§ `For the purposes of this Act the "accumulated group deficit" shall include
- (1) sums owed by the Corporation to the Treasury or the Bank of England,
- (2) sums owed by the Corporation to banks and other financial institutions,
- (3) sufficient sums to cover all outstanding claims on the Corporation for compensation for coal mining subsidence damage,
- (4) such additional sums as the Corporation would have been liable for if the recommendations contained in the Report of the Subsidence Compensation Review Committee on the Report and Compensation System for Coal Mining Subsidence Damage had been enacted before 30th March 1990.'.—[Mr. Dobson.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.3.59 pm
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
I beg to move. That the clause be read a Second time.
When the Coal Industry Bill was published, many people were disappointed that it did not include proposals to improve the arrangements for compensating people for damage caused to their homes by mining subsidence. To be fair, it was not just Labour Members who were disappointed; even some of the Tory Members involved expressed their disappointment that the opportunity had been missed. We are all at a loss to know why such proposals were not included.
No hon. Member was as disappointed, however, as the people who live in areas that are severely affected by mining subsidence, and probably the most disappointed of all were the people who live in the Nottingham coalfield, where the problem is particularly bad. People living in such areas suffer damage to their homes. Their children suffer damage to their schools, and other public buildings, too, are damaged. There is damage to water pipes, gas pipes, and sewers, and farmers' land is damaged by breaks in the drainage system.
The Government say that they really cannot find any place in their legislative programme for provisions to 170 improve the compensation system. They have also said that they cannot offer an improvement in that system in this Bill—for some reason or another, it is not considered appropriate. The former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, who has now moved on to the Department of the Environment, said that the Bill was a subsidy Bill, not a subsidence Bill, although he attributed that bon mot originally to one of his colleagues.
It is strange to hear that this is only a subsidy Bill because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) pointed out, it provides for a tenfold increase in the size of private opencast workings, with all the environmental damage and dangers to health that they bring with them. It also provides for a fivefold increase in the number of miners who may be employed underground in private mines, which are at least four times as dangerous as the mines of British Coal.
The Government managed to draft a Bill to cope with those non-subsidy issues, both of which will have adverse effects on the coalfield communities—on the miners going below ground and on the people living above ground and facing the damage that opencasting usually brings with it. One might have thought that the Government would make some effort to introduce an offsetting provision to help the coalfield communities. They should have sorted out the problem of compensation scheme once and for all, and the Bill could have given them the opportunity to do that.
I can think of only one explanation for their different approach: presumably, those in favour of bigger opencast mines and those in favour of increasing the number of miners going down terribly dangerous private pits must have made private representations to the Government. They include Tory supporters such as Taylor Woodrow, Costain and Wimpey, which will undoubtedly make money out of the changes.
They are the only people who can have advocated the changes. There have been no official reports proposing them. There has been no long series of official inquiries into the problems of opencasting. There is little evidence of any pressure from hon. Members to increase the size of opencast workings. If there has been any pressure, it has been to try to persuade the Government to reduce the slize of those workings.
We have a strange difficulty, it seems, over subsidence. Great efforts have been made in the House to get the compensation scheme improved and made the law of the land. I shall describe the various stages in the development of proposals to improve the scheme since the Government came to office. In September 1981, the Commission on Energy and the Environment made certain proposals about improving the compensation scheme. Its report contained a chapter on subsidence and recommended improvements.
It took the Government until May 1983, almost two years later, to publish a response to that report. They did not show much urgency at the time. They can say that, shortly before they published their response, they set up the Waddilove committee to report on the compensation system for coal mining subsidence damage. Fair do's to the committee—it got on with its job. A year later, in May 1984, it produced a thorough report with 65 specific recommendations.
The Government received that report in 1984. No one could accuse them of being in a rush to judgment on it, because they did not produce their response until October 1987. That meant that they took almost three weeks to 171 consider each recommendation in the report. It took them another year before they produced a consultation document on what they themselves proposed to do to improve the compensation scheme. They produced it in April 1988.
When will the Government introduce a proper statutory compensation scheme? Other hon. Members have also asked that question. I have been checking what has happened in the House since the Waddilove report was produced. There have been dozens of written questions, seven or eight oral questions, no fewer than four private Members' Bills, early-day motions, Select Committee inquiries, and debates about this topic. This difficult topic has also been mentioned in a large number of general debates.
I have a computer printout listing all the times when mining subsidence has been raised since the Waddilove committee reported. It goes on and on. It contains page after page of hon. Members trying to represent their constituents to make sure that something is done. Unfortunately, the only people who are not doing anything are the Government. On several occasions, successive Ministers have said that a Bill to change the law will be introduced at the earliest opportunity.
§ Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)
Many Conservative Members would like to see such a Bill. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a statutory compensation scheme would require several more clauses and would be quite complicated? The Government's objective is to get this Bill through Parliament at the earliest possible stage. Of course, a further Bill will have to come forward at another time.
§ Mr. Dobson
Several comments are to be made in response to the hon. Gentleman's reasonable point. If they had wanted, during this Session, the Government could have introduced a separate Bill on subsidence. Instead, they have decided to introduce Bills that kick lumps off the National Health Service and other Bills on matters of apparent high priority for the Prime Minister. It is clear that subsidence is not a high priority for the Prime Minister. Even so, it would have been possible to introduce into the Bill provisions which would allow the establishment of a statutory compensation scheme.
Although Opposition Members have criticised the Bill and, because of its threat to miners' lives, voted against it on Second Reading, we responsibly made sure that it got out of Committee quickly and that it will quickly be considered on Report, because it is necessary that the large sums that British Coal requires must be available by the end of March. Equally, even now, if the Secretary of State undertakes to introduce substantial changes to the Bill in the House of Lords to include subsidence, we will guarantee that we will not use that decision to obstruct the passage of this Bill or the passage of proper measures to improve subsidence compensation.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley West and Penistone)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me, because my constituency has been devastated by mining subsidence, and over the years we have been pressing the Government for some new compensation and for a new look at things. We suspect that the Government are holding their fire purely and simply for the privatisation of 172 mines. However, would it not be sensible for the Government to bring in new legislation before that happens, if it is likely to happen, so that they can have something on the statute book to alleviate the fears of the many people who think that the Government are playing fast and loose and hard and fast until the mines are privatised?
§ Mr. Dobson
I know that those fears are shared by a considerable number of people living in those areas that are severely affected by mining subsidence. My hon. Friend is right—logically, the Government should have introduced something on subsidence in the Bill, as my hon. Friend knows, because much of the rest of the Bill is intended as a paving stone for privatisation. People are concerned about what will happen and that the provisions for subsidence will be pushed further and further back and that we will then be told by the Government that it would be unfair to impose those awful burdens on a privatised coal industry. That may be what is happening. It is certainly what many people fear may be happening.
For more than five years, the promise to do something about the compensation scheme has not been fulfilled. People living in the areas affected by subsidence are getting restless about the delays, and there is no reason why we should blame them. From time to time, Ministers have said that it is all right, because British Coal has already implemented over half the recommendations of the Waddilove committee. So it has—and all credit to British Coal—but British Coal cannot change the law. It cannot introduce a statutory compensation scheme. Only Governments can change the law. When Ministers say that British Coal has done its stuff, they are highlighting the fact that everybody else has done their stuff as well, and that only the Government have not responded and done their job properly. It is now up to the Government to settle this problem because it severely affects thousands of people.
There are conflicting estimates of the number of people involved, but the lowest estimate that I could find—I suppose that it is understandable that it is the lowest, because it is British Coal's estimate in its last report—is that over 25,000 valid claims may lie against British Coal. However, there are many higher estimates, especially in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. As I have said, in fairness to British Coal and to the House and because I do not want to exaggerate, I have chosen the lowest estimate that I have been able to find. Others go well above double that figure.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
I do not want to dispute what my hon. Friend has said, but is he aware that Mansfield district council and other councils in my area sent a questionnaire to every house locally and received 33,000 or more answers from tenants and owner-occupiers who said that their houses had been affected by subsidence? So my hon. Friend's estimate might be rather low.
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend has taken literally the next line of what I intended saying. It is certainly true that there have been much higher estimates, including estimates covering the affected districts in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
It is necessary to emphasise to people who are not familiar with the problems of subsidence just what effects it can have, in this case, just on people's homes, and 173 leaving out major public buildings and such things. The Commission on Energy and the Environment has classified subsidence damage, starting with the lowest classification of "very slight" or "negligible", which includes hair cracks in the plaster, isolated slight fractures in the building that are not visible outside.
As most people will know, no house-proud family likes even hairline cracks in the internal plaster. Indeed, if most hon. Members were faced with hairline cracks in the internal plaster of their front rooms or whatever they like to call them, they would want something done about it. They would want it put right as quickly as possible, to the highest possible standard. However, that is not necessarily available here.
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend is right about this House. I think that he was talking about the houses of hon. Members. There was a classic example of the Government's attitude recently in the Houses of Parliament. Although the damage was not done by mining subsidence, it was significant that, when a little bit of plaster fell from the ceiling of the House of Lords, all hell broke loose. As a result, a string of architects longer than the so-called dole queue went running into the House of Lords to find a remedy. The ceiling was then propped up for 12 months or more. The estimate for the total cost of putting that matter right was over £250,000.
That shows the double standard that operates in the country. If there is a hairline crack in the House of Lords or elsewhere in the Houses of Parliament, the Government will go to any lengths to put the matter right. When it comes to sorting out the problems of an elderly pensioner in my constituency or in the constituencies of my hon. Friends, the Government hold things up year after year. The same is true of Bolsover church. We have battled for several years to have the subsidence damage put right. The Government know how to operate double standards when it comes to subsidence.
§ Mr. Dobson
I recall my hon. Friend raising the matter of damage to Bolsover church several times in the House. I wonder how swiftly the Government would respond if hairline cracks appeared in the new ornamental gates at the end of Downing street. I bet they would not have to negotiate with the Coal Board to put the gates right.
The next category to which the Commission referred was slight damage. This was:Several slight fractures showing inside the buildings. Doors and windows may stick slightly. Repairs to decoration probably necessary.Again, we would not put up with such damage in our own homes, at least not voluntarily.
The next category is described as appreciable damage. It includesSlight fractures showing on the outside of building (or one main fracture). Doors and windows sticking."—not "slightly" this time—Service pipes may fracture".
We then go on to severe damage. Service pipes are not simply fractured but disrupted. This class of damage also includesOpen fracture requiring rebonding and allowing weather into the structure. Window and door frames distorted, floors sloping noticeably, walls leaning or bulging noticeably. Some loss of bearing in beams. If compressive damage, overlapping of roof joints and lifting of brickwork".
174 That is not the end of it. We go on to very severe damage. The classification starts:As above but worse, and requiring partial or complete rebuilding. Roof and floor beams lose bearing and walls lean badly and need shoring up. Windows broken with distortion. Severe slopes of floors. If compressive damage,"—instead of stretching—severe buckling and bulging of the roofs and walls.
