Consideration of Bill, as amended in Committee
New Clause 1
Minimum depth requirement
“The Commissioners must ensure that the water in the waterways is maintained to a minimum depth of three feet across two thirds of the width of any defined navigable waterway. In the event that the said depth of water is not maintained no boater shall be required to pay any charge.”—(Sir Christopher Chope.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Requirement to provide specified facilities at Stanground Lock and Salters Lode Lock.
New clause 3—Requirement to provide specified facilities in March.
New clause 4—Requirement to provide specified facilities and moorings.
New clause 5—Removal of power to charge before specified facilities and moorings provided.
Amendments 1 to 26.
The background to new clause 1 is the principle of quid pro quo, because the petitioners are concerned that new charges and obligations are being brought in without their getting anything in return. Before I expand on that, I should say that all the new clauses and amendments are grouped as one, so we are effectively discussing the Bill as a whole. I think that every part of the Bill is included in one or other of the amendments.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming that that is the situation. It would therefore be apposite for me to make a few introductory remarks by saying that I, the petitioners and others much appreciate how the Bill’s promoters have responded positively to many of the points that have been made. A series of good points are set out in the promoters’ statement. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who was an assiduous member of the Committee, is present, and everybody agrees that it is a credit to the House that the Bill has been considered in such detail.
Several points were made on Second Reading, the commissioners responded to them, and some of those responses were reflected in amendments in Committee. When the petitioners had the chance to be heard—I think over three days—many of their points were also accepted. The stage that we are at now is the consideration of the amendments that were proposed as a result of those representations. There are questions over whether the amendments go far enough, whether they could be tweaked in some way and about what signals could be sent to the other place, which has yet to consider the Bill. When the Bill goes to the other place, I am sure that there will be petitions against it.
We will be able to see the extent to which the petitioners’ arguments are accepted today, because it is obviously open to the Bill’s promoters to say at any stage, “Well, I think that’s a good point. We hadn’t thought of that.” My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is sponsoring the Bill on the promoters’ behalf, is a good listener, and I sure that things will go well in the future. If the Bill had never been objected to, it would have gone through as it was originally, but it is now much better. However, “much better” does not mean that it is not capable of being improved further. That is the whole purpose of putting forward these new clauses and other amendments this afternoon.
Paragraph 2.3 of the statement on behalf of the promoter, the Middle Level Commissioners, in support of the Bill makes it clear that
“the Commissioners currently do not receive any income from navigation of the waterways.”
With the passage of the Bill, they will receive such income. New clause 1 is designed to ensure that the quid pro quo is that if the waterway is not navigable, those charges should not apply. The petitioners believe that under case law in the case of Brett v. Beale and others, the commissioners must provide something beyond what is already provided in return for making additional charges. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay will accept that that is a reasonable proposition.
The March Cruising Club is of the opinion that if boaters can be charged to use the system for navigation, it is essential that boater facilities are maintained and that an adequate depth of water is introduced as a minimum standard. Where that does not apply, any requirement to pay charges should be waived.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill affects my constituency. Without the Middle Level Commissioners, we would not have many homes protected and many thousands of hectares of farmland would not be kept productive. Does he agree that the key point is that if navigation, locks and waterways are funded through this charge, there will be more money for flood defences, which are a key priority in this part of East Anglia? Does he agree that the principle of the Bill is fit for purpose? Now that he is involved with his various amendments, the Bill may well become better, but surely the principle is very strong.
I think the principle is that if the farmers—I know my hon. Friend has a significant interest in farming—are going to benefit from land drainage schemes, and this is essentially one mega land drainage scheme, I do not see why they should not have to pay for the benefit that they get from the scheme. That is what this is all about.
I am told—I do not hold myself up as an expert on anything, but certainly not on this—that if there was no longer any land drainage, the navigation would be much wider, more effective and deeper. In a sense, the land drainage enables the farmers to make their profits off the land and is of direct benefit to them, whereas the navigation would be there even if there was no land drainage. I do not know whether my hon. Friend accepts that that is a true analysis—perhaps he is a better student of geography than I—but that is what I am told.
When the commissioners were first given their role, it was on the basis that they would recover charges from the landowners, rather than from the users of the navigation. If charges are to be introduced for the use of the navigation, the argument is that those charges should be used to keep the navigation open and usable by those who are being charged for using it. That seems to me a perfectly equitable principle on which to proceed. That is the background to the first new clause.
I am not briefed to have an answer to that. All I can do is make the general comment that this has been raised by the March Cruising Club, which I imagine would not be concerned about it if it was not a problem. The March Cruising Club believes it is important to have this adequate depth of water set out to make sure the navigation is available.
That brings me on to new clause 2, which would require the provision of specified facilities at Stanground Lock and Salters Lode Lock. It states:
“The commissioners must, within twelve months of the day on which the Act comes into force, provide facilities at Stanground Lock and Salters Lode Lock including a lavatory, a fresh water point, bins for the disposal of refuse”
and so on. It also states that they should provide
“a minimum of ten moorings, each available for up to seven days at any one time and capable of accommodating a boat of up to fifty feet in length.”
Again this is a quid pro quo: if the commissioners want to make money out of the navigation and the vessels using it, it would be sensible for them to make sure there are proper facilities for those vessels, which will be paying significantly for the privilege of using the navigation.
A similar point is raised in new clause 3 by the March Cruising Club. This clause states:
“The Commissioners must, within twelve months of the day on which this Act comes into force, provide facilities within the town of March including a lavatory, a coin operated water shower”
and so on. I understand that the commissioners have more or less guaranteed that that is what they are going to do, but the petitioners understandably want to ensure that those undertakings and expressions of good intention are properly reflected in the legislation, rather than just being left as a matter of good will.
