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Column 949

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)

Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)

Prescott, John

Quin, Ms Joyce

Radice, Giles

Randall, Stuart

Raynsford, Nick

Redmond, Martin

Reid, Dr John

Rendel, David

Richardson, Jo

Robertson, George (Hamilton)

Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)

Roche, Mrs. Barbara

Rogers, Allan

Rooker, Jeff

Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)

Rowlands, Ted

Ruddock, Joan

Salmond, Alex

Sedgemore, Brian

Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert

Shore, Rt Hon Peter

Short, Clare

Simpson, Alan

Skinner, Dennis

Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)

Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E)

Snape, Peter

Soley, Clive

Spearing, Nigel

Spellar, John

Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)

Steel, Rt Hon Sir David

Steinberg, Gerry

Stevenson, George

Stott, Roger

Strang, Dr. Gavin

Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)

Tipping, Paddy

Turner, Dennis

Tyler, Paul

Vaz, Keith

Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold

Walley, Joan

Wardell, Gareth (Gower)

Wareing, Robert N

Watson, Mike

Welsh, Andrew

Wicks, Malcolm

Wigley, Dafydd

Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)

Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)

Wilson, Brian

Winnick, David

Wise, Audrey

Worthington, Tony

Wray, Jimmy

Wright, Dr Tony

Young, David (Bolton SE)

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and

Mr. Eric Illsley.

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the draft Industrial Training Levy (Engineering Construction Board) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 2 December, be approved.

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British Waterways Bill [Lords]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Promoters of the British Waterways Bill [Lords] may, notwithstanding anything in the Standing Orders or practice of this House, proceed with the Bill in the present Session and the Petition for the Bill shall be deemed to have been deposited and all Standing Orders applicable thereto shall be deemed to have been complied with ;

That, if the Bill is brought from the Lords in the present Session, the Agent for the Bill shall deposit in the Private Bill Office a declaration signed by him, stating that the Bill is the same, in every respect, as the Bill which was brought from the Lords in the last Session ;

That as soon as a certificate by one of the Clerks in the Private Bill Office, that such a declaration has been so deposited, has been laid upon the Table of the House, the Bill shall be deemed to have been read for the first and second time and committed (and shall be recorded in the Journal of this House as having been so read and committed) ;

That all Petitions relating to the Bill presented in the last Session which stand referred to the Committee on the Bill, together with any minutes of evidence taken before the Committee on the Bill, shall stand referred to the Committee on the Bill in the present session ;

That no Petitioners shall be heard before the Committee on the Bill, unless their Petition has been presented within the time limited within the last Session or deposited pursuant to paragraph (b) of Standing Order 126 relating to Private Business ;

That, in relation to the Bill, Standing Order 127 relating to Private Business shall have effect as if the words "under Standing Order 126 (Reference to committee of petitions against Bill)" were omitted ;

That no further Fees shall be charged in respect of any proceedings on the Bill in respect of which Fees have already been incurred during the last Session.-- [The Chairman of Ways and Means.] 7.30 pm

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : I recall that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were in the Chair when we debated the Second Reading of the Bill. We therefore seem destined to be bound together by British Waterways. It is not a bad thing to bind us together. It is an admirable organisation and I am delighted to be associated with the Bill.

British Waterways does a great deal of good work. The canal system is close to the hearts of many people in Great Britain because it is the oldest canal system in existence and because many people derive a great deal of recreational enjoyment from it.

Since Second Reading, two significant events have occurred. The first is the report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The second is the retirement of the then chairman of the British Waterways Board, Mr. David Ingman. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all his work as chairman of the board. He has been a doughty champion of the waterways and there is no doubt that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's conclusions are a reflection of his contribution.

The conclusions of the MMC report found that there had been a transformation in British Waterways since its 1987 report. The MMC finds that British Waterways has made good progress in the development of business planning, the introduction of waterway standards, the revision of project control guidelines and the introduction of a new computerised accounting and reporting system. It has changed from a centralised organisation orientated towards administering a grant to one developing a strong commercial outlook. The MMC commends British Waterways and its staff for their work and I, too, commend them.

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I said on Second Reading that the Bill was about safety. The key to the revival motion is that those issues are just as important as they were then, if not more so. Therefore, as the Committee has spent so long considering the various issues, there are strong arguments for it to complete its work and let the House decide.

Technically, it is not the function of the House to debate the merits of a Bill on a revival motion. As in all cases, they were examined in some detail on 17 May 1993. Hon. Members drew attention to several elements which were causing them or their constituents problems, and I will explain in due course what British Waterways has done to help resolve them.

British Waterways is responsible for maintaining the fabric of our 200-year -old inland waterway system and its inheritance from the original canal proprietors included 2,000 miles of waterways, 1,500 miles of continuous towpaths, more than 4,700 bridges, 450 tunnels and aqueducts as well as 2,100 listed structures and monuments and 64 sites of special scientific interest.

The Bill is about securing the future of that inheritance and of the availability of the waterways for public use. It is promoted by British Waterways primarily to safeguard waterway users and the owners and occupiers of adjoining land to create new conservation, environmental and recreational duties and to enable British Waterways to manage the waterways more effectively and to generate more income for reinvestment in them.

The House will appreciate that the timely repair of waterways and associated works is essential in the interests of public safety, particularly in emergencies which give rise to the risk of serious dangers to persons and property. It is generally accepted that there is a need for specific powers granting those authorised by the board the right to enter land for such purposes. Landowners' and farmers' representative bodies such as the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union agreed a code of practice as to how entry should be effected in such circumstances.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Everyone accepts that there is a need for that power. I wonder whether there are any instances where the power is not being granted in practice. Some of the first canal Acts go back to about 1730. It seems puzzling if in all the time since then that power was never needed. No one has ever been able to quote to me an example where the lack of that power resulted in difficulties.

