HC Deb 18 February 1953 vol 511 cc1409-18

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

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I wish to raise the subject of mining subsidence. Mining subsidence is a very big problem, and there are many hon. Members who are more expert on it than I am, but I am debarred tonight from talking about mining subsidence in general because, if I did, I should be bound to talk about the necessity for new legislation on the subject.

We expect the Ministry of Fuel and Power to produce some new legislation on mining subsidence to implement the rest of the 1949 Report, but what I want to talk about is the treatment of my constituents under the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act, 1950. I am bound to say that, in my view, the treatment of some of them amounts to a shocking scandal.

Certainly I know that there have been worse hardships in the past arising from mining subsidence because of the failure to find a solution of this problem and because of the chaotic state of the law on the subject, but that does not console those who are afflicted with these hardships at the present time. The hope has been held out, at any rate since the 1949 Report of the Committee on Mining Subsidence, that action will be taken to remove these hardships and injustices that have arisen in the past.

I want to make it clear at the outset that I do not cast all the blame for what I am going to assert on the National Coal Board. I believe there is some ambiguity about the responsibilities of the N.C.B. under the 1950 Act. That is one of the prime reasons why I took this opportunity to raise this subject.

I begin with the assumption that the victims of mining subsidence deserve as much public sympathy and help as the victims of storm and tempest. Their disasters are not usually as sudden and dramatic, but they are none the less as unfortunate and tragic in their consequences. My assumption is the same as that of the Committee which reported in 1949. and from whose Report I quote the following sentence: We start with the premise that the object of any reform of the existing law should be to remove hardship and the sense of injustice wherever it is found. It was as a result of this Report that the 1950 Act was passed.

There are three points in the 1950 Act. The first is the establishment of the national responsibility of the N.C.B. for the repair of houses damaged by subsidence, or making payments in respect of such damage. The second point is that the 1950 Act lays down that the onus of proof is on the N.C.B. in regard to the causes of damage in areas where subsidence has occurred. That is the crucial point. The third thing under the Act is that it empowers the Minister to make financial grants to the N.C.B. and to make regulations on the subject of mining subsidence. The Ministry since the Act was passed has made a grant of £500,000 to the N.C.B. in respect of subsidence damage.

I am far from satisfied with the way in which these principles are being applied in my constituency, and I have had a certain amount of correspondence with the Minister, and I have asked a number of Parliamentary Questions. Newcastle-under-Lyme is extensively undermined, and very serious damage to households has occurred, and is occurring at present in my constituency. The particular case which I am using to illustrate this point concerns Kinsey Street in Silverdale, which is largely populated with mine workers. Two years ago this street collapsed. It subsided to a greater extent in the centre of the terrace houses than at the two ends of the street. The result was that some 40 houses were damaged, and some were rendered uninhabitable.

When this occurred a number of families had to be evacuated immediately. Some were tenants, some houses were held on mortgage, and others were owner-occupied. A handful of families had to be evacuated immediately and in the emergency the Newcastle-under-Lyme Council had to allocate council houses to accommodate these people. When that occurred the N.C.B.—in my opinion, quite rightly and properly—in the spirit of the 1950 Act took the responsibility of removal of these families together with their goods and chattels, and immediately paid, and are still paying, compensation for the extra rents and costs these people had to bear because their houses have been virtually destroyed as a result of the mining. Other families have continued to live, as so many of my constituents do. in partially damaged houses. Some are living like cave dwellers in very badly damaged houses, but they have managed to carry on.

When the time came for the repairs to be carried out to the badly damaged houses it became clear that other families must be evacuated from the streets while the houses which had been temporarily shored up were being fully repaired. In the case of a number of houses, the repairs could go on while the people remained in their houses, but it was clear that in the case of a great number of others the families must be moved out and put into other accommodation while the repairs went on.

Naturally, those families made the same claim and assumed that they would get the same treatment as the families whose houses had originally been made uninhabitable by the subsidence. They thought the Board, under the direction of the Minister, would take the responsibility of moving them from their houses and paying the extra costs in which they would be involved when they had to go to council houses in another part of the constituency. In some cases a considerable amount might be involved, travelling expenses being 10s. per week or more.

But the National Coal Board refused to accept the responsibility of removing the people, although the Newcastle-under-Lyme Council was prepared to set aside council houses for them, and it also refused to pay them compensation for the extra costs in which they were involved. The result is that some families have moved under their own private arrangements and are now bearing the additional hardships in the way of paying council houses rents besides to their other financial obligations, such as extra travelling expenses and so on. Some of them have either not been able to get accommodation or cannot afford the alternative accommodation because of their present financial position.

