Govt U-turns on dumping of raw sewage in English rivers after huge backlash

26 October 2021, 21:27

Activist Steve Bray protests outside Downing Street
Activist Steve Bray protests outside Downing Street. Picture: Alamy

By Patrick Grafton-Green

The Government has U-turned over the dumping of raw sewage in seas and rivers by pledging to introduce tougher action against water companies.

Environment Secretary George Eustice this evening promised to bolster measures in the Environment Bill by making companies pay legal duty.

It came before a Lords vote which threatened to defeat the Government.

READ MORE: Shocking drone footage shows raw sewage being pumped into sea in conservation area

READ MORE: Campaigners demand end to raw sewage being dumped in rivers after MPs voted not to stop it

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the bill will now "be further strengthened with an amendment that will see a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows".

The department said the amendment it would bring forward in the Commons would be "very similar to amendment 45" which peers are debating in the House of Lords.

Last week, 268 MPs disagreed with that proposal, which also included putting a legal duty on water companies to stop sewage from being poured into waterways.

This led to a huge backlash.

The amendment had been put forward by crossbench peer the Duke of Wellington and would have forced companies and the Government to "take all reasonable steps" to avoid using sewer overflows when drains are overwhelmed.

Campaigners this week insisted it was unacceptable that raw sewage was put into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times in the last year.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: "Earlier this summer, the Government published a new strategy for Ofwat mandating them to progressively reduce the discharge of sewage from storm overflows in the next pricing review.

"Following a debate in the House of Commons last week during the final stages of the Environment Bill, today we are announcing that we will put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause."

It comes despite a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying earlier today that the intentions of the Duke of Wellington's amendment was "already being delivered".

Labour's shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said: "It should not have taken a public outcry for this Government to take the scandal of raw sewage being discharged into our rivers seriously.

"Having spent the past few days defending their position, this screeching U-turn will do little to convince the public that the health of our rivers, rather than the health of Conservative polling, is at the forefront of ministers' minds.

"The Government still has no clear plan and no grip on the issue of raw sewage being pumped into our seas and rivers."