§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
I beg to call attention to coal mining subsidence damage and its effects on properties, business and services; and to move,That this House believes that the owners of houses, land, buildings, services and other constructions which have suffered any damage due to subsidence, resulting from the working and getting of coal or of coal and other minerals adjacent to or under their properties shall have the right to full repair and equitable compensation for any damage caused by such activities.First, I want to place on record my thanks to hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber for the help they have given me in trying to sort out the problem of coal mining subsidence damage, particularly in the north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire areas. I particularly want to mention my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who have greatly supported the efforts being made to secure justice for homeowners, businesses and service industries in the constituencies that they and I represent.
I thank also the Under-Secretary of State for Energy for his action arising from a debate on the subject 12 months ago. During my speech, I hope to show that, although he, as the Minister responsible, attempted to be helpful, little has been achieved despite all his efforts, and much still needs to be done.
I draw the Minister's attention to a survey undertaken by district councils in the north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire areas. I shall explain in detail who were responsible for that survey and then dwell on its findings. It was undertaken by the staff of Trent polytechnic independently of the councils of Amber Valley, Bassetlaw, Ashfield, Mansfield, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Gedling, Newark and Sherwood, although they paid for it. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) is here. He has a great interest in the matter. He represents parts of the Chesterfield and Amber Valley district council areas.
If the Minister doubts the value of the report, I should explain to him that it was compiled by a multidisciplinary team organised by Trent polytechnic. Its membership consisted of Professor P. L. Clark, who was the project leader, Mr. W. G. Carter, a senior surveyor, Mr. P. Ramsay-Dawber, a senior surveyor, Mr. M. J. Saunt, another senior surveyor, Dr. R. H. Oldham, a mining engineer, Dr. A. C. Waltham, a geologist, Dr. M. Roberts, a research fellow and Pamela Burke, a research assistant.
The aims of the survey were many. The first was to obtain information relating to subsidence damage in the district council areas concerned. That is not surprising when one knows about the damage levels in those areas. I have often spoken in the House about damage to homes in particular, businesses—small, medium and large—schools, some of which have been either partially or wholly closed, and hospitals. I have also referred to cuts in services, such as water, gas and electricity.
The survey aimed, secondly, at establishing what were the most common concerns about the way in which damage problems were being dealt with at local level by British Coal. I hope to give many examples later.
1217 The third aim was to gain evidence for the Department of energy that would help it to deal with subsidence damage. The Minister will remember that I raised the matter after his responses 18 and 12 months ago about the evidence that his Department was compiling. He said that he hoped to let the House know about a series of decisions on how to alleviate the problem. I managed to gain from him on a number of occasions an assurance that his Department would accept evidence from the district councils. I am grateful to him for that assurance.
A fourth aim of the survey was to offer local authority help to the Department. Local authorities are responsible for planning, building regulations and various services. It would be difficult for anything to be sorted out without their help. They hope that their evidence will influence any legislation that the Government may introduce.
I emphasise that Opposition Members and all hon. Members who are trying to obtain justice for people who have suffered from the effects of subsidence, particularly in areas where coal mining takes place on a large scale, are not against British Coal. Our attitude is quite the reverse. The pressures that these communities experience are also being experienced by British Coal.
The chief executive of Mansfield district, Mr. Richard Goad, aptly described it in the report that is to be presented next Tuesday to the Minister. He says:The aim is not to smash British Coal around the head but to obtain equity for people suffering subsidence damage.That is a very laudable aim. In no way could the council's attitude be construed as being against British Coal.
Everybody who is concerned about this problem recognises that the major factor is old damage, not new. New mining techniques have been introduced by British Coal in recent years. It is old damage that is causing the problem. The statistical evidence in the report provides an impartial information base for any future action that may be taken by the participating authorities.
The questionnaire that was used in the survey was specifically designed to provide information about a number of matters: first, the nature of any compensation that claimants may have received—for example, cash in kind; secondly, any compensation that they expected to receive; thirdly, the parties involved in the claims process—solicitors, estate agents, British Coal, subsidence agents, etc.; fourthly, the degree of statisfaction expressed by claimants in respect of remedial works by the contractors supplied by British Coal; fifthly, the number of subsidence claims outstanding, and many other factors.
Having decided to carry out the survey, local authorities were asked to distribute 160,000 leaflets, restricted to target areas that were known to have coal mining subsidence problems. Local businesses were also contacted by letter. The returned questionnaires were then sorted into two categories—affected and non-affected properties. Different distribution methods were used by each authority. It was thought that, if as wide a variety of methods as possible were used, it would help to reinforce the argument. I shall describe the different methods of distribution.
The questionnaires were distributed in Amber Valley with electoral registration forms and they were returned with the electoral registration forms by the occupiers. They were distributed only where there were known to be subsidence problems. The questionnaires were distributed 1218 by hand in Ashfield by council staff—with an addressed, unstamped envelope for return—to all areas in the district. In Bassetlaw, the questionnaire was distributed by means of the local authority's own newspaper and delivered to every house in the district. It was distributed in Bolsover by means of the local free newspaper and by using local newsagents, post offices and libraries in the area.
The questionnaires were distributed in Chesterfield in pre-paid envelopes with the electoral registration forms. Distribution was limited to areas that were likely to have experienced coal mining subsidence. In Gedling, the questionnaires were delivered by hand with the electoral registration forms and there was a pre-paid envelope. It was delivered only in areas that were known to have experienced mine working subsidence within the last 15 years.
The questionnaire was distributed by hand in Mansfield to every householder on the electoral register and it was collected, together with the filled-in electoral forms, by canvassers. In Newark and Sherwood, there was limited distribution of the questionnaire. It was delivered to people in areas where there were known to be underground mine workings. It was hand-delivered and part-collected by canvassers. The others were returned directly by householders.
In order to assess the views of those who responded, particularly concerning the quality of the repairs carried out by British Coal, a random sample of properties affected by mining subsidence were inspected by consultants. The sample included equal numbers of satisfied and dissatisfied claimants in each area. The Minister knows that the background to the debate is the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1950, which allows the owners of small dwelling houses the right to be compensated for repairs. The Act also covers those who have no rights to compensation under title deed. Another provision relates to a time limit for notice of damage to be given. The Act also provides that British Coal—then the National Coal Board—should be able to serve notice to the effect that repairs can be postponed until the likelihood of further damage has passed. It came to be known as a stop notice. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the 1957 Act extended the statutory right of compensation to the owners of practically all land, buildings and works damaged by subsidence. The Act stated that British Coal was responsible for making damaged property reasonably fit for its normal use or making a payment equal to the loss in value of the property if the cost of remedial work was in excess of that sum. The Act also contained provision for a time limit from the date when damage was first noticed within which the claimant must have given written notice to British Coal. It also contained four provisions for temporary accommodation which had to be made available by British Coal if a dwelling was uninhabitable due to coal mining subsidence damage.
The Coal Industry Act 1975 extended and made clear British Coal's right to withdraw support in certain situations. The Act requires British Coal either to pay proper compensation or, with the claimant's consent, to make good the damage satisfactorily. Section 2 states that British Coal must give three months' notice of its intention to withdraw support in the few locations where it did not previously have the right to mine coal. Unlike the 1957 Act, the 1975 Act contains no provisions about the onus of proof of liability for any damage.
1219 The Minister is aware that in 1976, as a response to calls for an improvement to the compensation system, a code of practice was introduced which set out five types of claim for which compensation could he given in addition to that already available under legislation: first, damage to chattels; secondly, home loss payments; thirdly, depreciation of crops; fourthly, farm loss payments; fifthly, additional payments to tenant farmers when compensation has been paid to landowners.
The final point is very important, as in my constituency it relates not to tenant farmers but to tenants and owners of properties. I have hundreds of cases, as do hon. Members on both sides of the House, in which small amounts of subsidence compensation were paid to previous owners or landlords, yet the damage has continued and, because of the cosmetic nature of the repair or the small amount of money which was paid, the present occupiers are now being denied any help, as they are being told that British Coal had covered its liability by previous payment or action.
The code also permitted any disputes between British Coal and claimants to be referred to independent arbitration. The coal board, as it was then, gave an undertaking to relieve hardship by dealing with claims sympathetically and allowing special discretionary payments in certain circumstances.
Those changes were made because of evidence gathered which pointed to a number of anomalies in methods which were causing problems. I shall list the problems in the evidence that was given at the time.
Case (a) was dissatisfaction over communications with British Coal by claimants, including complaints about the attitude of its officers, difficulty in contacting officers and the length of time taken, to deal with inquiries. Case (b) was resurgence of damage, often with British Coal denying liability. Case (c) was rejected claims. The reasons often given were that the last workings were too old, compensation had already been paid to the last owner or that damage was due to general dilapidation—or, simply, no reason was given. Case (d) was lack of information from British Coal, such as information regarding possible damage occurrence, how to claim, or claimants' rights. Case (e) was dissatisfaction with services provided by professional advisers. Case (f) was dissatisfaction with repairs, mainly quality of work, the attitude of contractors, the length of time to complete work. Case (g) was dissatisfaction with temporary accommodation provided by British Coal, with complaints about the length of time complainants had to spend away from their own homes and the standard of temporary accommodation provided. Case (h) was complaints about the lack of compensation for financial losses suffered through damage to furniture and fittings, loss of earnings and expenditure on repairs which was not compensated for by British Coal. Case (i) was stress and strain caused by damage disturbance during repairs or simply difficulty in gaining full restitution. Case (j) was loss of property value. Case (k) was difficulty in selling damaged properties. Case (l) was lack of follow-up by British Coal. Case (m) was houses which had to be demolished by British Coal. Case (n) was dissatisfaction with compensation payouts and lack of knowledge of what the amounts were supposed to cover.
On that last point, I agree entirely with 'the Minister that some of the problems we are now experiencing relate to compensation payments made in previous years. I 1220 wholly agree that damage by coal mining subsidence requires not compensation but repair, and that we should proceed on that principle.
I regret to inform the Minister that, despite his efforts —I know that he has tried to sort them out—many complaints in the recent study mirror the complaints made in 1976 and those given later to the Waddilove inquiry. In my constituency of Mansfield, many of the same complaints are made.
During the last full debate on the issue, I raised a number of cases on which I could not get any sense out of British Coal. I promised the Minister that I intended to deal with those cases personally and that I would not discuss them during the debate. However, I raise the matter again because, when I raised them with the Minister, it appeared that those people were clearly being denied their rights. In certain instances, the position was so clear that I thought that it was simply a matter of the Minister contacting British Coal to review those cases for some action to be taken. I regret to inform the Minister that, despite his efforts in contacting British Coal, the reverse has happened.
I have a letter from British Coal dated 17 August 1988 concerning one of the cases which, after the debate on the matter, the Minister asked British Coal to review.
The letter is from the chairman of British Coal, who denied any movement whatsoever in respect of all the cases. It referred to Mr. G. Johnson of 22 Bosworth Street, Mansfield and stated:The last mineworkings in the vicinity of this particular property took place in 1974. Any damage arising from those workings would have become apparent soon afterwards, but it was not until July 1983 that the Corporation received a claim on behalf of Mr. Johnson, through his Agent, Alan Brentnall. An inspection of the property did not reveal any recent damage for which the Corporation has a liability. The Area confirm that subsidence damage exists in the property, but this is in their view considerably more than six years old and is therefore, out of time.I find that absolutely amazing, as I have visited the home of my constituent many times. The property is so badly damaged that, until the repairs are done, I feel that my constituent should not stay there. The walls are leaning, the ceiling is displaced and there are cracks and small fissures in the footpaths and garden area.
My constituent works all night as a care attendant for the social services. When I originally contacted British Coal, it was not about whether British Coal would sort out the matter, but whether it would either pay an amount to my constituent so that, because he worked permanent nights, he could have those repairs done for him, or that it would quickly get him temporary accommodation.
What is amazing about that incident is that the records that I have clearly confirm that the inquiry about Mr. Johnson's property was earlier than the date stated in the review. Also, it is a semi-detached house and the adjoining semi-detached house has been completely repaired by British Coal. It has carried out repairs almost exactly similar to those of which Mr. Johnson's property is in dire need. The agent and Mr. Johnson have supplied evidence that, some years ago, British Coal sent out its so-called independent arbiters, British Mining Consultants, or whoever it was at that time, who agreed on site that this was recent coal mining subsidence damage.
Having gone back to British Coal and reminded it of all those facts, the only letter I received back from it was to say that the evidence, advice and ruling on site or off site 1221 by British Mining Consultants had been reviewed, and the ruling was subsequently found to be wrong. Mr. Johnson was then denied liability, because, as British Coal pointed out, it was not bound to accept the evidence. It just had to put in place the mechanism to have that property inspected. That is a silly and completely unindependent attitude.
The second case concerns a Mr. and Mrs. Lilley of 37 Harropwhite road, Mansfield. British Coal states:The last mineworkings in the vicinity of Mrs. Lilley's property took place in 1978 and a claim was received seven years after the last mining took place and at least six years after any damage would have become apparent.That again is an amazing reply, because the dates which I have confirm what the chairman of British Coal is saying about this property. It is unbelievable that British Coal could say there is no new damage to the property, because I have seen further deterioration of the property due to subsidence during the 12 to 18 months in which I have been visiting it. The fissures are larger in the garden area and the walls have undoubtedly moved. They have been moved not by a crowbar, but by ground movement. The evidence is clearly not correct.
Another property is 42 Southwell road east, about which British Coal states:The last mining to take place in the vicinity of this property arose from Rufford colliery in 1983–84. A claim received from the Agent"—again Alan Brentnall—was considered by Nottinghamshire area".British Coal went on to say that an amount of money was offered in recompense for subsidence damage to this property.
The property is a bungalow situated on the Southwell road, towards Rainworth in Mansfield. I raise this case because the amount offered would probably not buy a fairly elderly detached property in Mansfield. The property concerned is, in fact, a detached bungalow with considerable ground space. British Coal's offer for the property is completely ridiculous.
British Coal went on to say that it has agreed that the case should go to the Lands Tribunal. That disturbs me, because eventually any independent tribunal or civil court would rule in my constituent's favour. British Coal has accepted that the damage to the bungalow has been caused by coal mining subsidence. It is clearly in desperate need of either demolition or repair. If one goes in the bedroom of the property, one can see the outside world through the walls. There are cracks from one end of the wall to the other and from the ceiling to the floor, windows are displaced and the outside walls and the pavements are cracked. It is in a seriously damaged state.
It is amazing that, as part of the remedy to the problem, the Government have suggested the use of the Lands Tribunal system. It will cost at least £120,000 for that case to go through the Lands Tribunal system, but at present that is the way in which it is heading. As British Coal's offer is ludicrous, that tribunal will undoubtedly rule in favour of the full repair of the property, restitution and compensation payments. I believe that the Lands Tribunal is being abused by British Coal. It is being used as a mechanism to get the people who own the property to take a lesser amount, and one which could not in any way replace the type of property that they have at present. It 1222 has been used to slow up the negotiating process, and British Coal is attempting to get a settlement prior to the tribunal.
The next property is at 24 Williamson street, Mansfield and is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Sharman. Again, British Coal is saying that the claim was received seven years after mining took place. Mr. Sharman worked all his working life in Sherwood colliery. He was a deputy responsible for the safety of those cutting coal underground. On the day of his retirement, he was to finish work at 4 o'clock, but he had to be more or less dragged from the coal face to the top of the colliery to be informed that he was now retired. He gave all his working life to the industry, and he knows when mining took place. He also knows that every house surrounding his has been accepted for damage repair and those repairs have been carried out.
Why is Mr. Sharman's case different? I put it to the Minister that his case is little different from many of those in my area. Mr. Sharman's property is a semi-detached house in a crescent. It was a council house that he bought from the council. British Coal says in its reply:I understand that Mr. and Mrs. Sharman as sitting tenants, purchased the property from Mansfield District Council in its damaged condition during 1983 and this was presumably taken into account in the purchase price agreed.That was not taken into account. Mansfield district council sold that council house under the conditions which normally apply, with the price taking into account the number of years that the tenant has lived in that property, which in Mr. Sharmer's case was considerable. The price was based on the price of housing in that area, less the discount that he was allowed as a sitting tenant. No adjustment of the price was made because of damage to the property. It is cheeky of British Coal to talk about the price that people pay for their council houses. That has nothing to do with British Coal. All that British Coal has to consider is the cost of a similar house in a similar area. It is about time that it stopped using that argument.
The next affected property is 45 High street, Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire. There is no joke in the fact that the owners of the property are Mr. and Mrs. Swindell. The Chamber is not the right place in which to have a conversation with the Minister about the swindles that have occurred in coal mining areas, but I am prepared to do so privately. Mr. and Mrs. Swindell are absolutely honest in their determination to try to get their property repaired. They live in a small stone cottage in Mansfield Woodhouse High street and it is seriously damaged. It is not a council house but a listed property, and it must be repaired. British Coal has said that the claim is out of time and that there are no new defects arising out of coal mining subsidence problems. That is wholly misleading. There is clear evidence that the movement and subsequent defects in the property are worsening all the time. Properties in the near vicinity, almost adjacent to the cottage, have moved and claims have been lodged and accepted, but the claims for this property have not been accepted.
