§ [Relevant documents: Sixth Report of the Energy Committee of Session 1989–90 on Mining Subsidence ( House of Commons Paper No. 287) and the Sixth Special Report of the Committee of the same Session containing the Government's Observations on the Sixth Report ( House of Commons Paper No. 663).]
§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 7 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Coal Mining Subsidence Bill represents the culmination of a process of practical reform over a number of years, aimed at improving the arrangements for dealing with subsidence damage caused by coal mining. Hon. Members will be aware that deep mining often lowers the surface land as the overlying geological strata subside into the void created by the removal of coal. This subsidence can result in damage to land and buildings located above such undermining. It has long been recognised as one of the inevitable adverse effects of mining deep coal.
The present arrangements for dealing with coal mining subsidence damage—whether by repair or by the payment of compensation—have two distinct kinds of origin. On the one hand, there were the private agreements between the original landowners and coal mine operators. These might involve a variety of arrangements to deal with the effects of subsidence, as it suited the parties at the time. When the freehold of coal was later taken into public ownership, existing obligations to land owners were preserved. But, otherwise, the National Coal Board—now the British Coal Corporation—was required to make good any subsidence damage or to pay compensation. This is the origin of the provisions in the Coal Industry Act 1975 dealing with coal mining subsidence.
On the other hand, because many landowners had sold the right to extract the underlying coal without any compensation for subsidence damage, considerable hardship was experienced by householders and others who had acquired or built properties on such land at a later date. The resulting sense of grievance led to the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957, which extended the statutory rights of compensation or repair to owners of all land and buildings damaged by coal mining subsidence, regardless of any agreement entered into by the landowner who had originally sold or leased the coal.
The position at present, therefore, is that an owner, occupier or tenant can seek remedy for subsidence damage either through the 1957 Act or through the 1975 Act. This results in confusion. We therefore want to consolidate the legislation into a single statute and, in so doing, take account of the good practice that has grown up in recent years.
Because the existing legislation was judged, over time, to provide inadequate compensation, British Coal adopted in 1976 a voluntary code of practice, which provides for compensation for damaged chattels and for home loss payments where, as a result of subsidence damage, a person permanently loses his home. It also provides 70 payments to farmers where a farm is no longer profitable because of subsidence damage. Subsequently, the corporation has undertaken to contribute to the costs of professional advice needed to prepare a claim; to make payments on account of residual tilt or structural distortion to repaired buildings; and to make payments to occupiers who endure prolonged inconvenience and disturbance while their homes are being repaired.
Nevertheless, in the early 1980s there were many who still regarded the operation of the subsidence repair and compensation arrangements as unsatisfactory. In 1983, therefore, the Government appointed a committee to review subsidence compensation, under the chairmanship of Lewis Waddilove. We are indebted to Mr. Waddilove and the other committee members for their work. The committee carried out a thorough examination of the position and made 65 recommendations in its report published in 1984. It concluded that the main thrust of the existing provisions, both statutory and voluntary, was right, although some significant gaps remained to be filled.
Most of the recommendations were accepted by the Government in the White Paper of 1987. In 1988 the Government issued a consultative document on the content of new legislation, and much useful advice was received in response. The Select Committee on Energy published last summer a timely and perceptive analysis of current subsidence issues, of which we have taken full account. The Bill is the result. It will repeal the existing legislation and replace it with a comprehensive new statute, which incorporates British Coal's voluntary undertakings.
I shall describe the contents of the Bill as briefly as I can. After the wide definition of subsidence damage in clause I, part II sets out the remedial action required in response to such damage. Clause 2 imposes an obligation on British Coal to take appropriate remedial action, whether by executing repairs, by paying for repairs, or by making payment in respect of any depreciation in the value of the damaged property.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
Is it true that British Coal has no obligation to purchase property that has been damaged? Would my hon. Friend be prepared to consider an amendment to make the provision rather tighter?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
Indeed, there is no existing obligation on British Coal to purchase all such properties, although it does so in cases of hardship. If my hon. Friend cares to table an amendment it will undoubtedly be considered in Committee.
As with the existing subsidence legislation, the fundamental duty that I have outlined is placed on the British Coal Corporation as the owner of virtually all the coal and coal mines in Great Britain.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
I appreciate that an onus is being placed on British Coal. If, in the not too distant future, British Coal should be privatised, would the obligations under this legislation still apply?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
The obligations would be transferred to the new owners or operators.
71 Where, at present, the corporation issues licences for deep mining, it remains responsible for any resulting subsidence damage, although it can recover the cost of remedying such damage from its licensees.
Clause 3 requires a prospective claimant to serve on the corporation a damage notice describing the damage that has occurred. He must do so within six years of the first time at which he ought reasonably to have been aware of the damage. The clause makes clear what, under existing legislation, has been rather unclear and is consistent with the position as set out in my Department's guidance leaflet which was issued last year and accepted by British Coal. I believe that six years should be an ample period within which to allow the householder to make his claim.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
The Minister may think that six years is ample time for a person to notify the board, but cases of damage due to mining subsidence occur after six years. Will people be debarred from making claims in such cases?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
The six years runs not from the conclusion of mining but from the time that the subsidence damage appeared in the property and the time at which the occupier should have been aware of it or might reasonably be expected to be aware of it. That covers the possibility of cracks being covered by panelling or something similar that prevents the householder from being aware of damage. The six years will run from when he might reasonably have been aware of the damage.
Clause 6 requires the corporation to provide the claimant with a costed schedule setting out the works necessary to make good the subsidence damage, as far as is reasonably practicable, to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant. That means that the standard of workmanship of such remedial works shall be that which would meet the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
The Minister has missed out clauses 4 and 5. Will he give a modest explanation of clause 4?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
If I were to go through each of the 50-odd clauses, that would take up most of the time available for the debate. If the hon. Gentleman cares to raise specific points, should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall endeavour to respond to them in the winding-up speech.
Clause 8 specifies the circumstances in which British Coal may elect to make a payment in lieu instead of executing remedial works. These include situations where the claimant wishes to carry out the work himself, or to use his own contractor, and where it is proposed to merge other works with the works arising from the subsidence damage. Such payments in lieu are not intended to result in cash compensation in place of repairs.
Clauses 10 and 11 set down the particular circumstances in which British Coal may make a cash payment corresponding to the depreciation in value of the damaged property caused by subsidence. So far as housing is concerned, these circumstances are tightly defined because, in agreement with the Waddilove committee, we wish the primary duty placed on the corporation to be the repair of subsidence damage in order to minimise deterioration of the housing stock. Clause 11 does, however, require the 72 making of a supplementary depreciation payment in the case where a property has been repaired as far as is reasonably practicable, but where, nevertheless, there remains a depreciation in value as a result of the effects of subsidence. One example would be where a building remains somewhat tilted after repairs are completed.
The other clauses in part II complete the arrangements for remedial action to properties damaged by subsidence. Let me mention in particular the new rules governing the operation of so-called "stop notices" served by British Coal in cases where further damage to the property is likely. The corporation will be obliged to review the need to continue a stop notice within a year of the notice being given and to settle claims if no further ground movement will affect the property in the next 18 months.
Part III makes provision for additional remedies, over and above remedial action in respect of damage to land and buildings, and places on a statutory basis for the first time obligations voluntarily assumed by British Coal and recommendations made by the Waddilove committee.
§ Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)
One of the problems that has been encountered is that British Coal, when providing alternative accommodation, often does so in the form of caravans in the grounds of the houses that have been damaged. It is hard for someone living in what can be described as four-star accommodation then to have to live in a caravan for four or five months. Could such a person insist that his alternative accommodation is up to a standard to which he is entitled?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
British Coal will be obliged to provide reasonable alternative accommodation, although I understand that sometimes householders prefer caravans next door to their homes.
§ Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)
Part of the problem with subsidence repairs is that British Coal provides alternative accommodation to a reasonable standard. However, as it cannot afford more of such reasonable accommodation, there are delays in subsidence repair. Should not more facilities be given to British Coal so that it can take over more properties as temporary housing?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
That is essentially a matter for British Coal. We are laying down in statute the obligations and it will be up to the coal operator to meet the requirements.
The Bill makes provision for home loss payments to people who may lose their homes on account of exceptionally severe subsidence damage and for temporary alternative accommodation to be made available if that is necessary for repairs to be carried out.
There is provision to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring the corporation to compensate householders for inconvenience and disturbance which may be caused as a result of repairs being carried out while the householder stays in the house. That would enable British Coal's existing voluntary arrangements for compensation for exceptional inconvenience or disturbance to be placed on a statutory basis, with improvements should that seem desirable. If these and other voluntary arrangements by British Coal work well, regulations may not be necessary, but the reserve powers will exist.
Part III also provides for different forms of compensation to farmers arising from subsidence damage 73 to their land, such as farm loss payments, crop loss payments, and payments to tenant farmers. It also provides for compensation in respect of moveable property or chattels damaged by subsidence and likewise as regards personal injury.
Part IV deals with preventive works to existing buildings designed to reduce the impact of subsidence damage, with precautionary works to new buildings, and with measures to deal with damage to land drainage systems.
Part V makes a variety of supplementary provisions, including a requirement on British Coal to reimburse any reasonable costs or expenses incurred by a claimant in the successful preparation and prosecution of a claim. I would draw attention in particular to clause 41, which allows the Secretary of State to direct the corporation to prepare and submit for his approval a scheme for the determination of disputes by arbitration. One long-standing difficulty associated with the present statutory arrangements has been the lack of informal and accessible means whereby disputes could be resolved speedily and inexpensively—that concern was expressed by the Waddilove committee. The Lands Tribunal will remain available to deal with disputes. However, the average value of a settled subsidence claim in respect of domestic property is under £3,000. It would not in general be justifiable to take disputes over sums of this order to the Lands Tribunal.
Recognising that difficulty, British Coal has helpfully and commendably arranged for the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators to operate an arbitration scheme tailor made to deal with subsidence problems.
§ Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
We have heard that British Coal is graciously bringing in an arbitration scheme, but there is a major defect to it. British Coal has to give the claimant permission to go to arbitration. How can an arbitration scheme be of any value when the person who is wrong in the dispute can prevent the person who wishes to challenge a decision from going to arbitration? The scheme is worthless unless claimants have the right to go to arbitration, rather than having to seek British Coal's permission to go to arbitration.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I draw my hon. Friend's attention to clause 41, which deals with the issue that he has raised. It would enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to direct the corporation to submit to him a scheme for his approval. An approved scheme would oblige British Coal to be bound by the arbitration and to offer arbitration in cases of the sort to which my hon. Friend has referred. It is our objective to allow all disputes that might arise under the Bill to be resolved by means of arbitration in so far as that is possible. In the event of a dispute, the onus of proof will remain with the corporation to show that any damage is not subsidence damage.
Clause 43 would allow the Secretary of State to direct the corporation to establish a further scheme for the investigation of complaints of unfair treatment or maladministration in connection with the way in which the corporation carries out its duties under the Bill. Again, this is a reserve power that can be used if necessary.
Clauses 44 to 46 require the corporation to provide information about future and past coal mining and subsidence damage to occupiers of property likely to be 74 affected, to prospective purchasers of such property and to local authorities in mining areas. British Coal is shortly to introduce a pilot scheme that will be aimed at notifying individual occupiers of future mining plans and that will become a general requirement once the Bill is enacted.
Subsidence damage can be a traumatic experience for the property owner or occupier. The Bill sets out the obligations of the coal operator and the rights of the property owner. It is the result of long and careful consultation and brings together several Acts and codes of practice into one Bill. I commend the measure to the House.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
Subsidence damage created by coal mining has been a cause of great distress to many households. Those of us who represent coal milling areas know only too well from our constituents what a costly, time consuming and sometimes agonising experience it can be to make a claim against British Coal for subsidence damage. That is why my colleagues and I have argued for years that it is vital to establish a system that is both fast and fair.
Along with many others in the coalfield communities, we heaved a sigh of relief when at long last the Government found a space in their legislative schedule to introduce the Bill. Many of us cannot understand why it has taken so long to introduce such a measure.
The Minister rightly said that the Waddilove committee was set up in 1983 to examine the repair and compensation system for coal mining subsidence damage. Thanks to the activity of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), who first introduced a private Member's Bill designed to deal with subsidence damage in 1979, the committee's report was submitted in 1984. It contained 65 recommendations involving changes to the system. It took three years for the Government to respond to the Waddilove report. It was only in 1988 that concrete proposals emerged from the Department of Energy. Thanks to the substantial pressure that has been brought to bear on the Government by many local authorities and other organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, the Coalfield Communities Campaign and, to a large extent, by the Labour party, both nationally and locally, as well as by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, the Bill has been introduced seven years after the Waddilove committee was established.
We welcome the Bill. It is a long overdue measure—I see that the Secretary of State nods in agreement. Last year, as the Minister rightly said, the Select Committee on Energy reported on mining subsidence. It was aware that, despite British Coal's claim that it has implemented many of the recommendations contained in the Waddilove report, there remained considerable dissatisfaction with the repair and compensation system. We are pleased that some of the recommendations set out in the report and reinforced by the Select Committee's findings have been incorporated in the Bill. We welcome them in general terms but we may wish to improve the Bill's provisions at a later stage in our consideration of them.
The method by which British Coal notifies property owners of undermining was criticised by both the Waddilove report and the Select Committee. That is because British Coal fails to communicate with the 75 majority of those who are concerned. That failure could lead to difficulties with later claims. The introduction of an obligation on British Coal to inform owners or occupants of the risk of subsidence will ensure that the majority of owners or occupiers will be made aware of the risk. Despite the reluctance of British Coal, the Bill will allow the use of contractors of a claimant's choice, in certain circumstances, to repair subsidence damage. We welcome that as a positive step forward in handling the problem of subsidence in coalfield areas.
Another positive step is the inclusion in the Bill of a clause on the payment of fees incurred by a claimant. The reimbursement of expenses incurred by a claimant in the pursuance of his claim is a way in which the balance of power between claimants and British Coal can be more evenly matched. It is right also that there is clarification of British Coal's obligation to restore property. I am concerned, however, that as the Bill stands it is British Coal's responsibility to make good the damage so far as it is reasonably practicable to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant. That part of the Bill will not meet the problem satisfactorily. Many believe that it will allow British Coal to return property to them that is in a worse condition than it was before the damage occurred.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The hon. Gentleman has referred to an issue that is of great concern to many in Wales who have suffered as a result of damage to their property caused by subsidence. Is he satisfied that the Bill deals adequately with permanent depreciation? Repairs may have been carried out in the past, or may be carried out now, but it may be found in future that the house is valued at a lower price than neighbouring houses when properties come on the market. I know of a house with damage that was sold for £18,000 whereas neighbouring houses are being sold for £30,000. It would seem that permanent depreciation is not covered adequately in the Bill.
§ Mr. Barron
An attempt is being made in the Bill to cover that problem. We shall have to wait to see whether there is permanent damage. I am pleased that a Bill has been introduced to deal with current damage. As I have said, we shall all have to wait to see how successfully damage is repaired.
I have said that the Opposition welcome the introduction of the Bill, but there are parts of it that are seriously deficient. Equally, there are significant omissions. Arbitration was rightly referred to by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock). The Bill allows the Lands Tribunal to remain the authority to deal with certain disputes. However, in a review of procedures for settling disputes that was issued last year, the Government made this admission:Representations indicate that claimants are reluctant to appeal to the Lands Tribunal for three main reasons: cost, time and formality.The review continues:Given the formal nature of the proceedings (involving deposition of evidence and cross-examination) and the fact that British Coal will be legally represented, the claimant feels that he too must be legally represented, and is at risk of being required to bear British Coal's costs if he loses his case. Even if he wins, he cannot be certain of recovering all his own legal 76 and other professional costs since the Tribunal will award what it considers to be appropriate costs, which may be less than the costs actually incurred.
An answer that I received from the Attorney-General last week stated that in 1990 only eight cases of mining subsidence were settled at lands tribunals. That bears out the Government's review.
Moreover, the appeal procedure is lengthy. That is largely because of the time taken to prepare evidence that is in a suitable form for the proceedings. Given the Government's findings, we cannot understand why the Lands Tribunal remains the official appeal body for certain claims instead of a body of last resort.
Arbitration must be easily accessible and the delay must be as short as possible. Under the Bill, the Secretary of State "may" require British Coal to draw up an arbitration scheme, but the Minister tried to suggest otherwise. We have not been given details of timescales for arbitration, on what can be referred to arbitration and on the effects of either party not agreeing to it. If British Coal states that subsidence has not occurred, are we saying that it will have a veto and that the claimant could end up in a lands tribunal? If that is so, the Minister has a few weeks to correct it, because it will not get rid of the problems of damage and compensation in coal mining areas. I hope that he will take that on board.
We should be given the opportunity to examine the details of the arbitration proposals so that we can be assured that they will provide the best service to our constituents. Whatever arbitration system is finally established, our constituents will need access to free and independent legal and technical advice, because claimants have not had access to the same advice as British Coal.
In its 1990 discussion paper on dispute procedures, the Department of Energy conceded that that was necessary and proposed the establishment of an independent subsidence advice centre. That proposal had the support of the Labour party and the Select Committee on Energy and it met the case put by the consortium of authorities liaising on subsidence and the needs of claimants.
§ Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is compounded by the fact that, because of the many pit closures of the 1980s, all too often plans are not available to enable representatives of people who have suffered from subsidence to prove their case? All too often, British Coal has used that to blind people with science and keep them ignorant. Those people cannot pursue their claim because no plans are available for them to prove it.
§ Mr. Barron
My hon. Friend may be right. The Bill will ensure that plans are made available to householders, but we shall have to wait and see how that operates.
We very much regret the dropping of the proposal for independent advice centres. The Government implied in a letter to me last November that an improved arbitration system that is accessible and well publicised will preclude the need for an advice centre. Labour believes that both are necessary, otherwise the odds will always be stacked in favour of British Coal.