§ Mr. Dobson
Yes. This is a serious matter. Damage is done to the homes of people who, like most of us, take pride in their homes. Stress is caused as the damage happens and people wonder how it is happening, whether it will get worse, and how long it will go on. Then they suffer disturbance while the damage is put right, if they finally come to an agreement with the Coal Board.
Some friends of mine who are reasonably well-off—they are both doctors who live on the edge of Nottingham—had to move out of their home for almost four months because such extensive work was required to put their home into reasonable nick and allow them to live in the manner to which they were, rightly, accustomed. Many other people are forced to leave their homes for similar periods. They are people who probably cannot afford it as well as my friends could and who cannot easily find alternative accommodation. The matter is serious for the people involved.
It is stressful when one's house is cracking and buckling. It is stressful if one has to stay in it while work is being done. It is probably equally stressful to move into somewhere smaller while work is being done.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
Great distress is also caused to people whose properties may not have been blighted by subsidence but whose properties have been rendered valueless when neighbouring properties have been so affected. One day, a person may have a property worth £40,000 or £50,000 and the next day nothing.
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend is right. Blight affects whole areas as well as individuals. Only a half-wit would buy an undamaged house in a row where others are damaged until it was known that the subsidence had stopped or that work would be done to make the houses safe.
Such stress is harmful for the people concerned. That is all the more reason why we should work to remove any unnecessary stress which, in the current system, is the gratuitous problem of having to have a great barney with British Coal in order to get things put right. That is why not just those directly affected but people living in areas that are generally affected by mining subsidence join us in believing that the time for action has come. That is why we have tabled new clause 1.
Subsidence is a problem in many coalfields, but it applies particularly in Nottinghamshire. I do not know what the Nottingham miners have done to upset the Government. The Bill provides for redundancy money which will help to put Nottingham miners out of jobs and it provides for bigger private opencast workings. About a fortnight ago, the House passed the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill to increase the coal-handling plant on Humberside so that cheap, slave-labour, foreign coal could compete with the Nottingham miners' product. 175 Moreover, in the past few days we have discovered that at least two gas-fired power stations are to be built at Killingholme on Humberside near the Nottinghamshire coalfield. They are about to receive the Secretary of State's consent.
In view of all that, one would have thought that the Government would have done something to compensate the Nottingham miners for all that is happening to Nottinghamshire and to the other coalfields. Surely we should act now. The Opposition will co-operate in any way with a new Bill or the additional clauses to this Bill in order to implement the Waddilove proposals. They are good and sound proposals, which have been discussed long enough. People understand them and want them enacted. That is the reason for the new clause.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
I want to associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), particularly on subsidence. No one who has lived in Nottinghamshire all his life and who has been involved in the coal industry in many ways during that time—as I have—could be happy with the overall situation on subsidence. Many hon. Members will have dealt with difficult subsidence cases, and one reason why I gave evidence to the Waddilove committee was my concern for individuals who must take on a major industry such as British Coal with few resources to do so.
A problem arose when agents working in Nottinghamshire took on many cases at a time when cash compensation was available. The coal board paid out a lot of money for subsidence which, in many cases, was not used for the job for which it was intended. That is one reason why I have suggested that if anyone receives cash compensation, which is now much harder to get, it should be entered on the deeds or in the Land Registry so that any subsequent purchaser knows that a claim has been made and cash has been paid and so that a surveyor can ensure that the money has been used in the way that it should have been. I feel that there should be repairs rather than cash compensation, except when there is a tilted floor or something of that sort with which it would be better to live, with compensation, instead of pulling the house down.
This all adds up to the case for more urgent consideration of the subject. Clause 4 on opencasting strengthens my belief that one reason why we have relatively low-cost coal is the forebearance of those who suffer when it is extracted. This is true of deep mine pits, through subsidence, and opencast mines, through the long-term problems which are created for the community when companies rip the hell out of the local hillsides. In my constituency, brand new green belt land is affected.
It is time for us to look seriously at the problem. We try to protect the villages of Kent because individuals might suffer in the public interest when a valuable link is placed at the end of the Channel tunnel. I have no objection to such protection, but for many years, those of us who represent mining areas have had the short end of the stick. Nobody has thought through the fact that many people will suffer.
The people who work in the industry have tended to say, "If we work in it, we have to suffer by it." However, that attitude has long since gone. It is time to look at the recommendation of the Waddilove committee. The Country Landowners Association was part of the united 176 industry working party which consisted of the National Farmers' Union, the Building Societies Association, the Confederation of British Industry, the Law Society, the British Property Federation and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. It met my right hon. Friend's predecessor to put pressure for action on the Waddilove committee which reported in 1984. The Government did not say anything until 1987—by anyone's standards that was a hell of a long time to consider the issue.
Those organisations pressed for various sensible actions in terms of legislative reforms, independent arbitration and standards of repair. When repairs are done, there are constant disagreements about their standard. The organisations pressed the committee about the contractors used. Sometimes, the Coal Board, through no fault of its own, might be slow in appointing a contractor. There is no reason why, with proper safeguards, the people affected should not appoint their own contractors to do the work under proper supervision. The onus of proof should be on the coal board to show that the damage is not caused by subsidence, rather than on the individual to prove that it was subsidence damage. A great deal could be done for administrative improvements in terms of claims, limitations of claims and notification of areas of work.
I do not want my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to imagine that this is a party political matter. It is not. Those of us who represent, and have represented for some time, mining areas, feel that the time is right to look at compensation for those affected. My simple view is that there are many cases in which the public interest overrides the individual's interest. That is the case with roads and many other things. However, it is then right that the public interest should thoroughly compensate those private individuals who lose something—often quite dramatically—for the sake of the general interest. That applies not just to mining subsidence, but to other issues.
If my right hon. Friend is not prepared to accept new clause 1, it would be helpful if he would give a clear indication of what he is prepared to do, through legislation, regulation or whatever, to bring about the Waddilove committee's sensible recommendations and respond to the promises made by his predecessor when he met the committee.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) agrees that mining subsidence affects areas other than those that he specifically mentioned, in Nottinghamshire. I assure him and the House that the problem exists also in west and south Yorkshire. It certainly does in my area.
Like the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), I gave evidence to the Waddilove committee, both written and oral. Like him, I and many others believe that its recommendations would prompt a greater response than we have seen to date. The situation in Nottingham has only been made worse by delay.
I recall going to Nottingham with members of the Select Committee to take evidence of the problems there, which had been highlighted by Ian MacGregor's evidence to the Select Committee in 1986, when he emphasised the colossal volume of funds contained in British Coal's estimates and which has been paid out in Nottingham. That set the alarm bells ringing.
177 There is no doubt that, through neglect, inefficiency and corruption on the part of certain British Coal officers—and people were found guilty of corruption and sent to prison—the policy in force at that time began to grind to a standstill and British Coal started tidying up its act. No one could grumble at that, because those responsible for corruption paid the right penalty. However, that was of little comfort to people in Nottinghamshire and in west and south Yorkshire who were treated differently from the way in which they had been hitherto.
If the Secretary of State presents the new Bill of which mention was made earlier by the hon. Member for Broxtowe, I hope that he will take into account the fact that the average individual in a mining community desperately needs independent professional advice before reaching any settlement with British Coal. In the past, many people accepted settlements that were far from adequate because of their lack of professional knowledge. I hope that any such Bill would provide for the cost of such professional advice to be met by British Coal.
I do not take away from anything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, but one needs to live in a mining community to appreciate the problems that it faces. The Flowers commission report of 1981 acknowledged that there is little peace to be had in mining communities. People living in them dare not go to sleep at night because of the cracks and creaking that they hear. In my own area, housing estates have been demolished, and houses in the immediate vicinity have lost a tremendous amount of their value overnight. In many cases, the recompense offered has been far from adequate.
Right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House are always remarking that the Government take notice of any Select Committee report, but I have yet to be convinced that that is so. The report of the 1987 Select Committee recommended that the Government should respond speedily to Waddilove's recommendations. It commented:Any system of compensation which is developed from the Waddilove Report should be so framed as to apply equally to BC and any present or future competitors".I hope that any future Bill will offer protection in the event that—God forbid—British Coal is ever privatised. The Select Committee also said:We regret the delay and we hope that the promised publication of the White Paper on Waddilove will be earlier rather than later in the current Session.That was in 1986-87, but there has still been little response. I hope that the Secretary of State, although he has not long been in his present job, will rapidly provide a Bill to protect people who have suffered from the terrible conditions in the mining communities for too long.
§ Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
The major part of the Bill is concerned with grants to British Coal. While they are necessary to enable the restructuring of British Coal, I remind the House that that level of Government support was not available to the 7,000 constituents of mine, or to many thousands of other hon. Members' constituents, who were made redundant when their industries had to face the fundamental challenges of the market place.
The Government have been generous to British Coal but, as many hon. Members have said, it is disappointing that, while the Bill gives further massive grants and 178 subsidies to British Coal, it does nothing to relieve the plight of the victims of coal-mining subsidence. A great deal of injustice is felt.
Many hon. Members—including my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who unfortunately cannot take part in the debte—have campaigned long and hard for reform. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) said, a united industry working party has been formed, with representatives of the Confederation of British Industry, the Country Landowners' Association, the Law Society, the British Property Federation, the Building Societies Association, insurance companies, the National Farmers Union and other groups, all of which are concerned to ensure that the Government take action on coal-mining subsidence.
I took representatives of those bodies to see the former Minister, and they sought to persuade him to take action. They are bitterly disappointed that, to date, no action has been taken. The Minister was extremely polite and listened sympathetically, but regrettably he did not act. The case is overwhelming. With the present rules, vast amounts of subsidence damage are neither compensated for nor repaired. British Coal regularly denies liability for damage that it knows it has caused, by relying on the infamous statute of limitations. In effect, it is saying, "We know that your property has been damaged and that we have caused the damage. We know that Parliament has passed laws requiring us to repair the damage or to compensate you, but we think that we can use the statute of limitations to get out of our responsibilities. We are going to do that and leave you to repair the damage that we have caused."
Why does British Coal refuse independent adjudication on the extent of damage, on whether damage has been caused by subsidence, on delay, on consequential losses and on whether repair or compensation is appropriate? Why is British Coal continually allowed to act as offender, judge and jury? The reason is simple: because the Government—in spite of the recommendations of the Waddilove committee—continue to allow it to do just that.
The Government are proposing further massive handouts to British Coal, so it is only fair that those handouts are linked to a fairer deal for the victims of British coal-mining, as was recommended by the Waddilove committee in 1983. The Government must acknowledge that they have had six years to act, hut they are still saying that the time is not right. I cannot accept that, while the Government can find the time and money to deal with the restructuring of British Coal, they cannot find the much smaller amount that is necessary to deal with this continuing problem. I fervently hope that the Secretary of State will tell the House that action will be taken quickly.
