HL Deb 05 March 1990 vol 516 cc969-86

2.55 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 3 [Repayment of loans to British Coal Corporation]:

Viscount Ullswater moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 17, at end insert ("and at the end of that subsection there shall be added the words "but any other sums received by him in respect of a sum lent by virtue of this section may be applied by him under subsection (1) above as money provided by Parliament."").

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, as I explained on Second Reading, Clause 3 of the Bill is a technical provision which ensures that temporary deposits from British Coal will not have to be paid into the Consolidated Fund but can instead be re-advanced as required. Since the Coal Industry Bill was published, further consideration has been given in the context of the Government Trading Bill, introduced to your Lordships' House on 22nd February, to ways in which loans advanced by Ministers of the Crown may be repaid and subsequently re-advanced.

Clause 3 as presently drafted will enable the corporation to place surplus funds on deposit with the Secretary of State for Energy provided that ownership of such funds remains with the corporation. But some uncertainty remains over whether, if these sums were regarded as loan repayments rather than deposits, they might be classified as non-statutory receipts of the Crown and have to be surrendered to the Consolidated Fund. The proposed amendment addresses this uncertainty and ensures that the corporation is able to use any funds it may have available, even on an overnight basis, to reduce its outstanding voted loans. It enables these loans to be re-advanced if the corporation's borrowing requirements subsequently rise.

The proposed amendment will, therefore, enable the Secretary of State to offer what will effectively be a commercial overdraft facility, as well as term loans, and will allow the corporation to minimise its outstanding borrowings at any point in time. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for advising me of the amendment and sending me a background briefing. We have no objection to the procedures. I am hopeful that even at this later stage the Government will have an open mind as regards ways in which the Bill can be improved. I shall later move amendments tabled in my name on the Marshalled List and I hope that, now that the noble Viscount has thought fit to move his amendment, they will have a better prospect of being accepted.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 5 [Licensing: conservation requirements]:

Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 2:

Leave out Clause 5 and insert the following new clause: ("Opencast coal working: conservation requirements

For section 3 of the Opencast Coal Act 1958 (preservation of amenity) there shall be substituted—

Preservation of amenity.

3. In formulating any proposals as to the working of coal by opencast operations or the carrying out of operations incidental to such working or the restoration of land affected by such working or by such incidental operations, the British Coal Corporation (in this Act referred to as "the Corporation") or any person who holds or is applying for a licence under section 36(2) of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946

  1. (a) shall have regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest and of protecting sites, buildings and objects of architectural, historic or archaeological interest; and
  2. (b) shall so far as possible ensure that the proposals include measures to mitigate any adverse effect which the proposed activities may have on the natural beauty of the countryside or on any such flora, fauna, features, sites, buildings or objects."").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 standing in my name on the Marshalled List. Last week the Committee accepted Amendment No. 2 after a Division. It has now been redrafted with the help of the Government and I am therefore confident that it will be approved today. It will require a consequential amendment to the Long Title and that is tabled as Amendment No. 5.

Amendment No. 2 refines and improves on the new clause which I moved last week and which the Committee accepted. It fulfils the major purpose of my previous amendment in extending to the private sector the environmental duty of the British Coal Corporation in respect of its coal operations. However, it does so more neatly and effectively than my previous amendment because it replaces and updates the previous duty of the BCC, bringing the two together in one piece of legislation. I am sure that that is helpful because it emphasises that both the BCC and the private sector must fulfil the environmental duty in all their operations and from the earliest stages in any proposal.

The amendment also ensures, so far as is possible, that measures will be taken by both the BCC and the private sector to mitigate adverse impacts of their operations. I understand from the parliamentary draftsman that the words "so far as possible" are necessary to make the new duty enforceable. I hope and trust that that will not be used as an escape route by operators anxious to skimp on this important new duty.

Your Lordships will see from the drafting that one feature of my previous amendment is not included; that is, the extension of the duty to cover deep mines. True to my word and following a very valuable meeting with my noble friend, I have thought carefully about that question and I have been persuaded that it is perhaps premature to press that point at this stage. However, I hope that there will be an opportunity to address that the next time that legislation affecting deep mines is proposed.

I have been very heartened by the Government's positive response to this amendment following your Lordships' decision last week to include it in the Bill. That must reflect the concern shown from all sides of this House for improved environmental duties in the Bill. I am sure that as a result the Coal Industry Bill will leave this House a better and greener Bill than when it entered. The amendment to the Bill's Long Title is an important signal to that effect. It seems to me that the success of this amendment is also a clear sign that when good environmental sense prevails, everyone benefits. I beg to move.

