A Few Minutes To Make A Difference: Canal Dwellers Need Your Help

I know people on canal boats. I used to live in an old canal cottage myself, rented from British Waterways. BW have traditionally looked after the waterways of Britain, so that everyone can use them.

Changes are afoot (or afloat?) and those who live aboard are worried. If you live on a boat you can pay for mooring, or you can buy an annual “continuous cruising” licence. Reports have been coming in, however, of BW using aggressive companies to chase boat dwellers on the continuous cruising scheme, trying to bully and frighten people into paying for useless ghost moorings – not BW, I stress, but some individuals of the companies contracted to chase up payments.

BW became a charity this year, and therefore loses a lot of government funding. I do not know the technical spec, so here are the words of someone who is at the sharp end of this, and who is worried about intimidation, and who therefore wants to remain anonymous (and that, alone, sickens me – that people cannot speak out).

“On 27th March, the House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee decided to trigger the “super affirmative” procedure for the BW Transfer Order. This means that the time for consideration by Parliamentary Committees is 60 days (normally it is 40) and it must be approved by both Houses of Parliament following a debate in each. The 60 days ends on 24 May 2012 and the debates will take place sometime after 30 May. Seven days notice of the debates will be given and this will be posted on http://www.parliament.uk. This means that there is still some more time to lobby MPs and Lords about the Transfer Order, up to the start of June. Please write to your MP.

The Canal and River Trust became registered as a charity on 4th April, despite objections from many boat dwellers. Boaters lobbied and submitted evidence when the Public Bodies Bill Act was being drafted, but the issue of British Waterways was not discussed at all at that stage. The subject of the transfer order is BW alone, so it is vital that we take the opportunity to raise all the issues about the risks of homelessness to boat dwellers (both with and without permanent moorings) that arise from the transfer of BW to charity status.

Here are three things you can do.

1. Write to your MP and write to some Lords (Lords don’t have geographic constituencies so you can write to any of them – there are over 800).
2. See your MP at one of their surgeries.
3. If your time is limited write to two people: your own MP and Lord Avebury.

Two example letters are below and attached and information on how to find your MP and their surgeries is below. Please pass this message on to your friends and family, and please print and give this message to all the boaters you know who don’t have internet access.

1. Brief example letter to your MP / any Lords/ other MPs; it’s best to put it in your own words if possible though.

Subject heading, especially if emailing: DRAFT STATUTORY INSTRUMENT, THE BRITISH WATERWAYS BOARD (TRANSFER OF FUNCTIONS) ORDER 2012.

“Dear _____________ MP” (or “Dear Lord / Lady / Duke / Archbishop / Lord Bishop” – you may need to look this up on the list of Lords)

I am writing to you to express my concerns about the Draft Statutory Instrument, the British Waterways Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 2012.

Please ensure that this order does not become law. I am concerned that the transfer of British Waterways to charity status will result in boat dwellers like me and my family being made homeless by the Canal and River Trust. The transfer order should not be passed until the Government introduces specific statutory protection for boat dwellers from harassment and unlawful eviction, applicable to those both with and without permanent moorings, equal to that enjoyed by the tenants of houses. Please vote against it.

The issue of British Waterways was not discussed at all in the Commons Committee stage of the Public Bodies Act. Therefore the extremely serious issues raised and submitted to the Committee by many boat dwellers regarding the risk of homelessness and the violation of our Article 8 rights resulting from the transfer were not considered before the Act became law. Please rectify that omission by considering these issues now. The House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concern in 2011 about the appropriateness of transferring the existing powers of British Waterways to make subordinate legislation; powers of forcible entry, search or seizure; powers to compel the giving of evidence and powers whose exercise will necessarily affect the liberty of an individual, to a private sector body that does not otherwise exercise any public functions.

Boat dwellers have no legal recognition or protection for their homes. The transfer of British Waterways to either charity status or to a private company will remove the minimal protection we have for our homes that derives from British Waterways status as a public body, namely the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act, in part the Freedom of Information Act, and the Government’s Code of Practice on Consultations. This must not be allowed to happen.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely

Harassed Boater

2. How to find out who your MP is and how to contact MPs / Lords

All MPs and Lords can be contacted by post at House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA / House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW. You can find out the names of members of the House of Lords from   http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/lords/

You can find out who your own MP is from

http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/   or      http://www.writetothem.com/

You will need to enter a postcode. You don’t have to be registered to vote to contact an MP. If you have a postal address, contact the MP for that postcode area. Otherwise just contact the MP for the place you are currently moored, using the address and postcode of a nearby Post Office or pub, and say you live on a boat with no fixed address.

3. Longer example letter to MPs/ Lords

Dear______________ MP (or “Dear Lord / Lady / Duke / Archbishop / Lord Bishop” – you may need to look this up on the list of Lords)

I live on a boat on British Waterways canals and rivers and hold a BW boat licence. My boat is my only home and I do not have a permanent mooring. I am a single parent aged 38 and my annual income is less than £10,000. The transfer of BW to a charity will put me at increased risk of homelessness. As a single parent on a low income I am already disadvantaged in the housing market. My son is 7 and goes to school in Bradford on Avon. I work part-time in the same town.

