HL Deb 13 March 1990 vol 516 cc1466-76

3.14 p.m.

Read a third time.

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved the following amendment: 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, those who have followed the matter closely will understand that this is the same amendment as the one I moved at the Report stage. I have no hesitation in asking the House once more to give careful consideration to the burden of the amendment. It is to lay a duty on operators and also to cause expense to be incurred not just by the coal board but by the operators. The issue of health as well as that of obtaining coal or profit is very important indeed.

The House must understand—as I am sure the Minister does—that a directive from the EC is not lightly conceived at that level. It is conceived because there is a general view which is approved throughout the EC that there are circumstances under which matters subject to the directive require control and compliance.

I wished to base my amendment upon evidence of the extent to which dust can cause damage and danger to health, especially in opencast operations. I sought my evidence from a report which I had seen and which was provided by four doctors at a practice in Glynneath. I remind the House and the Minister that the report was very alarming—certainly to me. It indicated the extent to which in their view—and they validated it—dust from opencast operations could damage the health of the people whom those doctors sought to serve.

The Welsh Office have taken some steps in this matter. The doctors decided to provide evidence to support their general concern that the health of their patients, clients and neighbours was being damaged. The five areas of damage that they identified as resulting from the dust particles were as follows: respiratory diseases; gastro-intestinal disorders; joint disease of a non-traumatic nature; malignancy—that is, cancers; and fetal abnormalities.

If one sees a phenomenon which can be validated with evidence—and I am not arguing that it is accepted by everyone—by four doctors of high repute in their practice over a period of time, it is a serious matter. They are able to point out, to their satisfaction if not to that of anyone else, that those illnesses and damage to human health can be attributable in part—one can never be precise—to the dust which comes from opencast coal operations. Thus I think that the matter needs to be taken very seriously indeed.

The concern I had was not so much that they were able to show to their satisfaction—and certainly to mine, I can tell the House—that these phenomena arose from the dust. What concerned me was the attitude of British Coal. One of the paragraphs from the report which I mentioned states: British Coal, in evidence to an inquiry in Manchester, last year, stated that they were unaware of the law on air pollution and that they accepted that coal dust was dangerous".

The gravamen of the point that I would like the Minister to accept is that British Coal appears, from the evidence that has been given to me, to be less than 100 per cent. behind acknowledging not that its operations are causing damage but that opencast coal operations can cause damage. The Minister said at an earlier stage that, 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".—[Official Report, 5/3/90; col. 984.]

I must tell the Minister that I have been advised that the coal board does no such thing. The Minister must tell us precisely how the coal board monitors these matters through local liaison committees. My information is that it does no such thing. Will the Minister tell us how many sites are monitored? My informant tells me that British Coal refuses to answer that question because it considers that to be privileged information. How can the monitoring of such a potentially damaging matter be considered privileged information?

We know that British Coal from the beginning has been hostile and reticent about accepting that there is a need for the EC directive at all. I told the House a week ago that it took a decade for an EC directive that was issued 10 years ago to be given any effect at all in this country. The Minister should tell us some more about that matter.

In the environmental impact assessment that was produced for the Pwlldu site, British Coal stated that it would not use the British standard method of measuring particulates; in other words British Coal would not use the standard that complied with OECD and EC directives. It argued that its own flat-plate method was more appropriate. Will the Minister tell the House a little bit more about the nitty-gritty of that situation?

I accept that the Minister made his previous statements in good faith when he said that British Coal was discussing these matters with its local liaison committees. But can the Minister tell me what gauges British Coal uses to monitor emissions? The Minister tells us that British Coal uses its own methods of monitoring, but the Minister and his advisers will have seen the EC directive and they will have noted that standards and measuring rods are laid down in it. If the coal board is not using those standards, what standards is it using?

The Minister further stated at col. 984 of the Official Report that, After the re-opened inquiry, the Secretary of State for Wales decided that the Derlwyn site could not go ahead".

That is wrong. The Derlwyn site is going ahead. Is that sentence a printer's error? The next sentence states: The Opencast Executive has received tenders from contractors and is about to let the contract".

