HC Deb 25 May 1950 vol 475 cc2295-9

Where, in any proceedings under this Act, the question arises whether any structural damage to a dwelling-house to which this Act applies or to any such part of a building as is mentioned in subsection (1) of section three of this Act is subsidence damage, and it is shown that the nature of the damage and the circumstances are such as to indicate that the damage may be subsidence damage, the onus shall be on the National Coal Board to show that the damage is not subsidence damage.—[The Solicitor-General.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6.2 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Frank Soskice)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

When the discussion on this Bill terminated on the previous occasion, the Committee were considering where the onus should lie with regard to proving that any particular damage constituted subsidence damage within the meaning of the Bill. Members on both sides were anxious that the Bill should put the onus on the National Coal Board, and in this Clause we have endeavoured to bring that about. A similar Clause, standing in the names of Members opposite, also appears on the Order Paper, designed to achieve the same purpose. We carefully considered it, and we thought the best way to meet the wishes of Members on both sides was by the Clause the Second Reading of which I am now moving.

We put the onus, in the first place, on the householder to show that there is some damage, that the circumstances generally are such, not to indicate that the damage was done by coal getting, but simply that it is possible it may have been done by coal getting. We simply require the householder to show that it is possible that the damage was done by the mining of coal in the vicinity. Once it can be shown there is a possibility that it might have been so done, then the onus is shifted under this Clause to the National Coal Board to show that the damage was not done by coal getting. That achieves the purpose which hon. Members on both sides had in mind, the purpose which is also sought to be achieved by the Clause put down in the names of Members opposite.

In their Clause, the onus is put on the householder to show that coal was being worked underneath the house. In point of fact, it is much less favourable to the householder than is this Clause. All the householder will have to do, if this Clause is accepted, is to point to the nature of the damage, perhaps a crack in the wall, and refer to the fact that there was coal-working somewhere in the vicinity, but not necessarily underneath the house. If he is able to do that, and the county court thinks it is possible that the damage was caused by coal-working, the onus is shifted to the National Coal Board. I hope the Committee will agree that this is the right way to meet the general desire that was expressed.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

We are delighted to see the right hon. and learned Gentleman restored to our counsels, and we thank him for his most generous tribute to the Opposition. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) who pressed an Amendment in these terms on the Government. It was not at that time acceptable, but the Government have now seen the light; and who are we to criticise them for their earlier obstinacy? As I understand it, we are the people who now have to represent the mining community in the House, because unfortunately a large number of mining Members are away from the Chamber, as they do not like this Bill, although I do not blame them for that.

I thank the Solicitor-General for what he has done. He has conferred a considerable benefit on small people who are not conscious, from time to time, of their legal claims. This Clause goes a long way towards meeting the argument put forward by my hon. Friends, and we are grateful for it. Sometimes I feel that just as Malta got the G.C. during the war, the Opposition, particularly those connected with the fuel and power committee, ought to get the Order of Merit for labouring away and trying to improve this Government's sloppy legislation. We get little credit for it, except when the Solicitor-General appears. In these circumstances, it is a very happy experience for us to have the glowing tribute the right hon. and learned Gentleman has given. However, we are rather modest. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member wish to say something? I think he is right to soliloquise.

Mr. James Glanville (Consett)

I merely said that I was enjoying this very much.

Mr. Bracken

All I can say is that we are grateful to the Solicitor-General. It obviously places a great burden on the patience of the Chair to have to listen to so many speeches on coal subsidence, but our hard labours have at last been rewarded. The Government realise how right we were to be the miners' friends, even though we do not owe anything to them.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

Earlier today we had a rather interesting lecture on good manners, the effects of which re- main with me at the present moment. I wish to offer my thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Bracken

Hear, hear.

Mr. Brown

If the right hon. Gentleman will wait a minute, I am coming to him. I wish to offer my thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend and the Department for bringing forward this Clause. Representations have been made to him from this side, and he has responded to them.

The right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken) started on the right foot but did not travel very far in the race before he spoilt himself by his insinuations against those of us who have tried to play our part in the passage of this Bill. I wish that he would restrain his feelings sometimes and pay a tribute to this side of the Committee as well as to his side. For any help we can get from the Opposition on a Bill of this character we are intensely grateful, but for our part we are grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for having acceded to our representations.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

I am rather surprised that the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East, and Christ-church (Mr. Bracken) should assert that the Government have seen the light. Anybody who compares the two proposed new Clauses on the Order Paper will see that the Government's proposal does the best thing possible for those who might suffer from subsidence, whereas that tabled by the Opposition is of a very limited kind. The Opposition proposal is limited in many respects. Under it a man would have to prove that workings had taken place within 10 years, and also that the coal had been extracted from directly underneath his house.

It may be argued that such an impression has been made upon the Government that they have climbed down and changed their opinion, but when we remember that the Government are in power and can either accept a proposed new Clause as drafted in its very limited form or reject it, or apply their minds to the subject and draft an alternative new Clause which is a great improvement upon the original suggestion, it will be recognised that in this case the Government have gone to the utmost limit in extending the Bill, and all credit is due to them. They have done splendidly in widening this Bill to the utmost possible extent.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I should like to add one or two remarks, as one who has taken an active part in this Bill, and perhaps thereby contributed to the tabling of this proposed new Clause. Let us be quite frank and admit that this new Clause would not have been tabled if the Opposition had not made a misery of the lives of those in charge of the Bill. Let us be realists. We all know how concessions are obtained, and this con cession was not obtained because of any effort by the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. McKay). The Government tabled this Clause because the Opposition had tabled the one which follows it on the Order Paper, although it is true to say —and I am glad to say it—that the Government's proposal goes a bit beyond what we suggested in dealing with sub sidence—I never know which is the correct pronunciation of this word——

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker)

The Oxford Dictionary approves of both.

Sir H. Williams

I never went to Oxford; I went to a modern university, so that does not influence me. However the word is pronounced, we are glad to have this concession. The hon. Member for Wallsend knows very well that in 99.9 per cent. of these cases the coal has been gotten—I think that is the right phrase—from under the building. He must not run away with the idea that he and his hon. Friends have done anything to obtain this new Clause. There is a good Parliamentary phrase for them in this instance, which a Minister used many years ago, in referring to an Opposition, when he called them "dumb cattle." There is thus a Parliamentary precedent when I say that hon. Members opposite have been dumb cattle, with one notable and honourable exception, the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown). We welcome this new Clause; it is a great improvement, but it would not have been put into the Bill but for the efforts of the Opposition.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.