HC Deb 13 November 1947 vol 444 cc673-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

10.1 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I wish to raise a matter of very considerable general importance. I propose to illustrate the point by a case which has arisen in my own constituency, and I hope that a number of hon. Members will take an interest in the matter, because it concerns any hon. Member whose constituency includes a coalfield where there is a possibility of subsidence from the future operations of the National Coal Board. On 6th November I asked the Minister of Fuel and Power the following question: Why the National Coal Board propose to reverse the policy of their predecessors and work coal under the village of Shuttington, Warwickshire; what estimated subsidence and damage will be caused to the village; and if he will direct that this work shall not proceed. In a written reply the Minister answered: These are matters for the National Coal Board, and I have no power to intervene."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November. 1947; Vol.444, c. 240.] It will be seen that the Minister ignored the first two parts of the question, and I say that thereby he was deliberately refusing to answer, and giving an affront to my constituents as well as, in a sense, to this House. So far as the third part of my Question was concerned, his answer was a repudiation of his responsibilities under the Act, and I am sorry that he should shirk his duties in that way.

Shuttington is a village about three miles to the East of Tamworth, with about 300 inhabitants engaged almost entirely in either coalmining or agriculture. It has a church, a school, a public house, and cottages. The matter came to light in this way. Tamworth Rural District Council were contemplating building some more cottages in the village for coalminers and agricultural workers. They received a report from the mineral valuer of the Inland Revenue Valuation Department in which he stated the following: Several seams of coal underlie the site at shallow depths, and these have been worked in the vicinity in the past. Workings will take place under the site within the next five years in one seam, and will be followed by workings in others. Those workings will, in my view, be accompanied by serious damage to surface buildings. That disclosed that the Coal Board were proposing to reverse the policy of their predecessors. Their predecessors were the Tamworth Colliery Company. I am glad to see in his place the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell). When he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Mines he took a considerable, and if I may say so, helpful interest in the affairs of this colliery. The Tamworth Colliery Company's consistent policy in the neighbourhood had been to avoid working coal under the villages, and in the case of Shuttington they worked up to the village, and round it to some extent on each side, but deliberately refrained from working underneath it. At a "meeting of the Tamworth Rural District Council, Mr. Harold Ridsdale, who formerly managed the colliery, and is a member of that council, explained that in the experience of the company, the working of coal in that vicinity had caused a subsidence of about eight feet. In his estimate, if the National Coal Board proceeded to work coal under the village, the total damage might well amount to something in the neighbourhood of £50,000. Obviously, if the policy of the National Coal Board is to work under Shuttington, it may well be to work under neighbouring villages as well. Therefore, this is a matter which I think concerns the whole district and indeed beyond.

This therefore should be regarded as a question at the present time of national policy. This is a time when there is a great shortage of houses and very little prospect of houses being built in large numbers to replace houses which are destroyed by subsidences which may be caused by the operations of the National Coal Board. I feel, therefore, this is not just a local question; it is a matter of far-reaching importance and of national importance. Unless there are homes built for people who are rendered homeless, that becomes a problem of national dimensions. In reply to the statements of Mr. Ridsdale, Alderman G. H. Jones, who is Labour Director of the West Midlands Divisional Coal Board, made a statement at a meeting of the Tamworth Labour Party. In that statement he very properly pointed out, and this is of course indisputable, that there has been no change in the law with regard to compensation for subsidence, and that the National Coal Board will be liable to pay compensation in the same way as the former owners would have been liable. But the point is this. Alderman Jones—and you could not have a more responsible person to speak on this particular topic—did not for a moment attempt to deny that it was the policy of the National Coal Board to work the coal under the village of Shuttington.

In former times when it was relatively easy by building new houses to rehouse the people who were displaced from their homes, it may perhaps have been worth while for coal to be worked and villages destroyed in the process. But we cannot now regard the matter as quite so simple as that, and my contention is that before the National Coal Board proceed to take steps which will destroy a village, the Government should be prepared to ensure that alternative accommodation is available to those whose homes are thereby ruined.

The people in the neighbourhood of coalfields feel that in this matter they are up against a soulless bureaucracy. It is natural that they should look to Parliament to defend them. In former times when matters were determined locally, local pressure and public opinion, no doubt, had a great deal of effect. But now the policy of the Coal Board is highly centralised. Local opinion has very little effect at all. Yet, centralised as it is, the Coal Board is insulated, if the Minister has his way, from pressure from the House of Commons.

