HC Deb 17 February 1958 vol 582 cc996-1002

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

10.28 p.m.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

I wish to invite the House to listen to a small detective story in which the problem is to find out when the Ministry of Power entered upon the 4-acre smallholding of a Mr. W. C. E. Middlemass at Morpeth. The Ministry decided to examine this smallholding to see whether it was worth while proceeding further with efforts to secure surface coal. This was peculiar in the sense that the man had just sold his equipment and was trying to sell his house prior to going to another district. Mr. Middlemass contends that the Ministry entered on his smallholding without legal authority, and it is mainly for that reason that he wishes this case ventilated so that justice may be done.

The peculiar thing is that there is a dispute as to when the officials entered this smallholding. Mr. Middlemass's case is that representatives went to his house on 16th June and gave a verbal indication that they wanted to enter the smallholding with a view to prospecting for coal. The daughter who was interviewed at that time refused the request on the ground that it was not legal, and the representatives left on the understanding that they would probably call again.

The next intimation from the Department was a registered letter that was sent to Mr. Middlemass on 21st June. The legality of this letter is apparently not admitted, and on 24th June the contractors entered into the smallholding. On 8th July, after they had entered, Mr. Middlemass received another registered letter from the Department. On 14th July another official letter was sent to Mr. Middlemass, and it is only this letter that Mr. Middlemass contends was a real official document with legal standing. He therefore contends that from 24th June to 14th July the representatives of the Department were on his smallholding contrary to the law of the land.

The matter continued, backwards and forwards, for a long time. Mr. Middle-mass contended that other results arose from this illegal entry on his smallholding, and that it largely prevented him from selling his house for a proper figure. His main complaint is that there was an illegal entry and use of his land for nearly three weeks before the receipt of the real legal document of 14th July.

The whole matter was then sent to the Ministry for investigation and a sum of £25 was offered as recompense for the situation that occurred. What mystifies Mr. Middlemass and, to some extent, myself is why all these official letters were sent, beginning on 21st June and continuing until 14th July after entry had been made. Is it correct that on 21st June a registered letter was sent from the Department relating to this matter? Also was a registered letter sent on 8th July by the Department, and, if so, what was the necessity for sending another official letter on 14th July? If the other two registered letters were in order, giving the proper authority for entering the smallholding, why was it necessary to send another letter on 8th July? It seems peculiar to me.

The whole thing dragged on, and finally a representative of the Executive dealing with opencast coal mining operations was sent from London to this smallholding to make investigations in order to determine when representatives of the Department had entered the smallholding for these purposes. Apparently he made investigations and reported to higher authority, and the words of the report which puzzle me are in the sentence which says that the evidence from the executive officer confirmed that no entry was made for the purpose of drilling before 14th July. To my mind that is a qualified denial. The sentence might be correct; it might be that drilling did not commence until 14th July. On the other hand, it is possible that they were doing other things on the smallholding before 14th July in preparation for the drilling.

The question which arises in my mind is whether people who go on to land for the purpose of opencast mining operations can be in a position to commence drilling on the very first day. I think it would take time before they had all the machinery ready for action to begin drilling, although I do not pretend to know. If it is not usual for drilling to commence on the first day of the operation, then although an investigator may make all the investigations possible and may inform higher authority that drilling did not commence until 14th July, that is not the only point that matters. We want to know whether anything else was done on the smallholding and whether the officials were present and making preparations for drilling some time before 14th July.

This is Mr. Middlemass's case—that he has evidence to show when the work began and that he has official letters from the Department three weeks before 14th July. That of itself, to an outsider, suggests action being taken long before the drilling commenced on 14th July.

The question which arises concerns the compensation which was offered. There are difficulties about compensation and I am not trying to raise the technicalities of it. I want the general position cleared up as far as possible as to whether these people were on the land before 14th July. Secondly, I want cleared up as well as possible the question, what was considered by the Department as a legal document giving the Department permission to go on the land? If the only legal document that can substantiate that claim to proper authority for entry is the letter of 14th July, it rather indicates that there was a weakness in the Department's position before that date.

Can the Minister tell us, for instance, what was in the document sent by registered post on 21st June? Can he tell us what the next official letter contained? Can he tell us what, if the circumstances be such as I have outlined, is sufficient compensation? It may be true that, in ordinary circumstances, not very much compensation would have been payable, but the real essence of Mr. Middlemass's case is that the entry was illegal, though efforts, in the shape of three important letters from the Department, have been made to make it legal.

