HC Deb 16 June 1958 vol 589 cc806-26

Amendments made: In page 88, line 32, leave out "authority sending it" and insert: person by whom or on whose behalf it is sent".

In line 39, leave out "authority" and insert "person".

In line 40, at end insert "or other document".

In line 44, leave out "furnished that authority with" and insert "given".

In line 52, at end insert: 4. The preceding provisions of this Schedule shall not apply to any notice for which a method of service is prescribed by regulations under this Act, except in so far as any of those provisions are applied by those regulations.—[Sir I. Horobin.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent on behalf of the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, signified.]

9.10 p.m.

Sir I. Horobin

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

At this late stage I do not think that the House will wish for a long disquisition on this Bill, but I think it would be proper first to say that we have now reached the stage when we can see the general form of a permanent, decent code for the working of opencast sites other than by the remains of war-time emergency Regulations.

I have said that I very much doubt, in the light of experience, whether it was appreciated on what an enormously complicated task we had embarked when the Government took up the extremely attractive, and I think in principle sound and valuable, but very novel conception of granting compulsory temporary rights in land rather than relying on compulsory purchase. It was a very ingenious idea. I can claim no credit for it; it is one of the few things in the Bill which remain from before I was suddenly called upon to deal with it. Nevertheless, in the light of experience I frankly think that it put a task on the draftsmen which it was impossible for them to carry out as satisfactorily as we should have wished in the time available. With the good will and co-operation of hon. Members on both sides of the House and of the Standing Committee we have, I think, very greatly improved the original draft, and it would be worth while if I very briefly drew the attention of the House to the main changes which have taken place while the Bill has been passing through the House.

I could make an enormous list. Even on the Report there were over 100 Government Amendments, and I shudder to think how many there were in Standing Committee. First, we have substantially met the main point raised by the Opposition on Second Reading about the Board's compulsory powers over land used for stocking grounds. While we did not go the whole way, I think we have met much the bigger half of their point and of the Board's difficulties in this connection.

Leaving aside a number of important things like special provisions about trees, we have made two major changes in respect of amenities. The Clause which we have dealt with this afternoon, based on the Electricity Acts, deals with amenity questions when authorisations are being considered, and we have also this afternoon dealt with an Amendment protecting the curtilage of houses and gardens from excavation.

We have increased the period of notice of entry for prospecting to the great advantage not only of owners and occupiers but also of local authorities, who have important matters to consider. We have also greatly extended the number of persons entitled to receive those notices. Lastly, we have completely re-drafted the compensation Clauses, to the great advantage not only of the owner and the occupier but also of the restoration of the land. There has been a great extension of cost of works. We have thus dealt with many legitimate anxieties of local authorities in matters such as playing fields and recreation grounds and we have dealt with compensation for allotments and market gardens.

In particular, I promise not to deal in more than a passing reference with the thorny subject of mineral compensation which those who were in Standing Committee will remember at one stage took four pages of the Order Paper to deal with one Government Amendment. I will not go through all that now. At any rate, we have greatly improved the compensation for minerals. These are all quite substantial improvements. The Bill is a very different and better Bill because of them, and I think that the trouble that has been taken has been well worth while.

The opportunity did not arise at any time during Report, so I should now like to take the opportunity to make a statement on an extremely important and contentious and difficult matter. On the question of going back over land that has been previously affected, I can give a slight reassurance to hon. Members interested.

After this discussion in the Standing Committee on the question of re-entry on to land previously requisitioned I made a detailed survey of all the new sites likely to be available for production in the next three years. This survey showed that new sites containing about 35 million tons of coal would be available, and that if there were no re-entry on to land previously requisitioned under Defence Regulations, about 10 million tons of this coal would be lost. In these circumstances, to prevent the Board from making C.R.O.s on land previously requisitioned would involve putting at risk an unacceptably high proportion of future output. The Board might still get some of this coal by agreement with the landowners and occupiers, but without compulsory powers in the background we could not rely on that.

