Philip Dunne supports the Government amendment to the Environment Bill that places a legal duty on water companies to reduce sewage discharges, to be set out every 5 years in a formal plan in which each company will show how it will achieve and fund progressive reductions in sewage discharges each year, with a power for the Government to direct water companies if the plans are not good enough.
I am very conscious of time, so I will be brief. I rise to discuss Lords amendment 45 and the Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 45B. I thank the Minister for the time that she and the Secretary of State have taken to engage with me and with the Duke of Wellington in relation to his amendment, which I supported at the last stage. I particularly thank the Minister for her clarification today that the Government amendment in lieu places in the Bill a clear duty on water companies to reduce the impact of sewage discharges. That issue was at the heart of my private Member’s Bill and is included in her amendment.
What the Minister’s amendment adds, which was not in my private Member’s Bill or, frankly, in the Duke’s amendment, is the commitment to include a reduction in harm to public health, which will be of great benefit to the increasing numbers of people who use our rivers for swimming, canoeing and other activities that involve actually getting into the water, rather than just touching it with a fly or a leaded weight to catch a fish. The public health impact is something that we should not forget.
There have been comments about how effective the Minister’s proposed enforcement regime will be. I think that locking the enforcement regime into the existing Water Industry Act regime is potentially a more effective method than the one proposed in the previous Lords amendment. Of course there will have to be enforcement, and one of the big problems that we have had with the Environment Agency over the last 30 years is that its powers have not been rigorously enforced. I strongly encourage the Minister, as she engages with the consequences of the spending review, to urge the agency to increase its enforcement efforts in respect of the water companies.
There have also been comments—a few moments ago from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), with whom I have also engaged on this matter, and from outside—to the effect that the concept of a progressive reduction could be trivial. The hon. Gentleman gave some examples. I think that that is to fundamentally misunderstand how the amendment will lock into the other measures in the Bill. Before my private Member’s Bill emerged, the Government had already indicated that they would introduce for the first time in statute a requirement for sewerage undertakings to produce a drainage and sewerage management plan to last five years. Every five years, it would be updated. Within that plan, there is a requirement to reduce the impact of the activities on the environment.
The proposed new clause locks the duty into those plans, and the plans are subject to a Government power to rewrite them if the Secretary of State of the day does not believe that they are good enough or go far enough. So there is, in my view, a clear link between the amendment and requiring water companies to make a progressive reduction in sewage discharges of materiality. That seems to have been missed by many of the commentators who have been complaining about whether the Bill has teeth.
In addition—as the Minister said—to this set of requirements on water companies, the office for environmental protection will have the power to investigate poor behaviour on the part of companies that do not meet their statutory duties in the Bill, which include a progressive reduction in sewage discharges and their impact. It will be able to consider whether the Environment Agency is doing its job in regulating the companies’ progressive reduction of those discharges, and, as we have just heard, it can also investigate Ofwat.
For all those reasons, I think that the Bill provides a clear direction to water companies that they must reduce sewage discharges, which, as Members in all parts of the House agree, have got to stop. I will be supporting the amendment.