HC Deb 04 May 1965 vol 711 cc1166-70
Mr. Peyton

I beg to move Amendment No. 14, in page 17, line 3 to leave out from first "section" to "the" in line 4.

Mr. Speaker

I think that it would be convenient to discuss with this Amendment No. 18, in page 23, line 25, to leave out from "conditions" to end of line 28.

Mr. Peyton

I am obliged. I quite agree. The point which my hon. Friends and I had in mind when we raised this in Standing Committee was that it would be wrong, in our view, to extinguish the absolute liability under which the gas authority is put when it was not possible, and, quite clearly, never would be possible, to guarantee that all gas had been or could ever be withdrawn from storage. We supported our arguments by reference to Clause 18(3), at the end of which are the words: … and the Minister may, in particular, include among these provisions the requirement that the gas authority shall withdraw, so far as may be practicable, all gas from the storage. In other words, it is no part of the Government's case that all gas could be withdrawn from the storage.

What we are concerned about is to see that, first, as a measure of protection to the public, the gas industry's liability should continue indefinitely so long as the gas which it put there itself or any part of that gas is in the storage. We would also be concerned to see that there should be no residual liability upon the landlord, who will not be—I need not refer back to the argument which we have just had—exercising any right to store any gas in the storage or extract any from it and upon whom, therefore, it would be wholly wrong to place any liability for damage done by gas. This point was cleared up in Committee by the Parliamentary Secretary, who confirmed my understanding that we are concerned only with damage done by gas. We need not go into that point at length now.

The Parliamentary Secretary made the point then that the Government had given careful consideration to the matter, but he said that supervision and liability should both come to an end once the Minister had decided that all was well. I should like to put the point to the Government in this way. If the possibility of damage resulting from the escape of gas is very remote, the liability being put upon the gas authority is a very minimal one. If, on the other hand, there is a real danger of damage being done by the escape of gas, it would be wrong to extinguish this degree of absolute liability. It would certainly be wrong if any liability were to rest upon the landlord who had had no responsibility whatever for the acts concerned.

I hope that the Government will be able to reassure us on this a little more than they were able to in Standing Committee.

Mr. John Morris

I tried to give a fairly full explanation of the position in Committee. If I may reiterate what I said earlier, there are two sides to the coin. There is, first, the absolute liability imposed under Clause 14 upon the gas authority. The other side of the coin is the supervision which is set out in Clause 5. In my submission, it would not be reasonable to hold the gas authority liable under Clause 14 after the control has gone. As I said earlier, I thought that I had made it clear that a decision to end the Minister's control over operations would not be taken at the same time as the order to discontinue the storage, but would come at a later stage.

Mr. Peyton

I take the hon. Gentleman's point that supervision and liability should go hand in hand, but what we are discussing now is the possible damage done by a substance which was put into the storage at a time when the Minister was exercising control. The Minister would be responsible for that. It is admitted by the Government that what was done when the gas industry was quite clearly liable and under supervision cannot be wholly undone, and that, therefore, a measure of liability should continue. It is a false argument to suggest that, because supervision has been withdrawn, liability should also go. This is what I find difficult to accept.

Mr. Morris

I hope that I am not putting up any false arguments. This thing must be looked at in two stages. There would be, first, the order to discontinue the storage, which the Minister would make after taking into consideration all the matters which he should consider. Even after the order to discontinue had been made, there would remain upon the gas authority absolute liability, it may be for some years. At the same time, there would be imposed upon the Minister the duty of supervising the industry. Therefore, even after the storage had ceased to be used as such, in the kind of situation to which the hon. Gentleman is referring—wherein there might still be some danger—one would envisage that an order to end the Minister's control and thereby to cease to impose upon the gas authority absolute liability might be delayed for some substantial period until there was no danger.

There is an analogy here under the Nuclear Installations (Licensing and Insurance) Act of 1959. Under Section 2 of that Act, if a nuclear site licence is revoked or surrendered, the licensee's absolute liability also continues until the Minister gives notice that, in his opinion, there has ceased to be any danger from ionising radiations from anything on the site.

As I said earlier—I repeat it now—this is on all fours with the position under that Act. I would venture to suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the situation is adequately protected, as one can see if one looks at the position as it would be. First, there would be the order to discontinue accompanied by the continuance, one would think, of supervision of controlled operations; and, while supervision continued, the imposition of absolute liability. But the Minister deems it satisfactory that he should withdraw supervision once he is satisfied that there is no danger. It is not a question of whether gas remains or does not remain in the sub-strata; it is a question of whether the Minister can be satisfied, in those circumstances, that it is safe for him to cease his supervisory powers over the gas authority. Once he takes that decision, I should have thought that absolute liability should go. Once that position is reached, I submit that it would be quite wrong to continue to impose upon the gas authority absolute liability when the Minister no longer has any supervisory powers over it.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Peyton

The Parliamentary Secretary has repeated what he said in Standing Committee—that once that stage is reached we revert to common law. He said in Standing Committee that at that point, in the normal way, anyone who suffered damage could revert to the ordinary rules of negligence and could claim in that way. That is absolutely clear so far as it goes, but I still see no ground for extinguishing this liability. The mere fact that the Minister has no control does not seem to me to be important. I appreciate that it is unlikely that any damage is likely to be done by the gas which the gas authority puts there. That being so, it seems that no matter how long the interval of time may have been, the gas authority should remain liable.

The Parliamentary Secretary has not adverted to the point I raised about any residual liability on the owner of the land. Perhaps damage will occur as a result of an escape of gas. It would be more convenient for a plaintiff to go for the more easily ascertainable owner, the landlord, than the Gas Council in respect of something which happened perhaps many years ago. It would be clearer, fairer and more reasonable if this liability were not extinguished.

I am sure that we have said enough today to make the Government aware of our views. In the nature of things, there is little chance of the Parliamentary Secretary changing his mind on this issue. I appreciate that this is a complicated problem and I hope that the Governernment will have another look at the matter and will, if they think fit, raise it again in another place.

Mr. John Morris

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that after the absolute liability imposed by the Statute comes to an end there will, as I pointed out in Committee, remain the common law liability for anything that might take place. I understand that my right hon. Friend has written to the hon. Gentleman about the case of a landlord who might be sued in the remote circumstances we are discussing, circumstances which I find difficult to envisage. I understand that my right hon. Friend wrote to him referring to some remarks which I made in Committee about the danger of any person being sued quite wrongly and to the fact that he would be able to rely on the normal third party procedure upon which any person who is sued in these circumstances could rely.

I would only add on this subject that there are two sides to the coin. At the end of day the Minister is responsible to Parliament for any decision which he makes and he would not cease his supervisory powers until he was satisfied that the situation was in order and that there was, in practice, no danger to anyone. I have stressed time and again that absolute liability should go hand in hand with the supervisory powers of the Minister.

Mr. Peyton

I appreciate that there is something in the Parliamentary Secretary's argument—that is, to the point at which he goes back to that favourite hunting ground of Ministers, when he says that the Minister will be absolutely satisfied that everyone else is satisfied. Seen from this side of the House, I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that when Ministers tell us that all will be well when they are satisfied, and that they would not be satisfied except when everybody else is satisfied, that makes it an argument which, from our point of view, is very much weaker.

Amendment negatived.