HL Deb 29 July 1975 vol 363 cc955-66

[Nos. 1 and 2]

Clause 2, page 3, line 16, leave out subsection (4) and insert— ("(4) Subject to the provisions of Schedule I to this Act, where damage to any land or to anything lawfully on that land whenever constructed or brought thereon arises from the exercise of the right to withdraw support conferred on the Board by this section, the Board shall either—

  1. (a) pay proper compensation for the damage including such consequential loss as would be recoverable in an action of nuisance in respect of that withdrawal, or
  2. (b) with the consent (which shall not be unreasonably withheld) of the person who would otherwise be entitled to the payment of compensation for the damage, make good the damage to the reasonable satisfaction of that person and without expense to him;
and, where appropriate, the Board shall pay such proper compensation in accordance with paragraph (a) above for damage not made good in accordance with paragraph (b) above.").

The Commons disagree to this amendment for the following Reason:

Because the Commons consider that the Lords Amendment would introduce a basis of compensation for subsidence damage much wider than that which has worked satisfactorily for many years and on the basis of which the National Coal Board have prepared their plans for mining operations, and believe that Parliament should await the recommendations of Her Majesty's Government on this subject.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House doth not insist on their Amendment, to which the Commons have disagreed. I hope, therefore, that the House will agree with another place. Once more, I shall have to spell out briefly the reasons why the Government advise it and give ample assurance to noble Lords opposite. I hope that my assurances will even put at rest the inquiring mind of the noble Baroness opposite. The present compensation régime—this Amendment deals entirely with compensation—has not been working too badly. This was acknowledged by noble Lords opposite in the debate. As problems arise, ways can be found of dealing with them pragmatically. For example, as noble Lords know, the Board have recently concluded an agreement with the National Farmers' Union in relation to Selby. Until recently there was no agitation for a change. Even now the complaints that have been evoked by the Bill speak mostly about the fears of new damage or hypothetical losses, and quote very few cases where people have actually been suffering because of any inadequacy in the compensation offered by the Board.

Admittedly, this is largely because the Board often went well beyond their strict statutory responsibilities, and I accept that. It has been said that people would prefer to have a legal right, rather than receive compensation at the discretion of the Board. I accept that, too. But the important point, at least for the time being, is that, by and large, people are getting their compensation one way or another and that in general there is no hardship to speak of. I submit, therefore, that it would be prudent to wait, and that by waiting no untoward harm would be caused to anybody. We have a working group of officials studying the whole problem and it would be better to wait and adopt a more comprehensive approach to the problem when their report has been completed and evaluated. Noble Lords have complained about this Working Party. Generally, it has come in for a great deal of criticism on both sides of the House. But noble Lords opposite were in power for most of the life of the working group, and they know better than anybody why the report has taken so long to prepare. It is simply because they were not given any priority. Their work was crowded out by the pressure of other events in the mining industry. But now the working group have been told to complete their report as quickly as possible. After our debates, I shall take a close personal interest in their activities and I can assure your Lordships that I shall keep up the pressure.

Since the House last debated the matter, there have been intensive discussions with the Coal Board. The full working group have met twice and a third meeting, this time with the Coal Board, is to take place later this week. I understand that good progress is being made in the formulation of a possible new régime, taking into account the evidence and views that have come to light during the passage of the Bill. This will require extensive rewriting of the original report prepared by the group last summer and suspended. The first draft of the new report is already in course of preparation and is, indeed, almost completed.

It is the working group's intention, which I shall do my best to see that they fulfil, to finalise their report before the end of the Summer Recess. The Government will then not allow any avoidable delay in making up their mind and putting proposals before the House. In our view, therefore, this Amendment would not be suitable as an interim measure to bridge the gap until a more comprehensive solution can be found. However simple it may be as an Amendment, its practical effects would be complex. It would radically change the present régime and would cause uncertainty and confusion both for the Coal Board and the surface owners while they adapted to the new circumstances, which will again be changed by the new impending legislation. More than that, it would restrict coal production just at a time when the Coal Board and the unions are getting together to try to improve it. By reducing the incentive to take suitable precautions, it could serve to increase the damage that is caused and to divert skilled professional manpower onto its evaluation and arguing the cases—both wasteful of the nation's resources. For all these reasons, I very much hope that my assurance will be accepted by noble Lords opposite and that they will not insist on their Amendment.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on their Amendment, to which the Commons have disagreed.—(Lord Balogh.)

