HC Deb 07 June 1995 vol 261 cc150-69 11.30 am
Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity to put before the House an extremely serious situation which is affecting many hundreds of my constituents and which has the potential to affect many thousands more. Although the subject of the debate is described by a single word on the Order Paper, I am particularly concerned with the events that led up to that situation which arises as a result of the reaction of the Coal Authority to mining searches, particularly with reference to abandoned mine shafts.

Therefore, I begin by giving a brief history of how we have arrived at the present position. In the early 1980s, the Waddilove committee, appointed by the Department of Energy, recommended that there should be a standardised response in mining searches by the then British Coal, particularly with regard to identifying abandoned mine shafts, when property is being bought and sold. No one argues that that was not a sensible approach.

That resulted in a working group being established between the Law Society and British Coal to examine ways in which it could be done. My inquiries show clearly that that is when the trouble began. Presumably, the working group was set up with the full knowledge of the Government. Its brief was to examine the situation and establish a standardised response to mining searches. The group beavered away for three or four years, or perhaps a little longer, on this important issue.

The first important point is that, as far as I can detect, there was no consultation at all in the process and the examination was clouded in secrecy. Nevertheless, in 1989 an agreement was reached between British Coal and the Law Society on a standardised response which, as I understand it, was implemented in 1991. Those decisions, taken in secrecy, have tremendous significance and serious implications because hundreds of my constituents, and potentially many thousands more throughout the country, at the stroke of someone's pen, found themselves facing a financial and social tragedy because the value of their properties was, at a stroke, to use that famous phrase, destroyed.

Coal exists in every part of Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire and in many other parts of the country. Mine workings date back to the middle ages. There was a rapid expansion in the middle of the 18th century. Pits were worked out and abandoned and mine shafts were abandoned. In recent years, surveys have identified no fewer than some 4,000 disused mine shafts in particular areas. Those mining operations were unplanned and random. No precautions were taken to protect the public from them or from the abandoned mine shafts.

Since nationalisation in 1946–47, the costs of repairing damaged properties and making safe disused shafts were met by the industry or the taxpayer. But those costs must be viewed in a wider context—the social and human costs—which implies direct Government intervention and finance.

The Waddilove committee report was then examined by the working group, but despite that, between the working group being established and the decision being taken in 1989, I can find no evidence of any co-ordinated response towards mining searches. The only evidence that I have been able to establish is that, during that critical period, when solicitors obtained responses from British Coal to searches involving mine shafts, they were told whether there was or was not a mine shaft within the vicinity of the property—within the vicinity. That was the response that they were given during the period up to 1989 by British Coal.

British Coal knew what that meant, the Law Society knew what that meant and solicitors knew what that meant. It meant within 5 m of the property. The only people who did not know what it meant were the poor souls who were purchasing and selling the properties. They were kept in the dark, and the consequences of that were horrendous.

There is certainly no evidence that I can detect of any guidelines being issued in the period between the working group being set up and the agreement being reached between the Law Society and British Coal—that is, before 1989. That is a significant issue which I shall be asking the Minister to consider.

The results of the working group in 1989 have been accepted by British Coal, the Law Society and solicitors and recognised by Government. The 5 m rule of thumb distance that was used by those organisations was never recorded or identified but, nevertheless, was accepted and used. Of that there can be no doubt. I have had that confirmed by British Coal and solicitors and I have had it recognised by the Law Society. However, the clients, the people who were buying and selling the properties, were blissfully unaware of the trap into which they were entering.

I understand that, before 1989, British Coal offered no advice on mine shafts unless it was specifically asked. In other words, if a solicitor who was doing the conveyancing did not specifically ask about mine shafts, British Coal did not believe that it was its responsibility to make any reference to them at all.

What has happened since 1989, when the Law Society and British Coal agreed on a new definition of responses to mining searches? In 1989, the year in which the Government recognised that an agreement had been reached on changing the definition, and when British Coal and the Law Society agreed on changing the definition, guidelines were issued by the Law Society—the very year in which it had been agreed to change the rules. I have the guidelines here and there is no reference whatever to the fact that the 5 m rule of thumb, which had been accepted for the previous 10 years, had been changed to 20 m by agreement in that year in the full knowledge of the Government. The guidelines from the Law Society are here and they contain no reference whatever to 20 m.

I also have a copy of guidelines that were issued in 1991 by the Law Society some two years later when, for the first time, 20 m appeared. They state: The presence of a disused shaft within or about 20 metres of the boundary of the property should be a matter of particular concern. Therefore, my constituents, and many other people, having bought and sold properties in the mid-1980s on the basis of a mine search stating that there was no mine shaft in the vicinity which, unknown to them, meant within 5 m, when they come to sell their properties in the early 1990s, are then told, after a mine search, that there is a mine shaft because the 5 m distance has been extended, by secret agreement—apart from what the Government know about it—to 20 m. As a result, the value of those people's properties has been devastated.

In December 1993, I wrote to the Minister for Energy, who was good enough to reply reassuringly, expressing the hope that my concern would be allayed by a press release issued earlier in the month. The press release was interesting, in that it showed that the Government knew what was going on, and revealed British Coal's attitude to the detection of mine shafts. Apparently: It may be that in certain circumstances the present owner may be entitled to some remedy which might extend to the cost of locating and if necessary making safe the shaft. That was agreed in December 1993 by the Government, the Law Society and British Coal.

Reports following mining searches conducted on 8 August 1994 and 17 May 1995 make no reference to 20 m. Even after the agreement reached in 1989 and its implementation in 1991—of which the Government were fully aware—houses were still being bought and sold, and reports of mining searches made no reference to the changed rules. I consider that that makes the authorities involved culpable.

