Prime minister denies government to squash plans for fines of up to £250m for polluting water companies like Southern Water
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Rishi Sunak said he welcomed ‘tougher fines’ for water companies and insisted that is what is being put in place.
His comments follow a report in The Times which said water companies could avoid big fines amid concerns the plans to increase the penalties to up to £250m could backfire.
The paper reported environment secretary Therese Coffey is backing away from the plans for fines of up to £250m.
The government announced plans last year to expand the use of the civil variable monetary payments (VMPs) that the Environment Agency can issue, meaning sanctions can be imposed more often without drawn-out court cases. A consultation will be held on changes to the penalty cap in the spring, but Ms Coffey’s predecessor Ranil Jayawardena had planned to dramatically increase the maximum from £250,000 to £250 million.
Southern Water has come under fire in recent years for thousands of incidents where untreated waste has been poured into the Solent.
They have previously had to make big payouts after being taken to court – in July 2021 they were fined a record £90m for pouring between 16bn and 21bn litres of raw sewage into the sea over several years, following a prosecution by the Environment Agency.
Mr Sunak, while speaking to broadcasters on a visit to a rapid cancer diagnosis centre in Oldham, was asked about the report and if the government is prepared to water down fines for water companies that spill sewage.
The Prime Minister said: ‘I think that reporting is categorically not true, right. I want to... actually would welcome tougher fines for water companies and that is what we are putting in place. Not only are we holding them to account for putting in place the largest investment in our water infrastructure in decades – £56bn of investment that we are expecting the water companies to put in – we will hold them to account for their part in reducing the overflows, and there will be very significant fines for them if they don’t do their part in this.
‘That is what the Government is delivering and that’s what I’m committed to doing.’
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said her party would ensure the current rules are not breached.
Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, she said: ‘We would enforce the current laws which they’re breaching, the current situation where they know they shouldn’t be doing it and they are doing it, we would enforce and make sure they’re not doing it. And no, we wouldn’t be paying them bonuses when they’re carrying out activities that they know they shouldn’t be doing.’
Alongside the use of VMPs, the Environment Agency can also take action through the courts, including pursuing criminal prosecutions with unlimited fines.
Southern Water was named late last year by industry regulator Ofwat in its annual assessment of the sector as one of the nation’s worst performing water companies.