Lords force government U-turn over dumping of raw sewage in rivers and sea

Surfers Against Sewage created this 3-meter-tall tap installation at Watergate Bay in Newquay in protest against polluters. Credit: PA

Peers have forced the government to U-turn over the dumping of raw sewage in rivers and the sea, the latest in a legislative tussle the Environment Bill as the UK prepares to host the Cop26 global climate summit in Glasgow from October 31.

The bill will be sent back to the Commons where the government will table its own amendment after the House of Lords, backed a majority of 153, a proposal to place a new legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sewage discharges.

The concession comes after Downing Street defended Tory MPs who rejected the plan, saying the amendment they were voting had not had its exact costs calculated.

Earlier, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government "completely agrees" that it is unacceptable for water companies to dump raw sewage in the country's rivers, but claimed the bill already contained provisions to punish polluters.

He said the amendment's intention to put a legal duty on water companies to stop raw sewage from being poured into waterways, is "already being delivered".

Environmental campaigners, including Surfers Against Sewage, said they were disappointed that 268 MPs - against 204 - disagreed with proposals to amend the bill.

The vote's result sparked a furore on social media, with furious users accusing the government of allowing river pollution to continue.

In response to the outrage, the government said it would "bolster the present raft of measures" to ensure there are "more protections against water pollution".

On the Commons vote, the PM's spokesman said: "We completely agree that the current failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is unacceptable."

The spokesman added that the amendment put forward by Tory peer the Duke of Wellington "remains un-costed", but "the initial assessments are over £150 billion and that would mean that individuals - every one of us as taxpayers - paying potentially thousands of pounds each as a result."

Downing Street said that, as a result, "it's not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers without understanding the trade-offs and the bills that would be involved".

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

Back to top

What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

Back to top

MPs who voted against the amendment came under fire from campaigners and Defra, which said it was unacceptable that raw sewage was put into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times in the last year.

The Shadow Defra secretary, Luke Pollard, said: "People are right to be upset at the dreadful state of England's rivers. Not one English river is in a healthy condition and there has been zero improvement since 2016.

"The government is to blame for allowing water companies to vent raw sewage into our rivers and sea seemingly at will."