South West Water: Brixham Contamination

Lindsay Hoyle Excerpts
Monday 20th May 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the urgent question. I will run this short: the question for the water company is about those who are affected, not other parts of the UK—so just for clarification, it is a tight UQ.

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall (Totnes) (Con)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement on South West Water and Brixham’s contamination.

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Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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My hon. Friend is quite right to express the huge local concerns. He and I have spoken multiple times a day since this issue arose, and he has been extremely effective in raising the concerns of those he represents.

There is recognition that the initial comms, the mishap with some of the leaflets and the comms about compensation are all areas that South West Water will address moving forward, having sought to take his feedback. He is right about the urgency in addressing the Hillhead reservoir for the remaining 15% of the population. That is certainly uppermost in my conversations with the relevant stakeholders.

With regard to an investigation, issues with drinking water are treated with the utmost seriousness within Government, so I can assure my hon. Friend that these issues will be looked at extremely closely. I spoke with the chief executive of the Drinking Water Inspectorate at the weekend, and I had a meeting with one of its senior leaders just before this UQ. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be a thorough investigation, as there always is with these kinds of issues, and I urge all parties, including South West Water, to co-operate fully and in a timely fashion.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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Another day, another example of the depths of failure to which this Government have taken us. I cannot believe that I am about to say this, but after 14 long years of Conservative rule, in 21st-century Britain, our water is no longer safe to drink. Of course, the Government will be flailing around, desperate to clasp on to somebody else to blame, but this crisis is theirs, and it is this Government who must show some leadership and take responsibility for it. They were the ones who weakened regulation, leaving our Victorian-era sewerage system starved of investment. They turned a blind eye and left water companies to illegally pump a tidal wave of raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and seas. Only last month, the Labour party warned that our nation’s health is at risk because hospital admissions for waterborne diseases have skyrocketed by two thirds since 2020. Is this an example of the Government’s plan working? Is this what they think success looks like?

And now this, as the icing on the cake of failure: a parasite outbreak in Brixham with South West Water. Some 16,000 homes and businesses have been advised to boil water before drinking it; over 46 cases of cryptosporidiosis have been reported; more than 100 people have reported symptoms; and a 13-year-old boy has been admitted to hospital. That is appalling.

Enough is enough, so today we are calling on the Government to urgently adopt Labour’s plan to put the water companies into special measures in order to clean up their water. As a matter of utmost urgency, the Government must strengthen regulations so that law-breaking bosses face criminal charges, and go further by giving the regulator new powers to block the payment of bonuses until water bosses have cleaned up their filth. With Labour, the polluter will pay, not the public.

I have one question for the Secretary of State. With contaminated water hospitalising children and record levels of toxic filth in our water systems, how much worse does the situation have to get before the Government adopt Labour’s plan to put the water industry into special measures?

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Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
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In 2022, the Drinking Water Inspectorate found South West Water guilty, saying that the company

“did not follow best practice”

to avoid and shorten events where customers report problems about the taste and quality of their drinking water. It was fined a quarter of a million pounds. It was found guilty the year after for a six-year period of illegal discharges of sewage. The CEO awarded themselves almost £2 million in bonuses and awarded £112 million in dividends. Is it not time that all bonuses, all dividends and all bill rises are suspended until our water companies sort themselves out? If they do not, they need special administration.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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May I remind Members that when they are asking a question or speaking, they are meant to look at the Chair, not at somebody down at the bottom of the Chamber, because we might be unable to hear what is being said?

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle
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It is because of the good work of the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) that I was able to ask that question.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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In the end, the good work of the hon. Member for Totnes was only allowed by the Chair—think that way first!

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I will take that steer, Mr Speaker, and direct my remarks your way. First, there is agreement on bonuses that where there is criminal wrongdoing, they should not be paid. On dividends, there is a debate with Treasury colleagues on the balance between attracting investment into the sector and taking further measures. I have also touched on the largest ever criminal prosecution currently under way with the Environment Agency. It is important that we do not pre-empt the investigation. We need to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened and who is at fault, where there is fault. I am sure that as part of that, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and Members of the House will look at what monitoring was in place, what different parties did and whether any lessons from previous incidents were sufficiently learned. Those are issues that should rightly be explored through the investigation, and that is what the DWI is doing.