Conservative MPs defended themselves against accusations that they gave the green light to water companies to dump raw sewage into rivers.
A proposal by the Lords al Environmental invoice which allegedly imposed legal obligations on companies to reduce discharges was defeated by the votes of 265 MPs against 202 last week.
MPs say safeguards already exist and new measures would cost billions.
Critics say the UK is “lecturing” to the world while its rivers are polluted.
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On Wednesday, 265 MPs voted with the government to reject an attempt by the House of Lords to strengthen the approach to sewage discharge, while 22 Conservative MPs rebelled and voted against the government.
The move sparked an uproar on social media.
Peers had tabled an amendment to the environmental law that would have forced water companies and the government to demonstrate progressive reductions in untreated sewage discharges and required them to “take all reasonable steps” to avoid the use of combined sewer overflows. .
But ministers said the changes were unnecessary because the guarantees are already contained in the bill.
‘Every polluted river’
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today program, former singer Fergal Sharkey, who is now campaigning to clean up the nation’s waterways, said it was a “shame.”
“We are lecturing to the rest of the planet on climate change, but the reality is that there is not a single river in England that does overall good environmental health,” he said.
He said “every single river” in England is polluted and “one of the main causes is the water industry discharging its wastewater.”
He added: “The truth is that what we are looking at is the result of massive underinvestment in infrastructure over the past 30 years and a complete failure of supervision and regulation of the sector by Ofwat, the environmental agency and of the government itself. “
He said ministers were “reluctant and unable” to deal with the situation.
Conservative Huw Merriman, who voted against the government and for the amendment, said “what the government proposed was not enough” and hoped ministers were “persuaded” that it was the right way to go.
He said: “Having the sewage discharged along the roads, when there is too much rain, into the sea” is “absolutely shocking.”
“It means more investment. This could ultimately mean more expensive bills, but we are talking about decades of investment and it has to happen,” he said.
Unfair to taxpayers
But her conservative colleague, Julie Marson, who voted against the amendment, said “there is a lot of misinformation going around” on the issue and while the proposal itself was “good”, her “fundamental flaw” was that “it didn’t. he had a plan as to how this can be delivered and no impact assessment whatsoever. “
He wrote: ‘The preliminary cost of the required infrastructure change was estimated at between £ 150 billion and £ 650 billion.
“If we did not ask taxpayers to contribute, most of the water companies that would have done this work would have gone bankrupt, which means that the work could not be completed anyway.
“The cost is between around £ 5,000 and £ 20,000 per family.
“I felt it would be unfair to prick the locals with a bill of this size.”
He said existing legislation has already imposed a new obligation on water companies to continuously monitor water quality upstream and downstream of a storm surge and wastewater disposal works.
Another conservative, Fay Jones, tweeted that the criticism of MPs was “deeply misleading”.
He wrote: “Ignore the huge flaw in the amendment (that is, forcing taxpayers to pay up to £ 600 billion to dig up the Victorian sewer system) and the work the government is already doing to reduce storm drains.”
And the Conservative, John Howell, said in a statement that he voted against the amendment because it “needs to be realistic” given the age of sewer systems and the potential for disruption of homes and businesses.
The allegation that he voted to allow water companies to pump raw sewage into rivers “is far from the truth,” he said.
“It would be equally fair to say that Liberal Democrats and Labor MPs voted to pump raw sewage into your home as solving the problem with their half-drains proposal would require reconstruction of the sewer system and could cost up to £ 600 billion. and it will take many years, “he added.
Scale of the problem
Water companies dumped raw sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times last year, according to figures released by the Environment Agency.
Untreated effluents, including human waste, wet wipes, and condoms, were released into waterways for more than three million hours in 2020.
The Environment Agency allows water services to release wastewater into rivers and streams after extreme weather events such as prolonged heavy rain.
This protects properties from flooding and prevents wastewater from returning to the streets and homes.
The agency says the overflows “are not a sign that the system is faulty” and that they are “a necessary part of the existing sewer system”.
A government spokesman said the amount of wastewater discharged by water companies into rivers “is not acceptable”.
The spokesperson added: “We have made it clear to water companies that they need to significantly reduce wastewater discharges from storm overflows as a priority.
“If we do not begin to see significant improvements, we will not hesitate to act through the new measures directly on water companies in the Environment Bill.
“We have provided over £ 3 billion of investment to tackle pollution in rivers and we expect to see results.”
The environment bill will return to the Lords on Tuesday, where colleagues are expected to reintroduce the measures before it returns to the House of Commons later this week.
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