Surely there are few precedents for putting in the Bill specific infrastructure service provisions such as these. Doing so would cheapen the Bill in some ways and would make the point publicly that there was not this confidence between the Middle Level Commissioners and the different boating interests. What those boating interests want above all else is good navigable waters that are well maintained and at the right depth and with locks that work so that they can enjoy their boats at different times. If there is a surplus of revenue, and the relationship between the commissioners and the boating interests is positive and proactive, these other facilities can be looked at in the future. I urge my hon. Friend to consider that putting this in the Bill is not a good idea.
Ultimately, it is an issue of trust as to whether or not the undertakings given will be honoured. We have precedents from other private Bills in this House—for example, the north London cemetery Bill—where the promotors have written to the Chairman of Ways and Means giving an undertaking, which was then put in the public domain. That may be another way of resolving this problem. From what my hon. Friend is saying, it seems that everyone is agreed that these facilities are necessary and desirable, and should be provided.
New clause 4 says that the
“Commissioners must within twelve months of the day on which this Act comes into forces enable access to the facilities and moorings specified under this Act to be by a boater key system paid for by boaters for a nominal fee and operated by the Commissioners.”
That is not an unreasonable suggestion. It is a commonplace practice in the boating industry.
The most important new clause is new clause 5, which would make provision such that no boater
“shall be required to pay any charges under the provisions of this Act until the facilities and moorings specified in the Act are maintained in good repair and working order.”
The question is whether users should be required to pay before they have the facilities, or only once they are in place. That is important.
I particularly support new clause 5 and struggle to find a reason why anyone could not, because it seems to be only fair and proper. Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with the Bill’s sponsor or the people behind it to find out whether they think it is a common-sense clause that they would accept or, if not, what logical reason they have for not accepting it?
We have not yet reached that stage. That might be my fault, because I have not sat down with the Bill’s promoters to discuss these issues in detail. I understand that there was quite a lot of discussion of such issues in Committee. For the reasons that I have set out, the petitioners are still unhappy and feel that there should be a new clause to incorporate this provision.
I am finding my hon. Friend’s speech of some interest. He might be interested to know that clause 4 was amended in Committee to make it clear that revenue from navigation would be spent only for navigation purposes. That was done specifically in response to the petitioners’ concerns, to ensure that they could be confident that, although they are currently getting something for nothing, they will get something for what they pay—the navigation fees will go on navigation facilities and costs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. We will come to clause 4 and the amendments to it later. I shall say nothing other than that the petitioners and I were pleased that clause 4 was introduced in Committee in response to the concerns that were expressed. As I mentioned at the outset, just because it was introduced at that stage, that does not mean that it is perfect, which is why we are dealing with these new clauses and the amendments to clause 4, to which I shall come in due course and in order, because it is much easier for people to follow proceedings if people start at the beginning and go through clause by clause.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if new clause 5 is not accepted, that would effectively mean that people think it would be fine for the charges to be made but the facilities not to be in good repair and working order? That would clearly be intolerable—[Interruption.]
I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, who speaks on behalf of the promoters, saying from a sedentary position that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is wrong about that. Let us wait until we discuss clause 4, which was introduced in Committee, to see whether we can tease out a little more information on all the implications.
Amendment 1 basically says that the time given between the Bill obtaining Royal Assent and being implemented is unreasonably short. The period is currently specified as only 28 days; it seems to me that it would be reasonable for it to come into force six months after the day on which it was passed. I would not say that it is the most important of the amendments, but it would be interesting to hear why the promoters do not think that that is a reasonable position to have. We know that, under the provisions of this Bill, some byelaws will have to be drawn up. That does not mean that work on the byelaws cannot start in advance of the Bill being passed into law—a period of six months will then need to be left for the Bill to be implemented—bearing in mind the fact that we are dealing with a lot of lay people who will probably need quite a lot of notice of the changes that will have to be made under the provisions of this Bill.
Amendment 2 is, in a sense, a drafting amendment. As we get a definition of “polluting matter” under clause 2, it seems much easier to keep it as an objective test. I have no quarrel with defining polluting matter as
“sewage or any other injurious matter, whether solid or liquid”.
We will not let our imaginations run riot on that. What I find more difficult is what is meant by the word “offensive”. What is added by including that word? Essentially, what is offensive to one person may not be offensive to another, and it is a subjective test. I would be interested to know from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay what that subjective test adds in that particular part of the clause on polluting matter.
Let me turn to amendment 3. I am going through these amendments quite quickly, because there is no need to spend a lot of time on amendments to which there should be a short and succinct answer, saying, “Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, these are good amendments and we will be happy to incorporate them in the Bill.”
Amendment 3 is more of a probing amendment. We are in the new age of electricity, and the definition of power-driven vessel here includes
“any vessel propelled by a detachable outboard engine”
but it does not include a sailing boat, a rowing boat or a canoe—fine. However, now that we have a new generation of electric motors, why do we not introduce in a Bill such as this an incentive for people to use electric power on these waterways? Obviously, electric power is much less polluting and better for the atmosphere. If it is as quiet as many of these new cars seem to be, it will hardly disturb anybody, as the boat, powered by an electric motor, glides down the route of the navigation. I am interested in hearing the thoughts of my hon. Friend on that.
Indeed, in recognising the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the Front Bench, who has come along to help us in our deliberations, I could perhaps say that this is an issue for the Government. Perhaps the Government might be interested in thinking about introducing some sort of incentive for the use of electric motors rather than outboards. I know that a lot of my constituents would be very happy if there were more electric-driven vessels rather than power-driven vessels. This could open up a much larger issue, but why not start raising it now on the first occasion today?
That takes me on to amendment 4, which is about the “use”. Are we talking about the use of vessels? The Bill says:
“‘use’ in relation to any vessel on a waterway, includes launching the vessel onto the waterway, keeping or mooring it on the waterway”.
I have no quarrel with the rest of it, which is
“navigating it on the waterway, and letting it for hire on the waterway”.
There seems to be a lot of concern about what happens when people have a vessel that is kept at the side of the waterway or even in a marina, or is used as a houseboat. Are we really saying that that amounts to using the vessel on a waterway? Under this definition, it would amount to using the vessel on a waterway and that does not really seem to be common sense. Surely using a vessel on the waterway means actually using it—navigating it and letting it for hire on the waterway—but it does not include keeping or mooring it on the waterway.
