HC Deb 29 July 1958 vol 592 cc1157-72

Lords Amendment: In page 10, line 45, at end insert: (4) An opencast site order as confirmed by the Minister, shall not comprise any land of which possession—

  1. (a) has previously been taken in the exercise of emergency powers, and
  2. (b) has at any time (whether before or after the commencement of this Act) been retained in the exercise of those powers for the purpose of working coal on that land, or on land contiguous therewith, by opencast operations, and
  3. (c) has before the confirmation of the order ceased to be retained in the exercise of those powers,
unless, at the time of confirming the order, the Minister is satisfied that there are special circumstances existing at that time, or special circumstances relating to the land in question, which justify its inclusion in an opencast site order notwithstanding that possession thereof has previously been so taken and retained.

Sir I. Horobin

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This is a more important Amendment, but I am sure that it will be generally agreeable. It deals with compulsory rights orders on land which has been previously requisitioned. In all parts of the House and in the Committee it was felt that this Amendment was desirable because it says that there must be special circumstances. There might be a greatly increased need for coal, yet a very great amount of coal might be sterilised by the Coal Board not being able to go over a very small piece of land twice. I think that it will be generally agreed that in special circumstances the Board should go twice over the same land.

Mr. Harold Neal (Bolsover)

The Amendment deals with what the Parliamentary Secretary described formerly as a very important, contentious and difficult matter. We are grateful to him for fulfilment, in part, the undertaking he gave us on Third Reading, but for us to say that we are satisfied with the drafting of the Amendment would be an exaggeration. We wish it were couched in more precise terms.

Where there have been cases of re-entry on ground that has formerly been excavated by opencast mining there have been exceptional hardship and inconvenience. I have never been able to understand why a second or third seam could not be excavated at the first entry. Planning has gone wrong somewhere if, after land has been restored, a second entry has to be made. In Lancashire, Derbyshire and other parts of the country a great deal of inconvenience has been suffered from second entry.

When land has been excavated, and restoration has been made, the farmer imagines that his tenant right has been restored and that he can get back to normal agricultural production. It is an enormous disappointment for him to find that his land has to be churned up again, his stock interrupted and his production stopped. The inhabitants of the area also conclude that when restoration has been made they are finished with the inconveniences of dust and dirt and village life being incommoded by the traffic in opencast coal being conveyed through the streets. It is a deep disappointment to those people when a second entry has to be made. As we emphasised in Committee and on Third Reading, we wish that this could be entirely eliminated.

I can illustrate the position by quoting the case, of which I have informed the Parliamentary Secretary, of the village of Tibshelf, in my constituency. That village has suffered opencast mining operations in one way or another since 1944. The entire perimeter of the area is residential and has been excavated. There is now a proposal to make a second entry and, in one part of the site, it will be a third entry. The exasperating part of the matter is that the second entry was most disappointing. Thousands of tons of coal had to be buried because it was unsuitable. Nearby there is a school at which the studies of the children will be interrupted for a second time in a few years. Although the Ministry informs me that silencers are to be fixed to bulldozers and draglines, that is not like fixing silencers to motor cycles.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to explain the provision in paragraph (c), which says: unless at the time of confirming the order, the Minister is satisfied that there are special circumstances existing at that time, or special circumstances relating to the land in question, which justify its inclusion in an opencast site order notwithstanding that possession thereof has previously been so taken and retained. We should like to know what "special circumstances" are intended. Would they be a thick seam, a thin overburden, or the calorific value of the coal concerned? We were indebted to the Parliamentary Secretary for telling us on Second Reading that except in circumstances where there is a substantial quantity of coal involved second entry will not be made.

Does a substantial quantity mean 1,000 tons of coal or more? We were also informed that if no second entry were allowed 10 million tons of coal would be sterilised, but that would not be a great loss in view of the fact that 4½ million tons are already in stock and cannot be sold.

