I will make some progress and then I will happily give way.
For those not familiar with the Bill, the first thing is to ask, “What is the Middle Level?” The Middle Level is the central and largest section of the Great Level of the fens, which was reclaimed by drainage during the mid-17th century. The area is bounded to the north-west and east by the Nene and the Ouse washes, to the north by the previously drained marshland silts, and to the south and west by low clay hills. The Middle Level river system consists of over 120 miles of watercourses, approximately 100 miles of which are statutory navigations, and has a catchment of just over 170,000 acres. Virtually all the fenland within the Middle Level catchment lies below mean sea level.
The Middle Level Commissioners, together with the local internal drainage boards, therefore operate a highly complex flood protection and water level management system to balance the various water uses and requirements, and to alleviate the risk of flooding of land and properties. The efficient operation of this system is vital to the safety and prosperity of the 100,000-plus people who live and work in the area and the 26,000 properties that depend on it. But for the operations of the commissioners and the local boards, much of the fenland would be underwater for a lot of the year, access from higher ground would be cut off, and many of the current land uses would be impossible.
My understanding from the promoters of the Bill is that it is about the framework for the management of the levels and the waterways, rather than specific developments or projects. If the commissioners decided to pursue such things, they would have to go through the usual process to get permission. Given the historical nature of some of these sites, that could involve an extensive consideration of archaeological impact.
Now that my hon. Friend is taking interventions, may I ask him what his status is? He is telling us about the Bill and the location with which it deals, but his constituency is nowhere near the affected area. Why has it not been possible for the promoters of the Bill to find a local MP who is sympathetic to it?
My hon. Friend is a doughty scrutiniser of Bills, even if they do not relate to Christchurch. I know that he, like me, takes his duties as a Member of the House very seriously when it comes to promoting and debating legislation. He rightly champions the point that there is no restriction on our debating legislation even if it does not directly affect our constituencies. Private Bills must be sponsored by Back-Bench Members, for obvious reasons, and some of the MPs directly affected by the Bill are Ministers. Given the interest that I have expressed in waterways and their consistent management, I think that it is appropriate for me to sponsor this Bill. Of course, all Members will have the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I hope that we will hear from at least one local Member who is directly affected. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also share his insights into the Bill.
I am not directly affected by the Bill, but the drains and waterways in question are adjacent to my constituency. I support the Bill 100%, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend is sponsoring it. I think it is appropriate for him to do so, because a local MP might encounter conflicts of some kind. It makes a great deal of sense for an MP from another part of the country to sponsor this important Bill to give the commissioners more powers, and we are grateful to him for doing so.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; I could not have put it better myself.
Why do we need a Bill? As many hon. Members know, I regularly make the point on Fridays that legislating is not something to do for the fun of it or a unique form of parliamentary sport. For a Bill to be worthy of parliamentary time, there must be a clear need for it. This private Bill is being promoted by the Middle Level Commissioners, a statutory corporation constituted under the Middle Level Act 1862. The commissioners provide flood defence and water level management to the Middle Level area, and they are the navigation authority for the Middle Level river system. The legal framework that governs the commissioners’ navigation function is made up of several 18th and 19th-century Acts that regulate the use of these waterways, which were mainly laid out in the 17th century.
May I, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, offer my sincerest apologies for my lateness? I was detained coming into the Palace.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the area covered by the Middle Level Commissioners is not strictly analogous to that of other navigation authorities, in that the Middle Level area consists essentially of interconnected drainage basins rather than stand-alone, bespoke rivers and canals?
My hon. Friend shows his exceptional knowledge of his constituency and the assets that support it. He is right. Fundamentally, as I will come on to say when I talk about the regulatory framework, the waterways in question were built as a drainage system, but they have gone on to be used by pleasure boats and other vessels. One of the reasons why the Bill is necessary is because some of the uses were not envisaged at the time of the 1862 Act. Clearly motorboats did not exist at the time, and the concept of canal usage was very different.
I will make some more progress and then I will be only too happy to give way again.
The regulation of these waterways, which were mainly laid out in the 17th century, is considerably out of date and does not align with modern requirements or the statutory framework applicable to other navigation authorities, including neighbouring ones. In particular, the current legal framework that governs the commissioners does not include adequate provision for the registration of vessels using the waterways or the levying of charges for the use of the waterways and associated facilities. In my briefings with the promoters, it was remarked that the framework means that the exemptions are for pleasure craft and those transporting manure. As a result, the commissioners currently do not receive any income from the navigation of the waterways, so money raised through drainage rates and levies has to be used to fund navigation, rather than flood defences. In the financial year ending on 31 March 2016, this amounted to £178,929.06 of unfunded expenditure. The commissioners are therefore seeking to update and clarify their powers to enable them to regulate and fund their waterways properly.
