Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the British Waterways Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 2012.
Relevant documents: 58th Report from the Merits Committee, Session 2010-12; 43rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, Session 2010-12; 1st and 4th Reports from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
My Lords, I hope that we will be able to debate the Inland Waterways Advisory Council (Abolition) Order 2012 at the same time as this order.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate these two orders in Grand Committee today. As noble Lords will know, they are very important for the future of the leisure industry and as a national resource. The transfer order transfers the function of the British Waterways Board in England and Wales to a new charity, the Canal and River Trust, which I will refer to from now on as the CRT, and makes a consequential provision in Scotland. The British Waterways Board will continue to operate as a Scotland-only body and will be accountable to Scottish Ministers.
The second order abolishes the Inland Waterways Advisory Council, an independent advisory committee to the UK and Scottish Governments. The Scottish Parliament has given its consent to the transfer and abolition orders, and the National Assembly for Wales has given its consent to the transfer order. Both orders have been subjected to the enhanced affirmative procedure and examined by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee here in the Lords—I shall have to get used to the committee’s new name; we probably remember it as the Merits Committee—and by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in the other place.
I shall now briefly summarise the aims and objectives of these orders and pay consideration to the points of interest that were raised by these committees. The background to this project began under the previous Government, and I am grateful for the cross-party support it has received. It is no exaggeration to say that it would not have made the rapid progress that it has without the broad consensus that has been reached across Parliament. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Goodlad and the members of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for their constructive engagement in scrutinising these orders. We have read the committee’s report carefully and I shall respond to its recommendations during the course of this debate.
The transfer of the waterways will give those who are passionate about them increased opportunities to get involved and influence the way in which their waterways are managed. We have consulted widely in preparing for this transfer. I am confident that the clear public support for this change will make CRT a successful charity. The Government have agreed to provide a 15-year grant agreement worth around £800 million, a settlement which the CRT has described as tough but fair. The grant agreement will give the waterways a level of financial certainty that will enable them to plan for the long term, as we would wish, realising efficiencies and achieving best value for money. As was requested by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, I have arranged for a draft of the transfer scheme to be laid in the Libraries of both Houses in advance of today’s debate. The scheme provides for the transfer of British Waterways’ assets and liabilities and is the counterpart of this order.
In order to allow for scrutiny of the financial development of the new organisation, I am happy to agree to the committee’s recommendation that Defra should provide Parliament with a Written Statement setting out the financial position of the CRT two years after the draft order is made.
In its consideration of the draft order, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in the other place questioned the Government about property and charitable income projections for the new charity. I assure noble Lords that while there is a degree of uncertainty with any projection of future income, the CRT has undertaken extensive due diligence and is confident in the projections.
The estimates of charitable fundraising were finalised in 2011 and reflect recent attitudes to charitable giving. They are based on evidence-based market research, expert judgment and benchmarking by a leading consultancy in the sector. The CRT has recruited a fundraising team that is motivated, not daunted, by the challenge ahead.
The CRT trustees believe that the projections for growth in commercial income are prudent. British Waterways has a proven track record in property management and has outperformed industry benchmarks. It has shown itself to be an excellent custodian of the commercial property portfolio, which has become vital to the sustainability of the waterways. Its careful management of the property portfolio and the safeguards that we have put in place through this transfer will ensure that these assets continue to supply the waterways with much needed revenue.
We have also received a number of questions about volunteering. I am confident, indeed excited, that the move to the charity sector will significantly increase volunteering on the waterways. Indeed, the creation of the CRT has already boosted volunteering numbers—a sign of the public’s enthusiasm for the move ahead. This is a good thing for society at large and for the waterways, but let me assure your Lordships that the CRT will not be using volunteers to replace existing staff. Volunteers will be used only to undertake activities that British Waterways cannot do at current staffing levels.
During the 60-day procedure in Parliament, Defra received representations from two separate groups of private boaters. One group asked for reassurance about the consultation procedures to be followed for making orders under Sections 104 and 105 of the Transport Act 1968. Such orders concern changes to the classification of a waterway or to the prescribed navigation dimensions to which a waterway must be maintained. My officials have given the requested assurances, and the consultation process will be set out in the memorandum of understanding between Defra and the CRT, which I shall publish in due course.
The second representation was from the National Bargee Travellers Association, from whom many noble Lords will have received communications. This is one of a number of organisations that look after the interests of boat dwellers. The NBTA has already issued responses to our two consultations in 2011 and submitted reports to the EFRA Select Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. We addressed the NBTA’s concerns about human rights and the application of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in our evidence to parliamentary committees.
In response to its most recent representation, I can give the NBTA an assurance, on behalf of the CRT, that the CRT will not exercise its powers to remove a vessel that is thought to be someone’s home without first taking the matter to the county court and obtaining a declaration from the court that the removal is lawful.
Further, I assure the Grand Committee that the transfer order does not create new enforcement powers for the CRT. The CRT, as statutory undertaker, will have the same powers to manage the waterways as British Waterways has now. The existing safeguards that apply to the use of these powers will continue to apply to any enforcement action taken by the CRT.
In response to a recommendation from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, I am also happy, on behalf of the CRT, to assure the Grand Committee that the Canal and River Trust will take into consideration the specific needs of all stakeholders, including itinerant boat dwellers, in the development of all future by-laws. My honourable friend the Waterways Minister, Richard Benyon, will write to the NBTA in due course to set out our position on the other points it has raised.
