HL Deb 18 March 1970 vol 308 cc1216-28

6.45 p.m.

VISCOUNT ST. DAVIDS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the power possessed by the Board of Trade to license pleasure craft on British Waterways Board waters and to fine offenders £100, added to the powers of the British Waterways Board to remove the offenders' licences instantly without giving reason, hearing or appeal; and whether it is also necessary to grant additional powers to the Repton Rural District Council and other councils to fine the offenders £2. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, after the great and weighty debate to which we have just listened, perhaps it is right that we should end our Sitting to-day with a touch of light comedy. I think that, briefly, I had better put the House in the picture on the Question that I am now asking. The Board of Trade, for obvious and necessary reasons, has power to license pleasure craft which are hired out for passengers. Their powers cover the whole range of pleasure craft, but in fact they do not bother with pleasure craft which carry fewer than 12 passengers; they have never considered it necessary. Their powers, of course, operate on all the waters of Britain, not only the sea coast but the inland waters as well. They have power to take offenders to court, where they may be fined up to, I believe, £100.

On top of those powers, a number of harbours and large waterway systems have their own Acts of Parliament giving them further powers to license pleasure craft, and these powers include those given to the British Waterways Board for the nationalised inland waterways, which are almost entirely rivers and canals. The British Waterways Board's powers are indeed now vast, because they can issue licences on any conditions they see fit; they can refuse to issue licences to anybody whom they do not think fit to receive one; and they can not only refuse to issue licences but, having issued a licence, can snatch it away again at a moment's notice without giving a reason, without giving a hearing, without trial and without appeal, not even to the Ombudsman. As a matter of fact, in some cases they do that. In those cases in which I have seen it done, I was in entire agreement with the Board, believing that they acted rightly and properly.

Now there are some areas in the country where it is obvious that further licensing is necessary. There are sections of open coast and places where there are small harbours of the type of say, Clovelly, where an inspector of the Board of Trade would not be likely to find himself except possibly on holiday, and where there is no waterway authority of any other kind. To cover those small harbours there is the Public Health Amendment Act 1907, by which these small authorities can apply for an order; and when they have got that order they can themselves license pleasure craft. However, it permits them only to license pleasure craft which are not already licensed by the Board of Trade. So in practice it means that normally they license rather smaller pleasure craft or small harbours. That type of order is also applicable where there is a lake or similar inland water of which there is no navigation authority but which is nevertheless navigable and where some operator may be hiring out boats. There a local authority can get power under this order to see that he carries out his trade safely.

Now we come to the case in point. Some time last year it came to the notice of a councillor of the Repton Rural District Council that for some time previously a boat had been carrying passengers without a Board of Trade licence. Repton Rural District Council is an entirely inland authority. It has no navigable water at all except for two short sections of the Trent and Mersey Canal —two sections because the outlines of Repton rural district zigzag, and so does the Trent and Mersey Canal; so the Trent and Mersey Canal looks into Repton at two short curves at two different spots.

The worthy councillor considered the matter and went, rightly, to the Board of Trade and laid information about this matter. The Board of Trade inspected the vessel, which had belonged to a publican who had been taking passengers from outside his public house the previous year. Apparently he had not renewed his trade, and I am informed that there is no passenger vessel at all operating in the Repton area at this moment. The Board of Trade inspected the vessel. They found that an offence had been committed, but apparently they considered it a fairly venial offence because, apart from uttering a "Tut tut!", no doubt, they did nothing about it.

Not so the Repton Rural District Council. They decided that the safety on the canals was inadequate. Whether my noble friend is prepared to say that the Board of Trade regulations are inadequate I do not know, but this was decided by the Repton Rural District Council. They also took no account of the vast powers of the British Waterways Board, which would certainly have taken action if Repton had complained. As a matter of fact, at that moment there was nothing to complain about because the vessel was laid up and has not been used since. I have here a letter from the clerk and chief executive officer of Repton saying that this case is the ony one which has come to the notice of the council. In other words, there are no other vessels operating from Repton.