§ Mr. Ashton
If there had been an earthquake in Britain similar to the one in San Francisco last year, or if the San Andreas fault disaster had happened in Nottinghamshire, and overnight 33,000 houses had suffered enormous damage and become unsafe and schools, hospitals and factories had been affected, there would have been uproar. There would have been an outcry and television stations would have set up fund-raising collections. The Government would have rushed in immediately with aid, and it would have been classed as a national disaster. 179 However, because subsidence has occurred gradually over the years, and has been assimilated at local level, the problem has been swept under the carpet.
What happened after the gale in the south of England in October 1987? In one night, millions of trees were felled, damaging cars and houses. The insurance companies paid out, and the Government rushed in emergency aid. A tremendous amount of help was given to people in the home counties at that time because many prominent Tory voters and Conservative Members lived there. We should compare that reaction to the reaction to subsidence in coal-mining areas, where nothing has been done.
Barlow Clowes is another example. Again, the affluent middle class were affected—people who know how to lobby Members of Parliament, write letters, form pressure groups and employ solicitors. They acted as a group and they got compensation.
The farmers got compensation when eggs were affected by salmonella. That was classed as a national disaster and the cash was found immediately, and action was taken to keep them sweet.
The pre-1973 war widows were another anomaly, but hon. Members got to their feet. There was a tremendous backlash and the money was found.
If there is an overnight disaster, it seems that the cash can be found. In every Budget there is a 2 per cent. contingency fund. If expenditure in the Budget is £160 billion or £170 billion, 2 per cent. of that is allowed for the contingency fund, and if there is any sort of emergency, the Chancellor says that it is covered by the contingency fund. However, that 2 per cent. is never used for things such as subsidence. Action is continually postponed.
I have no doubt that the cash will be found for the Channel tunnel. When British Rail is told that it has to put the track to Dover underground, to go under the vale of Kent, because otherwise it will upset lots of Tory voters, the money will be found.
Coal-mining areas suffer from the blight of subsidence, and the Government have not even a register. The Department of Energy does not know how many houses are affected by the problem, or how much it will cost to restore them. It has no information.
The problem has been left to the local district councils. The council in Mansfield set up a seminar, and people came from Ashfield, Bolsover, north-east Derbyshire and Newark, which are all areas where people have suffered chronically from subsidence. At the seminar they decided that, as nobody else would help them they had better help themselves and find out the information. Professor P. L. Clarke, a highly qualified professor from Nottingham university, was paid to send out a simple questionnaire to every household, as the electoral register forms are sent out.
As hon. Members know, a phenomenal amount of bumph comes through our doors and it is difficult to get people to fill in forms. It probably leads to a lower response to questionnaires than one would expect, yet 33,000 households in those half dozen district council areas said that they had suffered from the effects of subsidence caused by British Coal.
The Government have encouraged people to become owner-occupiers, and I do not deplore that. Sometimes, it seems that they are going the long way round, because of 180 the high interest rates, but surely it is Government policy to encourage people to buy houses. What happens then? They allow a massive accident blight to spread across a neighbourhood and they offer no promises about compensation.
Thousands of people have followed Government advice and bought their council houses, and then they have suffered from subsidence. They put in a claim to British Coal, but it says that it is sorry, but will not pay compensation because it paid it to the council 10 or 15 years ago. The council says that it received the compensation and sold the affected house at a cheaper price.
People followed the Prime Minister's advice and bought their houses, and now they are lumbered with perhaps a £10,000 mortgage on a house that they cannot sell because it is worthless, and no good to anybody. Some people may say that they should not have followed Government advice. What protection do the Government offer those unfortunate people, who were encouraged to buy council houses and found that they had bought a pup? The response from the Department of Energy has been nil—it has promised to consider the matter.
One could argue that subsidence is an act of God. For example, Worksop and Warsop, in my constituency, both have coal mines underneath them. Worksop is hardly touched by subsidence because it is built on sand, but Warsop, which is seven miles away, is built on rock and there is a great deal of subsidence there. It is mere chance. People do not have a choice about where they live.
Another problem is trying to attract new industry to the area. Pits are closing, and they have land that would be ideal for industrial development. Often, the land is at the foot of a slag heap, which has been grassed over and the surrounding environment may not be very nice, but many industries are environmentally unattractive, and they could go to such places. However, if one mentions subsidence, they run a mile. Who would invest £2 million in a new factory when, if one walks down the street, one sees cracks in the sides of houses, leaning chimneys and doors that do not shut, and one sees that people are continually protesting and demanding action, but getting nothing done?
The areas affected by subsidence often have high unemployment of between 9 and 15 per cent.—in my constituency, unemployment is 17 per cent. There are good men, who are willing to work shifts and to do physically unattractive hard work. They would be happy to do almost any job. They are used to noise, dirt and heavy lorries. But industry will not come in to the area because no one will build a factory on a site if the building will have cracks in the walls within six months, and the machinery inside will not work.
Many parts of my constituency have suffered for more than a century. One could make a D. H. Lawrence film in Warsop—"Sons and Lovers", perhaps—because the terraced houses are still there. Most of my constituency is beautiful, but in Warsop vale, less than 10 yards away from the bedrooms where people sleep, coal trains chunter past every 20 minutes. People work shifts. There is always the noise of the klaxon horns from the pits, heavy lorries, hooters and safety warnings. Those people have suffered from noise all their lives. 181 What happens when the pits close? People think, "Thank God. We might get a bit of peace." But the pavements are broken, the water that comes down off the slag heaps does not run away properly in the gutters and the street lighting is bad. The environment is lousy. There are playing fields with dips and holes among the kids' swings. The price of houses there is so low that it is a miracle that people buy and sell them. They like living in the area because they grew up there and they are happy.
Subsidence is a massive problem that nobody seems to want to sort out.
§ Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)
Relatively modern housing can be affected by subsidence. The semi-detached house in which I live tilts so much that the drainpipe at one corner is useless, as the water runs in the opposition direction. A new drainpipe will now have to be built at the other end.
§ Mr. Ashton
My hon. Friend is right. I have been asked to visit houses where newly installed central heating does not work because the pump will not drive the hot water round; the owners, meanwhile, are still saddled with the debt that they incurred in installing the system.
Can anyone imagine the anger and frustration experienced by women who find that after they have decorated the house, the wall cracks, the wallpaper will not stick or the fitted carpet suddenly becomes an inch too short because a gap has appeared in the wall? It can be dangerous: people sit looking at their walls and asking themselves whether the damn things are going to fall in on them. Often they cannot get the council to condemn their house and rehouse them, because almost all the houses have been sold off and the council has very few left to let. It has to keep one or two, but it knows that, once it rehouses one victim of subsidence, 500 more will want to be rehoused.
Meanwhile, the insurance companies are engaging in one of the biggest rip-offs that we have seen for some years. When people follow the Government's advice and apply for a mortgage so that they can become owner-occupiers, the Halifax and the other building societies say, "Yes, we will lend you £10,000, but you must pay insurance." So they pay the insurance— and then a crack appears and the garden wall falls down.
Getting insurance companies to pay out for subsidence is a terrible job, and I think that it is time that some of those people went to see the insurance ombudsman, as I have advised them to do. Alternatively, they could all band together, as the Barlow Clowes victims did, and announce that they are going to bang the insurance companies and building societies into court. The building societies compel them to pay insurance year in, year out, but as soon as there is a problem, the insurance companies do not want to know—or else point to the small print that says that occupiers must pay 10 times the cost of the annual insurance on the house. In other words, if the annual insurance is £300, they must put up the first £3,000.
People in such circumstances obtain no help from the building societies, which back the insurance companies, so they ask their Members of Parliament to take up their case. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has a magnificent record in this regard, and I heartily congratulate him on his ceaseless campaign. He and his local council have managed to persuade the television 182 companies to broadcast programmes about the problem, and in the two years for which my hon. Friend has been in the House it has received more attention than ever before.
One of the difficulties, however, is the need for secrecy. It is in the interests of tenants to keep such problems quiet in case they decide to sell their house. They come to our surgeries and say, "I am sorry, Mr. Ashton"—or Mr. Meale, as the case may be—"but you must not tell anyone about the problem. You will not put it in the newspaper, will you? If it gets around that XYZ road has a problem, no one living in that road will ever sell a house again." So they fill the walls with Polyfilla or apply Anaglypta. Such conspiracies of silence will do nothing to solve the problem. When we mention it, people say that they have heard nothing about it before, because newspapers and television do not shout about it as they have done about Barlow Clowes, foot-and-mouth disease or the Channel tunnel.
The problem affects about 30,000 houses within a 10 or 15-mile radius of my constituency. A succession of Ministers have said that they sympathise and intend to act—that they will produce another report. British Coal has shed tears and offered tea and sympathy. Nothing is ever done, however. The insurance companies take no action, no cash is ever found and the Government simply hope that the problem can be swept under the carpet and will eventually go away. But we do not intend to let it go away: we shall continue to raise it whenever the opportunity arises until we see some action.
§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) for his kind comments about our activities in the north Nottinghamshire area, but I must add that it has been a joint effort, involving not only him and me but my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes)—as well as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Woodcock).
The House should accept the new clause. The problem of subsidence is nothing short of a national scandal. Home owners, not only in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire but in other coalfield areas such as Yorkshire, Scotland, the north-east and Wales, face tremendous difficulties. I pay tribute to the Channel 4 "Dispatches" documentary, entitled "In the Coalhole", screened just before Christmas, which discussed those difficulties in detail.
I also commend the local press, especially in Nottinghamshire—the Evening Post (Nottingham) the CHAD in Mansfield, the Nottingham Recorder and the Nottingham Observer—which have not ceased to publicise the issue. Over the past two or three years, the BBC and Yorkshire and Central Television have also featured it several times. Only now, largely because of the Channel 4 programme, is it being seen for what it is—a national scandal.
I met the Minister privately yesterday, along with another hon. Member, to discuss the matter, but it is difficult for hon. Members on either side of the House to realise the extent of the suffering involved. Not only people's homes but the security of their lives is being put at risk. Only those who represent coal-mining areas know exactly what is involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said that the survey carried out by local 183 authorities in north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire produced 33,000 responses. In fact, there were 54,000, 33,500 of which referred to damaged properties. Some of our constituents have experienced severe health problems owing to stress, and many have had to consult their doctors. In my constituency, a school, a hospital and many other public buildings have had to close.
As "Dispatches" pointed out, Trent Water has estimated that it is owed approximately £25 million for the repair of damage to properties in Nottinghamshire, although it has not been keen to publicise the fact, or to take part in a seminar: As its members explained when they visited London to meet the Minister, they were preparing for privatisation, and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw observed—who would buy shares in a public industry that faced a £25 million repair bill? Moreover, Trent Water cannot get the money back from British Coal.
