Ministers forced into climbdown in row over raw sewage being dumped into rivers

Environment Secretary George Eustice said a new legal duty would be imposed on water companies to “progressively reduce” the amount of sewage pumped into waterways – as Tories sought to avoid a Lords defeat

An activist poses with a toilet outside the gates of Downing Street

Ministers have been forced into a climbdown in a row over levels of raw sewage being dumped into rivers and seas.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said a new legal duty would be imposed on water companies to “progressively reduce” the amount of sewage pumped into waterways from storm overflows.

In a last-minute bid to avert a defeat in the House of Lords, Mr Eustice said a new amendment would be added to the Environment Bill when it returns to the Commons to enshrine this into law.

Peers are still expected to vote on a bid by the Duke of Wellington on Tuesday night to compel firms to improve their sewage systems “as soon as reasonable” – which the Government was expected to lose.

Tories have been left scrambling after a furious public outcry when MPs resisted adopting the crossbench peer’s amendment to force firms to clean up their act – against the wishes of Labour, the Lib Dems and 22 Tory rebels.

The Mirror’s Nada Farhoud visits Southwick beach in East Sussex, which is one of hundreds of sites used to dump raw sewage into the sea


Adam Gerrard / Daily Mirror)

Untreated sewage was pumped into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times in the last year, according to the Environment Agency.

Ministers had argued that it would cost up to £660billion to upgrade the Victorian sewage system to stop all storm overflows overnight – and claimed that the bill contained measures to cut down on sewage dumping.

Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard said: “It should not have taken a public outcry for this government to take the scandal of raw sewage being discharged into our rivers seriously.

“Having spent the past few days defending their position, this screeching u-turn will do little to convince the public that the health of our rivers, rather than the health of Conservative polling, is at the forefront of ministers’ minds.

“The Government still has no clear plan and no grip on the issue of raw sewage being pumped into our seas and rivers.”

Announcing the plan, Mr Eustice said: “Earlier this summer, the Government published a new strategy for Ofwat mandating them to progressively reduce the discharge of sewage from storm overflows in the next pricing review.

“Following a debate in the House of Commons last week during the final stages of the Environment Bill, today we are announcing that we will put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause.”

Meanwhile, peers defeated a Labour bid to make soil quality a priority area for environmental improvement and a fresh attempt to secure tough legal limits on pollutants following the death of a schoolgirl who was exposed to toxic air.

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