The biggest problem with mining subsidence is the six-year rule. The way in which British Coal operates that rule is causing confusion on top of confusion. Sadly, the Bill will only add to that confusion. We know from evidence submitted to the Select Committee on Energy and from letters to Members that it is seen by the public as the 77 device that British Coal uses to avoid liability when properties have been damaged. Many examples of that were given to the Select Committee. It was told that the problem with the six-year rule is that it can be triggered by British Coal at any time, that when new owners resubmit claims they are sometimes regarded by British Coal as out of time and that it is becoming increasingly common in long-running cases for British Coal to close the file on the ground that six years have expired. If a claimant had not submitted a claim to a land tribunal within that period, British Coal could stop the claimant's case in mid-flight.
British Coal states in its coal subsidence guidelines that it will accept claims within six years of damage occurring or when it would be "reasonable" for the claimant to have known that damage had occurred. That has been agreed with the Department and now the Government want Parliament to agree it.
British Coal appears confused about the operation of the rule, which it says has been operating voluntarily for a long time. Senior members of its staff told the Select Committee on Energy last year that it had paid damages in areas where mining ceased many years ago and even in areas where it could not remember mining having taken place. At one stage, they told the Committee that miningmay have been in 1845 or something like that".If the damage is there to see, is obviously current damage and cannot be dissociated from mining, then that is an acceptable claim. But if that damage is there to be seen and has been there for many years, it will reject it as being out of time.
In answer to a later question, British Coal stated that if there is an immediate indication that the damage did not happen last week, last month or even six years ago, that is still within the six-year limit. Senior representatives of British Coal seem to be more interested in entertaining members of the Select Committee when they come to give evidence than in giving a coherent interpretation of the rule. No wonder people outside have doubts about its implementation of the six-year rule.
The Bill should offer compensation for mining subsidence rather than erect statutory obstacles for people to fall over or for British Coal to hide behind. If the six-year rule cannot be interpreted fairly nor be seen to be fair, it should be removed from the Bill, and we shall table an amendment to that effect at a later stage.
§ Mr. Barron
That is the problem. The six-year rule has no geological basis. The hon. Gentleman, who I understand is a member of the legal profession, and perhaps still is although he is an hon. Member, points out that it is a question of common law. What powers are we giving British Coal under the six-year rule if it can answer questions rightly put by members of the Select Committee about compensation by talking about mining that may have occurred in 1845? That might sound quite extreme, but that was the answer of a senior member of its staff. The rule gives it licence to use that timetable against people who must prove subsidence damage.
§ Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)
The hon. Gentleman cited several cases. Does he agree that in old mining areas, such as the one that I represent, it can take 78 at least two or three years to establish whether mine shafts or old ventilation shafts are on the site? Much of the six years may be taken up resolving the precise location of workings.
§ Mr. Barron
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The question of what happens with old workings is not dealt with in the Bill. I can foresee ground movement from coal mining being ruled out by British Coal using the weapon of the six-year rule.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
To clear up any misunderstanding, may I point out that the date of the mining is irrelevant. The six years runs only from when the damage occurred or from when the householder might reasonably have noticed it.
§ Mr. Barron
In those circumstances, why do we need a six-year rule? British Coal's arguments show that it is not clear about exactly how the six-year rule operates. It even said that it would have to send out information to areas to ensure that they operated in the same way. There is nothing coherent about British Coal's interpretation of that rule. If it is used against people who are going to arbitration or before lands tribunals, we will not have done anything to settle the matter once and for all.
§ Mr. Illsley
I was a member of the Energy Select Committee which questioned British Coal on this subject. We heard different answers from two people—an area director and a member of British Coal based in London. It was put to them that there was considerable confusion about the six-year time limit. The Under-Secretary of State clearly stated that it is six years from the date when the claimant should have reasonably known that subsidence damage had occurred. The Select Committee was given evidence of claims that had been refused as recently as last year when British Coal alleged that, because of the length of time between the date of mining and the date of the claim, the damage could not possibly have been caused by mining subsidence. That should not have happened. In some cases, British Coal stated that, because the period was longer than six years, the claim should be refused. Much confusion has arisen.
§ Mr. Barron
My hon. Friend repeated exactly what was said last year to the Select Committee by the people who were executing the six-year rule.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
In the latter part of last year, a constituent who had purchased a house in Lowton in my constituency came to see me. Within months of the purchase, he had problems relating to subsidence. He submitted an application but was informed by British Coal that it was out of time as the previous owner had had some work done, but British Coal refused to give him information about that. I wrote requesting information so that an appropriate claim could be submitted. On 6 December, an area director told me:British Coal consider the detail of claims to be privileged information …I am sorry I am unable to be more helpful.Yours faithfully".British Coal refused to provide information to allow my constituent to consider whether his application was out of time, what work was carried out, when it was carried out and what subsidence was involved. With that one simple sentence, my constituent's rights were rejected by British 79 Coal. All that happened after the date on which British Coal published a document in consultation with the Government which said that that situation could not arise.
§ Mr. Barron
There will be opportunities later to obtain clarification on exactly what the six-year rule means and on exactly what can and cannot go to arbitration. I hope that we will be given answers to many of our questions by Report and Third Reading.
§ Mr. Malcolm Moss (Cambridgeshire, North-East)
Members of the Select Committee have contributed to the debate. On a point of clarification, I should like to read the Select Committee's conclusions on this issue. The report states:We see no reason why mining subsidence damage should not be treated in a way analogous to other damage, and do not believe that the limitation period for subsidence damage claims should be any longer than for other sorts of claims. We therefore support the proposed clarification of the six-year rule".
§ Mr. Barron
The hon. Gentleman may have gathered from my comments that I disagree with the Select Committee's findings on that issue. Its findings are not founded geologically. We shall see whether clause 3 is unamended by Third Reading. I suspect that in a few years' time, if the Bill is unamended, we shall be arguing once again about the need to clear up the issue of compensation for subsidence damage.
For the Bill to provide a system of repair and compensation that is as fast and fair as possible, it will need substantial amendment. We hope that we can make those improvements during proceedings on the Bill and we look forward to giving our wholehearted support at a later stage. We shall not vote against the Bill, but we register our disappointment at the Bill's omissions and weaknesses. We hope that the Bill will be toughened up so that we can deal with compensation problems and with the terrible mess that has occurred throughout the country because the current legislation has failed many people and British Coal.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)
The introduction of the Bill gives me a feeling of great personal satisfaction and will be warmly welcomed by my constituents and other people living in coal mining areas. To use a well-worn football cliché, we are over the moon.
Many people, encouraged by the Opposition, doubted the Government's commitment to legislate. On behalf of my constituents, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy for fulfilling that Government promise by bringing forward this complex Bill. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who allocates time in the parliamentary timetable, must also share our appreciation. Both my right hon. Friends have been patient and understanding about my incessant demand for new legislation.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), who is the Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department. It takes another PPS to know who really makes all the major descisions in a Government Department. I am sure that if my hon. Friend were not fulfilling his PPS's duty here today, he would be speaking 80 on behalf of his constituents who share with mine the trials and tribulations resulting from mining subsidence damage.
The Bill will rectify the deficiencies of the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 and the Coal Industry Act 1975 which, to all intents and purposes, left British Coal the offender and the judge and jury in deciding what repairs or cash compensation a claimant should receive for damage to his property. It was tough luck if one was a tenant. However, that unacceptable face of a nationalised company will soon be in the past, and not before time. The proposed changes will bring peace of mind for those who live in Britain's coalfields and will ensure, for the first time, that buying a home there will be an investment and not a depreciating liability.
North Nottinghamshire, including my constituency, is located on a raft of coal which has been mined for over 100 years, removing on average 17 million tonnes of coal a year, creating an unsupported void underground. In time, that situation causes trouble on the surface, and what trouble my constituents have had to face. As you would expect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, appeals for help and complaints against British coal have dwarfed all other constituency considerations.
During the past eight years, I have highlighted here and in the media many of the 2,500 cases on file and I do not intend to bore the House with repetition. Suffice it to say that my constituents' experiences and those of other hon. Members have played an important part in the drafting of the new Bill.
My constituents have asked me to express their thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Energy—my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory)— for visiting 011erton and Boughton recently to see for himself the scourge of mining subsidence on property and people. Seeing is believing and his visit there will stand my hon. Friend in good stead as he pilots this important Bill on to the statute book.
Supporting our campaign for change with professional expertise and holding discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and his officials were two important groups of people: COALS, the Consortium of Authorities Liaising on Subsidence, representing the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire local authorities, and the united industry working party, comprising the Country Landowners Association, the National Farmers Union, the Building Societies Association, the Confederation of British Industry, the Association of British Insurers, the Law Society and the British Property Federation. The fact that we have such allies fighting our cause must make British Coal feel like Saddam Hussein—except that nobody is out to get British Coal.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
My hon. Friend has put his finger on it. The fact is that British Coal is a nationalised industry and does not need to be accountable to anybody. British Coal is judge and jury in its own cause. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the industry had been in the private sector we should not have had to put up with all this nonsense for so many years?
§ Mr. Allen McKay
As the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) knows, when the industry was run by private enterprise nobody paid out a penny.
§ Mr. Stewart
The hon. Member will remember that the last Labour Government introduced the Coal Industry Act 1975, which was supposed to put everything right. In fact, they made a mess of it and that is why we are having to tidy matters up.
§ Mr. George J. Buckley (Hemsworth)
The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. British Coal is, indeed, a nationalised industry, but I was under the impression that nationalised industries were accountable to the Government. For three years, the Government have been reluctant to introduce legislation to make this nationalised industry accountable in a way that is acceptable to our constituents.
§ Mr. Stewart
We are in trouble today because those who nationalised the concern could run neither a Government nor a private industry.
Unlike Saddam Hussein, nobody is out to get British Coal. We want only to ensure that claimants receive fair and just treatment—not a penny more and not a penny less than is required to restore their property to its original condition, with compensation being paid for disturbance—and that the provisions apply equally to tenants of rented accommodation who, until now, have been treated as chattels. I am delighted that those matters have been addressed in the Bill, which will also improve standards of repair and set clearer time limits for making a claim. The limit will be six years from the time when a claimant could reasonably suspect damage and not, as British Coal would have us believe, six years from the time when the mining took place.
Emphasis will be placed on repairs rather than cash compensation, so as to maintain the housing stock. Where cash is paid, the compensation schedule must become a public document and must be registered on property title deeds. The reimbursement in full of a claimant's reasonable expenses is another welcome step, although the complexity of the claims procedure demonstrates the need for an independent subsidence advice centre, arid that matter will need to be dealt with in Committee.
It may surprise the House to learn that the first notification that my constituents have that mining is taking place in their area comes with visible signs of damage to their homes. British Coal has recently committed itself to introducing a pilot scheme for the notification of individual householders. That must become a permanent feature, and notice must be given at least one year before work commences.
§ Dr. Kim Howells
Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that there will be a serious problem of blight on property in areas where notification has been given, because, even with the advanced technology now available to engineers, it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen to the strata that lie between a house and the mine beneath it? What will the Bill do to overcome the threat of blight?
§ Mr. Stewart
I do not think that the Bill will overcome the problem of mining subsidence damage, because it is a fact of life. If one takes the coal out, there will be damage. We merely seek to ensure that those whose property is blighted will get a fair deal.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
The hon. Gentleman is not addressing the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). Subsidence is a major problem in mining areas and it is an expensive one. Properties that may not themselves have been damaged by subsidence may, nevertheless, become unsaleable. Once it is known that mining is taking place in an area and once there is evidence of mining subsidence affecting certain properties, even properties that have not been damaged are blighted and can become unsaleable. There is nothing in the Bill to protect people from that.
§ Mr. Stewart
I have been trying to address myself to the Bill and to highlight its deficiencies and the matters that we wish to discuss in Committee. The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to one of the matters on which we shall have to concentrate to ensure that those whose properties suffer damage will get fair and reasonable treatment.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
Perhaps I can assist my hon. Friend. If the Bill does what the Government and all of us hope that it will do, which is to provide an efficient and speedy remedy for those whose properties suffer from the effects of coal mining subsidence, the problem of blight, to which the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) rightfully refers, could be severely reduced. At least people will know that a swift and efficient procedure exists for solving the problems of subsidence.
§ Mr. Stewart
I thank my hon. Friend for answering the question of the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse)—probably in greater detail than I could have done.
Another criticism of British Coal that will have been addressed in Committee relates to the effect of stop notices, especially on family life. Such notices preclude repairs being carried out on damaged property until all mining in the area has been completed. That sounds reasonable to most people, but not to those who have to wait years for repairs to be carried out without a penny compensation being offered.
British justice is recognised internationally as second to none but not in relation to disputed mining subsidence claims. The 1957 and 1975 Acts intended the Lands Tribunal to be the first arbiter, but, alas, experience has shown that to be slow, complex and—where professionals have acted on behalf of claimants—expensive beyond comprehension. Figures of £100,000 were not uncommon.
The House will recall that during the debate introduced on 16 June 1989 by the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), I told the House that two of my constituents, Mr. Goodman of Hucknall and Mr. Lancaster of Bilsthorpe, had referred their disputed claims to the Lands Tribunal and I am sure that all hon. Members will want to know the outcome. There is still no decision. The cases drag on and on, with British Coal's solicitors using every legal device in the book to delay and to confuse and intimidate my constituents.
Above all else, the Bill must ensure that we have a new disputes procedure to provide a cheaper, quicker and less formal way of resolving disputes. A local adjudication system by appropriately qualified experts or a mining ombudsman would suffice. However, we cannot allow an arbitration scheme such as that introduced in January this year by British Coal. It appeared to meet our wishes, but the small print revealed that British Coal had a right to refuse referrals if it wished. Heads, British Coal wins; tails, 83 the claimant loses. When I submit a case to the local or national ombudsman, it is not at the discretion of the local authority or the Government. The Standing Committee that examines the Bill must ensure that a truly independent referral system for arbitration is established.
Many of the Bill's 52 clauses are consolidation measures and require no comment. In order to allow other hon. Members to contribute to the debate, I have highlighted some of the issues that concern me and my constituents. However, when discussing this legislation, we must not forget—I was surprised that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) did not refer to this—that a balance must be maintained between the needs of the coal industry, which is Nottinghamshire's largest employer, and the consequences of mining activity. If we do not maintain that balance, miners' jobs could be threatened.
The Bill will clarify, revise and consolidate existing law. My constituents' hope for the future starts with supporting the Bill.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
I want to thank and congratulate sincerely all the organisations that have spent so much time considering the problem and injustices of coal mining subsidence damage in the coalfield areas. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the Coalfield Communities Campaign, which has worked stoutly towards finding a solution to that problem. I want also to thank members of the united industries working party which has tried to pull together the other organisations in an attempt to put pressure on the Government to find a solution. Above all, I pay tribute to the Consortium Of Authorities Liaising on Subsidence—or COALS—which is at the forefront of the campaign to sort out the injustice of coal mining subsidence damage, particularly in the coalfield areas of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
As hon. Members will know, COALS comprises 10 local authorities in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, They are the district councils of Amber Valley, Ashfield, Bolsover, Bassetlaw, Chesterfield, Gedling, Newark and Sherwood, and Mansfield and also the county councils of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, both of which are deeply involved.
I am extremely grateful to the executive committee of COALS which meets regularly and tries to organise and co-ordinate activity in an attempt to solve the problem. In particular tonight, I want to pay tribute to Mr. Brian Lewin, who was the co-ordinator of the COALS secretariat. Unfortunately, because of stress and ill health, he has had to announce his retirement. Some of that stress undoubtedly stemmed from the pressure on him throughout the campaign, which has lasted many years. All Opposition Members and some Conservative Members from that part of the country will wish Mr. Lewin well in his retirement and hope that his ill health will not last for too long.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), I have no intention of opposing the Bill's passage to Standing Committee. I sincerely hope that it will be noted that I would like to serve on that Committee. However, along with other hopeful Members, I await the outcome of the democratic process of the normal channels in this place.
84 I want to put down some markers for the Government to consider. I welcome the Bill, but much of what it contains is inadequate or needs changing substantially before the Bill can reach the statute book. My worries about the Bill are shared by COALS, and it might help the House if I try to deal with those worries separately.
My first concern is about arbitration. According to the explanatory memorandum, clause 41 sets out a method that allows the Secretary of State to direct British Coalto make and submit for his approval a scheme for the determination of disputes by arbitration.In other words, it is not a matter of "there shall be", but "there may be", and I suggest that it will apply only if British Coal agrees. That is unsatisfactory. In that respect, it is not what the proposal states but what it does not state that is worrying.
Clause 41 does not specify the time that the Secretary of State will allow British Coal to draw up such a scheme. That is important when we recall the attitude of the new chairman of British Coal to privatisation of the coal industry.
The Bill does not direct or compel the Secretary of State to give directions about the terms of the arbitration scheme. It simply says that he "may" direct. That leaves it open to interpretation or negotiation by British Coal. As hon. Members who represent coalfield areas will be aware, leaving matters to negotiations with British Coal or for British Coal to interpret has caused many of the problems that have led the Government to introduce this legislation.
Clause 41 contains no specific reference to independent arbitration; nor does it state how such an arbitration body would be appointed or from where its members would come. That is left to the discretion of British Coal and the Secretary of State. Bearing in mind the history of British Coal on that matter, that is perhaps not a wise decision.
Some of my colleagues have already referred to advice centres. Clause 41(2) provides that the Secretary of State "may" direct that a person may be appointed under the arbitration scheme to advise about it. That does not meet the criteria for advice centres as discussed previously in this place. Instead, it points to a role for the person concerned as that of a public relations officer for the arbitration scheme. That is not quite the same thing.
Clause 41 also does not provide for a subsidence advisory officer or a real advice scheme. Nor does it provide for any funding for an advice scheme or pre-funding for professional advice for claimants. Therefore, clause 41 needs filling substantially before it reaches the statute book. A readily accessible, local, independent advice centre is required to assist claimants through the maze of claim rights and procedures.
An effective independent service would also expedite the processing of claims and would minimise the number of cases that would have to be referred to complaints or arbitration processes. That would leave British Coal to do what it is supposed to do—to produce coal at a reasonable price. Its job is not to arbitrate or to be in the courts. Its job is certainly not to work against the coalfield communities to try to stop people rightfully getting repairs to their homes or property.
I want now to consider blight. The Minister is aware that clauses 10 and 11 provide for depreciation payments in lieu in certain circumstances. Schedule 1 sets out the method of determining the basis of voluntary depreciation payments. The discretion or obligation to buy in is required, although that is not covered by the Bill. That 85 would enable owners to have their properties bought out at the market price or to receive a depreciation payment for the loss of value of their property when any damage occurred.