We would rather see this matter more strictly defined in the Clause. I am advised that it is not possible to put in legislation an absolute duty on a Minister, but the terms of this Amendment are so ill-considered and ill-defined as to be a disappointment to us in that regard. We hope that the Minister will exercise the powers conferred on him under this Clause with the utmost sympathy and consideration.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. H. Neal), I feel far from satisfied with this Lords Amendment. It is not our intention to divide the House on it, but we feel entitled to reinforce the plea which we put in Committee. I know I should be ruled out of order if I started to argue the case for the discontinuance of second or third visits to opencast sites, but I am very anxious about this matter.

I am particularly anxious about those unfortunate people in districts where opencast mining has been going on—as in my constituency—for sixteen years. That is a long time for people to be inconvenienced and to have their peaceful enjoyment of the land disturbed. Now it is proposed that those in charge of opencast operations should be able to visit these sites two, three or four times. In passing, may I say that I am greatly indebted to the Department for the decision taken last week in connection with the site known as Smithy Wood. It has been decided that for the time being the fourth visit to that site will be suspended. I am grateful for that declaration of an armistice, but I am particularly worried about the wording of this Clause and about what has fallen from the lips of the Parliamentary Secretary.

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to have the idea that I mistrust his words, or have no confidence in what he says, but I am very troubled. My concern is based on past experience in dealing with regional officers. I want to know who is to determine the "special circumstances" mentioned in the Amendment. Are they to be regional officers, resident engineers, or contractors who have entered into contracts to work opencast coal? We should like an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary about who is to determine the special circumstances in relation to paragraphs (a), (b) and (c).

I am not reading from a textbook, but speaking from painful experience. I do not want to rouse myself into indignation because of treatment meted out to my people in Garswood and Ashtonin-Makerfield, where attempts have been made to persuade the regional officer and the resident engineer not to do such and such things because that would be detrimental to those living in areas adjacent to an opencast site. Very much to my surprise and regret, officials have ridden roughshod over the opinions of the local authorities. We have reached a stage in the process of opencast mining at which we should not allow that to happen. Let us give a little consideration to those who live on these sites and to what they have passed through in the last fourteen, fifteen or sixteen years.

In view of the stocks of coal which are on hand and the difficulty of disposal of small coal now produced by opencast mining operations, we ought to have an assurance that the special circumstances on which the Minister will base permission for a second or third visit to a site will be decided either by the Minister himself, the Parliamentary Secretary and his advisers, or the Chairman of the National Coal Board. I say emphatically that this should not be left to regional officers. I am not saying this with disrespect to those officers, but because I feel keenly about the matter. These officers live in salubrious surroundings in places like Sale and other parts of Cheshire. They have no conception of what people in opencast mining districts are passing through and have had to pass through. For more than sixteen years these people have been experiencing inconvenience and loss of peaceful enjoyment of amenities.

I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to give these people some respite. Let it not be said that hon. Members of this House allowed this work to be continued when it could have been stopped.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. G. H. Oliver (Ilkeston)

I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary one question. When authorisation is sought, which would include land the subject of this Amendment, will it be possible, when objection or representations are made under the authorisation order, for the Minister or whoever gives the decision, to make quite clear what the special circumstances referred to are?

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

I share the apprehensions which have been voiced so strongly by my hon. Friends. There are whole areas of land which, to all intents and purposes, have been turned into the equivalent of battlefields with all the resultant inconvenience and distress to the local population. Having once tasted this experience, unless there are very special circumstances those people ought not to be subject to a second visitation.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), I speak from personal knowledge and experience of large tracts of country in the part of Lancashire I have the honour to represent, which resemble the fields of Flanders during the First World War. They have been torn and riven, often to depths of 80 ft. or 100 ft. Although economic circumstances are quite different from those of the time when we reluctantly agreed to these operations being started, we find an ever-increasing demand from the technical people running the operation to have at their disposal more land on which to keep the machines working.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us, from his technical information and advice, whether a special circumstance could be defined and accepted by the Ministry as meaning long-term contracts which have been made by contractors employing machines, which often cost £1¼ million each, and for the purpose of keeping those contracts going. Is the main purpose of the operation to provide more coal, or is the process reaching such a stage that a vested interest has been created to provide more sites to keep the machines going?

