20 October 2021
Dunne backs Lords Amendment to strengthen Environment Bill to stop sewage discharge into rivers

Speaking in a debate on Lords Amendments to the Environment Bill, Philip Dunne welcomes the measures from his Private Member’s Bill included by the Government in Lords Amendments, but also spoke in favour of the additional Amendment based on the primary clause his Bill, seeking to place a duty on water companies to stop sewage discharge into our rivers.

Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to be in the Chamber physically to discuss the Environment Bill, which the Select Committee I am privileged to chair considered in pre-legislative scrutiny. I share the pleasure of the Minister and the House that, at last, this Bill is at the point of concluding its passage.

I will confine my remarks to Lords amendment 45 and Government amendment (a) thereto. I do so because the origins of much of the work, as the Minister has been generous to admit—the Government amendments and amendment 45—stem from the private Member’s Bill I was fortunate to be able to introduce to this House before covid struck.


As a consequence of the pandemic and its impact on the parliamentary schedule, this is the first opportunity I have had since February 2020 to discuss the subject of that Bill, because we never got to Second Reading. Therefore, it is of immense pleasure to see many of the points raised by me. I had support across the House. 

Some 135 MPs were kind enough to express support for the campaign that non-governmental organisations got together to support my Bill. We had the support of about 20 different campaigning groups, which helped to craft the Bill and to gain support from members of the public. We had close to 95,000 people at the most recent count, but at the time of the Bill about 45,000 people expressed support for it.

One thing that happened during covid was the enforced extra leisure time that people up and down the country had. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who speaks for the Opposition, described his own joy of wild swimming. It was a new-found joy for many people, including members of my family, during lockdown. They were finding the rivers and waterways of our country a suitable place for recreation. They would not have expected them to be as adversely polluted as they have been. This has been a result of many factors, but, in particular, sewage over the past decade or so.

I did not come into politics to stand up and talk about crap. I am not going to use that word again, but I have become something of an expert on dealing with human effluent in this country. It is not a particularly comfortable place for me and I do not want to have to do it for the rest of my life, but at the moment I am finding that there is a great deal of interest, inside and outside this place, in how we ensure that we do not treat the arteries of nature, which is what our rivers are, as the cesspit of humanity. The measures that the Minister has taken up with alacrity from my Bill are all moving in the right direction to take steps to reduce the discharge of sewage into our rivers and thence into our oceans.

I wish to start my specific remarks by paying tribute to the Minister for the work she has done in picking up my Bill, persuading her officials that this was important to her and therefore making progress when the Bill got to the Lords in the way that she has described to us this evening. She wanted to support my private Member’s Bill when it was first introduced, but at that point in the parliamentary cycle the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had a legislative load of unprecedented scale. It had the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Environment Bill and all the Brexit statutory instrument legislation, and said that that was the reason why it could not at that time get behind my Bill. The Minister has personally delivered these changes, and I want to acknowledge that and thank her for doing so.

Equally, I wish to put on the record my thanks to members of the other place who have also grappled with this issue closely, particularly the Duke of Wellington. I am pleased to tell the Chamber that it is the Duke of Wellington and not the Duke of Westminster, as he is frequently referred to in that place in these debates, who picked up the primary clause of my Bill, the duty on water companies not to discharge sewage and to progressively reduce harm and improve the sewerage system. That is the amendment he put before the House and the Lords decided to bring back to this House. I accept, having discussed this at considerable length with him and with the Minister, that that amendment is not perfect and things could be done to improve it, but it does reflect the core of my private Member’s Bill. Although I agree with everything else in Lords amendment 45 and will vote for it, I am not in a position to vote for Government amendment (a) to the Lords amendment because, as others in the House have expressed quite well, we need to ensure that water companies feel that provision is there in statute to compel them to pay attention to the issue. The water management plans are a good idea, but they do not have statutory force and could be changed. I do not think this Minister would do anything other than bear down on water companies in respect of this issue, but it may have less priority under another Minister.

John Redwood 

Is there a possible compromise? The Minister said that the regulator could set and enforce targets and extract penalties; would that be a way forward? Could we get the Minister to come up with some tough regulatory targets that fall short of the absolute guarantee of a legal statement?

Philip Dunne 

There will be targets—there are water-quality targets in the Bill anyway—and the Minister referred to the guidance that she is on the point of finalising for the next pricing review period for Ofwat. My Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee, is currently conducting an inquiry into water quality, and we will make some recommendations to strengthen that guidance, so there are tools that can be used. That does not, though, get away from the fact that in my view there should be a primary legislative duty on water companies, to persuade them to treat this issue with sufficient seriousness.

People, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), have quite reasonably asked what the proposal would cost. Last week, our Committee heard evidence from Thames Water, which is currently investing in the largest capital treatment-works programme in our lifetime. It is a £4.6 billion investment, the purpose of which is to take away 37 million tonnes of sewage, out of a total of 39 million tonnes spilt legally into the Thames by Thames Water. It will have a huge impact on the reduction of the amount of sewage that is legally spilt into the Thames. The cost will be an increase of £19 per household in the bills of Thames Water’s water-rates payers in London. That illustrates quite well that, although the costs of improving the network are going to be significant —possibly huge: the Minister gave a range that is even bigger than the amount the Government have spent to combat covid—it will take decades.

When we asked the Secretary of State about this issue last year, when he appeared before our Committee for a different inquiry, he acknowledged that we will not deal with the problem of exceptional spillages out of water-treatment plants until such a time as the drainage system completely separates surface water from foul water. There are something like 200,000 km of combined sewers underneath our streets and fields. While they are combined, it provides the opportunity for water-treatment plants to be overwhelmed by excessive rainfall. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, made the point that it is meant to happen only on an exceptional basis, but it absolutely is happening routinely. We discovered that information after the Government put pressure on the water companies to introduce event-duration monitors, which they have now done across almost all the network. That is giving rise to the information that The Guardian is collating that shows that the completely unacceptable spillage of sewage into rivers is routine. It has to stop. That was the intention behind my private Member’s Bill and is the reason why I continue to talk about this subject ad nauseum. I am much looking forward to the day when this Bill receives Royal Assent and I can get on to other matters.