I have yet to find any evidence that suggests that, before 1991, the Law Society or solicitors were offering any advice about the implications for people's properties of responses to mine searches from what was British Coal and is now the Coal Authority. Even after the Minister for Energy had assured me in his letter that everything was okay, that new guidelines had been agreed and that there was nothing to worry about, British Coal, solicitors and, presumably, the Law Society were accepting mining search responses that contained no reference to the 20 m rule. That presents the Government with some serious questions.

The issue is vital to many hundreds, potentially thousands, of families. After two years of campaigning, led by constituents of mine who are affected by this disaster, writs have been issued against the Coal Authority in three cases. I cannot comment on individual cases, but I suspect that the Coal Authority's strategy is to fight every case in court. I believe that it recognises that, if it is prepared to fight every one of those hundreds of cases in court, it will grind down those who seek justice simply because they cannot afford to take their cases to court, even with legal aid. Even if they could afford it, so many cases are involved that it would take many years for justice to be done and be seen to be done. In the meantime, families' homes and life savings are being blighted and the value of their properties reduced by at least two thirds. That is negative equity with a vengeance.

This is a chronic injustice, and cannot be acceptable. The whole process was conducted secretively in the 1980s and subsequently, with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Government. First, the Government should ensure that the Coal Authority investigates the mine shafts to establish their status, as is indicated by the press release sent to me by the Minister for Energy in 1993. The Coal Authority is currently refusing to do that; it is merely sending out a plan setting out its responses, bearing a little black dot.

Secondly, the Government should inquire into the activities of the Law Society and solicitors. I am extremely concerned about the fact that I have been able to identify no advice given to clients who were purchasing properties about the meaning of the words "in the vicinity" and the change in the rules.

Thirdly—here I offer the example of the Personal Investment Authority—a compensation fund should be set up, financed by the Government, the Coal Authority and the Law Society. If such a fund is appropriate for those whose pensions have been destroyed as a result of bad advice or no advice, why is it not appropriate for those whose homes have been devalued because of bad advice or no advice?

Families have seen the largest purchase that they are likely to make destroyed at a stroke through no fault of their own. If the Government respond positively to this chronically serious situation, a massive injustice can be speedily resolved.

11.46 am
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) on securing the debate and on setting out the problem so clearly. As he said, a number of different problems are involved. He is one of, sadly, only a small Number of hon.Members—perhaps only a small number of people in the country—who have grappled with the legal and geological complexities of the mine shaft issue and, indeed, the wider issue of subsidence. He is right to say that a major injustice has been perpetrated: homes and their prices are being blighted by the new guidelines and the ignorance that surrounded them.

Subsidence often causes disastrous damage to properties. Both problems—the effect on house prices and the effect on the fabric of people's homes—have a huge impact: not just a financial impact, but an impact on people's personal and emotional lives and their security. Now that increasing emphasis is placed on the value of a person's major or sole capital asset—which is often the source of that person's long-term security, providing the wherewithal for care in later life—the strain caused by a threat to, or the loss of, that asset is especially severe for those who are struggling to gain compensation and justice in unhappy and unnecessary circumstances. It is corroding their lives.

A week after I became a Member of Parliament in 1983, a constituent visited my very first advice surgery. He had already been battling with my predecessor for many years over subsidence and its effect on his life. That young man—he was in his mid-thirties—was angry, baffled and confused; but he was determined that his future, and that of his young children, should not be destroyed.

That case has been going on for all the 12 years that I have been a Member of the House. That man has been struggling with those problems for over 14 years. He is now disabled; he is broken; his whole life has been destroyed. Some people would say that he has become obsessed by the issue, but if the value of one's house and one's potential to move and to care for—and create a good home for—one's children and wife are threatened, hon. Members will understand that it is easy to become obsessed and continue to battle for justice; and very easy, as with that man, to be broken.

In introducing the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said that this is a monumental injustice. It is a whole variety of different injustices that are taking place all over the country and destroying people's lives. My hon. Friend illustrated the second problem, of the inequality of the legal battle to get justice and compensation. The truth is that British Coal, now the Coal Authority, has—somewhat to its credit—a huge legal department. It has great geological expertise. It has a power and ability to sustain legal confrontation and wrangling far beyond that of the ordinary individual.

Many cases have come to me and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) who are fortunate enough to represent the city of Stoke. The city is built on coal and honeycombed by mine shafts and mine workings. Subsidence and the specific problems associated with mine shafts are an everyday event in Stoke-on-Trent. It happens all over the city and in many other cities in this country.

People are grappling with the problem. They come to our advice surgeries month after month with new cases, especially since 1989 and the confusion that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South outlined over mine shafts. When people engage with first British Coal, and now the Coal Authority, the battle is always totally unequal.

In the literally dozens and dozens of cases that I have assisted my constituents to tackle over the past 12 years, I have never won a single one. I do not think that that is inefficiency on my part or that of the solicitors who have assisted my constituents; it is almost impossible to win a case against British Coal, now the Coal Authority, because it has much greater expertise. It has power, expert advice and lawyers, and the ability to sustain battles far beyond the patience or pocket of most people. I doubt whether many hon. Members have won a mine shaft or mining subsidence case. Very few have been won.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said, the situation is totally unacceptable and unfair in a society that believes in common justice for people when problems arise through no fault of their own. They cannot be left to the vagaries of the system or in the grip of a legal battle with an authority that is far more powerful and expert than they are. I am glad that the Minister is listening to the debate, because the Government are responsible for the matter. I do not think that anyone would claim that the Government caused the problem, but they have responsibility for the urban environment and for the conduct of the legal aid system and the Coal Authority. If they are concerned about the people who elected them, they should and must have some responsibility for and concern about relieving those completely unnecessary problems.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said, there are a number of things that can be done. The Government have to rethink the guidelines—or get the Law Society and all those involved to rethink them—and establish a fairer and better way of operating. They have to reconsider the question of legal advice and create a level playing field in respect of legal advice between the experts and individual members of the public.

