Thames Water: Unfit to protect our environment

 

Sewage around Marlow pc credit Environment Agency

Raw Sewage and foam around sailing boats on the Thames. pic credit: Environment Agency

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The record £20m fine for  Thames Water’s multiple pollution of the River Thames and its tributaries  with over 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage shows  how badly the company was managed.

It makes the incident where the company polluted the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal seem small fry compared to the damage the company caused to humans, livestock. wildife and fish across Hertfordshire,Buckinghamshire, Berkshire  and Oxfordshire.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.

The court at Aylesbury also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

thames waterWhat was extraordinary was the lax attitude of  top managers who ignored warnings from staff about failures in the system

 No wonder the judge Francis Sheridan said: “This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action.”

He added: “What a dreadful state of affairs that is.

“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees.

“Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance.”

He later said of the firm: “There is a history of non-compliance.”

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency’s chief prosecutor, said in The Guardian: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”

But should  we be surprised? Thames Water is a remote multinational making huge profits – and a £20m fine – large as it is – will still hardly dent a £742m annual profit.It is also only a quarter of the annual dividend paid to investors.

And it’s owners include Kuwaitis, the Chinese, Canadians and other international foreign investors . What will they care if fish die in Oxfordshire and  humans running sailing clubs become ill.

They are now claiming it is better managed and promising tigher controls. But they won’t want to sacrifice the bottom line and have a captive audience who can’t live without water or disposing their waste.

If ever there is a case for the return of  public ownership Thames Water have made it today. They have proved themselves unfit to protect the environment.

 

 

Whitehall doesn’t rule OK: How Wendover canal trust tragically missed out on a £1 million payout from river polluters

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Thames Water’s pollution of the Wendover Arm led to the £1m fine

Over a year ago I raged about the injustice of the very wealthy Thames Water private utility being fined £1m for polluting the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal  with sewage because they ignored a simple £30,000 repair to the outfall of Tring sewage works. The article is here.

I thought it was particularly unfair on the volunteers who are restoring the canal  and decided to write to our local MP, David Gauke, who is now chief secretary to the Treasury, suggesting that the government might reimburse the fine to help the trust. which desperately needs the money.I also lobbied David Lidington, now leader of the House, to see, as Wendover is in his constituency, whether he would back the idea.

Conservative Party Portraits

David Gauke MP, the Treasury minister said No

David Gauke took a long time to reply ( he admitted that his office had mislaid my letter) but finally at the end of January he replied from the Treasury.

His answer was a resounding NO. He wrote: ” Fines are considered a tax-type revenue and government departments and their agencies, in this case the Environment Agency, are legally obliged to surrender these receipts to the Treasury. revenue surrendered to this account is not ring fenced for any specific area of government funding..”

environment agency letter

Full Text of Letter saying NO from David Gauke

Imagine my surprise then to see this press release  on the same day from the Environment Agency.

Environmental charities receive over £1.5 million from businesses which broke environmental laws

This revealed :

“There are 26 Enforcement Undertakings on the new list with payments ranging from £1,500 – £375,000, including 6 companies that have agreed to make 6 figure payments: ( among these were)

  • Northumbrian Water Limited (£375,000) for pumping raw sewage into a tributary of the River Tyne.
  • Filippo Berio UK Limited (£253,906.91) for failing to recover or recycle packaging waste.
  • Anglian Water Services Limited have made two separate payments (£100,000 and £100,000) both for causing pollution incidents which killed fish.

Among the beneficiaries were the Nene Country Park in Northamptonshire and river trusts  on the Tyne. The list of enforcement undertakings is published here:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/enforcement-undertakings-accepted-by-the-environment-agency

It shows a much wider group of people have benefited.

So I wrote back to the minister which led to this reply last week from Department for Environment and Rural Affairs.

Yes they had been able to do this since 2015 – by accepting Enforcement Undertakings to cover river pollution rather than taking companies to court.

The court case involving Thames Water was in 2016. But here’s the rub -because the pollution took place in 2012 and 2013 it was not covered by the change in the law.

david gauke letterTwo points from this tragic state of affairs. First I am surprised by the ignorance of David Gauke that as a Cabinet minister he didn’t know his own government had changed the law.

Second it seems very unfair the Wendover Arm Trust has lost out. Perhaps pressure should be put on Thames Water – who has just been fined for polluting the River Thames – to give a donation to the trust. And certainly  if they repeat this pollution immediate representation should be made to the Environment Agency for an Enforcement Undertaking so money can be handed out to the trust in future.