The Government, therefore, cannot amend the Bill, but it is already our policy to avoid re-excavating land which has previously been excavated except in those cases where the land was worked in the early days of opencast, and re-excavation to a greater depth will now yield a substantial tonnage of coal. The Government and the Board propose, if this Bill goes into operation, to extend this policy, and the Minister—the House will forgive my reading from my brief, but the statement is important—will not confirm compulsory rights orders against the wishes of the owners and occupiers of land which has been previously requisitioned for opencast coal operations unless there is a really substantial tonnage of coal at stake.

I hope that hon. Members will feel that that statement goes quite a way towards meeting the very genuine points that have been made about the hardship caused by the Board going back over land a second or third time. I do not think that the House would wish me to say more. I am sure that this Bill is essential if we are to have opencast mining at all. I think it is a much better Bill than it was when it was introduced and that, in many respects, it marks an advance on corresponding legislation, certainly in the matter of compensation. I commend it to the House.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Robens

I shall not detain the House very long because, after the many hours we have spent in Standing Committee, one feels that one has wrung the subject dry. Obviously, from the moment we determine to continue opencast mining by other than the Defence Regulations, we find ourselves led down a path—a labyrinth, really—of legislative procedure. I am bound to say that I do not believe that this Bill could have emerged as it has now without the co-operation of the Parliamentary Secretary and of the Paymaster-General in giving very careful attention to matters raised from this side of the House and of the Standing Committee. We, on our part, have always recognised when we have reached the stage when no further concessions could be wrung from an unwilling Minister, and at that stage we have desisted, rather than spoil the atmosphere in which the debates on the Bill has been conducted.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) will be very pleased indeed by the statement that the Parliamentary Secretary has now made; that only in exceptional circumstances, and where there is, in fact, a very large tonnage of coal involved, will the Ministry agree to give the Board authority to enter on to land that has already been requisitioned for opencast coal. I feel that my hon. Friend's very deep and moving speech on this subject has had a considerable effect and has impressed the Paymaster-General and the Parliamentary Secretary.

The Government have been very reasonable in meeting the important matter which was raised earlier about disposal points and stocking grounds. Throughout the whole of the consideration of the Bill, both in Committee and in the House, there has been unanimity in wanting the very best possible restoration.

We must not think for a moment that this Bill alone has created a desire for adequate and proper restoration. I am perfectly certain that, from the moment that opencasting was devised as a method for producing coal under very difficult circumstances during the war, the agricultural interests and those who were producing the coal were anxious to have the best kind of restoration—the agricultural interests for the specific reason that they had to use the land when the contractors had gone.

I have found that, with very few exceptions, contractors themselves have been anxious for efficient restoration because they could see opencast coal mining lasting for many years, as indeed it has done, and they knew full well that unless they were able to help in the proper restoration of the land, public opinion would stop opencast mining, no matter what was the cost to the country in the loss of coal. We could never envisage a situation in which hundreds of thousands of acres were to be disturbed and ruined for agriculture in the future. Therefore, there has always been this incentive on the part of the Coal Board, contractors, Members of this House, Ministry officials and all those associated to try not to spoil the amenities as far as this is possible, and to restore land to the very best of their ability.

I believe that perhaps this Bill has performed one other good purpose. It has once again focused the attention of all of us on this very big operation that is still going on and that is still an awful nuisance to a lot of people, and has forced us to look once again at restoration and the provision of the amenities when restoration has been completed.

As to compensation, I think that the approach has been to provide adequate and fair compensation in justice to all, and I believe to that extent we have succeeded.

It has been a real pleasure to have served in the consideration of this Bill because of the constructive spirit that has been displayed by all hon. Members who have wanted to make this legislation serve the purpose for which it is intended.

9.23 p.m.

Sir Albert Braithwaite (Harrow, West)

. Having been in this venture from the very inception, I feel that tonight, having given opencast legislative form for the first time, I should say a word or two.