At the very least, the Government should inquire into the conduct of the Law Society and British Coal to establish the facts and give a national picture in terms of what my hon. Friend and I have said. Our evidence is mainly anecdotal from our constituency casework, but a large number of people are being broken on the wheel of this problem totally unnecessarily. It is a monumental injustice. The Government must surely be concerned and act on the matter now.

11.54 am
Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) on raising this issue. I intend to tackle the problem from another angle, but it is an important one which affects us all.

In 1946, the then new National Coal Board decided to decentralise the plans that had been lodged in London of all the coalfield workings up to that date. The areas to which the plans were sent were designated by the National Coal Board, because the common sense that prevailed was that that was where they were needed. To get any idea of how to win coal, one must look at old workings, because one can then see the danger of encroaching into them. They are full of water and gas and a host of other problems. The decentralisation was a technical change, but it meant that the people who needed the plans—the mineral surveyors in those areas—could get ready access to them.

In 1994, the plans that were lodged in Scotland for the Scottish area were sent to Bretby. They have been decentralised and centralised again. The Coal Authority is turning history on its head. If we are to continue to develop old mining areas, then before we even start laying the foundations of anything, whether it be a factory or a road or whatever, a mineral surveyor has to examine the plans. I do not know where Bretby is. I do not know what county it is in, but it is certainly south of the border, in England, and miles away. If a mining surveyor had to visit it, it would mean an overnight stay and a cost to the individual or development concerned.

I hope that the Minister is listening, because this is an important facet of the matter. I ask the Government to reconsider their whole attitude to the lodging of plans. I should like to change it back to what it was. I have a vested interest because it happens that the plans were lodged in my constituency at Newbattle, although they did not have to be kept there and many other places were willing to take them under their umbrella. The privatisation of the plans is a worry to us because they may be handed to over to Group 4 or some other company to look after, with all the consequential horrors that may follow. That may be costly and not as efficient as we would like.

The plans are important because, when we talk about shafts, we are talking about a multitude of different things. The shafts can be very deep and very large, and they can be aslant. They may be old bell pits, which have a small hole in the top. Many moons ago, mining was done using the bell system. Such pits collapsed regularly and are not recorded in the plans.

People say that the plans can be wired down or faxed up. Sometimes, survey maps show a multitude of seams with varied colours, perhaps not so drastic as hard blues or hard reds, but with shades of different colours. With age, the colours fade into insignificance and all look the same. One can spot things that one was not looking for on such a plan. In other words, the mineral surveyor has to see the original plan before he can approve any development move afoot. I plead with the Government to reverse what has been done. It is so important.

Abandoned workings are important. In one disaster—I think that it was the Lofthouse disaster—we found that the workings which tapped into the pit were full of water; the shafts had been filled in, but not capped. Old railway lines or girders, or whatever was to hand, had been sunk into the side of the shaft 30 ft or 40 ft down—or even less—battens had been put on top and the shaft was only partly filled in. The rest of the shaft was empty and over the years it filled with water from the workings below. Such shafts become a sort of underground reservoir, like an artesian well in reverse. If tapped into, the huge column of water in the shaft gets into the workings.

After the Lofthouse disaster, or whatever disaster it was, the National Coal Board sought to find out where the shafts were. It had to call on local knowledge because the records were not absolutely spot on. The ordnance surveys of the geology were not accurate. In other words, faults were discovered in the plans.

If we are to bring prosperity back to the mining areas which have been decimated by the closure of the mines, we must ensure that accurate information about the plans is given. We have heard horrendous stories about houses being undermined by old workings. Many of the old privately owned coal companies had what were called "marches"—lines defining where they could or could not work a seam of coal—but many companies encroached on those lines through greed and the barriers between one seam of coal and another were removed. In some cases, they even broke through a march to steal machinery and plant; it was common knowledge that such things happened, but the breaches were not recorded on the plans. Many people therefore think that they are sitting on a solid piece of ground that was not worked because there had been a march, but I have news for them: the seams were worked, but not systematically.

The modern method is total extraction by the long wall system, but the old system was the stoop and room system. In other words, barriers or squares of coal were left in place, which caused undulation on the surface. Many workings were near the surface, so the subsidence became even worse. Some may even have been at an angle, because some seams of coal do not lie on a horizontal plane but undulate. Some are practically vertical in some parts of the country.

All those complications have to be borne in mind. When added to the other problems of mining subsidence caused by industries involving the extraction of lime and clay and the working of gravel pits, the seriousness of the matter becomes even clearer. Many clay pits in and around Stoke-on-Trent were worked under the old system but then open-casted and done away with. If one multiplies all those problems in an industrial urban area, and in some of the rural areas that are now being developed, the potential for disaster is clear.

I plead with the Minister to understand that it is nonsense to centralise the plans and to impose further costs on an individual who is building a house or on a company or developer. I am playing the Scottish card but it sticks in the craw, as people say in Scotland, that we should have to hand over our plans to an English organisation way down south, wherever it is, which means that we have to get on a plane or train to find out about our plans. They should be lodged in Scotland, in Wales and in the regions where people want to look at them.

I do not want to go down south to look at the north-east plans or the Welsh or Stoke-on-Trent plans. The people of Scotland are not interested in them. The plans should be lodged where the relevant people can have access to them. Bretby might be nearer to Stoke-on-Trent than to Scotland—I do not know—but I want our plans brought back to Scotland. I hope that the Minister will see common sense. I guarantee that we can fix up a company or organisation that will look after the plans properly and at reasonable cost and ensure that the people of Scotland and the mineral surveyors have easier and cheaper access to them than would be the case if the plans went to Bretby.