3 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Norrie deserves congratulation on his initiative in moving the amendment in Committee which was supported by a substantial majority, in spite of the advice then given by my noble friend Lord Ullswater on the Front Bench. He was afraid—and his reasoning was understandable—that as there were already planning and licensing procedures for opencast mining, to put in something along the lines of the amendment might cause confusion.

However, my noble friend Lord Ullswater is to be congratulated on applying his mind further to this matter and reaching an agreement with my noble friend Lord Norrie. I hope that he and your Lordships will feel that as a result both the licensing and planning procedures will be strengthened by what your Lordships are now being invited to write into the Bill. I am sure that that is right and is an excellent solution to what appeared to be quite a problem.

Baroness David

My Lords, I add my pleasure to the fact that the Government have decided to accept the decision of the Committee last week that the substance of the amendment, which was passed by, as the noble Lord said, a considerable majority, should be accepted and the worth of it understood. I am grateful—as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, will be—for the opportunity to meet the Minister so that the matter could be thrashed out.

I believe that we shall have to return to the question of deep mines. In the Minister's speech last week I noticed that he said: I accept that deep mining can be just as much an eyesore as opencast operations, not least because of the much greater life of deep-mined operations". [Official Report,26/2/90; col 562.] I hope he will agree that in a future Bill we can perhaps return to that matter. In the meantime, I express my great pleasure that this amendment is tabled today.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Viscount for the courtesy which he showed us when we met him the other day and for his willingness to consider the reframing of this amendment. I am sure that the amendment which we now have is acceptable to all sides of the House.

I also hope that the negotiations which are taking place at present with the National Coal Board on the question of royalties for opencast mining will perhaps mean that there will be some relaxation in the size of the royalties which private operators must pay in order that they may have an incentive to go even further with the "greening" over of the sites. In the meantime, I associate myself with all the remarks about the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and with the way in which it has been received by the Minister.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, a week is certainly a long time in politics because only last Monday the Minister was strenuously but politely and firmly telling us that there was no need for the amendment which is substantially the amendment before us today. Of course, it is remarkably chastening for there to be a vote against the Government. That indicates that the Committee and those Members of the Committee who listened to the arguments and followed the matter closely wanted to lay an obligation of some sort on the Government, the coal board or the opencast operators. It was felt that something had to be done.

I associate myself with all the kind words said to the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, who persisted in this matter. He could easily have accepted assurances but he wanted to see something written on the face of the Bill. I say, "so far, so good". However, can the Minister tell us exactly what the words on the face of the Bill mean in respect of obligations? What will now have to happen physically when the Bill, as amended, becomes an Act compared to the situation prevailing before last Monday? What have the Government now accepted which is additional to that which they resisted before? Can the Minister tell us what has now been laid as a physical or financial duty upon the opencast coal operators which was not a duty before last Monday?

I noted the noises which were made about "so far so good". We do need to come back and look at the detrimental environmental impact on areas not only around opencast mines but also around deep mining. Therefore, my comments are as generous and as warm as those of other noble Lords but I am practical. I do not wish us to be approached in three years' time by those interested in this matter saying that the words on the face of the Bill do not mean anything. I would like the Minister to tell us what he and his colleagues accept as the physical and financial consequences of the amendment.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, first, I should like to congratulate my noble friends Lord Norrie and Lord Renton and the noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Stedman, on the persuasiveness and sincerity with which they successfully proposed their amendment in Committee last week. I also wish to thank them for the revised amendment which has now been tabled and which fully takes into account all difficulties which I mentioned last week.

As I said in Committee, there is no real difference between the Government's aims and those of the movers of the amendment. All opencast operators should have full regard to the environment whether they are in the public or private sector. The difference was simply in the way in which that aim could best be achieved.

As my noble friend Lord Norrie said, the revised amendment extends to licensed opencast operators a statutory amenity duty imposed on British Coal by Section 3 of the Opencast Coal Act 1958, as substituted by Schedule 8 of the Housing and Planning Act 1986. It does that by restating the duty in the form of a completely new clause and by extending the duty so that it applies in the same terms to both British Coal and licensed operators. That meets our criteria of fairness as between British Coal and private sector operators.

