Sewage: MPs welcome watchdog’s finding that DEFRA and regulators may have broken law

A committee of backbench MPs has welcomed the Office for Environmental Protection’s (OEP) finding that DEFRA and its regulators may have been too lax on sewage-spilling water companies as a sign that the new watchdog is working as parliament intended.

In June last year, the OEP, a post-Brexit green watchdog, launched an investigation into DEFRA, Ofwat and the Environment Agency (EA), after receiving a complaint from conservation group WildFish alleging the government and regulators had failed to comply with legal duties “relating to the monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ management of sewage”.

The OEP has now concluded that all three public authorities may have failed to comply with environmental laws, and has issued information notices to each of them setting out the details of those possible failures. Each body has two months to respond. 

READ MORE: DEFRA, EA and Ofwat may have broken ‘key points of law’ on sewage spills

Environmental Audit Committee chairman, Philip Dunne, said that “for some time” it has been clear that regulation and enforcement has been “failing our rivers and all those who use them”. 

He added that the OEP’s notice confirms the EAC’s January 2022 finding that there were "multiple potential points of failure in the regulatory arrangements for monitoring, governance and enforcement of water quality." 

Dunne said: “[The OEP] appears to have made a measured and thorough examination of a serious complaint of multiple regulatory failures.”

He added that the news shows the body is “working as parliament intended”. 

"We now look to all the regulators involved to assess the OEP's findings and reply constructively and responsibly,” he continued.  

Mike Clancy, general secretary of trade union Prospect, said: “Ever since the sewage crisis came to light the government has sought to wash their hands of any responsibility.”

He noted that since 2010, funding to the Environment Agency has been slashed in real terms, pay is 20% below what it was, and that “morale is at rock bottom”. 

Earlier this year ENDS published a series of articles uncovering how low pay and high turnover have created resourcing gaps across central DEFRA life and limb response teams. 

READ MORE - Revealed: ‘No completely staffed team’ in key DEFRA emergency response units

He continued: “If the government really wants to sterilise this as an issue it needs to stop passing the buck and put in place sufficient funding for the Environment Agency and others to do their jobs.”

Mark Lloyd, chief executive officer of the Rivers Trust, said: “Healthy rivers are fundamental to our social and economic health – we must protect them.

“For years we have been sharing evidence that our rivers were suffering long-term abuse and the OEP announcement today tells us that in relation to sewage pollution this may well have been the result of government and regulators failing to comply with the law.”

Lloyd highlighted that the news comes as the House of Lords is set to consider a controversial amendment to the Levelling Up Bill today that if taken forward will see  nutrient neutrality rules scrapped.  

"We urge members of the House of Lords to vote down these government amendments and for all parliamentarians to learn the lessons of past failures in water governance and get a grip of this vitally important issue”, he continued. 

READ MORE: ‘Slap in the face’: Natural England reeling after nutrient neutrality bombshell, insiders reveal

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “The volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable. That is why we are the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it, driving forward more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement - and it’s why we are introducing a legally binding target to reduce storm overflows.

“While we do not agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning over two decades, we will continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue.”

An EA spokesperson said: “We welcome this investigation from the Office for Environmental Protection and we share their ambition to drive improvements in water quality.

“We will always take action against companies that do not follow the rules or those that are deliberately obstructive. We have secured fines of over £150 million and are conducting our largest ever criminal investigation into potential permit non-compliance at sewage treatment works.” 

An Ofwat spokesperson said: “We welcome the OEP's considerations, particularly on the clarity of responsibilities for the protection of the environment and we will work with them as their investigation moves forward.

“Our position at Ofwat remains clear, water companies' performance on the environment is simply not good enough. We have pushed companies to take urgent action to cut sewage discharges, have imposed fines of £250m in the last few years alone and we are currently running our biggest ever investigation into six companies on how they manage sewage treatment works and sewage discharges.”