12.14 pm
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

With the leave of the House, I should like to speak about mine shafts and adits, which are very important to my constituents. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) on bringing the issue to the House's attention. It is important to put it on record that in Stoke-on-Trent especially, but also in other parts of the country, there is a particular problem because our coal mining industry developed haphazardly. It was not simply a matter of sinking a deep shaft in one or two places; as my hon. Friend said, the way in which the industry developed means that we have a large number of abandoned mine shafts and adits which are causing huge problems for so many of our constituents.

The purpose of the debate is to express to the Minister how important it is that he tells us what action he is prepared to take in the Department of Trade and Industry and what action he is prepared to take with other organisations—I am thinking especially of the Law Society and the Department of the Environment—to try to find a real and lasting solution to the problems being experienced in Stoke-on-Trent.

In recent months, we have heard a great deal about the problem of water pollution caused by abandoned mines, something that has been the subject of much discussion in debates on the Environment Bill which is currently in Committee. The problem in Stoke-on-Trent is like a time bomb ticking away and has been hugely underestimated. For the purpose of social justice, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) referred, the Government must make it clear that they are prepared to deal with the problem.

I said that the basic problem is the legacy of mining and the way in which it developed over the centuries. I have had extensive discussions with officers of the Departments of Trade and Industry and of the Environment, who seem to deny that there is an environmental problem. It is true that there is a problem with derelict land contaminated as a result of extensive mining operations, but there is also an environmental problem. Important research and evidence recently produced by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers have confirmed once and for all that there is not only a problem of contamination and dereliction but an environmental problem. As we have heard, the way in which the air is affected by the old shafts could lead to further contamination. I want to hear the Minister accept for the record that there is an environmental problem.

The problem came to light in Stoke-on-Trent only about three years ago, largely because of the decision by the Law Society and the Coal Authority. As far as I can work out, the decision has no legal status and was entirely voluntary. It may have been publicised at the time, but it was certainly not well publicised.

Mr. Stevenson

Does not the fact that the Minister wrote to me in the most reassuring terms in December 1993 enclosing a copy of the Law Society's press release prove that the Government accepted de facto what British Coal and the Law Society had done?

Ms Walley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have accepted what has been done. I was attempting to make the point that there does not seem to be any basis in statute for action, but the Government must none the less take responsibility for the decisions.

The practice of building societies and insurers stems from the decisions, too. It is quite clear that people who were deemed fit to be granted a mortgage on a particular property and who now wish to extend their mortgage, perhaps to extend their property, having found that they cannot sell it, are being refused permission. A letter sent to a constituent of mine from the Britannia building society makes it clear that such practice is a result of the agreement between the Coal Authority and the Law Society. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, I do not think that the Minister can escape responsibility for such decisions. It is important that he understands exactly how that decision affects people in our constituencies.

We only realised that there was a problem about three years ago when it began to come to light that the 20 m decision was preventing people from obtaining mortgages on properties that they wished to purchase. Previously, the housing market was not really moving and houses were not selling. It is only since there has been some movement, although very little, in the housing market that huge problems have come to light. That is why so many people now find themselves living in a home that is blighted, yet to all intents and purposes it is absolutely fine and is in one sense in no risk of subsidence.

It is a question not only of whether the Coal Authority will take responsibility if a house is swallowed by a huge hole as a result of some subsidence or disturbance but of whether the Government will take responsibility for the blight which stretches right across north Staffordshire and affects areas of Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme. We want to know how the Government propose to deal with that important issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) commented at length on another problem: the way in which the records of the Coal Authority have been centralised and stored. My constituents have another problem. When it is put to them that there is a mine shaft or an adit within 20 m of their property within their curtilage, some dispute the decision and spend huge sums of money on independent mining searches to prove that the shaft is not where the Coal Authority located it, but somewhere else, perhaps within 20 m of somebody else's home.

Even when constituents have gone to considerable expense to commission an independent mining report, the Coal Authority has not been prepared to accept that a shaft has been located in a different place, despite what the report said. Therefore, even having gone to such lengths to try to remove blight from their properties, individual home owners are stuck with a report from the Coal Authority that suggests that, because there is some doubt, it perceives that a mine shaft is within 20 m of their property. Despite so much effort, constituents still cannot sell their properties.

There is an environmental problem to be considered. Given that the Government have accepted responsibility, the problem is what they are to do about it. There is also a problem with the collation of records and how we can prove them right or wrong. But the real crux of the issue is that, like my hon. Friend, I cannot conceive of individuals having to spend five or 10 years of their life taking legal action to try to resolve the issue in some way or another. The Government must do something about that. What will it be? That is what we want the Minister to tell us.

The problem could be solved properly by establishing an open register of information. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Stoke-on-Trent, South has done an enormous amount of work on getting access to information. Given the derelict land and the legacy of coal mining, people are entitled to know about the Coal Authority's records. They are entitled to know that those records are correct and they are entitled to seek from the Coal Authority some statement of whether a particular shaft, having been correctly identified, does or does not threaten a property. If the shaft does not threaten a property, some plain legal statement of that fact should be made by the Coal Authority and the Law Society to enable people wishing to sell or purchase properties to obtain insurance and mortgages without any problems. Such a statement would instantly remove the blight.

When the Coal Authority and the proposed environment agency—it is also an environmental issue—are not prepared to say that there is no threat whatever to a particular dwelling because of the accurately located mine shaft or adit, we would need to explore the possibility raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South of considering some compensation scheme, so that the cost of putting right the problems of the mine shafts is met by those responsible for that legacy and not picked up as an individual item of expense by an unsuspecting person who bought their property not knowing of the blight affecting it.

The Government must address those issues. I cannot begin to tell the Minister—I hope that he will visit Stoke-on-Trent to see the problems for himself and speak to our constituents—the extent of sheer desperation felt by local people because they cannot resolve the issue. It is not enough for the Minister to say that the problem is the responsibility of another Department or of the Coal Authority. Concerted action must be taken across the Departments with the DTI taking the lead. We have seen the cavalier way in which British Coal has been sold off. It is all well and good to sell off parts of British Coal that make profits for the likes of Mr. Budge and others, but responsibility must also be taken for the various liabilities in the ground. We want the Government to take responsibility and find a way to deal with the injustices faced by our constituents.

