Water bosses should face criminal charges over illegal pollution levels in rivers, voters say

“Government needs to stop behaving like a marriage guidance counsellor and act, and act now.” – Feargal Sharkey

A majority of voters want water company bosses whose firms pollute rivers to be threatened with criminal prosecution, according to a new poll.

Hugo Gye, Daniel Capurro inews.co.uk 

Currently, the companies themselves can be held liable for pollution, but individual executives rarely are.

Asked whether bosses should be prosecuted if their companies have contributed to river pollution, 72 per cent of people supported the idea, with only 5 per cent opposing, according to a survey for i by Redfield & Wilton Strategies. There is little variation between different voting blocs, with supporters of all parties heavily in favour of potential criminal penalties.

The poll also found that 45 per cent of the public is dissatisfied with the current environmental condition of Britain’s waterways, while 16 per cent are satisfied.

A majority of those questioned said that water companies, local and national governments and independent regulators should all be held responsible for cleaning up rivers. Redfield & Wilton interviewed 1,500 adults in Great Britain earlier this week.

Campaigner Feargal Sharkey told i: “These polluters need to be held accountable, they need to be held responsible. The fines haven’t worked and jail is now the only answer, 72 per cent of the public get it, 72 per cent of the public want it, 72 per cent of the public demand it. Government needs to stop behaving like a marriage guidance counsellor and act, and act now.”

Charles Watson, chairman of River Action, told i that it was time for politicians to take notice of the public mood.

“Polling results like this demonstrate conclusively how the scandal of our polluted rivers rivers is now a matter of huge public interest,” he said.

“Our elected politicians need to wake up fast to the fact this is going to be a major issue when votes get cast at the next General Election.”

In many cases, the discharging of sewage into waterways is entirely legal. Water companies have environmental permits specific to each treatment works, which permit them to discharge sewage if the amount of water entering the system exceeds its ability to cope.

If a works discharges outside the parameters of any permit, this is illegal.

Permits can also be put in place for numerous other ecological parameters, such as phosphorus levels.

Criminal charges can be filed for breaches of these permits, but such cases are lengthy and expensive, meaning that the Environment Agency (EA) often relies on civil penalties. Fines in those cases are currently capped at £250,000. Defra has announced that it plans to raise this to £250m, but the Environment Secretary is reportedly wavering on the idea.

For the most severe cases, the EA does pursue criminal charges, but these have resulted in fines levied against water companies, not custodial sentences for executives.

The EA spoke out last year, urging courts to impose jail sentences on water company executives when serious cases of pollution are proved. However, the Crown Prosecution Service would have to consider the public interest when deciding whether to charge executives with criminal offences, and weigh how likely they would be to secure a conviction.

Since 2015, water companies have been hit with £138m in fines, £90m of that being against Southern Water. Since 2009, water companies have self-monitored their permits.

The Office for Environmental Protection is currently investigating Ofwat, the EA and the Environment Secretary over whether they failed to properly regulate water companies in England.

Ali Morse, water policy manager for The Wildlife Trusts, says: “It is critical that regulation designed to reduce water pollution is properly enforced. This means Government resourcing statutory bodies sufficiently to monitor river health and respond to pollution incidents. We also want to see reparations for damage caused to our waterways.

“Polluters should pay for negatively impacting nature and those fines should contribute to wider habitat restoration.”

A Water UK spokesperson said: “99 per cent of sewage works are now fully compliant with their legal permits, according to the regulator – a huge improvement on previous decades.

“That means compliance issues cause a tiny proportion of pollution in rivers, the transformation of which will require hard work, innovation and investment – with £56bn already planned for storm overflows alone.

“However, if things do go wrong, then it is right the Environment Agency has a wide range of powers to deal with it; those powers already include criminal prosecution.”

i is running a Save Britain’s Rivers campaign to raise awareness of the scale of pollution in the country’s waterways, and will draw up a manifesto for our rivers in consultation with experts and policymakers.

Save Britain’s Rivers campaign

i and its sister title New Scientist, the world’s leading science magazine, have launched a joint campaign to force ministers and water companies to address the scandal of Britain’s polluted waterways.

Over the next year we will deliver hard-hitting reporting that shines a light on the crisis, including in-depth investigations, features, podcasts and live events.

The Save Our Rivers campaign has three aims:

1. Reveal what’s going on in the UK’s rivers – and why.

2. Raise awareness and understanding of the plight of our rivers – and the terrible effects of pollution on people and nature.

3. Policy change. We will draw up a manifesto for our rivers – a robust, cross-party plan on how to fix them.

We will be speaking to experts and policymakers, business leaders and public officials. We also want to hear from you, i readers, to tell the stories of your local rivers and streams.