Why the raw sewage fiasco took the government by surprise

Photo: Penelope Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo

Last week a Conservative MP in rebellion against his government said “shit”. Philip Dunne admitted it wasn’t a word he intended to use in parliament, but he used it in its literal sense, not as a curse. He feared that “we weren’t treating the arteries of nature, what our rivers are, like the cesspool of humanity” and believed the government was doing too little to tackle the problem. He was one of 22 Tory MPs who backed a Lords amendment, against the will of the government, which would impose a “legal obligation on funeral directors to take all reasonable steps to ensure that untreated sewage is not not spilled by storm overflows “. Already, the government has announced a partial U-turn with a tax on water companies.

But the saga is not over. With media interest growing day by day, this could be one of those issues that seems to emerge like thunder from a clear sky, catching the government by surprise, making it appear indifferent and incompetent. Indeed, the metaphor is relevant: Part of the problem is that climate change is causing occasional storms of ferocity that submerge our pipes and sewers, and add to the already serious problem of untreated sewage flowing into our rivers. and the sea.

This is far from the first time that an issue far from the top of the political agenda has shaken government ministers. Do you remember the “pasty tax”? In his 2012 budget, George Osborne proposed what he thought was a minor change in the rules to simplify the way hot take-out food was taxed. Fish and chips attracted 20 percent VAT, but Cornish pâtés did not. Osborne proposed that customers pay VAT on all hot take-out meals.

To any mind in the Treasury, this was an eminently sane and overdue reform that Parliament would quietly approve. Not for the first time, the smart minds of the Treasury have misjudged the policy. “Pasty tax!” cried Labor. The tabloid newspapers were enthusiastic. Conservative MPs got nervous and started to waver. A few weeks later, Osborne was forced to retreat. Pasta eaters could continue to indulge themselves tax-free.

A former chancellor saw another seemingly minor problem turn into a major headache. In October 1999, Gordon Brown welcomed good economic news. The economy was growing and inflation was falling. It seemed reasonable to assume that retirees would be particularly happy, as inflation reduced their income much less than before.

Here is the problem. The basic state pension was linked to inflation. The faster the prices rose (boo, whistling), the more pensions would increase; but if the prices rose more slowly (hurray), the less the pensions would increase. And that fall, inflation was only 1.1 percent. This meant that the basic pension was only to increase by 75 pence per week. But retirees, far from taking off their hats in gratitude to a chancellor who presided over such stability, complained that 75 pence was an insult to the older generation.

In a way, their complaint was justified. In most years, incomes grew faster than prices, so the state pension gradually declined relative to incomes. Three years later, Brown changed the system so that the state’s basic pension increased by at least 2.5% per year. But politically, the damage was done. Labor has gained a reputation for being “anti-pensioners” – in part because of the price stability accorded to Britain.

We will see if the government turns around on wastewater and agrees to impose a stricter duty on “sanitation contractors” (in practice, water companies) to “take all reasonable measures” to keep our rivers. own – or if he will have him plead that the expense would be too great. Ministers said it would cost between £ 150bn and £ 650bn to completely fix Britain’s sewage system.

Whenever ministers wish to stand firm in the future, perhaps they could learn from the United States. A president, back in his home country, faced complaints at a town hall from local farmers. They told him that by blocking a new bill that would help farmers, it was costing them ten cents a gallon on the milk they sold. Did the president back down? Far from there. He said, “Yeah, I fucked you on that one.”

He continued, “You have been hosed down. And not just you. Many of my constituents. You got ripped off but hey. Today, for the first time in history, the largest group of Americans living in poverty are children. One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, desperate, grueling and heartbreaking poverty imaginable… I voted against the bill because I did not want to make it harder to buy milk. I kept money from flowing into your pocket. If that makes you angry, if you blame me, I totally respect that. But if you’re expecting something different from the President of the United States, you should vote for someone else. “

The year? 2000. The president? Josias Bartlet. Yes it was West wing showing one way of doing adult politics: using brutal frankness.

I would be happy, but amazed, if life, in the form of a political leader confident in the decisions he has made, imitated this work of art anytime soon, in Washington or London.

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Dela Cruz

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