BBC QT: Water companies ‘make billions of profit’ claims audience amid sewage controversy

Question Time: University students ‘suffering’ says woman

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Audience member Ellen McFarlane was the last one to ask a question to the panel on Thursday night and picked a topic that shocked the country earlier this week. Following the recent prolonged heavy rain, footage showing water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers went viral online.

Incidentally, this is routine for these companies and remains 100 percent legal.

In 2020, water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times last year, according to figures published by the Environment Agency.

Untreated effluent, including human waste, wet wipes and condoms, was released into waterways for more than three million hours in 2020.

The Agency says this shocking technique protects properties from flooding and prevents sewage from backing up into streets and homes.

Troubled by the same footage, Ms McFarlane asked the panel whether water companies should be forced to reduce the amount of sewage they discharge into rivers and the sea given the billions of pounds of profit they made in recent years.

Tory Treasury Minister Lucy Frazer did not manage to convince her fellow panellists who all lamented the fact that on Wednesday, 265 MPs voted with the government to reject an attempt by the House of Lords to toughen up the approach to the discharge of sewage.

“I am just flabbergasted that the Government did not support what seemed to be a pretty straightforward measure to clean up our seas and rivers,” said Labour MP Bridget Phillipson.

Entrepreneur Jenny Campbell told Ms Frazer: “You are almost incentivising them [water companies] to do nothing about their water systems, so that they can just put it in the water, in our rivers.”

“I appreciate it will cost a lot of money to revamp all our water systems.

“And where is that money going to come from? It’s going to come from the taxpayer,” she added.

Yet economist Miatta Fahnbulleh and the audience member who asked the question disagreed.

“How on Earth have we got ourselves into this position where we have water companies, which have made quite a lot of profit, which have raised our bills, all the while underinvesting in the infrastructure?” wondered Ms Fahnbulleh.

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“The system that we have is broken,” added the economist.

“Something as fundamental as our water should be owned by us.

“It should be in public hands so that the water system works for the public and in our interest.”

A nationalisation to which Ellen McFarlane is in favour as she shared her own view before being acclaimed by the studio audience: “If something as precious as the water was nationalised then we would not be in this issue.

“Jenny said the taxpayer should potentially have to pay for the investment that needs to go into the Victorian infrastructure.

“But why should we have to pay when the water companies have been making billions of pounds in profit for decades?”

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