HL Deb 17 May 1991 vol 528 cc1870-85

11.57 a.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

The Coal Mining Subsidence Bill represents the culmination of a process of practical reform over a number of years, aimed at improving the arrangements for dealing with subsidence damage arising from the extraction of coal in deep mines.

Your Lordships will be aware that subsidence occurs when the overlying geological strata collapse into the void created by the removal of coal. This can result in damage to land and buildings located above such undermining. It has long been recognised as one of the inevitable adverse effects of mining deep coal.

Present arrangements for dealing with coal mining subsidence damage—whether by repair or by the payment of compensation—have two distinct kinds of origin. On the one hand, there were the private agreements between the original land owners and coal mine operators. These might involve a variety of arrangements to deal with the effects of subsidence, as it suited the parties at the time.

When the freehold of coal was later taken into public ownership, existing obligations to land owners were preserved. But otherwise the National Coal Board, now the British Coal Corporation, was required either to make good any subsidence damage or to pay compensation. This is the origin of the provisions dealing with coal mining subsidence in the Coal Industry Act 1975.

On the other hand, because many land owners had sold the right to extract the underlying coal without any compensation for subsidence damage, considerable hardship was experienced by householders and others who had acquired or built properties on such land at a later date. The resulting sense of grievance led to the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act of 1957. This legislation extended the statutory rights of compensation or repair to owners of all land and buildings damaged by coal mining subsidence, even if a land owner originally sold or leased the coal without any right to compensation or repair. For this reason the 1957 Act is sometimes referred to as "social" legislation.

The position at present therefore is that an owner-occupier or tenant can seek remedy for subsidence damage either through the 1957 Act or the 1975 Act. This results in a degree of confusion. We therefore want to consolidate this legislation into a single statute and, in so doing, take account of the good practice that has grown up in recent years.

Because the existing legislation was judged over time to provide inadequate compensation, British Coal adopted in 1976 a voluntary code of practice which provides for compensation for damaged chattels and for home loss payments where as a result of subsidence damage a person permanently loses his home. It also provides for payments to farmers for farm and crop loss and for payments to tenant farmers.

Subsequently, the corporation undertook to contribute to the costs of professional advice needed to prepare a claim, to make payments on account of residual tilt or structural distortion to repaired buildings, and to make payments to occupiers who endure prolonged inconvenience and disturbance while their homes are being repaired.

Nevertheless, in the early 1980s there were many who still regarded the operation of the subsidence repair and compensation arrangements as unsatisfactory. In 1983 the Government therefore appointed a committee to review subsidence compensation under the chairmanship of Lewis Waddilove, to whom we are all indebted. The committee carried out a thorough examination of the position and made 65 recommendations in its report published in 1984. It concluded that the main thrust of the existing provisions, both statutory and voluntary, was right, although some significant gaps needed to be filled.

Most of these recommendations were accepted by the Government in the White Paper of 1987. The Government issued a consultative document in 1988 on the content of new legislation and much useful advice was received in response. The present Bill is the result. It will repeal existing legislation and replace it with a comprehensive new statute, which incorporates British Coal's voluntary undertakings and introduces some new provisions.

I now turn to the content of the Bill which I shall describe as briefly as I can. After the wide definition of subsidence damage in Clause 1, Part II of the Bill sets out the remedial action required in response to such damage. Clause 2 imposes an obligation on British Coal to take appropriate remedial action, whether by executing repairs, by paying for repairs, or by making payment in respect of any depreciation in value of the damaged property. As with the existing subsidence legislation, this fundamental duty is placed on the British Coal Corporation as the owner of virtually all the coal and coal mines in Great Britain. Where the corporation issues licences for deep mining, it remains responsible for any resulting subsidence damage, although the corporation can recover the cost of remedying such damage from its licensees.

Clause 3 requires a prospective claimant to serve a damage notice on the corporation, describing the damage that has occurred, within six years of the first time at which he ought reasonably to have been aware of this damage—to repeat, not six years from mining, nor even six years from when the damage occurred, but six years from when the claimant ought reasonably to have been aware of the damage. The clause makes clear what under existing legislation has been rather unclear. I believe that six years should be an ample period of time within which to allow the householder to make his claim. Any longer simply encourages unnecessary delays and can make repairs and the resolution of disputes more difficult.