Consequently, a number have stayed in their houses, and this has meant that the National Coal Board cannot carry out its statutory obligations to repair the damaged houses because they cannot do it so long as the people remain in them. To enable the Board to carry out its statutory duty, it is necessary for those families to find alternative accommodation for a period of weeks or months. While the people stay in the houses the Board cannot carry out the repairs, but many families cannot afford alternative accommodation and additional travelling expenses.

This position has unfortunately been aggravated by disputes between these citizens and the Board about the specifications for repairs to the houses, about the portion of the cost of repairs which the Board alleges the families should undertake, and other points of that kind. Consequently, the impression has unfortunately come to many of my constituents that the Board, under financial pressure from the Ministry, is adopting a mean, niggardly attitude towards them.

The Minister has, I suggest, a very direct responsibility in this matter. First, he has a financial responsibility. Under the 1950 Act, and according to the recommendations of the 1949 Report, it is his responsibility to assist the National Coal Board to undertake these expenses, and, if the Board cannot carry out their obligations because of financial pressure, it is the responsibility of the Minister to use his powers under the Act to relieve some of that pressure by making grants additional to the £500,000 already paid to the Board, to enable them to offer more generous treatment to those who arose hard hit by subsidence.

Moreover, the Minister has the power to make regulations about the interpretation of the Act—about the way in which it is to be administered. I maintain that the Minister has power to make regulations to cover these consequential costs where houses have completely collapsed or where houses have been so badly damaged that they can only be repaired if the people living in them are removed. I maintain that the Minister is in a position to direct the Board to undertake these responsibilities and to cover these additional costs on any proper interpretation of the Act.

I pay tribute to the National Coal Board for what they are doing—for what I know from experience they are doing in my constituency—to prevent this kind of thing happening in the future. Very great efforts are being made in the collieries in my constituency with the new technique of underground stowing operations to forestall damage in the future and to prevent a subsidence of the earth with all the terrible results it has in damage to property and in disrupting the life of the people, many of whom work at winning coal. But we know that for years to come this kind of problem will occur. Yesterday morning I had this letter from the town clerk of Newcastle-under-Lyme: During the week-end serious subsidence damage has occurred on Leech Avenue, Chesterton— another village in my constituency— Four houses are immediately affected, but doubtless the trouble will not end there. The Council are providing temporary accommodation by means of council houses. It appears indeed to be another Kinsey Street case. He goes on to explain how these unfortunate people are having to evacuate to another part of the area, which will involve them in additional travelling expenses to their work, although they have already suffered damage to their property and furniture.

I therefore say that while some advance was made in the passage of the 1950 Act and while the responsibility for repairing houses is there clear, it was the intention in the passing of that Act, as it was recommended in the 1949 Report, that all these costs which were directly resultant from mining subsidence should be a public responsibility borne by the Coal Board, which is responsible for the mines of the country, but financially assisted by the Treasury through the Ministry of Fuel and Power. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary tonight, as I have asked the Minister previously, seriously to consider increasing the financial grants made by his Department to the Coal Board to enable them to give more generous treatment to those hard hit people and, secondly, to issue regulations under the Act to make it perfectly clear that the responsibilities for such problems as removals and additional travelling expenses as I have described ought to be borne by the Board.

12.20 a.m.

Mr. W. Nally (Bilston)

I do not want to stand between my hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary for more than a few moments, but I should like to say what a poor reflection it is upon our Parliamentary practices and institutions that, in a matter of this sort—which in my hon. Friend's constituency is of such tragic importance—we should be discussing the subject at this hour of the morning in the presence of, including yourself. Mr. Speaker, seven hon. Members

But this is the main point which I wish to make. The National Coal Board in all these matters—and it should be put on record just as emphatically as my hon. Friend has done it—has behaved far more generously than private ownership ever did. That should be made clear in relation to the powers and resources of the Board; but it has now become a circumstance where the Board, with all the obligations laid upon it, finds itself unable to accept full responsibility for errors and profit making inhibitions of 30 years ago. I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that those of us whose whole family background is linked with the pits my own father was a collier, and my grandfather before him—recall that one of the miners' first considerations was not nationalisation, but trying to persuade the coal owners to adopt exactly the stowing arrangements which the Board is trying now to put into effect to prevent the subsidences to which many parts of the country. including my own, are subject.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider how far he can meet my hon. Friend, who speaks on this subject for a good many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and how far he thinks the Board should be relieved of meeting this burden of distress. The Board inherited many evil heritages, but one which it should not have to carry is that of meeting responsibility for subsidence damage, for which it was not responsible. and which it is now trying to do its best to avoid.