12.17 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) on securing this Adjournment debate and apologise to him for missing the early part; I was held up in traffic coming back from another meeting. I had the opportunity, however, to speak to him and to those in his office earlier in the week. We were able to go over a number of the points which he has raised today and which our hon. Friends who represent Stoke have reinforced this morning.

The problem which has emerged in north Staffordshire may be of a broader national significance because it stems in some respects at least as a consequence of the agreement to redefine the acceptable distance between mine shafts and households from 20 m to 5 m, which obviously affects a far greater number of properties. That has, of course, resulted in blight and difficulties in valuing properties.

In correspondence between the House of Commons Library and British Coal and the Law Society, the Law Society suggested that the solution for vendors or people who find themselves in difficulty relating to blight would be to instruct an engineer or a mining surveyor to report the most likely location and condition of the mining shaftt for a reasonable fee. It is unreasonable to expect that of people who are already living in a house, who have been making their payments and who have carried out surveys in the past, simply because of a change in procedure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said, there is no legislation. There is simply a recommendation, a stroke-of-the-pen job—and the difficulties arising from that are facing people with limited resources.

My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) was banging an old drum that he and I have been beating for many years when he talked about the problems caused by the removal of mining records from the mining areas. It is expensive to send people to other places, so the "reasonable fee" concept is stretched at every turn. It costs more and more for surveyors to do the job, because they may have to travel long distances and carry out considerable research.

My hon. Friend's knowledge of the Newbattle archive is second to none in the House and, as he said, mining plans operate on a layer-on-layer principle, so it is difficult for them to be faxed across the country. That is why it is essential for people to have easy access to them.

That would be difficult enough, even if it were the only problem, but we know that not only are about 150,000 mine shafts in the United Kingdom recorded on maps of varying qualities but it is estimated that there are no records at all for a further 150 mine shafts, whose location it would take different forms of research to establish. So, if I may try to anticipate what he may say in his summing up, we must not allow the Minister to hide behind the proposition that once a reasonable fee has been paid to a surveyor everything will be all right and the building societies, the banks and the other mortgage providers will be satisfied.

What has happened is not the result of malign intent on the part of the Law Society, British Coal or the Coal Authority. Nevertheless, the consequences of their action have created considerable difficulties for many people in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire—largely because of the thoughtlessness of the two authorities in failing to make proper provision for the results that would flow from their decision.

We need an inquiry into the role of the Law Society and we need to know what the status of mine shafts is, because we know that they are not all necessarily the source of environmental damage and safety risks. We must have a far clearer picture so that the people in the affected households and, perhaps even more important, potential lenders of funds to new buyers of the properties, know exactly what the position is.

I get the impression that the Law Society paid insufficient attention to the legal consequences, so it should be answerable for that. In the deathbed throes of its dying days, British Coal has become an irresponsible organisation, passing jobs on to other people, and the Coal Authority, not unnaturally, is stepping back and saying, "We are a new authority and we have limited resources. Why should we have to pick up the tab?"

Of course, the Coal Authority is funded by the Government, and if it finds that the problems are as serious as my hon. Friends suggest—I have no reason to doubt that they are—and that it will be required to help to remedy them, it will need additional funding to take the job on.

In recent years, there has been an enhanced appreciation of the problems of subsidence. In a way, the difficulties now arising are almost a by-product of the greater awareness of those problems. I hope that the Government will show a commitment to the problems arising from the discovery of mine shafts and the compensation now required or, alternatively, change the system of definition to make the position clearer. They have a choice, but the one choice that they do not have is to sit on their hands and do nothing.

I welcome the debate, because it provides the ideal opportunity for the Government to announce a series of steps in line with what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South suggested. The Law Society, the Coal Authority and British Coal should get together and make clear the exact character and status of mine shafts, the dangers that they pose and their effects on the value of property when potential blight affects development and sale. After the inquiry, there should be some recognition that there are responsibilities that should be shared among those three bodies.

We shall have to consider the different ways in which the compensation fund could operate. In some instances, the question will be whether compensation is required at all. But legal aid must be provided so that until such time as the Government introduce some umbrella arrangement—

Mr. Stevenson

Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that, in the three cases in our area in which writs have been issued against the Coal Authority, all of which are legally aided, people have been required to pay contributions of up to £150 per month? My hon. Friend will realise that that effectively debars from the legal system people with a strong case who have been the victims of injustice.

Mr. O'Neill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling me that. I have here a note from the Coal Authority that says that there are currently 23 court cases and that three writs have been received in legally aided cases alleging negligence or breach of contract. Even if people have not quite been economical with the truth, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting on the record the fact that the level of legal aid available does not make going to law attractive for the owners of small properties who want to move on because of the size of their families, but who have only limited resources. When such people try to bring court cases, they are hampered by the legal aid system. It offers a glimpse of the carrot but does not go anything like as far as would be necessary to deliver the goods.

The Government should act quickly and recognise that there is a serious problem, which will increase as more households become aware of difficulties that they had never realised existed. The longer it all takes and the further we get away from the reasons why the problem was created in the first place, the more difficult it will be to remedy it.

The Coal Authority is a fledgling authority with limited resources; it has nothing like the back-up that the old British Coal had. As has been explained, there are also increasing problems with the records. Action is needed as a matter of urgency, so I hope that the Minister will go some way towards meeting the three requests made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South. We need an investigation, an inquiry into the role of the Law Society and some compensation arrangements, and we need them quickly. That is why I am happy to support my hon. Friend.

