HC Deb 23 May 1950 vol 475 cc1911-26

6.15 p.m.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I beg to move, in page 5, line 40, after "out," to insert: and in any event not later than three years from the date of the first subsidence damage.

This Clause deals with the powers of the National Coal Board in cases where further damage is likely. The Board are empowered, if they think there is a risk of continuing damage, to defer their obligation. Under subsection (2). however, it is laid down that It shall be the duty of the National Coal Board, as soon as permanent repairs to the dwelling-house or building can properly be carried out, to revoke any notice given by them

under subsection (1) deferring their obligation.

We on this side of the Committee do not in any way quarrel with the general intention of those words, but we feel that the precise meaning of as soon as permanent repairs … can properly be carried out

is rather vague. We appreciate, of course, that a fair amount of latitude must be left to the National Coal Board. They know what has happened, and it is really for them to say whether they think they have finished the work and that matters have settled down. We feel that there should be a limit put to their powers to defer. There may be the case where damage is caused as a result of working one seam, and it may be the Board's intention to work another seam, and, possibly, even a third seam, in the same place. They might say, "Well, after all, we have done a little damage to this house, but as we shall be working another seam in four or five years' time, and possibly yet another in 10 or 12 years' time, it would be better to defer our obligation for 10 or 12 years."

I do not think that three years is necessarily the right period, but we seek by this Amendment to insert some limitation so as to ensure that the Coal Board cannot, in fact, put off their obligation at their own sweet will, possibly to the Greek Kalends. We suggest the addition of words limiting the Board's power to defer their obligation for three years. I hope that the Government will be able to indicate their intention in the matter, and that, even if they cannot accept the precise wording of this Amendment, they will say what they think should be the limit so that we may be able in due course and in case of need to ensure that the Board do not get this unlimited power.

Mr. Robens

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends opposite would be surprised if we were to accept this Amendment. Indeed, he indicated the difficulties about this, and my hon. Friends on this side who are miners and representing mining constituencies know the difficulty about deciding when, in fact, subsidence has finally finished. I am not sure that the putting of a three years' limit, and at the end of that period compelling the Board to make permanent repairs, would, in fact, be a useful thing to the owner of the property. It would depend largely on when the movement of the ground had finished, and the Board would be in the best position to know that. I understand the hon. Gentleman's position regarding this matter. He does not want the National Coal Board to be difficult about a case; he does not want them to delay carrying out permanent repairs for, maybe, generations, simply because they may decide to work other seams at various intervals.

I cannot accept the Amendment and I cannot really say that if we considered it again, we would come back to the Committee and say, "You could put a date into it." All I can say is that it is the definite intention of His Majesty's Government that the permanent repairs should be done as soon as it is reasonably practicable for those repairs to be effective. I know we look like having an argument about "reasonable and practicable," but I am sure the Committee understands that I am making this in all sincerity and good faith. I assure the Committee that the Coal Board, if I may be permitted to us the term, will not in any circumstance play around with an owner of property and not make that repair as they should do. I think we shall have to leave it to the good faith of the Coal Board and the good faith of the Minister of Fuel and Power, whoever he may be, to see that the Coal Board does the right thing.

Finally, the owner can go to the county court. He has always the county court to which to go back in these matters and say, "It is time permanent repairs were effected to my house." The onus will be on the Coal Board to prove that they should not be permanent repairs because ground movement is to go on. I doubt whether it would be necessary for an owner to take the matter to the county court. I really do not see that one can consider putting in any time, because no one knows when the earth movement would finish. Certainly, it could not be put in the Bill to cover all cases. I ask the Committee to trust to the good will of the Board on this and, in the final analysis, to the county courts.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

It is not quite enough to consider whether or not subsidence resulting from work already done has finished. The position may be that the Coal Board say that although the subsidence from a particular work is finished it is their intention, at the very earliest, to work again. As far as I can see, the county court then would have no option but to say that, since the Board tell them so, the court must believe it.