If the Secretary of State for Wales had decided that the site could not go ahead, why did contractors submit tenders for it? I believe there must have been a printer's error there. The Secretary of State must have said that that site was to go ahead, otherwise tenders would not have been submitted. If the Minister is not prepared to insist that British Coal ensures that the directive imperatives are followed by opencast coal operators, I hope he can satisfy me that there is a satisfactory means of ensuring that mining communities are protected. We know that the damage which is now being done to young people may not manifest itself for 10, 20 or 30 years. By then it is too late to do anything. Prevention in this instance is very much better than cure. I beg to move.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, first, I should clear up any misunderstanding which may have arisen from remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, about this particular opencast site. The noble Lord said that my remarks suggested that consideration of the site would not proceed, but then he said that tenders had been received and the site was likely to be let before the end of April. I am not sure how my words resulted in that confusion, but I apologise to noble Lords if I misled them. However, I should have thought that the tenor of my remarks made it clear that planning permission had been granted and tenders had been received and the site was going to be let. However, if there was any misunderstanding I apologise to the House.

When this amendment was moved on Report, I explained the steps which were being taken on the ground to prevent dust from opencast sites. I referred to the fuller guidance on best practices on opencast mining which the Government had included in the new and more stringent Mineral Planning Guideline (MPG 3)—issued in 1988. These include the spraying of haulage roads within the site, washing the wheels of lorries leaving the site, special arrangements for controlling the excavated soil and rock, and guidance on the use of draglines during periods of high wind. These are now matters which the planning authorities have, since 1988, been specifically asked to consider before they give planning permission for an opencast site. I believe they will go a long way to minimise the problems of dust from opencast operations. However, I want on this occasion to focus on the charge that the noble Lord made on Report and which he touched on again this afternoon, that the Government have somehow been dilatory in implementing the 1980 directive. This is wholly incorrect.

The European Community directive referred to in this amendment was agreed on 15th July 1980. It did two things. It set maximum limits on emissions of sulphur dioxide and suspended particulates. And it set a timetable for member states to bring their air quality into line with these limits. Member states were required by 1st October 1982 to notify to the Commission those zones in which a derogation from the limits was sought; and to take the steps required to bring those zones within the limit by 1st April 1993. These were zones where it was felt that, despite measures taken, concentration would still exceed the limits at 1st April 1983.

The UK notified 29 derogation zones, and 28 of those were notified by the deadline of 1st October 1982. Of those 29 zones, seven have ceased to be derogation zones and are no longer exceeding the directive; and I am confident that the remaining 22 will be brought into conformity with these limits by 1993. In 1987 to 1988 all but seven zones were within the limits set out in the directive and in 1988 to 1989 all but three areas were within the limits. So we are already close to complying fully with the directive.

Most of the zones in which a derogation is still required are mining areas in which there is a concentrated burning of concessionary coal. There will still need to be a significant switch in these zones to smokeless solid fuel or to other fuels over the next three years. I understand the concern that is felt about changes in the concessionary coal arrangements, but it is important to recognise that concessionary coal now accounts for a high proportion of domestic coal consumption and that it contributes to the air pollution which the directive rightly seeks to eliminate.

The opencast site at Derlwyn was discussed at Report stage, and I do not propose to deal with it again this afternoon. However, I can assure the noble Lord that none of the 29 zones for which derogation was sought was in Wales. Perhaps that reflects the fact that most concessionery fuel in the South Wales coalfield tends to be naturally smokeless anthracite. Moreover, at no time since 1983 have the sulphur dioxide and particulate emissions in South Wales exceeded the limits set out in the directive. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom there have been typically between five and 10 breaches of the directive a year. The Health and Safety Executive investigate these as and when they occur and the local authorities are pressed to take smoke control measures.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, has made some play with the fact that the statutory instrument implementing the 1980 directive was not brought forward until 1989. The United Kingdom took the view up until 1988 that, as in other areas of policy, the directive had the force of law since it was an EC directive binding on member states. The European Commission, in reviewing implementation of the directive, wrote to the United Kingdom on 1st January 1988 to say the limit values in the directive, and the requirements to monitor, should be enshrined in UK legislation. Although we had been complying with the provisions of the directive since it became operative, we introduced the Air Quality Standards Regulations 1989 to introduce the air quality standards into domestic law. In any event that does not mean that we were not complying with the directive before 1989. The United Kingdom has had its own smoke control legislation in place for nearly 30 years, and the monitoring methods we employed were basically the same as set out in the European Community directive. Monitoring is undertaken by the Department of Trade and Industry's Warren Spring Laboratory on behalf of the Department of the Environment. It established a comprehensive monitoring network for smoke and sulphur dioxide in 1961 and that network was readily adapted for monitoring for the purposes of the directive.

That demonstrates, I believe, that there has been nothing dilatory in the Government's implementation of air quality standards as they affect the community as a whole. I believe that the new planning guidelines issued in 1988 in MPG 3 show that the Government have taken positive steps to minimise the dust nuisance from opencast sites in particular.

