HC Deb 18 November 1987 vol 122 cc1087-8

5 pm

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish the rights of owners of houses, land, buildings and other constructions which have suffered damage due to subsidence resulting from the working and getting of coal or of coal and other minerals worked therewith, to full repair or equitable compensation of their properties ; and further to establish an independent arbitration procedure to resolve any disputes that may arise out of such damage or any matters relating thereto. With only 10 minutes to put my case, I must first emphasise that it is not just my constituents who are suffering the problems of subsidence damage to their homes and property caused by the mining activities of British Coal but also the constituents of many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. Since highlighting the problem I have been contacted by a number of hon. Members with constituencies geographic-ally as far apart as Lancashire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, north-east England, south Wales and Scotland. In many instances, coal mining in the vicinity is taking place or has taken place in recent years. Sadly, that is not always the case.

Problems also arise from old mine workings which collapsed many years after operations ceased. In part, the need for the Bill arises because current legislation applies a six-year time limit, laid down by the general law of limitation, following cessation of coal mining beneath the property. The law is archaic and unjust. It reiterates unfairness by requiring that claimants should submit claims within two months of damage becoming apparent. That is not only wrong but borders on the ludicrous. It implies that owners, many of them elderly, should be eternally vigilant and that they should be expert in recognising damage. In the same way as with people who live close to railway lines—sadly a diminishing number these days—main roads or airports, it is more often the visitor or relative who notices the damage.

The problem of mining subsidence damage is severe. This is evident because, since the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of claims have been made to the industry's management bodies. In the east midlands coalfield area I am informed that in the period from 1967 to 1980 a study of the records shows that some 62,000 damage claims were made. In my constituency, as in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), serious problems arise because of subsidence damage to homes and communities. In the Mansfield area alone, schools and hospitals have had to be closed because of the danger to children, patients and staff from damaged properties. Further, some farmland, buildings and business premises have been rendered unusable. Hundreds of homes, private and public, have been and remain damaged. The owners are rapidly losing patience about repairs or compensation for their loss.

It is generally thought by all who are affected that British Coal is avoiding its responsibilities rather than attempting to find a speedy solution to the problem. Hon. Members whose constituencies are affected are inundated every week with cases arising within and outside the set time limit. Local authorities are continually harassed by tenants seeking repairs to their subsidence damaged homes. I understand that they have already spent substantial amounts of money for which they await reimbursement. Individual owners who have invested in their homes for their own future and that of their dependants are continually denied their right to repairs or compensation, delay or denial being the order of the day.

I wish to refute the suggestion made by some that for British Coal to find a solution to the problem will mean that it will have to close pits. That is like saying to someone who has been mugged, "Do not prosecute or they will not mug anybody else." The reality is different. I have here a recent official press release issued by British Coal headquarters which proudly boasts a half-yearly operating profit this year of £104 million. Why cannot some of that money be spent on British Coal's responsibility in this matter?

It is a fundamental plank of my Bill that no time limit should apply to damage claims. Such a get-out clause would not and should not be offered to a second-hand car salesman, let alone a public industry. After all, who in the Chamber would feel safe in arguing that mining subsidence will occur only within six years of mining?

Another part of the Bill embodies the right of every ratepayer, where possible, to have access to mining records, past and present, in the vicinity of his property, with an obligation being placed upon the management of any company or public body to inform residents or owners in advance of mining activities under their properties.

Perhaps the most fundamental part of the Bill covers the need for the establishment of a system of independent arbitration to resolve disputes between owners of damaged properties and British Coal, together with a back-up system which would provide an independent surveying and damage assessment service for owners of damaged properties.

I am aware of the recent publication of the Waddilove report which carried out a review of subsidence damage and compensation. I welcome wholeheartedly the publication of that document. However, it has gaps, which my Bill will fill.

As hon. Members will know, I had to queue for 24 hours to be given the right to present the Bill. That, in comparison, is little when one sees the heartbreak, worry and despair of tenants who find themselves isolated from any satisfactory help. The primary purpose of my Bill is therefore to achieve justice for those in this plight. I commend the Bill to the House for its approval.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Frank Haynes, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Joseph Ashton, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Eric Illsley, Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. John Prescott, Mr. Alexander Eadie and Mr. George J. Buckley.