HL Deb 22 July 1958 vol 211 cc77-90

2.58 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I have it in Command from Her Majesty the Queen to signify to the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Opencast Coal Bill, has consented to place Her Majesty's interest, so far as it is concerned on behalf of the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, at the disposal of Parliament for the purpose of the Bill.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.(Lord Mills.)

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments.

Sixth Schedule [Application of compensation provisions to special cases]:

LORD MILLS moved to add to paragraph 8: (2) For the purposes of this paragraph no account shall be taken of any opportunities of which the person in question has not availed himself (notwithstanding that they were opportunities of the kind described in the preceding sub-paragraph) in so far as they would have involved his engaging (whether as an employed person or otherwise) in a substantially different occupation from that in which he was engaged during the period preceding the operative date of the order. (3) Paragraph (a) of subsection (8) of section nineteen of this Act, and the last preceding paragraph, shall apply for the purposes of this paragraph as they apply for the purposes of that section.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am moving this Amendment to give effect to the undertaking which I gave to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. I promised that I would, with your Lordships' permission, propose an Amendment on Third Reading which would have the effect that a man's annual compensation for loss of profits would not be mitigated on account of an opportunity of mitigation which he did not take and which would have involved his engaging in a substantially different occupation from that in which he was engaged during a period, which will normally be four years, before the date of operation of the compulsory rights order.

I think the first paragraph of this Amendment is quite clear, but I should perhaps say a word in explanation of the second paragraph. It provides, by attracting other provisions of the Bill, that the period preceding the operative date of the compulsory rights order referred to in the first paragraph, shall normally be a period of four years, but that this period may be varied by agreement between the National Coal Board and the claimant or by the Lands Tribunal, in cases where this is the equitable thing to do. I believe that this is a sensible provision. I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for the suggestion which prompted this Amendment, and I feel that it represents a satisfactory solution to the thorny problem of mitigation. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 87, line 31, at end insert the said paragraphs.—(Lord Mills.)


My Lords, if I may comment on the Amendment, before we discuss the Third Reading of the Bill, it is in accordance with what we on this side of the House, as well as the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, have expressed, We have always felt that it was rather unfair that a farmer should be put in a difficult position, and that, if he could have had a job in some other industry in the area where he was living but did not take it, he should be penalised. This Amendment puts right our complaint, and I must express my appreciation to the noble Lord, the Minister, for at last accepting an Amendment from this side of the House.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. Opencast coal mining is an unpopular necessity which causes great inconvenience, and even hardship, to the people who live in the affected areas. It would have been easy for the opponents of opencast coal mining to delay, and perhaps even to prevent altogether, the passage of this long and complicated Bill. I am grateful both to your Lordships and to Members of another place for having, instead, approached this Bill in a constructive and helpful fashion. As a result we have been able to produce what is largely an agreed measure which enables opencast coal mining to continue but with many important new safeguards for the authorities and for the people who will be affected.

This process of constructive improvement has gone on to the very last stage, and I am particularly glad that in your Lordships' House we have been able to find what I believe are generally acceptable solutions to certain difficult problems. I should like to thank all those who have contributed to this work, and in particular the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, and noble Lords opposite who, perhaps from different angles, have brought their great knowledge and experience of this subject to our deliberations. I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Chesham who came in to assist on this Bill at very short notice and has dealt so ably and clearly with many Government Amendments.

It seems to me that as opencast coal mining has to continue this Bill has three great advantages. First, it enables us to dispense with those Defence Regulations relating to land which gave Her Majesty's Government far-ranging powers to take any land for practically any purpose. I am sure we are all agreed that it is high time to get rid of these regulations, and that it would be intolerable to continue them for the remaining life of opencast coal mining. Secondly, the Bill introduces new procedures designed to give those authorities and persons who are directly affected by opencast coal mining a better opportunity to make their views heard. In particular, we have provided for the Board's proposals for working an opencast coal site to be heard, where necessary, at a public local inquiry. This will prove a valuable safeguard of the rights of local authorities and private individuals. Thirdly, this Bill introduces a new code of compensation for those whose land is taken compulsorily. I believe that on the whole this code will prove more generous and certainly fairer than the existing arbitrary arrangements. In my view, this is perhaps the most important feature of the new Bill, for if we have to take land compulsorily for opencast coal mining it is essential that we should have a code of compensation which does justice to those affected. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Mills.)

