HL Deb 15 March 1971 vol 316 cc268-80

4.11 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Although this is called a Mineral Workings Bill—because that is the title of the parent Act of 1951—it relates wholly to ironstone workings. Its purpose is to ensure the continued solvency of the Ironstone Restoration Fund so that standards of restoration in the ironstone workings in the Midlands can be maintained. The Fund was set up by the Mineral Workings Act 1951 with a twofold object: first, to finance the reclamation of some 2,500 acres of land in the Midlands which had been ravaged by earlier ironstone working; and, secondly, to facilitate the full restoration of future workings by contributing to the cost of levelling and topsoil spreading, and by providing grants to landowners and tenant farmers for measures to improve the fertility of land so levelled and treated. The Fund is controlled by the Secretary of State for the Environment.

To prevent further dereliction, all ironstone working since 1950 has been subject to conditions requiring worked land to be backfilled and levelled and, within certain limits, requiring topsoil to be separately stripped and respread. Operators are entitled, under the 1951 Act, to receive from the Fund payments for the cost of this mandatory work in so far as it exceeds a basic amount—called the "standard rate"—of £110 per acre. In other words, operators have to bear from their own resources the first £110 per acre of the obligatory restoration work, but the remaining cost falls on the Fund. These are the costs that exceed the standard rate. I hope noble Lords will bear with me if, in the rest of my speech, I use the expression "standard rate" in this sense, as a technical expression, without further explanation.

But such planning control as I have described could not deal with the pre-1950 dereliction. The 1951 Act therefore empowered local authorities to carry out works for levelling land or rendering it suitable for forestry or agriculture or any other purpose; and it entitled them to be paid from the Fund for approved expenditure. Operators could also be paid for similar work which they did but which they were not under any prior obligation to do. The Act also put Fund moneys at the disposal of the Minister of Agriculture, so that be could make payments to landowners and farmers in respect of special steps for the management or farming of the land in order to bring it to a good state of cultivation and fertility. These grants are available both for land worked before 1950 and for land which has been restored under planning conditions. Grants for afforestation may also be made from the Fund by the Forestry Commission.

The Fund has now been running successfully for 20 years. It has achieved its object in relation to the pre-1950 dereliction, since nearly all the 2,500 acres of land left unrestored before planning control have been reclaimed. There may still be one or two small pockets tucked away in odd corners, but they give little or no offence and virtually that job is done. The land described in 1950 as resembling the craters of the moon has been either afforested or returned to agriculture or some amenity use. And, of course, the combined effects of the Fund and planning control have ensured the restoration of land worked since 1950.

The Fund has been financed so far by a charge of 3d.—3 old pence—per ton of ironstone mined. To this charge of 3d. the operator contributed 1⅛d., the royalty owner 1⅛d., and the Exchequer ¾d. Since 1950, the operators have been required to bear the first £110 per acre of the restoration they have had to do. Anything more needed, over and above that amount, has been paid for out of the Ironstone Restoration Fund. The so-called "standard rate" of restoration of £110 per acre was fixed in the 'fifties and could not be altered under the Act of 1951. Since then, therefore, the proportion of the total cost of restoration borne directly by the operator has fallen as inflation has proceeded, and the proportion of the cost of restoration borne by the Restoration Fund has gone up and up.

In addition to that, home ore production is now in decline. The absolute level of the Fund's income therefore, as well as its purchasing power, is falling, since it is linked to the number of tons of ore mined. On the other hand, expenditure in terms of cost per acre due for restoration is increasing rapidly. As quarries are closed, more and more acres need to be restored, sooner, and at greater cost per acre. The balance at March 31, 1970, was £444,000, but some large claims are in tie pipeline and it might well be that the Fund would be exhausted in 1972–73 if steps were not now taken to increase its resources. The Bill is therefore designed to retrieve the situation, and to remedy the omissions of the 1951 Act, by giving the Secretary of State power to vary, by order, the operators' and owners' contributions to the Fund; and similar power to vary the standard rate to allow for rising costs of restoration. These more flexible arrangements will enable suitable revisions to be made as circumstances alter.