Amendment 5 is a more extensive version of a similar concern that has been raised by a number of the petitioners. They say that the amended definition of waterways, compared with the definition before the Bill was in Committee, is a
“move in the right direction”,
“it still serves to extend the jurisdiction and control of the Commissioners into privately owned property (such as marinas), which will usurp the rights of property owners to decide who and which boats can use the water over their land.”
The petitioners feel that this is an
“unwarranted interference with the rights of private citizens”,
and that, at the very least, there should be a provision for boat owners whose vessels remain permanently in the marina to make an off-the-water declaration—a sort of waterways statutory off road notification—so that they are no longer liable for the charges. In fact, that is a very good analogy. If individuals do not use their motor vehicle on the road, they do not have to pay road tax, so if people are not using their houseboat on the water, why should they have to pay these charges? That issue could be resolved by having a narrower definition of waterway, which is what amendment 5 would do.
Lines 11 to 18 of clause 2 say that
“‘the waterways’ means the waterways in respect of which the Commissioners are the navigation authority…including…the waterways set out in…Schedule 1”—
what we would all understand as the waterways—
“water control structures…or…the banks of, those waterways; and…any watercourse in the Middle Level”,
which is obviously what this Bill is about. However, I do not see why that should include a lake, pit, pond, marina or substantially enclosed water adjacent to those waterways and from which any vessel may be navigated, whether through a lock or into the waterways themselves. If a vessel is navigated into the waterway, it is in the waterway and is liable under the provisions of this Bill. But if it is not navigated in there, it does not seem relevant to say that it could be navigated. One way of reducing the scope of the definition of “waterway”, about which the petitioners remain concerned, would be to support amendment 5.
I turn to amendment 6 to clause 3—a clause that was introduced as a result of the work done in Committee. The clause establishes a navigation advisory committee, and the petitioners are very pleased about that, but they also think that it needs further definition. That is not a criticism of the people who tabled the amendment. However, given the way that we deal with legislation in our two Houses, sometimes an amendment can be improved when further considered.
The petitioners are concerned that the duty on the commissioners, although it is a good idea, gives the commissioners too much discretion over, for example, the constitution of the proposed navigation advisory committee. They think that that element needs further consideration and clarification, both as to the criteria of election and the effectiveness of the committee’s advice. The fact that the committee is to consist of
“persons appointed by the Commissioners who appear to the Commissioners to be…representative”
puts full control over the membership of the committee firmly within the commissioners’ discretion.
Amendment 6 deals with that point by changing clause 3(2) so that instead of saying
“the Committee is to consist of persons appointed by the Commissioners who appear to the Commissioners to be (taken together) representative”,
it would say, “who are representative”. What can be the problem with that? It is straightforward English. Why should we not have a committee consisting of persons appointed by the commissioners who “are” representative of
“recreational motor-boating interests in the waterways…the interests of individuals who use vessels”,
who have “other navigation interests” and so on? Why use such a circumlocutory expression when plain English would suffice?
I thank my hon. Friend for the points that he is making. However, does he agree that the slight danger with this amendment is that it would say that the persons are representative of all the interests, when the whole point of a representative committee would be to have people who represent different interests, just as we in this House all represent different constituencies even though we have the same duty as Members?
My hon. Friend makes a brilliant point, but it is nothing to do with this. It is not a question of what the persons are representative of, because that is spelled out, but a question of whether they are representative of the groups listed or appear to the commissioners to be representative of them. It should be quite easy to establish whether somebody is representative of these interests rather than appearing to the commissioners to be representative of them.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I had intended to make this point of order when the hon. Gentleman stopped speaking, but I feel that he might be in the middle of a “Stackhouse filibuster”. Earlier today, Toys“R”Us announced that the company has gone into administration. That has ramifications for the store in Parkhead in my constituency. I have spent the majority of today trying to get in touch with the administrators of Toys“R”Us, with no success. Have you been given advance notice of any ministerial statement tomorrow? How can Members of Parliament do their job if they cannot get in touch with the company to seek security for the staff who work for it?
Normally I would not take a point of order at this stage, but as Sir Christopher has only just cleared his throat in making his speech, I recognise that it would be frustrating for the hon. Gentleman not to get in. The matter is on the record now. I have been given no notice of a ministerial statement about the serious issue at Toys“R”Us. I do recognise that you are representing your constituents. I hope that the message has gone out loud and clear that Toys“R”Us should be linking up with the Member of Parliament to ensure that you can represent the rights of the workers there.
With regard to whether people are representative or appear to be so to the commissioners, perhaps the commissioners might fear that there could be some kind of legal action on the basis of whether and how someone could be determined to be representative—that somebody might say, “Well, I don’t think these people are representative of X, Y and Z”—and so a qualification was put in to help to get them out of a potentially sticky situation. Does my hon. Friend think that that is why the amendment was worded as it was?
If I may say so, that is a more plausible explanation than the one being put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, but I think we have said enough about that. We will hear what he thinks when he responds to the debate.
I turn to amendments 6, 7 and 8 to clause 3. The petitioners are concerned that the requirement that the commissioners must take the committee’s views into consideration has limited use, because the commissioners could say that they have taken those views into consideration but found them to be of no value. The only remedy for any such failure to take the committee’s views properly into account would then be judicial review, which is strictly time-limited, expensive and hugely unreliable, with historical bias, they think, in favour of authorities. I do not know about that, but certainly they are right in saying that judicial review is a long-winded and potentially expensive way of seeking redress.
In the light of those concerns, I have tabled amendment 7 to clause 3(6), which would mean that instead of the commissioners being required to “take into consideration” any matter, they must “give full” consideration. There is a difference between taking into consideration and giving consideration. If the commissioners gave full consideration to any matter, that would be useful.
To reinforce that point, amendment 8 would add a sentence to the end of subsection (6), which would then say that the commissioners give full consideration to any matter, recommendation or representation which may from time to time be referred or made to them by the committee
“and in the event of not accepting such a recommendation or representation give full reasons for that decision.”
