Labour has dismissed Government plans that could see water companies facing unlimited fines and penalties as part of efforts to tackle pollution.
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is expected to announce next week plans that ministers believe will “make polluters pay”, with tougher fines levied on water companies put into a “water restoration fund”.
It comes as the latest Environment Agency figures showed there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day.
Discharges fell by 19% in 2022 but this was due to dry weather rather than any action taken by water companies, the agency said.
Part of the plan will see Ms Coffey publish a six-week consultation on strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to impose sanctions on water companies without going through the courts.
The Government is believed to support a lifting of the upper cap on civil penalties on water companies, allowing unlimited fines.
Defra said the penalties would be quicker and easier to enforce, with the most serious cases still taken through criminal proceedings.
Sir Keir Starmer, speaking during a campaign visit in Kent, called it a “flimsy” response from ministers.
“What the Government has done to our rivers and beaches is turn them into open sewers.
“I’m here in Kent and it’s a beautiful place, with rivers and beaches that are being polluted and it really, really goes to the heart of how people feel about their environment.
“The Government has let them down very, very badly.
“And this is just a flimsy next step from the Government,” he told broadcasters.
The Labour leader called for a “strong plan”, demanding mandatory monitoring and automatic fines to ensure “that those that are responsible are held to account”.
The Government has been under serious pressure from campaigners to tackle pollution in recent months, with the new measures expected to form part of plans to toughen enforcement against companies.
Ms Coffey said: “I know how important our beautiful rivers, lakes, streams and coastlines are for people and nature and I couldn’t agree more that more needs to be done to protect them.
“I want to make sure that regulators have the powers and tools to take tough action against companies that are breaking the rules, and to do so more quickly.
“Through the Water Restoration Fund, I will be making sure that money from higher fines and penalties – taken from water company profits, not customers – is channelled directly back into the rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed.
“Currently, penalties and fines imposed by Ofwat are returned to the Treasury.
“But new Government plans will see the money instead be returned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Campaigners have accused water companies of discharging sewage much more often than they should, including when there has been no rain, and have repeatedly called on water companies to use their profits to invest in more infrastructure.
The Liberal Democrats have stepped up its attacks on the Government over the issue, calling on Ms Coffey to quit.
Sir Keir did not endorse those calls.
“I want the Environment Secretary to get on with her job, which is to stop turning our beaches and our rivers into open sewers,” he said.