My Lords, I shall now turn to the actual clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 deals with the operators' contributions to the Fund for ironstone extraction horn April 1, 1971. They pay their contributions to the Secretary of State each April in respect or the previous year's production. Accordingly, in effect the clause will not bite until April, 1972, when the operators will pay for the first time at the new rate which the Secretary of State will prescribe by order under the clause. This new rate, in substitution for the present 2¼d. per ton, is described as a "full rate" contribution. The clause also provides for the Secretary of State to fix a "reduced rate" contribution. The purpose of that is to continue the present exemption from the owner's share of the 2¼d. for two kinds of ironstone: first, ironstone which, immediately before the Act of 1951 was introduced, was subject to a lull restoring lease without any option to pay compensation in, lieu of restoring; and, second, ironstone owned by a charity. In these cases the operator pays a reduced contribution (at present 1⅛d. per ton) and cannot pass any of it on to the owner.

Clause 2 is concerned with the owner's share of the contributions paid by the operator. It provides for the Secretary of State to fix, by order, the amount which the ironstone operator may deduct from his royalty payments (or otherwise recover from the owner) towards his contributions at the full rate. There are certain restrictions dealt with in subsections (2) and (5), which follow the present arrangement. But this apart, the Secretary of State may specify different rates of contribution for different leases, or classes of lease, if circumstances so warrant.

Clause 3 gives the Secretary of State power to vary the standard rate of restoration cost by order from time to time. This will enable him to ensure that that part of the restoration costs falling on the operator reflects the current cost (instead of the 1950 cost) of complying with the modest standard of restoration called for in leases before the 1951 Act was introduced. These three clauses, together with Schedule 1, complete the provisions designed to strengthen the Fund.

Clause 4 abolishes the Advisory Committee on Ironstone Restoration. This is a Statutory Committee set up under the 1951 Act. It was intended to advise the Minister controlling the Fund on any question arising in connection with the determination of payments to be made to operators, or in connection with the fixing of the standard rate, or any other question concerning ironstone restoration. The Committee gave useful advice on the fixing of the standard rate in 1955, but it has not been convened since 1957. It has never been needed for what was intended to be its main purpose; namely, as an arbitrator on questions about payments to operators; and now that the sole operator in the ironstone field is the British Steel Corporation there seems to be no point in retaining the obligation to keep the Committee in existence. The rest of the Bill consists of the usual machinery provisions.

The Secretary of State will, of course, be consulting those likely to be concerned by the orders he will make—the British Steel Corporation and representatives of the owners through the Ironstone Royalty Owners Association. His officials have already had meetings with them to discuss likely developments and these contacts will continue. Some restoration by companies other than the British Steel Corporation still remains to be done, but it appears likely to be substantially completed before an increase in the standard rate takes effect in April, 1972.

The powers of local authorities under the main Act are not affected. The Fund will continue to be available for any approved works needed to bring any land back into use still remaining derelict as a result of ironstone working. The Bill, by rectifying the omission from the 1951 Act of power to keep contributions to the Fund and the standard rate, to which I have referred, in line with current costs, will ensure the Fund's ability to maintain the present standards of restoration. It will thus continue to enable the land to yield its mineral ore and then be restored and returned to agriculture or other productive use. My Lords, I beg to move,

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Sandford.)

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, I know that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for the very clear exposition which he has given us of the provisions of this Bill. It is clearly a routine, run-of-the-mill Bill to which I do not think any of your Lordships will wish to offer any very strong opposition, but there are one or two points to which I should like to call your Lordships' attention. As the Minister said, this is really bringing up to date the Mineral Workings Act 1951, which was passed by a Labour Government, and I think that the principle which the noble Lord is perpetuating is a right principle. Indeed, I think it goes rather further than the 1951 Act, because it gives broad acceptance to what I think is now the generally accepted principle, that the man who despoils or damages the countryside must be made to pay for the spoliation or damage for which he is responsible.