That would provide the sort of protection that the petitioners seek and would strengthen clause 3 and make it an even more effective addition to the Bill.
Amendment 9 to clause 4 would leave out subsection (2). It is in essence a probing amendment, to draw attention to the whole issue of charges and constraints upon the way in which charges can be made, which, as has been said, is a useful amendment to the Bill. I am suggesting that it could be linked more specifically with each of the different uses for which charges will be recoverable.
Amendment 10 would mean that in exercising the power under clause 4(1)(a), rather than the whole of subsection (1),
“the Commissioners must aim to secure that, taking one financial year with another, the income from charges under that subsection does not exceed the annualised costs incurred by the Commissioners in exercising their functions in respect of navigation under the navigation Acts.”
It seems that that relates to the use of any waterway by any vessel. Those would be the charges for the use of the waterway, and they would link in directly with the functions in respect of navigation under the navigation Acts.
I am much more dubious about linking in the reasonable charges for the provision of services and facilities in respect of the waterways and their banks, because they are not separated out from the more general, nor is the requirement for registration of any vessel under navigation byelaws. Those charges should be separately identified and accounted for, and they should undergo this test: taking one financial year with another, the charges under those subsections should not exceed the annualised costs. This is a refinement of clause 4, and I think that it would improve the clause significantly.
Amendment 11 also deals with the annualised issue. The effect of amendment 12 would be as follows:
“The Commissioners may revise, waive or remove any charge fixed under subsection (1)(a), and different charges may be fixed for different cases or classes of case.”
The amendment would extend the commissioners’ discretion, while making sure that it was specific to the different categories of activity for which they can recover charges.
Amendment 13, which is a probing amendment, would leave out subsection (4). I hope that we will hear further explanation of why the commissioners want to
“make the use of the services and facilities referred in subsection (1)(b) subject to such terms and conditions as the Commissioners may specify in writing.”
The most radical amendment that I have tabled to clause 4 is amendment 14, which I hope will find favour with Members from across the House. The amendment would add, at the end of the clause:
“No charge shall be payable in respect of the use of a waterway by a vessel being used by a person who is registered disabled”.
I raise that because there is quite an issue about disability, the use of waterways and the use of powers similar to those sought by the promoters of the Bill. Such powers have been abused on occasions, and disabled people have been severely pilloried and discriminated against. Why should it not be possible to exempt disabled people from these charges?
I have been sent a press cutting dated April 2015 from Wiltshire, where a disabled boat owner who lived on the Kennet and Avon canal faced costs of up to £76,000 as a result of action that was taken against him by the Canal and River Trust. The individual was living on incapacity benefit and disability living allowance. Instead of allowing him to repair his boat over a period of time, the trust strictly imposed the conditions of his licence and required him to vacate his boat, which was also his home. Insult was added to injury by the fact that he was denied legal aid, and he was instead represented by the legal officer of the National Bargee Travellers Association.
I accept that we do not want to go into any more detail than I have already, but the analogy is that the powers that are being sought in the Bill by the Middle Level Commissioners are almost identical to the powers that have already been obtained by other organisations, such as the Canal and River Trust, which operates on the Kennet and Avon canal.
Is there any serious demand from disabled people in the boat-owning community in East Anglia for this exemption? I have a number of disabled constituents who are boat owners, and as I pointed out on Second Reading in the last Parliament, many boat owners from my constituency will motor upstream into the different parts of the Middle Level. I have not come across any demand from disabled people; this is not like the blue badge scheme. We have great respect for those in the disabled community, but is my hon. Friend really saying that there is a desire to give them an exemption from these charges? Would that not just make the scheme that much more bureaucratic? Also, most disabled people are very proud, so do they really want this exemption?
Obviously, they would get the exemption only if they applied for it. Disabled people are proud, and I have a lot of disabled residents among my constituents, but that does not mean that, for example, they do not cherish the ability to park their cars using a discretionary parking permit.
In direct answer to my hon. Friend’s intervention, I had not received any representations from disabled constituents of his before making this speech; if I had, I would have referred them to him. However, what I can say is that the Canal and River Trust, which was dealing with this issue in Wiltshire, has now accepted in principle that disabled boaters should not have enforcement action taken against them in the same way as able-bodied boaters, but it has not yet been very keen to communicate that policy to disabled people there.
All I can say is that, given how the powers have been used on inland waterways in other parts of the country, there is potentially an issue, and by putting forward amendment 14, I have at least ensured that it is discussed. As we know, there is even more interest in the other place in promoting the cause of disabled people than there is in this House. It may well be that, when the Bill gets to the other place, Members there will wish to pursue the content of amendment 14 if it is not accepted by the sponsor today.
Amendments 15 and 16 are designed to leave out clauses 5 and 7. I tabled them to enable us to have a debate on the content of those clauses, should that be thought desirable. However, having regard to the time, the best thing to do is probably not to speak to those amendments but to go on to one or two of the later amendments.
My hon. Friend is making a very informative speech. He will recognise that other Members are affected, other than just those from the fens, because the River Nene—or “Nen”, depending on which part of my constituency someone is from—flows into the Middle Level. So this issue is wider than just a local area.
It is very important that my hon. Friend has been able to put his interest in this subject matter on the record.
Amendment 17 relates to clause 9, which addresses stranded, grounded and sunken vessels and vehicles. The amendment would remove the subsection 3, which states:
“Whenever any vessel is, without lawful authority, left or moored in any waterway the Commissioners may after serving not less than 28 days’ notice on the owner of the vessel, unless it is not practicable after reasonable inquiry to ascertain the name and address of the owner, raise and remove the vessel.”
As set out in the rest of clause 9, it is perfectly reasonable for a vessel that is stranded or abandoned in a waterway and is interfering with navigation to be removed quickly. However, when one takes into account the very wide definition of “waterway”, the inclusion of subsection 3 is potentially oppressive. It could mean that the commissioners could, for example, go into a marina and raise and remove a vessel at considerable cost after no more than 28 days’ notice. The amendment would therefore remove that power from the Bill.