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, I should not like this Bill to leave your Lordships' House without saying a few words both as to its contents and also about the noble Lord, the Minister of Power himself. The noble Lord has had a pretty long innings—and a pretty good one—on this Bill. I am told that our English cricket team may have difficulty in finding an opening batsman, a good "stone-wailer". I can recommend one to them now, because for many days the noble Lord has been "stonewalling"—finding reasons for not accepting this or that Amendment and giving a great many assurances. In fact I know of no Bill on which more assurances have been given. I am thankful for those assurances, for if I cannot have Amendments I will accept assurances as the second best thing. The noble Lord has batted well and has scored many fours and a few sixes; now, at the end of his innings, he has achieved a fairly good Bill—if we must have an Opencast Coal Bill.

We on this side of the House are very worried about the opencast mining position. Friends of mine living in various areas, and colliery officials, are doubtful about this Bill. Those in the mining community are worried and ask: What need is there at all for such a Bill? Saturday working was dispensed with because we could manage without Saturday work. Now, having dispensed with Saturday working for deep coal mining we continue to increase the output from opencast mining, and those engaged in the industry are a little worried about this extension of opencast mining. I know that various reasons were given for this Bill, and, so far as legislation to deal with opencast mining is required, this is a good Bill. All the same, I regret the need for such a Bill, and I am not yet entirely convinced that there is any urgent need for it. I agree with the expression "an unpopular necessity." Whatever may be said of the necessity for the Bill, it is certainly very unpopular in the mining district. They do not like the idea. They are afraid for their own future. After all, mines have been closed because they were considered uneconomic, and miners have been put out of work; and in these circumstances they cannot understand why opencast mining should go on.

The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, said something to me, in private conversation, which I am sure he will not mind my quoting. As we know, the rate of accidents has been substantially reduced in the last few years. I remember the time, as other noble Lords will, when the average number killed in the coal industry was four a day. That number has been reduced very substantially. The point which the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, put to me in private conversation was this. "You refer to the accidents underground and to the risks and dangers of coal mining," he said, "but with opencast working we find we are much safer. If we got all our coal in this way, would it not be a good thing for miners at present facing the risks and dangers?" There is something to be said for that argument, but the fact remains that for these miners the work they do is their livelihood. I, for one, should not mind if it were not necessary for a single man to descend a shaft in the country anywhere, provided that industrial needs and domestic needs of fuel were being met, and provided that those miners who were previously underground had found good jobs on the surface. Be that as it may, we have this Bill, and it improves the position for every section affected by opencast mining: restoration is better, and so is compensation. And since we must have the Bill, or it is thought that we must, I extend to it a welcome.

3.11 p.m.


My Lords, I am speaking at this very late stage for one reason only, and that is that the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, unfortunately, owing to a change of programme, was not able to be here to-day; and he felt, having addressed your Lordships on the Second Reading and during all the stages of the Bill, that it would be wrong if an apology were not made for his absence at this stage of the Bill to-day.

I should like to say, as has been said, that, while we know that all those who are interested in the land—landowners and farmers—and those interested in amenity regret the necessity for this Bill, if there has to be a Bill they welcome the attempt in this Bill to put matters on a much more reasonable and equitable basis than was the case under the old requisition. I think that probably the main criticism of the Bill is still its length and complexity, with its fifty-three clauses and ten Schedules; but we appreciate the efforts which the noble Lord, Lord Mills, has made throughout our discussions on the Bill to meet all the points which have been raised. He has accepted several Amendments and has given many assurances as to how the Bill will be worked. We should like to thank him for that. Though we hope that this Bill will be used but seldom, we hope also that, as a result of the time spent on it, in this House and in another place, it will work more smoothly when it is used.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, the Bill is a very dangerous and bad Bill, I think, but it could not have been moved in milder terms or treated more carefully than it has been by the noble Lord who has had the task of seeing it through your Lordships' House. If I may say so, I think it is necessary to explain to your Lordships' House just what we are doing to-day. Opencast working, as taken for granted now, was unknown in this country before the war. Indeed, nobody would have dreamt of applying opencast working to either the kind of community we have or the kind of seams that we are considering. Opencasting, was one thing in America, in wide open spaces where there was seldom even a community, or in Australia, where I understand from those who have seen them that they sometimes take seams very deep indeed of practically clean coal. That is one thing; but nobody ever thought about applying opencast working to a small country like this, which has its coal fields in concentrated areas, with the village sometimes—indeed usually—in the middle of the coal field. Where opencast working was carried out in this country (as was described by a supporter of the Government. Lord Ridley), great are lights are used all night, blasting is going on continually, and working comes right up to the doorsteps of the people. As a result, if people are not very careful, whether they go out of the front door or the back door, they are in danger of falling into a kind of Grand Canyon.

