The OEP, the post-Brexit green watchdog that launched an investigation into DEFRA, Ofwat and the Environment Agency (EA) last year, has now concluded that all three public authorities may have failed to comply with environmental laws on regulating sewage overflows. It has issued information notices to each of them setting out the details of those possible failures. Each body has two months to respond.
Reed, who took up the shadow environment secretary brief earlier this month, yesterday tabled an urgent question to Coffey over the OEPs ruling.
He said: “Can the secretary of state tell us which ministers signed off what the OEP calls ‘a misinterpretation of the law’ to allow more frequent sewage discharges without risk of sanction?
“That is a government-sanctioned green light to pollute. Was it [Coffey]? What action will she now take to put an end to this appalling situation, bring the water companies to heel and clean up our waterways?
“Will she publish the correspondence between the OEP and her department if she has nothing to hide?”
Reed also accused the government of breaking “the entire regulatory system” and asked why the government is not committing to Labour’s plan to see “severe and automatic fines for every illegal discharge to pay for a tougher regulation and enforcement regime”.
He continued: “Finally, if the secretary of state’s department is found to have broken the law, will she do the right thing and resign?”
Responding to Reed, Coffey deflected the question, stating that Labour had done “sweet FA” on sewage pollution and the government is “cleaning it up now”, prompting an admonishment from the speaker who asked for more moderate language.
In terms of budgets for enforcement, she said that “the purpose of the permits, and of the fees that go with the permits, is to pay for those regular inspections” and noted that government funding for regulation was increased last year.
When asked about the OEP findings, while speaking at a Westminster Forum event today on the future of marine protection, chief executive of the watchdog Natalie Prosser said: “We put our concerns to the government. They have an absolute right to reply to those concerns.
“What’s most important for us at the OEP is that we support the protection and improvement of the environment. We have identified real pressures in inland waters, which also impacts onto our coast, around sewage discharges. And our ambition is to improve how those storm overflows are regulated.”