It is totally misleading to claim that mining has not occurred. About eight weeks ago I received plans of the current and intended coal mine workings in the Mansfield Woodhouse area. There were three separate plans, one showing the area that is being worked and has been worked for about 18 months for the Shirebrook pit. The other plans showed the workings that would be undertaken in October of this year and in the next 18 months after that. To my mind the coal that has been cut 1223 for the past 18 months—it is scheduled to finish in November—has been worked directly adjacent to the cottage. Unbeknown to the chairman of British Coal, who signed the letter to Mr. and Mrs. Swindell, a review had been carried out by the Nottinghamshire or central division of British Coal. The information it collected was incorrect. The plans I received were produced not by builders on the district council, but by the estates department for central area. It is clear that workings have been undertaken near to the cottage and that workings are planned to proceed close to it.
The cottage is listed, and I am not sure whether it could survive any further damage. After all, the new workings will be undertaken almost underneath it. If the worst happens, what then? Will the central division of British Coal say that the damages were old, and that therefore they should not be repaired? 'That is ludicrous. If the current damage is out of time, it will be considerably worsened by the effects of new mining. That does not mean that British Coal is liable for part repair only, it means that it has considerably worsened the existing damage. The Minister should write to the chairman of British Coal to see whether his officers in the various areas can investigate the properties I have mentioned.
I receive hundreds of complaints from constituents who cannot get any sense from British Coal. Things have improved, but people still ring for days and they are rarely able to get through. When they do, they are often told that the person they want is not there. Many have taken it upon themselves to visit the Nottingham headquarters of British Coal at Edwinstowe. Edwinstowe is a considerable distance from my constituency and many of the people about whom we are talking are elderly and many have given their lives to the coal industry. Those people have to go by car, get a lift from someone or make a series of bus journeys to get to Edwinstowe. When they get there, they are usually given exactly the same response as that given on the telephone: they are told that the person they want is unavailable, but that their details will be noted.
People are extremely anxious about their homes—they are not council houses, but their own homes. Because of their fears and the stress that that causes, those people are pesistent and they eventually get through to the necessary people at British Coal. Their success is a result of having written a series of letters or made God knows how many telephone calls. In some circumstances, people have pressured British Coal so much that it is more fed up with them than they are with British Coal. Once they make contact, people are given all kinds of promises. They are told that inspectors will be sent out, that British Coal will deal with a person's agent or whatever. The way in which British Coal handles this matter must be improved considerably.
Many of my constituents complain about the attitude of some officers employed by British Coal who visit their homes. Many say that they are "offhand" and show little compassion or sympathy with their problem. That problem must be resolved. I appreciate the difficulties and stress encountered by the staff of British Coal in the Nottinghamshire area. They are overworked and stretched, resources are limited and they face a growing number of complaints. What has happened is not the fault of the staff; it is the scale of the damage that has caused the problems. I cannot condone the current situation nor can the Minister. We need action to try to help British Coal's staff and the people suffering damage to their homes.
1224 Why does British Coal say that recurrence of damage is not its liability? That defeats me. If damage recurs it is because the original damage was not properly repaired or because the damage was greater than initially judged. In common with other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, I have hundreds of cases on file where further help has been refused, but when British Coal carried out the initial repairs, the contract price was so low that it enabled only cosmetic repairs to be done. The work involved little more than papering cracks and in-filling plaster or paint into cracked walls. It is only common sense to realise that such repairs will last only a short time. British Coal cannot morally argue that it has fulfilled its responsibilities with such repairs. If it believes that, it is conning itself as well as those people with damaged properties.
A better system of communication on rejected claims must be established. At present, British Coal can use the compensation agents hired by property owners to their detriment. The large amounts of financial compensation, as opposed to repair work, that was paid by British Coal and the use and growth of agents have caused problems to the coal-mining areas. Some years ago, there was a compensation bonanza, when large amounts were paid out on claims. We are still living with the effects of that bonanza. My area has suffered massive damage, and many claims were made. From the evidence that I have collected, it appears that anyone who could use a slide rule put himself forward as a compensation agent. Considerable amounts of money were involved.
Earlier, I talked about swindles and frauds. Some arrests occurred of people who work for British Coal in the Nottinghamshire area. Some of them are still on charges awaiting trial, people have gone to gaol and staff have been sacked. We have to think about some of the problems in that area. Many agents, as they call themselves, were interviewed by police. In many cases the use of compensation agents is a deterrent to trying to solve the problem. One agent has so many cases on his file that it is unlikely that anybody will be able to get a settlement.
Little or no communication takes place between home owners and British Coal. British Coal is changing the system and no longer maintains contact with property owners, but a second-class stamp is all that it needs to keep in touch with an owner. Some of my constituents have had to wait months for letters, so it seems that not many second-class stamps are being used.
Agents are used as a mechanism to create a barrier between the home owner and British Coal. Because agents are exerting pressure in order to get settlements and chasing tens or hundreds of cases, they cannot contact people as often as they should. They are trying to cut their costs by not making contact with the home owners or people in British Coal. The people who suffer are the property owners; sometimes it is months before they know about offers or rejections.
The Minister should ask himself why agents are being used at all, because that question is fundamental to the debate. I can tell him that it is basically because home owners in coal mining areas do not trust British Coal to do a fair deal. The evidence in the report shows that people who deal directly with British Coal get a better deal more swiftly. Coal mining is the major industry in some areas and many people have given their lives to it or to one of the industries that serves it. It is sad that an industry which has completely dominated an area is now thoroughly 1225 distrusted by the people living there. The National Coal Board was always regarded as a caring employer, but British Coal has lost that trust.
Bearing in mind the amount of money that is still in the fund, can the Minister say whether he would consider funding, on a trial basis, an experimental, independent legal centre to deal with subsidence claims? The money required to do that would be minimal—peanuts compared to the amount in the fund. A centre could he set up in Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire for both areas. Three or four people could operate the centre and concern themselves only with coal mining subsidence. That would be helpful and the centre would be financially viable. It would enable claimants to get expert advice and representation, especially in areas such as north Nottinghamshire.
Subsidence money is already in the bank waiting to be used. Because of the age of many of the people involved, many of the cases would be legally aided and, with the correct legal advice, people would not be conned or shoved up alleyways. Some people are being told by agents that they should get £50,000, £60,000 or £70,000. They find out that Mrs. Smith down the street got £24,000 or Mr. White round the corner got £14,000, or they are told that they should not take the compensation but should have the house repaired. If we had a proper legal centre, people would be able to determine their exact rights.
For a small additional amount, such a legal centre would be able to liaise with another body which I shall propose. That might take some of the pressure off British Coal, and that is a key factor. The small amount of money required is already there and it is not British Coal or Government money. It has been deducted from the sale of coal and set aside for subsidence grants. Such a scheme would save money because to take a case through the Lands Tribunal can cost six-figure sums. There are thousands of cases and, as I shall later show, many of them could go in that direction if that is the only option. If there was another option, it would be helpful all round.
Fourthly, of major concern to many of my constituents is the lack of information. I accept that British Coal has improved its distribution of information, but much more needs to be done. A central register for damage and property repairs for each district, kept up to date weekly or monthly by the local authority, needs to be available. That is important in areas where, because of coal mining, damage has occurred to properties.
The Conservative party is the party of business and urges people to be entrepreneurial and to stand on their own two feet. We are talking about my constituents and the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield and for Derbyshire, North-East and the hon. Member for Sherwood. Anybody who wants to buy a house goes to an estate agent and asks for a search to be carried out. He receives a piece of paper containing about three sentences and it costs £14.50. It says on the bottom of the piece of paper that if more information is required it will cost another £32. Sometimes it takes weeks to get such information. Who will trust information supplied in that way?
Prospective home buyers are investors and should be able to pop down to the local authority to have a look at a damage register. They could locate the street and check 1226 to see whether there has been any damage or compensation paid or whether repairs have been carried out. When people are investing tens of thousands of pounds in a house or business it is common sense that they should have access to such a register. The documents that I have here are registers from eight local authorities. They are a considerable size, but when the Minister gets his copy it will be smaller.
The registers contain the addresses of damaged properties and the names of the occupants. They will be presented in an indexed form in a booklet. Each of the areas has been surveyed and the results lodged with a local authority, so that anybody who wants to buy a house can see if the property has been damaged or if a claim has been lodged or paid. It is not hard to do, and it would help everybody concerned.
The fifth factor is dissatisfaction with professional advisers, something that I have already mentioned. The Minister should seriously examine the independence of the so-called independent mining consultants being used by British Coal, about which I have great doubts. It was largely through the Minister that we got these independent consultants, because he pushed the case for them and got British Coal to respond by using them more than it had done. In my constituency and that of other hon. Members, the independence of these consultants has been questioned. In every case where they have ruled that subsidence damage clearly exists, even going so far as to talk about what kind of settlement or schedule should be reached, when British Coal has asked for reconsideration of the case, the agents have stood on their heads and changed their decisions. This has happened in hundreds of cases, and there must be something wrong about that. There must be doubt about the independence of such people.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
My hon. Friend has hit an important point. My experience, over many years of representing my constituents in Ashfield who have had the problem of mining subsidence, has been similar. For many years we had a fair deal from the National Coal Board and then, suddenly, there was a change and, following the appointment of Ian MacGregor as chairman of the NCB, which became British Coal, it took on an independent body of mining consultants. These people were turning down claims willy-nilly, despite the fact that serious damage had been caused to property. I agree with my hon. Friend, and the Minister should be aware that we shall look seriously at these independent consultants to see what is going on, because of the unfairness of the decisions that affect the people whom we represent.
§ Mr. Meale
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have been told by people qualified in this sector that such changes of decision are not surprising. The work of these so-called independent consultants is on such a small scale that, if they started to stamp their feet and refuse to change their decisions, other consultants would be used and business would be lost. I should like the Minister to consider this point. If there are to be independent consultants, as there are in industrial relations—we are aware that the Government are arguing the case over rail strikes and miners' strikes and God knows what else—there should also be binding arbitration so that we can see the real value of the independent side of the consultation.
1227 There is dissatisfaction with repairs, which mainly concerns the quality of work and the attitude of contractors. Many hundreds of complaints about the quality of finished work and the appropriateness of the work carried out have been received. The Minister should have this investigated. The prices offered for many repair jobs are so low that many builders will not do them until the winter, when other contracts are slack. Furthermore, many builders use British Coal repair contracts as fill-in jobs, because the prices are so low, so many jobs take weeks to complete.
Many constituents complain to me that in their homes, all their furniture has been moved into one room and is covered in sheets and that they are having to live in that one room while the damage is being repaired. For example, somebody has come round and put a bit of plaster on the wall, but it is taking weeks for them to come back to paint it or put on wallpaper. This is all wrong. It is mainly a result of the prices paid. I have spoken to many builders, from large, medium and small building firms, and they say that, if they could get enough work, they would not bother with British Coal work because of the low prices and because workmen get hassled; it is not a viable exercise for them.
There is dissatisfaction about temporary accommodation. Many complaints are received about the length of time spent in temporary rooms, while at the same time there are lengthy waiting lists for people to be given such accommodation while their homes are being repaired. Twelve months ago, the situation was disgraceful. Hundreds of people were waiting to have their homes repaired but could not have the work done because of the lack of temporary accommodation. There has been movement as a result of the Minister's actions following the debate 12 months ago, and I thank him for that. However, more needs to be done and I hope that the Minister will keep up the pressure to take the strain off the people waiting for repairs.
I have received many complaints about compensation for financial loss. Again, since the last debate, British Coal is helpful whenever possible. One difficulty has been losses accrued through loss of working days while inspections and repairs are carried out. Since the Minister put pressure on British Coal, there has been a better relationship with it, and in a number of cases it has spent quite a lot of time and effort, in difficult circumstances, sorting things out. However, when repairs and inspections are carried out on property, people have to be there to inspect it. They cannot leave the key and say, Inspect it and I will accept your judgment." Inspectors miss damage sometimes. Furthermore, British Coal inspectors find it helpful to have present the person who owns the house because they can explain what is old and what is new and what needs to be done.
The Government encourage people to buy their own homes, and therefore to have a mortgage. Growing interest rates put an increasing burden on home owners, so they are anxious not to lose money by taking days off work. They want to keep up with the bills so that their houses will not be repossessed and they can keep the financial wheels turning. Some 120,000 people live in my district council area and they do not have well-paid jobs like people who live in Westminster, Pimlico, Hampstead and the like. Many of my people are unemployed, but those who are in employment are not on high wages, and cannot afford to lose money.
1228 There is no doubt that worries over repairs, particularly of homes, causes stress and strain. Many cases on my files involve elderly and infirm people and the unemployed, who suffer serious stress through lack of action or even acceptance of liability by British Coal of its responsibility for damage. It is sad that this is happening. I understand, of course, that Department of Health Ministers are directly concerned, and that the Under-Secretary of State is not. I know of two cases where, without any shadow of doubt, the stress and strain that has followed the denial of liability for repairs has led to serious illnesses.
The stress that I see in people's faces, especially those of the elderly, who come reguarly to my surgery to see whether they can get help, is proof to me that the stress and strain can cause illness, and sometimes serious illness. I hope that the Minister will take this factor into account in his determination of these matters and in his final recommendations. I hope also that he will try to ensure that British Coal acts more swiftly.
The 10th area of concern is loss of property value. Without any proper guarantee of acceptance of liability, property values have been affected. Property values in north Nottinghamshire, an area of coal mines, demonstrate the effect of subsidence on house prices. Mansfield is one of the cheapest housing areas in Britain. The problems that have come to light over recent years have been reflected in property values, and people in the areas that have been affected are having to sell their properties at lower values than those which prevail in other parts of the country. If anyone wants to sell his home or purchase a home, he will have searches carried out on the property. Sometimes the process takes many weeks to complete. This obviously delays movement within the property market.
British Coal regards the head of claim as extremely important when it comes to determine whether the claim is in time under the six-year rule. A claim is made, and sometimes, after years of waiting for a determination, the owner moves on. When that happens the new owner will have to make a new claim. I ask the Minister to consider whether that is fair. I have met people who were told on buying a property that a claim had already been made and that they would be able to have various repairs carried out. That is not the position. British Coal is saying that, if the head of claim—the owner of the property—changes, all bets are off.
That is a nifty device under the six-year rule. Britsh Coal has only to wait for owners to get so fed up with the delay before repairs are carried out that they decide to move on. When that happens, it is no longer liable. Under the six-year rule, the claim founders. I ask the Minister to intervene. If a property is damaged and a claim is made within time, surely the claim remains in time even if there is a change of ownership. The fact is that many claims have been denied because of a change in the head of claim. It is ludicrous to deny that the properties concerned need repairing.
The 11th area of concern is dissatisfaction with compensation payments and lack of knowledge of what the payments are supposed to cover. This concern is linked undoubtedly with dissatisfaction with the standard of repairs that are carried out. Many people who are not builders do not understand the difference between cosmetic repairs and major repairs. If a builder conies to someone's home to repair damage and says that skimming is all that is required, the owner will be willing to accept 1229 that. He will be pleased that repairs are being done. There is a difference, as I have said, between cosmetic repair and cosmetic damage, and full repair and serious damage.
Many owners are unaware that by signing an agreement to have cosmetic repairs carried out, they are thereby losing any right to full repair. This has happened many times. British Coal has applied pressure and has stated that cosmetic repairs only are needed. It has said, "This or nothing. If you do not accept the scheduled cosmetic repairs that we are offering, you will get no further response from us. We shall delay matters. You will have to go to court, and that will take a considerable time." Presumably these decisions are reached behind closed doors between the so-called agents and members of British Coal's estates department staff.
In many instances, people accept cosmetic repairs because they are fed up with their houses being undecorated. It is pointless decorating a house when it is known that plastering, rewiring, reflooring and the fitting of new doors are required. People are told not to redecorate while their claim is being determined, but sometimes the process takes three, four or five years. How would the Minister like it if he could not carry out any redecorations in his house for three, four or five years? The reality is that many property owners have had enough. If it is a question of cosmetic rather than full repairs, they accept the cosmetic approach because they want to live in a normal home environment.
I refer again to the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire district council survey. I have stated already that 160,000 questionnaires were distributed to households by various methods. More than 50,000 completed questionnaires were returned. More than 33,000 respondents—64 per cent.—claimed that their residences had suffered damage as a result of coal mine workings. It can be argued that some of these claims are wrong, that some of them might be misleading, and that others might be deliberately misleading. That could be said of three, 33 or 330, but not of more than 33,000 A random selection of properties was carried out in each area covered by the survey and subsequently the properties were inspected by qualified members of the survey team. There were reports of damage throughout the areas covered by the survey where coal mining had taken place. Bearing in mind the many occasions on which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield and I have raised the matter with the Minister, he will not be surprised when I tell him that 70 per cent. of the allegedly damaged houses were found to be in the Mansfield and Ashfield district council areas.
Bolsover district council sent out 27,900 questionnaires and received 3,077 returns. That was a response of 11 per cent. There were 2,127 claims of subsidence damage. Of the 3,077 returns, 939 reported no subsidence damage. Chesterfield district council sent out 6,500 questionnaires. There were 1,957 returns. That was a response of 30.1 per cent. Of the 6,500 questionnaires, 1,927 reported subsidence damage. Only 28 per cent. reported no subsidence damage. Gedling district council sent out 6,034 questionnaires and received back 3,792. That was a response of 62.8 per cent. There were 2,970 claims of subsidence damage. There were 775 reports of no subsidence damage.