The survey to which I referred has been discussed many times with Ministers and has been debated in the House. It referred to 33,000 damaged homes, roads and service supplies such as water, gas and electricity. It made it clear that in all the areas surveyed there was major concern and that havoc was being caused to the coalfield communities.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke of the way in which British Coal was being allowed to act as offender, judge and jury. British Coal is in fact getting away with blue murder against the people in the coalfield communities. It hides behind the six-year rule, which many in the legal profession say is of extremely doubtful merit but which is upheld because of lack of action by the Government. British Coal acts as judge and jury by acting as banker, as it were—openly blackmailing people who are suffering from subsidence problems, people who cannot go to courts or go through the Lands Tribunal.
"Blackmail" may seem a strong word to use, but evidence has been produced by hon. Members on both sides of the House describing how letters have been sent by British Coal to home owners saying, in effect, "Unless you accept this minimal sum, we shall put your case to the bottom of the pile and take it through the legal processes, and that will take years. If you risk going through the Lands Tribunal or some other means, you will risk losing everything, including your home and savings."
Alternatively, British Coal had demonstrated its determination to cut to the lowest sum possible the amount expended to fulfil its responsibilities in respect of coal-mining subsidence damage. By using the blackmail?ing technique of "take it or leave it" with home owners and others, British Coal states that only certain types of repair will be undertaken. Having said that, it employs the cheapest possible builders, who repair the properties not properly but cosmetically. They Polyfilla over the cracks and cover with the cheapest possible paint or other rendering.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said he knew of people who had been out of their homes for three or four months while repairs were done. I have constituents who were out of their homes for more than two years. Twelve months is normal for people to have to leave their homes in my constituency while subsidence work is done.
184 Then there is the plight of those who do not leave their homes while the work is done but who have to stay because of a lack of properties in which to house them, such is the scale of the subsidence problem in my area. As I say, British Coal employs the cheapest builders who, when faced with, say, major cracks across a living room wall, do not take down the wall and rebuild it—replastering and rendering as necessary—but cut out a portion where the crack exists, cover the furniture with cloths and make the families remain in their homes while the repairs are carried out. That takes not a day or two but weeks and sometimes months.
Hon. Members have spoken in previous debates about how cheaply British Coal gets the work done. There have been cases of people who have produced the wallpaper that was on a wall before it was repaired and have been told by British Coal that it was not prepared to pay, say £3 per roll—the current price of the wallpaper—but only the original price of 99p per roll. What a disgraceful state f affairs.
Builders in my area have gone so far as to tell British Coal that, because of the prices it is willing to pay, they are not interested in taking on the work. Some builders have told me honestly that, but for the slack winter period when they have little work on hand, they would not even bother to do British Coal work because the contracts that British Coal awards are not worth having.
The amendment refers to financing the repairs of coal-mining subsidence damage. There seems to be a difference of opinion about how such work should be financed. On a previous occasion, I asked the present Minister of Housing and Planning, when he was at the Department of Energy, how much money was available for subsidence work. As we know, money is collected on every tonne of coal produced for work of this kind. Indeed, the Government continue to claim that that charge has led to coal mine closures, so expensive is the cost of subsidence repairs.
§ Mr. Illsley
I can give my hon. Friend an example of a colliery that closed because of subsidence problems. I refer to Redbrook colliery in Barnsley. When the NCB costed the amount that it would have to pay in subsidence claims compared with the profit that would be gained by mining the coal in that pit, it decided to close the colliery.
§ Mr. Meale
I thank my hon. Friend for giving that example. Some time ago, Mansfield colliery in my constituency was closed. I had been told for at least a year prior to its closure that it would be shut, not because of subsidence but because although it was a pit with reserves, the NCB had decided not to expand production and dig into those reserves.
When the closure announcement finally came, in a press release, British Coal and another organisation used the opportunity to accuse me of closing the pit because I had been busy fighting for the rights of coal subsidence claimants. I faced a stupid and untrue situation. I checked the files in my office and discovered that of 32 cases for whom I had made applications to British Coal's estates department—for repairs and proper compensation for the properties concerned in the area of the pit that was closed—not one had been settled by British Coal. In other words, in many cases the Government are using the excuse of coal-mining subsidence costs as a major reason for closing pits.
185 When at the Department of Energy, the present Minister for Housing and Planning said that, in the accounts, £260 million had been set aside for the repair of damage caused by coal-mining subsidence. I have since asked questions, in the House and elsewhere, to discover whether that money is in a separate account and, if so, why it cannot be used for subsidence repair work. I have been told by British Coal, in letters to me and through the media, that no such fund exists because such money has been set against the industry's losses and deficits each year and has been written off.
I suggest that the House is being misled. Considering that an amount is attached to every tonne of coal that is produced, and that that money is put into a fund for the payment of subsidence damage repair costs, it cannot be written off to pay for the industry's debts. After all, those sums must, or should, have been put into a bank account to be drawn on at a future date for subsidence repairs. Indeed, if British Coal has not been doing that, it has not been carrying out its responsibilities. There should have been at least £260 million in the fund at the time when the Minister made his statement, and by now, having gathered interest, the total should be considerably higher.
Let me say a few words about the future as the present Government see it. One must give them credit for their honesty as they have never shied away from their immediate plans and their absolute determination to privatise the coal industry. I am disappointed with the Bill and with the fact that so far the Government have not accepted our amendments. Unless they sort out the problem of coal-mining subsidence damage, all the residents, public services and business in coalfield communities throughout Britain will be left in severe difficulty. If those people do not have much of a chance of getting damages paid now, how on earth will they get them when a private employer takes over the responsibility for those coal mines?
It will be extremely difficult to sell those industries, not simply because people will be unwilling to invest in them—if the Government are that determined, they will pass laws exempting them—but because the problem of coal-mining subsidence damage needs to be sorted out. I warn the Minister, as I warned his predecessor, that if any attempt is made to privatise the industry without having sorted out this business, according to that survey, there are 13,500 people with damaged homes in my constituency—that is just in the private sector; there are hundreds more in the public sector—who will band together and take the case to Europe. The Minister knows that, if we go to Europe for a ruling about people's rights to repair their homes which have been damaged by a public industry, without a shadow of a doubt the ruling will be in our favour.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, if such a case went to Europe before the flotation of the electricity industry, the Commission might take a rather dim view of that progress being made?
§ Mr. Meale
I agree with my hon. Friend. Obviously, the Minister has taken note of his point.
I spoke to the Minister yesterday and asked him for an assurance that he will come to the Nottinghamshire coalfield area and see for himself the level of damage. I am pleased that he was willing to do that and assure me that he would not do what his predecessors had done and come 186 to Nottinghamshire only to talk to British Coal. Given that the report states that there are 33,500 damaged homes, I do not want the Minister simply to spend time talking to the people who have caused the problems and who are denying their responsibility for repairing people's homes. I want him to spend time in the Nottinghamshire coalfield area meeting the people who have to live with it day in and day out and run their businesses there.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
Is my hon. Friend aware that, certainly in my constituency, some council tenants' applications to buy their homes under the right to buy have been outstanding for three years because the council has been unable to reach an agreement on subsidence damage? Some people have become so desperate to purchase their property that they have signed an agreement to buy it at its present value, hoping that they will get reasonable compensation from British Coal, but so far they have been unable to achieve that.
§ Mr. Meale
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, and again the Minister is making notes. I hope that he will be able to respond to it when he replies to the debate.
I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to come to Nottinghamshire and to meet people running businesses, home owners, property owners and people providing public services. I wonder whether he can do that before the Select Committee on Energy, to which I pay tribute, returns to Nottinghamshire this spring. The work it carried out in the early 1980s has not been fulfilled by British Coal or by the Government.
I remind the House about the lack of action that the Government have taken to sort out coal-mining subsidence damage. The Waddilove inquiry was commis?sioned in 1983, completed in 1984 and published in 1987 after severe pressure from Members of Parliament. The Government responded in 1988; now we are heading into 1990, and the Government are missing yet another opportunity to alleviate the problems.
Action is needed. We need a legal centre for claimants who cannot afford to use the legal system which hinders their attempts to get justice. We need a low-cost independent arbitration system to get over problems caused because British Coal is judge and jury, and we need mandatory protection for claimants. Most of all, we need guarantees that the Government will produce a solution to help our people get back to a normal life.
§ Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I wish to pay tribute to all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has done to draw attention to the huge problem of mining subsidence, which is not just a matter for Nottinghamshire, although we have heard an awful lot about Nottinghamshire today. It also occurs in north Staffordshire and in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, North. In his usual pertinent way, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield made it clear that mining subsidence damage will be a real problem for the Government in the run up to privatisation. I do not argue that the industry should be privatised. I warn the Government that every coal mining community through?out the country will band together to draw attention to coal mining subsidence.
One of the first things I did as a newly elected Member of Parliament was to go to the Secretary of State for the 187 Environment, who is now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and take up Stoke-on-Trent city council's case for inner-city status for Stoke-on-Trent because the extent of subsidence and the way in which it undermines the city meant that any new building would cost half as much again as it would cost anywhere else in the country. Without extra support from the Government and from the Department of the Environment, there was no way in which we could get the new buildings, new jobs and new opportunities for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will take on board the clear need to liaise closely with their colleagues at the Department of the Environment because it is an environmental matter as well as one for the Department of Energy.
Subsidence is a scandal in Stoke-on-Trent and it has been a national scandal for more than 20 years. In her maiden speech, my predecessor before one, Harriet Slater, spoke about the need for the Government to do something about subsidence and to sort out the problems faced by the local city council and Staffordshire county council. Those problems have not been resolved and I certainly join my hon. Friends in telling the Government that something will have to be done.
My hon. Friends have described the extreme hardship faced by individuals who are living in homes which have been damaged by subsidence. Many people in Stoke-on-Trent, North have made claims but many more were not even aware that they had the right to do so. The way in which British Coal has done everything possible to prevent people from making claims for subsidence on their properties is absolutely out of order. It is not the easiest thing in the world for someone who is not aware of his legal rights to take on British Coal and demand proper compensation for the cracks and for the fact that his house is no longer saleable.
One of the really difficult things that I have had to deal with is what to say to people when, time and time again, British Coal tells them that they will have to make do with £100 which the contractors will spend on repairs to their homes. There is no way that an independent assessment can be made of the damage. Something must be done about subsidence. One point that must be taken up is British Coal's refusal to pay attention to the serious hardship and stress that people are suffering.
Another environmental problem is methane gas from old refuse tips. Yesterday we had an indication that the Secretary of State is prepared to consider retrospectively the need to make good damage from such tips. If the Government can deal retrospectively with that, they can do something about all the claims for subsidence damage.