The creation of the CRT will significantly improve our national dialogue about the waterways. The CRT’s governance model will bring some 200 people into the business of running the waterways, whether as trustees or as members of the council or the waterways partnerships. With all this expertise and engagement, the CRT will become the Government’s principal, although not our only, interlocutor on the waterways in the years ahead.
The creation of the CRT means that the Government will no longer need an independent statutory body to advise on the waterways. The proposed abolition of the Inland Waterways Advisory Council is part of the department’s simplification of our very complex delivery landscape. In addition to improved accountability arising from the creation of the CRT, the abolition of the IWAC will lead to greater efficiency, effectiveness and economy. It will, for example, save £200,000 a year.
I should acknowledge that the abolition of the IWAC has proved mildly controversial. There were only 35 responses to our formal consultation—less than a tenth of the responses to the consultation on the creation of the new charity, for example—but most of those who responded wanted to keep the IWAC, at least until the Environment Agency navigations transfer to the new charity from 2015-16. We have considered those views carefully. However, I believe that the practical work to prepare for the transfer of the EA navigations is better carried out by our officials, working very closely with our engaged and committed stakeholders. To the extent that we may need independent advice from time to time, it is more cost-effective to commission such advice as needed, rather than have a standing body, which, in the way of the world, would find work to do.
In moving the Motion to consider the abolition of the Inland Waterways Advisory Committee, I should acknowledge the very valuable knowledge and expertise of its current members. They have made a useful contribution to the development of government policy on inland waterways, and my honourable friend the Waterways Minister wrote to them all to encourage them to make their knowledge and expertise available to the CRT.
In conclusion, moving the waterways to the new waterways charity and abolishing the Inland Waterways Advisory Committee will bring many benefits. This transfer will enable waterways users to have the opportunity to play a role in the governance of the waterways and bring their passion and expertise to the waterways they cherish. Local communities will have a greater say in how their local canal or river is run. This is localism in action.
Volunteering will increase, benefiting society, heritage and the environment. The financial footing of the waterways will be sustainable into the long term. New commercial and private income streams will become available. The long-term grant agreement offers the security that the new project needs. Fifty years after British Waterways was created, it is time to move on. With that in mind, I commend these draft orders to the Committee and beg to move.
I thank the Minister for his introduction of these two orders. If the Committee will allow me, I shall make a few remarks, reserving the right for my noble friend Lord Knight to respond from the Front Bench. I apologise and ask the Committee to forgive me if I have an eye on the clock and do not stay quite long enough to hear the Minister’s full response to the debate. I have pressing duties elsewhere.
From the perspective of south Cheshire, where I live and which along with neighbouring counties has extensive canals across it, the abolition of the IWAC is greeted mostly with resignation, neither receiving widespread support nor opposition. This would be in keeping with the low number of responses received to the consultation. In the past, I have been approached on several waterways issues, although on this one the Minister can be relaxed by and large. However, this lack of enthusiasm seems to be because there is a feeling among IWAC members that this order is a fait accompli, as evidenced when Defra announced the abolition of IWAC ahead of announcing the findings of the consultation about IWAC. I know that the Minister in the other place, Richard Benyon, had to issue apologies to Graham Evans MP for John Edmonds, the chairman of IWAC. Having said that, the arrangements, protections, appeals processes and so on will very much remain as before, so the change is viewed as largely cosmetic.
I know that all members of IWAC are very passionate about waterways and will always have their best interests at heart. I urge the Minister and his department to make full use of the knowledge and expertise of IWAC members, especially on such issues as volunteering, environmental protection, tourism and restoration, all of which will need to be addressed by the new Canal and River Trust. I know that members of IWAC, which is an independent, advisory and unpaid body, will give their time and expertise freely and would have gladly continued under the umbrella of IWAC. No doubt they will continue to do so. I am sure that the Minister would wish to confirm that his department recognises that that will continue to be the case, as these members would provide an excellent conduit to the CRT on behalf of all waterways users on all matters concerning the waterways.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clarity in setting out a number of issues around this order. Given that there are quite a few speakers, I shall focus on one issue and invite the Minister to say a few more words at the end.
The issue that I wish to raise is how we will ensure that the new charity—the Canal and River Trust—reflects the full duties and responsibilities entrusted to the British Waterways by Parliament. I refer specifically to the duty towards those who live on waterways without a fixed mooring. I have checked the Charity Commission website and can find no mention for the new charity of duties to those whose homes are on the bodies of water that the charity will control. As such, the new charity’s purposes and responsibilities do not reflect some duties that currently exist in legislation and which British Waterways undertakes. This is not a newly contentious matter as, at the beginning of the 1990s, British Waterways sought to remove the rights of boat dwellers who did not have a permanent mooring. Parliament took a different view and the result was Section 17(3)(c)(ii) of the British Waterways Act 1995, which enables boats to be licensed without having a permanent mooring as long as they do not spend more than 14 days in one place. The committee is concerned that people who have had the right to live on the waterways but without a fixed mooring might lose those rights.
As my noble friend mentioned, the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee produced an excellent report on this recently. The evidence from Mr Evans of British Waterways to the committee says that the Canal and River Trust,
“will be a much more engaged organisation that will reflect the will of the people”.
However, reflecting the will of the people is not at all the same thing as recognising historic duties and responsibilities.