1230 In Bassetlaw, 16,000 questionnaires were delivered and only 751, or 5 per cent., were returned. They showed 180 cases of subsidence damage and 564 cases of no damage. In the Amber Valley area, 12,000 questionnaires were sent out. Of those 7,589, 63 per cent., were returned. They showed that there were 2,747 cases of damage and 4,842 cases of no damage. In the Newark and Sherwood area 13,000 questionnaires were distributed and 3,252–25 per cent.—were returned. The returns showed that 1,132 properties sustained damage, while 1,963 were undamaged.
The high figure of over 70 per cent. arose in Ashfield, where 41,952 questionnaires were distributed and 12,050 were returned. That was 30 per cent. of the total. Subsidence damage was reported in 9,730 properties and no subsidence damage in 2,320. In Mansfield, 40,787 questionnaires were distributed and 17,744–43.5 per cent. —were returned. Of those, 12,321 reported damage and 4,994 showed no damage.
Those figures show that there were claims that 33,134 properties had been damageed. Those claims have been ratified by the checks made by a qualified survey team. They also show that 16,425 properties were unaffected. In simple terms, those figures show that only 20.7 per cent. of questionnaires were returned. They also show that 66.8 per cent. of returns indicated subsidence damage. In real terms, the figure is much higher, as many people did not bother to fill in the forms, as the percentage of returns shows. In particular, very little public or private rented accommodation replied to the survey.
It is also important to note that the business community, apart from small businesses, was not included in the survey. The Minister has agreed to hold a meeting next Tuesday with interested parties. A senior official of the Severn-Trent water authority will be present at that meeting and he will refer to the millions of pounds worth of damage in the public industry sector. There are difficulties in the gas and electricity industries. The county council also has difficulties with roads and sewers. The business community is very deeply concerned. I hope that the Minister will accept that we are today talking only about privately owned houses and that the problem is really far worse than that.
Other factors also emerged from the survey. It showed that the claims procedure differed throughout the research areas. It also showed that claims were protracted where an agent was appointed by the householder, as I stressed earlier. Claims made directly by the householder to British Coal generally proceeded satisfactorily, as I also stressed earlier.
The survey also showed that few householders received a schedule of work. A schedule was generally prepared when an agent had been appointed and was used as a basis for claims from British Coal. That is amazing. I have seen some of the schedules. I know that negotiations continue between agents and British Coal, as I have received hundreds of the damned schedules. It is amazing that people are not generally given a schedule of damage.
The impression gained from the survey was that many householders did not know when work would commence or by whom. Because the builder usually did not provide a programme of work, householders' homes were worked on without consideration to the occupants' usual needs. For example, in certain circumstances, all rooms were 1231 worked upon simultaneously, householders were given insufficient time to prepare for the work and there was a lack of continuity of work by the builder.
The survey also showed that quality control was at the discretion of the householder. As no schedule of work was usually available, quality control generally proved difficult for householders to undertake. Quality control by British Coal has been more in evidence in recent years and I have no doubt that that has happened because of complaints that were sent to the Minister.
The survey showed that householders had little control over the quality of the finished work. I could quote many instances to the Minister of people who have said to the builder as he was about to walk through the door, "What about that?" The builder would reply, "That's got nothing to do with us. It's Friday afternoon, we'll be back on Monday morning. That's not in the schedule. Where's the schedule?" The builder simply has a sheet of paper telling him what work to do. In hundreds of cases, people have waited years for a contractor or someone from British Coal to turn up to repair the last piece of damage in the programme. Those people continue to live in unrepaired accommodation.
The survey showed that dissatisfied householders were concerned about what was and what was not claimable. The allowances given for decorating—for example the rate for wallpaper—were felt to be inadequate in some cases. If this was not so sad, it would be ludicrous. People have shown me an example of a certain quality of wallpaper on their walls. However, they complain that the amount of money allowed by British Coal for wall covering provides for only very basic coverings. If wallpaper or paint is required, it should be of an acceptable standard. British Coal should not have to indulge in piddling and peripheral negotiations.
The survey also showed that there were complaints about the general lack of care and protection of personal possessions and the use of householders' equipment and facilities without permission. The builders do not actually go in and cook sausages and chips on a householders cooker. However, once they have placed coverings on the furnishings, they sit down and lounge about the house. They usually, ruin the kitchen sink because they stick buckets, plaster and paint in it. The Minister may smile at this, but he knows that it is true. He would not have it in his home. Would he like that to happen to him? We are not talking about people who can nip off to the south of France. We are talking about people who want to go to work in the mornings.
There are also complaints about irregular attendance of builders. Some builders disappear for weeks, months or years. That is a bit of a bind, and people are worried because they never quite know when the builder will come back through the door. Sometimes it is so bad that, when the builder comes up the path, he is greeted like a Littlewoods or Vernons pools officer, his appearance is so rare.
There were complaints that householders did not receive formal notification of the completion of work. The builder, as he walks through the door, often says, "That has nothing to do with me."
There seemed to be a disparity between amounts claimable within the same locality. That applied to Mr. Johnson's case. People in one house might be given wallpaper, while those in the neighbouring houses were not. Some houses would have their drains or footpaths 1232 repaired and others would not. In many instances, the state of the houses denied such services would be worse than that of those that received them.
There was a lack of information about what work would be undertaken, when and how. The impression gained was that householders who had been or were currently employed by British Coal expected preferential treatment. My colleagues and I hear that argument time and again. People tell us, "I gave my life to the coal industry. I did not miss a shift in God knows how many years." In Nottinghamshire, they say, "I stood four square with the present Government during the miners' strike. I went to work in opposition to my colleagues. It has caused rifts within my family. Yet I am being treated in this way." Some householders reported that the builders had a "don't care" attitude to the work. As I told the Minister earlier, I think that that attitude is connected with what builders are paid. They will be in and out as quickly as they can, because the job is probably a "fill-in" and they want to get it over with.
When householders were informed that there would be a delay in handling claims or undertaking work, they generally accepted that. Not knowing was the factor that caused them distress. Householders have come to me with stories of having spoken to the agent three years ago, having received a letter from British Coal and another from the agent a year ago, and having heard nothing since. Surely there is some way of letting people know that the matter is still being dealt with, even if it is only a standard letter with a second class stamp.
The administrative procedure used by British Coal appears to have been inconsistent. Some officers issued claim forms, whereas others relied on receiving letters or telephone calls from householders. In one village—I believe that it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sherwood—a public meeting was organised by British Coal, and in another village British Coal undertook door-to-door inquiries.
I do not think that that is a bad idea. Public relations are important, particularly with people who work or worked in the industry or in its service sectors. It is part of the style of a caring employer and a caring industry. It might not be a bad idea either, given the traumas that the industry has been through in recent years, for British Coal to do that more often: it used to do it in the past, and it is good practice in any community.
The public relations aspect of British Coal was perceived by householders to be rather poor. Householders assumed that schedules produced by agents would be the exact list of work to be undertaken when that was not the case. They have been presented with a dilemma. One or two agents will come into the house and look around. They will say, "Oh, yes, I will put that down on the list." Before an agent has left the back kitchen, there will be enough down on his list to make the householder think that he will have a fitted kitchen with quarry tiles and the whole works, and that each room will undergo similar improvements. People are conned into believing that they will get the whole world. By the time the agents are out of the front door, it seems that, if all that has been promised were to come to fruition, the accumulated cost would be such that it would be better to give the householder a house twice the value of the current one.
There is also the problem of independent consultants. They give schedules for what needs to be done; then people who expected to have their repairs done at a cost of 1233 £15,000 or £16,000 suddenly receive an offer of £2,200 through the letterbox. It frightens the living daylights out of them, because of all the problems that have been pointed out to them.
No written guidelines appear to have been prepared to assist in the process of deciding marginal cases, such decisions being made only by British Coal's surveyors. That is rather sad. Where is the independence there? Why could not a local authority send out an inspector? After all, many of the houses used to be owned by local authorities. The inspectors would not say, "Right, we think that you should have everything." They are qualified, understanding people, and they are not going to start abusing their position and indenting for new front doors and walls. If their budgets are controlled, they will respond appropriately.
Some householders were not made aware that significant changes to their homes would occur during and after building work. That, too, is an important point. Like other hon. Members, I have come across such cases. The building work is carried out, and it looks wonderful. It takes away the stress and strain and the householder looks forward to the future. Then he trips on the way into the living room, because the floor is as much as 4 in higher and there is a step there. The way may be in a slightly different position; doors may have been moved. There seems to be no understanding of the effect that that will have on someone who has lived in the same property for years—in some cases, generations.
Each property had repairs which could be regarded as "cosmetic": substantial damage has been repaired, but there was also a good deal of botching up and covering up. All the evidence from the surveyors points to that. The surveyors were not made aware by the householders of any guarantees for other repair work. Householders may believe that something has been repaired and that if there are any more problems they can get back on to British Coal, but, as I have told the Minister, that is not the case. If they do that, they will be told, "Hang on, in 1985 you signed a form and that ended our liability"—although British Coal must have known in its heart of hearts that, without the shadow of a doubt, the damage was more considerable than was being implied.
Many householders had found that claiming for damage and the execution of repairs was a process that caused them considerable distress. In some cases, the stress was the apparent result of genuine grievance about the inconvenience; in others, it appeared to have been caused either by inability to understand the process of building work generally, or by a lack of knowledge of what might be regarded as genuine damage due to subsidence and what is an acceptable standard of repair.
The House is well aware of my concern about coal mining subsidence damage. According to a report that entirely supports the arguments that I have advanced since the last general election, my community has been and continues to be damaged by the effects of coal mining. Let me now discuss with the Minister what is to be done.
In response to a number of questions that I asked on 18 May this year, the Minister said:Administration of the subsidence compensation and repair system, including making the necessary provisions in the accounts, is a matter for British Coal."—[Official Report, 23 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 445.]1234 I do not think that that is a very helpful answer. Whatever the Minister may think about the responsibilities of British Coal or any other public sector industry, ultimately the responsibility is his: he is in charge of such matters in his Department. He is the person who has to take public responsibility for sorting out the matter, and I shall try to help him.
The Minister also answered a question that I tabled on 15 May 1989 asking him to give possible solutions to some of the dilemmas. He said:At the end of 1987–88 repair of and compensation for subsidence damage cost the corporation almost £50 million." —[Official Report, 15 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 102.]It would help him greatly if he could find out over how many years that sum was accrued, how much of it was spent in repair and compensation, how much on administration of staff, how much on outside advisory costs, how much on legal costs and how much was paid to the claimants' agents.
I do not expect an answer today, but I think the Minister will find that a low proportion of the money was spent on the purpose for which it was intended: repairing damaged property. If my analysis is wrong, I shall gladly apologise to the Minister either in the Chamber or publicly, but I doubt that I am. However, even if I am, it is still the case that more than £200 million is left in the account which could be used to settle this problem. Presumably, it accrued because it was added to the budget for coal production and was set aside to solve the problems of coal mining subsidence damage.
Some of the money could also be used to set up in the coalfield areas, particularly those which provided the evidence, some form of trust made up of senior figures from local authorities, the legal profession and the mining industry, which could review cases for damage when liability was denied. I am sure that all hon. Members would be grateful if that could be set up on a trial basis for two or three years. If that were done, it would help the Minister because he would no longer keep receiving letters from hon. Members as these could be referred to the regional coalfield trust. I should like to think that local authorities would be represented on the trust because, after all, they have to sort out the problems. Such a trust could look at the major problem of old damage.
New mining techniques have largely solved the major problems. The trust would be appreciated not only by the owners of damaged properties, but by British Coal, which needs help with a problem that is draining a considerable amount of its energy and placing an enormous financial burden on its production activities and pits. It would help to take the pressure off British Coal and the huge number of staff it employs, and help it to meet its advisory costs.
The evidence given to me shows clearly that, before all hell broke loose at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, the size of the estates department in Nottinghamshire was modest. However, events since then now mean that, if there is any trimming and rethinking to be done on management and design to help solve this problem, that is where it must be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield has frequently pointed out to me that merely half a dozen people, with some secretarial support, were employed in that department in Nottinghamshire in the 1970s. That number is now close to 50, with fairly high numbers of outside consultants to back them up. The process has gone too far. There is an amazing 1235 administrative bottleneck in the coal industry. A coalfield area trust, with a legal department to help it, could look at the old damage problems and review cases.
I wish to thank the Minister for expressing his willingness to meet the chief officers of the district councils next Tuesday morning. I hope that he will reconsider the invitation sent to him to visit the north Nottinghamshire area. This November, the district councils, Coalfield Communities Campaign representatives and county councils are holding a one-day seminar. The Minister has already been asked whether he can come, and has said that he will consider the proposal sympathetically, but that the date is too far off and that it is highly unlikely that he could attend.
I understand that some members of the Department of Energy have since said that they would like to attend. Nottinghamshire is of special interest to Conservative Members, and if the Minister came along we could show him some of the properties. Alternatively, he could stick a pin in the report that I have shown him today, of which he will receive copies, to see which properties to visit. I would be willing to give him the pin with which to do so. Even if he will not stick in the pin and burst the balloon, perhaps he will attend the seminar to give the Government's view. The problems are harrowing, and we need some direction. I hope that this debate has helped the Minister to decide what action he must take.
My hon. Friends the shadow Secretary of State for Energy and his shadow junior Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), have agreed to attend the seminar, and it would be a shame if only one political voice was there to represent Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. I understand that, on such occasions, the Minister often asks a local Member to represent him. On this occasion, I would go along with that, provided that the Minister will assure us that he will accept whatever his representative says and carry out his findings.
Once the Minister has read the excellent report, which he could do on his holidays or before, he will appreciate the full scale of the damage. Perhaps he will also consider, with his Parliamentary Private Secretary, other Conservative Members present, and even the Whips, that at 2.30 pm when the private Members' Bills are considered, when my Coal Mining Subsidence (Damage, Arbitration, Prevention and Public Awareness) Bill, which has support from both sides of the Chamber, is announced, instead of shouting, "Object," to allow it to proceed. A few Conservative Members smile, but I am prepared to accept that, if my Bill were allowed to proceed to Committee, where the Minister has an inbuilt majority, he could change it. The Government have the built-in numbers to do exactly that and I ask the Minister and the Whips to do it. It would form the basis for a solution to the problem.
I have said that this solution would be wholly self-financing and that £200 million or more is in the accounts for this purpose. I have mentioned a couple of ways in which help could be given to home owners, to British Coal, to the Minister, to businesses and to hon. Members. They would be cost-effective; the money has already been deducted. It exists precisely for this purpose and should be used for it.
We should also remember that the chairman of British Coal has just announced massive profits for this financial year, of £500 million. That money has been derived from the communities which are suffering damage and which will continue to suffer it in the future. Nottinghamshire 1236 contributed £65 million to this profit, of which only a tiny amount need be used to try to find a solution to this problem—
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer)
I had not meant to intervene, but it is important to set this point right for the record. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) is correct to say that there was a notional operating profit, as defined by British Coal, but that was before many other costs had been incorporated in the calculations—in particular, the cost of borrowing, which is a cost usually associated with any business, and the costs of restructuring and redundancies. When British Coal has included those costs, it has to return to Parliament the whole time to ask for more money. The hon. Gentleman must not mislead the House on that point, which is central to a balanced discussion of the subject.
§ Mr. Meale
I thank the Minister. We should take into account certain costs that have to be deducted. Nevertheless, British Coal is a profitable business now—the chairman has said as much.
These are areas which have been seriously damaged by the effects of a major industry. Elderly, infirm and unemployed people have, directly or indirectly, given their lives to that industry. They do not live in Bermuda or the south of France: they live in the backbone of Britain, in coal mining communities which produce wealth and energy for the nation. I ask all hon. Members and the Minister to help us begin some movement—not subsidence —towards a solution to the problem.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)
Having listened to the difficult constituency cases which the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has detailed at some length, I can understand his anxiety and desire to raise all the problems related to coal mining subsidence this morning. I am relieved not to have such problems in my constituency, although I have troubles enough.
I take an abiding interest in compensation and environmental issues and I want to address the House on the broader aspects of the tribulations of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I have long held the view that when persons or communities are disadvantaged in the public interest they should he fully and adequately compensated for that disadvantage. It matters not whether it takes the form of the building of a motorway, new railway line, or nuclear power station beside their homes, or the digging of a mine underneath them. If people's homes are affected by public works in the national interest, their loss should be fully compensated in every case.
The ideas that I have propounded met with some success in the Land Compensation Act 1973, although it was a compromise in respect of the views that some hon. Members, myself included, proposed in those years. The Act provides for the purchase at full market price of homes directly affected by public works, and for grants for those indirectly affected by them.
For historical reasons the coal industry was isolated from the legislation. It has always enjoyed a privileged-position vis-à-vis the communities which worked for it to provide cheap fuel for the rest of us. So I can understand the feelings of the hon. Member for Mansfield when he speaks on behalf of his constituents. On their behalf, he 1237 said that he would rather they had a right to sell to British Coal than that British Coal should repair the properties damaged by subsidence.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman's remark that it is an insult to be offered, not the full market price, but a discounted price if the occupants happen to have bought under the right-to-buy provisions. That is offensive but typical of the cheese-paring attitude of the public sector whenever it deals with compensation matters. The private sector would never be allowed to get away with it. The individual would be entitled to claim through the courts and would often reach a settlement, before the case came to court, granting him full and proper compensation—but the public sector has never operated like that.