The powers sought are similar to those already used by other large inland navigation authorities, such as the Canal & River Trust, the Environment Agency and the Broads Authority. In essence, the future maintenance and management of the waterway will be funded in a similar way to others, not based on one set of users, and those who benefit can be asked to contribute.
Why do we have a private Bill? The commissioners originally proposed to update their governing legislation in the 2000s using a Transport and Works Act order. They approached the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which rightly considered that the introduction of the proposed registration and charging schemes would be outside the powers of a TWAO, so the proposals did not proceed any further. Having consulted on updated proposals, the commissioners approached DEFRA again last year, but in October 2016, the Department confirmed that its position had not changed and that a TWAO could not be used. Its reasoning was that a TWAO could not be used to impose charges on navigation governed by primary legislation that does not itself contain charging provisions, as is the case for Middle Level navigation. It was therefore suggested that the commissioners should pursue a private Bill to update their powers.
I am sure that Members will agree that this is the right approach. It is welcome that we can debate these important subjects in our consideration of the Bill. Although this is the first opportunity for a wider debate in the House on this matter, the proposals will not come as a surprise to those who might be affected, as there has already been a wider consultation.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. May I put it to him that, at first sight, the Bill is an attempt to regularise the Middle Level vis-à-vis legislation for other navigation authorities, but what is missing from it—this might be different with secondary legislation—is any commensurate commitment to upgrade facilities that are similar to those of other navigation authorities? That is the Achilles heel of the Bill, and it is where it might need to be looked at again by this House or the other place.
I will respond to those comments when I come on to the petitions. However, I agree with my hon. Friend: clearly nobody wants to pay extra charges for the same facilities, but if we do not change the legal framework, those using the Middle Level for drainage are being asked to pay for facilities for those using it for navigation, making it very unlikely that facilities will ever be developed. These things need to go hand in hand. When I move on to the petitions, I will say a bit more about the commissioners’ views about the facilities that people who are required to pay should expect in exchange.
Is it right to say that the consultation took place at the same time as the EU referendum, the outcome of which we are celebrating today? Is it also right to say that, for example, the March cruising club, whose headquarters is almost opposite the commissioners’ offices, was not consulted, and that other petitioners were not consulted either?
I know that my hon. Friend would agree with me that people are more than able to deal with two issues at the same time. The EU referendum was very important and many hon. Members engaged with it—I know that he engaged passionately and put his side of the argument—but they can also deal with other things, as was true today, when hon. Members have had various items on the agenda. I would not say immediately that the fact that the consultation coincided with the referendum meant that nobody took part in it. Petitions against the Bill have been deposited, and if the Bill is read a Second time, the petitioners can be heard before an Opposed Private Bill Committee, which will scrutinise the Bill in more depth. I hope that my hon. Friend will support the Bill on Second Reading so that those points can be made, the petitioners can come along and we can consider how to work constructively and appropriately to create a modern framework of regulation, rather than continue with a framework based on the needs of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. He made the key point earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), which is that the powers need to be brought up to date, made more fit for purpose and more modern, and brought into line with similar powers over other waterways, as exercised by the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust and the Broads Authority, which is near my constituency. An update is long overdue.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting succinctly the exact points that need to be made. The current system of regulation dates from another era and it needs to be brought into line with the successful system elsewhere. The House is not being petitioned to revert other areas to the old system, but there is a demand for change.
It might be helpful if I go through the consultation that took place between February and June 2016. The commissioners notified affected parties, including those with navigation interests, land drainage interests and local authorities, and published newspaper notices and placed details on their website. Of the 23 responses received, 18 were supportive, three neutral and two opposed.
It might be helpful if I list the supporters. They include the Inland Waterways Association, the East Anglian Waterways Association, the Association Of Nene River Clubs, the National Association of Boat Owners, the Middle Level Watermen’s Club, the Residential Boat Owners’ Association, the Association of Waterway Cruising Clubs and five local councils. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who represents a nearby constituency, has also indicated his support.
It is also right that I mention the concerns. Six petitions against the Bill have been deposited by individuals with varying interests in the navigation of the waterways, including the March cruising club, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has mentioned, and the National Bargee Travellers Association. The commissioners have been considering the points raised in the petitions. As I touched on in response to my hon. Friend’s intervention, if the Bill is given its Second Reading the commissioners will respond to those points prior to the Opposed Private Bill Committee. Both the commissioners and the petitioners will then have the opportunity to give evidence directly supporting their case to the Committee, which will determine the line-by-line detail of the Bill and whether its principle has been proved.