During the war, of course, it was suggested that this method of mining should be tried and although the people, even those who advocated it, did not care too much for it. because they knew how uncomfortable it would be for the people on the spot, they endured it. I think they have been very good, in that the country did not hear a greater howl than it has heard up to the present time about this business. I know a place where workings go almost up to the doorsteps, and have undermined the houses so that they have had to be pulled down. Now today we are being asked to make this opencast working, which was endured by the people during the war, permanent. However much the Minister may have tried to mitigate the conditions—and I dare say he knows very well what the conditions are under which people are working—we are nevertheless being asked to pass a Bill which I think is not merely going to continue the position but, if I read the signs aright, is going to continue it on a bigger scale and probably a deeper scale than ever.

Let us see what we are doing. Before I came into the House this afternoon a Member of another place asked me whether we were to deal with opencast working to-day and I said that we were. Perhaps I may now read to your Lordships a letter, which has been sent to Mr. Price, the Member for Westhoughton. I think a copy was sent also to Mr. Tom Brown, another Member who lives in the same area. The letter, which comes from the clerk, to a local authority, reads as follows: The council has had notice that the Minister is proposing to authorise the Board to prospect on a large area of land on the Westhoughton—Aspull boundary and on a further larger area adjoining Park Road—Platt Lane and which contains the very beautiful glen making Hall Lee Park with which you may be familiar. The Council has decided that it views with great disfavour any proposal to open the areas concerned for the working of coal and that it will resist such proposals as far as possible. Then the letter goes on to suggest that a copy should be sent to Mr. Brown, M.P., who lives in that area.

Now, anyone who knows these industrial areas knows that if there is anywhere where there are little places which enable one to get out of the way of the concentrated industries it is in an area like this glen, which it is now proposed to destroy. In the area in which I live—the Birtley area—there has already been a demand to do opencast work. Whether they know what the position is in regard to how much coal is there I do not know, but just outside Birtley I once counted no fewer than eight shafts, which were, of course, small shafts near to each other, and which had worked the surface seams. I live in an area in which we have very nice woodlands, and they have been grown, I discovered by accident, on pit spoil. One hundred yards from where I live there is another shaft in a wood itself. The Birtley people know what is awaiting them, but I am not so sure that the Coal Board know what is awaiting them. These surface seams were worked about the beginning of the nineteenth century—indeed, some in the eighteenth century—and there are no plans of them at all. Plans were not laid, except voluntarily, until 1870. Plans were never laid compulsorily until 1921, after that fearful inrush of water in a mine just outside Newcastle. But, whether they have the plans or not, the Coal Board's aim is to tear up all this area which at the moment is open space.

As I told your Lordships' House the last time I spoke, I have worked all my life in the deep pits. Only a few years before I came here I went into those beautiful open spaces on the West side of Durham. As a rule, when people worked these surface seams they had small collieries and did not carry the coal far under the surface, if they could help it. The curious result of that has been that these collieries are as a rule solely on the West side of the county, and they left open spaces, trees, and sometimes woodlands. To me, emerging from the Eastern coalfields with their large collieries, it was like a breath of new life and an astonishing thing to see the trees and wide spaces of land that I saw. Now, of course, it is proposed to open up this area.

I wonder whether the Minister himself, or the Coal Board, have given consideration at all to the present situation in the coal industry. It seems a strange time to be laying down that this kind of thing should be permanent and, as I suspect, extended, when from the point of view of employment in the coal industry matters are becoming very confused. There are large masses of coal lying in various coalfields in this country, and those concerned hardly know what to do with them. It looks as though it is going to be very difficult to keep the present number of men and boys employed, though I would not be sure about that. All I say is that it is generally admitted that the situation in the coal industry from the point of view of employment is rather confused. Is this a good time to be introducing a Bill of this kind, which will take away the work that men would be doing—sometimes men whose sons would be going into the mines if the work was regular? I do not say that some men will not be employed in taking the surface coal away, but coal will be dug up in the opencast that will take the place of some of the deeper coal that otherwise would have to be mined by men.

