New clash over dumping of raw sewage in rivers as No 10 rejects compromise vote

Peers set to back amendment giving ministers more time to act – but Downing Street insists it’s still ‘a blank cheque’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 26 October 2021 13:45
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A compromise to end the bitter parliamentary row over the dumping of raw sewage into rivers has been rejected by No 10, triggering a fresh clash.

Peers will vote tonight on a watered-down amendment by the Duke of Wellington that would give ministers more time to meet the huge cost of forcing water companies to act.

But Boris Johnson’s spokesman rejected the move, insisting it still amounted to “a blank cheque” the government could not afford – even though action would only be necessary “as soon as reasonable”.

Ministers have put the bill at more than £150bn, but are facing rising public anger after Tory MPs were ordered to vote down a previous attempt to ensure “all reasonable steps” are taken to stop sewage spills.

“The amendment remains uncosted,” the prime minister’s spokesman said, adding “that would mean that every one of us taxpayers is paying, potentially, thousands of pounds each as a result.

“It’s not right to sign up a blank cheque on behalf of customers without understanding the trade-offs and the bills that would be involved.”

The rejection paves the way for peers to back the amendment later, sending it back to the Commons where the government will be under huge pressure to compromise.

It would also mean the flagship Environment Bill – first promised in 2018 – would not pass before this weekend’s crucial Cop26 summit, in a further embarrassment.

Sewage was released into rivers and streams more than 400,000 times last year – as key 84 per cent of English rivers and lakes failed to meet the government ecological targets.

There was fury when Southern Water dumped 7,400 swimming pools-worth of human waste from 17 sites in between 2010 and 2015, in what the Environment Agency called the biggest pollution case in 25 years.

The Lords backed the Duke’s previous amendment by 182 votes to 147 – but it was removed by the Commons last week by 268 votes to 204, despite 22 rebel Tories voting against their government.

A huge social media backlash since has seen many thousands of people write to their MP, which could increase the size of a future backbench revolt.

The No 10 spokesman claimed the “intentions of the amendment” were “already being delivered” through the Environment Bill – despite protests that sewage spills would continue.

But one senior Tory, Huw Merriman, a Sussex MP, vowed to rebel again, telling BBC News: “Our seas are unclean and unhealthy to swim in and people’s lives are blighted.

“Ultimately, my constituents have to live with this as a coastal community. I have to put them before what the government is telling me I should do.”

Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Luke Pollard, said: “The government is to blame for allowing water companies to vent raw sewage into our rivers and sea seemingly at will.”

And Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, called for water companies to cut dividend payments in order to “restore our rivers and our coastlines.

“They haven’t got a right to destroy these spaces and need to take the ambitious steps to restore them – and we need to make sure the industry is not putting their profits ahead of making our spaces safe,” he said.

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