I appreciate many of the difficulties that this operation has caused, but I want to stress the great value that it has been to the nation, particularly in the war years when we had many problems. It must be some satisfaction to the Father of the House, who was then Minister of Mines, that he gave us sanction to go ahead with the scheme at a very difficult time. Now that the technique of getting this coal is so well known to us, it can be won in a way which causes the least disturbance.

I am sure that this Bill, with its compensation Clauses, will make it a great deal easier for the national Coal Board to negotiate its arrangements with the various people who have to be consulted before a site can be worked upon. I hope that it will still be a useful part of Britain's economy. I lean to the view that coal is the basis of our island's prosperity and that nothing else we have is as valuable to us.

I am sure that there will come a time when the marketing arrangements of our coalfields will again return us the full amount that we used to have in the past. I was horrified only this week to receive a letter from a friend who visited Southern Ireland and to learn that the Southern Irish are buying their coal almost exclusively from Poland, when they sell practically all their products in this country. These are things which should be examined very carefully and sorted out. It is on the balance of payments in Europe, through coal, that we can finally stabilise our position and have far more certainty than we have had in the past.

I want to thank my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for his courtesy and his ability in directing the Bill, at very short notice, through the Committee stage. As the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) has said, it has been a complicated Bill. It could be nothing else. In some parts of it, I felt that the Government were taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but I suppose it had to be so in order that all the legal jargon should be put into the Bill to give the necessary protection. Not being a lawyer, I could not understand half the things which were said in this connection upstairs.

I wish the Bill a really good reception in the country. I hope that it will do much to minimise some of the discontent and irritation which opencast working has caused, and I hope that it will make a contribution to our future economy worthy of the time the House has spent upon it.

9.27 p.m.

Mr. T. Brown

At this stage, I should like to say a word or two in appreciation of the attitude adopted by the Parliamentary Secretary and the Paymaster-General. As is well known, I have from time to time spoken very strongly, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend that I have spoken from deep conviction, and I hope that they do not take it personally. Having lived in my constituency and seen some of the ravages of opencast mining, I have spoken strongly, as hon. Members well understand, about certain activities which have been taking place since 1941.

I am delighted that the Government have introduced a Clause dealing with amenities. This has been a very sore point with me and with many people in the division I have the honour to represent. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) occupied a position similar to that now occupied by the Parliamentary Secretary, he came and looked at the ravages caused by opencast mining. The hon. Gentleman who is now Parliamentary Secretary has been to visit the place and he, too, knows something of the ravages of opencast mining. As a result of our persistence and persuasion in Committee, the Government have introduced the amenity Clause which we have accepted today. As one who has fought long and hard for the protection of our woodlands and the amenities of mining areas, I am very grateful to the Government for conceding the point.

I hope that we have, through the Bill, made it possible for much better restoration of ravaged land to be carried out. It is a step in the right direction. In years gone by, it was a headache, a heartache even, to the farming community, and I hope that the provisions in the Bill will mean that far better restoration of the land will be carried out.

There is also in the Bill a new compensation Clause. That in itself is another step in the right direction. I was also delighted with the concluding statement of the Parliamentary Secretary to the effect that the Government have now given consideration, through our persistency and doggedness, to the question of second and third visits to sites which have already been visited. That again is a step in the right direction. After all, one can understand and accept the disturbance once and it may be that one can understand the disturbance twice. But when the Coal Board comes along three and four times to disturb the farmer and his farmland, this breaks the hearts of the farmers. I was glad to hear tonight that the Government will give serious consideration to the matter before they give permission for a site to be visited three or four times.

I have followed the Bill from 22nd January through all its stages and I have never failed to attend when it has been considered. I do not say that in a boasting manner; it was because of my profound interest in the protection of parts of this country which have hitherto been sadly neglected, particularly from an amenity point of view. We are not delighted with opencast mining, but with the approach that has been made by the Ministry to the many things that we have suggested.