Mr. Robens

Though I am not an expert on these matters, I should have thought that the county court would take reasonableness into consideration. For example, assuming a seam had been worked and damage caused and there was no intention to work the next seam, which would cause further movement of earth, for five or 10 years, I think the county court would be inclined to say, "You are to make permanent repair to that house, and if later on, damage takes place, you go through the motions once again." I have great faith in what the county courts do in these things. That is the advantage of county courts—that they can bring sweet reasonableness to bear with all the evidence that is within their knowledge. I think hon. Members should be happy about this.

Colonel Clarke

While accepting the hon. Gentleman's point that there are considerable difficulties about drafting suitable words to keep the obligation well before the Coal Board, I do not think the position ought to be left quite as it is at present. When one wants to put a thing off, it is so easy, when one is short of materials, labour, time and money, to find some very good reason why one should not do it. It will be found that it is not in the interest of the Government or in the interest of the Coal Board, even if they have the best intentions. It would be fairer if there were something in the Bill making it necessary for the matter to be reviewed automatically after three years rather than leaving the onus on the owners to go to the county court. I cannot suggest any form of words, but it should not be left entirely to the Coal Board as these things are apt to be shelved.

Mr. T. Brown

One appreciates the difficulty of the Ministry on this aspect of mining subsidence, but it is of paramount importance that the Minister and his Department should be aware of what is now taking place. We are now discussing the effect of what subsequent mining operations will have upon houses that have already been damaged by mining subsidence. It is a rather singular fact—I have not yet been able to understand it—that, simultaneously with the submission of this Bill for its Second Reading, the National Coal Board in North-West Lancashire, which has experienced a considerable amount of damage due to mining subsidence, served formal notice upon the two local authorities in my constituency indicating that they proposed working a further 15 seams. The seams are tremendous

It is not my intention to tell the Committee the names of the seams or their thicknesses, but I have gone to the trouble of finding out what it means. There will be subsequent mining operations in these two areas, which have already suffered colossal damage due to mining subsidence. I am not complaining about it; we have to get the coal from somewhere. If we were able to take out the stratification between the 15 sections and put the coal of each section on top of the other, one would have a coal measure of 36 feet.

As one representing a mining constituency and one with a knowledge of the practical side of mine work, I can visualise what it will mean in these districts. If the Coal Board are going to have the opportunity of saying to people who own property, "Until the final subsidence has taken place we cannot execute repairs," I can visualise that these property owners—and, unfortunately, many of them are mine workers—having to live in a state of inconvenience for 10 or 15 years until permanent settlement has taken place.

I appeal to the Minister, to the Parliamentary Secretary and to the Department to be cognisant of this. They cannot allow damaged property to continue in that state for an indefinite period, causing inconvenience, trouble and anxiety to people. Whilst I agree that there is a real practical difficulty confronting the Minister of Fuel and Power on this point, it is within the realm of possibility to tell or instruct the National Coal Board what is a reasonable period during which they should allow property to be in a state of dilapidation. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary, whose sympathy in this direction is manifest from time to time, to give this matter his very serious consideration.

Mr. Robens

I have been turning this over in my mind, after listening to the arguments advanced, and particularly to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. Tom Brown). The Committee generally is agreed about the difficulty of putting a time in the Bill. I would undertake to have a look at this and to consider putting something in the Bill that would be a guidance to the county court on this matter. I think that if we did that, it would meet the situation that has been referred to and meet the objections that hon. Members opposite have raised. I should like to think about the matter and consult the appropriate people, but it seems to me that that would meet the situation.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

We should like to express our appreciation of the Parliamentary Secretary's attitude. I must admit that when the Debate on this Amendment started, I did not think that the case was so strong that we would want to press it, but after listening to my hon. Friend the case seemed stronger, and particularly so after the speech of the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. Tom Brown). I was going to make the suggestion which the Parliamentary Secretary has made, namely, that between now and the Report stage he will consider the point.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

I am disappointed with the Minister because I feel that this Amendment should not be adopted by the Government. Let me explain why. I was glad to hear the Parliamentary Secretary resisting it in the first place, and I am now a little distressed to see him weakening after the attack by both sides of the Committee.