Having met representatives of the proposed new charity—as a former chief executive of a small conservation charity, I wish it well and know just how difficult it is to meet all the competing needs of stakeholders—I have no doubt that it intends through its council, its waterway partnerships and its specialist advisory groups to construct a far more open constitution than ever before on the waterways. However, engagement with some stakeholders is not always easy. Itinerant boat dwellers, for example, do not have a representative body, but their needs need to be considered alongside those of all other waterway stakeholders. To that end, it is illuminating that in the Government’s own explanatory document for the transfer, paragraph 7.16 highlights the “greater involvement” of,
“communities which live alongside waterways”,
and “waterways’ users” in how the waterways are to be managed in future, but excludes any mention of communities that actually live on the water.
I understand that any future by-laws from the charity will be subject to ministerial confirmation and I am grateful for the clarity from the Minister on that point. However, I would like it to be explicit on the record that the department will write to the CRT to ensure that the new charity must take all specific needs of stakeholders into account in developing future by-laws.
Further, it should be explicit that the grant agreement, which my noble friend also mentioned and which I think is for £800 million, accompanying the grant will set out the terms of the final agreement, and that it will make clear that the safeguard to consider the specific needs of all stakeholders, including itinerant boat dwellers, will be part of a condition for the grant being given.
To be clear, the House has a long history of ensuring that the rights of all stakeholders are upheld on the waterways. In the absence of any duty towards those people who live on the waterways in the new charity’s charitable remit, the Government must by other means ensure that this duty is safeguarded in the future. I welcome what the Minister has said, but I would like to be absolutely clear on the specifics of how the Government will assure that.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as chairman of the Environment Agency. I very much welcome the transformation of the British Waterways Board into the new Canal and River Trust and I am grateful to the Minister for the helpful way in which he introduced our discussion. I particularly welcome two things about what is happening. First, I welcome the encouragement and facilitation of increased public and community participation in decision-making about what happens to our waterways. I very much hope that the Government’s intentions in this respect will come to fruition in the way in which the new CRT operates. Secondly, I very much welcome the funding package which the Government have put in place to enable the transfer. In the spirit of the times, it is a somewhat generous package but it will enable a really good start to be made on the work of the new trust.
It is, of course, the Government’s ambition to go a bit further in two to three years’ time and to include the Environment Agency’s navigation responsibilities in the new Canal and River Trust. I welcome that ambition and we in the Environment Agency will do everything that we can to assist the process. At the moment, we have responsibility for something like 1,000 kilometres of statutory navigation. This includes, crucially, the River Thames and the River Medway, Rye Harbour, the Great Ouse, the River Nene, the Stour in Suffolk, the Wye and the Dee conservancy in Wales—substantial navigable rivers of iconic importance. Our responsibilities for those waterways include a duty to maintain them in a condition in which people can safely enjoy the statutory public right of navigation that exists on them. We will continue to endeavour to fulfil those responsibilities to the very best of our ability in the run-up to any transfer to the new trust.
We should remember how popular our waterways are. In 2009-10, the last year for which we have accurate figures, there were approximately 70 million visits to our waterways. There are 32,000 registration holders—boat owners and operators—on our navigations alone, let alone on the canals and waterways that will come under the new body. In the current financial year we will be investing around £10 million of grant in aid and £7.5 million of income, a considerable amount of that coming from boaters, in managing and operating the navigation structures on these waterways.
As we prepare for the further handover, and as we bear in mind the responsibilities that the new trust will have, a few points need to be borne in mind, and I very much hope that the Government will do so. First, on rivers in particular—this differs to a certain extent from canals—there are different traditions for different rivers; they do not all operate in exactly the same way with the same expectations for boat operators and users. Including an appreciation of the subtle differences between different waterways in any assessment of how things move forward is going to be important.
Secondly, and with the events of the past weekend weighing heavily on my mind, we need to bear in mind the need always to manage rivers for flood risk management. The importance of marrying navigation responsibilities with the continuing flood risk responsibilities that the Environment Agency will continue to have in waterways that transfer will eventually be an important part of what happens. Thirdly, it will be important that the money is there for any enhanced responsibilities that the new trust has when transfer occurs in a few years’ time.
Fourthly, in looking at how the new trust operates, both in its initial phase and in the second phase after the transfer of EA responsibilities, it is important that the new trust all the time bears in mind the interests of boat owners and users and the people who want to use our rivers for recreation, for quiet enjoyment and for the solace that very often our rivers can bring. It is being accorded an important responsibility. I have every confidence that the team and the arrangements that are being put in place will enable that to happen, but I hope that the Government will keep a wary eye on making sure that it does.
My Lords, I also thank my noble friend for the explanation of this order. I share the enthusiasm of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, for this good and imaginative proposal. I do so for practical reasons. One is that, as it says in paragraph 8.12 of the Explanatory Memorandum,
“one of the benefits of moving out of the public sector will be that it should enable and encourage more innovation and diversity in the way the new charity grows its income”.
There is also an emotional reason: the first holiday I ever spent, aged 16, with three friends from school, was to hire a canal boat and travel the Shropshire Union Canal and over the Pontcysyllte aqueduct on the way to Llangollen. I doubt that you would be allowed to take a boat out now aged 16, but in those days we did not have as much health and safety as we do now. When one compares and contrasts some of the things that one sees on the waterways now with what was going on then, one sees that a lot of the developments and improvements have been made by voluntary labour, so this is a welcome extension of a trend that is already present in the waterways movement.
