§ 1. Mr. Skinner
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals have been placed before him by the British Waterways Board in connection with additional investment for repairs and maintenance consequent upon recommendation 1, paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of the fourth report from the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, Session 1977–78; and if he will make a statement.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)
Since the Fraenkel and Select Committee reports, the British Waterways Board has approached successive Governments for increased grant-aid to deal with the backlog of repairs and maintenance. It has been possible to continue grant-aid at nearly constant real values and it amounts to £28.5 million this financial year.
§ Mr. Skinner
Has the Minister read the recent statement by the chairman of the Inland Waterways Association that it will he necessary to spend about £120 million to get rid of maintenance arrears? Is the Minister aware that, in real terms, more money was spent in 1978 than is being spent by the Conservative Government? Does he understand that thousands of people, including craftsmen, are out of work and that over 5,000 could be employed repairing and maintaining the canals? May we have an assurance that more money will be given to the inland waterways?
§ Mr. Shaw
I am aware that the current estimate for the backlog of maintenance is about £120 million. I am also aware of the Select Committee's report of June 1978. However, the hon. Gentleman will recall that the previous Government considered that there could be no commitment to provide large-scale finance for a period of 12 to 15 years. The provision of additional grant is under review.
§ Mr. Michael Morris
Is my hon. Friend aware that Blisworth tunnel is at the heart of the inland waterways navigational system and that it has remained closed for 218 more than a year? May we have an undertaking that that key part of the system will be given priority in the programme for the year ahead?
§ Mr. Shaw
My hon. Friend will recognise that the British Waterways Board determines the priorities that it gives to any individual structure. I agree with my hon. Friend that the closure of the Blisworth tunnel is a major blockage in the system. My right hon. Friend will bear that in mind when considering the review for next year.
§ Mr. Denis Howell
Is the Minister aware that, contrary to what he has just said, the previous Government accepted the Fraenkel commitment to provide £60 million and that the additional funds thus provided were withdrawn immediately the Conservative Government came to office? Will the Minister comment on the most extraordinary auditor's report on a public undertaking that I have read, by Coopers and Lybrand? Is the Minister aware that in the caveat to that report to the Secretary of State the auditors state that they wereunable to assess the sums needed for maintenance and repairs and the inspection of bridges and reservoirs.The report said that the auditors were unable to assert that the money available wassufficient to meet the obligations laid on the Board"—
§ Mr. Speaker
I understand that, but quotations are allowed only if the right hon. Gentleman is speaking from the Government Front Bench.
§ Mr. Howell
I shall put the quotation to one side and conclude my question. Is it not a fact that the auditors made it clear in their report that they were not able to provide a true audit because the Government were denying the board the resources to carry out its obligations under the law? Is that not scandalous?
§ Mr. Shaw
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that at current prices the amount of grant-in-aid to the BWB in 1978–79 was £19.9 million. In 1979–80 it was £22.6 million, in 1980–81 it was £25.4 million and in 1981–82, £28.5 million. So, I dismiss the first accusation.
I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern that the accountants so heavily qualified the BWB report. For that reason, among many, we have commissioned a firm of consultants to review in their entirety the operations of the BWB and to make a report as soon as possible.