25 April 2023
Dunne highlights efforts to fix sewage discharges and clean up our rivers

Philip Dunne speaks in an Opposition Day debate and outlines the huge efforts being made under the Government's Plan for Water to fix sewage discharges and clean up our rivers.

Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans). I welcome what he said about trying to work cross-party to solve this problem. That is what I have been doing since this Parliament began. I do not want to dwell on the private Member’s Bill that I introduced over three years ago, but it is surprising that it has taken the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) three years to come up with his own private Member’s Bill. Having read it, it seems to me that he has not read the Environment Act 2021, introduced by this Government a year and a half ago. The Water Quality (Sewage Discharge) Bill is one of the weakest documents I have ever seen, and it was clearly concocted and manufactured purely for the purposes of this debate. As he said in his opening speech, the Bill was introduced to benefit Labour candidates in the next parliamentary election, whenever it comes, and in next month’s local elections. The political opportunism is shameful.

However, in the spirit of seeking to focus my remarks on something useful, I will dissect some of the specific errors in the Water Quality (Sewage Discharge) Bill. First, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, clause 1 talks about water quality monitoring requirements. Two years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee’s “Water quality in rivers” report specifically called for the improved monitoring of our waterways. We have heard that Lord Benyon, the Conservative rivers Minister at the time, introduced monitoring as a result, and we are nearly at 100%. We called for upstream and downstream monitoring of the impact of discharges into rivers, which is precisely what was included in the Environment Act. Clause 1 of the Bill seeks to accelerate the measure to bring it into effect from 1 October, which is completely unrealistic. We have not yet agreed the technical specifications to be able to test water for the four parameters, so there is no supply chain in place to do that. Hopeless.

Clause 2 of the Bill talks about adverse impacts and seeks to accelerate and define the progressive reduction of sewage discharges, which are also covered by the Environment Act, to try to prevent 90% of such discharges by 2030. The Secretary of State has said there is no clarity on how much that would cost, but we know that it could cost hundreds of billions of pounds, adding £1,000 to customers’ bills and diverting the entire construction industry to fix the problem. Over the next seven years, which hospitals and schools would not be built as a result of Labour’s proposal?

Anthony Mangnall 

My right hon. Friend is making an extraordinarily important point about finding a balance between attracting investment and ensuring that work is delivered to address the problem. Can we go further in encouraging water companies to keep that balance in order?

Philip Dunne 

I will come on to that in a moment, but my hon. Friend makes the valid point that there is not enough dividend income for the water companies to pay for the billions of pounds in the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, as the Labour party fancifully suggests. The companies cannot pass the whole bill on to customers, so they have to be able to go to the markets, which are actively looking to invest in green projects of this nature. The money is there, but it will only be delivered through the private sector.

Clause 3 of the Bill talks about financial penalties. Labour is calling for penalties for the use of storm overflows. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, this is a question of degree. We already have penalties, and it is the Conservatives who introduced the water restoration fund, on which we are currently consulting, so that the proceeds of any fines resulting from the 2,000 permit breaches that are currently being investigated by Ofwat and the Environment Agency, as a result of this Government’s direction, will make the polluter pay. That is happening. The Labour motion suggests that it could happen instantly, but that would put the entire water system in disarray. This is another completely unrealistic proposition.

The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton is calling on the Government to produce a discharge strategy, so he clearly has not read the storm overflows discharge reduction plan that the Government published a year ago. He also calls for a legal obligation to consult Welsh Ministers. Frankly, we have just heard about the appalling performance of Welsh Water under this Welsh Government. For further clarity, the 83,000 spills in Wales represent almost 22% of the total number of spillages across England and Wales. The last time I looked, Wales represented about 5% of the UK population, not 22%. That is a hopeless example, and the last thing we should do is take advice from the Welsh Government.