I beg the Minister to give serious thought before he embarks upon plans to apply this Bill, because it is going to be a serious matter for the coalfields of the country. I do not think the miner will stand this for ever—I really do not. He has endured this business for a long period because the nation needed the coal. The time has now arrived when there is even surplus coal, and I am doubtful about how the miner will judge a situation like that, bearing in mind the conditions under which he suffered when this class of working was being done. We might possibly have trouble about this matter—unexpected trouble in unexpected places. That is not the mind of the miner. I think that since the war his regularity has been a thing of wonder, in spite of some criticism. I am speaking particularly of the coalfield that I know very well. His regularity has been a thing of wonder to those who know what coal mining is. With low seams and narrow walls, you are hemmed in. I sometimes used to think that I had a touch of claustrophobia when I had had a little too much of this work. But that is the class of work that these men have to do, and I would ask the Minister to be very careful in what he is doing in applying this Bill. I would ask him to give careful heed to some of the points—such as those in this letter that I have read—which have been put by people who live in an area like the Birtley area and other similar parts of the country. I ask him not merely to give gentle and kindly consideration to them, but to have some compassion upon the men who work under very arduous conditions and who live under very arduous conditions, too.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords. I should like to interject a few words into this debate before the Bill finally passes from your Lordships' hands. The noble Lord who has just addressed us speaks on this subject with a feeling and a knowledge that demand all our respect. I naturally cannot claim that knowledge, but I do happen to have considerable connection with another part of the British coalfield and I do not doubt that he has in no way exaggerated the feeling that is to be found in many quarters in regard to the general case for opencast working. I also happen to be one of those to whom my noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney referred, who have suffered, and are likely to suffer again, from the operation of opencast mining. Therefore, I find myself agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, in regarding this Bill as an unpopular necessity.

But I think that my noble friend Lord Mills, who has won many compliments for the manner in which he has conducted the Bill, would also agree with me that the feeling in the country differs, as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, reminded the House, from willingness to accept anything in war that was judged necessary to a less assured willingness to accept what is reported still to be necessary by a Department of the Government. We accept because we can do no other, and we are grateful to my noble friend for the form in which the Bill is emerging; but we also hope that, in the words that he will shortly address to the House which will mark the final passage of the Bill from this House, he will be able to assure us that so soon as may be he, or his successor, will take steps to have this Bill removed from the Statute Book altogether.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I want to say a word before the Bill passes from your Lordships' House. First of all, I should like to compliment the Minister upon the way in which he has conducted the Bill and negotiated with the various interests concerned with it. Like my two colleagues on this side of the House, I question whether opencast coal working is necessary. My noble friends Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor and Lord Lawson and I all commenced our lives in the mining industry. I myself entered the mine at twelve years of age and I spent thirty years in the industry and just outside it. My noble friend Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor spent twenty-three years of his life and my noble friend Lord Lawson twenty-six years of his life in the industry, and we are as proud of our association with the coal mining industry of this country as others are proud of their association with the other great industries which have built up the strength of this country during the last fifty or sixty years.

No industry has done more to build up the prosperity of Britain than the coal mining industry. It can be said that the Industrial Revolution commenced in this country with the development of coal mining, and it was coal and steel that made Britain the leader in those industries in all the countries of the world. Wherever one goes in the countries of the Commonwealth, in the United States and in South America, one finds the names of British people associated with the development of the coal and steel industries there. We are proud of our association with the coal mining industry.

We are not opposing this Bill. If opencast working is necessary, then the Bill is necessary. We must get away from the Defence Regulations, and we must give the people who will suffer as a result of opencast operations a fair share; their interests must be protected. That is what the Bill is doing and that is what the Minister wishes to do. But my noble friends and I question whether opencast coal is necessary. At the present time, the coal industry is facing great difficulties. Competition from oil and nuclear power is challenging the position of coal. I well remember in 1913 the praise given to the coal industry for the amount of coal produced and for the amount we exported and sent overseas as bunkers. In 1913 we produced 287 million tons of coal from this small country and exported and sold for bunkers over 100 million tons. It was upon this export and bunker coal, which was in demand because of the quality of British coal, that this country built up its great export trade. Without coal, this country could not live; there is no question about that.

I hope that the Minister, who is a man of understanding, will see that opencast coal mining will be limited so far as possible. It is infinitely better that the traditions of the coal miner should be followed by his sons, but at the present time I am afraid that, with mechanised mining and the tremendous amount of small coal which is produced as a result of mechanised working, this is difficult. Unless we can keep up a coal output of something like 230 million or 250 million tons a year, this country will not be able to meat its obligations in respect of the internal requirements of this country and exports.