Clause 6 requires the corporation to provide the claimant with a costed schedule setting down the works necessary to make good the subsidence damage, as far as is reasonably practicable, to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant.

Clause 8 specifies the circumstances in which British Coal may elect to make a payment in lieu instead of executing remedial works. These include situations where the claimant wishes to carry out the work himself, or to use his own contractor, and where it is proposed to merge other works with the works arising from the subsidence damage or to redevelop the property. Such payments in lieu are not intended to result in cash compensation in place of repairs. This is one of a number of areas where the Bill has been improved following consideration in another place. As amended, Clause 8 will ensure that, apart from in the specific circumstances in the Bill, the claimant will have the clear right to have repairs carried out by a contractor of his choice.

Clauses 10 and 11 set down the particular circumstances in which British Coal may make a cash payment corresponding to the depreciation in value of the damaged property caused by subsidence. So far as housing is concerned, these circumstances are tightly defined because, in agreement with the Waddilove Committee, we wish the primary duty placed on the corporation to be the repair of subsidence damage, in order to minimise deterioration of the housing stock and general dereliction in mining areas. Where full repairs are not reasonably practicable, Clause 11 requires the making of a supplementary depreciation payment to reflect the depreciation in value as a result of the effects of subsidence. One example would be where a building remains somewhat tilted after repairs are completed.

The other clauses in Part II complete the arrangements for remedial action to properties damaged by subsidence. I mention in particular the new rules governing the operation of "stop notices" served by British Coal in cases where further damage to the property is likely. The corporation will be obliged to review the need to continue a stop notice within a year of the notice being given and to settle claims if no further ground movement will affect the property in the next 18 months. As originally drafted, however, the Bill did not stipulate an absolute time limit for stop notices. In theory, even with annual reviews, stop notices could continue in force for many years if continued underground mining meant that there was not the necessary 18-month period of stability.

As a result of the deliberations in another place, the Government have amended the Bill to introduce a three-year time limit for stop notices. If, after three years, British Coal is requested to undertake repairs it must do so to the reasonable satisfaction of the claimant, even if these will be undone by future subsidence. In the event that further subsidence does occur, British Coal will remain under a duty to repair the damage to the claimant's reasonable satisfaction; the execution of repairs after three years will not in any way diminish the corporation's final liability once ground movement has ceased. The amended clause also empowers the Secretary of State to amend the three-year period should experience suggest this desirable.

The Bill was also amended to ensure that, while a stop notice is in force, the corporation will have to undertake such interim works as are necessary to ensure that the property is reasonably fitted for use.

Part III of the Bill makes provision for additional remedies, over and above remedial action in respect of damage to land and buildings, and places on a statutory basis for the first time obligations voluntarily assumed by British Coal and recommendations made by the Waddilove Committee. Provision is made for home loss payments to people who may lose their homes on account of exceptionally severe subsidence damage; and to make available temporary alternative accommodation if this is necessary for repair to be carried out.

There is also provision to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring the corporation to compensate householders for inconvenience and disturbance which may be caused as a result of repairs being carried out while the householder stays in the house. This would enable British Coal's existing voluntary arrangements for compensation for exceptional inconvenience or disturbance to be placed on a statutory basis, with improvements should that seem desirable. If these and other voluntary arrangements by British Coal work well, regulations may not be necessary, but the reserve powers will exist.

Part III of the Bill also provides for different forms of compensation to farmers arising from subsidence damage to their land; namely, farm loss payments, crop loss payments, and payments to tenant farmers. Perhaps I should mention that I hope to bring forward a government amendment later in the course of the Bill which will increase the scope of compensation available to tenant farmers by bringing the provisions more into line with the compensation paid in the event of compulsory purchase. Part III also provides for compensation in respect of moveable property, or chattels, damaged by subsidence, and likewise as regards personal injury.

