People are rightly shocked at the frequency of sewage discharges and the damage they do to our valuable, delicate river habitats. I believe that this is shameful, and insufficient action has been taken to tighten regulation to stop water companies using discharges as a day-to-day measure when they were introduced for only the most extreme circumstances.
The scale of sewage pollution is staggering, with only 14% of English rivers meet good ecological standards, and with water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers in England and Wales 500,000 times in 2020.
Water should be run in the interests of the environment and consumers, not shareholders. In recent years, customers have faced rising bills while those directing water companies have received multimillion-pound packages, bonuses and dividends. The cost of cleaning up our rivers must come from these profits.
In September, the Government amended the Environment Bill to include new measures on sewage discharges. I believe that these measures are insufficiently ambitious and existing laws are inadequate. Water companies must be incentivised or mandated to undertake necessary systemic improvements to address the current crisis, otherwise they will continue to follow their profits and pollute our rivers.
I have long supported measures to end sewage discharges into waterways and recently voted to accept the Lords amendment to the Bill requiring water companies to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged into inland waters. However, the Government brazenly voted to remove it. The House of Lords voted again to include this measure, including coastal waters, which will face further consideration when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.
The Government has since announced that it will introduce an amendment to require water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of storm overflows.
I will look closely at this but believe it should not have taken a public outcry for this issue to be taken seriously by the Government. We will need to see the details of the amendment before we can tell whether it is actually meaningful or whether it just gently nudges polluters to stop discharging sewage into our rivers.
I support tougher legislation on enforcement and sanctions, and introducing penalties for under-reporting, as well as investigating making prosecution for polluters the default when it is in the public interest and there is clear evidence. I think that water companies should also be required to contact customers when there is a pollution incident.
I can assure you that my Opposition Colleagues and I will continue to support amendments to the Environment Bill that seek to end sewage pollution in our rivers.