In response to a question on 13 October from Duncan Hames, the MP for Chippenham, Waterways Minister Richard Benyon stated in the House of Commons that the new waterways charity would still be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Liberal Democrat Duncan Hames, whose constituency includes the K and A between Dundas and Hilperton, said “I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the canal and river trust” and asked “What plans does he have to ensure that its decision-making is transparent and accountable? Indeed, will he consider applying to it the Freedom of Information Act?”
In reply Richard Benyon, Waterways Minister, said “I am grateful for the opportunity to point out that all the provisions that currently exist for British Waterways in that regard will follow through to the new charity. If the new charity is to have the credibility that it must have, it is important that we assure all those who really mind about this matter that we are protecting those rights.”
This answer appears to pre-empt the results of DEFRA’s second consultation on the new waterways charity, which covers the issue of applying the Freedom of Information Act to the new charity, and which has only just closed (on October 24).
Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act states “The [Secretary of State] may by order designate as a public authority for the purposes of this Act any person who is neither listed in Schedule 1 nor capable of being added to that Schedule by an order under section 4(1), but who—
(a)appears to the Secretary of State to exercise functions of a public nature, or
(b)is providing under a contract made with a public authority any service whose provision is a function of that authority.
On 11 August, MP John Hemming, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, asked a Parliamentary question regarding whether BW sought increased enforcement powers via the Public Bodies Bill to evict boat dwellers. This was his question: “To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what the policy objectives in respect of boat dwellers are of the Government’s proposed amendment to schedule 5 of the Public Bodies Bill in respect of British Waterways; and what powers British Waterways (a) has and (b) is proposed to have in respect of summary eviction.
Richard Benyon replied “There is no proposed amendment to Schedule 5 of the Public Bodies Bill. However, an amendment was tabled during the passage of the Bill in the House of Lords, and passed (forming Note 1 of Schedule 5 to the Bill). The purpose of that amendment was not to seek the enhancement of any of the British Waterways Board’s existing powers but to enable the proposed New Waterways Charity to receive the British Waterways Board’s existing important statutory and regulatory functions. If the amendment had not been made, other provisions in the Bill would unintentionally have prevented that from happening.
Under section 8 of the British Waterways Act 1983, sunk, stranded or abandoned vessels or vessels moored without lawful authority on the waterways may only be removed by the British Waterways Board after due process including giving any required notice and periods of grace. Wherever a vessel is identified as being someone’s home, British Waterways does not exercise its powers under section 8 without having taken the matter to the County Court and obtained a declaration from the Court that the removal is lawful. These long-held powers operate in the interests of the waterways and their users. The Government does not intend to amend or expand them when they are transferred to the proposed New Waterways Charity.”