I want now to consider deferment of repairs, or stop notices as they are more commonly known. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley has already referred to them. The Minister is aware that clause 16 provides for the review of stop notices and for the provision of emergency and excepted works. That would greatly worsen the situation, as it would allow, even with review, a stop notice or time limit imposition to be extended indefinitely by British Coal, thereby allowing it to delay settlement of claims or to prevent interim payments from being paid to claimants. That proposal would make the position considerably worse than it is at the moment.
We want strict time limits to protect property owners. That should be done together with the introduction of an obligatory buy-out mechanism on request if a stop notice and consequential blight has been current beyond 12 months. If a person has been left in such a situation in his own home for that time, it is reasonable that he should have every right to make such a request.
The next matter is incidental costs, a topic on which the Bill is totally silent. In my opinion and in that of COALS, not only damage caused by subsidence but the incidental costs of the remedy should be reimbursed. For instance, in a coalfield area, if a road must be closed because of subsidence damage, as often happens in Nottinghamshire, the cost of providing an alternative route, signs, barriers and additional road safety requirements should be met by British Coal, not by the local authority.
The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) knows that there are additional costs in respect of businesses. During repair work, a shop may conduct no business. It is not right for British Coal to be able to get around that and stop proper compensation being paid to that business. On occasions, businesses close because of such pressure.
Clause 44 provides for notices to property owners in respect of proposed mining operations. It seems to limit the requirements of such notices to the judgment of British Coal—that is to say, land that British Coal feels might be affected. Experience in my constituency is that British Coal always states:Because of new mining techniques, land won't be disturbed.How many times have hon. Members from coalfield areas heard that? That is a despicable attempt to impose on an area a system whereby people do not even need to be notified of what is happening in their area.
The Bill should stipulate requirements based not on self-judgment criteria but on fact. Also, under clause 44, the working of licences granted to private operators before 1 May 1991 does not seem to be covered. The Minister might want also to examine that matter, in particular in the light of his party's intentions on coal privatisation.
Clause 9 provides for obligatory payments in lieu to highway authorities and to local authorities that have a duty to carry out remedial works in connection with the maintenance of public services unless the Secretary of State disapproves. The Secretary of State's veto on that matter is unnecessary, as well as extremely undemocratic. The Bill is supposed to be about sorting out British Coal, not local authorities. If that criterion is followed, the Bill should read, "Local authorities should be paid in lieu for 86 any damage to their property or property over which they have default powers if local authorities request such a payment."
The next issue is outstanding claims. Clause 51 and schedule 7 are outrageous and need to be amended. For instance, schedule 7 specifically excludes previous claims from the new procedures unless the claimant withdraws the claim and resubmits it. What about the 33,500 claims that were accepted by a previous Minister from the COALS area? The hon. Member for Sherwood was part of a delegation, when the then Minister accepted all the claims honestly and fairly. All claims had been submitted on time and were accepted by the relevant Minister of the Crown. If the proposed scheme is undertaken, it will jeopardise all those claims. The Minister should think about that matter. If many people withdraw their claims and then resubmit them, British Coal will seek to rule them out of time. The Minister must consider those issues tonight and in Committee.
I now refer to the protection of future purchasers. The Bill is inadequate to protect the home owner from the problem of subsidence damage. For example, clause 46 states only:The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring the Corporation … to provide … information".
Even with the involvement of the Law Society, information will be available only if British Coal agrees. Such a system is totally useless, and the clause needs to be much more specific. It must provide for a local public register that may be inspected by anyone seeking information, perhaps before purchasing a property. Hon. Members have heard of many constituents being denied the right to know what has happened in respect of coal mining subsidence damage.
At the moment, the register is held by British Coal. If people wish to find out information about a property which they are interested in making their home, they must pay a small amount for it. For that, all they get are one or two sentences. If they want more information, they must pay a substantially larger sum, but that information is still not specific—just enough information to enable a building society to consider lending money on the property.
People who are about to make the biggest investment of their lives have the right to know whether something has happened to the home and whether repairs must be carried out. It is just not good enough for hon. Members to consider introducing a law that would not give the vast majority of people such a right. As legislators, we should have every responsibility to protect our constituents.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
I support the hon. Gentleman's point. In fact, I gave evidence to the Waddilove committee. Most hon. Members have had constituency cases in which subsidence has occurred. People have spent money on repairs that have turned out to be only superficial, and a subsequent purchaser then finds that not only does he have subsidence but no money to repair it. It is essential to have some provision to ensure an entry on the deeds or a record in the Lands Tribunal, so that people will know whether damage has been incurred.
§ Mr. Meale
Virtually all hon. Members have experienced exactly the same thing. I should like not something extravagant or unusual but something that will enable people to be informed about the largest investment 87 in their lives. I refer to information about past claims and any remedial works to the property that they seek to purchase.
Such a register should be kept by the local authority, not by British Coal. The Bill should impose a time limit not upon home owners but upon British Coal to compile such a register and to maintain it. That is a basic right.
The Minister will be aware that clause 3 makes a convuluted reference to the time limit for awarding damages, which is six years. Even an examination of the six subsections of clause 3 leaves many matters in doubt and open to misunderstanding—for example, whether it is reasonable to expect claimants to seek expert advice on facts which they have not observed themselves. In line with the COALS organisation, I contend that no time limit for restriction should apply.
If the Minister doubts that we can afford such an approach, he should examine the finances already set aside for compensation for subsidence which have accumulated by way of an additional cost added to every tonne of coal produced from British coalfields since the 1950s. According to the latest estimates, even taking into account the moneys used for repair, the sum is well in excess of £300 million. If the Government and British Coal can shut pits by this method of coal economics, surely they can set money aside and consider legislation to introduce a system of proper repair for home owners in the coalfields areas.
There are many things yet to be said on the proposals in the Bill. I sincerly trust and hope that in Committee we do not simply have a snow job but see a real attempt to sort out the terrible injustices which people in the coalfields have faced in their homes.
§ Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)
There is a great wealth of agreement among hon. Members on both sides of the House about the Bill. We all welcome it. Looking around the Chamber I see many faces that were here in 1983 when I came into the House. All those hon. Members have fought hard for the implementation of the Waddilove report and have been involved in various subsidence claims and the difficulties which arose from them.
Subsidence damage is one of the greatest injustices that we have suffered, especially in the midlands, the north and Scotland. For years on end, the National Coal Board, as it then was, mined under houses and caused subsidence. Communities and small villages suffered as a result.
Not many people realise that in mining areas there is a high proportion of owner occupation. In villages people's whose greatest investment was their home found that their very occupation, or that of their brothers or close relatives, was causing damage to their major asset. Those people were in a terrible dilemma. The major employer in the area was the Coal Board. Time and time again I have heard people say, "We cannot fight the Coal Board", or, "We do not want to fight the Coal Board." They said that it was not right because, after all, their husband or brother was employed by the Coal Board. So people suffered in silence.
We must remember a parallel factor. One of the greatest industries in Britain was the coal industry. It was all-powerful.
§ Mr. Ashby
I do not mean it in the sense that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) thinks. The Coal Board was a powerful body in midlands areas. It was the largest employer. It pervaded everything. It was a source of income and the National Union of Mineworkers was one of the great unions. Between them, the Coal Board and the NUM seemed to control the very lives of the people.
The Coal Board had a gung-ho approach to its mining activities and the subsidence which was subsequently caused. So often it approached subsidence damage in a relaxed and easy manner, caring little for the victims. This Bill changes that. It gives people rights whereas before compensation was voluntary.
The process which led to the Bill began some time ago. The matters which I have mentioned were only too obvious in 1983 when I first represented Leicestershire, North-West. In 1984 we had the Waddilove report and in 1987 the Government's response. The approach to subsidence of the National Coal Board, later British Coal, almost visibly changed. There was a softening of approach. The board thought more about the victims and tried to help more. Much of what Waddilove recommended has been implemented voluntarily by British Coal over the years. Of course, that is not enough.
People have rights to compensation. We must consider what happened. People bought their houses and lived happily until suddently they found that someone had mined underneath, causing a nuisance. Their only resort was to voluntary help from British Coal in providing remedies. That was not good enough. People must have a right to compensation. When people buy property they have rights. They have the right not to have a nuisance on their property, or a tort—to mention the legal aspect. The Bill protects those rights.
We can argue about many of the details of the Bill in Committee and I suspect that both Conservative and Opposition Members will give details of cases and we shall have a great deal of discussion. But it will be to one end because we are together in seeking to rectify a great injustice which stretches back over the ages.
I am grateful that the Bill has been introduced because I and other hon. Members have approached successive Secretaries of State and begged them to make the Waddilove recommendations into a Bill. We were often told that there was not time or that the legislation could be combined with a Bill to privatise British Coal. I look forward to the day when British Coal is privatised, but it is no good seeking privatisation unless the foundation for it is in place. British Coal must know the rules and the laws within which it will have to work. It is absolutely essential that it should know exactly what its responsibilities will be in respect of subsidence.
It would be wrong for any legislation on subsidence to be incorporated in any other Bill on British Coal. The subsidence legislation stands on its own, as I have argued for years. I was delighted that, within a week of coming to office, the present Secretary of State for Energy told me that he agreed that there should be a separate Bill to deal with subsidence. I am delighted that we have that Bill.
I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who spoke about the need for the Bill and the balance between the Bill and jobs in British Coal. I do not seek that balance. People have rights. It is not a question of balance. It is not a question of jobs. It is 89 a question of rights and British Coal's duty to work to those rights. I do not seek any compromise or balance in respect of those rights. That would be wrong.
§ Mr. Andy Stewart
Perhaps I did not quite understand my hon. Friend. British Coal has to decide where to mine, and if the only place left to mine is under a town it will not mine there if the cost is too great and will close the colliery. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) remembers that happening to a colliery in his constituency.
§ Mr. Meale
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider the matter which the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) raised. In the instance he mentioned, when a colliery was closed it was suggested that its closure had been influenced by my attitude to coal mining subsidence in my constituency. Subsequently, that was proved to be totally false because none of the 35 claims which I have made on behalf of people in the area of that mine has been settled by British Coal. The hon. Member for Sherwood knows that perfectly well. Sometimes that method is used by British Coal to try to blackmail certain Members of Parliament so that they will not raise these issues on behalf of their constituents.
§ Mr. Ashby
Subsidence is one of the ongoing costs that British Coal has to meet. When it decides whether it can mine a certain area it has to take into account the fact that claims will be made against it and will estimate the amount and decide whether it is profitable to mine that area at that time. In 50 or 100 years time, when the price of coal has gone up, it might be profitable to do so. British Coal must mine profitably and that is decided by the time and ease of getting coal out of the ground and the ongoing costs of subsidence.
As so many hon. Members wish to speak I shall not go into the details of the Bill. We shall have time to consider them in Committee. However I must mention one or two aspects of the Bill. When it is known that an area is to be mined a notice will be sent to every household, and I am pleased, as that is essential. However, I think that that notice should include advice to the householder to have an independent survey carried out with costs borne by British Coal. So many of the wrangles that take place over the degree of damage to a property are due to the fact that no one knows what state the property was in before mining started, and a survey would resolve many disputes. If British Coal began to mine in my area and there was a high probability that my property would be damaged, I should be entitled to a free survey, paid for by British Coal.
The Bill provides that British Coal pays for the cost of the survey only if a claim is successful. However, everyone in an area where coal is to be mined should be entitled to a free survey, paid for by British Coal, as that would be cheaper in the long run and would resolve many disputes.
Another important aspect of the Bill is the six-year limit and the burden of proof, and I hope that the hon. Member for Rother Valley will consider that carefully because it is perfect as it is and should not be changed. I believe in justice and I believe that any change would result in injustice. The Bill follows common law, which is based upon years of experience that we cannot throw away. The 90 six-year period will come into operation only once damage becomes apparent or should reasonably have become apparent, which is virtually the same. I hope that the hon. Member for Rother Valley will not consider the six-year period on its own because the Bill also reverses the burden of proof, placing it upon British Coal. In that respect the Bill does not follow the common law, which places the burden of proof upon the claimant. Therefore, if one's property is damaged, one will put in a notice and British Coal will have to prove that damage has not occurred because of its mining. That is the most just way to deal with subsidence and will work extremely well.
§ Mr. Barron
Surely, if the six-year rule is changed or abolished, it does not mean that the burden of proof need change.
§ Mr. Ashby
If one has justice, it must be justice for all. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is too summary. British Coal is entitled to some justice, as well as claimants against it—justice must have its scales evenly balanced.
Six years is a reasonable time, especially when the burden of proof is taken into account. As a result, cases in which there was mining 20 or 40 years ago, or even at t he beginning of the century, and maps have been lost, would be on a different footing. The very fact that mining had taken place in an area coupled with the burden of proof would mean that British Coal would have to prove that subsidence had not occurred as a result of mining activities. That is a heavy burden for British Coal because it will have great difficulty in disproving it. I believe that that aspect of the Bill will help in all those difficult cases that hon. Members have experienced. That is the crux of the Bill.
§ Mr. Meale
When the hon. Gentleman talks about fairness and justice—which are quite different—he implies that anyone can get justice because of the time limit. That is nonsense. Even with the proposals contained in the Bill, people can get justice only if they have enough money to pursue British Coal in the courts and they cannot do that when a time limit is imposed.
§ Mr. Ashby
That is an unfair comment for a number of reasons. First, the Bill provides for an informed form of tribunal. Secondly, if we get together in Committee and table an amendment which grants the right of a free survey of property in mining areas it will make a big difference. Perhaps it is because I am a lawyer that I realise that the shift in the burden of proof is an overwhelming change. The fact that the burden of proof is now placed upon the mining company protects the poorest people in a way that they have never been protected before. That protection is not absolute but it cannot be lightly set aside.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
The hon. Gentleman has overlooked one matter and, bearing in mind his work, representing people in court, I am surprised by that. The Minister made it clear at the beginning of the debate that British Coal would decide whether anyone had a claim. After that, people would have to go to the Secretary of State. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that aspect and how will that affect winning?
§ Mr. Ashby
I have already given way on a number of occasions, and it is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to expect me to do so again. I had intended to speak only briefly, and I seem to have spoken for much longer than I planned. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can make his point in his own speech.
Other disputes have arisen out of the quality of work done in the past, which aspect the Bill also addresses. Often, British Coal employed shoddy workers to correct the effects of subsidence. In future, owners will be able to make their own choice, which should right what they view as an injustice. Presumably, owners will obtain three estimates from contractors of their own choice to satisfy British Coal.
As to the provision of alternative housing, the Bill aims at rehousing those affected in comparable accommodation. There will be no question of expecting them to live in a caravan at the bottom of the garden, because they will be entitled to housing of a like quality—in the same way as they will be entitled to a standard of workmanship that will restore their property to its previous condition, or as near to it as possible.
Owners will also be entitled to compensation for loss of value if, for example, the property develops a permanent tilt. The Bill will, and can, provide for such eventualities.
There is still some work to do on the Bill, but it is an admirable and long-sought-after measure, and is excellent in the changes that it makes in respect of the burden of proof and the qualifying time limit. I know that it will be much welcomed in my constituency.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I and my party welcome the Bill, and so will many of my constituents, but we need to know how it will affect certain categories of owners, and we want to be clear that they will have access to tribunal procedures of a kind not guaranteed under British Coal's existing voluntary arrangements. We want to be certain also that the advantage provided by the shift in the burden of proof to which the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) referred will be enjoyed by claimants. As yet, that is far from clear.
The recently introduced and, as yet, untried arbitration procedure does not meet desirable standards, not least because of restrictions on access. It also requires payment of a fairly hefty registration fee, before a claim can be pursued. The Minister must make it clear whether the Bill's enabling procedures under which he can approve a scheme will be used—and used quickly—to establish one to which all can have access without incurring unreasonable cost and a veto being placed on their access by British Coal.
Right hon. and hon. Members have received a number of representations that focus on the use of the word "may" in the Bill. They will know from their dealings with legislation over the years that that is the normal formula. It would be the same if the Minister decided, here and now, to introduce the procedures from the day that the Act 92 came into force. However, the same formula can be used by Ministers to delay enacting new provisions. The House needs an indication of the Government's intention in that regard.
I want to cite two cases from my constituency that illustrate the problems that can arise. They both concern properties in Swarland, near Alnwick, and illustrate how easily British Coal can get things wrong—and how unwilling it is to accept liability when it does. In both cases, the owners are pensioners—people who have reached an age at which they do not want to be worried by the prospect of substantial repairs to their property and having to encounter complicated compensation procedures.
In the first case, the pensioner concerned, having decided to purchase a property in Swarland, paid for a National Coal Board survey to determine whether any mining had been undertaken nearby. The survey clearly states: "No recorded past mining." In fact, that was nonsense—as anyone who knew the area could testify. There had been extensive mining in the area in question, from Whittle colliery.
Subsequent correspondence made it clear that the mining report was wrong. A letter I received from British Coal states:British Coal did indeed issue a mining report on this property on 8 January 1987 stating that there was no recorded past mining. I have discussed this report with the Corporation's Group Surveyor, who issues mining reports, and it would appear that the mining report was in error. There have been coal workings to the north of the property … and to the south of the property … The property in fact sits in a pillar of coal between these two workings. The Group Surveyor informs me that all settlement from these workings would have ceased by late 1985.
That letter goes on to deny any liability on British Coal's part for damage to the property concerned. The furthest that it went by way of making amends for that error was that the writer of the letter stated:I can only apologise on behalf of British Coal for the error in the mining report, and, with hindsight, an apology in my letter of 17 November 1990 would have been courteous.That was the full extent of British Coal's apology for having misled a house purchaser by claiming that there had been no mining in the vicinity of the property in question. I have referred that case to the chairman of British Coal, and I hope that it can be pursued under the new arbitration procedures. However, it has yet to be made clear whether they will be adequate to deal with such cases.
I found myself dealing simultaneously with another case, involving a property in the same road—Park road, Swarland—which had subsided 14 inches as a result of mining activity. The house owner was rather late in pursuing her case, because at the time that the damage became known her husband was dying. It is understandable that, while she had to endure that miserable and traumatic experience, she could not give her attention to the subsidence affecting her property.