Mr. Jones : There have been some close-run incidents. It is necessary to take the appropriate level of risk assessment and it is therefore important to have those powers.

Hon. Members will recall that the subject was referred to in the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report of May 1987 which drew attention to the fact that British Waterways has no effective statutory rights of access over private land, even in the direst emergency when life and property might be endangered. In that respect, the board is unusual among statutory undertakers in having no general powers to enter land even to deal with such emergencies. In contrast, the National Rivers Authority can effect entry on to premises for the purpose of carrying out its water resources function and to act without notice in an

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emergency. Is its capacity as a navigation authority, the NRA is in a different position from that of British Waterways because the natural rivers for which it is mainly responsible--it has only a few canals--do not present the same risks.

Of particular concern is the stability of canal embankments where serious difficulties can occur if there is over-topping and erosion of the embankment, or if tree roots penetrate the lining of the canal, leading ultimately to instability and collapse of the embankment. In my speech on Second Reading I mentioned the example of the breach on the Lancaster canal caused by tree root penetration.

Since that debate, it has come to my attention that Scottish National Heritage, which was formed in 1991 by the amalgamation of the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland and the Countryside Commission for Scotland, was given express powers of entry to land in the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991, even for such apparently mundane activities as surveying land and estimating its value. The Act also conferred similar powers on river purification authorities and others for the purposes of discharging their functions, including entry on to land in emergencies.

Given the volatility and destructive power of the water in the canals, it has to be equally or more important for British Waterways to have the same powers and that the obstruction of their exercise should be deterred, as proposed in the Bill, by the risk of prosecution as in the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991. Part III of the Bill would impose new minimum fire and safety standards on boats and prevent pollution of the waterways. Home Office statistics show that between 1983 and 1988 there were more than 500 fires on boats on inland waterways.

I referred to a particular spectacular example in my speech on Second Reading. It occurred on the River Thames at Radcott in the April 1993, when a cabin cruiser caught fire and was completely gutted. The fire endangered other craft moored at the site and the owners of the vessel suffered burns. It was only due to the heroic efforts of an off-duty ambulanceman who got into the water and pulled the flaming boat away that a much more serious incident was averted. The cause of the fire is believed to have been the escape of excess fuel from an ill-fitting carburettor. The fuel was ignited by the ignition spark of the engine. If the vessel had complied with the boat safety standards, the electrical system in the engine space would have been ignition protected and the excess fuel would have not ignited.

The boat safety standards will require all hire and pleasure boats on British Waterways' system to meet minimum safety requirements before they are permitted to come on or stay on the waterways. They are now referred to as harmonised standards as they have been adopted by the National Rivers Authority and the Broads Authority as well as a number of other navigational authorities.

There have been other incidents since the boat safety standards were last debated in the House. On the Aire and Calder navigation at Stanley Ferry in August 1993, a 35 ft long narrow boat exploded, blowing off a 15 to 20 ft section from the back of the boat. The explosion blew a transom across the canal. It was fortunate that the boat was not moored facing in the opposite direction as the transom would then have blown into the pub adjacent to which the boat was moored.

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It is believed that the explosion was caused by a leak of liquid petroleum gas from a gas bottle. The gas locker in which the bottles were stored was not gas-tight and therefore did not vent the leaking gas overboard as will be required by the boat safety standards scheme. As a result, the gas leaked into the body of the vessel and was ignited by the pilot light of the gas refrigerator on board. That explosion would not have occurred had the vessel complied with the board's safety standards scheme.

Another incident involving a leaking gas bottle occurred on the Bridgwater canal at Agden wharf in December 1993. Here again, the boat safety standards scheme would have required overboard venting as in the case of the Stanley Ferry incident. There was no such venting and an explosion and fire destroyed a 70 ft narrow boat.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in either of those explosions. The Manchester Ship Canal Company which operates that waterway has for several years been following the lead of British Waterways in implementing the boat safety standards scheme, which is clearly desirable in the interests of all the users of waterways, whether or not they are on vessels.

Environmental and recreational duties are close to my heart. Clause 23 will discharge an obligation, which has been accepted and supported by the Government, that British Waterways should be subject to the same general environmental and recreational duties as the NRA and the privatised water and sewerage companies. The clause is directly adapted from section 8 of the Water Act 1989 and it uses the same language.

The report on British Waterways by the Select Committee on the Environment, which was published in August 1989, recommended that a duty similar to that under section 8 of the Water Act 1989 should be applied to the British Waterways Board. The Government endorsed that recommendation in their response in February 1990 and it is now before the House.

Following Second Reading, British Waterways had further discussions with those who at the time still had outstanding petitions. The majority were concerned about proposals embodied in clause 27 for the extinguishment of a variety of unexercised rights which had been conferred on landowners and others at the time of the original canal enabling Acts passed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The extinguishment of those rights was designed to create certainty where there was none and to permit the board to make the best possible use of its property assets. Those provisions in clause 27 were often, the only remaining barriers to the withdrawal of a considerable number of petitions, including several on which the parties had otherwise reached agreement. Therefore, the board decided after careful consideration to propose to the Select Committee the deletion of clause 27 in its entirety. Having given the petitioners concerned assurances to that effect, virtually all the outstanding petitions were withdrawn immediately after the Committee proceedings opened.

It would be idle to assume that the withdrawal of clause 27 has solved any difficulties other than those encountered in the promotion of the Bill. The problems which the actual or theoretical existence of the ancient unexercised rights created for British Waterways will not go away. A vivid example of that was given to the Select Committee when the Bill was in the other place.

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