Murky claims about sewage bill fact checked

28 October 2021
What was claimed

The government voted to allow water companies to pump sewage into rivers.

Our verdict

The amendment rejected by the government would have also allowed the pumping of sewage into rivers, but required it to be progressively reduced.

What was claimed

The amendment the government rejected would have cost the taxpayer hundreds of billions of pounds to replace the sewage system in order to eliminate sewage discharge.

Our verdict

The amendment itself did not explicitly require sewage discharge to be reduced completely, although its explanatory notes did say this. The amendment called for progressive reduction in harm. Details of the cost of replacing the sewage network are yet to be fully published.

What was claimed

In recent weeks the government has allowed water companies to discharge sewage into rivers due to Brexit disrupting deliveries of water treatment chemicals.

Our verdict

The Environment Agency has cited the UK’s relationship with the EU as one of the factors affecting the supply of water treatment chemicals to the UK.

The past few days have seen MPs defend themselves over accusations they voted with the government against plans to reduce the discharge of sewage into rivers. The government has now said it will propose an amendment “very similar” to the one it had rejected. 

The story has been subject to statements on both sides which could do with clarification. We take a look at the facts behind the sewage row.

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The background

Currently the government is trying to pass its Environment Bill through Parliament.

The Bill includes, among other things, clauses aimed at improving Britain’s water supply. It passed through the House of Commons in May and into the House of Lords.

While in the Lords, the government then introduced some amendments to its own bill, which had been proposed in the Queen’s Speech. These required the government to prepare a plan looking at how to reduce discharges of sewage into rivers, which sometimes occurs when sewerage systems do not have capacity to process sewage.  

But some felt these new amendments didn’t go far enough. The Duke of Wellington proposed a new amendment which would require sewerage companies to “demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges.”

This amendment passed in the House of Lords, and the amended Bill was then returned to the Commons for consideration, a process known as ping pong.

The government then led the Commons to vote to remove the Duke of Wellington’s addition by 268 votes to 204, retaining only the parts of the amendment the government itself had initially proposed.

On 26 October, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced the government would now be proposing an amendment “very similar” to the one it had rejected from the Duke of Wellington, creating a “duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.”

What was claimed

The aftermath of the government voting down the amendment saw a number of claims from the media and opponents of the government about the ramifications of the decision, and counter-claims from the government defending its decision.

Some of them could do with clarification or correction.

“Tory MPs vote to allow water companies to dump raw sewage into Britain's rivers and seas”

MailOnline, Evolve Politics, and Metro all reported that MPs had voted to “allow” water companies to continue dumping sewage into rivers by rejecting the Duke of Wellington’s amendment.

But what that misses is the fact that a vote either way would have continued to allow sewage to be released into rivers. 

The Duke of Wellington’s amendment would have required water companies to progressively reduce the harm they were doing, but it did not explicitly state that the practice should be stopped entirely.  

But there is a bit of a grey area here as to what exactly the amendment calls for.

The amendment’s explanatory notes say its purpose “is to try to eliminate, not simply reduce, the harm the discharge of untreated sewage into rivers.” However, explanatory notes have no legal effect.

Co-sponsors of the amendment Baroness Quin and Baroness Altmann told Full Fact that by calling for progressive reduction in harm, the envisaged endpoint would be elimination. 

But the amendment itself called for companies to progressively reduce the harm of sewage discharge rather than the elimination of harm, or the elimination of sewage discharge itself.

“As an approximate estimate, to get rid of or eliminate storm sewage overflows would cost between—these are very wide figures—£150 billion and £660 billion”

Various Conservative MPs and ministers raised the fact the proposal was uncosted when talking about their vote, and that eliminating sewage discharge could cost hundreds of billions of pounds. 

As discussed above, it’s unclear whether the amendment would have necessarily required water companies to completely replace the sewerage infrastructure with the aim of eliminating sewage discharge entirely. 

The £150 billion figure cited seems to come from analysis commissioned by the Storm Overflows Taskforce, which is due to be published shortly. We’ve asked Defra for more information on the £660 billion figure also used. 

Finally it's been claimed that in recent weeks the government has allowed water companies to discharge sewage into rivers due to Brexit disrupting deliveries of water treatment chemicals. 

Water companies are required to have a permit to discharge untreated sewage into surface waters or groundwater. 

The Environment Agency says that “permits contain conditions that control the quality of the effluent you can discharge”, but that companies may not be able to comply with these conditions if they cannot get water treatment chemicals due to a number of reasons, including the pandemic, supply chain failure and “the UK’s new relationship with the EU.”

It says that if companies run out of supplies and follow the procedure outlined, the “Environment Agency will not normally take enforcement action against you.” It adds that companies must get written agreement from their “Environment Agency water company account manager” before they do so.

So Brexit has been at least cited as a factor which might allow water companies to increase how much sewage they discharge. 

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