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'Clean up the filth!': Labour wants to block bonuses for water firm bosses over sewage dumping

Companies that spew sewage into the UK’s waterways should not be allowed to pay their bosses bonuses, Labour has urged

sewage discharges have been recorded in the Lake District

The Lake District received thousands of hours of sewage discharges last year. Credit: Sam Barber on Unsplash

Companies that spew sewage into the UK’s waterways should not be allowed to pay bonuses to their bosses, Labour have urged.

Thousands of Brits became ill after swimming in polluted water last year, after water firms pumped raw sewage into rivers and the sea more than 300,000 times.

Yet the chief executives of five of 11 major water companies took bonuses in the 2022-23 financial year. Public outrage forced the other six to decline the eyewatering reward payments.

A Labour motion tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday (5 December) would give Ofwat the power to veto bonuses at polluting firms. It will put the industry on its toes, shadow environment secretary Steve Reed explained.

“Water bosses who continue to oversee law-breaking on the scale now becoming apparent will face criminal charges, and we will give the water regulator powers to block payment of any bonuses until water bosses have cleaned up their filth,” he said.

The motion comes one day after a Liberal Democrat motion to offer compensation to victims of sewage pollution was defeated in parliament. The party’s environment spokesperson Tim Farron intends to reintroduce the proposal via a Private Member’s Bill.

“Conservative MPs have yet again voted to let water companies off the hook by blocking our call for a sewage sickness compensation scheme,” he said.

“Water company CEOs are pocketing millions in bonuses while swimmers get sick. This cannot carry on,” he said. “If someone is poisoned by sewage, they should be compensated for it.”

Why are Britain’s waterways so polluted?

In the year up to October, 1,924 people reported getting ill after entering the water across the UK. Some 60% of these reports came after dips in “excellent”- rated bathing waters.

These damning figures ­– revealed in a report by campaign organisation Surfers against Sewage – are the ‘tip of the iceberg’, as they only include illness reported to SAS.

So why are Britain’s waters so polluted? Our Victorian-era plumbing infrastructure is not equipped to deal with a growing population, so the Environmental Agency allows water companies to release overflow after heavy rains. As a result, Britain’s lakes, rivers and seas are regularly swamped with excrement and chemical effluent, threatening the health of water users.

Naomi Jenkin, a 37-year-old artist from Newquay, contracted a parasite called cryptosporidium after surfing near Newquay.

“I’d been surfing a lot at a few different beaches, and then one of the days I started getting really awful stomach cramps,” she said.

“I ended up having to crawl into bed. I was shivering, I was burning up, I had horrendous stomach cramps. I was doubled up in pain. That manifested over the course of three weeks.”

Worse still, companies have been known for ‘dry spills’ – illegal discharges that occur when no heavy rain has fallen.

Thames, Wessex and Southern Water appear to have collectively released sewage in dry spills for 3,500 hours in 2022. On Monday (4 December), a BBC Panorama investigation suggested that north-west water firm United Utilities misreported its sewage pollution, wrongly downgrading more than 60 incidents to the lowest pollution level. The company – which denies the allegations – received a £5m bonus for meeting environmental targets.

Henry Swithinbank, policy and advocacy manager at SAS, described pollution’s impacts on people’s health as “truly shocking”.

“It’s imperative that water companies right the wrongs they’ve inflicted on the public but the heart of the issue is that people just want to be able to surf, swim, paddle, and walk their dogs without fear of getting ill,” he said.

“For us, this means a laser focus on water companies investing money to tackle the issue at its core.”

Why do water companies give their bosses bonuses?

Ofwat already plans to tighten its rules around bonuses from next year, blocking customer money from being used for “inappropriate” executive pay-outs.

The government welcomed this change while pointing out that the bonuses paid this year all came from shareholder, not customer, funds.

“For 2022-23, no water company bosses in England are paying a CEO bonus out of customer money, and many CEOs have decided to take no bonus,” they said.

“The volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is utterly unacceptable and that’s why our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle pollution and clean up our water.”

Farron described the current rules as “the water companies marking their own homework”.

“I think there is a real anger [among the public],” he added. “And yes, I think people do blame the current government for its failure to act.”

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