Speaking in the House of Commons on 8 September, environment secretary Ranil Jayawardena took questions from MPs during a debate about action being taken to stop sewage spills into rivers and beaches around the country.
Opening the debate, Jayawardena said: “The volume of sewage spewed out by water companies is completely unacceptable, and the public have rightly shown their outrage.
“Yesterday, on my first day in office, I told water chief executives that it is not good enough, and I have instructed them to write to me formally by 21 September with a plan for how they will make significant improvements.”
Earlier this year, the government published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan which said that water companies will be required to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites by 2035.
Jayawardena said that he had also met with the Environment Agency and Ofwat, instructing them to “use every enforcement power available to them” to make sure that there is compliance.
“I will not hesitate to take further action if I do not see the pace of change that this House expects,” he said.
During the debate, the Labour shadow DEFRA secretary, Jim McHanon, suggested that Jayawardena’s instruction to water companies to produce improvement plans was insufficient: “We hear that the secretary of state is satisfied by a telephone call with water bosses, but does he not realise that they are laughing at him? They are laughing at Ofwat, laughing at the Environment Agency, laughing at the country, and laughing all the way to the bank.”
He added that without tougher penalties “to ensure that there is a bottom line”, water companies would “not change their behaviour”.
Asked if he thought water companies should face tougher sanctions including prison sentences, Jayawardena accused McHanon of “playing politics”.
“First, the water companies are reporting back in two weeks, and secondly we have legislated to issue unlimited fines through a criminal process, and we will not hesitate to do more,” he said.
During the debate, Jayawardena also took aim at Liberal Democrat policy proposals to tackle the sewage scandal, saying: “I would observe that the Liberal Democrats’ plan is simply to play politics with this serious issue… Sadly - and this is the serious point - what they are calling for in their leaflets is for sewage to flow back into people’s homes, because that is the consequence of what they are proposing.”
He did not specify which proposal he was referring to, but the Liberal Democrats’ policy on ending sewage discharges can be read here.
“Although storm overflows should not be used, they are a safety valve. They stop the flooding of raw sewage back into people’s homes - that is what the Liberal Democrats are promising,” said Jayawardena.