Nevertheless Repton decided to apply for an order. I cannot imagine how it happened, but they were granted it—and this in spite of the fact that the British Waterways Board, which controls all these waterways, objected, and so did the Inland Waterways Association. The British Waterways Board say: In spite of our representations and the representations made by the Inland Waterways Association, the Home Office stated that they proposed to give the authority to the rural district council on the assumption that no valid objections were raised by other persons or organisations.

Is it not enough if the nationalised organisation which controls the entire inland waterways raises an objection to this sort of thing on its waterways; and if that is backed up by the users' association of the waterways? One would think that that was adequate. Indeed, I do not know what more you could have.

Anyway, to get on with this comedy: they got their order and a copy of this order appeared in the local papers (as it had to by law). I read from the order published in the local papers: The order will enable the council to grant licences on such terms and conditions as they think fit for pleasure boats and boatmen in charge of such boats. It will be an offence to carry passengers for hire in an unlicensed boat. Further, it is clear that Repton intends, whenever they find a hire boat, to issue it with a licence plate, to inspect the vessel, and to test the boatman to make sure he is capable of handling his craft.

Naturally, one or two people were surprised and the clerk and chief executive officer of Repton, replying to one of them, said: Thank you for your letter of February 12, 1970. Only pleasure boats whose usual place of mooring is on the waterways within the rural district need be licensed with the council. As it appears your boats will only occasionally pass through the rural district, licences are not required.

That is what he writes in one letter. In another, he sings a different song. In this letter, issued to an official of the Inland Waterways Association, he says: Only boats used for carrying passengers for reward will need to be licensed. The order is in force in the rural district and therefore all boats carrying passengers for reward on waterways within the rural district will need to be licensed. Not just the ones which are resident in Repton; but all boats carrying passengers for reward on the waterway. That sounds harmless, but on this canal system nowadays a large part of the traffic at holiday time is hire cruisers which pass along the Trent and Mersey Canal by the dozen every week. They come from some 30 or 40 bases scattered round the country. There are large numbers of boats.

The Clerk of Repton says that as only one instance of a pleasure boat being operated in the rural district for reward has arisen, it is expected that the cost to the ratepayers should be negligible. Under the powers they have taken and which they now must use by law, they have to license every single vessel passing through their area for hire or reward and to license its boatman. I know that one operator of hire cruisers has written to them asking for their investigator, or whoever it is they have, to come and survey his 100 vessels. How the council are going to survey the abilities of the boat-men on these vessels I cannot conceive But they have to, according to their order. This matter gets funnier and funnier. Under the council's order, every such vessel must carry a licence plate; and presumably they must issue it. They can charge only five shillings for the licence, and if the licence is not attached to such vessels they can take the case to court and obtain a maximum fine of £2.

Really, my Lords, do we need it? Is this really essential in addition to the vast powers of the Board of Trade to examine such vessels? If the Board of Trade considered that there was any danger to vessels carrying less than 12 passengers no doubt they would do something about it; but they never have, so far as I know. On top of those powers, the powers of the British Waterways Board are vast. Indeed, I remember I succeeded in persuading your Lordships that those powers were too vast. But that is history now. On top of those huge powers, power is given to Repton Rural District Council to fine an offender £2. It sounds like the 13th stroke of some mad clock, which might well legitimately strike 12, but when it strikes 13 you begin to think that something has gone wrong with the works.

If this were the only case of its kind we might laugh and pass on, but already other rural district councils and local councils are starting to take out the same orders. Already there is the beginning of a flow of these,. Along the Trent and Mersey Canal alone there are 12 authorities. Are they all to issue 5s. licences? Are they all to test our boatmen? How many councils are there along the entire 3,000 miles of navigable inland water-ways? How many licences and how many sets of regulations (they may be different regulations; we do not know) are going to be brought into force? If the argument is strong enough to allow this order to be made in the case of Repton, it is equally strong enough to allow orders to be made for all these other organisations.