12.28 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Small Firms, Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page)

I, too, start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) on having been fortunate enough to secure the debate. As I have said before, in my 20 years in the House I have never succeeded in securing even one such debate, although I put in for almost every one. I am going for the sympathy vote at an early stage.

The hon. Gentleman has raised matters that are of serious concern to his constituents, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to them. The fact that he has been supported by his two colleagues, the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), shows that there is widespread concern about the matters.

I welcome the opportunity to explain the relevant measures which have been implemented by the Government, and to suggest what those people who are affected can do for themselves. I hope to show that there is generally much less cause for concern on the issues than might appear at first sight, and I hope to conclude by making some suggestions as to how those concerns might be best allayed.

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) started with a highly partisan tirade against the English to which I shall not respond. The Health and Safety Commission advised that it was appropriate for the Coal Authority to take over British Coal's role as the custodian of the abandoned mine plans. There are good reasons why British Coal should centralise the records, and the cost of doing so includes the costs of duplication and providing the facilities needed to maintain the plans in proper condition.

The plans will be supervised by a qualified surveyor and, provided there is adequate access to and proper supervision of the plans, the Health and Safety Commission is content that safety will not be compromised. I understand the hon. Gentleman's reluctance to travel across the border to Bretby, but he will find that he will be made most welcome if he wishes to inspect the plans.

I can give the hon. Gentleman a small piece of encouragement. In light of the concerns expressed about the removal of the plans from local mining consultants and surveyors in Newtongrange in Scotland, British Coal has removed to Bretby only those plans that are unique. The remainder of duplicate plans—some 87 per cent. of the original total—are to remain in Scotland. Where plans have been removed, British Coal has taken the helpful step of arranging for copies to be held on slides in Scotland, as well as a catalogue of plans.

Mr. Eric Clarke

I am aware that some plans will be left in Scotland, but we will need the up-to-date plans. There are historical plans which have not been verified, but the plans that are needed are not in Scotland but in Bretby. Mining engineers and representatives of mining surveyors have made representations on this matter. Someone who wants to see those plans must either go to Bretby or get copies sent by post. In the latter case, he or she will be unable to see from the copies what is happening in other parts of the surrounding area and will have to examine the original plans. The idea that the plans are all packaged and can be sent by post is not acceptable.

Mr. Page

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but I will not be able to give him any more comfort. I am sure that the post containing the appropriate plans for mining engineers to examine will get to Scotland from Bretby.

There are a number of different concerns in relation to mine shafts, and I shall try to respond to those that have been raised by hon. Members. I shall focus briefly on the potential risks of subsidence or shaft collapses relating to abandoned coal mines, and also on the mining report system now operated by the Coal Authority as it affects people trying to sell their homes. Those have been the central concerns of the debate.

As has been pointed out by all hon. Members who have spoken during the debate, there are a large number of mine entrances, shafts and adits throughout the country. The Coal Authority has records of about 150,000, and estimates that there may be many more which are unrecorded. Going on the experience of British Coal—this helps to put the matter into some perspective—the Coal Authority expects some 400 call-outs a year related to surface hazards, half of which may be related to both shafts and adits.

That may seem to be a large number, but I am given to understand that, in most cases, shafts are found in open fields rather than in someone's back garden. Very often, what is found is not a gaping hole but a dip in the ground similar to a shallow crater. I mention the numbers so that the House can see the matter on a proper scale.

We must keep in perspective the real incidence of serious problems relating to shafts, which is very low. There have been historic incidents in which people have fallen down mine shafts, but I understand that none of the Coal Authority staff concerned with subsidence can recall an incident within the past 10 or 20 years. Equally, where shafts are discovered it is relatively uncommon for them to cause damage to property. I understand that the Coal Authority has been called out to 300 incidents or problems since it took over responsibility for the matters last year.

Mr. Stevenson

A press release issued by the Minister for Industry and Energy in December 1993 clearly said that home owners would be entitled to investigations to establish the status of the mine shafts and, in some circumstances, the cost of making them safe. Will the Minister give an assurance that that will happen, because the Coal Authority is refusing to do anything of the sort?

Mr. Page

I was going to come to that matter later, but I shall deal with it now. I have not seen the release to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I would like to have an opportunity to respond to him separately on that point once I have seen the document. He makes a valid point, but he will understand my natural scepticism until I have seen the release. I shall also take advice on the matter.

There have been about 300 incidents and problems since the Coal Authority took over responsibility last year. Some 180 were related to shafts or collapses of old workings, while damage was done to buildings in only four cases, none of which was structural damage. That should help to make everyone realise the size of the problems we are facing.

Ms Walley

We do not fear that there will be damage to properties as a result of the existence of mine shafts or adits. We are concerned about the blight on properties, and I hope that the Minister will come to that matter. Will he give a commitment on the blight that people are facing?

Mr. Page

I appreciate the point that the hon. Lady makes, and I shall come to that in a few minutes. I felt that it was important to give to the House the realities, rather than the perceptions. I mention those facts not to belittle the problems which have occurred but to put them in perspective. We should recognise that they are, in fact, relatively rare.

We should note that the problems are relatively rare in relation to the 150,000 or so coal mining entrances or shafts that are known. The disclosure that a shaft exists near a property should not realistically be a major cause for concern if the discovery is merely a result of a mining search. If a shaft has not given any trouble for 20, 50 or 100 years, it will not necessarily give any trouble in the future.

Mr. Fisher

Does the Minister not understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) made? We are concerned not with the physical danger caused by a mine shaft but with the effect that the shaft has on mortgage and insurance companies, who do not take as relaxed a view as the Minister. As soon as those companies are aware of the location of a mine shaft, they freeze any financial activity on a property. Will the Minister address that point?

