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Private water suppliers 'can't be trusted' after news staff obstructed sewage probe

Campaigners call for water to be brought back into public hands after scandal

PRIVATISED water profiteers “can’t be trusted” and should be kicked out of an industry that belongs in public hands, campaigners warned today after three employees at one of Britain’s biggest water suppliers were convicted of obstructing an Environment Agency (EA) investigation into sewage leaks.

The agency was looking into raw sewage being pumped into rivers across south-east England.

But it has now been revealed that five employees of Southern Water were convicted last year of obstructing agency investigations in July 2016, though two of these convictions were overturned on appeal.

However, the convictions were not reported or broadcast at the time.

The employees of the firm, which supplies nearly five million households with water in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, were caught trying to obstruct the EA in its attempts to analyse the company’s administration of sewage treatment works.

Southern itself was charged at the same time as its employees but it was found by the court to be “not criminally liable” for the obstruction.

During the trial, the employees argued that they were acting under the instruction of the company’s solicitor not to give data to the EA, even though the agency requires information supplied by water companies to uphold the quality of its monitoring.

The case took place during an ongoing broader criminal investigation into Southern after the company allowed untreated waste water to flow into waterways.

The court documents, which had not been reported until the story was revealed by the Financial Times this week, said that the company displayed a “lack of co-operation” with investigators and in some cases displayed “conduct which was clearly calculated to frustrate the inspection.”

One example mentioned that a scientist was instructed by a lawyer to refuse to let the EA take vital documents related to sewage outflows from a waste-treatment facility. Another worker claimed they were told to lock other documents up in a van.

An investigation by water regulator Ofwat ended recently with the company ordered to pay £123 million back to customers after the watchdog found that the company had deliberately misreported data for seven years until 2017 in order to dodge financial penalties for its water quality. It was also made to pay a £3m fine to the government.

This has raised wider questions of whether the public can trust assessments of water cleanliness from private companies.

GMB young members committee communications officer Lara McNeill told the Star: “The arrogance of these multimillion-pound companies and their determination to hide away from scrutiny is astonishing.

“It goes to show that they think they’re above the law – they can’t be trusted at all. They’re happy to receive millions in cash for running the water supplies but they don’t want to be held to account – even if they’re polluting our waters and damaging our health.

“It’s time the government calls time on these companies abusing their power and listens to the GMB, who have been demanding that we take back control of our country’s water supplies.

“The only right thing to do is to bring the water back into the hands of the people.”

We Own It campaigns officer Ellen Lees said: "The revelations that Southern Water staff have been convicted of obstructing the Environment Agency from collecting data in an investigation into sewage pollution are shocking. 

"But they reveal a wider problem with water privatisation. For far too long private water companies have been treating our environment and their customers with contempt: pumping raw sewage into our rivers and ripping off the public.

“Enough is enough. Privatisation of water has failed. It’s time to bring our water into public ownership.”

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