The Bill cannot destroy or eliminate the bitterness which has been created, but if it is rightly applied—and again I mention the regional officers and residential engineers—it will bring a high degree of contentment to those who have to face the consequences of what opencast mining means. I do not say that I welcome the Bill with open arms, but I am satisfied that it will go a long way towards creating a degree of satisfaction where hitherto bitterness has prevailed.

9.33 p.m.

Mr. Speir

I realise that at this stage there is not much hope of getting any more concessions from the Government in this House, but I should like to ask for one or two more definite assurances before we part with the Bill, and I shall be surprised if we do not find some more concessions are granted in another place.

First, however, I should like to congratulate the Government on their courage in bringing this Bill forward and, by so doing, dispensing with still more Defence Regulations. By introducing this Bill the Government have demonstrated the importance which they attach to dealing with both property and individuals in a fair, open and democratic manner. I should like to pay my tribute to the Paymaster-General and to the Parliamentary Secretary for the very kind and helpful way with which they have dealt with Amendments which have been put forward by both sides of the Committee.

Having paid my brief tribute to the Ministers and the Government, I must make it clear that in the north of England opencast operations by any method, whether under the Defence Regulations or under statute law, remain hideous and horrible. They cause great hardship and a great deal of inconvenience to those who directly suffer from them as well as to those who live in the neighbourhood. However good the terms of compensation may be—and I grant that they are better under this Bill than they have been hitherto—the fact remains that the agricultural community would like to see opencast operations abolished altogether—and as soon as possible. As I have said before, if opencast operations took place in the home counties near the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Sir A. Braithwaite) or near where he lives, there would be such an outcry that they would soon be abolished.

Unfortunately, it is mainly in the industrial areas, and still more so in the mining areas, which have already paid such a heavy price for deep-mined coal, that these operations take place. They continue at the cost of the loss of good agricultural land, of considerable damage to amenities and much personal suffering. The Bill, let us get it quite clear, authorises these operations to continue for another twenty years.

In view of the agitation which the Conservative Party in the past has undertaken against opencast mining, we ought to be ashamed at bringing forward this Bill now, especially today, when the fuel situation is much easier than it was in the war or in the immediate post-war conditions. The prolongation of opencast mining can be justified only if it can be shown to be overwhelmingly in the national interest and if my right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General can give an assurance on behalf of the Government that the utmost care will be exercised in authorising all opencast operations, and that, in particular, full weight will be given to the planning and amenity interests.

I am a little afraid that now that the Bill is very near to becoming law, the Government and the National Coal Board may think that they have been given the green light to rampage all over the country. The Board may take the view that Parliament has given its blessing to a go-ahead wherever the Board thinks there is any coal which can be obtained by the opencast method and that it has a charter to produce the maximum amount of opencast coal—and to do so regardless of the damage which may be done to our amenities.

Admittedly, we are still short of fuel and we still will require coal in large quantities for many years to come, but I do not think that the nation at this stage needs or desires coal at any price and regardless of the damage which is done thereby to the countryside. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General, on behalf of the Government, may accept that opencast sites must still be selected with the utmost care and that a real regard must be paid to the preservation of amenities.

As the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) and the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) have both emphasised, we must still pay considerable attention to improving the code of restoration, particularly concerning drainage and the replanting of both trees and hedges. One has the impression that the drains are chucked back far too quickly and far too casually and haphazardly. Far too often when visiting these sites, one sees that wire and concrete posts have taken the place of hedges and trees.

