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Lords forces Government climbdown over dumping of sewage in seas and rivers

Peers have forced a climbdown by the Government over the dumping of raw sewage in rivers and the sea.

The House of Lords backed by 213 votes to 60, majority 153, a proposal to place a new legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sewage discharges.

This will enable the Environment Bill to be sent back to the Commons where the Government will table its own amendment.

It will put a legal duty on the utility firms to “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows”.

The concession came in the face of a further defeat in the House of Lords, amid a legislative tussle over the Bill, as the UK prepares to host the Cop26 global climate summit in Glasgow from October 31.

The Commons last week rejected a raft of changes made to the Bill by the upper chamber, including placing a new legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sewage discharges.

But peers were poised to again back the measure proposed by independent crossbencher the Duke of Wellington and so send it back to the elected house for MPs to think again as part of parliamentary ping-pong, where a piece of legislation moves between the two Houses until agreement can be reached.

Speaking in the Lords, Environment minister Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park said there was “rightly concern” at Westminster and among the public over the “unacceptable frequency with which sewage is discharged from storm overflows into our rivers, lakes and our seas”.

Pointing to a series of steps being taken to tackle the problem, he said claims the Government and its MPs supported the dumping of sewage into waterways was “factually incorrect”.

But having listened to concerns, he added: “I am absolutely delighted to confirm that the Government will bring forward an amendment in lieu in the Commons at the next stage.

“It will place a direct legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of storm overflows.”

While the Government could not accept the exact amendment proposed by the Duke of Wellington, the minister said: “I can absolutely assure members the Government’s amendment in lieu will deliver the same action, in reducing sewage discharges into our rivers.”

Lord Adonis (Isabel Infantes/PA)
Lord Adonis (Isabel Infantes/PA)

Earlier, he had singled out for strong criticism Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Adonis, who he accused of “spreading a malicious falsehood” in social media posts about the issue.

Lord Goldsmith said: “Over the course of dozens of tweets, he was trying to make his, let’s face it not always balanced Twitter followers, believe something about me and the Government that is simply not true and which he knows to be untrue.

“By suggesting we were making it easier for companies to pollute our waters he was spreading a grotesque inversion of the truth.”

Arguing it was because of the peer’s vehement opposition to Brexit, Lord Goldsmith added: “He may have been driven to distraction by Brexit but he is not a stupid person, he wants his words to have consequences.

“In this debate on sewage, he has absolutely covered himself in the stuff and so shame on him.”

The Duke of Wellington said: “It is unacceptable to allow the repeated and continuous discharge of sewers into rivers, lakes and coastal waters.”

He added: “It is surely it reasonable that water companies be obliged by law to show the regulators that they are taking all reasonable steps to prevent this revolting practice, which is not acceptable in a civilised society in the 21st century.

“Particularly in a country, which is hosting next week’s climate summit and which is trying to lead the world in high environmental standards.”

He was supported by Labour peer and former Navy chief Lord West of Spithead, who said: “I have sailed and swam in UK waters for six decades.

“I have constantly been appalled by the amount of raw sewage I have found in those waters and it has got worse.”

Earlier, peers had inflicted defeats on the Government in again demanding steps to ensure the independence of the new eco-watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

The Lords also backed moves to gives courts enhanced remedies for when a public authority has not complied with environmental law after a notice by the OEP.

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