The Bill is long and complex and, for the benefit of Members, I do not intend to go through every aspect of it or of the petitions. There are, however, two issues that I think I should cover to assist the House. The first relates to houseboat owners. For some, the Middle Level is their home, not just a pleasure watercourse. I acknowledge, therefore, that one of the petitioners is the National Bargee Travellers Association. I have raised that issue in relation to the Bill’s powers and have been advised that the commissioners are a public authority bound by the Human Rights Act to comply with the European convention on human rights. If removing a vessel would interfere with its owner’s article 8 rights—namely the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence—that could be done only if it is proportionate to do so. The courts have indicated that it is more likely to be proportionate if a vessel plainly fails to meet safety standards or its owner consistently refuses to show that they have insurance, but it is not likely to be proportionate if there is a genuine dispute about breach of licence conditions.
The commissioners can spell that out in more detail in registration byelaws, if the Bill is passed. Of course, those byelaws will also be subject to ministerial confirmation. We could also explore the issue in more detail in the Bill Committee. Ultimately, those who make the place under discussion their home could also benefit from gaining better facilities and a more secure future via a modernised system of regulation and a modernised legal framework for the Middle Level.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) highlighted the second point, which is the idea of people paying more but not getting any facilities in return—in other words, a tax on using this stretch of water. I accept—I hope that the Bill’s promoters do as well—that this has to be a two-way street. Those who navigate cannot be charged more if they are going to receive a pretty similar service. There has to be a clear benefit. I have raised the issue with the Bill’s promoters and they have advised me that the commissioners recognise that navigators being asked to pay charges will have to get something in return for their money—there is no two ways about that. They have agreed with the Inland Waterways Association, the East Anglian Waterways Association and the National Association of Boat Owners that they will set up a users’ panel, if the Bill is passed and the framework modernised. The panel will be able to discuss an annual programme of maintenance improvements before each year’s charges are set. The precise arrangements for the panel have not yet been agreed, but the commissioners could certainly set out more detail before the Bill Committee if that would be helpful.
I hope that that provides some reassurance to the House, but again this is a matter we could explore in some depth in Committee. I would just make the point that, as with the older regulatory Acts, we may wish to consider carefully how much we want to put on the face of a Bill and how much could sensibly be left to allow some flexibility for the day-to-day management of the levels.
There is a lot of detail I could go into, particularly in relation to the patchwork of rather elderly Acts that regulate this waterway. To allow time for debate, I will not go through them all. I am, however, happy to respond to points raised during the debate and I look forward to the Minister’s comments. I hope that the Bill receives its Second Reading, so that its promoters and petitioners can make their case in Committee, and the Middle Level can have the modern, up-to-date system of regulation it deserves.
I am pleased to speak to the private Bill on behalf of the official Opposition. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for so thoroughly covering the background and setting out why the Bill is needed. I would like to emphasise a few points, because I think it is important that the House has a clear understanding of the proposals and of why the Bill is needed.
The Bill amends and updates the powers of the Middle Level Commissioners to regulate navigation on the Middle Level of the fens. It will bring the Middle Level into line with powers granted to the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust, and the Norfolk Broads Authority. We have heard that the existing legislation dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, primarily the Middle Level Act 1862, and so it is remarkably out of date.
The Middle Level Commissioners provide flood defence and water level management to the Middle Level area, and are the navigation authority for the Middle Level river system. The Middle Level, the largest of the Great Level of the fens, was reclaimed by drainage of the land in the 17th century. It consists of over 120 miles of watercourses, with 100 miles of them being statutory. But for the operations of the commissioners and the local internal drainage boards, much of this fenland would be underwater, as much of it is below sea level. This would have a devastating impact on the 100,000 people who live and work in the area.
The commissioners have consulted widely and thoroughly with interested parties, the substantial majority of whom were in favour of the proposed changes. In a nutshell, the Bill would allow the Middle Level Commissioners to: charge vessels to use the waterways; fine people for staying longer than allowed at moorings; check that boats using the waterways have valid insurance; remove sunken or abandoned vessels; temporarily close sections of waterways for works or events; and enter into arrangements with other navigation authorities for the mutual recognition of registrations and licences.