Clause 11 relates to the requirements for registration and incorporates a very important amendment promoted by the March Cruising Club and others on the charges and the amount by which they could be increased in any one year. It introduces a requirement that such charges should not increase above the rate of inflation as defined by the consumer prices index. Many boaters—some may be represented by my hon. Friends here this evening—are not very well-off in financial terms and need to be able to plan their budgets ahead. When they work out the costs of having a vessel on the waterway, they need to have the certainty that the charges levied cannot be increased by more than the rate of the CPI each year. By analogy, the Government have said that council tax should not increase by more than the CPI. They have made some exceptions to that recently, but the general proposition is that they cannot be increased by more than the CPI.
Much as I would like to agree with my hon. Friend, there has to be some discretion, because the fees needs to relate to the powers and duties that will be carried out and funded by them. One of the clauses that we looked at earlier specified that the money for the fees had to be spent on various things, particularly, for example, on navigation.
Can I just help a little? In fairness to Mr Bone, he was not here, but you do not need to explain what we have already discussed and we do not need to go back over it. I know that you were not attempting to do so—come on, Sir Christopher!
Okay, amendment 26 is to clause 15, line 38. The clause, on the protocol of removal of vessels, states:
“The Commissioners must, in consultation with the Navigation Advisory Committee, prepare, publish and maintain a protocol on the use of powers under or by virtue of this Act to remove vessels.”
My amendment proposes to change “in consultation with” to “in conjunction with”, because it seems to me that the Navigation Advisory Committee should work jointly with the commissioners rather than just in consultation with them on this important matter. Again, amendment 25 tries to reduce the powers conferred upon the commissioners under clause 14(4) and how they can be exercised.
As I said at the beginning, this is a much improved Bill, compared with how it was. It has now reached the stage where, because all the amendments have been grouped together, it would not be sensible to test the will of the House on each one—I am glad that you agree with me on that proposition, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, the Bill’s promoters are worried about whether the fact that we are discussing these things in the House today means that they cannot be discussed further when the Bill gets to the other place. My understanding is that when it goes to the other place, there is a fresh opportunity for people to put in petitions, in which they can include whatever they wish to, and I am sure that the other place will build upon the discussions that we are having this evening and have had prior to it, so that eventually, the Bill will be even better than it is now.
I am pleased to respond on the Opposition’s behalf to this opposed private business. Although it might not be the most conventional way to introduce legislative change, and I have heard the detailed reservations of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), we are none the less satisfied that the Bill makes sense, and our intention is to support the Bill as it stands. Although the Bill is fairly narrow in scope, we acknowledge that it has important consequences for those who will be affected. We are satisfied that due scrutiny has taken place in Committee and is taking place at consideration stage this afternoon.
The Middle Level of the fens was first drained in the 17th century to reclaim an area of farmland in Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk. The Middle Level Commissioners are the navigation authority for the waterways, established through a series of local Acts passed between 1663 and 1874, so we appreciate that the legislative framework underpinning the role of the commissioners is in need of an update. This is not least because almost all the fenland within the Middle Level waterways is below sea level, and if it was not for a complex system of flood mitigation and drainage schemes managed by the commissioners, the waterways could pose a significant risk to the estimated 100,000 people who live and work in the area.
In the simplest terms, the Bill will introduce a registration scheme for vessels in the Middle Level and allow the commissioners to bring in revenue from boat owners that will be used to improve the waterways. The Environment Agency, the Canal and River Trust and the Broads Authority all have similar powers in respect of their own navigations, so in many ways, the Bill is long overdue in bringing the Middle Level into line with its neighbours. Additional income for the commissioners could make a real difference to the fenlands and waterways, and although I appreciate the desire of local boat users for improved facilities on the waterways, as we have heard, the Bill will allow the commissioners to raise revenue to deliver this.
The chief executive of Middle Level Commissioners, Iain Smith, has said that about 1,500 vessels use their locks every year and that about 100 boats are “hiding” unlicensed on the waterways. He believes it is the largest stretch of water in the country that boaters do not have to pay to use. I acknowledge that the National Association of Boat Owners has expressed concerns that there should be statutory provision for a minimum level of facilities and visitor moorings in the Bill and that the Bill could be a
“money gathering exercise for the Commissioners”.
As outlined by the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), however, provisions in the Bill—in clause 4, if I am not mistaken—prevent the commissioners from raising more in navigation revenue than they spend on navigation. I hope that this will reassure boat owners that the Bill is not simply a matter of “money gathering” and that the appropriate safeguards are in place.
On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Torbay also noted that the Inland Waterways Association, the East Anglian Waterways Association, the Association of Nene River Clubs, the Middle Level Watermen’s Club, the Residential Boat Owners’ Association, the Association of Waterways Cruising Clubs and five local councils were in support of the Bill, and I understand that they remain in support. I have heard the detailed reservations of the hon. Member for Christchurch and the interventions of other hon. Members.
Does the hon. Lady have any sympathy with any of my hon. Friend’s amendments, particularly the one about no charge
“being payable in respect of the use of the waterway by a vessel being used by a person who is registered disabled”?
Is that not something the Labour party would welcome?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is a valid one, and of course we want to improve accessibility so that everyone can enjoy our waterways. It is certainly something we would consider further in later discussions on the Bill, but it is not something we would vote for later today.
Taking everything into account, we are satisfied that the Bill is sensible in updating the legal framework setting out the role of the Middle Level Commissioners and bringing them into line with what is now standard practice across comparable waterways. Despite its unusual journey through Westminster, we have no problem supporting it this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to get another opportunity to speak on the Bill. Given that it has already had its Second Reading, I will focus my remarks on today’s amendments and the changes made in Committee.
As the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) just mentioned, a number of positive changes were made to the Bill in response to the petitioners’ concerns, and I was grateful to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) say that changes had been made and that people had listened. It is appropriate, however, that I say briefly why I do not think it would be appropriate for the amendments and new clauses to be accepted.