Mr. Robens

We are trying to make this Bill a good Bill within the limitations which it may contain. What I am resisting, and what I shall continue to resist, is the suggestion that we should put a time limit in the Bill. I adduced the argument that, in the final analysis, the county court was the protector of the poor owner-occupier against the Coal Board if the need arose. I said it was likely that we might give the county court some guidance on this matter, and that is what I am prepared to look at. I am with the hon. Gentleman in resisting the insertion of a time limit in the Bill.

Mr. Roberts

I am speaking entirely from my own point of view, and not from the point of view of any hon. Members on either side of the Committee, with whom I am not in agreement. The reason that I say the Minister should resist this Amendment is that, as far as I can see, with my knowledge of subsidence, I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said in regard to the length of time which it will take for subsidence to appear. Speaking for the taxpayers of my constituency, I hope that the amount of money which will have to be spent will not be too great. With such knowledge as I have of mining, I believe that in nearly every case it would be possible for the Coal Board to say that in their opinion further damage might occur. I was hoping that the Minister would resist the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Minister for Hen-don, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth), because I should feel much happier if the Coal Board were able to resist such a heavy charge being made upon themselves or upon the Treasury.

I regret that the Minister has taken the line that he has indicated, because the Coal Board will not have a way out of the difficulty. Earlier, the Parliamentary Secretary said how much easier it was to deal with the Coal Board than with the old industry, and it occurred to me that the Coal Board themselves have got this Clause put into the Bill. I am wondering whether, when the Parliamentary Secretary discusses this matter with the Coal Board, he will find the situation a little more difficult. My hon. Friend argued his case extremely well; in fact, so well that the Minister has now given way, and I am extremely disappointed in him.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

I have listened to the Debate with a good deal of interest. Although we are here as a body of representative people, we have heard arguments in favour of leaving the decision to the Coal Board. We know the difficulties that are likely to arise, and yet we are expected to leave it to somebody else to do what he thinks is wise, and we shall have little opportunity of criticising the decision.

My experience has been that in the industrial world, when we have been dealing with agreements, it has been quite common for the employers to say, "There is no need to press the matter so much. Leave it to us. We are working together in quite a friendly way. Why press this thing and try to change the agreement? Surely you can trust us a little bit." When that point has been reached I have always argued, "If you want us to trust you, you should also trust us. If there is such amity between us, why not put into the agreement the exact words which will cover any possible dispute?"

As to this Amendment, I have tried to put myself into the position of the people who are living in these houses. We can always leave matters for a long period when we are not directly concerned. It is astonishing what we can allow other people to suffer when we are not in the same boat as they are. I want the Committee to imagine a house which has suffered damage through subsidence. Half of the house is in a bad condition and cannot be used. The occupants have lived in those conditions for 12 months, or even two years. The Amendment says "Let them live under those conditions for three years," because there is the danger that in the fourth year or the tenth year or the fortieth year, those houses may be affected again by subsidence.

Surely in a case like that there is some need for a time limit. It is unreasonable to expect families whose property has been damaged to have to live for any lengthy period in that property because further damage may be created by subsidence later on. We should either repair the house and take the risk, or else say that the danger is so great that the house will not be repaired.

Mr. Robens

This does not stop the repair of the house at all. We are talking only about the final permanent repair, which is quite different from running repairs.

Mr. Bracken

Do not be put off by that nonsense.

Mr. McKay

If my hon. Friend will give us an assurance, which I presume he has done, that houses which have been damaged will be put into a habitable condition——

Mr. Robens


Mr. McKay

—and made capable of being used as they were used prior to the damage, then the whole position is changed. I do not profess to be a builder, but I presume that if a damaged house can be put into practically the same condition as it was in before, then the difference between putting a house into that condition and putting it into a proper condition, would not be very great.