Chris Howes, a local boat enthusiast, told the Wisbech Standard in March 2016 that he agreed with the commissioners’ plans, citing the apparently abandoned boats rotting away on the Old Nene that could be got rid of under the new powers. He said:
“the proposals are potentially so exciting, and so beneficial to Fenland, it’s hugely important that they come to fruition…If we want Fenland to aspire to be a tourist destination in the same way that Holland is, generating income to invest in our currently largely inaccessible waterways is a necessary stage.”
Iain Smith, the chief executive of the Middle Level Commissioners, said:
“it is important to update the laws, enabling us to have better control of the waterways we oversee.”
Additional income for the commissioners could make a real difference to fenland and to the waterways. I personally know the area well, having lived near there for a number of years, and would support any efforts to boost the local economy.
The Bill would bring legislation covering the Middle Level into the 21st century, in line with other navigation authorities. We support it.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on his opening remarks. I am delighted to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), because today is his birthday. That just shows how dedicated he is to his constituency duties. As he accurately identified, although his constituency is covered by the Middle Level Commissioners, this particular part of the navigation covers other stretches, including parts of the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) who, as members of the Government, cannot speak directly to this Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her extremely kind remarks. She will be aware of two things. First, she will know that quite a lot of the navigation traffic—boats and other craft—start their journeys in King’s Lynn or in my constituency and go upstream into some of these waterways. Secondly, on a point that I am sure she will come to, she and I share a passion for flood defences, and one has to remember that the extra money will be used to secure some of these waterways to prevent flooding. Flooding would obviously be devastating for all the surrounding farm areas and the many people who make their living in this area.
As my hon. Friend shows, he is assiduous in ensuring that people who start their journey in his constituency are well served. I recognise what he said about how the management of waterways can help with flooding.
The main purpose of the Middle Level Bill is to amend and update the powers of the Middle Level Commissioners to regulate navigation on the Middle Level of the fens in the city of Peterborough and the counties of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The commissioners are the navigation authority for these waterways, and have powers under a range of local Acts passed between 1663 and 1874. They are the fourth largest inland navigation authority in the country by length of navigable waterway.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay set out, the commissioners have previously lobbied my Department, which is the lead policy Department responsible for inland navigation matters in this country. They wanted us to take forward legislation to amend the navigation powers, but given the constraints on Government time for legislation and the fact that the focus of the provisions is local, it was on our advice that the commissioners brought forward this private Bill. I welcome the work they have done in bringing forward the legislation that we are considering today.
As for Government scrutiny of the Bill, as the Minister responsible for inland navigation matters, I want to be satisfied that the proposed legislation and the measures included in the Bill are fit for purpose. I believe that they are, because the existing legal framework that governs the commissioners’ navigation function is now considerably dated. Some of the current laws under which the commissioners are working not only date back more than 250 years, but do not align with modern requirements. Furthermore, the current laws do not align with the statutory framework applicable to other navigation authorities—including, in particular, the commissioners’ neighbouring navigation authority, the Environment Agency, which is responsible for navigation on the River Nene and the Great Ouse. This Bill will update this dated legislation.
Unlike many other navigation authorities, such as the Environment Agency, the commissioners do not have charging powers to license boats that use their navigations. The Bill will allow that to happen and give the commissioners powers to introduce a registration scheme for vessels using the waterways. It will give the commissioners powers similar to those already exercised by other authorities such as the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust and the Broads Authority in respect of their own navigations. Importantly, the Bill will not alter the commission’s existing duty to protect and maintain the navigations, or affect the public’s right of navigation on the waterways. The Government would consequently be content for the Bill to make progress.
I begin with the remark that all politics is local. We are now discussing the Middle Level Bill, while earlier today we were talking about major geo-political issues, including the invoking of article 50. Such is the cornucopia of delights available in the House of Commons.
We should not divide on this Bill. It is important to have a full and comprehensive debate today, but it should then proceed to Committee so that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) who so eloquently introduced the Bill as sponsor said, it can be looked at in greater detail.
I am a local Member of Parliament, but, as the Minister said, it has not been possible for Ministers directly affected by this Bill, principally my parliamentary neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), who is a Government Whip, to speak to it. However, as Members will know, the waterways we are discussing meet the River Nene at the city of Peterborough, and I therefore have a direct connection with and interest in the debate. Incidentally, in Cambridgeshire it is the River Nene, whereas in Northamptonshire, across the county line, it is—for some bizarre reason—the River Nen.
I pay tribute to one of the petitioners, my constituent Chris Taylor of Newborough, who has been indefatigable in raising this important issue and holding the Middle Level Commissioners to account. Like him, I believe that the petition period was insufficient and that there has not been a proper debate, but my principal worry is that there has been no cost-benefit analysis.