Much as I dislike the Bill, I have not opposed it and I do not now oppose it, for it is an improvement on the Defence Regulations. I hope, however, that the Government can give a definite assurance that when the Bill becomes law, it will be operated in a careful and statesmanlike fashion and that the interests and views of both local authorities and individuals will be given the utmost consideration.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Oliver

Whatever advantages and improvements we have made in the Bill, I am sure that there are very few Members who represent mining constituencies or who live in mining areas who would not like to see the very last of opencast mining. It would give me great pleasure to move the rejection of the Bill if it would bring to an end the evils associated with the obtaining of coal by the opencast system. I know that is not possible, and I recognise that one thing which this Bill will do is to bring some order into the approving and planning of the restoration necessary in respect of land on which this work has been undertaken.

It will also give an opportunity to all the parties interested and to all the parties which wish to oppose, if they have any representative capacity, to do so when authorisation is sought to use certain land for this purpose. I know of no interest that may be excluded under the Bill, and this, in my view, will be a great improvement on the existing arrangements. One particular effect, as the last speaker has said, is that we shall be saying goodbye to the Defence Regulations and putting this work under a Statute of this House, which is a step in the right direction.

Another improvement is that, in connection with the planning of operations, all the local authorities, whether county-councils, borough councils or county district councils, and persons interested, whether as owners, lessees or occupiers of land, will have an opportunity of being heard when the inquiry is held in respect of an authorisation. This will certainly eliminate a great deal of the ill-feeling which has emanated from opencast working.

Despite what the Minister has said, I profoundly regret that it is necessary to go back on sites which have been previously worked. In constituencies like mine and those of some of my hon. Friends on these benches, in which coal has been obtained since about the time of the Industrial Revolution and where coal is almost everywhere, not only have people suffered considerably from mining subsidence over the years, but almost every part of the constituency has been assailed, and is likely to be assailed, as the Ministry of Power will know by the number of letters which it receives from the local authorities.

While we dislike opencast working of coal very much indeed, we have to welcome the arrangements which are embodied in this Bill. I, too, wish to pay my tribute to the Paymaster-General and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power for the very cordial way in which they have taken some of the criticisms made against them. They have had to bat on a wicket which they would no doubt have prefered not to have been defending. Therefore, I welcome the Bill in the sense which I have described, and I hope that by its operation a great deal of the ill-feeling which has manifested itself in the past may be eliminated.

9.43 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

It is not my intention to delay the passage of this Bill in its final stage unduly. I opposed this Bill very vigorously in Committee, and, in fact, I am opposed to opencast mining in any form, but, if it is to continue, I welcome the form of this Bill in so far as it is putting an end to operations under the Defence Regulations.

I also welcome the extension of individual freedom in the degree of protest which is allowed in this Bill, and also the provisions regarding the consideration that will be given to paying adequate compensation, but particularly I welcome the degree of planning which is now required. On the question of the position of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in this matter, I should like to ask the Paymaster-General how that Department is to fit in when this Bill is in operation. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government has more knowledge of this matter and has a special department formed to deal with planning matters throughout the country. I should like to see the Ministry of Power and the National Coal Board making more use of this Department of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in dealing with this aspect of the matter.

In regard to compensation, I must say that a lot of people will never be compensated for the way in which they are affected, and I am particularly reminded of a small village near my own constituency, and this must be true of many mining areas and their inhabitants. They cannot be properly compensated for the noise of the blasting and the nuisance and the dust and dirt which settle down on them from these operations. The old people suffering with their nerves as a result of the blasting continually going on around them and students having their examination chances jeopardised cannot be properly compensated. It will be interesting to see how the Ministry of Power and the Board will deal with this aspect of compensation, for it will have to be considered. That is why I welcome, first, the degree of protest allowed and, second, the fact that compensation will have to be considered before the operations start.

I welcome the attempt within the Bill to regularise opencast mining. There is already enough spoliation in mining areas. On Second Reading, the Paymaster-General gave some figures when he referred to the number of acres being churned up by opencast mining, relating them to the nation's agricultural acreage. That was a false picture, and it was misleading to the House, because the opencast mining takes places in mining areas and the acreages in those districts which have been taken into consideration are not those of the nation. As has been said, it is true that there is no opencast mining in the Home Counties; there would be a great protest if opencast mining took place in Southern England.

