Last night, 22 Conservative MPs, including nine ex-ministers and six current select committee chairmen, rebelled against the Government by voting for an amendment to the Environment Bill. It proposes to introduce a legal duty on water companies not to pump sewage into rivers. The measure – which was passed in the Commons by 268 votes to 204 votes – is expected to be returned to Commons next week by the House of Lords.
It means that Mr Johnson could face embarrassment on Thursday, on the evening before he heads to Glasgow for the COP26 conference.
Last year, Philip Dunne MP proposed a Private Members Bill aimed at cleaning up Britain’s waterways, including proposals such as the mandatory monitoring of sewage pollution, which were then taken forward by the Government.
He told The Telegraph: “I was pleased that the Government has taken so much from my Private Members’ Bill and hope that we can find a way forward to go one step further on the back of the votes last night.”
The amendment sought to “place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters”.
They were introduced in the House of Lords by Charles Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington to place a duty on water companies and the Government to “take all reasonable steps” to avoid using the combined sewer overflows
He hoped it would stimulate investment in improving the systems, which date back decades and are in severe need of upgrades as they can no longer cope with the volume of sewage and water that they need to process.
In 2020, raw sewage was discharged into waters more than 400,000 times.
And data posted publicly by Southern Water showed heavy rain this week has led to untreated sewage being released around the south coast.
An Environment Department source said: “We are already taking huge steps through the Environment Bill to address the harm caused by storm overflows.
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And progress in this area is said to be slow, as this figure has not changed since 2009.
But UK targets are still ambitious, with the Government aiming to get three-quarters of all rivers to this standard by 2027.
Christine McGourty, chief executive of Water UK said that a radical transformation in dealing with rivers is needed to make achieving this target possible.
She said: “Rivers have been in a state of crisis for much of the last hundred years, and though there’s been huge progress in the last few decades, there’s much more to do.
“So we’re asking the Government to bring forward legislation in a new rivers act that will provide greater protection for them in law.”
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