Openness and transparency

Published: Monday, 10 December 2012

DESPITE assurances, Canal & River Trust's record on openness is already in tatters, writes Allan Richards.

Its predecessor, British Waterways has always been poor in this area and CaRT looks set to get even worse. This is nowhere more apparent than in its reluctance to publish Board papers.

An article in the National Association of Boat Owners (NABO) publication, NABO News, goes a stage further than the normal 'Q&A' so beloved of waterways journalists. The reason for this is that NABO not only asks questions; it also goes into some detail as to why the question is being asked.

NABO asks, CART answers

Whilst the article (NABO asks, CaRT answers) runs to some six pages, we will concentrate on just one of the questions. 'Will CaRT undertake to publish the relevant Board, operational and partnership papers promptly in order that stakeholders can be correctly informed?'

But why was the question asked?

According to NABO, it is because one of the considerable difficulties that it has observed with British Waterways was a lack of openness and transparency. It goes on to say that one aspect of this has been addressed using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to force disclosure of information that British Waterways should have been publishing anyway, citing as an example British Waterways Board papers.

17 requests

A search of the FOIA request website,, reveals that British Waterways' reluctance to provide Board papers has resulted in no less than 17 FOIA requests since March 2010. This is all information that British Waterways should have pro-actively published as a matter of course.

Furthermore, to this day, British Waterways/CaRT has failed to publish the majority of information relating to British Waterways Board minutes on its own websites with over 80% of it only being available on the website.

It would not be so bad if it made requested information available within the 20 working days required by law. Unfortunately, an example of them responding in a reasonable timescale cannot be found. Instead, it seems that British Waterways put up all sorts of barriers to delay or avoid providing information.

....and these delays could, on occasion, last for many months.

An example

To give an example, an Information Commissioner's decision notice dated 9th February 2012 relating to a request for papers from a Board meeting the previous July found that British Waterways breached sections 10(1), 17(1), 17(1)(b), 17(1)(c) and 17(3) of the FOIA. It also ordered British Waterways to provide information that was being withheld without reason or face the prospect of being held in contempt of court.

This was the culmination of a delay of over six months in providing information that it should be publishing promptly and as a matter of course.

Transition Trustee meetings

Unfortunately things were just as bad regarding meetings of the trustees prior to the formation of CaRT. Despite a request on 2nd September 2011 for papers relating to meetings of the transition trustees, it was not until some six months later that the information was provided, and only then after the Information Commissioner informed British Waterways, yet again, that it faced the possibility of being held in contempt of court unless the information was provided.

Reluctance to publish Board papers is nothing new. As long ago as July 2009, British Waterways' Board expressed concern over delays in publishing and reviewed its policy.

Published quickly

It was decided that minutes should be published quickly, in draft form after approval by British Waterways chairman. In a letter dated 23rd July, British Waterways Chief Executive, Robin Evans, confirmed that this would normally be within two to three weeks of a meeting.

However, nothing changed and British Waterways continued to delay or avoid publication. Querying why Board papers were not now made available within two to three weeks of meetings simply led to a wall of silence.


So there we have it! For years British Waterways went against the wishes of its own Board in regard to publication of its minutes.  The question is, has CaRT turned over a new leaf with regard to publishing minutes of Board meetings? Sadly not!

This is not to say they have not been given the benefit of the doubt. The first Board meeting of the new trust was held on 25th July. Thus all papers including draft minutes should have been published by mid-August if its predecessors policy was followed. However, absolutely nothing was published.

Rather reluctantly a FOIA was raised, on 6th October, some 10 weeks after the meeting. This pointed out that CaRT had failed to publish Board papers despite a policy to do so and asked for them to be made available.

The bottom line is that CaRT, like British Waterways before it, has failed to publish Board papers despite having a policy to do so, and it will probably take a decision notice from the information commissioner together with a threat of being held in contempt of court to obtain information that they should be publishing as a matter of course.
No change there then!

The answer

As usual, it was trustee John Dodwell, who was CaRT's spokesman.

So how did John Dodwell reply to the question 'Will CaRT undertake to publish the relevant Board, operational and partnership papers promptly in order that stakeholders can be correctly informed?'

Well it seems that our trustee claims this is something he has raised with management. The answer he received was that a need exists for minutes to be approved at the subsequent meeting. We wonder who told him that! Both the chairman and chief executive are well aware that British Waterways' Board agreed to publish within two to three weeks of a meeting over three years ago. Why can't the trust do likewise?


He also blames executive director Nigel Johnson and his department, saying they have the responsibility for publication but have been very busy. This might have been true during the lead up to the launch of CaRT but can no longer be the case.

However, in the wacky world of CaRT, perhaps it is more important to take libel action against a boater for 'unauthorised mockery' of CaRT's logo than the mundane task of publishing minutes in a timely manner.

Breathing space

In his response, John Dodwell asks for breathing space regarding getting publication of Board minutes sorted.

More than four months after its first Board meeting as a trust, CaRT has still not published its papers. That's plenty of breathing space in anyone's book!

Does CaRT really intend to delay until the information commissioner threatens it with contempt of court?