Sewage was dumped every four minutes during Therese Coffey’s three years as water minister

The recently appointed Environment Secretary presided over an average of a new sewage dump every four minutes in her previous stint as water minister, new research suggests.

With a yellow weather warning of heavy rain in place for today, what can we expect to be vented into our rivers and onto our beaches? – Owl

Arj Singh 

There was an average of nearly three million hours of sewage discharge into waterways and sea during Therese Coffey’s tenure as a junior minister, the analysis of Environment Agency (EA) data obtained by Labour under freedom of information laws suggests.

This equates to more than 321 years’ worth of sewage dumped in England and Wales over Ms Coffey’s three years in the job between 2016 and 2019.

Labour said the fresh revelations about Ms Coffey’s “sewage-infested” record in office raised questions about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to move her to Environment Secretary.

The party revealed last month that sewage discharges more than doubled during the Environment Secretary’s previous role as a junior minister, coinciding with her decision to cut a key environment protection “grant in aid” fund for the EA by around a third (£24m).

Ms Coffey was also forced to admit in October the Government was breaching its own Environment Act by delaying the publication of clean water and biodiversity targets beyond the end of that month.

The revelations also come amid a growing public outcry over the scale of sewage dumping around the country, with around 90 of Britain’s beaches affected by water pollution this summer.

Shadow Environment Secretary Jim McMahon said: “It’s not clear which is worse, Coffey’s sewage-infested environmental record, or Rishi Sunak’s judgement in bringing back Dr Dolittle.

“Families across the country should be able to just enjoy where they live, work or holiday, and businesses should not have to worry about the Tory sewage scandal hitting their trade.

“Britain deserves better.

“A Labour government will use the levers of power to introduce mandatory monitoring with automatic fines, ensure regulators properly enforce the rules and hold water bosses who repeatedly break the rules personally accountable for sewage pollution.”

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: “We have been clear that the amount of untreated sewage which enters our waterways and pollutes our beaches is unacceptable, and that water companies must do much more to protect our environment.

“Our Storm Overflows Reduction Plan has brought in the strictest targets on sewage pollution and requires water companies to deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment – £56bn capital investment over 25 years – into a long term programme to tackle storm sewage discharges by 2050.

“We have also boosted funding for the Environment Agency with £2.2m per year specifically for water company enforcement activity so that robust action is taken against illegal breaches of storm overflow permits.”

On Thursday, The Times reported that the only two stretches of river in England designated for bathing – in Oxford and Ilkley, West Yorkshire – were hit by sewage discharges over the Christmas weekend.

Feargal Sharkey, the former Undertones singer, pointed to recent tests showing e-coli levels at the Ilkley site exceeding safe limits and told the newspaper: “Like a Christmas tree festooned with demonic Christmas baubles, e-coli levels in Yorkshire are above the safe level for bathing.

“Coupled with warnings to bathers on the Thames, it seems like it’s a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from the water industry.”