This is a very serious matter. In my constituency, which has been as greatly affected as any part of the country, there is rising public indignation. I know that I am going a little beyond the narrow terms of this Clause, part of which is good, but which does not go so far as we want it to go. We do not want any loopholes left for those who have a vested interest in this matter. I speak without disrespect of any individual, but there is an interest among surveyors and inspectors in finding new land which can be dug up for sites. I hope that this House will never be so insensitive to public duty as to condone a situation in which the needs of the machine are given a greater importance than the needs of the people so greatly affected by opencast mining operations. This Bill has had a long and patient examination in Committee, and at this late stage the Minister should not allow this Clause to be used merely to define as a special circumstance something necessary to keep the contracts going—because this work is being done by outside contract.

We know that when this form of mining was started, the country was crying out for all the coal that it could get. We had to do it. The machines had to be bought at a very high price from America and elsewhere, and in conditions in which private commercial contracts were made involving special depreciation on account of the high initial cost of the machines, but let it never be the policy of the Ministry to say that it is right to go from bad to worse, with all the distress that this work causes, merely to allow surveyors to find new tracts of land to dig up so that machines can be kept going.

We in this House are concerned with keeping those whom we represent happy, and unless the Minister can say that this process is economically justified in the wider interests of the country, he can rest assured that many of us who represent the industrial areas will continue to oppose, by every legitimate means, further inroads into our land.

Mr. Joseph Slater (Sedgefield)

I was not on the Committee that discussed the Bill but, like many other hon. Members from the mining areas, I am particularly disturbed that we should have had such an Amendment as this at this late stage in the Bill's progress through Parliament. Each and every one of us in the industrial areas of the North has been disturbed by the immediate effects of the first operation.

I was very interested to hear the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal), who said that the second and third operation might be regarded as special circumstances because of the existence of a second or third seam. My hon. Friend also asked about the 10 million tons of coal that would otherwise be sterilized, It seems that the Minister's determination will rest on the belief that that amount of coal is, in all probability, likely to be sterilised unless extracted by opencast operation. I believe that the contractors will look very favourably on a second and third visit to a site, but I think that we would do an injustice to those areas where opencast mining has already been going on for so long if we allowed this Amendment to pass.

One of my hon. Friends has said that it is not the intention of this side of the House to divide against the Amendment, but I sincerely hope that we will divide and thereby lodge our protest against the attitude of another place in sending us such an Amendment as this. I remember that when one of the most important Bills ever to go through this House was being dealt with in Committee, one Clause contained the words "where practicable".

We have similar circumstances here in defining the phrase "special circumstances." Who will determine these special circumstances? That is the crux of the matter. Up to now we have not had a satisfactory answer to that question, and unless we do get a satisfactory answer, unless we are told who is to be responsible for interpreting "special circumstances," I sincerely hope that we on this side will divide against the Amendment.

Mr. William Ainsley (Durham, North-West)

When opencast mining first started I was an underground worker, and we miners were fearful because this work was then shortening the life of the collieries. From that day onwards my constituency has suffered from the ravages of opencast working. Not more than a mile from my own home we have had opencast workings. The top soil has been replaced, the grass seed has been sown and the grass is already growing, but only last weekend I noticed that even larger bulldozers were being brought on to two sites in particular, and that they were again removing the top soil before proceeding to even deeper opencast working.

4.15 p.m.

As with factory production, opencast mining is improving in technique. Machines are being made bigger and stronger, and they can go deeper. This is resulting in these opencast sites being opened up two or three times, and it will not only upset the social amenities of the areas affected but will also have a disastrous effect on the mining communities in those areas. It is having a psychological effect on the underground workers. These facts should be borne in mind.

We also have to remember that these machines are being operated by private enterprise and, as a result of these longterm contracts, the work is going forward regardless of its effect on social amenities. As the Parliamentary Secretary will know, I have already drawn his attention to what I call the disastrous effects on the social life of one area, and the effect it will have on agriculture and the farming community there.