The putative board very kindly had a briefing meeting on 6 July last year. It explained its plans for the future, and exciting indeed they were. However, one of the questions that I would like to funnel to it through my noble friend regards the enormous cultural shift that there is going to have to be within the organisation in order to pick up and respond to the challenges of working in the private sector. As some noble Lords know, my life is in the City. When I said, “Just tell me a bit about the return on capital and post-investment appraisals”, and those sorts of things, there was an answer but not one that I would describe as being of sufficient crispness if this organisation is to hold its own against the very sharp commercial operators with which it will have to carry out joint ventures to develop its various assets. It was slightly hazy. It is important that this very imaginative proposal should succeed. Therefore, I very much hope that this body will be able to up the game, if that is the right expression.
I shall give an example as of today. I support these orders very much and because I felt that the organisation might feel that I was being slightly disobliging in my remarks, this morning I decided that I should ring the chairman and explain that what I was going to say this afternoon was important and constructive—it might be critical but I was trying to help him on his way. If you ring his private number, you get a recorded message saying, “Are you ringing about a boating mooring? If so, hang on. Otherwise, press 2”. After some time, you get through to a switchboard operator and ask to speak to the chairman. I was put through to the chairman but there was no answer and no one to take a message—nothing. I am all for people having boating moorings and I am sure it is a very important part of their life, but this is going to require a change of culture. When dealing with the private sector, the board will have to be a great deal sharper than that. I may have found the only weakness in its whole approach but I cannot help feeling that this is symptomatic of something that is going to need a fresh approach.
I turn to two other points. I was very grateful to receive my noble friend’s reassurance about the NBTA. I have received the letters, as I am sure have other noble Lords.
Finally, in the same spirit of constructive criticism, I ask my noble friend about pensions, which are covered on various pages of the explanatory document but in particular on pages 48 and 49. There is a reference there to historic public sector pensions. I assume that TUPE has played its role and that therefore those who are being transferred out of the public sector and into the Canal and River Trust will have access to the public sector pensions with which they began their employment. The word “historic” is used. Does that mean that future changes in the public sector that would otherwise have applied to these people will or will not apply? If they are going to apply to them, the board needs to realise that it is going to find itself having to answer for decisions in which it has played no part. It is important to be clear about that.
There is a feeling here of the board saying, “We’ve got the pensions sorted. There is a £65 million deficit and we are going to have it sorted by 2025”, or whenever it is. However, I urge it not to rest on its laurels as far as that is concerned because the great weakness or difficulty over pensions is longevity. Longevity is increasing, which for the individual is exceptionally desirable but collectively for a pension fund is financially disastrous. Therefore, I hope that the board will think carefully about this issue. A great deal can be done to unpick pensions by looking at individual groups of pensioners with different longevity estimates and, in that way, to transfer some of the risks to the balance sheets of major life companies, which not only are expert at this but will probably provide a better credit risk and therefore greater assurance to the Canal and River Trust. Slicing and dicing the pension liability to reduce that liability and to free up the balance sheet is a critical—possibly the most critical—part of the things that the board will undertake in the short term.
I may have sounded critical but I think that this is a great idea and I hope that it will be very successful. However, I hope that the organisation understands what it is taking on and how it needs to move forward. If it can, and when it does, it will certainly have my support.
My Lords, when I first heard about this transfer by way of what I still call the quango cull Bill, I welcomed it. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that the settlement seems pretty good. The Parliamentary Cycling Group, of which I am a member, was taken along the towpath from Islington to a very nice cycle repair café on the canal called Lock 7. We were given a very interesting briefing about the changes taking place on the waterways. It was an excellent presentation and I came away thoroughly impressed. It is a great place to pedal along in the winter because there is a high-voltage cable under the towpath, so when everything else is snowy you can still go along without slipping into the canal.
The Minister said that the British Waterways Board had a prudent track record in property management, but that is not the view of the people who sent me e-mails—other noble Lords may have received similar messages—which I presume reflect the tenants’ view. The National Bargee Travellers Association, many of whose questions the Minister sought to answer, states:
“These families live on the waterways lawfully by virtue of s.17(3)(c)(ii) of the British Waterways Act 1995”.
Will the same rights of occupancy exist even if those families have to move under the new trust? They are clearly worried, saying:
“The assurances given by British Waterways of greater public accountability exclude itinerant boat dwellers”.
That is quite worrying, because there is no way in which they can seek parliamentary discussion as they could when BWB was state-owned. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that nothing is going to change in that regard, even if there is less parliamentary scrutiny.
I heard also from a man who is one of apparently some 200 people who are in litigation with the British Waterways Board. I do not want to go into the detail of individual cases, but there are allegations of “criminally extracted licence fees” during the past 20 years on the Grand Union Canal and talk of costs reaching £500 million, which seems surprising. What will happen to cases that are pending or currently being heard in court when the transfer takes place? It is clear that people are worried about that. The Minister said that the Government would provide a Written Statement on the Canal and River Trust in two years. It might be useful to include in it a progress report on outstanding court cases from the old regime. I hope that these matters can be resolved without any more uncertainty. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the orders, which I believe are the result of long and very hard negotiation. If the preparedness of the new trust to handle the financial affairs of our waterways is an issue, satisfaction should be drawn from the number of noble colleagues and noble Lords opposite who have congratulated it on the amount of money that it has been able to extract from the Government. It is indicative of the robust way in which the new trust has engaged that it has brought to a conclusion financial matters that started some way back from the £800 million which the Minister mentioned. That protection over 15 years will enable the new trust to make plans, and the asset base along with that will provide it with a very useful way of driving forward change.