I have said before in the House that our railway system, which everyone values and wants to protect, would never have been built by private companies in the Victorian era if the owners of the properties in the way of the new lines had not been paid not merely the full market price but 110 per cent. of the value of their property.
Since nationalisation and the clawing in of so much to the public sector, a different attitude has arisen. In part it dictates that people who suffer for the public good must put up with it. I do not accept that philosophy. The person who gives something to the nation should receive full and adequate compensation for it.
Instead, in the public sector the first thing to happen is a public inquiry. Compulsory purchase procedures are followed when necessary. Protracted negotiations take place with district valuers. We go before the Lands Tribunal. All this is a long and wearisome process which is constructed as much as anything else to wear down the will of the individual so that in the end he will get only what the public sector is prepared to pay him. That is not just, and I see no reason why the Government, or Government bodies, should treat those to whom they have a duty any differently from how we would expect a private company or industry to treat them.
When I was in office, I often asked Ministers and civil servants whether anyone had ever worked out how much cheaper it would be to establish a more generous compensation system in place of the bureaucratic machine we had developed to discourage people from resisting the will of the state.
The hon. Member for Mansfield mentioned management and estate divisions of the coal board that do exactly that. If we did away with all the paraphernalia that supports the operations of the coal board and of Government departments, the savings might allow us to pay adequate compensation quickly. If people felt that they were being dealt with fairly, they would be much more ready and willing to co-operate with the public sector. I leave those thoughts with my hon. Friend the Minister and wish him more success with those ideas than I did when I had an opportunity to press them.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
The Minister is currently responsible for legislation affecting the coal industry and the coal board. When it is next amended, it should not be beyond the ingenuity of parliamentary draftsmen to include clauses to give effect to the thoughts I have expressed.
1238 The coal industry developed in a climate in which there was very little regard, if any, for the environmental impact of industrial operations. We all know of the continuing debate about the mere burning of fossil fuel and its impact on the environment—the greenhouse effect and acid rain. Such matters have received attention only in recent years. Mines were dug and have been abandoned with little regard for the effect on the surface above them or on anything built there. Slag heaps disfigure our countryside, and Durham is appallingly polluted by mine residues that have been dumped along the coastline.
Members of the Environment Select Committee visited the north-east and saw for themselves the extent of that pollution, which has continued for many years under many Administrations, and were very disturbed by what they saw. From the evidence they heard, it was clear that the Coal Board wanted to do very little about that situation. The new energy industries are not allowed to get away with anything similar. Radioactive waste will be deposited deep underground, and the industry will have to find the right sites and then, with the benefit of the right scientific ads ice and proper engineering, construct the necessary safe depositories.
Under other Government measures, the industry will meet the large cost of decommissioning nuclear power stations at the end of their useful life. The coal industry has never been under an obligation to deal with the decommissioning of its mines or slag heaps, or to deal with the mounds that it has left littering the north-east coastline.
The coal industry must be dragged kicking and screaming into this century of the environment and live up to its responsibilities. Although the hon. Member for Mansfield has made a plea on behalf of his constituents because of the direct consequences of subsidence for them, there is wider general interest in what should be done with abandoned coal mines. Should they be allowed to rot and collapse, or is there a way of backfilling and compacting them? Is it possible to use the railway tracks that brought the coal out to return the slag to the mines and ram it back into them to prevent future subsidence? Has the Department of Energy discussed with the Department of the Environment the possibility of using disused coal mines having the right geology and in the right locations to dispose of much of the waste created by our civilisation and for which apparently there is no home at present?
The Environment Select Committee's toxic waste and contaminated land inquiries address the problems of what can be done with such residues. They can be chemically treated or incinerated, but after the mass is made inert, heavy metals and other substances are left that must be disposed of somewhere. At present, the remedy is either to dump them at sea or to use them for landfill. I ask the two Departments jointly to undertake a survey of mines that are disused or are about to be closed to see whether they can be utilised for waste disposal and in such a way that future subsidence will be avoided.
I have thrown out a few thoughts, and have taken the opportunity provided by the hon. Gentleman's description of his constituents' tribulations to express the concern about the way in which we deal with compensation and fail to require the coal industry to live up to its responsibilities to the nation in respect of the impact of its operations on our environment.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on his good fortune in coming first in the ballot and on his choice of subject. I know of the frustrations of coming second in the ballot, because I did so on Monday, which denied me an opportunity to participate in the debate. If my hon. Friend did not exist to raise this debate and to present his Bill to the House later today, we would have to invent him, because there is need for such a person and for such a measure.
Given the length of my hon. Friend's speech, it is difficult to imagine that there is anything more to be said, but I wish to raise one or two points in respect of my constituency. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments about me, though he is wrong in thinking that Amber valley is part of my constituency. We have no imperialist ambitions to take it over. We believe that at the next general election Labour will be able to take it without the need for any imperialist actions.
The area of Chesterfield affected by mining subsidence is Staveley, which is a separate township. Staveley's southern half falls into the Chesterfield constituency, while its northern part is in mine. My comments and conclusions will relate to the experiences of north Staveley and of developments in south Staveley.
I am worried about what by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) said about backfilling pits. Backfilling is desirable, but to backfill pits with nuclear and toxic waste in areas such as Staveley would be counterproductive. To add to the problems that they face over coal mining subsidence the thought that they would be living on top of dumps of hazardous nuclear waste would be unacceptable. It would be a greater environmental danger than subsidence and would be on top of other hazardous activities, such as those carried on by Staveley Chemicals.
The people in my area are faced with two types of problem. The first is the consequence of mining subsidence in the Hartington road area of Staveley in 1984. Lessons for the future can be drawn from that experience, but they will be of no use to residents who are living there now. Action needs to be taken on their behalf so that their compensation problems can be resolved. I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade British Coal to provide more money in an attempt to resolve numerous outstanding problems, including those in the Hartington road area.
The second type of problem with which people in my constituency are faced is the prospect of coal mining during the next five years from thick seams elsewhere in the Staveley area, including the Lowgates area. In the unlikely event of a Conservative victory at the next general election, following yesterday's European results, there would be the added problem of coal extraction, leading to subsidence, by private coal companies. Subsidence claims would be dealt with first by British Coal and, later, by private firms. People making compensation claims might then have to negotiate with two bodies or companies, which would result in the inadequate funding of compensation claims.
I have received letters from constituents who live in the Hartington road and Hartington view area of Stavely. I shall not mention their names, but I want to refer to some of the problems that were highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield because they affect my area, 1240 too. I shall use the words of those who have been affected and will comment on what they say as I do so. Constituent A wrote to me and said:I vacated my house for a total of 17 weeks.That is quite a short period. Some people have to move out of their homes for much longer. That fact needs to be taken into account when compensation claims are made. It causes disturbance to people's lives while their houses are being repaired. The compensation takes no account of that disturbance, but provision ought to be made for it.
Constituent A then said:Since then the new sills, door frameworks, skirting and ceilings have all pulled away from the walls and have cracked. The Coal Board came to inspect the new damage and offered an inadequate amount to put this right…there is also a problem regarding tilt, my neighbour has been informed that he has tilt and is being paid accordingly. Whilst I have been told I have none.That highlights a number of points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield. The compensation that is paid for tilt varies greatly. That creates a feeling of injustice, because tilt can often be observed with the naked eye. The shoddy work that is done by contractors also causes problems. British Coal uses poor contractors The role played by British Coal is inadequate. Its inspections are below par. British Coal does not insist on the application of correct standards before a person moves back into his home.
Constituent B wrote:We've had six inch nails knocked into door frames to straighten them, and then painted over. Twisted doors have been left on…we've had carpets left uncovered during the repair work, yet neither British Coal, nor the building firm concerned, wish to compensate the damage. The out-buildings are in a terrible state…brickwork is bulged and twisted, and being left in that condition, broken sewerage pipes have been left under the building…we don't feel we are being fairly treated.There are continuing problems over contractors, the role of British Coal and the difficulty about obtaining fair compensation. People feel that it is inadequate. British Coal's agents are also thought to be inadequate. People resent being bounced between British Coal and its agents. No adequate action is taken, and people end up by bringing their problems to hon. Members and others in an effort to obtain assistance.
Constituent C wrote:From my observations and talking to people, I would say that British Coal are exerting people to settle by keeping people waiting and not corresponding, also by their attitude of take-it or leave it. My own property has not yet been repaired.There is the double problem of incompetence and manipulation. The two seem to go hand in hand. There may be another way of describing it, but incompetence leads to manipulation. If something is not done, an excuse will be found later to get round it.
Constituent D wrote:Our chief concern has been the outhouse building…when the initial repairs began it was declared that the damaged side needed rebuilding, this did not materialize. Incidentally some three others to our knowledge were similarly neglected. We were out of our home for eleven and a half months, as you can appreciate an exacting time to us all, beyond all sense and reason.Those people were out of their home for considerably longer than the 17 weeks that were mentioned by constituent A. That led to protracted problems and difficulties.
Constituent E complained about the inconvenience and discomfort that he suffered 1241when old and infirm by having to be out of his home for a considerable period.Sometimes there is conflict because tilt is taken into account in some cases but not in others, but there is also a great deal of co-operation when people suffer the same inconvenience. They are concerned not just about their own well-being but about the well-being of their neighbours, and they push claims on their behalf.
Constituent F says:My main complaint is the decorating. There is no room in my house decorated as I asked…I had the kitchen repainted myself paying someone to do it… I cannot do much myself in the way of re-decorating (due to age and illness) and cannot afford to pay to have it done.My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield referred to wallpaper not having been put up correctly. My constituent refers here to other redecorating problems. These difficulties come on top of the many other burdens that people carry. They will soon have to pay the poll tax. That will cause great problems because of their limited resources. These burdens worry them and nag at them all the time. They create stress, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield said. We are discussing issues relating to shelter and to people's homes. That is one of the three basic provisions—food, clothing and shelter—that bother people.
I sometimes wonder whether the Minister fully appreciates the difficulties. Although he receives plenty of literature, information and representation about issues that affect the coal industry, I believe that his personal experience is limited. I understand that he stood twice as the Conservative candidate for Easington, which may lead him to believe that he understands the problems. Of course, the pit at Easington goes out under the sea so that the subsidence problems are created for passing seamen rather than elsewhere, although there are problems nearby. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green talked about the dereliction of coastal areas, and I believe that the Committee visited Easington. I am interested in Easington as I come from that area and my parents still live there.
Constituent G wrote:When I moved back into my home I discovered several repairs that I can only describe as 'shoddy' and several problems which were listed on the work schedule that had been completely overlooked. To top all this, my attic, which was insulated before the 'repairs' is no longer insulated…Now I find new problems, windows leaving walls, new cracks everywhere.Such issues are quite difficult to resolve. People could pursue various legal rights through litigation and other means, which is entirely inadequate. There should be provision for local consultation, adequate involvement by the board and some local arbitration to resolve matters through avenues similar to the small claims courts.
Constituent H stated:I am completely dissatisfied with the general attitude and approach of both British Coal and the contractor's senior staff who are generally arrogant, belligerent and patronising in the extreme and the quality and manner of the work being done is of a very low standard… work… proceeded in fits and starts.Contractors move into the Hartington road area, they move out into an entirely different area, and then they come back again, and people are very frustrated by what takes place. The letter continues: 1242The list of omissions etc. is too long to include here; a list is attached."—eleven detailed points were attached to the letter.
It seems apparent that unless the contractors are continuously supervised one has little chance of satisfactory repairs being made.That creates another problem because if people are moved out of their homes, in one case for eleven and a half months, they cannot supervise the work themselves and they feel that the board does not provide adequate supervision on their behalf. In some cases walls have been plastered and the occupants of the house do not believe that the repair work underneath has been done. When they challenge the contractors, they tell them that they will break open the wall but the owners will have to pay for replastering. People do not have the money and do not take the chance, although in some cases it would be advisable because the long-term problems might be considerable.
Constituent I stated:The path was laid too high covering our damp course and there are no slants to the drains causing the conservatory to flood when it rains. When the path was laid, they disturbed the drains and ever since then the drains keep getting blocked up… very little of the plastering was done, because when we moved in we did most of our own plastering.People face practical difficulties that disrupt their homes and their lives.
I shall quote two more cases. Constituent J complained about the board sending a cheque for a settlement when none had been agreed. My constituent is paying for an independent survey showing 6¼ in when the agent was informed by the board that it would recognise only a 4 in tilt.
Finally, one constituent has been involved in putting pressure on the coal board by writing regularly—[interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. We cannot have a sub-debate or sub-committee meeting.
§ Mr. Barnes
The hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) and other Conservative Members involved in the discussion are probably discussing the Coal Mining Subsidence (Damage, Arbitration, Prevention and Public Awareness) Bill, which is sixth on the Order Paper, and trying to persuade the Minister not to shout "Object" to it.
Alternatively, I suspect that they are discussing the same activities that were being discussed on Monday, and that is to stop the second motion on the Order Paper, being discussed as it relates to the poll tax, which is fantastically embarrassing to Conservative Members.
§ Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Some Members, like me, have mining decline problems and serious subsidence in our constituencies, and are here to debate that important issue. I resent the hon. Gentleman's imputation.
§ Mr. Barnes
I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentlemen were discussing the present motion, were concerned about advancing it, and are attempting to influence the hon. Member for Watford, who may not be as aware of the problem as are hon. Members who have these problems in their constituencies.
§ Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)
In the event that we reach the poll tax motion, how many Opposition Members are prepared to contribute to that debate by being present today?
§ Mr. Douglas
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman), have you had any intimation that if we should reach the motion in my name about the poll tax, a Scottish Minister will be available to respond to the debate? If not we shall be in severe difficulties, as you well know. It appears that the Government are reluctant—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We have gone far enough along that line. We should get back to the subject of coal mining subsidence.
§ Mr. Barnes
I shall be very keen to join my hon. Friend in his debate later today.
The last letter from which I shall quote states:We have sent numerous letters to the Chairman of British Coal, Robert Haslam, and he just does not want to know. Our complaints are of unsatisfactory work, outstanding repairs and the way in which British Coal conducts itself, their manner towards the people who are affected, we feel that they are fully irresponsible.I have quoted those letters at length because they concern important issues affecting my constituents. I have not identified any of the writers as members of the community may want to check up on other people's business. There is common concern in the community. I have read out some of their feelings, but all told there are 108 cases and I do not intend to refer to them all. They demonstrate the recurring problems about the board, the sub-contractors, the agents and the inadequate cowboy work that is carried out in many areas.
A number of lessons can be learned. There needs to be negotiation long before the subsidence problems emerge rather than trying to pick up the pieces later. Planning authorities should make plans available and the matters should be fully understood by the community. The Department of the Environment also has a role to play, as has the Department of Energy, in that local authorities need to be advised of their role.
For instance, council housing and other services should become their responsibility so that the money—which should be more readily available through central grants —will begin to be put in funds that are directed towards those services rather than being just estimates contained in general funds. As greater pressure is applied, sometimes those amounts begin to be squeezed and the full amount is not spent on solving the coal mining subsidence problems. There can be difficulties because more than one authority is involved. In Staveley the town council is taking action about future developments and is co-ordinating with the districts and the county council. In difficult funding circumstances, there can be problems for all those authorities unless they have considered fully the discussions and plans concerning their area. The town councillors in Staveley are now in direct negotiation with the board prior to coal extraction in that area.
Considerable sums need to be spent by authorities on preparations within the area. Action has been taken in the Chesterfield constituency to ensure that provision is made for strengthening primary and special school buildings in the Inkersall area of Staveley. If, however, in the end they do not become affected by coal mining subsidence, those structural improvements will benefit the community. There needs to be that kind of planning. Obviously the funding for such matters needs to be considered.
The National Audit Office could have a function and a role in these matters. I wrote to the National Audit Office 1244 to see whether there was any chance of it carrying out a survey of the books on coal mining subsidence. I received the type of reply that I expected. It said:As I am sure you are aware, the day to day control and management of this scheme rests with the British Coal Corporation and, since there are no specific grants from the Department of Energy to fund coal mining subsidence, the scheme's costs are met by the industry. Unfortunately I have no rights of access to the books and records of the BCC and I am not therefore able to examine the administration of the scheme".I believe that it would be fruitful if directives or primary legislation were passed by the House to allow the National Audit Office to have such powers. Some of the problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield about the funding available from the now more profitable board could then be solved.
Under section 2 of the Competition Act 1980 there is a provision to order an independent investigation of a nationalised industry under the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to be undertaken by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It might be worth considering whether there should be a similar order specifically directed to coal mining subsidence.
I have been able to deal with only some of the lessons which arise from the difficulties in the Staveley area. I hope that the Minister will propose some serious measures, first, for primary legislation in those areas on the lines of the proposals contained in the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, which will come before us later and which is a combination of two Bills that he produced to the House last year. Secondly, he has an opportunity to take action without the requirements of primary legislation in areas such as the availability of plans for planning departments. I am sure that there are many other matters that do not require primary legislation, and measures could be pushed forward quickly, however important it is that we get that primary legislation.