I do not want to press the Government too much, but, while we recognise the absolute necessity for this Bill, we on this side of the Committee should not be too particular about inserting a few words of this description into the Clause, even though our liberties may be limited to some extent by so doing. I want to impress the Parliamentary Secretary with the necessity for considering this matter with a view to improving this Clause.

Mr. Bracken

What an admirable speech we have just heard. If one were to criticise it, one might say that the condemnation of the Government by the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. McKay)——

Mr. McKay

I was trying to help the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) in his Amendment. [Interruption.] Some of my hon. Friends say I should not, but many of my hon. Friends have already done the same. When an hon. Member is attempting to support an Amendment, I suggest that in common decency the right hon. Gentleman should not try to include something which was not said.

Mr. Bracken

Far from including what was not said, I would say that some sentences were couched in rather more severe language than those used by my hon. Friends. However, there is no party issue here, and of course the hon. Member for Wallsend was right to make these striking criticisms. I wish I possessed his vocabulary and his willingness to criticise Ministers.

The position here is perhaps extraordinary. The Minister, who has, on the whole, given us a satisfactory assurance, has not explained to us how that assurance can be translated into practical effect. As you know, Major Milner, in your capacity as Deputy-Speaker, time after time in the House the Minister tells us that he will not answer questions about the Coal Board and will not put any pressure upon the Coal Board. Now the Minister says, in effect, "Leave it to me; the Coal Board will do what I want." Of course, if the Minister has acquired new powers—and I do not blame him if he has—he should tell us about them.

Mr. Robens

What I said was that, after listening to the arguments, we would look at the situation and see whether we could put in the Bill some guidance to the county courts which would meet all the points that have been advanced. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman was not here at the time.

Mr. Bracken

I heard that part of the Parliamentary Secretary's speech and it almost made me feel that we were living in a totalitarian State. What right have we to give guidance to judges? I am glad to see that the Lord President of the Council has arrived, for this statement by the Parliamentary Secretary is the most remarkable statement I have heard in this House—a Minister, and a junior Minister at that, announcing that he is going to give guidance to the courts.

Mr. Robens

Through Parliament.

Mr. Bracken

The hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. He said he was going to give guidance to the courts. I was asking him, before I was interrupted, what were his powers to give guidance to the Coal Board. That is the question at issue, because unless the Coal Board will fulfil the hon. Gentleman's behest, then, of course, we cannot get any real satisfaction. As you, Major Milner, an eminent lawyer, no doubt agree, it seems astonishing when a Parliamentary Secretary declares in this House that he is going to give guidance to the courts. It needs a real flash of dynamite to get rid of the present Lord Chancellor, but that speech might.

6.45 p.m.

Sir P. Spens

I want to refer again to the phrase of the Parliamentary Secretary "guidance to the county court" and to point out to him that there is a great deal of guidance given to the county court in the subsection. I want also to deal with his suggestion that it would be for the Coal Board to show that there would be more subsidence In fact, it is exactly the other way round. It is on the application of the wretched owner, who has to go to the county court and satisfy the county court that no further subsidence damage is likely to occur. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) spoke of a large area in which the Coal Board had served notice on the local authorities informing them that in the future they propose to work 15 seams of coal. In such a case the owner has no sort of hope of satisfying the county court that there is not likely to be further subsidence, because the Coal Board have only to say that they propose, in some reasonable time in the future, to work some more seams of coal for his task to be hopeless.

There are two separate aspects to this problem. The first is where there has already been working and where subsidence has started from that working and is likely to continue for a reasonable period. The other case is where the Coal Board propose to start new workings, a new seam, in the same area. I very much doubt whether the same criteria should be applied in both cases. What would satisfy me would be for the Parliamentary Secretary, when he came to consider the guidance he would give to the county court, to strike out altogether these words and give the county court a discretion. Surely the right thing to do is to give the county court a discretion where in particular circumstances—I think the hon. Member for Ince does not agree with me.

Mr. Brown

When I mentioned the working of the 15 seams, I was referring to the potential working of that area and I was trying to show that on a subsequent date the property which had already experienced damage would be damaged still further; and I was appealing to the Minister to impress upon the Coal Board that they should not postpone the repairs to property already damaged until the final subsidence had taken place. The Minister has given an undertaking that he will do that.