British Coal again denied liability for the damage, and sent that lady a plan in order to prove that her property could not be affected by subsidence. It showed, or purported to show, that her house stood on the pillar of coal between two mined areas. Not even that is conclusive proof of invulnerability, because there is extensive evidence of damage spreading at surface level on either side of mining activity, which takes the form of an angle of settlement that affects a significant adjacent area. In any 93 event, the plan submitted by British Coal turned out to be the plan of my other constituent's house—the house involved in the first case that I have described. British Coal had picked up the wrong plan, and sent it to one of my constituents to justify denying all liability. I should like to see that case proceed through the arbitration system.
When the Minister winds up the debate, I should like him to state how soon the arbitration procedure will be set up and whether it will be able to deal with cases of damage that occurred, or were noticed, in 1985. I should like him to say whether the arbitration procedure will be able to consider the sort of incompetence that I have just outlined.
Obviously, there are other matters that will be considered as the Bill proceeds. At some stage, perhaps the Minister will enlighten us about what will happen if there is any substantial privatisation of British Coal. I assume that all private mining activity taking place under licence from British Coal will be dealt with, under the Bill, in exactly the same way as British Coal's own mining. The district about which I am talking is now being mined under licence from British Coal, as a licensed private mine. Should any further subsidence occur, I assume that it will be treated in the same way.
The issue has caused great agitation and vexation for a long time, and it will continue to do so if the Bill's declared and publicised advantages are not properly available to those most affected and aggrieved. I have given the Minister two examples. It would be very bad if people who have suffered as my constituents have do not benefit from the Bill. They are the sort of people whose pressure, agitation and legitimate concern have formed the basis of the Bill.
§ Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)
Like the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I shall refer specifically to constituency cases that highlight the problems that we who represent constituencies with a history of coal mining regularly face. It is not generally remembered that Members of Parliament like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I represent former mining constituencies. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment also represents a district that has been partly mined. At various times, 95 per cent. of my constituency has been mined, and problems associated with coal mining subsidence are common.
The two cases that I wish to raise, and by which I believe the Bill will be judged by myself and hon. Members with constituencies close to the eastern Avon district, are fairly typical. They stem from the fact that, unlike the constituencies of many of the hon. Members who have already spoken, they occurred in districts where coal mining ceased 20 or 30 years ago. In many of the cases, the mining records are not readily available. The first problem facing any constituent is the long-drawn-out process of trying to establish whether the subsidence or cracking has anything to do with a coal mine. The arguments go round and round, and backwards and forwards, between the local council, the water board and British Coal.
The number of cases of subsidence that I, as a Member of Parliament, face has increased in the past year or so. I do not believe that is because people are becoming more money-oriented. People I meet in the street, who understand the problem much better than I do, say that the substantially dry summers in recent years have altered 94 the balance of the land. In addition, in my constituency —this may be true in the constituencies of many other hon. Members—there has been substantial infilling and development. The infilling causes problems that are supposed to be related to watercourses. When infilling takes place over former mine shafts, it alters the watercourses and the flow of the water table, so it impacts on other constituents' properties.
I have constituents in Woodyleaze drive, Hanham, who, at the height of last summer, had lawns like bogs, on which Professor Bellamy would have been pleased to walk. In what was supposed to be the driest year for many a decade, we could stand on the lawn and sway from side to side. We took buckets full of water out of the trenches, which filled up immediately. After many months of study of that case, the latest information is that water is coming from two different sources, one of which is—it was disclosed last week—former coal mines. That information has been made available after a long period of research by all the experts in the district.
The constituents have to deal with a Coal Board office that was previously in south Wales, but is now in Derbyshire. The office was moved to Derbyshire because of the decline in coal mining in south Wales. I think that the constituents of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) may face the same problem. It adds to the complications and drawn-out process that constituents face.
At present, the residents of one of the houses, Mr. and Mrs. Hann, are pursuing their case with great determination, but as yet none of the neighbours has filed a claim. However, it is likely that, when the Hanns' case is resolved, other neighbours may have cause to file claims. I should like the Minister to clarify whether that period will form part of the six years. Do the six years start from the time at which the Hanns started pursuing their case or when damage began to be apparent in the neighbours' houses, as it is likely to be? With respect to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), I accept that the burden of proof has changed, but it is important to make clear at what point the six years will start.
The second case is located at the opposite end of my constituency, where residents of Stanley Park road have just started to face problems associated with subsidence. At present, the resident in 9 Stanley Park road believes that the subsidence is being caused by mining. The mine shafts appear to be on a vacant property where Nos. 3 and 5 would be. But there is substantial argument about whether a ventilation shaft, mine shaft or some other form of previous working is causing the subsidence. The resident at No. 7 has not yet identified any damage to his property that has been caused by the subsidence.
If the resident at No. 7 were to suffer subsidence later, would the six-year period start from the date at which the resident at No. 9 identified the subsidence? It is believed that the property at No. 7 is moving slightly and causing difficulties with other properties. Or does the six-year period start from the date at which any damage becomes obvious at No.7? That is a particularly important aspect, because the cases may involve pensioners who may not be specifically interested in the problem to begin with, due to other family reasons or their own nature, and do not wish to register the problem at that stage.
Would a developer of the site of Nos. 5 and 3 Stanley Park road, currently pursing an argument with British 95 Coal about whether there is subsidence caused by previous mine workings, have the right to claim compensation because of the extra work that he will have to do on a property which was not previously identified as standing on mine workings? As a result of the expert efforts of Mr. Cornwell and some of his colleagues, it has been established that workings had probably been there before; however, when the developer bought the site on which he wished to build flats, it was not evident from any map available to the Coal Board that such workings were present.
Wherever coal workings have previously arisen, our constituents will face difficulties. I think that, in principle, the Bill is going in the right direction, but before I can support it my constituents and I would like certain points to be clarified.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
In his concluding remarks, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) drew attention to the balance that has had to be struck between the needs of a mining community that faces various problems and the needs of an industry that generates jobs. I understood the point that he was making and the dilemmas that he described; they allow me, briefly at least, to present the Bill in the context of the south Wales mining industry.
It is a gloomy, nostalgic reflection that this could be one of the last debates on a Bill about coal mining in which any Welsh Member can claim that he represents a coal-producing community. Astonishingly, the House now contains only four Welsh Members who fall into that category. At one time, the industry provided more than 200,000 jobs in the south Wales coal field, and produced more than 200,000 tonnes of coal; now we are down to 2,000 jobs and about 2,000 tonnes of deep-mined coal. Since 1985, the number of jobs has fallen from 27,000 to 2,000.
Along with that has come a sea change in attitudes to jobs and industry. The Bill reminds us of the high price that has had to be paid for the vital requirements of the coal industry—the health of the mining communities, for instance. In my community, pits have closed and jobs have disappeared, but there is still a generation of pneumoconiotic miners. Safety has also helped to pay the price: I need say no more than that I represent the pit village of Aberfan. The environment, too, has suffered: generations of communities have put up with tip waste, noise, nuisance, dust and, indeed, subsidence to preserve jobs and allow them to be created so that the industry can survive.
At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) described, quite effectively, the attitudes of the mining communities to British Coal. He said that they were relaxed, but I think that that is the wrong word: they were, rather, ambivalent about the dilemmas involved in relation to jobs and the development of industry, as against the impact that such development would have on them. There was a reason for that. For generations, communities such as the one that I am proud to represent put up with so much because they had what the Government may see as a rather cockeyed view of economics: they actually believed that the physical 96 economy was important. They felt that making things—producing things; extracting valuable physical assets—constituted a worthwhile, important contribution to the nation's wealth. Those attitudes are changing; they have, in any event, been changed by the closure of pits and the destruction of jobs.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting in Edwardsville, Treharris, in my local community. The meeting was packed to overflowing: householders were standing out in the street. That meeting was about the serious subsidence problem in the area. After the meeting, some of us wondered how, in the 1990s, British Coal would ever obtain permission to sink a deep mine of any kind or conduct any form of extraction in such a village—or, indeed, any other village. That pit was sunk more than 100 years ago. Does any hon. Member on either side of the House believe that any such proposal would not provoke a massive residential reaction?
The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West spoke about the shifting burden of proof and the rights in the Bill. One right remains unchallengeable, because British Coal now and in the future will have an absolute and total right to undermine pit communities, villages and homes, and that right will probably have to remain. It will be amazing if in the 1990s British Coal receives permission for works that will lead to the continuation of the undermining of communities and neighbourhoods.
It is important to recall the nature and character of the industry which in my community is down to one pit. I spoke about the community of Edwardsville, Treharris, where subsidence has affected not only homes but the swimming pool and the local school. That is just a mile and half from our valley. One can imagine the feelings and worries of residents in that area. The problems will now be lessened because British Coal has suddenly decided to close the deep navigation pit in Treharris. However, after the pit is closed the problems will remain.
As many hon. Members have said, subsidence does not go away when British Coal goes away and the pit closes. The communities that I have described and to which I belong are not yuppie communities. Basically, they consist of two generations of home owners. Many members of the older generation worked in the industry or have strong connections with it. Those people are proud of their homes and have transformed them through repair and improvement grants. Those terraced houses in which they live have been transformed into valuable and precious homes.
The younger generation live in properties which form the first rung on the ladder of home ownership. By south-east standards their mortgages are small, but they are significant in relation to the small incomes and they are often linked to improvement loans. We must judge the value of the Bill in the light of the worries expressed at the meeting that I have mentioned.
The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West seemed to find the Bill dramatic, as if it were some fantastic shift in power from British Coal to the individual. I do not think that the balance has shifted in that way. If in the past it has been a David and Goliath battle, I take comfort from the fact that David always won. However, in many respects the battle is unequal. Up to a point I welcome the six-year rule as defined by the Minister. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), 97 I wonder why we have to have a six-year limit anyway if the idea is that at any time damage emerges a home owner will be able to make a claim.
The Bill does not address what happens when subsidence occurs. Some hon. Members have spoken about the problem of blight. I quarrel in one respect with the otherwise excellent report by the Select Committee on Energy and therefore quarrel with the Bill in one fundamental respect. The Select Committee backed the Waddilove committee view about blight by saying that mining was no different from any other form of development. There is a case for arguing that subsidence is different in character from the problems arising from other developments in that it raises particular difficulties about borrowing money to buy and about selling homes. Those problems arise as soon as word gets around and the matter becomes public. It is not simply about loss of view or noise which can occur with other forms of development. The problem is insidious and unnerving. It undermines—sorry about the pun—confidence in one's property. There is a very strong case for including in the Bill some additional provision to take care of blight.
I hope that in Committee the Minister will take a positive view. Indeed, he may be forced to do so, as there are the makings—one sees the danger signs—of cross-party agreement on some aspects of the changes. Certainly, there is a need to examine the whole question of how claims will be dealt with when disputes arise. In saying so, I am referring not only to clause 41. I interrupted the Minister when he failed to describe clause 4. Let me tell hon. Members why. It appears that when British Coal responds to the initial notice of damage it will not have to seek agreement on the nature of works that have to be carried out. If I am wrong, the Minister will correct me —or perhaps the matter can be dealt with in Committee. When there is a dispute, even the schedules of remedial action will have to go to the Lands Tribunal.
It is 25 years since I was first elected to the House. During my first Parliament we passed the Leasehold Reform Act 1967. That, too, was a matter of great concern. Disputes under that legislation had to go to the Lands Tribunal. The tribunal is no informal, gentle, inexpensive institution. We ought to look at the character and nature of the disputes that arise; otherwise the change in the balance to which the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West referred will not amount to a right that can easily be exercised by the individual home owner.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) made a very forceful point about the destruction of records. Surely, given the disputes that have arisen—case after case has been mentioned in the House—an obligation should forthwith be placed on British Coal not to destroy plans or records. British Coal ought to be obliged to deposit such plans and records, not only because of their historical interest and archival value to the coal industry, but because of their practical value in the resolution of any disputes or claims that might arise in cases of subsidence. It is essential that Ministers come to the Standing Committee in the most, positive possible frame of mind. In the case of the Broadcasting Act 1990, chunks of the legislation were written in Committee. I hope that Ministers will approach this Bill in the same way. Their approach must not be dampened or otherwise controlled by the hidden hand of British Coal. British Coal must not have any hidden veto.
98 As I said earlier, it is very sad that, in some ways, the responsibilities of British Coal, in respect of subsidence in my area, will become historic rather than current arid future. In that context, I want to convey a final message to that very powerful organisation. For generations, our communities have suffered from subsidence and large-scale tip waste. Now, through reclamation—and, it appears, pit closures—subsidence will become a historic problem. I hope that we shall not simply swap the historic problem of subsidence for a new form of desecration by British Coal. I hope that British Coal, having destroyed our jobs, will not return to gouge out our hillsides by way of open-casting. I may have to spend the rest of this Parliament trying to make this a better Bill; I hope that I shall not have to spend the next Parliament dealing with an "Open Cast Amelioration Bill". Economic forces beyond the control of my community have destroyed jobs and will eventually make subsidence a historic problem there. I hope that, at last, we can look forward to a green and pleasant society such as others seem to enjoy.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), who has a number of friends in my constituency. He spoke eloquently of the changes that have been taking place in his historic constituency, changes that have affected my constituency over a longer period, so that he is coming to terms with the circumstances with which we were forced to come to terms a little earlier. I wish only that I could add to those matters that we have in common the size of his majority, which I believe is 28,000 which exceeds that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We are working on it in my constituency and I hope eventually to share such a majority.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of interesting points. He was right to draw attention to the difficulties of the extractive industries in the United Kingdom, particularly the coal industry, which will soon face many problems in winning coal. The effects of mining activity are felt long after it has taken place. The compensation that the Bill will provide is one of those costs. Some of my hon. Friends have already pointed out that it is no different from any other industry in this respect. For example, in the nuclear industry, decommissioning is a major financial burden. We have to accept that the cost of subsidence is like any other cost such as that for machinery, wages or interest on borrowing. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) made that point.
The Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen will have to come to terms with this cost. While we welcome the Bill, I feel that we should flag it with the cautionary remark that if the Bill imposes even greater burdens on the coal industry, which will push up the price of coal, we must accept that consequence of the Bill, which I expect will be enacted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West also made the valid point that, in the past, mining subsidence was accepted because the people whose houses were affected invariably were employed in the coal industry or members of their family were employed in the industry. To a certain extent, it was a case of grin and bear 99 it, even where that was because people felt intimidated and thought that the employer might take it out on them if they sought remedies for the injustice.
However, the situation is different today. The people with whom we are in touch in our constituencies and who are affected by mining subsidence are no longer connected with the coal industry. They are not employed in it and if any members of their family have any connections, it is usually the elderly relatives who used to be employed in it. That factor highlights the problem.
While nearly all hon. Members present in the Chamber have direct experience of these problems, many others do not. I was intrigued to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) say that his constituency had a coal mining problem. I suspect that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were also not aware of that, even though you represent a nearby constituency. Many hon. Members do not understand what we are talking about.
§ Mr. Jim Lester
One of the points about opening the channel tunnel and developing the railway to it something that will benefit our constituents in the midlands and the north—is that it has provoked in the south-east a great deal of understanding about environmental damage.
§ Mr. Howarth
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. I wish only that some of our hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Kent were able to make that connection. They are not able to do so when they object to things taking place in the lovely lush green pastures of their constituencies, although they think that it is fine for the grotty old midlands to put up with yet more despoliation so that they can enjoy those green fields. It is time that they considered what their fair share of the burden is.
It is hard for some people to appreciate the distress that mining subsidence causes. Not only does it devalue property—which, for most of us, constitutes the largest investment of our lifetime—but attempts to seek a remedy and justice are accompanied by incessant wrangling. There is even danger to life. I have experienced all these problems, and I have referred to them in the House on previous occasions. That being so, I shall not go into great detail this evening. I shall merely mention that properties in Church hill and Hednesford in my constituency have been racked by the problem for many years. Some hon. Members may remember the church that had to be pulled down. British Coal paid nearly £250,000 for the building of a new church. The bottom fell out of a working men's club, and British Coal paid for that to be replaced. Home owners, however, were told that there was no evidence of coal mining activity and that therefore the responsibility was not that of British Coal. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that British Coal, following my representations, has relented and now agrees to accept some degree of liability, although that has not yet been quantified.
I hope that British Coal, in its apparent act of magnanimity and generosity in accepting liability, will not struggle and prevaricate. I hope that it will be decent and honourable. The Bill's provisions will not apply to my constituents because their claims are now being dealt with. I hope also that a pre-emptive strike was not made by 100 British Coal to sort out the problem under the old arrangements before the new arrangements come into effect.
I welcome the Bill. As the former Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Minister with responsibilities for the coal industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), I pay my tribute to him for the part which he played during the time that I was his PPS at the Department of Energy to bring the Bill into the legislative programme. As some of my hon. Friends know, we PPSs are the important guys in these matters. I know, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South was extremely interested in the matters that are taken up in the Bill and conscious of the concerns that were expressed by the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) and for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and by various constituents, who tried to bring matters to a successful conclusion. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister has brought the Bill before the House.
I am sure that the determination that has been shown by the Government over the past three or four years has cajoled British Coal into accepting some of the Waddilove recommendations, such as prior notification and the new arbitration scheme, which started life in the past month. If the Government had not said that it was their firm intention to bring the Bill before the House, I do not believe that British Coal would have taken any action. It was the threat, as it were, of legislative action that prompted it to take action.
It is fair to say that hon. Members on both sides of the House have campaigned. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) did not mention that many of my hon. Friends, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, have been battling hard. It is a cross-party matter that affects all our constituents whichever way they vote.
The benefits of the Bill will be considerable and many of them have been alluded to already. There are five, however, that I wish to single out. First, unlike the 1975 legislation, which was introduced by the then Labour Government, this proposed legislation will impose the burden of proof upon British Coal to show that the damage done was not caused by mining subsidence. I am told by geologists in the United Kingdom that there is no such thing as natural movement in the earth's crust. We do not have a San Andreas fault in the United Kingdom. It is legitimate to presuppose that if subsidence has taken place, it is on account of extraction taking place under ground. We are not being unfair to British Coal in imposing the burden of proof upon it.
