HL Deb 13 December 1978 vol 397 cc556-60

2.56 p.m.

The CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that the British Railways (Selby) Bill be now read a second time.

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


My Lords, I do not suppose that any one of your Lordships would argue—and I shall not do so— against the necessity of diverting the East coast main line in order to allow the Selby coalfield fully to be developed. But there is one particular matter that I should like to draw to the attention of British Rail who are the Promoters of this Bill. It is provided in the Bill that, when it comes to carrying out accommodation works and all the many things that have to be done to mitigate the effects of the construction upon the surface industries (chiefly, agriculture), British Rail must act within the old 1845 Railways Clauses Consolidation Act. When it comes to compensation payments to those whose land is acquired and to those whose business is adversely affected, British Rail must act according to the provisions of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965, the Land Compensation Act 1961 and subsequent measures.

It was pointed out when the Bill was read a third time in another place that the 1845 Act was brought in when agriculture and land-owning interests were strongly represented in Parliament and the rules under which the railway undertakers had to build their lines were drawn so that there was a minimum of interference with, or damage to, the fanning industry. Since the Board are under a continuing statutory obligation in respect of the provision and maintenance of accommodation works and are bound to compensate according to the various modern Acts, farmers affected by the construction of this line ought to be reasonably well looked after.

In addition, the Board has recently had a series of meetings with the farmers' organisations with the object of drawing up a code of practice to be adopted; and agreement has been reached on a wide range of matters. But there is one important matter upon which agreement has not been reached. I refer to the responsibility for damage caused through the negligence or wrongful acts of contractors employed by British Rail. Farmers are very aware that although few, if any, new railway lines have been built this century, there has been a very substantial programme of road building; and whereas the obligations of the Departments promoting the building of trunk roads and motorways regarding accommodation works and compensation are normally properly discharged, when it comes to responsibility for the wrongful acts of roadbuilding contractors, the situation is very unsatisfactory. Failing agreement by British Rail as to who shall be responsible for the wrongful acts of railway contractors, the same unsatisfactory situation will arise at Selby.

Experience gathered over some 30 years of road building and the many cases of hardship and injustice which have occurred have highlighted the fact that some acquiring authorities contend that they are not legally bound to accept liability for damage caused by their contractors. There have been many instances where a motorway has been built and a contractor causes damage to land or injury to livestock. When a farmer seeks redress, the contractor has, in the first place, to be identified—and often there is a subcontractor, which makes the task more difficult. Once identified, the contractor is often unwilling to accept liability and the acquiring authority relies on what they imagine to be the letter of the law. The aggrieved party may be a small farmer for whom the cost of proceeding against the contractor is prohibitive and, in some cases the contractor becomes bankrupt and the farmer is left with no remedy whatever.

Up to today the British Railways Board has, during negotiations about a code of practice to be adopted at Selby, steadfastly refused to accept liability for the wrongful acts of their contractors. Not only does it seem wrong that an acquiring authority, having taken land by compulsory purchase and chosen contractors to carry out works on that land, should then refuse to be responsible for any damage their contractors may cause; but also, in taking this attitude, British Rail are out of step with at least two other major bodies: the National Coal Board and the British Gas Corporation.

The record of the NCB in the matter of compensation is very good. I well remember taking part in the passage of the Coal Industry Bill through this House in 1975. When compensation for damage was being discussed, tributes were paid from all parts of the House to the attitude and practice of the Coal Board. I remember particularly a contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, with his long experience of mining areas in the North of England. Perhaps by way of illustration I may quote briefly from the NCB's publication, Compensation for Mining Subsidence Damage: The Board recognise that damage for which they have no legal liability is sometimes caused and may result in hardship to the individuals affected. The Board wish to prevent hardship and they are willing also to pay compensation in certain other cases in which they have no legal liability". The British Gas Corporation have agreed a code of practice in which there is an undertaking, from which I again quote: The corporation will accept responsibility for the actions of their contractors and of their sub-contractors and of all persons employed in connection with the [pipe-line] works …". I cannot see why the British Railways Board should lag behind these two bodies when it comes to agreeing a code of practice in respect of the construction of these 14 or so miles of new line at Selby.

I do not believe that the financial burden of taking on this liability would be great. The Board would surely be in a much better position to repay itself by extracting compensation from its contractors (who could be bound by an indemnity clause), than would a number of individual farmers acting on their own. The goodwill that would be created would be considerable. This has, I believe, been the experience of British Gas, who have already found that the enlightened attitude which the corporation have adopted has made their dealings over acquisition much easier, and, no doubt, cheaper.

So, my Lords, in due course I have it in mind to move an Instruction to the Select Committee considering the Petitions against this Bill, that they should pay particular attention to the question of compensation for those who suffer injury under the circumstances which I have outlined.


My Lords, I have listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, has said. I shall undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of the Promoters of the Bill. Of course he is perfectly at liberty at a later date, if he so wishes, to move an Instruction. The Bill is already opposed, and if that Instruction is acceptable to the House, that will be referred to the Select Committee considering these Petitions against the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Select Committee.