Finally, following amendments in another place, Part III contains two important new clauses dealing with blight and consequential loss. In order to prevent hardship, British Coal will consider buying houses damaged by subsidence damage or, in some cases, in imminent danger of damage. In the past three years, for example, British Coal has bought more than 80 houses so as to avoid hardship. The Waddilove Report considered British Coal's policy towards house purchase to be "wholly reasonable".

Clause 29 enables the Secretary of State to put these arrangements on a statutory basis by making regulations specifying the actions to be taken by the corporation to alleviate hardship suffered as a result of damaged property being blighted by subsidence damage or the possibility of such damage. At present these arrangements appear to be working well and it is not the Government's intention to introduce regulations at this stage. Should it become clear that these arrangements are no longer operating fairly, or do not go far enough to avoid hardship, this clause will give the Government the power to make regulations to improve matters.

Clause 30 introduces provisions for consequential loss. The Waddilove Committee, which considered the matter carefully, did not recommend that statutory provision should be made in respect of consequential loss arising from subsidence damage, except in specific instances such as crop loss experienced by farmers and expenses incurred by householders who had to move home.

However, the Government recognise that consequential loss experienced by businesses may give rise to hardship and, in such circumstances, compensation would be appropriate. Indeed, British Coal at present aims to deal sympathetically with such hardship cases. For example, where a corner shop loses trade while subsidence damage is being repaired, and the proprietor experiences hardship, British Coal will pay compensation for consequential loss on a discretionary basis. On the other hand, a supermarket chain which loses trade in similar circumstances, is unlikely to experience hardship because of the geographically diverse nature of the business.

Hardship in this context is difficult to define in legislative terms. As a proxy, therefore, we have prepared a new clause which allows compensation to be paid to small firms which experience consequential loss as a result of damage to their business premises. The underlying thought is that it is small firms who are most likely to experience hardship, while larger enterprises generally have the resilience to weather all sorts of ups and downs in the course of business.

Part IV of the Bill deals with preventive works to existing buildings designed to reduce the impact of subsidence damage, with precautionary works to new buildings, and with measures to deal with damage to land drainage systems.

Part V of the Bill makes a variety of supplementary provisions, including a requirement on British Coal to reimburse any reasonable costs or expenses incurred by a claimant in the successful preparation and prosecution of a claim. I would draw attention in particular to Clause 43 which allows the Secretary of State to direct the corporation to prepare and submit for his approval a scheme for the determination of disputes by arbitration.

One long-standing difficulty associated with the present statutory arrangements has been the lack of informal and accessible means whereby disputes could be resolved speedily and inexpensively—a concern recognised by the Waddilove Committee. The Lands Tribunal will remain available to deal with disputes. However, the average value of a settled subsidence claim in respect of domestic property is under £3,000. It would not in general be justifiable to take disputes over sums of this order to the Lands Tribunal.

Recognising that difficulty, British Coal has helpfully and commendably arranged for the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators to operate an arbitration scheme tailor-made for householders in dispute with British Coal over subsidence damage. The householder need only pay a £50 registration fee, refundable if he wins. The rest of the costs of the scheme are met by British Coal. The scheme has been in operation since the start of the year and I look forward with interest to seeing how it operates in practice. British Coal is also in discussion about extending the scheme to non-householder disputes on a normal cost-bearing basis.

It is our objective to allow all disputes that might arise under the Bill to be resolved by means of arbitration, as far as possible. However, if the present arrangements prove inadequate, Clause 43 would enable the Secretary of State to direct the corporation to submit to him such a scheme for his approval, with such modifications as may seem desirable in the light of experience. An approved scheme would oblige British Coal to offer, and be bound by, arbitration for disputes of the kind specified by the Secretary of State. I should add that, in the event of a dispute, the onus of proof will remain on the corporation to show that any dam age is not subsidence damage.

Perhaps I may also mention Clause 45. This would allow the Secretary of State to direct the corporation to establish a further scheme for the investigation of complaints of unfair treatment or maladministration in connection with the way the corporation carries out its duties under the Bill. Again, this is a reserve power which can be used if necessary.