We have been over this ground before, and today I have sought to explain in detail why the amendment is not required. In view of my remarks and the late stage of the Bill I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, once more I am grateful to the Minister for the care that he has taken in preparing for the debate. He has certainly satisfied me and I shall not press the amendment to a Division. However, there are one or two points that I need to make.

It is always puzzling, especially when one is in opposition, to be told that there is no need for an amendment because what the amendment seeks is already being done in some other way. If the EC directive is only applied in circumstances where it is warranted and is not a blanket directive it is puzzling that the Minister should find the amendment so resistable. However, the Minister quite rightly says that this is a late stage of the Bill, and it would be an exercise in futility to pursue the matter.

I do not wish to get the Minister to his feet again. So perhaps he can write to me with more detail of how the local liaison committees work. especially as part of his case at Report stage was that these matters are discussed by local liaison committees. My informants tell me that that is news to them. I should like to know how the committees work, whether these matters are discussed and what steps are taken. I do not want a great deal of detail, but for my own peace of mind I should like to be able to rebut what I was originally told. However, if what: I was told is correct and the Minister has been given a broad-brush picture by British Coal which, on examination can be queried or challenged, then the matter should be raised on the Floor of the House.

I repeat that the Minister has satisfied me that the burden of what I seek is already being done by British Coal and the Government. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.36 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Viscount Ullswater.)

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, no Tory government, including this one, have been a friend of the British mining industry. One reason, among a number of reasons, is that they know that they receive virtually no political support from the miners. The nature of the miners' work has made them suspicious of any promises made by any Tory government. When the miners and those of us who take an interest in the industry learn from the Bill that the Government are to write off the debts of British Coal it is realised immediately that there is a different motive from that stated in the Bill.

Many people, including the various miners' organisations, have been asking for such a write-off for years. I need not go into the reasons for that now. They met with a stony response.

It was no surprise to see the provision in this Bill: the decision to privatise the industry has been known now for some two or three years. The Secretary of State said in another place: I do not claim that our deficiency grant is simply an act of generosity". For those people who may take over the industry it is one of the most generous gifts that even this Government have handed out.

As with all their other privatisation measures, the Government say that the industry will be run more efficiently. We can debate that on another occasion. However, there is no doubt whatever that the main purpose of this part of the Bill is to set the scene for more fat profits for those who will own the pits. If it ever comes about—and now that the country can see how incompetent the Government are in running the economy it is unlikely that they will win the next election—privatisation will bring a heavy price in its wake.

First, there will be heavy loss of jobs in the industry where profit will be the sole criterion. We have seen already under British Coal pits closing and little attempt made to provide alternative employment. If the Minister wishes to praise what has been done by British Coal Enterprise I shall be happy to respond to him. Whole communities have been callously destroyed. Privatisation will simply exacerbate the situation.

I remind noble Lords that as recently as January 1987 the Select Committee on Energy in another place recommended that rundown of the industry should never again take place without a policy co-ordinated by the Departments of Energy, Trade and Industry and Employment to cushion the blow and limit the social consequences. The implication of this Bill is that such co-ordination will never take place.

Secondly, it is certain that the safety record in the pits, so carefully and painstakingly built up over the years, will deteriorate. A good example of that is that there is to be a five-fold increase in the number of people allowed to work below ground in private pits. I seem to remember that the Minister himself admitted during our debates on the Bill that the safety record in private pits left much to be desired.

Thirdly, the so-called unacceptable face of capitalism has shown itself again through the Government's policies on opencast mining. I trust that the Government felt ashamed, although I doubt it very much, when they were defeated by Members on their own side on one aspect of opencast mining. I wonder whether any Minister lives in an area where the countryside is raped by that form of mining. I have grave doubts that the provisions of the Bill will provide the necessary safeguards. Never was the phrase "making a quick buck" more appropriate than in opencast mining.

There are many unanswered questions in the Bill. Where will the managers for the private pits come from? The high qualifications and wide experience required for the post have not only been vital but widely admired over the years. The qualifications to become a colliery manager are difficult to obtain. Who will pay the heavy capital costs involved in the mechanisation of the private pits? What about the future of special kinds of coal such as anthracite? Who will finance that? Will there be any improvement in the provision of alternative employment and social facilities in the mining communities? Many more questions could be asked and so far no replies have been forthcoming.

