Environment Bill

Duke of Wellington Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
59: Clause 79, page 71, line 9, at end insert—
“(2A) A drainage and sewerage management plan must require the undertaker to implement, in conjunction with local authorities, the progressive separation of the foul water and surface water systems where possible.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is intended to secure the separation, where possible, of drainage systems from the sewerage systems through a legal obligation placed on the water companies and local authorities in order to reduce harm from untreated discharges.
Duke of Wellington Portrait The Duke of Wellington (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to move Amendments 59 and 60, in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, to whom I am very grateful for their support.

These are not glamorous or intellectually stimulating amendments, such as others we debated last week, but their purpose is both high-minded and supported by the public. I cannot resist referring to a petition circulating in recent days, which already has more than 90,000 signatures, calling on the Government to place a duty on water companies not to emit sewage. I had nothing to do with the petition.

The amendments simply seek to write into an Act of Parliament a legal commitment to clean up rivers. It is surprising, shocking and indeed revolting that, in the 21st century, in a civilised and developed country, there were, according to the Environment Agency, in 2020, 400,000 discharges of sewage in England and another 100,000 in Wales; that is more than half a million discharges of sewage into rivers in England and Wales.

Since the Bill left the other place earlier this year, the Government have moved a long way, and I recognise that. First, they took over some elements of a Private Member’s Bill tabled by the right honourable Philip Dunne, Member of Parliament for Ludlow, who is also chair of the Environmental Audit Committee in the House of Commons. Clause 80 of the Bill comes from Philip Dunne’s Bill. It requires the Secretary of State to prepare a plan to reduce untreated discharges.

Since Committee, the Government have tabled further amendments: Amendments 61, 62 and 63. I thank the Minister for two meetings which the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and I had with him during the Summer Recess. I am also very grateful to the Minister in the other place, Rebecca Pow, who asked me to meet her on Teams two weeks ago, with her officials, to inform me that these amendments were to be tabled the following day. I very much welcome the amendments, particularly Amendment 63, where, for the first time, the Government are using the word “elimination” rather than just “reduction”. Amendments 61 and 62 concern very welcome increases in reporting and monitoring.

I will now explain the need for Amendment 59 to Clause 79. This seeks to separate foul water from surface water. It is surface water from heavy rainfall that often overwhelms a sewage plant, which of course is designed mainly to deal with sewage. In his letter to Peers of 27 August, the Minister announced that the Government will review Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act. If the Minister can confirm from the Dispatch Box that this would have the same effect as my Amendment 59, we will have no need to press that amendment. However, I hope he will accept that the purpose of Amendment 59 is essential, as it is surface water that can so often cause storm overflows.

I turn to Amendment 60 to Clause 80. The clause and the further amendments are still missing perhaps the most important part of Philip Dunne’s Bill, which was the duty to be placed on water companies to take all reasonable steps to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into inland waters. My Amendment 60 seeks to put that legal duty into the Bill. In addition, the amendment would require water companies to demonstrate continuous improvement and progressive reductions in the harm caused by the discharges.

Proposed subsection (2) in Amendment 60 addresses another problem. There is considerable evidence that the Environment Agency and others are not prosecuting most of the discharges, even though many are apparently illegal. It is therefore important to write into the Bill a requirement on the various bodies to exercise their powers of enforcement.

I understand that one of the reasons why the Government are reluctant to place a legal duty on the water companies to take all reasonable steps to prevent discharges is that they have been advised that this might affect the investment decisions of the water companies and put sewage treatment ahead of other possible investments. I do not find that argument at all persuasive—in fact I think it demonstrates the absolute need for the amendment and the necessity of placing a legal duty on the companies to bring to an end these damaging discharges.

That necessity is no better demonstrated than by a press release from Ofwat, the water industry regulator. It announced, on the very day when we were debating the environment in the Queen’s Speech, a new water sector investment of £2.8 billion into the green recovery. But if we read the press release further, we see that only £157 million—just over 5% of the investment—was to help to eliminate the harm caused by storm overflows. Only a legal duty would move these investments higher up the list of priorities.