Therefore, I am here tonight to demand an explanation from the Parliamentary Secretary. The Minister of Fuel and Power has said consistently—and I do not complain of this—that he is not going to interfere in the day-to-day proceedings of the Coal Board. That is all right, but this question of whether or not the Coal Board should proceed to work coal under these villages, is not a day-to-day question. Certainly, it is not a day-to-day question in the lives of the villagers. I would draw attention to the obligations and powers of the Minister under the Act of 1946. Section 3 (1) gives the Minister power to give directions of a general character in relation to matters appearing to him to affect the national interest. In my submission, this is a question that affects the national interest. It is a question of whether, with the present housing shortage, it is right for the Coal Board to proceed to work coal under these villages and so destroy them. I would refer now to Section 3 (2) which says: In framing programmes of reorganisation or development involving substantial outlay on capital account, the Board shall act on lines settled from time to time with the approval of the Minister. On 21st October, the Minister said: The Coal Board will no doubt be presenting to me fairly shortly their programmes of development under this Section, and an opportunity will no doubt arise for questions to be put on that point."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st October, 1947; Vol. 443, c. 78] I put a question now: Has this particular element in the Coal Board's programme of development been put to the Minister, and has it been approved by him? Surely, this is a very important question in the Board's programme of development. Certainly, it involves a substantial capital outlay. Apart from everything else, it is going to involve a very heavy amount of compensation. In Section 3 (4) of the Act the Minister is given an unqualified right to obtain any information he requires from the National Coal Board. In my submission, we are entitled to have any information we require by asking the Minister to give it. I think that for the Minister to refuse quite blankly to give information for which we have asked is an intolerable neglect of his duty under the Statute.

I conclude simply by emphasising that although I have raised this matter with reference to a local problem, in my submission it is a national problem. We cannot regard circumstances now as related in any way to circumstances as they were in the past. We must now consider the problem from the point of view, not merely of getting coal, but also of housing the people whose homes may be destroyed in the process, and, unless the Minister is able to give an assurance that the people in these villages can be rehoused, in my submission, the Coal Board ought not to proceed to work the coal under those villages.

Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cocker mouth)

May I interrupt my hon. Friend? This does seem a question which vitally affects a large number of people, nationally as well as locally. Does he expect a number of houses in this village to suffer from subsidence, and can he give any indication of the number?

Sir J. Mellor

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. The answer is that, in the estimate of the mineral valuer, to which I referred, serious damage to surface buildings will be caused, and, in the opinion of those who have been associated locally with coalmining, the village will be completely destroyed and the compensation will amount to something like £50,000.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

This is a national matter, which is met with up and down, the country where coalmining takes place, and I would like to support the hon. Baronet in his plea that commonsense shall be brought into the operations of coal winning in those areas. In places where there is any subsidence, people will find their houses tumbling down. We should insist that, in the panic for getting coal, there shall not be a lopsided impression in the minds of the National Coal Board, or that they should have no idea as to the figure of compensation for damage done to other people's property. This is liable to be the case at the present time in this anxiety for winning coal, but I beg of the Minister to pay great heed to what the hon. Baronet has said. A particular village is liable to be completely destroyed, leaving people without houses and creating compensation running into large figures.

We should make sure that there is a sense of proportion observed in the winning of coal in these areas, so that property should not be damaged by subsidence through mining operations regardless of the position on the surface. This is a serious matter to many parts of the country and is not local to a particular area. It affects the North-East coast, and it is going on in all parts of the country where coal is being extracted, while the interests of surface occupiers are being pushed into the background. Rather a panic view has been taken, and we should see that there is some commonsense and a sense of proportion in the Coal Board's activities, so that houses are not destroyed without a full regard to the situation which will result and to the tremendous cost of replacing the property destroyed.

10.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

I really am surprised at the extravagant language used by the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in this Debate. To suggest for example, that the National Coal Board are not exercising common-sense in the extraction of mineral, and are panicking for coal, is sheer nonsense. I am not here to defend the Coal Board, and I do not propose at this stage to do that, but I cannot refrain from saying that we ought, at least, to give these people who have been given the responsibility for winning coal the same sort of intelligent reasoning that we expect other people to have for our own. There is no need for the hon. Baronet to use such language in describing the Minister as that he is shirking his duty and that it is intolerable neglect of his duty under the Statute. What, in fact, the hon. Gentleman is trying to say is that, in reply to his Question, and later to a Debate which he himself raised, the Minister was wrong in defining what is national policy. It seems to me perfectly clear from the Debate that took place on 21st October that my right hon. Friend also made his position quite clear. He said, for example: Socialised industries must be free from day to day interference by the Minister. Later, he said: I am not intending to answer questions on points of day to day administration for which I am not responsible."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st October, 1947: Vol. 443, c. 73–5.]

Sir J. Mellor rose

Mr. Robens

I know what the hon. Gentleman is going to say, that he has raised a matter of national policy. That is his point.

