HC Deb 16 June 1958 vol 589 cc791-6
Mr. MacDermot

I beg to move, in page 59, line 45, after "work" to insert: and of the estimated expenses of carrying out the work". Perhaps it would be convenient to consider this Amendment with the next Amendment, in page 60, line 3, at the end to insert: 3. Any dispute arising or deemed to arise between the Board and a person giving notice under the preceding paragraph as to the expenses which may reasonably be incurred in carrying out any work, may be referred by that person to the Lands Tribunal for determination before the work is carried out. For the purposes of this paragraph, a dispute shall be deemed to arise if, within two months of the giving of the notice, agreement has not been reached between the Board and the person giving the notice as to the expenses, if any, which may reasonably be incurred in respect of any work referred to in the notice.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think that would be convenient for the House.

Mr. MacDermot

I am much obliged. This is the more substantial Amendment, but the two are linked.

This is a last-ditch attempt to wring a limited concession from the Government on what we consider to be one of the most important points of the Bill which remain to be discussed. We attempted in Committee to persuade the Government of the merit of a number of Amendments directed to this problem, but without success. The problem arises from the fact that, during the Committee stage, the Government substantially withdrew the greater part of the compensation provisions in the Bill as originally drafted, and substituted new provisions making radical alterations, not only to the Bill as it stood, but I think to anything that has gone before in the law of compensation.

What the Government did was to say that the owner, at the end of the period of occupation, should not have to choose between a diminution in value payment and a cost of works payment, but should be entitled to both, the diminution in value payment being reduced by the extent which the valuer might think reasonable having regard to his prospect of recovering compensation for cost of works.

In general, we on this side agreed with the alterations. We did so recognising that they were an exception, but recognising also that opencast coal operations are in themselves exceptional in nature, that the damage which they do to land is exceptional and that the national interest in having that land properly restored is exceptional. These were the considerations that led us in our broad approach to agree with the new Clauses submitted in Committee, but we felt that they were open to certain very serious objections indeed.

The principal objection was that at the end of the period of occupation, the extent of future cost of works payments was completely open and at large—open as to amount and as to time. There was no limit in time after the end of the period of occupation in which the landowner could come forward and say to the Coal Board," Now, 10 or 20 years after the period of occupation, we are going to do further works of restoration and we want you to pay for them." Equally, no ceiling was placed on the amount that was considered reasonable.

Our Amendments directed to these points failed, so that what we are seeking to do now is something far more limited. It is to overcome the point, which is perhaps the third objection, which is that there is complete uncertainty as matters stand at the moment, both for the Board and the landowner, whether any future works of restoration that may be done will be considered to be reasonable and will qualify for compensation.

8.45 p.m.

This is something which could work equally hard against the landowner as against the Board. A situation might arise when a landowner was contemplating doing further work of restoration. The Board might take the attitude that it was not reasonable to do it; that is, that the cost of the works would far outweigh any benefit to the land which would result. What is to happen then? If he goes on and does the works, the landowner does them at his own risk, at the risk that if the Board refuses to pay the compensation in the end and he goes to the Lands Tribunal, the Tribunal will uphold the Board and decide that it was not reasonable to do the works. The landowner may have incurred a heavy cost, but will get no compensation.

Putting it the other way round, the landowner may through fear of the result refrain from doing the work, and yet he may have been right all the time in the sense that if he had persevered the Lands Tribunal would have found for him. As matters stand, there is no way in which that issue can be resolved before the works are undertaken. The works have to be done first, and then the arbitration on the dispute follows.

The Amendment provides that if a dispute arises between the Board and a landowner as to the reasonableness of carrying out any works, the dispute may be referred to the Lands Tribunal for determination before the works are carried out. Both parties would then know where they stood. This is a limited Amendment. It is far less than anything for which we asked in Committee. We feel that it is eminently reasonable, and I hope it will commend itself to the Government and the House.

Mr. Champion

I beg to second the Amendment.