In conclusion, I should like to draw attention to Clauses 46 to 48. These clauses require the corporation to provide information about future and past coal mining and subsidence damage to occupiers of property likely to be affected, to prospective purchasers of such property, and to local authorities in mining areas.

Subsidence damage can be a traumatic experience for the property owner or occupier. The Bill sets out the obligations of the coal operator and the rights of the property owner. It is the result of long and careful consultation and brings together several Acts of Parliament and codes of practice into a single Bill and introduces important improvements. I believe that it is a good Bill which has become a better Bill following amendments in another place. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Cavendish of Furness.)

12.15 p.m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for introducing the Bill. It is a useful measure and one which we shall do our best to help pass into law as rapidly as possible. It has already been subject to scrutiny in another place where the Government have shown an excellent willingness to listen to good suggestions. In so far as noble Lords in this place will have further suggestions to make in due course, I believe that it is fairly obvious that the Government will respond in a similar way.

Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that until a month ago I knew absolutely nothing about this subject. In fact, I am not certain that I know very much about it now. However, I can say that, from an economics standpoint, it is actually quite a fascinating area for discussion. The problem of subsidence is serious, although it is not new. Clearly the basic principle is that if coal mining creates problems for houses, land and so on, then those costs are part of the costs of coal mining and therefore must be borne by the industry. There is no difficulty about knowing the basic principle: such costs should not be borne by the owners of property or anyone else; they are the costs of production of coal.

Of course, the difficulty arises in two areas. One area is where there is uncertainty about cause. Here I am bound to say that, on my first reading of the Bill, it seems to me that the legislation goes as far as it can to be helpful to the sufferer rather than the possible causer. However, we shall look at that aspect in more detail in due course. That is the uncertainty question.

The second question which complicates matters is that referred to by the noble Lord as "blight"; namely, that a property or land can suffer in value because it is thought that it might be subject to subsidence, or a potential purchaser is worried about subsidence and therefore the value falls. That is an extremely complicated matter. However, it seems to me that the Government are trying as best they can in the Bill to cope with the problem. But, again, it may be a matter at which we shall look again in more detail in Committee. I recognise the fact that the crux of the problem is, as it were, uncertainty as to cause and effect.

Another aspect of importance, although not as basic as the point that those who impose costs must bear them, is the question of efficiency. I should like to say immediately how much I welcome Part IV which refers to precautionary and "preventive works". It seems to me to be overwhelmingly the case that if we can act to prevent such things happening, or at least to limit their effects, then that is as good a point of departure to limit costs as any of which I can think. Again, I shall look, as no doubt will other noble Lords, rather carefully at that section. But my immediate response to it is that it deals with the point about us being efficient by preventing as much damage as we can before it happens, rather than simply saying that we shall be extremely generous in compensating people for damage which occurs.

I welcome the Minister's announcement about possible government amendments. Assuming that I understood him correctly—obviously I shall read carefully what he said—the Government desire to be as helpful as they can be to small businesses, by not imposing excessive costs should they become involved in this type of action. To enunciate an obvious principle, we should like to do all this as simply as we can with as little fuss as possible. It is obviously better not to become involved in the courts unless other action does not work. In that connection, I have been advised—I shall raise the point again in Committee, and I gather the matter was discussed in another place —that it may be helpful if at least one so-called advice centre were introduced. It might help households and small firms.

The centre could ensure that those involved were well informed about what goes on—there is a duty to keep them informed—and about practical experiences. That might be a matter to which we shall return. I shall not dwell on the subject of the environment at any length, because I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, is down to speak. There is no need for the same speech to be made twice, at least on this occasion. I know that on many occasions the same speech is often made twice in your Lordships' House, but on this occasion I defer entirely to the noble Lord's greater expertise on the matter. We all accept that we must take the environment seriously. There can be no free ride for any firm or industry, not just British Coal, to enable it to damage the environment without bearing the costs.

There is one last matter to which I shall return, because it is obvious that one needs to think a little more about it. The Minister talked about the timescale in which certain things must happen. I should like to consider further whether the basic six years is the right time. It is not a fundamental matter, but it is one upon which I should like to reflect. If I feel that there is room for a possible increase in that timespan I might raise the matter with your Lordships directly, or with the Government, to see whether I can persuade them further.