§ 12.5 pm
§ Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on raising this important matter. It is not the first time that. he has raised it in the House and it is regrettable that he has to continue to raise it. The Government should have acted before now on what they have been told on many occasions by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Similarly, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) has raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions. He has campaigned long and hard for his constituents.
§ Dr. Woodcock
Yes, without success, but perhaps we will have success this morning.
I understand that the hon. Member for Ashfield has recently announced his intention not to seek re-election. I had the privilege of serving on the magisterial bench with the hon. Gentleman for many years. I remember that he was greatly missed when he left the bench, and he will be greatly missed in this place, too, for his down-to-earth and forthright contributions. We all hope that before he departs this place he will see at long last some progress on the subsidence issue on which he has campaigned for so long.
Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who seeks to catch your eye in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, has campaigned tirelessly for six 1245 years to bring about a different approach not only from the Government, but from British Coal. His constituents, along with those of other hon. Members, have suffered from defective legislation and from unfair practices on the part of British Coal.
I know those three constituencies quite well. I was born and lived for many years in Mansfield and I now have a home in the Sherwood constituency. Many of my family and friends live in Mansfield, Ashfield and Sherwood. I have extensive interests in all three constituencies and many of my family and friends have worked in the coal industry as coal miners. I can say, therefore, that I am not entirely without experience of the effects of mining subsidence and the disruption, inconvenience and hardship that it can cause.
Coal reserves can be both a blessing and a curse in any community. On the one hand, they bring employment and prosperity, but, on the other, the effect of subsidence, as the law stands, can be devastating. I believe that we all recognise that a balance must be struck—one which is fair between British Coal's need to mine coal in the nation's interest and the legitimate interests of home owners, tenants and the business community. It is important that it is a fair balance. It should, in particular, protect the interests of the individual against the abuses of power and the financial strength and monopoly position of British Coal. I have to say from my experience that, for a number of reasons, that fair balance has not been achieved.
As the hon. Member for Mansfield has reminded us, there are vast amounts of subsidence damage which are neither repaired nor compensated for by British Coal for a variety of reasons—British Coal has failed to notify property owners that mining has taken place, tenants have failed to report damage, ignorance as to how subsidence manifests itself, a fear of forms, changes of policy by British Coal without notice, and the infamous so-called six-year rule, which is no more than an excuse for British Coal to avoid its moral responsibilities. All of those items have contributed to the problem. British Coal is denying liability for millions of pounds' worth of damage. It is not that there is disagreement about whether the cause of the damage is coal mining subsidence, but that British Coal is denying liability for it and that legislation allows it to do so. It cannot be right for British Coal to damage property and then to walk away, leaving other people to pick up its bill.
The balance between British Coal and the claimant is unfair because British Coal does not always deal fairly. For example, although the Coal Industry Act 1975 is more favourable to the claimant, British Coal does not point that out to the unsuspecting claimant. It sends out damage notices and, in each case, it invites claimants to claim under the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957. The unsuspecting claimant fills in the form and so deprives himself of the valuable rights that he could have had under the 1975 Act.
There are many questions that lead one to suspect that British Coal does not act fairly. Why is British Coal so unwilling to let members of the public or hon. Members see its so-called "subsidence manual"? If it has nothing to hide, why does it want to keep it secret? Why does British Coal refuse independent adjudication on the extent of damage or independent adjudication on whether damage 1246 has been caused by subsidence? Why does it refuse independent adjudication on delay or on consequential losses? Why does it refuse adjudication on whether repairs or compensation is appropriate? It now claims that independent adjudication is widely available, but why can it give no figures as to where it is available, when it has been available and how many people have been granted or refused such independent adjudication? Why does British Coal refuse adjudication for loss of income or loss of profit arising from subsidence damage or from its failure to act in reasonable time? Why will it not supply a list of contractors who are prepared to work for British Coal rates?
When British Coal sells properties from its ex-estates, why does it limit liability toclaims for new damage under the 1957 Act"?Why does it seek to exclude claims made under the 1975 Act when selling its properties?
The balance between British Coal and claimants is also unfair because British Coal administration is often so appalling. Sometimes it takes months, even years, for British Coal to answer letters. Sometimes it does not answer such letters and sometimes it even loses them. Sometimes British Coal ignores letters that have been written to complain that it has ignored other letters already sent.
I shall quote one case—a claim that was submitted on 2 January 1985. A damage notice was sent in on that date, but it met with no response from the corporation. A year and a half later the owners sent a reminder letter to British Coal on 9 July 1986. Again that letter was ignored. On 27 August 1986 the owners wrote again asking when they might receive a response. The letter was ignored. On 9 October 1986 the owners wrote again and said:Could we please have a reply to our letter of 27 August 1986 which asked for a reply to our letter of 2 January 1985?Again the letter was ignored. On 15 December 1986 the owners wrote again to British Coal and said:Can we please have a reply to our letter of 9 October 1986, which asked for a reply to our letter of 27 August 1986, which asked for a reply to our letter of 2 January 1985?This time British Coal responded—nine months later. On 21 August 1987, two and a half years after the claimant had first submitted his claim, British Coal replied and said that it regretted the delay in replying, which had been due to a change in proposed future workings. That was after two and a half years. A letter from the area estates department, however, said that the claim would be dealt with expeditiously. After that letter it took a further eight months to send the next communication.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
Does my hon. Friend agree that that correspondence has all the hallmarks of service to the nation by a nationalised industry?
§ Dr. Woodcock
Yes, and later in my speech I shall make a strong case for moving forward quickly to the denationalisation of the coal industry.
Today, four and a half years after the claim was first submitted on 2 January 1985, it has not been settled, even though the claimant sent a personal letter to the area estates manager which was ignored.
We could all quote such examples all day long, but I shall quote just one more. In this case subsidence damage was reported on 14 April 1986 by way of a damage notice. On 30 July 1986 the owner wrote inquiring whether any progress had been made. The letter was ignored. On 23 1247 June 1987 the owner wrote again. The letter was ignored. On 24 August 1988, two and a half years after the damage notice had been submitted, the owner sent a further reminder to British Coal. His letter was again ignored. In February 1989 British Coal eventually got around to acknowledging that claim when it wrote back to say that it was sorry for the delay and that it had been due to "microfilming currently taking place." It appears that it took two and a half years to microfilm a letter.
§ Dr. Woodcock
Yes; and such is the incompetence with which claimants must deal regularly and for which they receive no compensation.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
Have all the examples quoted taken place in one particular area of British Coal's operation?
§ Dr. Woodcock
The first example came from the constituency of the hon. Member for Mansfield and the second from the constituency of the hon. Member for Ashfield. I should be glad to make the details of those cases available to either of those hon. Gentlemen if they so wish.
Although British Coal is so slow and dilatory, the claimant is told that he must submit his claim within two months and that if he does not, technically, he cannot proceed under the 1957 Act. British Coal cannot get round to sending out damage notices within two months, but the claimant is required to complete it and send it back in less than two months.
The present balance between British Coal and the claimant is also unfair because of the time scale operated by British Coal even when it accepts a claim. That time scale is unrealistic. It takes months, sometimes years, for British Caol to get on with the claim—
§ Dr. Woodcock
I can speak only from my experience, and it is about cases in the three constituencies which I have mentioned that I am speaking.
It often takes a long time for British Coal to deal with claims. British Coal is also the sole arbiter of whether repairs should be effected or whether compensation should be paid. The claimant has no such choice. Even if the claimant has good reason to want either repairs or compensation, British Coal decides what is best for him. British Coal will make that decision on the basis not of what is best for the claimant or what is best for both parties, but of what is best for British Coal, irrespective of the claimant's wishes.
The present balance between British Coal and the claimant is also unfair because the individual householder is no match for the vast legal and financial resources of British Coal. If a claimant wants to challenge British Coal's decision, his only option is to risk what may be his life savings in a costly battle in the Lands Tribunal. The large legal costs of British Coal are paid by the taxpayer. I ask the Minister, is that justice? Even if the claimant is successful and British Coal agrees with his claim he is still out of pocket as he has to pay for the information as to whether mining has taken place near his home. If a man wants to know when mining took place under his home, he 1248 must pay a fee to British Coal to obtain that information. How can that be reasonable? The claimant has no right to compensation for consequential losses and no recompense for the time and trouble taken even though he may have spent days arguing his case, drawing up schedules, meeting British Coal and so on. All of that is unfair.
One of the greatest injustices is that there is no system of independent adjudication. I have often heard it said that British Coal acts as judge and jury. Not only is it the judge and jury; it is the offender, judge and jury. What kind of justice is it when the offender is the judge and jury in his own case? The only response for the claimant is to engage in expensive litigation.
We have regulatory organisations for many of our industries—for electricity, telecommunications, financial services, the Post Office, the police force and many other bodies and industries. We even have them for coal consumers because there is the Domestic Coal Consumers council. However, we have no independent complaints procedure for the victims of subsidence damage. Those are just some of the reasons why the present system is unfair to claimants.
What have the government been doing in the last few years about this massive injustice, this appalling situation? Regrettably, some people claim that the Government have just been supporting British Coal by refusing to take any action. I give the Minister credit for the fact that he has made some effort. He regularly forwards letters to the chairman of British Coal and tries to respond to questions from hon. Members.
In 1983 the Government appointed the Waddilove inquiry. A year later, in 1984, the inquiry reported to the Government. That was over five years ago. How can it take five years to take action if, as they say, the Government are taking this matter seriously? The Government published their response to Waddilove in 1987. It took Waddilove just one year to take evidence all over the country, look at thousands of cases and hear hundreds of submissions. However, it took three years for the Government to respond to the report of their own inquiry. It is now six years since the Government set up the Waddilove inquiry and five years since the inquiry reported. How could anyone seriously form the impression that the Government are taking the matter seriously? A few days ago the Secretary of State for the Environment floated the idea of a tax on fossil fuels to encourage the use of cleaner fuels.
§ Dr. Woodcock
He may have dropped it, but are home owners who have suffered damage to continue to subsidise British Coal operations to make coal cheaper only to see the Government increase the price of coal by taxation? That would be rather a strange way to proceed.
Of course the Government will argue that British Coal has implemented some of the Waddilove recommendations. They are largely fooling themselves. For example, it is claimed that British Coal responds very quickly to reports of subsidence damage. That is often untrue, and I can cite instances of responses taking years. It is claimed that damage notices are sent by return, but that is untrue because it often takes months to send out a simple damage notice.
It is said that claimants in active mining areas are visited within one month. That is often untrue and I can 1249 supply examples of cases where it has taken a year. It is claimed that fully-costed schedules are now provided, but that is largely untrue. It is also claimed that independent adjudication is widely available, but British Coal refuses to offer adjudication in the most important areas of dispute. It continually ignores requests for such adjudication, and many of its inspectors do not even know that such adjudication is supposed to exist. If the Minister is in doubt, I shall be happy to supply examples of all the instances that I have quoted—provided that the Minister will agree to look into them or to have them looked into independently and not merely send them to the chairman of British Coal, who simply sends them to his officials who caused the problems in the first place.
I am afraid that there is a growing view that claimants are battling not only against British Coal but against the Government, who refuse to take action to put matters right. I came to this place to support a Government who prize individual rights and freedoms and who are determined to bridle the power of bureaucracy and state monopoly. In many respects the Government have been highly successful, and I have been delighted to support them. However, in the matter of British Coal subsidence they are failing. People ask why the Government are so reluctant to act positively and quickly. Some people even say that the Government wish to present British Coal as less of a liability in the run-up to privatisation. Some say that they expect the householder to subsidise the privatisation of British Coal.
I disagree with Opposition Members on one aspect of the matter because I want to see British Coal privatised as quickly as possible. Nationalisation of the industry has been a disaster for the nation. British Coal has not served the interests of the consumer and continues to operate wastefully and inefficiently. It stifles the private mining industry with artificially high royalty demands, abuses its monopoly power and even today it continues back-door nationalisation, apparently with the Government's approval, by buying up sectors of the private coal trade. Far from managing the nation's coal assets in the interests of the British people, it has largely managed them against their interests. Privatisation cannot come a moment too soon, but it should not be at the expense of those who have suffered subsidence damage. Subsidence matters must be put on a fair footing before privatisation.
Hon. Members who are taking part in the debate are not the only people concerned about the matter. Many representative bodies, local authorities, health authorities, companies and individuals also look to the Government for action. A couple of weeks ago I took a delegation to see the Secretary of State and the Minister about this subject. The delegation consisted of representatives of the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers Union, the Building Societies Association, the Confederation of British Industry, the Association of British Insurers, the Law Society and the British Property Federation. Those are august and, I hope, influential bodies and they are worried about the present state of the law and the practices of British Coal. They have formed what they call a united industry working party. It describes the behaviour of British Coal as "scandalous". It says:Clearly, the Government are not taking the matter seriously.1250 At the meeting those representatives made many of the points made by the hon. Members in the debate. After the meeting the Minister wrote to me and said he hoped that we recognised that the Government were determined to make progress on this important issue. I certainly hope that they are, but I came away from the meeting not convinced that the Government are taking the matter seriously.
It is five years since Waddilove reported and we have seen precious little action. I hope that I am mistaken and that when the Minister responds he will commit the Government to appropriate legislation. I hope that he will put pressure on British Coal to meet not only its legal but its moral obligations.
As far as I am aware, the statute of limitations does not prevent British Coal from meeting its moral obligations. It merely allows it to avoid them if it chooses to do so. British Coal chooses to avoid them. No responsible nationalised industry would wish to avoid liability for the damage that it knows that it has caused, and no Government who prize the rights of the individual above those of a nationalised monopoly should let it avoid its moral obligations. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that he will introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity to do a number of things.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes
The hon. Gentleman and I have different ideological views about the ownership of the industry. However, if the industry is privatised, it will move from one monopoly to another, so that involves a difficulty that has to be dealt with in legislation so as to ensure that the duties imposed on British Coal are transferred. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the British Property Federation as one of the bodies concerned in the consortium. In the evidence that it gave to the Minister before the deputation saw him, it said:While the British Coal Corporation as a national institution may in certain circumstances be regarded as operating in the public interest, the same could not be said of a private company undertaking coal mining for the profit of its shareholders.Therefore, the federation, which is deep into property itself, recognises that private bodies have to follow that principle.
§ Dr. Woodcock
My hon. Friend the Minister should introduce legislation to deal with the vast amount of damage for which British Coal chooses to avoid liability. We should set up a system of local arbitration to adjudicate on claims, without cost to the claimant, where the claimant wishes. We should require British Coal to restore damaged property to a pre-damage condition. We should allow claimants to employ a contractor of their choice, not of British Coal's choice. We should require British Coal to compensate for consequential losses and the cost to individuals of pursuing the claim, and to answer without charge questions about how mining has, or will, affect property. Where there is a dispute on onus of proof, it should lie with British Coal and British Coal should notify property owners or occupiers of future mining plans and of mining that has taken place in previous last year. Above all, we should set up an independent ombudsman system to which claimants could refer cases of delay and administrative failure and which would have the power to require British Coal to pay the costs of losses that arise 1251 from unreasonable delay and administrative failure. The seriousness with which the Government treat this issue will be measured not merely by words but by deeds.
I have made a contribution to the debate but not because I have a major constituency interest in coal mining—it finished many years ago in my constituency. However, I have lived most of my life in coal mining areas. I am happy to place on record the fact that I have business interests that include property in mining subsidence areas. My home has been affected by coal mining subsidence, as have those of many of my friends. I speak because I have lived in mining areas all my life and because I know the hardships that can be caused by subsidence damage. People like me and businesses can usually represent themselves, but thousands of home owners in coal mining areas who are affected by subsidence find it difficult to do that against the might of British Coal.
Not only hon. Members here today but thousands of householders and many public and private bodies will be anxious to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say. It is five years since Waddilove reported, and it is high time that the Government took firm action.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I do not disagree with much that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) said about British Coal and its attitude to compensation and damage, but the idea that privatisation of the coal industry would be a green light for the improvement of Britain's environment is far from the truth. Mining areas still bear the scars of the private coal industry. Privatisation of the coal industry is not the answer to the problems of mining and the environment, which were also mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). Labour Members do not need reminding about the effect of mining on the environment because we have lived with such problems all our lives.
We could be forgiven for thinking that British Coal has a bad track record, but it would be wrong to say that that is the case throughout the areas in which it mines. As a member of the Select Committee on Energy, I took part in a preliminary investigation into coal mining subsidence damage in north Nottinghamshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) should be congratulated on his tour de force in describing the problems in that area, which stem from had engineering decisions at coal extraction workings. Bad decisions were taken at the beginning and subsequent bad decisions have been taken to try to tidy up the mess on the surface. An accumulation of shortcomings has left thousands of homes in a damaged condition. I accept, of course, that not all the damage is the making of British Coal. As my hon. Friends have said, some of those who were directly involved are now in prison and others are awaiting trial. A free market was set up in north Nottinghamshire and so-called entrepreneurs established themselves in towns such as Mansfield. We were told that some of those people were further exploiting those living in the area with money paid by British Coal. Some employees of British Coal were involved in the operation. We are having to live with the legacy of that. Many hon. Members have major constituency problems as a result of the operations of the private sector in north Nottinghamshire.
1252 I represent an area in which there has been intensive coal mining for many years, but during my six years as a Member of Parliament I have had brought to my attention fewer than five problems. I can only assume that properties are suffering subsidence damage in my constituency but that British Coal is responding satisfactorily. It should not be thought that what is happening in north Nottinghamshire is happening everywhere else.
