There is a funny phenomenon in Westminster that all Conservative MPs experience on a periodic basis. We call it Righteous Fibdignation.
Righteous Fibdignation usually occurs when an opposition politician tables what seems on the face of it a perfectly sensible motion which as soon as you start digging becomes entirely ludicrous.
The opposition politician and their acolytes will then take to social media to suggest that Conservative MPs who voted against their ludicrous proposal are somehow evil and something of a Righteous Fibdignation storm brews across Twitter and Facebook.
The latest example of Righteous Fibdignation has occurred this week when parliament considered Lords Amendment 45 to the Environment Bill which is currently working its way through parliament.
The amendment itself called for the entirely laudable and absolutely correct premise that raw sewage should not – under any circumstances – be discharged into our watercourses and seas.
Who could disagree with such an idea? Certainly not me.
But when the amendment was considered by parliament last week I did indeed vote against it. But this is where Righteous Fibdignation comes into play, so I want to set the record straight as to exactly why I did so.
I, and I am sure every other Conservative MP, wants to see an end to the discharge of raw sewage into our streams and rivers – something that has been happening for many years – but what an internet meme or a left-wing blog will never tell you is that getting to this point involves overcoming a monumentally large task.
At the current time sewage should only ever be discharged into watercourses when our sewerage system cannot cope. Effectively to completely stop overflow discharges we as a country would need an entire new expanded or ‘backup’ sewerage network. The most optimistic estimates for implementing the works needed to make such changes are £150 billion, the most conservative £600 billion – in other words at least 4 HS2 lines!
I don’t believe that taking on a spending commitment larger than the GDP of many countries should ever be done by accident yet the hereditary Duke of Wellington’s amendment to the Environment Bill would have seen not only that but also an obligation coming into force to prevent sewage discharges as soon as the bill received royal assent.
In other words had I supported the amendment I would have been committing our Government to underwrite a bill of a figure not far shy of One Trillion Pounds and not only that it would be on a new national infrastructure project that had to be delivered in a timescale of just months, meaning its design, planning application and building would have to be complete by next summer just prevent the law from being broken!
There was no way any responsible Member of Parliament could or should have voted for Lords Amendment 45 in its original state. Yet in doing so I and my colleagues have supposedly become enemies of our environment.
I am was pleased that in dealing with this ludicrous amendment Minister Pow said “I turn to storm overflows. All the detail that I am about to outline demonstrates an absolute commitment to tackling the environmental harm caused by storm sewage overflows, on which we have taken significant action. Lords amendment 45, the majority of which has been put forward by the Government—I urge hon. Members to look at it—introduces an entire new chapter to the Water Industry Act 1991 on storm overflows to address that. It places a statutory requirement on the Government to produce a plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and their adverse impacts before 1 September 2022, and commits the Government to taking action and reporting on progress to Parliament. We will also be required to produce a report on the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and their costs and benefits, before 1 September 2022.
“The Bill already places a duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis, so this is available and accessible to the public. Crucially, the Bill also introduces a statutory requirement on sewerage companies to produce drainage and sewerage management plans, in which they will fully assess their network capacity and adopt a strategic approach to planning. This will deliver a resilient sewerage system addressing current and future risks and issues, such as population growth and climate change over a 25-year period, because we all know that those things are affecting this system.”
As ever our opponents will always make cheap points – and stretch the truth - to gather a social media storm.
Righteous Fibdignation is always easy politics, especially when you’re not in power.
The truth is though when you are the grown ups in the room you don’t get to spend £600 billion without at least fully considering it. Even if that means you can’t always vote for pie in the sky proposals.