Fact check: who is to blame for the UK’s sewage scandal? MPs and water companies comments explained

Surfers Against Sewage research revealed 85% think water regulators need to do more while 72% said it is down to the government to tackle raw waste pollution

The sewage scandal has caused outrage over recent years as new data continues to show the scale of how much raw waste is being pumped into the UK's seas and rivers.

Water companies are discharging untreated wastewater through storm overflow systems to prevent it from flooding housing and businesses.

But the fact that releasing partially or raw sewage into waterways is still a legal practice from decades ago has spurred on environmental campaigners and activists to demand a ban on it.

Last year Surfers Against Sewage found evidence of 143 ‘dry spills’, sewage overflows that occurred when there had been no rain for two days, indicating potentially illegal activity by water companies.

More than 21,000 sewage discharges occurred in UK bathing water status areas last year, according to Environment Agency data analysed by the Liberal Democrats. A total of 125,000 hours worth of sewage was discharged into hotspots across the country where people swim and use the water for other leisure purposes.

Recent research by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) published on Wednesday (4 May) revealed a damning distrust in water companies with 85% thinking water company regulators need to do more to make sure water firms reduce sewage pollution.

While 72% said the government should be doing more to tackle sewage pollution.

But who is to blame for the sewage scandal? Here is where the blame lies according to the government, opposition parties, activists and social media.

The sewage scandal has caused outrage over recent years as new data continues to show the scale of how much raw waste is being pumped into the UK's seas and rivers. (Photo: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)The sewage scandal has caused outrage over recent years as new data continues to show the scale of how much raw waste is being pumped into the UK's seas and rivers. (Photo: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)
The sewage scandal has caused outrage over recent years as new data continues to show the scale of how much raw waste is being pumped into the UK's seas and rivers. (Photo: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)

Government insists water firms are responsible

The government has insisted water companies are responsible for reducing sewage discharges.

Environment Agency Executive Director John Leyland said the agency wants to see “quicker progress from water companies on reducing spills and acting on monitoring data”.

He added: “We expect them to be fully across the detail of their networks and to maintain and invest in them to the high standard that the public expect and the regulator demands.”

Water Minister Rebecca Pow said the government has set “the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce sewage discharges”.

She said: “We are requiring them to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history – an estimated £56 billion in capital investment over the next 25 years, driving more improvements. This is the game-changing action that will make the difference we need.”

In a report published in July, the Environment Agency said water company bosses should face jail for the worst pollution incidents, describing the sector’s performance in 2021 as the “worst we have seen for years”.

Opposition parties accuse the government

Labour has accused the government of having its “head in the sand” over the state of Britain’s beaches.

Party leader Keir Starmer said ministers had not been tough enough on water companies and had been cutting funding for the Environment Agency, which oversees pollution issues.

Starmer said: “What it shows is that the government hasn’t been tough enough on the water companies and the enforcement against the water companies Of course, at the same time they have been cutting money to the Environment Agency.

“We can’t go on like this with a government that knows there is a problem there and does absolutely nothing about it.”

The Lib Dems have also criticised ministers over the generous salaries water company executives earn and how the sewage monitors are faulty.

The party's environment spokesperson Tim Farron MP said: “Britain’s seaside resorts are being swamped by foul sewage yet the government is nowhere to be found.”

Figures released by the Environment Agency under a freedom of information request revealed water companies have been fined £10.5 million for sewage spills that killed more than 33,000 fish over seven years.

While a total of £30.6 million was paid to water industry executives from April 2021 to April this year, according to research by the Lib Dems.

The fines were slammed by the party as “feeble”, with the party describing it as mere “pocket change for the profiteering water firms.”

Activists say the issue is a ‘long and sorry story’

Environmental activists who have been protesting against sewage pollution for years accuse “under-funding, under-investment, incompetence and greed” for the scandal with the government, water companies and the regulator to blame.

Head of Communications at SAS Josh Harris told NationalWorld: “The sewage scandal is a long and sorry story of under-funding, under-investment, incompetence and greed. Profiteering water companies have been left to run rampant by a disinterested government and a hollowed-out regulator, and people and planet have been left to pay the price.

“We need robust legislation and strict enforcement that forces water companies to invest in their creaking infrastructure and end sewage pollution for good. Pitiful fines and gentle slaps on the wrist just don’t cut it. It’s time that the polluters face the consequences of their actions.”

Feargal Sharkey, former Undertones singer and now the vocal frontman for the campaign to highlight the scandal of sewage, said what we see now is the result of 30 years of failure to “take proper control”.

He told BBC Breakfast: “I’m afraid what you’re looking at is simply the result of 30 years of underinvestment by the water industry, 30 years of profiteering, 30 years of regulatory failure, and 30 years of a vacuum of political oversight an Government failing to take proper control for this industry.”

Social media users place blame on Tory MPs

On social media, the public place their blame on the government and the lack of action from current ministers.

As the local elections are underway this week many advised others not to vote for Tory candidates over the sewage crisis and reminded internet users of which MPs had voted to block the Sewage Discharge bill.

In October 2021, a proposal from the Lords to the Environment Bill would have placed legal duties on the companies to reduce discharges but it was defeated by 265 MPs’ votes to 202.

One Twitter user called Mike said: “Voting for Conservatives will mean you are voting for #Poo in your local #River just like @AJRichardsonMP voted for #SewageScandal.”

Another said: “How can anyone in their right mind consciously vote for the tories with even on issue in mind of most of them voting to spew sewage in our rivers and seas, absolute filth the lot of them.”

One user added: “Our rivers are full of sh**, just like (and thanks to) our inept, corrupt Tory Government. Up sh** creek without a paddle.”

Some accuse the water regulator for failing to crackdown

Ofwat, the water regulator, has been accused by some for failing to crackdown on the industry.

Concerns have been raised over whether it is working properly or whether it is too close to the water companies, and why water has not been seen as a critical political issue.

Philip Dunne, the Conservative MP for Ludlow and chair of the Commons environmental audit committee, told the Guardian: “They do have the power to sanction remuneration arrangements for directors already, and I don’t think they have done that.”

Martin Salter, the policy chief at the Angling Trust, said: “For years (Ofwat) gave water companies a licence to leak while ministers failed to demand the levels of infrastructure investment needed to enable us to store water in times of surplus in order to protect consumers, the environment and the economy in times like these.”


Under-investment and under-funding from the government has allowed water companies to discharge too much raw sewage into our rivers and seas for years. Regulators are beginning to take a grip on the crisis by linking executive pay to performance and monitors being present on all storm overflows by the end of this year but it must hold water companies to account further through harsher penalties and prosecution.

Water firm executives should not be receiving substantial bonuses while their companies have missed performance targets and polluted the environment. It will take a collective effort to prevent lasting damage. 

The government needs to act fast on the key issues affecting the sector before the number of incidents get worse and the British public are left with rivers and beaches they can no longer enjoy.