Thank you very much indeed for your email.
The Government is fully committed to protecting and improving the quality of the UK’s waters. Ministers understand the serious and harmful impact that sewage discharges have on our rivers and seas, which is why the Government is taking proactive measures to tackle this problem. To comprehend the background to this, it is important to understand that previous Governments (including the Labour Governments of 1997 to 2010) failed to monitor sewage discharges properly; it is only the much increased and much more robust monitoring introduced by this Government that has shone a light on the scale of this challenge).
In August 2022, the Government published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan – the first of its kind by any government in UK history. This plan outlines a series of clear targets that water companies must achieve to minimize the harmful effects of sewage discharges. The plan also stipulates that water companies should publish information about sewage discharges in near real time, and that they address the underlying causes of the problem by improving surface water drainage. Furthermore, the plan sets out the Government’s wider expectations for water companies to ensure their infrastructure keeps up with the mounting external pressures stemming from urban growth and climate change.
Ministers are also taking action against water companies that use overflows illegally. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has prosecuted water and sewerage companies 56 times, resulting in fines of over £141 million. Furthermore, the water regulators (the Environment Agency and Ofwat) have recently launched criminal and civil investigations into sewage discharges at over 2,200 treatment works. This is based on new data from increased monitoring. If found guilty, companies can currently be fined up to 10% of their annual turnover, but Ministers are considering ways to increase fines and make them easier for regulators to impose.
It's important to acknowledge that tackling sewage discharges is a complex issue that demands collaboration between various stakeholders, including the Government, water companies, and water regulators. Fixing the problem is neither a quick nor inexpensive task, given that some of the infrastructure dates back to the Victorian era. Climate change and population growth have put additional stress on this aging infrastructure, which increasingly struggles to handle heavy storm events. Nonetheless, I am optimistic that the Government is now taking the appropriate actions to fix this problem.
With regard to the Commons votes on 25th January 2023, my Conservative MP colleagues and I voted to impose the new targets aimed at reducing pollution from wastewater and agriculture, as set out in the Environment Act 2021. There was no vote specifically on sewage overflows. These targets are fully costed, deliverable, and won’t place ridiculously onerous burdens on you or other residents through your water bills. If you would like to learn more about this vote, please follow this link: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2022/9780348242911
I loathe sewage discharges and I voted against the Government last year when I thought it could be doing more to sort this problem out. However, the plans we now have in place will deliver much-needed changes to protect our environment going forward. There is still much work to be done, but the Government's unprecedented commitment to this issue is a hugely positive step forward.
Ministers will reassess our progress in 2027 and water companies will be encouraged to accelerate timelines wherever possible. Ministers will keep a close eye on the implementation of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan and will not hesitate to take further and more decisive action if costs decrease (for example, if cheaper, more efficient technology becomes available).
If you would like more information, please see the attached letter from the former Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice MP.
Thank you again for writing to me about this important matter.
With best wishes.
Jonathan Lord MP
Member of Parliament for Woking