Labour and Lib Dems step up attacks on ‘Tory sewage scandal’

Waterborne diseases have “put over 10,000 people in hospital” since 2019, Labour said, as both Sir Keir Starmer’s party and the Liberal Democrats ramped up attacks on the “Conservative sewage scandal”.

Labour reiterated its pledge to put water companies dumping sewage into UK rivers and seas under special measures to force them to “clean up their act”.

The party highlighted new analysis of NHS hospital admissions data showing the number of people diagnosed with diseases transmitted via waterborne infection nearly doubled over the last two years, rising to a record high of 3,261 cases last year.

The steepest increase was in the number of typhoid fever cases, which doubled to more than 603.

Typhoid fever is typically “uncommon” in the UK and more prevalent in parts of the world that have poor sanitation and limited access to clean water, according to the NHS.

Data from the Environment Agency for 2023 shows a 54% increase in the number of sewage spills compared with 2022, and a 13% increase compared with 2020.

There is growing anger over the polluted state of England’s rivers and coasts, with no single stretch of river classed as being in a good overall condition, and hundreds of pollution risk alerts issued for popular beaches around the country last year.

Labour shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said: “It is sickening that the Conservative sewage scandal has put over ten thousand people in hospital.

“They just folded their arms and looked the other way while water companies pumped a tidal wave of raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and seas, putting the nation’s health at risk.

“It is time for change. The next Labour government will put the water companies under special measures and strengthen regulation to force them to clean up their act.

“We will give the regulator tough new powers to make law-breaking water bosses face criminal charges and ban the payment of their multimillion pound bonuses until they clean up their toxic filth.”

Environmental activist Feargal Sharkey, who is backing Labour’s plans, told the PA news agency that “people are utterly fed up, outraged and despondent about the state of rivers and seas”, with parents worried about taking their children to the beach this summer.

But Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said: “In government, Labour cared so little about water quality that monitoring levels languished at 7%. Under successive Conservative governments, we have increased that to 100%.

“This Conservative government has taken clear action to tackle the issue – having put in place legal requirements for water companies to implement sewage discharge reduction plans, setting clear targets on sewage reduction backed up by unlimited fines, and fast-tracking record levels of investment. We are quadrupling water company inspections, and banning bonuses for water companies that commit criminal breaches.”

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems set out a plan to save chalk streams, which the party’s analysis suggested suffered nearly 49,000 hours worth of sewage dumping in 2023 – more than double the previous year.

The streams, which spring from underground chalk reservoirs, are one of the world’s rarest freshwater habitats and are found primarily in the south of England and Yorkshire.

Sir Ed Davey’s party repeated its proposal to launch a public consultation within the first 100 days of the next government which could see rivers and lakes awarded a new Blue Flag status to protect them from sewage dumping.

Sir Ed said: “Water firms are destroying our precious rivers and chalk streams all whilst making massive profits. Conservative ministers have let these water firms get away with it for too long, while their toothless schemes have failed to protect swimmers and wildlife.

“We need urgent action to save our precious chalk streams from this environmental disaster.

“The swimmers made ill, the wildlife killed and the chalk streams dried up should act as a watershed moment to put an end to the sewage scandal.

“Every vote for the Liberal Democrats at this election is a vote for a strong local champion who will tackle the sewage scandal and clean up our rivers, lakes and beaches.”

Sir Ed and Mr Reed are expected to promote their plans during campaign visits on Saturday.