HC Deb 23 May 1950 vol 475 cc1934-40

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

Mr. John Foster (Northwich)

I wish to raise a drafting point. I cannot understand what this Clause means. The object of the Clause is that the National Coal Board shall be allowed to carry out protective works if they get the consent of the owner. The provision applies also to cases where there are two owners. The Clause, quite naturally, provides that where one owner consents and the other does not consent, the National Coal Board can go in and do protective work in the house of the owner who consents. The question I am raising is the very odd wording. Perhaps it is that I am being rather stupid What the Clause says is that where an owner has not withheld, or has not unreasonably withheld, his consent. … Why does not the Clause state: "where the owner gives his consent"? Secondly, why is it necessary, in the event of the owner withholding his consent, to put in that he has "not unreasonably withheld his consent"? Surely it would be better if the Clause read, "where the owner has reasonably withheld his consent," which would cover the owner who has also unreasonably withheld his consent.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I should like to have some elucidation on this Clause. The Clause provides that the National Coal Board can execute preventive works in cases. Where it appears to the National Coal Board that subsidence damage is likely to occur to any dwelling-house to which this Act applies, or is likely to occur to any building comprising such a dwelling-house, and, if it occurs, to affect the dwelling-house, and that the execution of works in that dwelling-house or building would prevent the occurrence, or reduce the extent, of such damage, they may, with the consent of the owner of the dwelling-house or building, execute those works. Is it intended that any consideration shall be given to houses in the course of construction? Some of us who come from mining areas know that most wise local authorities take into account preventive works against subsidence. In Stoke-on-Trent we make such provision by putting in concrete rafts. We believe it is a good investment which will prevent repairs of an extensive character having to be made later in the lifetime of the house. Will the National Coal Board have powers under this Clause to extend their interest to cover such preventive works? Would it be possible to require local authorities to consider either putting in concrete rafts, or doing such other work as is disclosed by research to be of a useful character and to save a great deal of cost in the years ahead? Does the Clause provide for that?

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I wish to support the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies). Today, I have been to the Lord Mayor's luncheon, where great concern was expressed about matters of this kind and great satisfaction about this Bill. Can we be assured that there will be the maximum co-operation between the local officials of the National Coal Board and the local authorities? It would be better, in our view, that preventive works should be undertaken so as to obviate any extensive damage occuring in the future.

During this Debate I have heard hon. Members asking for assurances on various points, but we have learned from experience with the courts in the past that it is what is in the Bill that matters and not what is said in the House. Therefore, my view is that provision should be made in the Bill, between now and Report stage, to cover houses which are being built in mining areas, so that there will be the maximum co-operation between the officials of the National Coal Board, the builders and the local authorities. In most cases it would be advisable to put in concrete rafts, which would prevent heavy compensation having to be made at a later stage.

Sir W. Darling

My criticism of the Clause is that the initiative arises with the National Coal Board. It provides that if the National Coal Board think that subsidence damage is likely to occur they may enter premises. I should have thought it was better for the house owner to go to his local authority and for the National Coal Board to make their entrance on the recommendations of the local authority. The National Coal Board cannot be criticised in the House, and this Clause gives them powers over property, if there remain any rights of private property these days which should be mitigated in the interests of the owners. The National Coal Board should not be the sole determining authority in regard to the right of entry. These powers should be limited in some way.

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Member can deal only with what is in the Clause. He cannot refer to what he considers should be in the Clause.

Sir W. Darling

I am grateful for your guidance, Sir Charles. I am dealing with what is in the Clause and endeavouring to suggest——

The Deputy-Chairman

That is the point. The hon. Member is suggesting what should be in the Clause. We can discuss only what is in the Clause.

7.30 p.m.

Sir W. Darling

I was trying to persuade the Minister to make an alteration, but I was not so optimistic as to think I would succeed. However, apparently my suggestion is out of order, and I leave the matter where it stands. I deplore that under this Clause the National Coal Board cannot be challenged by the individual who may or may not give consent to their desires. I feel there is no protection for the public in this Clause. Perhaps we may hear from the Lord Advocate if there is any relevancy, in subsection (4), in the variation which is necessary, and whether he is satisfied that the Clause generally does not give undue authority to the National Coal Board over the free property-owning citizens of Scotland.

Captain Duncan (South Angus)

This Clause, deals with the Coal Board's relations with owners of property which has been damaged or might be damaged by subsidence. What notice is to be given to the owners of their rights under this Bill? The houses are limited in size, with valuations fixed for England and Scotland. They are small houses owned by owner-occupiers, and these are the very people who do not know their legal rights. There seems to be nothing in this Bill or in this Clause adequately to inform the owner-occupiers of what their rights are.

I am not quarrelling with that, but how are the owner-occupiers to know their rights? I am not concerned here with local authority owners, because they can find out how to obtain their rights from the many channels at their disposal. I am concerned with the owner-occupier. We have a particular case in Fife in Scotland, which is a development area, and where, by taking preventive action under Clause 8, we could save an enormous amount of subsidence. It is only right that there should be some provision in this Bill or in another so that the owner-occupiers will be fully acquainted with their rights. How do the Government propose that that should be done?