I do not underestimate the cost of modernising the sewerage network, and I understand that the Government will have reservations about imposing a required investment on the water companies. However, as I said at Second Reading, it should be possible to find a formula that involves some modest grants, some long-term borrowing, reduced dividends and above-inflation increases in wastewater or sewerage charges to residential and commercial users.

I turn to subsection (2) of proposed new section 141E, to be inserted in Clause 80. In Committee I tabled an amendment on this. As the Bill is currently drafted, a discharge is not considered to be a discharge if it has been caused by electrical or mechanical failure! That strikes me as an enormous loophole, and it can only have been included at the request of the water companies. In our meeting with the Minister, we were assured that, despite the wording of that subsection, discharges as a result of electrical or mechanical failure will still need to be disclosed. I ask the Minister to repeat that assurance from the Dispatch Box. However, I then wonder why subsection (2) is necessary at all. Will the Minister not consider deleting the subsection entirely at Third Reading? It appears totally unnecessary and possibly undermines part of the purpose of Chapter 4, and Clause 80 in particular.

While the country drives towards carbon net zero and improving air and soil quality, we surely cannot allow water quality to be compromised by regular discharges of untreated sewage into the aquatic environment. The Bill aims, and government policy is, to leave the environment for future generations in a better state. I cannot believe that any Defra Minister does not want to clean up our rivers, and the only way to ensure that is to include in the Bill a legal duty to prevent discharges. Not including such a duty will inevitably lead to delays, more plans, excuses and further delays.

On my way to the House today I received, very kindly, another email from Rebecca Pow. In it she describes everything that the Government are doing, but then in the paper produced by the department there is a section of frequently asked questions. It reads:

“Why are you not placing a duty on water companies to reduce storm overflows?”,

to which the reply is this:

“The Environment Bill places a new duty on water companies to produce Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans setting out how”,

and so on. That is my point—there is yet another plan. I am sorry to say this, and I am grateful to the Minister for alerting me to everything that the department has done.

I hope not to divide the House on Amendment 59 —that of course depends on the Minister’s response—but I intend to do so on Amendment 60. I beg to move.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and with his permission, I shall speak to Amendment 82. I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for moving his amendment so eloquently. I have known the noble Duke since 1982, when I was a humble adviser to the Conservatives in the European Parliament, and I am delighted to follow him today.

Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, has been unavoidably detained in Norfolk, but he is in a very privileged position and knowledgeable in this regard: following the devastating floods in East Anglia in 2020, he took up the position of independent chair of the Norfolk Strategic Flooding Alliance. I will set out his remarks at the outset and then add a few of my own.

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Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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What has changed is the technology and the SUDS—for example, rain gardens and swales et cetera. The planning system has changed in any number of ways, as my noble friend knows from her time in the coalition Government and since. That has given rise to a need to re-evaluate and work out what the appropriate policy should be.

Duke of Wellington Portrait The Duke of Wellington (CB)
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My Lords, I know that we are all anxious to move on. However, I must first point out quickly to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that I certainly do not have a PR machine: I was as surprised as anyone that so many emails were sent to Members of this House.

I thank all noble Lords who took part in this debate. I particularly want to thank the Minister here and the Minister in the other place for everything they have done in recent weeks to improve the Bill; they have certainly strengthened it, and many of their amendments are very welcome to many of us.

I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances on Amendment 59. I personally am happy to accept those and will seek permission to withdraw the amendment. However, on Amendment 60, I am sorry to say, despite all the Minister’s efforts, I do not believe that more plans, reporting and monitoring will do the business, and so I intend to divide the House on that amendment.

Amendment 59 withdrawn.
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Moved by
60: Clause 80, page 74, line 34, at end insert—
“141ZA Duty on sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows(1) A sewerage undertaker must demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges.(2) The Secretary of State, the Director and the Environment Agency must exercise their respective functions under this and any other Act to secure compliance with this duty.”Member’s explanatory statement
The purpose of the amendment is to try to eliminate, not simply reduce, the harm caused to the environment and individual and public health by the discharge of untreated sewage into rivers, and to ensure that the various agencies use their powers of enforcement.
Duke of Wellington Portrait The Duke of Wellington (CB)
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I wish to test the opinion of the House.