Secondly, it is extremely good news that repairs will be made to claimants' reasonable satisfaction. Thirdly, the right of claimants to have repairs carried out by their own contractors will be warmly welcomed by constituents who are affected by subsidence. Fourthly, the right to recover expenses will be welcomed. Fifthly—this point has not been made—clause 9(3) provides for local authorities to receive full reimbursement for the work that they carry out for example, to the public highway. That will be of much interest to Cannock Chase district council, because its £30,000 bill for reinstating the road at Church hill is the subject of prevarication by British Coal, which wants to foot only 50 per cent. of the cost. I hope that it will show goodwill in anticipation of the enactment of the Bill.
101 Detailed points will be addressed in Committee. Hon. Members have referred to some of them, but I shall make two specific points. Clause 4 provides for British Coal to respond to a damage notice.
as soon as reasonably practicable".All hon. Members agree that the delays in claims for mining subsidence compensation are a major problem. British Coal should be required to respond to a damage notice within a specific time. I hope that that will be dealt with in Committee.
§ Dr. Woodcock
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that the Bill imposes specific time limits, not on British Coal but on claimants? As my hon. Friend said, the phrase "within a reasonable time" is mentioned several times, but a claimant has only 28 days in which to respond to a schedule served by British Coal. Does my hon. Friend agree that that does not seem to be reasonable?
§ Mr. Howarth
My hon. Friend makes a fair point which will have to be considered in Committee. I hope that I can be allowed a wry smile about the concept of reasonableness. I introduced a Bill to change the law on obscenity, which introduced the concept of reasonableness. I was told that it could not pass into law because the test of reasonableness was not precise enough. I am interested to see that the Bill is littered with references to reasonableness. I have always found that a difficult concept to apply to British Coal.
Hon. Members mentioned information on previous subsidence claims. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reconsider that point, because prospective purchasers of a property should be aware of its subsidence history. Such a proposal could be bad news for owners of such property who have their houses properly and completely restored, only to find that people do not want to buy them simply because of that subsidence history.
Arbitration has been mentioned. I note that my hon. Friend the Minister is anxious to allow British Coal's voluntary arrangements to operate. The whole House will agree that the jury is out on those arrangements. We shall want to see substantial progress and that the voluntary system is working, otherwise we shall want other measures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), who unfortunately cannot be present because he is chairing a committee, is concerned about coal mining subsidence and the obligation to repurchase. I have told British Coal that it would save itself hassle if it agreed to repurchase property, do it up and sell it to a prospective purchaser, without any liability attaching thereto and in the full knowledge that the property has been subject to subsidence damage but has been repaired. It occasionally repurchases properties, and I am aware of one instance where it did so. However, that is very much the exception rather than the rule. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may like to consider whether the arbitrators can suggest obligatory repurchase.
The Bill is an excellent start to remedy an injustice which affects many constituencies. The Government are to be congratulated on introducing such a welcome measure. The history of the issue is testimony to the stubborn foot-dragging of the nationalised British Coal over many years. Bit by bit, no doubt encouraged by the prospect of the Bill, British Coal has had wrung out of it a series of voluntary improvements. Some of the remedies will be 102 enshrined in law by the Bill, but in many respects, particularly on the issue of arbitration, our constituents will remain at the mercy of British Coal's good faith. Speed and fairness are of the essence. Our constituents must be left in no doubt that, if British Coal fails to display that good will, a statutory scheme will be enacted.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
Like many hon. Members over the years, I have spoken about the problems of people suffering from mining subsidence. I welcome the Bill and, as a member of the Energy Select Committee, the fact that it arises out of that Committee's report. The Bill is long overdue. I do not intend to cover ground which has been covered already, but I believe that there are some points that should be considered in Committee. If ever there were a Bill that is a Committee Bill, it is this one.
It is right that I should declare an interest—my home is getting a hammering because of mining subsidence. I am worried about the historic costs. Following the Select Committee's recommendations, the Bill states that charges should be levied at individual pits. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), there is one pit left in my constituency—in 1985, there were eight. Which pit will bear the costs of the seven that have closed? If we stick rigidly to the Bill's provisions, where will the money come from to pay for subsidence damage caused by the closed pits?
It could be argued in a tight mining community such as mine, with eight pits, that some of the subsidence was caused by the one pit still operating. The costs imposed on that pit might be so excessive that it could become unprofitable, and we would lose the pit. There must be strict records and strict administration to find out whether all the subsidence results from the one pit that now operates.
Blight is a major problem and the cost of full compensation for it would be colossal. It is no good running away from that fact, but that does not make matters any easier for those living in the areas. I am sure that many other hon. Members who represent mining areas will know of estates where some houses have subsidence problems and others display no visible signs of damage. The moment subsidence is identified, however, the value of all the properties goes downhill; in some cases, they become unmarketable. Redundant miners often have to move to another part of the country to get a job and even if their property has not been damaged it can be an impossible task to sell it. British Coal is sympathetic and sometimes tries to help in some cases, but not always.
We must also consider the problem of tilt. In one avenue in my constituency, British Coal has purchased three or four houses suffering from subsidence damage but has decided not to buy a couple of properties that have been left with tilt. British Coal has put the properties that it has purchased on the market, with advertisements in the local press and in the local estate agents' offices saying that it is offering the houses for £10,0000, £12,000 or £13,000 because they have been damaged by subsidence.
Two unfortunate constituents of mine who live in one of the other houses, which is suffering from shocking tilt, were initially offered £2,500—later upped to £3,500—in compensation. In other words, although British Coal admits that the value of the houses that it has purchased 103 is only £10,000 to £12,000, it is offering my constituents only about £3,000 in respect of properties that would have fetched £40,000 had they not been damaged. I hope that the Bill will protect those people.
Clause 11 says:the Corporation shall make in respect of the dwelling-house a payment equal to the amount of the depreciation in the value of the dwelling-house caused by the damage.I have no general complaints about the administration of the subsidence department in my area. The people who work there do their level best to meet their obligations. Nevertheless, the examples that I have given show that great problems remain for the victims of mining subsidence.
I welcome the establishment of advice centres. When, on a number of occasions, I visited Nottingham with members of the Select Committee on Energy, I found out that there is a real need for advice. I should like the advice centres to be staffed by professional advisers. Many people in Nottingham received no advice, or advice from agents who were far from honest; I understand that some of the agents have faced criminal charges. Professional advisers would not have been able to act in that way. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider that question in Committee.
Let me make a proposal which I believe would go some way towards solving the problems of blight and of excessive damage to some properties. It has always amazed me that British Coal—and, before it, the National Coal Board—could not get down to the problem at the planning stage and say to local authorities, "There may well be subsidence damage in this area."
It should be part of planning consents that houses in some areas should have been built on rafts, at a cost of about £2,000. That would have saved British Coal a great deal of money in having to purchase property, demolish houses or repair them. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the local authority planning departments and British Coal could have worked together to provide new properties with rafts. That would have eliminated many of the problems that have arisen.
§ Mr. Jim Lester
We invented the Clasp building system in Nottinghamshire to build schools, hospitals and public buildings on rafts that allow movement because our area suffers from subsidence. That system has been valuable in this country and also in areas that suffer from earthquakes.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
There must be consultation with the planning authorities and I hope that British Coal will get round to that. I am sure that such consultation would be beneficial in those mining areas.
We all recognise that the major problem is going to diminish because the number of pits mining coal is going to decline. If Mr. Baker, the chairman of National Power, carries out his threat to import 50 per cent. of the fuel to generate electricity for National Power, there will be another rapid rundown of the mining industry. If British Coal can take precautionary measures before building houses, that would be a step in the right direction.
The Select Committee on Energy can be well pleased with the main aspects of the Bill because it contains much that the Select Committee recommended. Hon. Members have grumbled in the past, as I have, that we put a lot of work into Select Committees, but no one seems to take any 104 notice. However, we cannot say that on this occasion, because the work of the Select Committee on Energy is evident in the Bill.
I hope that the Standing Committee will be able to improve the Bill. I hope that that will benefit the country, and especially Nottingham and Mansfield, where there is a major problem with subsidence. I know from my visits to Mansfield of the colossal amount of work that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has done on this problem over the past few years and he should be congratulated on that work. I hope that the Committee will be able to approve many amendments to improve the Bill, which is only a step in the right direction.
§ Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)
May I first declare an indirect interest in the subject through my association with Alliance International which looks after British Coal affairs. However, my primary and overriding interest lies with my constituents. Although I no longer have any active pits in my constituency, I can assure hon. Members that the impact of subsidence continues and I am delighted that it seems that we are about to resolve the problem with the Bill.
The Bill has been long in gestation, but now that we are debating it I am glad that it has been largely welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is the product of fairly objective discussions that have taken place over many years with many different groups. It has been backed across the party divide. The mild chastisement of the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) was an understatement, because the hon. Gentleman gave a most ungenerous welcome to a Bill for which we have all waited for a long time.
I am sure that British Coal does not agree with everything in the Bill. However, we should be fair and, to its credit, British Coal produced the householders arbitration scheme in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. Notwithstanding the scheme that it produced, British Coal welcomes the Bill as a blueprint for a system that it and hon. Members will find will work in practice and not just be words on the statute book.
One criticism might be that much is implied in the Bill that some would wish be made more explicit. No doubt hon. Members will probe that point in Committee.
On an initial reading of the Bill and of the background papers, the Bill appears to represent a balanced approach between the interests of householders, service interests, and the legitimate interests of mining operators. I was surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) dismissed a sense of balance in these matters. Although, naturally, all of us are much more concerned with the impact of subsidence on the individual householder—the little man facing big brother, British Coal—there must be a balance and justice on both sides.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
The hon. Gentleman talks about the imbalance between big brother, British Coal and the householder, but he ignores one major factor —the insurance companies. For many years, insurance companies have been taking a large amount of money in premiums off everyone who buys a house, yet they refuse to pay out for subsidence, or they insert a small clause that limits them to perhaps 10 per cent. of the cost. The Bill 105 does not refer to insurance companies having any responsibility. Surely the third factor should be involved. Insurance companies have made a great profit without paying anything out.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. He was not present to hear the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's intervention is out of context and away from the main point. I am perfectly happy for that matter to be discussed in Committee. Like many other hon. Members, I have come across that aspect.
Another criticism might be the uncertainty in establishing the full extent of repairs that are needed and the extent to which British Coal would be expected to pay. That is not an unreasonable concern for any householder, but I do not believe that the Bill is anything more than a sensible recognition of British Coal's duty to take action —clause 2—prepare a schedule of work—clause 6—and, to put it simply, get on with it—clause 7—to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant. The agreed schedule arising from the notice and its acceptance will cover only damage that it is reasonably practicable to repair.
Nevertheless, the kinds of remedial action listed in clause 2(2) can in some instances be cumulative. It is surely implicit that British Coal could take one or more of the options listed in clause 2(2). For example, it is not uncommon for British Coal to repair damage other than, say, the residual tilt to a property, to which my hon. Friend the Minister and one or two other hon. Members referred, and then make a depreciation payment for the residual tilt that cannot be repaired. Therefore, the mining operator would meet its obligation under clause 2(2)(c).
Clause 11(3) provides the claimant with protection where remedial works have been executed, but where there is clear depreciation in the value of the property and where the making good of the damage simply is not possible—hence a depreciation payment. I can imagine lawyers' eyes lighting up at that—it is bread and meat to them—but I cannot imagine any other way of resolving that problem. Like the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), I have properties in my constituency that have been repaired but are clearly not 100 per cent. right—there is a tilt to them. Any buyer looking at such a house would consider that fact. There is no doubt that the value of such houses has diminished because they are on a slight tilt.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) has an example of a 5 in tilt, which is a big tilt. I have not had cases of that much tilt, but take his point.
There have been arguments and misunderstandings tonight about the six-year rule. Provided that it does not disqualify a claimant from claiming for subsequent damage following completion of an agreed schedule of work, the six-year rule seems fair. It is tied not to the date on which the damage occurred but to the first date on which the person entitled to claim became aware of the damage. That concept has already been established in housing legislation. I am not sure which housing Bill made it clear, but claims do not have to go back to when the person bought the house; the clock begins to run when the 106 person who bought the house from the local council discovered the defect or, in this case, the subsidence damage.
If the parties agree that it would be sensible to allow some time to pass, perhaps to establish the full extent of the damage, that could be allowed. I am not an engineer and perhaps people want the matter to be settled and finalised, but at least the full extent of the damage could be established. I have visited houses where a modicum of repair had been carried out by the coal board, but two years later a crack has appeared in the bathroom. That is plastered over, but a year later a crack appears in the kitchen. I hope that a mechanism can be created which will allow a sensible time to establish whether the contractor, British Coal, or whoever is carrying out the repair, has done the full work necessary. I hope that that principle will not be undermined by the six-year rule.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
The hon. Gentleman refers to temporary repairs. It all depends on how severe the subsidence is. It would be inadequate to ask people to live in poor conditions without remedial work being done.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I have no reason to doubt the hon. Gentleman. I merely wish to illustrate that when someone sees a crack and correctly notifies British Coal instantly, which then mends only the crack, major problems may not be identified because in a sense they were tackled too quickly.
Again, I seek guidance. If a schedule is agreed and fulfilled and further subsidence occurs, will the claimant be deemed to be making a fresh claim that should stand on its own merit, regardless of any earlier repairs? That arises time and time again in Wollaton in Nottingham. The pit there closed in 1966. That is a long time ago and the answer comes back from British Coal that mining ended in 1966 so it cannot be the cause of the subsidence. People who had repairs done in the 1970s and early 1980s were told that the damage could not have been caused by mining subsidence because mining stopped in 1966. That again raises a question about whether the repairs were fully carried out in the first place, perhaps in the early 1980s.
As has been said, British Coal has already established an arbitration scheme for claims in respect of domestic properties. It is intended to apply to cases where no complex issues of fact or law arise. I am afraid that my legal friends on both the Conservative and Opposition Benches will always be involved when more complex matters arise, which involve evidence, hearings and so on. The long-established Lands Tribunal is well able to deal with such cases, so no new organisation is needed. While the arbitration scheme should meet the needs of most claimants, I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that we do not end up with an unduly bureaucratic system.
I have one word of caution. It arises from one of the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Rother Valley, which was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, about a person who accepts money to do his own repairs or employs his own contractor.
I remember problems with housing repairs and improvements grants, when local authorities paid money to residents to pay a contractor and somewhat shoddy work was done by unapproved builders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe says, if someone agrees a schedule of work with British Coal—under the 107 provisions in the Bill—says that he wants to do the work himself and takes the money to do it, in the interests of equity British Coal cannot then be asked to accept responsibility if the work turns out to be unsatisfactory in the future. There could be arguments about whether cracks that reappear are due to fresh subsidence or bad workmanship. By all means let that provision remain in the Bill, but I urge caution on anyone who wants to take that risk.
The Bill is fairly technical, even though it is short. Perhaps it will be a lawyers' paradise, as such Bills often are, but, at long last, it provides some certainty for our householders. They have suffered fear and worry for many years: fear of how far damage to their homes might go: fear that they could not afford repairs if they found that they were not covered by the coal board; and, worst of all, fear that they would never be able to sell the property and move on. I know of a number of pensioner couples who would dearly love to sell their homes and buy something smaller. They feel as if they are locked in a house with cracks, which they know they will not be able to sell for its full value.
The Bill is not everything that we might wish for, but there was no reason for the ungenerous—even mealy-mouthed—acceptance which the hon. Member for Rother Valley gave it.
§ Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)
I welcome the Bill in much the same way that my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) welcomed it. The measure is long overdue and there is much within the Bill that we like, but there is also much that we would like to be clarified and perhaps improved, and I do not think that my hon. Friend's welcome to the Bill was mealy-mouthed.
I welcome the Bill as a Member of Parliament representing a coalfield area, who receives numerous complaints about subsidence, and as a member of the Select Committee on Energy, which considered mining subsidence in considerable detail last year and produced a detailed report. Many of our recommendations have been taken on board by the Government. The fact remains that too much of the Bill gives British Coal the last word or the final decision, and Opposition Members would like an improvement to those aspects of the Bill.
I have received serious complaints from constituents and I shall refer to some of them instead of the mechanics of the Bill. I hope that some of these issues will be tackled, clarified and thrashed out in Committee. Tonight, we have learnt that considerable confusion surrounds the time limits which have been imposed in the past. These limits are clearly set out in the Bill, but there have been occasions when British Coal has used quite a different time limit from that which existed under the law. Liability has been denied in certain cases because of the time that elapsed between mining activities and the date of the claim. The Bill specifies a time limit of six years from the time when a claimant should have reasonable knowledge of damage. Under previous legislation, two months were allowed to submit a claim.
108 Reference was made to the evidence taken by the Energy Select Committee in Mansfield. On that occasion, two members of the coal board giving evidence the same day clearly did not understand—
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Question again proposed,That the Bill be now read a Second time.
§ Mr. Illsley
I was making the point that even British Coal's own representatives did not appear to understand the time limits, believing that the relevant period was that which elapsed between the ending of mining activities and the claim. British Coal can always use the defence that damage was not caused by mining subsidence, because the workings of a particular colliery would have settled some time before, and that some other factor must be to blame.
The Waddilove committee recommended that there should be no time limit, arguing that every case should be considered on its merits, and that if mining subsidence was to blame, then the claim should be met. The time limit applies only from the time that the damage occurred, not from the date of mining.
The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) said that the Bill's time limits are exactly right, but each claim should surely be considered in its own right. When a person notices damage, he will usually notify British Coal immediately. It will appraise the damage in relation to the area, and consult its plans and records, in determining whether the damage is a consequence of mining. British Coal may go back well beyond six years. As the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West knows from his own professional activities, the time limit only relates to an individual prevaricating about issuing a notice after damage has become apparent. It is designed to deter an individual from staring at a crack in his wall for six years before submitting a claim.
Even if British Coal can prove that damage has not been caused by subsidence, it might have to check back on workings over the past century. The appropriateness of a six-year time limit will no doubt be explored in Committee, together with Waddilove's recommendations that none should exist.
Delay is also of major concern. I refer not to delayed claims, but to delay on the part of British Coal in undertaking repairs, with house owners having to wait years in some cases before work is completed. I refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo). If British Coal believes that there is a risk of further damage, it will issue a stop notice to prevent any repairs being made—unless of an emergency nature—until such time as it is clear that no additional damage will arise. That can lead to houses and even whole estates being left for years before British Coal effects any repairs. I know of one claimant who was re-housed in transit accommodation, pending repairs to his own property, three years ago.