I realise that all the matters on which I have spoken have been raised previously, but I reiterate them for emphasis. The Government must not think that in not voting against the Bill tonight the Opposition is wholly in agreement with it. The measure has shown once again that Tory governments are no friends of either miners or their communities.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I rise in the hope that the Bill will not pass. I do so because I believe that I received unsatisfactory replies to my main objections to the Bill when the Minister wound up the Second Reading debate. I took great exception to the expansion of opencast coal mining and I still do. I thought that the Minister was both brief and complacent in his reply on that matter.

My objections were based on experience in the communities which have suffered from that industrial vandaliser of the environment—pollution by noise and by dust; the environmental damage to coal mining districts and villages; the ruination of people's lives; and the blighting and devaluing of their property. It is especially severe on old people within the vicinity of an opencast site. Untold numbers of people have suffered with no compensation and no recognition of a life blighted, yet the Bill gives the right to the opencast operators to extend their tonnage extraction from 25,000 tonnes of coal per site to 250,000 tonnes—a ten fold increase—irrespective of the environmental damage that that will cause.

To anyone seriously interested in improving the environment, that is a diabolical increase. Furthermore, whereas in the past a 25,000-tonne site would take up to five years to mine, the new 250,000-tonne sites could be operating for seven to 10 years. For many in the coalfield communities that is a horrifying prospect.

In reply to my objections, the Minister acknowledged that every contributor in the Second Reading debate had raised the environmental aspects of opencast operations. He said: It is essential to strike a balance between the environmental impact of opencast mining and the benefits to the national economy … We want to see opencasting, which is 30 per cent. cheaper than deep-mined coal, contributing more to our national economy, always consistent with each individual site being acceptable environmentally".—[Official Report, 9/2/90; col. 1059.] The profit motive could not have been expressed more clearly than that. The Minister's only defence was the planning system and he even admitted that mistakes had been made in the past. If that is true of the small sites, what then of the new massive sites that are to be worked?

The size of the problem is revealed in answer to a Question that I posed in the House. In the two years 1985–87, 212 applications were made for opencast mining sites and 130 were approved in spite of the major warnings previously made to the Government by the Flowers Commission. In its report on energy and the environment, the Flowers Commission said: Opencast mining has a severe impact on the environment in both the short and long term". It stressed: the uniquely sensitive character of the British countryside and the high population density in much of the country would not be able to accommodate expansion without unwarrantable damage". That was in 1981, and at the time of its report the commission concluded that the balance was moving against the environment and amenity. Yet all those warnings have been ignored. How do the Government answer the environmental case? Their supposed sympathy with improving the environment is a sham. It is a pretence. They are bent upon a major increase in environmental damage in many forms in the mining communities in our country.

If the Government are keen to adopt the principle that the polluter pays, who is to compensate all those who still suffer years of dust and noise and those whose homes are blighted near an opencast site, their properties devalued for years? What provision is to be made to make the polluter pay? Our coalfields are still suffering from the severity of the pit closure programme in. recent years and particularly since the end of the strike. The Minister told me in the Second Reading debate that 190,000 jobs had been lost during the Labour Government's period in office. That was over 11 years. This Government have caused job losses of 130,000 in four and a half years—a ruthless rundown. It is like a fit of pique and a reprisal in the wake of the strike.

The Bill gives no respite to mining communities. More pits are destined to close with more unemployment, more rundown districts and a continuing degree of unhappiness with an unfair burden of misery being thrust upon them. I cannot support a Bill that clearly condemns our mining areas—for that is where opencast mining is destined to expand—to more years of pollution contamination. If ever there was a case for enhancing the quality of life by protecting the environment from that increasing pollution, curbing opencast coal mining is a must. It is obvious that pollution and profit before health and happiness is the creed of this Government, and no better is it emphasised than in this Bill.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like to make three comments on this short but important Bill. First, I am wholly in favour of the capital reconstruction of the coal industry. That is something which I should have liked to see in my time in the industry. The remarkable productivity performance of British Coal in recent times has fully justified that long-awaited reconstruction and I wish it well under the new arrangements.

Secondly, as noble Lords who have spoken rightly emphasised, there must be a concern about safety in the mines. The record of safety in the nationalised British mining industry has been second to none in the world. We have reduced fatalities—I say "we" because I was involved in it for some years—to the minimum compared with all other major mining industries. That high standard of safety must never be relaxed, whatever form of ownership the coal industry may have in the future.

It is a matter of concern that private mine operations are being expanded, because their record of safety does not compare favourably with that of British Coal and the National Coal Board before it. So I very much hope that it will be a prime endeavour of the Government, through the organisations that exist for this purpose, to ensure that those standards of safety are never relaxed in any form or shape. Human safety is far more important than profitability or any other consideration.