Sir I. Horobin

The Amendments deal with a very important point. I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) and his hon. Friends will feel that throughout the stages of the Bill we have tried at the expense of very considerable work and effort to meet constructive suggestions, and I am happy to tell the hon. Member that I shall be able, I hope, to meet him considerably more than half way on these Amendments.

As the hon. Member says, the Amendments are directed to a portion of a very important, difficult question which exercised us much in Standing Committee. Broadly, they attempt to provide that notices which a person has to give to the Board shall include an estimate of the cost and that, if there is any dispute, the dispute shall be justiciable before people are committed. The hon. Member will not be surprised to hear that, as is nearly always the case, the words of his Amendments are not satisfactory, but I am happy to tell him that in another place we shall be moving Amendments which will completely meet his point about the estimate and will go a long way to meet his point about making it possible to decide the reasonableness before one embarks on the works.

As to why his method of dealing with the second difficulty is not acceptable, I am advised that this is where we have to protect the Board. There can be a dispute about whether the work should be done and there can be a dispute as to whether the cost is reasonable. The second dispute cannot be determined until the work has been carried out. Estimates of expenditure and actual expenditure may differ very considerably. Consequently, it would be wrong to settle the matter beforehand and then put it outside the power of the Board to complain that the final cost was, perhaps, five times as much as the estimate. We shall not be able to meet completely the second of the hon. Member's points, but for a reason which will commend itself to him. We shall be moving Amendments which will show that we have recognised the force of what he has been putting to us.

Mr. MacDermot

Is it contemplated that the estimated cost will nevertheless be taken into account in deciding questions of reasonableness, although it will not be binding on final assessments of compensation?

Sir I. Horobin

Yes. Supposing that the estimated cost is very great, that would be a matter to be taken into account in deciding whether it was reasonable, but it would still be open to the Board at a later stage to say that the claim for compensation was unreasonable, because in fact the cost had been so very much more.

This might be a convenient moment to announce the result of an examination, which I promised to undertake, of another part of this tangled problem, namely, the possibility of limiting the Board's liability to pay cost of works compensation where it trails out for many years ahead. We have been discussing this at length with the Board and considering it very carefully, and we shall be proposing an Amendment in another place which will limit the Board's liability to works of restoration which are carried out within fifteen years of the end of the Board's occupation of the land comprised in a compulsory rights order.

There will be exceptions to that fifteen years for woodlands and orchards, which obviously can never be restored in that period, and also in the case of the special problem of repair damage caused by settlement itself, usually to make sure that that was due to the Board, but which might occur years and years later. It is our intention that these Amendments will have the effect of cutting off the tail of small disputable claims against the Board which might go on for years and years and cause much administrative inconvenience and expense to the Board. I hope that that will be acceptable to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Finally with this tidying-up operation, we are again checking the drafting of Clause 21 and the Third Schedule to make sure that there are no small loopholes which will allow obviously absurd claims to succeed. I hope that the party opposite will feel that we have genuinely attempted to meet the case which they have argued.

Mr. Robens

Of all the speeches the Parliamentary Secretary has made today, this is the sweetest in our ears, since it came somewhat as a surprise and since we had given up all hope of being able to see an end to the Board's liability. Because of the vigorous arguments which we had in Committee, we put down these Amendments to deal with a very small portion of what we wanted.

What the Parliamentary Secretary said was sound common sense. It was in line with the whole tone of the Government's behaviour on this Bill which has been that when matters have been brought to their attention and they have felt that a suggestion was in the general interest, they have always been prepared to consider the matter. In this case they have done remarkably well and we very much appreciate the work which has been done. We recognise the great difficulty in dealing with matters of compensation of being perfectly fair to everybody concerned in the transaction. What the Parliamentary Secretary said was of tremendous satisfaction to us all, and on behalf of the Opposition I thank him for his personal contribution, which I know has been great.

Mr. MacDermot

In view of the most comforting assurance given by the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.