea, and even into our food chain through seafood and fish. I know we are all supposed to encourage recycling, but even I think that is going a little too far. The Government are failing in their duty of care here. The state of our waterways has not improved since 2016, despite ministerial claims that they are cleaning up their act. What is even worse, the unlawful discharge of sewage could be up to 10 times higher than the rate of prosecutions by the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency is responsible for monitoring and enforcement of water quality breaches, but it has fallen foul of the Government’s cuts; its funding has been slashed by 63% since 2010. Simple measures such as the number of points at which samples are collected have been cut by more than 40%. How can we continue to monitor the health of our rivers if less data is collected?
The Government’s response to the petition mentions that “water companies have agreed to make available real-time data on sewage discharges from storm overflows at designated bathing waters all year round from this year. This data will be made available to help surfers, swimmers and other recreational water users to check the latest information and make informed choices on where to swim.”
Who does not want to check the amount of human waste, used sanitary products and anything else people have flushed into the water before they go for a swim? That is not a delightful thought. Let us not forget the words of the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who back in 2018 told the Environmental Audit Committee that divergence from tough EU rules would be an opportunity for the UK Government to implement unquestionably tougher restrictions. He said that “being different can sometimes mean being better”, and that leavers did not automatically advocate for divergence out of a desire to lower standards. However, owing to Brexit, we have seen a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers and an increase in red tape, which has led to chemicals not being available to fully treat wastewater before it is discharged. What is more, the Government have granted permissions for the discharges to take place.
I am not here only to outline the increasing problems that the Government are exacerbating, because I have received suggestions of things that the Government could put into place to reverse some of the damage. To clean up our waterways, we need a fully funded and resourced action plan. We need targets for water companies and serious consequences when they break the rules. One way of doing that is to increase the environmental reporting requirement for water companies. I call on the Government to improve their plan to introduce annual reports, such as by making them quarterly reports. With more regular reporting and a system that allows for this, we can see where there are problem areas and react much more efficiently.
That is key. Accountability is needed. If we are to move forward, those consumer committees that my hon. Friend speaks of are exactly what we need: a practical solution in order to move forward. I welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce measures to reduce sewage discharge from storm overflows, but unfortunately this does not go far enough. The Government must eliminate sewage discharges. That is why Labour voted in favour of the Duke of Wellington’s amendment calling for exactly that. The Government’s aim of publishing a plan on this by September 2022 is just not good enough. Let us have that plan in place early next year. This has been dragging on for far too long, and there is no reason why we cannot have a strategy sooner.
If Ministers are serious about reaching the targets for cleaning our rivers, lakes, streams and seas, they must have a fully-resourced action plan for monitoring water quality and holding companies to account. However, there are also high-tech solutions that could be employed immediately. Ferry mentioned a system called HYBACS—hybrid activated sludge process—which does not sound absolutely delightful, but is cheaper and more effective than the system that companies are currently using. That sounds like a pretty obvious thing for the water companies to put in place. Where there are capital expenditure issues, it must fall to the Government to ultimately step in and protect the waterways. Natural mitigations can also provide solutions to this problem: reintroducing beavers, building more reservoirs and increasing tree and hedgerow planting.
The Minister has plenty to answer from my contribution, but I would also like to know how many water companies have been fined by the Environment Agency. How much have they been fined? When did the Minister last meet with the Environment Agency to discuss this?
I bring my contribution to a close by asking the Government to be bold in doing the right thing and getting our rivers and streams cleaned up. They should listen to the advice of experts: beef up the Environment Agency’s powers and keep pushing water companies to take responsibility, not just for those who signed the petition, but for everybody living in the United Kingdom.