Water companies could face unlimited fines for polluting under new government plans.
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is expected to announce measures next week to introduce tougher pollution fines that will be put into a “water restoration fund”.
It comes as opposition politicians called on Ms Coffey to resign over the amount of sewage water companies have discharged into UK waterways.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of “turning Britain’s waterways into an open sewer”, as new figures showed water companies took no action to reduce pollution despite discharges falling by 19% in 2022.
Liberal Democrats leader Sir Ed Davey accused Ms Coffey of presiding over a “national scandal”, saying she should “now resign or be sacked”.
He said: “These figures are a damning verdict on the government’s failure to protect our treasured rivers and lakes. This is a national scandal and it is happening on the Conservatives’ watch.
“A historic drought is no excuse for this government’s inaction and failure. The environment secretary has let water companies get away with these environmental crimes for far too long.
“It is clear she simply doesn’t care enough to get tough on these polluting firms.
“Therese Coffey must now resign or be sacked so we can have an environment secretary who actually cares about saving our rivers from destruction.”
There were 301,091 sewage spills in 2022 according to the latest Environment Agency figures – an average of 824 a day.
This was a decrease of almost a fifth but the falling number of discharges was due to dry weather rather than measures taken by water companies.
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Ms Coffey’s plans also include a six-week consultation examining the possibility of strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to impose sanctions without going through the courts.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the most serious cases will still be taken through criminal proceedings but that all other penalties would be quicker and easier to enforce.
Currently penalties and fines imposed by water regulator Ofwat are returned to the Treasury but under the new plans, money will instead be returned to Defra.
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Speaking about her plans, 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.”
Campaigners have accused water companies of discharging sewage far 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.
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