I did not intend to end on a critical note. The Opposition's general view—I am sure that it will be the view of all your Lordships who take an interest in the matter—is that it is a Bill that deserves to pass into law. We may well amend one or two parts of it; but to reiterate my main point: we welcome the Bill.

12.23 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I support the Bill. I read with care, as I know he did, what went on in another place. I am glad to note that the Bill was uncontested and that many improvements were introduced there in Committee. It may be that when it goes through this House we may be able to introduce some further improvements.

As the Minister pointed out, the Bill is an attempt—after considerable thought and consultation—to put the position on subsidence damage and the meeting of subsidence claims into the right perspective and to produce a much fairer arrangement than has existed hitherto. The situation has been complex for many years, as I well learnt when I was at the Coal Board. We had the 1957 and the 1975 Acts to which the Minister has referred. It was during my time as chairman of the Coal Board that in 1976 the voluntary code was introduced. We felt that there were numerous shortcomings in the legislation. Even that voluntary code was subsequently found not to be good enough. There was the Waddilove Inquiry to which the Minister referred, followed by the White Paper, and the consultative document, and the Select Committee on Energy of another place also had a go at the subject. Rarely has legislation been so assiduously prepared. The Bill has benefited from that preparation.

As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, pointed out, subsidence is unfortunately a consequence of modern mining methods. The long-wall mining system which we generally adopt for deep mining in this country is one that inevitably leads to subsidence. We have to ensure that there is a fair and effective system for dealing with the consequences of that subsidence and, at the same time—here I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston—adopt as many precautionary measures as possible. They may be achieved by safeguarding buildings, especially new buildings in areas subject to subsidence, or by an adjustment of the mining methods themselves.

First, there is a serious social issue, costly to the occupier, and one that causes a great deal of personal worry. No one likes to live in a house which suddenly shows signs of crumbling. Secondly there is the effect subsidence has on the cost of coal. A fair balance must be struck between those two factors. In my replies to the numerous letters that I received on the subject, I was always torn between accepting the social problems with which the sufferers had to contend, and the proper concern, on my part, to ensure that the industry was not financially penalised too greatly.

The compromise that has now been reached is a fair one. Let us not minimise the size of the problem. British Coal presently deals with about 10,000 cases a year. The average cost of putting them right is in the order of £3,000, £4,000 or £5,000. I notice that British Coal has made a provision in its accounts of no less than £243 million to deal with current and future subsidence claims. Incidentally, I wish we could have some legislation on how to pronounce the word "subsidence".

Lord Peston

My Lords, I have looked the pronunciation up, and it turns out that both subsidence and subsidence are acceptable, and so we shall have to live with the problem.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that elucidation. Subsidence is a big problem. It has been dealt with reasonably in the legislation. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said, a number of points require further consideration. No doubt we shall return to them at a later stage. I should like to refer to some of them.

The first point is that of arbitration. It took up a great deal of time in debate in the other place. It is important that there should be an acceptable, inexpensive and speedy arbitration system. I have looked carefully at the voluntary arrangements that British Coal has now produced. They sound attractive. They seem to meet the various points made. The cost to the complainant would be minimal. If the complaint were successful, it would not involve the complainant in any expenditure. The procedure would be speedy. It would be handled in the best way possible by the appropriate professional organisation. The Government are right to say that while they have reserve powers under Clause 43 to cause to be introduced an arbitration procedure, they are waiting to see how the present system proceeds. For the time being at any rate, that scheme has introduced a satisfactory solution to the problem, which has been a serious one in the past.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston referred to advice centres I know that this was also debated in the other place. It is important that people who suffer or think they will suffer from subsidence should have access to advice. Whether or not there should be separate advice centres in areas where this is likely to occur is a matter we could and I am sure we will debate. I inquired about this from British Coal and I understand that its feelings are against it because it would add considerable extra cost. I am not sure about the legal validity of the advice that might be given. British Coal tells me that it is providing full information to local authorities in the areas likely to be affected to citizens' advice bureaux and other advisory centres. It is keen that people should be able to obtain the advice they need and no doubt we shall return to the subject for further consideration.