My Lords, this is "Mad Hatter land". Imagine if this happened in respect of car licences; if a rural district council could take out an order empowering it to stop all cars on the M1 and test them for road worthiness and check their licences. Imagine each rural council doing that along the length of the road. It is unbelievable. But apparently this is what it is intended to do with cruisers for hire. If it is not intended, what is the order for? What are the council supposed to be licensing? If this boat which they think might possibly offend again is the real bugbear, they cannot catch it with this order, because the owner has only to move his moorings a couple of hundred yards and the boat would be outside the territory of the Repton Council. Then, apparently, according to at least one of the letters from the council, it will escape them.

Do the Repton Council need this power anyway? Is there any real need to licence vessels and their boatmen if those vessels carry only 12 passengers, or fewer? The Board of Trade has never suggested that there is. I should like my noble friends to tell me whether they agree with the Board of Trade that the present powers are adequate. If they are not adequate, why have they not said so? We are in a position where if anything needs to be done it ought to be done by the Board of Trade. If it does not need to be done, silly little orders issued to all these separate little rural district councils would make "Cloud-cuckoo land" of the entire licensing of boats on the inland waterways.

My Lords, I will not take up the time of the House any longer. Again I ask my noble friends whether the powers of the Board of Trade to license passenger craft on these inland waterways are adequate. If they do not consider them adequate, do they consider that the enormous powers granted to the British Waterways Board, which go far beyond the powers of the Board of Trade, are adequate? Are the powers adequate when combined? Is it really necessary to issue an order so that Repton District Council, on top of the enormous powers of those two great authorities, can take offenders to court and fine them £2?

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, it is always a great pleasure, even at this somewhat late hour, to listen to and follow the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, on the subject of canals, and particularly because of his expert knowledge. I should like to congratulate the noble Viscount on raising this rather curious but important issue of the Repton Rural District Council and on the entertaining manner, and eloquence, with which he has explained the situation. I should like also to congratulate him on his alertness in spotting it. I am sure that his noble friend Lord Winterbottom will also be grateful to him.

The noble Viscount's speculation about what might occur in the future if other local authorities adopted the Repton policy was, I thought, tinged somewhat with a mixture of imaginative anticipation coupled with a long experience of canal administration. But I believe that it led on to making one realise that this relatively small issue could germinate into a much larger issue; namely, a serious frustration of the general enjoyment and amenity of the canal system. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, will agree that this situation was not envisaged by Her Majesty's Government when the White Paper on the future of canals appeared only some three years ago.

One of the most curious features of the noble Lord's Question is the purpose behind the action taken by the Repton Council to ask the Home Office for the necessary by-law powers under the old 1907 Act. I am advised on reasonable authority that this action was stimulated, as the noble Viscount has described, mainly to control one boat and a particular boat operator, who I understand came outside the Board of Trade's regulations. The purpose, one assumes, so far as the Repton R.D.C. were concerned, could not have been for additional income; for under the 1907 Act, as the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids knows, they may charge only 5s. per boat for the licence and a shilling for the operator per year. The purpose, one must assume, was for safety regulations. If this was the case; if this was the ground on which the Home Office gave this local authority the power to act, despite, as the noble Viscount has said, protests from the British Waterways Board and the Inland Waterways Association, I shall look forward with great interest to hearing the reasons behind the Home Office decision.

One wonders whether this is a matter where there is a loophole between the Board of Trade regulations and the British Waterways Board's powers. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, could comment on this later. Or was there, as one suspects, a lack of communication between Government Departments leading to absurd overlapping of powers? On this question of the Board of Trade regulation, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, could tell us whether the Government have ever considered reducing the number of passengers (I think the number is at present 12) which are covered by these regulations. One interesting point arises regarding safety regulations, because I understand that the Trent and Mersey Canal is one of the shallowest in the country. It averages between 2 and 3 ft. in depth.