I went on Friday to look at some of the areas of the Midlands which were badly ravaged by ironstone mining in the immediate post-war years. I remember the anxiety that all of us felt at that time about the damage that was being done to tracts of the countryside, and it is certainly encouraging, though not wholly reassuring, to find that techniques of dealing with what would otherwise have been derelict land have improved so enormously during the intervening years. I think that the Act and the Ironstone Restoration Fund have worked very well indeed.

I am not wholly reassured by what the Under-Secretary of State said about the Advisory Committee and I think that a number of your Lordships may wish to ponder over the Under-Secretary's argument, and perhaps at a later stage explore a little further, by putting down an Amendment calling for an Advisory Committee not with the limited terms of reference of the old Committee, but with rather broader terms of reference which might serve a more useful purpose.

The other point to which I should like to draw the attention of the House was brought to my attention only a few moments ago by my noble friend Lord Arwyn. One of the difficulties under which many of us have been labouring during the last few weeks is the fact that the ordinary channels of communication of a non-Parliamentary nature have not been working as well as we like them to work and on a number of occasions we have not had advice which would have been most acceptable. So that, although the information which I have received this afternoon arrived too late for me to apprise the Under-Secretary of State of it, I hope he will forgive me if I draw to the attention of the House the points which my noble friend Lord Arwyn has raised with me.

The main point is that the annual accounts of the Fund have been framed on the simple basis of receipts and payments, ignoring entirely outstanding claims. In the result, the accounts have always shown a credit balance for the simple reason that there is always a considerable time lag—about five years—between the receipt of the contributions and the payment of claims in respect of the land which has been affected. I am told that, on the best forecast of the position at the end of the current month, there will be about 3,000 acres of restoration still to be dealt with at a cost of approximately £1,500,000, against estimated current assets and outstanding contributions of some £300,000.

So there is clearly a heavy deficiency and it looks at first glance as though this deficiency is to be met, not out of contributions that have been paid in respect of the land in the past, but out of the contributions which the Secretary of State is going to have wholly arbitrary power to fix From now on. I should like to be assured that that interpretation of the Bill is not the right one, but if it is—and I think it probably is the right one—there is just an air of some lack of natural justice about this which the House will not wholly welcome. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to comment upon this point, and perhaps at a later stage we might be able to have some discussions about it; it may well be that the fair and just thing would be for the Government themselves to accept responsibility for settling all the outstanding claims on the Fund at the end of this month.

Having made those points, I do not wish in any way to obstruct the passage of this Bill which I think is a useful Bill. It may be necessary to seek to improve it at a later stage, but certainly we have no antipathy to the principle which the Bill enshrines.

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, both the mineral operators and the royalty owners are grateful to the Government for having listened to their representations on this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, may remember that it was the Government's original intention to wind up the Restoration Fund. Both the operators and the owners felt that that was not in the best interests of good restoration and are very glad that the Government have listened to their points. I think that the Bill has been presented to us in rather a hurry. We were told on March 2 that there would be a Bill, and then the Bill appeared on March 3. But, so far as I know, it was not available to Members of your Lordships' House until this weekend. I myself received a copy only this morning, so it is very difficult to form a proper opinion.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, has said, it appears that a deficit was not apparent to the Advisory Committee—which had not met for 13 years—or to the Government until very recently. It appears, also, that the standard rate and the contributions should have been raised during the period of those 13 years when the Advisory Committee was not meeting. Then, again, there appears to be a very substantial difference between the estimate of the noble Lord who spoke for the Government, of how much still remains to be done and what the measure of the deficit is going to be, and the figures which the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, has given. I wonder whether I may have the ear of the noble Lord, because there is a very great discrepancy between the figures given by him and what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood. If what the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, said is correct, then I think it is only just that the Government should write off this amount and not bring it forward to the new operators.