Mr. Middlemass contends that there was illegal entry over a period of three weeks and that, therefore, in addition to compensation in the normal course, he is entitled to a further sum for that illegal act. It is for the Department to prove that entry was legal throughout the whole period. He is claiming, I believe, a sum of about £875 by reason of those special circumstances. A sum of £25 has been offered, and he is completely dissatisfied. If there is any doubt as to the legality of the entry, I think that Mr. Middlemass would be in a better position to prove it than is any investigator from London. He claims special compensation, as I say, on grounds of a three-week illegal entry, and I should like a full explanation of the letters and what they meant.

10.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

This is already a rather confused story, and I am afraid a little further confusion has been imported into it, quite unwittingly, by some of the observations of the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. McKay). Perhaps I should first get out of the way—because it is not the main part of what the hon. Gentleman has put to us tonight—the question of the total claim that Mr. Middlemass has made. That is in no way related to the allegations of trespass. If he had argued that more at length, I should have dealt with it tonight, because I am afraid that the figures that Mr. Middlemass has claimed could not possibly be substantiated, even if Mr. Middlemass's contention that trespass had taken place were made good. The claim for trespass and the claim Mr. Middlemass made for these very substantial sums have no connection one with the other. I will say no more about that, because the bulk of what the hon. Gentleman put to us relates to the matter of trespass.

There are here two quite distinct questions, one of fact and one of law, relating to Mr. Middlemass's rights. I want to be careful on this, in Mr. Middle-mass's own interest. The hon. Gentleman began with—I took his words down—and then in various ways kept on repeating, the statement that the Ministry entered on Mr. Middlemass's holding. That is not so, of course. In the matter of trespass, if there was a trespass, it was the Board—which is quite a different thing. It is very important to keep those matters distinct, in Mr. Middlemass's own interest, as I shall show.

The question of fact is simply this: was there or was there not an entry made upon Mr. Middlemass's land before 14th July? If there was such an entry by officers of the Board, then I say at once that Mr. Middlemass may have a common law remedy against the Board, because it was not until that date that valid, legal authority was given. The hon. Gentleman will, therefore, see why it is we have to be very careful, in Mr. Middlemass's own interest, to draw the distinction I have made. We made careful inquiry, and we are informed by the Board that no entry was made before 14th July. If that be so, then no trespass did, in fact, take place. Mr. Middlemass disputes that, and it is a question of fact. It is a question which may, if Mr. Middlemass so desires, be determined in the courts.

I am authorised by the Chairman of the National Coal Board to say that, if Mr. Middlemass can bring forward any new evidence to show that the Board is wrong in its contention that no physical entry did take place before 14th July, the Board will be willing to reopen the whole matter on that basis. I, therefore, say nothing further about that. Mr. Middlemass has all his common law rights in the matter, and if he can show new evidence that physical entry took place before 14th July, no doubt he will consider that offer from the Coal Board. The 14th July was the first date upon which proper authority for entry existed. That disposes of the Coal Board's side of the matter.

The hon. Gentleman asks why documents were sent—two documents, I understand, relating to different parts of Mr. Middlemass's land—several weeks earlier purporting to be authorisations, when they were not. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that I understand that the Ministry made a mistake there. But the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that if physical entry did not take place before 14th July, no damage was done and if it did, then Mr. Middle-mass's rights still remain.

But in fact a technical mistake was made and it was only when it was discovered that these documents were bad that a new and good notice was made on 14th July. I do not know whether the hon. Member would wish me to go into detail as to how that mistake took place, but I will just in a sentence or two explain what happened. I understand that prospecting on this site owned by Mr. Middlemass had been authorised as long as four years before, and the Board's Regional Opencast General Manager, not the Ministry, thinking that this authorisation was still in force, asked the Ministry of Works, which at that time was the Ministry concerned, to serve notice of entry which Mr. Middle-mass received. It was only after it was discovered that that authorisation was no longer in force, and was, therefore, bad, that a new and good notice was sent on 14th July. So that is the explanation of these two earlier documents which Mr. Middlemass obtained.

I want to make it quite clear that it is admitted that they were not good in law. The sole question, therefore, which now remains is, was entry made before 14th July? If it was not, no trespass has occurred. If it was, trespass did occur, and Mr. Middlemass has his legal remedy, but before taking it he may consider, if he has evidence to that effect, that it would be wise of him to take up the offer of the Chairman of the Coal Board.

Mr. McKay

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.