Most of us will have heard by now that BW is going to become a “Third Sector” organisation, in other words a charity. At least, that is what the government and BW want. There are two important questions for boaters. First, what will it mean legally, and second, is it really a done deal?
Firstly, all the current legislation will still apply apart from some minor exceptions. The 1971, 1983 and 1995 British Waterways Acts and the 1962 and 1968 Transport Acts will apply as they do now. The change in status to a charity (planned for April 2012) will be done by a Statutory Transfer under the forthcoming 2011 Public Bodies Reform Bill/Act. Statutory transfers are rare. They change the organisation’s name with reference to the relevant legislation so that where an Act or a set of byelaws currently reads “British Waterways” it will be replaced by the name of the “new waterways charity”.
BW is a public corporation. That means it’s a public body. When a non-government organisation like a charity takes over the functions of a public body, the new organisation is still bound by the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act, the Freedom of Information Act and other legislation that applies to public bodies.
Employees will be transferred to the new charity, protected by TUPE rules ensuring that the new employer honours their existing employment terms. Most of BW’s current staff will continue. It is reassuring that experienced, valuable staff like lock keepers won’t be made redundant by the change. The down side of this is that the existing culture of unlawful enforcement is likely to continue as well.
According to Simon Salem of BW, the Waterways Ombudsman will continue even though it is not a statutory ombudsman scheme. This will still leave the waterways without a regulator who can rule on legal matters, something which is badly needed. At present the only way to challenge BW on issues of law is through the courts via Judicial Review.
It is questionable whether a charity can justify paying its Chief Executive the £220,000 plus that Robin Evans gets. Especially as he seems to have little understanding of the charity sector – at the BW AGM he said “it is questionable that giving people places to live is a charitable object” in response to a question about respecting the homes of liveaboard boaters. Robin, you obviously haven’t spoken to many housing associations lately. Let’s hope that some of these overpaid directors hell-bent on getting rid of liveaboard boaters will jump ship!
As to whether the move to a charity is a done deal, there will be a consultation by DEFRA (BW is a sub-section of this government department) in early 2011. This will be a chance to tell the government why BW’s current unlawful enforcement practices should not continue, and ask some awkward questions. However, from past experience these consultations are often a sham. According to Sarah Nason of DEFRA, a senior member of the team that deals with BW, “the government sees it as a flagship policy and wants it to work”. However, there have always been questions over whether the new charity will have adequate funding. Its success depends on the settlement from the Treasury. Also, charities are finding it hard to raise money at the moment. The Charity Commissioners won’t pass it if the funding looks insecure.
At the BW AGM last November, there was a slick audio-visual presentation on the proposed charity. Yet no mention was made of the thousands of people who live on boats. Ironically the soundtrack featured a song about “…home, this is my home”.