New clause 1 would set a minimum navigation depth actually lower than the one in current legislation. New clauses 2 to 5 refer to specific facilities that could be provided. As suggested in an intervention, it does not seem logical to specify in statute things such as coin-operated water showers. Were that to sit in primary legislation, it would run the danger of the Bill becoming completely outdated. It also makes sense for users, via the mechanisms proposed in the Bill, to be able to discuss what are appropriate facilities. The inclusion of some of these items might also render particular powers ineffective where planning permission is refused. I therefore urge the House to reject all the new clauses.
I take my hon. Friend’s point about the specific items, but new clause 5 does not mention anything specific; it just maintains that something should be in “good repair and working order”. If that new clause is not accepted, what would the appropriate remedy be for boaters to ensure they did not pay for something they cannot use?
Clause 4, as amended, means that incomes can only be used for navigation purposes. Ultimately, this becomes a chicken-and-egg situation: money will have to be raised if the commissioners are to provide the type of facilities people want on the Middle Level in consultation with navigation users. The alternative is to ask those who are paying for drainage to pay for those facilities to be provided initially via their council tax bills, which seems neither fair nor equitable. This cannot be a money-raising exercise. The purpose of any moneys raised by navigation must be absolutely clear. People are already paying for drainage via council tax and a levy.
An amendment was made in Committee making it clear that the powers would not be extended to someone who owns the waterways and the frontage of a property. The promoters have confirmed that the owners of the marinas wish to be included in the powers of the commission. There is no specific definition. We are not talking about a lock or a quay; we are talking about an open waterway. The aim is to manage it as a whole system, with registration applying throughout, and without different safety standards or insurance requirements. That should benefit the hon. Lady’s constituents.
Amendment 1 would extend the time between the passing of the Act and the date on which it would come into effect. A 12-month transition period applies to many of the provisions relating to construction and use, but it does not make sense to delay all the provisions—such as the commissioners’ new duty to have regard to the interests of boat dwellers—to that extent.
Let me now deal with amendment 2. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch asked where the words “any other offensive” had come from. The wording is actually similar to the requirements under the Environment Agency’s powers to control discharges into water for works purposes under section 163 of the Water Resources Act 1991. It is a well-established definition, and I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend said that amendment 3 was a probing amendment. Adding a reference to electric vehicles to a provision that also includes vehicles under sail does not take into account the direction in which technology could well move. Electric motors are becoming much more powerful, certainly far more powerful than a sail vessel. However, as I have said, my hon. Friend did say that this was a probing amendment.
The promoters would find amendment 4 unacceptable, because it would potentially remove the need for a static vessel to meet construction and safety standards or insurance requirements. I think that, given the issues that we have been debating over the past year, few of us would consider it sensible for those requirements not to apply to houseboats.
Amendment 5 would extend the commissioners’ powers in quite an odd way, and could require them to dig out virtually every watercourse in the area that is not a navigable course. It suggests the idea of a sort of waterway statutory off-road notice. This has already been taken care of by a change that was made in relation to boats that people own that are on their own property and used only by them. Parking a boat in a marina, for example, would be the equivalent of parking it in a public car park.
I made a point about amendment 6 in an earlier intervention. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), replacing the words
“appear to the Commissioners to be (taken together)”
with the word ”are” could allow a challenge over who had been appointed if someone felt that an appointee did not represent them. I do not feel that that would be an appropriate or helpful addition to the Bill. Such a challenge to the advisory committee could potentially frustrate its establishment.
I oppose amendments 9, 16 and 22 because the point of introducing a practical power is to provide for a simple registration plate that can be enforced. Getting into an argument about whether a boat has been used or not seems neither sensible nor appropriate, particularly if we are talking about looking to have basic construction and safety standards and insurance standards. In exactly the same way as if we park a car on a public road, it does not matter whether we are driving it or not as it still needs to be roadworthy and have paid vehicle tax. There are therefore similar precedents in other areas of legislation, so again I suggest that these amendments are both unwelcome and unnecessary.
As for amendments 10 and 11, the Bill makes it clear how the income from navigation will be used to fund benefits for navigation so, again, neither of them is necessary. On amendments 12 and 13, it does not seem unreasonable to allow commissioners to set conditions on the use of facilities such as, for example, cleaning showers and not abusing waste facilities. Indeed, it could undermine the purposes of providing those facilities if they were not able to provide a basic regulation system for how they were used, which is common in many other environments.
On amendment 14, I appreciate the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for ensuring that disabled people have a strong voice in this Chamber, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, who is a passionate advocate of equalities, hence his membership of the Women and Equalities Committee. However, this amendment is flawed as it refers to a register of disabled persons when that register was abolished by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, so again I suggest it would not be sensible to bring that in.
We are on Report, whose purpose is to look at the technical detail of the Bill and satisfy ourselves it would be appropriate. In terms of whether I support the principle, my council does not offer a parking fee concession for those who hold a blue badge, only the ability to use reserved spaces that are very close. Again, that principle is established in many areas, so I do not think the principle of this is one to take forward. This is not about someone needing an extra facility because they are disabled; this is about a boat and navigation and whether people pay the same charge as everyone else and are effectively treated exactly the same.
On amendments 15 and 16, it does not make any sense to remove the ability to promote reciprocal arrangements, and it could end up costing boat owners more if they have to have separate licences and registration and different standards, so I urge the House to reject these amendments. On amendments 17, 18, 19 and 20, a protocol will be put in place, so I do not accept the suggestion that the existing powers would be oppressive. A houseboat would only be removed in the last resort and where it was proportionate to do so.
On amendment 23, it makes little sense to apply this cap only to the application fee; it does not apply it to the registration fee. This could produce perverse effects in the long run, and I again suggest it should be rejected.
My view and that of the promoters is that amendment 26 this would cause confusion: if things are done in “conjunction” with, rather than through “consultation”, and someone wishes to take legal action, whom do they take it against? They could end up taking it against members of the navigation advisory committee which actually just got involved to represent people, so this could act as a deterrent for anyone wanting to be involved.
