HC Deb 22 April 1991 vol 189 cc853-4
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 7, line 8, at end insert— '(7A) Subject to subsection (7B) below, the Corporation are to be regarded as acting unreasonably in refusing any request falling within subsection (7)(a) above which is received before they have begun to execute remedial works. (7B) Subsection (7A) above does not apply where—

  1. (a) the Corporation have acceded to another such request made by another person;
  2. (b) the execution of remedial works by a person other than the Corporation would significantly impede the discharge of their remedial obligation in respect of one or more neighbouring properties; or
  3. (c) where the damage has rendered the property structurally unsound, the execution of such works by the person by whom the request was made or, as the case may be, by the person specified in the request would be unlikely to restore the structural integrity of the property,
and (in any case) as soon as reasonably practicable after receiving the request the Corporation give notice to that effect to the person by whom the request was made.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 2 and 11.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It has always been the Government's view that a claimant should have the right to use his own contractor except in certain special circumstances. Our original approach was that British Coal should be able to elect to make a payment in lieu to enable a claimant to use his own contractor. Clause 8 also stipulated that British Coal should not unreasonably refuse a request to make such an election.

It was the view of many hon. Members in Committee that such an approach might allow too much discretion to British Coal. So I readily agreed to reconsider the matter to ensure that the claimant's position was safeguarded beyond doubt. Therefore, I have tabled a new subsection which, I hope, will meet the point. Its effect is to limit British Coal's right to refuse a claimant permission to use his own contractor to three specified circumstances.

The first circumstance is the obvious one of where British Coal receives two requests for the same property. The second circumstance is where the execution of remedial works by a person other than the corporation would significantly impede the discharge of the corporation's remedial obligations. An obvious example is a block of flats that has been damaged. It would not be sensible to allow each part of that block of flats to be repaired by a separate contractor. That could create the absurd position that one side of a party wall was being tackled by one contractor and the other side was being repaired by another.

The third circumstance is where the contractor does not have the necessary expertise to repair seriously damaged property. For example, if a property is affected by fissuring—of which I saw one example in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart)—it may require highly specialised repair work. It would not be in anyone's interest to allow the work to be done by a company that was less than competent. Of course, if British Coal declined permission for one contractor, it might be possible to find another, but this is an important example of where the right of the claimant should be fettered.

The other amendment in this group is what parliamentary counsel call a chiming amendment. It ensures consistency of phraseology throughout the Bill. With those explanations, I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Barron

Once again, I thank the Government for responding to the arguments made in Committee and amending the clause to change the presumption in favour of the claimant's choice. I can see that our arguments have borne fruit.

Opposition Members believe that people should be able to opt to carry out repairs themselves or select a contractor to do the work, unless there is specific and good reason for British Coal to do the work itself. The Minister gave the example of a block of flats. That is common sense. There might be other cases in which British Coal would have to show specific and good reason why the claimant should not do the work. I am sure the Minister has been advised on the matter.

The intention of our amendments in Committee and the Government's amendments tonight—which we are pleased to support—is to stop people being forced to wait for repairs to be done to their property and consequently to live in damaged property for longer than necessary. On that basis, we gladly support the Government amendments.

Mr. Meale

I appreciate the Minister's argument about a block of flats, but what about a street of houses? Would the use of contractors be restricted in the same way for work on a portion of a street of houses?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It may be more efficient in some cases to use a single contractor for a whole terrace, but that would not fit into the definition in the amendment. We have dealt only with cases where it would be absurdly wasteful, difficult or impractical to use various private sector contractors.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 2, in page 7, line 10, leave out 'to make an election for the purposes of this section' and insert 'falling within subsection (7) above which is'.—[Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]

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