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6 Dec 2006 : Column 131WH—continued

He went on to state that British Waterways was being penalised for DEFRA’s incompetence, which is rather contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggested.

I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to explain why British Waterways, the work that it does and the 180 workers who will be made redundant have to suffer because of DEFRA’s failings elsewhere. I would also be grateful if the Minister is any closer to explaining the reasons for the cuts. We understand that DEFRA needs to save £200 million from this year’s budget, but during oral questions the other week the Minister was able to account for only £33 million—DEFRA must save £10 million for bird flu, which we in the Conservative party understand is important, and £23 million on the RPA for the single farm payment fiasco. That leaves £167 million unaccounted for, and it would be helpful if the Minister could explain the reasons for the cut. The only explanation given at the time—he said it himself—was:

On top of the cuts to British Waterways, the maintenance of our waterways and canals is also threatened by the £27.7 million cut to the Environment Agency’s budget. The network of waterways that was once built to support our industrial growth is now used to support our tourism and leisure industries and was fast becoming a valuable asset for communities, jobs and homes. However, while all those benefits are under threat, we discover that there has been a lack of joined-up government in trying to manage the situation, as has been mentioned. Last month, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary stated that he had had no discussions with his ministerial colleagues specifically about the funding reductions for British Waterways or their impact on the environment, the economy and regeneration. When we consider how much regeneration and investment is involved, it is improper that the impact of those cuts has not been discussed with ministerial colleagues in other Departments.

With so many potential benefits at stake, I am somewhat saddened. I wonder why the Government are jeopardising them by cutting British Waterways’ budget for this year and planning further cuts that will amount to between £50 million and £60 million over the next
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five years. Is it not odd that the Under-Secretary should have confirmed that he and his colleagues have not discussed the British Waterways cuts with the Chancellor? I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to explain why. Should the cuts continue, waterways will have to be closed, vital maintenance postponed or cancelled, and regeneration projects halted. I am sad to close by reporting that the Rochdale, Peak Forest and Ashton canals now face cuts in their works programme and that, as a result, closure may be on the cards.

3.51 pm

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on securing this debate. The high attendance—in my experience, it is exceptional—shows that it is a matter of great interest not only to those who use our inland waterways but to all who are involved in their restoration and heritage. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend for the excellent progress that British Waterways made while he was a member of its board.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is sorry not to be here to answer the debate. He is attending an event with the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister in connection with his biodiversity responsibilities. If hon. Members will allow me, I shall ask him to respond in writing to the specific and individual constituency concerns raised during the debate. As Minister with responsibility for waterways, my hon. Friend has seen how much British Waterways has achieved in the last 10 years and the tremendous contribution it has made to stimulating regeneration and delivering benefits to the public in general. He and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have held a number of meetings with British Waterways’ chairman and chief executive in the past weeks and months to discuss the funding situation.

A number of hon. Members have fallen for the misapprehension that the funding challenges faced by DEFRA are all due to the single farm payment and the Rural Payments Agency. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is only a small proportion of the £200 million—approximately 11 per cent.—that we have to save this year. It is not quite true to say that it is all the result of the single farm payment.

The in-year reduction for British Waterways was 7 per cent., not the figure suggested by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), and considerably less than the reduction that we asked of the core Department and the other parts of the DEFRA family. Those reductions have averaged between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent, but we made efforts to protect British Waterways. It is also right, as my hon. Friend said, that the reductions should be seen in the overall context of British Waterways’ turnover of £190 million and the massively increased investment in British Waterways over the past 10 years. Its income has risen by 200 per cent. in that period; I doubt whether many organisations have seen such an increase.

Like hon. Members, however, the Government do not wish to see that wonderful track record and those improvements and achievements undermined. Indeed,
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that record was acknowledged by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who is no longer in his place, and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). Although I cannot give hon. Members the assurances that they seek on budgets for 2007-08 and beyond into the 2007 comprehensive spending review period, I assure the House that we are actively working with the management of British Waterways to ensure that its funding is sustainable. Some of the figures that my hon. Friend suggested for possible cuts are, as far as I know, pretty speculative and do not bear much relation to the figures that I have heard being discussed within the Department and with British Waterways.

Mr. Paterson: Will the Minister say whether breaches will be mended and filled in—if necessary, out of the Contingencies Fund?

Mr. Bradshaw: No; that is a matter for British Waterways. It is not for the Government or Ministers to dictate its priorities within its resource allocations. It is up to British Waterways to decide how best to apportion its budget in relation to its activities.

I welcome the fact that British Waterways is taking a positive approach to its funding and to putting its budget and finances on a firm footing. The Department is waiting for its proposals for a long-term agreement on funding. We hope that it will be based on a realistic assumption of the likely funding levels. Many hon. Members were in the Chamber earlier for the pre-Budget report. They will have heard that a number of Departments are going to face stringent spending restrictions and that some will face flat cash cuts in the next comprehensive spending review settlement. The massive growth in public spending of the past few years will therefore be maintained, but not to the same level as in the past few years. We hope that our agreement with British Waterways will give it greater financial security, provide it with funding certainty, allow it to plan with confidence, and make it less dependent on Government subsidy.