Will the Minister please give consideration to all these facts, and especially the disturbing effect that the result of these ravages is having not only upon human life, but on cattle and on the production of milk and eggs?

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

In considering these Amendments, I have been forced to the conclusion that, whilst I cannot regard them as had, they could be better. It is remarkable that the Parliamentary Secretary is getting neither support nor condemnation from his own side, but I cannot help thinking of what would have happened had his hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) been here. That hon. Member loses no opportunity of criticising anything to do with the nationalised industries, and this Amendment provides an opportunity for anyone so minded to be rather cynical about the operation of a nationalised industry.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain to the House who exactly is to determine the need for these subsequent phases of opencast operations. Is it to be the same person who recommended the original reinstatement? Will he be the person who decides to reopen the site for the second stage, or will it be someone else? In my own industry, the railways, if a workman makes a mistake he is disciplined, but here it seems that someone must have made a mistake in the first place.

Someone has first to decide to go to the expense of closing an opencast site. To reinstate it costs a lot of money, but to reopen it will give a chance for cynics to say, As soon as the grass begins to grow, you can bet your life that the bulldozers will be back". Whoever decided to close the site and to reinstate it must have made a mistake if, later, another expert says, "We will reopen it." There must have been a mistake, otherwise they would not have gone to the expense of reinstating the site in the first instance.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us who is to make the decision to reopen. A considerable amount of public money is involved in reopening, as in reinstating. I do not want to see this or any other nationalised industry brought into ridicule, but I think that this Amendment will provide a strong opportunity for that to happen.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)

In what I think is an unusually thick-skinned mood, the Parliamentary Secretary had not, I think, realised that there is a lack of enthusiasm for this Amendment, and some concern as to whether it will achieve anything at all. In Committee, and I think on Third Reading, we were all agreed that, unless there are quite overwhelming reasons for so doing, it is obviously most undesirable ever to reopen a piece of land once it has been restored. In Committee, we were given the assurance that it would be only in exceptional circumstances that the Minister would confirm an opencast site order permitting the site to be worked a second, third or fourth time.

This Amendment seeks to write that assurance into the Bill, but what I would respectfully put forward for consideration by the Minister is something which, I think, would give a great deal more effect to it. I suggest that, in giving effect to this Amendment, the Minister should undertake that, in any such case, when confirming the order, he will state what are the special circumstances that have led him to that confirmation. People would then know what was operating in the Minister's mind, and what were the overwhelming reasons.

Unless the Minister does that, the whole of this Amendment is pure verbiage. It achieves nothing whatever, because the Minister already, before confirming the order, must, if he is to do the job properly, take all the circumstances into account, and, in view of all the assurances already given, he will not confirm an order so as to allow a site to be worked a second and third time after restoration unless he thinks that there are special circumstances that warrant it. Therefore, unless there is to be something different in practice, all this will be mere verbiage.

If the Minister would undertake, when certifying that there were special circumstances, to state in his certificate what those special circumstances were there would be something for people to get their teeth into, and they would be able to see what were the overriding reasons to justify the action in that particular case. Moreover, if he did state what his reasons were, and it was found that he had taken into consideration an irrelevant circumstance, that would be something that could be challenged in the courts by the injured party. But if, as so often happens in this sort of case, the Minister merely says, "I have considered the matter fully, and have decided that there are special circumstances", though the Minister may be taking into account something entirely irrelevant the subject has no remedy in the courts whatsoever. I would, therefore, urge that this course be adopted. We might then have something tangible in the way of a concession, rather than a mere sop that achieves nothing.

Sir I. Horobin

I think that the hon. Members who have spoken, at any rate those who were on the Committee, will not disagree with me when I say that I have already made it quite plain that I share all their anxieties and their distaste for going on to the same land more than once.

I think that in fairness to the Coal Board—this is a point which those who were on the Committee will appreciate—I must correct the suggestion that it has always to be the result of a mistake. That is not so. In the early stages, when machines were small, they could not get down to some of the depths required and which are very economical. So it would not be fair to the Coal Board to suggest that it is always a question of a mistake.