The alternative accommodation offered by British Coal is usually of a high standard and quite acceptable. I have experienced no problems or complaints about the standard of transit accommodation, simply about the length of time that people have to be re-housed away from their homes waiting for repairs to be carried out. The lack of transit accommodation to a suitable standard often 109 causes problems because there are insufficient transit houses to accommodate people while repairs are carried out.
§ Mr. Illsley
It is a welcome aspect of the Bill that claimants can now choose between waiting for British Coal or employing contractors of their own. I hope that that will go some way towards alleviating the delays experienced by my constituents. One street in my constituency has been totally demolished—about six or seven bungalows have been taken down and completely rebuilt. The delays in completing the work were considerable. In the heavily-mined constituencies of most hon. Members present, many claims are pending from people whose properties have suffered significant damage. There is a conflict between the ideas proposed by Waddilove. He believed that the emphasis should be placed on repairs rather than awarding a claimant money to carry out repairs or hire a contractor, which might lead to some claimants looking at the damage, deciding they can live with it and spending the money on something else. We should all want to avoid that because we want to maintain the housing stock and ensure that the compensation system for mining subsidence is genuine, repairs are carried out and there is no malpractice.
With respect to standards of repair, my constituents have sent me photographs time and again of the evidence of subsidence and I have been asked to visit properties to look at the standard of repairs carried out by British Coal or contractors employed by it. In many cases it is quite appalling. In the old days, British Coal had estates departments, with qualified workmen responsible for maintaining British Coal's housing stock and carrying out subsidence repairs. Their standards were quite high, but some of the standards of repair that I have seen in the past couple of years are not entirely adequate. The standard laid down in the Bill isto the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant.I hope that that provision will ease those problems.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South mentioned repeat claims. Having allowed for the appropriate stop notices and time limits, a claimant often submits a repeat claim for damage to that which has already been repaired. British Coal says that the damage is often due to the movement of the new plasterwork or the settling-in of new window frames. It is obvious that, in the absence of any other subsidence or factor, the damage must have been caused by mining subsidence not settling down properly or the same place being affected again.
With regard to the determination of claims, as many other hon. Members have said, the problem lies with British Coal, which is judge and jury in all matters.
British Coal has all the information relating to mining in the district, which is obviously one of the reasons why the onus of proof has been put on British Coal. In most cases it has the plans, although in some cases it has no records of where mining has occurred. As it usually has all the details, it is in a better position than the claimant to determine a claim. The final decision rests with British Coal and it is difficult for a claimant faced with British Coal to dispute its plans, information or what its mining surveyor says.
110 British Coal is also the final arbiter when it comes to the level of damage. It has set standards relating to tilt, a problem that several hon. Members have mentioned: it can be as much as 5 ins. When a case is on the borderline, it can mean the difference between a compensation payment, the floors of the building being jacked and the property being knocked down and completely rebuilt. In properties in my constituency, claimants have rolled a billiard ball from one corner to another, and seen the tilts and twists. It is a bit like walking into the fun house in Blackpool, where the staircase goes sideways.
Few cases go to the Lands Tribunal. The Select Committee found that, in 1987–88, 33 claims were taken to the tribunal, 31 were withdrawn and two were settled by British Coal beforehand. That is a weakness in the Bill which many hon. Members have pointed out. British Coal may present an arbitration scheme—over and above its current scheme, that is—but we have not been told how good such a scheme would be. Many hon. Members have already pointed out that the existing scheme is not good enough, because British Coal's permission is required before a claimant can take advantage of it. Another disadvantage is the imposition of a £50 charge before a case can go to arbitration.
§ Mr. Illsley
That may not sound much when repairs costing thousands of pounds are needed to a property, but it presents rather an obstacle to those in receipt of low incomes and benefits.
I welcome the appointment of an adjudicator. The Select Committee report recommended the appointment of some kind of ombudsman, and I hope that the adjudicator will help to resolve some of the difficulties—although I still feel that an entirely independent adjudication system would ultimately be preferable. No doubt amendments to that effect can be debated in Committee.
I agree entirely with the idea of an advice centre, suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse). If nothing else, it would get subsidence claims out of Members' surgeries. A national centre, or centres in various localities, could provide far more expertise than my hon. Friends or me.
On finding subsidence damage, many of my constituents go first to an estate agent or mining subsidence agent. Such people, however, simply act as a postbox between the claimant and British Coal, picking up the fee at the end of the day. Claimants come to me asking, "Will you please help me with my mining subsidence claim? The agent has told me that he can do nothing", or "The agent is dragging his feet." Usually, after an intervention by letter, things get moving again; the agent generally does not know what to do, or simply does not want to do it. If more is involved than sending a letter to British Coal and waiting for a cheque, they do not want to know.
§ Mr. Illsley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has considerable experience of mining agents. We on the Select 111 Committee were surprised when we visited his constituency to see such a proliferation of mining subsidence agents. In my constituency, where coal mining has been carried on for hundreds of years, I cannot think of one such agent. It is usually surveyors or estate agents who provide a service for mining subsidence. I have considerable doubts about the involvement of agents and would prefer to see a simple, uncomplicated, free arbitration service backed by an advice centre from which people could get free and fair advice.
I support the call for British Coal to keep a register. The Select Committee touched on that when we said that we thought that a register going back about 15 years and providing details of claims relating to properties should be brought into operation. British Coal has considerable records, and it would be its task to computerise them, bring them up to date and centralise them. There should be a register at some point to help claimants to avoid the problems of blight, and to show purchasers exactly how many claims have been made against a property. Searches by British Coal solicitors should remain compulsory, and more should be done to ensure that purchasers have enough information about property to enable them to be advised about exactly what dangers lie ahead.
I welcome the Bill's proposals about notification. Far too little notice is given to people in mining areas about when mining is to take place. Such information is always difficult to find and is always subject to change by British Coal. The notification provision would help in relation to time limits, and it would also help British Coal which could say that people had been notified about mining in their area at a precise time and should therefore have been on their guard for damage which occurred after that. It would alert residents of the possibility of damage, and that would be a big advantage.
Some hon. Members talked about blight. The blight in some areas would be alleviated if people had confidence in the fairness of a compensation system and a simple arbitration scheme. Much of the blight on properties in mining areas could be removed by such schemes.
I am conscious of the effect of subsidence on collieries. Some collieries in my constituency were closed because of subsidence and some have been calculated as too expensive to run because of the projected cost of damage to buildings above the mine workings. Subsidence is a heavy cost on the industry at a time when it is facing many difficulties. I agree with the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Leicestershire, North-West that a balance must be struck. If all subsidence claims went ahead and the cost of them became excessive, it would be a greater threat to the future of the industry than the threats from imported coal and other forms of power generation.
Mining subsidence causes great stress and heartache. As many hon. Members have said, a person's property is probably the biggest investment he will ever make. I give the Bill a guarded welcome and look forward to the proceedings in Committee.
§ Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
I warmly welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. The Government can take some credit for seeking to remove some of the worst injustices arising from the damage 112 caused by subsidence. However, they can take a little less credit for the time that they have taken. As we all know, Waddilove reported as long ago as 1984. The Government took three years to respond, a further year to issue a consultation paper, and another three years to introduce the Bill. In 1986–87 the Energy Select Committee said that it was not satisfied with the system and asked why it had taken three years, following Waddilove, to devise a more equitable system of determining subsidence damage. A further four years have elapsed. Yes, the Government are to be warmly congratulated, but this action is not before time.
I mention the delay because I seek not to be critical of the Government, but to stress the importance of getting it right this time. So many people have waited for so long that it would be tragic if we got it wrong again and if we did not ensure that the Bill contained all the right provisions. I pay tribute to the people who have campaigned long and hard to have the Bill brought to fruition. I mention particularly, but not exclusively, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), who was particularly helpful while he was a Parliamentary Private Secretary. The united industry working party has joined many other organisations that are concerned about remedying subsidence damage. Without its efforts, we should probably not be debating the Bill tonight.
Let me declare an interest—in fact, several interests. I advise the Chamber of Coal Traders; I live in an area and in a house affected by subsidence damage; I have business premises that are affected by subsidence damage; my home is surrounded by farmland that is affected by subsidence damage. But, more important than all that, I know hundreds of people whose homes have been damaged. These people, without exception, regard the present law as inadequate. They think that British Coal is operating unreasonably and unfairly, and they are of the opinion that new legislation is long overdue. Similarly, every solicitor, every professional adviser and every accountant to whom I have spoken regards the present position as being unfair.
Thus the Bill is to be warmly welcomed in principle. It is a large and complicated piece of legislation. I do not intend to deal at this stage with matters of detail, which can best be addressed in Committee. However, I want to mention a few points that the Bill addresses adequately, and a few of those with which it does not deal adequately. Let me deal first with those matters in respect of which the Bill does a good job. The Government are to be congratulated on the definition of the standard of repair. The Bill resolves the differences between the Acts of 1957 and 1975. British Coal will be obliged to carry out repairs to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant. That is satisfactory. Some commentators have argued that British Coal is not required to carry out repairs to the standard that applied before the damage occurred. I understand that argument, but I believe that, in practice, the courts will find little distinction between the two standards.
The second area in which the Bill does a good job concerns clarification of the time limit for notifying damage. Under the 1957 Act the requirement is two months. Clearly, such a short period is ridiculous—especially when viewed against British Coal's record in the discharge of its responsibilities. The six-year rule that was 113 unilaterally imposed by British Coal under the 1975 Act was very often applied incorrectly. Many hon. Members have related their experience of British Coal's interpretation of the six years as starting on the date of the beginning of mining, rather than on the date on which damage occurred. That rule had no basis, either legally or morally. Clause 3 makes provision for claimants to serve a damage notice within six years of the first time they ought reasonably to have been aware of the damage. That is much clearer and much fairer.
The third area in which the Bill does a good job concerns the obligation imposed on British Coal to meet claimants' expenses that have been reasonably incurred. That is a good provision, which is wider than the voluntary code that British Coal applies now under which it pays only for professional advice in many cases, and often for only part of that professional advice. I note that there is no definition of "reasonable", and that could cause a problem. It is wrong that anyone who undertakes a successful claim against British Coal should be left out of pocket. Those are the best provisions of the Bill. They are excellent and do a good job.
Unfortunately, the Bill has many shortcomings, about which I hope that Ministers will think, and which I hope that the Committee will address. The first is the arbitration provisions covered by clause 41. Waddilove recommeded as early as 1984 that there should be an arbitration scheme. It was obviously necessary. I am sure that we can understand the reluctance of the man in the street to go to law against a mighty state industry using the taxpayers' money to fight its legal battles. For several years, British Coal claimed to have a voluntary system of independent adjudication, a system which it replaced in January this year, and that that voluntary scheme was one of the reasons why legislation on arbitration was not necessary. In reality, that scheme meant almost nothing. It was rarely used because British Coal stood in the way of its use.
Since 1 January, a new voluntary arbitration scheme, which at first glance appears to be fair and reasonable, has been in place. It is conducted by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, British Coal pays most of the costs, with claimants paying a £50 registration fee if it is proved wrong, and the findings are binding on both parties. One may think that that is excellent because, for the first time, claimants have the right to cheap, fair adjudication in disputes with British Coal. However, we must not be fooled. If one reads the small print, one sees that the scheme can be used only if both the claimant and British Coal agree. What nonsense that is. What use is a right of arbitration if the party that is in the wrong can refuse access to the arbitration process even if the claimant wants to use it?
Arbitration is a common feature of many commercial contracts. For example, if parties cannot agree on a rent review, each has the right of arbitration. That fact is a spur to each party to act reasonably, not to make excessive demands and to seek agreement. If one party i o any commercial contract can act unreasonably and then deny the other party access to arbitration, an arbitration scheme is made worthless. It is like saying that anybody anywhere can agree to arbitration. Of course he can, but that is not a right to arbitration. A right exists only if both parties can go to arbitration even if the other party objects.
§ Mr. Barron
The hon. Gentleman is making a good case about the arbitration scheme which we were told was 114 introduced on 1 January. He asked earlier whether carrying out repairs to the reasonable satisfaction of the person whose property had been damaged was the right sort of test. "Reasonable" crops up again in relation to the six-year rule. One has to show that it is reasonable to expect a person to know that the damage had occurred six years before. A dispute on that point can be denied referral to arbitration if British Coal denies that it falls within the six-year rule.
§ Dr. Woodcock
The hon. Gentleman has still not grasped the point, which has been made several times, that, under the Bill, a claim can be made up to six years after the damage occurred, not six years after mining. If we were to rely on the provisions of the arbitration scheme, British Coal could refuse anyone the right to go to arbitration, no matter whether the case arose in fewer than six years, six years or more than six years. Whatever it is, British Coal has to agree. If it wished, British Coal could say, "If we feel that we are right and that we have a cast iron case, we shall let you go to arbitration. If we think that you are right and that we are wrong, we shall refuse you arbitration and you will not be able to go before the arbitrators." That is crazy.
The Bill will allow the Secretary of State to direct that British Coal sets up a proper scheme, and in that respect the Bill is deficient. It should require the Secretary of State to require British Coal to submit such a scheme. We all know what will happen in the absence of a requirement. We have a voluntary new arbitration scheme, and it is likely that the Bill will be enacted. If we are not careful, the Secretary of State will say, "Let us see whether the arbitration scheme works. Now is not the time to legislate." If that happens, we shall have another three or four years of British Coal refusing arbitration while the Secretary of State makes up his mind whether to introduce a scheme. The arbitration should be put on a statutory footing now. Claimants should have a right to go to arbitration irrespective of British Coal's wishes.
Secondly, the Bill's provisions to provide compensation for inconvenience and disturbance are deficient. Clause 25 allows the Secretary of State to require such a scheme. It should go further and require imposition. British Coal has demonstrated time and again its ability to persuade the Department of Energy to adopt a course that is not in the interests of the victims of subsidence damage. The House should not leave a further loophole. Instead of giving the Secretary of State the right to ask for a scheme, it should require a scheme to be introduced.
The third defect is the three-year limit on instituting legal proceedings from when British Coal was first in breach of its duty to repair. On the face of it, that seems reasonable, but what is the position of all the claimants who, during the past seven years since the Waddilove committee reported, have had their claims rejected under the old arbitrary rules? Those claimants would not be turned down if the Bill were an Act. Are we saying that such claimants will be disbarred under clause 42, which imposes a three-year rule? If so, that is not justice.
It is right that the Bill should impose a three-year limit on new claims, but it should allow all claimants who were rejected under the arbitrary approach to institute proceedings under the terms set out in the Bill or to make a new claim under the Bill irrespective of the six-year rule for notifying damage. If the Government do not accept that, thousands of people will be denied justice. There are 115 thousands of householders who had claims rejected by British Coal's interpretation of its self-imposed six-year rule.
The fourth defect is to be found in clause 43, which deals with the investigation of complaints. The clause allows the Secretary of State to set up a scheme but I believe that it should impose one. We have watchdogs for all sorts of things in public life and in industry. We even have a watchdog for coal consumers, the Domestic Coal Consumers Council. Yet we have nothing for the victims of subsidence. Experience dictates that there should be such a scheme.
I shall detain the House for not much longer. I have mentioned some of the Bill's principal defects but there are others, including the discretion that British Coal has and retains in determining the method of meeting a claim. No similar discretion is allowed to claimants. There is no requirement to notify all owners of property rather than occupiers. A time limit is imposed on claimants but not on British Coal. British Coal may take months to prepare schedules of damage in the absence of a specific time limit. On receiving such a schedule, the claimant has only 28 days to consider it and reject it. He may be on holiday or he may have other matters to attend to. He may be in need of professional advice but he has only 28 days. Why are time limits imposed on a man who has no professional advice and expertise, whereas no time limits are imposed on British Coal, which has professional advice and expertise and is staffed to deal with matters in a timely manner?
All those matters should be dealt with by the Bill. Basically, it is a good Bill and it should be welcomed. It has the right intentions, but I fear that it is still weighted in favour of British Coal and against the man in the street. The Government should take the opportunity to table suitable amendments and so ensure that justice is no longer denied to the thousands of claimants who, because of lack of money, expertise, will or courage, have had full justice denied to them for so long. Yes, the Government are to be congratulated on at last introducing the Bill, but they have some way to go yet. They must not lose the opportunity to accept sensible amendments in Committee and to ensure, once and for all, that the problem of subsidence damage is eradicated.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I view the Bill from my experience as an ex-industrial relations officer for the National Coal Board, as a local councillor for 20 years and as a Member of Parliament whose constituency has been blighted by mining subsidence for some considerable time.
Anyone who has not seen a complete village subject to the severest mining subsidence has not seen mining subsidence. In that village, 142 prefabricated houses, 36 stone-built houses and virtually two streets were demolished. It has taken 20 years for the village to come on stream again, but come on stream it has. Its scars have disappeared and the gaps between buildings are now gardens.
The Bill, like every mining Bill, provides no compensation for the stress and strain that those people suffered in those 20 years. There is no compensation for 116 people whose houses were severely damaged and who, as a result, had nervous breakdowns and sometimes ended up in an institution. That happened to two of my constituents. Although one could not put one's hand on one's heart and say that the cause was subsidence, there is no doubt that it contributed.
When I asked British Coal why no payments are made for stress and strain, it said that stress and strain cannot be measured. The same used to be said of compensation for diseases, but the Department of Health now measures degrees of disability. I see no reason why stress and strain because of subsidence should not be calculated on the same basis.
The hon. Member for Leicestershire North-West (Mr. Ashby) is a lawyer, and I accept his interpretation of the six-year rule, but what matters is not his but the board's interpretation. It has interpreted its six-year rule in many ways. I understand it as the period not from when coal has begun to be taken out but when it has ceased to be taken out, after which the board accepts no liability.
That is why I think that there is a great need for an arbitration scheme that allows either of the parties to decide whether to go for arbitration. Like the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock), I know what will happen: the board will agree to arbitration for cases that it knows it can win, but not for cases that it is likely to lose. If a claimant's bid for arbitration is refused, he can go either to the Secretary of State or the Lands Tribunal. Nobody will apply to the Lands Tribunal because of the sheer cost and the length of time that an application takes.