I regret to say that, so far as I can see, in my native Aberdare Valley, either the Minister or the Coal Board have already agreed to continue the production of opencast coal. I hope the Minister will inquire into the contract which has been given to a company for the development of opencast coal at Rhigos, involving the removal of 230 feet of overburden and something like eighteen tons of rock for the production of one ton of coal which could be produced in the coal mines in this country. I cannot understand the economics of that, and I beg the Minister to look into it. Let me say, on behalf of my colleagues and myself, that we feel that this Bill is necessary. We have not opposed it in your Lordships' House, and we agree to its having a Third Reading.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps someone who is not a miner may say a word or two on this subject. It is perfectly true, as my noble friend Lord Lawson said, that opencast coal working is well-known in America, but from what I gathered from American mining engineers who came to this country to instruct our people with regard to opencast coal working our machines are mere toys compared with theirs. My first acquaintance with opencast coal working was when some 10,000 tons of overburden was shifted merely by one electrical discharge. I rise on behalf of the many thousands of people who have found joy and refreshment in our lovely English countryside, which was man-made in past generations and is now being largely destroyed by man. I knew at least two beauty spots where thousands found peace and refreshment for body and soul, but these spots have now been ruined by opencast coal working. I remember appealing to the Minister in connection with the matter, but I was given to understand that nothing could be done about it. There is perhaps one virtue in this Bill—namely, that opencast coal working is to be under the authorisation of the Minister of Power and we shall know where to go to fix the responsibility if there is any threatened vandalism in the future. Perhaps to some of us who love our countryside that is the principal virtue of this Bill.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, and other noble Lords for their kindly references to my conduct in relation to this Bill. I think it is important that we should know what this Bill is. It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson said a Bill to extend and augment opencast coal mining: it is merely a Bill to replace the Defence Regulations and to settle the terms under which compulsory rights in land for opencast mining shall he given. I agree with the noble Lord. Lord Amherst of Hackney, that this is a long Bill. I have always had a high admiration for the legal profession, and since I became acquainted with this Bill my admiration has greatly increased. I should have liked to see a quite short Bill, which would enable us to do what we sought to do, but the complexities were so great and it w as so important to protect the rights of everybody in this matter that we finished with a very long Bill indeed.

My noble friend Lord Halifax said that the country would not tolerate in peace time matters which they cheerfully assumed in times of war. That, of course, is true, and it is something of which I am deeply conscious. Noble Lords in all parts of the House have left us in no doubt as to their views about opencast coal mining and how much better off we should be without it. I share those views, and when it is possible I am sure that the Minister (whoever he may be) and the Coal Board will be only too happy to do without it. But I was a little hurt when the noble Lord, Lord Lawson said: Have the National Coal Board and has the Minister given consideration to the position of the coal industry in coming to the decision to have this Bill? I have already tried to explain that this Bill has nothing whatever to do with the extent of opencast coal mining.


Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. This Bill was introduced, I believe, towards the end of January, and there have been great changes in the coal industry since that time. That is the point I was making.


I am quite aware of the position of the coal industry. I have made it my business to be aware of the position of the coal industry ever since I came into office, and I take second place to no one in my admiration for the mining community. I am deeply conscious of the fact that this country owes its present position and its prosperous industrial past to the coal industry and to the men who mine coal.

The principal preoccupation of the Coal Board is both to provide coal and to consider the needs of the men engaged in the industry—and I can pay tribute to the way they do it. I can assure the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, that I will look into the cases he has mentioned. I would remind your Lordships—because certain cases of prospecting for opencast coal have been mentioned—that authorization will not lightly be given. There is the safeguard of the public inquiry, and that will be used to the full because, apart from the inconvenience and the dislike of people of opencast coal mining, and apart from the hardships which may be caused to certain people, I am deeply conscious, as the noble Lord, Lord Burden reminded me, of the necessity for preserving the amenities of this beautiful country of ours.

I am grateful to your Lordships for agreeing to the passing of the Bill, which enables us to do justice wherever we have to undertake opencast coal mining. I am glad to have the reinforcement of your Lordships' views about opencast coal mining, and I will finish on another assurance—that the powers which have been given to me will be used with discretion.

On Question, Bill passed and returned I to the Commons.