Furore erupts over MPs voting to dump raw sewage into seas and rivers - but what is the Environment Bill and who voted against it?

·5-min read
Outfall: the sewage discharge point at Vauxhall Bridge (Thames Tideway Tunnel )
Outfall: the sewage discharge point at Vauxhall Bridge (Thames Tideway Tunnel )

MPs have complained of online abuse after Conservatives voted against a bill which would crack down on water companies pumping raw sewage into the UK’s rivers and seas.

A proposal from the Lords to the Environment Bill which would have placed legal restrictions on companies to reduce discharges was defeated by 265 MPs’ votes to 202 last week.

Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times last year and for more than three million hours, according to figures published by the Environment Agency.

What is the Environment Bill?

A Government press release states the Environment Bill “will clean up the country’s air, restore natural habitats and increase biodiversity”.

It added: “The bill will also outline how the government will reduce waste, make better use of resources, and improve management of water resources in a changing climate.

“The bill will crack down on water companies that discharge sewage into rivers and will include a world-leading legally-binding species target for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature and to protect beloved British animals, such as red squirrels and hedgehogs.”

Under the bill, a watchdog the Office for Environmental Protection would be set up to track progress on improving the environment.

Why did MPs vote to amend the Environment Bill and why did they vote against Amendment 45?

Environment minister George Eustice instructed his MPs to vote against the amendment but 22 Conservative MPs rebelled against the government.

The MPs said safeguards already exist and any new measures would cost billions.

John Howell said in a statement he voted against the amendment because “it is necessary to be realistic” given the often Victorian age sewer systems and the potential disruption to homes and businesses.

The accusation he voted to allow water companies to pump raw sewage into rivers “is far from the truth”, he said.

“It would be just as fair to say that Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs voted to pump raw sewage into your home given that resolving the problem by their half-baked proposal of sewage discharges would require rebuilding the sewage system and could cost up to £600bn and take many years.”

Who voted for it and who voted against the amendment?

Evolve Politics assembled a complete list of MPs who voted on the bill both ways.

Conservative Huw Merriman, among 22 Conservative MPs who rebelled and voted against the government, said “what was being proposed by the government wasn’t enough”.

He expressed hopes ministers would “be persuaded” it was the right way to go.

He said “to have sewage being discharged down streets, when there is too much rain, into the sea” is “just absolutely shocking”.

“It does mean more investment. That may ultimately mean more expensive bills, but we’re talking about decades of investment and it’s got to happen,” he said.

Fellow Tory, Julie Marson, who voted against the amendment, said “there is a lot of misinformation floating about” on the issue and while the proposal itself was “sound”, its “fundamental flaw” was that it “had no plan as to how this can be delivered and no impact assessment whatsoever”.

She wrote: “The preliminary cost of the required infrastructure change was estimated to be between £150bn and £650bn.

“Unless we asked taxpayers to contribute, most of the water companies who would be carrying out this work would go bankrupt, meaning the work could not be completed anyway.

“The cost works out at between about £5,000 and £20,000 per household. I felt it would be unfair to sting local people with a bill of this size.”

What reaction are MPs facing?

Twitter users erupted in their latest bout of righteous fury as MPs complained of the backlash they received in the wake of the stabbing death of David Amess.

Members of the public moved to shame their MPs online if they voted against the measure.

Labour politicians sensing a vote winner promised to challenge Conservatives on the issue.

Scientists and even clergymen warned action must be taken soon.

What happens next?

The Environment Bill will return to the Lords on Tuesday where peers are expected to re-insert the measures before it goes back to the House of Commons later this week.

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