Liz Truss failed to hold any meetings with water bosses over the dumping of raw sewage in two years as environment secretary, despite the practice having been ruled illegal.
The likely next prime minister is facing new questions about her responsibility for the sewage scandal after records revealed her only talks were about a bug linked to severe stomach upsets.
Yet, two years before Ms Truss took over the environment post in 2014, the UK was found guilty of breaching EU laws over sewage in waterways and given five years to clean up its act.
Labour called the lack of meetings “beyond belief”, accusing the Tory leadership race favourite and her party of “treating Britain as an open sewer”.
Feargal Sharkey, the campaigner for clean water and former musician, told The Independent: “This is shocking – Truss acted like an absentee landlord while the water companies exploited a national resource.
“The government fiddled the system to hand control and oversee pollution to the water industry, while the regulator was like a 12-year-old smoking behind the school bike sheds.”
The revelation comes after Ms Truss came under fire for cutting tens of millions of pounds of funding earmarked for tackling water pollution in the environment brief between 2014 and 2016.
Since 2016, raw sewage discharge in England and Wales has more than doubled, from 14.7 spill events for each overflow to 29.3 in 2021, separate figures have shown.
The summer holidays have been blighted by swimmers being warned to stay out of the water at more than 50 of Britain’s beaches as the privatised firms continue to pump sewage into the sea.
At party hustings, Ms Truss blamed regulators for the problem, accusing them of “mission creep” and saying of the water companies: “They need to be better at dealing with pollution, and we need to sort that out.”
But Labour’s research reveals that only one of more than 150 listed meetings she held while environment secretary was with a water company – United Utilities, to discuss the parasite cryptosporidium.
Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said: “For Liz Truss to have only ever had one conversation with a water company and none on sewage dumping is beyond belief.
“It shows a lack of leadership on a severe issue that blights our country’s areas of beauty and risks our health.
“Given her actions in actively dismantling the services that protect our natural environment, which led to a sewage surge, it begs the question: what else Liz Truss touches turns to crap?”
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Liz Truss not only neutered the regulator but enabled water companies to profit from a system that was never fit for purpose.
“Since privatisation in 1989, the industry has ignored its mandate to invest in infrastructure upgrades, instead hosing their profits on dividends and bonuses.”
During hustings last Tuesday, Ms Truss defended her cuts to anti-pollution funding – while the water company bosses have been allowed to enjoy bumper bonuses.
Her “efficiencies” included a £24m reduction to environmental protection grants, including water companies' surveillance to prevent the dumping of raw sewage, the National Audit Office said.
The Environment Agency has pleaded for the cuts and its power to properly monitor water companies to be restored – instead of allowing the industry to self-report discharges.
But Ms Truss replied: “There are plenty of things the Environment Agency were doing that they shouldn’t have been doing,” – without setting out what they were.
The leadership candidate has been asked to respond to her criticism for not meeting water companies over the two years.
Janice is a full-time mom who likes to write on a range of topics in her spare time. She specializes in the Home, Garden, and Recycling topics. Janice is our Lifestyle and positive vibe expert. She keeps the office running.