In addition, there is the time limit to which the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, referred when he took us through the Bill. It has been a vexed question in the past, the argument as to the length of period during which one should be able to make a valid complaint about subsidence and seek compensation. What is now proposed in the Bill seems fair: a period of six years beginning at the first date when any person entitled to give the notice had the knowledge enabling him to do so. I have no doubt that there could be argument about that. Nonetheless, it is not six years from the time when mining started; it is six years from the time when one could reasonably have been expected to notice that the mining was having an effect on one's house. It is well worth trying out, and we hope it will avoid too much argument. I understand that there is a further limitation of three years after the submission of the damage notice. I feel that the complainant is reasonably protected by these measures.

Blight was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The experience of what British Coal has done seems reasonable. It has bought no fewer than 80 houses in the past year because of the blight problem. I accept that Clause 29 goes in the right direction, giving the Minister the powers to formalise the corporation's present practice of purchasing houses which could be said to be affected by blight.

A number of the issues that caused anxiety in another place have been dealt with, although we may well be able to refine on them later. It is also satisfactory to see the emphasis put on repair rather than on financial compensation. It is important that if a claim for damages for subsidence should be successful, the repair should actually take place. There have been many cases in the past where a financial settlement was made; the house was then sold and the new owner of the house discovered the subsidence damage and found that he had no way of getting matters put right because the previous occupant had received the benefit of the claim. This would be avoided under what is proposed in the Bill and it is a move in the right direction.

I previously referred to the precautionary measures. Much work has been done here. There is what is known as the CLASP system of building, the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme, which makes provision for new domestic premises in areas prone to subsidence. There are also ways in which larger buildings such as schools, hospitals and so on, even those already in existence, can be protected against subsidence. I hope that these proposals will be effectively and positively pursued.

The modification of mining methods which is the most effective way of all of avoiding subsidence is pretty costly to the coal industry. It means that one has to leave large reserves of coal in the ground. I remember that when we were exploring the Selby area, we had a problem with Selby Abbey. The last thing we wanted was for people to wake up one morning and find that Selby Abbey had fallen into the ground. We had to make very costly special provisions for that.

As it happens, there is a lot of mineable coal under York Minster. I should have thought that for some time at any rate anyone mining coal in that area would be careful about causing subsidence there. There are ways of avoiding it and no doubt under the provisions of the Bill the expert mining engineers in the British Coal industry will continue to watch the problem. The best way of dealing with subsidence is not to have it at all or minimise it. I believe that from the way in which the Bill has been drafted and from what I know has been British Coal's response to it, this point is fully recognised.

The Bill is very much in the interests of those who are now suffering or are likely to suffer from subsidence. It is fair to all parties and I very much hope that, with perhaps a few positive suggestions for amendment, it will have a speedy passage through the House and quickly get onto the statute book.

12.35 p.m

Lord Norrie

My Lords, encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I wish to broaden the discussion by raising the general issue of British Coal's environmental duties. This is clearly relevant to the Bill, as subsidence is one of the key environmental effects of deep mining.

The 1981 Flowers Commission Report, which remains one of the most comprehensive reports on coal and the environment, stated that the two most important environmental impacts of deep mining, are subsidence and soil disposal". The Bill provides an invaluable opportunity once again to address the relationship between coal mining and the environment.

Your Lordships may recall that last year the Government accepted a Coal Industry Bill amendment that I moved to introduce an environmental amenity duty on private opencast coal operators. Its acceptance marked an important step forward in bringing the coal industry into line with modern environmental expectations and concerns.

The amendment included a reference to deep mining as well as to opencast operations. However, when I met the Minister and his officials, it was explained that because of the shortage of time available for consideration of the Bill as a whole, I should delete the reference to deep mines in the amendment, as it would be possible to bring forward an amendment specifically referring to this at a later date. The later date has arrived in the form of the Bill today. I hope that I can persuade the Government that it is important to complete the job by introducing a general environmental duty on British Coal's deep mine operations.