Thirdly, there is the question of the environment. Attention has consistently been drawn to this matter, particularly in relation to opencast mining. Opencast mining has contributed substantially to the profitability and efficiency of British mining. When I was chairman of the Coal Board I accepted that opencast should play its part, particularly in blending with deep-mined coal so as to make it a more acceptable product. However, it must be accepted that there is an environmental issue.

I am very glad that amendments to that effect were agreed during the passage of the Bill through this House. I should like only to emphasise that if coal as an industry is to succeed it must conform in every possible way to environmental and safety requirements. Of course it must also be efficient. But those are the two prime considerations and there has been some degree of concern expressed about those aspects during the passage of the Bill. I commend these issues very strongly to the Government in whatever future policy they may have in regard to the coal industry.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, I too should like to welcome the restructuring of the finances of the coal industry even though, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, it has perhaps been dealt with a little belatedly for some. However, it is necessary and it will be a good thing for the industry. I am also pleased that we had the co-operation of the Minister in regard to the environmental amendment to the Bill and that the Government were happy to accept that. I know that restoration of opencast sites has not always been of the highest standard but there are a considerable number of places around the country where it has been carried out well and has rendered the areas much more enjoyable to those who live in them.

Finally, I thank the Minister for his courtesy and consideration and for the consultations that he undertook with those of us who had special worries in the course of this Bill.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, as my noble friends Lord Dormand of Easington and Lord Mason of Barnsley said, the Bill is unwelcome. We acknowledged at Second Reading that some aspects of it could bring some solace and comfort to those who will inevitably be made redundant and have their future damaged by this legislation.

Certainly in another place my honourable friends voted against the Bill because of the damage that it would do to the coal mining communities and to the general economy of the country. What shines out of this Bill, as it does from many other aspects of energy policy, is the complete absence of any governmental integrated energy policy. It is all very well for the Minister to bring forward measures to expand opencast operations. As my noble friends said tellingly, because they not only live there now but have lived in mining communities all their lives and represented their members, there is not a community within which an opencast operation exists that has not resisted and detested its impact upon it.

Together with the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, we welcome acceptance of the amendment which helps soften the environmental impact. The noble Baroness said that she was happy that the Government had accepted it. When it was first put to the House, the Government rejected it by 80 votes to 64. It was only in the face of such a defeat that the Government recognised the political realities of having to avoid difficulties in another place. This Government will resist what ultimately they acknowledge they will have to embrace. At the time, however, they found a great deal wrong with the amendment.

Having said that, I believe that the Minister has shown compassion and understanding about the feelings of Members of this House who have spoken on the subject. Some aspects of the Bill are sensible, and although we did not obtain our amendments we received satisfactory assurances, not least in the realm of subsidence. Many people outside the House—small members of the community as well as big landowners—can take comfort from what the Minister said. More than once he used phrases such as, "the early intention of the Government" or "as soon as possible will bring forward legislation to give effect to the Waddilove Committee's reports".

However, at the end of the day no one should disabuse themselves. This is a Bill to prepare the coal mining industry for privatisation. By clearing up the capital reconstruction aspects and carrying out a great many other operations, it is intended by this Bill to get the industry ready for the market. I believe that it is a crime against the coal mining communities for them in effect to be sold off to the highest bidder. As my noble friend Lord Dormand said, the consequences will certainly be felt not only in the coal mining communities but throughout the country when we next have the opportunity of a general election.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for her kind remarks and also the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for accepting that the answers which I sought to give him were considered replies. I have considered very carefully the points that he put to me.

I shall be brief. Although much of our debate has focused on the changes in the licensing limits at Clause 4, the heart of the Bill concerns British Coal's finances. The capital reconstruction it provides is very large, but it is not a fattening-up exercise. It is no more than is required to keep the corporation alive. It addresses the losses and liabilities of the past—the actual losses recorded over the past two years, the liabilities which had long gone unrecorded for concessionary coal and deafness claims and the overvaluation of its assets.

When the Secretary of State introduced this Bill on 4th December in another place he was able to announce not only this financial reconstruction but also an outline deal between the generators and British Coal. This afternoon it is fitting that I should be able to tell your Lordships' House on the Third Reading of the Bill that those three-year coal contracts have now been finalised in a fully detailed form and shortly will be signed.

Those two events—the signing of the coal contracts and the passage of the Bill—represent two major uncertainties that are now being lifted from the corporation's future. The corporation can now plan its future with much greater confidence than before, with a real prospect of at least restoring the industry to profitability and viability. That is a major step forward. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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