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay earlier, we are not talking about a navigation authority that is analogous with authorities such as the Broads Authority and other authorities throughout the country that provide better facilities—in fact, provide any facilities—and I think that legislating for a power to impose tolls and charges without upgrading those facilities would be a draconian and retrograde step, which is why, in my view, we need to debate the issue further in Committee.
I appreciate that it is imperative to regularise the legal basis for the navigation authority’s duties and responsibilities, with—as the Minister said—the proviso that the Government do not become involved in the detailed operational matters of the Middle Level Commissioners, but oversee their statutory duties. I understand that the Government broadly support the need to update and amend the existing legislation, on the basis of what is in the documentation. As the Minister said, it is very aged legislation. There is not just the 17th-century legislation that she mentioned; there are the Middle Level Acts of 1810 to 1874, the Nene Navigation Act 1753, the Land Drainage Act 1991, and the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.
As I said earlier, what we are discussing is not a traditional canal or river, but interconnected open drains. The land was drained in the 17th century to release it for agricultural and other uses. As it is below sea level, until then it was effectively an inland sea. As for the town of Whittlesey, the clue is in the name. It was pretty wet, and was not used greatly. However—of course I would say this, as the local Member of Parliament—it contains some of the finest agricultural land in Britain, if not Europe, because it is incredibly well irrigated. We must bear in mind that the Middle Level Commissioners differ substantially from the more traditional navigation authorities.
The key issue that has caused concern is not just the basic issue of charges, as covered in clause 3 and, potentially, clause 9, which deals with byelaws. I accept that the petitioners are in the minority, but they contend that their public rights of navigation—not exactly ancient rights, but very well-established historical rights, bestowed on them in the latter part of the 17th century by the Duke of Bedford, who was a major landowner to the east of Peterborough and in the fens as a whole—are being curtailed and reduced. Indeed, they contend, in their petition and in further papers, that those rights go back much further, beyond even Magna Carta in 1215: as far back as the 4th century. That is a major issue.
Let me give some more details of the petitioners’ complaint. We must bear it in mind that this is about charges on the 600 to 1,000 pleasure boats that use these 100 miles of waterways every year; it is not about commercial activity. I accept that in these straitened economic times public authorities have to look where they can to secure extra funding, and that it cannot just come from landowners, farmers and the taxpayer. I do not have an ideological aversion to further tolls and charges, therefore, but I do have an aversion to any unfairness to existing users of the facilities.
At the moment there are no services on this waterway: there are no water points, changing facilities, moorings, toilets, showers or collection points for rubbish. More importantly, notwithstanding the fact that secondary legislation might ameliorate the issue, at the moment that is not covered by the Bill and is not promised. That is an important point made in the documentation by the Residential Boat Owners Association and the National Bargee Travellers Association.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay rightly pointed out that there is a human rights legislation issue, because if we are curtailing the right to a family life under article 8 by removing the capacity of people to enjoy what is their home—a barge, for instance, or a pleasure cruiser—that is a wider legal issue. That could be explored further in Committee.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency near neighbour for giving way. Does he accept that this is not just a question of using the levies for fees for providing services, because essential bank maintenance is also needed? Unless the banks are properly maintained, in a worst-case scenario there could be appalling flooding with the banks giving way, because, as he rightly points out, this area was extensively drained in the 16th century. So it is not just a question of providing facilities; it is also a question of maintaining the fabric of the waterways.
May I add to the congratulations of the House on my hon. Friend’s birthday? If I may say so, he is pretty ageless—he has not aged during the 12 years I have been in Parliament—and felicitations to my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that flood prevention and flood amelioration are massively important; we agree on that.
I come from Somerset, and while I am not familiar with the exact area, my example is just the same. Surely any income that can be raised from navigation of the waterways would be welcomed, because currently, as I understand it, precious moneys raised through drainage rates and levies that ought to be going to vital flood prevention work to protect our precious farmland are being diverted to navigation works. This Bill is just tightening that up to correct this injustice.
I am mindful of time and know that other Members want to contribute, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), so I will wrap up—also the Whip is giving me the evil eye, but only in her most endearing way.
I defer to the knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), and know that Somerset suffered the most appalling trauma of wide-scale flooding about five years ago. I do not think that it is mutually exclusive for us to be removing sunken boats, dredging and doing important infrastructure work that needs to be done, but it needs to be done in a more systematic way, and I am unconvinced about this private Bill, which seeks to be quite innocuous but is potentially quite draconian in what it imposes on people whose rights have been established for many hundreds of years.