The duty itself has been expressed in very much the terms of my noble friend's successful amendment. It includes a reference to the need to have regard to archaeological sites which is not at present part of the amenity duty imposed on British Coal. It requires that British Coal and licensed operators shall, so far as possible, ensure that the proposals include measures to mitigate. That is more positive than the formulation, "shall take into account any effect", which features in the 1986 Act.

My noble friend Lord Renton made the powerful point in Committee that the amenity duty on licensees needs to bite at an early stage in the planning process. I should here like to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, what the new amendment would do. It imposes an amenity duty on the licensed operator from the time he is preparing his licence application. All that represents a useful strengthening of the amenity duty set out in the 1986 Act and the Government welcome this.

The revised amendment does not impose upon British Coal as licensor the duty to vet the environmental aspects of the licensee's proposals, which was the major difficulty for us in the amendment passed last week. That does not, however, mean that British Coal has no licensing responsibilities in this area. The corporation has given a firm assurance that it will not issue a licence unless planning permission has been given. And we have been considering whether there are other aspects in its licensing function which could be more conducive to improving environmental standards. One of the excuses that operators use for shortfalls in environmental performance is that the royalties charged by British Coal mean that they cannot afford high standards of working and restoration. Certainly British Coal's royalties are very high, and the Government will ask British Coal to ensure that royalties are set at a level which will allow licensed operators to meet the cost of rising environmental standards.

I hope that those words will be of some comfort to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman. The Government fully support this amendment. It sends a strong signal to the licensed opencast sector on the importance of high environmental standards, and the signal is all the stronger because it is fully supported by the Government and, I hope, by all sides of your Lordships' House.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may put it to him that he has not quite answered the question of my noble friend Lord Graham, and I certainly think that there is a point which needs to be cleared up.

It seems to me that there are two crucial phrases. The first, "shall have regard to", is in Section 3(a) and the second, "shall so far as possible", is in Section 3(d). I think the Minister will probably agree that in these days, when there is so much concern—and rightly so—about what happens to the countryside generally, the green issues and so on, local authorities keep a close eye on those matters but so also do what might be called citizens' groups; people who also have concern about these matters.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister, therefore, what will happen if, at the end of the day, what is proposed does not meet the criteria I mentioned, that is to say that they: have regard to the desirability", and, so far as possible ensure". If those criteria are not met either by local authorities or interested people, what happens then? I hope he will agree that there is a wide field where there can be disagreement about whether flora and fauna are affected and whether buildings are sufficiently historic. We read every day in the newspapers of disagreement as to whether something ought to be protected or whether that which is done protects it.

I hope I am making myself clear, but it is a real concern and I hope the Minister can offer some explanation.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may say that I think the noble Lord is concerned about the restoration of the sites that are worked by opencast, because that is really what the amendment refers to.

We are talking about tackling such things as ponds and buildings, which are existing objects; if they have to be removed during the course of operations, which naturally may happen, it may not be possible to recreate them exactly. The recreation has to go as far as possible; buildings may have to be made of different materials, they cannot be replaced stone by stone. Those words are therefore required in the Bill to ensure that restoration creates as near as possible what was originally there.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 3:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause:— ("Definition of accumulated group deficit

.For the purpose of this Act the "accumulated group deficit" shall include—

  1. (i) sums owed by the Corporation to the Treasury or the Bank of England;
  2. (ii) sums owed by the Corporation to banks and other financial institutions;
  3. (iii) sufficient sums to cover all outstanding claims on the Corporation for compensation for coal mining subsidence damage; and
  4. (iv) such additional sums as the Corporation would have been liable for if the recommendations contained in the Report of the Subsidence Compensation Review Committee on the Report and Compensation System for Coal Mining Subsidence Damage had been enacted before 30th March 1990.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 3, standing in my name. The Minister will understand that we on this side of the House are returning to a matter with which my noble friend Lord Williams was not fully satisfied when the Minister answered a week ago today. The prime element in Amendment No. 3 to which I should like the Minister to address his mind is subparagraph (iii), which reads: sufficient sums to cover all outstanding claims on the Corporation for compensation for coal mining subsidence damage".

The Minister will be aware that there has been considerable movement—that is not a play upon the word "subsidence"—in regard to that matter in recent months. He will also be aware that the Secretary of State, Mr. John Wakeham, made an announcement in January, six weeks ago, as to what the Government intend to do pending legislation.

I think there is common agreement in the House. I do not have a copy of the Official Report before me, but the noble Viscount said that it was the wish of the Government, as soon as parliamentary time can be found, to bring forward legislation. I should really like the Minister to address himself to the kind of legislation we can expect when it appears and to tell us what, in the meantime, the Minister and the ministry are doing.

