Bid to criminalise water companies that don’t tackle sewage spills fails

A bid to criminalise water companies that fail to tackle sewage has failed.

The Liberal Democrats had proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would have created new offences if firms did not do enough to deal with spills.

But the measure failed on Wednesday after Tory MPs voted against and Labour members abstained.

The vote came after a report revealed millions of litres of raw sewage have been pumped into Cumbria’s Lake Windermere.

Documents from water company United Utilities, seen by the BBC, showed that a fault at a pumping station in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria left sewage being illegally pumped into the famous lake for 10 hours in February.

Despite Downing Street branding the findings “completely unacceptable,” Tory MPs chose not to back the Lib Dem proposal.

Lake Windermere at Bowness in the Lake District national park, Cumbria ((Alamy/PA))
Lake Windermere at Bowness in the Lake District national park, Cumbria ((Alamy/PA))

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Sewage discharge into our waters like this is completely unacceptable and water companies need to clean up their act.

“It’s why we’ve announced a quadrupling of inspections on water company assets, Ofwat are consulting on banning water bosses’ bonuses, Ofwat have stronger powers under the Environment Act now to hold them to account for poor performance.”

But the Lib Dem’s environment spokesperson Tim Farron MP said not enough was being done to tackle the issue.

“This government just doesn’t get it and is standing idly by whilst water firms destroy our lakes, rivers and beaches with raw sewage,” he said. “This amendment would have delivered justice for swimmers, wildlife and our environment. Instead, Conservative MPs backed the water companies, who are already stuffing their pockets with profits and bonuses. Frankly, the whole thing stinks.”

The row comes after analysis by Friends of the Earth showed more than 440,000 hours of sewage was released along England’s coastline in 2023, with thousands of spills taking place close to bathing spots.

The campaign group analysed Environment Agency data on sewage overflow outlets to calculate the number and duration of spills directly into the sea and estuaries and near swimming waters.

It found there were 68,481 incidents of sewage released into England’s seas last year, totalling 440,446 hours.

More than a quarter of these, some 117,584 hours over 21,213 spills, were within 1.9 miles (3km) of a bathing spot, the assessment found.