It has been a pleasure to have this opportunity to represent Mr Taylor and some of the other people. If we are not here to represent unfashionable views of our constituents, we are wasting our time. In the course of the debate about this Bill, I hope that the petitioners and others with a key interest in the Middle Level will have the opportunity to have a cordial, productive meeting with the Middle Level Commissioners, and that some of those comments will be taken on board in Committee, so that the Bill will be improved. I hope that we can regularise the legislative necessity of the Bill while keeping faith with the people who are the lifeblood of the area—the pleasure boat users—because we need to look after their interests, too. I hope that we will find a mutually beneficial compromise in the near future.
I am mindful of the hour, so I will keep my contribution brief. As a member of the all-party group on waterways and a narrowboat enthusiast, I support this private Bill and want to take a few minutes to explain why.
Across the country, we have benefited from and continue to benefit from an incredible network of over 2,000 miles of canals, waterways and other navigations. In my constituency, we have the Wyrley and Essington canal, on which we have taken our own boat, but I have never been on the Middle Level—yet. Once the means for transporting goods in and out of and across the west midlands, the waterways are now a place for walking and for leisure. Through the work of the Canal & River Trust, the Inland Waterways Association and others, including many local organisations, charities and volunteer groups, we have seen a remarkable revival in our waterways in recent years, and they are being put on a more sustainable footing.
The Middle Level Bill relates specifically to the central and largest section of the Great Level of the fens—an area reclaimed by drainage during the mid-17th century. There are Members present with far more local knowledge than I would ever declare having, but the area covers 120 miles of watercourses, 100 miles of which are statutory navigations. As we have heard, the Bill seeks to modernise the commissioners’ operational powers and allow them to levy charges on users of the waterways to pay for their navigation functions.
Something that has been in the press over the past few weeks is the amount of litter that has been deposited across the countryside, including in waterways. Will charging boat owners mean that that litter will be taken away and properly disposed of? If that is part of the Bill’s purpose, it must be a step in the right direction.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. When I am out on the waterways, I certainly notice stretches with a lot of litter and debris. Every user of our canals, whether on the water or walking, has a duty to play their part in collecting litter, and we need provision for places where it can be placed.
What is particularly interesting about the Bill is that the commissioners currently have no navigation income. Any navigation works must be subsidised by those who pay a drainage levy. It is the largest navigation authority in the country without a navigation income.
I am about to conclude, so I will continue because I am mindful of the time pressure.
The Bill is needed because it will aid the Middle Level Commissioners in becoming—this is crucial—a sustainable navigation authority with the proper powers to manage a 21st-century navigation, which is the in the interests of those who use it and those in the local area.
This debate would not be taking place if I had not blocked the Bill from going through on the nod on Second Reading. We have already heard about the benefits of having a proper Second Reading debate on a private Bill. Having spoken to some of the petitioners on the telephone, I point out that the Bill’s promoters have a serious responsibility to engage with those who take a different view or have concerns about its contents. One petitioner told me there has been no contact whatever from the authorities.
It is easy to talk about the Bill going to an Opposed Private Bill Committee. I have no objection to the Bill having a Second Reading, but it is important that it goes to an Opposed Private Bill Committee after there has been an exhaustive discussion between the petitioners and the promoters, rather than the Committee being used as the forum for that discussion, because the private Bill procedure in Committee is expensive and potentially adversarial. I wish that there had been more discussion between the promotors and the objectors.
When he intervened on my speech, my hon. Friend cited the example of the March cruising club. I have asked for clarification, and I am advised that the club was written to and telephoned but, sadly, there was no reply. A petition would allow further communication, but I have been advised that there was no reply to the consultation. I fully agree that there needs to be such engagement, as well as a formal Committee session.
I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees with the need for informal engagement before the Bill goes to an Opposed Private Bill Committee, because apart from anything else, some of the petitioners are not well funded. If the Committee is prolonged and the petitioners have to be represented by counsel, the costs will be disproportionately high.
The National Audit Office published an illuminating report on internal drainage boards on 21 March—basically we are talking about a collection of drains, not canals. The report expresses concern about conflicts of interest and the need for proper oversight and assurance that the internal drainage boards will not engage where there are conflicts of interest.
I notice that there are 33 independent internal drainage districts within the Middle Level, each of which is responsible for the local drainage of its area. When we talk about giving more powers to the Middle Level Commissioners, we need to be circumspect about the checks and balances on the exercise of those powers, which I hope the Committee will be able to investigate when it meets to consider the proposals and the petitions against them.