Sir J. Mellor

I am afraid that the Parliamentary Secretary did not quite rightly interpret what I was going to say. What I want to say is, does he say that this question is a day to day matter?

Mr. Robens

That is just precisely what I am going to say, and I hope to be able to prove it. The Coal Board have to decide each day what seams are going to be worked, and how the coal is going to be extracted. It represents to them a day to day administrative matter, and it would be intolerable if the Minister were to regard that as part of his duty under the Section of the Act to which the hon. Gentleman has referred and de-side that they must be answerable for those day to day administrative duties for which they are responsible. The National Coal Board, when taking over, took over the whole of their rights to work coal. They must make the decisions, and how the coal shall be worked, and where and how.

As far as this particular seam is concerned, the people are already protected, not under the Act to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but under the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act, 1923, which provides them with a method of dealing with the problem which they have in mind. Section 8 (3) lays down quite clearly what the position of that Act is. If, for example, they feel that they have the right of support, then they can force that right through the courts. It is not necessary for the Minister to come in at that stage. If, however, they feel that they have not got that right, and that they should have the right for support, then they can utilise the Act of 1923, which enables them to apply to the Minister of Fuel and Power to consider their application for support. The Act says: The Board … shall unless after communication with such other parties interested (if any) as they think fit, they are of opinion that a prima facie case is not made out, refer the matter to the Railway and Canal Commission. That body is responsible for deciding whether or not in the public interest support should be given, and they would direct accordingly. Their direction is enforceable by law. Therefore if the, hon. Gentleman's constituents feel that the working of this particular seam is liable to cause devastation, then, surely, it is not under the powers vested in the Minister under the Coal Act, but rather under the Act of 1923 that they should operate? It seems to me that it would be foolish for the Minister to by-pass existing legislation which provides for all those things, and to use a power which he has in the main Act, and which he, unlike the hon. Baronet, does not consider is a matter of legislation. There was one point which the hon. Baronet made when he referred to Section 2 of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act.

Colonel Dower

May I ask the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Robens

I do not think there would be time. The hon. and gallant Member can ask if I finish in time, when I would be very glad to give way. Perhaps I might continue with this point. The hon. Baronet drew my attention to Section 2 dealing with development involving substantial outlay on capital account, and said that the National Coal Board ought to have referred the matter to the Minister for his approval. I suggest, in all seriousness, that the working of an isolated seam, or a number of seams, or even the extension of a particular colliery, is not a question of substantial capital outlay in the sense intended in that Section. It is certainly not intended that the expenditure of a few thousand pounds in relation to a particular seam or pit should come within the scope of this Section. I could not accept on behalf of my right hon. Friend that the amount of money which the hon. Baronet has mentioned could be regarded as involving substantial outlay on capital account, because in working this seam it seems, speaking offhand, that a substantial outlay on capital account is not involved. When we come to the complete re-equipment and the broad lines of policy involving really substantial sums, then, of course, the Minister would deal with it under the Act. But I would not accept for a moment that the mere development of one particular seam could be regarded as substantial. If the hon. and gallant Member now wishes to put a point to me I will gladly give way.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)

Whilst the Parliamentary Secretary has made a very convincing legal case, I do not think that was what was in the mind of my hon. Friend. It is true, as the Parliamentary Secretary pointed out, that if the villagers feel they are entitled to support they can take certain steps under the Act, and so on, but I think my hon. Friend was pleading rather for mercy than for justice.

Mr. Robens rose

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

Does the Parliamentary Secretary wish to intervene?

Mr. Robens

I was really only giving way to the hon. and gallant Member for Penrith and Cockermouth (Colonel Dower), but apparently the right hon. and gallant Gentleman took his place

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I thought the Minister had finished.

Mr. Robens

No. I was giving way because I had promised to do so. I suppose it was the same point?

Colonel Dower


Mr. Robens

With all due respect, I disagree entirely. The question raised by the hon. Baronet was one of subsidence, and, therefore, a question of support. The question of support is dealt with very adequately in the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act, 1923, and I consider that is a method which should be adopted. It can under no circumstances be regarded in the light of a national directive on policy, to which the hon. Baronet referred, and I could not advise my right hon. Friend to take action under the authority vested in him under the Act. I would point out that with the ownership of the coal there vests in the National Coal Board precisely the same rights to work it—no greater and no less—as were formerly enjoyed by the previous owners, and, had the matter been raised before the industry was nationalised, the reply which I should have had to give would have been very similar to the one which I have given tonight.

Sir J. Mellor

Will the hon. Gentleman at least agree that whatever right the law may give, the law will not give these villagers new homes?

Colonel Dower

In the moment remaining I would point out that when the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act was originally passed, it was very much more easy to rehouse people than it is now.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Ten o'Clock.