We have enough spoliation as it is without allowing the process to continue unnecessarily. I should like planning control extended in the hope that there would be some development in mining areas. I have witnessed the extension of spoil heaps. They are called muck stacks in Yorkshire, bings in Scotland and pit heaps in Lancashire. I should like to see "spoil heaps" as the universal term. I should like to see the Ministry of Power and the Board using planning authority, the experience of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the experience gained in the restoration of land following opencast coal mining operations, to get rid of the mountains of slag and other spoil heaps.

For these reasons, I welcome the Bill in its present form. I am against opencast mining, which I regard as a disruptive, mongrelised form of coal mining, and there is a tendency for it to continue, particularly if people are seeking authorisation to continue towards the end of the ten-year period. With some reservation, I welcome the form which the Bill takes and the compensation and planning measures which will flow from it. Nevertheless, I hope that opencast mining will cease within the ten-year period.

9.49 p.m.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

Like other hon. Members, I have seen the countryside defiled by opencast mining, but I knew that the country needed coal. It is as if we were passing from military law to civil law. When the Bill was introduced I welcomed it. Indeed, the Opposition as a whole welcomed the Bill to such an extent that they have used all their energies to improve it.

Something has been said this evening about the National Coal Board. It should be put on record that we support the Board and the mining industry. If coal is necessary for the well-being of the nation and its people, and for other countries, too, then opencast coal mining should continue without our jeopardising those who work in the deep pits. But I want to add a word of warning. A great deal of competition is taking place among contractors. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of this, but the recent code of restoration is not being adhered to.

Quite a lot of trouble will arise unless the Coal Board and those responsible for opencast mining face their responsibilities fairly and squarely. There is a case in my constituency—with which I shall probably have to deal—which will involve many thousands of pounds because the Board has not carried out a verbal agreement.

While welcoming the Bill, those responsible for it must fulfil its obligations. It may be a successful Measure, because opencast mining will die a natural death—and the Bill has a life of only ten years. I conclude by paying my tribute to the Paymaster-General and to the Parliamentary Secretary, and also to my right hon. and hon. Friends, who have given much time and thought towards making this Bill workable.

9.51 p.m.

Mr. MacDermot

I had the honour of joining the Committee consideration of the Bill in midstream, due to the sad and untimely death of our friend, Ronald Williams. When I read through the Report of the earlier part of the Committee proceedings and saw with what knowledge, thoroughness and care he had examined those parts of the Bill, it seemed to me that the Minister would be less than human if he did not feel some compensation in that loss in that the Bill has now had a much easier passage, in some ways, as a result of the absence of Ronald Williams.

Substantial changes have been made in the Bill, to some of which we have not been able to give that thorough attention which they deserve. The compensation provisions include important and radical departures from the general practice in compensation matters. I referred to those earlier today. It is right to place on record that we on this side of the House regard those changes as being very special provisions directed to very special circumstances. The fact that we agreed to them in this case does not mean that we consider that they could or should in any way be considered a precedent for any future legislation dealing with compensation. The compensation provisions are unusually generous, but we thought it right, because of the overriding national interest in insuring proper restoration of agricultural land, that they should be included, and those considerations have guided us in accepting these provisions.

I conclude by saying how pleasurable I found my task in Committee. At times, the work of opposition is very frustrating when one feels that one is getting nowhere, but in this case we have had in essence a non-controversial Bill, a Bill dealing with a matter which none of us likes. All of us were endeavouring to make the Bill as effective and as workable as we could. It has certainly been gratifying to see what attention the Government have paid to the points we have raised, and the many concessions which they have made to our point of view. I join in paying my tribute and expressing my gratitude to the Government for that attitude.

9.54 p.m.