The way in which arbitration works in industrial relations is at the back of British Coal's mind—if both parties agree to take their dispute to arbitration, the case goes to arbitration, but if one party decides not to do so, it does not. British Coal is probably considering the possibility of creating precedents.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) said that he would like to remove the clause allowing a person to pick his own builder or to do the job himself. I should like that clause strengthened. I am involved in a case in which British Coal decided that its workmen were too busy to do some work, which meant that a long period would pass before remedial work could be done. British Coal asked the person concerned to get three quotations from three builders on the schedule of repairs which had been agreed. He did so, but because they did not agree with what British Coal thought should be the cost, the quotations were rejected.
I asked the man to get three more quotations, to find out whether the first three were similar, and he did. Lo and behold, they were in line with the three previous quotations. British Coal will not accept the quotations because it says that the cost is £1,000 higher than it would be if it did the work.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I returned to the Chamber just as the hon. Gentleman commented on my speech. I shall check Hansard. I did not say that I wanted that clause taken out of the Bill; I was merely asking would-be claimants to exercise a little caution if they wished to choose their own contractor, for the good reasons which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) illustrated. We can leave the clause in the Bill, but householders should be careful if they use their own contractor.
§ Mr. McKay
Indeed. If householders use their own contractor, or do the job themselves, all obligations on British Coal cease. If anything happens after that, British Coal can say, "It was your builder, not ours. Your builder must correct the problem." There can be no retrospective claim on British Coal.
I shall give some cases which could be put right if the arbitration provisions were remedied. The whole of a farmer's land suffered from mining subsidence which was so severe that he had to sell his herd of cows because his milking and cow sheds fell in. Unfortunately, that coincided with the introduction of milk quotas. He had no cows, so he did not get a milk quota. He now has a marvellous milk parlour and cow sheds,: but no cows. There is no compensation to cover such a knock-on effect.
I am involved in another case in which British Coal said, "That was not our fault. The subsidence must have been caused by shrinkage." However, it has pulled down and rebuilt four houses nearby and repaired the adjoining property and other property. There is the spectacle of an 8 ft wall, half of it new—constructed by British Coal—and the other half broken because British Coal will not accept liability for it. It says that the property is too old and that the problems are not caused by mining subsidence. My argument is that it may be old property, but there was a knock-on effect from subsidence. That person is caught. If mining subsidence is not to blame, the damage will be the subject of an insurance claim. The insurance company says that mining subsidence is to blame, so my constituent cannot win. The case will probably end up in court somewhere.
Let me return to the question of the board doing the repairs. The board's workmen were advised against 118 jacking up a huge bungalow. The person who lived in that bungalow had spent his savings on building it because his wife was an invalid. He built it with that in mind. The board decided to jack the building up rather than doing what it was doing next door, which was to pull down and rebuild. As a result, the bungalow now has six steps even though the couple built it to provide ground-level accommodation for the wife. There is no compensation for that; there is nothing that the couple can do about it. The Bill should take such matters into consideration.
The board always seeks to include its favourite clause —the full and final settlement clause. How can one have full and final settlement when the earth continues to move? In the village of Elsecar, for example, the earth is still moving after 20 years. Yet I guarantee that if anyone now submits a claim, British Coal will go back to the full and final settlement clause.
Those are some of the matters that the Bill should put right. I welcome the Bill because it is a step in the right direction. The Committee must bear in mind the fact that the Bill could represent our last opportunity to deal with the matter. If the industry continues in its present direction it certainly will be. With the shrinkage of the industry, it could be our last chance to put things right.
Neither the Committee nor the House should rush things. We should get the details right. There seems to me to be a large degree of consensus and I think that the Committee will be a happy one. The agreement between hon. Members on both sides of the House should be translated into fact so that the Bill will be better when it emerges from Committee.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) said that this was very much a Committee Bill. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued, it will certainly require extensive amendment in Committee and on Report. The Minister described the Bill as a consolidation Bill. To the extent that it is a consolidation Bill, it consolidates legislation which is not acceptable and which needs to be extended. We must ensure that it is a stepping stone to help us to deal with the problems of coal mining subsidence rather than being another stumbling block in our way, and it is in danger of becoming a stumbling block unless some of the ideas expressed in the debate today are taken on board in Committee.
Many hon. Members have referred to clause 41, which I approach from a slightly different angle. It deals with arbitration procedures and says thatThe Secretary of State may give directions to the Corporationto introduce the scheme. Hon. Members have emphasised the word "may" and I shall not go further into that argument. There may also be a problem as to whether the corporation is the appropriate body to produce the scheme and proposals, given the problems that exist within its existing arbitration scheme.
The corporation claimed to establish its scheme from 1 January this year. On 21 December 1990 it put out a press release to say that the scheme, under the auspices of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, would be coming into operation. In fact, the corporation had been operating a scheme before that date. A constituent of mine, Mr. Briggs, had his case dealt with in a report produced in November 1990, although the scheme was supposed only to be starting on 1 January 1991. Problems with Mr. Briggs's case highlight the difficulties with the proposed arbitration scheme as a scheme that could be developed in future or one that might be acceptable for three or four years before something more substantial is introduced in its place.
Mr. Briggs lives in Franklin drive, Staveley, in Chesterfield. That is the address that suffers the coal mining subsidence problem. However, he lived elsewhere for two and a half years after the board moved him out. The board must believe that Mr. Briggs has caused it many difficulties and problems because he was terribly dissatisfied with the work that the board was carrying out.
The case went to arbitration only after a great deal of work had been carried out and the arbitration system functioned only in the board's interests. The scheme was that operated by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and it is the one that was supposed to begin from the start of this year. There are some slight differences in its terms, but it is almost an early draft of the scheme that was introduced in a tidied up form at the beginning of the year.
The arbitrator was Mr. M. D. Joyce of M. D. Joyce Associates, a firm of consultant geo-technical engineers. Whether they were the most appropriate people to conduct the arbitration is open to question as they do not seem to have had great expertise in bricks and mortar or the problems associated with the house as distinct from the geo-technical skills that Mr. Joyce undoubtedly possessed.
120 I received a letter from Mr. Briggs on 30 October in which he wrote:it seems to me that the arbitration 'cooked-up' between the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators does not permit a person of limited means to enter into Arbitration … This method of Arbitration rests, in the first instance, on documentary submissions by both parties and for most this would entail a complainant engaging professional assistance … In my case it has cost something approaching £900, so far.Although it is stated in the board's arbitration scheme that costs are covered, that relates to the costs of employing the arbitrator and the work that the arbitrator carries out. The scheme does not cover the costs involved in preparing the claimant's submission.
In Mr. Briggs's case, the matters that had been in dispute for some time cost a considerable amount. Mr. Briggs claimed for 49 items totalling £5,407. In the end, he received £1,471 and he had to meet £900 costs in connection with the claim. Therefore, he received about 10 per cent. of the initial claim. That was said to be in full and final settlement of his claim. However, Mr. Briggs had sought a determination of the costs if the claim had been settled by payment rather than by work that the board was to carry out. Of 49 items, 28 were found in favour of the board and were the more costly items, and they averaged £141 each. One item was agreed—that is, that one third would be paid to Mr. Briggs—and 20 were found in his favour, and they averaged £73. I shall quote section 4.22 of the report to illustrate something about its nature. It concerns a claim for carpet fitting. The report states:The fitting of the carpet is poor but it has not been proved that it ever fitted properly.The onus of proof being in the hands of the claimant rather than being left with the board has presented a great problem. The report goes on to state:Present gaps cannot be attributed to subsidence since the walls were not rebuilt in new positions.That is an astonishing claim—one must have walls that have been rebuilt, rather than walls that have been repaired, and ground that had been disturbed for other reasons for there to be a genuine gap in the carpeting. The report goes on to state:Accordingly, I find in favour of the respondent and make no award to the claimant. There is, however, one vent plate still to be fitted, but this will be done at negligible cost.Whatever that minor cost is, it is to be met by Mr. Briggs. Throughout the report similar provisions were challenged by Mr. Briggs. However, in the end he agreed, because of the pressures that the board began to put on him to make use of the arbitration system.
That arbitration system is now fully in place—Mr. Briggs has been used as a guinea pig—and the system is in danger of either being accepted under clause 41 or held up by clause 41. It is operating, and we are asked to see how it begins to pan out in the long run. I hope that the Committee will be careful about that matter. A host of similar measures are contained within the legislation. At the moment they are something we know not what. We may have a decent piece of legislation in the offing and it might be able to be bashed into shape in Committee, but it would be terrible if, in Committee, the Government got out the Whips, pushed the legislation, and claimed that they have produced something that answers the criticisms that have been made. We would then have a cosmetic provision that would not be much different from that which exists in law at the moment. The whole matter is yet to be played for.
121 I hope that the Minister has listened to the arguments and will say that this measure is merely an agenda for further legislation and that that legislation will be properly and fully considered.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
I shall not attempt to repeat the points that my hon. Friends have made, because the hour is late and they have touched on many points in the Bill that are worthy of consideration in Committee. However, I shall mention one or two points that have not been mentioned. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for the work that he has done on this matter since he came to the House in 1987 and his dedication in pushing for this legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and other hon. Members who sat on the Energy Select Committee and visited Mansfield, which is on the edge of my constituency, did a first-class job.
There is something about the Bill which has not been mentioned and which is rather peculiar. It was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech, for instance, despite promises that it would be. Now the Bill has suddenly been brought before the House. It makes one wonder whether the previous Prime Minister was against such a measure in view of her vendetta against the miners following the strike. Perhaps a change of Prime Minister has allowed the measure to be introduced. What is the reason for its suddenly being introduced? One reason is certain. At the bottom of page iv the Bill says:The Bill is not expected to have any significant effects on central government expenditure.In other words, the Bill will not cost the Government a penny. Why the Bill could not have been introduced earlier if everyone knew that it would not cost the Government a penny, and why it has been introduced now, when the Government are in dire financial circumstances, has not been explained. But it is obvious to my way of thinking. If the Tory Government are re-elected at the next general election, one of the first things that they will do is sell off the coal mining industry.
Privatisation of the coal mining industry would be severely set back if potential buyers faced vast unknown expenditure on compensation for coal mining subsidence. People will be eager to buy the coal mining industry, not because of the coal under the ground, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) worked out is worth about 3p per tonne to a potential buyer, but for the vast acreage of land which British Coal owns. Many thousands, if not millions, of acres and many square miles of land owned by British Coal have planning permission for industrial development, all in ripe areas, where there is plenty of surplus labour. It will be a bonanza for any potential buyer unless there is a subsidence problem.
When pits have shut in my area—in Worksop near Mansfield—we have tried to bring in potential developers to build new factories. The one thing that terrifies potential developers is the word "subsidence". They run a mile, even if they are told that the building can be put on a raft, it will be a light pre-fabricated factory and only girls using sewing machines will be in the factory so there will be no weight on the area. As soon as they hear the word "subsidence" potential developers are off. That will be a great deterrent to anyone wanting to buy the land owned by the coal industry.
122 If the Conservatives win the next election they will build the two new ports at Killingholme and suck in imported coal from South Africa, Bolivia and Colombia which will finish off the British coal industry.
§ Mr. Ashton
I give way to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), who has just come in.
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was here at the beginning of the debate, which is more than he was. He is overplaying the card of subsidence deterring developers coming into former mining areas. I do not know whether my constiutuency is unique. I do not think that it is. On the site of the Wilford pit there is now an industrial site which employs at least five to 10 times as many people as ever went down the pit. That is a massive industrial development. The Wollaton pit to which I referred in my speech has a 600-property housing estate on it. The hon. Gentleman is overplaying that card.
§ Mr. Ashton
The hon. Gentleman thinks that every pit is the same. I apologise for coming in late, but I had urgent constituency business to attend to. Some of us go to our constituencies and have things planned three weeks in advance. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, who represents a little piece of Nottingham, I represent 300 square miles and the 50 parish councils need a great deal of attention. I shall not respond to his remarks about Wilford or other such pits, because he represents a city area.
The reason why the Government have introduced the Bill and why it will not cost them anything is pretty apparent. They have made this move in case they win the next general election. I do not believe that they will but if they do and they want to privatise the pits, arrangements will be in place to compensate potential buyers. Who will pay British Coal? Has the measure been costed? Of course, it has not. I have not seen any estimate of the costs that British Coal will have to bear. I am willing to give way to the Minister or anyone who can say how many millions it is estimated that it will cost.
We all feel sorry for our poor constituents. Some of them have had a terrible time because of planning blight, which has prevented them from selling their houses. They come to my surgeries and ask me to take the matter up, but they beg me not to mention subsidence because they know that if it gets out that a certain street is affected they will not be able to sell their houses.
How many people face that problem, and how much will it cost? As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield knows, our district council carried out a survey and sent out a questionnaire with the electoral registration form, asking, "Has your house got subsidence? Have you ever made a claim?"
§ Mr. Ashton
Yes, the questionnaire was sent out in Ashfield and in Bolsover. It was sent to 37,000 houses. How much will compensation cost? A massive amount: if it were £1,000 per house, it would be £37 million. How many pits will that shut down? Will British Coal have to bear the whole cost? Those questions have not been fully considered, nor has the overall strategy and the economic consequences for British Coal.
123 Another factor, about which I questioned the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, is that when my constituents buy their houses—whether from British Coal or from anyone else—and they get a mortgage from the Halifax, the Alliance and Leicester or some other building society, they are told that they have to insure the property. On top of £200 a month for a mortgage, they have to pay £30 for insurance. God knows why they pay insurance, because when they claim from the insurance company, it does not want to know. Insurance companies say that they are not covered for subsidence and landslip and tell them, the home owners, to read the small print as there is an exclusion clause. Insurance companies do not charge any less for insuring houses in a coal mining area, but they refuse to pay out. Even if it is proved that the pit does not run anywhere near the house—I know of such cases in Worksop—the insurance companies still say that the damage must have been caused by landslip and it is a well-known fact that they do not pay for that.
What have the Government done to get to grips with the insurance companies? Why is there nothing in the Bill to ensure that they are challenged before £37 million compensation is loaded on to the coal board which might shut some more pits? But the insurance companies will get away scot free. No one says a word to them. No one says that they have any responsibilities or that they should be taken to the insurance ombudsman. No one says that my constitutents should not have to pay as much insurance because the coal board will pay out.
Those major elements are missing from the Bill. There has been a conspiracy of silence between the Government and the insurance companies. Why is the Bill being brought in now? What will it cost? How many pits will shut down because of it? What damage will it do and what will be the economic consequences for British Coal? British Coal are not angels, but they are certainly not villains, as they have been portrayed.
I hope that in Committee we will get some of the answers to my questions. I hope that we will not pass a Bill without knowing what it will cost a nationalised industry, how many houses are involved and without any surveys. There have been no estimates of the costs involved. Someone has to pay and, because coal is a nationalised industry, Conservative Members do not give a damn. If British Coal has to pay millions of pounds in compensation it will shut more pits, and we must realise that before we start down this road.
§ 11.9 pm
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I am a little surprised at my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who has poured cold water on the argument about mining subsidence and the way that it seriously affects the coal mining industry.
The Under-Secretary of State for Energy, who is here for this debate, is a nice young chap. He is learning fast about the coal mining industry. He will certainly learn fast in Committee. I can assure him that I will be one of the Opposition Members in Committee, arguing in favour of many of the provisions in the Bill, but also arguing—along with my colleagues—for certain amendments to the Bill, with a view to further improvements. That is not altogether satisfactory.
124 This issue came to light just before I first entered the House, and it has been argued about right up to the present day. We are led to believe that, at long last, the Government have got off their backside and are prepared to do something. I welcomed the Waddilove report. That committee did a first class job, and clearly stated that claimants were not getting a fair deal. The Government eventually took that report on board and accepted it. The then Secretary of State for Energy stood at the Dispatch Box and said so.
Even though the Waddilove report said wonderful things to the people in my constituency and those in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), we have been kicked from pillar to post. For years we have been asked at our surgeries, "What are you going to do about this problem?" People queue up to discuss their claims.
Only this morning I received a letter from a constituent whose claim had been rejected by the Coal Board, and that individual wants to know what action I will take. I informed him that we were to debate a Bill on the Floor of the House this evening that I hoped would sort out his problem. One issue that will confront the Under-Secretary in Committee is the situation in respect of people whose claims have been rejected in the past. There are many of them in my constituency, as there are in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield.
When Ian MacGregor's appointment as chairman of British Coal was announced, the then Secretary of State was the Member of Parliament for a Croydon constituency. What did he know about mining and subsidence? We warned him not to appoint MacGregor, because we knew what would happen. He caused a flipping strike right through the industry. He also got his consultants and advisers to examine the cost of mining subsidence. When the Government saw the figure, they said, "We'd better shove this over to the Energy Select Committee, to find out the real global picture."
Those of us who represent mining constituencies knew the real problem—not that Secretary of State from Croydon. Mr. Speaker is the Member of Parliament for a Croydon seat, and I also want to give him a warning—through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Mr. Speaker plans to retire at some stage.
§ Mr. Haynes
That is correct. I am retiring too, but this evening I am representing my constituents, because they have been given a raw deal. We are looking to the young Minister to give them a fair deal.
I think that we might win in Committee. There is obviously agreement across the Floor of the House that something must be done. At long last, the Government are prepared to do something. When we get Upstairs, we shall see how much.
I have advised Mr. Speaker that, when he retires, he should come to live in the beautiful county of Nottinghamshire. It is gorgeous. Mind you, Mr. Speaker passes by my constituency from time to time. In fact, he has accepted an invitation to visit the Royal British Legion in my constituency in June. He returns to that beautiful county. He often visits and stays the weekend with some friends. He travels the Nottinghamshire roads in his limousine with Robert, his driver. Being on those roads is like being at Blackpool on a switchback going up and 125 down—it is caused by mining subsidence. He has experienced mining subsidence on the Nottingharnshire roads. Until the problems and negotiations are sorted out, it will cost the county council a fortune to put things right on the roads.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw that a great deal of cost is involved, but there is also much suffering on the part of our constituents. An elderly lady of 82, who lived in a bungalow, came to my surgery. She and her husband, who had died, had spent all their lives saving so that they might own their own bungalow. They did not want to live in a local authority bungalow, although they were plentiful then, before the Tories came to power. She came to my surgery, told me that her bungalow had subsidence and asked me to help. I said, "Let me know about it, ducky." She explained the problem in detail.
