Budget cuts to British Waterways resulting in the sacking of 180 key staff caused Michael Fabricant to initiate a brief debate in the House of Commons yesterday (Thursday 2nd November). "With Fradley Junction and popular canals in my constituency, I am only too aware of the tourist dollars they can bring to Lichfield and Burntwood. Recent cuts in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) from the waterways budget is jeopardising all this", says Michael.
The debate went as follows:-
Michael Fabricant: I know that the Minister shares my belief that our inland waterways not only provide a marvellous resource for tourists but generate income, including overseas income from the many people from abroad who use our canals. How can he reconcile that with cutting 180 staff from British Waterways?
Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend assure me that any future savings in grant aid to British Waterways in the financial year 2007-08 and beyond will not use as a baseline the 15 per cent. budget reduction undertaken halfway through this financial year?
Ben Bradshaw (DEFRA Minister): All decisions about next year will be made in due course, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will listen to representations, both from him, as chairman of the all-party group on waterways, and from other hon. Members. I recognise that they feel strongly about the wonderful contribution that our inland waterways make, and thanks to extra funding provided by the Government, we have managed to restore 200 miles of derelict canals, thereby providing a great resource. However, all decisions must be considered in the round and balanced against other demands on our budget.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Shadow Secretary of State for DEFRA): I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who I know is an ardent canal enthusiast and an active member of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust. Will the Minister explain why British Waterways’ budget was cut this year?
Mr. Bradshaw: As has been explained on many occasions in the House, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needed to find just over £200 million in savings this year, for a number of reasons, so all our Department’s budgets have had to be examined, and most of them have had to be reduced. However, as I said earlier, that is against a backdrop of a massive increase in spending and investment on all the issues mentioned-spending that was opposed, in every Budget, by the Opposition.
Mr. Ainsworth: It is the reasons that I am after, because it is bad enough that cuts of £200 million are being made, but it is even worse that Ministers do not seem to know why. On 25 October, the Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food told Radio 4 listeners that the "biggest chunk of it"- that is, the cut- "is down to a change in Treasury accounting", and that the problems at the Rural Payments Agency accounted for considerably less than a quarter of the cuts. The very next day, the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment explained to Radio 4 that the cuts were "a direct result of overspending on avian influenza and some of the problems we’ve had with the RPA".
So what lies behind the budget cuts that we heard about today-one dead swan, the shambles at the Rural Payments Agency, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Or is it just business as usual at a Department that has become a byword for incompetence?
Mr. Bradshaw: About £10 million of the money that we had to find arises from the very good work that we have done in preventing outbreaks of avian flu, and containing outbreaks that have occurred. I think that I am right in saying that about £23 million of the £200 million-plus that is needed is a result of issues connected with the RPA. The rest is needed for other reasons that have already been made plain in numerous answers to questions from hon. Members.