Five hours' profit meets water firm fines

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The Independent Online
The big 10 water companies of England and Wales have been prosecuted 240 times since privatisation, but the fines imposed on them equal the profits they make in just five hours, the Labour Party said yesterday.

But the party would make no cast-iron commitment to raise the maximum magistrates' court fine for water pollution above the current pounds 20,000, or make courts give more weight to previous pollution convictions.

Frank Dobson, the party's environment spokesman, said a Labour government would consider changing the sentencing regime and bringing in a minimum fine for water pollution.

Labour has obtained details of 240 prosecutions since the industry's 1989 privatisation from the Environment Agency. On average, there have been three a month, but there have already been 28 prosecutions this year, com0pared with 31 in the whole of last year and 25 in 1994.

The figures show the great majority of prosecutions arise from effluent from sewage works and are dealt with by magistrates with fines of a few thousand pounds. Fines above pounds 10,000 have been rare. "Clearly, the water companies are not sufficiently embarrassed to take these pollution offences seriously," said Mr Dobson. "They have shown they are not prepared to give sufficient priority to ending these incidents.

"In other words, pollution is the cheaper option. This has got to be stopped ... heavier fines are the only answer."

Severn Trent has the worst record with 42 prosecutions, while South West, with seven, has the least.

Earlier this year, Severn Trent, Britain's second largest water company, received the largest ever fine for a water company. A judge at Cardiff Crown Court fined it pounds 175,000 with pounds 44,000 costs and compensation after chemicals from its water treatment works at Rhayader, Powys, killed thousands of fish along one of the best stretches of fly fishing river in Wales.

The Water Services Association, which represents nine of the big 10 firms, said: "Our performance is one of sustained improvement." He said hundreds of sewage works had been upgraded or built from scratch since privatisation and Environ- ment Agency figures showed a sharp improvement in river water quality across the country.