The environmental damage caused by deep mining over the years is only too apparent in coal mining areas. Happily, environmental standards of deep coal mining have increased substantially in recent years, but I doubt that many people would claim that deep mining is environmentally neutral, let alone benign.

I therefore propose to introduce an amendment to the Bill that would impose a statutory environmental duty on British Coal's deep mining operations. This would parallel its existing duty relating to open-casting, and would bolster its existing commitments and its duties under the planning system.

It might be asked whether the Coal Mining Subsidence Bill provides the best opportunity to introduce such a duty. I believe it does for two main reasons. First, it is uncertain when the coal industry will next come under parliamentary scrutiny. I believe that we should act sooner rather than later on the issue. Secondly, it is possible that the next parliamentary scrutiny of the coal industry will consist of its privatisation. It is therefore of the utmost importance to secure a statutory environmental duty on British Coal's deep mining operations. This would bring it into line with the opencast sector and would clearly indicate to any successor company or companies the seriousness with which the Government take the environmental effects of the coal industry.

There are two possible objections that could be raised against the inclusion of a general environmental duty on British Coal in the current Bill. The first is that the scope of the Bill is too narrow, either in letter or spirit, to allow such an amendment. I suggest that while the Bill undoubtedly has a fairly specific focus, the Long Title would allow for the inclusion of a general environmental duty if the Government thought such a step were desirable.

After all, the Government are keen to amend Bills, often significantly, in order to improve them once they have entered Parliament. I believe an amendment along the lines I am proposing would bring about just such an improvement and that it would be possible to include it in the Bill.

A second possible objection to a statutory environmental duty is that the environmental effects of deep mining are already adequately taken into account through British Coal's obligations under existing legislation and the requirements of the planning system. But I find it hard to believe that the Government have an objection in principle to supplementing and bolstering British Coal's existing environmental commitments. Those commitments are stated in documents such as British Coal's Framework Policy on the Environment.

A statutory environmental duty would provide an invaluable backdrop to the whole range of the company's activities right through from long-term strategic planning to day-to-day site operation. There is an impressive array of precedents for environmental duties of the kind I am proposing, including the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Water Act 1989, the Electricity Act 1989 and, of course, the Coal Industry Act 1990. British Coal's deep mine operations are very much the exception to the rule. I believe it is time to correct this anomaly.

British Coal's Framework Policy on the Environment indicates that the company is now well aware of the environment. I suggest that this awareness can only be heightened by the establishment of a general environmental duty similar to those that exist in other industries, hence my proposal to introduce such an amendment in Committee.

12.41 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, I must apologise for not having put down my name to speak. I was not certain that I could be present this morning. However, as I have a long-standing relationship with the coal mining areas of South Wales I thought I should say a few words on the Bill. I believe that in most respects the Bill is an admirable piece of legislation. It arrives on the statute book—or it is almost there—just as deep mining in South Wales is vanishing altogether. In my early childhood there must have been about a quarter of a million miners in the South Wales mining areas. There are now hardly any as the pits are all closed. There is a little deep mining being carried out in North Wales but in South Wales the whole emphasis and interest is turning to opencast mining.

I wish to make two points. One is to support in general terms the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie. However, I cannot say that I have studied them in detail. I hope there will be ample opportunity to consider them. I express the gratitude of those who are concerned with environmental matters for the tenacity of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, who has done a great deal of work in this matter.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reply to my second point either now or at a later stage. What is the position in regard to mines which have been closed, and for all practical purposes abandoned? I believe that it is not impossible for subsidence to occur in an abandoned mine; for example, if flooding occurs. That may have a geological effect which would bring the matter within the folio of this legislation. Who will be responsible for that? Under the present arrangements British Coal would be responsible, but if privatisation came about who would be responsible for continuing inspections of conditions in mines which may lead to subsidence?

While the arrangements suggested in the Bill for the continuing deep mining areas seem to me on the whole admirable, what kind of arrangements will be made in areas where deep mining has come to an end? It is only fair to raise that matter so that the Government may enlighten us on what is to happen in closed and abandoned mines, particularly in South Wales.