The issues I am slightly concerned about, and about which I seek some clarification from the Minister, concern the way in which the new governance structure will run and the ability of the new trust to ensure that it is inclusive and serves those who use our waterways. From the documents before us, it appears that the trust has decided not to go for a membership-base as an organisation, unlike the National Trust, which some people have suggested fulfils a similar task. Could my noble friend tell us what was the reasoning behind not going for a membership organisation, when this is clearly an opportunity to develop the uses of our waterways both for leisure and health purposes—not to mention the tourism benefits, which are obviously very important to us? The current structure of the organisation is that we have trustees, a national council and 12 waterways partnerships. I would like to congratulate those involved in the negotiations to secure an all-Wales waterways partnership in addition to that—and here I declare my interest as president of the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust, part of which is affected by this order, part of which is not because it remains in local authority and other ownership.
The third issue I would like to raise, apart from governance, is that of safeguarding for the users. Paragraph 8.5 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the British Waterways Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 2012 talks about access to towpaths and refers to an explicit safeguard in the trust’s obligations. While it states that the transfer protects the status quo, a sentence or two further on it states:
“As the majority of towpaths are not currently public rights of way and access is permitted at British Waterways’ discretion, this is a significant new protection”.
There seems to be a contradiction here in that the status quo may prevail, but it is not clear whether it is the intention of this order to extend towpath access or simply to transfer the status quo and give the Canal and River Trust discretion over access? I would be grateful if my noble friend could explain this.
The other safeguarding issue relates to the by-laws, which I believe my noble friend referred to earlier. It is a requirement that they should be approved by the relevant Minister. Could my noble friend explain the publication procedure that the Canal and River Trust will undertake prior to these by-laws being submitted to the Minister and what the process will be for ensuring that this happens?
My final question, which again is a bit of a cheeky one but I am going to ask it anyway, refers to paragraph 8.13 of the same memorandum, which reports that the Government sought views on a name for the new charity. The most popular was the National Waterways Trust, “waterways” being the most popular word in the consultation. The trustees subsequently named the charity the Canal and River Trust. However, in Wales it will be known as Glandwr Cymru, meaning Waterways Wales, which seems an unusual choice when it is to be called the Canal and River Trust. I do not understand whether Canal and River Trust/Glandwr Cymru is the title of the new trust in its entirety, or whether waterways in Wales will come under a trust that is a subset of the Canal and River Trust known as Glandwr Cymru. Perhaps my noble friend could explain the translation, and indeed why the word “waterways” will be used in Wales but not in England.
I have one further point, which the noble Lord, Lord Smith, reminded me of: the Environment Agency transfer of navigation rights, which, as the noble Lord says, is part two of the agenda here. The Canal and River Trust as it now stands does not manage large-scale infrastructure in our waterways or large-scale weirs. Is that a necessary part of the exercise in this interim phase on what that transfer should do and where the expertise should come from in order that the Canal and River Trust can then manage these larger structures, which, like Teddington lock, are very important to the security and safety of our land in this country?
My Lords, I am not sure whether my remarks relate directly to the transfer functions, but this is an opportunity for me to get rid of the bee that I have had in my bonnet for some time now about the relationship between waterways and youth unemployment. Some months ago I was studying a map of British waterways and it struck me that they wind throughout our country and are never very far away from centres of population. They could well be combined with an imaginative and, I hope, simple scheme to help our young unemployed. Many years ago I worked for British Waterways. This is not such a mad idea; I ran it past the Prime Minister, although admittedly on a social occasion and he did not hang around for long, and he thought, at least initially, that it sounded like a very good idea.
Think about it for a moment. The skills required to renovate and maintain our waterways include everything from pulling out Tesco trolleys to skilled bricklaying, piling and digging—all sorts of skills. I would have thought that it ought to be possible to invent a scheme that allowed young people to use their talents across that whole range of skills and give them something to do. At the end they could be given some kind of certificate or qualification that would benefit both them and the waterways. It would have to be kept simple but I envisage something really quite formal, with jobcentres throughout the country linking the whole thing together. Initially this might perhaps sound a little imaginative, but think about the geographical relationship of the waterways to centres of unemployment and the jobs requirement. A whole variety of jobs could be found for young people, and they could be given different kinds of qualifications, allowing them to start very simply and then build up their portfolio of qualifications as they went. I do not know whether they would need money; I would like to think that young people would work for the benefits that they were already getting, but I appreciate that that is a little controversial. They might well be prepared to do that, though, to get the value out of the schemes that they were being offered.
I put that on record as a suggestion but I will also follow it up in other quarters as best I can. I hope that the Minister might at least log it and give it some thought.
My Lords, I apologise for coming late to the Grand Committee, and I apologise if I say something that has been said already. It is especially pleasing to see the Minister back on maritime affairs in some form or another. He will recall that we spent many hours dealing with the Marine and Coastal Access Act some two or three years ago.
