HL Deb 02 April 1981 vol 419 cc324-7

Read 3a, with the amendment.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bellwin, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Skelmersdale.]

Baroness White

My Lords, I was not able to be in the House for the Second Reading of this Bill and, as this is the first occasion since I ceased to be a member of the British Waterways Board and can therefore speak without restraint, I felt I could not let this opportunity pass without making some reference to Clause 1 of the Bill, the principal clause. It was referred to at some length in the brief Second Reading debate on 3rd March. I do so partly because I have great sympathy with the points made then by my noble friend Lord Underhill. I felt that we should not allow this Bill to leave this House without perhaps putting into better perspective the problems which are evoked by this clause than the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was able to do on Second Reading.

As the noble Lord, I am sure, must recognise, I have the greatest respect for him, but plainly the sooner he gets into a narrow boat and goes up one of the waterways the better—because I fear he does not perhaps entirely appreciate the financial situation in which the British Waterways Board, which has financial responsibility for most of the major waterways in this country, has found itself since it took over its current responsibilities in 1968.

I myself was a member of the Board from 1974 until last summer and therefore I know from first-hand experience the extreme strain which has been placed upon the Waterways Board, both on the members and, much more, on the professional staff which is engaged upon the maintenance of this very fine system of waterways. But it is an ancient system and it needs constant attendance. In fact a point was reached not so very long ago when some of the professional staff on the engineering side took the unusual step of saying to the board that they were in danger of asking professional people to risk their professional integrity by requiring them to operate a system which in some respects was becoming so far below standard that a situation could arise where their professional competence could be called publicly into account.

The Bill that is about to leave your Lordships' House provides for some addition to the borrowing powers of the board, and for that naturally one is grateful; but the point which I think ought to be brought to your Lordships' attention is that during the Second Reading debate the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, seemed to indicate that with these additional resources there was not very much to worry about. I think it would be unfortunate if the House was left with that impression. In his reply to the debate, the noble Lord said that the board would not be under such great strain as my noble friend Lord Underhill had indicated because, for example, only two tunnels on the system were likely to remain closed for the rest of this year. Someone simply reading this debate might suppose that things were not really too bad after all; but those of us who know something about the system know that one of the tunnels which was mentioned—the Blisworth Tunnel on the Grand Union Canal—is an absolutely key point in the entire cruising system of this country. If it is closed for the cruising season—and I understand that it is likely, for lack of resources, to be closed not just for one but possibly even for two cruising seasons—it means that the northern and the southern parts of the country, and particularly the London area, are cut off from one another. The only way by which those who wish to take a cruising holiday can reach the North of England from the South is by using the South Oxford Canal. That means they will for other reasons have difficulties, because there we have not a tunnel but a reservoir, and there are no resources to put it into proper repair. In turn that means that the water supply is diminished and the number of those who can safely be allowed through the canal at any period of time is also reduced. Should we have a dry summer there will be very serious danger of the South Oxford Canal being under such restrictions as regards water that there could be serious dislocation of the cruising possibilities this season. This may not happen—I hope it will not—but it is a distinct possibility and it is directly due to lack of resources to repair the reservoirs.

So far as the Blisworth tunnel is concerned, the British Waterways Board has to use some of the money which it is now graciously permitted to borrow physically to relocate boats—those big canal cruisers—by road, so that they are parked either north or south of the tunnel according to the best judgment of the operators. These canal cruisers involve considerable investment. There are the private persons with private boats, but the tour operators—those who are commercially interested in this growing recreation—will naturally in the circumstances hesitate to go on investing. If they cease to make these investments, or if the private person says, "We are having too many interruptions on this system. Let's go off to the French canals and sail on one of them", then the board will be unable to earn the revenue from this type of use in order to service the loans which have been permitted under Clause 1.

I would therefore urge the noble Lord who speaks for the Government to recognise that, where you are dealing with a historic system such as the waterways of this country, you have not only the normal annual recurrent expenditure—which is under some pressure, but one cannot complain unduly about that because everybody is under some pressure—with the normal capital expenditure on renewing plant, dredgers, lorries and so on, but there is also this absolutely vital element of what is really long deferred capital expenditure. That is where the pressure is coming on the board—on the reservoirs, the bridges and the tunnels. These are all major elements in the whole system, which I think were not, if I may very respectfully say so, fully covered in the discussion on Clause 1 of this Bill at Second Reading. As I say, because of my very long experience as a member of the board I felt that it was only right to put this matter into proper perspective.