The Government have told us that they are concerned about the environment and that they will make the whole country clean so that there will not be a huge environmental problem. Is that a cautionary approach? Of course not. Why is no assessment being made of the scale of the problem in individual properties? Why is the cost of subsidence not considered as part of the entire cost of coal mining? Only recently the Government have recognised that something must be done about the decommissioning of nuclear power stations. The principle is the same. Any coal-mining operation that produces subsidence must take 188 account of that subsidence and put right the damage or must prevent it in the first place. The cost should be part of the overall cost of coal mining.
It is for those reasons that I ask the Minister to accept new clause 1. It is not just the 33,500 people in Mansfield whose homes have suffered from subsidence but all the other affected people in all coal-mining areas who want something done. Organisations such as the Coalfield Communities Campaign will make certain that there will be full compensation for people who need it, especially before privatisation. My hon. Friends and I are committed to working towards that.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I welcome the opportunity to participate in a debate on one of my favourite constituency subjects, the coal industry. Although I could not be here for the whole debate, I think that I would have been familiar with many of the speeches. There is common ground on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Mansfield, (Mr. Meale), my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and I, among others, participated in the Channel 4 programme which has been mentioned. I thought that it was a fair programme which looked objectively at the plight of people affected by coal-mining subsidence. I dare say that British Coal may take a contrary view, but it was given an opportunity to make its position plain, and I am not sure that it used the programme to its best advantage.
The hon. Member for Mansfield said that one injustice is that British Coal is perceived as judge and jury in its own cause. That is a major criticism. It shows insensitivity towards people for whom coal-mining subsidence can be a long drawn out and bitter experience.
One individual, David Linford, not my constituent but a constituent of my late colleague in Mid-Staffordshire, runs an important building company in my constituency. He had to wait 13 years for recognition by British Coal that subsidence had caused problems with his brand new house, which he had built after getting advice from British Coal about where faults were. Such insensitivity does no credit to those responsible for managing the affairs of British Coal.
To break the bipartisan camaraderie on the issue, I declare again a view that I have put many times: that this is the inevitable result of nationalisation. I accept that Labour Members will take a contrary view, but I invite them at least to consider the thought that if the industry were in the private sector, it could not afford to ride roughshod over the will of people in whose community it operates.
§ Ms. Walley
If we were to have a privatised coal industry, what compensation would be given to the hundreds of thousands of people who have suffered subsidence damage to their properties?
§ Mr. Howarth
The hon. Lady anticipates a matter for a future Parliament. I have always declared my position, that I am in favour of the privatisation of coal because I believe it would greatly benefit the people who work in the industry, its customers, and those, like many of my constituents, who work and live in coalfield areas. I believe that a privatised industry would be forced to be much more concerned about how it treated the community. If it were not, the community would deny it the right to work the coal.
189 British Coal will have to be much more sympathetic because gone are the days when it could with impunity rape the countryside of its mineral content. It will need the support of the community in which it works. Coal will continue to be an important fuel. The nation expects of British Coal that it will discharge its duty responsibly.
In the past, the industry could rely on the fact that, as people whose homes were affected by subsidence were the very people who were employed in the industry, they were unlikely to protest too much because they might be in danger of losing their jobs. Today, with a much more slimline industry, the position is different. Many who are affected by mining subsidence are not employed in the industry, but are its victims. They do not feel beholden in the same way as I suspect in years gone by those employed in the industry did. British Coal no longer dominates the community. I say with as much force as I can muster that I hope the people responsible for running British Coal will take a much more sympathetic and careful view of the problems of subsidence that have been expressed by hon. Members on all sides.
I have noted the new clause in the name of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and his hon. Friends as far as it relates to coal-mining subsidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), who over the past two years or more served as Under-Secretary of State for Energy with great distinction, was cognisant of the difficulties mentioned by hon. Members. I know that he took the problem seriously, which is why some of the recommendations of the Waddilove committee that do not need statutory permission have been implemented. However, some of its recommendations will need statutory approval, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry)—whom I congratulate on his elevation to the post of Under-Secretary of State for Energy, in which I wish him a long and successful career—will take on board the cross-party view that it would be more sensible to introduce comprehensive proposals later rather than to tack them on to the Bill.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
My hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) spoke eloquently of specific cases in their constituencies. However, people directly affected by coal-mining subsidence can more eloquently describe the problems that they face.
A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield appeared on the Channel 4 series "Dispatches" in a programme entitled "In the Coalhole". About five minutes of that programme were devoted to her speaking forcefully about mining subsidence during a visit to one of my hon. Friend's advice centres. The producer told me that she spoke for about 25 or 30 minutes about the difficulties that she faced.
Hon. Members' constituents have experienced vast problems with subsidence for ages and have records, notes and photographs of their experiences. I wish that there were a system to resolve their problems, to help them get their homes repaired and to help them to overcome the traumas that they have experienced.
I have a problem of subsidence resulting from past coal mining in my constituency at Hartington road in Staveley. At one time, I was rather reluctant to discuss the problem, 190 but people in the area began to publicise it themselves. There is likely to be similar problems in the future, because of mining development at Markham pit, which is presently taking place in south Staveley in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). In time, the problem will move to north Staveley, which is in my constituency.
Inkersall green special school in south Staveley has been seriously affected by subsidence. It was known that there was to be mining development underneath it, so precautions were taken. A large ditch was built around the school so that it would fall slightly and settle, minimising the problem of mining subsidence. When mining halfway under the school, they hit a fault—I do not know whose fault it was that that was not foreseen—and could not continue. That broke the back of the school. It is a beautiful school and some of its facilities have been paid for by the local community, but anyone walking inside it feels seasick.
The problem is what to do about it, what will happen to special education in the area, given local government's problems with resources, and whether it will receive full help from British Coal for repairs. Hon. Members have spoken of the difficulties of dealing with British Coal and its agents, of their constituents receiving inadequate help and of them often having to accept a raw deal.
Earlier, the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) said that the clause should not be given a Second Reading because a later Bill will deal with the problem of subsidence. I shall argue that it should be given a Second Reading now, unless I can be convinced otherwise by the Minister.
The Bill is almost a paving measure for the privatisation of the coal industry. Some of the cash arrangements in the Bill may be acceptable to Labour Members, but their purpose is to prepare the industry for privatisation. In those circumstances, people are worried about whether funds will be made available to cover outstanding claims. New clause 1(3) is essential to ensure that adequate funds will be available. If the industry is privatised—that will not happen, because after the next election there will be a different Government—the problem of ensuring that funds are available and used will remain. The other sign that this is a paving Bill are the provisions that deal with small mine development.
A further reason for giving the clause a Second Reading is that more pits will close if the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill is enacted. Unless the other place passes an amendment stopping coal imports through the Humber ports—if that happened, the promoters of the Bill would withdraw it—the coal industry will be further damaged. British Coal will be forced to concentrate on a few super-pits and to develop opencast coal mining on a large scale. In those circumstances, if adequate funding is not made available to cover subsidence at coal mines that have closed, people will be in a bad position.
A further reason given for not giving the clause a Second Reading is the promise of a Bill to deal with coal mining subsidence. I wrote to the Minister on 5 December, made one or two suggestions about the Bill and mentioned the need for coal-mining subsidence legislation. I received a reply, and I have since received a second version, which is circulating among other hon. Members. The letter states that,at the earliest practical opportunity",191 there will be some appropriate legislation, but we need to test what is meant by that.
As has already been said, there have been six years in which measures could have been brought before the House. This is the umpteenth debate on coal-mining subsidence. Many previous debates were initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). When he was lucky in the ballot for motions that he could bring before the House, he ensured that we could discuss this matter. Many of the points about what is required in legislation have been hammered out in the House and in meetings with the Department of Energy.
The Minister's letter says:With regard to your concern about coal mining subsidence, you will, I am sure, recognise the inherent complexity of the subject".The subject is complex and there are conflicting interests involved, but that cannot be a reason for delaying such a measure. The complexities have been discussed at considerable length. The problems are well understood by Opposition Members and should be well understood by the Department of Energy. The measure must be brought forward.
The letter continues:and consequently, that subsidence requires its own Bill in its own timetable. I believe it would be wrong to rush a subsidence measure through the House tacked on the short, primarily financial, Coal Industry Bill, which requires early enactment. The government is therefore committed to introducing a Bill dealing comprehensively with subsidence issues at the earliest practical opportunity.The letter later deals with my points about the need for independent arbitration, the need for British Coal to have a primary duty to correct the problems, its legal responsibility and various other items. That shows that there is a great deal of sympathy within the Department of Energy with certain points that the Opposition have put forward.
However, the letter implies that if we wait, everything will be okay. Many of us are sick of waiting. We have seen the problems of our constituents. Doesat the earliest practical opportunitymean this Session, despite the fact that such a measure was not contained in the Queen's Speech; or does it mean that we are expected to sit back and to wait for such a measure to be contained in another Queen's Speech, if the Department of Energy bids for sufficient resources and funds to enable it to carry out such legislation?
Opposition Members believe that it is not good enough for the Government to intend to introduce legislation in the next Session. That would not deal with our constituents' problems and the future difficulties that many of them face. I hope that the Minister will explain why he thinks that new clause 1 is inappropriate and, if so, what other measures would be appropriate. When will such measures be introduced? They are now very urgent.
§ Mr. Illsley
I want to speak briefly on points that are similar to those made by my hon. Friends. It is nice to hear Conservative Members welcoming public money being given to the coal industry. Usually, when we ask for further funds to be given to the coal industry, we meet a barrage of hostility from Conservative Members.
It is important that subsidence is dealt with in the Coal Industry Bill. New clause 1 deals with British Coal's historical debts. It is important that those debts are sorted 192 out before the end of the financial year. As many of the subsidence claims are historical debts for British Coal, money should be voted now to help the industry to meet its liabilities. Some hon. Members have heard from the chairman of British Coal the amount of money that British Coal requires for concessionary coal liabilities and claims for industrial deafness.
Subsidence damage claims should be included in the Bill. The money required for subsidence claims has an effect on British Coal's investment decisions about collieries. Such considerations have had tremendous importance in the past. I have spent hours in meetings with British Coal—or the National Coal Board, as it was—which was trying to decide which coal seam or coal face could be mined in view of the amount that the board might face in subsidence claims if that coal were taken.
Sometimes, decisions were taken to close seams or collieries because British Coal could not afford the amount of subsidence liability that it would have faced had it continued to maintain that face or seam. Subsidence has an important effect. Collieries and jobs may be cut because the board has insufficient money to finance the subsidence claims that have accumulated over the past few years. The Government must help with that liability. They must consider new clause 1 and ensure that British Coal has sufficient money to cover its liabilities on subsidence.
Subsidence claims are endemic to mining areas. My hon. Friends have talked about their constituents with subsidence claims. A number of my constituents—including myself—have such problems. My present and previous houses suffered from subsidence so I am well aware of the delays in dealing with claims. One street in my constituency—Melvinia crescent—had to be demolished. The owners are waiting for their properties to be rebuilt by British Coal. However, I want to put on record my appreciation of British Coal's Allerton Bywater estates department, which has been helpful in my dealings with subsidence damage claims.