I welcome the proposed measures. As the noble Lord who sat down just now has said, as no doubt have many others, they were subject to extensive negotiations. I know full well that the British Marine Federation was very worried when they were first mooted but, as a result of the negotiations and especially of the welcome funding, its fears have been allayed. I certainly wish the new organisation a slightly better start than the Marine Management Organisation had. That was set up by the Marine and Coastal Access Act and the first few months, to put it mildly, were somewhat disturbing. Since then I am glad to say that things have improved enormously. I wish the new organisation well.
Finally, and rather flippantly, the Shropshire Union Canal was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. Most noble Lords will know that I am a boating man, but I am very much a deep-sea boating man. I am afraid that I am a bit of a stranger to canals. However, I did once find myself standing above a bridge on the Shropshire Union Canal during the annual yachting shoot. It was a glorious, frosty, autumn morning, and never have I more wanted to be on a canal boat travelling along that most inviting-looking stretch of water. I might add that the only pheasant I saw all day craftily flew under the bridge beneath me, so the score was pheasant 1: Greenway nil.
My Lords, I, too, apologise for being late to the Committee. Monday is a day for travelling from Scotland, and I travelled within yards of the Forth and Clyde Canal, which I wish to talk about. I am dependent on trains and other modes of transport to get here. I declare an interest as I know that that is important in this place. I am a card-carrying member of the Forth and Clyde Canal Society, which was started at a time when people saw no value in the canal that runs from the west of Scotland to the east. At one stage in the 1960s, part of the canal was filled in to accommodate a motorway, but because of the good people in that organisation, that has been rectified and it is now navigable from the west to the east.
I remember from reading the history of the canal, which is absolutely fascinating, that the Member of Parliament who was responsible for putting the legislation through—we know that canals need parliamentary legislation—was a Mr Lawrence Dundas. I do not think he declared the fact that he owned land in the east coast in an area called Grangemouth, for which he was a Member of Parliament. However, I declare my interest here. I feel that British Waterways Scotland does an excellent job. Through the co-operation of everyone, including central government, the Scottish Government and the local authority, we have built the great Falkirk wheel—a fantastic piece of technology that lifts the barges from the Forth and Clyde on to the Union Canal. I understand that no more energy is used than would be used for 10 electric toasters. The early pioneers of canal building were fantastic surveyors, builders and civil engineers—Telford being one of them.
Over the years, the tow-paths of the canals have been used like a public park. They have become very safe places for dog-walking, cycling and running, so it is not only those who have a boat or a barge who can enjoy the canal. It should also be remembered that within our cities, the canal is the one area where young people, who are perhaps living in housing estates that could be improved, have the ability to see our wildlife without necessarily having to go into the countryside.
I know that this is not written into this order, but I put it to the Minister that if he is speaking to anyone in British Waterways, a major advantage of the Caledonian canal is that seagoing shipping can cross from Europe through to the west coast of Scotland because the waterway is very big and there is no worry about tides. However, at its east side the Forth and Clyde Canal ends at the River Carron, which goes into the River Forth and is tidal. That means that it is not so easy for anyone who has leisure or sea-going yachts to negotiate their way into the Forth and Clyde canal. I understand that there might be proposals to canalise, in the technical jargon, that part of the River Carron. I hope that that can come about because leisure and tourism are very important for our canals.
In my former constituency is an area called Port Dundas, which is a canal port. A great warehouse there was lying derelict but developers came along and developed it in a very positive way. As a result, one of the poorest municipal wards in Britain, if not in Europe, then had very wealthy people staying in that ward. That was a positive thing because it meant that there were then people in the community who could look at their neighbours’ problems and see what they could do to help. Many of them got involved in community projects in adjoining housing estates such as Possil Park and Hamiltonhill, which I do not expect other noble Lords to know about. My point is that that development helped other people socially. Those buildings were of course built very solidly and have become attractive flats. Other developers then came along and said, “Well, if it can be done at Port Dundas, it can be done along the banks of the canal”.
I hope I might be allowed to say that some development can be positive, such as the warehouses at Port Dundas, but that some other developments are not too attractive. The developer might come along in good faith and with the best of intentions. However, the community always has to have a say in what developments should go on because people are very proud of their canals and the environment thereof. I hope that whenever consultative bodies are consulted, it is borne in mind that the local communities, which have been there for years, should never be overlooked when it comes to the concerns that they might have about development.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. We on this side of the Committee support these orders, but I shall qualify that as I go along, as is my job. It has been a debate in which some good points were made. I will not rehearse all those points, however good they were, for the sake of saving time.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Martin, not only because I heard him say the word “order” again, which brought back many happy memories from my time in the other place, but because, given that he talked about how well British Waterways was operating in Scotland through development and the various uses of the canals to which he referred, implicit in his speech was the question of whether as a result of this transfer, which does not apply in Scotland, British Waterways will have the capacity to continue doing that work in Scotland: and, indeed, given the demise of the Inland Waterways Advisory Council, whether a voice is being lost in Scotland for the users of waterways.
The ideas of the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, around youth unemployment would have been ideal for the former future jobs fund. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister thinks that the new youth contract will latch on to those interesting ideas about how the waterways and work around the waterways may be used.
The main point I wish to make is that these orders come from a cross-party consensus, and I was pleased that the Minister acknowledged that at the outset. I have heard from various interest groups and stakeholders about these proposals and, with the notable exception of the National Bargee Travellers Association, the feedback on the transfer has been very positive, particularly from the Inland Waterways Association and the British Marine Federation.
