HC Deb 21 January 1969 vol 776 cc399-409

Before issuing a notice under section 14 and carrying out remedial operations and works of reinstatement under section 17 of this Act a local authority shall consult with the Inspectorate of Mines.—[Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

We consider this a fundamental matter. The Clause states that when a local authority uses its powers under Clause 14 by issuing a notice to an owner of a disused tip, and under Clause 17 when carrying out remedial operations or works of reinstatement, it shall consult the Inspectorate of Mines.

We underline the importance of the Inspectorate and the need for civil engineering ability all the way through the Bill, and this is entirely in line with the findings of the Aberfan Tribunal. It is important that every local authority, whether it has or has not got the services of a first-class civil engineer on its staff, should be in close touch with the Mines Inspectorate. Both the general public and the owner of any disused tip will have a great deal more confidence in the handling of these matters by local authorities if the Inspectorate is brought in on every occasion. We believe that the Inspectorate must be strengthened by the addition of qualified civil engineers—and this again is borne out by the findings of the Aberfan Tribunal—and armed with additional statutory powers. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the Clause, for it includes words used in Recommendation XIII on page 131 of the findings of the Tribunal.

Colonel C. G. Lancaster (South Fylde)

This matter was argued at some length in Committee and went to a Division, which turned out to be a close run thing. This was because we felt strongly that a mistake was being made in not bringing the Mines Inspectorate into what is a very technical matter. We are not talking about live but of disused tips. For a civil engineer to be able to give a considered opinion of the conditions and safety of a disused tip is to ask a great deal of him. We used quite a number of long words in Committee, such as soil mechanisation, but this is a matter of specialised knowledge. The Mines Inspectorate has that knowledge, or, if it has not, it can obtain it more readily than anybody else.

There should not be a great deal of difficulty in coming to a conclusion about the ground on which a disused tip was formed. That can be discovered from an Ordnance Survey. The manner in which the tip was formed; the type of consolidation involved in making the tip; the variety of debris tipped there; the amount of effluent which at one time or another was put on to the tip; the dates on which these things happened; the angle of repose which the tip eventually obtained and the mechanical devices used in the formation of the tip—these are all matters on which the Mines Inspectorate is much more competent to give an opinion on than anybody else.

It is not asking a great deal of the Inspectorate. Some people believe that it might mean a great deal of work for it, but it will not. Local authorities will become concerned about these matters from time to time; an individual mines inspector might be called upon no more than one day in a year. But there will be a time when a local authority—either because it has been advised by other people or because it has seen the situation for itself—becomes concerned about the safety of a disused tip.

I cannot see why, at that moment, there should be any hesitation about calling in the inspector—together with any surveyor or engineer who is available—to give his expert opinion. The inspector's opinion will be much the most valuable. He may be of the opinion that there is no immediate danger, or that the remedial action necessary is of a very slight nature. The local engineer may be of the opinion that a considerable amount of money should be spent when it is not necessary to spend that amount The inspector might come to the conclusion that immediate remedial action should be taken because, for a variety of factors, a disused tip had suddenly become dangerous and there was a chance of a slip, or something of that nature.

I do not think that any of my hon. Friends in Committee were at all impressed with the arguments put forward in opposition to the suggestion. Those arguments did not seem to have either practical good sense behind them or to be reasonable.

A body of expert advice is available, and it could not be in a more handy condition. It is not only to be found at Hobart House; in every region and district a mines inspector is ready and willing to offer technical advice on this very technical matter. No argument was advanced upstairs against this proposition. We were given certain general assurances that it was likely that the mines inspectorate would be invited to take part in these discussions, but we want to go beyond that. The Bill can become a good Act. We may not have another opportunity for years to discuss matters affecting mines, quarries and tips, and we do not want to let this occasion pass if there is to be any sort of proscription.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) in this matter. Unless we get a more satisfactory answer than we had upstairs I shall wish, like my hon. Friend, to divide the House on this proposed new Clause.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I sincerely hope that the right hon. Gentleman accedes to my hon. Friend's request and that local authorities shall have a duty to consult the Inspectorate of Mines. I want to be certain that settling ponds in quarries and similar matters come under the Inspectorate and that the local authorities should have the duty, if this Clause is accepted, to consult with it concerning them.

In my part of Derbyshire, the local authorities would be more than willing to do so and to take its advice. This applies also to china clay mines and the like. I used to be down in the West Country, in Cornwall, where there are a great deal of disused china clay pits. They are a great hazard to the public. I know that the local authorities there would welcome the advice and recommendations of the Inspectorate of Mines. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept this and will confirm that settling and tailing ponds and the like of quarries come under the umbrella, not only of this Clause, but under the umbrella of the whole Bill.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