I am not quite clear whose fault it was that this deficit was not apparent to everybody concerned. It is extremely surprising that the Advisory Committee did not meet for 13 years. The noble Lord says that the Committee's main purpose was arbitration between the operators and the Government as to how much money the operators should receive. But, my Lords, this is not quite the case. As well as the clement of arbitration which it had, it also had the duty to determine the standard rates under the section, and it is just those standard rates—and, indeed, the contributions—which, on the advice of the advisory committee, should have been raised during these 13 years.

Furthermore, the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, suggested that the Committee's terms of reference should be broadened. But they are already very broad. Any other question connected with ironstone restoration was within its terms of reference, I believe. Somehow or other, someone has fallen down over this. I do not know whether the fall has been at the Whitehall end or whether it has been the operators' end, or whose duty it was to convene the Committee. I should like to draw the attention of the noble Lord to the fact that the mineral owners, the royalty owners, were not represented on this Committee, and I wondered whether, if they had been represented, they would perhaps have been a little more eagle-eyed with regard to the issue of the Restoration Fund. Because it is they, the owners of the minerals, who are in many cases also the owners of the land, who are most concerned with restoration.

As I say, it is difficult to see exactly whose fault it was, but it seems to me that there has been some considerable fault. If that fault is not to be repeated, then I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, that it is a mistake to wind up the Advisory Committee under Clause 4. Would it not be better to revitalise it instead? I suggest, as a means of revitalising it, that first of all you should look to the terms of reference to see whether they need broadening, as the noble Lord suggested, or whether in fact they are very broad but their broadness was ignored. Secondly, I think the representation ought to be a bit wider than merely the Government Department concerned and the operators, because as to practically the whole operation the operators are the British Steel Corporation, and I think it would be a good plan to bring in somebody else. The obvious first people, I should have said, are the landowners and the mineral owners, and if you brought those in you would get a better Advisory Committee.

My Lords, if the Government do not feel that an Advisory Committee is a good thing, then perhaps some other statutory means of consultation could be arrived at which also embodies some means of appeal, because, again, I think that it would be very useful for the owners of the land and the mineral owners to be able to appeal if they felt that those consultations were not in their interests or, indeed, in the interests of proper restoration, which is the object of this exercise. Having said that, I think that those two points should be put right; first, the question of the deficit—as to how much that deficit is, and whether or not it is fair that the Government should take it over—and, second, whether some better means of consultation could not be found to prevent a repetition of what happened before.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, I very much welcome this Bill. It is obviously necessary in order to maintain in solvency the Ironstone Restoration Fund. I take a personal interest in this subject, having served on the Committee in another place in 1951 when the Bill was introduced by the late Dr. Dalton. There is no doubt at all that the general scheme has worked extremely well. As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has said, the fact that this Bill is now introduced indicates a change of heart on the part of the Ministry of the Environment which shows a broadmindedness upon which I congratulate them.

The bodies for which I speak—the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Committee for Environmental Conservation—not only believe that this measure of 1951 has on the whole worked extremely well, but are inclined to think that if there is going to be legislation, such as the noble Lord. Lord Greenwood, indicated when he was in office, to facilitate the development of other mineral resources in this country, it may well be necessary, and certainly desirable, to have an analogous fund to this in order to ensure that when the mineral resources of this country are developed the land is restored afterwards. Therefore in principle I give a most cordial welcome to this Bill, and am very glad that the Government have introduced it.

I must say, however, that I share the doubts that have been expressed as to the exact way in which it is proposed to do it. It is of course necessary that there should be flexibility in imposing a charge in order to deal with the ever-increasing inflation of costs in this country. Nevertheless, I cannot help wondering whether we are not going rather too far in the direction of making the Secretary of State for the Environment into a benevolent despot when we give him apparently complete discretion as to the amount of the levies that are to be imposed. No doubt he will not impose deliberately any heavier levies than are necessary for the beneficial purpose that we all desire; but it is not in accordance with Parliamentary tradition to give what in fact is a power of taxation without any kind of appeal; nor, indeed, so far as I have read the Bill (and I am at the same disadvantage as other noble Lords in that it has come rather unexpectedly), without any real criteria being laid down as to exactly how he is to exercise this very wide and, indeed, arbitrary discretion.