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for introducing this Motion in this way. I am also gratified that he has been able to reassure us to some extent. We still find that it is rather disappointing, and I thought that the attitude in the other place was rather surprising. This House received a great many accolades from all sides for the work it had done on this Bill and for producing this Amendment.

As the noble Lord has said, this is not a Party matter—thank Heavens! The Amendment attracted support from the Government side. Indeed, the only speaker on the Government side who was not altogether happy about the Amendment was unhappy about it only because he thought this was an attempt by the Opposition to frustrate the work of the National Coal Board, simply because it is a nationalised industry. May I take this opportunity to say that this is certainly not the intention of the Opposition—in fact, quite the reverse.

We may not wholly agree about the best way to organise the coal industry, but we are definitely agreed that we have the National Coal Board, and that we have to get on with making it as effective as we can. We want the National Coal Board to produce as much coal as possible, as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible. Indeed, it is fair to say that if one takes a slightly longer look at the energy scene as it is likely to be over the next decades, the coal industry will probably continue to be with us for a great deal longer than the fledgling oil industry in the North Sea. Therefore, I think we should be taking a long view of this matter.

I am bound to say that I do not find the Government's fundamental case on this issue very convincing. To some extent, the noble Lord is admitting that the Government's case is not very good when he says that they are doing their best to get on with it and sort it out. On the one hand, he says not to worry, and then he goes on and says that of course the situation is so complicated that this Working Party has been having a difficult time. He then gives us the slightly less than reassuring news that the Working Party, which thought it had come to a conclusion when the work began on this Bill, suddenly had to start all over again, which does not suggest that they had done their work very thoroughly and well in the fast few years. However, we do not want to be awkward about it; we want to wish them well and we want them to get on with it.

What I think we can say is that the Government have quite sensibly used this Bill as an opportunity to tidy up the slightly messy situation which had arisen in connection with the right to withdraw lateral and vertical support, and one would have thought it would have been an ideal moment, therefore, to tidy up the compensation situation. I do not want to get into an argument as to whether or not we are conferring new powers on the National Coal Board, because we have gone through the whole argument and we thought we were merely confirming powers that they already have. The noble Lord has admitted very handsomely that in its early days the Working Party showed less than an enormous sense of urgency, and let me be the first to admit that his Government are obviously not alone in sharing the blame for that. This is why I say that this is genuinely not a Party question at all. Right from the start, he has been impeccable in saying that the Government accept the social cost of coal, and this has to do with that.

We took a great deal of advice in introducing this Amendment and we thought it would be a useful holding situation; I would still be of this view. The industry was very generous in giving us help. We had a number of lawyers who assisted us in drafting the Amendment, and I thought it would be a useful contribution to giving the Government a little extra incentive. I am not very happy to hear the noble Lord saying, "We fear this might remove the incentive on people to avoid getting damaged." That seems to be a slightly brutal way for a large juggernaut of a nationalised industry to be looking at people. As I have said before, we are talking about individuals or small businesses or big businesses who are getting on with their own affairs, when somebody comes and burrows a dirty great hole under them and stops them getting on with their business. The argument is whether or not, when you do that, you should compensate them for the consequent damage—not just rectifying what you have done, but the consequential loss which can result from this kind of activity.

The noble Lord has given us a date for the report, and he has given us an undertaking to work without delay to produce the necessary legislation. I should like to ask whether this means that his intention is either to publish the report or, more likely and perhaps better, to produce a White Paper without delay, setting out the Government's intentions; unless he is able to do the best thing of all, which is to give an undertaking to introduce the necessary legislation to tidy up this complicated question. But it was suggested to me that the Bill required to do this could well be as long as the Coal Industry Bill itself, and this is not a wholly simple or short measure. Therefore, one hopes that he will be able to give us a totally firm undertaking that the Government will be introducing legislation to deal with this matter, and that we shall have time to consider this legislation in the next Session of Parliament.