The Lord Advocate

A variety of points have been raised on this Clause, and I propose to deal with them in the order in which they were made. The hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Mr. J. Foster) raised a point about the words in line 21: … whose owner has not withheld or has not unreasonably withheld, his consent under this subsection. As the Committee will appreciate, the whole purpose of this Clause is to enable the National Coal Board to take preventive measures to stop damage being done to the houses, or to minimise the effect of any such damage as might occur. Not unreasonably, the Clause goes on to provide that if the Coal Board wish to take such steps and the owner of the house unreasonably withholds his consent to the Board's representatives entering the premises to effect such repairs, that owner forfeits any rights he might have under this Bill. I do not think that is an un reasonable proposition.

Where we are dealing with the case of two or more owners in the one building and where the situation might arise of one owner giving his consent or having reasonable grounds for withholding his consent, he should not be prejudiced because another owner had not given his consent and had no reasonable grounds for withholding that consent. The proviso to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred merely says that the owner who has given his consent or has reasonably withheld that consent shall not be prejudiced because of the action of some other person.

Mr. J. Foster

I do not think it says so. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will look at line 19, he will see the words,

this subsection shall not affect the carrying out of repairs. … The person who has reasonably withheld his consent does not have any repairs done because he has reasonably withheld that consent. It cannot affect him.

The Lord Advocate

Oh, no. There are two stages in the arrangement, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will see if he reads the Clause. One is the intention of the National Coal Board to execute preventive repairs, and the second is the duty of the National Coal Board to carry out repairs if damage has occurred. It is in respect of the latter rights that the person who has withheld, or withheld unreasonably, his consent forfeits the rights he otherwise might have by virtue of the other provisions of the Bill. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) raised the question of certain preliminary works that have been done in the construction of concrete rafts prior to the erection of a building. The Committee will appreciate that this Bill refers only to damage done to dwelling-houses, and I cannot conceive concrete rafts which are the preliminary to the erection of a house being deemed to be a dwelling-house within the meaning of the Bill. In so far as my hon. Friend sought an assurance that there would be full co-operation between the local authorities and any other interest concerned in such matters, my right hon. Friend the Minister has asked me to convey that assurance to him.

With the greatest hesitation, because of our national kinship, I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling) that having regard to your Ruling, Sir Charles, on his speech there is nothing to answer. The hon. and gallant Member for Angus (Captain Duncan) wanted to know how the owner-occupier or the owner would be certierated of his rights under this Bill. I think the simplest method of achieving that would be for him to read its provision, because if he does so he will know exactly what his rights are, and if he does not—sometimes people are known to have doubts as to what an Act of Parliament means—he can have recourse to a lawyer. It is that which keeps that section of the community alive, for people have sometimes to go to seek their advice with regard to legal matters. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that soon we hope to introduce the Legal Aid Scheme in England and Scotland, which will give advantages to these people which obviously they do not enjoy at the moment. So from every aspect of the matter it would seem that this Government are catering for the interests of these people.

Captain Duncan

I am not satisfied with the Lord Advocate's answer to the point I raised. He is really telling the working man who owns his house to go to his lawyer.

The Lord Advocate


Captain Duncan

His only qualification to that was that there will be cheap legal advice under the Legal Aid Scheme when it comes in. Surely, there must be some better method of getting this information over to the owner-occupiers than simply telling them to consult lawyers. In certain conditions this Clause takes away their rights. If they do not give their consent or unreasonably withhold it, their right to compensation for repairs to their houses goes. Therefore, under this Clause it is important that there should be cooperation from the National Coal Board at least by notices at the pithead or in some other way to inform the working miner who owns his own house what are his rights under this Bill.

The Lord Advocate

I would think that the solution to that problem would be relatively simple. First, if the National Coal Board go and ask permission, as they will, to execute these preventive works, they will explain the matter.

Captain Duncan

Will they?

The Lord Advocate

Naturally if the consent is withheld—and the question only arises if the consent is withheld—they will explain that the owner may forfeit his right to compensation for any damage that may occur in consequence of subsequent damage if consent is unreasonably withheld. In any event he will have, if he is the sort of miner about whom the hon. and gallant Member for South Angus seems so concerned, recourse to his union for advice. That is one of the functions of the miners' union, to give advice of that nature to its members. No doubt he could seek advice from the local authority. There are many sources from which he could get advice. I merely suggested that, in the last analysis and if the problem became too complicated, he could go to a lawyer, which is always the last resort. [Interruption.] Yes, he could go to a Member of Parliament, but I am not in favour of blackleg labour and I prefer that he should go to a lawyer.

It seems to me that the hon. and gallant Member is magnifying this problem. There is only one thing which needs to be explained to the gentleman in question, and it is that if he withholds his consent, which means that remedial works cannot be carried out, and if subsequently damage occurs to that house, he may be forfeiting his right to recovery under the Bill. That is a very simple matter to explain under the Clause, and that is how we are considering it at the present time.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 9 and 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.