Isabel Hardman

Why sewage is driving Tory MPs round the bend

Why sewage is driving Tory MPs round the bend
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Why are Tory MPs having to take so much crap over a vote about sewage? The past few days have seen a tsunami of fury against the Conservative party for voting in favour of water companies dumping sewage in rivers and the sea. Most Conservative MPs weren't even aware of what the offending vote was, so were doubly surprised to be on the end of so much constituent and social media rage. They then had to ask colleagues what on earth was going on.

What is going on is that last week the Commons was considering changes made by peers to the Environment Bill. One of those amendments, tabled by the Duke of Wellington (this story has both an incredible number of puns that write themselves and also a range of slightly improbable-sounding characters), would have forced water companies to 'take all reasonable steps' to stop pumping sewage into rivers and the sea when there is a large amount of storm water overwhelming their treatment plants.

The government opposed this amendment for two reasons: it focused on storm overflows, rather than sewage outflows more generally and so would have skewed the companies' activities in a way that wasn't entirely helpful, and it could have put the companies' businesses at risk from judicial reviews. The argument that the water companies make – not unreasonably – is that if the sewage doesn't go into rivers then it backs up into the street.

Most MPs didn't know these arguments, and because they were marching through the lobbies to approve or reject a series of different amendments, didn't necessarily know what they were voting on at all. This is not uncommon in parliament. It's not a good thing, but it's pretty normal for MPs to be too busy to know the detail of everything they are voting on, and so they rely on the direction of their party whips. Largely this is fine because they are in that party for a reason and so tend to agree with the direction of the party whips. But sometimes, as with this sewage vote, they end up being caught out.

There were 22 Tory rebels on the motion, including a number of former ministers. One told me he only voted for the amendment because he had heard his colleague Philip Dunne speaking persuasively on it in the Commons chamber. This is much less common, for the same reasons set out above.

Most Tory MPs – including a number of the rebels – think that the Environment Bill is pretty ambitious and that it does take the water industry in a better direction, with more legal duties for managing waste water and stopping 'foul water' pipes from being combined with surface water drainage pipes, which causes the storm outflow problem. The problem is that the government assumed everyone else would be so impressed with its new requirements for companies to produce waste water management plans that they wouldn't notice, let alone be upset by the Commons rejecting an amendment that it considered unhelpful. What happened instead is that the Labour Party scented an opportunity and broadcast that Tory MPs had voted in favour of the sewage being dumped. Cue the wave of anger over the weekend – and a panic from MPs.

Many of the Tory MPs I've spoken to today are sore that they were left to fend for themselves on this vote when none of them are actually in favour of pumping sewage into rivers. They were then supplied an entirely ludicrous figure of £600 billion which was the supposed 'cost' of this amendment. It was magicked up in a comms panic and makes no sense because the Bill itself contains a commitment for the Environment department and its associated agencies to compile an estimate for the cost of sorting out the drainage system so that foul and surface water don't end up mixing and then being pumped into waterways. So there is no figure at the moment.

It's worth looking back to the row ten years ago over the 'sell off of the forests'. This gives us a nice guide of what might happen next. The Coalition government's plan to part-privatise the Forestry Commission, which manages more than 150,000 hectares of Britain's forests became a fight about stopping beautiful woodlands from being chopped down. This was regardless of the fact that most FC forests are planted and managed as a source of wood for chopping down anyway and largely contain non-native trees.

Ministers had insisted that the protections for these trees would remain, but once campaign groups got their hands on the £250 million sale, it was doomed. It was only when MPs had spent weeks writing to constituents defending selling off all the trees that ministers then U-turned and dropped the plan. It was complicated and therefore difficult to defend, something the Tories should have had due warning of given their most beloved leader in history was also known as 'Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher'.

The amendments are back before parliament tonight, with the Duke sending back a reworded requirement for water companies to stop pumping the sewage within a reasonable time frame. Currently there is little suggestion of a U-bend – sorry, turn – from ministers, but the problem is that the row has become so angry and so simplified by social media (to the extent that many people seem to think the sewage being pumped into rivers is a new thing rather than something that's been going on for years) that there will surely have to be some movement on it.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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