My Lords, that is so.


As I said at the start, my Lords, the noble Viscount has raised what appeared, at first sight, an innocent-looking Question on a rather narrow issue. But I support him in his argument that it could lead to very wide consequences. The noble Viscount has vividly described the consequences, and I will not repeat them. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, has taken the point. It appears that a situation might arise where operators could find themselves breaking differing by-laws because they were peculiar to certain local authorities. Surely he would agree that this would be an intolerable position. I look for-ward with quickening interest to hear the reason behind the Home Office decision and to learn why the power of the British Waterways Board was considered inadqeuate to deal with the situation, and why the local authority considered it necessary to have a special by-law to deal with it.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend has a great gift for digging out oddities in the field of legislation surrounding inland waterways. Both he and I, in our different ways, are concerned with the large increase in the number of people who spend their leisure time messing about in boats. My noble friend has done great work in this field, and as chairman of the East Midlands Sports Council, under which this canal presumably comes, I am. also concerned with encouraging people to spend their leisure time in this way. But the trouble is that more and more people are taking to the water without adequate experience either of waterman-ship or of the necessary requirements for the safe condition of their boats. It is for these reasons that the legislative machine feels bound to concern itself more and more closely with this innocent but potentially dangerous pastime.

I think I must point out to my noble friend that he is slightly behind the times, because one indication of the concern of the Government is that the fines which he mentioned in his Question are out-of-date. I do not know whether this is a measure of the seriousness with which the Government regard the dangers of messing about in boats, but the Board of Trade can now fine offenders £400 and a rural district council can now fine them £50. The Criminal Justice Act 1967 increased the fines up to these much higher figures. The reason for that is that from time to time disasters occur. My noble friend will remember the "Darlwyne" disaster in the summer of 1966, with a tragic loss of life, after which the Government took various steps to improve safety measures in small boats. On January 12, 1967, the then Minister of State at the Board of Trade wrote to all local authorities, including presumably the Repton Rural District Council, and to all harbour and river authorities, inviting their co-operation in enforcing the Board's regulations for vessels requiring passenger certificates and reminding them of the powers they can exercise. Guidance was given also on the kind of conditions the authorities may consider desirable to impose. Among the powers available to local authorities are those conferred by Section 94 of the Public Health Amendment Act 1907.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the Board of Trade also wrote to the Waterways Board at the same time?


My Lords, I cannot say whether it was at the same time. From the wording I have given, I would say that it was at the same time, but if I am incorrect I will let the noble Earl know.

As a result of this, in May, 1969, the Repton Rural District Council applied for an Order applying Section 94 of the 1907 Act to the rural district. The reason for the council's application was because information had reached the council that the licensee of a public house adjoining the Trent and Mersey Canal at Findern had been operating a boat on the canal between Findern and Willington, carrying fare-paying passengers. The licensee of the public house confirmed that he had done so. The boat in question was over 20 feet in length, and it was admitted by the licensee that on one or two occasions more than 20 passengers, mainly children, had been carried. The only licence held was a hire and reward one issued by the British Waterways Board. The application for this licence contained the customary certificate, signed by the owner of the craft, that he would not use the vessel to carry more than 12 passengers. A Board of Trade surveyor who inspected the boat drew the conclusion that it would require a considerable amount of work before it could be certified by the Board of Trade to carry more than 12 passengers.

It was against this background, therefore, that the Repton R.D.C., recognising that craft carrying less than 12 persons do not require to be certified by the Board of Trade, decided to take powers under Section 94. This strikes me as entirely reasonable. They had been advised by the Board of Trade to look into this.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again, but at this stage could not the British Water-ways Board have withdrawn his licence?


My Lords, presumably the Board might have done that, but they did not. The point was that an objection was raised against the licensee and there was nothing at that time that the local authority could do about this breach of the regulations.