My Lords, I also doubt very much whether it is right to abolish the Advisory Committee. The fact that the old Advisory Committee has not met since 1957 is surely not in itself a reason for proposing its abolition. One would like to know why it has not been convened during that time; and it may well be that what is needed—as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, have indicated—is a strengthened and enlarged Advisory Committee, the more so because the effect of this Bill is to confer upon the executive Government far greater powers than were thought necessary in 1951. For the reasons I have given, it may be necessary to put down some Amendments for the Committee stage, and I feel confident that the Government will look at them in a reasons able and friendly spirit. Like the previous speakers, I entirely welcome this Bill. I congratulate the Government upon introducing it, but, as I say, it may be necessary to look at it carefully at the Committee stage.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for that general welcome for this small measure. I am sorry noble Lords seem to have been in some difficulty about the printing of the Bill. I introduced it into your Lordships' House on March 3, and I am advised that it has been available in the Printed Paper Office since the 4th, but I should be happy to pursue the point with either of the noble Lords who appear to have been inconvenienced, as there does not seem to have been any slip in the usual Procedure in that respect. Noble Lord dwelt to some extent on the state of the deficit and where the blame lay for allowing the situation to develop to the point that it has before anybody did anything about it. On the whole, I should prefer not to go into that issue too far, but from what I have said I think one of the defects was the rigidity of the 1951 Act, which was actually introduced by noble Lords opposite; but I would not want to make too much of that point.. Until it has been altered by another Bill in this form, no amount of fresh life or new life or more life in the Advisory Committee would have enabled the Secretary of State or any of his predecessors to make the adjustments necessary. That is why the power is now being taken.


My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord says that. In fact I am advised that the sort of thing the Advisory Committee was meant to do was to alter the rate—indeed its terms of reference meant that it could do very nearly anything it liked, or at least give any advice it liked.


My Lords, the difficulty was that the Minister was not in a position to act on it because of the rigidity of the Act. We can return to this point in more detail at the next stage. That is one of the defects in the present situation which has led to the build up of these adverse balances. Another is that—quite apart from the effect the details of which the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, described as having coming from the noble Lord, Lord Arwyn; namely that the balances failed to show the claims in the pipeline, which is now fully recognised and which is another of the reasons why action has been taken—the effect has been accentuated, not only because of inflation, but also because home ore production is falling. As a result of that—and it is not a defect of the Act that that has happened—not only is the income to the Fund falling but the cost of restoration of quarries which have fallen out of use is accelerating. It may be that somebody with a crystal ball could have seen that in 1970 this would have been the situation in ironstone workings in this Kingdom. Without that clairvoyance, even if there had been the flexibility in the Act, I do not think that it would have been possible to foresee and anticipate the situation that we now have to deal with.

Now, if your Lordships give approval to this Bill, we are introducing the flexibility needed to rectify the situation, and I sec no reason to suppose that it will not be possible to do so in time to prevent the Fund from going into insolvency. I take the point about the Advisory Committee, but I return to the charge, as it were, by saying that it was not any defect in the Committee but the inability of the Minister under the Act as at present worded to take action on the advice that the Committee gave. Whether, in view of that, your Lordships will feel convinced if we return to the point at Committee stage that the Advisory Committee is still needed, remains to be seen. I hope that I have dealt with all the points raised, and I look forward to returning to them if, in the light of what I have said, noble Lords feel disposed to put down Amendments at the next stage.


My Lords, is the noble Lord going to say nothing about the discrepancy between his figures and those of the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood?


My Lords, I shall need to look more closely at what the noble Lord has said and to do my sums again. I suspect that I shall find that the noble Lord was talking about acreages which have been cleared, pre-1950 restoration acreages, and that what I am talking about are the large acreages which now have to be cleared as a result of large quarries closing. If the figures that we both use cannot be reconciled we can return to it at the next stage.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.