By Lee Trewhela - LDRS

Cornwall’s Conservatives MPs say claims they voted to block legislation to force water companies to reduce sewage spills are political spin by opposition parties.

The Labour Party’s Water Quality (Sewage Discharge) Bill, which was discussed in Parliament on Tuesday (April 25), required water companies to reduce discharges from storm overflows by 90% by the end of 2030 and impose automatic financial penalties for sewage dumping; an issue which is of particular interest in Cornwall, an area regularly hit by sewage spills on its coastline.

Following a three-hour debate, MPs voted 290 to 198 to kill off the motion which would have given them party parliamentary time to bring in the legislation. In a separate motion on the same day, the Government announced its own plans for legally binding targets to cut sewage discharges.

South West Water and other water companies are allowed to let sewage flow into the sea from combined sewage overflows (CSO) after heavy rains threaten to deluge the ageing sewer system. The CSOs combine household sewage with surface run-off so times of high precipitation they result in raw sewage backing up into homes if not allowed to be released into the sea.

The motion was a move often seen as a political ploy to score points whereby opposition parties put forward motions or potential bills that they know will get voted down due to the government’s majority. It’s been used by all sides over the years.

The Labour motion called on the Government to set a target for the reduction of sewage discharges, provide for financial penalties in relation to sewage discharges and breaches of monitoring requirement and to carry out an impact assessment of sewage discharges.

The Government didn’t object to these arguments, but the Labour motion included a fourth part that would have given the opposition the ability to introduce legislation of their own. In turn, the Government submitted their own amendment backing Labour’s first three points but dropping the fourth. The Government’s amendment was passed.

Responding to news of the Commons vote, a statement from Liberal Democrats in Cornwall said: “All six of Cornwall’s MPs voted to block legislation to force water companies to reduce sewage spills by at least 90% by 2030”, with Cornwall Lib Dem councillor Pete Mitchell adding: “Cornish MPs more than any others should recognise the importance of clean rivers and beaches, so it is simply appalling that all six of our representatives have put the profits of water companies ahead of our environment once again.”

It was five of Cornwall MPs who voted as Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, didn’t take part in the debate.

Cllr Andrew George, former Lib Dem MP for St Ives, said “Sewage discharges to our rivers and coast have increased by 2,553% in the last five years. Meanwhile water companies have demonstrated that their priorities are bonuses for senior executives and shareholder pay-outs. They’ve displayed outrageous contempt towards our environment and public health. It’s disappointing Cornwall’s Conservative MPs have once again voted to let this continue. They expect us to congratulate them for finally waking up to this scandal, and making promises that something will be done.

“Water companies were set up by the Conservatives in 1989 as risk-free monopolies, capable of pre-determining their annual profits, dividends and bonuses. They’ve collectively paid out £72 billion in dividends. Another 20% rise on senior executive bonuses last year.”

Cornwall’s Tory MPs aren’t happy with the accusations.

Scott Mann, MP for North Cornwall, said: “The persistent allegations that Conservative MPs have ‘voted to dump sewage onto beaches’ remain false. The votes this week took place as part of an Opposition Day debate, and I voted for plans to reduce sewage discharges. As it happens, neither Labour nor the Lib Dems actually voted for the opposition motion, meaning they failed to vote to increase fines, reduce discharges or carry out impact assessments.

“Whilst I agree that the amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers and seas is unacceptable, this is the first government to set out expectations that water companies must take steps to reduce storm overflows significantly. This instruction will now be put on an enhanced legal footing with legally binding targets.

“It is only because of the increased monitoring of storm overflows – directed by this Government – that we know how bad the problem really is. Since 2016 the number of outflows monitored has increased from 6% to 90%. That is one of the main reasons why the numbers of incidents are ‘increasing’. Furthermore, since 2008 the percentage of bathing waters rated as excellent has increased from 53% to 72%.

“Most of the votes in Parliament on this issue are engineered for political purposes. The measures supported by opposition MPs at various points would not have banned sewage overflows, as some falsely claim. It is estimated that some of their proposals would have cost £12,000 to £21,000 per household. These votes are cynical party politics at its worst, not a serious debate about solving the problem.

“I understand how emotive and important a subject this is. I am committed to seeing the end of combined sewer discharges over time and to placing the obligation for dealing with the issue squarely on the water companies – not Cornish taxpayers.”

Derek Thomas, MP for St Ives and West Cornwall, added: “It is not true that I or any Conservative MP voted to ‘block legislation to force water companies to reduce sewage spills by at least 90% by 2030′. The motion I voted for says this: ‘Calls on the Government to set a target for the reduction of sewage discharges, to provide for financial penalties in relation to sewage discharges and breaches of monitoring requirements, to carry out an impact assessment of sewage discharges.’ All Labour and Lib-Dem voted against the motion.

“The motion put forward by Labour was purely for political gain as part of the party’s local election campaign which Labour MPs admitted during the debate. The Bill they proposed is unnecessary as the Environment Act makes provision already for everything it included.”

Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, said: “However the Labour Party seek to spin the events, the facts are that Conservative MPs voted for a motion to set targets for sewage discharge reduction and impose fines on water companies that breach the targets. Whilst I was pleased to vote for this motion, it was the Labour party, who abstained, who did not support these measures.”

Cherilyn Mackrory, MP for Truro and Falmouth, added: “Ever since becoming a Member of Parliament I have pushed for Falmouth to be at the front of the queue for investment. As a direct result of Conservative action, South West Water are delivering £130 million of proposed investment in the South West, £13.2 million of which will be spent in Falmouth by 2025 and a total of £40 million by 2030. This will lead to significant improvements in our local water quality and I hope that as our monitoring network improves water companies will continue to be pushed to clean-up our environment.”

George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth, didn’t respond to a request for a comment.

The Government announced its ‘Plan for Water’ earlier this month following long-standing criticism over the release of untreated wastewater into the country’s waterways, including much-publicised incidents on Cornwall’s beaches.

The Government will seek more investment from water companies, stronger regulation and tougher fines for polluters. The initiative includes a consultation on a ban on wet wipes containing plastic, which are blamed for causing sewer blockages. It will bring forward £1.6 billion of water infrastructure investment to start between now and 2025, although opponents argued this was not new cash.