There are many good reasons for this Bill to be passed. It has been examined in great depth in the Opposed Bill Committee and on the Floor of the House. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for his great interest and the scrutiny he has given this Bill, but I urge the House to reject all the new clauses and amendments, if necessary.
I am pleased to be able to make this short speech in support of the Bill, unamended as it is. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and those who sat on the Committee. They seem to have done a great deal of clever and thoughtful work. I know very little about the Middle Level Bill, but I do know a lot about the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, where we had similar issues relating to the need to update and to who should be able to moor and therefore be charged for facilities. That was resolved, although not without difficulty, because there was some opposition. Eventually, however, people saw sense on issues such as shutting the canal on certain days when there is limited need to use it, to allow people easier passage over its many bridges. It is right and proper that such arrangements should be revisited from time to time, to ensure that our canal system and the waterway system in general are fit for purpose. I should like to add my congratulations on the work that has been done, and I hope that the Bill will pass without amendment.
I had the pleasure of chairing the Opposed Private Bill Committee, which took evidence on this legislation. I and four parliamentary colleagues—two from this side of the House and two from the Opposition—have considered the objections raised by the petitioners in great detail, and the undertakings made in response. I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for his kind comments about the conduct of the Committee, and about its work. I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between the clear need to upgrade the levels and the legitimate concerns of those who use them, and as a result I am happy to recommend the new Middle Level Bill to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he assure me that low-wage families living on boats will not suffer homelessness as an unintended consequence of the legislation? Can he also confirm that the revenue acquired from the licence fee will be spent on boaters and their facilities?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I know that she has taken a particular interest in this matter. On the question of homelessness, I shall deal in detail with the potential for a review if the interests of houseboat dwellers are not taken into account. She also asked about licence fees, and the Bill contains the idea that the money raised from those fees should be spent on navigation. In fact, according to the information that we have, that is unlikely to be enough to cover all the potential navigation costs.
As I have said, I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance. Today’s debate is, rightly, restricted to the technicalities of the Bill, as the case for updating the law governing the Middle Level navigations is undeniable and has been accepted by the House. The existing Acts were laid down in the 19th century and simply do not reflect the realities of managing a modern waterway. The Bill will bring the Middle Level into line with the rules governing neighbouring systems, prevent the diversion of resources away from vital flood prevention measures, and allow the commissioners to provide the standards of safety and convenience that should be standard on all British waterways.
I know that some object to the Bill on the ground that to charge those who navigate the levels breaches an ancient right of free navigation. However, after close scrutiny, my colleagues and I do not believe that that is the case. For starters, there has always been a levy for using the Middle Level. When the previous Middle Level Acts were drafted, the waterways were heavily used by commercial and industrial shipping, with pleasure craft almost an anomaly in that respect. It was therefore sensible to concentrate fees for maintaining the navigations on commercial shipping.
However, the situation today is entirely the reverse: the levels are well used by pleasure and leisure craft, and they see little, if any, commercial traffic. It is therefore only right that we empower the commissioners to levy funds from those who enjoy the Middle Level today. We should also remember that many of the costs are incurred explicitly through keeping the waterways navigable. Locks could easily be replaced by much more cost-effective alternatives such as weirs, were flood control the commission’s only consideration. I believe that this also addresses concerns about a supposed right to free navigation. Certainly, the case can be made that the state ought not to levy a fee to sail on a naturally navigable river, but when public funds must be laid out to maintain an artificial navigation, it is just that those who benefit should pay.
I also urge the House to remember that the Middle Level navigations are not only navigable waterways but important flood protection measures, without which much of the fens would be under water for at least part of the year. The Middle Level commissioners are responsible for both those important functions, but without the ability to levy funds from those using the waterways, they have no choice but to maintain them by diverting money from their flood defences. As a matter of public safety, as well as one of basic fairness, this should change.
In Committee, we heard another important objection to the proposed fees system that I would like to address here: what will those who pay the fee receive in exchange? That is a perfectly reasonable concern, and I will briefly explain to the House how the Bill has addressed it. First, we have a commitment from the commissioners that they will not under any circumstances levy more money from boat users than they need to maintain the navigations in good order. In fact, I am told that they are likely to raise much less than that. The commissioners also know that they will only undermine their own fundraising efforts if they set the rates at a level that discourages the use of the waterways. I am therefore confident that the rates will remain competitive and in line with the rest of the inland waterway network, which is in effect a market.
Secondly, the commissioners have committed to spending the money raised from those using the navigations on maintaining the navigations themselves. Thirdly, the facilities on the Middle Level are clearly in urgent need of an upgrade. At present, there are only two public facilities on the entire system, and it needs not only more toilets, but other services such as drainage, watering posts, and refuse collection. All that needs to be paid for, and it does not seem right that local council tax payers are asked to fund improvements so that the actual beneficiaries can enjoy them free of charge.
Another objection heard by the Committee was that new rules would unfairly penalise houseboat dwellers. The rules in question are the commissioner’s powers to move vessels that have been abandoned or moored without authority. Some of the petitioners were concerned that the notice periods were too short. Others even alleged that the proposals violated the human rights of those who live on the level. However, I believe that the Bill has addressed such concerns. For a start, there is obviously no possibility of this or any other Bill empowering the commissioners to violate anybody’s human rights unless some explicit exemption were written into it for that purpose.
Beyond that, the Bill contains several additional measures intended to reassure residents of the Middle Level. It provides a clear definition of the “lawful authority” under which vessels can be removed and specifies that any notices must be served to the vessels in question. Clause 15 requires that the commission publish a clear protocol to specify that moving a vessel will be a last resort. Moreover, clause 13 explicitly mandates the commission to have regard for the rights and interests of boat dwellers and to report annually on how they have upheld that duty. That means that the Middle Level navigations will offer some of the best and most explicit protections to houseboat users of any part of this country’s inland waterways. I concluded that the protections are more than adequate to offset the legitimate concerns of boat users while still allowing the commission to perform the essential function of moving abandoned or illegally moored vessels that are either blocking the use of moorings by others or obstructing navigation of the narrower waterways.
