E-petition 582336, Ban Water Companies discharging raw sewage into water courses, received 111,434 signatures before closing on 12 October 2021. The petition calls for Government to:

Ensure Water companies treat the sewage they are responsible for. Not discharge it into rivers and water courses. After all what goes into the ocean comes back as the fish we eat.

This should be illegal!

The petition will be debated in Westminster Hall on Monday 15 November 2021 at 6:00 pm.

The petition relates to the level of permitted sewage overflows into rivers. This has been an issue of increasing concern in recent years and the subject of multiple amendments by MPs and Peers as the Environment Bill has progressed through Parliament.

Government response

On 5 May 2021, the Government issued a response to the petition which outlined why raw sewage discharges occur and the current regulatory regime. It also presented measures the Government was taking to address the problem of raw sewage being discharged by water companies as a result of storm overflows. The Government stated:

Tackling the harm caused by sewage is a top priority for Government. That is why we have established the Storm Overflows Taskforce and have announced plans for legislation to address this problem.

The response highlighted a Government announcement from 29 March 2021 which presented further legal measures to reduce harm from storm overflows. The announcement stated that:

Three key duties will be made law:

  • A duty on Government to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and to reduce their impact;

  • A duty on Government to report to Parliament on progress on implementing the plan;

  • A duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.

The announcement also outlined that the Government would work with Philip Dunne, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, who had presented the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill to Parliament in 2020. This Private Members Bill set out a series of measures for tackling storm overflows but made no further progress.

A Commons Library briefing on the Sewage (Inlands Waters) Bill contains further information on the Bill. This briefing also provides background to the regulatory framework for sewage treatment and information on the causes and extent of storm overflows.

The Government response to the petition can be viewed in full here.

Environment Act 2021

On 9 November 2021, the Environment Bill completed its Parliamentary stages and became the Environment Act 2021.

The final consideration of the Bill saw a series of debates take place on amendments relating to the laws around sewage discharges. The final details of the Act are available to view online. The Government press releases listed below provide further details on the nature of these debates and media coverage.

On the final day of the Bill’s passage through Parliament Government amendments 45C and 45D were added to the Bill. These amendments require water companies (sewerage undertakers) to secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows. This was agreed without division.

During the final debate, the Minister Lord Goldsmith, outlined how the amendments would place a new legal duty on water companies:

The frequency with which sewage is discharged from storm overflows into our waters is of course absolutely unacceptable. I want to be clear with the House that there have been some factually incorrect claims online that the Government are somehow through this Bill legalising sewage dumping; that is not only not true but very clearly the opposite of the truth. Claims to that effect are factually inaccurate and undermine the integrity of this debate.

I am pleased to confirm that our new amendment says that water companies

“must secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges”

from their storm overflows. The word “must” means that we are placing a direct legal duty upon water companies to do this. Water companies face a choice: reduce sewage discharges or face the consequences of strong enforcement action.

The full transcript of the final debate can be viewed here.

On 10 November 2021, The Guardian published an article titled ‘Campaigners celebrate new UK environment law but vow to fight on‘ after the Bill received Royal Assent. Further reaction is also available from BBC News.

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