I am sure that everyone is agreed that, if it can be avoided, it is thoroughly undesirable to go back a second time, let alone four or five times. The whole problem that arises—and hon. Members will recall that I made inquiries at an earlier stage—is simply that it appears that there genuinely are cases where very large quantities of coal would be sterilised if use were not made of the more powerful machinery that is available. The position, therefore, is how to try to balance the rights and wrongs of the matter and, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) said, to try to write into the Bill, so far as we can, what has been quite clearly expressed to me, that the intentions of Her Majesty's Government are entirely in agreement with those expressed on both sides of the House.

I think that I can reassure the House quite considerably on a number of points which have been raised. The easiest way of doing so is to follow the request of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal) by going a little more into detail than I did in opening, on the last paragraph of the Amendment itself.

We have to be clear what is happening. It is not an authorisation, as was suggested by one hon. Member opposite. This is a compulsory opencast site order, and it has to be confirmed by the Minister. It is, therefore, the Minister who is responsible, having, of course, taken all advice on these matters. There is no question of regional officers or anyone else entering into it. The Minister is responsible. Unless he confirms the order it has no effect, and the Minister can be held accountable to this House.

There are two types of circumstances in the Amendment which we are considering and they both deal with points which have been raised. First, there may be special circumstances existing at the time. This is precisely the kind of consideration which led the Minister to postpone the particular proposals which were referred to by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown).

There are what I might call coal supply conditions, when we need coal very much more than we do at other times, and when the immediate need for coal is less it would be reasonable, under this Amendment, and it would, in fact, take place, that the Minister could say that it might be right to go twice over a particular site, in spite of all the disadvantages, if there were a coal famine. But at this time it would be quite unreasonable to put people to all that inconvenience when there is possibly a temporary surplus. That is the effect of the words special circumstances existing at that time. Then, of course, there may be special circumstances relating to the land in question. Those are cases which really do exist. I have satisfied myself very carefully on this point with the Coal Board. For technical reasons, the run of the strata or whatever it may be, there may be quite a disproportionate amount of coal made inaccessible if the Board cannot go over perhaps quite a small area a second time. That would be the kind of consideration which would be material in considering whether there would be special circumstances relating to the land.

Mr. J. T. Price

I think that the Parliamentary Secretary may be overlooking one important aspect of this matter. The Amendment which we are discussing does not deal only with the Minister's approval to extract the coal a second or third time. It relates to the prospecting operations. In that connection, the visit of a surveyor and people drilling holes may create a great nuisance to the farmer in possession of the land, because water will come out of the holes in bad weather and create springs, as I have often seen in my own division.

Sir I. Horobin

This is a very complicated Bill, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it from me that he is on an irrelevant point. It does not arise on this Amendment. It has nothing to do with prospecting at all.

The next point that I should like to make clear is on procedure. I think that what I have to say will reassure hon. Members on a number of points. The position here is that the initiative has to be taken by the Coal Board. It is the Coal Board which starts things off and says, "I want to take compulsory rights over certain land." It is not the contractor or anyone else. It is the Board which starts this operation off and, the authorisation having been gone through, it says, "We want to have compulsory powers for such and such land."

That request, as it were, from the Coal Board has to go to the Minister. If the Amendment is accepted, the Coal Board will have to say precisely what special considerations it relies on, either in respect of time or in respect of the land, in asking the Minister to allow it to go over land which has been under-requisition and which has since been abandoned.

The Coal Board will have to say exactly on what it relies to justify going twice. Having said that to the Minister, the Minister will have to confirm it. I am glad to be able to say—and this will, I am sure, satisfy and please hon. Members—that this point has been taken already by the Minister. It is the intention of the Minister in every case to give reasoned decisions; and that puts more teeth into the Amendment.