My Lords, did the Board of Trade fine the licensee for this offence? If not, perhaps they did not consider it very serious.


I think that this was entirely a sensible approach by the major central Government authority. I agree that in many ways there is an element here of using a steam hammer to crack a nut, but the rural district council had been asked to look into this matter of danger arising from an improper use of pleasure craft, and it was properly concerned when this breach of regulation was discovered. At that time it had no power to do anything about it, and for this reason it took power under Section 94 of the 1907 Act. Therefore, there is no overlap between the Board of Trade's powers and the powers given under the Act.

The British Waterways Board share the concern of the Repton Rural District Council for the safety of passengers carried by pleasure craft. They have a pleasure-craft licensing system which enables them to exercise control over craft. Persons navigating on the Board's system must observe their by-laws, many of which are concerned with the safety of craft and passengers. The powers which the Council have obtained will be exercisable concurrently with those of the British Waterways Board and will provide an additional safety element.

One other aspect of the matter has given cause for concern. This relates to the intentions of the Council under the Order. The Inland Waterways Association, Ltd., questioned the position of craft from other parts of the country entering waterways within the Repton Rural District. It is the Council's intention that only pleasure boats plying for hire or operating from within the Repton Rural District will be required to be licensed. If it appears to them that a particular boat plying from outside the district does not comply with the licensing requirements of the Repton R.D.C., information will be passed on to the local authority in whose area the craft is or should be licensed. The Council have indicated their full agreement with the view that there ought not to be a multiplicity of licensing authorities, but their great concern has been all along with the safety of those using the waterways. As recently as February 19 the Clerk to the Council has reaffirmed that it is the Council's intention to apply their powers under Section 94 only in respect of craft plying for hire or operating from within the Rural District. This is in line with the practice adopted by their neighbouring authority, Burton-on-Trent, where Section 94 is also in force.

I agree with my noble friend that we have a rather complex set of legislative powers under three separate Ministries. The Board of Trade are responsible for the safety of vessels carrying more than 12 passengers. The Ministry of Transport are responsible, under the Transport Act 1962, from which the British Waterway Board derives its licensing powers; and the Home Office, of course, are responsible for the Pleasure Boats (No. 2) Order 1969 in force in the Repton Rural District. In a perfect world we could expect that the legislation covering inland waterways and pleasure craft would be consolidated. But this is really not a matter of very great importance, I think. The growth of small pleasure craft on inland waterways is too small a matter for consideration by the Board of Trade; and I think it is sensible that the actual supervision of pleasure craft should be carried out by local authorities at the point where they are moored, where the owner lives or the boatman lives, and where the craft can be inspected.

Whereas the legislation, although apparently cumbersome, is necessary, I think we may expect—and I myself do expect—that the powers that local authorities are taking on in order to license boats under the orders that I have mentioned will be sensibly applied. I hope that I have given my noble friend the assurance that there will not be the sort of nonsense that he foresees—of, as it were, boats being stopped at the boundary of every rural district, being checked and then sent on. I am certain that this power will be applied sensibly. If it is not, I am also reasonably certain (although this is not an undertaking) that in my capacity as Chairman of the East Midlands Sports Ground I shall hear about it very quickly; and so I am certain will my noble friend, who will doubtless bring it to my attention.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he answer two small points on this issue? In the first place, he said that the Repton Rural District Council took the powers. In fact, they had to apply to the Home Office for the powers. Did the Home Office confer with the British Waterways Board before they gave these powers? Secondly, what is the price the local authority charge the operators for the licence?


My Lords, if the noble Earl will permit me, I will write to him on those two specific points. I should have thought that consultation did not take place, because the legislation exists. The Repton Rural District Council applied to the Home Office, and presumably, since they did this in the proper form, the powers were conferred upon them automatically. However, I will check this point, as well as the cost of the licence.