Mr. Neal

The Bill which we are discussing today is very different from that presented on Second Reading. Drastic changes have taken plaice in Committee. Few Bills have suffered such mutilation and changes at the hands of their authors. Perhaps we ought not to complain about that, because our Parliamentary procedure provides for a Committee stage to take a second look at legislation which may have been hastily devised and imperfectly drafted.

I said on Second Reading that this was a Bill of good intentions, but that the good intentions were so enshrouded in mysterious legal nomenclature that the goodness was difficult to find. The good intentions remain, but so does the complicated nomenclature. Indeed it has been supplemented during the Committee stage to an extent which has confounded a layman like myself. I think that the Bill, even now, is at once a lawyer's windfall and a layman's pitfall. It is difficult to understand what the draftsmen have been aiming at in some of the Clauses which were agreed to during the Committee stage, some of which I shall perhaps have an opportunity to mention later.

If the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Sir A. Braithwaite) were to reflect on the work that has been done in this industry, he would find it difficult to believe that over 150 million tons of coal have been extracted from the earth without the aid at all of these complicated legal entanglements.

All my life I have been associated with deep mining in one way or another. To that extent, perhaps, my prejudice is understandable. So far as I am concerned, I would rather end opencast coal mining than mend it. But while there is a proved need for the supplementation of deep-mined output, a Bill of this nature is very necessary to remedy many of the shortcomings of the past fifteen years.

There are many people who believe that this Bill should be refused a Third Reading by reason of the amount of the stocks of coal which there are in the country. I do not want to embarrass the Minister by going into those figures. I say that, whatever the stocks of coal at the present time, if opencast mining is to be continued, if only on a limited scale, there is need for a Bill of this kind.

Those people who have to suffer the inconvenience of opencast operations, whose daily life is disturbed, whose business is incommoded will feel that this Measure is an ambulance towards recovery. The Deputy Chairman of the National Coal Board, in a public utterance recently, was arguing in favour of the continuance of opencast mining and on that occasion he said that this country could not afford to scorn the methods of coal production that were operating in wealthy countries like the U.S.A. and Russia. The analogy was not a very good one. It is precisely because opencast working is so very different in these crowded islands that the necessity for this Measure has arisen. Here land is scarce and valuable and we have to restore it as nearly as possible to its former state of production. In many cases, sites are so contiguous to dwelling areas that the loss of amenity and inconvenience is greater in this country than it has ever been in those countries where they can get opencast coal without troubling about restoration at all.

Provision of the kind which this Bill offers is only elementary justice. Indeed, if the parties in this House were to change sides it would be necessary to find some permanent solution of this problem even then. For that reason, as my right hon. Friend indicated, we shall not divide the House at the end of this debate. To us on this side of the House the most welcome provision in the Bill is that which provides for public inquiry. Indeed, this outstanding democratic diversion from the past abolishes the arbitrary right to enter land and exploit its outcrop seams without the consent of the interests concerned.

Under the Defence Regulations of the past, owners were not allowed to question the right of the practice to enter, the tenants and their interests were inadequately considered and there was no opportunity of presenting their objections. I should have thought that every hon. Member of this House associated with mining has at some time or another found a victim of opencast mining who has come to him to present his case to the Minister.

Under the Bill, circumstances will be more difficult. First of all, the National Coal Board will have to publish in a newspaper for two successive weeks details of any site it intends to excavate. It will have to serve a notice on the local planning authority of its intention to work certain areas, and if objection is made by the interests concerned there must be a public inquiry. Of all the advantages of the Bill, the public inquiry is the best.

We have not had some of the pungent speeches against the Government from their own side that were made during the Second Reading. I am glad that we have not had a repetition of the charge that too much power is invested in the Minister. Protests were made that the Minister of Power was being invested with powers that formerly belonged to three Ministries and the suggestion was made that a public inquiry should decide whether a site should be worked or not. I am in favour of a public inquiry, but we could not leave to it the responsibility of deciding whether a site should be operated or not. The Minister of Power is responsible for providing the nation's energy; to him must belong the final right to decide where a site should be excavated.