As we have heard, the diligence and strength already shown by the trustees of the Canal and River Trust in negotiating its 15-year funding agreement with the Government is a positive sign of things to come. It also demonstrates that many of the building blocks for the new trust are now in place and ready for the transfer. Clearly there is good potential now for improved governance and for new income sources to be developed for our waterways with, I hope, a reduced cost base and, as we heard from the Minister, an increased engagement by volunteers.
I also pay tribute to the work of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and, in particular, to its first report, which went into these issues in some detail. It reminded us of the tests that we should deploy when considering these orders, which arise from the Public Bodies Act, including the tests of efficiency, effectiveness, economy and accountability. The report ran through those issues in a helpful way. As the committee has set out, the tests of efficiency and effectiveness broadly revolve around how well stakeholders will be engaged. As I have said, I am comfortable with that.
However, we have now heard from a number of speakers in the debate about the concerns that have been raised with me and many others by the 5,000 to 10,000 itinerant boat dwellers who live on our canals. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on that issue because it also touches on the third test of accountability. The deputy chair of the National Bargee Travellers Association, Pamela Smith, in her e-mail to me—which I am sure many others have received—set out some of the details of the transfer of powers. She said:
“If the transfer takes place, the Canal and River Trust will have powers to make subordinate legislation; powers of forcible entry, search and seizure; powers to compel the giving of evidence and powers whose exercise will necessarily affect the liberty of an individual. Our homes will be at greater risk after the transfer”.
She said that they have no legal recognition or protection for their homes and that the transfer of British Waterways to the Canal and River Trust will remove the minimal protection of their homes that derives from the parliamentary scrutiny of British Waterways. It is obviously quite serious if that group of 5,000 to 10,000 people feel that there will be less accountability as a result of these transfers.
When the Minister responds, I would be grateful if he could comment on the role of the Waterways Ombudsman in helping to deal with some of these matters. Given that we are about to go into Committee tomorrow on the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, has the Minister given any consideration to a code of conduct for the new trust in respect of its relationship with this group of boat dwellers? With such a code, the ombudsman could then police for us. Would that help to give that community some reassurance about the operation of the trust?
The third of the tests that the committee reminded us of was that of economy. I was pleased to hear the Minister give a commitment to meet its request for a Written Ministerial Statement on the financial position of the new body two years after the trust has formed.
Finally, I should not let the passing of the Inland Waterways Advisory Council go without comment. Reading between the lines of the committee’s first report, I noted that it did not see that much of a case had been made for its abolition and looked forward to the Minister setting out more detail, which to some extent he has already done. I will be interested to know how stakeholders will be heard from in policy-making. However, I shall not die in a ditch over IWAC because, in my single year of being the Canals and Waterways Minister at Defra, I do not recall getting any real input from it. It can perhaps pass, therefore, without too much mourning. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
My Lords, it is always good to hear from a former Minister about his experience of his portfolio. I understand the points that noble Lords have made, but I am also gratified by the fact that these statutory instruments have received widespread support in what they seek to achieve. That is a reflection of the fact that Parliament has felt that there is a role for a new form of governance for British Waterways, and the CRT represents just that.
I have a number of points to make, which I could rattle off in one go but it might be better to refer to them as best I can as I summarise the debate. There may be some things that I miss, in which case I hope that those behind me will remind me of them so that I might at least write to noble Lords.
The welcome given to the orders by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, reinforced the view of the Grand Committee that they are proper orders to be presenting to Parliament. It was good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, his understanding of what the Government are seeking to achieve. We are looking at the possibility of bringing the Environment Agency’s waterways into the Canal and River Trust. I spent Friday afternoon at Black Sluice on the South Forty-Foot Drain, which is an example of the way in which the agency has provided for waterways users. It has built a lock at that sluice, and plans for that area and the Haven at Boston will mean that there should be increased use.
The Fenland waterways partnership represents important recognition that the Fenland waterways, which have relatively underused water courses, can be developed in this way. There is logic in that development, and we look forward to working with the Environment Agency and the noble Lord on achieving that. He was right, too, to tell us that there are important elements of flood risk management in the management of canals and, if we dare cast our minds back three or four months to when we talked about this, water management and supply. It is important that these elements are part and parcel of that. Leisure use is of course very important and will be the way in which most people judge these developments, but other aspects of policy will look to the waterways for other reasons.
On the creation of the CRT, I reassure the Committee about its transparency and openness; that is what it is about. We have set up a governance structure through the board of trustees, the council and the waterways partnership that is inclusive and gives all interested parties an opportunity to be represented and have their voices heard. I reassure my noble friend Lady Parminter that the council has four directly elected boaters within its ranks. It is not designed to be an exclusive body; it is inclusive in its very essence.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the NBTA. I understand that this group has been vociferous in trying to bring its particular concerns before Parliament, but I hope that it in turn is reassured, as the Committee will be, that the CRT is actually setting up a small advisory committee to advise senior managers responsible for boating and navigation matters—on a less permanent basis than the IWAC, I might say, but it will include at least one boater without a home mooring. I hope that his or her understanding, and the campaigns that they will be able to bring to that advisory committee, will be in the interests of itinerant live-aboard boaters.