Mr. Page

I do understand that point. If the hon. Gentleman could have contained his natural enthusiasm, for which he is well known in the House, he would have seen that I shall deal with that point. I am relaxed about it. I understand those concerns, which we all have in various shapes and forms, whether they are about a blight next to a motorway or about previously unknown underground workings. In most cases, the presence of an old mine shaft, even if not previously known, should pose no problems. The fact that a shaft has remained unknown shows that it has caused no problems.

Law Society guidance gives the most practical course to be taken by property owners who are worried about a shaft that has been identified in a mining report. Subject to obtaining permission for any surface access needed, they can arrange for an engineer or mining service to access the shaft. In most cases, that results in a certificate showing that there is no risk of subsidence to the property.

Mr. Stevenson


Mr. Page

Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes again, I should like to say that he has already referred to the notice that he received from my hon. Friend in the DTI, and I shall deal with that matter.

Mr. Stevenson

I apologise for interjecting like this but, with respect to the Minister, my concern is increasing. He said that he would try to help us and our constituents, but so far he has not done so. He talks about possible responses and how the Law Society's 1991 guidelines are being adhered to. For the first time, those guidelines mention 20 m. He will recall that I gave two instances of responses to mining searches, one in 1994 and another in 1995, which made no reference whatever to the 20 m. What is the point in having guidelines, which the Minister says are being implemented, when they are simply ignored?

Mr. Page

This will sound like a record, but I shall discuss some aspects of the legal responsibilities of those who conduct searches.

I was referring to the certificate that confirms that there is no risk. Even if an assessment is less reassuring, it should be remembered that the mining company responsible for the shaft or the Coal Authority, as appropriate, is obliged under the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991 to rectify any subsidence damage that the shaft has caused, no matter how extensive or minor the subsequent damage. I emphasise that clear statutory remedies are available, whatever the actual damage sustained by a property as a result of subsidence.

I have already mentioned the Coal Authority's responsibilities for safety. Any household with substantive grounds for concern about the safety of an old shaft should contact the authority.

The Coal Mining Subsidence Act shows what extensive and expensive remedies are available for subsidence damage. The provisions reflect the recommendations of the independent committee chaired by Mr. Lewis Waddilove, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South referred. That committee carried out a thorough examination of the arrangements in place at the time and made 65 recommendations in its report published in 1984. It concluded that the main thrust of the existing provisions, both statutory and voluntary, were right, although some significant gaps remained to be filled. It recommended that the previous legislation be consolidated and extended, and that British Coal's voluntary code be enacted.

The Government accepted those recommendations in the 1987 White Paper entitled "The Repair and Compensation System for Coal Mining Subsidence Damage" and issued a consultative paper on the content of new legislation in 1988. The 1991 Act took into account comments received in response to that consultation exercise. It repealed most of the previous existing legislation and replaced it with a new statutory framework incorporating British Coal's voluntary undertakings and other recommendations made in the Waddilove report. It was the result of long and careful consultation and brought together several Acts of Parliament and codes of practice into a single Act, giving a wide definition of subsidence damage and introducing important improvements.

The practical effect of the legislation is to provide people affected by coal mining subsidence damage with a simple and straightforward claims procedure and a comprehensive set of remedies. It confers on the claimant a clear right to compensation, and places on the mining company or the Coal Authority a clear duty either to rectify the damage or to provide appropriate financial compensation to the claimant.

Ms Walley

We are discussing not damage that has occurred but people who cannot get adequate mortgages or insurance cover on their properties because of anticipated damage. To what extent do the existing regulations on subsidence embrace the aspect of blight relating to mine shafts and adits? Before the debate finishes at 1 o'clock, will the Minister deal with the problem that arises because building societies in our area tell our constituents that mortgage facilities will not be granted as a result of a decision made by the Coal Authority?

Mr. Page

Believe it or not, I shall deal with that point in a moment or two. It is important that I put on record the fact that a number of extensive arrangements and support measures are in place for people whose properties suffer subsidence. I hope that that will give some form of comfort to people who may be worried about buying a property, because those support measures can be used if they are unfortunate enough to suffer that damage.

It might be helpful at this point if I explain briefly how the claims procedure works. Under the 1991 Act, mining companies are obliged to notify all owners and occupiers who may be affected by subsidence damage as a result of the coming 12 months' mining. That notification includes a guidance booklet about claimants' rights, together with a form for making claims entitled "Damage Notice". Not everyone so notified suffers damage. For those who do, however, the next stage is to make a claim by completing the damage notice and sending it to the mine owner.

The Coal Authority, which handles all claims for the time being, has set itself specific targets for reducing waiting times at all stages of the claims process. Targets are being put in place to ensure that people are given notice within a certain period. During that time, the authority is busy compiling the mining report and claims history to ensure that its assessors are fully briefed. Its target for communicating a decision to the claimant on how to proceed after the inspection is a maximum of four weeks for 90 per cent. of cases. The target period for commencing remedial work after acceptance by the claimant of the authority's decision is a maximum of six weeks in 80 per cent. of cases.

Opposition Members will be fully aware of the arbitration system that is in place if a dispute arises. Two arbitration systems have been set up; both are run independently by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and are specifically designed to deal with disputes about subsidence damage. Naturally, claimants also have the normal right to pursue any dispute through the court—in this case, the Lands Tribunal.

May I return to the problems raised by Opposition Members? In addition to their rights under the 1991 Act and dependent on circumstances, property owners may be entitled to financial remedies from one of the parties to earlier mining searches. That is from their solicitor or conveyancer or from British Coal. It would not be appropriate to discuss those legal possibilities in detail, but we should note their potential relevance.

During the debate, as I believe Opposition Members appreciate, I have been struck by the existence of an information gap. It is the object of the Opposition to make life difficult for the Government and to argue strongly on behalf of their constituents the cases that they consider appropriate, regarding which action should be taken. However, I believe that they have succumbed to the temptation to paint a picture that is slightly gloomier than reality.