I shall respond to some of the constructive and positive points made by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). Although we acknowledge that British Waterways has made tremendous progress in recent years by becoming more self-sufficient, it needs to continue along that path. I am mindful of what my hon. Friend said about the need to consider the statutory constraints. Last year, British Waterways earned slightly less than £100 million through trading. That was the highest ever figure, and it accounted for more than half of its total income. British Waterways’ income has tripled over the past seven years. The rest of its income derived from Government grants and third-party contributions. We think that it still has considerable potential to increase its income—for example, it still sits on considerable assets, and we believe that it can better exploit their potential.

With the suggestion of my hon. Friend in mind, I shall ask for the statutory constraints on British Waterways to be reconsidered. I can tell him that British Waterways is actively exploring with the
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Cabinet Office whether its development powers might be widened under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006.

Mr. Benyon: In the few minutes that remain, will the Minister answer my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and tell us whether British Waterways has approached the Chancellor for emergency contingency funds in the way he described?

Mr. Bradshaw: I have not had such discussions, but Ministers in all Departments speak to their Treasury colleagues regularly on all funding matters. I cannot speak for my colleagues or for the Secretary of State on whether British Waterways has been mentioned.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members also mentioned British Waterways’ place within Government. My hon. Friend was right to say that British Waterways, as part of our heritage, could fit into a number of Departments, but I ask him to be slightly cautious about assuming that, were it to come under another Department, everything would suddenly be much rosier—not least because of the spending restraints on other Departments as a result of the next comprehensive spending review settlement. I also point to DEFRA’s having delivered a record increase in funding for British Waterways while my hon. Friend was its vice-chairman. DEFRA’s record is honourable and people should not assume that if British Waterways were to come under the remit of another Department—assuming that another Department wanted it—it would fare any better.

Andrew Miller: My hon. Friend seems to have missed the point slightly, which is that British Waterways is an asset that has huge cross-Department benefits and that there ought to be a cross-Department solution, perhaps led by the Cabinet Office.

Mr. Bradshaw: As I said, the Cabinet Office is actively involved in discussions with British Waterways. My hon. Friend is right to say that many areas of public life cross Departments, and it is always important that hon. Members should seek to ensure that Ministers and Departments work effectively together.

We have had a constructive debate. I hope that I have given my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South some reassurance about what the Government are doing to address the problem. I shall certainly pass on his comments and those of other right hon. and hon. Members to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I put on record our gratitude for the excellent work that British Waterways is doing to maintain our wonderful waterways network. I hope that it will continue to do so in a sustainable way.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I would like to thank the three Front-Benchers for the courtesy they have shown during this debate. I think we have broken a record for a one and a half hour debate: 16 Members took part and six others intervened. I thank everyone for their courtesy. We will now move on to the next debate.

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Health and Safety Executive

4 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): This is a story of a farmer from my constituency, his troubled relationship with a public agency and the lessons that I hope can be learned from his experience.

Rupert Burr farms 400 acres in Sevenhampton in Wiltshire and like many farmers he has found it difficult to make a living from agriculture alone. However, he has diligently, vigorously and imaginatively sought new sources of income. He was a pioneer of alternative sources of energy and grew biomass to supply power to local housing developments. He also made his farm into a popular local visitor attraction. Sadly, his enthusiasm and entrepreneurial vigour did not always have the support it should have had. His biomass supply was shackled by bureaucratic inertia in local and national Government and the visitor attraction was hit hard by the foot and mouth outbreak, which lost him a lot of business, but attracted no compensation. Nevertheless, Mr. Burr persisted indomitably in his endeavours, as do so many small business men, and has battled on to make a living.

Mr. Burr then attracted the attention of the Health and Safety Executive, which felt that his visitor attraction posed safety risks. Since 2003, the HSE has raised a number of concerns about matters such as the stability of a diesel tank, and restraints on a trailer. All safety issues are important and the Health and Safety Executive’s task of ensuring the safety of the public is vital. However, these matters were clearly not complex and they should not have been difficult to resolve.

I became involved when the HSE started to question the safety of a small maze that was constructed out of straw bales and located in a barn. Although the HSE felt that it was trying to protect the public and do its duty, Mr. Burr felt that it was overzealous and vindictive in trying to force him to make what he saw as unnecessary changes and placing unnecessary burdens on his business. A protracted and increasingly bitter dispute between the two sides began and became tangled up by allegations and counter-allegations. The HSE engaged very expensive lawyers and the matter ended up in front of a tribunal, which asked the parties to go away and find a way to resolve the dispute.

I will not take up hon. Members’ time by rehearsing all the twists and turns of this emotional drama, but I will highlight the salient points. Before doing so, I shall attach two important riders to what I will say. First, Rupert Burr would be the first to acknowledge that he could, at times, have reacted more temperately to the demands being made of him and to the way that he felt the HSE was not listening to his side of the case. However, that does not make him ineligible for the basic respect and consideration that I believe all institutions of the state should extend towards all citizens.