The Waddilove committee was set up in 1984 and its remit was specifically to examine subsidence and the damage caused by it. Everyone hoped that improved arrangements would stem from that report. A White Paper was published by the Government in 1987 and we were led to believe that legislation would be introduced and that some of the affected areas would be cleaned up. There are many areas which suffer apart from north Nottinghamshire. The White Paper was followed by the Department of Energy's consultation paper. I understand that there were to be no more responses to the paper after July 1988. It has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House that there have been no proposals from the Government.
We are faced with the six-year rule and the issue of exactly what damage is or is not caused to property by deep mining. The Waddilove report recommended in paragraph 192 thatthere should be no limit on time for claims for subsidence damage compensation. The onus of proof of the cause of damage should switch to the claimant after three years from the date when the damage should have reasonably become apparent.That is a contentious issue.
The 1957 legislation allowed only two months for applications to be made for compensation for any damage that was caused to property by coal mining. On any interpretation, British Coal has not followed that line for many years. In most areas compensation is arranged to ensure that people do not fall victim to those hard rules. The Government believe that they should stick with the six-year rule which applies to other forms of compensation under current legislation. That is the rule which British Coal is operating. The six-year rule was not developed by geological experts or experts in deep mining. The experts know that earth moves over a period of time and many people are suspicious about this six-year rule. It seems that because the six-year rule exists in legislation at the moment, it is to be applied in this case. The six-year rule may apply in most cases in future, but there must be flexibility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) could not be present today, but she has told me that she has problems with subsidence in her constituency. Her problems are considerably worse than mine. She has had correspondence with her city council about some houses in Riley avenue in Burslem. The council quoted a classic distinction; apparently because of the length of time that mining has gone on beneath that road, British Coal denies that subsidence damage is attributable to deep mining. It claims that compensation is statute-barred because of the length of time that the mining has continued.
A geological fault runs beneath Riley avenue in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North. The presence of that fault has been known for many years, presumably even before mining commenced. Obviously mining coal from below such a 1253 fault is a problem. I have worked beneath geological faults in mines, and I know that faults are very unstable and unpredictable and it is not very nice to work underneath them. Where those faults exist, people are not convinced that long-term mining below a thin crust is satisfactory. I hope that we shall consider the need for flexibility and a re-interpretation with regard to specific cases where compensation claims arise.
I do not want to speak for long because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield would be happy to see local adjudication so that people do not feel that bureaucracy is preventing them from making claims. Ordinary people cannot afford six-figure fees to go to a land tribunal over a dispute.
I received a letter from a constituent of mine in January. Prior to this I had corresponded with him, with the local parish council and British Coal, at area and national level. I have been trying to get some compensation for damage in the village of Woodall near Harthill in the south of my constituency. The letter is from a Mr. H. Taylor who, although only an ordinary resident, has become something of an expert on coal mining subsidence law—or rather the lack of it—over the past three and a half years. Mr. Taylor lives in South Cottage, Woodall. His letter, written in January, gives a brief outline of what happened in his village:Six of us, householders in Dowcarr Lane Woodall, applied in the summer of 1986 to British Coal for compensation for subsidence damage to our houses from the Highmoor Drift mine"—which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) —the main gallery of which runs under our houses in Dowcarr Lane. We got nowhere. A young technician visited and took a very cursory look and BC"—that is, British Coal—said 'No' to our claims. I had used a Subsidence Consultant who was in no doubt about the merits of my claim; he was on the basis of 'No payment, no fee' ".When British Coal said no, the consultant cleared off, as he could see that there was no money to be made—although payment was made in Mansfield, just half an hour's drive from my constituency.
When their claims were turned down, the residents of Dowcarr lane collectively asked Harthill and Woodall parish councils for help. They also had problems with drainage because the road had tilted—a clear sign that subsidence was most likely to have caused the damage. The tilt was also causing problems in nearby fields.
The borough engineers then went into litigation with British Coal to try to obtain compensation. There has been no outcome so far, although the case has been in progress for a considerable time. Mr. Taylor and many other residents are very upset. They have found that British Coal, while denying any responsibility for problems on the roads and in residents' homes, has been negotiating not only with residents collectively—through me or through the parish council—but with individual residents. It came to the attention of Mr. Taylor and his associates that British Coal has decided, without prejudice—a phrase that is often used—to pay compensation to one of the residents of the village. I hope that I am not misquoting British Coal.
1254 A letter written to the clerk of the council stated—referring to a house on a road in which all the other residents had applied for compensation, individually and collectively—this property has suffered recent movement but we are still of the opinion, after taking all factors into account that it is not due to the effects of mining subsidence for which we would have a current liability.Presumably that is an interpretation of the six-year rule that British Coal now uses. The letter continues:Completely without prejudice we are however prepared to investigate the matter further and the claimant has been informed of the action proposed.Mr. Taylor's letter includes a handwritten note, which readsA 7th person claimed when we did and that claim was allowed—because, I think, the claimant could get legal aid and therefore dodge the huge expense of the Land Tribunal (High Court) which would require us to use Solicitors and Barristers, at a cost in the region of ten times the size of our claims.That sums up the householders' problems. British Coal now appears to be prepared, "without prejudice", to pay some compensation on one house in this small village, but is denying it to all the others.
§ Dr. Woodcock
I understand that no case settled by the land tribunal has not involved legal aid. No one can afford to risk such high costs without it.
§ Mr. Barron
That is absolutely right. The irony is that if legal aid is granted a massive amount of public money may be payable. People may have interests to declare. Massive legal expenditure may be paid out of the public purse which, as Mr. Taylor pointed out would be far in excess of the compensation claimed for the damage done to the property. That is nonsense.
British Coal thought that it was helping, but in reality it has made matters worse, in that village. I do not for one moment want British Coal to stop paying compensation to the owner of that house, but many other people are caught in a pincer movement and will have to remortgage their homes if they are to have any chance of obtaining justice.
§ Mr. Meale
Has my hon. Friend considered another danger facing the coal industry? It does not take a genius to realise that the scale of the claims submitted means that as this country is a member of the European Community someone could take to the European court of Human Rights the right to have his home repaired. If that were to happen, implementation of the court's decision might actually rule out the financial viability of the coal industry.
§ Mr. Barron
My hon. Friend is right to point that out. I hope that the Government will introduce legislation to sort out the mess before we are forced to obtain judgments from elsewhere.
My constituents in Woodhall are not helped by the absence of any form of independent adjudication in which they and British Coal could have faith. Such a body could decide whether and how much compensation should be granted. The Waddilove report states:There is a place for local independent adjudication by persons who have appropriate skills and are drawn from an approved list. The Department of Energy should invite nominations for such a list of adjudicators to be available throughout the coalmining areas.It then described in detail how that should operate.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the consultation paper put out by the Government in April 1988 was that it did not propose that the legislation would 1255 deal with the referral to local adjudication. In those circumstances, how are Mr. Taylor and my constituents to receive any form of justice if they cannot receive some money to allow them to go to the land tribunal to fight their case? That is totally and utterly wrong. Conservative Members have said that in other areas of dispute there are consumer protection organisations and arbitration organisations, as well as Government Departments or Government-sponsored agencies, to which consumers can go for some form of arbitration. Yet the Government say that they are not prepared to bring in local adjudication for this matter.
If the legislation as proposed in April 1988 is brought in before the next general election, I assume that the Minister will be in charge of it and the Opposition will strongly oppose it if it does not contain the Waddilove recommendations. It would be the answer to many people's problems if they could have confidence in a local adjudication system which would decide whether it was mining damage, instead of having to rely on the present arbitrary lottery. Under such a system Members could advise their constituents as to whether they would receive compensation.
Until such time as we can get help to the people who have to live with the environmental excesses of coal mining, we shall continue to argue strongly against what is currently being done. I hope that the Minister can tell us when legislation is to be introduced. He must know that people are not happy about the Government's proposals for legislation.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
Today's debate gives hon. Members another opportunity to bring to the attention of the House and the Government the serious and often distressing circumstances that our constituents must endure as a result of damage to their properties from subsidence. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) who, knowing at first hand the enormous problems faced by residents of coal mining areas, used his good fortune in winning the ballot for private Members' motions to choose this subject again for debate. The hon. Gentleman may recall that just over a year ago he introduced another important debate on the consequences of subsidence damage.
Some may question the relevance of this debate, but for hon. Members who represent mining areas it is the only way in which we can demonstrate to the Government and to British Coal that the law on subsidence damage must be changed. Under the present regulations British Coal is judge and jury. It decides whether compensation is due and how much it will be, leaving people with two choices—take it or forget it. Since last year's debate, progress on change has been nil, although a constructive meeting was held with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.
Two important milestones, however, have been reached. First, the united district council authorities, covering north Nottinghamshire and north Derbyshire and working in conjunction with Trent polytechnic, have ascertained the depth of the problem facing people who live in their districts. The hon. Member for Mansfield gave a full account of these activities, and I shall not bore the House with repetition. Suffice it to say that I fully support the endeavours of the united local authorities.
1256 Secondly, the united industry working party has been formed, comprising the Association of British Insurers, the British Property Federation, the Building Societies Association, the CBI, the Country Landowners Association, the Law Society, the National Farmers Union and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Why have these powerful professional organisations come together? That is easily answered: they are incensed by the scandalous behaviour of British Coal in respect of its members' claims for mining subsidence damage. These bodies have pledged to lobby hard and long for national justice to be seen to be done to the affected property owners.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) has asked me to apologise to the hon. Member for Mansfield and the House for his absence today— he has eight long-standing engagements in his constituency. I assure the House that he wholly supports our cause on behalf of his constituents.
Since I was first elected to Parliament more than six years ago I have received more than 2,000 letters from, and a similar number of visits to my surgeries by, constituents complaining about British Coal's attitude to, lack of progress on and outright rejection of their subsidence claims. However, we must also bear in mind that British Coal has satisfactorily settled many claims.
One of the principal problems faced by my constituents is that British Coal has moved the goalposts in Nottinghamshire when it has been in its interests to do so. A prime example of that was the reduction, in 1985, of the time limit for claims to be submitted from 12 to six years. If a claim had been lodged but had not yet been processed, that was my constituent's bad luck. If claimants did not accept British Coal's meagre offer, offers were withdrawn.
That change was brought about after serious financial irregularities were uncovered in British Coal's estates office in Nottinghamshire in 1983–84. As a result of a lack of proper supervision by British Coal of its subsidence inspectors, and in the absence of a proper audit, innocent people were made to suffer. At present, their only redress is the right to appeal to the Lands Tribunal. That system may have been satisfactory when first introduced many years ago, but in recent years the cost of bringing a case has, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mansfield, varied between £15,000 and £100,000. That does not give claimants much incentive to rush to justice.
A change to a cheap and simple system of recourse for claimants is long overdue. During last year's debate on the subject, I welcomed the White Paper published in response to the Waddilove report in which the Government made clear their determination to alleviate the hardship and distress suffered by property owners affected by subsidence. Action to implement that ideal is also long overdue.
No one can afford to be complacent—least of all British Coal, as many of its employees live in areas prone to subsidence. The Union of Democratic Mineworkers recognises that substantial claims in any one area could place a colliery in jeopardy. Nevertheless, it believes in the principle of fair and just settlements, not only for its own members but for everyone affected by subsidence.
I share the UDM's view that the cost of providing compensation should be met from a national fund and not be set against individual collieries. The cost of meeting compensation claims adds approximately £1 to every tonne of coal that the industry sells. Although that sum 1257 may be small, it can be crucial to a pit's viability when added to its total costs. I was delighted to read in British Coal's annual report that claims charged to collieries dropped substantially, from £245 million in 1983–84 to £50 million last year, particularly bearing in mind that some related to earlier years. British Coal currently has £270 million set aside for latent liabilities arising from subsidence.
How can justice for claimants be ensured? Improvements could be made by adopting five administrative measures. First, British Coal should publish each year in local newspapers a map of sufficient size and detail showing coal workings in that locality for the past 12 months, currently, and for the next 12 months. Secondly, the Department of Energy's guide to claimants' rights should be corrected and rewritten in a more user-friendly style and be made more freely available. British Coal leaflets should be consolidated and should incorporate all extra current statutory concessions. Thirdly, British Coal should provide claimants with a claim form under the Coal Industry Act 1975, a basic summary of the differences in entitlement from those provided in the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957, a copy of the Department of the Environment's revised and updated guide to claimants' rights, and a copy of other British Coal leaflets.
Fourthly, British Coal should acknowledge that claims may be submitted within six years of damage occurring. Fifthly, the Department of Energy should establish an independent user group consultative committee review board to monitor the system's operation and to recommend improvements. As the Government's sponsoring Department for coal, the Department itself cannot function independently of that role.
I should also like to suggest to the Minister that there is a need for interim legislative reform. Interim measures could be included in any forthcoming Coal Bill. There could be local arbitration. All disputes in respect of private dwellings and up to £50,000 in respect of other property should, at the election of the claimant, be resolved by a local arbitration panel. As for the standard of repair, British Coal should he under a duty to restore damaged property, so far as is reasonably practicable, to the condition that is was in when the damage occurred. Compensation should be paid for any shortfall in valuation to the pre-damaged condition equivalent to the residential loss of market value.
As for own contractors, a claimant—unless, in all the circumstances, it was unreasonable to do so—should be entitled to employ a contractor of his own choice to make good the damage after preparation of a proper schedule of repair and competitive estimates. After inspection of completed work, or stages, British Coal should pay the cost of the work, including that of any technical or professional assistance, properly incurred by the claimant in respect of the work and for recording the condition of the property at the time of notification. In all disputes as to whether damage resulted from subsidence caused by coal mining the onus should be on British Coal to prove that it is not subsidence damage. These measures will not solve all the existing problems. They should be looked upon only as interim measures until full legislation can be implemented.
1258 The White paper, in response to Waddilove, said that simple arbitration would be available as an alternative. Unfortunately, 18 months after the White Paper was published that is clearly not happening, even though British Coal has accepted liability. All my submissions on behalf of constituents have been rejected. One constituent has made 20 separate claims for arbitration on differing aspects. All have gone unanswered. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that to date British Coal has not accepted any cases for simple arbitration.
To whom, therefore, do we look when seeking immediate help for our constituents, bearing in mind British Coal's intransigence? Under the existing legislation, it can only be to the Lands Tribunal. In the past, the huge cost precluded that course as an option for hard-pressed claimants. However, the White Paper stated that British Coal would not ask for costs if individuals made their own representations to the tribunal instead of employing a battery of expert witnesses and barristers. Having taken nine months to clarify the position, I am pleased to inform the House that two of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Goodwin of 112 Shortwood Avenue, Hucknall, have made a submission to the registrar of the Lands Tribunal for arbitration to determine their claim. On behalf of the many people who need help in my constituency, I have personally thanked Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin for being the front runners on this course. Time will tell whether we have done the right thing. However, I believe in the old adage "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." If the Goodwins' case is successful, the Lands Tribunal will require a substantial increase in staff to cope with the number of applications that it will receive, or it might just dawn on British Coal that it should behave in a civilised way, thus saving everybody time and energy.
During last year's debate I highlighted a number of outstanding cases in my constituency. It will come as no surprise to those of us who have to deal with British Coal estates department to know that they are still outstanding. Today I could relate many further cases in my constituency which could take the debate to 5 o'clock were I not sure that the cases already highlighted by Opposition Members and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) had made it clear that there was still a long way to go.
One of the most traumatic effects of coal mining subsidence is that which lengthy and time-consuming negotiations with British Coal have on human beings. Many people involved have had their lives, health and businesses severely affected by their experiences. There is constant disruption to their daily life and work as people strive for justice and for an equitable solution, and in doing so receive no recompense for the expense and time involved.
Speaking on behalf of my constituents, I do not request the Government to take action. Our patience has run out and we now demand a promise today from the Minister that legislation will be introduced and enacted.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on choosing this subject for debate because of the serious problem in mining constituencies such as his, mine and those of Conservative Members. I recognise the fight that has been put up in the House on behalf of our constituents 1259 in mining areas over mining subsidence. Secondly, I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) for his comments about me. As he said, we had a close association for a number of years on the magistrates' bench at Mansfield. The hon. Gentleman was a fair magistrate and is a fair Member of Parliament. This morning he severely criticised the Government for not having taken action on behalf of our constituents, many of whom have had a raw deal. It is time that the Government took some action about this problem.
I have seized every opportunity to fight in the House on behalf of those people, and it has been an uphill struggle, but I feel that we are over the top now and we are coming down the hill. Whenever I have had the opportunity I have tried to knock the Minister out with one fair blow, but it seems that we will win the battle on points. I am looking forward to the Minister's reply to the debate and I hope that he will respond to the points that we put to him.
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) is sitting in the Minister's place while the Minister nips out to have a bite, no doubt, and I do not deny him that. He cannot sit here all day without a drink or a bite, but I am a little disappointed that the Minister is not here to listen to my speech as I wanted to say one or two things to him before turning to the real problem—mining subsidence. I believe that the Minister is a fair Minister. We often talk outside this place and he says very nice things to me and comes my way on the problems. But when I speak to him in the House he is really vicious to me. I am only speaking on behalf of those whom I represent in my constituency who have problems.