Sir P. Spens

I agree—a different criterion ought to be applied to different circumstances. Where damage has already occurred through workings, then at the earliest possible moment it should be repaired irrespective of whether, in the distant future, the Coal Board propose to work new seams in the same area. I suggest that if the Parliamentary Secretary takes this into consideration, he will certainly strike out on Report stage these very imperative directions that an applicant has to prove his case before a county court and will substitute something to give the county court a little more discretion as to when an order should be made. Let the county court decide, "After all, the Coal Board have been going on long enough and it is time the proper repairs were made to this house."

Lord Dunglass (Lanark)

I have had a certain amount of experience recently of this kind of subsidence in a farm and in farm buildings used for animals. We had legal dealings with the Coal Board and the legal officer of the Coal Board stuck to the absolute letter of the law, so that no practical solution to the problem could be reached. If I had not gone to the Chairman of the Scottish National Coal Board, nothing would have been done to this day—of that I am convinced. But the ordinary owner of a house and the ordinary small farmer does not possess that kind of access, and in such circumstances I think this farm would have been left in a condition in which it was practically impossible to keep a dairy herd—for it was a dairy herd in this case—in good condition and impossible to keep the calves and other animals alive.

In that area the Coal Board have given notice that they will work a further three seams, which may affect another four or five farms. When the damage occurs to those farms, as inevitably it will, it will be an intolerable state of affairs if the farmers have to wait two or three years before they can have repaired the damage to the buildings in which they keep their stock. The Minister has offered this concession—he said he will give guidance to the county courts. Will the right hon. Gentleman have another look at it? I am not satisfied, in the first place, that he can give the guidance, or, in the second place, that the county court would accept it. Will the Minister have another look at this Clause? I would rather have the Minister use his authority in this matter in a particular case——

Mr. Robens

The noble Lord does understand, I hope, that we are talking about permanent repairs, and not temporary repairs? If there were repairs to be done, they would in fact be done. It is a question of permanent repairs—permanent and final repairs. That is the only point we are discussing. With great respect, I would say that we are really discussing an Amendment which says that at the end of three years, no matter what happens to the structure, permanent repairs should be effected. I am suggesting that that is an impossible situation, and none of the arguments the noble Lord has adduced really has anything to do with the point that is under consideration.

Lord Dunglass

I quite understand the point. Three years is mentioned only in order to raise the matter and to allow the Minister to think again but in the case I am quoting we had the question of temporary repairs, and temporary repairs were quite useless. What was wanted was, in fact, permanent repairs. I think that this machinery, even the machinery of the county court proposed by the Parliamentary Secretary, is too clumsy. I ask him to think again and to see whether he cannot get a shorter interval so that permanent repairs can be made.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

In view of the Parliamentary Secretary's undertaking to look at this again—and, no doubt, he will consider all that has been said since he gave his undertaking—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Sir H. Williams

This Clause relates to damage which has occurred on or after 1st January, 1947—nearly three and a half years ago. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say what he really means by "permanent repairs" and "In cases where further damage is likely." Those are the words in the side title of the Clause, and although I know that that has no legal significance it is, nevertheless, a guide to what the Clause is all about, and I should like to know exactly how finality can be reached in the circumstances which are indicated in the terms of the Clause. Will the Parliamentary Secretary give us a little guidance on that?

Mr. Oliver

I should like to make one or two points about the application of this Clause, because it is one of the most difficult in the whole of this Bill. The last Amendment indicated the delays which may take place before a final decision can be arrived at as to the final repairing of the property. In many instances—and this is the experience in many mining constituencies—by reason of the very severe damage to dwelling-houses, the houses may have to be evacuated and remain empty for a very long time. When that property happens to be owned by a miner or a working man he experiences considerable financial embarrassment by having to seek alternative accommodation.

