Ending the “national embarrassment” of sewage being dumped in rivers will be a key indicator of success for new environment laws, ministers have been warned.
The Duke of Wellington said he hoped the Environment Act will ensure such discharges are “dramatically reduced in the near future”, as he and other peers ended their parliamentary tussle with the Government after a concession was made.
Water companies will be required to make a “progressive reduction” in dumping raw sewage into waterways under the Government’s proposal accepted by both the Commons and Lords.
Environment minister Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park acknowledged the rate at which sewage is discharged from storm overflows “into our waters is absolutely unacceptable”.
He said the Government’s concession placed a “direct legal duty” upon water companies to cut the adverse impact of the discharges.
Lord Goldsmith added: “Water companies face a choice: reduce sewage discharges or face the consequences of strong enforcement action.”
The Duke of Wellington, whose original proposals combined with a public backlash forced the U-turn, welcomed assurances from ministers that Ofwat and the Government “will not hesitate” to take enforcement action and are able to fine water companies up to 10% of their annual turnover.
The independent crossbencher added the Government amendment is “weaker in certain respects” than his original proposal, but said comments from the ministers have strengthened it.
In his final remarks, the peer said: “It is surprising that governments of both parties have allowed the pollution of our rivers to continue for so long and to such a degree.
“As a result of improvements to this Bill, Parliament and the public will in future be better informed about sewage discharges and the Government will have the power, and we hope the will, to take action.
“It will be a measure of the success of this part of the Bill if these discharges are dramatically reduced in the near future.
“Ministers are now required to report to Parliament on progress, and I know that we will want to hold ministers to account on this matter.
“Pollution of our rivers by sewage is a national embarrassment.
“I hope these clauses in this Environment Bill will bring it to an end.”
He concluded: “Our children and grandchildren will surely be surprised that we allowed this revolting state of affairs to continue for as long as it did.”
Green Party peer Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb said: “It seems to me the Government does not understand what it has done in stripping out some of the safeguards that we put in, and I think this will come to haunt MPs.
“Because people will not forget the campaign to actually stop the sewage discharges into our rivers.”
The Act as a whole seeks to write environmental principles into UK law for the first time, following Brexit.
It includes setting targets for air quality, water, biodiversity and waste reduction, and outlining what standard must be achieved and by what date.
The Act was first announced in July 2018, introduced to Parliament in January 2020 and proceedings were paused for a period due to Covid-19 restrictions.
In January 2021, it was delayed further and re-emerged during the new session of Parliament.
The legislation received royal assent on Tuesday evening.
Rosie Hails, National Trust nature and science director, warmly welcomed the Act but said “several serious concerns remain” – including over the independence and resourcing of the Office of Environmental Protection, the new eco-watchdog.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Kierra Box said: “This isn’t the world-class environment law the Government promised.
“Riddled with omissions and loopholes, and a lack of accountability, this new legislation is a pale shadow of what’s required to protect and enhance our environment.”
Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “From a historic legal commitment to restore UK nature by 2030 to laws tackling illegal deforestation and conversion in UK supply chains, this legislation holds great promise and we welcome its passage into law.
“However, for it to be worth the paper it’s printed on, the UK Government must support a truly independent Office of Environmental Protection, provide a clear target to slash the UK’s global environmental footprint and deliver robust measures outlawing both legal and illegal deforestation as soon as it possibly can.”
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