Making due allowance for that, it appears that many people, especially in the Stoke-on-Trent region, are unaware of important aspects of the coal mining subsidence remediation regime, of the responsibilities of the Coal Authority for safety and of the helpful guidance that the Law Society has issued for tackling cases in which mining reports appear to show unexpected problems.

Mr. O'Neill

I gained the impression that the Minister was about to conclude. Will he tell us to what extent the Law Society, his officials in the Department of Trade and Industry and the banks and mortgage lenders generally have been in concert in discussing those problems? That is the key. With respect, we are worried, not about damage to property but about the consequences of blight on the value of property as a result of a change in planning arrangements—not even planning law.

What has happened in respect of the Law Society and the DTI officials and Coal Authority officials? Have they been able to communicate to the mortgage lenders the fact that the problems are not as great as the mortgage lenders would appear to believe? That is the problem that confronts us.

Mr. Page

I am unaware of any such discussions taking place to draw those anxieties to the attention of mortgage lenders, but I hope that what has been said in the debate will give some comfort and reassurance to mortgage lenders. However, bearing in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said, I am aware of no reason why I should not return to the Coal Authority and ask it to undertake a liaison operation with the mortgage lenders in the Stoke-on-Trent region to reassure them—exactly as I have endeavoured to reassure them today—about the general conditions and general supports that are available through the various Coal Acts, especially the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991.

Mr. Stevenson

On the Minister's proposed liaison, as I think he called it, with the Coal Authority, the mind boggles. However, when that happens, will he mention the Law Society guidelines of 1991, which for the first time mentioned a radius of 20 m, and the fact—I shall provide the Minister with copies—that I have in my hand two searches from the Coal Authority dated 1995 that make no mention of the 20 m? When he meets the Coal Authority, will he mention the fact that the guidelines that were issued by the Law Society in 1991 and in 1989 are not being implemented in 1995?

Mr. Page

I return to what I said in response to the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill). Yes, I will arrange that liaison and I will more than willingly draw attention to what appears to be a failure to mention that matter in the searches. The Coal Authority is perfectly aware of the Law Society recommendations, and it is the Law Society that decided to review the advice to its members from the start.

I hope that this morning's debate has helped to shed more light on what has happened.

Ms Walley

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Page

May I make a little progress, because I hope that we can shed more light on matters?

I hope that the Coal Authority can undertake that liaison, which will reassure many of those people in Stoke-on-Trent who are worried about the blight notice.

I would not want to make any specific suggestions today because I am sure that those who best know the local circumstances can advise on what the steps should be. I do know that the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North and for Stoke-on-Trent, South will meet the chief executive of the Coal Authority shortly to explore the authority's role in more depth. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will join them to make it a triumvirate.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

And the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Mr. Page

And the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. Perhaps I may leave them with the suggestion that further steps to give wider currency to those matters locally would be worth while. Naturally, the authority already has contacts with the building societies and has offered to meet and discuss the issues with interested parties. I emphasise that. Although those contacts exist, I have not been involved in those contacts and shall adopt the approach that I have already agreed. If that can contribute to some local initiatives that would improve understanding of their roles, I have no doubt that those organisations would wish to do so, and I would wish them to do so.

Ms Walley

I have one eye on the clock. I want to establish, before the Minister concludes, that he is able to confirm to the House that, whatever debate he has with the Coal Authority, he will subsequently meet my hon. Friends and me, with whomever else from the Law Society we feel will be necessary to make it possible to have a meaningful discussion, so that we can find a way of tackling the problems—in other words, that he will continue the dialogue, and that we can find a way to proceed following his further discussions with the Coal Authority.

Mr. Page

I always look forward to meeting the hon. Lady; I remember a private Member's Bill in which we made progress in helping merchant shipping. If, after that meeting with the Coal Authority, the hon. Lady and her colleagues feel that they have not made any ground and want to visit me to discuss the matter further, I shall be perfectly happy and more than prepared to do so.

Before I say my last few words, I shall mention the current legal action against the authority, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Clackmannan. It would obviously be inappropriate to debate any particulars of the case, which is, or may be, the subject of court proceedings. However, I understand from the Coal Authority that there are many cases relating to Stoke-on-Trent in connection with which it has received a letter before action or writ, and reference has been made to the numbers. In general, those cases relate to the disclosure of a disused mine shaft or mine shafts in a coal mining search report that were not disclosed in a previous report where the criteria were different. The authority is defending those actions; I strongly suspect that the two cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers are typical of those cases.

I understand that, as far as the Coal Authority is aware, none of the properties shows any sign of coal mining subsidence and, as I have explained, if they should suffer any such damage at any time there is a clear right to repair under the 1991 Act.

I shall now summarise. First, any old coal mine shafts can give rise to safety problems. They can also cause subsidence damage. Both types of problem are relatively unknown, not in absolute terms in relation to numbers of incidents but in relation to the large numbers of coal mining shafts that are known to exist. The mere presence of a shaft, where the shaft has not previously been identified on the ground and gives no practical problems, should not be a major concern or a cause of anxiety. That is a key matter. However, Opposition Members have made the understandable case regarding worries about blight.

Secondly, in the exceptional cases—exceptional in relation to the total number of shafts that are known—where old shafts give rise to safety or subsidence problems, there are clear statutory duties on the Coal Authority or, where relevant, on its lessees to act and to remedy any safety problem or subsidence damage.

Because of the low incidence of problems and the statutory right of householders where problems are encountered, there should be no widespread concern among mortgage lenders, conveyancers or house buyers in cases where a recent mining search discloses a shaft that was not recorded on earlier mining searches. In all cases, it will be necessary for an extension of the mining search process, in line with the Law Society's guidance, to include an assessment of the materiality of the shaft.

I am left with the feeling that there is an information gap on some issues. There may be further steps that could usefully be taken at a local level to improve awareness of the facts and the relevant statutory framework. I would welcome any moves in that direction.

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