One of the petitions is from Nigel Moore, who says that he is
“a boat owner and manager of other people’s boats on various navigations, is an adviser on nationwide legal issues relating to boating, and is currently an approved lay advocate for a boater in a High Court action wherein issues arise over the interpretation of similar clauses to that proposed in this Bill.”
He objects to the Bill because it
“entails clear abolition of private and public rights to no justifiable purpose, and will lead to unnecessary future litigation over ambiguities.”
Like other petitioners, he refers to the Bill’s wide interpretation of the term “waterways”. Schedule 1 will extend the term to a lot of areas that are not even navigable. The Bill will also extend the commissioners’ powers to adjacent waters, including private waters that are not currently within their jurisdiction. Apparently that, so Mr Moore says, has been
“a contentious point in related litigation.”
As a result of the Bill, owners of private waters that are not subject to the Middle Level Commissioners’ control will find themselves incorporated within the responsibilities of the commissioners, who will be able to use their regulatory powers in relation to what are currently private waters. That is an extension well beyond what one might have thought of as being the scope of the Bill. As my hon. Friend knows, being an experienced Member of this House, as soon as people get the opportunity to start legislating they always want to take more powers than they strictly need, which is one of the petitioners’ concerns.
Again, that is a good point, and it has been raised in several of the petitions.
Mr Moore expresses another concern, in stating that he
“objects to Clause 8(3) because the wording follows that of the contentious British Waterways Act of 1983, section (8), which has led to years of litigation as to its effect, whereas the wording of the similar clause in the Environment Agency (Inland Waterways) Order 2012 section (16) is far superior, and allows for no such ambiguity and potential attempted and unwarranted extension of powers. The wording ‘without lawful authority’ is also wholly inapplicable to refer to boats on public navigable waters, when the right to be on the waterways derives from the public right, and the proposed provisions for registration of boats does not change that. This was the burden of Environment Agency submissions in a recent case on the Thames, which was, in my submission, correct”.
So he thinks that as worded, clause 8(3) would not only be against the expressed policy of the Environment Agency, but
“would be unenforceable and ineffectual in law, contrary to the expectation of the Commissioners, and prejudicial to the rights of boaters.”
I hope that even if nothing else is sorted out in Committee, those issues raised by Mr Moore will be.
As we have heard, a petition has also come from the March cruising club, which has been submitted by Mr Harwood, the club harbourmaster. Apart from complaining about the inadequate consultation, he raises a number of issues. Following on from the history that has been outlined by a number of the participants in this debate, he says:
“Pleasure boats have had free navigational access to the Old River Nene, which forms a large navigational section of the Middle Level, from before 1215 protected by Magna Carta and many subsequent statutes and Royal Commissions. There are even Roman transcripts describing navigation along the Old River Nene as early as the 4th Century during the Roman occupation. The Old River Nene is a natural river and a Public Right of Navigation has existed since Time Immemorial and was first codified in the Magna Carta of 1215.”
I do not quite know what point my hon. Friend is making, because he is referring to a preamble to a piece of legislation—of course that is not an Act of Parliament. I am not sure that what he says undermines anything I have been saying in citing the submission of the March cruising club. I am sure that when the promoters engage properly with that club, they will be able to explore that issue further.
One other point made by the cruising club, which contradicts a number of assertions made in this debate, is that the commissioners already have the power to charge boats for the use of their waterways, but what they do not have is the power to charge pleasure boats. If there is a shortfall of £178,000 of unfunded expenditure, as has been alleged, there is nothing to prevent the commissioners from charging vessels that are not pleasure boats, or indeed charging for other activities. That would be consistent with the historical rights of pleasure boat owners to use the navigation without charge. The club goes on to say that the Middle Level is basically a “network of navigable drains”, so it is in a completely different category from some of the comparators that have been cited in support of the Bill by its promoters.
The club makes several other points in its submission, one of which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson). It objects because
“the Bill contains no obligations under which the Commissioners would be duty bound to provide an adequate depth of water for navigation; dredging; maintenance or any facilities to boaters. Essentially, boaters would notice nothing positive, but would be subject to legislation that would: force them to pay a fee to register; pay annual licence fees; be a criminal offence to use the navigation without a licence; be forced to display a registration number; restrict access during certain times of the year; have the risk of being refused a licence and appealing the decision in a Magistrates Court. There are no advantages for boaters in return. This will destroy the Middle Level navigation and the boating community.”
There are several other detailed points in the submission, but I shall not cite them all.