 

The loss of Zac Goldsmith and the Lib Dem revival

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Zac Goldsmith: defeated at yesterday’s by-election by the Liberal Democrats Pic credit: BBC

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I have very mixed feelings about the defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the sensational by election victory for the :Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park.

I completely disagree with him over Brexit and I felt he had been seduced by Lynton Crosby’s dog whistle sub racist and Muslim terrorist smear campaign in the Mayor of London election. Anyone in the Tory Party with any sense should know that this would not work in multicultural and multiracial London from the 2015 General Election result- Labour actually gained seats in the capital. And whatever one thinks of Sadiq Khan he is not remotely a terrorist sympathiser.

But I think Zac should be praised  for a rare  quality in British politics. He is a real democrat who believes MPs should be accountable to the people who elect him.

His plan was to give 5 per cent of the electorate the right to start the process of  forcing an MP to stand down  if they misbehaved badly or were suspended from the Commons. He failed to get such a radical idea accepted in  full – but nevertheless an act was passed which could allow the triggering  of such a process.

He also was a man of his word. He asked approval of his voters to stand for Mayor of London as it would mean giving up his seat and he kept his word  by asking his electorate to approve his stance against Heathrow’s third runway.

This time he lost because  of his stance on Brexit.

It is also to his credit that he is a genuine environmentalist who campaigns on green issues – hence his opposition to Heathrow and his support for renewable energy. It is a bit ironic that the Greens contributed to his defeat as he would agree with a lot of their policies in this area.

He also took a brave  stance on child sexual abuse – particularly when it became clear that his constituency was a venue for historical  child sexual abuse in the 1980s. His stance was justified  when ,under Operation Fernbridge, Southwark Crown Court heard about the abuse of boys at Grafton Close children’s home and a Roman Catholic priest was sent to jail for his part in abusing kids with the now dead head of the home  John Stingemore.. Richmond Council under both the Tories and the Liberals had hidden this at the time.

He also was the driving force to get an all party initiative to set up a national independent inquiry into child sexual abuse because he thought it was such a serious issue. It is not his fault that it is at the moment facing serious disarray and needs to get its act together. He had good instincts and is really concerned about the plight of survivors.

Now why has he lost and what does this mean for the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party.

Political commentators should have seen this coming. The Liberal Democrats have won over 20 council seats since the General Election in by-elections – in some cases with increases in vote share of 30 per cent or more. They are winning in both pro Remain and pro Brexit  areas.There have been gains  in pro Brexit cities like Sheffield – when the Lib Dems leapt over second place UKIP to take a seat from Labour and only last night in Chichester  the Lib Dems took a seat from the Tories in a pro Brexit constituency. In Newcastle – wafer thin remain majority – it is the Lib Dems that are again challenging Labour for council seats not UKIP.

The reason I think is clear. Everyone knows where the Lib Dems stand on Brexit- it is a simple message – and it is getting through and people also remember some Lib Dems as  good conscientious local councillors.

For Labour it is not clear where exactly where they stand. In poor  areas – like central Carlisle and Hackney – where it is clear  that Labour stands for supporting those on the margins – their vote is going up. But in many marginal seats they are starting to lose to the Tories and the Lib Dems. This will not win them the next election and they can’t do it on just defending the NHS – because no party is going to be stupid enough to stand for abolishing the NHS. They are only to chip away at it.

So Labour needs as a matter of urgency to work out some simple messages that voters understand. Otherwise they will lose the plot.An army of  new members will not be enough if they have no simple message.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way: Multi million pound fines for Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom

andrea leadsom

Andrea Leadsom Pic Credit: BBC

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It is probably an extreme irony that Theresa May has dumped  leadership rival Andrea Leadsom right in the slurry with the job at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Defra)

For the Eurosceptic Brexiteer is going to have to eat a lot of humble pie and hand over more money than any other minister to the European Commission long after the United Kingdom has quit the European Union.

Her appointment coincided with the latest accounts from Defra with a caustic comment  from the National Audit Office once again qualifying them because of their incompetence in handing out £2.3 billion of subsidies to British farmers.

But this rap on the knuckles means more than that – as it sets up the UK to have to pay a fortune in fines to the EU. I have written about it in Tribune here.

As the article reports:”Failures under Labour and coalition governments to administer properly a previous farm subsidy programme have already led the Commission to fine the UK £661m.
“But this year’s failure to deliver money to farmers on time – with well over half receiving late payments – has already led to over £65m being set aside for fines in the last financial year.”

As Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department continues to struggle with managing the complex CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) scheme in a way that ensures accurate, timely payments to farmers. As a result, it has incurred EU penalties of £65.8 million related to the CAP scheme in 2015-16, and estimates that it owes 13,000 farmers a total of at least £25.3 million.

“Exit from the European Union will not, in the short term, reduce these penalties. The Department therefore needs to ensure its strategy for tackling these challenges is effective.”

This means that Leadsom and her Eurosceptic farming minister, George Eustice, are going to face a double task until 2020.

First they are going to have to continue sorting out the ministry’s failure to pay farmers on time  while having to devise a national British system of supporting farmers which is bound to be controversial.

The NAO are estimating that if anything the level of fines could go up because of the complexities of the payments.
The ministry is promising a new strategy to sort out the problem – saying it expects payments to be better in 2016 than last year. But to do this it has – already according to the accounts – incurred a £6m increase in its pay bill by having to employ temporary staff to sort out computer failures and mistakes and delays in payments to farmers.

It is going to more than of just passing interest to see how the pair cope with such a mess.

Is a £1 million fine a drop in the ocean for Thames Water?

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution started all of this with a £1m fine

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Today the Environment Agency is rightly triumphant in celebrating a £1 million fine against Thames Water for polluting the Grand Union Canal for  nine months in nearby Tring.

This is the highest fine imposed by the courts ever in history according to a release from the Environment Agency. But is it really going to hurt Thames Water apart from the bad publicity?

First of all the case. It was brought by the Environment Agency after Thames Water caused repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring STW (Sewage Treatment Works) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

In May Thames Water pleaded guilty before Watford Magistrates Court to two charges under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. On Monday 4 January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1 million, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120.

Their report goes on:

“The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage debris and sewage sludge being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.”

And it adds: ” The Environment Agency received complaints from the Canal and Rivers Trust and from the general public about pollution in the canal. Officers attended the site on several occasions, they saw sewage debris including panty liners and ear buds in the vicinity of the outfall.”

Thames Water now says it has put matters right at a cost of only £30,000 but it seems to have taken a rather long time to do it. In the meantime it put anglers and boaters at risk from infection.

It also frankly was heaping a lot of shit (literally) on volunteers who are working to restore the rest of the Wendover Arm of the canal so that it can be used again by anglers and boaters. You can see their work here.

Yet put in context the £1m fine with Thames Water’s activities. The latest interim  half yearly figures from the company show it had a turnover of £1 billion, made a £200 million plus profit and paid out  interim dividends of £25m. So the £1 million fine is just 0.5 per cent of six months profit.

And if taken on a yearly basis – the last full year profit was £364m of which £169m was distributed in dividends. Investors include pension funds and the Chinese.

More interestingly the Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs entire package well exceeds the £1m fine. The accounts for 2014-15 show his package in the company is over £2m for services to the group. His £460,000 salary is boosted by £53,000 in benefits including a £36,000 housing allowance, £15,000 for a company car and £2000 private medical insurance. He has long term bonuses worth over £1m with payouts of nearly £350,00 planned for the next three years. And he has a handsome £115,000 contribution to his pension.

Put all this together and perhaps £1m should be the minimum Thames should pay for any pollution they cause.Perhaps fines of £10m or a personal deduction from fat cat salaries should also be included.

The public may be pleased with the level of the fine – but for the company it seems but a  few drops from its bank balance.

Armchair Audit: Sir Philip Dilley, the dilatory flood maestro

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Sir Philip Dilley Pic credit: gov.uk

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UPDATE JANUARY 11: Sir Philip resigned as chair of the environment agency today and will leave at the end of January. He will now have time to concentrate on his other directorships, play more golf and tennis, and spend more time in Barbados.

His resignation statement said: “I want to be clear that I have not made any untrue or misleading statements, apart from approving the statement about my location over Christmas that in hindsight could have been clearer.”

He also attacked the media for pursuing him but as Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said:“Many staff gave up their Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Their boss should have joined them. It seemed to many that this organisation was bereft of its formal leadership when it was most needed.” 

Conservative MP for Ribble Valley Nigel Evans said Sir Philip had now made the “right judgement call”.

 

So  Sir Philip Dilley, David Cameron’s appointment to replace Lord Smith as chair of the Environment Agency, couldn’t tear himself away from sunny Barbados to turn up to see first hand the failure of his agency to cope with Storm Desmond and Frank.

Today the man who attacked former Labour Cabinet minister Chris Smith for not turning up soon enough to see the disastrous floods on the Somerset levels is rightly being pilloried in the press for deciding to spend time with his family than see any of those unfortunate flood victims.