Secondly, despite my concerns about the HSE, which I will set out shortly, I pay tribute to its deputy chief executive, Justin McCracken, with whom I have conducted a lengthy correspondence and had many conversations while trying to resolve this case. Throughout the lengthy process, which I am sure at
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times has been extremely irksome to him and his officials, he has been exemplarily prompt in responding to my questions, correspondence and phone calls. He has also been consistently helpful and courteous in trying very constructively to find a way to resolve the dispute. Any criticism I make of the HSE must be tempered by the recognition that it has such a deputy chief executive.

The dispute has largely been resolved. Changes have been made to the maze, which have been accepted by the HSE, and Mr. Burr is making a contribution of £15,000 to the costs. The reason I have asked for this debate is not to resolve the issue, but because I have been struck by the extent to which the HSE seems, probably often unwittingly, to be driven by a culture that is unsupportive of small businesses and can be unnecessarily and destructively confrontational.

There was always a solution to the dispute available had the HSE taken a less dogmatic and more empathetic approach to Mr. Burr at the outset. Only when I became involved in trying to broker a solution, did the HSE begin to adopt a more flexible approach, which led eventually to a resolution. For example, it was originally insisted that the maze be on a single level instead of multi-tiered. Modifications have now been accepted that allow it to remain multi-tiered. That was very important to Mr. Burr, who felt a single tiered maze would not be of any interest to his visitors. Agreement has also been reached on other issues that, when I first became involved, seemed to be non-negotiable, such as interconnecting steps between the different levels of the maze; the type of alarm to be used; the ratio of staff to equipment; and the installation of fire exits, signs and alarms. I am pleased that I helped to create a situation in which those issues could be resolved, but it should not have needed the intervention of a Member of Parliament.

If the HSE had started out with a more helpful and constructive approach, it could have reached the same agreement with Mr. Burr from the start and avoided spending significant sums of public money and placing unnecessary stress on a hard-pressed small business. Instead, the HSE seemed to form the impression from early on that the only way that Mr. Burr could be made to comply was by issuing heavy warnings and going to the expense of a prohibition notice. Such a confrontational approach served only to intensify Mr. Burr’s mistrust of the HSE and a cycle of mutual suspicion and mistrust was created.

My personal experience of this case is that, when the HSE resorted to lawyers, far from making Mr. Burr more willing to accede to its demands, it made him more determined to resist, because he felt that the HSE was being unreasonable to the point of arrogance. Mr. Burr agrees that if I had not taken such an active interest in this case, the dispute might still be continuing, with ever escalating legal costs. The end result would have been the closure of his visitor attraction, which would have been a terrible loss to my constituency.

A public organisation should take more responsibility for avoiding such a destructive situation. The fact that it has been possible for the HSE to modify its demands in ways that Mr. Burr found acceptable suggests that there was always an alternative approach available. Instead, the HSE went to lawyers
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unnecessarily early because it was secure in the knowledge that the taxpayer was underwriting the costs. In a clear effort to pressure him into doing what he was told, Mr. Burr, who is not a rich man, was warned that he was likely to end up shouldering at least some of the costs.

Although the Minister will immediately recognise that this is not a complex area of law, or a complex case—although the safety dimensions are important—the HSE did not stint on the legal costs. It went to Bond Pearce, which is one of the top firms in the country. Its website describes it as

The firm apparently earns £171,000 a year per lawyer. Having looked at the timesheets for what it charged the HSE, I am not surprised that Bond Pearce is growing so fast and earning so much per lawyer. The HSE sought to pass the costs on to my constituent, and I am sure that hon. Members will be interested to hear some of them. A £51 charge was made on 26 July 2005 for travelling to and from the HSE to collect papers—not much expensive legal knowledge required for that—and on the same day, £68 was charged for reviewing case law. Do people not go to lawyers precisely because they know the case law already? That is what lawyers are paid for, but in this case they charged £68 for reviewing it. Diarising a meeting on 2 August 2005 cost £17 and £34 was charged for checking the non-availability of dates on 22 February 2006—how long does that take? On 1 March 2006, £17 was charged for receiving a phone call from the tribunal changing a date. Reading an article in The Times and considering how to incorporate it into evidence cost £68 on 1 April 2006—a £68 charge for reading a newspaper. Leaving a voicemail message on 21 April 2006 cost £17 and so on. The solicitor then went on paternity leave, so the firm instructed counsel for a relatively straightforward case on which the solicitor had already clocked up hundreds and hundreds of pounds for reviewing the case law and reading the newspapers. Counsel would go over the same ground again, and thousands and thousands of pounds in further fees would be incurred.

Most of the costs that I have just cited were incurred after I had become involved in trying to broker a solution, when I would have hoped that the HSE would be prudent enough to allow me some scope to see whether I could succeed without it continuing to run up such costly fees. Apparently, the HSE is still clocking up fees, this time at taxpayers’ expense, by using the same external lawyer to conduct continuing correspondence with Mr. Burr, even though, as I understand it, most of the substantive issues relating to the case have now been resolved.

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