I should like to know whether that cost would be regarded as a part of the damage of subsidence, and whether it is the intention, in the application of the Clause, that, where an owner-occupier—and I am more concerned about the owner-occupiers—is put to considerable expense by reason of having to leave his home, any compensation is provided for his financial loss.

Mr. Robens

The answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Oliver) is that it is not so. The Bill provides only for payments for structural damage. It may be unfortunate, but, nevertheless, payments for inconvenience and suffering are not covered by the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) asked me whether I could define what permanent damage was

Sir H. Williams

Permanent repairs.

Mr. Robens

I am sorry—permanent repairs, of course. It would be beyond me to do so, and I doubt very much whether anyone could say what permanent repairs are. I can only give an illustration. If there is subsidence damage by which an outside wall is very severely cracked, so that it may be very dangerous and likely to fall, one may fill up the crack with mortar or concrete plaster, because further movement may make it worse and cause further structural damage; and so one would, perhaps, put a plate across it to make sure that the wall did not come down.

Mr. Bracken

Put a what?

Mr. Robens

Not a plate one eats from, but a steel plate.

Mr. Bracken

Very funny.

Mr. Robens

Subsequently, when the movement has finished, one would effect what I would term permanent repairs; that is, the steel plate would be taken away and one would repair the brick work with plaster or concrete or whatever was used to effect permanent repairs.

Mr. Bracken

When the hon. Gentleman talks about permanent repairs and uses this dangerous analogy he must remember that one can repair the foundations that are affected by subsidence, and can put in a plate—if the hon. Gentleman likes that expression. But in point of fact more or worse damage may follow in a very short time. It is quite impossible for permanent repairs to be made. You could, perhaps, Major Milner, out of your genius, get from the Minister a definition what is called "permanent repairs," but there is not any such thing until subsidence has come to an end. Until then it is not possible to make permanent repairs.

Mr. Robens

The right hon. Gentleman is confirming everything I said in answer to his hon. Friend. I have not raised the matter of permanent repairs. It was his hon. Friend, to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred a little earlier as a "camp follower in the Tory Party"—an amazing thing to say about him——

Mr. Bracken

On a point of order. Is it in order for the Parliamentary Secretary to attribute a most insulting form of words to a Member of the Opposition Front Bench in order to create differences between colleagues?

The Chairman

I am afraid it is very frequently done.

Sir H. Williams

I do not think we have had an answer—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] The Debate has not finished.

The Chairman

We [...] had a very long Debate on this matter, and I hope the Committee will come to a decision.

Sir H. Williams

No. I am not satisfied. We are on the Question "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," but it does not yet stand part, and nobody has moved the Closure. I am not satisfied. Actually, the Parliamentary Secretary had not finished speaking, because he was interrupted by my right hon. Friend.

I want to go a little further with this question of permanent repairs. I am very familiar with steel plates and steel bars. I have seen hundreds of them in the Black Country, with which at one time I was very closely connected. It does not mean that, because one puts a steel plate at one end of the house and a steel bar through, no further damage can occur.

I want to know what "permanent repairs" really means. Is it "permanent for the time being"? After all, the county court has to be satisfied that no further subsidence damage is likely to occur. How are we to discover that, in districts where subsidence takes place? It is not possible—certainly not for the Minister of Fuel and Power or the county court—to make such a decision. I think we ought to have a little more information about what was in the mind of the Government in drafting this Clause. So far, the Parliamentary Secretary has not satisfied me. That is why I got up, despite the plea of the Chairman that we should come to a decision on this, because I hope that we may have a little further information than we have yet had.

7.0 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braith-waite (Bristol, North-West) rose——

The Chairman

Order. I must put the Question now.

Sir H. Williams


Mr. Bracken

On a point of order. There is no obstruction from this side of the Committee. We do not want to waste time by going into the Lobby in Divisions, but my hon. and gallant Friend has an important point to put, and I should have thought that it would help our business along if he were allowed to put it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Delargy (Thurrock)

rose in his place and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put."

Question, "That the Question be now put," put, and agreed to.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put accordingly, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.