Sewage Regulation in the Environment Bill: Marinet’s Amendments

By Marinet: David Levy and Stephen Eades

ELF and our professional network have been supporting Marinet as they propose amendments to the Environment Bill that would strengthen the law around sewage systems. Recently, the public’s eyes have been opened to the misuse of storm overflow systems across the UK and various campaigns have been launched to improve regulation of the water industry.

Marinet campaigns for marine conservation in the UK and was generous enough to share their recent members’ newsletter that tells the story of their work on the Environment Bill – from House of Commons to House of Lords:

Amendments to Environment Bill: Elimination of Sewage Pollution.

As older members will know the elimination of sewage work has been at the heart of Marinet’s work from the very earliest days. For younger members this concern is well recorded by our late chairman, Pat Gowen, in our recent publication Sand, Sea and Sewage. Sand, Sea and Sewage is an authoritative statement of what this campaign is all about.

We now have a unique opportunity to secure real change in this campaign.  Following exit from the EU, the UK is now taking control of its own environmental laws and this is what the Environment Bill currently before Parliament is all about.  It means the UK is writing its own law and determining its own standards, and these include standards on sewage treatment and its control of sewage pollution – Clause 78 of the Bill.

Since early last year when the Bill was in the House of Commons, and now with the Bill in the House of Lords, David Levy and I have been trying to find political support to amend the Bill to secure real change in order to eliminate sewage pollution.  Below, we tell you exactly where we are with this work:

When the Bill left the House of Commons around a month ago we had managed to secure a minor change to the Bill, following an amendment promoted by us at the Bill’s Commons Committee Stage in November last year. This would have required the new sewerage and drainage ‘management plans’ of the water companies to address the specific issue of “the impact of discharges from their drainage and sewerage systems on water quality” – i.e. the impact of storm overflows (CSOs) and the quality of routine discharges from their sewage treatment works (STWs).

The change in the Bill which we secured was not what we had really hoped for, i.e. a clear legal requirement for water company  management plans to cover “the impact of discharges from their drainage and sewerage systems on water quality”.  This was because the Government defeated this amendment at the Commons Committee Stage, based on an agreement between the Government and the Committee that if the Committee did not press for the amendment to go on the ‘face of the Bill’, then the Government would assent to it being mentioned as guidance in Explanatory Notes to the legislation.  The Government exercised a whip, and the Government majority of members on the Committee agreed to this arrangement.

We doubted the ‘legal strength’ of this arrangement, and we have subsequently secured legal (QC) advice generously supplied to us by the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) which confirms this legal weakness.  In short, the legal force of the amendment just being in the Explanatory Notes is very weak, and so the Government and water companies can very easily ignore this obligation, just as they have done for the past 20 years and more. Put simply, the Government managed to neuter the amendment.

However, this has impelled us to try harder.  The opportunity to accomplish our full objective, true reform of the sewerage and drainage system, has been provided by the House of Lords – commencing its consideration of the Bill at the beginning of this month.

Following extensive enquiries to see if there are any Peers who would be able to take up our amendment once again and seek to get it placed on the face of the Bill, i.e. actually in Clause 78, and not just in the Explanatory Notes, we have managed to identify one Peer, amongst a number of additional ‘supporting’ members of the House, who is prepared to consider this amendment and its tabling very seriously.  If this Peer does so, it will be one of the Lords Committee Stage amendments whose consideration commences on 21st June.

This peer is the Duke of Wellington who has previously served two terms as a member of the European Parliament (Conservative) and who joined the House of Lords as an active political member 5 years ago upon election under the ‘hereditary allocation rule’, i.e. a limited number of hereditary Peers may become active members, subject to internal election. He is now a non-affilated member, having resigned the Conservative whip over the issue of the proroguing of Parliament in late 2019.

The Duke was first alerted to the issue earlier this year by the BBC Panorama programme and believes that reform is essential.  Our discussions with him, and with ELF on whether our original House of Commons amendment was strong enough (i.e. would do the full job) has led us to strengthen the wording and scope of our amendment.

We now have additional wording which defines the purpose of these new management plans in the opening section of Clause 78, and we have added two additional requirements to the water quality requirement.  These are a requirement to keep a register of CSO and other routine discharges, and a requirement to publish annual reports on the quality, frequency and duration of CSO discharges.

If this full set of amendments is tabled by the Duke, a very serious debate will develop in the House of Lords about whether the UK is serious about tackling sewage pollution.  And if things go further and these amendments are actually agreed to and incorporated into the Bill, the House of Commons and the Government will be challenged to think very seriously as to whether it ought to embrace these reforms.  And, if things go further still and these amendments do enter the Act (the legislation) then we will have set in motion real and genuine reform of the sewage management system in the UK.

The amendments we are proposing are currently with the Duke and he is considering them.  If he proceeds and tables them, he will have an enormous political task in front of him.  To be clear, the Government does not want these reforms (they’ve used every tactic so far to derail them) and so the Duke will definitely have his job cut out if he is to succeed.

We have been doing all we can in the background to try to find support amongst other Peers.  However, as you will appreciate, building a cross party alliance for a proposal that the Government does not look favourably upon is no simple task.

Therefore if you want to help in lobbying for these amendments right now, and we mean now, then please let me know.  We will advise you.  It will mean contacting Peers, and doing so in your own words and because you believe in the need for this reform.  It has to be you own authentic voice, not simply ours.

So, this newsletter has brought you up to date with where our campaign currently stands.

David Levy and Stephen Eades