Government plans that could see water companies facing unlimited fines and penalties as part of efforts to tackle pollution have been dismissed by opposition parties.
Next week, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is expected to announce plans that ministers believe will “make polluters pay”, with tougher fines levied on water companies put into a “water restoration fund”.
But Labour labelled the move as “flimsy”, while the Liberal Democrats repeated the party’s call for Ms Coffey to resign.
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.
But amid public anger and political pressure over the condition of the UK’s waterways, Ms Coffey is expected to 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.
The Government plans will also see the money from penalties and fines returned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, rather than to the Treasury.
Ms Coffey said that she could not agree more that “more needs to be done to protect” rivers, lakes and streams.
“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,” she said.
The new fund, she said, would ensure “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”.
But the early details of the plans have failed to convince opposition parties.
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.
“This is just a flimsy next step from the Government,” he told broadcasters.
The party has put forward its own proposals to tackle the problem.
A new Bill, introduced by shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon, would make it a legal requirement to monitor all sewage outlets, as well as creating a statutory underpinning for penalties for failures to adhere to such requirements.
Also included in the proposals are automatic fines for sewage dumping, as well as implementing a legally binding target to reduce it, while also creating a new requirement for the Secretary of State to publish a strategy on the reduction of sewage discharges.
Labour wants the Conservatives to allow time in Parliament for the Bill, although there is little to no prospect of the plan becoming law.
“It’s clear that we have a Tory Government that has run out of road, when all it can resort to is regurgitating old announcements that do nothing to end sewage dumping,” Mr McMahon said.
“That’s why Labour has brought forward legislation to force the clean-up of the water industry.
“Tory MPs, having previously blocked Labour-backed measures to end the Tory sewage scandal, have no excuses for not supporting this Bill, which puts an end to sewage dumping once and for all.”
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.
Government sources said that there were already strict targets on water companies to reduce sewage dumping, while also pointing to the last year’s Storm Overflows Reduction Plan as a response to concerns.
“Labour’s plan simply isn’t credible. It involves digging up 100,000 km of combined sewer or building 40,000 Olympic swimming pools of additional storage capacity in a couple of years,” a Government source said.
“Sewage would be coming up into your home whilst Labour taxes you for the privilege.”
The Liberal Democrats have stepped up their attacks on the Government over the issue, calling on Ms Coffey to quit.
Environment spokesperson Tim Farron said the Government’s plan was “pointless whilst it remains legal for water companies to dump sewage into swimming waters”.
He added: “It is a national scandal that water companies are allowed to pump sewage into our rivers and coastlines all because ministers refuse to get tough with them.”
Sir Keir did not endorse calls for Ms Coffey to quit, however.
“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.