In the meantime, we are faced with the fact that we have one or two instances; we have the vexed question of the M6 motorway service station, where something has actually happened, and we have also read in the Press in the last few weeks of what I can only describe as sinister rumblings at Stoke-on-Trent. We do not even know whether these were due to mining subsidence, but there is a good deal of supposition that they may well be. I suggest that people could be suffering now. I think I should end by saying that it is only fair to warn the Government that no doubt we in this House shall not press this Amendment on the other House. But I think it only fair to say that we must warn the Government that if they show the slightest delay in bringing in the kind of legislation which we all agree is needed, then they deserve to be—and unquestionably will be—harried unmercifully, I hope from all sides of the House.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for having risen before he was able to reply. I will not detain the House long, but as the only member of the old Turner Committee sitting in this House—and I doubt whether there is anyone else left now—I spent some two years or more studying the problem of mining subsidence in Great Britain and visiting every coal field. After long discussions we arrived at the key point theory and we made it available for local authorities or anyone building a house, or anyone engaged in major engineering work, to have available as never before, for a small fee at the local council office or the Coal Board, maps showing the intention, whether it was horizon mining or any other type of mining, the direction in which they were going. This key point formula under the Turner Committee was very important. I will not go into the arguments and I do not want to make a Party speech, but we tried to work out the method of compensation. I was one of the few people who believed that there should be a little less compensation and a little more put aside for compensating old miners who had paid perhaps £100 or £150 for houses, 30, 40 or 50 years ago, and who had a right to good compensation.

I should like to pay a tribute to the Coal Board for the way in which they applied the findings of the Turner Committee, and to many Governments of both Parties since then in trying to solve this great problem of the mining industry. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord opposite say that maybe we shall need the coal more than the oil and there will be coal there when the oil has gone. At the rate mankind is frenetically wasting its oil resources, I am inclined to agree. I know pits that have been closed in South Wales and know pits in the Stoke-on-Trent area that now have hundreds of years of coal available, and if we were to bother to work them it would help us with our balance of payments policy.

But coming back to the nub of this, having studied this problem and having looked at the Amendment it is much more important than merely the lawyers finding a formula. The technicality contained in this is that mining engineers and others have a terrific responsibility in judging this formula and Amendment, and will be able, despite Schedule 1, through the broadening of this Amendment to build a house or a structure on an area that was undermined, without putting in rafts. The raft building is absolutely essential. In some of these mining areas schools have collapsed. The man who lives outside the mining areas has no idea of the psychosomatic effect of coalmines, mining subsidence, coal tip,, and the social price that the Durham, Scottish, Welsh and all types of miners have paid for the energy that we have had since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Consequently I am delighted that the Government intend to go into this in depth. I support the demand for an early inquiry into this, because it is my belief that whatever Government are in power next time Britain must mine its coal more effectively and better than we have ever done in the past. But let us realise what this Bill is intended to do. I do not want the House to get worried—I shall finish in about six minutes. What does this Bill intend to do? It intends to facilitate the production of coal by measures granting the Board—and I am paraphrasing—improved access to resources of deep mine coal, so that the demand for deep-mine coal could undermine the key points policy. So you could drive under a cathedral and it might be said, "People don't visit cathedrals like they used to. Let a little bit of the cathedral collapse, and let the Coal Board patch it up."

My Lords, I have an interest which I ought to declare. I have a house in the Stoke-on-Trent area and suffered from the earthquake—when a huge girder, fifteen feet long by six inches collapsed on my garage, or carport, last Friday. It was terrifying. I had to send for the builders, and it has cost me £150 of my own money to make that carport safe, because I did not want it to collapse on a child, or on my wife as she drove her car in. I could not wait to have an argument with the Coal Board. That was the result of those tremors. I have not vet approached the Coal Board—but I know how to do it!

Consequently, the Government are quite right here, with all due respect to the lawyers. Engineers come in on this, and others, and I think that the Government are right at this moment, because this Amendment widens it, and destroys the key point theory put forward by the Turner Committee. It is of vital importance. Many of the beauties of the Northumberland coast have been preserved because pillars of coal were left in the deep-mining areas. I do not think there has been a Party difference here, but in support of the noble Lord who spoke from the other side, I hope the Government will give major attention to this matter, because it is connected with Britain winning more home energy, which will help our balance of payments problem.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, because I do not find myself in disagreement with him at all. The key point formula with which he was associated on a Committee has provided exactly the type of compensation which—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Balogh—has been satisfactorily used and operated in the past, either under that formula or under what has been known as the Robens-style Committee. I think the Government have laid worry and suspicion upon those who might be affected, and who, from time to time, are affected because their houses or farms are already over mines. A Committee has been sitting for three years; the present Government say it has been told to pursue its inquiries into this admittedly complicated question so far as possible, and perhaps we will have a report in a few months. People cannot understand why the basis of compensation is changed in this Bill before that inquiry reports, and before we have all the details of that inquiry.