The press release given by the department on 16th January does not say a great deal. We know the nature of the problem; we know the effect that it has on landowners large and small, farmers large and small, and particularly householders large and small. We are looking at the impact perhaps on their business, which is very important, but also on their lives.

The Minister told us, quite fairly, that the problem was not so great as it had been and that settlements had been made, but what he actually said was happening "pending legislation" was: Announcing the new measures Mr. Wakeham said the department was preparing an advisory leaflet prescribing new procedures dealing with claims. A report was expected shortly on the department's attitude survey, to assess public satisfaction with British Coal's notification procedures, and a review of the disputes procedure was under way. We will shortly be consulting widely".

We therefore have an advisory leaflet, a report that is expected shortly, an attitude survey and wider consultation. That might be summed up as meaning a great deal, but it does not sound much to me. It looks as though the department and the Minister want to be seen to be doing a lot, but I do not think they are doing very much.

I should like the Minister to tell us—not just myself, though I am deeply interested—when he believes it is likely that legislation will come forward. He will understand that we do not expect him to say that it will be in the next Queen's Speech—nobody can say that—but we should like some element of urgency injected into it. We should also like the Minister to tell us, when the legislation appears—not if, but when, it appears—what he and his colleagues have in mind should be or could be included in that legislation. For example, we certainly expect the legislation to contain provisions for local arbitration. I refer to individuals who have suffered a subsidence and disputes concerning private dwellings or involving damage of up to £50,000. I am quoting from a body which I do not normally quote in aid—the Country Landowners' Association.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, we know that.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, my colleagues sitting behind me are all fully paid up members because they have been landed in it more often than I have.

To be fair, the Country Landowners' Association—to which I am grateful—has been assiduous in pursuing this matter. I know from conversations with its officials that the association has in hand the interests of small as well as large landowners.

First, therefore, I should like the Minister to tell the House and people outside whether he believes that local arbitration is likely to be part of the legislation. I should like the Minister to tell the House what he can about standards of repair. We have dealt with the very important aspect of how opencast coal mine owners will be obliged to reinstate land that they have opened up, exploited and from which they have extracted coal. They will have an obligation. Can the Minister tell the House whether the legislation is likely to include a requirement to restore damaged property to its original condition as far as is reasonably practical?

That aspect is crucial. If it becomes legislatively obligatory to return land to its original state, that will minimise enormously the element of compensation. It may not be possible to compensate for the time lost in enjoying your land but if it is properly restored that would be a considerable advantage.

Will the legislation include provision for using one's own contractors? It must be clear that the sufferer of the hurt—the owner of the land—should, under the compensatory legislation, be able to employ a contractor to reinstate his land other than the contractor who may well be provided by the state, the government or the coal board. There are such costs as technical or professional assistance. That would be to the benefit of everyone, not just the landowner. We are not simply talking about reinstatement of the landowner's piece of land. There is the goodwill of the community which is at stake and also that of the national interest. In that respect I refer to areas of special beauty. That aspect, too, needs to be kept in mind.

Can the Minister also tell the House whether the onus of proof element will be dealt with? Legislation must not allow British Coal to continue to insist on individual sufferers first having to provide proof that any damage has been caused by subsidence. It is ironic that before a mining operation takes place everything is hunky-dory but when there is subsidence of some kind the landowner has to prove that the subsidence was caused by the mining operation—in fact, the only geological change in the land over a period of time is that mining has taken place in the area.

I should be grateful if the Minister would therefore use this amendment to tell the House what he and his colleagues have in mind. The Minister will not need me to remind him that my comments stem primarily from the main elements taken from the Waddilove Report, which has been before us for the past eight or nine years. That report has generally been received as a sound basis for changing legislation. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, as I explained in Committee, I am confident that the current definition of deficiency grant will make sufficient grant available to achieve its objective of enabling the Secretary of State properly to continue to advance loans. Perhaps I should initially deal briefly with the first two paragraphs of the amendment so that noble Lords will be aware of the Government's response.

Let me explain how the deficiency grant will impact upon the corporation's level of debt. We hope to pay a substantial amount of deficiency grant this month in advance of the accounts being finalised. It cannot be more than the £3.45 billion which was sought in the Spring Supplementary Estimates. It is likely to be rather smaller than this because the Secretary of State will wish to ensure that the advance payment of deficiency grant in respect of the diminution in the value of the corporation's assets does not exceed the provision for this; that is actually reflected in the accounts when they are finalised around August.

