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Water company bosses given 14 days to set out sewage dumping plans, new environment secretary says

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon has accused the government of allowing water companies to dump sewage on 90 beaches over the summer.

Image:Members of the public and protesters from Hastings and St Leonards Clean Water Action, protest against raw sewage release incidents on the beach in St Leonards, Sussex. Picture date: Friday August 26, 2022.
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Water company bosses have been given two weeks to set out "significant improvements" to prevent sewage being dumped into the UK's rivers and beaches.

Ranil Jayawardena,the new environment secretary, made the announcement in the Commons as he faced calls for "tougher sanctions" to be imposed.

"The volume of sewage spewed out by water companies is completely unacceptable and the public have rightly shown their outrage," he said.

"In my first day in office, I told water chief executives that it is not good enough and I have instructed them to write to me formally by September 21 with a plan on how they are going to make significant improvements."

Labour has called on the government to implement harsher punishments, including prison sentences, for water company chiefs who are responsible for pumping effluent into open water.

Mr Jayawardena added that he has spoken to the Environment Agency and Ofwat and told them to use "every enforcement power" they have to ensure companies comply.

"I will not hesitate to take further action if I do not see the pace of change that this House expects," he said.

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Over the summer, the Liberal Democrats campaigned on preventing sewage pollution, leading to Mr Jayawardena accusing them of having done "nothing" to stop the problem while they shared power with the Conservatives in the 2010-2015 coalition government.

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Raw sewage: Who's to blame?

Sewage dumped at '90 beaches'

Last month, the Environment Agency issued warnings to holidaymakers to avoid dozens of beaches across England and Wales due to sewage.

Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney demanded that "Southern Water compensates Sussex seaside businesses" after sewage spills led tourists to avoid the county's coastline.

Jim McMahon, shadow environment secretary, was also among those calling for stronger sanctions, telling the Commons that the government had allowed water companies to "dump sewage on 90 beaches".

Mr Jayawardena re-emphasised the government's plan, adding that it has already legislated to issue unlimited fines through a criminal process and "will not hesitate to do more" to deal with the issue.

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Raw sewage dumped for millions of hours

Data released last month revealed water companies have pumped raw sewage into Britain's seas and rivers for more than nine million hours since 2016.

The figure is an increase of 2,553% over five years, according to the Labour Party's analysis of Environment Agency data, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Between 2016 and 2021 water companies discharged sewage into waterways and the sea for a total of 9,427,355 hours, the equivalent of 1,076 years.

Southern Water was fined £90m last year for widespread pollution after pleading guilty to more than 6,000 unpermitted sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015.