However, claims put a considerable strain on my constituents who are faced with the decision of whether to remain in a property that has been damaged by subsidence and which may have been tilted, cracked or broken. Buying a home is usually a person's major financial investment. It is heartrending to have to decide whether a home should be demolished, repaired or rebuilt, especially if the property is of high value or if someone has personal reasons for wanting to remain in it.
Subsidence also affects local authority housing. Sometimes, local authorities which are cash-squeezed by the Minister for Housing and Planning—the former Under-Secretary of State for Energy—cannot afford to spend money on housing repairs, although that money is owed to them by British Coal. Sometimes, tenants have to remain in properties that have been damaged by subsidence because local authorities cannot provide the money quickly enough for repairs to be carried out as they are still waiting for British Coal to make payments for subsidence damage claims.
There is also damage to local authority roads and to road building programmes. Roads in my constituency have been substantially damaged by coal-mining subsidence. The local authority is having difficulty in keeping the roads repaired to a suitable standard. It has 193 recently been criticised because of that damage, yet because of the cash limit that has been imposed by the Government, it cannot meet those expenses.
It is important that we deal with the problem of subsidence now in the Bill, which deals with coal industry finance, rather than wait for another Bill to deal with subsidence on its own. The Bill deals with historical finance, and subsidence imposes a historical financial burden on British Coal. As British Coal's finances will not he restructured again for a considerable time, we should deal with the matter now. I hope that the Government will support the new clause.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and a pleasure also to see the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), who used to be the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, and responsible for the coal mining industry, but who has now been moved over to the Department of the Environment by that lady at No. 10. I understand that he is now the Minister for Housing and Planning, and that must be why he is here today: he has an interest in housing—in the housing in which our constituents live, which has been damaged by mining subsidence. The hon. Gentleman knows all about it. He has had his ear clobbered many a time when responding to questions and debates on mining subsidence but he has not done a great deal to sort the problem out. Now he has left it completely. He has gone to another Department and left it to somebody else.
So who do we have now? We have as Secretary of State the right hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Wakeham). The right hon. Gentleman does not know a great deal about mining—he has never worked in a pit—and he does not know much about mining subsidence either. He knows about nuclear dumping, though I remember the campaign that he ran in his constituency where they wanted to take boreholes there with a view to dumping nuclear waste. That plan did not come off. The right hon. Gentleman won his campaign and we are asking him to win ours now that he is Secretary of State for Energy.
§ Mr. Dobson
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Secretary of State broke with Tory party tradition and established a nuclear-free zone in his constituency?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) will oblige me and return to the new clause.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am not daft, Madam Speaker, and I know that when you are in the Chair I have to watch my Ps and Qs, so I shall not stray from the new clause, which I fully support.
Before my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) interrupted me, I was about to say that we have a new Under-Secretary of State for Energy responsible for coal. I welcome him, and I hope that he will do something about our problem. I see that he represents Banbury. There are not many pits in Banbury, and not much opencast either. Both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary have listened to our every word this afternoon. They are getting an education about coal mining and mining subsidence, and they now realise, I am sure, what a serious problem it is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras did a marvellous job in opening the debate but I 194 ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker, how many pits are there down in Holborn and St. Pancras? My hon. Friend has done his homework and put a first-class case, as have a number of my hon. Friends. A good case has also been put by some Conservative Members and I hope that they will join us in the Lobby, because the new clause is necessary. We have waited for so long. We have clobbered Ministers. In days gone by, I even clobbered the Prime Minister about mining subsidence in my constituency and in other places in Nottinghamshire.
A little while ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned the House of Lords. When a piece of plaster fell from the ceiling, they closed the place down to repair it. It cost a fortune. The Government found the money, as my hon. Friend rightly said. I remember an Environment Minister coming to the House to tell us that Big Ben was 9 in out of true. It is, indeed, 9 in out of true and the reason for that is that we have not always had a car park. All those years ago—25 or 26—they scooped a whacking great hole out beneath the building and put in five floors so that hon. Members could park their cars. [Hon. Members: "Opencast mining."] Opencast mining, yes. The end result was that Big Ben started to be affected and to move out of true. I never go round that way because one never knows. We have been given assurance that it is okay now, but I never give it a chance. That is a perfect illustration of what happens. It is easy to understand the kind of problems that we have in mining areas back in our constituencies.
§ Mr. Ashton
Is my hon. Friend aware that, only about 10 years ago, the Terrace was raised because of the level of the River Thames? One could put one's hand in the river at high tide. Hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on a Thames barrage to protect this place and the lower areas of London.
§ Mr. Haynes
There you are, Madam Deputy Speaker: my hon. Friend is leading me in the right direction by referring to money being found to do that kind of work when money is not being found to do the work that we need done in our constituencies.
§ Mr. Hardy
Does my hon. Friend think that, as global warming occurs and the sea level rises, and all the fiat low-lying coastal constituencies represented by Conservative Members are threatened, those hon. Members will be clamouring for lots of public money to defend themselves from inundation by the sea?
§ Mr. Haynes
Yes, but that will come later, and we have a problem right now. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to take me down lovers' lane, but I am steering clear of that one. I have done enough damage with that one, and I shall not go further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and I get people coming to our morning surgeries of a Saturday. The result is that I visit homes on Sunday morning when I should be in church. Like any hon. Member who does his job correctly, I must look after my constituents, so I do not go to church very often. Last Sunday I went to visit a Mr. Taylor of Hill crescent in Sutton in Ashfield. The work on his house has been completed and it is shocking. You cannot close a door, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the door frames have 195 whacking great cracks in them. When Mr. Taylor took me outside, I saw that there were whacking great cracks in the bay windows too.
I know what is wrong. We have seen British Coal officials go to prison for fiddling over subsidence repairs. Many of the contractors that have been brought in to do the repairs are cowboys, who keep the costs down and make a nice profit, and British Coal does not provide the money necessary to enable them to do the job properly.
Another constituent of mine lives just round the corner from where I used to live. When he came to see me, he brought photographs to show me exactly what was happening to his property, which was supposed to have been completed. I wrote to the director of the Nottinghamshire area, who replied, "We have spent enough money on that property: we are not spending any more." That property is not fit to live in. Honestly, it is shocking; it is disgusting the way they have been treating people back home in our constituencies.
We really need the new clause. All right, a Bill has been promised to deal with the subsidence problem at a later stage, but I do not accept that promise, because we have waited and waited and waited. We have had a bellyful; we want some action from the Government now.
§ Mr. Haynes
I have not finished yet. The Secretary of State need not get so excited.
There are properties—
§ Mr. Haynes
I hope that you will watch the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), Madam Deputy Speaker.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
My attention is entirely riveted on the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes).
§ 6 pm
§ Mr. Haynes
The hon. Gentleman's attention is riveted on me. He is always bawling and shouting instead of listening to what is being said, so I am saying it again.
It often works out that hon. Members become agents on behalf of their constituents, yet there are agents who are supposed to be working for them. They are not doing their job. For a start, they are taking on too much work. They keep small staffs and they cannot handle the situation properly. The result is that constituents suffer in their homes.
Tilt is the main problem with a number of properties. The board does not want to know if there is tilt. One can walk into some properties, and it is like being in a rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic. How can the Secretary of State and Ministers in the Department of Energy put up with that? They should go and look for themselves. I would welcome the Secretary of State visiting the beautiful county of Nottinghamshire and looking at some mining subsidence problems. He could spend the day there and open his eyes to the suffering that is going on in hon. Members' constituencies.
People can be transferred from their own homes to other homes while serious repairs are being done. People 196 have been out of their homes for as long as two years before they could get back into their properties. The reason is that the contractor, who has been employed by British Coal, is never on the job. The result is delay after delay. People come to hon. Members' surgeries and, once again, hon. Members act as agents and make representations. The agent is supposed to look after and represent people with problems with British Coal. Oh, no—because he is an easy touch, the hon. Member has the problem dropped in his lap.
I have a filing cabinet full of letters about mining subsidence problems. The Minister might not believe that, but it is true. I am sick to death of it. I am fed up. It is a nightmare. I have had problems with social security or housing, but the subsidence problem has been with me all along, and I have had enough. Hon. Members are looking for help for the people whom we represent. They have been getting a raw deal for far too long.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) knows about subsidence. He has had properties in my constituency. He has suffered just the same as others have. He could not get repairs done, simply because the board would not find the money to do them. The board says, "Well, regulations have been laid down by the Government." Opposition Members want the Government to get off their backsides and do something about the problem.
I hope that the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy will keep his eye on the problem. He has a responsibility in this housing matter. In the main, we are talking about domestic properties. Of course, there are serious problems with factories, schools and so on, but, in the main, we are talking about people's homes. I recently told the Prime Minister herself that her Government encourage people to own their own homes, yet many homes are being destroyed by mining subsidence.
We have a real problem. I ask the Secretary of State please to grab hold of the new clause. It should be in the Bill so that we can deal with the problem now and not wait until later. The problem is big enough and serious enough, and we want some action. I ask the Secretary of State to vote for the new clause and let us have it in the Bill.
§ Mr. Skinner
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) raised those points. Some of my other hon. Friends have also dealt with the matter at length. The Secretary of State will know that I have referred to the problem of subsidence in Bolsover church. For several years, negotiations did not proceed at any level between British Coal and Bolsover church, partly because of some negligence on the part of British Coal and the fact that there was no vicar for a period. I had to take over—[Laughter.] It's the way I tell them. I had to take over as an intermediary. Several years ago, I was approached about whether I could get negotiations started. I told British Coal that I would be prepared to challenge it to a debate in Bolsover church so that the whole community could take part in it. That cracked it. British Coal then decided to start negotiating.
I raised the matter with the Church Commissioners and I was promised an investigation. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) will see a reference to that on the valuable list that he produced. In the past few days, I received a further letter from the newly installed vicar, John Easton, of 197 Bolsover parish church. I am sad to report that, despite all the efforts that have been made, there is a deadlock. I ask the Secretary of State for Energy to take note of the point that I am making. There is no doubt that some of his advisers will know that this matter must be resolved.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield said, it is mainly housing that is affected by subsidence. We know that a terrible backlog has accrued in the past few years. When promises are made in the House on behalf of the Church Commissioners, the matter should be resolved. It was raised a considerable time ago. The vicar and the church wardens have jointly written, stating:We have waited expectantly over the last six months for the fulfilment of the offer from British Coal but to no avail. We now agree with our architect and our solicitor who reluctantly conclude that British Coal are deliberately delaying payment with new quibbles about the wording of the document of acceptance.That is how British Coal plays the game. That will register a chord with thousands of people in our constituencies—the idea of quibbling about exact words. They went on to state:We thank you for your interest and help in the past and hope that you will now be able to help in determining why payment has not been made.This stage of the Bill's proceedings is an admirable opportunity for me to place that matter on the record.