Finally, on byelaws and regulation, the new powers proposed in the Bill will allow the commission to require vessels to be insured and to meet proper safety standards, while providing a period of adjustment so that those using the levels can make sure their boats are up to code. My colleagues on the Committee and I all felt that that was important not only for its own sake, but to prevent the Middle Level becoming a dumping ground for old, unsafe vessels that are no longer legal on other parts of the network. Furthermore, the Middle Level will be adopting standards similar to those of neighbouring waterways, which will mean minimal disruption for anybody trying to use the navigations as part of the broader network. In short, the Bill will modernise the management of the Middle Level while preserving, and indeed enhancing, its unique historical character both for today’s users and future generations.
The Bill affects my constituency along with several others, and it is vital to the people living in the fens. Without the modern drainage that was brought in during the 18th century, they would not have homes, and we would not have nearly 200,000 acres of prime agricultural land. It is also important to the owners of pleasure craft. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who chaired the Committee, and agree with what he just said, and I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for his indefatigable work as the Bill’s sponsor.
It is important that we have a charging regime that is simple, transparent and not too bureaucratic. Some of the amendments do make quite a lot of sense but, with great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), I urge the House not to have anything to do with the new clauses, which would complicate the Bill and make it more bureaucratic. What we want is a simple Bill, with a charging system that really is fit for purpose. We want to build up a position of trust between the commissioners and the boat owners and users who will be paying the navigation fees.
On that basis, I very much hope that the Bill is not delayed a day longer than is necessary, because it is so important to my constituency.
Members will be pleased to know that I can be relatively brief.
The Government support the Bill, which is promoted by the Middle Level Commissioners, a statutory corporation constituted under the Middle Level Act 1862. We have had a good debate this evening and I commend the many probing amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) tabled, but I believe that all the points he raised have been dealt with comprehensively, in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who has a deep grasp of all the detail of the Bill.
The legal framework that governs the commissioners’ navigation function is made up of a number of 18th and 19th century Acts, which are now considerably out of date and do not align with modern requirements or the statutory framework that is applicable to other navigation authorities. 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. As a result, the commissioners do not receive any income from the navigation of the waterways, which has meant that moneys raised through drainage rates and levies have had to be used to fund navigation rather than for flood defence purposes, which is contrary to Government policy.
The commissioners are therefore seeking to update and clarify their powers to enable them to properly regulate and fund their waterways. The powers that they are seeking are similar to those used by other large inland navigation authorities, for example the Canal and River Trust, the Environment Agency and the Broads Authority.
I very much support the Bill and hope that it will pass unamended this evening.
We have had a good humoured and thoughtful debate, and I am grateful to everybody who has participated. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who conceded that some of my amendments were sensible, if not the new clauses. I hope that if they are not accepted by the promoter tonight, they will be taken forward when the Bill is debated in the other place in due course, as it inevitably will be.
The issues we have discussed are of considerable concern to the petitioners. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for having got to his feet. It is quite unusual in these debates for the person who has got down to the detail in Committee to come here to explain his reasoning and the work that he did. I thank him and the other members of the Committee once again for the work that they did and the courteous way in which they dealt with the concerns expressed by the petitioners. He has set a useful new precedent: instead of hiding their light under a bushel, the people who get involved in the Committee stage should participate on Report, as he has done.
I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for showing sympathy with some of my amendments, although she cannot bring herself to support them yet.
I will not press all the amendments in the House tonight, because it will be much better for them to be dealt with in the other place, where the ideas can be developed and the responses from the petitioners and the promoter can be made available. However, I do think that amendment 14 bears further consideration. For the benefit of those who were not here for the debate, amendment 14 is in page 6, clause 4, line 11, at the end to add
“(8) No charge shall be payable in respect of the use of a waterway by a vessel being used by a person who is registered disabled”.
I only got one response on that from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), whom I thank for having gone through all my amendments seriatim, which is fantastic. He, like my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, is assiduous in answering the points that have been made. It makes it much easier for someone summing up a debate if they know their points have been answered.
On the issue of disabled people, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay seized on the fact that “registered disabled” is no longer a category of persons, but this amendment would apply to people who were registered disabled with the Middle Level Commissioners. Obviously, there is a registration system for people who have these boats and it would be able to include provisions as to whether or not someone is disabled, so the technical objection that my hon. Friend raised is not a valid one. If I had used a capital “R” and a capital “D” in my amendment, perhaps it might have been. I hope people will support the amendment on the basis that a lot of people are disabled and face considerable difficulties, and it would be reasonable for all other boaters to be prepared to cross-subsidise those who register with the commissioners as being disabled.
I have only one other issue to raise in conclusion. I note from what has been said that there is a move to ensure that substandard vessels will be removed. I hope that that will not be done in a way that is harassing. I chair the all-party group on park homes, so I know that there is a lot of concern that people, mostly elderly people, find themselves harassed just because their park home has not been updated for 20 years or so. There is a danger that in the drive for what I might describe as the “gentrification” of the inland waterways we may be working against the interests of the people who have been resident on those waterways for many, many years and whose vessels are not up to modern standards but are, for their purposes, perfectly good. I hope that the commissioners and the promoters will not abuse the power we are giving them.
I shall ask the House to express its opinion on amendment 14 and whether or not we would like to give disabled people who are using these inland waterways in vessels registered with the commissioners the right to do so without having to pay charges. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 14, page 6, line 11,
“at end add
‘(8) No charge shall be payable in respect of the use of a waterway by a vessel being used by a person who is registered disabled’.”— (Sir Christopher Chope.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House proceeded to a Division.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank all hon. Members who have come to support the Bill, which is a needed piece of legislation that will reform an outdated system of regulation of this waterway. I hope that all Members will support it receiving its Third Reading.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.