Tory ministers have been plunged into a furious row over the dumping of raw sewage into England’s rivers and coastal waters.
Thousands reacted with fury after 265 Tory MPs voted to water down an amendment on the issue in Parliament last week.
The government’s decision was opposed by environmental campaigners, critics on social media and 22 Tory rebels.
The stink grew when huge numbers of people shared Twitter messages shaming their local MP, saying they “voted to allow raw sewage to be dumped in our rivers” and accusing the government of “hypocrisy”.
But the government has mounted a furious fightback, saying it is “disingenuous and untrue” to suggest MPs have backed dumping human waste into our rivers. Some MPs have slammed critics highlighting the vote for continuing a culture of social media “abuse”.
Ministers say it would cost up to £660billion to upgrade England’s Victorian sewer system to stop all storm overflows overnight.
And they insist the Environment Bill already contains a string of measures to cut down sewage dumping – though not eliminate it completely.
So what’s the truth? We look into exactly what the vote was and why there’s such a row. Plus see how your MP voted in our interactive widget below.
What is the issue – and is Brexit to blame?
Human waste can be pumped out of the sewage system and into rivers or the sea through release valves called ‘combined sewer overflows’.
Sewage leaves these valves when there is heavy rainfall – to stop disgusting effluent backing up into people’s homes.
But raw sewage was discharged into rivers and coastal waters more than 400,000 times in England last year, according to Environment Agency data.
Campaigners say that is far too much and it’s essentially becoming routine to save money.
This issue was then made worse in September, when the government let firms dump more waste than usual due to a shortage of treatment chemicals.
That shortage, of course, is due to a lack of UK lorry drivers – which has been blamed on both Covid and Brexit.
The notice was specifically addressed to sewage companies that could not get chemicals due to “the UK’s new relationship with the EU” or Covid.
Firms were told the Environment Agency would not take enforcement action in certain cases if they discharged human waste in breach of a permit.
What was the amendment?
The House of Lords passed a three-and-a-half page amendment to the Environment Bill, ordering stronger action against firms that discharge sewage into waterways in England.
Among other things, ‘Amendment 45’ – tabled by the Duke of Wellington – forces ministers to make a plan for cutting the number, frequency and length of “storm overflow discharges”.
That plan must be published before September 2022, and then the Environment Secretary must give a “progress report” to Parliament after three years.
The amendment also forces sewage firms and the Environment Agency to publish annual reports teeming with details about storm overflows each year.
What happened to the amendment?
The vast majority of the amendment – including all the things we just listed above – passed.
But the Tory government ordered MPs to strip out seven crucial lines from the Duke of Wellington’s amendment before passing it.
Those seven lines would have placed a legal duty on sewage firms to “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”.
This would have forced the government to take action against those failing in this duty.
Sewage firms would have also had to “demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems”.
MPs voted 268-204 to pass most of the Duke of Wellington’s Amendment 45, but with those seven crucial lines deleted.
Some 202 MPs, including 22 Tory rebels, voted against watering down Amendment 45.
What does the government say?
After a furious social media campaign, the Environment Department (Defra) issued a blog running to more than 1,000 words defending its actions.
It comes down to two points – one, the government is already tackling sewage dumping; but two, ending it completely is “extremely challenging”.
First, Defra insisted: “We have every confidence that the provisions in this Bill will absolutely deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is both disingenuous and untrue.”
The government pointed to a £90m fine to Southern Water and the bits of the Duke’s “well-intentioned” amendment that it did accept.
There will be new duties in the Bill on water firms to publish annual data, real-time information, and produce a 25-year plan.
Second, Minister Rebecca Pow said upgrading England’s Victorian sewers to prevent all discharges would cost “between £150billion and £660billion.”
Tory MP Robert Courts said £150bn alone would be “more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together”
Defra’s blog said: “Customer bill increases and trade-offs against other water industry priorities would be unavoidable which is why we will be publishing a report looking specifically at these trade-offs.”
Tory MP Craig Williams said there was a “huge amount of hyperbole and disinformation” about the vote.
He warned if all storm overflows were banned overnight, the only alternative would be “flooding in our streets and home with sewage instead, which would then end up in the river.”
What do critics say?
Surfers Against Sewage said the other Environment Bill measures were “good” but “what we really, really needed from this Bill was some clear and tangible action to End Sewage Pollution – we simply don’t have this yet.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas accused ministers of taking “the teeth out” of the Lords amendment.
And Labour ’s Tan Dhesi said there was one thing conspicuously missing from the Bill – any kind of time frame to end sewage dumping completely.
Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard added: “That seems a simple question, and our constituents want to know the answer.”
Tory rebel Bernard Jenkin agreed: “The question ‘when?’ is the right one.”
Fellow Tory rebel Philip Dunne said “I did not come into politics to stand up and talk about crap”, but said he was now an “expert on dealing with human effluent”.
He warned: “The water management plans are a good idea, but they do not have statutory force and could be changed.”
UK PARLIAMENT/AFP via Getty Imag)
How did MPs vote on the amendment?
MPs voted 265-202 to pass a watered-down version of Lords Amendment 45 with the crucial seven lines deleted.
Of the 265 who voted for the tweaked amendment, all were Tories.
From the 202 who voted against, 22 were Tory rebels, 160 were from Labour, 10 were from the Lib Dems and the rest independent or smaller parties.
The SNP did not vote as the law only applies to England.
Many MPs did not vote either way, a sign that on a busy Wednesday, they did not anticipate Lords Amendment 45 would blow up into a public row.
For example, 70 Tory MPs either deliberately abstained or were absent for the vote. They include senior government ministers Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Alok Sharma and Nadhim Zahawi.
And 38 Labour MPs did not vote either way, either because they deliberately abstained or due to absence for another reason. They include shadow cabinet ministers Angela Rayner and Jonathan Ashworth.
Commons records do not list why someone did not vote and it can be due to illness.
Who were the 22 Tory rebels?
Some 22 Tory MPs rebelled and voted against the stripped-down version of the amendment. This means they opposed the government, and indicates they wanted the stronger protections originally laid out in Amendment 45:
- Siobhan Baillie
- John Baron
- Peter Bottomley
- Greg Clark
- Tracey Crouch
- Philip Davies
- David Davis
- Philip Dunne
- Oliver Heald
- Gordon Henderson
- Simon Hoare
- Bernard Jenkin
- Robert Largan
- Jonathan Lord
- Tim Loughton
- Craig Mackinlay
- Esther McVey
- Huw Merriman
- Caroline Nokes
- Matthew Offord
- Derek Thomas
- Kelly Tolhurst