There are eighteen compensation Clauses in the Bill. They provide compensation for loss of annual value, for the cost of removal, for the cost of works, for diminution in holdings, for short-term improvements, forced sales, easement of minerals and many other things. Scarcely one feature of loss is left out of the compensation provisions. I would pay a tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary. I do not often find myself in agreement with him, but he has certainly carried a heavy burden of responsibility during the progress of the Bill and he has done his best to meet our suggestions on compensation.

Farmers in particular are pleased with the compensation Clauses. Up to recently our post-bags were filled mainly with protests from one organisation or another about the inadequacy of compensation, but there has been a strange silence over the past few weeks which seems to indicate that farmers are satisfied with the compensation Clauses. We could not afford to allow farmers to be disgruntled and dissatisfied. I appreciate that they have not rendered any conspicuous electoral support to the Labour Party, but they are a section of the community whose services are vital to our economy and whose exertions should not be invalidated by the operation of another Act. When the Bill comes into operation there will be fewer complaints from farmers than we have had during the past fifteen years. At any rate, nobody will be able to claim that where food production has been hindered the loss has not been adequately compensated.

A good deal has been said about restoration and I do not want to labour the point. In the past there has been a lot of undue publicity about imperfect restoration. The technique of restoration has been improved and we hope that under the Bill it will be further improved. We cannot always replace the bounty of Providence but it cannot be denied that in some instances fertility has been improved by modern methods of restoration. The compensation for loss of value provided for in the Bill should ensure even better restoration. Because it is incumbent on the N.C.B. to pay compensation for the loss of value, that should be a greater incentive to the Board to restore land to its former value wherever possible.

We join with the Minister in commending this complex and complicated Bill. We are glad to have taken a share in improving its original provisions. We shall welcome the time when its operation is no longer necessary.

10.6 p.m.

Mr. Maudling

It appears to be the general view of the House that this Bill has been substantially improved in the course of its Committee stage and to that improvement hon. Members on both sides of the House here and in Standing Committee undoubtedly contributed.

Our proceedings were very much saddened at an early stage by the death of Ronald Williams, to whom I should like to pay a personal tribute. His death came as a very great shock to me and I know that it was a great sadness to all of us, on both sides of the House.

May I also pay tribute to the remarkable work given by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Bill? He came to it at short notice and carried the whole weight of the discussions throughout the Committee and Report stages. I am very grateful to him, as I am sure the whole House is.

Opencast mining remains a disagreeable necessity. It is still a necessity, as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Sir A. Braithwaite) have pointed out, but it is certainly disagreeable, as the hon. Members for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) and Barnsley (Mr. Mason) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) have also pointed out. The improvements created by the Bill will place the operations on a statutory basis rather than on Defence Regulations; secondly, they provide proper terms of compensation; and, thirdly, they ensure closer control of planning and authorisation and carrying out of restoration activities by the National Coal Board.

I would assure the hon. Member for Barnsley that there is the closest possible co-operation between my noble Friend the Minister of Power and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in all these planning matters and in procedure leading up to deemed planning permission. I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham that I entirely accept, on behalf of the Government, all that he said about the importance of considering amenities. We shall certainly ensure in determining, where any particular opencast operation is authorised, that full consideration shall be given both to amenity and planning considerations. Permission will not be given unless the demand for coal and availability of coal on any particular site is so great as, in the opinion of the Government to outweigh the amenity conditions, which will be fully examined under the provisions of the Bill. I think that my hon. Friend will find that there will be more hedges and fewer fences, and certainly fewer concrete posts in future.

I am glad that the Bill has been received in the House on the basis and in the atmosphere in which it has been discussed. I think that it is a good thing to get away from Defence Regulations and on to a proper statutory basis. So long as this disagreeable necessity for opencast mining continues, I am sure the country will find it continuing on a better basis under the Bill than under the previous system.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.