HC Deb 22 April 1991 vol 189 cc858-61
Mr. Barron

I beg to move amendment No. 27, in page 28, line 23, at end insert— '(1A) The Corporation shall also pay any costs or expenses reasonably incurred by the householder served notices under Clause 44 subsections (4) and (6) below.'.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Government amendment No. 19.

tAmendment No. 26, in page 28, line 31, at end insert— '(2A) Subsection (2) above will apply to costs or expenses reasonably incurred by a local authority acting on behalf of claimants, or as landlords.'. Government amendments Nos. 20 and 21.

Mr. Barron

In view of the absence of provision for advice centres, we ought to consider seriously amendment No. 27. Members of the Committee will remember our debate on amendment No. 27 and the expense of a pre-mining survey. People would have the right to money to have their property inspected prior to undermining after a notice had been issued. It would be proper to help property owners with their expenses should they seek advice on what to do when successive notices are served on them by British Coal. They will probably turn to an expert for an opinion on the best course of action, and the costs incurred should be reimbursed.

In certain circumstances—if mining took place, the property was damaged and the claim was successful—the expenses would be reimbursed. Unfortunately, however, if mining is not the cause of damage, if claimants take expert advice because of successive notices and undermining does not take place or if there is insufficient damage to warrant a successful claim, the claimants would not be paid for any advice they took. An advice centre would have solved many of those problems.

Amendment No. 26 extends reimbursable costs to include local authorities should they act on behalf of a claimant or take action as property owners. It does not seem right to exclude expenses incurred by local authorities when they are successful claimants. Unlike housing associations, local authorities have been given much responsibility for public housing in the past five to ten years. Housing associations can claim expenses incurred for legal advice on subsidence damage to their properties.

Although local authorities may be successful in claiming damages against British Coal, they are not entitled to legal expenses. Most local authorities have a legal department, but they have a wide and varied agenda, and if they are involved in ensuring that claims against British Coal are successful, they cannot work on other matters. It seems unfair that local authorities should lose in this respect and not be able to claim their rightful legal expenses for successful claims against British Coal. I hope that the Minister will look seriously at amendment No. 26.

Amendment No. 27 deals with the fact that people will seek advice should successive notices be laid against their property. In the absence of an advice centre, they should be protected when they have incurred reasonable costs in protecting their property.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Amendment No. 26 refers to expenses incurred by local authorities as landlords. I assure the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) that nothing in clause 36 prevents a local authority from recovering the costs that it has reasonably incurred in pursuing a claim as a landlord. The hon. Gentleman may wonder why we cannot make that explicit in the clause, just to be on the safe side. That could be counter-productive, because the clause is widely drafted to catch as many types as possible of reasonable costs incurred by many different individuals and organisations. Therefore, if one includes references to specific organisations such as local authorities, one narrows the focus of the clause and casts some doubt on the scope of the clause. That is not in the interests of claimants other than local authorities. Therefore, I invite the House to reject the amendment.

The amendment also refers to cost incurred by local authorities acting on behalf of claimants. That seems to be another attempt to require British Coal to fund advice centres. Therefore, for the reasons that I gave in an earlier debate, I am not convinced that that would be justified.

Amendment No. 27 is drafted in extremely wide terms and seems to cover every type of expenditure, from a record of the property's condition to major preventive works. I must stress that a clause 44 notice means that there is a risk but not a certainty of the building being affected by subsidence. Therefore, it would not be right or proper that all expenditure on all such building should automatically be reimbursable to the property owner or household.

Clause 36(5) as presently drafted provides that nothing in the clause is to be taken as prejudicing the powers of the Lands Tribunal in respect of any costs or expenses of the proceedings before that tribunal. The provision means that the Lands Tribunal can award costs without regard to clause 36, but, alternatively, clause 36 could still allow a claimant to attempt to recover from British Coal costs that the Lands Tribunal had not thought fit to award to him, which is wrong.

Therefore, amendment No. 21 does two things. First, it broadens the scope of subsection (5) so that not only does it apply to the Lands Tribunal but it brings arbitration procedures within its scope. That should commend itself to all hon. Members, who have been concerned to ensure that arbitration expenses are ranked in the same way as those incurred before the Lands Tribunal. Secondly, the amendment clarifies the relationship between the award of costs under a formal procedure and clause 36. Where any particular set of costs falls within the jurisdiction of a formal process, the outcome of that process is to be definitive as regards the recovery of those costs.

That rules out the possibility, which I mentioned earlier, of a claimant having a second go at recovering costs under clause 36 which were denied by the Lands Tribunal. The amendment does not prevent a successful claimant from recovering reasonable costs which an arbitrator would not have been able to award. For example, a claimant might have had to employ a structural engineer or surveyor. Those costs will be fully reimbursable.

Having given those explanations and expansions, I hope that the House will accept the amendments.

Mr. Meale

I merely wish some clarification on amendment No. 26. Has the Minister given way on the right of a local authority reasonably to reclaim money that it has spent in acting on behalf of a claimant? Secondly, as landlords—as the Minister knows—local authorities have thousands of houses, sometimes whole housing estates, which are submitted for claims to British Coal because of the damage throughout the estates. Would it be reasonable for the local authority to reclaim both amounts as the acting agent authority—first, as landlord and, secondly, acting on behalf of claimants resident in their district?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

The only costs that will be reimbursable are those incurred by the local authority as landlord and owner of the buildings in question. For that purpose, the local authority is in exactly the same position as any other landlord or freeholder. As I explained, we did not think it right to place local authorities in a privileged position or draw specific attention in the clause to the rights of local authorities in that regard.

Mr. Meale

A short time ago, when debating another part of the Bill, the Minister suggested that there was nothing wrong with local authorities establishing themselves as agents representing the people of their areas. That would not prevent the setting up of advice centres; indeed, it would help to get rid of the problem of coal mining subsidence agents. If local authorities do that work it is surely reasonable to consider reimbursing them for it.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

If local authorities provide the necessary expert advice, reasonably incurred expenditure would be treated in the same way as if the advice or expertise were provided by any other professional organisation. The provision does not extend to general reimbursement for advice. If it did, we should slip back into the idea of reimbursing the expenses of advice centres, a course that the House has already rejected.

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.