Nevertheless, we expect that there will be a substantial payment of deficiency grant this month. This will allow British Coal to repay an equivalent amount of their borrowings. Further deficiency grant will be repaid once the accounts are finalised. This too will lead to the repayment of an equivalent amount of borrowings. Our expectation is that at that point British Coal's debt will be broadly in line with the written down value of its colliery assets.

On subsidence, I think I am able to satisfy the noble Lord that the proposed amendments to the Bill—specifically, paragraph (iii)—are not required. The corporation has for some time followed an accounting policy of providing in its accounts not only for actual claims received for subsidence damage but also for the latent claims that are expected to arise in future years as a result of past and current mining operations. The creation of this provision results in a charge to the corporation's profit and loss account each year. The provision included in the corporation's 1990 accounts will therefore be reflected in the corporation's accumulated group deficit and will be covered by deficiency grant as presently defined.

As regards changes in this liability due to the implementation of the Waddilove Report, the adequacy of the sums provided will automatically be reviewed by the corporation's auditors in the light of information obtained up to the date on which the corporation's accounts are signed as part of their work on those accounts. But it is not possible to make a complete assessment of any increase in the corporation's liability for subsidence damage that may result from further legislation until that legislation is finalised. However, the Secretary of State for Energy stated during Report stage on the Coal Industry Bill in another place that he did not expect this extra liability to be significant.

I now specifically refer to subsidence and the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy spelt out in some detail the Government's position on subsidence. Perhaps it would help noble Lords if I reiterated some of the key points. First, the position on the ground is quite encouraging. The number of new claims continues to fall. In 1988–89 British Coal received 9,600 new claims, some 2,300 fewer than the previous year. During this year British Coal settled about 10,000 claims at a cost of over £40 million. A further 4,600 claims were rejected with the result that the total number of cases outstanding fell by almost 5,000, compared with the previous year, to a little over 26,000. This compares with a backlog of 37,000 in 1986–87 and 52,000 in 1983–84, so there has been some considerable improvement.

It may be helpful to the House if I run through what has happened in this area since the Waddilove Committee on subsidence reported in 1984 and the Government's White Paper response was issued in 1987. The Waddilove Report on repair and compensation for coal mining damage made 65 recommendations, not all of which required legislation to be implemented. It is worth recalling that the report did not call for a radical overhaul of the existing system. In fact, it concluded that the thrust of the existing legislation was broadly right but needed strengthening in a number of areas.

Between the publication of the Waddilove Report and the Government's White Paper response, British Coal introduced a number of improvements to its management procedures. The result was that by the time our White Paper was published over half Waddilove's recommendations had been implemented wholly or in part. Most recently the Law Society and British Coal have agreed a new mining search form.

For example, British Coal is now acting in accordance with Waddilove's recommendation that the priority should be the repair of damage, and payments in lieu should only be made in exceptional circumstances. It also repairs all property to a good standard even though the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957 only requires British Coal to make the property "reasonably fitted" for use. British Coal does not strictly apply the time limit in the 1957 Act which requires a claim to be made within two months of the damage becoming apparent and will generally accept any claims up to six years afterwards. I recognise that this has caused problems. That is why we propose a change in new legislation to make the position abundantly clear.

I am advised that claims will be allowed up to six years from when the claimant first had reasonable grounds to believe that damage had occurred. In other words, the time limit will run not from the date of mining, not necessarily from the date of damage occurring, but from the date when the damage should become apparent.

The noble Lord has suggested that more should be done in advance of legislation. We agree and we are actively looking to move things forward. That is why the Department of Energy is preparing a new version of its advisory leaflet often referred to in the industry as the Green Book. This will describe new procedures agreed between the department and British Coal for dealing with subsidence claims. These new procedures will as far as possible incorporate the best aspects of both the existing Acts and anticipate our proposals for legislation. I hope that this will be a helpful advance for claimants between now and the time that legislation is enacted.

The House may recall from the White Paper that we said that we would conduct an attitude survey to assess public satisfaction with British Coal's notification procedures. If the existing arrangements are found to be unsatisfactory, British Coal will be required to notify individual households. The field-work for this survey is now complete. The department is considering the results and a report is expected shortly.

Because of the prospect of early legislation the Department of Energy has also brought forward the review of disputes procedures which Waddilove recommended should take place in 1990. This review is now under way and will look at a range of options. I hope that the outcome will be a simpler, quicker and cheaper way for claimants to resolve disputes with British Coal.

