Monday 15th November 2021

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
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It is, as ever, an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this heated debate, and those people who signed the petition. Although I really respect the strength of feeling—the passion—in the petition, I want to say at the outset that I believe it was probably started when the social media campaign was whipped up. I am sorry, but a lot of misinformation was indeed spread, so we need to get over that and ensure that it never happens again.

I do understand the passion about this issue, which I think we all share. Quite frankly, I am personally also horrified by a lot of what we have seen. That is why I am so proud that, as an Environment Minister, I have made water quality a priority; indeed, so have this Government. As was so eloquently said by a number of Government Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), we now have a chain of actions that will deal with this. Many of them, of course, are triggered through the world-leading Environment Act. I was sorry, whatever the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), says—I do, as he knows, have great respect for him—that our Labour colleagues did not, in the end, vote to make that law to get water companies to reduce harm from storm sewage overflows. The tables were turned, and for that I am sorry. I think we need to get over that, too, and we all need to move on—

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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Will the Minister give way?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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So I am not going to take an intervention on that.

I will also say that the issue is devolved. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing the debate. As she knows, it is for individual Governments to have their own powers, although Wales joins a great many of the powers in the Act.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I am leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, but it is a UK-wide issue, which I hope the Minister will work with the devolved nations to address.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank the hon. Lady for that; we are at pains to work with the devolved Administrations, because water does not have boundaries. I increasingly want to do exactly that, so I hand out an offer to do more. On misinformation, although I am not defending the quality of our rivers, it is comparable to that of rivers in densely populated areas of Europe.

The storm overflows system is an old Victorian plumbing system, which in many cases is not fit for purpose given our growing population, climate change and the frequent heavy extreme weather incidents that we are getting. Many hon. Members have made reference to the fact that the whole system needs improving.

I have been clear that storm sewage overflows, which are supposed to be for emergency use, are used far too frequently, which is absolutely unacceptable. I have said that frequently. We are the first Government to take decisive action on storm overflows through the Environment Act. I established the storm overflows taskforce to look into the issue and to inform us. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who did great work on the Bill Committee, for recognising that.

The petition calls for the elimination of storm overflows, which is a commendable ambition.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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The Minister said at the start of her remarks that she thought the petition had probably been started in response to the social media campaign. To clarify, it was started more than six months ago and indeed, the Government published their response to it on 5 May.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank the hon. Lady for clarifying. As I said, I share the passion of the people who signed the petition, so I am not arguing about that.

The petition calls for the complete elimination of storm overflows. We need to look at how possible that is and what the function of overflows is in emergency situations. We need to look at the whole issue in the round. The recently published storm overflows evidence project report shed some light on that and the costs that we are looking at. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport keeps asking about that, but he can read all about it in an independent survey published on gov.uk. It highlights that the cost of complete elimination would be between £350 billion and £600 billion.

When we are looking at all those things, we also need to consider all the other things that we have to deal with in terms of water, such as phosphates, nitrates and soil in the water. Several right hon. Friends rightly referred to that and how complicated the picture is. We are dealing with it, as we need to.

Work is under way on that timeframe to reduce and potentially eliminate overflows. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) made some interesting points about consumer involvement and bringing the public along so that they understand what we are doing. Water companies consult consumers but, of course, that does not change their obligation to meet their requirements and regulations in law.

That is where the Government’s direction to Ofwat, the regulator, is important. We have just produced our draft strategic policy, in which we flagged the issue of storm overflows and reducing the harm for the first time. We also put the environment at the top of the agenda. I am sure we all share the view that that is the right thing to do.

The issue of enforcement has been raised several times. Action is taken and must be taken, but I understand the frustration about how long it can take. The Southern Water enforcement took years, but the fine was £90 million, which sent a clear message. Thames Water has also had some significant fines, but it is now spending £4.4 billion on the Thames Tideway Tunnel. That will be a game changer, rightly treating sewage that goes into the Thames. We have seen progress, although that is not to say that we do not need to go a great deal further.

We have seen some action. The shadow Minister keeps asking, “What is happening now?” There is some action. Yes, we need more, but through the taskforce we instigated a call for action that is happening right now. Importantly, water companies are spending £144 million in additional investment on storm overflows in the period 2020 to 2025, on top of the £3 billion they are already spending on the environment.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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Can the Minister square these two challenges? She has told us that it is going to cost us £660 billion, but also that if water companies spend £144 million now, that is sufficient to deal with it. Those are two very different extremes. Why is more not being spent now? How is such a paltry sum supposed to deal with a problem that just moments ago she said could cost £660 billion?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I do not think the hon. Gentleman is really listening to what I am saying. What I said is that the water companies have taken some action now to start to invest in some of the facilities that they need. I did not say that they were doing everything that they needed to do, but my point was that they are not waiting until the next price review.

I mentioned the strategic policy statement to Ofwat, the regulator, which is crucial. Just last week, we set out on a legal footing in the Environment Act a statutory requirement for water companies to progressively reduce the harm from sewage from these overflows. The Act refers to harm not just to the environment, but to “public health.” That is something new that we added that was not even in the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, and that I think all hon. Members here will welcome, especially those who have bathing areas in their constituencies. All credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, who mentioned the bathing area in Keighley being the first inland bathing area.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about Warleigh Weir, which I know because lots of my school friends used to go swimming there when I was at school in Bath. I am horrified at the data she gave and I would be interested in hearing more about that. If she wants to apply for a bathing water quality safety test, it is clear how to do that. Indeed, we write to local authorities every year to ask if they have an area they would like to put forward. I am happy to help progress that, if it is at all possible.

In the Environment Act, of which I am very proud, there are so many things, including a whole page of duties, plans and monitoring. The hon. Member for Gower mentioned the important need for data, which she is absolutely right about. To really tackle these issues, we have to know what is going on. We do not need to wait for ages. We can start, but we still need the data. There are timelines for monitoring and reporting, and a system that holds water companies to account if they do not do the right thing. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for all the work that he has done. He fully understands the data issue, which is so important. Crucially, every water company now has to produce a sewage management plan—they did not have to do so before—and that will help.

Water companies have been mentioned so much that last week I called them in—I mentioned this on the Floor of the House—before we thrashed out the final amendments. I read the Riot Act to them about the need, and the expectation, for them to do better. We need to work with them to make sure that that happens, and we have been very clear that if we do not see action, we will take enforcement action. There are clear enforcement powers through the EA, which issues the permits; through the regulator and through Government in the new power in the Environment Act; and ultimately through the Office for Environmental Protection, so the system is now in place.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Members. We share a concern about water quality. Water is the stuff of life. It is precious. It is our lifeblood, as is soil—another of my favourite subjects. It is our duty to look after it. I will conclude by saying that it is a very complex issue, and my right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Basingstoke have talked about the need to pull together other Departments and talk about the building requirements. We are indeed carrying out a review on the sustainable drainage systems, as set out in schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which will include the right to connect. It is really important that we pull all those things together.

I do not often agree with the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), but he is absolutely right about semi-permeable driveways and membranes. I am a gardener, and I have talked about that issue forever.

The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) should visit the living lab at Salford University, which is amazing. What it shows people about greywater harvesting, underwater tanks and green walls is brilliant. It is in her constituency, and I have visited it.

On that note, I hope I have made it clear that the Government are taking the issue very seriously. The measures are in place but there is, of course, more to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 582336, relating to the discharge of sewage by water companies.