LONDON — A big stink over U.K. sewage disposal has prompted a government u-turn as Boris Johnson tries to shore up his environmental credentials ahead of COP26.
Conservative MPs faced a huge backlash on Twitter and Facebook after initially blocking a clampdown on water companies dumping raw sewage in rivers and the sea. It’s a demand the government argued was unworkable — only to about-face amid mounting public pressure.
The Environment Bill, intended to revamp the U.K.’s environmental standards post-Brexit, is currently in the final stages of its journey through parliament, shuttling back and forth between the House of Commons and House of Lords as they thrash out its final shape.
MPs on the government side last week threw out an amendment inserted by the Lords that would have placed legal duties on the companies to reduce discharges — and quickly suffered the consequences on social media.
‘Hang their heads in shame’
There appears to be a problem with sewage no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on.
Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times last year, according to the Environment Agency, for a total of more than three million hours. The Duke of Wellington, who introduced the controversial amendment, called these statistics “surprising, shocking and indeed revolting.”
But MPs disagree on the best way to deal with the problem, and the confrontation became toxic after it caught fire on social media.
Widely shared posts, originating with an article on left-wing site EvolvePolitics, accused Conservatives of “voting to allow” water companies to continue dumping sewage in rivers, and named the MPs who voted with the government.
Tories said this was misleading and has led to online abuse. Health Minister Maria Caulfield tweeted: “None of us voted to discharge sewage into the sea and those of who have spread lies and misinformation should hang their heads in shame. Don’t ask why MPs get death threats if you have been part of this today.”
Ministers initially argued strong safeguards already exist in the bill and said the proposed measures would cost billions, which would only end up being passed on to the taxpayer. Boris Johnson’s spokesman was sent out to bat on Tuesday, saying he agreed the behavior of water companies was “unacceptable” but stressing that imposing a “blank cheque” new legal duty is not the right response.
By the evening, that position had crumbled, with the government accepting the Lords amendment and promising to create a “duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Following a debate in the House of Commons last week during the final stages of the Environment Bill, today we are announcing that we will put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause.” It eases the prospect of a Commons rebellion from under-pressure MPs.
If Conservatives feel stung by the public response, it won’t be the first time they’ve found themselves mired in a social media storm over legislation on environmental standards.
In 2017, MPs were pilloried for voting down an amendment to Brexit legislation which would have incorporated a clause of EU law on animal sentience. That was inaccurately reported as MPs voting that animals “could not feel pain.”
The current row reveals it’s not just fluffy animals that inspire fierce emotions among British voters — a furor growing ever fiercer as the British government plays host to the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow next week. Even as the Tories bring forward action to clamp down on water pollution, many fear the smell will linger.
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