12.23 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)

Whatever else comes from this debate, there must be a feeling of relief for the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) who has raised this subject tonight. One cannot but admire his pertinacity and dogged determination in balloting, night after night since, I believe, last October, upon this subject. I would pay my tribute to him, because this is a subject which can benefit by being ventilated. As the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Nally) has said, subsidence affects a large part of our community, and I can well understand the feelings of his hon. Friend. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister actually went to one of the streets in his constituency, which he has mentioned tonight, to see at first-hand the circumstances which have been so properly described tonight.

But what I want to do is to examine the position as it is and, if I may, I should like to correct one or two of the legal aspects of the statutory provisions to which reference has been made. Let us get clear, to begin with, what is the position so far as the obligations of the Board are concerned. In section 2 (1) of the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act, 1950, it is provided that with regard to those houses affected by subsidence, the Board shall either carry out, as soon as possible, such reasonable repairs to the dwelling house as are required in consequence of damage thereto, or it shall make a payment equal to costs reasonably incurred by any other person in carrying out such repairs. That is the extent of the obligation which is laid upon the Board.

There is nothing ambiguous about it. The hon. Gentleman referred to the ambiguity about the liberty of the Board under the Act, but those words are exceedingly strict and well defined. They are exceedingly limited in regard to the obligation which Parliament laid upon the Board. I would also refer to the fact that it was laid upon the Board quite consciously by Parliament. The hon. Gentleman no doubt took part in the debates upon it at the time. I did not, but I have read them.

I am sorry to see that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) did not stay for this debate. I can well understand the reason why he did not, because at that time he was in the position that I now occupy, that of Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. While my right hon. Friends and hon. Friends sought to enlarge the scope of the Bill by amending the Financial Resolution with the avowed object, as is stated in the debates, of enabling the House to include indirect damage in the Bill, the then Government refused to accept the Amendment and made it abundantly clear that they were not going beyond the strict obligation of direct damage.

I do not think it would be right, even as a matter of propriety, to change that obligation by the Minister's own personal direction, Parliament having made it clear what the obligation should be. I should like to say another word on that in a minute. There is another difficulty in regard to this matter, and that is that the Act provides that if there should be a difference of opinion between the householder and the Coal Board it should be settled by the county court. I derived the impression that the hon. Member is bringing the matter to the High Court of Parliament rather than to the county court because he recognises there is, in fact, no legal obligation on the Board to do the things for which he is asking. If there were a legal obligation, then it would be for the householder to take proceedings in the county court against the Coal Board.

Mr. Swingler

May I point out to the Parliamentary Secretary that the position is, how is the N.C.B. to carry out reasonable repairs to a house which cannot be reasonably repaired whilst people are living in it and the people who are living in it cannot find alternative accommodation, or cannot afford alternative accommodation? Is the Parliamentary Secretary saying that in these circumstances it is purely a private responsibility on the people to move in order that the Coal Board should carry out its statutory obligations of making reasonable repairs? That is a point which obviously the county court could not decide.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

If the county court is unable to decide this, it is presumably because it is not provided for in the Act and this is a particular case.

I want now to touch for a moment on the other aspect of the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised, and that is the possibility of doing something by means of a general direction. There, again, we are met with a specific provision of the law, and I would refer the hon. Gentleman to what the rights and responsibilities of my right hon. Friend are in regard to directions under the nationalisation Act of 1946. In Section 3 (1) of that Act, provision is made that the Minister may, after consultation with the Board, give to the Board directions of a general character as to the exercise and performance by the Board of their functions in relation to matters appearing to the Minister to affect the national interest.

I do not propose to argue the legal case this evening, but it is certainly open to considerable doubt whether the repair of other people's houses is a part of the functions of the Board. Certainly, that could not have been contemplated in 1946, because that obligation was not laid upon the Board until 1950.

Mr. Swingler

What about Section 16?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

Time is very short indeed, and, if I am to finish, I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman.

In addition to that, undoubtedly it is not an obligation of the Board, and therefore, not one of their activities to meet any indirect costs which may be involved as a result of subsidence. Therefore, no general directions could possibly be given, in my opinion, which would involve the Board in meeting indirect costs.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of an increase in the grant by the Minister to the Board, but, there again, it is quite clearly laid down by the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act, Section 11, what those responsibilities are. They are quite definitely laid down as grants not exceeding the amount estimated by the Minister to be one-half of the sum of the additional expenditure incurred by the Board in a certain period. The Minister has not got a discretionary right to enlarge upon that, one way or the other.

The hon. Gentleman referred by way of illustration to certain special cases, and that illustration has shown that the Board is permitted, of its own volition, to go beyond its statutory obligations in certain circumstances. If it is prepared to do that, a limit must be set, and the line which has to be drawn must be drawn by the Board in their own discretion, because they are going outside their own legal obligations. For these reasons, it is not possible to intervene.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-Eight Minutes to One o'Clock a.m.