There is a history to the backlog, and it is as well that the relatively new Secretary of State for Energy knows that. We also have a new Minister. He should be apprised of the reasons. Subsidence cases have not been raised in the same numbers since I have been an hon. Member. In the main, the backlog occurred during 1983, when suddenly it was found that some agents operating and acting on behalf of tenants and property owners were lining their pockets with large commission payments out of subsidence claims. Certain people became more involved in the matter. It received a lot of media attention. There was tremendous publicity about a few cases and about some people who were at arm's length from the problem—people who were making money on the side. Literally scores of thousands of residents with subsidence problems suffered.
British Coal asked "What will we do? We will tighten up." Rather than agents and people who obtained the commission, people such as those at Bolsover parish church and thousands of others about whom hon. Members know have suffered. That is why the rule was changed to what is commonly known as the "six-year rule" and it was made more difficult for the honest-to-goodness residents to get that compensation.
I hope that the Government's two representatives—Ministers who are relatively new to this—are fully apprised of why the change took place and why my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has suddenly taken an interest and devotion in this matter that is far greater than that taken by his predecessor. There is a good reason for that—and point number one is that my hon. Friend succeeded his predecessor. However, my hon. Friend became interested because of the problem. Among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield and for Derbyshire, North (Mr. Barnes) have raised this matter because of the tremendous backlog in dealing with these cases and because of the Select Committee report that drew a lot of attention to the problem. I am not knocking that—I am simply saying that once attention has been drawn to the problem, it should be remedied in the proper way.
198 Let us not cause something to happen that means that the local residents will suffer. I can understand the agents losing their villas in Spain—not that they have, as a matter of fact—but it is unfair to lump the problem on to those people who are suffering.
If there is plenty of money in the country to put pearly gates outside No. 10, there must be a bob or two left for people such as our constituents. We could give a litany of the ways in which the Government could spend money. We could also say the same about British Coal. If it can use some of its money for two-inch-deep carpets all around Hobart house and provide the wherewithal for all the luxuries and God knows what else there, it has a duty to assist in this difficulty.
The Secretary of State for Energy has a chance to make a name for himself in the last two years left to this Government. Of course, it might be less than that, because Ministers are now shunted around very quickly. The previous Minister for Coal, the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) is sitting behind the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman was halfway through the Bill—he did not expect it—but he suddenly got a telephone call from inside the pearly gates, saying, "You are wanted. We have run out of real Right wingers. You're about the only one left." That was not the greatest compliment of all time to be paid by Bernard Ingham, but the Minister was shifted.
That is why I am advising the Secretary of State and his new Minister for Coal that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield put the situation in the right context when he said, "Grab hold of it." There are many problems and they are not associated with Opposition Members only. Many Tory Members have these complaints. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that we get more complaints about subsidence now than about almost any other subject.
Let us deal with this matter in a general way and take on board the points that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and other hon. Friends. The Government should make sure that there is no more waffling, because there has been some on this issue. When my hon. Friend opened the debate, he gave an account of the way in which the Government have pushed the issue to one side. There is no doubt that the Government have done that with the Waddilove committee and all the rest of it. They have been buying time, but we have now reached the point when the buying of time should end.
Let us get on with the job. If the new clause cannot be accepted, that is one thing, because we are simply saying that the Government should accept that kind of clause if they intend to do something about resolving the problem for the thousands of people who are suffering and losing money and who, in many cases, have not been given any money at all for their genuine claims of subsidence against British Coal.
§ Mr. Wakeham
May I say at the outset that I welcome the opportunity to discuss subsidence? It is an aspect of the coal industry about which there is widespread interest and concern among hon. Members of all parties. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and his hon Friends have done the House a great service in raising the issue for debate on this new clause. One cannot come to this issue without one thing being crystal clear—that the present state of affairs is not satisfactory.
199 Rather than being a substantive point, perhaps my first point should be regarded as an audible aside. Opposition Members have made several attempts to draw a connection between the problems of subsidence and coal privatisation. The Government have a clear commitment to bring forward legislation on the problems of subsidence quite independent of the privatisation, about which I shall speak later. The Government have also clearly stated their proposals for coal privatisation, which will be dealt with in the next Parliament.
However, as I have spent a considerable amount of time on the subject, perhaps I may draw an analogy from the electricity privatisation. To put the matter at its lowest, there seems no possibility of privatising British Coal without first clearing up the questions of the liabilities and problems of subsidence. I am not saying that there is a connection between the two, but as an aside to what some hon. Members have been saying, I should add that I do not think that some Opposition Members took the logic of the points that they themselves were making.
The new clause, in fact, goes rather wider than subsidence, because it seeks to extend deficiency grant to cover not only British Coal's subsidence liabilities, but also all its loans as well. Perhaps it could be convenient for the House, therefore, if I were to deal with all the other matters first and then devote the remaining part of my speech to dealing with points on subsidence.
In these other matters, the new clause would go well beyond what the Government have in mind and what is necessary. The basic purpose of the capital reconstruction is to recognise that the corporation's asset base has been severely eroded by the events of recent years, and to restore the corporation to a position where I can properly continue to advance loans to meet its day to day cash requirements. It has never been our proposal that we should write off all British Coal's debts, but we do believe that it is necessary to bring them into closer alignment with the true value of its colliery assets. Our Bill will achieve that. The Opposition's new clause would not only wipe out all the corporation's debts, but would also endow the corporation with many billions of pounds of spare cash. That would, quite rightly, be unacceptable to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as well as being contrary to European Community rules on state aids.
Quite understandably the Government have been asked how much the deficiency in British Coal's accounts is likely to be by the end of the financial year. I said on Second Reading that it was likely to exceed £5 billion, and that there was a wide margin of uncertainty at present about certain elements, particularly the valuation of the corporation's assets.
This margin of uncertainty could be as much as £2 billion and it may be several months before we are able to arrive at a more precise figure. This is because the revaluation of each colliery will be based on a detailed review of its future cash flow and, of course, there will need to be detailed discussion of the strategic assumptions underlying the cash projections, and particularly the assumptions for prices, output and productivity.
Questions have also been asked about the valuation of land and coal reserves in the accounts. Land and buildings 200 are included at cost, but the annual accounts also give information on its value at current prices. At March 1989, British Coal's estimate of the current market value was £584 million, compared with a book cost of £207 million.
I can assure Opposition Members that British Coal is in no financial position to hoard land. In fact, it has stepped up its sales of surplus property to nearly £100 million in the course of this financial year and will have to continue to sell its land if it is to generate cash for reinvestment in the industry.
§ Mr. Wakeham
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my next paragraph. Unworked coal reserves are not included in the balance sheet, but they represent an immense and vital national asset. If they were sold, they would, of course, have to be valued, but I am certainly not envisaging that unworked reserves, as distinct from the coal mining industry, would ever be privatised. Nevertheless, I understand the feeling expressed in Committee, that, as steward of our coal reserves, British Coal might provide a fuller and more regular analysis of the volume of reserves in each coalfield. It is important information and I shall certainly draw the matter to the attention of Sir Robert Haslam.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
This is an important point. I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will be confused about assets and reserves. The Secretary of State must be aware that pits have closed, not because there was no coal in them, but because it was considered that the economic climate had changed. Pits were deemed unprofitable even though the coal was still there. That coal may even be worked some day, when there is a more realistic appreciation of the value of coal resources. Our worry is that the closure of some pits was a piece of vandalism and that coal was sterilised for all time.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I shall leave aside part of what the hon. Gentleman said and come to the central point. I agree that it is not possible to value coal reserves. It is not our intention to do so. We do not envisage privatising that part of the coal industry. We do not believe that it is proper to value coal reserves. The hon. Gentleman will agree that a fuller and more regular analysis of the volume of reserves in each coalfield is more important than artificial and meaningless assessments of their value.
I shall make a request to Sir Robert Haslam to make more information about the volume of reserves available. Many people involved in the coal industry would like to have such information. I agree that it would not be fruitful to attempt to value coal reserves.
Clause 1 provides that I may pay deficiency grant up to the level of the deficiency shown in British Coal's accounts. I cannot guarantee that I shall fully extinguish the deficiency to the last penny. For one thing, part of the grant represents state aid requiring the approval of the European Coal and Steel Community. The level of grant will have to be sufficient to clear up British Coal's balance sheet to the point where I can properly continue to lend to the Corporation. In other words, there must be a genuine 201 prospect that it can service and repay its remaining debt. This means that a very substantial amount of deficiency grant will be required.
I now turn to the subsidence aspects of the new clause. First, I assure the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) that the deficiency already allows sums to cover its estimated liability for compensation for subsidence damage. The adequacy of these sums will automatically be reviewed by British Coal's auditors at the end of each year. The sums do not allow for the effect of further legislation on subsidence. It is not possible to make a proper assessment of any increase in the liability on this account until details of the Government's legislation are finalised. I do not expect that the extra liability will be significant.
In response to the point raised by the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), whatever British Coal's financial difficulties or liabilities in the past—I hope that such difficulties will not continue—there is no question that any properly settled claim would not be met by British Coal. It could not reasonably plead poverty in settling its debts. That would be unacceptable. I hope that that will help the hon. Member for Mansfield to deal with the human problems in his constituency and in others. I shall deal with the negotiation and settlement of claims later in my speech.
§ Mr. Wakeham
Fine. I appreciate friendly comments, wherever they come from. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) occasionally makes such comments, but they often have a sting in the tail.
Many claims are already being met by British Coal. I am pleased to tell the House that the trends are encouraging. The number of new claims continues to fall. In 1988–89, British Coal received 9,600 new claims, some 2,300 less than the previous year. British Coal settled about 10,000 claims, at a cost of nearly £50 million. A further 4,600 claims were rejected, with the result that the total number of cases outstanding fell by about 5,000 compared with the previous year, to a little over 26,000. That compares with backlogs of 37,000 in 1986–87 and 52,000 in 1983–84.
It may be helpful to the House to run through what has happened since the Waddilove committee on subsidence reported in 1984, and the Government's White Paper response was issued in 1987. As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said, the Waddilove report on repair and compensation for coal mining damage made 65 recommendations, not all of which required legislation to be implemented. It is worth recalling that the report did not call for a radical overhaul of the existing system. It concluded that the thrust of the existing legislation was broadly right but needed strengthening in a number of areas. I draw the attention of hon. Members to paragraph 169 of the report.
Between the publication of the Waddilove report and the Government's White Paper response, British Coal introduced several improvements to its management procedures. The result was that, by the time that our White Paper was published, over half of Waddilove's recommendations had been implemented, wholly or in part. In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member 202 for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock), the Official Report listed those improvements in January last year.
For example, British Coal now acts in accordance with Waddilove's recommendation that priority should be given to the repair of damage and that payments in lieu should be made only in exceptional circumstances. It also repairs all property to a good standard, even though the Coals Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 requires British Coal only to make the property "reasonably fitted" for use.