The options we are looking at include a better defined and more widely available form of independent adjudication, a lower-tier to the Lands Tribunal roughly similar to a small claims court, an ombudsman, a legal advice centre and a disputes procedure based on the rules of the Institute of Arbitrators. At this stage it is not possible to anticipate the outcome of this review or when and how its findings will be implemented. But it may be possible for a new system to be agreed and established without legislation.

I now wish to deal with one or two points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. One was that a claimant should be entitled wherever possible to employ a contractor of his own choice to make good the damage. Under the present arrangements it is open to a claimant to use his own contractor at the discretion of British Coal. Under the legislation we have in mind that will become a statutory right.

The noble Lord also referred to the onus of proof. The fact sheet that he quoted from recommends that in all disputes as to whether damage is due to subsidence the onus should be on British Coal to demonstrate that it is not subsidence damage. We accept that the onus of proof should rest with British Coal to demonstate that the damage was not caused by mining subsidence. That is currently the position under the 1957 Act and that will be preserved in the new legislation.

The Government remain committed to introducing a Bill on subsidence at the earliest opportunity, but subsidence is a complex area. The new subsidence legislation will be comprehensive, allowing the repeal of existing legislation and replacement with an Act which will cover all aspects of subsidence, including the proposals made by the Waddilove Committee, as modified in the subsequent consultative process.

There are two Acts which the noble Lord understands currently apply. We are not only introducing positive improvements; we are also consolidating those two Acts into one Bill. Some of the provisions of these Acts, while desirable, are not always as clear as they could be. Your Lordships will be aware of the uncertainties surrounding interpretation of the six-year rule to which I have drawn the attention of the House today. Unravelling these Acts and replacing them with a lucid and comprehensive new Bill will involve a great deal of "lawyers' law" which will require careful drafting and careful scrutiny by both Houses and in Committee. Moreover, a great deal of work and further consultation are still going on and we will want the legislation to reflect the outcome of that.

I believe that for these reasons it would be neither practical nor desirable to tack subsidence provisions onto the present short, primarily financial Bill which is urgently required by the end of the financial year. I cannot predict when the legislation will be introduced. That is a matter for decision elsewhere; but I am sure that the Government in reaching their decision on the timing of a Bill will wish to take full account of the views expressed today, and I hope that on this basis the noble Lord will withdraw this amendment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am sure that I speak for many people outside this House as well as those in it when I express my gratitude to the Minister and his advisers for taking this opportunity to speak so fully and helpfully to those concerned with this matter. I understand from him that we can look forward to early legislation though he cannot quantify it or say precisely when it will take place. I suppose that it will be as soon as possible and we shall have to settle for that.

Everything that the noble Viscount said is extremely helpful. I understand that the Government want to make all these matters abundantly clear in legislation. He also alluded very strongly to the fact that the main points I raised were likely to be dealt with in legislation or that they are already in train and will be taken account of before legislation is introduced. Therefore, I am certainly not going to press the amendment.

The Minister said that the number of outstanding claims had been reduced year after year. I think he said that the number had been reduced by 5,000 to a total of 26,000. If the rate is to continue at only 5,000 a year, some of the claims will take another five years to be dealt with. I blanch at the agony of the people who have been in dispute trying to get matters resolved. Some of them must have been waiting for three or four years. A number of people must have been in the process of having claims dealt with for a long period of time. But the noble Viscount is entitled to take credit for the fact that the backlog has come down from nearly 50,000 to 26,000. Quite clearly the movement is in the right direction.

I note from the tenor of the noble Viscount's remarks that my points will be incorporated into legislation and may be pre-empted by actions of the Government, the coal board and others. I believe that those outside the House have been done a service by this short debate today and I thank the noble Viscount for that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 4:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause: ("Licensing of opencast operations: Compliance with air quality directive

No licences for opencast operations shall be awarded under section 4 of this Act unless—

  1. (a)the licensing authority is satisfied that the proposed operations will comply with the European Community Directive 80/779/EEC on air quality; and
  2. (b) such compliance is a condition of the licence.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with this amendment we seek to secure a better understanding of the Government's reluctance to give full effect to European Community Directive 80/779/EEC on air quality, but more importantly we seek to ensure that it is acted upon by those who can do something about it.