I do not altogether blame the Minister. I blame the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, because not all that long ago he was the Secretary of State for Energy. When we put the problems to him, he did not want to know. Then following on from him, as Secretary of State for Energy, was the present Secretary of State for Social Security. He did not help us either. They just did not want to know. I got the distinct impression, when they were Secretaries of State for Energy, that they were just letting the National Coal Board, as it was known at that time, do as it liked. It could walk all over those people whom we represent—those complainants who are not and have not been getting a fair deal with their mining subsidence claims.
However, the situation has changed. We had two years of MacGregor, and look at the mess he made of the mining industry. People have subsidence problems because of the mining industry. I was lucky enough to be selected to initiate an Adjournment debate only three or four weeks ago, when, once again, I chose the subject of mining subsidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield also spoke in that debate. The Minister was going our way that night. I could see a light in the tunnel. I am hoping that we will see a massive light today in the interests of our constituents. We need help back in the mining areas.
The Government encourage people to own their own properties, and that has happened. However, many people in our mining areas have problems with their properties because of the damage caused by the mining industry. The Government have a responsibility. I am sick to death of seeing the Minister about the problem. The Minister just passes it back to the mining industry—British Coal and the National Coal Board before that. Many Nottinghamshire hon. Members, for example, went to see the chairman of the board. He told us that we had to go back to the area 1260 where the problems are. He passed the buck back to the areas. We then go to see the area director, but we get no change there either. We are in the same boat—no one wants to do anything. We go to the Minister and he passes it back. We go to the chairman of the board and he passes it back, because he says that it is a matter for legislation. What we are appealing for this morning is a change in that legislation in the interests of those people whom we represent.
I shall carry on with what I have to say now that the appropriate Minister has taken his place.
§ Mr. Haynes
No, I shall not start again; that would take too much time. Other hon. Members who have problems in their areas want to speak. The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), for example, has a pit in his area. Before he was elected to the House, there were a number of pits there. No doubt he has subsidence problems in his constituency, because he is here this morning and is obviously interested in the debate. I hope that he will put up as good an argument as his colleagues before him.
Before you came into the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was a little disappointed that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) was slipped into the debate. I thought to myself, "What will he talk about? How many pits are there in Hornsey?" He happens, however, to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. I thought to myself that he would be on our side—and, by God, he was. He spoke about the unfairness of some of the public bodies, who walk all over everybody instead of giving fair treatment. He was right. I hope that people outside will read the hon. Member's contribution because it was made by a senior Conservative. The Minister is faced with a real problem today—or is he? I do not think he has a problem because he can get up at the Dispatch Box to tell us what he will do.
I shall cite two examples only, but they are really bad ones. The first concerns an 82-year-old lady whose husband worked at the pit. They saved and saved. They did not go into an elderly people's bungalow supplied by the local authority; they bought their own out of the savings made from the husband's life-long work at the pit. What happened? The property was seriously damaged so they made a claim to, at that time, the National Coal Board for that damage to be repaired or for compensation to be given. But what happened? The poor fellow died and left a widow on her own. She came crying to me at my Saturday morning surgery because she had made a claim to the NCB, but it had told her that it was out of time. That is scandalous. The industry did the damage and it has every cause to put it right by repair or through compensation. When that old lady made her claim the board said that it was going to go under her house again with a different seam. It said that it would not pay out twice and that it would do the necessary little repairs and would do the real jobs later. Nine and a half years later the board said that she was out of time. That is scandalous. She had a genuine claim on a genuine property and yet those—I nearly called them something then, but I just managed to hold it back in time. At that time the NCB continued to reject her claim in line with the legislation. That shows just how stupid the industry is.
1261 That legislation must be changed in the interests of the people and that is why we are here giving the Minister a rough ride, I hope, so that he will come our way and put matters right.
Currently some people can accept compensation instead of British Coal calling in an outside contractor to do the repairs. In my second example the people said, "We will take the compensation"; but that compensation covered nowhere near the repairs to be done to the property. Who the hell do the people at Hobart house and in the various areas think that they are kidding? It is time that the Minister got on his bike and travelled around and told the area directors and the bloke at Hobart house where to get off. The Minister should tell them to get something done in the interests of the people who have had a real raw deal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) mentioned how, under the NCB regime, officials were on the fiddle—I know that it is history, but it damn well happened. They went down the line for it, and quite right too. The result, however, is that the people we represent have suffered. Those officials should be locked up in a cell because of what they have done. They fiddled from the taxpayer and they should be ashamed of themselves, it is the people we represent who have done the suffering.
I hope that the Minister will take on board what I have said as it is a serious matter. Before he came in I said that he was a fair Minister. In my Adjournment debate he started to come our way. I am convinced that the Minister is concerned about what has happened out there over the years. I do not blame him for it: I blame the people before him. He is, however, coming our way as he has talked sensibly about the problem and I hope that he will do so again today.
There are all manner of things happening. I went to look at two bungalows in my constituency that were advertised. I knew that it was an area in which properties have been damaged by mining subsidence. Because of the serious damage to the two bungalows, British Coal bought them from the owners so that they could move on and buy other properties. That shows how much money it would have cost to repair them. British Coal then put the bungalows on the market to "flog" them, and they did it through an estate agent. In the advertisements for those properties it was not mentioned that they were affected by mining subsidence. Somebody could have bought a pig in a poke and found out about it afterwards. That is the sort of thing that is going on in British Coal. It is damned well deceitful, and it should be checked by the Minister.
Some of my constituents have had to wait for a very long time. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston talked about the Waddilove report. The previous Secretary of State sat on that report and was not prepared to do anything about it. It was two years before it got to the House and before we knew exactly what Waddilove had said. When we did receive it, we realised why the Secretary of State had sat on it. It was clearly in favour of the complainants. No wonder the Secretary of State sat on it. The matter is now wide open and we know what the Waddilove report says and how the complainants are suffering. We know how British Coal is treating people and it is high time that something was done.
1262 The first question that I ask people who come to see me about a subsidence problem is whether they have an agent to represent them to British Coal. Nine times out of ten they say yes. However, hon. Members have found that they are doing the agent's flipping job, and that is wrong because it is not our responsibility. When the complainant talks to the agent, the agent quietly says, "Go and have a word with your Member of Parliament." It lands on our doorstep and people come to us. Hon. Members have talked about the thousands of claims that drop on our doorstep and for which we are not responsible. Our responsibility is to see that the Minister and the Government do something about the problem.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart
The hon. Member touches on a topical subject. I recently wrote to an agent and received from him a letter on A4 paper. In the last paragraph he said that he had written to me as a favour because he is not paid to write to Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Haynes
That is a shocking state of affairs. There is a great amount of fiddling going on as well.
§ Mr. Haynes
No, because I have not yet answered the question asked by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart). I am really drawing the Conservative Members who are trying to get in. The hon. Member for Sherwood is correct.
Agents get a percentage rake-off on the compensation settlement. I visited a property for which British Coal had offered £6,500. It was the gable end house of five very old properties and the gable wall was falling. The agent wrote to me and said that the compensation offered by British Coal was not enough and that the claim was worth £32,000. That speaks for itself. The chappie wanted to accept the £6,500 but the agent said no, thinking, "I will get 5 per cent. of this lot and if it is a large figure I will get a large amount." That has been going on along with the fiddling by British Coal. Blokes in British Coal were getting a large percentage rake-off as well. That is why they have been sent to Lincoln prison and they will be there a long time.
When British Coal is not prepared to move and the agent gets into difficulties, he suggests taking British Coal to court. He puts it in writing, but finishes off by saying, "It will cost you £5,000." Who will write out a cheque for that amount? Will that elderly widow, for example? Such a figure is scandalous. Big businesses do not have a problem. The Mansfield brewery was affected by subsidence, and British Coal rejected its claim. The brewery had an agent, who told it to take British Coal to court. The brewery is rolling in money. It makes masses of profits. It even has a big advertisement using ex-President Reagan drinking a pint of Mansfield bitter, so it must make a nice profit. Because it is a big business that can afford to take British Coal to court, when it threatened to do so British Coal coughed up. The ordinary person cannot do that because he cannot put his hands on such amounts of money.
I have had enough of the buck passing. The buck stops at that Dispatch Box in front of the Minister. I hope that the Minister will pick up that buck. If he wants, I will put a buck on the Dispatch Box so that, when he gets up to grab it, he will tell us what he proposes to do.
1263 We have had a flipping good debate and hon. Members have expressed themselves well. I congratulate Conservative Members on the way in which they have conducted themselves. They have an incentive to do so. There were some elections yesterday, so no wonder the beggars are coming in here today to support an Opposition motion. They are looking after their backs. I do not mind that. They are entitled to do that, especially when, at the same time, they are speaking out on behalf of people who have had a raw deal.
I was a little disappointed by one thing. I do not want to bring in the National Union of Mineworkers or the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, but the hon. Member for Sherwood did when there was no need for it. He used a political argument, just as the Minister did when, from a sedentary position, he accused the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston—the hon. Gentleman may not have heard this, but I did—of having a financial interest. The hon. Gentleman might have, but in the properties that he owns in my constituency live people who are affected by mining subsidence. I will back the hon. Gentleman to the hilt because he is speaking in the interests of those people, so he has every right to clobber the Government for what they have not been doing about mining subsidence. I have cleared the air for the hon. Gentleman, who made a first-class contribution. The Minister could only make snide remarks which were uncalled for, because the hon. Gentleman was right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield and I have been criticised by the UDM for raising the issue of mining subsidence. It said that by bawling our heads off in the House of Commons about mining subsidence, we were closing pits. However, I remember that the general secretary of the UDM in Nottinghamshire had his property seen to and done beautifully because he had a claim against British Coal. He does not own the property—belongs to the union. It cost a fortune to put the house right and now he has the neck to criticise my hon. Friend and I for raising, on behalf of thousands of constituents, the problem of subsidence. It was nasty to say that after his own property had been repaired.
I have tried so often to deliver the knock-out blow to the Minister but I have not yet been able to hit him. We talk nicely to each other outside the Chamber. We do not talk as I am talking now. On this occasion we are really mounting an action in the interests of our constituents. I think that we are winning on points, and I think that we shall win the battle. British Coal—and the National Coal Board before it—has not given a fair deal to those who made claims. I feel within my bones that the Minister will do something about the problem for he is a sincere chap. He has told me privately that he does not like unfairness. I know that I am giving away secrets, but he is prepared to take action to eradicate unfairness.
We have had unfairness for a long time. At long last people have brought themselves together and, in effect, have said, "It is going to stop. The buck stops here." There is no doubt that the Minister will get the message when a meeting takes place next Tuesday. We who represent our constituents back home will come to Westminster to put the case to the Minister, and it is a good one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield on picking coal mining subsidence as the topic of his motion. It is a beauty. He could have selected another topic, but instead he chose the right one. I believe that the Minister has got the message. If he does not tell us 1264 what we all want to hear, he is in for a rough ride next Tuesday. He will not buy me off with a cup of coffee and biscuit in the Department. He will have to listen to what is said as he has had to listen to us today.
I hope that the Minister will come our way and that we shall sort out all the problems so that our consitutents can say, "That Minister is a first-class chap. He has given us what we want. Our representatives did a good job on Friday morning and afternoon in the House of Commons. The result is that the Minister—a wonderful young fellow—stood at the Dispatch Box and gave us what we wanted. He gave us something for which we have been fighting for a long time."
I hope that the battle has been won. I hope that it is all over and that we shall be working together in the interests of our people back home.
§ Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)
I represent a declining mining area, so I am especially grateful to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I declare an interest, although it is perhaps not necessary to do so. My family was involved in tin mining in Cornwall for many generations and I feel the sadness that is felt by my constituents that only one pit is left in Bosworth. Desford has gone, Merrilees deep drift mine has gone, and Bagworth is soon to close.
It is clear from the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock) and those of the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) that there is still great concern about compensation arrangements. I apologise to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). I was unable to be present to hear his speech as I was detained on other duties earlier in the day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) had hoped to be in his place, but unfortunately, for pressing reasons, he has been unable to attend. In his constituency, in an area part of which was part of my constituency until the boundary changes, there are I understand problems near former pits around Ellistown, the Nailstone mine which is still working, Snibstone where the new mining museum has been opened and is such a success, Whitwick and Lount.
Subsidence can be fast, slow and unexpected. The Dolcoath mine between Redruth and Camborne in Cornwall, where my family came from, is famous for the enormous extent of its underground workings. A rather unusual case of subsidence occurred at that mine in 1828. A book from the time states:The movement—which continued for several weeks—was so slow that the miners who at its commencement were employed at deep levels, by climbing uncrushed portions of the ladders in some places and waiting their opportunity and creeping through crevices between moving rocks in others, managed to reach surface at the west part of the mine in safety.I am sure that we are all pleased that miners would never be placed in that predicament today. However, mine subsidence still occurs. The point of my little story is that it can occur long after mines have been sunk. That is the problem that we are finding in my constituency.
The motion implies that British Coal and its predecessor, the National Coal Board, have done next to nothing to compensate those suffering from the effects of mining subsidence. I cannot accept that. Something has 1265 been done. Similarly, I cannot accept that the Government have taken no action. We must recognise that the Government have acted. I want to refer to some of the problems which have affected my constituency.
I welcome the clear undertaking given by the Minister earlier this year that he was aware of the real problems associated with subsidence. He said thatThe question … is how to ensure that those affected by subsidence get a fair deal."—[Official Report, 11 May 1989; Vol. 152, c. 1104].I suggest that the Government have acted to ensure that those affected by subsidence get a fair deal, but they have not done enough. Many of the people affected in my constituency will, like others today, be looking to the Minister for new initiatives to deal with the problem. We have already heard about the important recommendations in the Waddilove report which was based on the 1981 report of the commission on energy and the environment.
The Waddilove committee made 65 recommendations, but it did not recommend a radical revision or overhaul of the system. One principal recommendation involved improvement of public notification procedures. That recommendation, which has been accepted, has had a very beneficial effect. I shall illustrate that by referring to discussions that I had yesterday with council officers from Hinckley and Bosworth borough council. On 20 June, the council's planning committee will consider a report based on a report provided by British Coal about the workings around Bagworth, Nailstone and Markfield. I am pleased to say that the Coal Board's report covers the problems in some detail, for example, outlining the difficulties faced in the areas east of Wigg Farm, south of Bagworth colliery and north of Fox Covert Farm. The report does not skimp and it has had helpful and useful results—I was going to say "meaningful", but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) would agree that that is a terribly abused word.
As a result of other Waddilove recommendations, British Coal is at least committed to good standards of repair in all cases of subsidence. We have already heard why that commitment may not have been fulfilled in all circumstances, but the fact that claimants can now use their own contractors for repairs, for instance, is significant, as is the fact that British Coal provides the Secretary of State for Energy with an annual report on the administration of subsidence claims. I understand that, so far, British Coal has implemented more than half the committee's recommendations, although I agree with the hon. Member for Ashfield that the presentation of the report may have been a slow process.
Another helpful development has been the publication of a new Department of Energy leaflet offering advice on handling subsidence problems, which is a credit to my hon. Friend the Minister. The inclusion of the address of the area surveyor and minerals manager will make it easier for people to contact British Coal officials. British Coal's new procedures, the annual report to the Secretary of State and the report of mining activities to councils are three steps in the right direction.
There is some evidence that the impact of subsidence problems on householders has been reduced. Both the number of new claims and the total number of claims outstanding have fallen. I believe that in 1983–84 some 1266 50,000 claims were outstanding, but in 1986–87 the figure was down to 36,000, and last year saw a further fall of 14 per cent. to 31,000.
§ Mr. Tredinnick
I accept that. In my constituency, certainly, the six-year rule presents claimants with considerable problems. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point sympathetically.
British Coal now takes more account of subsidence in its planning; it also includes it in the costing of all proposed workings. There has been progress, although the pace may be that not of the hare but of a somewhat smaller creature.
There are serious problems in my constituency of which I hope the Minister will take note. We have heard about the problems facing individuals, but businesses also face tremendous problems. In my constituency, the Bagworth to Merrylees road was closed for more than a month—due to subsidence outside the main gate of the old Desford colliery. The Merrylees mine area is now an industrial complex offering employment to many of my constituents. When the road was closed it posed an enormous burden on the businesses which had to make a long detour. There is a good case for those companies receiving some compensation. The companies include major employers such as Butterley Buick and Hercock Simpson, which receive nothing from British Coal although their businesses have suffered seriously as a result of this problem.
It is no good British Coal saying that the problems are minimal. Not long ago in my constituency we had the case of the disappearing digger. I am referring not to an Australian who had too many "triple Xs", although when we consider the result of the recent Test match some of us might wish that Alan Border were a disappearing digger, but to a disappearing JCB which popped into a hole and could not be found. It simply sank overnight in an area that is supposed to be fairly safe, the site of the old Merrylees deep drift mine.
Sporting facilities in the Bosworth area face problems. The Bosworth parliamentary division has a long tradition of bowling and cricket, which I support at a time when sport seems in decline in this country. It is a credit to my constituents that they have such tremendous sporting interests. It was tough on the Barlestone mining institute when its bowling green suffered subsidence and the club received nothing for it. Barlestone football club pitch suffered movement too. In this House we are familiar with moving goalposts and tilting pitches because we play on them all the time, but I do not see why my constituents should have to suffer that.
