Water companies could avoid fines of up to £250 million for spilling sewage into rivers and seas, as Thérèse Coffey is reportedly backing away from plans.
The Environment Secretary wants to look at a “range of options” and is understood to believe that high penalties for polluters are “disproportionate”.
A consultation is due to be held on the changes to the penalty cap in the spring to provide an opportunity to water down the planned increase in fines, The Times reports.
However sources insist the £250 million proposal still remained on the table.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted he would welcome tougher fines for water companies and denied reports that the government is backing away from delivering higher penalties.
Sunak said: “That reporting is categorically not true, right. I want to… actually would welcome tougher fines for water companies and that is what we are putting place.
“Not only are we holding them to account for putting in place the largest investment in our water infrastructure in decades – £56 billion of investment that we are expecting the water companies to put in – we will hold them to account for their part in reducing the overflows, and there will be very significant fines for them if they don’t do their part in this.
“That is what the government is delivering and that’s what I’m committed to doing.”
The government announced plans last year to expand the use of the civil variable monetary payments (VMPs) that the Environment Agency can issue which means sanctions can be imposed more often without lengthy court cases.
Coffey’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) previously said water companies “must be held to account” for poor performance after record fines totalling £101 million were handed out in 2021.
Ranil Jayawardena, Coffey’s predecessor, had planned to increase the maximum fine from £250,000 to £250 million and said such high levels of pollution were “not on”.
But Coffey resisted the measure when she was deputy prime minister under Liz Truss and refused to back the tougher penalties, the Times reported.
However, the newspaper quoted allies of the Environment Secretary saying that she wants to “make sure that fines are proportionate and easy to enforce” and she will “look at the evidence with a fresh pair of eyes and do what is most effective”.
‘Shouldn’t let polluters off with a slap on the wrist’
Environmental group, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), said it is “time for the government to act and end sewage pollution, not take it easy on water companies”.
Izzy Ross, campaigns manager at SAS, told NationalWorld: “Current water company fines are a drop in the ocean, whilst bosses and shareholders swim in profits. Fines for polluting our waterways must impact the ways water companies run their business, otherwise they’re no deterrent at all.
“The Environment Secretary shouldn’t let polluters off with a slap on the wrist - you give these water companies an inch and they take a mile. Last year water companies paid out £965 million to shareholders, making the £101 million they were fined look like pocket change.”
She added: “It’s absolutely abhorrent that water companies are able to simply absorb the cost of fines whilst people and planet are forced to pay the price.”
‘We are making it easier for regulators to enforce fines’
Allies of Coffey insist she believes levels of pollution are “unacceptable” and companies should pay for breaking the law, the Times reports.
They argue she wants to bring “an open mind” to the best way to tackle sewage spills.
A Defra source told the PA news agency: “The £250 million fine option is definitely still on the table. The Environment Secretary is very clear that she wants to consult on that proposal, along with other options.
“Ultimately we have to make sure that regulators have the powers they need to hold water companies to account.”
A Defra spokesman added: “We are clear that water companies must be held to account for poor performance. That’s why we are making it easier for regulators to enforce fines and hold them to account.
“More detail on this will be set out in our consultation in the spring. Record fines of more than £102 million were handed out in 2021 following successful prosecutions.”