Unless the issues I have described are resolved amicably between the petitioners and the promoters, the Bill will have a pretty slow passage through the House, because I am sure Members will not wish to impinge on the rights that individuals have enjoyed for many years unless there is strong justification.
Another petition comes from Mr John Hodges, who describes himself as a “member of the public” and a
“homeowner with mooring on the banks of the Middle Level”.
He says that the proposals will “directly and specially affect” his rights. That is an indication of another category of objector.
There is also a petition against the Bill from somebody called Derek Paice, whose submission describes him as living
“on a narrowboat (which, since it is not a ‘commercial boat’, most fits the description of ‘pleasure boat’ in the Nene Navigation Act 1684) on the Middle Level and this has been his home since 2011. This was the only available and affordable option after losing his home of eight years when his father died.”
His submission alleges that
“the proposals contained in the Bill will directly and specially affect his rights and interests, including allowing the commissioners new powers to seize his home and sell it on for less than its value, effectively making him homeless, destitute and an additional cost to the state.”
Mr Paice’s submission goes on to say that the Bill
“contains no protection for the homes of people who, like him, live on their boats.”
Indeed, that theme was picked up by Pamela Smith from the National Bargee Travellers Association, who said that people who have lived and worked on boats for many years but who do not have moorings feel threatened by the proposals. She estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 people—not just in the area of the Middle Level, but throughout the United Kingdom—live on boats but not at a fixed mooring. They are a different sort of itinerant community, and she feels that they will be very much discriminated against by many of the proposals in the Bill. Those concerns are echoed by other petitioners.
Clause 9 proposes giving the commissioners more powers to make byelaws, but those commissioners already have adequate byelaw-making powers under the Middle Level Act 1874. Under the clause, the commissioners are seeking the authority to examine people’s homes, which, in most cases, amounts to an unwarranted, unnecessary invasion of personal space. There are statutory bodies, including the police, with the authority to enter people’s homes under appropriate circumstances. Requiring boaters to surrender their right to privacy as a condition of being granted a licence to navigate is unreasonable and intrusive.
There are quite significant attempts in the Bill to impose on the rights of individuals. I noticed that when the Minister gave her certification in relation to the Bill’s compliance with the European convention on human rights, all she said was that she had no reason to suppose that the assertions made by the promoters were incorrect. I am not sure whether we can be satisfied that the Government have yet explored the issues relating to human rights for their own purposes so that they can assure us that, in their own view—not just the view of the promoters—the Bill is fully compliant with the law on human rights.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough has already referred to the petition from his constituent, Christopher Taylor, so I will not refer to it again. I have referred briefly to what Pamela Smith has said on behalf of the National Bargee Travellers Association. That organisation has put in a major objection to much of the Bill. It has more than 700 members and four local groups and represents the interests of an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 bargee travellers in the United Kingdom. A significant number of members of the association either live permanently on the Middle Levels or use the waterways regularly. It is therefore a matter of great regret that there has been no proper discussion with the bargee travellers on the very important issues in the Bill, and I hope that that will remedied sooner rather than later. The association says that many bargee travellers use the Middle Levels as a transit route between the East Anglian waterways, such as the River Cam, the Great Ouse, or the Wissey, and the rest of the inland waterways. There is no other inland waterway route, and there would be no choice for them but to be bound by the proposed terms and conditions and to pay the proposed charges.
I am not very familiar with this part of the fens, and, apart from having visited other people who have a narrow boat, I am not familiar with this type of recreational boating. However, I am familiar with the sort of recreational boating that happens in my own constituency of Christchurch. All I can say is that if my constituents were faced with some of the regulations and powers to invade their privacy that are proposed in relation to the Middle Level of the fens, they would be outraged indeed. We have a large number of boats moored on the River Stour in Christchurch, and they do not all have names on them. People certainly do not have to give their name and address to some passing enforcement officer.
It seems to me that a lot of the Bill should be removed before it comes back for further consideration on Report. I hope that detailed discussion, consideration and scrutiny in Committee will have that consequence and that we will be able to look back and say, “This has been a worthwhile exercise, because a not very good Bill has been much improved as a result of proper scrutiny.”
I am not going to speak at length on this occasion, but I and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough are concerned that the rights of the petitioners should be heard in this great home of democracy.
It has been a pleasure to sit through this debate. I will not detain the House any longer by going through the individual comments we have heard, but I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for the detailed scrutiny and consideration they have given the Bill. There are certainly elements that we can take from the debate and deal with in Committee. In particular, we can deal with the byelaw powers and the question of engagement.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.