Naturally this will spread suspicion and worry that the new statutory provisions in this Bill, by the stroke of a pen, can supersede the Robens agreements which have proved very fair and satisfactory. People are concerned because they cannot see why we cannot wait until the inquiry and the new basis. They cannot understand why we cannot stay on the present arrangement until the Committee reports. The noble Lord had quite a lot of fun at my expense last time in my references to consequential loss. This afternoon he talked about hypothetical losses. The opening of the Corley Service Centre has been delayed perhaps for months—or, as has been forecast, for perhaps two years. The building is completed, staff taken on, and I have no doubt the electricity board, the gas board and the telephone people will be charging rentals for meters, telephones and so on; the building will have to be kept secure, and clean; its equipment will have to be kept in order until it is safe for thousands of people to go through it. To me, that is consequential loss.

In the same way, in North Stoke—and I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, in that he has been a victim—walls have cracked, chimneys have crashed down, and people have had to move out. These people may have neighbourly friends who will put them up, or they may have had to go to stay in hotels or boarding houses. They may even have to travel long distances to stay with other people. To me, that is consequential loss.

My Lords, I hope we shall see a very prompt rendering of this Report, and that recognition will be given to the reality of consequential loss. I believe very firmly that when that Report comes out, we shall have to amend those clauses in this Bill which we find unfair and not sufficiently comprehensive to meet what has previously been the policy of the Coal Board of fairly compensating not only for physical damage, but for genuine, established consequential loss.

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add one more thing. In my own part of the world, we had a very interesting experience which I think I should have spoken about when we were debating the original proposition. My local authority of Tyne-mouth built a lot of new council houses. All the proper investigations took place, the plans were passed, and the council houses built. Then, suddenly one day, a hole appeared and a pram went down it. Fortunately, the pram was empty. Of course, there was an investigation, and it was discovered that in the old days, when the Priory, which was part of the historic interest of Tynemouth, was occupied by monks many hundreds of years ago, the monks had done quite a lot of coal-mining. No records were kept in those days; neither was there really any private enterprise, and certainly there was no Coal Board. The monks had been mining under the area where the Tynemouth local authority built the council houses. As you can imagine, there was great consternation as to the result.

As a result, my local authority made a thorough investigation. They put a new layer of concrete under the houses because, as there were no records of the monks mining in those days, there was no certainty that this kind of disaster could not happen again. I am putting this on the record only because it may be that the present Coal Board, as appears from the speech that was made this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Balogh, probably does not know about it. I am wondering whether, if any other incidents like this occur, the local authority will be able to get compensation for the extra opening up of the sites on which the council houses are built and the new concrete that has to be underlaid in order to make the houses safer. I wonder whether that is a matter that ought to be put on the record of the Coal Board, so that if in future we have any further difficulty we are able to go to the Coal Board and get compensation for any additional work with which we may have to deal.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend and indeed congratulate him on leading, I am sure the House would agree, a very thorough investigation into the Bill while it went through the House. I believe the Bill has produced two interesting aspects. One is the pace at which Government Working Parties apparently work—and in this case it seems an unacceptable pace—and, secondly, that a Government Department apparently drafts clauses in a Bill in an area on which the Working Party is working without, it seems, any reference to that Working Party, which is still working. It seems a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. I think that the Government deserve to be criticised on this issue, and I think the least the Minister can do is to give the undertaking that he has given this afternoon. It undoubtedly touches upon the very delicate subject of compensation, and is a matter which should be resolved and clarified, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, said, without any question.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for accepting my assurances. I am not going to pursue our differences, because there will be ample opportunity to do so when the Report of this Working Party comes out. On the whole I should have liked to have more sympathy and less rebuke for the work of the Working Party, of which I knew nothing at all for some time. Now I know, and the sort of things which have been criticised will, I think, be dealt with promptly, and I hope—we all agree that this is not a Party political issue—to the satisfaction of the other side. So far as the noble Baroness's monks are concerned, I am not absolutely sure, but I shall try to investigate whether the Coal Board has acquired the liabilities of monkeries probably destroyed by Henry VIII. If my historical researches produce some interesting additional knowledge, I shall communicate with the noble Baroness.

On Question, Motion agreed to.