The only other thing on which I think I ought to assure the House—and then I hope that hon. Members will be willing to accept this as a genuine attempt to deal with a difficult problem—is that while, of course, this Amendment procedure can come into legal effect only when the Bill is passed, my noble Friend has already given instructions that as a matter of administrative practice these considerations shall become operative at once in relation to land which, as the House will realise, for some time in the future may be taken under requisition procedure. I hope that the House will feel that we have made a genuine effort to meet hon. Members on this point.

Mr. Slater

The Minister has said that the application comes from the Coal Board in the first place. It makes an application to go ahead for a second or third time on land recognised as being opencast, and the Minister then determines his reasons for giving that consent on the considerations given to him by the Board. Does he take into account any other considerations? Does he send anyone from his Department to see the site, or does he determine his decision by what he receives from the Board in the course of the application? If that is the position, does he not agree that it will not give us that firm finality which we desire to have in regard to this matter?

Sir I. Horobin

The Minister would obviously not say, "The Coal Board says that this is right, and therefore it is right." I do not think that hon. Members opposite would have quite such unbounded confidence in the Coal Board's statements. The Minister is responsible for checking what is said to him. The Board says, "I want to do this for such and such reasons". It is for the Minister to satisfy himself that those reasons are either good or bad, and he must stand or fall on that by reason of his responsibility to Parliament. I do not think that I can go further than that. It is his responsibility to satisfy himself that there are these special circumstances.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)

Before the Minister decides, could he not communicate with the local authority concerned and present to that local authority the reasons given to him by the Coal Board?

Sir I. Horobin

The administrative machinery for consultation in all these cases is very well established. I do not think that one could conceivably attempt to write into the Bill all the people with whom the Minister should or should not consult in every case. One must assume that when one says that the Minister is responsible for satisfying himself that there are these special circumstances, he will take the necessary and sensible steps administratively to put himself in possession of the facts and judge of them.

Mr. Oliver

The Minister is sidestepping the issue. The point that I put to him was quite clear. It is true that there may not be an authorisation; probably that stage has passed. When will the public, the owners of the land, the local authorities and the planning committees have an opportunity of expressing themselves on whether the land should or should not be opened again? If it is just a question of the Minister being satisfied by the Coal Board that its proposals are justified by reason of the circumstances being exceptional, what opportunity have the people of objecting to this land being opened, particularly if the opportunity for a public inquiry has passed before the Minister gives his reasons?

Mr. T. Brown

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary has done his level best to explain to us—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

The hon. Member may ask a question, but he must not make another speech. He has already spoken. Perhaps he can put his words in the form of a question.

Mr. Brown

The Parliamentary Secretary appears to have some knowledge of the machinery involved, but not a complete knowledge. We have two departments—the Coal Board and the opencast mining branch. Which of those two departments has the final say whether to permit a second visitation to an opencast site?

Sir I. Horobin

Neither. The final say is in the hands of the Minister responsible to Parliament. The Minister has to be satisfied by the Coal Board of the reasons on which they rely. He then goes into the matter and gives a reasoned decision. As the hon. and learned Gentleman points out, if in that decision he is relying on matters which are improper or irrelevant it can be tested in the courts. I do not think that one can go any further.

Mr. MacDermot

Am I right in thinking that there is a further answer to this point? Is it not correct that before any land could be re-opened under this Measure, the Coal Board would have to obtain a fresh authorisation before reaching this stage at all, and that when it does that there is ample provision in the Bill for local authorities and all other interested persons to make their representations? All that will have been done long before we get to this stage.

Sir I. Horobin

The hon. Member is correct. I thought that as the hon. and learned Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Oliver) was on the Standing Committee he would have appreciated that. All that authorisation procedure must be gone through, and, as is pointed out, that is the time when these representations will take place. We are now purely at the stage in which, authorisation having been obtained for working opencast coal, the question of compulsorily taking rights over a particular piece of land arises. Therefore, the hon. Member is perfectly correct in what he said. I assumed that Members who were on the Committee would have appreciated that fact already.

Mr. Oliver

The Parliamentary Secretar was on the Committee, but he does not seem to have appreciated the point at issue.

Question put and agreed to.