It is important to emphasise to my noble friend Lady Parminter and indeed others that the rights of boat dwellers will not be removed or weaken as a result of this transfer order. The Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and the Freedom of Information Act will all apply to the CRT as it carries out its statutory functions. It will be a charity that seeks to engage with all its stakeholders, and there will be opportunities at every level of the organisation for stakeholders to be involved. It will be up to members of the public who are passionate about the waterways and want to get involved to get engaged with the CRT through its governance structure. I have already mentioned the advisory committees, which will have the responsibility for advising on boating and navigation matters.
I think that I have covered the point about resident boat owners. Their rights are contained in statute in the British Waterways Acts, not the charity’s articles of association. A number of noble Lords asked if I could reassure them on that; I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight, discussed the question of the Inland Waterways Advisory Committee. His personal anecdote reinforced the Government’s belief that we are doing the right thing in abolishing it, and his noble friend Lord Grantchester, who cannot be in his place now, made the same point. While it is right that the IWAC is abolished, though, I thank its members for their commitment and service. I hope that they will, as other noble Lords have suggested, engage with the CRT to enable the trust to benefit from their expertise in the future.
I welcome the cross-party support for the transfer of the CRT that has been expressed in this debate and over the past two years. That has helped to make it easier to present this legislation to Parliament, and we have been able to do so in a very short space of time. Moving the functions and assets of British Waterways in England and Wales to the charitable sector through the creation of the CRT will further liberate the potential for the waterways to provide benefits to the public, as a number of noble Lords mentioned, as it will enable local communities to have a greater say in how their local canal or river is run.
Parliamentary approval of the transfer order is really the final building block. Many are already in place, and it will make the new charity a reality. The board of trustees, the council and the waterways partnerships are all in place. As noble Lords have said, agreement has been reached on a tough but fair funding package that will extend over the next 15 years. The length of that commitment shows just how important it is.
My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts said that he hoped there would be a cultural shift within the organisation. To the extent that that is necessary, I believe it has already taken place. Operating under a board of trustees and with the pressures of being responsive to community interests, I do not believe that it will be possible for the trust to create an ivory tower as a safe haven, if I may put it like that—or perhaps I should say “a safe mooring”.
My noble friend asked specifically about pensions, and I shall come to that at the end of my comments.
A number of noble Lords asked about tow-paths, recognising that much public benefit from canals comes not for the people in boats or narrow boats on the canals but for those who have public access. For the first time, there will be free public access for all pedestrians. Noble Lords may not be aware that currently there are not many places where the public have a right of way to tow-paths. Now, such public access will be assured. Indeed, there may also be access for bicycles, although probably on a permissive basis. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, will understand that bicycles and horses may not mix in all circumstances, but access on a permissive basis may be possible. Of course, the CRT’s waterways partnerships will put in place localism strategies that will address just these sorts of issues.
Perhaps I may go through some of the points that were raised. All litigation currently under way will be continued by the Canal and River Trust. In fact, it will be transferred to the CRT, which will inherit all the duties and obligations of British Waterways. The great majority of litigation enforcement concerns are about the non-payment of licence fees, although a minority concerns noise. None the less, these will be part and parcel of the process. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who I think raised this issue, suggested that there might be an update on any outstanding inherited issues.
My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts made a very good point about pension funds. I want to get through these questions, but I think it is important that I try to answer noble Lords’ concerns. The pension funds will be transferred, as will all public sector characteristics, and the rights to pensions will transfer under the transfer scheme. In other words, TUPE will apply to these things. The Government have paid £25 million into the pension fund to help manage its deficit, as the noble Lord mentioned to the Grand Committee. They have also guaranteed up to £125 million of pensions liability in the very unlikely event that the CRT should become insolvent. The British Waterways Board has prepared for the future viability of the scheme by adjusting its terms: the scheme is closed to new entrants and the defined benefits have been modified. New employees have access to a defined contribution scheme.
My noble friend Lord German asked why the Canal and River Trust is not a membership scheme. Well, that is up to its trustees. They decided that that was not an appropriate way of doing things, although it will have a friends of CRT group and will probably have the opportunity to elect members to the council.
My noble friend also asked about by-law consultation. I should explain to him that the CRT consults on the drafting process; that is statutory. The draft is discussed with the responsible departments, and once agreement is reached in principle it has to be published for statutory consultation. Representations to the Minister are then considered, but the Minister has to approve by-law changes.
Perhaps I can also answer my noble friend’s comment about Glandwr Cymru. My Welsh is not that good but, as I understand it, it means Waterside Wales. I cannot say why it was dealt with differently, but it was named following market research in Wales and obviously we are particularly sensitive about trying to achieve harmony with Welsh users of the waterways.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, alighted upon my noble friend Lord Framlingham’s comment. I thought he made a very useful point about the opportunities that exist in the new CRT, and I shall make sure that my honourable friend John Hayes, the Skills Minister, is aware of the comments that he made in debate here today—
I have since discovered that the future jobs fund did provide jobs for a number of people, including 56 young people who worked on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, for which the fund won an award. Perhaps the Skills Minister will be pleased to learn of the success of that previous scheme and will look at ways for it to be replicated using the Groundwork charity.
Here was I thinking we were in the vanguard of new ideas, but now I discover that we are actually trundling along behind. None the less, I shall still make sure that that is done.
Finally, I am delighted that HRH the Prince of Wales has agreed to be the trust’s patron. It is wonderful that the CRT canal boat was in the jubilee pageant, along with 60 others. I believe that we are achieving something very different and exciting for our historic and much-loved waterways, and that they will be cared for by future generations as a result.