What was disingenuous as the Telegraph reported is that his press office hid the fact that home – at the age of 60 – is a luxury villa in Barbados and not in the UK. He has a flat in Marylebone, London.

He of course says “Everyone be everywhere all the time ” but then that is not surprising given the man has ten directorships, including his own company to run, as well as posts on the board of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Imperial College, London.

And the money – £100,000 a year for a three day week – is of course chicken feed compared to the sums of money he was getting at his last big job as executive chairman of the Arup Group Ltd – the £1 billion international civil engineering business – says he and his fellow 12 directors shared £5.75 million between. the highest paid director – presumably Sir Philip – got a magnificent £864,000 a year – including a very useful sum paid into his pension – which at the age of 60 he can start drawing down.

His Who’s Who entry declares his married his wife, June. late in 2003 and has three sons, and spends time playing golf and tennis in sunny Barbados. He also is a wine buff and opera lover.

To give him credit the Portsmouth born man  made his way up in Arup from a graduate engineer to chairman.

He is also one of David Cameron’s favourite businessman sitting on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Group from 2011 to 2013. He accompanied the Prime Minister on trade missions to India, China and Russia and was a guest at a state banquet given by The Queen for the Indian President.

So perhaps it is not surprising that he can’t devote too much time to this nuisance issue of flooding -but the salary must be a very useful sum to supplement his pension.

 

 

Untrustworthy Truss: The dishonest cover up that left farmers owed hundreds of millions of pounds

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This week  Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss chairs a highly publicised  emergency Cabinet committee to save large swathes of the nation from a flooding disaster. I hope she does a better job than supervising payments to  England’s farmers.

Last week her department  and one of its agencies were involved in one of the most callous and dishonest pieces of news management this year.

It has left tens of thousands of farmers without any  money for Christmas and they will be lucky if they are paid by the end of January.

The reason is her department and the Rural Payments Agency have been involved in a monumental mess over  the introduction of a new computer system to pay farmers their annual cash from the European Union.

This money is not small beer. This time last year some £1.3 BILLION was paid out to over 96,000  farmers in England and it helps keep our  food at reasonable prices in the shops.

Last week the National Audit Office revealed that the computer system set up to pay the money didn’t work properly, cost 40 per cent ( at £215m to the taxpayer) more than planned and , as a result,farmers had to revert to using paper applications.

The report even for National Audit Office terms was scathing. it revealed a total mess across Whitehall with quarrelling officials from the Cabinet Office to the Government Digital Service making a pig’s ear of the whole business.

I wrote about it in Tribune. Here is one damning paragraph  in the report:

” The Programme has been set back by numerous changes in leadership. There were four senior responsible owners within the space of a year, each bringing their own style and priorities. Repeated changes were disruptive to the Programme and caused uncertainty and confusion for its staff. The Department failed to prevent… deep rifts in working relationships and inappropriate behaviour at the senior leadership level. ”

Now this body- the Government Digital Service – has just been given an extra £200m by George Osborne, the Chancellor, so it can digitalise driving licences and passports.  If their handling of farmers money is anything to go by, you will find you won’t be able to get a driving licence or passport by the next General Election.

You might wonder why you have not heard about this mess.  A copy of the damning NAO report was sent to every national newspaper but their reporters deemed it too boring to publish. The situation was condemned by Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, but it fell on deaf Parliamentary lobby ears.

But worse than this  the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs deliberately misled the public and the media about this state of affairs.

Last year when the first farmers received their cash under the old system, Elizabeth Truss couldn’t wait to boast, in a run up to the election, how successful the government had been in getting the money to farmers. You can read about it here.

This year this completely misleading statement was put out and Elizabeth Truss was nowhere to be seen. It boasted of  33,000 farmers receiving the cash. Last year it was 96,000. In other words it had fallen by 65 per cent – an appalling state of affairs.

To my mind the whole saga shows we are governed by a Metropolitan elite – with no press interest in the plight of anyone outside London and complete disdain for rural issues. That is why obviously Elizabeth Truss thought she could get away with no one knowing anything about this mess. And she has succeeded.

There is a great opportunity for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to take this issue up – it chimes with the parties’ interests in backing grass roots politics away from Westminster.

There is also a sting in the tale – do you know the European Union can fine the UK for not paying the money promptly. A similar problem some years ago meant the department was fined over £600m.  So due to ministers’ incompetence some of your taxes – will go to pay millions of pounds of EU fines. You couldn’t make this up.