Paragraph (a) seeks to ensure that when British Coal gives licences for opencast operations it must be satisfied that the operator will comply with the directive. The problem is that, if opencast operators make a mess, any action has to be taken against the licensing authority, which is British Coal. Paragraph (b) is needed to put the compliance conditions in the licence so that the onus will be firmly on the operator's contract. Although the directive is dated 1980, the Government gave effect to it in legislation only in 1989, in the air quality standards regulations. The Minister will know that there are 22 derogations—areas where the Government have special dispensation and under which they do not have to meet the level set in the directive until 1993. The noble Viscount will have to make a stout defence against the charge of being dilatory and also against the charge of being less than wholehearted in bringing this about.

I have the benefit of some evidence brought by a group of doctors in Wales to a public inquiry at Neath on opencast mining. At that stage they asked British Coal representatives whether they intended to comply with the directive. I am advised in my brief that British Coal was apparently unaware of the directive and asked the Secretary of State for Wales, who at this moment, though not for long, is Peter Walker, whether the directive applied to opencast operations. The Secretary of State assured British Coal that it did not and said that it applied only to smoke particles and so on. The evidence brought to the inquiry by Dr. Watkins, Dr. Thomas, Dr. Temple and Dr. Rees less than two years ago on the impact on the health of the people in their area is quite horrifying.

In mid-1986 British Coal indicated its intention to carry out opencast mining close to Glyn-neath. I am told by the doctors that the health implications of permitting such mining are horrific. The Glyn-neath medical practice felt obliged to write to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs of another place to inform it of some of the implications of opencast mining.

The doctors have set out the problems connected with air quality. Accepted medical authorities hold that airborne particulate pollution is associated with increased rates of lung disease, upper respiratory tract disease, arthritis and cancer. The incidence of these pathologies in South Wales is notoriously high and is connected in this instance with the local industry. But more importantly, general psychological factors such as landscape and stress—for example, caused by unemployment—are important in the prevention of serious disease and affect the rate of recovery from illness. Those are important matters too. The doctors told the inquiry that their research confirmed an excess of disease known to be caused by airborne particulate pollution—dust—and further that their figures suggested a close link with opencast mining activity, from which dust pollution extends far more widely than has hitherto been realised.

I am concerned that the air pollution directive should be taken seriously by the coal industry. The Minister will do a service to communities in South Wales and in all coalfield areas if he accepts the amendment or sets their minds at rest by telling us why it is not needed. I beg to move.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am associated with a responsible opencast operator. I can assure noble Lords that it is much concerned that the amenity aspects of its operations are strictly observed.

I should like to ask the Minister about the status of the directive at the moment. Would its insertion into the Bill require its insertion into other Bills affecting mineral extraction? For example, is it applicable in other areas of mining or mineral extraction? Would the insertion of the amendment into the Bill mean another aspect of applying for licences in so far as it might be argued by some people that, as the local authority had agreed it and as the coal board had agreed it, they might have to take it to the European Court to find if decisions were consistent with the European directive? What is the status of this directive in relation to other industries as well as in relation to this industry?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, this amendment requires British Coal to satisfy itself as licensor that licensed opencast mining operations comply with air quality limits on sulphur dioxide and suspended particulates. I shall deal with the question of dust in a moment. Our basic objection to the amendment is, as elsewhere, that it puts the obligation on British Coal as licensor to satisfy itself whether the licensee has had adequate regard to the environmental implications of his operation, a point brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. In the Government's view that is a matter for the planning system, not for the licensee. I shall refer to that in more detail in a moment.

I referred at Second Reading to the strengthening of the environmental guidelines on all opencast mining, whether by British Coal or licensees, that took place in 1988 and was published as Mineral Planning Guidance note 3 (MPG3). MPG3 specifically addressed the question of dust and the ways in which the effects of dust from blasting can be minimised: careful planning operations, including the siting of boundaries and baffle banks, and by moving work away from residential areas quickly.