British Coal does not strictly apply the time limit in the 1957 Act, which requires a claim to be made within two months of the damage becoming apparent and will generally accept claims up to six years after the damage occurred. Several hon. Members spoke about the time limit. I recognise that that causes problems. That is why we propose a change in new legislation to make the position abundantly clear.
I am advised that claims will be allowed up to six years from when the claimant first had reasonable grounds to believe that damage had occurred. That is six years, not from when the mining took place, or from when the damage occurred, but from when the damage appeared. I hope that my comments will be of help to people who are in any doubt about that.
§ Mr. Dobson
Does the Secretary of State accept that there are still problems? When a person claims that his house has been damaged, it is possible for the Coal Board to say, "The houses on either side were damaged four years ago, so you are out of time." As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) said, the Coal Board can say in effect, "You have suffered from the damage for so long that we will not pay you any compensation."
§ Mr. Wakeham
I recognise that the position is not entirely satisfactory, but I said what I did in order that the legal position should be as clear as I am advised that it is. But we recognise that legislation is necessary to make that crystal clear.
Some hon. Members have suggested that more should be done in advance of legislation. We agree, and I am actively looking to move things forward. That is why we are preparing a new version of my Department's advisory leaflet, often refered to as the Green Book. That will describe new procedures agreed between the Department and British Coal for dealing with subsidence claims. Those procedures will, as far as possible, incorporate the best aspects of both the existing Acts and anticipate our proposals for legislation. I am well aware of the anxiety that claimants may suffer simply from not knowing how to proceed. I hope that that will go some small way to reduce uncertainty in the minds of claimants until such time as our new legislation is implemented.
Secondly, the House may recall from the White Paper that we said that we would conduct an attitude survey to assess public satisfaction with British Coal's notification procedures. If the existing arrangements are found to be unsatisfactory, British Coal will be required to notify individual households. The fieldwork for that survey is now complete and I expect a report shortly.
Thirdly, because of the prospect of early legislation we have brought forward the review of disputes procedures which Waddilove recommended should take place in 1990. 203 That, in part, answers some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse). That review is now under way and will look at a range of options. We shall shortly be consulting more widely and I hope that the outcome will be a simpler, quicker and cheaper way for claimants to resolve disputes with British Coal.
The options that we are looking at include a better defined and more widely available form of independent adjudication; lower-tier to the Lands Tribunal, roughly equivalent to a small claims court; an ombudsman; a legal advice centre, and a disputes procedure based on the rules of the Institute of Arbitrators. At this stage it is not possible to anticipate the outcome of this review or when and how its findings will be implemented, but it may be possible for a new system to be agreed and established without legislation.
I shall consider carefully all the points that have been made by my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), and the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Mansfield, along with the other helpful suggestions that have been made.
The Government remain committed to introducing a Bill on subsidence at the earliest possible opportunity, but subsidence is a complex area. There are two Acts which currently apply. We are not only introducing positive improvements, we are also consolidating two Acts into one Bill. Some of the provisions of these Acts, while desirable, are not always as clear as they should be.
Many hon. Members will be only too aware of the uncertainties surrounding the interpretation of the six-year rule, on which we have already had exchanges. I accept that fully. Unravelling those Acts and replacing them with a lucid and comprehensive new Bill will involve a lot of "lawyer's law" which will require careful drafting and careful scrutiny by the House and in Committee. Moreover, a great deal of work and further consultation is going on and we want the legislation to reflect its outcome.
For those reasons, it would be neither practical nor desirable to tack subsidence provisions on to the present short, primarily financial, Bill which is urgently required by the end of the financial year. I was responsible for the business of the House for long enough to know that I cannot predict when the legislation will be introduced. That is a matter for decision elsewhere. But I am sure that the Government, in reaching their decision on the timing of a Bill, will wish to take full account of the views expressed today, and I hope that on that basis the Opposition will withdraw the new clause.
§ Mr. Dobson
We do not want to withdraw the new clause, because this is an urgent matter. It is getting on for six years since the Waddilove committee reported. Its recommendations are sufficiently clear, and they should be implemented now.
If the Secretary of State is not prepared to amend the Bill at this point or to see it amended in the other place, let me remind him of his previous incarnation as Leader of the House. In the previous Session of Parliament, we saw through the House the lowest number of Bills in an ordinary Session since the second world war, and in the Session before that we saw through the lowest number of Bills ever seen through the first Session of a Parliament 204 since the second world war. We are promised that there will be even fewer Bills in this Session, so there must be room in the Government's legislative programme for this important measure. If the right hon. Gentleman wants his hon. Friends to drop the National Health Service and Community Care Bill, or the Education (Student Loans) Bill, we shall facilitate that.
§ Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 175, Noes 246.206
|Division No. 36]||[6.35 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)|
|Allen, Graham||Godman, Dr Norman A.|
|Anderson, Donald||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Gordon, Mildred|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Gould, Bryan|
|Ashton, Joe||Graham, Thomas|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Barron, Kevin||Grocott, Bruce|
|Battle, John||Hardy, Peter|
|Beckett, Margaret||Haynes, Frank|
|Beith, A. J.||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Henderson, Doug|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Hinchliffe, David|
|Blunkett, David||Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)|
|Boyes, Roland||Hood, Jimmy|
|Bradley, Keith||Howarth, George (Knowsley N)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Howells, Geraint|
|Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)||Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Hoyle, Doug|
|Buchan, Norman||Hughes, John (Coventry NE)|
|Buckley, George J.||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Callaghan, Jim||Hughes, Roy (Newport E)|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||Illsley, Eric|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Ingram, Adam|
|Canavan, Dennis||Janner, Greville|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Jones, leuan (Ynys Môn)|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)|
|Clay, Bob||Kennedy, Charles|
|Clelland, David||Lambie, David|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Lamond, James|
|Coleman, Donald||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||Leighton, Ron|
|Corbett, Robin||Lewis, Terry|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Litherland, Robert|
|Cousins, Jim||Livsey, Richard|
|Cox, Tom||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Cryer, Bob||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Cummings, John||Loyden, Eddie|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||McAllion, John|
|Dalyell, Tam||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Darling, Alistair||McCartney, Ian|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||McFall, John|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)||McKelvey, William|
|Dixon, Don||McLeish, Henry|
|Dobson, Frank||Maclennan, Robert|
|Doran, Frank||McNamara, Kevin|
|Douglas, Dick||McWilliam, John|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth||Madden, Max|
|Eadie, Alexander||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Marek, Dr John|
|Fatchett, Derek||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Fearn, Ronald||Martlew, Eric|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Maxton, John|
|Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)||Meale, Alan|
|Fisher, Mark||Michael, Alun|
|Flannery, Martin||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Flynn, Paul||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)|
|Foster, Derek||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Foulkes, George||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Fyfe, Maria||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Galloway, George||Mullin, Chris|
|Murphy, Paul||Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)|
|Nellist, Dave||Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)|
|Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||Spearing, Nigel|
|O'Brien, William||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Pendry, Tom||Stott, Roger|
|Pike, Peter L.||Strang, Gavin|
|Powell, Ray (Ogmore)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Primarolo, Dawn||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Radice, Giles||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Redmond, Martin||Turner, Dennis|
|Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn||Vaz, Keith|
|Richardson, Jo||Walley, Joan|
|Robertson, George||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Rogers, Allan||Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)|
|Rooker, Jeff||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Rowlands, Ted||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Ruddock, Joan||Winnick, David|
|Short, Clare||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Skinner, Dennis||Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie and|
|Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)||Mr. Ken Eastham.|
|Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Alexander, Richard||Gran, James|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Critchley, Julian|
|Allason, Rupert||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)|
|Amess, David||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Amos, Alan||Day, Stephen|
|Arbuthnot, James||Devlin, Tim|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Dorrell, Stephen|
|Ashby, David||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Atkinson, David||Dover, Den|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Dunn, Bob|
|Baldry, Tony||Durant, Tony|
|Batiste, Spencer||Eggar, Tim|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Evennett, David|
|Bendall, Vivian||Fallon, Michael|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Favell, Tony|
|Benyon, W.||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Fishburn, John Dudley|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Fookes, Dame Janet|
|Boswell, Tim||Forman, Nigel|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Forth, Eric|
|Bowis, John||Fox, Sir Marcus|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Franks, Cecil|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Freeman, Roger|
|Brazier, Julian||French, Douglas|
|Bright, Graham||Fry, Peter|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & CI't's)||Gale, Roger|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Gill, Christopher|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Glyn, Dr Sir Alan|
|Budgen, Nicholas||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Burns, Simon||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Burt, Alistair||Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Butler, Chris||Gorman, Mrs Teresa|
|Butterfill, John||Gow, Ian|
|Carlisle, John, (Luton N)||Greenway, John (Ryedale)|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Grist, Ian|
|Carrington, Matthew||Ground, Patrick|
|Carttiss, Michael||Hague, William|
|Chope, Christopher||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Churchill, Mr||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)||Hannam, John|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr)|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Harris, David,|
|Colvin, Michael||Hayes, Jerry|
|Conway, Derek||Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Hayward, Robert|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Cormack, Patrick||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Couchman, James||Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Hind, Kenneth||Raffan, Keith|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Redwood, John|
|Holt, Richard||Renton, Rt Hon Tim|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Riddick, Graham|
|Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)||Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Hunt, David (Wirral W)||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Hunter, Andrew||Rost, Peter|
|Irvine, Michael||Rowe, Andrew|
|Jack, Michael||Ryder, Richard|
|Janman, Tim||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Jessel, Toby||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Jones, Robert B (Herts W)||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Shelton, Sir William|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Kilfedder, James||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Shersby, Michael|
|King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)||Sims, Roger|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Knapman; Roger||Speller, Tony|
|Knight, Greg (Derby North)||Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Knowles, Michael||Squire, Robin|
|Knox, David||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Lang, Ian||Steen, Anthony|
|Latham, Michael||Stern, Michael|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)|
|Lee, John (Pendle)||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Sumberg, David|
|Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark||Summerson, Hugo|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Lightbown, David||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Lilley, Peter||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Lord, Michael||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Macfarlane, Sir Neil||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)||Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)|
|Maclean, David||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Thornton, Malcolm|
|McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael||Thurnham, Peter|
|Malins, Humfrey||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Mans, Keith||Tracey, Richard|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Trippier, David|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Viggers, Peter|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Walden, George|
|Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Mellor, David||Waller, Gary|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Ward, John|
|Miller, Sir Hal||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Mills, lain||Warren, Kenneth|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Watts, John|
|Mitchell, Sir David||Wells, Bowen|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Whitney, Ray|
|Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Moss, Malcolm||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Nelson, Anthony||Wilshire, David|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Norris, Steve||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley||Wood, Timothy|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Woodcock, Dr. Mike|
|Paice, James||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Porter, David (Waveney)||Mr. Sydney Chapman and|
|Portillo, Michael||Mr. Tom Sackville.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.