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Canals And Waterways

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 31 January 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to enable voluntary workers to restart clearance work on British Waterways Board canals.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the effects of the industrial situation on the inland waterways.

I regret that long-standing difficulties over pay have led to non-co-operation by the staff of the British Waterways Board, and this has prevented the Board from making a physical start on the Fraenkel maintenance programme, and has also affected routine maintenance. This inevitably results in closures of sections of canal in the interests of public safety, and has also compelled the Board to withdraw permission for voluntary bodies to work on projects where the staff will not supervise the work.

I recognise that the Board is currently faced with particular difficulties in attempting to maintain the inland waterways in a proper condition. The Board has my full support, and I am doing all I can to find a speedy solution to its present difficulties.

Since the withdrawal by British Waterways Board employees of their co-operation stems from a dispute that is now over three years old, is it not time that the Government took much more urgent action to try to end the dispute? What opportunities have the employees been offered for arbitration?

I thank the hon. Member for his measured supplementary question. We have sought various ways of easing the situation. I confess that I had considerable hope a few weeks ago that we might get an urgent consideration of the dispute under schedule 11 to the Employment Protection Act. However, the tight drafting of the terms of reference of that schedule precluded that solution. I am therefore looking most urgently for an alternative.

Is the Minister aware of the seriousness of the situation for the canal network? Does he agree that unless this matter is resolved fairly soon there will be considerable damage to the canal system and possible danger to those who live alongside it? Since the Central Arbitration Committee has rejected the opportunity to look at this case, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman met the NALGO representatives and discussed the case with them?

I should be very willing to meet officers of NALGO. I have had opportunities to discuss these matters with them previously, and I hope to have the opportunity of resuming contact with them shortly. I have very much in mind the safety aspect. I am aware of the safety problem to which the Fraenkel committee drew attention. I have made an allocation of substantial resources. It is now a question of getting the money spent.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the expansion of leisure and sporting facilities which is possible on the waterways can be promoted by voluntary agencies and groups of voluntary workers? Will my right hon. Friend indicate in which specific ways he feels his Department might be able to assist in the funding of clearance projects?

I am willing to look at further encouragement to voluntary work, but the existing level of voluntary work has had to be curtailed because, in the absence of BWB supervisory staffs, it cannot be properly supervised. At present they are not prepared to supervise it, but I assure the House that I shall do my utmost to bring that state of affairs to an end as soon as I can.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in addition to the conditions described in the Fraenkel report, further and expensive damage is being a caused to canals and to boats by the lowering of levels, which has been necessary as a result of the industrial action? Will he bear that in mind when thinking in terms of any settlement of the dispute?

Yes, I shall bear that in mind. I am sure that the BWB management will have it in mind in considering the priority allocations of the substantial sums being made available.