The protection I enjoy from the ability to bring Judicial Review and from the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and the Freedom of Information Act that derives from BW’s status as a public body will be significantly reduced. These laws are the only protection my son and I have from homelessness because there is no legal recognition of the homes of boat dwellers, nor protection from harassment and illegal eviction,  compared to the protection enjoyed by the tenants of houses.

The legal remedy of Judicial Review will no longer be available to me to challenge maladministration or if the Canal and River Trust acts outside its legal powers.

The protection my son and I have for our home, private and family life and correspondence under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act will be reduced because although Article 8 still applies to us as individuals, the Canal and River Trust will have no obligation to uphold our human rights, so it will be harder for us to exercise our Article 8 rights. The same applies to our rights to due process under Article 6, in other words the Canal and River Trust may have greater powers to terminate my boat licence and seize my boat without going through a Court. The same applies to other rights we have under the Human Rights Act, such as the right to peaceful enjoyment of my possessions – including my home – under Protocol 1 Article 1; my son’s right to education under Protocol 2 Article 1, and my right to vote in elections by declaring a local connection under Protocol 3 Article 1.

The Public Sector Equality Duty will no longer apply, and so the Canal and River Trust will no longer be obliged to carry out equality impact assessments on its policies such as local mooring strategies, which are targeted at and have a disproportionate adverse impact on people like me who live on boats without permanent moorings. Currently BW can be challenged by Judicial Review if it adopts a policy that has been shown to have a disproportionate adverse impact on a particular group following an equality impact assessment, but it will not be possible to challenge the Canal and River Trust if it adopts policies that adversely affect my family.

The Freedom of Information Act will no longer be wholly applicable, meaning that the Canal and River Trust may be able to bring in draconian new mooring restrictions or unaffordable increases in licence or mooring fees without any form of scrutiny. Currently boat dwellers like me have been able to challenge and reduce the impact of such restrictions following research using the Freedom of Information Act.

The Trustees of the Canal and River Trust stated on 2 September 2011 in a meeting of the British Waterways Advisory Foundation that they want enabling powers. This is contrary to the assurances given by the Waterways Minister Richard Benyon, who said that BW was not seeking any new enforcement powers, in response to the concerns of boat dwellers who wrote to their MPs about the increased risk of homelessness for them of moving BW to charity status.

BW Legal Director Nigel Johnson proposed to the January 2011 BW Board meeting that BW should obtain extra enforcement powers through the Public Bodies Bill. Mr Johnson has since stated that BW would not seek any extra enforcement powers. However, BW has drafted byelaws which it intends to pass after the move to charity status has been completed. These draft byelaws include provisions to create criminal offences of disobeying signs or instructions stating where and how long boats should moor – powers that Parliament did not consider appropriate for BW to have in 1995.

Since the staff and particularly the Senior Managers and Directors of the Canal and River Trust will be the same as those of BW I have no confidence that the Canal and River Trust will be any different in its policy towards boat dwellers without moorings but will continue the same policy of attempting to enforce movement rules that are beyond its legal powers to enforce and not what Parliament intended when it passed Section 17 3 c ii of the 1995 British Waterways Act. For example, in a meeting of the Kennet and Avon canal Local Mooring Strategy on 11 October 2011, BW Enforcement Operations Manager Paul Griffin stated that “you can’t continuously cruise [ie live on a boat without a mooring] and have a job or send your children to school

In addition, the first report of the Canal and River Trust’s Transition Trustees dated September 2011 states that “We are acutely conscious that there is a danger that government may intentionally or otherwise try and create CRT as a shadow statutory organisation. In other words, it has the outward appearance of a charity but through statute and funding agreements it is made to operate as a public body. This cannot happen because we need CRT to operate freely, openly and on a level playing field with all other organisations in the charitable sector. So we are particularly vigilant about being independent from government and we will resist being singled out unfairly.”

The implications of this statement and the Trustees’ decision to seek enabling powers are very worrying. It confirms my fear that the Trustees wish to dismantle the statutory duties and public functions including the minimal protection that my son and I as boat dwellers have for our home that currently derives from BW’s status as a public body. This is another reason why the registration of the Canal and River Trust as a charity will have an adverse impact on us and will increase the risk that we will be made homeless.

Since my son and I started living on my boat in 2004 BW has threatened to seize the boat four times: twice in 2007 and twice in 2009. On all four of those occasions I was complying with Section 17 3 c ii of the 1995 British Waterways Act and yet BW’s communications to me stated “You  are at risk of losing your boat”; “We may remove and demolish your boat” and “it is likely that you will need to make arrangements for alternative accommodation. Please contact your local Council’s Benefit and Housing department as they may be able to help you find another place to live”.

My family will have significantly less protection against unlawful enforcement of this nature if British Waterways is transferred to the Canal and River Trust.

Yours faithfully,

Harassed Boater “

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