Sewage dumping UK: new targets introduced for companies but MPs reject Labour’s attempt to end practice

Environment secretary Therese Coffey introduced the new measure but MPs voted against Labour's call to end sewage dumping altogether

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New legally-binding sewage dumping targets will be introduced for companies across the UK, Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey has confirmed.

MPs in the House of Commons debated legislation on Tuesday (25 April). Labour had tried to force a vote on a motion to ban the controversial practice altogether, however due to a Parliamentary technicality, the Conservatives were able to put forward an amendment to that which introduced the sewage dumping targets. This - slightly complicatedly - led to Labour abstaining on their own motion.

Coffey said: “Today, we are announcing plans to enshrine the plan further in law. Through the Environment Act 2021, we will legislate for a clear target on storm overflow reduction in line with our plan.

“A clear, credible and costed legally binding target will add to our transparent and determined approach to solve this issue, whilst keeping consumer bills low. This will also be backed by existing separate interim targets for bathing waters and our most precious habitats.”

It comes after analysis from Labour of Environment Agency statistics suggesting that sewage was being dumped on every two-and-a-half minutes on average since 2016. A NationalWorld investigation also revealed Tory constituencies had raw sewage dumped in rivers and seas more than 96,000 times last year - almost five times greater than in Labour-held areas.

If Labour were to be voted into government in the next election, McMahon said the party planned to end the "Tory sewage scandal", by delivering mandatory monitoring on all sewage outlets, introducing automatic fines for discharges, setting ambitious targets for stopping systematic sewage dumping and ensuring that water bosses are held to account for negligence. The party said the Bill represents its plan to end sewage dumping by 2030.

But Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey defended government’s record on regulation, and previously claimed Labour’s Bill was “ill-considered”.

“Labour have turned a blind eye to raw sewage being dumped almost twice as often in Wales where they are actually in government,” she said. “They’ve turned Welsh waters into open sewers whilst playing politics in England. It’s clear they haven’t even read the Government’s plan.

“It was a Conservative government that introduced 100% monitoring of storm overflows," she continued. “We’ve brought forward stronger regulations, tougher enforcement and the largest water infrastructure programme in history – an expected £56 billion investment – and we will make fines unlimited so that the polluter always pays.”

Coffey added: "This Government has already taken action … We already have a target for reduction in sewage discharges which we will put into law, we’ve already consulted to remove caps on financial penalties and we’ve already undertaken an assessment of sewage discharges – but unlike the Opposition we have a credible, costed plan to stop the scourge of sewage.”

The Environment Secretary announced earlier this month that ministers wanted to lift a cap of £250,000 for penalties for firms that release sewage. She also wanted the Environment Agency (EA) to be able to impose sanctions without going through the courts although it is still expected that serious cases will go through criminal proceedings.

The introduction of legally-binding targets have been welcomed by environmental charities, but the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which represents 70 organisations including Greenpeace and the Wildlife Trust, warned that more action was needed. Richard Benwell, chief executive, said: “Legally binding targets to cut sewage pollution are welcome, but matching the Government’s storm overflows plan would allow sewage to pour into sensitive wildlife sites for another 20 years or more.

“That’s terrible for globally important habitats like England’s chalk streams, and for vulnerable wildlife. When they’re set in law, the targets must be much faster, in line with the commitment to halt the decline of nature by 2030.”