Jesse Norman intervenes in a backbench debate on the strategic priorities for Ofwat to highlight the problem of pollution in the River Wye and the need for a cross-border or all-rivers strategy to tackle phosphate pollution.
Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con)
I thought the Environmental Audit Committee’s report was a model of its kind. I noted in particular that it created this context of identifying a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, slurry and plastic. Does my right hon. Friend feel that the Government’s response adequately addressed that issue—both on the sewage side and on the wider phosphates issue?
My right hon. Friend tempts me to rewrite my speech from scratch. First, I thank him for his comments about our report, which was a significant body of work and the first such report of consequence for a number of years. The Government response to our 55 recommendations was one of the most positive responses to any of the reports that our Committee has prepared in the time I have served on it. We made 55 recommendations and I believe only five were rejected by the Government; the others were either accepted in whole or in part. So I think the Government have moved quite a long way in addressing these concerns, but my right hon. Friend will recognise that solving this problem is going to take decades, not days. I know that the Minister will address that in her remarks.
Sewage discharges, at least in the River Wye, on which my right hon. Friend’s report brilliantly focused, are only 25% of the problem. Phosphate leaching from fields is more like 65%. Does he feel that the Government have set an adequately ambitious target in saying that 80% of this phosphate should be reduced by 2037? I wonder whether we should go faster than that.
My right hon. Friend is right to refer to other polluters. If we take a look across the country as a whole, we will see that it is roughly evenly balanced between pollution from water treatment plants and storm overflows and pollution from agriculture. In the Wye, pollution is particularly prone to come from agriculture. As he knows, I am one of his parliamentary neighbours and our waterways along the whole of the Wye and the Lugg catchment are very affected by intensive poultry farming and the phosphates that it generates through spreading litter on the fields.
Does the hon. Lady share my view that one of the things the Government should closely consider is the idea of a national rivers recovery fund so that fines that have been paid can be used to remedy all of the pollution that has created them? At the moment, small fines go back into redress for pollution, but large ones go to the Treasury. My former colleagues will not thank me for it, but there is a case for a wider national recovery fund for rivers.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention, and I think that is an exceptionally good idea. I am certainly open to any idea that effectively makes these water companies cough up to clean up the mess they have made. I would happily have a conversation with him to see how we can advance such a suggestion.
My hon. Friend is so familiar with Herefordshire and the angling there that he needs no encouragement from me, but may I remind him that part of the problem with the Wye is that it crosses the border so there is an impunity in that Wales can avoid having regulatory involvement and leave the muck to come down to Herefordshire? Does my hon. Friend agree that an all-river strategy with some commissioners, as there have been since the 18th century on the Tweed, might be a solution to the problem?
Sir Charles Walker
My right hon. Friend demonstrates huge knowledge because the Tweed does indeed have commissioners and that works. The Tweed has its own problems but they are not on the same scale as those of the Wye and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is currently talking to the Angling Trust and will be working with the Welsh Government to try to find a way forward.