The National Coal Board sells off houses and, in the small print of the contract, exempts itself from responsibility for any future problem. What is the use of a beautiful ex-Coal Board house which might make a lovely home when who knows what rabbit warrens of mining passages may run underneath? I say, "Who knows?" because none of us knows and none of us can find out because the information is not available. That is probably because it is a nationalised industry. If it were privatised it might have kept proper records.
1267 We could all give cases, and I know of many of them. The subsidence problems faced by a family business in my constituency should go on the record. A. E. Statham and Sons process and distribute potatoes. Mr. Statham built a factory on land above old mine workings. Very soon subsidence occurred which necessitated repairs to the floors and foundations of the main storage area and the walls. The problem was first raised by my predecessor, Sir Adam Butler, who served his constituents so well. He started work on the case in 1980, and I have followed his work since then. The Coal Board accepted liability and arranged for the work to be carried out.
The beginning of the necessary repairs was also the start of a long saga of frustration about the standard of repairs. Another big problem that my constituent faced was that British Coal was not prepared to carry out the repairs outside usual working hours. My constituent was trying to run a business facing this enormous hurdle. The specifications for the work were poorly drawn up and the job was not properly supervised. Fortunately, Mr. Statham managed to continue in business and, to cut a long story short—think of the parliamentary time which has gone into this long case—he received some, albeit inadequate, compensation.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I will finish without giving the House the summary that I had planned to give. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and I look forward to hearing his speech.
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)
I had not originally intended to take part in this important debate, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). At one time in a previous incarnation I almost became secretary of the Co-operative movement's education committee in Mansfield but, perhaps wisely, it chose not to employ me. I n any case, I know the area reasonably well—
§ Mr. Douglas
Now I know what happened.
I represent what used to be a coal mining constituency, although now there are no active pits within its boundaries. Some of the few remaining miners in my constituency are employed in the Longannet complex. I shall allude to it again in a moment.
We are discussing the impact of mining on the environment and the consensus is that those who disrupt or pollute the environment should pay for the social and economic disruption that they cause. Having established this basic principle, we need to find a way to put it into practice. I have received many letters from constituents about subsidence caused by British Coal, not below but above ground—by the number of lorries that pass through a small village in my constituency called Cairneyhill, driving from opencast mining operations in Fife.
How we enforce the principle that the polluter pays is what counts. My hon. Friends have made a good case for saying that the enforcement procedures bear too heavily on those who cannot afford to go to court and are weighted too much in favour of the big corporations, such as British Coal, which can afford to put off the inconvenienced individual who suffers damage and disruption to his property.
1268 We must take national action. It is not only public corporations that mishandle the individual: private corporations can do the same. We need a scheme that can help these people, and the scheme that we have is legal aid. However, because of the requirement for a reasonable chance of success in the courts, legal aid is difficult to obtain. There is a case for someone such as an independent ombudsman to assist the aggrieved individual.
There is increasing public worry about pollution, and there is some indication of that in the likely results of the European elections, with the exit polls suggesting that the Green party achieved 2 million votes. That illustrates the underlying concern of people in Europe as a whole about the environment. The Coal Board is sensitive to criticism in respect of acid rain and is anxious to prove its claim that it is not as great a polluter as has been suggested.
The Longannet complex is closely linked to a power station and produces coal having a very slow sulphur content. As the Minister knows, important negotiations are under way between the South of Scotland electricity board and British Coal over a reasonably long-term contract for the supply of 2 million tonnes of power station coal. If Longannet does not win that contract, there will be considerable subsidence in central Scotland because a coal mine there dedicated to a power station will no longer be utilised. The social cost of that will be borne by the community as a whole and by the Coal Board, whose £400 million operating profit would be substantially reduced.
Concern has been expressed about the effect of subsidence on property. Under the old rating system, such damage would be reflected in lower rates, but under the change to poll tax property owners will have to pay the full sum regardless of the state of their property.
Because I want to be fair to Conservative Members who have massive constituency interests, I bring my remarks to a conclusion with this observation. I do not know what is the practice now between the usual channels, but when I entered the House in 1970, if an understanding was reached between right hon. and hon. Members as to the allocation of time available for a debate, their respective Whips would get together and reach an understanding. That was done to protect the interests of Back Benchers. Today is for Back Benchers, not for members of the Government or Opposition Front Benchers. Nevertheless, I understand that the type of friendly understanding to which I referred has broken down. Mr. Speaker can do very little about it, but Back Benchers ought to put down some markers. They should reach a harmonious understanding on the timetabling—I use that term loosely—of motions. The usual channels ought to take account of it. The dreary procedure of talking out motions would not then be needed.
Some, though not many, of my constituents have suffered from the effects of mining subsidence. However, we ought to look after the interests of all Back Benchers, particularly when they are successful in the ballot.
§ 2.5 pm
§ Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)
I do not represent a constituency with a coal mining interest, but I take a particular interest in the law relating to compulsory purchase and compensation. The steady and logical arguments that are always pursued by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) have been of great benefit to the mining 1269 industry for some years. They are of considerably more benefit than the erratic outpourings of one trade union leader.
The Minister's career is rapidly recovering from the flattering remarks that were made about him by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes). He will, I believe, have to introduce at some time a Bill to cover compulsory purchase and compensation. It is not just a question of subsidence within the mining industry. It is a complex and complicated issue. It began in the middle of the 19th century. I apologise to Hansard for using the Latin phrase "quicquid plantatur solo, solo cedit"—that whatsoever is planted in or attached to the soil remains with the soil.
It was rather hard luck for any farmer who died on 28 September: the landlord automatically took his crop on 29 September. Gradual progress was made towards the end of the 19th century. Further progress was made in 1919 under the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act. Yet more of the customs of the country were covered in McCartney v. Metropolitan Board of Works, a major decision affecting the law on compensation. In 1946—not a particularly good year for legislation—there was the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act which led to a number of additional complications. By 1947, things were getting even more desperate. Under the Town and Country Planning Act the Labour Government tried to nationalise all development land values. That did not last for very long. There have been town and country planning Acts in almost every year since then. There was also the Land Compensation Act 1973.
The legislative programme of the last 100 to 150 years has led to great complexities. I ask my hon. Friend not to go down the same road. I sat for many hours in the Committee that considered the Water Bill. The Minister recognised that a new compulsory purchase code for land held by water companies would be needed. Many similar matters are covered by the Acts covering electricity and gas supplies. Will every statutory undertaking need a separate code? A comprehensive Bill dealing with compulsory purchase compensation must be introduced, but it must be sufficiently flexible to take account of the needs of different industries, including subsidence in the mining industry.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) drew attention to many problems, but many of them have been created because the nationalised industries do not have flexibility to look after people in a reasonable way. Now that at long last the mining industry is becoming increasingly profitable, we can surely afford to address compulsory purchase and compensation in a more flexible way.
§ 2.9 pm
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I join my colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on choosing this subject for debate and for so eloquently, if in a marathon speech, giving us the benefit of his detailed knowledge. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who has been an equally assiduous proponent of these matters on behalf of his constituents and all our constituents generally.
1270 Today I have moved Bench to indicate that I am speaking in the capacity not of parliamentary private secretary to my hon. Friend the Minister but as a constituency member with coal mining interests as my constituents are very much affected by the problem of coal mining subsidence.
Cannock is well known for its association with the coal industry. In 1945 there were 22 pits in my constituency and today there is not one, although there are two just outside it. I pay tribute to my constituents in the coal industry who have produced a tremendous turnaround in the fortunes of the industry and, I am glad to say, are making money for themselves, for our local economy and for the nation at large.
Like many hon. Members who have spoken, since I was elected in 1983 I have found subsidence to be one of the most difficult problems affecting my constituency. As everyone has pointed out, the villain of the piece is British Coal, which has not dealt with the problem satisfactorily. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) said, this is not unassociated with the fact that British Coal is a nationalised industry. Private sector industries simply cannot afford to be so overbearing and churlish about the anxieties of people affected by their operations.
The hon. Member for Mansfield said that home owners simply do not trust British Coal, and that is a widespread feeling throughout the parts of the country where coal mining has been or is being carried on. The sooner that the British coal industry can move into the private sector, the sooner it will have to conform to the disciplines of the private sector. In these modern times the private sector cannot put up with so many dissatisfied customers who will only speak ill of the business. There will be further advantage in competition.
§ Mr. Howarth
My kinsman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), says that I should refer to British Airways, and I am happy to do so. British Airways enjoys superb competition from British Midland and as a result the travelling public get a better deal.
Two issues are involved here. The first is that the problems caused by subsidence are not confined to damage. Blight is a major problem. A crack in one house in my constituency on the new estate sent metaphorical shock waves through the entire housing market, affecting neighbouring houses and streets. Confidence in housing in that area was seriously shaken. Local surveyors simply reported to purchasers that subsidence had taken place and building societies would not lend and people could not sell their houses, they could not move jobs and they could not raise funds on their properties for business or pleasure purposes. As a result of getting together with some of the local and professional interests involved, we were able to dampen that down. I pay tribute to one estate agent in my constituency, Mr. Graham Morris, who did a tremendous amount to take the heat out of the problem.
The second issue is the damage. In my constituency the difficulties are faced by the owners of older properties. The problem is well illustrated by one particular area, the Church hill area of Hednesford, which is well known to those who did national service in the Royal Air Force as one of the bleakest, most inhospitable and horrid places in the land on which to do their square bashing. By the time 1271 that I arrived as Member of Parliament for Cannock and Burntwood in 1983, St. Peter's church, a very fine Victorian church, was falling apart, but already negotiations with British Coal were at an advanced stage for compensation of about £250,000 to be paid. Further down the hill is the Hednesford Victoria working men's club. The bottom literally fell out of that club. I went there a couple of days ago and saw a gaping hole underneath the club. The day after, British Coal sent round a JCB, on a no-prejudice basis, to fill up the hole. There is even a road sign on the hill which says, "Road liable to subsidence". In 1978 a sewer collapsed and the board elected to make a payment to the local authority.
If, however, one draws a line on the map between the club and the church—both properties which have been bailed out by British Coal—it is a completely different story for the private houses on that line which have suffered damage. My constituent, Mrs. Flinn, of 128 Church hill has suffered damage to her property and so, too, has Mr. Walker of 140 Church hill—but can they get any joy out of British Coal? They cannot, because they are not a working men's club or a church. They have found it impossible to get any satisfaction. Mrs. Flinn sent me a letter which I believe sums up the position. She said:Public places, i.e. St. Peter's church and Church hill working men's club, seem to be top priority, but, when it comes to people's homes, they are right at the bottom of the list.It is intolerable that British Coal should seek to take advantage of its massive underwriting by the public purse to do selective deals with people who they feel they need to bail out and to ignore the poor private house owners who cannot, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, afford to go through the long-winded procedures of the Lands Tribunal and all the rest of it to establish their rights.
British Coal has told me that in this case it is natural movement in the earth's surface that has caused the problem, because mining activity ceased 20 years ago. I went to see a splendid mining engineering consultant who told me that there is no such thing as natural movement in the earth's surface in the United Kingdom. It is significant, too, that the only places in my constituency where there are problems are in areas where there has been mining activity. I do not see how British Coal can have the continuing gall to pay out on some properties but not to pay out to poor householders who do not have the resources to take on Goliath.
I believe that I am in the best position to know that my hon. Friend the Minister has done more than anybody to try to improve the situation. As long as he is at the Department of Energy, I am sure that we shall have a worthy champion of our concerns about mining subsidence. We look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend will say. Ultimately, however, I am sure that the answer lies in the privatisation of the coal industry.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer)
As has been said already, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has raised an important matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) stated, this subject has been pursued by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for 1272 Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), for instance, has represented this cause assiduously during the period in which he has been in Parliament.
In view of the intervention by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), I must say that I in no way would denigrate the contributions that have been made over a period by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock). The fact that he has not a constituency interest, and that perhaps he has some business interest in the matter, which he has always declared, does not mean that he should not be deeply involved in the matter. I do not want the hon. Gentleman ever to cast any implied aspersions on what my lion. Friend may say on this matter.
I came to the House with a 39-page speech in which I intended to outline in great detail what the Government plan to do on this subject. However, so eloquent have been the speeches on both sides of the House, notably that of the hon. Member for Mansfield, who spoke for two hours, that, far from giving a speech of 39 pages, I have time only to give various indications to the House of the principles by which the Government will govern their actions in this regard.
I am very much of the view that subsidence causes both material difficulties and mental anguish to the people affected. That come out strongly from the debate and anyone in British Coal or anyone else who was unaware of such problems will be much more aware of them after this debate, in which some excellent speeches have been made.
I am sure that the House recognises that subsidence is an inevitable consequence of modern, deep-mining techniques. The problems associated with subsidence will therefore remain as long as there is a coal industry, and I certainly predict—I suspect that the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen agree with me—that that industry will be with us for a long time and will undertake deep mining for many years to come.
I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Mansfield because it is important to remember that the industry is under considerable financial pressure—far greater than was implied in the hon. Gentleman's speech. There is no question but that the industry is still suffering considerable losses. No doubt I shall return to that aspect when I come to the House some time in the future to ask for more assistance for it.
Currently, the coal industry is under great pressure from the environmental lobby, and in some respects that pressure is not entirely fair. No doubt the industry will address those problems in the future, but it will cost money. It is important to put this debate in context and to point out that the industry is not flush with cash but is still under considerable pressure. However, I completely accept, on behalf of the Government, that there is a problem with subsidence. How are those affected by subsidence to get a fair deal?
Mention has been made of the Waddilove committee report of 1984 and about the lapse of time between that committee publishing its report and the response to it. It is important to remember that one of the committee's conclusions was that the system for compensation and repair had its shortcomings—undoubtedly it took that view—but it did not call for a radical revision or overhaul of the system. Hon. Members have pointed out, however, that the report identified a number of areas in which improvement could be made. The process of implementation—perhaps not fully recognised—has already begun. 1273 As I stated to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston in a written answer on 12 January 1989. British Coal has already implemented more than half the Waddilove committee's 65 recommendations.
A number of important changes are therefore in place. British Coal has, for example, improved its public notification procedures. It now publishes in local newspapers mining locations for the previous and next 12 months. I appreciate that it is important to ask how effective those notifications are. That is why we are currently conducting a review of how these procedures are operated. We shall then be able to see whether they have been effective.
One of the Waddilove committee recommendations on which it is important to focus—there were lots of them, but I do not have time to go through them all—concerns the necessity for the Secretary of State for Energy to be supplied with an annual report of the administration of the subsidence compensation and repair system in the previous year. I remind the House that the first of those reports was placed in the Library towards the end of last year. It shows that the numbers of new claims and the total number of claims outstanding are on their way down. They may not be coming down quickly enough, but in 1983–84 there were 52,000 claims outstanding, while in 1986–87 there were 37,000. The report shows that by last year the figure had fallen to 31,000. Some hon. Members have suggested that this reduction has been achieved by British Coal simply rejecting claims, but that is not true. In 1987–88, the last full year for which figures are available, British Coal settled more claims than it received.
Last year, British Coal spent £49 million on compensation and repairs. The hon. Member for Mansfield asked for a breakdown of the figure, and perhaps I can supply him with detailed figures in writing. The main point is that the £49 million does not contain a large element of administrative costs as he feared. It is the amount of compensation that was paid. That money has been spent by an industry which, as I have said, has serious financial problems. In addition, it currently makes provision of £260 million in its accounts for subsidence compensation.
It is a distortion—I have to use such a strong word—to say that in some way or other the industry is specifically gearing itself not to make settlements. British Coal has a substantial amount in its accounts for the payment of compensation and pays out almost £50 million a year in compensation settlements. That is indicative not of an industry unwilling to make settlements, but of one that has all sorts of bureaucratic problems.
1274 My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) and other hon. Members have said that we are talking about a nationalised industry and that it may well be that it operates differently from the way in which a private industry would have to operate. However, much money is set aside and paid out in subsidence compensation. The Government accept many of the recommendations in the Waddilove report for tightening up procedures. I would have gone through that matter in greater detail if I had had the time.
§ Mr. Barron
Why do the Government think that there should not be any form of the local adjudication that is specifically mentioned in the Waddilove report?
§ Mr. Spicer
I had intended to deal later with the question of the adjudication review, but I shall deal with it now in some detail as the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has quite properly raised it. I know that it is at the root of many of the problems raised by hon. Members. At present the Lands Tribunal procedure can be used, and local independent arbitration is also available. The issue is about what matters can be dealt with by each form of adjudication.
British Coal says that if a matter is not sufficiently simple to be dealt with through local and independent arbitration it should be put to the Lands Tribunal. That is where the controversy arises because it has been said that the Lands Tribunal procedure is expensive. We are reviewing this matter as part of our total appraisal of Waddilove and we have said that we will look at it again before 1990. We shall bring forward the review of the way in which adjudication is conducted and shall review the criteria by which the distinction between the two types of arbitration is made. We shall look at the matter to see whether there is room for improvement.
§ Mr. Spicer
I shall not have time to deal with the details, but the hon. Gentleman's idea of what he calls an independent legal centre, as part of the review procedure, is interesting, and we shall look at it in the context of what I have just announced to the House. We shall also look at the general circumstances in which arbitration takes place.
We accept the spirit of this motion and of the debate and attach great importance to it. We intend to legislate—
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.