Monday, October 17, 2011

Exemption from Freedom of Information Act a benefit of charity status says BW Vice Chair

by Bob Naylor
Canal and Rivers Trust transition trustee and current Vice Chairman of British Waterways, John Bridgemen, says that since no other charity is bound by the Freedom of Information Act he doesn't see why the new Canal and River Trust should be either.

BW Vice Chairman, John Bridgeman
Picture by BobNaylor©
Speaking at the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust AGM on Saturday he said, "The Freedom of Information Act is intended to apply to government departments and this is going to be a charitable Trust which is not a government department."

He explained that at the moment if someone wants to see his BW expense accounts for the last five years they can ask for it and BW is obliged to give the information, which means 'going to all it sorts of archives'.

He said, "Last year BW had two requests from people who wanted to know about our directors' expense accounts - going back over 7 years. It is costing an absolute fortune, but the law tells us we have to do it. But I am sorry — no other charity is exposed to that and I don't see why we should be".

He said that the new charity will not be 'precious' about information. "We will disclose as much as we possibly and reasonably can," he said, "but that does not mean we should be bound by the Freedom of Information Act... it is a heavy cumbersome tool intended for the public sector — and we are coming out of the public sector. This new charity has a  hell of a challenge anyway keeping the waterways open — we don't think it is fair to bind us to the cumbersome bureaucracy of the FOI Act. 

He said that one big advantage of being in the public sector is that BW can go to government for contingency funds if there is a major breach such as the one on the Mon & Brec Canal. 

"But," he said, "if we want all the benefits of going for charitable status — the tax breaks, management freedom, exemption from the freedom of information act and to raise debt on property — then government is telling us we can have them, but we can't turn to government to bail us out in future — that is the big downside."

BW Vice Chairman, John Bridgeman
Picture by BobNaylor©
Upbeat on BW finance
He was upbeat when he spoke about BW finances saying that 20 years ago BW was only 5% self-sufficient with everything else having to come from government hand-outs. "The new charity will be starting off 65% self sufficient," he said. "We have managed our property portfilio, the boating business —  our new marina developments and our online moorings that we now sell at an economic price - not to everyone's delight — and our boat licences. We are making £35 million from our property business, and £25 million from our boating business.

New funding streams
He explained that BW is seeking new funding from such things as 'low-head' hydro electric schemes saying: "BW hasn't got started on this yet  — but we have planning permission for five, the equipment is ordered and we will be installing them in the course of next year."

He was enthusiastic about selling access to water for cooling — and for heating using heat pumps — saying that this is probably the fastest growing part of the business — and more income coming from using the towpath for optical fibre, which is a great success with 1000 miles already done and the potential for another 1000 miles in the future. 

BW Vice Chairman, John Bridgeman
Picture by BobNaylor©
Pub Business failure
Of the failed pub venture he said: "The pub partnership that we had with Scottish and Newcastle was a great idea that depended on both partners being prepared to put money into it. 

"We were up for it — Scottish and Newcastle were not — so we bought the decent pubs out of the partnership.

"I don't think that is a bad result at all," he said. "Of course you don't expect every pub in a chain to make money — pubs are having a pretty difficult time at the moment. We didn't get the food budget right, some of the locations are not very good, but we have not written any money off. BW has not lost anything on the venture — not a penny," he claimed.

Kirsten Elliott said...
Mr Bridgeman may not be able to see why BW should not be free from FoI requests. Perhaps it would be better if BW management considered why people are making them. Added to which, as a professional researcher, I cannot see why it is costing BW so much money for information that ought to be at their fingertips. Another example of incompetence, perhaps? And there is another side to charitable status - BW will find that the Charity Commission will want to know plenty of figures.

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