This Bill is related to the Mines and Quarries Act, 1954, which runs to 120 pages. After the Aberfan disaster the inquiry found that there was no mention in that Act protecting persons outside the employment of the mines against the danger of a tip slide. Another thing which the Inquiry found was that there was very little consultation and consideration by experts, not just those with local authorities, but with the Coal Board, of the possibilities of tip slides, although they are by no means infrequent in South Wales. Paragraph 72 of the Report said: There was no general apprehension in the National Coal Board regarding tip stability. We are talking about experts in mining and pit stability. All I say to the Minister is: "Let us put into the Bill a Clause which perfects it and protects the public". It is the public about whom we are talking in referring to disused tips and disused mines, not the experts of the National Coal Board, serviced by a considerable amount of engineering skill. It is local authorities who have to make a decision. I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are really being very constructive on this side of the House and trying to put into the Bill some positive safeguards, such as the whole of the Aberfan Report emphasised. There are many references to this in the Report. Paragraph 7 spoke of … the dismay that no system regarding pit stability was ever devised or implemented. This was before Aberfan. All we seek to do is to say to the Government and the Minister: "Please make this a good Bill and enable local authorities to have the best engineering advice to prevent any question of a tip slide causing damage or danger to life and limb."

We ask the Minister to believe that what we are putting forward is a serious recommendation that local authorities must have access to the Inspectorate of Mines and its technical advisers.

Mr. S. O. Davies

I have a most unusual plea to make to my right hon. Friend. I ask him to accept this New Clause. I stressed the importance of giving the local authorities the right to examine tips and control dangers to the tip and so on. I cannot understand why the Minister is objecting to any local authority having access to all and sundry connected with the mining industry, if they can be of use. I am appealing to my right hon. Friend not to be obdurate on this; he is trying to do his best—

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The hon. Gentleman advanced this argument in Committee; then when it came to the vote he ran away. Is the hon. Gentleman tonight trying to convince the House that in the lobbies, if and when we vote on the new Clause, he will join us, or will he repeat his miserable performance?

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Davies

I will not take up time replying to the hon. Gentleman, because both he and I are known to this House. The attitude of my right hon. Friend in Committee was, at the least, sympathetic, and I lived in hope that he would agree ultimately that the local authority should have access to any information or expert knowledge that might be available. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept the new Clause. If an hon. Member on this side of the House expresses virtual agreement with anything coming from the Opposition, the Opposition immediately takes exception to it. That is childish. Had I not been taught to read English I would be suspicious of the content and the meaning of the new Clause, but for once in the long years I have been here, perhaps by accident, probably not by design, I find myself in agreement with a new Clause put forward by the Opposition.

Mr. Mason

If the new Clause were accepted, a local authority would be required to consult the Mines Inspectorate before serving a notice on the owner of a disused tip requiring him to carry out remedial operations, or before itself carrying out such operations.

As hon. Gentlemen will remember, both these matters were discussed in Committee, and I gave the assurances which they required. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary also said this: … the inspectorate will be available and willing to give expert advice when called upon to do so by local authorities who do not have the expertise immediately available to them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 26th November, 1968; c. 105.] The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) and the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) seem to want those assurances to be repeated in the House in case local authorities interested in them do not peruse the Committee minutes. I have given those assurances, I have no intention of going back on them, and our inspectors will help when they are asked, and do the best they can. This does not mean that it is right, or desirable, that inspectors should be consulted in every case, though clearly their knowledge could be of particular value on recent tips. I have taken note of what the hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) said in Committee and again on Report.

However, the prime concern of the Mines Inspectorate under the Bill is to deal with the working tips which are part of the mining and quarrying industries and which, as the Aberfan Tribunal pointed out, are the chief source of danger. Part II of the Bill is concerned with tips that have ceased to form part of these industries and which now present a rather different problem. There are many qualified civil engineers with the knowledge and experience of soil mechanics needed to deal with the stability of disused tips, and there is no real reason why a local authority which prefers to use their services should not do so and rely with confidence on their advice. In the end, the local authority will have to make its own decision in the light of the facts revealed by investigations, whether or not it consults the Inspectorate.

With the best will in the world, the help that the inspectors can give is limited by their other duties. It will not be possible, for example, for an inspector to exercise close supervision over extensive remedial operations, and a local authority would be well advised to employ competent people to see a job through. We know that some local authorities; already employ consultants in whom they have every confidence and from whom they can get all the guidance that they require for this sort of operation.

There is an additional objection to consultation with the Inspectorate being required before a local authority could carry out remedial operations itself under Clause 17. Such consultation could involve delay, as I tried to point out in Committee, and the main consideration behind giving local authorities the powers to do work themselves is to enable them to act with the utmost speed in a dangerous situation. If they are required by Statute to consult Her Majesty's Inspectorate before they enter land to carry out remedial operations, or even to make an examination, it will not make sense. The Inspectorate may not be readily available, time will be important, and such a provision will cause unnecessary delay.

The hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde made a reasoned argument in Committee. He talked about disused tips presenting topographical problems, the possibility of changes in water levels having to be considered, questions of soil mechanics and angles of repose which might arise, the type of soil involved being in question, and so on. Her Majesty's Inspectorate can give valuable opinions on such matters, he said. That is particularly true of the most recent tips, but it would not be true of tips which are many years old. The Inspectorate would have no records. However, there is a power in the Bill for local authorities to chase up the past owners of old, dead tips in order to discover how they were tipped, the type of machinery probably used, and so on. But the Mines Inspectorate would be of limited value for that sort of operation only in the case of recent tips.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) spoke about quarries. If quarries are being worked and there are tips attached to them, they will come within the orbit of the Inspectorate of Mines. In the case of old, dead coal mine tips, it will be for local authorities to seek the advice of the Mines Inspectorate, assuming that they have not the necessary experience and expertise readily available. As I tried to assure the Committee, the Inspectorate will be there to do that sort of work.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. S. O. Davies) referred to those local authorities who have not the necessary civil engineering skills available. They may be authorities of a size which do not have engineers and consultants. In such cases, we shall be able to help. As I said in Committee: I thought I assured the Committee that Her Majesty's Inspectorate's advice would be available to any local authorities, particularly those that required advice. Many local authorities will not want to go to Her Majesty's Inspectorate. Why should they be hamstrung by having to go to the Inspectorate every time before they enter land to carry out initial surveys or remedial operations? They have their own expertise. Smaller authorities which may want guidance and assistance for initial surveys will have readily available to them Her Majesty's Inspectorate's advice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 21st November, 1968; c. 94.] I think that that amply covers what hon. Gentlemen want. I hope, therefore, that they will now consider withdrawing the new Clause.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

At this hour I wish that I could get up and inform the Minister that his reply had given us some satisfaction. Unfortunately, we are not satisfied with the position outlined by the right hon. Gentleman. We are glad that he has reinforced on the Floor of the House that the Inspectorate will be available and willing when called upon. But we are saying that it must be called upon before an order is issued. We believe that it is not a position purely of permission, but that it should be written into the Bill that this should take place.

I remind the Minister that after the passage of the Bill it will be possible for county councils to pass on their powers in issuing orders to local authorities. I thought that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) made plain the technical nature of what is involved in much of this work. It is not to be expected that certain civil engineers on smaller local authorities should have the expertise outlined on page 30 of the National Coal Board's publication, Soil Tip Management: the concept of soil creep, fragmental slides, detritus slides and rock slides. This is not part and parcel of the normal work of a borough civil engineer. Therefore, it is possible that, being pushed by local authorities to take action immediately, an engineer may not have the specialist knowledge before an order is made. Therefore, it is no argument for the Minister to say that, by having to go to the Inspectorate, this might delay an order. The mining industry knows how readily available inspectors are. They are available at more or less half a day's notice, if necessary. Therefore, it is a complete non sequitur to suggest that by enforcing consultation with the Inspectorate we may occasion any delay.

I feel strongly that it is essential, as indeed the Western Mail suggested, that if it was not to be the Inspectorate of Mines, a national agency should be set up to deal with this matter. I think perhaps that that is going a bit far, but I believe that that paper would back us in suggesting that the body which now exists should have written into the Bill the essential need to be consulted before an order is made.

I take the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies) as being fair in what he said. He has explained that he hoped that, by supporting the Government in Committee on this matter because they seemed reasonable then, they would have a change of heart by Report stage. It appears that the Government have not had a change of heart. I had hoped that hon. Members representing mining areas would have listened to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil, because he made it clear that if we divide the House he will have no alternative but to come with us, even though it is against his normal and natural bent.

We feel strongly about this matter. It is essential that any person having an order served upon him should know that the greatest technical knowledge has been consulted.

I say no more. I believe that the answer given by the Minister was quite inadequate. Therefore, I must urge my hon. Friends to divide the House on this matter.

Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 94, Noes 135.

Murton, Oscar Ridley, Hn. Nicholas van Straubenzee, W. R.
Nabarro, sir Gerald Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Ward, Dame Irene
Nicholls, Sir Harmar Russell, Sir Ronald Weatherill, Bernard
Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael Scott, Nicholas Whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William
Nott, John Scott-Hopkins, James Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Osborn, John (Hallam) Sharples, Richard Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Page, Graham (Crosby) Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby) Worsley, Marcus
Pearson, Sir Frank (Clitheroe) Sinclair, Sir George Wright, Esmond
Percival, lan Smith, Dudley (W'wick & L'mington) Wylie, N. R.
Pounder, Rafton Smith, John (London & W'minster) Younger, Hn. George
Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch Stodart, Anthony
Pym, Francis Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Ramsden, Rt. Hn. James Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret Mr. Jasper More and
Renton, Rt. Hn. David Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H. Mr. Reginald Eyre.
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
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Ashton, joe (Bassetlaw) Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Miller, Dr. M. S.
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Dickens, James Lomas, Kenneth Thomson, Rt. Hn. George
Dobson, Ray Loughlin, Charles Thornton, Ernest
Doig, Peter Luard, Evan Urwin, T, W.
Eadie, Alex McBride, Neil Varley, Eric G.
Ellis, John McCann, John Watkins, David (Consett)
Ensor, David MacColl, James Watkins, Tudor (Brecon & Radnor)
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Macdonald, A. H. Whitaker, Ben
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Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Maclennan, Robert Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Fitt, Gerard (Belfast, W.) MacMillan, Malcolm (Western Isles) Willis, Rt. Hn. George
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Forrester, John Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.)
Fowler, Gerry Mallalieu, E. L. (Brlgg)
Mailalieu, J. P. W.(Huddersfieid, E.) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
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