12.44 p m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, with permission I wish to respond to at least some of the points made by noble Lords in the well-informed and concerned debate that we have had this morning. I thank noble Lords for giving this Bill such a welcome and for wishing it well in its passage through your Lordships' House.

I remind the House that this Bill represents the end product of a process of review, consultation and reflection which started with the report of the Waddilove Committee in 1984. Many people and organisations have made constructive contributions and, as I indicated earlier, I believe that the amendments which were made in another place have made a good Bill even better.

It would also be right to refer to the British Coal Corporation which has voluntarily taken on a considerable number of obligations, partly in anticipation of this new legislation, which have eased the lot of those affected by the corporation's mining activities. This is a good example of combined public spiritedness and sensible commercial behaviour on the part of a major industry, which I am pleased to have the opportunity to commend.

It is sometimes implied that British Coal is in some way acting negligently or irresponsibly in causing subsidence damage. That is quite mistaken. British Coal is exercising its legal right to extract coal and subsidence is an inevitable consequence of modern deep mining techniques. The only guaranteed way of avoiding subsidence damage is to leave the coal in the ground. If we are to have a successful and economic coal industry—to which this Government are committed—British Coal must be allowed to continue to exercise its lawful right to extract coal. The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that people whose property is damaged as a consequence are properly compensated.

I shall now respond to one or two of the matters raised in the debate.

The noble Lords, Lord Peston and Lord Ezra, mentioned advice centres. Under the provisions of the Bill information about undermining, making claims and resolving disputes will all be provided automatically. I am not clear that an advice centre would have a real role to play. The Government agree with the energy Select Committee that the main problem for most claimants has not been the lack of advice but the lack of t suitable disputes procedure. We have discussed that. This is why we have provided a statutory basis for British Coal's arbitration scheme. We hope this will be sufficiently accessible and well publicised in order to remove the need for advice centres.

Local authorities are free to provide advice to householders if they wish. British Coal has said that it will he happy to provide assistance and information including copies of its new training video and the new manual on procedures that will be prepared in the light of this legislation.

Both the noble Lords, Lord Peston and Lord Ezra, raised the matter of blight. As I have already said, the Government introduced a new clause on blight on Report in another place. We believe that our clause strikes the right balance in that it avoids British Coal becoming a major property dealer, while ensuring that hardship is alleviated. At present British Coal will consider buying houses damaged by subsidence or, in some cases, houses in imminent danger of damage. It is, however, necessary for the owner to demonstrate hardship; for example, the need to move because of going to work in another area. This qualification is reasonable given the temporary nature of subsidence blight.

My noble friend Lord Norrie raised the matter of a general environmental duty. I wish to stress that I am completely committed to the importance of British Coal taking full account of the environmental impact of its activities. There is nothing between us in principle on that point. However, I do not feel that an environmental duty of the type my noble friend envisages is the right way forward. Indeed, it could be argued that it would be counter-productive.

The effective way to safeguard the environment is through the planning process. British Coal knows full well that it must satisfy the planning authorities as regards environmental consequences. That knowledge will influence the way in which it draws up its proposals. I can give your Lordships two examples of the planning process in action. At Selby, planning permission has been granted subject to strict conditions on the level of permitted subsidence. At Hawkhurst Moor, the application for planning permission was rejected because of the corporation's failure to address properly all the environmental aspects.

It might be argued that this environmental duty could do no harm but I am not sure that that is correct. If the Government were asked what would be the effect of this duty, we should have to reply that in practical terms it would have no effect. Rather than emphasise the importance of environmental duties, I feel that this can only trivialise them. Protection of the environment is too important a subject to be discredited by being made to appear as an empty gesture.

I should need notice to deal with the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady White. I understand that subsidence in the terms in which we are talking of it is an immediate matter. But I shall be very pleased to look further into the noble Baroness's point and I shall write to her.

With hindsight I think we can see the Waddilove Report as a key event in prompting the reform of the arrangements for dealing with subsidence damage. It would be right to pay tribute to Lewis Waddilove and the members of his committee. The present Bill brings a period of evolutionary adaptation, so to speak, to a fitting conclusion, subject of course to the approval of Parliament. I commend the Bill to the House.

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