Environment

Tory MPs vote to allow water firms to carry on dumping sewage in rivers

MPs rejected several amendments to the Environment Bill which would have reduced river and air pollution and protected bees.

The River Derwent. Tory MPs voted down amendments to stop water companies dumping sewage in rivers and seas. Photo: © Malcolm Coils (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The government wants 75% of England's rivers to be classed as "good" by 2027. Photo: © Malcolm Coils (cc-by-sa/2.0)

With just 11 days to go until Britain hosts COP26, the world’s biggest climate conference, MPs have voted against eight policies designed to protect the environment.

Members rejected eight amendments to the Environment Bill put forward by the House of Lords, including measures to stop sewage being dumped into rivers, protection for bees and tougher air pollution targets. 

The majority of amendments were voted down on the instruction of Environment Secretary George Eustice, according to reports in the Guardian.

MPs did agree to an amendment proposing charges on single-use items made of any material, much like the charges now levied on plastic bags. 

Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage said it was “astonishing that the government is opting out of amendments designed to better protect the planet and all its precious inhabitants”.

These are the five key environmental protections MPs voted down – and the reasons they gave for rejecting them. 

Air pollution 

In March 2021, the UK was found guilty by the European Court of Justice of “systematically and persistently” breaching air pollution limits.

This followed the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in London, the first death to be directly attributed to air pollution in the UK. 

The House of Lords introduced an amendment into the Environment Bill to bring air pollution limits in line with World Health Organisation guidance. 

It suggested the limit would have to be met by 2030 at the latest.

The Commons voted the amendment down, saying that government powers “should not be limited in the manner proposed”. 

Protecting pollinators 

Peers also introduced protections for pollinators like bees from pesticides. 

The amendment included introducing a “competent authority” to oversee pesticide products, with the body consisting of  “individuals free from vested interests in pesticide use”.

This authority would oversee authorisation of pesticides, producing reports on their potential negative impacts and banning any which would be damaging to pollinators.

The house voted the amendment down, saying that “the law already makes provision to protect pollinators from the effect of pesticides.”

Sewage in rivers 

Last year, every river in England failed a test for pollution, with just 14 per cent deemed in “good ecological condition”. 

Sewage discharges by water companies are partly to blame, with more than 400,000 incidents recorded in 2020 alone. 

Following an outcry from clean river campaigners, the Lords introduced an amendment in the bill imposing a duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”.

The amendment was rejected, but no reason was given. 

An independent environment watchdog 

A watchdog named the Office for Environmental Protection is proposed in the Environment Bill to monitor progress on improvements.

Peers added an amendment to guarantee the body would be independent, but this was voted down by MPs.

There was no reason given for doing this.

Meeting targets on environmental protection 

The Environment Bill contains clauses compelling the secretary of state to meet long-term targets on protecting the environment.

“Long term” is defined as no less than 15 years.

The Lords suggested an amendment compelling the environment secretary to meet “interim targets”, but this was rejected by MPs.

The reason given was that “the Secretary of State should not be placed under a statutory duty to meet interim targets.”

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The bill will now be returned to the House of Lords where amendments made by the House of Commons will be considered. 

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday on the government’s passing of the single-use items amendment, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

“This charge will help us to future-proof the Bill and protect the environment for generations to come by providing a powerful tool to incentivise the right shifts towards more reusable alternatives to single-use items and towards a circular economy.

“We want to take this opportunity to strengthen our hand and encourage citizens to reduce, recycle and reuse.”

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