I know that your Lordships' House will be interested in the arrangements for ensuring compliance with the planning conditions set. Under the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act it is the employer's responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the employees. Also, under Section 3 of the Act employers are responsible for people other than employees. Responsibility for monitoring lies with the local mineral planning authority and also with the Mines and Quarries Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive which has powers to set up its own gauges and to see that conditions are met. In the case of the larger sites operated under contract for British Coal, British Coal sets up its own gauges and monitors the situations closely through the local liaison committee: it is usual for an environmental health officer to participate on this liaison committee. As far as licensed sites are concerned, the Mines and Quarries Inspectorate treats them the same as British Coal contract sites: they are not monitored on a regular basis but when complaints arise they will be investigated and levels checked by an inspector.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, also asked about the application of the directive. It applies to industry generally. It lays down limits on the concentrations of sulphur dioxide and suspended particles which may exist in the atmosphere. I have sought to deal with the ways in which it affects opencast coal mining.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, I should say that I am aware of the concerns that were expressed last year about coal dust from a particular site at Derlwyn in South Wales. At that time local doctors produced a report, to which the noble Lord referred, on the effect of dust emissions from opencast operations in the area. Because of those concerns the Welsh Office commissioned a doctor from the Medical Research Council's epidemiology unit at Cardiff to make an independent examination of the report's conclusions. They also led the Secretary of State to defer his decision on the inspector's report until the outcome of a re-opened inquiry which was held in June 1989 was known. The independent examination found that the original report contained unsubstantiated conclusions based on information which had not been confirmed.

After the re-opened inquiry, the Secretary of State for Wales decided that the Derlwyn site could go ahead. The Opencast Executive has received tenders from contractors and is about to let the contract. The matter should be decided by the end of the month. I think that I have dealt with all the points that were raised and I hope therefore that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, we take on board what the Minister said and have noted the concerns he expressed. However, Article 15 of the EC directive dated 15th July 1980 reads: Member States shall bring into force the laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to comply with this Directive within 24 months of its notification and shall forthwith inform the Commission thereof'. It was not 24 months after the 15th July 1980; it was nine years before the Government took action. The Government pick and choose the aspects of EC legislation which they want to operate, to bring into force, to comply with and to pray in aid. I can assure the Minister that we are not concerned with the interests of opencast coal operators, of British Coal or of the Government. We are concerned with ordinary men and women, especially those who innocently work in the area and who find that, as a result of a dereliction of duty by the Government, the Coal Board, the opencast coal operator and even the local authority, they are suffering from the kind of diseases which the doctors at Glyn-neath drew to the inquiry's attention.

The Minister is correct to point out the history of the inquiry. But the EC directive is quite clear on the matter. It is also quite clear that the Minister, if I may use a polite term, has been dilatory in carrying out his responsibilities. Further, it gives an indication of the Government's reluctance in the matter. There are various reasons for that reluctance. The Minister said that it was up to the local mining planning authority to monitor such aspects. However, he surely knows that in health and safety, in environmental safety and in health generally there has been a chronic shortage for many years of men and women trained to carry out such duties.

The Minister said that such people will take action when complaints are made. Here again he knows that acting in response to complaints is no substitute for proper monitoring of the situation. I do not wish to be alarmist; I simply point out that the EC in 1980 would not have brought forward this substantial directive if it was not necessary. Article 1 says, The purpose of this Directive is to fix limit values … and guide values … for sulphur dioxide and suspended particles in the atmosphere and the conditions for their application in order to improve:

  • —the protection of human health,
  • —the protection of the environment".
I believe that this is a very reasonable amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, made a fair point on the subject. He argued that if this is spatchcocked into the legislation, would there not be implications in other legislation that opencast coal operators would have to take into account? That is not only a valid point; it is one that I accept.

This has been an opportunity for the Government and for the Minister to show sympathy for the fact that air pollution from dust from opencast operations poses a very serious threat to the health and happiness of thousands, if not millions, of people. The Government could have been a little more sympathetic. However, they have not been and I am most disappointed. I also believe that those outside the House who take a keen interest in such matters will feel as much disappointment as I do when they realise that the Minister and the Government are not prepared to do any more than they have done up until now. I see that the Minister wishes to intervene and I shall gladly allow him to do so.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am, most grateful. I think that I should point out that the COSHH (control of substances hazardous to health) regulations came into force last year. They place a further duty on employers to regulate their own areas. If there is a complaint from an employee the Health and Safety Executive and an inspector will investigate the matter and levels will be monitored by a medical division. In general cases if dust levels are found to be too high the cause will be stopped until remedied. In extreme cases the operations will be stopped on site. Levels are kept down by the seeding of topsoil, baffle banks and the use of road sprays.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, is aware of such measures. However, I should like the House to be aware of the actions which are taken when such situations arise.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

In the Title:

Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 5: Line 5, at end insert ("and the preservation of amenity in connection with opencast coal working").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have already spoken to this amendment. However, I should point out that the amendment was consequential upon my earlier amendment being accepted. It simply ensures that the title accurately reflects the contents of the Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.