Environment Bill: Government defeated on sewage, single-use products and pesticides

The House of Lords has passed a series of fresh amendments to the Environment Bill, covering areas including, sewage discharges into rivers, single-use products and protection for pollinators from pesticides, bringing government defeats in the upper house to 10.

Water quality upstream and downstream of sewage treatment works will have to be monitored. Photograph: Cityscape Digital/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images Water quality upstream and downstream of sewage treatment works will have to be monitored. Photograph: Cityscape Digital/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

The debate yesterday brought the tally of government defeats in the upper house to 10.

An amendment instructing the water industry to take “all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows” was passed by 184 votes to 147 yesterday, to the joy of water pollution campaigners. A statement from the Rivers Trust said it was “delighted” with the vote, noting that the amendment had secured 91,000 signatures from the public and was also backed by Surfers Against Sewage and the Angling Trust. 

Should the Commons accept it, it will require sewerage undertakers to “demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges”. Both DEFRA and the Environment Agency would also be obliged to “exercise their respective functions… to secure compliance with this duty”.

Lord Wellington, who introduced the amendment, said its purpose was to “try to eliminate, not simply reduce, the harm caused to the environment and individual and public health by the discharge of untreated sewage into rivers, and to ensure that the various agencies use their powers of enforcement”. It reflects the aim of an earlier private member’s bill from Philip Dunne, the chair of the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee.

“I do not underestimate the cost of modernising the sewerage network, and I understand that the government will have reservations about imposing a required investment on the water companies. However… it should be possible to find a formula that involves some modest grants, some long-term borrowing, reduced dividends and above-inflation increases in wastewater or sewerage charges to residential and commercial users,” Lord Wellington said.

The peer added that it also addresses the “considerable evidence that the Environment Agency and others are not prosecuting most of the discharges, even though many are apparently illegal”.

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Christine Colvin, director for partnerships and communications at the Rivers Trust, said the bill had been substantially strengthened, “by clearly placing a duty to ensure untreated sewage is no longer discharged. We know that it won’t happen overnight, but this sets an explicit ambition for government to accelerate investment from the water companies into solving this problem. Equally, it aims to ensure that government agencies will actually use their powers of enforcement. 400,000 discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows in 2020 give clear evidence that this isn’t the case currently.”

Lord Wellington withdrew a further amendment that struck at the root cause of the discharges: that rainwater and sewage are carried by the same system. It would have required them to be progressively separated “where possible”. He was persuaded to do so by environment minister Lord Goldsmith’s assurances that the government is taking action on the subject. Three government amendments were nodded through instead:

  • Sewerage undertakers to report when and where storm overflows occur, within an hour of them starting and ending.

  • Water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and wastewater treatment works to be monitored for dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, turbidity, ammonia and “anything else specified in regulations made by the secretary of state”.

  • The government to prepare a report on how to eliminate storm overflow discharges, and the costs and benefits of doing so, by September next year.

The first amendment to be debated was a one-liner from Labour’s environment frontbencher Baroness Maggie Jones and crossbencher Viscount Colville. It would broaden the bill’s clause 55 to enable regulations to be made to impose charges for all forms of single-use products. In contrast, as first proposed by the government in January last year (as clause 52), the provision would apply to plastic products alone.

“Our amendment would make it clear that a new charging regime should be for all single-use materials, not just plastic. It would ensure that single-use plastics are not simply replaced with other single-use materials that also cause environmental damage,” said Jones, adding that the “simple but important amendment… goes to the heart of the throwaway culture”. The change had been backed by the Aldersgate Group and the Green Alliance.

Switching from plastic to wood and paper, for example, risks adding to carbon emissions and adding to deforestation, she said.

Green peer Natalie Bennett compared the consequences of the existing clause, if left to stand, to the ‘dieselgate’ scandal, whereby an underlying failure of regulation was left to be exploited, “with severe deleterious effects on human and environmental health”.

But Baroness Neville-Rolfe, a former Conservative minister, said that “focusing on single use is not sensible” and that “this amendment goes too far”, reflecting how a single ‘bag for life’ needs to be used a great many times “to match the efficiency of the light single-use plastic bag. We also need to think about the consumer.”

Environment minister Lord Goldsmith spoke against the amendment, reminding the house that the government already has “extremely broad powers” to ban environmentally-harmful items under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. These have been exercised against plastic microbeads, straws, cotton buds and stirrers, with a consultation to follow shortly on extending a ban to single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene drink containers, he noted, adding that a £200 per tonne tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content will apply from April.

But the house was unswayed, approving the amendment by 203 votes to 167. Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary associate at Greener UK, described the outcome as “excellent news” that will help “tackle our throwaway society”.

Meanwhile, Labour’s Lord Larry Whitty raised his amendment to prohibit the application of agricultural and horticultural pesticides near homes and public and private buildings and open spaces, such as schools and hospitals. Left unwhipped, it fell by 52 to 174.

Baroness Joan Bakewell’s amendment, also on pesticides, fared rather better.

It aims “to fix a gap in the pesticide authorisation process which currently omits any assessment on the long-term effects of pesticides on honey bees and omits any assessment of the effects on wild pollinators,” she explained. It would prevent any pesticide product, active ingredient, safener or synergist from authorisation unless “no significant short-term negative effect, and no long-term negative effect” on the species is demonstrated, with a risk assessment drawn up and published by independent experts who are “free from vested interests in pesticide use”.

Goldsmith again defended the status quo, mentioning the government’s efforts to drive more environmentally sound farming practices and support “a shift towards greater use of integrated pest management techniques. That includes increasing the use of nature-based, low-toxicity solutions and precision technologies to manage pests, all of which will benefit pollinators.” He also noted that, “Current legislation requires that pesticide products and their active substances have ‘no unacceptable effects on the environment, having particular regard to … its impact on non-target species,’ which includes impacts on bees and other important pollinators.”

The amendment was passed by 189 votes to 177.

Other government amendments passed by the Lords yesterday, without division, include:

  • The net gain ‘biodiversity metric’ to be laid before parliament.

  • Government to issue guidance on the separation of waste.

  • Scottish Environment Protection Agency to impose civil sanctions relating to electronic waste tracking.

  • Guidance on littering enforcement to be laid before parliament or Senedd Cymru, as appropriate.

  • Charges for regulators’ waste producer responsibility functions.

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