The other matter to which I must just refer in passing is the reference of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to the Fraenkel Report. He suggested that my noble friend Lord Underhill was impatient in saying that there had been any dilatoriness about that. This is not the occasion to go into the full history of the Fraenkel Report. All I can say is that it is now 11 years since the Waterways Board indicated what work had to be done. For various reasons under various Governments there have been endless delays on this. To suggest that a little more patience is all that is required is something which I am afraid anybody who knows the full history of this matter can only smile at very wryly indeed. There have been few situations in public administration that I know of where there has been hope deferred so frequently as over the work dealt with in the Fraenkel Report. Perhaps I should leave it at that, but I repeat that I should have been failing in my duty if I had not tried to put the first clause of this Bill into fuller perspective.

Lord Denham

My Lords, before my noble friend replies, to put the record straight I think I probably ought to say that the practice, where there are no amendments down for Third Reading, is that any debate takes place on the Motion for the Third Reading and not on the Motion, That the Bill do now pass—

Baroness White

My Lords, I beg your Lordships' pardon. I was at fault.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I say this not in any sense of criticism of the noble Baroness, because I know that there was a little bit of changeover at the Woolsack at the time. I say that just to set the record straight, so that the precedents are right for the future.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I hope that I may be given leave to be out of order as well—

Lord Denham

The noble Lord is not out of order.

Lord Underhill

—because I should not like this Bill to go away without saying one or two words upon it. First, I shall not reiterate what my noble friend Lady White has said, but I am glad that she has had the opportunity to say it, in view of her experience. It was my intention to comment that when we discussed this Bill in Committee so few noble Lords were present, because it was during the supper break, that it would be good to have these points made with a larger attendance, because the British Waterways Board is very important to us; but maybe I was being over-optimistic.

I emphasised on Second Reading and in Committee that while the primary purpose of the Bill is to increase the borrowing power of the board, some of us were greatly concerned about the situation of the board's finances. Without elaborating more upon it, seeing that I am speaking almost out of order, I hope that notice will be taken of the comments made by my noble friend Lady White, which supplemented the points that I made in Committee.

The only other point that I would make is that I am very pleased that the Government have kept to their undertaking, and have introduced a new clause into the Bill to deal with compensation for burst water mains or other leakages from waterways. I know that this will present problems with other statutory undertakings, but that must be faced as we go along. I hope that the consultations, which the Government have explained will be taking place with various authorities, on the possibility of also looking into the question of compensation for leakages from sewers, will be successful and that, at a not too distant date, we may see legislation upon that matter as well.

It would be remiss of me if I did not congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, on handling this, I think his first Bill, from the Front Bench. I think he has done it with great efficiency and, if I may say so, also with kindness to us all. He has been very attentive in sending letters to me after each stage of the Bill, in which he has elaborated upon points which were raised in discussion. Therefore, I should like to congratulate and thank him for the way in which he has handled this Bill.

4.47 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I cannot pretend that the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady White, was quite a bolt from the blue—but it was tinged with purple—because I had a tiny bit of warning on it. But, even so, I am afraid that I am unable at this precise moment to give her the satisfaction which she obviously wants and, indeed, deserves, because I fully appreciate, in spite of what appears now to be, perhaps, a little bit of complacency in my Second Reading speech, that these are very serious points indeed, and I would not differ from her on that.

But she did not comment on one tiny sentence that I also said in my Second Reading speech, which was that everything that we are talking about boils down to one simple five letter word—money. I appreciate that it always has, but we are currently in a not very happy position as regards money. I said on Second Reading that, when the economy improves and the money is there, it will, in part, obviously—because it cannot be given in toto—be given to the British Waterways Board for exactly the purposes that she would want. I am still convinced that I can perfectly fairly give that promise from this Dispatch Box this afternoon.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, made some very kind remarks about me and I am very grateful to him for them. I should like to say—not in return, because I was going to say it, anyway—an especial word of thanks to him. Although we have not agreed on everything in this Bill, I am none the less very grateful to him for the constructive way in which he has debated all the provisions in the Bill.

I know that he would have preferred the Bill to include various provisions on sewers, including escapes of substances from them. As I explained in Committee, however, this is too complex a matter to deal with in this Bill, but the issue is definitely not a "dead duck". My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has agreed to meet a delegation to discuss the situation and this will shortly be arranged. I hope, none the less, that he feels, as we certainly do, that we have now had an adequate opportunity for debate, and that the Bill which we are about to send back to another place has been significantly improved by the addition of the liability provision which he mentioned.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.