Companies that pollute waters could face “unlimited” fines under new plans to beef up enforcement, Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey has said.

The announcement came days after it was revealed that firms pumped waste into UK waters for 1.75 million hours last year.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey has said the Government will lift the upper cap on penalties for water companies found to have breached rules, meaning it will be easier for them to charge unlimited fines.

She is also expected to publish a six-week consultation on strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to punish water companies without going through the courts – though “the most serious cases will still be taken through criminal proceedings”.

A new Water Restoration Fund is expected to be unveiled next week, intended to “direct investment to where it is most needed to improve our rivers, lakes and streams” by providing help for NGOs and community groups seeking to clean up waters.

“I know how important our beautiful rivers, lakes, streams and coastlines are for people and nature – and I couldn’t agree more than more needs to be done to protect them,” Ms Coffey said.

“I want to make sure that regulators have the powers and tools to take tough action against companies that are breaking the rules and to do so more quickly.”

i‘s Save Britain’s Rivers campaign has exposed the lack of monitoring and regulation relating to sewage discharges – with companies themselves responsible for checking that they are not in breach of their environmental permits and reporting any illegal sewage spills to the Environment Agency.

According to the Environmental Agency there were 301,091 sewage discharges in 2022, with a 19 per cent fall year-on-year “down to dry weather, not water company action”.

Water companies can only release sewage during heavy rain under strictly permitted conditions. But campaigners say spills happen more often than they should, even in dry conditions. They have called on the companies to invest their profits in infrastructure.

The Water Services Regulation Authority, otherwise known as Ofwat, and the Environment Agency are currently investigating six water companies for allegedly not properly monitoring the legality of their spills. The regulators are themselves under investigation by the Office for Environmental Protection over alleged failures to track illegal spills.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust, said on Friday: The data on discharges from combined sewer overflows from 2022 is distressing… we’re pleased to see that the Environment Agency has issued a robust response to the data and hope that the promised regulatory action and enforcement will happen before it’s too late to save our precious river habitats.”

The Trust warned the public to “only flush pee, poo and paper… because the truth is you never know if that waste will be treated or whether it will end up in your local river.”

Megan Corton Scott, political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, attacked the “monopoly control” handed to the water companies, alleging: “They have no commercial incentive to do anything other than collect the money their customers have no choice over giving them.

“We’ve had three Environmentesecretaries in the last year, and not one of them has made any progress on this. The government must end their snail-like approach and urgently set ambitious, binding near-term targets to improve water quality, and give the regulators the legal powers and funding necessary to enforce them.”

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