The board said that it would not settle the claim because it was going to mine another, lower, seam under the bungalow. By the time the seam came through, eight years had gone by and the board rejected her claim. Similar incidents will occur with a six-year limit. We must clarify the six-year period in Committee.
When I became the Member of Parliament for As hfield, having worked in that wonderful pit at Clipstone, just outside Mansfield, for 35 years, the National Coal Board in Nottinghamshire offered a fairer deal. The time limit for working things out with the Coal Board was not six years, but 12. But what happened? MacGregor was appointed chairman of the board, and he stopped that allowance straight away. There was fairness in Nottinghamshire, but that man from America—fancy appointing an American to run an industry in this country when we had people, including one in the House of Lords, who would have done a marvellous job—[HON. MEMBERS: "Name him!"] He was the former Member for Barnsley—now I have named him.
§ Mr. Haynes
No, my hon. Friend has got it wrong there.
Those are the sorts of problems that we have in our constituences and that we want sorted out. I am sure that the Minister has listened to every contribution that has been made this afternoon, even from Conservative Members, who said that their constituents were not getting a fair deal. He has had his ear bashed today, and he will get it walloped in Committee if he does not take the right course. I have given the Minister fair warning. I have covered the issue of the board disqualifying a claim because it has been made after a certain period.
I have been to see some of the work done by the contractors that the Coal Board is supposed to have on a list. Local authorities could do the work, but the board appoint contractors—some of them are cowboys. We talk about residents having to be in a caravan in the front garden while their house is being repaired, but more often than not the contractor pushes off to do another job and leaves the residents in a caravan well into the winter. That is ridiculous and we want to get away from all that. I hope that the Bill will achieve that.
Hon. Members have talked about the board buying properties because they are so severely damaged. The board has paid the complainant compensation, he or she has been satisfied with the amount and accepted it—agents have been used, some of whom have made themselves 126 millionaires. They have made a fortune—riding around in Rolls-Royces. I hope that we are going to get rid of that. The board, however, has been using the properties that it has bought as transit properties, which people can move into while their own properties are being done up. It should be encouraged to do much more than that, so that people do not suffer in the interim. We must look after the people whom we represent.
I am sorry that I have to mention the next point—individuals being refused by the board. The Minister said earlier that, if the board rejected the claim, the claimant had the right to go to the tribunal; but through the Secretary of State. What if the result is a heap of claims awaiting the OK from the Secretary of State? I am sure that you have experienced that yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have put questions to Ministers—including Secretaries of State—and have sometimes waited months for a reply. What if that happens with claimants whose cases have had to be referred to the Secretary of State?
The Secretary of State has not been in the job for long; he is an accountant, or something like that. He does not know anything about mining; he hasn't a flipping clue. He should come and talk to people like my colleagues and me, who know what mining and mining subsidence are about. We must speed up the process of referrals to the Secretary of State. Then we shall be getting somewhere—helping those poor people living out in our constituencies who have been suffering for so many years. What has been happening is scandalous.
I shall sit down in a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You need not look at your watch; there are four clocks here, and I can see them all. Do not worry about it. This debate is open-ended, by the way: you know what that means, Mr. Deputy Speaker. After all, you are experienced in this regard. You serve in a mining area, and there were many pits in your constituency in years gone by. You know what it is all about. You knew all about it when you were Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, and spoke from that Dispatch Box. You knew what the workers had to go through in mining and other heavy industries. I thought that you had a problem with Doncaster racecourse at one time, but I understand that the hot weather caused that problem rather than mining subsidence. Well, we have overcome that problem, have we not?
In the 15 years in which I worked for Nottinghamshire county council—and even before—it had a system called Clasp. I think that the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) will know about that, because they know how local authorities work. The council built many schools and elderly people's homes that were able to take the movement of land, especially when it was due to mining subsidence. It built the properties throughout the county —right out in the mining areas. They could stand the movement, which was a good thing: we sent salesmen to foreign parts, and they were flogging them like nobody's business. The same kind of progress and advancement could be used in the mining areas. Nottinghamshire county council—Labour-controlled, of course—has given everyone a lead.
I hope that the Bill will not be long in Committee—I am sure that the Minister will agree—and that the right things will be in it, in the interests of the people whom we serve.
Here comes the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) —and he has only just walked in!
§ Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me now that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) has subsided into his seat. apologise to the House for not being present for the bulk of the debate. I had to attend to some pressing constituency matters. I shall be extremely brief and take up a small fraction of the time taken by the hon. Member for Ashfield.
It is important to place on record the fact that the Bill has the widest possible cross-party support of hon. Members in mining constituencies from one end of the country to the other. Families can have few more distressing experiences than to have the quality of their home and home life destroyed by subsidence. Many of the technical problems of the past have led to long and distressing delays and great difficulties in achieving fairness.
On behalf of my hon. Friends from Yorkshire, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward a Bill which will address serious practical problems. The onus of proof is now firmly on British Coal and people will be able to bring in outside contractors if they are unhappy about delays caused by British Coal. Plainly, it is important for the Bill's details to be right, and that will be determined in Committee. I again congratulate the Government on an important measure which will improve the quality of life of many people.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
The hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) explained why he could not be present for the whole of the debate and he congratulated the Government. His congratulations are a trifle premature. It would have been more appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to express gratitude to the Government for presenting the House with an opportunity to put right a matter that has caused problems for a long time.
As the Minister knows, we do not intend to divide the House, but that does not mean that we do not have deep reservations about some aspects of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) has announced his retirement, but the energy and vigour with which he spoke show that he will not go out with a whimper. There are some bangs left, and no doubt we shall hear a few in Committee if the Minister does not pay heed not merely to the suggestions of my hon. Friends, but to some of the pointed criticisms of Conservative Members. We have taken careful note of those criticisms and we trust that Conservative Members will join us in Committee to see to it that the improvements that their constituents and ours want to see are embodied in the Bill.
I want to be brief, but I need a little time to refer to some of the issues that have been raised. While we welcome the opportunity provided by the Bill, some hon. Members pointed to the rather protracted period that has elapsed since the subject was first raised. Some hon. Members were deeply concerned about the matter before I entered the House in 1970. Concern has been growing for years and it is a pity that such a Bill was not presented to the House three or four years ago.
I am especially grateful to the Select Committee for building on the recommendations in the Waddilove report to the point where the Government could no longer ignore the issue. I shall not go into great detail because close 128 scrutiny is a matter for the Committee. Before the Minister makes his winding-up speech, perhaps he would look at paragraph 12 of the Government's response to the Select Committee report. It says:cases where claims have been rejected on grounds of time limits could be referred to the new voluntary arbitration procedure.That needs to be set against the six-year proposal and the Minister may feel disposed to comment on that in his winding-up speech. If not, we shall certainly feel it necessary—as I hope Conservative Members will—to pursue the matter in Committee.
The Minister referred to the principle embodied in the slogan "The polluter pays". That is a slogan which both parties have voiced for a long time, but it seems to me that it has been accepted uncritically by Conservative Members. For that reason I want to refer briefly to the speech of the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward), who referred to subsidence and pollution from ancient mining operations. Not only are maps and plans of such antiquity unavailable; we do not even know who owned the mines. It may be argued that subsidence from collieries and, indeed, coalfields that had closed, or were approaching closure, before the passage of the nationalisation legislation of 1947 ought not to be a burden on the British coal industry as it makes enormous efforts to survive and succeed. It is all very well to make the polluter pay, but absolute reliance on that principle can have dangers. A polluter who has been dead for several hundred years cannot be made to pay.
There is another aspect of Government policy to which we should turn. If the polluter lacks the means to pay—if he becomes bankrupt, if his business folds, as so many businesses are folding now—who will compensate the community? Who will make up for the pollution? Excessive reliance on a slogan, without any detailed consideration, can be dangerous. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that matter before the Committee stage starts.
Very little has been said about the proposals to provide compensation for fa;mers. I am amazed that two Conservative Members from Nottinghamshire devoted their attention to their constituents rather than to their agricultural interests. They may feel that the Bill will assist them to retain their seats. However, if, in Committee, they do not support amendments to which they appear to have been giving credence, we shall ensure that they are more dependent on the farms. If they fail to support us in Committee, that factor will loom increasingly large.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) gave a detailed analysis of the Bill. Several hon. Members have paid very full tribute to him for the considerable amount of work that he has done. He referred to COALS, the local authority organisation which has done a great deal of work. I invite Conservative Members who may serve on the Standing Committee to look very carefully indeed at the balanced and informative material that that organisation has provided. I hope that it will help to determine some votes on the amendments that are necessary.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and several of my hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), referred to the almost inevitable weaknesses of the unrefined arbitration system that looks likely to emerge. I suggest that the Minister pays particular attention to the 129 case of Mr. Briggs from Staveley. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield made the point that society and the industrial base are changing. He feels that people may now be more prepared to speak up against the interests of the large coal industry in order to defend their rights as individuals. There may be some truth in that.
The most important reference to current developments came from my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). In effect—these are not his exact words—he said, "If we can't have the money, we in the coalfields are not going to have the muck." The problems in south Wales and in areas like mine in south Yorkshire have been sufficiently oppressive to convince us that we must press for environmental decency. Environmental decency means not compelling people to suffer the unfairness—sometimes protracted unfairness—and hardship caused by subsidence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), in referring, quite properly, to the work of the Select Committee on Energy, said that the evidence given to it showed that compensation for subsidence was about 1.5 per cent. of British Coal's total costs. We are not talking about vast sums that would cripple that industry. My hon. Friend also made it clear that we are not criticising the officials of British Coal who have to administer the costs.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
Subsidence payments went in three stages. The first was the learning stage, the second was when the then National Coal Board was extremely generous, so much so that some buildings were improved, and the third was when purse strings were tightened. That stage coincided with the decision to move the levy on coal into a global sum and for each pit to pay for local damage. That was a terrible mistake.
§ Mr. Hardy
It was a mistake and it was dangerous, given some of the people at the top of British Coal, to make each colliery pay such costs. That sometimes assisted them to close a colliery rather earlier than it should have been closed. We should make it clear that the people carrying out these responsible tasks in British Coal are not being singled out for criticism. To illustrate the point, I can quote a constituency case of mine, particularly as the individual involved did not support my party. One of my constituents savagely criticised British Coal for not being kind and helpful in dealing with his demands for substantial compensation for subsidence. The reply of the British Coal officer concerned took the rather unusual form of sending a copy of my constituent's letter complaining about the damage that subsidence had done to his house and demanding money from British Coal together with the estate agent's blurb, which said that his house was a wonderful mansion in perfect condition. In those circumstances, I did not feel disposed to criticise the staff of British Coal in my area.
The area that I represent has had coal mining under it for up to 340 years, and has suffered mightily. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) spoke about the effect of subsidence on a dairy farmer in his constituency, but I recall that, as a result of subsidence in my constituency, he once had to rescue a cow —rather an amusing story.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
I was a retained fireman when a shallow seam subsided. That was when I saw three cows underground.
§ Mr. Hardy
That was due to a decision made by the National Coal Board as it then was, when I served on the local authority. It told the council that it was essential that it mined the Melton field from Wath main colliery and that, although it was a shallow seam, the quality of the coal was desperately needed in the national interest. The board assured us that it would do its best to ensure that there was adequate compensation. The local authority agreed that mining should begin. Within days, houses had begun to collapse, and within a short time the council had to rehouse what were significant numbers of people for a relatively small authority. We received a letter from a lady who complained about the foul language being used by workers whom she could hear from her dining room while they were working underground extracting coal. We were naturally able to assure her that no miners at Wath main colliery indulged in strong language, but that helped us to put a case to British Coal for adequate compensation for our community.
However, that community was hurt. As some of my hon. Friends have said, distress and trauma—the Minister used the word trauma—are caused when people have to leave their homes for months or when housewives who are proud of their homes find them in semi-dereliction, as a result of which they have to move into less satisfactory or smaller accommodation, without even knowing when they can return to the home that they have cared for for many years.
As some hon. Members have suggested, if such problems occurred in some of the more salubrious parts of the country, the Bill might have come before us a little sooner. We have, of course, shared the anxiety that has been expressed about the channel tunnel, and especially by those in Kent. We hope that those who have voiced their concern about matters that affect the more salubrious areas of the south-east will not object if the Minister decides to accept some of the sensible amendments to the Bill that have been recommended by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I could pay tribute to several hon. Members who have spoken and to whom I have not referred. I apologise to those I have not mentioned. I feel, however, that the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) should not escape attention. We suspect that the Government feel that it is necessary to legislate on subsidence in coal mining areas to facilitate the privatisation of the mining industry. They feel that there are areas where loot can be garnered.
There are Conservative Members who know a great deal about the mining industry and they might join us in urging caution before there is any hasty removal of the industry' from public control. If we do not have a substantial and significant body such as British Coal that is charged with properly fulfilling its responsibilities in matters of the sort that we are discussing, those responsibilities may not be fulfilled. The problems to which we have pointed have made it necessary for the Minister carefully to consider how the Bill, which my right hon. and hon. Friends welcome in principle, can be made welcome in the coal pits.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate.
We have debated the Bill for nearly five hours and I am grateful to hon. Members for the general support that it has received. Naturally, some aspects of it have attracted criticism. I believe that in part some of the criticisms rest on a misunderstanding of certain clauses, and perhaps are coloured by problems in dealing with events in the past.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), in his opening remarks, dwelt on the so-called six-year rule. I agree that this has suffered from various interpretations over the years. The 1957 legislation provided for only a two-months time limit and the 1975 legislation included no specific time limit. I agree with the Select Committee on Energy that at some stage British Coal should be able to close its books on a claim. We wish, however, to achieve a balance by giving householders a considerable time in which to lodge claims. I repeat and emphasise that the date of the original mining is not relevant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) mentioned the difficulties that have been experienced in old coalfields. I know that the Kingswood miners were famous in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Radstock coalfield covered my constituency, although the last pit there, New Rock, shut in 1968. I have some experience, however, of the difficulties caused by old coal mines. I am aware that the mining techniques of those days can delay subsidence for a considerable period. That is why the six-year period runs not from the date of mining, not even from the date of damage to a house, but from the date when the claimant becomes aware of the damage. The Bill places the onus on British Coal to prove that damage was not caused by subsidence, which removes the ambiguities that have clouded dealings between claimants, hon. Members and the coal board.
Several hon. Members referred to the arbitration scheme. British Coal's voluntary scheme has been in operation for only a month. It is designed to offer quick, informal and expensive—
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I apologise. I meant quick, informal and inexpensive settlement of disputes. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned difficult constituency cases that were almost tailor-made for settlement under such an arbitration scheme. We shall review the operation of the scheme later in the year, at which time changes and extensions to it may be appropriate.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who has made a notable contribution to the subject. He expressed concern that British Coal could refuse arbitration. I draw his attention to clause 40(4)(a), which specifies that under a scheme approved by the Secretary of State British Coal will not only be bound by arbitration but will have to offer it. We shall discuss that further in Committee, but the fact that that regulation can be made will be a clear incentive for British Coal to operate its voluntary scheme reasonably and constructively.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
My hon. Friend referred to clause 41(4)(a), which says:While it is in force, a scheme approved under subsection (2) above—132(a) shall have effect, in relation to any dispute to which it relates, as a binding offer of arbitration".Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the scheme that began last month will be approved under the Bill or that another scheme will be put in its place if that scheme does not work out?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I should correct the clause number: it is clause 41(4)(a). It may or may not be the scheme approved. If it needs to be extended and modified, it will be, but it is sensible to start off with a voluntary scheme and to see whether it is, in principle, a satisfactory way of resolving disputes and whether it will evolve into a scheme that is satisfactory to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, indeed, to the House.
Stop notices were mentioned. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) was concerned that British Coal can delay claims against it almost indefinitely. He would agree that, in principle, provision for stop notices is sensible. There is no point in repairing a house if it is to suffer almost immediate further damage from prospective mining. Under the Bill, stop notices must be reviewed every 12 months and lifted as soon as damage is not likely to occur in the next 18 months.
The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) asked who would pay when pits closed. That is an obligation on British Coal as a whole, but it is right, where possible, to stick to the principle that individual pits are responsible for subsidence that their activities cause. That is why I am against a general levy which would disguise that fact. There should be a clear incentive on individual pits and, indeed, on individual pit faces to reduce damage caused by subsidence.
§ Mr. Lofthouse
In 1985, there were eight pits in my constituency; today there is only one. There will be arguments in constituencies such as mine about which pit caused subsidence—a working pit or a pit which has closed. If the costs of closed pits are imposed on a working pit, it could become unprofitable and liable to closure.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I was going to come to the general burden on the industry.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) will know that in British Coal's most recently published accounts there is a provision of £243 million to cover subsidence damage. British Coal has anticipated most of the measures in the Bill and made provision accordingly. It could well be that that sum will be adequate to cover the financial obligations in the Bill. The Bill is needed whether or not the coal industry is in the public or the private sector.
We do not wish needlessly to burden British Coal with huge financial obligations regardless of cost. That could increase the price of coal, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) said. We must be alive to the danger that we could cripple the industry. However, we want to specify the fair obligations on British Coal and clearly set out the corresponding rights of householders.
All hon. Members have welcomed the emphasis in the Bill on repair rather than compensation. Some of the difficulties mentioned may have arisen out of comparatively generous compensation payments which were taken by some people and not used to repair their homes, which 133 were sold to new purchasers who then found that the claim had been settled and that there was no way of getting money from British Coal to undertake the repairs.
The Bill is the culmination of much consultation with interested parties. It recognises that deep mining causes subsidence. We want a means of dealing with the undoubted pain and stress that subsidence can cause to individual householders, those in business, farmers and property owners. We will do that by carrying forward existing codes of practice, the best from the two main Acts of Parliament and the pre-notification requirements, and by insisting on timely repairs, the payment of reasonable expenses, the creation of a fair disputes procedure and many other items mentioned in the Bill.
This is a welcome Bill. It is a good Bill and, no doubt, in Committee we will make it even better.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).